Taylor had the floor at Wednesday Bible Study. He was telling them about Solomon’s son, Rehoboam and the shields of brass. Emily sat between Rebecca and Jeremy fighting to follow the story. Unfortunately with Jeremy’s knee so close it was practically touching hers that was proving to be nearly impossible.
“So the enemy came and swiped the shields of gold from the temple,” Taylor said. “And Rehoboam knew the people would be furious if he told them the truth—that the gold shields were gone. They would want to go get them back, plus he’d have to own up to losing them in the first place. So like a coward, he commissioned new shields to be made. Only he didn’t have the means to make new ones of gold, so he had them make them out of brass.”
“Wait. How much did you say the ones of gold were worth?” Kira asked.
“It was 300 shields of pure gold. You do the math.” Taylor laid the story out so perfectly, it was as if he was directing it right in front of him. “But now all they had were these brass shields—worthless really, but they had to keep up the appearance of them being gold so no one would find out. That meant they had to shine and polish them all the time because brass tarnishes, and every time they held them up, they knew them to be brass. But they pretended they were real gold so no one would guess.”
“But more than that,” Jeremy said right next to her in a voice she hardly recognized, “that Reaboum guy knew it. He knew it was a fake. He knew it wasn’t real the whole time.”
Taylor nodded. “But he kept doing it because…”
“If he didn’t, everyone would know he was a fraud too. It was empty, and he knew it, but he didn’t want anyone else to know it.”
For the life of her, Emily wished they were alone so she could ask about the look of shocked understanding on his face.
“It’s like that hollow tree Emily talked about that one night,” Kira said. Emily tried to remember what she had said. “You know, the world builds you up so it can take a whack at you? It does it over and over. Build up and whack. Build up and whack. If you’re empty on the inside, even if you look really good on the outside, when the whack comes, it shatters you.”
“But if you’re filled with the Holy Spirit,” Becca said.
“Yeah, if He’s filling you,” Kira said, sounding ever more excited, “when the world takes a whack at you, it’s like a golfer hitting a tree with his club. The club and the golfer absorb the whack, but the tree never moves because it’s solid. When you have Him in you, filling you, filling your whole life, the world’s whacks don’t shatter you. The more you know that, the more confidence you have to step out in faith even when the world threatens to take you out because you know the world can’t really do anything to you at all.”
“But if someone’s empty, if the gold is gone, and you know it’s gone,” Jeremy asked slowly, “What happens then? Is it gone forever? Are you just stuck with faking it with the brass, or can you get the gold back?”
It was a moment before anyone spoke.
“Well, speaking as someone who settled for a lot of brass in his life before I even knew there was gold, I’d say you can definitely get the gold back,” Eric said. His voice was solid although the wonder shone through.
Jeremy looked at him with desperate intensity. “How? How do you get it back?”
The smile was in Eric’s eyes long before it was on his lips. “By surrounding yourself with people who have the gold, who’ve kept it, who know the difference between brass and gold, and who won’t settle for anything less than the gold.”
“Like here,” Rebecca said softly. “That’s what I found here—with you all.” Emotion swamped her voice. “I always knew something was missing, even when I couldn’t have told you what or why. That’s why I quit going to church when I got here to school. It all felt so empty, like everyone was trying to convince everyone else they had it all figured out when it was clear they didn’t. At least I didn’t, and I couldn’t put on the show they could. It was empty. I was empty.” She shook her head as tears came to the surface.
The emotion in Rebecca’s voice slid into Emily’s spirit. Gently Emily reached over to her friend and ran her hand over Rebecca’s shoulder. Rebecca looked at her, eyes shimmering, and she smiled.
Rebecca took a long breath and shook her head as her gaze fell to the floor. “I was so empty, and I just thank God that He led me here so I could feel finally solid again. I’m full now. Full of Him. Full of love and peace… and hope.”
The sweet, soft face crumpled. Emily pulled her friend to her for a moment. Then Rebecca sat back up and looked at Emily. Emily nodded her complete understanding. As hard as every moment had been to get them all here, it was worth it to see the look of true peace on Rebecca’s face.
“Hope,” Jeremy said from the other side of her, and Emily’s attention snapped to him. He let out a breath and sniffed once. “Boy, that’d be a change.”
She wanted to reach out to him, but their relationship was so new and felt so fragile, she didn’t have the courage to put it on display for the others. Instead, she smiled at him, hoping he would know her heart even in her silence. His return smile told her that in fact he did.
