A lonely young preacher, newly widowed, befriends him, risking Tyler’s disapproval and her place at the head of the pulpit.
An explosive fire throws Tyler into turmoil. All fingers point to the stranger, and Reverend Sarah is torn. She’s given him room and board but an alibi? Does she have enough faith to confront the inevitable scandal?
Read an Excerpt
The little town was spread out below him, church steeples glinting in the autumn sun, the lake beyond its outskirts the same crisp blue as the October sky. The village and the lake were ringed as far as the eye could see with fields of corn and soybeans, heavy and golden with grain waiting to be harvested. horses, sleek and shining, ran in pastures on the gentle hillsides, and cows fed in haylots beneath giant silos that rivaled the church steeples in height and grandeur. in the center of the business district the grass in a parklike square was still green. The trees that graced ittall, stately oaks and mapleswere clothed in autumn colors, a subtle reminder that although the afternoon was reasonably warm, winter was coming to south-central wisconsin. But he doubted that even wily old Man winter whistling down from Canada would catch the little town unawares. The two- and three-story brick buildings that framed the park, and the stately Victorians that lined the wide, straight streets behind them, were as solid and foursquare as the Swedish and German immigrants who had founded the place a hundred years before.
''Welcome to Tyler,'' he said aloud, reading the greeting painted in elaborate Gothic script on the sign by the side of the road. his words echoed in his earsgruff, a little rough around the edges, as though it had been a long time since he'd spoken his thoughts aloud. ''Yeah, right.'' it was a nice sentiment, but in reality, how would the good citizens of Tyler react to a stranger in their midst?
He wasn't certain exactly what it was he was looking for here. A house or building that seemed familiar? A man or woman walking down the wide, tree-lined streets who would wave him over to explain what in hell a Miami street kid was doing here in this small, Mom-and-flag-and-apple-pie kind of town? Usually when the shipping season ended on the Great Lakes, he headed home to Florida. But this year there was no one to go home to, and maybe, when all was said and done, that was why he was here.
Michael Kenton put the truck in gear. The transmission of the aging pickup groaned in protest. And the brakes were touchy, too. He was going to have to take a look under the hood when he got the chance. it wasn't that he couldn't afford something more impressive to drive; he could. But the old blue Ford didn't look too beat up, and he sort of liked the idea of being able to stretch out under the tarp in the back alongside everything he owned if he had to. He didn't mind sleeping under the stars. As a matter of fact, he preferred it. He'd done it often enough on the decks of the lake freighters he'd served on during the past three years.
He turned the corner onto a narrow side street lined with small, twentiesera bungalows, and, oddly enough, a woman did walk out onto the pavement and wave him over to the curba young woman with red hair and freckles and a shy, sweet smile. A superstitious chill waltzed up and down his spine. But she didn't offer him a magic talisman, or pose him a riddle he must solve to be allowed to remain in her small, enchanted town.
''I'm sorry,'' she said, smiling some more. ''If you could wait a moment, please, they're trying to get that tree off the roof.''
''I can see that.'' Michael was impatient to get where he was going, although he still had no idea where that was. He rested his forearm out the window and watched as two burly individuals in canvas coveralls wrestled a chain around the thick branch of a maple that had fallen onto the roof of a brick building directly in front of him.
The woman didn't notice his impatience. ''We had a terrible thunderstorm day before yesterday.'' He'd figured something like that had happened. There were a lot of fallen branches piled by the curb in town, and here and there he'd seen a boarded-up window or section of roof with the shingles torn off.
She wasn't looking at him as she talked. Instead, she shaded her eyes with one hand as the older of the two men got in a truck that had definitely seen better days and began to back slowly away, trying to pull the severed branch of the tree off the roof of the church. Michael knew it was a church because even though there was no steeple, there was a sign in front of the remarkably ugly brick building that proclaimed it to be the Tyler Fellowship Sanctuary:
Sunday School 9 a.m. Worship Service 10 a.m. Prayer Hour: Wednesday. 7 p.m. Pastor S.C. Fleming nearby stood a second sign shaped and painted to resemble a happy clown. It seemed that the Tyler Fellowship Sanctuary was also home to TylerTots Community Day Care. An arrow pointed around the corner to a side entrance into what was probably the basement of the building. Michael realized he couldn't remember the last time he'd set foot inside a church.
The tree continued to resist the men's efforts to dislodge it, the shattered branch swinging dangerously, dragging down a rain of shingles and eaves trough.
''oh dear,'' the woman said, biting her lower lip. ''Thank heaven we covered the window.'' He wondered if it had been the two men or the woman at his elbow who'd had the foresight to nail a sheet of plywood over the stained-glass window directly under the damaged roof.
''They should have taken off the smaller branches before they tried to pull it off.''
She turned to look at him, frowning at his tone. ''Randy is afraid of heights and Jonas had a pacemaker installed just last winter,'' she said, as if that explained everything. Her eyes, now that they were no longer shadowed by her hand, turned out to be hazelan intriguing combination of green and gold that looked just right with her red hair, her pale ivory skin and the smattering of freckles across her nose. ''I couldn't ask either of them to climb up on the roof.''
''Then what the hell are they doing taking down trees for a living?''
''They don't take down trees for a living. Jonas Phillips is a butcher by trade. And Randy is his son. He drives a delivery truck for Yes! Yogurt.''
So Jonas was the old guy's name. He seemed to be the one in charge of the uncoordinated operation. ''If neither one of them knows what he's doing, they sure as hell shouldn't be pulling that tree down off the roof.''
