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"So you're really going through with this."
"Yep." Graham Lockwood shoved the last box into his SUV without glancing Mike's way. He'd said all he had to say on the subject last night.
"I can't believe you're leaving without telling anyone."
Graham slammed the hatchback shut. "I told you and Carla."
"Not until last night." Mike stared at him accusingly. "You must have had this move planned for a while."
Graham only shrugged. Interviewing for this job had taken him out of town overnight twice in the past month and it appeared no one noticed. Not even Mike, who was both his best friend and his brother-in-law. Or was one still considered a brother-in-law when the connecting link was gone?
He pulled his sunglasses out of his pocket and slipped them on. Mike was too perceptive by half.
Mike hunched his shoulders. "I know you needed a break after—" his Adam's apple bobbed "—well, after what happened."
Graham's jaw tightened. Even fifteen months later, Annie's brother couldn't say the words, either.
"You can still reconsider," Mike added. "They haven't filled your position at J. T. Simmons yet. And Patty's ready to step down as the church's music director whenever you say the word."
"J. T. Simmons will find another teacher." Graham checked the backseat to make certain everything was properly secured. "As for the music director job, I meant it when I said I'm no longer interested." He hadn't set foot in a church since the funeral and didn't see that changing anytime soon.
He closed the vehicle door and forced a smile, trying to ease the tension. "Education is my vocation, but music's only a hobby."
"It's a God-given gift," Mike insisted stubbornly. Then he gripped the top of the vehicle's driver side door. "You've got friends here, Graham," he said quietly, "people who care about you. You owe them the chance to say goodbye."
"I don't want a big send-off." He'd had enough of the sympathetic looks, the everything's-going-to-be-fine speeches and the pretend-nothing's-changed conversations to last a lifetime.
"But someplace called Ten Penny Ville, Louisiana?" Mike's lips quirked up in a smile that almost looked believable. "Are you trying to hide yourself in the swamps of Cajun country?"
"It's called Tippanyville." Graham nudged his sunglasses higher with the tip of his finger. "And it's closer to central Louisiana than the southern half. As for why I chose Tippanyville—the school there needs a new math teacher and it seems as good a place as any for a fresh start." Truth be told, what he needed was a complete change of scene. Something that didn't shove unwelcome reminders in his face every time he turned around.
He straightened. Time to go. "Give Carla and the boys my love."
Mike took his proffered hand, then impulsively threw his other arm around Graham's shoulder in a quick, masculine embrace before stepping back. "Carla wanted to be here to say goodbye herself. But with Andy running a fever…"
"I know. The kids come first, and that's how it should be." Graham tried to keep his tone even, but from the flicker in Mike's expression he knew he hadn't entirely succeeded. He was glad he had the sunglasses to hide behind.
Mike stepped back and jammed his hands in his pockets. "Whatever you're looking for, we'll be praying you find it."
Graham wanted to tell him to save his breath, that he didn't believe in the power of prayer anymore. Instead he gave a short nod, closed the door and turned the key in the ignition.
Reeny Landry rolled over and glanced at the clock on the bedside table. One-thirty. If she didn't fall asleep soon she'd be worthless tomorrow. If only she could flip a switch in her brain and stop thinking about the latest setback in her handbell choir project. It was only mid-August, but the Fall festival would be here before you knew it.
She glanced at the picture of her husband that still held a place of honor on her nightstand even after three years. Despite what your momma says, Ray I know this is the kind of memorial you would have wanted. The choir could be a real ministry to some hurting people. And it'll be good for our own Desirée, too.
Just when everything had started coming together, this had to happen. How in the world would she ever be able to replace Charlotte….
With a groan, Reeny took herself to task for the umpteenth time tonight. She'd already prayed about this and turned it over to God to deal with—she had to quit taking it back from Him. If she would only be patient, He would provide the answer. She just had to steel herself for the possibility that the answer might be no.
Of course, patience had never been her strong suit. Maybe that was the lesson He wanted her to learn in this.
How could people who didn't have the Heavenly Father to turn to deal with their troubles? She couldn't fathom—
What was that? She turned again, lifting her head. Sounded like a car turning into the driveway next door. Surely her new neighbor wasn't making his entrée into town at this hour?
