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The Pastor's Wife
By Jennifer AlLee
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2010 Jennifer AlLee
All rights reserved.
Hold the elevator!"
Maura Sullivan ran across the lobby as fast as she could in high-heeled pumps. Once again she second-guessed her choice of attire for this meeting. She didn't plan to stay in town long. Just get in, talk to the lawyer, and run out again. But in a place the size of Granger, Ohio, there was a good chance she'd run into someone she knew. And if that happened, she wanted them to see a successful, self-sufficient businessperson, not a frazzled woman barely holding it together.
The elevator doors were almost shut when they stopped, then slowly started to move in reverse. Maura sighed in relief. Maybe her luck had changed.
"Sorry," a male voice said from inside the car. "I couldn't find the right button and —"
The man in the elevator gaped at Maura, his finger glued to the button panel. Meanwhile, Maura's stomach fell to the tips of her shoes. If not for her impractical footwear, she'd be jogging up the stairs right now instead of staring like an idiot at her almost ex-husband.
So much for her luck. It was just as bad as ever.
"Maura?" He found his voice, but his body didn't move an inch.
"Hi, Nick." There were probably lots of things she should say, but none came to mind. Instead, she forced herself to take three steps forward and enter the elevator.
Nick's eyes never left her. His head just swiveled as she moved in next to him. He finally removed his finger from the "door open" button, letting his hand fall against his thigh with a slap. "What are you doing here?"
Trying not to faint. Telling myself I won't be sick. Both true, but neither facts she wished to share. "I have a meeting." She leaned around him and hit the second-floor button. The doors slid closed.
Nick squeezed the bridge of his nose with two fingers. "Is your meeting with Wendell Crowley?"
"Yes." Dread worked its way down her spine. How could he know that? She was clearly the last person he expected to see today. If he hadn't known she was coming to town, how could he know anything about her meeting?
Nick made an unintelligible noise and muttered to himself. "Great. How could she?"
"Look, I'm sorry we ran into each other like this." Maura's heart thudded in her chest as she tried to ease the tension in the small moving box. "I promise, as soon as I meet with the lawyer, I'll be out of here and you'll never see me again."
Nick looked at her, his eyes drawn together. "Afraid not."
"Your escape won't be that neat and tidy." The elevator stopped, bounced, and the doors eased open. "We're going to the same meeting."
* * *
This had to be a joke.
Nick and Maura sat in matching chairs on one side of a heavy oak desk. On the other side sat Wendell Crowley, reading from the Last Will and Testament of Miss Harriet Lenore Granger. The elderly attorney had been a close personal friend of Miss Hattie's, making the reading of this particular will more emotional for him than most.
Nick was emotional, too, but for a completely different reason. As the lawyer read on, making less and less sense, Nick's fingers squeezed around the arms of his chair. Beside him, Maura's hands were clenched together in her lap so tightly that he could see her fingernails digging into her flesh. She was obviously just as shocked as he was.
Nick had spent a great deal of time with Miss Hattie in her last days, but she'd never alluded to what she planned in her will. Then again, maybe she had, in her own subtle way. He was at her bedside the night before she died, and as always, the woman encouraged him to hold on to hope.
"It's not too late for you," she'd said. "I know you're too stubborn to go after that wife of yours, but you never know ... she just might come back to you."
Rather than argue he'd squeezed her hand and prayed with her. That night, his dear friend had died peacefully in her sleep.
Now that whole encounter took on new meaning in light of what Wendell had read. Maybe the woman's intentions were good, but it didn't make him happy about the outcome.
Nick glanced at Maura. She had a lot of nerve showing up in town after the way she left him. From the way she was dressed, she must be managing just fine in California. She didn't look so good now, though. The red blush that had stained her cheeks in the elevator was gone, replaced by skin so pale he thought she might faint. She wasn't dealing with the terms of the will any better than he was.
He turned to Wendell. "Let me see if I understand you correctly. Miss Hattie left Maura the Music Box Theatre, but there are two conditions."
Wendell smiled. "Yes."
"Would you repeat those conditions, please?"
"Certainly. First, the theatre must be used for at least one church function, such as a play or concert. Second, Maura must move into the church parsonage."
The room was quiet as a mime convention as Nick rolled that fact around in his head. "With me?" he finally asked.
Wendell didn't hesitate. "Yes. With you."
That snapped Maura out of her stupor. "Is this even legal?" Her voice was shrill, and she leaned so far forward, Nick feared she might fall out of her chair. "I mean, it's the kind of stunt they pull in soap operas. Can you really tell two people they have to live together as a condition of a will?"
