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"She's what? Oh, dear. Hold on."
Becky covered the telephone receiver with her free hand and swiveled the desk chair to face her boss. "It's Aunt Effie, again. She's dragging a ladder out of the garage and the neighbors are worried."
Brother Fleming arched his bushy gray eyebrows and rolled his eyes. "Knowing Effie, I can certainly understand why."
"So can I. I'm sorry. I know you wanted me here to meet your friend this afternoon but I'd better run home. I'll get Effie calmed down and hurry back as soon as I can, I promise."
The portly preacher nodded. "Don't worry about it. Brother Malloy will understand. There'll be plenty of time for you two to get acquainted before I actually retire."
Grabbing her purse, Becky gave him a parting smile. "I'm going to miss you, you old softy. Who else would put up with a secretary who's always taking time off in the middle of the day?"
"Logan Malloy will," Fleming said. "I've already told him a little about your home situation. He's a good man. He'll support youat least for the short time he's going to be here helping us out."
She'd reached the office door. "You really don't think he'll want to stay permanently? I don't see why he wouldn't."
Fred Fleming shrugged. "Brother Logan is more suited to city life. After Chicago, Serenity's bound to be too dull for him."
"Dull? This place? Not with Aunt Effie around." She patted her ample shoulder bag. "If you need me for anything, call me on my cell phone. I've got it right here."
"Better leave me the number then."
"It's on the Rolodex on your desk. Remember?" No wonder she was so good at coping with her forgetful aunt, Becky mused. In the last couple of years she'd gotten plenty of practice by looking after her absentminded boss.
He nodded sagely. "Of course, of course. Well, get going, young lady. Don't worry. I'll find it."
Becky wasn't so sure. She delayed just long enough to flip through the file and tag her number with a sticky note, then hurried to the door and flung it open.
It didn't swing smoothly. There was a thud and a hesitation, followed by "Ow!"
She would have lost her balance if she hadn't had a hold on the doorknob. She saw a man's fingers curl around the outer edge of the solid oak door. Moments later, half his face peered past it, revealing one deep brown eye.
She gasped. "Oh, I'm so sorry."
The man stepped fully into the doorway and blocked her path. He was covering his nose with his hand but even so, she could tell this was one good-looking accident victim.
She tried to dodge past him and failed. "Please excuse me. I'm really in a hurry."
"Obviously. I'd hate to think it's always this dangerous to visit Fred."
Behind her, Becky heard her boss's exclamation of joy. "Logan! Welcome. Come in, come in. You're early, my boy."
Boy? Where? Becky's gaze traveled swiftly across the man's broad chest, checked out the shoulders of his sport coat, and sped back to his face. So, this was the Logan Malloy she'd heard so much about. Well, well! The singles classes at Serenity Chapel were sure going to fill up when the women in town got an eyeful of him.
"I'm Rebecca Tate," she said, grabbing Logan's hand and shaking it very briefly. "Pleased to meet you. I really do have to hurry. Family emergency. Fred will explain everything. Excuse me?"
Wondering how the doorway had shrunk since the last time she'd passed through, she sidled by him and hurried down the hallway.
Logan chuckled as he watched her disappear around a corner, then sobered and turned to Fred. "Was that the one? She has the right reddish hair and blue eyes."
"Yes, that's her," the older man said. "She and her aunt are the only ones I know who fit the profile you gave me."
"Does she know what we suspect?"
Brother Fleming crossed the room and quietly closed the door before he answered. "No. And I want you to promise me you'll keep it that way until you're absolutely positive. I wouldn't have gotten involved if I didn't care what happens to her."
"I told you I'd do my best."
"Do better than your best," Fred said. "She's a very special person. I don't want to see her hurt."
Logan's voice was firm. "Neither do I."
Until recently, Becky had thought her job as church secretary was perfect. She loved working for gray-haired, disorganized, gentle Brother Fleming. Except for her aunt's failing mental health, her biggest worry in life had been correcting spelling errors in the pastor's monthly newsletter, or making sure his necktie wasn't decorated with the remnants of his latest meal. There were times when the sweet old guy drove her crazy but she loved him like a father. Unfortunately, Fred had decided to retire and had invited an interim pastor to stand in for him until the church pulpit committee could find a permanent replacement.
Though she'd only seen Logan Malloy for a brief moment after smacking him in the nose with the door, there was something about him that gave her pause. He was far younger than Brother Fred. And much better looking. But it was more than thata jittery feeling she couldn't quite explain. But one thing she was certain of: any woman in town under the age of ninety-nine was going to be beating down the church doors to meet the new temporary preacher.
She pulled up and parked in front of the old stone house she shared with Effie. It was small but adequate for the two of them, and the yard gave her aunt plenty of opportunity to garden. Effie's spring peonies were in full bloom, their heavy blossoms weighing down the branches till they almost touched the ground. One good Arkansas storm and those petals would fall like floral confetti.
Mercy Cosgrove was waiting at the curb, wringing her thin, withered hands, while another elderly neighbor, Thelma McEntire, sported a halo of blue plastic hair curlers and clutched a poodle against her ample, flowered blouse.
Mercy hurried around the car, pink house slippers scuffing the pavement. "Oh, Becky. I'm so glad you came. I didn't know what to do. I was gonna call the fire department till I remembered how mad Effie got the last time."
"Everything'll be fine. I'll handle it. Where is she?"
