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Afternoon sunlight filtered through the living-room windows of the trailer, dispelling the gloom but not the tight feeling of dread in Maggie Simmons's stomach. She felt it to the very core, twisting and wrenchinga six-year-old ache that had healed but left scars. She didn't want to be here, not alone, not when shadows drifted into the corners and every noise, even the slightest creak, sounded ominous.
Something scurried across the floor, taking cover under the couch. Maggie shrieked and jumped back, feeling silly little dance she had done when it ran past her.
The new tenant would have to deal with the old tenant, the one who probably lived somewhere inside the used plaid sofa the church had bought for the trailer some years ago, back when the place served as a parsonage for their pastor. The way Maggie saw it, the mouse had squatter's rights. The trailer had been empty for six months.
She walked to the back bedroom armed with a dust rag, broom and furniture polish.
Michael Carson. The new tenant. She had to stop thinking of him as a tenant renting from the church. He planned on being more than that. She bristled when she thought back on the conversation with Pastor Banks, the one where he had told her that Michael Carson would be attending their church, and that eventually he would like to help with the after-school project.
"What are you snarling about?"
Maggie jerked back from the dresser she was dusting and turned. She didn't have to guess how her friend, Faith, had found her. Maggie's grandmother would have told her, and probably would have even asked Faith to check on her.
"I'm not snarling. I'm cleaning. It never makesme happy. And you shouldn't sneak in and scare a person like that."
"You're a clean freak. Of course cleaning makes you happy.You like to send those dust bunnies on the run. I think you're snarling because your granny has some awesome fried chicken on the stove, and she invited me to eat with the two of you. And you know I can eat more than you."
"Yes, that's it. I'm snarling because my best friend is a bottomless pit with a stinkingly fast metabolism."
"All part of my charm." Faith grabbed the broom and started to sweep the hallway. "And you're upset because you are going to have an uninvited guest in your life. He's suspect, I'm telling you that much. I wouldn't trust him at all."
Maggie shook her head and walked away. Faith followed. "It isn't that I don't trust him." Maggie dusted the ceiling light in the living room, sending dust and cobwebs floating to the floor to be swept up later. She brushed a strand of web off her cheek and blew at the dust floating in front of her face. "I just want the best thing for the after-school program. We've managed to get the neighborhood kids off the street. We're teaching them to care about others, and to have goals."
Kids could come to the church after school, knowing that someone would be there for them. They were given snacks, homework help and roles in community projects so that they could learn to help others. In the summer she planned boating, hiking and other activities to keep them out of trouble.
Members of the church had even volunteered to mentor and teach the kids different skills that they might not learn at home. One taught sewing, another cooking, one gentleman taught the boys about cars and another taught gardening.
It was about more than going to church. It showed them the importance of fellowship and helping others. They were growing.
Years ago Maggie had been one of these kids, she knew what they needed. She wanted to be the person who was there for them.
Faith walked up behind her, resting her chin on Maggie's shoulder. "It'll work out, Mags. I know this is hard for you, letting this guy innot just into your ministry, but into your life. But even you've said that you needed help. Maybe this is God's"
"Plan? Yeah, maybe so. Don't worry, I'm not going to run him off. I'll give him the chance he deserves."
"You're a strong woman, Maggie.You'll get through this." Maggie nodded and walked to the door. She expected to see them driving up at any moment. Pastor Banks had driven the few hours to the state prison in central Missouri to pick up Michael because he had asked his family for one day to get settled before seeing them. It was nearly five o'clock. It wouldn't be much longer. "I'll be back in a sec. I have a cooler of bottled water in my car. I thought maybe you'd need something to drink, and I figured you forgot to bring something." Faith slid past her and out the front door.
Maggie watched Faith leave. Faith had asked her the same question as Pastor Banks. What bothered her about this? Michael Carson's past didn't upset her. Most people had a past. Not everyone had made mistakes as big as his, but hadn't they all made mistakes?
It wasn't his past. It was hers that made this so difficult. Her memories of a mother who could never seem to quit using drugs, followed by Maggie's own years of rebellion, were the real problem. Choices she had made, wrong decisionsthose things haunted her. A night that she couldn't reclaim added to the heap. A dark road, a guy she had trusted, pushing her to go where she hadn't wanted to go.
She walked away from the door, her heart racing as the memory continued to flash through her mind, an instant replay that had dulled with time but hadn't faded.
Greg had taken what she hadn't wanted to give. She had trusted him, even considered that they might have a future together. Their future ended that night, sending her life on a completely different path.
The door to the trailer rattled as it opened. Maggie jumped and turned, Faith's red head peeked in. She smiled and held up the cooler.
"Relax, it's just me."
"I knew that."