“It’s getting out of the boat,” Taylor said. “Just trusting enough to stop holding on to the boat that’s getting beaten up by the waves. It takes recognizing when you’re in that boat of ‘I can do this,’ ‘This is up to me,’ and trusting God enough to get out of that and let Him do it. I know for me, hope didn’t come all at once. It took time and practice to stop relying on myself, but when I did it… Wow. It was like… nothing I’d ever experienced before.”
“Doesn’t God just totally blow your mind sometimes?” Kira asked. “I mean here we all are. Different people. Different majors. Different religions even. And yet He…” She stopped for the wonder in her spirit. “He had a plan for every one of us. This whole time. He had a plan for us to all be sitting here together, talking like this, seeing what we have so that we can take it and be different, live different.”
The awe in her voice was no match for the amazement in Emily. How? How had He done so much with so very little of her willingness? These people now knew Him in a different way. Why? Because she’d stepped out in faith that first night when she’d told Dena how frustrated she was at being told how wrong the other denominations were. How much more could He do with all of her willingness? It was more than she could get her mind around, and something told her it always would be when she let herself see Him for the silent, earth-shaking power He could wield in a life yielded to Him.
“You know,” she said so softly the others all but stopped moving to hear her, “I always thought I had to do these huge things to make a difference. Like I had to change the world or something for Him to want me in His Kingdom.” She let out a hard breath as wonder and awe filled her. “But I see now, He didn’t need me to do anything more than show up.”
Her gaze took in Taylor and Kira and Sam. “I didn’t even know you guys when this first started. In fact, I though Dena was crazy when she said we should invite other people. But still it felt so right, and even when I tried to talk myself out of it, I couldn’t. Then you came, and it was so great I couldn’t believe it.”
The center of her heart heaved as she looked at Rebecca. “And then you showed up, and I kept thinking, ‘What can I possibly give her? How can I make her see how much God loves her?’ But when every time you were here and I just let Him talk through me, somehow you got it. Not because of me but because of Him.” Her gaze fell to her ankles. “Then you started to bring other friends.”
When she looked up at Eric, overwhelming gratefulness for all the good things in her life filled her to overflowing. God was so generous and good.
Eric smiled at her and nodded. There was a connection in his eyes she couldn’t quite believe.
She didn’t think she could keep going, but she had to. “And I just kept thinking, ‘God, why? What do I have to even give them? What if I say the wrong thing, or do something wrong?’” The smile ran through her whole body. “But He didn’t need me to say the right thing or to do the right thing. All He needed was for me to say, ‘Yes.’ ‘Yes, I’m here, do it through me.’”
Floods of emotion overtook her then as she thought about Jeremy. It was all she could do to continue, but she knew she had to voice what was in her heart. “Then God brought someone really special into my life.” She didn’t look at him, she couldn’t. But she could feel him holding her with his gaze just the same. “And I prayed and I prayed that he would come to find God’s love for himself because I knew how much he was hurting. For a while it looked like it would never happen.”
Emily took a breath, pursed her lips to beat the tears back, and sniffed. But her glance at him yanked more tears of gratitude to the surface. “I guess miracles do happen.”
His arms were around her before she knew they were coming, and heedless of what anyone else would think, she let herself be enveloped by them. For a long moment she clung to him and let the tears wash out of her. They weren’t tears of regret or guilt. They were tears of such immense joy, her heart couldn’t hold them all.
A moment and then another, and their embrace broke. However, he didn’t let her go. Instead he backed up just enough to be able to take her face in his hands. Her gaze locked with his only inches away as tears continued to stream down her cheeks. Gently he brushed them away.
“Thanks…” he said, clearly beating his own emotion back. Then a smile broke through. “For showing up.”
She nodded, and once again she was in his arms. It was the best moment of her entire life.
The others had disappeared ever-so-politely, but Jeremy hung back. It was going to kill him to leave tonight more than it ever had before. This was it. She was the one he had never really let himself hope was actually out there. And the whole time he had convinced himself she didn’t care or didn’t want to be with him, the truth was she had been praying for him.
He had a feeling she’d had no idea back then how much faith it would take to make her prayers come true.
“I’ll walk Becca home, and I’ll be back,” Eric said to Emily at the door.
From across the room Jeremy watched her nod and pull the back of her jersey down. He understood that gesture now in ways he’d only guessed at before. It yanked his desire to protect her out once more. Quietly she closed the door and turned on the toe of her shoe. Innocent was the word that washed over him. Innocent and unbelievably gorgeous.
She bent down to throw a piece of paper in the garbage. “Well, that was fun.”
