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By JUDY DUARTE
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
Chapter One Renee Delaney trudged along the sidewalk on her way to the bus depot, her leather soles scraping against a layer of city grit on concrete.
It was too bad she hadn't put on her wannabe Sketchers when she'd left the house, but she'd been in a hurry and had slipped into the only other shoes she owned-a pair of worn-out brown sandals that had been resting near the cot in the back room where she'd slept. Now her toes were cold, and she had a sore spot just below the inside of her ankle, where the frayed strap had rubbed the skin raw.
The chill in the air caused her to shiver, and she drew her fists into the sleeves of her sweat shirt, which she'd chosen to wear because the extra-large garment hid the growing bump of her stomach. She'd never been fat in her life, but she wouldn't stress about that now, or she might freak out at the thought of how big she was going to get.
Up ahead, a man wearing a tattered gray trench coat with a dirty, red-plaid lining pushed off the wall he'd been slumped against. As he approached, he grinned. "Hey there, little girl."
Her stomach clenched, and her heart rate spiked. She knew better than to look away from him, so she eyed him warily and continued walking at the same pace.
As he approached, his smile broadened, revealing discolored teeth, the front one chipped. "Where you goin', girl?"
Yeah, right. Like she really wanted him to know. She narrowed her eyes in a don't-mess-with-me glare, which worked-sort of. He did walk past her, but his arm bumped her shoulder in the process.
He reeked of stale cigarette smoke and sweat on top of sweat. Cheap booze, too. And the horrible smell lingered, even after he passed her by.
She suspected he was homeless, just like she was.
Oh, God, she thought. Don't let me end up smelling like that guy.
She blew out a sigh. She might not know where she'd end up tonight, but it would definitely have a bathroom and shower.
Speaking of a bathroom, she'd have to find one before she boarded the first bus leaving town.
She fingered the swell of her belly through the thick, cotton sweat shirt and caressed the bulge where her baby grew.
Just last week, she'd purchased a couple of blousy tops at the thrift shop, but that was before Mary Ellen, her mom's second cousin, had dropped the bomb about moving out, and Renee had realized she was going to need every bit of cash she could get her hands on.
But who cared? She'd been homeless before-lots of times. Besides, this was only temporary. She'd get a job before the money ran out.
It would have been nice if Mary Ellen had let her stick around until the baby was born, though. But earlier today, the older woman had flipped out at the news.
"Pregnant?" Mary Ellen had slapped her hands on her pudgy hips. "How could you be so stupid? You're no better than your mother."
Renee had wanted to argue, but how could she defend a woman she'd never really known?
"You'll just have to get rid of it," Mary Ellen had said.
Justin Detweiler, the father of the baby, had been blown away by the news, too, and had suggested the same easy solution.
But Renee had given both Justin and later Mary Ellen the same answer. "I can't."
She hadn't explained why. For one thing, she wasn't exactly sure-she just couldn't do it, that's all.
"Well, I'm not going to marry you or anything," Justin had said. "I've got plans for college."
Renee had plans for college, too, since she figured an education was her only hope to make something of her life. Of course, the academic option had poofed the moment that pink dot had formed on the home pregnancy test.
When they first hooked up, Renee had thought Justin was going to be some kind of knight in shining armor, but his body language had quickly put the kibosh on that. So did the way he'd stepped back from her, letting her know that their budding relationship had just taken a dump, and that it was all her fault. The jerk.
"I've got some money in savings," he'd said. "So I can pay for it."
At that point, she'd realized she'd better take whatever he gave her, even if she wasn't going to use it for what he'd intended.
She'd tried to tell herself that she didn't care about not having a boyfriend anymore-and not having a place to stay tonight-but that wasn't true. She never had liked being alone, especially when it was dark.
"I'm not running a flop house," Mary Ellen had said, her pinched face growing red. "I agreed to let you stay with me after your last placement didn't work out, but I'm not taking on a baby, too. Get rid of it or I'll call the social worker and have her put you back in foster care."
That had scared Renee more than anything. Not for herself, but for the baby.
What if they took the poor kid away from her and put them in separate foster homes?
She couldn't risk letting that happen. For some reason, she felt an almost overwhelming sense of responsibility for the baby. Who else was going to love it and make sure it wasn't sad or lonely?
So she'd packed up her things and headed out the door with all the courage and pride she could muster, her chin up, her shoulders straight. Well, at least for the first block or two.
Now, as the sun began to slip into the west and she neared the bus depot, she wasn't so sure about anything anymore.
She shifted the shoulder strap of the gray backpack that held the most valuable of her possessions: the three hundred dollars Justin had given her-less the cost of a cheeseburger and fries-a fake ID, some baggy clothes, a plastic sports bottle filled with water, and a couple of granola bars she'd been hoarding in the closet-size bedroom that had, until earlier today, been hers.
