The Welcome Committee of Butternut Creek: A Novelby Jane Myers Perrine
Upon his arrival, Butternut Creek Christian Church's newly-minted minister is met by a welcome committee led by Miss Birdie and her friend Mercedes, a.k.a. "the Widows." Their first order of business, to educate him on how things should be done, quickly gives way to a campaign to find him a wife.
When their matchmaking efforts fizzle, the Widows turn to… See more details below
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Upon his arrival, Butternut Creek Christian Church's newly-minted minister is met by a welcome committee led by Miss Birdie and her friend Mercedes, a.k.a. "the Widows." Their first order of business, to educate him on how things should be done, quickly gives way to a campaign to find him a wife.
When their matchmaking efforts fizzle, the Widows turn to another new bachelor. Amputee and Afghan vet Sam simply wants to be left alone-- a desire that's as good as a red flag to the Widows! Soon they're scheming to pair him up with Willow, his beautiful physical therapist, a divorced mother of two who is afraid of commitment, Perrine's small-town tale is a big-time triumph of gentle humor, fast-paced plot, and wonderfully engaging characters.
[G]entle, funny, romantic, and honest new series.... The veteran author and ordained minister has a sure eye for smalltown church drama, as well as the dynamics of life in a town where everyone knows your business. Perrine does a fine job blending small and large story lines, portraying details and dilemmas of regular folks, and offering spiritual messages from real life. This is a delightful first volume in what promises to be a wonderful series."
In the first book of a new series, Perrine visits a small town in Texas filled with quirky residents. Fun characters and a storyline that will hit close to home for a number of readers make this novel appealing to a wide variety of people."RT Book Reviews"
A warm, witty, wonderful book. I loved it, and you will, too.Susan Mallery, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author"
Funny, touching, and charming, The Welcome Committee of Butternut Creek is a slice of small-town life at its heartwarming best!"Colleen Thompson, Award-winning author"
Perrine has penned a charming, heartwarming story with endearing characters and a lovely small town. I adored Butternut Creek and its residents."Vicky Dreiling, author of How to Marry a Duke"
Wow! Jane Myers Perrine has penned an amazing story with heart, hope, and humor. She created a setting with such unique and spunky characters that you can't help but fall in love with the people and the place. Grab a comfortable chair, and the book and get swept away to Butternut Creek, a quaint town where friendship, romance, and laughter are abundant. Perrine has a beautiful knack of storytelling and creating unforgettable characters that makes this series a must read."Christie Craig, author of Hotter In Texas, the humorous romantic suspense series released by Grand Central/Forever"
I couldn't resist. The Widows' scheming had me grinning, and I loved how all the quirky, lovable characters got my mind off my worries."Lorraine Sullivan, Associate Editor of First for Women"
...a down-to-earth, life-like story that everyone can relate to, and the characters were well-developed with depth and great emotions. The romance is sweet and spiritual. A truly extraordinary story."Coffee Time Reviews, on Deep in the Heart
"With small-town charm and the perfect amount of humor, Perrine's second novel set in Butternut Creek is sweet and engaging."Romantic Times on The Matchmakers of Butternut Creek
Read an Excerpt
The Welcome Committee of Butternut CreekA Novel
By Perrine, Jane Myers
FaithWordsCopyright © 2012 Perrine, Jane Myers
All right reserved.
Pick up PDF of title and half title pages, in the components area of Project Components
From the desk of
Adam Joseph Jordan, MDiv.
I’m a sad burden for Birdie MacDowell.
Over the years, she’s often told me that.
Miss Birdie has been a member of Butternut Creek Christian Church since—well, as long as anyone can remember. Certainly long before I showed up. I’m not sure at what age one becomes a pillar of the church, but Miss Birdie has been one for at least forty years. I think she probably took over running the church while she was on the cradle roll. For that reason, I often think of her as both Miss Birdie and, in my mind only, the pillar.
The cause of her distress is and always has been my ministry, plagued by what she calls my sad ways and errors as well as what she describes as either disastrous decisions or, less catastrophically, the poor choices on my part. She tells me at least once a day, and several times on Sunday, that her ability to put up with all my failings plus my inclination to use incomplete and run-on sentences have equipped her for sainthood.
Not that Miss Birdie hasn’t attempted to change me since the day I arrived ten years ago, to—in her words—help me avoid mistakes, both spiritual and social and, I’m sure she’d add, physical. Probably grammatical as well. She believes, she says, that this is her mission, the reason God placed her in Butternut Creek at this time: to train this imperfect fellow God has left in her care. Miss Birdie takes that responsibility seriously.
Two or three times a week she drops in to see what I’m doing, to give me excellent words of advice, which I promptly either reject or forget. Not that it makes any difference which. If I could remember her advice, I’d reject it, and vice versa because it doesn’t meld with my beliefs about what is best for the church and best for the congregation.
That propensity to think for myself is what makes her unhappy, makes her long for the imminent arrival of her crown and halo instead of the eternal martyrdom of having to put up with a young and still—in her opinion—very inexperienced minister.
She often bemoans the fact that the elders didn’t heed her exhortation and call a man far more experienced and godly than I. Instead they called me, inexperienced and impulsive as I am, because I was all they could afford. A more experienced minister would be called to a larger church in the city. A married minister would expect to be able to feed his family on his salary.
And so I then became the thorn in Miss Birdie’s side, her cross to bear, and her hope for everlasting salvation.
That relationship, in great part, is what this book is about. But it’s also about what happened during my first year in Butternut Creek: the people in town, their joys and burdens and everyday dilemmas, death and sorrow and love, the stories my friends and members of the congregation have told me and even the gossip I’ve heard, as much as I attempt to avoid it.
I dedicate this book to the wonderful people of Butternut Creek with my love and admiration, and in the desperate hope that someday Miss Birdie will forgive me for my many errors.
On a blazing-hot June afternoon in the middle of a clogged US 183 in Austin, Texas, Adam Jordan clenched his hands on the steering wheel of the stalled car and considered the situation. As a newly ordained minister, he probably should pray, but he felt certain the drivers of the vehicles backed up behind him would prefer him to do something less spiritual.
The day before, he’d headed west from Lexington, Kentucky, toward Central Texas, a twenty-hour, thousand-mile trip, in a car held together by his little bit of mechanical skill and a lot of prayer. Sadly, on Tuesday, the Lord looked away for a moment as Adam attempted to navigate the crowded tangle of highways that is Austin. The radiator coughed steam as the old vehicle stopped in the center lane of more traffic than he’d ever seen gathered together in midafternoon. Did rush hour start at three o’clock here? He soon learned that rush hour on US 183 could last all day and much of the night, because the city grew faster than its highway system.
He got out of the car and began pushing what had once been a brilliantly blue Honda across two lanes of barely moving traffic and onto the shoulder amid the honks and the screeches of highway noise and curses of angry drivers. If his defective directional skills hadn’t led him on a fifty-mile detour into South Austin, the pitiful old vehicle might have made it to Butternut Creek—but they had and the car hadn’t.
As happens to everyone and everything over the years, the Honda had faded and frayed until no one could tell what it once had been. The identifying hood ornament had long since fallen off, and the paint was a crackled and blistered gray. And white. With rust peering through it. But it usually ran.
Adam’s first thought was to abandon the heap right there, but he’d heard Texas had laws against that. Instead, he called Howard Crampton, an elder of the church and the chair of the search committee that had called Adam.
“Hey, Howard,” he said when the elder picked up the phone. “I’m stuck in Austin on 183.”
For a moment, Howard said nothing. Finally he asked, “Who is this?”
So much for believing the church breathlessly awaited his arrival. “Adam Jordan.” When silence greeted that, Adam added, “The new minister.”
“Hey, Adam. Good to hear from you. Sorry I didn’t recognize you at first. I’m in the middle of a bank audit and my brain’s filled with numbers. What can I do you for?”
“My car broke down on 183, north of something called the Mopac.”
“Know exactly where that is. I’ll send a tow truck to pick you up.”
“All the way from Butternut Creek?”
“Not too far. Sit tight.”
As if he could do anything else.
And that’s how Adam entered Butternut Creek: sitting in the cab of the tow truck, chatting with Rex, the driver, about fishing and hunting, neither of which he did back then, with his car rattling on the flatbed behind the two men. Although his disreputable arrival didn’t signal a propitious beginning, he fell in love with the town immediately.
