A Light in the Darkness, Ch. 23 & Epilogue

Chapter 23

 

The first understanding Holly had the next morning was how incredibly bad her head hurt.  No.  Hurt didn’t do it justice.  Throbbed.  Jabbed.  Stabbed. That was closer.  Ached.  To be sure.  Spun, wrenched, pounded.  All those had a place in describing how utterly horrible she felt.

 

Forcing her eyes open although that only made her nauseous, she looked around the room.  Rebecca’s bed was fully made with all the stuffed animals in place on the pillows.  The thought of class pulled Holly up, but that made it worse.  Much worse.  She sank back into the pillows with a low moan.  She put her hand to her head, wishing it would just stop pounding for a minute.  Six seconds.  She would’ve taken six seconds of relief.

 

Her lungs hurt.  Her arms hurt, too.  Slowly a centimeter at a time she turned her head to catch the digits on the clock. 10:33.  She coughed softly, moving as little as possible because that felt like a jackhammer to her brain.  She’d missed class no matter what day it was.  Her brain tried to find that information.  Day?  Umm… The last thing she remembered… She squinted to find it.

 

Sitting on some steps on campus.  That was the last thing she really remembered. It hurt to think that hard, but it was important for her to know what had happened after that.  Slowly images and information began to resurface.  “Ugh.”  She rolled over, wishing the world would just go away.  Had she really embarrassed herself that badly with her friends?  They were going to disown her.  Thoughts of her mother did nothing to make anything better.  Holly wondered if she had called again.  Her luck she’d been trying to call since yesterday, and Holly would be in for another lecture.

 

Knowing it was going to kill her but knowing also she had to at least check, she rolled slowly back over and sat up.  The room swayed and pitched around her like a sailboat tossed in a storm.  She put her hand to her head and the other to the edge of the bed, trying to make it stop.  “Ugh.”  This was destined to be the longest day of her life.

 

She pulled herself to standing and swayed several times as she swallowed the dryness in her mouth and tried to remember where she might have put her purse.  There was literally no telling.  The memories held only bad, so she stopped going there.  Maybe if she got some coffee and something easy on the stomach like bread, maybe then she would feel good enough to think about finding it.

 

Sniffing back the offensive odor in her nose, she stumbled to the door to her room and out into the hallway.  She listened for voices, but there were none.  That was good.  At least she wouldn’t have to face her friends.  She put her hand to her head again because it felt so heavy it might fall right off her shoulders.  She’d turned the corner and was in the middle of the living room before her gaze caught the movement on the couch. It stopped her with a whack that almost pitched her to the floor.

***

Gabriel turned the second he heard her and dropped the paper he’d been trying to read for two hours.  He swung to standing, breathing in the fact that she really was in the same room he was. “Holly.”

 

“Gabriel?”  Her arms came up around her chest, and she looked down at what she was wearing—a teal and purple night shirt and matching purple pants.

 

For as bad as Emily had made it sound when he’d arrived this morning, Holly certainly looked better than he’d been worried she would.

 

“What…?”  She pushed the bush of hair out of her face.  “What’re you doing here?”

 

Perfect peace washed through him.  She was here.  She was safe.  Everything else they could deal with.  Knowing it was the best he could do, he stepped over to her and gathered her into his arms.  All he wanted to do was hold her forever.

 

At first she hesitated, but he didn’t let go.  In fact, he let the prayers of thanksgiving flow right through his arms.  As the hug continued, she relaxed and melted into his arms.  That was even better.  To feel her stop fighting, stop running—that was the best feeling ever.

 

“I was so worried about you,” he whispered into the strands of hair just under his chin.  “You had me scared me to death.”

 

Holly backed up, gazing at him in complete confusion.  “Why are you here?  How…?”

 

When Gabe looked down at her, there was no more reason to deny she was who God had chosen for him. All that remained was to convince her of that. “I called Mr. Teracini last night when I couldn’t get a hold of you.  He sent me on his plane to make sure you were okay.”

 

At that she let go of him totally and stepped to the couch back.  “But… they’re not together anymore.  Why would he care?”

 

Puzzled concern slid over Gabriel.  “What do you mean—why would he care?”

 

She didn’t answer.

 

“Of course he cares, Holly.”  Gabe put his hands on his hips feeling the chill of his arms without her in them.  “What makes you think he wouldn’t?”

***

It was all too much for her—Gabriel being here, the images from the previous nightmares she had lived through, the concept that her life meant anything to Luke.  She sniffed it all back, trying to keep it behind the dam that was weak and cracking.  Squeezing her eyes to keep the tears back only made her head hurt worse.  She hadn’t realized she was holding her breath until the gasp ripped through her.  Desperately she fought to swallow all the emotions attacking her, but they were vicious and overpowering.

 

And then he was there.  Gently his hands came to her arms.  She felt them, warm and strong, not wavering, not running.  Like a soft breeze he turned her to him, and with nothing else to grab onto, she latched onto him.

 

“I thought I’d never see you again.” The words flowed out of her freely, the dam being washed away in wave after wave of disappointments and fears.

 

He didn’t say anything, just held her.  The feel of his soft jacket was like the warmest pillow she’d ever felt.  And without really thinking past how thankful she was to have a shoulder to cry on, Holly let the tears stream out of her soul and down her face.  “Mom called.  She said it was over.  I knew what that meant.  We never go back. Never.  She wouldn’t let me if I wanted to.  In fact, she’d be furious if she knew you were here right now.”

 

It was the truth.  She could hear her mother’s yelling even as she stood there. Gathering some composure, Holly wiped her nose and stepped back.  “Why are you here anyway?”

 

“Because I knew you needed me.”

 

The simplicity of that answer shook across the belief she’d grown up with—the belief that no one would ever love her at the moment she needed them most, that they would never even know the moment that she needed them the most.  “But it’s across the country.”  More thoughts, saner thoughts came to her.  “And you’re missing classes.”  She turned to him, intent on explaining why he should not waste his time on her.  “And what about your mom?  She’s going to flip.”

 

His smile was soft and full of peace.  “She said to tell you she’s praying for you.”

 

Shock and disbelief snapped into her.  “I thought she hated me.”

 

Slowly Gabriel shook his head although his gaze never left her.  “Not after what you did for me.  Besides, she knows how I feel about you.”

 

That was too much.  “Gabriel, don’t.”

 

“Don’t what?  Say that I love you?  It’s true, Holly.”

 

She shook her head, sending her balance tipping and sliding. “No, it’s not.  You don’t even know me.  You don’t know all the things I’ve done.”

 

For one second he said nothing, and then determination came over him. “Okay, then tell me.  Right here.  Right now.  Put all your cards on the table.”

 

Somehow it was easier not to, easier to make the decision for him.  “Gabriel…”

 

He planted his hands at his beltline. “No, Holly.  I’m serious.  You keep acting like you’re made of kryptonite or something, and if I get close, I’m going to spontaneously combust.  Well, if it’s so bad, whatever it is, then tell me because right now, I’m not seeing what’s so horrible.”

 

It really wasn’t fair to be asked to do this on an empty stomach with a hangover the size of Mount Everest. However, she was tired of fighting it.  She was tired of trying to be someone she clearly wasn’t.  Last night should’ve proven that beyond all questioning.  She reached up and rubbed her hand across her forehead.  “Fine.  But don’t say you didn’t ask for it.”

***

As Holly walked around the couch and sat in the side chair, Gabe prayed whatever it was that he would in fact have the guts to stay.  “Lord, please,” he breathed, “whatever it is, help me to be here for her.”  He followed her and sat on the couch, where he shifted to get comfortable, anchored his gaze on her, and fell silent.