Now she was on her own.
As a long line of parked buses came into view, a tall, shaggy-faced man turned the corner, heading in her direction.
He wore a baggy green shirt, faded blue jeans with a frayed hole in the knee, and a dusty pair of Birkenstocks that looked as though he'd had them since the '60s. She suspected he was homeless, too. Or maybe he was just a leftover, drugged-out hippie.
He smiled, and his eyes-the prettiest shade of blue she'd ever seen-zeroed in on her. She tried to give him the same back-off message she'd given the last guy who'd crossed her path, but for some reason, she wasn't able to.
"How's it going?" he asked.
Before she could turn up her nose or respond in a way that would tell him to go on his way, footsteps sounded at a pretty good clip. She glanced up to see another dude rounding the corner at a dead run, a black vinyl handbag tucked under his arm.
Renee tried to get out of his way, but instead of watching where he was running, he was looking over his shoulder.
Bam! He slammed into her like an out-of-bounds running back bowling over a cheerleader on the sidelines.
With her hands still tucked in her sleeves, she couldn't break her fall and landed hard on the sidewalk. The purse snatcher stumbled, but caught himself and kept running.
"Are you okay?" The hippie-guy reached out a hand to help her up, and she pushed a fist through the sleeve opening and took it, surprised at the warmth of his touch.
She nodded. "Yeah, I'm fine."
"How about the baby?" he asked.
The baby? How did he know she was pregnant? Renee wasn't showing all that much yet, especially in the bulky sweat shirt. So she cocked her head to the side and furrowed her brow.
"The baby," he repeated. "A tiny little girl, with curly black hair and green eyes."
He was a hippie all right. And strung out on some kind of whacky weed or sugar cubes or something.
Renee managed the hint of a smile. "Yeah, she's fine, too."
"Good." He nodded toward the bus depot. "You leaving town?"
Something told her to keep that info to herself, yet for some dumb reason she nodded.
"My name's Jesse," he said, as if wanting to be friends.
But she didn't respond. He didn't need to know who she was.
"Where are you headed?" he asked.
It wasn't any of his business, so she should have shined him. But for some reason, she shrugged instead and said, "San Francisco maybe. I'm not sure yet."
Actually, it might be nice to ride a bus all night long. That way, she'd end up in a new city and still have a whole lot of daylight left.
"Fairbrook is a better choice," he said. "You know where that is?"
She nodded. It was another San Diego suburb, not far from here.
"The Community Church runs a soup kitchen," he added, "so I'll probably end up there."
She didn't need to hear his sob story. Not when she had one of her own.
Jesse offered her another smile that crinkled the skin around those pretty blue eyes. "You'll find everything you need in Fairbrook." Then, instead of heading toward the buses, he walked in the opposite direction.
Weird, she thought, as she continued on her trek out of town. Jesse, the hippie guy, was probably crazy, but he'd offered her the first bit of kindness and respect she'd received in a long time. Especially from a stranger.
If he was right, and Fairbrook had a place where she could eat some free meals, she'd be able to conserve the money she had. And that was a top priority right now. She'd had her fill of foster homes and shirttail relatives like Mary Ellen. And it was time to make it on her own.
Fairbrook was as good a place as any.
The engine of the ten-year-old Ford Taurus sputtered again, and Craig Houston bit his tongue, holding back a profanity that wasn't considered appropriate for a pastor to say. But the blasted car had been skipping and chugging ever since he'd left his granddad's home near Phoenix. And as he neared the California line, he was growing more frustrated by the minute.
If his life had been part of some master scheme, he suspected his day would have gone a whole lot smoother than it had. So it seemed only natural to question the validity of his "call" to the ministry-or at least his assignment as an associate pastor to what he'd been told was "a fairly small congregation in a lovely beachside community in southern California."
The car skipped again, and Craig let his temper slip just long enough to slam his hand on the dashboard. At this rate, he was never going to reach the Fairbrook city limits.
As he'd done several times since leaving Scottsdale, he pulled into the closest service station and asked if they had a mechanic on duty.
"Hey, Pete!" one guy yelled to a burly man in his late forties who wore a pair of grungy coveralls.
Twenty minutes later, Craig got the same answer from Pete that he'd been getting all day. "I can't find anything wrong under the hood."
"Honest," Craig said, "it's running hard and skipping like crazy."
Pete agreed to take the car out for a test drive, only to come back ten minutes later and say the same thing three other so-called experts had said earlier.
"It ran like a charm for me." Pete handed the keys back to Craig.
That figured. Instead of some master game plan, this was beginning to feel like one divinely inspired practical joke.
"Do you have a pay phone?" Craig asked, wishing he knew where he'd left his cell. He'd had it when he'd started out this morning, but somewhere along the way, he'd misplaced it.