"You can," Wendell answered. "And Miss Hattie did."
"But I can't," she sputtered. "I'm not ... we're not ... I just can't!"
The smile never left the man's face. "It's not a problem. After all, you two are still married."
"But we've been separated for six years." Maura's voice was almost a whisper, as if she were sharing a secret with the lawyer that the whole town wasn't already privy to.
"Yes, I know. But legally and in the eyes of God, you're still married." Wendell turned to Nick, lowering his head and looking over the edge of his tiny reading glasses.
Nick's eyes narrowed in response. It didn't take a genius to figure out that Miss Hattie hoped to reunite him and Maura. And it stood to reason she'd gone over her scheme with Wendell ahead of time to make sure everything was legal and in order. But charging two people to live and work together with no parameters didn't make sense. There must be something Wendell hadn't told them.
"I'm confused," Maura said. "Are you telling me that in order to own the theatre, I have to live in the parsonage for the rest of my life?"
Good question. Nick looked at the lawyer who shook his head.
"No, not at all." Wendell pointed to the will. "You only have to fulfill the conditions for six months. At that time, the property becomes yours free and clear."
"No strings attached?" Maura asked.
"None. At the end of six months, you can live wherever you want. You can even sell the building, if you're so inclined. Of course," he said with a dip of his head, "I hope you won't be."
Nick listened as Maura and Wendell talked about the property. She was actually considering going through with this crazy proposition. Nick's entire life was about to turn upside down, and it seemed he was powerless to stop it.
"Excuse me," he blurted, interrupting Wendell in mid-sentence. "What about me? Don't I have any say in this?"
The two looked as if they just remembered he was in the room. "Of course, you do," Wendell answered. "What in particular do you want to address?"
Nick looked pointedly at Maura. "What if I don't want her to live with me?"
She flinched, and Nick pushed away the guilt that tried to settle in his heart. He didn't want to hurt her, but he had to tell the truth. Besides, whatever discomfort she felt now couldn't compare to the pain he felt the night he came home to an empty house and a good-bye note on his pillow.
Wendell's eyebrows rose in surprise. "Naturally, you have the right to refuse to let Mrs. Shepherd —"
"Ms. Sullivan," she corrected him.
He nodded. "You can refuse to let her move into the parsonage. But if you do, it will nullify the will."
"Then what happens to the theatre?" Maura asked.
Wendell flipped over a few pages. "It would be sold, but I'm not at liberty to say what would be done with the proceeds." He turned to Nick. "By the way, did I mention that if the conditions are met, after six months the church will receive a sizable donation?"
Ah, here was the other shoe. Nick ground his teeth. "No, you did not mention that. Just how sizable?"
"Ten thousand dollars."
Nick crossed his arms and sat back hard against the seat. Ten thousand dollars might not seem like a lot to some folks, but to him, it was an answer to prayer — an answer Miss Hattie decided to help along. She knew all about the programs he wanted to implement, the staff he wanted to bring on, if only the money were there. She knew exactly how to get to him. He could endure six months of almost anything if it meant bringing much-needed funds into the church. Still, he didn't want to rush the decision.
"I need some time to think this over." Nick rose, ending the meeting.
Wendell stood with him. "I understand. In fact, I'd advise the two of you to go some place private so you can discuss the matter." The lawyer reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a key ring, which he handed to Maura.
She took the keys as she stood up. "Are these for the theatre?"
"Yes. I think you should take a look at the place before you make your final decision." Wendell smiled as he walked them out of the office. "I know you have a lot to talk about. Please call me as soon as you come to an agreement."
Following behind Maura, Nick mulled over what had just happened. He had a feeling the meeting had gone exactly as the lawyer and Miss Hattie planned. Not only were Nick and Maura considering this weird arrangement, but they were leaving together to the theatre. After six years of living alone, it seemed his destiny was once again entangled with that of his wayward wife. And there wasn't a thing he could do to stop it.CHAPTER 2
Just look at this place. It's incredible!"
Maura stood in the middle of the old Music Box Theatre, with her arms flung wide, eyes sparkling. Nick watched as she walked farther down the aisle, reverently touching the backs of the old, dusty seats as though they were made of pure gold.
This was the first time Nick had been inside the old theatre. When he came to Granger as an idealistic twenty-four year old, excited about his new life as a pastor with his wife by his side, the Music Box was one of many boarded-up buildings on Main Street. Now at a mature thirty, here he stood, watching his estranged wife lust after the last property in town that still needed renovation.
Maura didn't seem the least bit daunted by the idea of inheriting a fixer-upper. "From the outside, you can't tell how large this space is. Look at the stage. It's big enough for full-blown productions."
