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Why did she have to be so clumsy? She always made a spectacle of herself when she was nervous...and new situations always made her edgy.
Cassie Manning hurriedly wiped up the coffee spill under the thirty-gallon pot. She'd bumped the spigot, causing hot coffee to spatter everywhere before she'd managed to shut it off.
"Sorry," she muttered over her shoulder. The minister, Michael Faraday, affectionately known to the group as Pastor Mike, and that sleek woman who looked like the well-known model she'd been, Samantha something, stood in the church's kitchen doorway chatting. They glanced her way, but thankfully ignored the accident, intent on their conversation.
Why couldn't she just do something graceful for a change instead of her usual bumbling reactions when meeting new people? Every new situation doesn't have to be a trial by fire, does it, Lord?
Although her father would've said she usually made it one. He often said she must have been a changeling because neither he nor her mother had been so awkward. Nor plain, either.
Cassie shoved those negative thoughts aside. This was to be a new phase in her life. One for which she'd longed. New Beginnings, a ministry in the Blue River Valley Community Church, located in western Missouri, was exactly what she needed, with its programs on how to redirect one's life after the age of forty, and social gatherings.
Social gatherings.... The very description implied a promise that life after the first flush of youth had passed could still hold wonder and excitement.
Well, she was trying, wasn't she? She took a deep breath, steadying her nerves.
"Nothing to worry about, Cassie," Pam Lawson, a small, compact blonde standing at Cassie's side, remarked as she arranged cups and set out napkins.
"That's a touchy spigot and annoys us all."
Cassie's spirits lifted. The coffee spill hadn't been entirely her fault. She grinned her thanks. She had one friend at least. "Thanks."
Pastor Mike scanned his watch, his dark lashes brushing his high cheekbones for a second before glancing their way. Although he wore a wedding ring, Cassie wondered about the status of his marriage. His wife never made an appearance at New Beginnings and Michael didn't speak of her — only his kids. She'd also overheard something the last time she was here — something negative.
Poor man. Being in the ministry was no guarantee of a happy marriage. Perhaps he needed the prayers of this group as much as the members needed his leadership, she mused. Whatever his personal problems, he'd spoken with a fine authority when he quoted Paul for this evening's scripture, and seemed to draw sustenance from it.
"Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus."
That was what Cassie was doing, pressing onward with her life. Finding new directions to what she wanted to do before her next birthday. That was what New Beginnings was all about, wasn't it? To find out what she could do with the rest of her life?
She hated thinking of her next birthday. Imagine! Next month she'd be forty years old and she'd never left home, never traveled farther than St. Louis and Branson, never had a steady boyfriend, never...
It wasn't too late, she reminded herself. She still had half her life to live, and she'd make the most of it! She just hadn't found the right man. That wasn't a crime, was it?
"Coconut cake and lemon pie," Cassie called to the group at large, urging them to come and help themselves. She hated to see the evening end, and found herself thinking about the people she met here. Her thirty-minute drive home gave her a lot of time to think about the evening. But like everyone, she had a job to face the next morn-ing — in her case, twenty-eight fifth-graders — so she was grateful she'd be home before ten-thirty.
But it had nothing to do with who was waiting. Or who wasn't.
Her father, who'd been an invalid in a wheel-chair, had died last year. So had the many demands his helplessness had made on her. She was at last free to do whatever she wanted, go anywhere she wanted, do anything she wanted. It made her feel like jumping up and down, like her fifth-graders.
That was one of the main reasons she had joined New Beginnings. She was tired of imagining drifting into old age alone.
She smiled brightly into the crowd.
Most of the nearly fifty people stood or sat in little clusters, chatting. Cassie longed to be a part of one of those clusters, but couldn't bring herself to break into one. It would be rude. After she felt more comfortable with these near strangers, then she could talk to them, she thought as she smiled. Someone might actually be interested in hearing about her day, about teaching fifth-graders. A male someone, perhaps?
But other than Pam's thanks, and several nods of appreciation for her service, no one seemed to notice her enough to invite her to join them.
Well, it would take time. Shyness wasn't a crime, after all, but she'd have to overcome it.
With a firm determination, she refilled her carafe and started the rounds again. Lovely Samantha, a former model, now stood in conversation against the wall. Why couldn't she be that beautiful? Poised? Witty?
You might as well come to terms with yourself, Cassandra. The only beauty you'll ever have is in your service to others and your obedient character....
Cassie's jaw went firm. She had to banish her father's sour voice from her head. He'd died nearly five months ago, but his hurtful opinions sometimes still invaded her thoughts.
Pastor Mike sat with another stranger, his cup sitting on the floor beside him. He often expressed himself with his hands, she'd noticed. Now he spread his fingers wide as though holding something tangible.
She could see only the back of the stranger's head, but the man's smoothly brushed hair was a lovely shade of polished silver. Silver hair....
Well, shy or not, this was the only way she knew to meet people. She headed their way, the coffee carafe in one hand and a bowl of mints in another.
Just as Cassie reached the two men, Lori Jenkens swooped past her to take a chair beside the pastor, immediately engaging him in conversation with all her considerable charm on display. But she cast flirtatious glances toward the silver-haired gentleman.
His silver mane was brushed away from his wide-set eyes like a magazine cover model, his straight nose matching his chin for strength. He was the most handsome man she'd ever seen.
Pastor Mike cast her a questioning gaze, and Cassie yanked her stare from the stranger's features. She swallowed hard, murmuring, "More coffee?" and then nearly choked while swallowing and talking at the same time.
"No thanks, Cassie," Mike answered with a smile. "I'm trying to cut down on caffeine, but I'll take some of those."
Cassie waved the dish of mints toward him. It wavered wildly in the air for a split second. Luckily, Pastor Mike grasped the dish in a firm hold.
"I'll take some," Lori said, lifting her mug. But her gaze remained fixed on the stranger. A seductive smile edged her lips.
"Mints?" Cassie asked, her mind a near blank.
"Coffee, please. Hi," Lori murmured in a throaty voice to the stranger. "I'm Lori. You're new to this group, aren't you?"
Lori wore a soft spring blouse and skirt, each following her form with loose, fluid lines. Elegant, Cassie thought in admiration as she poured.
Her own figure and nondescript brown hair never excited anything beyond "that's nice" from her fellow teachers, and as for her dress, the most promising description she could ever hope for was "neat and tidy."
Cassie looked down at herself. The new skirt and blouse in shades of tan and brown were at best...serviceable.
Lori's maneuver had been fluid, too. Cassie earnestly wished she could do that. She'd have to practice that in front of a mirror.
She mentally shook herself and donned her calm teacher facade, filled Lori's cup, then turned to the silver-haired man. "How about you?"
"Sure. Thanks," he replied, throwing her a quick, uninterested glance.