The old woman pointed a bony finger. "On the roof. See? She shinnied up that there ladder like a dumb kid. No sense at all. And at her age, too."
"Oh, my. Now I have seen everything."
Heart pounding, Becky shaded her eyes, paused near the base of the ladder and tried to appear calm.
"Hello, up there."
"Oh, praise God!" Effie hollered like she thought she was in the front row at a tent revival. "You made it! Hallelujah!"
"That's right. I'm here. You can come down now."
"Nope. Can't. Not done yet. You get your little self up here with me, missy. I need your help."
Becky didn't think it would help to remind Effie how frightened she'd always been of heights. While the other kids were scaling rock piles and climbing trees, she'd stood by and watched, accepting their ridicule rather than admit her fear.
"Why don't you just come down here so we can talk?" Becky asked.
"Not till I get this baby barn swallow settled back in his nest with his brothers and sisters. He fell all the way down the chimney. You should of heard the racket he was makin'."
Glad she hadn't worn a skirt to work that morning, Becky rubbed her sweaty palms on her slacks before grabbing the sides of the ladder. She lifted one foot, put it on the bottom rung, and frozeexcept for the uncontrollable trembling that shook her to the core.
She swallowed hard. Scared or not, she had to climb. It was sending that conclusion from her mind to her quivering muscles that was causing the delay. Finally, she forced herself to move by concentrating on the imminent danger Effie was in.
Don't look down. Don't look down. One step at a time, she told herself. You can do it. Oh, Lord, help me!
Knuckles white, face flushed, head swimming, Becky finally climbed high enough to peek over the eaves. Her gray-haired aunt was perched casually on the sloping side of the shingle roof, knees drawn up, gnarled fingers cupped around the small, dark body of the swallow fledgling. She looked as relaxed as someone sitting in an easy chair.
"Please come down," Becky begged. "We can call that wild bird rehabilitation guy and let him handle this. I know I've got his number."
"I couldn't find it. Looked all over a'fore I climbed up here. Nice view, though. You can see all the way to the church. How's Brother Fred doing?"
"He's fine, Effie. He sends his regards. But he needs me back at work and I can't go until you're safe."
"I'm safer up here than lots of the places I've been in my life." She gave a throaty chuckle. "Just can't get the rain cap off the chimney so's I can see the nest good. I can hear this little guy's family, though. They've gotta be right close to the edge here."
"Then they'll still be there later," Becky reasoned. "Why don't you bring the baby over here and show me?"
"Well.. " Effie started to stand.
"That's right. Upsy-daisy. I'm right here for you." Becky had no clue how she was going to get her aunt turned around and backed safely down the ladder, but at least they were making progress.
Effie reached the edge of the overhang and stopped with the toes of her worn sneakers practically touching Becky's nose. She scowled at the yard below. "I see the busybodies are all gathered. What're they starin' at, anyway? Lots of people climb ladders. Happens all the time."
"Not to me, it doesn't," Becky said with a huff of self-disgust. "Would you please come down, Aunt Effie, before I faint dead away?"
"Land sakes, I forgot about your problem with heights. Don't you fret. You just go wait with my cheering section. I'll be down directly."
"I'm not leaving you up here all alone."
"I ain't alone. I got a new pet. Remember?"
"The baby bird doesn't count. He couldn't even take care of himself."
"Oh, all right. We'll do it your way. But only 'cause I love you."
"I love you, too. That's why I'm up here."
Becky had taken a step down, making room for Effie's descent, when the old woman pointed. "Who's that?"
"Over there. In our driveway. Gettin' out of that fancy red car. He ain't from Serenity."
A leafy maple blocked Becky's view. "I don't have a clue. I can't see the drive from here. What difference does it make? Come on."
Instead of complying, Effie screeched, "No!" and scrambled up the roof all the way to the crest.
Becky was dumbfounded. She'd seen her aunt get upset over minor things before but she'd never seen such full-blown panic.
Forgetting her own fear, Becky was back up the ladder and had crawled out onto the roof before she had time to be scared. Staying on her knees, she followed the old woman all the way to the highest point and straddled the peak for balance.
Terror and confusion filled Effie's eyes. "Duck down behind the chimney. We don't want him to see us."
"Why not?" Becky's breathlessness was more from being up so high than from exertion.
"Don't know who he might be."
"What difference does it make? The yard is full of our friends. They'll look after us. You know that."
"Still, we'd best hide awhile."
"To be sure they ain't found us," the old woman said. She lowered her voice to rasp, "Don't you trust nobody, you hear? Nobody."
Becky sighed. It was happening again. Poor Effie had been troubled with hallucinations for months. The episodes were not only becoming more frequent, but her illusions were apparently gaining strength. This was the most vivid, specific one Becky had witnessed.
"I think we'd be safer if we were both on the ground," she reasoned. "Then we could jump in my car and drive away if we wanted to."
"Wouldn't do no good. They're everywhere. I saw one of 'em in the bathroom again this mornin'. She was old and gray. Real mean lookin'. She made fun of me, too. Did everything I did."
Becky had heard that complaint before. Effie sometimes didn't recognize her own reflection. Becky hated to give up the last mirror in the house, but brushing her hair and putting on lipstick in the car on her way to work was a small price to pay for a loved one's peace of mind. As soon as she got the chance, she'd remove the door from the medicine cabinet and hide it away.
"I'll see she doesn't bother you again."