They entered on Farm-to-Market—FM—road 1212A, which passed between the Whataburger and the H-E-B. Rex pointed out the football stadium and high school about a hundred yards to the north and up the hill. Then the residential section began, big Victorians shoved jowl-to-jowl with bungalows and ranch houses, split levels alongside columned Colonials, interspersed with apartments and motels. Here and there, large, beautifully manicured lawns stretched out, some decorated with a gazebo or fountain while in a yard next to them appeared an occasional pink flamingo or enormous live oak trees dripping with Spanish moss.
Everyone waved as Rex chugged along Main Street. Adam waved back, instantly charmed by the town, by the people who smiled a greeting, by the sturdy brick buildings with Victorian trim and enormous old trees standing tall and full and casting shade and shadows across the lawns and the streets.
“Town square just over on the other side of the courthouse, that way, Padre.” Rex nodded to the right. “I’m fixin’ to leave you and your car at the church. I’ll help unload it. Don’t look like you’ve got a lot of stuff.”
As Rex turned the steering wheel, the truck lumbered into the church parking lot. “You leave your keys in the car and I’ll pick it up later.”
Adam swiveled to look at the driver. “Leave the keys in my car?”
“Padre, you’re in Butternut Creek. No one steals cars here.” He glanced back into the rearview mirror. “Especially not that one.”
While Rex lowered the car onto the asphalt, the new minister turned to study the parsonage.
His eyes lifted, up and up. He’d seen Victorians but never one quite so big. When the pulpit committee had come to Lexington to interview him, they’d described the house, but he hadn’t realized the massive size of the pale yellow edifice: three stories, each six or eight windows across, doors and shutters of a dark green, every inch of surface covered with painted wooden curlicues of a dark purplish color—maroon?—plus newel posts and bric-a-brac and, bringing it all together, gingerbread. What in the world would he do with all that space?
As he studied the turret and the bay windows and everything else on the house, he felt sure the parishioners expected him to multiply and be fruitful, producing enough babies to fill every bedroom and all the children’s Sunday school classes. He shook his head. Bad planning not to have brought a wife with him.
Sadly for the hopes of the congregation and all those empty rooms, no prospect for a bride had presented herself over the last few years, not since his fiancée Laurel dumped him after she decided she didn’t want to marry a minister. The teas and worship services and good works, she’d said, weren’t really her thing.
The church management professor at the seminary had warned the newly minted and still-single ministers not to date a young woman in the congregation. It could cause jealousy. It would cause discomfort if they parted. Gossip could ruin a minister’s reputation.
Although warned by the professor, Adam had ignored the problem being a single minister presented several months ago. He’d known a few women interested in marrying a preacher, but they were in Kentucky. Even they wouldn’t covet that position enough to follow him to Texas. Besides, he’d always felt a little uncomfortable with the forward women who made their determination to marry a minister clear. Not that he felt comfortable with any young woman. That personality flaw probably doomed the possibility of, like Abraham, his fathering a multitude of nations or even two or three children to fill those rooms.
Maybe the extra space could be used as classrooms for Sunday school? A library? A boardinghouse to bring in a little additional income for the church?
Adam reached forward to try the front door. It opened right up. Getting used to all this trust in small-town Texas was going to be hard. Would he insult someone if he locked the door?
Inside, his footsteps echoed. As he walked, he looked around the great expanse of hardwood floor, the huge and beautifully curved staircase leading up to a second story, the empty parlors on each side of a hallway that led back and back into unknown areas he’d explore later. The silence crushed in on him, and he felt even more alone than he had when his parents left him at boarding school years earlier.
“Grab a box, Padre,” Rex shouted from outside, interrupting his reflections.
“Coming.” Adam ran back out to the car and flipped the trunk open. Within a few minutes, the two men had unloaded the car and lugged everything inside.
When Rex left, the sound of his work boots thudding across the polished floor, Adam glanced at the tiny heap of his possessions in the middle of what looked like a family room or maybe a dining area, and then began to explore. First he ambled back to the front porch, which looked as if it surrounded the entire house. His neighbors to the right and across the street lived in similarly huge Victorians. Then he turned to the left to study the beautiful brick church just north across the parking lot. Huge live oaks dripping with Spanish moss shaded the green lawn. Strength and love and serenity seemed to flow from the steepled roof and huge white columns. How could he have been so blessed to do the Lord’s work here, in this perfect place?
Of course, he hadn’t met Miss Birdie yet.
Adam’s college days and nights had been spent in a dorm room. During seminary, he occupied the furnished parsonage of his student church up near Maysville, Kentucky, a town founded by Daniel Boone and famous as the birthplace of Rosemary Clooney. Because, as an adult, he’d lived in furnished spaces, he possessed no furniture: not a card table, not a desk chair, not a bed. Oh, he did have a sleeping bag from the youth retreats and church camp, a television that he hoped to hook up to cable soon, and a computer with the sermons he’d preached over the past three years. He’d shipped all his books ahead. All those boxes should be stacked in the minister’s study at the church. Other than that, all his earthly possessions were in a couple of boxes and two ancient suitcases.
He studied the pile of his things and shook his head. This little bit to fill a huge parsonage.
Miss Birdie was horrified when she brought him dinner that evening.
“You’re Adam Joseph Jordan?” Without identifying herself, she strutted into the barren desolation of the parsonage like a five-star general inspecting her troops. The fact that only one slightly terrified man stood before her didn’t lessen her resolve.
“Yes, Miss Birdie.” Adam knew who she was. Howard had warned him, told him how to address her and how to act in her presence. In that moment, he realized Howard’s words of caution, the admonitions Adam had laughed off, were disturbingly true.
“Well, I swan.” She looked way up at Adam. “You are a tall, skinny boy, aren’t you?”
At six-four and 160, Adam had been tall and skinny as long as he could remember. Most people didn’t comment on it.
She studied his face and height for a few more seconds. “With a name like Adam Joseph Jordan, guess you didn’t have much choice but to become a minister.” Then she took off across the entry hall. Her tiny feet, shod in tie-up shoes with fat rubber soles, squished across the hardwood floor before she stopped and stood between what Adam had labeled as two large parlors.
She wore her white hair in a no-nonsense, almost military style: short and parted on the right. No curls, no waves. Straight with a hint of bangs brushed to the left. Her chest held as high as a proud robin’s, she turned to look at the empty space. Every inch of her body showed disdain as she inspected the area. How could such a tiny, thin woman give off such as air of authority, control, and doom?
How could she intimidate a man more than a foot taller than she? But she did. Adam cringed inside.
Chagrin oozed across her features. “Tut, tut, tut.” She made a quick turn in the middle of the room to glare at the new preacher, then closed her eyes and shook her head. When she finally opened her eyes, she glared at him again.
“What kind of minister… what kind of person has no furniture at all?”
Adam smiled at her in an effort to ingratiate himself. She didn’t smile back. He’d disappointed her, as he figured he would many more times.
Did she expect Adam to be ashamed of his lack of furnishings? To look mortified? He didn’t because he wasn’t, but Miss Birdie wouldn’t understand. Generations separated them. She’d probably never heard of a futon. When he didn’t flinch—at least, not outwardly—or apologize for his shortcomings, she said, “Hmph.”
He’d rapidly learn that she expressed some of her most powerful comments with sounds.
With a quick turn, she marched down the short hallway and into the room where his few possessions resided. She glared at the pile of stuff.
“What’s this?” She pointed at his pitiful collection of belongings. “You really don’t have any furniture? None?”
“I have a television and a computer and a… that’s about it.” Instantly recognizing that his words didn’t satisfy her a bit, Adam added, “I’ll have to work on that.” He again attempted to disarm her with a smile but learned in a moment that Miss Birdie was not disarmable, especially when the truth lay so heavily on her side. “Treasure in heaven, you know,” he added.
Ignoring the biblical reference, she said, “Where am I supposed to put this?” She nodded toward the quilted tote that dangled from her arm and emitted a mouthwatering aroma. “Where are you going to eat it?” She tilted her head and squinted at him. “Are you the kind of man who stands at the kitchen counter to eat?”
