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"Dear God, I wish You'd send me a husband"
Clarissa Cartwright chewed on her lower lip as the words echoed around the empty library. The patrons were gone now, trickling away one by one, hurrying toward family and home. She could imagine them gathered around the dinner table, laughing as they shared the day's events with their dear ones, making plans to sample the sweet-scented spring evening with that one special person who made your heart thump in anticipation.
Clarissa sat alone, her heart longing to be included, to be part of something. To be needed.
She tried to formulate the petition in her mind, to choose just the right words so God would understand how deeply the ache went. It wasn't hard to say it out loud. She'd been turning the words around in her heart in a silent prayer for ages, even more frequently since her cousin's Hawaiian wedding two weeks ago.
But here in the Waseka, Missouri, town library, alone among the books she'd cared for these past ten years, Clarissa felt strangely comfortable about voicing her request to the One who'd promised to answer.
"I didn't want to be a burden, Lord, as I was growing up. But I'm an adult now, and I'd really like to be a wife." She hesitated, then breathed out the rest of it. "I want to be a mother."
It sounded like such a big request, so demanding. She hurried on to quantify it, make it easier for God to fulfil. "He doesn't have to be rich. Or even handsome."
That sounded desperate. And she wasn't. Just lonely.
"But not just any husband," she modified, staring at the stained and peeling plaster ceiling as she spoke. "A man I can love with all my heart. A man who doesn't care that I'm not young and gorgeous withlots of money, or smart, and upwardly mobile. What I really want is a man who wants to settle down and have a family. I'm so tired of being alone."
Was that everything?
Clarissa tried to get her mind off chubby babies with rosy cheeks and fisted hands. It wasn't easy. Lately she dreamed of babies all the time. She thrust the bundles of joy out of her mind. But her replacement vision of glistening white tulle over satin and lace didn't help matters in the least. Clarissa twisted her homemade flowered cotton skirt between her fingers, scrunching her eyes up as tightly as she dared.
"Could You please send a man who will love me?" she whispered, whooshing the words out on a wish and a prayer.
Clarissa opened her eyes so fast she saw stars. A man stood at her counter. A big man. He had the kind of straight black glossy hair that hung over his collar as if he hadn't had time to get it cut. His eyes burned a deep rich chocolate in a face full of angles and planes. His lashes were
"Excuse me, miss?" He cleared his throat and frowned at her. "Can you help me?"
Could God answer this fast? Clarissa dismissed the question almost as quickly as it entered her brain. Of course He could. He was God!
She swallowed down her surprise and nodded. "Uh-huh."
"Oh." He looked as if he wasn't sure she was telling the truth. But when a quick glance around assured him there was no one else lurking nearby he shrugged. "I'm looking for some books on birds. They're for my neson."
He had a son. He was married. Her hopes dashed to the worn marble floor. It was all a mistake. A silly, childish mistake. This man wasn't for her.
"Yes. Yes, I heard you. I'm just thinking." She pretended she needed time to recall that section eight held most of her books on bird-watching. "What kind of birds?"
His eyebrows rose. "What kind? I don't know." His brow furrowed, then he shrugged defensively. "The kind that fly, I guess. Just birds, that's all."
Clarissa smiled, rose from her perch behind the big oak desk and clambered awkwardly down stairs that normally gave her no problem whatsoever. "I'll show you," she offered and led the way.
The nature section was only two rows over. Clarissa stopped in front of it, considered the contents, then pulled out several of the largest picture books.
"Depending on how old he is, he might like these. They have wonderful illustrations." She opened it to show him the gorgeous colors of a parrot, and then flushed with embarrassment as the hardcover tumbled to the floor.
It was a good thing the kindergarten class wasn't here to see this. Her cast-iron rule about respecting books would be open to criticism by those curious five-year-olds.
"I'm sorry," she murmured when he handed it back.
"It's okay. Actually, I should have been clearer. I'm looking for something that would show some birds native to the area. Pierce is doing a project for school."