 

She never even looked at him.  Her gaze was glued to her hands which were folded in a clench on her knees.  A moment.  She closed her eyes, took a breath, and the words came.  “I grew up knowing I wasn’t enough.  My dad left before I was one.  He died when I was two.  I don’t even remember him. After that, there was a whole string of guys—some real prospects, some just a fix for the night.  I didn’t know most of them.  They left before I got up in the morning.  It wasn’t at all a surprise to find a guy I’d never met in the kitchen eating breakfast.

 

“I guess I figured that’s the way everybody lived, the way it was done, you know?  It was all I ever knew. So that’s how I did it, too.  I went on dates, if you could call them that.  Most of them were more make-out sessions than dates.  We rarely did much more than find a dark spot with good visibility control.  That was my idea of being with someone.  By the time I saw them at school the next morning, they didn’t even remember my name.

 

“Everyone knew about how I was.  The girls made comments, the guys made different comments.  I pretty much avoided everybody because that was easier.” She let out a breath.  “We moved so much about the time everyone figured it out, I’d be gone again.”

 

The question of if he really wanted to hear this drifted through him, but he forced the air into and out of his lungs in measured amounts.  God had forgiven her, now he had to find the strength to follow that lead.

 

“When I was a senior, we were living in Missouri, and I met Chase Morgan. He was different than all the other guys.  I don’t know why, but he was the first guy who really liked me for me.  He asked me to a dance, and we actually danced, you know?  We didn’t head out to his truck at the first intermission.  After the dance, he took me home and kissed me on the cheek.  That was something so different.  Something I’d never had before.  I didn’t tell anyone—especially Mom.  She had this theory about guys like him that I won’t even repeat.  It was really bad.

 

“Anyway, Chase and I started going together, and things were going great—or so I thought.  He asked me to the Winter Ball, and I was so excited, I couldn’t stand it.  Of course by that time we were finding out of the way places to meet too, but that was okay—at least it didn’t start out that way.  The night before the dance I did my dress rehearsal.  Mom said she’d let me borrow Grandma’s pearls. I felt like a real princess.  Mom and Jack, her husband at the time, made a big fuss over me.  They took all these pictures, and I was just floating.  Finally something was working out.”

 

The words stopped, and Gabe could tell she was fighting to keep going.  He wanted to say something, to assure her it was all right, but before he had the chance, she started again.

 

“The next night I was getting ready for the dance.  Mom was at work at the hospital.  I knew Jack was home, but I didn’t really think much about it.”  She wiped across the bottom of her eye although Gabe knew she wasn’t actually crying.  “So I went into Mom’s room to get the pearls, and I heard him come in.”  There was a long breath.  She shook her head, the battle to say the words was clear.  “I don’t know how or why, but he asked if he could put them on me.  I said, ‘Yes.’  He did, and then when I turned around…” Pain sliced through her features.  She slammed her eyes closed. “Oh…” The breath was hard and laden with hurt. “I can’t do this.”

 

In his spirit Gabe was already hacking gashes into Jack. That he’d hurt her badly was pretty much certain by that point.  “It’s okay, Holly.  It’s okay. Take your time.”

 

She nodded, heaved a breath, and then took a slower one.  “He wasn’t rough about it, but I knew what he wanted.  He kept telling me how beautiful I was and how he’d always been in love with me.  I didn’t want to stay.  I didn’t.  I just wanted to get away from him, to get away from there, from what was happening, but he told me he’d leave my mom if I didn’t.  He said he’d tell her if I ever said anything.”  Strangely, the tears, the emotions left, leaving a void in her voice that was unsettling.  “After it was over, I got up, I got ready, and I went to the dance.”

 

Her gaze slid ahead of her to some undetermined point in the living room.  Distancing, he’d seen that look, had felt it in his own spirit.

 

“Chase asked me to go steady on the way to the dance.”  The laugh was hollow and ache-filled.  “How could I say yes by then?  You know?  How?  He didn’t know what he was asking, who he was asking.”  Her gaze fell back to her hands.  “I told him no, and by the time the night was over, I was with Eddie Danillo, and Chase hated me.”

 

Slowly she pushed a strand of her hair over her ear. “A month later I graduated. I went to junior college there in Lanford because Mom said it was smart, and then one night they had a fight.  Jack walked out.  Two months later she met Bradley. I thought things would get better.  I wanted them to so bad.  I really did.  School was going good.  I was dating again.  And then one night, he came home drunk.”  She was distancing again.  It was painful to watch how easily she shut off the emotions.  “He started making comments about how beautiful I was and how Mom had nothing on me.”

 

There was no real breath, more a pause to absorb oxygen. “The next day I packed up, and I moved to Boston—not harm, no foul.  Not even an explanation.  Of course in six weeks, Bradley was history.  Three months later she married Dan.  He was a good enough guy.  Too good for her probably.  His family was really nice to me, too.  They even gave me Christmas presents.  Course I was forbidden to ever see them again when she left him in March.  He had agreed to help me with college, and then when she left him for Luke, I was cut loose again.  Now she’s left Luke for Brian somebody who I’m sure is an upstanding pillar of the community type of a guy.  And in six months, or three, or two, who knows?”

 

Somehow in all the names, he still hadn’t heard the one he’d expected to hear.  “Wait.  What about Steve?  How does he fit into all this?”

 

“Steve?” She seemed genuinely confused by the question.  “I don’t… Oh.”  Again her eyes fell closed. More memories.  More wounds opened up.

 

It killed him to open them, to make them bleed again.  But he needed to know, needed not to be rummaging around in the darkness of her life he couldn’t clearly understand.  He leaned forward slightly and waited, hoping this was something completely trivial with no real connection to all the other junk.

 

“Steve was Jean Paul’s friend.”  Her voice was hollow again, a million miles away.

 

Gabriel shook his head.  “Who’s Jean Paul?”

 

“Luke’s nephew from San Francisco.  They hooked me up with him—presumably so I wouldn’t make a play for Luke.”

 

“Luke?” That angered as much as confused him.  “Why would you do that?”

 

“Because when Jack walked out, he told Mom about him and me—only he made it sound like I was the one who did it, like I was the one who made a play for him.”

 

“Ugh.”  This story got worse and worse.  Gabriel let his gaze travel to the sunlight streaming from the windows.  He didn’t want to leave, but he had to have a moment to process everything.  A moment and another, and he forced his gaze back to her.  “That still doesn’t tell me who Steve is.”

 

Holly’s head fell with her gaze.  When she shook her head, all he saw was the part in her hair and the sadness cloaking her.  “We went out one night—Jean Paul and I.”  The breathing became heavy and hard again, and he knew she was fighting the tears vehemently. He just couldn’t tell who was winning.

 

With everything in him, Gabe wanted to go to her and hold her, but he wasn’t sure if that would help or hurt.  Finally he slid from the couch and knelt at her feet.  His gaze found her face which was etched in indescribable pain.

 

“We went to the beach.” She took an awkward breath to calm the words.  “They played the key game.”

 

Gabe closed his eyes.  He’d heard of that from some of the guys on campus. They made it sound like the coolest thing ever.  To him, it sounded like the most disgusting thing ever.

 

“I didn’t know what it was.”  She shrugged.  “Until later…  I really… I didn’t want to, but Steve…”

 

“That’s when you showed up at the carriage house.”

 

She nodded.  Far from hating her, he loved her now more than ever.  She had survived hell.  Gently, he wrapped her in his arms. As he did so, he vowed that what was past was past.  Never again would she be caught up in that yuck with no one to turn to.

***

Holly leaned into his embrace mostly out of exhaustion.  Physical. Mental. Emotional. Spiritual.  She was wiped out.  She had a thought that pulled her back where she could wipe her eyes.  “Did Luke really ask about me?”

 

Gabriel’s gaze was inches from her—steady and concerned.  “What do you think—I  stole his plane without him knowing it?  That would be grand theft airplane.  I don’t think so.”