But Jeremy had no interest in chit-chat or garbage. He stepped over to her, took her hand, and led her to the brown chair. Carefully he sat down and pulled her down onto his lap. She laid her head on his shoulder and snuggled into him, and he loved how that felt.
“You’re amazing, you know that?” he asked.
“I didn’t do anything. It was…”
“God,” he finished for her. “I know, but it was you who opened your heart to let Him work in your life.” A breath of thankfulness traced through him. “And because of that, I’m now getting a glimpse of how much He loves me.” Jeremy shook his head, but he couldn’t condemn himself, he was too in awe of the extent of God’s love to do that. “He must love me.” Gently he slid his finger under her chin so he could tilt her gaze up to his. “He gave me you.”
Their souls met at same the moment their lips did. It was all he ever asked from life again.
Emily had been flying for three weeks. To her way of thinking, life couldn’t get any better. However, two weeks into April the world took a whack at them again. She strolled into the Student Union with the sunshine lighting her inside and out.
“Hello.” She slung her arm around Jeremy who sat across the table from Eric.
“Hey,” he said. He was hunched over his plate, and he hardly looked up at her.
Concern crashed into her, and she glanced at Eric for some insights. However, he barely looked at her before his gaze went back to his friend. Worry etched across his face.
Without bothering to get lunch, she sat down. “What’s wrong?”
Rebecca stood behind Eric, waiting for the news.
Jeremy glanced up. “Dad called.”
Emily fought to hold it together for whatever he was going to tell her. “And?”
A moment and then Jeremy sighed. “And he’s coming into town on business Monday. He wants to take us out to eat.”
Irrational relief flooded through Emily. “Oh, is that all? Good grief, you had me worried.”
Worried. Yeah, there was a good word for it. Jeremy hunched further over his sandwich as Emily stood, planted a kiss on his cheek, and went to get her own lunch. “I’ll be back.”
He looked across the table at Eric. “I’m sunk.”
Although Emily tried to push the apprehension about meeting Jeremy’s dad away, the truth was it had stomped through her stomach in waves of dread ever since he’d said the words. However, she’d managed to hide it even from herself for the better part of three days, and it worked until she stood next to Jeremy at Mass Sunday morning.
They had been going every Sunday since they’d been back from Colorado, and honestly, Emily loved the feeling of standing before God with Jeremy’s hand in hers. It always made her feel safe and protected from every angle. Today, however, there was a sadness and a fear clinging to Jeremy that could only be attributed to the coming meeting the following night.
“Holy Spirit,” Emily prayed silently, “please show me how to help him.”
When the service ended, the rest of the congregation started out. But Emily hesitated for a second then she leaned to him. “You want to stay and pray about tomorrow night?”
There was helplessness deep into the recesses of his soft brown eyes. Wordlessly, he nodded.
She dropped to her knees and waited for him to follow her. He wasn’t in as much practice as she, and it took more than a moment for him to get there. When he was, she reached over and twined her hands in his, smiled at him once before bowing her head. She felt his head shadow hers down. “Dear Father, we come to You today asking for your guidance and protection. You know the concerns on our hearts. You know how much we want to follow Your direction. We ask You to make the way clear for us. Please put a hedge of Your protection around Jeremy so that he may be strong in You and not bow to the pressures of the world. We ask You to be with his father. Let there be peace, and hope, and joy. This we ask in Your Name. Amen.”
Jeremy more breathed his amen. Softly he laughed. “Joy? That’s asking a lot.”
“Don’t worry.” She tilted her head teasingly. “God’s up to the challenge.”
Having a wreck was a real possibility. It wasn’t that his driving was bad. It was that Jeremy was shaking so badly, he was in danger of having a heart attack.
“It’s going to be okay,” Emily said from the passenger’s seat, but he could tell she was coaching herself as much as him. “Holy Spirit, be with us tonight.” She sat as if listening. “It’s going to be okay. It is.”
He wished he could be so optimistic. They pulled up to the restaurant. All Jeremy wanted to do was turn the car around and run. Drive. For ever and ever, and never come back. If they could just do that, maybe life with her could go on like it had been—peaceful, happy. However, as he stepped out to let the valet take the car, fear clutched him in a ferocious grip. Jeremy reached for her hand and turned to climb the six gray steps to the door. It was the longest climb of his life.
