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Love Starts with ElleA Lowcountry Romance
By Rachel Hauck
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2008 Rachel Hayes Hauck
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBEAUFORT, SC December 21
From the loft of her Bay Street art gallery, Elle Garvey leaned against the waist-high wall, admiring GG Galley's "Art in Christmas" show. Visitors and patrons—some Beaufort residence, others curious tourists—milled among the displays, speaking in low tones, sipping hot cider.
The mellow voice of Andy Williams serenaded them. "It's the most wonderful time of the year ..."
"Elle, are you the queen, surveying her kingdom?" Arlene Coulter gazed up from the bottom of the loft stairs, her bright red Christmas suit its own fashion work of art.
"Yes, and are you my loyal servant?"
Arlene curtsied, her bottle-blonde hair falling forward like silky angel hair, the hem of her skirt sliding up her knee. "Yours and yours alone, O you of whom Art News wrote, 'One of the lowcountry's finest galleries.'"
"Best hundred-dollar bribe I ever spent." Elle descended the stairs, catching sight of her baby sister, Julianne, selling a bronze sculpture to a young woman wearing pearls.
"Darling"—Arlene linked arms with Elle and led her to the back wall—"your artist eye is truly God gifted. Tell me now ... is this the work of the great Alyssa Porter?"
"It is." Elle surveyed the paintings. They spoke to her each time she viewed them. She envied Alyssa and artists like her—the ones who had the courage to chase the dream.
Elle had lost hers a long time ago.
"And what do you like about this artist?" Arlene squeezed Elle's arm tighter.
"Her paintings move me." Elle freed herself from Arlene and moved to Alyssa's Rose Garden, convinced it'd be a masterpiece one day.
"Move you?" Arlene studied one of the abstracts through a one-eyed slit, her short, red-tipped fingers squeezing the point of her chin. "I suppose they move me too. I'm just not sure where."
"You're looking for a definite image, Arlene. Don't be so concrete. Let your imagination run ..." Elle hooked her arm around the woman's shoulders. "Follow my hand. See how you just moved out of the sunlight into the shade?"
"No, but, girl, I really love your bracelets. Where'd you get those?" Arlene grabbed Elle's wrist to study the tricolor bangles.
"You beat all, Arlene." Elle twisted her hand free.
"Well, a good set of bracelets is hard to find." Arlene gazed again at the painting. "So, what should I do about Miss Porter?"
"Buy her. The New York art scene has discovered Alyssa and if you don't purchase something before her first auction, you'll never be able to afford it. Here ..." Elle walked to the other side of the display. "This one on the bottom right is only two thousand dollars."
Arlene stood an inch way from the bottom painting, tipping her head to one side. The track lighting haloed the back of her head.
"I'm afraid if I buy one of these I'll wake up one night with the dang thing hanging over my head whispering, 'I see dead people.'"
"If it does, call Pastor O'Neal, not me."
Arlene bent in half as if she hung upside down, then snapped upright. "What about this artist over here. Coco Nelson. Now this I get. Look—a woman's face, with eyes and hair."
"Coco's a wonderful artist," Elle said. "Very realistic work. This series is called 'Love and Romance.'"
"Very fitting for you, sugar." Arlene arched a brow at Elle. "This piece, Proposal, is stunning." Her voice rose and fell into a sing-song.
Elle ignore her subtle teasing. "Yes, there's something about it. An ordinary gentleman down on one knee proposing to an ordinary woman."
But the emotion Coco evoked in the scene was anything but ordinary. When she'd sent in the piece, Elle couldn't hang it at first. Too embarrassed after last year's Operation Wedding Day fiasco when she tried to date every available bachelor in Beaufort. She wanted no reminders of love and romance.
Until Jeremiah Franklin.
"Okay." Arlene spun around. "I'll take the Alyssa Porter and this Coco Nelson."
"You won't regret it."
"Says who?" Arlene passed Alyssa's abstract piece again, sidestepping the image as if it might spring to life and spar with her.
Elle laughed, leading the way to her desk across the old, former hardware store. She treasured the talented, sometimes whacky, interior designer who landed lowcountry clients like doctors, lawyers, and hotel developers. In the early days of GG Gallery, business from Coulter Designs had helped keep the gallery lights burning and Elle's hopes alive.
"What's the damage?" Arlene flashed her checkbook.
"Hold on, now, let me add a few more zeroes." Elle jammed her finger on the adding machine's Zero button.
