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Having accepted his first pastoral position, in the small northern Wisconsin town of Singing Springs, Jeb was well aware that he had his work cut out for him. As a former businessman he couldn't help but focus on growing the congregation and that didn't sit all that well with some.
"We're fine," one woman had assured him. "Just fine the way we are. You just keep giving us inspiring words like you did today and we'll be just fine."
He folded his hands behind his head and frowned up at a whiteboard where he'd drawn an intricate pie chart of the demographics of the congregation.
Jeb swiveled in the old wooden desk chair he'd inherited from his predecessor. A woman was standing in the doorway, the sunlight behind her casting her features in shadow, and yet he felt as if he recognized her.
"At your service," he said, standing and extending his hand in welcome.
She stepped forward, shifting what appeared to be a large afghan to one hip, and accepted his handshake.
Her hand was slender with long fingers that wrapped around his in a firm no-nonsense grip. He remembered seeing her in church the previous Sunday—his first sermon. She'd sat in the third pew on the left with Reba Treadwell.
"Hi," she said, her voice a little breathless. Was that exertion or anxiety? The last thing he wanted to do was make people nervous. "I'm Megan Osbourne. I work for Reba Treadwell? At the Cranberry Hill Inn?"
Each statement ended in a questioning lilt, as if she were uncertain of the information.
"Of course." Jeb hurried to move a pile of books and papers from the only other chair in the cluttered office. "I'm afraid I haven't quite gotten settled in yet. It's quite a change from Chicago. Please, have a seat."
"I didn't mean to interrupt. I just stopped by to bring you this afghan." She handed him the bundle. "Reba was concerned that you might not be prepared for how cold the nights can be up here, even in May."
He accepted the afghan, then glanced around for an empty space to put it. Finally he settled for draping it over the back of his chair. "Mrs. Treadwell strikes me as one of those natural-born nurturers."
Megan Osbourne perched on one corner of the straight-backed chair, her hands folded in her lap. She looked like a kid called to the principal's office, unsure of exactly what to expect. And yet on closer examination he saw that she was definitely no kid. She was certainly approaching her mid-thirties. Maybe it was the cap of hair the color of winter wheat, or the eyes, large and blue, or the skin devoid of makeup as far as he could tell, that made her appear so youthful.
Jeb sat down across fromher. "Well, Mrs. Osbourne…"
"It's Megan," she interrupted, and seemed about to say more, but only added, "Just Megan."
"Well, Megan, it's really nice to meet you. I have to admit though, in the last couple of days I've been meeting so many people, it's been like a whirlwind."
"It'll taper off," she assured him, and he knew she was trying to reassure him. But then she gasped and covered her mouth with one hand. "I didn't mean because people would lose interest… I only meant… everyone thinks you're great. You should have heard people raving about your first sermon."
"But there is a curiosity factor to be considered, right?"
She nodded. "It's natural."
"So my job—at least part of it—is to get people in the habit of coming to church regularly before that curiosity factor wears off. Actually, I was working on that very thing." He pointed to the pie chart. "Maybe you could help me with a little brainstorming here."
Her blue eyes widened and she looked directly at him for the first time since she'd entered his study.
"I'll try, but I seriously doubt that…"
"Great." He stepped up to the whiteboard. "You see, I may be new at this ministry thing, but I'm beginning to discover that in some ways it's not all that different from my previous career."
"You were the CEO of a major corporation," she said, then hastened to add, "Reba was on the search committee and, well, it was only natural that she'd talk about the various candidates. We live in the same house and work at the same place, after all." She leaned in for a closer look at the pie chart. "What seems to be the problem?"
"It's the way these different age groups respond to me—or any minister, I suspect. When you're the CEO of a business you get used to people walking on eggshells whenever you're around. In fact, that can work to your advantage. But a minister needs to connect. If I can't build relationships with people in the church, then how can I expect them to trust me as their spiritual leader?"
"But that's what being a minister is—I mean, we already accept you as our spiritual leader. That's why we hired you."
"But I want to earn it, Megan. More than that, I want to grow this church just like I once built my business. Not for the glory of it, but because this church has been here for generations and I don't want it to die on my watch." He tapped the pie chart with one end of a dry-erase marker. "Look at this. Right now our congregation is getting older, with very few people your age coming along."
"Singing Springs is an aging community. Young people tend to go off to college, or move to the city for a better job or…"
"You didn't leave."
To his surprise, she stood up and pulled her cardigan sweater closer, as if she had a sudden chill. "The demographics will shift once the summer residents start arriving. You'll see. You've got nothing to worry about." She edged toward the door. "Oh, I almost forgot. Reba asked me to invite you to her house behind the inn for supper tonight." She smiled and added, "She thinks you could use a good home-cooked meal."
Jeb laughed. "I won't turn that down, but could I take a rain check? I have an appointment over in Boulder Junction tonight."
"Sure. I'll have Reba call you." She started back down the hall toward the church's side entrance and Jeb followed her, his mind still on the problem revealed in his chart.
"You have a teenage daughter, Megan?"
"Yes." She hesitated but did not look at him. "Why?"
"I was thinking maybe we could start some sort of a youth program—like a café where the kids could come hang out after school and on weekends. Stay out of trouble and away from boredom and temptations."
"Sounds like a good idea. But I should warn you that Faith and most of her friends are at the stage where they just find adults' ideas antiquated and quaint."
"Actually, Mrs. Treadwell suggested asking you. Might you have some time to help me get the youth café going?"
"Me?" Her laughter was hollow and without real humor. "Oh, Reverend Matthews, there are so many people in the congregation who…"
"You know, Megan, you and I are neighbors and I hope we'll be friends, so do you think you might call me Jeb?"
"Reverend Dunhill preferred…"
"I'm not Reverend Dunhill, Megan—not by a long shot."