Yes, Adam was, although he hadn’t realized it qualified him as part of a decadent class of humanity. After disappointing her about the furniture, he couldn’t confess he was guilty of what she so clearly considered a lack of proper etiquette, of gentility and acceptable rearing. She would have turned, he feared, and taken that dish away. The aroma of what she’d prepared called to him, made his stomach growl after a ten-hour drive without stopping for meals because he’d been afraid the old car would conk out if it got a rest and a chance to think about how much farther it had to go.
“Oh, no. I plan to get some furniture and sit at the table. For the moment, I’ll have to stand at the kitchen counter to eat.” He nodded his head, then shook it, not sure which action was required to respond to her question. “Only for a few days.”
“Don’t suppose you have a bed?”
He shook his head.
She took a step forward and scrutinized him. Adam felt judged and found wanting. No hope of redemption existed. Miss Birdie’s expression didn’t even hold out the promise of grace. “Do you have a towel? A bar of soap?”
“Soap. Yes, I have soap.” Glad to have finally passed one of her tests, he pointed toward a box and a small suitcase. “And probably a couple of towels.” He waved at a tattered suitcase held together with a belt. “Somewhere.”
With a deep sigh—one that Adam felt came from the very depths of her soul and left no doubt what she thought about this feckless young man who stood to eat and yet had the audacity to undertake the task of becoming her spiritual adviser—she placed the dish on the kitchen counter, turned, and squish-squished out of the house. Without a Good-bye or a Blessings or a Welcome to Butternut Creek, she left.
After she slammed the front door, Adam discovered a spoon and plastic tumbler in one of his boxes and was able to eat some of the delicious chicken spaghetti right out of the dish. Still, he kept checking the entrance hall in case Miss Birdie might fling the front door open and shout Aha! when she found out he hadn’t even bothered to find a plate because he was a rude and boorish young man, as most twenty-five-year-old bachelors he knew were. The fear of her appearance made locking the door seem like a good idea.
He put the leftovers away in the refrigerator provided by the church. Inside were a carton of milk, another of orange juice, butter, and a dozen eggs, all left by some helpful person. If he could find a frying pan, he could fix breakfast in the morning.
Over the next few hours, more members of the congregation stopped by. They smiled and welcomed Adam and brought cakes and bread and vegetables and fried chicken and a brisket.
Once that slowed down, Adam considered unpacking, but he had no hangers and none had been left in the tiny coat closet. Probably some hung in the huge number of closets upstairs, but he didn’t feel the call to explore tonight. All those large empty rooms would probably depress him. He left everything in the suitcases, boxes, and plastic bags. Surely everyone—except Miss Birdie—would understand.
Next he called his parents, who’d retired to London after his father sold his company for gazillions of dollars. It was very early morning there, but his mother was glad to hear he’d arrived safely and promised they’d visit soon. His father expressed amazement that Butternut Creek had telephone service.
Tomorrow he’d email his sister in Kenya. Not that she’d worry. Traveling between refugee camps as she did was a lot more dangerous than the trip through Tennessee and Arkansas he’d just made.
Having completed everything he needed to take care of right away, at nine thirty he rolled out the sleeping bag, plugged in the television, and searched for a baseball game. Unfortunately, only one station came in, a feed from Austin transmitted from Llano. The picture was snowy, and the sound faded in and out. The problem constituted another introduction to the difference between city and rural life, but he didn’t mind. He listened to the local news and watched the blurry rerun of a sitcom before deciding to go to bed. Or, to be more exact, to go to sleeping bag.
Filled with gratitude to be here, he said his prayers and dozed off as soon as he finished.
After the long, exhausting trip, he slept well.
The insistent ringing of the doorbell started at nine o’clock. Adam shook his head in a futile effort to clear it, slipped into jeans and pulled on a T-shirt. When he opened the door, two muscular men stood there, carrying a sofa between them. Adam stepped back and watched as they brought it in without a word. They settled it against the wall of the room where he’d slept, then headed back out to a large truck with hilton furniture painted on the side.
“What are you doing?” he asked as the furniture came inside. “This isn’t mine. I didn’t order it and I can’t pay for this,” Adam attempted to explain as they carried in a large dining room table. They didn’t stop.
Like a yappy little dog, he ran after them asking where all this had come from.
“You’re in the wrong house,” he said but the men continued to ignore him. Taciturn and focused, they kept unloading and placing the furniture where they thought it appropriate: a recliner, a coffee table, that dining room table with six hefty chairs, a queen-size bed—well, almost everything a bachelor minister needed to set up housekeeping except, of course, that big bed they’d taken upstairs, which suggested marriage at some time down the road.
During this entire time, the men didn’t pay the slightest bit of attention to him. When they had finished, Rodolfo—the name embroidered on his shirt—handed Adam a clipboard and pen. “Please sign, Pastor.”
He took the invoice and read it, attempting to find out the source of the furniture and where it should have been delivered. There was nothing on that page except the word widows and his address. Well, not the real address because, as he later learned, no one knew one another’s numerical addresses. This house was described as “the parsonage next to the Christian Church.”
“I can’t pay for this.”
“It’s taken care of.”
“Everything’s been paid for?”
“Uh-huh.” Rodolfo took the page Adam had signed, then tore off and handed the minister a copy. Followed by his crew, he left.
“Who paid for it?” Adam ran along behind the crew.
“You’re sure you’re in the right place?”
“This is the parsonage, right? Next to the Christian Church?” He turned back and pointed at both. At Adam’s nod, he and the other men got into the truck.
“Who are the widows?” Adam shouted as they drove away. When the truck disappeared down the highway, he wandered inside to look around the newly furnished rooms.
Where had all this come from?
The only person he could think of who knew he didn’t have furniture was Miss Birdie. Well, the other church members who’d dropped by must have noticed the lack, but they hadn’t seemed to mind. Perhaps they believed the rest of his stuff would be delivered later. Or they might have realized that young ministers seldom had money and wouldn’t have a great number of worldly goods.
But Miss Birdie had cared deeply about the inadequacy. She’d taken it almost like an insult to her personally and to the church that had called him. As he walked through the parsonage on the hardwood floors he bet the ladies had buffed earlier in the week, he remembered her deep disappointment in his lack of possessions and her sharp words.
Now a sofa sat against the north wall of the larger parlor, a great green-plaid beast with soft pillows. He’d have a place to sit and watch television. He sat down. Comfortable and exactly long enough to take a nap during a slow ball game.
Miss Birdie wore comfortable shoes and inexpensive clothing. Surely she didn’t have enough money to buy all this. Was Adam wrong about that, too?
Only a few minutes later while he admired the rest of the furnishings, the doorbell sounded again. When he opened it, a white-haired gentleman stood there.
“Jesse Hardin.” He grasped Adam’s hand in a huge hand. “Got a card table for you.” As he dragged the table inside, Jesse said, “My wife and I own a farm outside town. Do you like to ride horses?”
“Well, I’m from Kentucky so I should,” Adam began. “But I don’t.”
“Well, if you want to give it a try, give me a call.”
A few minutes after Jesse left, Howard Crampton dropped by with two folding chairs and put them in the breakfast nook with the card table.
“Great cowboy hat,” Adam said, noticing the wide-brimmed hat the elder wore.
“Son.” Howard’s expression was someplace between a smile and a frown. “I’m going to teach you a little something about Texas. Don’t ever call this a cowboy hat. You could insult some good ol’ boy who might take exception, physically, to your sentiments. This”—he pointed to his head—“is my Stetson. Some men prefer a Resistol, but real Texans wear Stetsons.”
Adam nodded. “Thank you, sir.” He dropped his gaze. When he did, he noticed Howard wore cowboy boots, too, with intricate tooling on the toe, but Adam sure wasn’t going to ask about those. Instead he asked a completely different question, the one that really bothered him. “Howard, who are the widows?”
“Don’t worry about that.” The elder shook his head. “You’ll find out soon enough. Relax today, get settled.”
Before he could ask more, Howard sprinted out.
Now Adam really worried.
After Maudie Adams left, a set of towels hung over the bars in both upstairs bathrooms, the bed was made, and more linens were folded in a closet. Later that afternoon, two high school football players lugged in an enormous rustic oak armoire, which they settled against the wall opposite the sofa. Adam’s little portable television sat in splendor inside.
