You are cordially invited to the wedding of the year with the most unlikely bride and groom. Save the date . . . and say your prayers.
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Save the Date
By JENNY B. JONES
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2011 Jenny B. Jones
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTwo years later
Outside the birds sang happy little tunes as they sat on magnolia limbs old enough to have shaded Robert E. Lee. The May sunshine hovered over treetops and steeples, sending the good people of Charleston away from their porches and inside to the cool. Saving Grace occupied an old home downtown, wedged in tight next to an Italian restaurant that put out more than its share of trash and basil-scented air. But inside the house, Lucy sat in her swivel chair and wondered how many times a world could fall apart.
"I'm sorry, I don't think I heard you correctly." She stared at the slender woman sitting in her office.
"Sinclair Hotels will be cutting our funding to Saving Grace by forty percent, effective immediately."
Lucy had barely had time to put down her morning cup of coffee before the PR representative from Sinclair was knocking on her office door. Loosening the garage-sale Hermes scarf at her throat, Lucy tried to recall if she had put on deodorant that morning. It was all a blur. Surely she had. But she needed all her wits about her. And her Dry Idea.
"Miss Pierson," Lucy said. "I was promised this amount six months ago."
"Unfortunately, tough economic times sometimes necessitate cutbacks. I'm sure you understand." Miss Pierson speared her with a snotty gaze she had probably perfected in junior high. Lucy immediately had a memory of walking through the halls of her high school. The stares. The ridicule. Her classmates doing everything they could to make the poor scholarship girl feel inferior at that ridiculous private school her mother had made her attend. "Marcus Sinclair and the board are grieved over these decisions as well, which is why I was sent to personally deliver the news."
"And I am very grateful," Lucy managed to say. "Sinclair has been very generous. But if I can't guarantee the funds you initially quoted, I'll lose my federal and state grants."
"As you've probably read, Sinclair Hotels has suffered setbacks these last three years under the previous CEO. So Mr. Sinclair has come out of retirement and returned to the helm."
Miss Pierson had to be a size double zero. What a shame Sinclair didn't pay this woman enough to feed herself. Meanwhile Lucy's own size-ten skirt was about to cut her waist in two.
"Isn't there anyone I could talk to?" Lord, help me be calm. Claiming your peace here. I'm breathing in. Breathing out. Breathing—oh, seriously, her arms are no bigger than toothpicks.
"It was a board decision."
"Maybe I could speak with Mr. Sinclair?"
"That will not be possible. He's very busy with his duties as CEO, as well as campaigning for his son."
Lucy didn't even let herself think about Alex Sinclair, heir to the family fortune. Not that he needed anyone else's money. He had made his own as a quarterback for the New York Warriors. And she had gone to school with him, though she had been a year behind him. If he was still treating people the way he'd treated her, it's a wonder someone hadn't smothered him with a jersey in his sleep.
"You are still invited to the gala Friday night." Miss Pierson's eyes flitted over the walls of Lucy's office. Decorated with black-and-white photos of past and present girls of Saving Grace, it wasn't exactly art. But to Lucy, the pictures were more precious than any Van Gogh.
Tomorrow was the annual event when she would normally receive her donation check, happily assured that Saving Grace would carry on another year. Girls getting their educations. Gaining employment skills. Having a roof over their heads. Now she didn't know how they would continue through the winter.
Miss Pierson stood, her body gracefully rising from the scarred wooden chair. "On behalf of Sinclair Hotels, we appreciate you letting us participate in serving our community." Offering her hand in a limp handshake, Miss Pierson gathered her purse and exited the small office.
Lucy's head dropped to her desk. "Why me?" There had to be something she could do. She couldn't just sit there and let Saving Grace die simply because of one donation, substantial though it was. Lord, what am I going to do? I need some colossal help here.
She returned to pounding her head and muttering.
"Is this a private mental breakdown or can anyone join?"
Lucy's blonde curls flounced as she sat at attention. "Hey." The sight of her best friend Morgan should've been a welcome comfort. But spotting a young woman standing behind Morgan, Lucy knew there would be no time for her to pour out her heart.
"I was just telling Marinell here what a calm, sane person you are." Morgan sat in the chair Miss Pierson had just vacated and motioned for the girl to take the other vacant seat. "But that's after you've had your coffee."
Lucy barely withheld a glare from her smiling friend. "I'm giving crazy a try today. And so far ... I'm rather good at it." Lucy turned her attention to the girl who looked like a young Salma Hayek. "Hello, Marinell. I'm so glad you've decided to meet with me."
As the foster-care caseworker, Morgan had shared with Lucy the contents of Marinell's file. Age eighteen. Spent the last year and a half in four different foster homes, the last one being so difficult she had dissolved ties with the system and moved out on her own. Getting ready to repeat her senior year, Marinell was homeless and living who knew where on the streets.