 

She laughed softly, but it fell into the hurt of knowing she had surely lost more people she had grown to so love.  “He’s probably hacked, huh?”

 

“Not at you.”  Gabriel pulled her to her feet, sat down in the chair, and pulled her down into his embrace.  “Look, I know this is hard for you.  It’s hard to separate yourself from all the junk your mom has done and brought into your life, but the way I see it, you have a choice.  You can keep letting her jerk you around, or you can start making your own decisions—standing on your own two feet.”

 

Holly knew that, but it was so very difficult.  “But when they drop her, they drop me too.”

 

Under her, Gabriel shifted his legs suddenly, but he caught her with no effort.  “Just like me, huh?  I dropped you the minute I found out.  Yep, that Holly.  She isn’t worth keeping around anyway.”

 

She knew he was kidding both by the tone of his voice and by the mischievous glint in his eyes.  “Haha.”

 

“What?  You don’t believe me?”

 

Playfully she whacked his arm.  “You know what I mean.”

 

“No, I know what you meant, but don’t you get it?  That stuff’s in the past if you let it be. Look around you.  Your friends were hysterical looking for you last night, and I flew for the first time in a plane that felt like it was going to crash in one of those cornfields the whole way here.  Why did we do that?”  He tilted his head to look at her.  “Why, Holly?”

 

Holly felt the question go through her.  She put her head down at the implication. “I don’t know.”

 

“Because we love you, that’s why.  Not because of who your mom is or where you’re from or what you have or don’t have.  We love you because of you.”  He nudged into her.  “It’s time you realize, you’re not that person anymore.  You’ve changed.  Give yourself some credit.  You made it through all that, and here you are with friends who love you and a guy who can’t live without you.”

 

Shock hit her, and she looked at him.

 

“I know. I know.  I’m a sap.  So sue me.”  His gaze grew serious.  “I completely freaked out last night when they couldn’t find you, Holly.  I just kept thinking, ‘What if I never see her again? What if she got on that plane, and that’s the last time we’ll ever be together?’”  His gaze fell.  “I couldn’t let that happen.”

 

Holly understood her own need for him, but the fact that he still wanted to be with her made no sense.  “But what about all the other stuff?  What about all the stupid things I did?”

 

“Is that who you are now?”

 

“It was last night.”

 

“Why?”

 

Answering that hurt.  “Because I knew that’s all I deserved.  I didn’t think I’d ever hear from you again or Luke.  I just wanted to bury the hurt.”

 

“Did you have to?”

 

It was a question she hadn’t considered.  “Well, no.”  She shook her head, seeing the other options that had really been available.  “Em and Becca would’ve listened.”

 

“And so would’ve I.”

 

She smiled as that touched her heart.  “And so would’ve you.”

 

“You’re not alone anymore, Holly.  Okay?  You’re not.  You have people here who love you, who want to help… if you’ll let us.”

 

It was more than she ever could’ve imagined was possible.

***

Paybacks were in order.  Holly had tested their friendships to the limits, and they had come through… again.  At two she suggested making the others a special supper, to thank them, and Gabriel agreed.  They were elbow deep in Gabriel’s four-alarm chili when Rebecca made it home at four.

 

“What is that smell?” she asked, stepping into the kitchen.

 

“Supper.”  Holly felt lighter than she had in years—maybe in forever.  “Go call the guys and invite them.  We’re celebrating.”

 

Rebecca glanced over at Gabriel who stood stirring the huge pot.  “What are we celebrating?”

 

With a smile that would’ve lit New York, Holly sighed. “Life.”

***

“That was incredible,” Jeremy said, leaning back in the chair.  “You should open your own restaurant, Gabe.”

 

“No kidding.” Emily flipped the last piece of her bread back to her plate. “I’m stuffed.”

 

Holly jumped up from the table.  “But there’s dessert!”

 

Everyone groaned.

 

“Can we wait on that?” Eric asked.  “If I eat any more, I might explode.”

 

Putting a pout on Holly turned to them.  “But I worked a long time on it.”

 

Rebecca reached out and put her hand on Holly’s arm.  “Later.  We promise. Right now, let’s get this cleaned up.”

 

Gabriel stood next to Holly and picked up three dishes and a pan. Feeling how wonderful it was to be in his presence again, she reached out for the things he had.  He handed them to her and grabbed more.

 

“So, Gabe,” Eric said as he, too, gathered dishes, “you’re in management?”

 

“Trying to be.   Just two and a half semesters left.”

 

“Enjoy it,” Jeremy said as he entered the kitchen with the others.  “I kept thinking, ‘Can’t wait to get out… Can’t wait to get out… When I get out… Only one more year…’ Now I’m out, and it’s ‘Man, what was I thinking?’”

 

They laughed.

 

“Well, that and ‘Is my tux ready yet?  Have we got the hall booked…?’” Rebecca teased.

 

“No, that’s Emily’s department,” Jeremy said quickly.  “I try to stay as far away from that as possible.”

 

“Smart man.”  Eric clamped Jeremy on the back.  “Smart man.”

 

Rebecca angled an elbow into Eric’s stomach.  “Watch it, Mister.”

 

From the other side of him at the sink, Jeremy caught him in the ribs with another elbow.  “She’s onto you, man.  You’d better run for your money.”

 

“What am I a punching bag?” Eric backed up from the soapy water.

 

“It’s okay, Eric.”  Holly stepped up behind him to put another pot in the water as she put her hand on his back.  “Some of us are grateful you’re a good punching bag.”  She smiled at him with thankfulness in her eyes.  He had stepped between her and hell at least three times now.  How she’d ever gotten so lucky to have all of them, she couldn’t clearly tell, but she was grateful nonetheless.

 

“You hear that, Eric?” Jeremy asked, whacking him again. “You were born to be a punching bag.”

 

“You know, you’d better watch that elbow.  You might get to eat that thing.”

 

“You’ve got to excuse them, Gabriel,” Rebecca said.  “I’m sure the guys out west are much better behaved.”

 

“Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure about that.”  Gabriel glanced at Holly and smiled.  It was a world only they knew.  “You think that’s true, Holly?”  He stepped across the kitchen and put his arms around her.  “Are the guys out West better?”

 

She was swimming in his eyes.  They held such peace and love—even now.  How that was possible, she had no idea.  “I’m not complaining.”

***

On Sunday, Gabriel knew he couldn’t stay forever.  That didn’t mean he wanted to leave.  At her apartment complex, he knocked, but when she came to the door, he didn’t want everyone and their dog to be around for this moment.  “Morning.”  His hands slipped up to his waistband.  It still did funny things to see her, especially like this.

 

She had on her jeans and a cable knit sweater.  It wasn’t fashionable or even particularly nice.  But it was comfortable and easy-going just like the real her.  “Morning.”

 

She stepped closer to him, and he took her into his arms.  He closed his eyes, soaking in the feeling and righting the promise in his heart.

 

When she let go, he gazed at her.  “What do you say we go out here for a while?”

 

That seemed to throw her, but she recovered quickly.  “Okay.”

 

She shut the door behind her and wrapped her hand in his as they started outside.  The October sun had yet to really relinquish its warmth. Bright and inviting, it shone down upon the early fall morning.  There was a little walking trail through the courtyard that led down to the sitting garden.  It wasn’t much more than six sets of flowers and a bench, but Gabriel angled their steps that direction anyway.

 

“Oh, I was going to tell you,” Holly said, suddenly excited. “Luke called me last night.  His new secretary is giving him fits.”  Her laugh lifted his spirit.

 

“Can’t get the receipts from the groundskeepers, huh?”

 

Holly laughed.  “Something like that.  You know how difficult Darius can be.”