Once inside, she wrapped her other arm around his, seeming to melt into him. “Dear Lord, please,” he breathed, “I’m asking here…”
“Well, look who bothered to finally show up.” From the side waiting area, his father stood and ambled toward them. Medium height with an arrogance that belied the easy gate, his father smiled a smile that held a darkness just behind it. The near-black hair and perfectly oval glasses brought waves of awe and fear washing over Jeremy. It was a learned awe. One he had meticulously honed for nearly 25 years. He hoped it wouldn’t let him down now.
“Dad.” Jeremy stepped toward his father and extended his hand. “Your meeting got out early?”
“Oh, you know, they always drag me out here for nothing.” His father shook his hand, and for the first time ever, Jeremy saw the fight for superiority flash through the dark eyes. Whatever business he was on was always beneath him although it was always more important than anything else he had to do—like being with his family. 300 shiny brass shield flashed through his mind.
Jeremy stepped back and felt Emily’s shadow. As happiness spread through him, he put his arm around her waist and pulled her to his side. “Dad, this is Emily. The one I told you about.”
“Oh. Yes. Emily.” The three words were each a sentence unto themselves, and as his father extended his hand, there was almost a visible examination of her. “Nice to meet you.”
Jeremy fought to shield her from the scrutiny and felt the stings of the arrows of condescension hit him full on.
“It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Stratton.” She shook his hand but retreated the moment he let go.
They shouldn’t have come. At that moment, Jeremy knew that but little else. He shouldn’t have asked her here. She deserved better.
His father’s gaze left Emily, never to return. “Well, they were going to seat us in the pauper section, but I pulled some strings and got a real table.” Arrogance oozed through the statement.
“Oh, good.” Jeremy was suddenly straddling the line between two worlds, and he wasn’t at all sure how to live in both at the same time. He twined his fingers through hers and pulled her with him as he followed his father to the maître de’s podium. Jeremy smiled an I’m-sorry smile at Emily. Fear and helplessness wafted through her smile and eyes. They shouldn’t have come. He clutched her hand tighter. “Oh, Holy Spirit, help.”
Emily knew there was no way out of this. If she was with Jeremy, his dad was part of the package. However, it was abundantly clear what the elder Stratton thought of her. There was a dismissive quality to the few glances that chanced her way. It made her feel like gum on the bottom of a shoe—unwanted and awful. Thick cotton stuck in the top of her chest making breathing all but impossible.
She followed Jeremy through the restaurant to their table, which was situated on the rise, prominently displayed apparently for the benefit of all the other patrons. Jeremy pulled out her chair, and she sat, wishing she could crawl under the table.
“Now, Jeremy,” Mr. Stratton said as they perused their menus, “Jack told me that you withdrew your application. I assured him that was a mistake, and he’s willing to give you a second chance.”
Next to her Jeremy shifted in his seat and cleared his throat. “Oh, um. I didn’t tell you. I’ve decided not to apply with Skyway after all. I’m going to stay here in Boston through December.”
Anger. She was sure she saw anger in the dark eyes, but just as quickly as it was there, it was gone.
“In Boston.” Mr. Stratton looked right at her before jerking his gaze to Jeremy. “Any particular reason for this sudden change of plans?”
“I… well…” Jeremy closed his menu and glanced at her.
If she could’ve disappeared, she would have. Her only defense was acting like she had no idea any of this pertained to her. She anchored her gaze to the menu, knowing she was leaving him to fend for himself but not at all sure she could help anyway.
“Emily doesn’t graduate until December, so I thought…”
“I thought.” Mr. Stratton snorted. “Yeah. I’ll tell you what you thought. You thought you could hang out here and mooch off of me for another six months or a year. Well, let me tell you something…”
The waiter stepped up. “Are you ready to order?” He took one look at Mr. Stratton and added, “Sir?”
Jeremy’s dad shifted gears so fast, Emily was left wallowing in the dust. “Yes, I’ll have the Duck a l’Orange with the petit, French cut beans on the side. I’d also like a martini, dry. No olive. The Tea Smoked Salmon appetizers. I want a light vinaigrette on the salad. No. No. Scratch that. Bring it on the side, not on the salad. No onions, tomatoes, or croutons on the salad. And please bring some brie with the bread and real butter not margarine.”
The order was longer than a biochemistry lecture. Jeremy picked up the words and placed his order as well. By the time it got to her, Emily had no appetite.
“I’ll just have a house salad please.” She handed the menu back, hoping no one would notice she was even there.
“A house salad, Ma’am? Anything else?”
“No. That’s fine.”
“Oh, uh. Ranch.” Why did she feel like she was failing?
“Uh, I’ll just have water. Thank you.” She shrank back into her seat as the waiter nodded and walked away. She let her gaze follow him longingly. Doing dishes would’ve been far preferable to staying here.