He tossed back his hair, raking through it with one hand. Clarissa caught the fresh clean scent of soap and smiled. She liked a man who didn't pour overpowering cologne all over himself.
You have no business liking this one, her conscience reminded. He's married. With a son.
"Feel free to look through any of these then. Maybe you'll find something you like."
She stepped back, indicating the shelf. When he bent to peer at the titles without answering her, Clarissa decided his actions spoke louder than words. He hadn't even noticed her. And why would he? Nobody noticed Clarissa. She'd become a fixture around here.
Why, I doubt anyone even noticed I've been gone, she told herself sternly. It wasn't as if she had a tan to show for her vacation in Hawaii. Her skin was too fair to do anything but burn an ugly beet red that peeled in the most unbecoming way, and she'd prevented that with liberal amounts of sunblock.
Turning with a sigh, she walked slowly back up to her desk and began tallying the column titled "Lent for the Day."
"I'll take these. If you don't mind, that is. I don't have a card." He held out four of the biggest books hesitantly. "Is that too many?"
"Certainly not. And I can make a card up for you right now. Name please?" She smiled and pulled an application form over, her pen poised to record the necessary statistics.
"Wade Featherhawk. Box 692. Telephone "
He listed the information rapidly. Clarissa had to write quickly to get it all down.
"Good." She picked up the card and leaflet and handed them over. "The books are due in two weeks. The library hours are posted inside the leaflet, but you can always slip the books through the slot if it's after hours. By the way, I'm Clarissa Cartwright." She held out her hand.
Stark, utter silence greeted her announcement. The brown-black eyes that twinkled mere moments ago now frosted over. His hand, halfway up, dropped back down by his side.
"Oh." He took the books from her carefully, making sure that their fingers had no contact. "I, uh, I should probably tell you right off that I'm not interested."
"I beg your pardon?" Clarissa frowned, glancing at the clock. She was two minutes late closing. Hm, according to Hawaii time, that was
"I'm not looking for a wife." The blunt-edged words came from lips stretched in a thin line of animosity. "I can handle the kids myself. I don't need somebody tagging around after me, nagging me to do this or that. I can manage my life just fine."
Clarissa froze. Surely he hadn't heard her praying? Her face heated at the worried look in his eye. She licked her lips and stuttered out a response.
"II d-don't know what you mean. I have never"
"Look, I probably shouldn't have said anything. It's just that Norman Paisley told me about you being single and all. Then Mrs. Nettles expounded on your assets as the perfect wife. After that a lady I've never met before told me how great you are at caring for people. In fact, that's all I've heard for the past week."
He didn't sound exactly thrilled with what he learned either, Clarissa decided grimly.
She shook with the sheer humiliation of it. They were trying to marry her off again! And to the first available man who stepped into town. The heat of embarrassment clawed up her neck and flooded her face. Desperately she searched for composure while praying that he hadn't heard her prayer.
"I'm so sorry!" She flushed again at his disparaging look and searched for the shortest possible explanation. "I was orphaned when I was young. My parents worked overseas, and I was too much of a burden. My Gran raised me. Along with half the town. They feel responsible, sort of a community of adopted parents. They're kind of well, rather like a big, nosy family." Clarissa gulped, knowing she was babbling, but unable to stop.
"I've been away, you see. On vacation. I didn't realize "
She made herself stop at the less than spellbound look on his face. It was obvious he couldn't care less. He shifted from one foot to the other in patent disinterest, politely waiting for her to stop speaking.
"Well, I just wanted to warn you that I'm not in the market." His lips pinched tight as he glared at her. It was obvious that he hated having to spell it out.
Only when she peered into his eyes did Clarissa catch a hint of the suspicion in his eyes. Wariness. As if he were waiting. But for what? Clarissa mustered her composure, straightened her spine and smiled cooly.
"I'm sorry you felt you had to defend yourself, Mr. Featherhawk. I've lived here all of my life, and the people here tend to think of me as their responsibility. Rest assured, I have no intention of chasing you. In spite of what they told you, I don't need a husband that badly."
"Sorry. My mistake." He frowned as if he didn't quite believe her, but was prepared to accept it just the same. "No problem."