 

Gabe joined her laugh.  “He’s better than I ever was.”

 

She clutched his hand tighter. “I wouldn’t know about that.”

 

They walked in silence several paces.  With a toss in the breeze she flipped her hair out of her face.

 

“I guess Luke’s ready to get his plane back, huh?” Gabe asked, glancing over at her.

 

She took two long, slow steps. “Actually he said he’s scheduled a trip out here in a couple weeks.  He said it’s business, but I think he wants to check up on me, too.”

 

His gaze swung to hers. “That’s good, right?”

 

Her smile was soft.  “Yeah, that’s good.”  Three more steps. “I think Mom’s moving to Seattle.  She called me last night.”  Sadness drifted over her.  “I wish I could do more than just pray for her.  She’s really struggling.”

 

“Hey, don’t discount prayer.  It’s why I’m here.”

 

“Yeah, me too.”  The sigh she heaved was laden with the desire for time to stop. “I don’t want you to leave.”

 

Gabe arched his arm and put it around her, hugging her to him tightly.  He leaned over and kissed the top of her head.  “You could come with me.”

 

“Yeah, right.”  She put her hand onto his chest, feeling the strength and solidity there.  “I’ve got school, remember?”

 

They’d arrived at the tiny garden, and he pushed through the wrought iron gate.  “There are schools in California. You know? Good schools.  Schools that can teach you how to be an excellent kindergarten teacher.”

 

Suddenly the fact that he might be serious crashed into her.  “Are you serious?”

 

At the little wrought iron bench, Gabe sat and pulled her down with him.  He didn’t say anything for a long moment. “I don’t know.  Am I?”

 

Holly sat up and looked at him.  Nowhere in his eyes did she see teasing.  Levity left her as well.  “Gabriel, what are you saying?”

 

He looked away, closed his eyes, and then his gaze came back to her face.  “Look, I know you haven’t had anything solid in your life, and I know you want to put down roots and find that stability.”  He leaned forward and took her hands in his. “And I want you to do that with me.”  He shook his head.  “I know it’s crazy to ask.  We’ve both got school, and we can’t think about marriage right now.  But Holly, you’ve got to know, I can’t see tomorrow without you.  I can’t.  I don’t want to walk away again, hoping you won’t find someone to replace me.”

 

In his voice was hope and hopelessness.  Holly sat, looking at him, knowing he couldn’t be asking what she thought he was.  His gaze trapped hers.

 

“Look, I know you’ve got school here and friends, and I have no right to ask or even anything to offer other than the fact that I love you, and it’s killing me not being with you.”

 

She stared at him, searching his eyes for what any of this meant. “But how?  I can’t just transfer in the middle of the semester.  And where would I live, where would I go?”  All the questions attacked her at once.

 

“I’m sorry.” Pain scratched across his face.  “I shouldn’t have said anything.”  His gaze fell to their hands.

 

“No.  No, we need to talk about these things, but I just don’t see how right now.”

 

He nodded, and when he looked at her, it was with acceptance.

 

“I’m not saying, ‘No,’” she said softly, wanting to quell the hurt in his eyes, “but I’ve lived my whole life with one impulsive decision after another—because it was easier, because Mom couldn’t live without him.”  She took a long breath.  “You know that I love you?”

 

Again he nodded.

 

“Then we’re going to have to trust that.  If it’s meant to be, it will be.”

***

When Holly put him on the plane an hour later, she had never doubted a decision more.  Still, she hugged him, kissed him, and told him good-bye.  However, by the time she got home, she knew he was right.  Being here without him, being anywhere without him wasn’t something she ever wanted to do again. In her room, she grabbed her calendar and then the phone.  It was a leap of faith, she knew, but it was all she could think to do.  “Hello. Yes, is Luke there?  This is Holly.”

***

The plane ride home was worse than the plane ride to Boston.  Exhaustion filling him, Gabe laid his head on the window and watched the tiny world float by below.  He knew she was right.  She needed to be there.  It made no sense to pick up and move everything.  He shouldn’t have even asked her.  It was just that walking away, watching her walk away ripped his heart in two, and he wasn’t sure how many more times he could do that.  As he closed his eyes, he asked God for the strength to hold onto the knowledge that He had a plan for them.  That plan would be done in His way and His time.  It was a matter of whether Gabe could stay in one piece until that happened.

 

Yanking himself from the thoughts, he picked up True Power & Real Peace.

 

The ability to wait on God is a hallmark of the rich soul.

Gabe laughed out loud.  How God could do that every time, he wasn’t at all sure.

 

The trust that this waiting requires does not totally diminish with the proven times God has worked in a life, but those times do help.  They give the rich soul solid proof that God does work, that His ways are above the ways of the world, that if it hasn’t worked out now, the rich soul can always add the word, “Yet.”  It hasn’t worked out “Yet.”  It hasn’t worked out the way I thought it would “Yet.”  I don’t see how it can ever work out “Yet.”   Yet allows the rich soul to walk through the darkness of what is now, believing that the light is only a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if.’

God is a God of when, not if.  Hope comes from having faith in the ultimate victory of God.  Not if, but when.  As rich souls walk through life, they might not see evidence other than through their faith that anything about their present situation might work out.  But the rich soul will stand in the secure understanding that God’s timing is worth waiting for.  Instead of forcing, vow only to take the step He is asking you to take at this moment, knowing that “yet” is coming and “when” is a conclusion not a question mark.

 

For when it is right, when it is ready, when it is His will, He will most assuredly grant the desires of your heart.  Take this step.  This one—in trust and faith.  In doing so you can walk in True Power & Real Peace knowing all the questions are already answered in His time, in His love, and in His wisdom. It will happen.  It just hasn’t happened yet.

Gabe put the book down with a sigh. “So I’m supposed to trust even now?”

 

“No,” God’s voice blocked out even the plane.  “Not even now.  Especially now.”

 

Why was it God had an answer for everything?  But still, Gabe smiled. “Okay, I get it.  I’ll take this step.  This one, and I’ll put the rest in Your hands.  Your timing, Your will, Your wisdom be done this time and every time, now and forever. Amen.”

***

“Don’t shoot me,” Holly said that night as the three of them sat around the table eating leftover chili.  “But I’ve made a decision.”

 

Rebecca looked at Emily. “Uh-oh.”

 

Holly couldn’t look at them and say the words, so she anchored her gaze on her chili.  “I’m moving to California in December.  Luke has agreed to let me come stay with him.  I can go to school right there in the Valley.”

 

Her friends exchanged looks.

 

“So, you’re not going now?” Emily managed to ask.

 

Slowly Holly shook her head.  “I need to finish out this semester.  I’ve got my classes and my credits to think about.  I need to do that for me first, but then…”

 

Silence drifted through the room.  After a full minute, Holly looked up at them.  “I’m sorry.”

 

“For what?” Rebecca asked, gazing at her.

 

“For leaving, for not being here with you guys anymore.”

 

Emily’s gaze fell to her bowl.  “Well, I’m not going to be here either.  We’ll be staying in Colorado after the wedding.”

 

More silence as the import of those words hit each of them.

 

“And I’ve only got another semester after that,” Rebecca said.  “I’ll be doing my internship next semester, so I won’t be around that much either.”

 

Holly was having trouble understanding.  “Then you’re not mad?”

 

“Why would we be mad?” Rebecca asked.  “Gabriel’s a nice guy.  He’ll be a very lucky guy to marry you.”

 

“Marry?” Holly asked, jumping.  “Who said anything about marriage?”  But as she let the word into her consciousness, she realized she’d been thinking the same thing.  “Do you really think he’d ask me to marry him?”

 

“Are you kidding me?” Rebecca shrieked.  “That guy is ga-ga over you.  Haven’t you seen how he looks at you?”