He had furniture. An abundance of furniture. More than he’d ever owned or thought he’d possess. The sight of his parlor and the new furniture filled him with a feeling of comfort, security, and joy. Even if they were temporary, even if the furnishings belonged here, stayed in the parsonage for the next minister of Butternut Creek, the sight of this plenty and a self-indulgent pride of ownership filled Adam with such an agreeable warmth that he struggled to force back that unholy and impious sentiment and attempted to refocus on the spiritual.
That not quite accomplished, he wandered onto the front porch and settled on the swing, pushing back with his feet a couple of times until the movement became established. A soft breeze dried the perspiration he’d worked up from watching those fine new belongings being brought in.
He looked out across the wide green yard he’d need to mow soon. Then his gaze again turned toward the church with the tall pillars in front, two on each side of the massive front door that looked as if it could have been part of the Arc of the Covenant. His eyes climbed the spire to the cross atop the steeple.
On that lovely, gentle evening, he whispered a verse from Psalms: “I give thanks to You, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify Your name forever.”
The beautiful town wrapped itself around Adam, enveloped him in peace while the pale blue of the sky relaxed and refreshed him as the last rays of the sun warmed the air. The wonders of creation filled Adam with awe as day became night.
“All is right with Your world, dear Lord.”
And it was.
Yes, it was and it still is.
Birdie’s feet hurt.
But pain wasn’t the worst of her worries. Neither was the certainty that the new minister was a disaster. No, her biggest concern was money. Actually the lack of it.
She glared at the back of the last customer as he strolled out of the diner. He’d left her a quarter and a dime. Thirty-five cents on a seven-dollar order. She shoved the tip in her pocket and balanced his dirty dishes on her arm.
The lunch crowd was getting stingier and stingier. Due to the uncertainty at the asphalt plant, the town’s biggest employer, fewer people ate out and those who did left smaller tips. With two teenage granddaughters to raise on her salary and tips and the payments from her husband’s Social Security, eking by was difficult. Sadly, eking was the best she could do. She needed new shoes if she continued to spend six hours a day on her feet, but couldn’t buy them now, not with school starting in a couple of months, not with the girls’ expenses.
She dumped the dishes in the plastic bin and rolled it into the kitchen, then returned to wipe down all the counters and tables. That finished, she pulled out her cell to call Mercedes Rivera, her lifelong friend, who had a break at work now.
“The new minister is a disaster.” Birdie spoke into the cell as she settled in one of the booths. “I don’t know what to think of the man. He’s so darned young.” She knew her friend would disagree. That’s what she always did, but Mercedes disagreed courteously.
“Now, now, we all have to start someplace. He’ll learn through experience.”
“I don’t want a minister to learn his job by practicing on me. I want a minister with an established connection with God.”
“Stop complaining, Bird. I swan, you’re getting so grumpy.”
Birdie didn’t respond. If she said what she wanted to, she’d just prove Mercedes right, again, so she didn’t say a word.
“Think of him as a novice,” Mercedes said. “Someone who will benefit from your influence.”
Birdie snorted. Mercedes had learned years earlier—back in the toddlers’ class at church when she’d attempted to use the purple crayon Birdie wanted—not to confront her directly. Now Mercedes attempted to lead Birdie.
“We’re not Catholic,” Birdie snapped. “We don’t deal with novices.”
“Then an apprentice. You’ll get him in shape. You know you will.”
Birdie leaned back against the high back of the booth and sighed. “I’ve got a lot going on with the girls and work. You know, I’m not a spring chick. I may be too old to train him.”
She knew Mercedes struggled not to laugh—or be heard laughing over the phone—at the statement. Her friend was always polite.
After a pause, Mercedes said, “Bird, Bird, Bird, as if you’d allow something as insignificant as being busy or growing old to turn you away from your duty.”
The problem with a lifelong friend was that she knew Birdie far too well.
“Rodolfo told me the preacher was really pleased with the new furniture.” Mercedes changed the subject as she always did when Birdie was upset. “Nice of you to bull… to persuade people to donate.”
“I know you don’t like to be thanked for good works, but it was nice of you.”
“Hated to see the house bare,” Birdie explained. “He didn’t have a thing, not a stick of furniture, nothing worthy of that beautiful old parsonage. I couldn’t stand it.”
“All right. You got the community together to provide furniture only to preserve the architectural integrity of the house.” Mercedes didn’t contain the laugh this time. “I should know better than to compliment you for doing something nice.”
Birdie glanced at the clock. Nearly two thirty. She needed to get home if she wanted to see the girls. “Talk to you later.” She folded the phone and stuck it in her pocket.
As usual during the summer, the girls had slept in this morning. Bree, a junior, had volleyball practice until six and Mac, a sophomore, would be marching with the band until five thirty. If she hurried home, she could see them before they took off.
Her daughter had given the girls silly names: MacKenzee and Bre’ana. Whoever heard of putting an apostrophe in the middle of a name or identical vowels at the end? Birdie had given her daughter a sensible name. Martha. Martha Patricia. Had Martha lived up to such an honest, trustworthy name? No, at seventeen and without finishing school, she’d run off with a no-good man who’d deserted her when she got pregnant the second time. Everyone had told her he was all hat and no cattle, but Martha wouldn’t listen.
Martha, irresponsible Martha who’d always needed a man to take care of her and couldn’t take care of anyone else, spoiled by her father and disciplined by her mother, had come home to have the baby. She’d disappeared only weeks after MacKenzee’s birth, as Birdie had suspected she would. Birdie had ended up raising two girls when she was looking to retire, but what else could she do?
The community had shortened the girls’ names to Bree and Mac. With that, every trace of Martha disappeared from Butternut Creek except the memories of her miserable mistakes and her terrible grades in the permanent record of the school district.
All that had happened a few months after Elmer’s death. The double loss about killed her. Not that she let anyone know, but inside, deep inside, she’d felt as if she didn’t have anything left but a future of pain, exhaustion, and sorrow. But the girls, they’d pulled her out of that. They’d brought new meaning to her life, as well as worry and fatigue.
After she finished wiping down the last table, Birdie shouted, “Bye, Roy,” to the manager as she left the diner. He waved, then went back to separating the checks and credit card receipts.
After the two-block walk to the bungalow she and Elmer had bought forty years earlier, she entered and shouted, “I’m home, girls.”
“Hey, Grandma.” Mac came down the stairs to hug her. The child had curly brown hair, matching brown eyes, and the sweetest smile in the world. “Gotta go. Band practice starts in fifteen minutes and I need to get my trumpet out of the music room.”
“Did you eat lunch?” Birdie shouted as the girl ran out the door.
Then Bree, always in motion, dashed across the room, her long, straight dark hair swirling behind her. Everything about this older grandchild snapped with energy. She made Birdie tired just watching her. With a quick wave, she passed her grandmother and shouted as the screen door snapped shut behind her, “Love ya. See you tonight.”
At least she’d seen them. Birdie grinned for a second. They were good girls, turned out well. If she weren’t so worried and weary, she’d admit she loved them more than anything. They’d been the joy and center of her life since she’d first held them, but Birdie’d never tell them. Well, maybe on her deathbed. They’d get swelled heads if she got all sentimental. Besides, she wasn’t real good about expressing feelings. They’d all feel uncomfortable, her most of all.
Stepping out of her shoes, she headed toward the laundry room and tossed a load into the washer. Within two hours, she dropped folded towels on a spot she’d cleared on Bree’s unmade bed by shoving several stuffed animals on the floor. She hoped the child could find the pile when she needed them.
She rotated her left shoulder. Impingement. That’s what the doctor had said a month ago, then sent her to physical therapy. When her shoulder started hurting, Birdie quit picking clothes up and straightening the girls’ room. They were old enough to do that. If Bree couldn’t find a clean uniform because they were all in her athletic locker or Mac complained the jeans she’d planned to wear that day were dirty, Birdie just shrugged. Amazing how quickly the girls discovered the location of the dirty clothes hamper and learned to use the washing machine.
For a moment she paused, considered her thoughts, and shook her head. She had become a crabby old lady, exactly like Mercedes had told her, politely and as only a friend of long standing could. The realization had surprised her a little, but this was not the time or place for self-examination. She had plenty to do and no time to find a new attitude.