"Add all you want. I'm only writing three." Arlene fanned her face with her opened checkbook. "So, how's it going with the good pastor?"
The mere hint of Dr. Jeremiah Franklin made Elle feel bubbly. "Good."
"If the glow on your cheeks is any indication, I'd say it's more than good. How long y'all been together now? Few months?"
"Two." Elle wrote up Arlene's order with a ten-percent discount.
"And it's love?" Arlene leaned to see Elle's eyes. "Don't tell me it ain't 'cause I can see it written all over your face."
"Here." Elle laughed low, passing over the order ticket with the total circled. "I appreciate your business—and nosiness—Arlene."
"Any time, sugar. Any time." Arlene peeked at the total, then started to write.
He still took her breath away after two months. When he'd told her he loved her in the setting sunlight during a beach walk, Elle had handed him her heart on a silver—no, gold—platter. Key included.
"Jer, what are you doing here?" She met him on the other side of her desk and stepped into his arms. His fragrance awakened her yearnings.
"I'm on my way to rehearse tomorrow's sermon. Couldn't pass the gallery without stopping in for a minute." His kiss was soft and sweet, a pastorly display of public affection. But enough to make Elle glad to be a woman. His woman. "We're still on for dinner?"
"Absolutely. You still haven't said where you wanted to go."
Jeremiah's hazel wink teased her. "Patience, girl. Do you have to know everything?"
"Do you not know me after these few months?"
"Exactly ..." He stooped for another soft kiss and backed away. "Good to see you, Arlene."
"You too, Dr. Franklin." Arlene watched Jeremiah exit the building with a wave. "Hmm-um, Elle, it must be breaking your heart." Rippp. She handed over her check.
"What? What are you talking about?" Elle brushed the check absently between her fingers.
Arlene gaped at Elle with an "Um, what now?" expression, then punched the air with a darn-it fist, chewing her bottom lip. "Me and my mouth. Shoot fire, my Dirk will kill me." She clutched her butter-colored Dooney & Burke to her chest. "Just forget I said anything, Elle. I am so sorry." She whirled around and hurried away with a swirling, swing-swing of her hips. "See you in church."
"Oh no you don't." Arlene's diverse network of informants was infamous—a mixture of truth and town lore, and eerily accurate. Elle scurried after her, blocking her before she reached the door. "You can't drop a bomb like that then wiggle out of here with a 'see you in church.' What were you talking about?"
"First of all, I have a very natural swing to my hips. It's what caught Dirk's eye in the first place, mind you. As for the other, well, Elle, Jeremiah can tell you himself. Don't worry. It's good, I think." She squared her red-jacketed shoulders. "Like I said, see you in church."
Elle watched her go, thoughts racing. Jeremiah had just been here. He'd acted perfect, like always. What was Arlene talking about? This time her information network must have supplied the wrong details. What did you hear, Arlene Coulter?
"Elle, Mrs. Beisner is curious about a discount for buying three pieces." Julianne held out an order pad, tapping the total. During art show openings and art fairs, Elle's baby sister worked part time for GG Gallery. "What do you think, fifteen percent?"
"Sure." Elle raked her hair with her fingers. "Whatever she wants."
Julianne observed her sister through narrowed eyes. "Whatever she wants? Elle, are you okay?"
"I don't know." Elle walked around Jules to her desk and opened the bottom drawer where her handbag lived. "Can you watch the gallery for me?"
"Where are you going?"
"To uncover a rumor." She didn't feel like waiting until dinner to hear his news—if there was any news.
"Now?" Julianne called after her.
"I won't be long." But the front door was blocked by Huckleberry Johns and his fish tank of eco art. Oh, please, not tonight. "Huck, what are you doing? You're dripping muddy water all over my clean floor."
With a lopsided grin, he scanned the gallery, vying for attention. "I call it Death at Coffin Creek." He raised his composition of reeking pluff mud and marsh grass. "Developers are ruining our ecosystem."
Elle dropped her shoulders in fake defeat. "Huckleberry, you are too good-looking and too young to be so weird. "She grabbed his shoulders and turned him around." Out. You're stinking up the place. Julianne, we need a mop up here."
Huck was an art school dropout—or, rather, they'd dropped him—and he hit the sidewalk, protesting, "I deserve to be heard."
"Not in my gallery." Elle stepped out after him. "Right message, wrong venue, Huck."