 

Embarrassment seeped into her. “I must’ve missed that part.”

 

Emily nodded in agreement.  “When you guys left this morning, I figured that’s where you were going.”

 

Holly’s eyes widened.  “Really?  I just thought we were going for a walk.”

 

“Trust me, those walks can change your life forever,” Emily said with a smile that sent hope spiraling through Holly.  Maybe, just maybe Emily was right.  If so, she couldn’t wait for that special walk.

***

“I’ve made a decision,” Holly said later as she lay on her bed, staring up at the ceiling with the phone at her ear.  “I talked to Luke today, and I’m moving back to California…”

 

“Oh, Holly, I’m sorry,” Gabriel said, stopping her.  “I shouldn’t have asked you to do that.  It was selfish of me, and…”

 

“Hey!  Hello!  Drama King, let me finish.”

 

He stopped. “Oh. Okay.”

 

“I’m not moving right now, but this is my last semester here.  I talked to Em and Becca tonight, and this makes sense.  Em will be staying in Colorado after the wedding anyway, and Becca only has one more semester after this one.  There’s no future for me here, and besides, Luke’s excited about having me back.”

 

He didn’t say anything.

 

Concern twined through her spirit. “Say something.”

 

“I don’t want you to do this for me.”

 

“I’m not,” she said as a smile of conviction spread through her.  “I’m doing it for us.”

 

“Us?” There was a hint of a smile. “I like the sound of that.”

 

Epilogue

 

Cold hardly did the weather justice.  Frigid was a better description.  Frigid with a generous snow pack which was being added to by the second was even closer.

 

“I don’t think these dresses were designed for sub-zero temperatures,” Rebecca said, pulling the bodice of the cap-sleeved, ice-blue bridesmaid dress up.  It fell in a perfect sheath down her figure.

 

“Where did your wrap go?” Holly asked as she readjusted the soft blue bow of the flower girl’s dress.  They’d only met the night before, but they’d become fast friends.

 

“Well, first of all, satin and six inches of fur is not going to help.” At the mirror in the church’s little chapel, Rebecca adjusted the top of the dress.  Her hair, now cut in a chopped and flipped style, framed her glasses-free face.  However, she was used to neither the hairstyle nor the glamour.  And Holly had reason to suspect there was another matter not making her the normal, down-to-earth Rebecca Holly knew so well.

 

“So is this what happens when you get a rock on your finger?” Holly teased.  “You become unbearable to live with.”

 

“Haha.”  Rebecca held out her hand for the ninety-seventh time since she and Eric had stepped off the plane.  “It is beautiful, isn’t it?”

 

“Hello! A little help here, please!” Emily called from the other side of the door.

 

Holly jumped to her feet and raced to it.  Opening it, she couldn’t help but marvel at the dramatic change in both her roommates.  Emily, normally the coolest of them all, rushed in, a large white bag in her hand.  Behind her the veil streamed, held to her flowing hair by a dazzling tiara.

 

However, her outfit didn’t match her headdress.  Instead of a flowing white gown, she sported a black velour sweat suit and black snow boots.

 

“Ugh.  We almost got stuck!” she wailed, unzipping and removing whatever she found at the speed of light.  “Can you help me with this?”

 

Holly bounded into action.  “What do you need?”  As if she’d done this before, she had Emily in the dress and elegant shoes in no time.  “Oh, Em. That dress is to die for!”

 

Delicate gold accents swept side to side across the top of the bodice with the same cap sleeves as her bridesmaids.  The faint gold embroidery then flourished into a wide belt at the waist, finishing in a cascading v down the front. It had a dramatic fall from the waist to the chapel length train on the back.  With her hair up but tumbling down in loose spiral curls across her shoulders, she was unbelievably gorgeous.

 

“Thanks.”  Then as Emily turned and looked in the mirror, the understanding of what was happening slipped over her features.  She stepped forward, mesmerized.

 

It was a moment of hope as the three friends gazed into the mirror, Emily in the center of them.

 

“Knock. Knock.”  The photographer entered, took one look at them as they turned toward back to the door, and fawned.  “Oh, that’s perfect.  Perfect. Don’t move.”

 

And thus began the most magical day of Holly’s life.

***

“Gabriel made it,” Rebecca said, stepping back into their now-prison in the chapel.  The moment guests started arriving, Emily’s mom had banished them into this beautiful but not overly big space.

 

Holly’s heart slammed into motion.  She hadn’t seen him since the night before at the rehearsal.  The need to see him overtook her.  “Do you think your mom will mind?”

 

“Go ahead.” Emily waved her off happily. “She’ll get over it.”

 

With a squeal, Holly went to the door and quietly opened it.  She slipped out, careful not to open it wide enough for anyone to see in.  One breath and she knew she’d made the right decision moving.  She’d only been in California three days before they had to hop another plane out here, which was a good thing because they’d beaten the snowstorm’s onslaught by mere hours.  Now here she was snowed in and happier than she’d ever been in her life.  He was already looking out over the pews for a good seat.

 

“Gabriel,” she whisper-shouted.  “Gabriel!”

 

Several people turned, and then Eric, bless him, realized what she was doing.  He reached over and tapped Gabriel on the arm and then pointed back at her.  The look in Gabriel’s eyes when he turned was worth every moment of terrible they had been through. His search for a seat forgotten, he walked back to her.

 

“Look at you.”  And he was looking at her head to toe.  “Wow.”

 

Holly spun slowly so he could get the full effect.  “My wrap is back in there.”

 

“Well, except that you’re going to freeze to death like that, I don’t mind.”  He put an arm around her, and Holly let him pull her close.  She closed her eyes to breathe him in.  Her hand went to his chest, and she felt how wonderful it was to be near him again. When he let her go, he took one more long look before pulling her to him to kiss her forehead.  “I’d better get a good seat.  I wouldn’t want to miss that walk down the aisle.”

 

Ducking her head as embarrassment flooded through her, she nodded.  “Don’t have too much fun without me.”

 

“Never.”

***

The music swelled to life, and Gabriel watched Jeremy, Eric, and the other groomsmen come in down front.  The priest came in with them, and then all gazes swept to the back.  First came a young lady with flaming red hair.  Audry.  Gabriel had met her the night before.  However, his gaze held her for only a moment because it was yanked backward by the beauty now walking in behind her.

 

His heart lifted to the point that he couldn’t breathe.  Soft, blond hair, delicate features, grace that defied gravity. Everything about her was so right—even the soft, gentle smile.  It made him smile like an idiot for no real reason other than he felt like the luckiest guy in the world.  Just then her gaze chanced on him and locked there.  As she stepped ever closer, he saw all the emotions—gratefulness, hope, joy, peace, love—flow through her.  A moment and with tears glinting on her lashes, she let her gaze drop and stepped past him.  Still his gaze followed her all the way to the front where she took her place and tossed her hair back to watch the others.

 

Not because he wanted to but to be polite, Gabe retraced his gaze to the aisle where Rebecca, the maid of honor, beaming at Eric standing as best man at the end of her walk, came down the aisle.  Gabe was sure it wouldn’t be long, and this would be the two of them.  It was clear this dress rehearsal was full of happiness as well.

 

And then the bridal party was in place.  The priest raised his hands, and everyone stood.  The organ announced the majesty of the moment as at the back Emily appeared.  Gasps of awe swept through the congregation.  Emily, her face obscured by a thin veil, walked between her parents—neither of whom looked especially comfortable.  However, Emily never faltered.  Her gaze was on Jeremy who stood gazing at her like she was an angel sent from Heaven.