There was already enough speculation in town—everybody was wondering why someone would move all the way from St. Louis to take a teaching job at a map dot like Tip-panyville. Him slipping into town in the dark of night would certainly add to the tongue wagging.
Curious, Reeny threw off the covers and moved to the window, drawing the curtain back just enough to peek out. Illuminated by the faint glow of a distant streetlight, she saw the shadowy form of a man step out of an SUV, draw his shoulders back and roll his neck. Then he swatted at his arm and she grimaced in sympathy. The mosquitoes were particularly bad this year. And the bayou lining their backyards didn't help matters any.
After scrubbing a hand across his face, he turned and reached back into his vehicle, retrieving what looked like a large duffel.
As he walked to the front door, Reeny noted the heaviness in his steps. How long had he been on the road? No one arrived at their destination at this hour unless they'd been driving straight through from some distance.
Once he'd disappeared inside the house, she remained at the window, staring absently into the night. What was his story? Why had he come all this way when, as far as anyone around here knew, he didn't have ties to the community? Sure, she thought Tippanyville was a great place, but it wasn't as if it had any kind of claim to fame. Amazing, really, that he'd even heard of it. And it certainly wasn't as if Tippany-ville was part of a well-to-do school district, so money wouldn't have been the incentive.
The sudden flash of his carport light switching on startled Reeny from her thoughts. A moment later Mr. Lockwood stepped outside and headed back to his vehicle. She could see him better now, though his features were still shadowed. He pulled a box out of the cargo area and headed back to the house, carrying himself with an economical precision that seemed almost robotic.
A few moments later he returned, this time retrieving a backpack and what appeared to be a guitar case. Now that was interesting. Was music just a hobby or—
Reeny gave herself a mental shake. What was she doing, standing here at the window like a Peeping Tom? The man deserved his privacy.
She let the curtain drop, then frowned and pulled it back again. She'd caught a glimpse of something—yes, there it was—a shadowy form waddling across his yard.
Oh dear, Dauber was out. Again. For a lazy, overweight beagle, he sure managed to escape from the Gaubert's fenced-in yard a lot.
Then she winced as Dauber decided to investigate the new resident up close and personal. Mr. Lockwood, unaware of the animal headed his way, nearly stepped on the beagle. Dauber yelped and the man stumbled, bobbling the guitar case. With an unexpected agility, however, he managed to remain upright and hold on to his load.
Her new neighbor's next move surprised her. Instead of a show of anger or irritation, he set the instrument case and bag down, then stooped to scratch the cowering dog behind the ears, for all the world as if he and Dauber were old friends. Dauber responded with a tail-wagging seal of approval.
After a few moments, Mr. Lockwood straightened, gave Dauber a final pat and retrieved his belongings. This time, however, instead of appearing coldly mechanical, he seemed merely tired and, well, solitary.
Reeny felt a tug of sympathy. She let the curtain drop, her conscience pinching when she realized she'd been spying on him, again.
Perhaps she'd make it up to him tomorrow with a nice, neighborly, welcome-to-town gesture.
Reeny paused in the act of slicing into a pecan pie, her attention caught by a quick rat-a-tat-tat at the side door. Before she could do more than look up, however, the door opened.
"Hello," called out a familiar voice. "It's me."
"Come on in, Mom. Your timing's perfect. I just brewed a fresh pot of coffee."
"Sounds good." Estelle Perette pulled a chair out from under the table. "I can't stay long, though. The Glory Be's are meeting at my house today."
Her mother had been a member of the Glory Be Quilting and Prayer Circle since Reeny was a baby. The women got together every Thursday afternoon, rain or shine, at one of the member's homes. In addition to making quilts for local charities, the group was constantly on the look out for needs in the community. And while not always subtle, they were usually effective.
Some folks in town considered them busybodies, dubbing them the Nosy Nellies, but to Reeny they were an awesome group of prayer warriors. There had been periods in her life when their unique brand of encouragement and comfort had brought her through some dark moments.
Eight-year-old Desirée appeared in the doorway and her face lit up when she saw their visitor.