Nick listened as she exclaimed over the orchestra pit, the ornate carvings that framed the stage, the murals on the walls and ceiling. Her hands flew as she gestured and raced from one part of the theatre to the next.
The guarded, defensive woman who walked back into his life a few hours before had vanished. Now she was animated, full of enthusiasm, and excited about the possibilities that stood in front of her.
Nick's gut twisted at her transformation into the woman he had married. Living in the same house with her would be hard enough if she continued playing the role of ice princess. But if she warmed up and started acting like the woman he fell in love with, the next six months would be sheer torture. He had to find a way to talk her out of this.
"You know," he called, walking up the aisle to meet her, "it's going to take a lot of work to get this place back into shape. Not to mention it might not be up to code. You could be looking at some serious structural issues."
Maura shook her head, still taking in her surroundings. "No, it's fine."
"How can you be so sure?"
She squatted down in the middle of a row, disappearing from view. Nick wondered how she managed the move in that suit she wore.
"Weren't you paying attention at Wendell's office?" Her disembodied voice traveled to him through the musty air. "Miss Hattie had it checked out before she completed her will. The place is structurally sound. The major issues are cosmetic." She popped up into view, swiping the back of her hand across her forehead. "It'll just take a little work to make the place shine again."
"A little work? Did you notice the paint peeling off the walls? And there's at least an inch of dust on these seats." He hit one hard with his palm, just to prove his point. Although the small puff of dust that rose into the air was not what he had hoped for, he was strangely pleased when the entire back of the seat fell off with a clatter, hitting the armrest of the seat behind it and knocking it off as well.
"You just broke two of my seats!" Maura jammed her fists onto her hips and scowled at him.
Nick took a step back. "Actually, I may have just saved a life. What if someone sat there and the seat fell apart? You should be thanking me. You could have gotten sued on opening night."
She shook her head and groaned. "Nobody would have sat in that seat, Nick, because I intend to have them all checked out and repaired well before opening night. Do you really think I'm that irresponsible?"
"No, of course not." This wasn't turning out the way he'd hoped. He didn't want to insult her, only discourage her a bit and convince her to give up this insane plan. "My point is there's more than a little work to be done before the place will be fit to open to the public. I just want to make sure you're looking at the big picture."
Maura laughed. "Well, this is different. Since when do you look at the bleak side of life? What happened to mister the-sun-is-always-shining-somewhere-in-the-world?"
"Having my wife walk out on me must have dampened my optimism."
That sobered her. She hugged her arms around her chest and looked him in the eye. "You left me long before I left you."
Her accusation pierced his heart like a poison-tipped dart. All he'd ever done was his job, a job she knew he loved when she married him. And she'd left him for doing his job well. It would be so much easier to move on and ignore their past — pretend none of it had happened. But he couldn't let it go. "Don't you think it's time we talked about it?"
"No." The word shot out of her like a bullet, and her gaze dropped to the floor. When she looked back at him, determination blazed in her eyes.
"You and I have gone through a lot in the last few years," she said quietly. "I know it might be impossible for you to believe, but I never wanted to hurt you and I still don't. I have no idea why Miss Hattie thought she could manipulate us back together, but she did, and we're stuck with it. The plain truth is that I want to make this theatre work. I need to make it work."
He should leave it at that. She'd made it clear she didn't want to talk about their past. To get further involved in her current life, the life she chose to live alone, would only lead to trouble. But Nick had never been a passive bystander.
"Why would you care about running some little theatre in a hick town? I thought you liked living in California. If you want to run a business so badly, why don't you wait until your father hands over the coffee shop?"
She blanched, and he wished he could recall his words. He had no idea what she'd been doing over the last six years, but he knew before she spoke that it hadn't been easy.
"My father died two months ago." Her words were flat, as though she'd already expended so much energy on the subject she refused to use any more. "He did leave me the coffee shop, and a mountain of debt along with it."
"Maura, I'm sorry, I —"
She held up her hand. "It's okay. I won't bore you with the details. Let's just say the one bright spot in the situation was that Da bought a prime piece of land well before it was prime, and it's completely paid for. In fact, I've had several generous offers on it already."
"So you're planning to sell?"
"I thought about it, but I wasn't sure. Not until today. See, while I can make a profit on the land, after I pay all the bills, there won't be enough to start another business, or even buy another house in California." He must have looked confused because she continued. "Da and I lived in the apartment over the shop, remember?"
Excerpted from The Pastor's Wife by Jennifer AlLee. Copyright © 2010 Jennifer AlLee. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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