 

They never broke the gaze one to the other the whole way down the aisle. At the front the parents Emily’s parents kissed her and stepped away.  Jeremy and Emily took two steps toward the altar side-by-side and then turned to each other.  Gently even though he looked like he might burst with love and happiness, Jeremy took hold of both sides of the veil and lifted it carefully over her head.  One long look into each other’s eyes, one smile of utter gratefulness, and he put out his arm for her.  Looking like she might in fact float right off the deep rose colored carpet with the gesture, Emily accepted his arm, and together they stepped into a new life.

***

It was a good thing Holly had brought tissue, hiding it in her bouquet.  She only hoped now that her makeup would hold up under the onslaught of tears.  It was all just so beautiful, so right.  Emily and Jeremy were made for each other, and she couldn’t help but wonder as she watched them, could her own wedding ever be this beautiful?

 

“Please be seated,” the priest said to the congregation after the readings.

 

The wedding party was to stay standing, and so Holly shifted her flowers and squared her shoulders.  All gazes might be on Emily, but it was a pretty sure bet that one might be looking at her.  She tamped down that thought because it threatened to make her squeal with joy.

 

“Emily and Jeremy, it is an honor to be here today to celebrate with you,” the priest said. “I can’t help but think about how far the two of you have come to be in this place together.  As I reflected on your readings, one thing jumped out at me, and that is your total and uncompromising reliance on God.  We have talked at great length about how important this is to the two of you—how there were times you felt Him guiding you even though you weren’t sure you could step into what He was asking of you.

 

“But by doing so, by stepping into that place He was calling you with faith and trust, you have opened your lives to His Kingdom to come into your lives.  You may not have known how it could work at certain times, but you trusted that it would just the same.  That is what Jesus meant in the Our Father.  ‘Thy Kingdom come.’  That doesn’t just mean it will come some day, that means, ‘Please, Lord, come into our lives right now.  Let God’s Kingdom start right here, right now in my life.’  I challenge you now to step into this new life He has called you both to—where the two shall become one.  One flesh, one love.

 

“A love that has the qualities spoken about in the second reading.  Patience, kindness, never jealous, never rude, not self-seeking, rejoicing in the truth.  This is the love we wish for the two of you as you come to the altar to begin your lives together.”

 

Holly glanced over her shoulder, and her heart floated with the smile and wink Gabriel sent her way.  God’s Kingdom come.  Right here. Right now.  Step into it.  Risk loving, really loving, holding nothing back—not the good, not even the bad.  She let her eyes fall closed to make her own life vow.  That was the way she wanted to live now, not just because of Gabriel, but because that’s what she so wanted for her life.

 

Jesus had given her a second chance. Gabriel had shown her how.  Now, she had to learn to accept good things rather than always expecting the bad.  There was a reason she was here.  It was because she’d finally let others in, let them love her, let them get close.  Was that risking something?  Yes, to be sure.  But as she turned to watch Emily and Jeremy pledge their love to each other, it suddenly was perfectly clear to her that love was the only way to live.  All the other junk wasn’t really living, it was fighting not to die, and there was a very big difference.

***

Even as they stood at the dance later, the evening winding down around them, every second they were together solidified Holly’s vow.  Watching Gabriel as he talked with Eric so easily, Holly couldn’t help but be grateful she had waited.  Yes, Eric was a great guy, and she was eternally grateful for his friendship.  But he wasn’t the one God had in mind for her.  True, the waiting and the getting here had nearly busted them all apart, but it was for the best.  She could see that now.

 

As she looked at them, she couldn’t help but remember Gabriel’s words:  “God has a plan.”  Yes, and it was becoming clear how much better His plan was than anything she had ever tried to make work.  He was so smart, and she had never been so grateful.

 

“What?” Eric said, his glasses flashing with the light.  “It wasn’t my fault.  She wouldn’t leave me alone about it.  She kept saying, ‘Man, you’re jumpy.  What is wrong with you? Are you sure you’re okay?’  I finally couldn’t take it anymore.”

 

“So you asked her to marry you on the plane?” Gabriel lifted his punch to his lips.  “Smooth.”

 

Eric shrugged.  “Hey, it’s memorable.  I bet there aren’t ten other couples in the world who could say they got engaged on a plane.”

 

“I’ve heard of some that got married on a plane,” Gabriel said, “and even some that got married jumping out of a plane.”

 

“Oh, my gosh.”  Holly shook her head, her eyes going wide.  “Don’t even say that!  Rebecca will shoot you.”

 

Eric too looked positively horrified.  “Rebecca?  I might shoot you.  I’m crazy, but I’m not that crazy.”

 

“That’s debatable,” Rebecca said, walking up to the little group.  “What’s up?”

 

As his arm came around her, Eric gazed down at her. “Hey, if I’m crazy, what does that say about you?”

 

She shrugged.  “That I like crazy?” She arched her lips to him.

 

“Me too.” He kissed her.

 

Gabriel and Holly laughed.  It looked so snuggly wonderful, Holly slipped under Gabriel’s arm loving the fact that she was no longer a third wheel.  Rebecca was right.  This was much better.

 

Rebecca took Eric’s hand. “Come on, crazy.  We’re needed for carrying presents duty.  They’re going to start cleaning up.”

 

“Oh. You need help?” Holly asked.

 

“Nah, we got the twins to help.” Rebecca rubbed her other hand down Eric’s back. “One more big, strong guy ought to do it.”

 

“Big, strong guy?” Holly asked with a teasing smile.  “Maybe you’d better take someone else.”

 

“Haha.”  Eric smirked at her.  “Drink your punch.”

 

She complied with a laugh.  The two of them walked off, he still in the tuxedo, she still looking gorgeous in her bridesmaid dress.  It was a pretty sure bet that Jeremy and Emily would’ve stayed longer, not to mention all the guests, but the predictions of more snow coming in over the mountains had sent everyone scurrying for safety.  In fact, the entire wedding party sans bride and groom hadn’t even changed yet.  They were supposed to, but it seemed everything that was supposed to happen hadn’t quite turned out that way.  It was a Holy Spirit thing according to Emily.  She’d always wanted a small wedding.  Weeding the invitations hadn’t worked, but the snow had.

 

Holly sighed at how perfect it all was.  The God has a plan thing was catching hold of her soul in ways she couldn’t quite comprehend.  “We should go help.”

 

“Oh, okay,” Gabriel said as if snapping out of a trance.  “Yeah, we’d better.”

 

Concern drifted over her.  “You okay?”

 

“Yeah.”  He looked down at her and with a half-smile.  “Why wouldn’t I be?”

 

With a small scowl she perused his eyes once more.  There was something different about him, but she couldn’t quite tell what it was.  “Then let’s do this so we can get out of here.  Stuck in the snow on the side of a mountain does not sound like fun to me.”

 

“Chicken.”  He threw his cup into the trashcan one of the twins was bringing around.

 

“Not chicken.  It’s called being smart.”  Holly got on one side of the table, Gabriel on the other, and together they un-taped the tablecloths.  It was really too bad the night had to end so soon.  She was just getting used to the magic.

***

“We’ll follow you,” Gabriel said, as the four of them stood at the hall door bundling up for the ice and snow beyond.  The guys had already been out, clearing the snow off the vehicles and getting them started.  That, apparently, was a task in and of itself.

 

Eric made one more check of himself and grabbed Rebecca’s hand. “Okay. Try to keep up.”

 

“Hey, this isn’t a race!” Holly called as the four of them darted into the sleeting darkness.

 

“Speak for yourself!” Rebecca called over her shoulder.  Then she ducked and made a true break for it.  “Aaahhh!  It’s freezing out here!”

 

Hurrying but trying not to slip, Holly held her breath until she jumped in the cab of the rented 4 X 4.  Two layers of coats did nothing to stop the chill through the satin dress.

 

“Brr!” Holly huddled over herself as Gabriel slammed his door and flipped the heater on higher.  He reached over and tucked her under his arm, which helped but not as much as a nice warm fire would have.