"How's my sweet t-girl doing today?" Estelle caught Desirée in a hug then pulled back and stroked her hair. "Merci, chère, you get sweeter looking every day. Are you ready for school to start back again?"
Desirée scrunched her face and shook her head.
The older woman laughed and tapped her nose. "Well, ready or not, you start on Tuesday."
Desirée's fingers flew as she signed out a question.
"Yes, lap'tite, I most certainly did enjoy school when I was your age." Reeny's mother followed the answer up with a conspiratorial grin. "It meant I got out of some of my chores at home."
Philip came in from outside, Buddy at his heels. "Hi, Mèmeré." He gave her an I'm-eleven-and-too-old-for-this hug, then turned to his sister. "Guess what, Desi? I taught Buddy a new trick. Wanna see?"
With an enthusiastic nod, Desirée followed her brother and dog out to the backyard.
Reeny served her mother a slice of pie and cup of coffee, then went back to packing the food basket she'd been working on.
"I see your new neighbor's moved in." Her mother's voice sounded a smidge too casual. "Have you met him yet?"
Reeny glanced up with a smile. "Looking for something to report back to the Glory Be's this afternoon?"
Her mother merely smiled and took another sip of coffee.
Reeny laughed. "I'm afraid I don't have much information to offer. I was awake when he drove up in the wee hours, and I've seen him working with the movers most of the morning. But no, I haven't officially met the man yet."
"Well then, at least tell me what he looks like."
Reeny conjured up an image of Graham Lockwood in her mind. "I'd say he's about six foot, slender build—but solid, not skinny. His hair is brown, a shade or two darker than mine, and I have no idea what color his eyes are." And the man also carried himself with authority and confidence—good traits in a sixth-grade math teacher.
"Sounds like you got a good look."
Reeny refocused on her mother and found herself being studied thoughtfully. Uh-oh, no telling what was going on in that fertile mind of hers. Time to change the subject. "I suppose you heard about Charlotte's job offer."
"Iona told me. Have you found someone else to direct the handbell choir yet?"
"No, but I spent this morning making out a list of people to talk to. I'm afraid it's not a very long list, though."
Estelle picked up her fork. "Did you think about Esi Almand?"
"She's on the list."
Reeny's mother's expression softened in sympathy. "Don't worry, it'll work out."
"I don't know, Mom. This is the third time the project has faced a setback of one sort or another." Reeny rested both hands on the counter. "I was so sure this was the right way to go—that it was what Ray would have wanted, what God was leading me to do. I even held out against Ray's mom, for goodness' sake. Now I'mbeginning to wonder if maybe I was only fooling myself, pushing for this because it was what I wanted. I mean, the other suggestions I got were so practical. And Ray's mom really wanted me to fund that stone footbridge."
Estelle jabbed her fork into the pie, giving Reeny a stern look. "Irene Marie, don't you go doubting yourself. Yes, Lavinia's a good-hearted woman. She misses Ray something fierce, and she naturally has her own ideas of how best to honor his memory. But this is not her decision. Mrs. Plunkett left that money to you for a reason. She trusted you to follow your heart, to create a memorial for Ray as you see fit. And as Ray's widow, you owe it to him to do exactly that. Use some of that stick-to-itiveness you're famous for."
Reeny grinned at her mom's comment. "I take it that's your polite way of calling me pigheaded." But it conjured up an image of her new neighbor as he determinedly unloaded his vehicle last night, in spite of the hour and the mosquitoes. That was something else she'd gleaned from her observations—Graham Lockwood didn't seem given to laziness or procrastination.
"It's a good thing you're trying to do, bébé." Her mother's tone softened. "I haven't seen Joscelyn this excited about anything since she moved back to Tippanyville. And I can tell Desirée is looking forward to it, too."
Reeny sighed. "I know—and they're not the only ones I drew into this. I just hope I don't let them all down." She pushed the hair off her forehead with the back of her wrist. "Because I promised Ray's mom if I didn't have the choir up and running by the Fall Festival, I'd consider going with her idea instead."
Her mother paused, then gave her a sympathetic smile. "I didn't know. Well, you just hang in there. You still have lots of time. I'm sure the good Lord is working on someone's heart even now. And you know the Glory Be's are pulling for you. This is as important to us as it is to you."