On Bree’s side of the bedroom hung posters of men and women with tattoos. She called them tats and wanted a rose on her back. What did she call it? A “tramp stamp”? If that didn’t beat all. Birdie’d never allow that. At times, the girl acted a lot like her mother, except that Bree made fair grades and didn’t get in trouble, and had the possibility of a college scholarship in either volleyball or basketball.
Birdie smiled. A MacDowell in college. Every member of Mercedes’s family had gone to college, most to graduate school, but Bree would be the first MacDowell.
In contrast with her sister’s, Mac’s side of the room looked spare. Desk with a lamp on it, desk chair, dresser, and bed. One of the posters on her wall showed some scientist from England with numbers floating over his head. Stephen Hawking, Mac had told her. Why would anyone have a poster of a physicist—that’s what Mac said he was—on the wall?
The other poster showed Wynton Marsalis playing a trumpet, the instrument Mac played. The portraits of the two men faced each other across the bedroom, precisely hung and as straight as if they’d been lined up with a ruler. Birdie felt as if she should straighten the stack of clean towels to conform to the rigid angles of the room.
Forget it. Little Miss Perfect—Bree’s name for her younger sister—could refold them if they didn’t please her.
In her own bedroom, Birdie padded barefoot across the scuffed hardwood to put her shoes in the closet and slide into a worn pair of slippers. On the way, Carlos the Cat attacked her ankles before he ran under the bed.
Lord, she was tired. She leaned against the wall. For a moment, she felt dizzy from exhaustion, but she shoved the feeling aside. She couldn’t get sick. What would happen to her granddaughters if she did? How would the church survive this new minister without her guidance? She attempted to pray for strength but it took too much effort and never seemed to help much anyway.
Or maybe it did. Maybe she’d be in an even worse state if she didn’t pray.
She needed to sit down for a minute, rest. After pausing in the kitchen to pour herself a glass of tea, she went out to the front porch of the small house and settled into one of the Adirondack chairs. Elmer had built them so he and Birdie could sit on the porch and wave to neighbors. He’d died only a year after that and she no longer had the time or the desire to sit there. She hadn’t when Elmer had placed them there, but he’d enjoyed that hour together even if it made Birdie want to leap up and start sweeping the steps or pull a few weeds.
Early evening was surprisingly cool for June, although the weather was never really cool in Texas during the summer. Less hot, at maybe eighty-five degrees. The big maple she and Elmer had planted years ago shaded the area. A nice breeze cooled the porch as peace and quiet overcame her. She took a deep breath and leaned back, closing her eyes to breathe in the warm Texas air laden with the scent of gardenias.
The calm lasted five minutes before she got antsy. She hated peace and quiet. Too much to do. She wouldn’t relax until they put her in the casket, if then. She pulled the phone out of her pocket to call Pansy about the food pantry. The woman would destroy the entire effort if Birdie didn’t step in and set her straight.
When Adam explored the entire house the next morning, the sheer size again overwhelmed him. Downstairs, the tiny basement had a dirt floor. Spiderwebs hung from supports and a twenty-watt lightbulb illuminated a small circle, but a washer and dryer sat in the corner so he didn’t mind the primitive surroundings.
The second floor had five bedrooms, each larger than both the bedrooms together in the Kentucky parsonage, and two bathrooms. The space on the third floor stretched across the entire house with storage closets built into the eaves. It seemed like a huge playroom for all those children he didn’t have.
He strode up and down staircases and across halls and into bedrooms, his footsteps resonating loudly on the hardwood floors. Last night, his sleeping bag had felt warm and familiar. Tonight he’d haul his things upstairs, and approach the nuptial bed.
Before he could decide which to do—to laugh at or worry about that thought—he checked his watch. It was after nine o’clock, the time he’d decided a real minister started the day. He’d dressed like a real minister in a pair of black slacks and a white shirt with one of his two ties: a red one and a ministerial one with black and gold stripes. He also had a Christmas tie his best friend had given him. Red with elves on it that played “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” He doubted he’d have many chances to wear that one, now he was a real minister.
Because he was already running late, Adam hurried, descending the steps from the second floor two-by-two. Reaching the first floor, he grabbed a file folder and his Bible and headed out the door toward the church.
“Hello, Preacher,” a woman called from behind him as he headed north across the lawn.
When he turned, Adam saw a smiling blonde coming down the steps of the even larger Victorian next door, a plate in one hand and a little girl grasping the other.
“I’m Ouida Kowalski.” She nodded at the child. “This is Gretchen.”
“Weed-a?” he said.
“Yes, that’s how it’s pronounced. It’s spelled O-u-i-d-a. A Southern name and a family name. Most people who aren’t from here don’t know it.” She smiled and held the plate out. “I heard you’re young and single so I brought you some sweet rolls for breakfast.”
He took the offering and couldn’t help but smile back. “Thank you. Are you a member of the church?” he asked, completely ignorant of who was and who wasn’t.
“No, not of any church.” Her smile didn’t diminish. “George, my husband, says we’re missing the spiritual gene. I don’t know.” She shrugged before leaning toward him. “But even if we’re heathens, we’re good neighbors and are delighted you’re here. That parsonage has been empty for too long. I hope you don’t mind, but the kids have been playing on the swing set in your yard.”
Other than noting the existence of grass, he hadn’t studied the back lawn in detail. “No problem. Glad someone can use it.”
“Mama.” Gretchen tugged on her mother’s hand.
“Better go,” Ouida said. “Again, welcome.”
The sun shone and the birds sang and his neighbors had brought him breakfast. There could be no better place to be in the entire world.
When he entered his office, an immediate problem confronted him: sixteen boxes of books and only two small bookcases, already filled with dusty tomes that he felt sure no one had perused in years. Maybe centuries.
He turned to see a plump dark-haired woman.
“I’m the part-time secretary, Maggie Bachelor.” She held out a hand and gave him a hearty handshake. “Good to meet you. I just got here, running a little late. I work from nine to eleven four days a week. I answer the phone, type the newsletter, and print the bulletin.” She ticked off each duty on her fingers. “I’ll need everything written out and on time so I can get the bulletin and the newsletter done.” She put a sheet of paper on his desk. “Here are the deadlines.”
She reminded him of a hummingbird. She talked fast—not that hummingbirds talk—but she also flitted from place to place.
“Do you have your sermon title, scripture, and hymns?”
Fortunately, he’d realized that his first week would be busy and had worked on the sermon last week. “It’s from the tenth chapter of…”
She pointed at a pad and pen on the desk. “Write it down.”
“Do you have a hymnal handy?” Adam had imprudently neglected to memorize the page numbers of the hymns. Actually, he’d neglected to choose any but wasn’t willing to confess that failing.
“On your desk, too.” She fluttered her fingers toward him and left.
Following her instructions, Adam jotted down his sermon title and scripture, then hunted through the hymnal. Finished, he stood and walked the information out to Maggie.
She glanced at the hymns he’d chosen then glanced up at him. “Oh, dear, Pastor, the congregation doesn’t know the last two.”
“Won’t it be fun to learn them?” he asked.
Her expression assured him it wouldn’t. She picked up a pen. “I’ll choose a couple we know.”
“I’d like for the congregation to sing the ones I picked. They go with the theme of the morning.”
“Well, if that’s your choice, but…” Her words, expression, and shrug warned of dire consequences. “Well, then, here’s your visitation and hospital call list for today.” She handed him several note cards.
At eleven thirty, half an hour after Maggie left, Adam heard a knock at the office door. Just outside, he saw a large man wearing enormous paint-stained overalls with an orange-and-yellow Hawaiian shirt underneath.
“Ralph Foxx.” The visitor stretched out a meaty hand. “Two x’s on the end, like that old baseball player, Jimmie double-x Foxx. Played for the Philadelphia A’s.”
Adam didn’t know about the baseball player and hadn’t realized the A’s had ever been in Philly, but he still shook his visitor’s hand and gestured toward chairs covered with books. “Please sit if you can find a place.”
“Don’t mind if I do.” Pulling a chair in from the office, Ralph settled down and made himself comfortable. Adam later discovered settling down comfortably was one of his greatest talents. Talking was another. Within minutes Adam had learned about Ralph’s sciatica, his wife’s hysterectomy, and much more. He didn’t know how to shut off this font of information, but what else did Adam have to do this morning except pick up his car, which Rex had called to tell him was ready?