Pete pointed to the back wall of the shop with a beefy, grease-stained hand.
While striding toward the telephone, Craig reached into the front pocket of his dress slacks and pulled out all the change he had, as well as the stick-it note with the name and the number of the couple awaiting his arrival.
When the line connected, a female voice sounded. "Hello?"
"Mrs. Delacourt?" he asked.
"This is Craig Houston. I'm really sorry about calling like this. I know you've prepared dinner for me, but I've been having car trouble and have no idea when I'll arrive."
"Where are you? Can I send someone to pick you up?"
"I'm still in Arizona, so there's no point coming to get me. I just called to let you know I'd be late and to tell you that I'll pick up something to eat along the way."
"I'm sorry you've had so much trouble."
So was Craig.
"Is there something my husband or I can do to help?"
"I'm afraid not." He'd just had the fourth mechanic in a row insist there wasn't anything wrong with the engine, but that definitely wasn't the case. Unless, of course, Craig was losing it and imagining some reason to go home and revamp his future.
"You take care," Mrs. Delacourt said. "And don't worry about the time you arrive. My husband and I stay up late."
"Thanks." Craig hung up the phone, then sighed.
What a lousy way for the new associate minister to introduce himself to the couple who'd offered to take him in until his place was ready.
He could, he supposed, resort to prayer, asking for smooth sailing the rest of the way, but he and God weren't exactly on speaking terms lately.
Of course, from all he'd been taught in seminary, he suspected that was his own fault.
But under the circumstances, taking all the blame didn't seem entirely fair.
As the sun dropped low in the western sky, and the transit bus drove off, blasting Renee and two other disembarking passengers with a diesel-fueled roar, she surveyed her new surroundings.
A self-serve gas station that offered a mini-mart and a car wash sat on the corner of a street lined with trees covered in purple blossoms, which made the city seem prettier than the one she'd just left. At least you knew it was spring here. Maybe Fairbrook had been a good choice.
She didn't take anyone's advice very often. Not because she was stubborn or anything. It's just that most people she came across-young or old-hadn't done a whole lot with their own lives and didn't seem to know what they were talking about.
And those who did?
Well, they just didn't understand the reality Renee lived with.
She'd talked to the high school guidance counselor about it once and tried to explain.
Well, sort of.
Mrs. Brinkley had seemed to think that all Renee had to do was keep out of trouble, buckle down, and study. Then, somehow, like magic, a scholarship and financial aid would make everything okay.
Some of what she'd said was true, but buckling down wasn't so easy to do when there were people in and out of the apartment at all times of the day and night. Or when the lights went out while Renee was reading A Tale of Two Cities for English class because Mary Ellen hadn't paid the electric bill. Or when the goofy guy who shared a wall with Renee kept his radio turned up high all night, listening to whacky AM talk shows where callers reported alien abductions and discussed a government conspiracy to keep them quiet.
Or when her stomach growled so bad it was hard to focus on 2+2=4, let alone 3x-5y=z, and the only thing in the fridge was a six-pack of beer, a jar of salsa, and a hunk of dried-out cheese.
So while it seemed a bit wild to follow the advice of a homeless hippie-guy, the need to conserve her cash and the promise of a soup kitchen had been key to Renee's decision to go to Fairbrook.
Now all she had to do was find a place to stay for the night.
A gray-haired lady dressed in teal-blue slacks and a cream-colored sweater began a slow shuffle along the sidewalk. A worn black tote bag hung from the crook in her arm.
"Excuse me," Renee said, easily catching up with her. "Can you tell me where I can find the community church?"
The woman cocked her silvery head to the side and squinted, as though she was new in town, too. Then she lifted her free arm and pointed a gnarled finger in the same direction she was heading. "This is Main Street. Follow it down about eight or ten blocks. You'll come to Applewood. Turn left. That'll lead you to Mulberry Park. The church is on the same side as the playground, although the entrance is actually on First Avenue."
Renee wasn't all that good with directions, but she figured a park and a church would be tough to miss. "Thanks."
She continued to tag along until the older woman turned down one of the side streets, and Renee trudged straight ahead. The sore on the side of her foot burned and stung something awful, and she found herself limping.
She counted blocks as she went, and while it seemed as though it took forever to reach Applewood, it had probably only been a few torturous minutes. Fortunately, the little old lady knew what she was talking about. The park lay straight ahead.
Renee glanced beyond the playground and easily spotted the church, one of those white, old-fashioned types that had stained glass windows, a bright red double door in front, and a bell tower with a steeple on top. Trouble was, the parking lot was practically deserted, and Renee felt like kicking herself for being so dumb and listening to a bushy-faced hippie.
Excerpted from ENTERTAINING ANGELS by JUDY DUARTE Copyright © 2009 by Judy Duarte. Excerpted by permission.
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