''They're only trying to help. With all the damage from the storm the other day, I couldn't get any professional tree cutters to come until Saturday. And it's supposed to rain again tonight. Something has to be done about the hole in the roof before then.''
''You're the preacher's wife?'' She wasn't wearing a wedding ring, but that didn't mean anything these days.
''no. I'm the pastor,'' she said, a tiny frown drawing her nicely arched eyebrows together over her nose. She smoothed her hands down the front of her sweater and stood a little straighter, which would bring the top of her head just about level with his chin, he figured. She offered her hand. She had small hands with long graceful fingers and delicate wrists. A flare went off inside him, exploding at some deep, instinctive level that warned him not to touch her, not to become involved.
She might look shy and sweet and virginal but she was still a woman and there had been no women in his life for a very long time. ''I'm Sarah Fleming. This is my church. Randy and Jonas are two of my parishioners.''
Just then the heavy chain the two men had wrapped around the branch slipped and the old pickup Jonas was driving lurched forward. The tree rolled drunkenly and lodged itself more firmly in the hole in the church roof.
''Oh dear,'' Sarah Fleming said again.
''one of those two is going to get himself seriously hurt or killed.''
''I agree with you.'' She moved away from the truck, not seeming to notice that he had not shaken her hand. ''I'll tell them to stop at once.''
''Don't bother.'' He got out of the truck. Sure enough, the top of her head barely reached his chin. She was small all over. Her breasts beneath a prim cotton blouse and shapeless brown cardigan were sufficiently rounded to warrant a second glance, and her hips flared below her waist, nicely filling out the pair of faded jeans she wore.
She was looking at him again and caught him giving her the once-over. A delicate tint of pink spread up her throat and highlighted her cheekbones. He'd embarrassed her, staring like that, and surprisingly, he wished he hadn't. It was obvious the Reverend Sarah Fleming wasn't used to being checked out by strange men in front of her own church. ''I can't ask you to help Mr .'' She paused, waiting expectantly for him to supply her with his name.
''The name's Kenton,'' he said. ''Michael Kenton.'' He grabbed a pair of work gloves and a crowbar from the toolbox and headed over to where Jonas and Randy were investigating the damage to the truck's bumper. ''Do you have a ladder and a chain saw?'' he called over his shoulder.
''I yes. There's a big ladder in the garage behind the parsonage. And I think Jonas brought his chain saw.''
''I did that.'' The older man straightened, eyeing Michael suspiciously from beneath dark, bushy eyebrows. With ingrained, small-town courtesy he stuck out his hand. ''I'm Jonas Phillips.''
''Michael Kenton,'' he said, returning the greeting.
''need a hand?''
''We could use some help. But we don't want any if you're one of them fly-by-night fix-it guys who shows up after there's been a storm like this one and then charges an arm and a leg for shoddy work.''
''I'm not a fly-by-night fix-it guy,'' Michael said, angry with himself for volunteering. He hadn't been in Tyler five minutes and already he was letting himself get caught up in one of its small dramas. It wasn't what he'd planned. But it was too late to back out now. He'd only draw attention to himself, make it impossible to stick around for any length of time if he turned on his heel and walked away, leaving them to get themselves out of the mess they'd made. no, the best thing to do was help the two men pull the big branch off the roof, cover the hole and be on his way. He still had to find a place to stay for the night.
Jonas took a moment to consider the offer. ''Pastor Sarah, there, is mighty anxious to get that tree off the roof.''
''Then let's quit wasting time. I can climb a ladder and I can use a chain saw. Do you want some help or don't you?''
Both men were silent for a moment, still not quite sure what to make of him. ''We need the help,'' Randy said. ''Okay. What do you have to cover that hole in the roof?''
Randy pulled a heavy-duty plastic tarp from the bed of the pickup. ''I brought cement blocks to hold it down.''
The tarp would do. But not for long. The lady preacher would have to get someone up there on the roof to fix that hole before the next rainstorm. Michael nodded. ''That ought to work for now.''
Randy nodded, too, then stuck out his hand in greeting. ''We appreciate the help. I'll get the ladder.''
Sarah watched the three men work on the tree. The stranger, Michael Kenton, hadn't been there half an hour yet and already he'd dealt with the severed branch that had punched a hole in the roof and had hooked the big log chain around the trunk in preparation for lowering it to the ground. If work continued at this pace, they would have the makeshift repairs finished before sundown.
She couldn't keep her eyes off the stranger, although it made her nervous to see him moving around on the steep pitch of the roof. He was a good-looking man, surefooted and smooth moving. Quite a contrast to Randy and Jonas's stolid presence. He certainly looked as if he knew what he was doing up there. But what if he fell? What if he hurt himself and sued the church? Or her? She made herself stop thinking such thoughts. eric would never have had such doubts. Her husband had believed in the innate goodness of his fellow man. She should just be thankful for this Michael Kenton's help and stop worrying about whether he was the kind of person who dropped a hammer on his toe and then filed suit over it.
He certainly didn't look like the kind of man who tripped and fell over his own two feet. He was about thirty, she guessed, strong and assured. He was tall, an inch or two over six feet. His shoulders were broad and his waist narrow. He wore a dark T-shirt that strained across his chest as he worked and his soft, faded jeans couldn't hide the well-muscled contours of his hips and thighs. His hair was a little short for her taste, almost a military cut, dark as a raven's wing, with a hint of auburn in the shining depths. And his eyes. She'd noticed his eyes right awayblue or black, or some combination of both, bright and hard, reflecting everything he saw and giving nothing of himself away in return.