Adam discovered within a week that the retired men of the church felt it was their duty to keep the minister company, especially a single young man like him who obviously had nothing else to do and needed to be amused.
“Are you working today?” Adam successfully interrupted after five minutes.
Obviously disappointed the minister had gotten a word in, Ralph shook his head. “I’m a painter. Seasonal work. Not much business today. That’s why I’m retired this week.”
“Then maybe you can help me.”
The two men spent the next hour moving the church’s books to the library and putting the new minister’s on the shelves as Ralph talked on and on. Finally, Ralph said he couldn’t work anymore, because of that sciatica. When he left, Adam knew more about the Foxx family and its far-flung branches all over the country than he’d wanted, but he’d also learned a few things about church members. Not a wasted morning.
“Getting old isn’t for sissies,” Birdie mumbled to herself. Stiff and straight in the chair of the physical therapy waiting room at the hospital, she flipped through a magazine. Old Elgin Crump who lived down on Highway 28 slumped in his wheelchair. Must be at least eighty-five. Next to him sat Susan Pfannenstiel, her walker pulled up next to the chair.
Two younger patients waited alone, reading magazines. One was a cheerleader, a friend of Bree’s, who’d fallen from the top of a pyramid during halftime at a basketball game. Those stunts should be outlawed. What had happened to the cheerleaders of her time, back when they wore uniforms that covered their navels and reached to their knees? Back then, they just jumped up and down and shouted. Now they jiggled their bodies and built towers the girls toppled off.
Birdie didn’t recognize the young man. Maybe six feet tall but she couldn’t tell. He slumped. His dark hair fell almost to his shoulders, rumpled but clean, like a man who cared about hygiene but had no interest in his appearance. She’d noticed when he came in that his jeans and khaki-colored T-shirt hung straight from his broad shoulders like he’d lost weight and hadn’t bothered to buy clothes that fit.
Mostly she’d noticed his stumbling gait on the crutches when he entered, the lines of pain etched on his face, and the missing right leg. And yet, with the stubble on his world-weary face, he was handsome in a lost-soul way, in the dangerous and slightly disreputable manner many young women would find intriguing.
Was he Effie Peterson’s nephew? Couldn’t be too many amputees in the area, but he didn’t look a bit like the happy kid who used to visit his aunt—no, his great-aunt—years ago. She’d heard Sam’d come back and was living in Effie’s house. No one had been inside since Mercedes and Birdie and her granddaughters had cleaned it after the funeral. Probably covered with dust now and smelled musty.
She should go say hello to the young man, even if he wasn’t Sam Peterson. Wouldn’t hurt. Might be the only time anyone from the church could get in touch with him, but she hated to step up. No one would ever guess Birdie MacDowell hesitated to do anything. She usually didn’t, but speaking to anyone about her church never felt comfortable, not in the least, especially if she had to approach a man who looked so unwelcoming, and do that out here in the middle of a waiting room with people watching.
But doggone it, she had to. God would expect it.
To protect her left shoulder, she pushed herself up with her right hand and briskly walked to his chair.
“Hello.” She stretched out her hand. “I’m Birdie MacDowell.”
He ignored her hand but made brief contact with eyes that held no emotion.
“Are you Effie Peterson’s nephew Sam?”
He dropped his gaze to the magazine.
“I’m a member of the Christian Church on the highway, the one your aunt attended. We’d surely like to see you there sometime.”
He didn’t say a word, didn’t nod or lift his eyes or change expression.
She’d tried, which was all anyone could expect her to do. “We’re a friendly church,” she said to the top of his head. “Give Pastor Adam a call if you need anything.” She took a few steps backward, almost tripped over the footrests on Elgin Crump’s wheelchair, then turned and headed for her chair.
As she settled back in her seat, she noticed everyone staring at her before their gazes fell back on what they were reading. She didn’t care. She was supposed to welcome people to town, invite them to church. She’d done her duty.
When she considered the problems and pain that plagued the others in the waiting room, she guessed she was pretty lucky to have only this shoulder acting up. Not good at all for a waitress to have a bad shoulder but better than a bad back or a bad knee.
“Mrs. MacDowell,” the physical therapy clerk, a flighty teenager named Trixie, called from the doorway.
Inwardly cursing the weakness she hated to display, Birdie again pushed herself up with her right hand and straightened to walk into the therapy area. Curtains covered the treatment area in the back while other clients walked or pushed and tugged on the machines and weights on the main floor. Birdie stepped on a stool to pull herself onto a high table. Across the room, a pretty redheaded woman watched another patient for a few seconds before turning and approaching Birdie.
“I’m Willow Thomas, the new physical therapist.” She held out her hand.
Birdie took it, noticing the woman’s gentle grip. She figured the dead-fish handshake wasn’t a sign of weak character but an effort not to crush anyone’s arthritic joints.
“Welcome home, Willow. We’re all glad to see you back. I remember you from way back when you sang in the Cherub Choir at church.” She smiled in as friendly a way as she could muster with the darned pain. “Won’t ever forget when you and your friends used to come into the diner after football games when you were in high school.”
How old was Willow? A little younger than Martha’s age, she guessed. Thirty-two or thirty-three. Probably she’d been too old to have met Sam when he visited Effie during the summer, too wide an age difference.
The young woman smiled, a lovely expression that made her features glow. “I didn’t know if you’d remember me. It’s good to be home.”
“You’re still one of our kids. Hope to see you in church again Sunday.”
“My sons and I plan to be there.”
Birdie swelled with a sense of accomplishment. Someone had accepted her invitation, even appeared pleased to get it.
“I’m not going to work with you today because I have a few folks to evaluate,” Willow said. “But I wanted to introduce myself. Christine will oversee your exercises.”
“As usual,” Birdie grumbled to herself. Christine, a PT aide, was sweet but so young she didn’t know anything. Birdie had attempted to talk to her about the Beatles and the first Gulf War, but she had to explain history and culture before 1990 to Christine. It was a whole heck of a lot easier to count the exercises out loud than attempt conversation with the child. Christine placed the cane in Birdie’s upraised hands and watched Birdie move it slowly forward and back over her head.
In a few minutes, Birdie heard the clerk call Sam Peterson.
“How’s the pain been?” the aide asked Birdie.
Obviously Christine hadn’t seen Sam yet or the young woman wouldn’t be paying attention to her.
“Fine, just fine,” Birdie lied. She couldn’t let on she was getting too old to carry heavy trays. If she did and lost her job, how would she support her granddaughters? If she didn’t tell anyone, if she gritted her teeth, she could push through exactly like she always had.
“Well, that’s good. Willow wants me to teach you another exercise to loosen up your shoulder and increase your range of motion.”
Then Christine glanced away from Birdie and her eyes grew enormous. Birdie lifted her head to see Sam limp into the therapy room and watched the reaction of the females. It was as entertaining as she’d expected. Trixie could barely take her gaze off him and tripped over Angus’s wheelchair while Christine just stood mouth open and outright gawked at the man. The cheerleader, who had been absorbed by her magazine back in the waiting room, followed his unsteady progress with wide eyes.
Sam didn’t notice. He barely lifted his gaze as he manipulated around the obstacles. When he did glance up, his eyes landed on Willow, who was talking to the cheerleader and hadn’t seen him yet. His reaction stunned Birdie. He stopped still, completely motionless, and gaped at Willow. Birdie bet she was the only one who had a handle on the meaning of his expression because the others were too busy watching other parts of the man, but she recognized it. Right there between the therapy table and the exercise ramp, he fell in love. At least, that was the way Birdie saw it. She was seldom wrong.
For barely a second, his expression was unguarded and vulnerable. Almost immediately, so quickly she might have thought it hadn’t happened, his features became sullen again as he looked at his foot and swung himself forward.
Back before his leg was blown off, Sam had appreciated women. He liked how they smelled, flowery and sweet. He liked their soft roundness, which made him feel even tougher and stronger in comparison. As a marine, he loved the way their pink and pale blue and mint-green clothing floated and swirled like pastel butterflies around his drab camo or dress blues.
He appreciated their soft spirits, their generous gestures, their winks and smiles. He never had trouble attracting any of them.