"I told Ms. Morgan I would hear you out, but I don't plan on moving in," Marinell said. "I'm fine right where I'm at."
"And where is that again?" Lucy asked.
"With a relative."
Most of the girls they saw were so beaten down by their circumstances, they were almost afraid to hope there was something better. Lucy knew Marinell had no family in Charleston but her mom, whose parental rights had been dissolved. Her younger brother had yet to be placed and stayed in a boys' home. "A relative, huh?"
She shrugged. "A friend."
"Then I guess it's my job to convince you to stay." Which would be fine except for the small detail of Saving Grace closing down if Lucy didn't find some financial support. "Morgan went over the expectations, right?" Marinell just stared in response. "We're a faith-based operation here. You simply have to go to school, work hard, and follow our rules." There were curfews, Bible studies, life-skill classes, and responsibilities in the house that the girls had to adhere to. Between Lucy and the two resident assistants, a supervising adult was always at Saving Grace, making sure the rules were followed.
She and Morgan worked closely together. As a caseworker for the county, Morgan had contact with girls who had aged out of the foster-care system. Once they were eighteen and out of school, the state considered them adults. Saving Grace provided transitional housing for those with nowhere to go. While the state provided some assistance until they turned twenty-one, few young adults took advantage of it and simply struck out on their own. And with foster kids far outnumbering willing homes, the chances for a kid to be out on the streets was shockingly high. It was a national epidemic that the average citizen knew nothing about, and the injustice never failed to light the fuse of Lucy's temper.
Morgan would expect Lucy to give the girl the selling points. "Why don't we take a tour?"
Leaving Morgan behind in the office, Lucy and Marinell started down the hall. Lucy brought her to the spacious living room first. "We had a large church group help out with the décor. This is where all the girls hang out and watch movies or do homework. We have a Bible study here every Wednesday night." From the hardwood floor to the teal lamps, the room was like something out of a Pottery Barn catalog. Lucy forced away the thoughts of losing it all. Too much work had gone into making this space a home.
Lucy saw her eyeing the flat-screen TV over the fireplace. "The girls just got a Wii donated, so we've been having some serious bowling competitions this week." Pleased she got at least a faint smile out of Marinell, Lucy moved on. "We have two halls of bedrooms. Each one has been adopted by a community member and professionally decorated. No two rooms are the same."
Lucy flipped the light of one bedroom and walked inside.
Marinell couldn't hide the surprise on her face. "I never seen anything like it."
"It's cool, huh? This is our last room left."
Marinell ran her hand over the cream-colored duvet, then the printed green pillows.
"So tell me about your family." Every girl that came through Lucy's doors had a story.
Marinell studied an M. C. Escher print on the wall. "My mom moved here a few years ago. My brother got sick and she lost her job. When one of my teachers found out we didn't have a place to live, the state took us."
"And where's your father?"
"Gone." Marinell shrugged as if it were no big deal. "Do you feed us here?"
"Yes. And you get to learn how to cook." Thanks to a handful of community volunteers, the girls got trained in various life skills, like preparing a healthy dinner and balancing a checkbook.
Walking back down the hall, Lucy could hardly make the necessary small talk for her racing mind. She needed time. There were people to call, companies to contact. She had to find new donors. And quickly.
Lucy guided her back into the office, but Marinell stopped just inside. "What's that?" Marinell pointed to a series of worn indentions in the sun-bleached wooden floor.
"Saving Grace was a convent until about five years ago." The thought always made her heart warm. "This is where the nuns prayed. Those dents there? That's from many hours on their knees."
Lucy nodded. "I'd like to think the sisters would be proud of what we do here. Those marks in the floor remind me that I can't solve anything without putting my own time in on my knees."
"My mom and dad are Catholic. Um, I mean my mom is."
"But you're not?" Lucy asked.
Marinell looked away from the floor. "I'm not anything."
Lucy exchanged a look with Morgan before handing Marinell her card. "This is how you can reach me. If you need anything, give me a call—night or day." Pressing it in Marinell's hand, Lucy felt the warmth of the girl's skin, the life that pulsed beneath it. God, help me save this one. "We'd like Saving Grace to be your home, Marinell." She smiled into the girl's weary eyes. "And we'd like to be your family."
"Do you know how many people have said that to me?" Marinell's chin lifted in challenge. "I need someone who's gonna come through for once. I don't want this to be just another place that lets me down."
Morgan smiled. "Then I've brought you to the right place." Lucy listened to her best friend's words and willed herself not to burst into tears. "I promise, Lucy won't let you down."