Mr. Stratton leaned forward on the table as if the waiter had never been there. “Let me tell you something, young man. I have pulled every string in that bank, called in every favor for you. When you come to work for Skyway, you’re set for life. You’ll be vice president before you’re thirty, and you’ll beat Marty Saxon, that two-faced, brainy little twit out of the running for junior executive of the year with one hand tied behind your back.”
Fear reached up into Emily’s gullet and clung there. It was as if the devil himself had sat down at their table and was spreading every enticement possible in front of Jeremy. She glanced at him, knowing it was his decision, and knowing how impossible it would be for him to make the right one. It wasn’t that he didn’t know what he wanted, it was that his father had leverage she could only begin to imagine. Her gaze fell in anticipation of his answer that would surely wreck her heart.
“Well, well. Lloyd Stratton as I live and breathe!” A tall man with snow white hair stepped up to the table and put out his hand.
Mr. Stratton stood and smiled as if the sun had just come up. Emily let out the air that was lodged at the top of her lungs and closed her eyes, willing calm over the panic.
“Randolph Montgomery! Fancy meeting you here.” The two of them slid into an easy conversation. It lasted about ten seconds. “Oh, Randolph. I’d like you to meet my son. This is Jeremy.”
Jeremy stood, and her gaze followed him up. He shook the older man’s hand. “Nice to meet you, Sir.”
“Jeremy’s going to be working in our Denver office come June,” Mr. Stratton said, and there was pride in the statement.
“Like father, like son,” Randolph said. “I’m sure you’re as tenacious as your father.”
“Yeah,” Jeremy’s face fell although he was desperately clinging to the smile. “I’m sure I am.”
“So, you’re a lawyer then?” Randolph asked.
“No, Sir. I’m in marketing, but…”
Mr. Stratton waved his son off. “With a four point and two co-ops under his belt, he’ll be running the place before too long.”
“Well, I look forward to seeing you in Denver then.”
The two older men turned and continued the conversation which obviously left Jeremy standing for no reason. After a moment he quietly slid down into his seat and took a drink of water. He set the glass down, but his gaze never left it. As Emily watched him, sad understanding slid through her. Her dream, their dream would never really come true. Not with Lloyd Stratton the bulldozer on the case.
She wanted to reach for Jeremy’s hand, to let him know she was there for him, but before she had the chance, Mr. Stratton sat back down. Unconsciously, she snapped to attention and away from his son.
“That Randolph, he can bury the best of them under the defense table. He handled the class action a couple years ago. The other side never even had a chance.” Mr. Stratton looked around, and annoyance took over the joviality. “What is taking them so long anyway? For crying out loud, how hard is it to throw Vodka in a glass?”
It was torture to keep herself from turning to look at the others in the restaurant. By the level of his volume, she was sure they were all looking. She wanted to leave. More than anything she’d ever wanted in her life, she wanted to just stand up and walk out. Carefully she lifted her water and took a sip. It was something to do.
“So, I was going to tell you,” Mr. Stratton continued because no one else said anything, “I put your name on the wait list for that condo I told you about.”
“Uh, condo? What condo?” There was a hollow quality to Jeremy’s voice. It raked across Emily’s heartstrings. She forced her gaze to her lap.
“You know. That one in the complex I bought with Gus Nelson last year. I told you about that. The one I had to go on margin with the hedge fund to make the deal work. You remember.”
She couldn’t tell if Jeremy remembered or not. But in all honesty, it really didn’t matter. This life they were discussing had nothing to do with her. It was one she wouldn’t want even if Mr. Stratton included her, which he clearly wasn’t.
“Well, I talked to Gus the other day, and it’s all set. You can move in sometime in July.”
That jerked Jeremy’s gaze up from his glass. “Move in?”
But the words were drowned out.
“Where is my drink anyway? It can’t take that long.” Mr. Stratton looked around in slowly boiling rage. He spied the waiter and lifted his hand. “Waiter! Waiter!”
The waiter ambled over to the table. “Sir?”
“Son, do you see a martini on this table?”
“Yeah, I don’t either. I ordered a martini and appetizers five minutes ago. Now I’m paying good money to be waited on, and I expect the service to be prompt, or I will take my business elsewhere. Do we understand each other?”
“Uh, yes, Sir. I’ll be right back with that drink, Sir.”
“Good. And don’t forget those appetizers either.” Mr. Stratton turned back to the table. “That’s why Skyway is so lucky to be getting you. Kids don’t care these days. They think the world owes them something, that they don’t have to work for it. I’m just glad I raised you better than that.”