So why did the sight of this woman hit Sam so hard? She didn’t look soft and sweet. She wore tailored black slacks and a crisply starched white shirt, buttoned almost to the top. The combination didn’t make her look anything like a butterfly. He doubted she’d ever swirl around him.
For whatever reason, his reaction to her hit him hard, like the kickback of a rocket launcher, with a shock that shook his world.
Red hair and, he guessed, green eyes. Since her beautifully rounded backside was all he could see, he didn’t know.
When she turned to pick up a file, she glanced at him and smiled absently before returning her attention to the patient.
Yeah, green eyes and dimples and long lashes and a slender, slightly tilted-up nose. Her smile seemed cursory, as if she’d barely noticed him while she concentrated on her other patient. Not a usual female reaction to him.
But even her perfunctory smile made him feel like a man for the first time in months. Probably because the greeting came from rounded lips on the more-than-pretty face that topped her great body. He guessed she thought the severe hairstyle made her look more professional, but it didn’t. The sleekness emphasized her cheekbones and eyes and skin, almost everything about her. He bet she dressed like that to look strong and in-charge, but a woman who looked like her could never hide behind a starched shirt.
For a moment he swayed on the crutches as he checked her out. How old was she? Thirty-something? She didn’t look like it, but there were a few—he didn’t know what to call them. Not wrinkles because they didn’t make her look old. Maybe brackets or creases? No, she had a couple of grooves around her eyes, and frown marks between her eyebrows that emphasized dark circles under her eyes. A year ago, he would’ve thought he was just the man to cheer her up, but his confidence had ebbed considerably since the injury. As much as he liked them, his interest in women had lessened, too, until now.
“Excuse me, Mr. Peterson.” Trixie stepped in front of him, grinning and fluttering her eyelashes at him.
He hated women’s reactions to him now. His looks had been inherited from the general and generations of military men going back centuries. He had nothing to do with his appearance, plus he didn’t really want anyone noticing him for any reason. Right now, he didn’t feel too good about himself and was hardly a great choice for anything, not even a date. He had more problems than he could handle himself, let alone burden anyone else with.
Unfortunately, the longer he allowed his hair to grow, the scruffier his whiskers, and the deeper his frown, the more women fell at his feet. Most of them didn’t mind the fact he was missing a limb and lost his balance more times than he could count, but he did. Most of the females wanted to rescue him, to take care of him, to fall in love. He didn’t want to be taken care of or rescued. Didn’t need to be fixed and refused to fall in love.
He didn’t want romance. He didn’t want a relationship. Right now, he didn’t even want to pick up a woman, not with the stump at the end of his leg guaranteed to scare her off. With that and the pain any kind of movement caused, celibacy seemed pretty much his only choice these days.
But still Trixie stood in front of him, smiling and winking and flipping her hair while he swayed on the crutches.
Willow Thomas sighed. Whenever a good-looking guy arrived in PT, Trixie lost every bit of her nearly invisible veneer of professionalism. More good-looking guys than Willow had thought came here: college kids with broken bones and high school football players with bad knees, all far too young for Willow. But this one looked about Willow’s age if she discounted the deep lines of pain and the snarl Trixie’s attention brought forth.
Flirting was like breathing for Trixie. Willow had counseled the young woman, attempted to explain, then finally lectured her on the difference between their clients in PT and possible dates for the weekend. Trixie’s efforts at professionalism lasted until the next good-looking guy entered the room. Now she was nearly drooling.
Even displaying depression and anger like most of the vets she worked with, the new patient was hot. Willow had to admit that. This patient—she glanced down at the schedule—Captain Samuel Daniel Peterson looked so fine, even Willow felt an instant attraction. Hard for any man to make her feel that way.
But she ignored it. She was a therapist who treated all patients the same: professionally.
“Captain,” she said as she approached him. “I’m Willow Thomas, one of the physical therapists here.” She reached her hand out. When he glared at it, she drew it back. “I’ll be doing an intake at your next appointment. Today Trixie, our PT aide, is going to check your range of movement and degree of strength to get a baseline.”
Willow smiled. He didn’t.
“Please let me know what I can do to help.”
He glanced up at her, making eye contact for a second. He had beautiful blue eyes, but they were red with broken veins. She knew well what that meant, had seen it often before. Seemed sad that this man should let himself go, drink so much it showed.
Then he dropped his gaze again, an admission that he really didn’t care where she went or what she did as long as she left him alone. So she did, but not before she glanced at his reflection in the mirror that covered the entire west wall. As she moved away, he’d again lifted his eyes and watched her.
That evening, Adam looked out the kitchen window while he rinsed the plate off. He had a dishwasher that would take him days to fill, so he washed his one dish and a fork to use at the next meal.
Outside, Ouida watched her girls—Gretchen and the other one whose name he couldn’t remember. It was still light although the sun headed rapidly to the west. His evening chore completed, he walked outside to join them.
“How did your day go?” Ouida asked.
“Hospital visits went well. My car made it to Llano and back, which is always a relief.”
“Are you unpacked and completely moved in?”
There were still ten unpacked boxes in his study and huge piles of books that overflowed onto the chairs and formed heaps on every surface. “Pretty much,” he said.
The AME church a block away had evening services. Over the sounds of crickets and children playing, he could hear the music and harmonies: “Amazing Grace,” “Sweet House of Prayer,” and several that he couldn’t place but lifted his heart and calmed his soul.
Within five minutes, Gretchen had curled up on her mother’s lap and Carol—aah, yes, that was her name—yawned, struggling to keep hold on the chain of the swing.
“Okay, girls.” Ouida got to her feet and shifted Gretchen to her shoulder. “Let’s go home and get ready for bed.”
The three left through a gate in the fence, overgrown with the beautiful orange flowers that Ouida had identified as trumpet vines. Once their voices faded, Adam was left alone with the breeze and the succulent scent of a Texas evening floating on the sweet notes of a spiritual.
Sunday morning dawned warm and bright, the normal state for summer mornings in Texas. After a final read-through of his sermon, Adam ate breakfast and showered. While he shaved, he studied himself in the mirror. His hair touched his collar, and, he realized, he did look young, really young. Had he expected a few days in ministry would age him? Well, yes. Unrealistic but he still looked too young to preach, as young as Miss Birdie had proclaimed, eight years younger than his twenty-five years. Would growing a mustache help? Maybe a beard?
He shouldn’t start that today. Miss Birdie probably wouldn’t approve of facial hair. She wouldn’t consider her minister standing in the pulpit with a light stubble to be at all professional. Not a good impression for his first Sunday here. From the nearly bare closet, he pulled a suit—his only suit, a ministerial black that served as both his marrying and burying suit. Once dressed, he headed out. That walk across the parking lot was his last moment of peace for the rest of the day.
“Hear you’re not married.” Jesse Hardin leaned against the doorjamb of the minister’s church office with a mug in his hand, ready for a chat.
What single female relative did Jesse have he’d like to introduce Adam to?
“I’ve got a niece. Lives in Llano. Nice girl.”
“I’m sure she is. Thanks. I’m not looking at the moment.”
When Jesse nodded and started toward the chair in front of the desk, Adam said, “I’m going to wander through the building, greet anyone who comes in.” Ignoring Jesse’s obvious disappointment, Adam left.
With a smile and a firm handshake and feeling very ministerial, Adam greeted everyone as they entered the church. Several children waved and headed toward their Sunday school class.
“In a church this small, Pastor, we don’t have many kids,” Miss Birdie said. “Most of them come with their grandparents.” She gestured toward a hallway. “That used to be the elementary wing, classrooms filled with kids. Now they’re all in one class and we take turns leading it.” She headed off toward a classroom. “I’m teaching the children today.”
If they knew what was good for them, they’d behave.
At eleven, when he heard the playing of the chimes, Adam entered the church through the door between the study and the chancel area. About forty-five people gathered in groups of three to five, scattered through a sanctuary built to hold two hundred. Maggie sat next to an aisle. Some huddled in the back row with the intention, perhaps, of leaving early. Nearly every one of them had white or graying hair and wore glasses except the two girls sitting with Miss Birdie and a few kids with their grandparents. As he had been told but now realized, this was an old and dying church.