Elle's smile broke. "Slob. Talk about it later?"
"It may be too late."
"For who? You or Coffin Creek?" Elle backed up the sidewalk in the direction of her car.
"You." Huck hollered between his wide grin, spinning off in the opposite direction, disappearing around the corner.
Elle held the sanctuary door so it closed quietly without squeaking or thudding. She paused for her eyes to adjust to the dim light, then spotted Jeremiah up front, striding across the stage as he rehearsed his sermon, his lips moving in silent recitation.
His movement was graceful and controlled, an extension of his inner being.
"He can preach up a storm, that one." A slight, round-shouldered, snowy-haired Miss Anna Carlisle emerged from one of the sanctuary's dark pockets, jabbing her finger toward Jeremiah.
"Then we should bring our umbrellas tomorrow," Elle said, giving Miss Anna's shoulders a hug.
"Best to be prepared, I suppose." Miss Anna's pushed open the sanctuary door. "I'm praying for that boy," she said with a wag of her finger. "And you." Her words were intentional and steady.
"For me?" Elle asked.
Elle regarded her for a moment. "Are you walking? Can I give you a ride?" Elle went with the older woman through the foyer to the outer doors.
"I do believe it's a fine, crisp evening for walking." She buttoned the top button of her blue sweater and buried her hands in the frayed pockets. Elle thought the garment's spacious weave would do little against the night's chill. "Good night, Elle."
"Are you sure you want to walk, Miss Anna?"
Elle watched her until she disappeared between the trees and night lights. Then, back inside, she slipped into the back pew and watched Jeremiah practice his message. She'd never met a man like him—one who breathed in confidence and exhaled all doubt.
Her emotions tugged between the man she knew and Arlene's slipup. What's going on, Jeremiah? If anything?
Even for a Saturday-night sermon rehearsal, Jeremiah wore gray slacks and a starched cotton button-down. For the hundredth time, Elle wondered how he'd survived three years in the National Football League, three years of Bible college, and seven years of full-time ministry single.
But she wasn't complaining. God had saved the best for her.
Under the low stage lights, Jeremiah paused as if waiting for a response. He acted out a laugh, making his way to center stage with an even gait. At the podium, he gripped the sides and leaned toward the empty sanctuary, bobbing his head to the beat of internal words. Can I get an "Amen," somebody?
Why not oblige? "Amen." Elle rose from the pew as Jeremiah squinted beyond the spotlights into the shadowy sanctuary.
"Elle, babe? Is that you?" He came off the stage with a touchdown power stride. "Is everything all right?" "Yeah, fine, but"—she met him in the middle of the aisle—"I heard a rumor."
He growled, teasing her. "Is that ever good?" He touched his lips to hers with the passion that came when they were alone. "What kind of rumor?"
"Something about you and my breaking heart, Jeremiah."
"And who delivered such almost horrifying news?" He locked his arms around her waist, his hazel eyes searching hers.
"Arlene Coulter, though she stopped herself when she saw I didn't know what she was talking about."
"She heard from her husband, one of our trusty elders?"
"Who else?" Elle broke her gaze from Jeremiah's, smoothing her hand over the crisp surface of his shirt.
"You'd think the man would know better after twenty-five years of marriage."
"And what should I know after two months of dating?"
He brushed her hair away from her shoulder, letting his fingertips graze her skin. "Can it wait for dinner?"
His touch was fiery to her. "You tell me. Can it?"
"Are we answering questions with questions?"
"Are we?" Some time in the past week they'd started this new back-and-forth questions-with-questions dance.
"Did I start this, or you?"
"Does it matter?"
"Only if we want to get off this ride." He pressed his lips to hers again, breathing deep.
His kisses defied all bad news.
"Tell you what." He held up his wrist to see his watch in the stage light. "I'm almost done here. Another thirty minutes. What time does the gallery close?"
"Can Julianne close up for you? We'll slip off to dinner."
"If I pay her." Elle brushed her hand down the sleeve his oxford shirt. "That girl's all about moh-ney." She eyed him. "Monet. Mo-net ... Get it?"
"Yes, I get it. Artist jokes. So, meet me here in thirty?" He walked backward to the stage. "Remember, I love you."
"What's up, Dr. Franklin? If I have to remember ..." She caught the high and low contours of his face as he stood under the lights. "Not a good sign."
His smile dried up the beginnings of her self-pity. "Just remember, Elle."