Chapter TwoYou really shouldn't go to this gala, Lucy." Morgan stuck her head into the bathroom for the fifth time. Lucy's apartment was slowly filling up with friends who were there for a Dr. Who marathon. Though Morgan was hosting, the Hobbits always met at their home base—Lucy's apartment. Officially the Hobbits gathered twice a month to discuss the latest books, movies, and anything else remotely resembling fantasy or science fiction. Unofficially, they hung out all the time.
"She's right." Chuck, Morgan's fiancé, ambled in from the crowded living room and leaned into the bathroom. "There's a fine line between nagging and stalking."
Lucy closed her compact with a snap and regarded them both. "I'm not going to hide in anyone's backseat. I just want to have a calm discussion with a few of the Sinclair board members."
They were an odd bunch—Morgan, Chuck, and the group eating pizza rolls in the living room. It was Morgan who had been her first friend after Lucy had returned to South Carolina three years ago. And when Morgan had introduced Lucy to the Hobbits, Lucy had felt like she belonged for the first time in her life.
After graduating from college in Florida, Lucy had remained in the state working for the Department of Human Services. Three years on the job, and a routine visit had taken her to a home like Saving Grace. She had walked inside a caseworker, but walked out a woman with a purpose and an unmistakable call on her life. And even though she hadn't planned to return to Charleston, God had lined everything up and all but shoved her on the plane.
Glancing at her phone, Lucy checked the time. "I need to get going." She edged past her friends and into her small living room.
"Lucy, you're looking ravishing tonight." Sanjay, a fellow Hobbit, stood a little too close to her and visibly sniffed near her perfumed neck. By day, Sanjay worked in IT. But at least twice a month he put in overtime as Lucy's own harmless stalker.
"I can't stay." She smiled at the small assembly of friends around her. "I have ... a thing."
"I make a great date for"—Sanjay slowly lifted one dark brow—"things."
"Please reconsider, Lucy. Or at least let us go with you," Morgan said, elbowing Chuck.
"Uh, yeah." He sounded about as interested as Lucy would be in sports. "We'd love to go to your swanky party."
"No offense, guys, but you'll just get in my way." She tugged at the waist of her dress. It seemed to have shrunk since she last tried it on. "I have a strategy for tonight. I owe it to the girls to give this one last try, and for that I need to stay focused."
Sanjay was not the most energetic of suitors. "And my nearby hotness would be a distraction."
She stifled an eye roll and sidestepped him toward the door.
Morgan followed Lucy to the door. "Have you at least rehearsed what you're going to say?"
"Something along the lines of 'twelve young women will be homeless because of your decisions.'" Lucy tapped her phone. "I also thought I'd show them some pictures. Let them see the girls they're kicking to the streets."
Chuck nodded solemnly. "This moment totally calls for light sabers."
"You should've updated me on the donation situation before I all but told Marinell you had a bedroom waiting for her," Morgan said.
She couldn't think about that now. Tonight was about a solution.
It was times like these Lucy wished she could pick up the phone and call her mother. Lucy had been eighteen when she'd died, leaving a gaping hole in her heart. Sometimes she even let herself wonder what her life would be like if her father was still alive. Lucy had never even met him. She only had two photos of him, but she imagined he would've loved her. Provided them with a happy home. If he were alive right now, he'd probably invite her over for grilled steaks and give her loving advice over the smoke from his Weber grill.
"Let me pray for you—in case you don't make it back alive." Chuck threw an arm around her as he cleared his throat and found his youth-pastor voice. "Lord, we ask that you protect Lucy as she speaks with the board members. We ask for you to change their minds. And if that's not possible, we pray that you'd open a door for the home that only you can open. Oh, and that Lucy would stay calm. And not get arrested. Amen."
Lucy lifted her head. "I promise if I need any backup, I'll call."
"Go get 'em, girl." With his Big Mac body, Chuck wrapped all three of them in a group hug. "And may the force be with you."
* * *
Lucy's hands shook as she smoothed them over her little black dress, a taffeta number with beaded straps she'd found at a new resale shop near the mall. The classic A-line had a slenderizing effect and didn't seem to scream, "I'm allergic to working out!"
Okay, Lucy. Get your game face on. There is work to be done. A girls' home to save. Board members to harass. Lord, I seriously need some help here.
As she looked around the ballroom at the crème de la crème of South Carolina, she struggled to draw a deep breath. She was a cubic zirconium in a sea of diamonds.
Lucy wove through the crush of people, her mind spinning with thoughts of her girls, her money woes, and the latest Star Wars novel that patiently waited for her on her bedside table.
She turned at the nasally voice.
Ugh, not now. She didn't have time for this. "Hey, Bianca."
Excerpted from Save the Date by JENNY B. JONES Copyright © 2011 by Jenny B. Jones. 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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