The odd look he cast over her made her wonder if he hadn't heard every word of her desperately uttered prayer, but Clarissa refused to speculate. It was done. She couldn't change anything. Far better to keep her pride intact and pretend nothing untoward had happened here this afternoon. There would be time enough to cry over spilled milk later, at home, alone.
"The library will be closing in just a few minutes. Is there anything else I can help you with?" She kept her friendly smile in place through sheer perversity, merely nodding when he shook his head. "Fine. Have a good day."
"You, too," he mumbled before striding across the room and out the door.
As the heavy oak banged shut behind him, Clarissa heaved a sigh of relief mingled with regret. He was so handsome!
"Okay, God. I get the message. You're in control. You'll decide when and if I should get married, let alone be a mother." She closed and locked the fine drawer, which never held more than three dollars anyway, placed her pen in the holder and pushed her chair neatly behind the big desk.
"It's in Your hands," she acquiesced with a sigh. "But I'm not getting any younger. I hope You keep in mind that I'm no spring chicken, and I would like to enjoy my kids while I'm still young enough to keep up with them. If I get kids, that is."
Since there was no audible reply, or any other sign from above, Clarissa picked up the sweater she'd worn this morning, grabbed her handbag and her empty lunch sack and walked out of the musty building. It took only a second to lock the solid worn door.
Clarissa trod down the steps carefully, grateful for the fresh late-afternoon breeze that still blew. She needed a little air after her first day back at work.
A busy little town that drew on the agricultural industry surrounding it, Waseka hummed with early springtime activity. The place was so small that everybody knew everybody else, and their business. Which was part of Clarissa's problem, but also part of the reason she loved it here.
It meant that they all knew how Harrison Harder had abandoned her the day before her wedding, to marry that city upstart who'd only been back in town for three weeks and claimed to be Clarissa's best friend. Today the reminder of his defection only made her smile.
Harrison Harder! The same man who'd trailed after her since seventh grade, defended her from Tommy Cummings when she hadn't needed his help, and vowed that he'd never love anyone else.
Clarissa had smiled her way through those awful days, too. The nights she spent weeping for a precious dream that had died. It was then that she'd realized that Harrison had only been the means to an end. Now she wasn't sure she'd ever really loved him, not the way a wife needed to love her husband. He'd been her way of getting the family she craved, of avoiding having to move in with one of the great-aunts just for company.
Her minister had tried to counsel her, to tell her that sometimes God sent roadblocks so people could see they were going down the wrong path. He was staunch in his belief that God had something much better in store for her. Clarissa tried to accept that, but with every day that passed, all she felt was more empty, more alone, more of an outsider in a town where everyone had someone.
That solitary feeling magnified when Gran died three years ago and Clarissa was left with a big, old house, and a hole in her heart. Who would she love now? Would she never have the family she'd longed for ever since her parents had died?
But all that was years ago. Clarissa didn't have any tears left for Harrison. Instead, she stubbornly clung to her dream. A family, a big, happy family where she showered all the devotion she wanted on people who would reciprocate with enough to fill her needy heart.
She ached for her own circle of love, especially now, after that wedding in Hawaii where honeymoon couples abounded. In fact, the surfeit of amorous couples found at those weddings was a perfectly good reason for avoiding the next one!
"Hi, Clarissa. Noticed you met our newest resident." Millie Perkins giggled, her broad face wreathed in smiles. "Now there's a fine specimen of a man. He'd make a good husband for you. And is he handsome!"
"You mean Wade Featherhawk? Yes, I met him." Clarissa blushed, recalling that prayer. "I don't think he's interested in me, Millie." Belatedly she remembered he was married.
"Nonsense! Of course he's interested. Just doesn't want to seem too eager is all. A man in his condition needs a good woman." Millie thumped her purse as if that settled the matter.
In his condition? Clarissa's radar went on high alert. She didn't want to fix anyone else's problems. She'd had enough of that with Billy Stuart and Lester Short, two men she'd once agreed to date. She still regretted those hastily made encounters.