The barbs hit their intended targets with unparalleled accuracy. Strangely Jeremy had never heard or felt them quite like he did now. Before they had been driving forces in how he lived. Today they felt like layer after layer of concrete, pressing down on him so that living any other way didn’t even seem to be an option. And after seeing the other options out there, to be reduced to this one and only this one was soul-sapping.
“Here you go, Sir.” The waiter set the sparkling glass on the table, and Jeremy braced for the coming storm.
“Look at that glass,” Mr. Stratton commanded. “What is wrong with that glass?”
The waiter had no chance.
“Did I, or did I not say ‘no olive’?”
“‘Oh, uh’ is not an answer.”
Jeremy couldn’t even look at Emily. This was worse than he could ever have imagined it could be.
“I’d like to see your manager.”
“The manager, Sir?”
“What? Are you deaf and dumb?”
“Oh, uh… no, Sir. One moment.” The waiter disappeared.
“The incompetence. The sheer incompetence of people these days. They can’t even follow the simplest of instructions. I would fire someone on the spot for this level of ineptitude.”
Dressed in a fine suit, the manager stepped up with the waiter just behind him. “Is there a problem, Sir?”
“I’ll say there’s a problem. We have been here 15 minutes. We have no appetizers, no meal, and I ordered this without an olive.” He held the glass up as if it had a scorpion in it. “That looks like an olive to me. Does it not?”
“I’m terribly sorry, Sir. Thomas usually….”
“I don’t really care what Thomas usually is. Today he’s a bungling idiot. Now get me a new drink, and our food had better be out here in two minutes, or this little discussion is going to make Thomas look like a trophy employee.”
“Yes, Sir. It will be fixed. Right away, Sir.” The two of them scurried off.
Jeremy felt the stares of the other patrons slicing right through him. Worse, he felt the shrinking of her spirit away from his. No wonder. Who would want to be latched to a loud-mouthed, impatient, know-it-all who trampled over everyone else like they were his personal slaves? No one deserved to be treated like that. Anyway, the service wasn’t that bad. It was an olive. An olive…
At that moment weight upon weight of understanding dropped on him, crushing every illusion about his life he’d ever had. He had learned from the best. He looked at his father, sitting there smugly on the other side of the table—as if he knew the whole restaurant was looking at him, and he was basking in their naked fear of how powerful he was. Yes, Jeremy had emulated the best, and it had almost cost him everything he now knew counted.
“You know what?” Courage stood him up, and self-respect threw his napkin to the table. “I’m sure the food is great here, but the company stinks. Enjoy the rest of your meal, Dad. We’re leaving. Come on, Em.”
She scrambled to her feet, her gaze transfixed to his face.
“Leaving?” His father’s dark eyes narrowed dangerously. “Oh, no, you’re not. Sit down. What do you think you’re doing?”
“Something I should have done a long time ago.” Jeremy laced his fingers through Emily’s. Her wide-eyed fear only poured more courage into him. “Listen carefully, Dad, because I’m only going to say this once. I’m not taking the job with Skyway, so don’t ask about it again. I’m staying here, in Boston, and I’m starting my own life on my own terms. I don’t need your handouts, and I don’t need your condo. This is my life, and I’m going to live it the way I see fit whether you like that or not.”
Mr. Stratton glanced around the restaurant. “Jeremy William Stratton, sit down before you make a scene.”
The statement hit Jeremy as quiet humorous. “A scene? Oh, you mean like the one you just made over an olive? You mean a scene like that, Dad?”
“No.” Serenity floated through Jeremy as he stood looking at the man he had revered and feared his whole life. It was a mistake he would never make again. “Don’t worry. I’ll never trash someone over an olive again. I learned how well that works from you.”
Emily was shadowing him so closely it was as if she was standing in his shoes. He tightened his fingers in hers and smiled back at her.
“Let’s go, Em. You deserve better than this sick charade.”
With that, they turned and started walking.
“Jeremy. Jeremy Stratton. You listen to me. Don’t you walk away from this table. Jeremy. I’m your father, do you hear me? Jeremy…”
Her hand in his, Jeremy turned the corner at the potted plant and never looked back.
The car door shut behind her. Emily sat there, wondering how her heart hadn’t actually stopped beating. It should have for the fear and disbelief racing through her veins. No one could have looked so incensed as Mr. Stratton had as she stood by Jeremy at that table. No one. No, she should be a heap of white hot cinders by now, and yet somehow she wasn’t. She let Jeremy drive two blocks before she even allowed herself a glance at him.