 

He stayed like that for a minute. “That was nice.”

 

Happiness drifted through even the chill as Holly looked up at him.  “So you had fun?”

 

“Of course.”  He leaned closer to her head.  “I was with you, wasn’t I?”  He caught her in his gaze, and time gave way to the moment. His lips came to hers, and a fire would’ve been no comparison.  The world around them dissipated into the warmth of that kiss.

 

She melted into him, wishing they never had to leave.  Even the shivers subsided.  Who needed two coats when he was around? At that moment there was the blare of a car horn, and with a jerk they both looked out the front window.  “Party poopers,” Holly said, shivering again as she realized who it was.  “Fine. Let’s get back to the inn.  I’m thinking hot chocolate and s’mores sound awesome.”

 

“Well, you’re easy to please.” Gabriel laughed as he put both hands on the wheel and followed Eric out into the night.  “The inn it is then.”

***

Tucked next to the side of the mountain, surrounded by trees so tall the tops were visible only from a distance was the Innsbrook Inn.  It wasn’t big or overly fancy, but it was much like everything else in Remlin—small, cozy, and just right.  Gabriel let Holly out at the door so she wouldn’t have to walk through the snow, which didn’t exactly work because the swirling stuff was everywhere.  Once inside, she went right to the enormous fireplace that was in fact roaring in the corner.

 

The heater in the truck had helped, but her hands still felt like ice.  She held them up to the warmth, letting the firelight dance over them.  Never would she forget tonight.  Gabriel at the wedding and dancing later.  Getting to introduce him as her boyfriend and just being with him.  It was more than she ever could’ve asked of life.

 

Behind her, Eric and Rebecca tumbled in the door.

 

“Good grief! It is like an icebox out there,” Eric said, shaking the snow off of himself.

 

“Make room!” Rebecca plowed through the room toward the fire.  She raced up next to Holly and barely got stopped before going headlong right into it.  “Remind me to send Emily the bill for the pneumonia I’m going to catch.”

 

Holly was already thawing out.  She turned her back to the fire as she slid out of her coat.  “Oh, man. Wasn’t her going away dress gorgeous?”

 

“Just like Em,” Rebecca agreed. “That sparkly stuff on the midnight blue.  I especially liked the tiara.  She looked like a princess.”

 

“Yeah, and Jeremy was so sweet. ‘Honey, I’ll go start the car.’ ‘Okay, Honey, we’re ready.’” Holly snuggled into the memory.

 

“He’s a sap,” Eric said, shaking his head as he joined them.

 

“A sap, huh?  And what did you tell me when we got in the car?” Rebecca asked, bumping into him.

 

“Fine. I’m a sap too.”

 

The front door whooshed open, and a half-frozen Gabriel rushed in.  “Ugh! Who would want to live here?  Give me sunshine and waves any day.”

 

“Well, get over here and get warm already,” Rebecca said, beckoning to him.

 

Holly should’ve said something, but his entrance had taken her breath from her.  That curly black hair, the persistent stubble, and those green eyes that could buckle her knees without trying.  It just wasn’t fair to a girl that he could look so good.  In a breath he was next to her, warming his hands, his presence warming her heart.

 

“I hope Jeremy and Emily made it,” he said.  “It’s really starting to come down out there.”

 

Eric’s cell phone beeped.  “Well, guess who.”  He turned it on and lifted it to his ear.  “Tell me you made it, and I don’t have to come dig you out of somewhere.”  He turned away from them to have the rest of the conversation.  Still, Holly and the others continued to listen. By the sound of it Jeremy and Emily had in fact made it down the mountain to Silverthorne.  They would stay there until Tuesday when they were scheduled to fly out of Denver to honeymoon in Florida.  Florida.  It sounded wonderful.

 

However, at that moment Gabriel put his arm around her, and here sounded wonderful too.

 

“So are we doing s’mores or what?” Holly asked.

 

“Sounds good to me,” Rebecca said.

 

Eric beeped the phone off.  “They made it.”

 

“Cool.” Rebecca huddled to Eric.  “I was not looking forward to digging them out.”

 

“Me neither.”  He put his arm around her, and peace settled over all of them.

 

“Ugh. I really need to get out of these shoes,” Rebecca said.  “They are killing me.”

 

“What do you say we go up and change and meet back down here?” Eric asked.

 

Rebecca was already taking her shoes off. “Sounds good to me.”

 

The two of them started for the stairs.  Holly took a step to follow them, but Gabriel held her back with a tightening of her hand.  She looked back at him in concern.

 

He lifted his chin to the others. “Why don’t you guys go on up?  We’ll be up in a minute. I want to show Holly something.”

 

“Oh, okay.”  Eric held out his fist which Gabriel hit.  “Behave yourself.”

 

Gabriel laughed.  “Always.”

 

Eric looked at Holly.  “Don’t believe him, Holly.  He’s dangerous, I tell you… Dangerous!”

 

Rebecca yanked Eric to the stairs.  “Come on, you.  Let’s give the lovebirds some time.”

 

Lovebirds?  Holly’s gaze fell in embarrassment on the word.  She laughed and shook her head, hoping Gabriel wouldn’t be mad.  “Those two.”

 

They were gone now, and suddenly Holly realized she and Gabriel were truly alone for the first time since they’d gotten here.  She tried to brush that off.  “So, what did you want to show me?”

 

Gabriel turned to her, and panic struck her at the uncertainty in his eyes.  He put his head down so she couldn’t see into his eyes, and it was all she could do not to freak out.  He looked like he was about to do the unthinkable, and fear slammed into her. He wouldn’t break up with her now, would he?  No, he couldn’t.  Not after the day they’d had. She tried to get the air into her lungs, but it was fire hot and suffocating.

 

Holly, stop it. Just stop it, she finally told herself. Whatever it is, God has a plan. Trust Him. For once, just let go and trust Him. She forced the air into herself and let it calm her.  “Gabriel, whatever it is…”

 

“Holly?” He looked at her again with that tentativeness that was not making trusting very easy.

 

“What?” she asked, gazing at him, hoping it wasn’t as bad as it looked.  “Just say it.”

 

His gaze locked with hers, and solid decision came into him.  “I wish I could give you some guarantee, but all I really have to give you is my heart.”

 

Somehow this wasn’t at all what she expected.  “What…?”

 

With a breath, he stepped back from her and carefully dropped to his knee.  Her eyes widened, and her heart flipped over.  “Gabriel.  Oh, my gosh.”  She put her hand to her mouth to keep herself from screaming.  “Oh, my…”

 

When he looked up at her, there was absolutely no uncertainty anymore.  Where the ring came from, she couldn’t quite tell.  One minute it wasn’t there.  The next it was.

 

“I talked to Luke before we left,” Gabriel said, gazing up at her, “and he’s given us his blessing.”

 

“Luke?” The thought of how sweet that gesture was melted her heart.  It was hard telling which was better Gabriel asking or having a real dad to say yes.  She bit her lip to keep the tears back, but it wasn’t working very well.

 

“So,” Gabriel’s green eyes became even more rock-solid, glinting in the firelight.  “Holly Jacobs, you know I love you with all of my heart.  And I know, without a doubt, you are the woman God put here on earth for me.”  For a moment he couldn’t continue, and when he looked up again, it was with a smile that radiated through every part of her.  “Will you be my wife?”

 

The shaking of her head was only because she couldn’t believe this was really happening.  More tears jumped to her eyes, and her breath was choking to get out. “Yes.  Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes!”

 

“Really?” He sounded like he’d thought she might say no.  “Are you serious?”

 

“Yes, I’m serious! Are you kidding?”  She wiped her eyes, knowing she had mascara pouring down her face.  If the wedding hadn’t done it, this surely would.