"Very well. Jeb it is, except when my daughter or other young people are around. Respect is important for them to learn."
"Good point. You know, I'm serious about needing help getting this project off the ground."
"I'm sure you are, but…"
"Just think about it, okay?" He took her arm and walked her to the door. "And please thank Mrs. Tread-well for the dinner invitation."
Megan started back toward the inn, but then she changed her mind and instead took the path that led her into the woods behind the church. As a child she had often hiked these woods when she needed to work through a problem—and she'd had more than her share. Whether to help with a youth group was pretty small potatoes compared to some of the things she'd had to deal with in her life. Yet, life being the circle that it was, eventually everything a person had ever done or not tied in with seemingly insignificant decisions.
There were two things that Megan understood about small towns and the people who lived in them. One, if you lived in a town long enough, made a good faith effort to clean up any mess you'd made, worked hard and went to church, past transgressions would eventually be forgiven. Two, when someone new came to town—someone like Jeb Matthews who was likely to stay awhile—that past could double back on you. The folks in Singing Springs were good people, but she knew that sooner or later Jeb would hear her story. And when he did, she wanted to be there to see his reaction. Maybe it was best that he heard it from her.
She turned and looked down on the church, then out toward the lake, the centerpiece of this town she'd called home for all of her thirty-two years. With a sigh of resignation, she squared her shoulders and retraced her steps.
He was still in his study considering the pie chart he'd made of the congregation.
"Reverend, I have something to tell you."
His eyes widened in surprise as he stood up and removed his reading glasses. "Has something happened?"
"Yes, but it was some time ago. Still, you need to know. You'll hear soon enough, and frankly I'd just as soon you hear it from me—or maybe Reba, but I'm here now so…" She paused for breath. This was not going at all the way she had imagined.
"Megan, please, just sit down and start at the beginning."
She forced herself to take a deep breath and release it slowly. "As you know I have a daughter."
"Faith," he said.
"Yes. She's a good kid. No, she's an exceptional kid, and none of what happened is in any way her fault."
"Is Faith in some kind of trouble, Megan?"
She took a moment to answer. "No. I was the one in trouble. You see, when I was about Faith's age, I was dating a boy and, well, I got pregnant."
She wasn't sure what she had expected—disappointment, condemnation—anything but the concern and sympathy filling those soft green eyes. Somehow it made continuing her story that much more difficult.
"Danny denied that the baby was his, although he knew I'd never been with another boy. I'd only been with him, the one time."
Jeb frowned. "But this young man refused responsibility?"
"He was very popular, captain of the football team, and he was off to college the following month on a full scholarship. Becoming a father would have changed everything for him. His dad was on the town council and an elder in the church. His mother was the school guidance counselor."
"Still, he must have known…"
He wasn't getting this. How could he? There was a chasm in lifestyle between people brought up in the small towns of the north woods and those raised in the cities and suburbs. From everything Reba had told her about Jeb Matthews, he'd spent most of his adult life in Chicago managing a global company and chairing society events that raised huge sums of money for charity. What possible frame of reference did he have for a small-town girl who'd gotten herself pregnant at sixteen?
She decided to give him the brunt of the story. "Danny knew but, as he said, who would take the word of a girl whose mother abandoned her when she was eight and whose father was the town drunk? He had a point." She waited for the inevitable response—pity, shock and then just the slightest narrowing of the eyes to show a change of opinion about her.
Jeb's eyes remained wide-open and steady. "I'm so sorry, Megan. Still, there must have been someone in town who saw through his lie. Someone must have known you were telling the truth."
"Lots of people probably knew, but only Reba stood up for me. After Faith was born, she took us in and we've been together ever since." She sucked in a deep breath. "The point of telling you this is so that you'll understand why I'm not the go-to person in this town when it comes to organizing anything—especially for young people. I'm not exactly Singing Springs's idea of a role model."
He shook his head. "I'm afraid I don't get the connection."
"What I'm trying to say is that you'll have a lot more success organizing this youth project if you pull some of the other parents into it."
"Well, sure. Actually, the whole idea is to get the kids interested in coming to things at the church, and then hopefully the parents will follow. This segment—" he pointed to his pie chart where a thin slice represented Megan's age group "—will look more like this larger slice representing the over-fifty group."
She was relieved that he'd turned his attention back to the youth group and away from her past. "Take my advice, Jeb, and think of me as more of a worker bee. I'm happy to help you in any support role you might need—setting up, organizing the food, that sort of thing."
"I'm sure you could do that kind of thing with one hand tied behind your back. Reba tells me you're the queen of multitasking and coordinating. She says that you're practically running the inn these days."
He shrugged. "Maybe, but she doesn't strike me as someone who would willingly turn over responsibility for her livelihood to just anyone."
So that was it. This all had to be Reba's idea. Her friend and employer had sent her here instead of simply calling Jeb herself to invite him for supper and give him the afghan. She and Jeb had spoken about this and Reba must have hinted that Megan would be good at anything involving young people.
So he hadn't been distracted from her past after all. "Reba and I are more than employer and employee. She's been like a mother to me and she wants the best for me. It's just that sometimes her ideas about what's best and mine don't jibe."
"As soon as Faith started school, Reba began her campaign for me to go back to school at night and on weekends."
"Sounds like a good idea."
"I took a few courses, but my first priority will always be my daughter. Faith is my reason for getting up every morning. I am determined to give her the very best chance she can have at being happy and successful in life, and nothing comes ahead of that."
Jeb looked down at his folded hands for a long moment as if lost in thought. When he looked up again, the light of excitement she'd seen in his eyes when he'd talked about the youth project was gone. In its place was an expression of such sadness and pain that she placed her hand on his forearm. Did this youth café mean that much to him?