“Ar-Are you sure that was smart?” She couldn’t keep the trepidation from her voice.
His look was compassionate and serene. “Hey, it wasn’t my fault. You were the one who prayed for joy.”
The words slammed into her, and worry filled the hole. “Joy? What does joy have to do with anything?”
He drove half a block before he glanced at her. His glance held a sincerity she wasn’t used to in his eyes. He smiled softly and took a breath. “Thanks, Em.”
“Thanks?” She was having trouble following because he kept jumping onto other topic trains. “For what?”
“For not giving up on me when I was a jerk like that.”
A moment of meaning dropped over her, and she knew and understood more than she ever had.
“Oh.” She let her gaze slide out the side window as memories of him before he was really Jeremy flooded through her. A soft laugh followed them. “It wasn’t me.”
“What do you mean it wasn’t you? If it wasn’t you, then who was it?”
Daring raced through her, and she looked right at him. “The Holy Spirit of course. Heck, I tried to give up several times, but He wouldn’t let me. So if you’re going to thank someone, thank Him.”
Jeremy’s smile was 100-watt as he glanced at her and nodded. “Then thanks, Holy Spirit. I owe You one.”
The car slid through the city as the lights winked on around them.
Emily sat back. For one minute there was happiness, and then reality reappeared. “So what about your dad?” It was a topic they had to face even if she didn’t want to.
The breath Jeremy took was long and slow. “Well, how’d you get me to figure it out?”
Emily laughed. “A whole lot of prayer!”
Seriousness dropped over Jeremy. “Then I guess we’d better start praying while we eat at Joe’s Burger Hut.”
Emily sat up as he pulled into the little establishment. “Joe’s Burger Hut, huh? No Duck a l’Orange?”
“I don’t think so. I’m a starving college kid, remember? What do you think, I’ve got a bank roll of money behind me?”
She couldn’t tell what emotion formed the under current of that statement. Anger? Fear? Worry?
He parked and shut off the car. A breath and he turned. Gently he took her hand in his. He picked it up to his lips and kissed it. “I know this is going to sound completely crazy, but I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy or so excited about living.”
She stared at him, wide-eyed. “But you… You…”
“Yeah, I know.” He let his head fall back as a whoop came out of the depths of his soul. “This is me! I’m finally, finally me! Woohoo!”
Although she wasn’t wholly sure he hadn’t just cracked, Emily laughed her own happiness. He was dirt poor. To own a fraction of the things he’d had before, he would have to work himself into the ground, and yet, he really looked genuinely happy.
“What about the iPod and the stereo and the leather couch?” she asked, half afraid of the answer.
His smile could have been no brighter. “I don’t know. That brown chair of yours is pretty comfortable. I think maybe it’s a good place to start.”
Emily started through the ramifications of that comment, but before her brain got ten words into it, he leaned toward her. The moment his lips touched hers, all thoughts other than him vanished. They had a chair. One little piece of heaven. Everything else was just gravy.
“Da-da-da-da,” Eric said, whipping open the door to their apartment with a flourish of his hand. “I give you… the graduate!”
Jeremy ducked his head in embarrassment for the eruption of cheers as he stepped into the living room. They were all there. His friends, his mom, and her. Emily. The one who had changed his whole life. Walking into that room felt like coming home—not some physical place but home in his heart.
She was front and center, cheering louder than all of them. Her dark hair cascaded down from the gold clip at the top of her head. Long tendrils slid down the shoulders of the silvery-blue blouse she wore. She looked better than any human had a right to.
Of course she had been at the graduation too, but with 4,000 graduates, they’d decided to meet back at the apartment rather than fight the crowd. Shyly she stepped up to him, her eyes shining.
The roomful of people never even registered as Jeremy took her in his arms. He kissed near her ear, crushing her to him. Happiness had never felt like this.
“I’m proud of you,” she whispered in his ear, and unsurpassed joy surged through him. He knew he should let her go, but all he wanted was to hold her there forever. A moment and then two.
Grateful overtook all else. “Thanks.” He let go of her partially, and she slid under his arm. Her hand stayed across his chest. He had never felt anything so wonderful.
“Picture!” Rebecca yelled, suddenly standing in front of them with a camera.
The flash evaporated everything other than the light.
“Ugh!” They both backed away, but it was too late. “Becca!”
“Got it.” She pranced off.
Jeremy was still blinking when Emily said, “Oh, wait right there. I’ve got something for you.” Like he could see to move.