Chapter TwoElle followed Jeremiah's Honda down Hwy 21, surprised when he turned on Fripp Point Road toward her Coffin Creek cottage.
Coffin Creek. The environment Huckleberry claimed was dying. But as Elle parked alongside Jeremiah under the drooping branches of a live oak, she could hear the dissonant song of life thriving in and along the creek's murky water.
"This is where you're taking me to dinner?" she asked, approaching Jeremiah as he waited by the backyard gate in the silver light of the "starry, starry night."
"Yes, but"—he swung her into his arms—"you don't have to cook."
"Please tell me you're not cooking." She laughed against his chest. The first and last time Jeremiah cooked for Elle he served his house specialty, mac-n-cheese with cut-up hot dogs.
"Never fear." He fastened his arm around her waist and walked with her to the back porch. "Close your eyes."
"Close my eyes?"
"Yes, close your eyes."
Elle made a face. She didn't liked surprises. "Okay, but I'm counting to ten, then opening them."
"Give me twenty."
Standing with her eyes closed, she could hear Jeremiah fumbling around, running across the sun-washed boards muttering, "Hot, hot, hot." She heard the scrape of a match, followed by the kitchen door opening, then banging shut. The aroma of tomato sauce and garlic bread. Her stomach rumbled.
"What are you doing?" Twenty seconds had passed.
"Okay, open them."
When she did, Elle found her back porch warm and inviting with hundreds of white lights twinkling around a crystal-and-china-set table for two.
"Jeremiah, this is beautiful." She peeked under the foil-covered plates, her pulse racing. Arlene had one thing right: something was up.
"The lasagna is courtesy of Mrs. Marks." Jeremiah held out a chair draped with a blanket. "For you."
Elle sat though she floated. "If this is what Arlene is sad about, I'm most certainly not."
Jeremiah knelt next to her, eye to eye. When his lips met hers, Elle's heart throbbed in her throat, against her temples. Her senses were addicted to him.
"I hope I haven't overwhelmed you by moving too fast, too soon."
Too late. "What else would a former wide receiver do but run fast once he caught his girl?" She inhaled the air around him. "I just need a moment to catch my breath now and then."
Jeremiah cupped her neck with his hand, stroking her cheek with his thumb. "My first Sunday at Beaufort Community, Pastor O'Neal introduced me and asked me to say a few words. I sat on the first row during worship, focused but feeling at home in my new church. I'd practiced my two-minute greeting in front of the mirror a dozen times."
"How could I forget? You captured us all that morning."
"I wasn't prepared to look out over the congregation and see a gorgeous strawberry blonde with apple-green eyes."
She pressed her lips to his palm. "I certainly wasn't prepared for you."
"For a split second, I was caught in this Star Trek-like vortex. You were the only person in the room and I couldn't remember what I wanted to say or, oddly enough, where I was."
"You exaggerate." Elle exhaled the same moment the creek released its breeze.
"The next few times I preached, I found you in the congregation during worship and made sure I never looked your way."
"So, how does this answer Arlene Coulter's speculation?" Elle huddled close to Jeremiah, shivering with the night chill and anticipation.
"First things first." Raising his hand, Jeremiah dropped a small black-velvet box next to her plate, then looked into her eyes. "Elle Garvey, will you marry me?"
What? "Marry you?" She glanced from him to the ring box and back again. She'd expected a lot of things—but not this. After two months of dating, was he serious?
"Marry me. I love you. You are exceptional. I've waited a long time to ask a woman this question. Elle, please, say yes." Jeremiah opened the box, holding it up for Elle to see the diamond in the candlelight.
"Oh, Jeremiah." His proposal sent sparks all over her, but she had to snap the box shut. "Wait, wait. Tonight Arlene tried to console 'my breaking heart,' but it was really about you're asking me to marry you?"
Jeremiah laced his fingers through Elle's, still kneeling beside her chair. "Goes to show you Arlene doesn't know everything."
"Then tell me, what does she know, Jer?"
"Elle." Jeremiah took the platinum band from its velvet bed and slipped it onto Elle's finger. "Do you love me?"
The candles, the lights, the aroma of pasta, garlic, and sauce mingling with the cool dew of the night eased her anxiety. "Yes, I believe I do."
"Then marry me. This is right, I know it."
"I'll marry you, Jeremiah. Yes."
Excerpted from Love Starts with Elle by Rachel Hauck Copyright © 2008 by Rachel Hayes Hauck. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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