Faith carried the cooler into the kitchen. "Nice place."
"He doesn't have to live here." Maggie took the bottle of water that her friend held out to her. "His parents have a home in River Oaks Estates. On the ninth hole of the golf course, I think."
"Claws, my friend? That isn't like you." Faith opened her bottle of water. "Sit down with me."
"I need to finish sweeping."
Faith backed up to the counter and with a hop she was sitting, the bottle of water next to her. "Why clean it for him if you dislike him so much?"
Maggie shrugged. "Because I'm a nice person. And because I don't dislike him. I don't know him."
"You're too sweet, Mags. And you gotta admire that he would want to live here, and not with his parents."
"Yes, that's something to admire."
"So" Faith looked down at the bottle of water she had picked up "so maybe he isn't another rich guy who takes what he wants without thinking of the consequences. Isn't that what you're thinking? You think he's using his money to get what he wants. He's out of prison, has a second chance, and now he's going to walk in here and make it all better by doing a good deed."
Maggie looked out the window, concentrating on a sparrow that had landed on the railing of the deck. Was Faith right? Maggie sipped from her bottle of water, shrugging as she turned to face her friend.
"Thanks for that, now I really feel like a heel. Yes, maybe that is what I've been thinking. I haven't even met the guy but already I've put him in the box with other people who have let me down. I'll work through it."
"Money or not, his life isn't going to be a walk in the park."
"Life rarely is a walk in the park." Maggie smiled at her friend. "But I guess we both know that, right?"
Faith was a cancer survivor. Maggie had survived her father's abandonment before her birth, her mother's death and Greg. They had made a pact a long time ago to not dwell on darker days, but to move forward. But sometimes that was easier said than done. Sometimes life tossed in a few obstacles, just to keep them on their toes.
Maggie wanted to think that Michael Carson was a temporary obstacle. He would get settled, get back on his feet and move on.
"We're both survivors, Maggie. Which is why, even though it hurts, you're going to give Michael Carson a chance."
"Yes, I'm going to give him a chance. Mercy, isn't that a key ingredient to living our faith?"
"You got it, sweetie. We all need mercy, a little forgiveness and a second, sometimes a third, chance."
Maggie smiled, the appropriate response. She had received enough mercy, and more than one second chance of her own. But Michael Carson, this faceless entity, in her life and in her ministry?
"Faith, I'm fine. You don't have to babysit me. It's been six years. I'm nearly twenty-seven, which makes me a grown-up. I'm not afraid to be here alone."
"I know, but I want to be here for you." Faith smiled, her eyes sparkling with humor.
Maggie got it then, and she felt like an idiot for not getting it sooner. "You're not here for me. You're here because your curiosity got the best of you. You just want to see him."
Faith put a hand on her chest, her eyes widening in an overly sincere fashion. "Mags, I can't believe you think that of me. Honey, I'm hurt."
"And I'm right." "Okay, I admit that idle curiosity might have something to do with my being here. I'm a writer, you know, I do like to study people. And I do care about you."
"The world is your " For the life of her, she couldn't think of the word. "Whatever."
"Stage?" Faith supplied. "No, not really. I think that would make me an actress." She hopped down from the counter. "Let's get some fresh air. This place smells like pine cleaner and bug spray. And I think I just saw a mouse."
"Yeah, I think he lives under the couch. Let me grab my purse and we can go."
Faith's hand on her arm stopped her. Maggie turned, catching the compassionate look in Faith's green eyes.
"Maggie, remember, he's not Greg, and he isn't your dad."
"Yes, I know. I'm not judging him, Faith. I know all about making mistakes."
A car engine rumbled to a stop in the driveway. Maggie looked out the window, Faith nudging in right behind her. Pastor Banks got out of the car first. Michael Carson followed, exiting from the passenger side.
Maggie pushed aside the lecturing voice inside her mind, the one that told her she was behaving like a teenager. Faith whistled softly, obviously not getting the same mental lecture.
"You are in big, big trouble, Maggie Simmons." Maggie shrugged off the warning as Michael Carson reached into the back of the car and pulled out a battered duffel bag. He turned to stare at the trailer, his stance casual, but his shoulders looking tense beneath a snug, dusky-blue sweater, a white T-shirt showing at the neck. He didn't pose a threat to her. He looked like other men she knew. His jeans were faded, his brown hair a little too long; he didn't bother her at all.
He didn't bother her until he walked through the door, taking up too much space in the narrow room, and slamming headlong into her resolve with hazel eyes that connected directly with hers.
She saw then that Michael Carson wasn't at all what she had expected, or told herself he would be. He wasn't a hardened criminal. He didn't have cold eyes. He had eyes that challenged her to doubt him.