In seconds she was back. The gift was the size of a hand, and Jeremy took it from her carefully.
“You didn’t have to get me anything.”
However, Emily was bouncing back and forth on her feet, excitement verily poured out of her. “Open it.”
The last of the paper dropped away, and Jeremy stopped in disbelief. “Spoons?”
“And a deck of cards,” she said, pointing. “Now we can play at your new place.”
The import of that statement wasn’t lost on Jeremy. In three weeks he would be moving across town to a small efficiency apartment. It was close enough to work so he could walk, thus saving on gas. Plus, it was only a quarter what he was paying now. As weird as it was to be leaving the jet set life behind, somehow it fit him perfectly.
He reached over and pulled Emily to him. “Now we don’t have to use yours all the time.”
She backed up enough to be able to look into his eyes. “See, it’s all in the plan.”
It hadn’t taken his mom an hour to leave, and Emily was sad about that. She liked Mrs. Stratton well enough, but it was clear the woman in the white silk suit had more important things to do than to hang out with a bunch of kids—even if one of them was her newly-graduated son.
The others, however, had settled into a comfortable party mood, and Emily was thoroughly enjoying herself with them. It didn’t seem hard like it once had. They just seemed like… friends. Not his friends, but her friends too, and that was more than she could ever have hoped for.
Rebecca plopped down on the couch beside her. “So, December this party will be for you.”
“I know. Isn’t that weird?”
“Weird.” Rebecca nodded.
Other pieces of life came back to her. “So how’s Holly? Did she make it out to California?”
“Yeah, her plane landed yesterday. Last I heard she was in a limo going out to one of the vineyards. Her mom’s new fiancé owns it or something.”
“Wow. I’m sure she’s freaked out by all of that.”
“Oh, you know Holly. She is, but she hides it all pretty well.”
Compassion for the friend she hardly knew slid through Emily. “Well, if you talk to her, tell her I’m praying for her.”
Rebecca smiled. “I’ll be sure to.”
“Everybody! Everybody! If I could have your attention please.” Jeremy stepped up next to her, realized there wasn’t much room, went around and pulled the coffee table back two feet, and was back around to her side in a flash. “Hello! Could I get some quiet please?”
Caught off guard by the sudden show he was making, Emily looked up at him. Strange that he looked nervous. What did he have to be nervous about now? Graduation was over.
“I know it’s been a long road to get to this day, and I really appreciate all of you being there for me. That’s why I want to share this, the best moment of my life with you all.”
Emily was looking up at him to hear what he had to say when suddenly he heaved a breath and dropped to one knee next to the couch beside her.
Gasps engulfed the room, but somehow she couldn’t get all the signals in her brain to line up in a logical order to tell her what he was doing. In the next second there was a diamond ring in his fingers, and he was holding it up to her. Where it had come from, she had no idea, and before she could think that thought all the way through, he snatched her gaze and her heart with his.
Struggling to understand, she shook her head. “What…?”
“Emily Vasquez, you are the most remarkable person I’ve ever met. I’d be a fool to ever let you get away. I love you with all of my heart. Will you marry me?”
Marry! Will you marry me? What? How was this happening? He couldn’t be serious. And yet as she looked into his eyes, she knew he totally was. He never moved as she looked from the ring to his eyes. Thoughts, memories, tears, pain, and joy leaped through her consciousness in no apparent order. Of course she wanted to, but should she? Married? Her married? This couldn’t be happening.
However, his eyes sliced through all the protests, and her thoughts settled like dew on a leaf. This was Jeremy. She loved him. There was no question about that. And he loved her. There was even less question about that. And yes, she did want to marry him. She really did. More than she’d ever wanted anything else. It was just until that moment, she had never let herself hope it could ever happen. But now, here he was asking. For as illogical as all of that was, he was really asking.
She nodded before she got the word out. “Yes.”
He looked almost disbelieving as he gazed up at her. “Yes?”
Her smiled overtook all else. “Yes, Jeremy, I’ll marry you.”
Who whooped first she had no idea, but suddenly they were surrounded by cheers and excitement. Somehow this felt very different than the cheering for him had earlier. Somehow she had entered into his dream, and their dreams were now merging into one.
One dream. One life. One love.
As he slid the ring with the small diamond onto her finger and wrapped her in his arms, she had no question that for now and for forever she was truly living in her own little piece of heaven because for now and for forever Jeremy Stratton had her heart, her life and her love, and there was no denying that was right where she was always meant to be.
Copyright Staci Stallings, 2006