As the service began, Adam asked the congregation to stand for the first hymn, stated the page number, and nodded toward the organist. He expected they’d all start singing together. Didn’t happen. As Adam began in his wavering and consistently off-key tenor, he noticed everyone stared at him, mouths firmly closed. Behind him, Adam heard the voices of the three women in the choir. It was as if the four were a gospel music group, perhaps Adam and the Eves or the Pastor and the Pips. Somehow Adam, the most pitiful of vocalists, sang lead while the choir acted as backup. Fortunately, the organist played so loudly, no one could hear him anyway.
After communion and the reading of the scripture, Adam stood to preach. Within ten minutes, he noticed a restlessness in the congregation. Men checked their watches and women set their purses on their laps. Was the sermon that bad? He hadn’t thought so. He’d worked very hard at polishing up one of the favorites from his student church, but everyone seemed ready to leave. Not only ready, but determined. One child began sobbing until his grandmother handed him a cookie. A timer went off on someone’s watch.
Realizing he’d lost the congregation, Adam hurried to finish, dropping the last two points and heading fast and straight for the end. When he’d written it, he’d thought the words were such a clear, uplifting statement of shared convictions it would turn the entire church around, the triumph of faith calling the congregation to action.
Unfortunately, as soon as he said, “And in conclusion,” people put the hymnals in the racks, dropped their bulletins on the pews, and sat forward, ready to bolt. Adam stopped mid-sentence, came down from the chancel, raised his hand, and pronounced the benediction. Even before he said “Amen,” people tumbled from the pews and rushed down the aisle and out.
Disappointment filled him. He’d hoped to meet more people, to get feedback on how he’d done, how much he’d inspired them, how they looked forward to a future together. Had his sermon been so terrible they all needed to leave without talking to him? He hurried toward the door at the back of the sanctuary with the hope of greeting someone, anyone, but only one person remained.
“You did a good job,” Howard said, his voice and expression filled with relief. The elder must feel vindicated that Adam hadn’t fallen down the chancel steps or dropped the offering. The fact that the minister he’d called could preach a passable sermon must take a lot of heat off him.
“But I should have warned you about something,” the elder continued. “We have to get out of church by eleven fifty or the Methodists will beat us to the Subway for lunch.”
Adam checked his watch. Noon.
Howard nodded. “There’s going to be a long line today.”
Seminary didn’t give students the most practical information. Why hadn’t they taught him the importance of getting out of church before the Methodists?
“Cut your sermon a few minutes and don’t sing so many verses of each hymn. Should take care of things.” Howard grabbed Adam’s hand and shook it. “You’ll have it down in no time.” He hurried off.
Adam had hospital calls to make but decided to pick up a sandwich at the Subway, to see what the place was like and meet the congregation.
He glanced up from the sermon he’d been working on to see Miss Birdie striding through the door.
“Come on in,” he said although the invitation didn’t seem necessary as she was halfway across the office and followed by another woman he recognized from the previous day. He stood.
“Hello, Preacher.” She glared at him. “You know me. This is Mercedes Rivera.” She waved toward the other woman before she said, “They call us the Widows.”
They Call Us the Widows. Sounded like a great name for a movie, a Western maybe.
Then he remembered: widows was the word written on the delivery form from the furniture store. He started to ask about that, but before he could, Miss Birdie spoke.
“Mercedes is the town librarian.” She motioned toward the attractive Latina again. “You need any information on anything or about anyone in town, she’s the one to call.”
“Birdie just finished her breakfast shift and I took a break from the library,” Mercedes explained. “She wanted to come see you.”
“I have a bone to pick with you,” Miss Birdie said.
Not a surprise. She’d probably picked a couple of carcassfuls of bones with quite a few ministers.
“Won’t you sit down?” he asked cordially.
Miss Birdie stretched her arm out and waved it around the room, where piles of books still filled every surface and boxes covered much of the floor.
“Sorry about the mess in here. I’m attempting to bring order to my books. Didn’t realize I had so many.”
“Well, you’d better hurry, because people are going to want to sit in these chairs,” Miss Birdie stated firmly.
“Bird means she wants to sit down now,” Mercedes explained in a whisper, as if Miss Birdie couldn’t hear.
With alacrity, Adam picked the stack of books from a chair and looked for a place to put them. Finding none, he placed them on the floor beside the chair, then cleared another for Mercedes. Both women sat. That completed, he hurried to sit—to hide—behind the desk. Didn’t actually hide, but he appreciated the separation provided by the broad surface and the tower of books between them.
“Pastor, we dropped in to welcome you on your first official day in the office.” Mercedes smiled at Adam, then flicked a nervous glance at her friend.
“Yes, and then I have a bone to pick with you,” Miss Birdie repeated.
He didn’t doubt that.
“I don’t want to coddle you. Mercedes thinks I should give you a little more time…”
“Yes, I do—” Mercedes began.
“But you have to know what people are saying.”
“Birdie feels it’s our duty to tell you what she says people are saying, although I believe we should give you a chance to settle in first before we make suggestions.”
Miss Birdie glared at the other woman. “Pastor, Mercedes and I’ve been friends for more than sixty years. Occasionally we don’t agree. I say strike while the iron is hot.”
For a moment, Adam smiled—inside—at the difference between the women. Mercedes looked a bit uncomfortable, a slight flush on her light brown skin, but attractive with her black hair, beginning to gray at the temples, pulled back into a neat French braid. In contrast, Miss Birdie’s short hair meant quick and easy preparation. Wash and comb. No fuss.
Mercedes wore a nice navy dress with matching pumps while Birdie wore a pink uniform. Aah, yes. Now Adam remembered. She was a waitress.
“In the first place,” Miss Birdie continued, “you don’t look like a minister at all, not in my opinion.”
“Her opinion counts for a lot here,” Mercedes said with an apologetic smile.
“You’re too tall, too young, your hair’s too long. You’re almost handsome, if you weren’t so skinny and didn’t have all that hair.” She leaned forward and fixed her eyes on him. “That means some of the younger women and a few of the widows might covet what isn’t theirs to claim. After all, you’re a man of God.”
She kept her eyes on Adam as if he planned to seduce the younger women right here, right now, and right in front of her. He didn’t know where to find any gullible young women and wouldn’t know how to seduce one if he could find her. Besides, he didn’t plan to start doing that, certainly not in front of the Widows.
But he knew Miss Birdie expected an answer.
“Thank you for the information.” Then he added, “I’ll get a haircut as soon as I can.” First, he needed a salary check because he had about twenty dollars in his billfold, which he planned to use for food and gas.
Miss Birdie’s glare told Adam he’d better do her bidding and soon.
Before he could explain the cash-flow problem, Mercedes said, “But you have a humble charm.” She warned her friend with a glance before facing the minister again. “We can work with you, help you. Bird—that’s what I call her—can steer you in the right direction.”
Whether Adam wanted to go that way or not.
“What we’re here about—”
“What you are here about.” Mercedes broke in.
“It’s those songs you chose for Sunday,” Birdie said before Mercedes could interrupt again. “Nobody knows them.” She pursed her lips before saying, “Did you notice no one was singing? We want the old favorites back.”
“Very nice sermon, Pastor,” Mercedes said. “One of the best we’ve had in years.”
Miss Birdie didn’t agree or disagree with her friend’s compliment. From their short acquaintance, he felt as if the pillar might believe no one should praise a young minister before she had him properly trained.
“All right,” Miss Birdie grudgingly conceded. “A nice sermon but terrible hymns. People have been telling me they don’t like those new ones.”
The church management professor at the seminary had told his class to be careful when the word people was used because that usually meant the speaker and a few others he or she’d been able to browbeat into agreeing. He smiled in an effort to look cooperative and appreciative.
“A nice smile,” Miss Birdie said. “But I don’t care about nice smiles at the moment. I expect results.”
“I wanted all parts of the service to fit a theme, the idea of a new beginning for the church. I chose the hymns for that reason.”
“A bunch of people mumbling or not singing at all can hardly add to any theme.” She fixed him with a glare that let Adam know she expected him to pay attention to her every word. “We like the familiar songs.”
“That’s a very good point. You know what I believe I’m going to like best about you, Miss Birdie? You always state your opinions so clearly.”
Mercedes said, “That’s true, but no one has ever complimented Bird on that before.”
Excerpted from The Welcome Committee of Butternut Creek by Perrine, Jane Myers Copyright © 2012 by Perrine, Jane Myers. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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