 

Gabriel slipped the delicate ring on her finger and stood, taking her into his embrace.  “I’m sorry it isn’t bigger.  Maybe someday…”

 

“Someday?”  She whacked him.  “I don’t think so.  It’s mine, and I’m never taking it off.”

 

“Never?” he asked, once again sounding a little worried.

 

“Never.”  She arched her head and pulled his lips to hers.  Brilliant, radiant, warm, glowing light burst through every remaining piece of darkness left in her. “Never. Never. Never. Never. Never.” She breathed in the love, the hope, the gratefulness, the peace. “Oh, Gabriel, I love you so much.”

 

He was smiling and kissing her at the same time. “I told you God had a plan.”

 

Pure unmitigated joy flowed into her heart, spilling out over her lashes.  “How could I ever have doubted Him?”

Copyright Staci Stallings, 2007

Advertisements
Posted in A Light in the Darkness, Novels | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A Light in the Darkness, Ch. 21 & 22

Chapter 21

 

“Gabriel’s taking you?” Luke asked the next morning as Holly sat in the breakfast nook, staring out the window.  How she would miss this place.

 

She barely came back into the room. “Yeah.  He should be here any minute.”

 

Luke sat in the chair next to her.  He studied her profile a long moment. “You know, I had no idea what having a stepdaughter might be like.”

 

Her heart lurched.  “I hope I didn’t disappoint you.”

 

He shook his head slowly.  “Never.  It’s been wonderful.”

 

Tears sprang to her eyes as she leaned over into his embrace.

 

He kissed the top of her head.  “I hope Boston knows how lucky they are.”

 

Why was she leaving again?  It was the only question her soul could ask.

***

Gabe pulled up to the mansion and slid from the pickup.  Nothing in him wanted to walk up to that door, yet he knew it was a walk he had to make.  One step, two.  He reached up and rang the doorbell.  He turned to look out over the perfectly manicured lawn.  How different everything looked from up here.

 

The door swung open, and his fear jumped front and center.

 

“Gabriel,” Mr. Teracini said, and Gabe heard the note of inevitability that was twanging through his soul ring in the older man’s voice.  “Holly…”  He turned as she stepped into the entry from the kitchen.

 

Gabe had his hands planted on his hips, all business, it was the only way he could think to get through this.  “You ready?”

 

She took a breath as her gaze fell to the floor.  Then she nodded.  Stepping to Luke, she glanced up the stairs. “Isn’t Mom coming down?”

 

Luke looked at her with a gaze that ripped Gabe’s gaze down for the apology it held. “You know your mom.”

 

Holly seemed to take that in.  Then once again she nodded.  “Well, I guess this is it then.”

 

“I guess so.”

 

She half-turned to him, and in the next instant, she was clinging to him as if she would never let go.  “Thank you, Luke.”  The words were a breath.  The connection locked between them. Then one more tight squeeze, and she let go to step back.  Wiping her eyes and sniffing the tears back, she reached down and grabbed her carry-on.  “Bye.”

 

Obedient to the task before him, Gabe picked up her other two suitcases.  Another move, another step into the great unknown.  He didn’t know how she did it.  At least he would only be an hour away.  He couldn’t imagine moving all the way across the country.

 

“Gabe,” Luke said, extending his hand, which Gabe had to transfer one suitcase under his arm to shake.  “Take care of her.”

 

“I will, Sir.”

 

They stepped out into the bright sunshine.  Luke followed to the porch.

 

“Call any time.”  It would’ve been easy to assume he was the man who had raised her from birth, standing there watching her go.  “Have a safe trip.”

 

At the pickup Gabe swung the suitcases into the back and opened the front driver’s side for her to slide in.  She waved to Luke who still stood there watching them.  Gabe got in next to her and slammed the door.  “Ready?”

 

She pulled in a long, deep breath.  “I guess so.”

***

Only halfway to the front gate, Holly reached over and grabbed Gabriel’s hand.  She needed his strength now more than ever.  Leaving felt like shredding her heart into a thousand tiny pieces.  She didn’t want to look back, but at the gate, she did.  For one more second she gazed on the mansion on the hill where her life had changed forever.  As she turned around, she only hoped that the mansion on the hill in Heaven would mean as much.

***

The trip to the airport was made in silence but for the hum of the tires.  Gabe didn’t have the heart to turn on the radio for fear of what they might play.  A sad song, a please-don’t-go song might break him right in two.  She held his hand as she had most of the trip, and her head now rested on his shoulder.  Had they been going to the movies, he would’ve felt like the luckiest man on the planet.  As it was, he was probably the saddest.

 

As they entered the city traffic and neared the airport, he forced the details over the breaking of his heart.  “You want me to let you off at the terminal?  That would be easier.  You could get in line while I park.”

 

The single word took tremendous effort for her to get out.  “Okay.”

 

Knowing it made all the sense in the world but wanting never to do it just the same, he pulled up under the awning.  He threw the pickup in park, got out, and turned to help her out, taking her hand as she did so.  “Careful.”

 

She never really looked at him, or maybe it was him not really looking at her.  In any case their gazes never came close to each other.  Gabe went into busy mode.  He yanked the two suitcases out of the back and pulled up the handle on one of them.  She took first one from him and then the other. Then she tossed her head back to get her hair untangled from the shoulder bag she carried.

 

“You got it?” Concern for every thing about her twined into him. She looked so very small under all of that baggage.

 

“Yeah.”

 

All he wanted to do was turn back time, but all he could do was to keep going forward. “I’ll just park and meet you…”

 

“K.”  Her syllables were getting shorter and shorter.

 

Seeing nothing else to do, he got in and watched her cross in front of the pickup and into the sliding glass doors.  That hair, that beautiful face. The moment she was gone, he closed his eyes.  This hurt worse than he ever thought possible.  How would he ever do this? How could he watch her get on a plane and fly out of his life?

 

The scream of a horn behind him yanked him back to reality, and he wrenched the gearshift down.  Somehow he had to be strong and get through this, for her sake if nothing else.

***

Holly didn’t want to think about any of this—not the ticket counter or checking her bags or getting the boarding pass.  So she unlatched sanity and did what she had come here to do.  In what felt like minutes, she was striding across the terminal to where he stood leaning against the back wall.  Why did he have to be so good-looking?  It was not making this any easier.

 

“Got ‘em?” he asked, straightening.

 

“Gate 60.” She held the papers up and then bent her head to dig in her purse. It was self-defense pure and simple so she wouldn’t have to look at him.  A moment of digging and they turned together toward the security checkpoints.  At the metal arch, she simply detached from her body and let it go through the motions.  It was the only way to get through this in one piece. On the other side, she retrieved her purse and resumed her digging.  She didn’t know what she was looking for, only that it gave her something else to think about.

 

Finally giving up the search for whatever it was that she never found, she zipped the purse closed and resumed her walk next to him.  The sunshine from outside beat through the windows.  Another three steps and his hand bridged the gap to take hers.  That touch sucked all the air from her lungs.  Slamming her eyes closed, she willed them back open. Somehow she had to keep walking. Breathe.  In.  Out.  Step.  Step.  Breathe.  It was only those things that she could focus on.  The tears were right there on the surface, hovering, waiting for her willpower to crack.

 

Even his steps slowed as they got to the gate.  “60, right?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

He nodded and steered her into the line without question.  They didn’t say anything.  For her it was simply a matter of having no air left to use for that purpose.  At the front of the line, she went through the steps of checking in and then thanked the agent and stepped away.

 

He was right there, shadowing her every move. “When does it leave?”

 

“8:20.”

***

Gabe looked up at the clock, and the count down to disintegration began.  He pushed those thoughts away. “You want to go over there?”

 

Holly was busy with something in her purse again.  “Sure.”

 

Putting his hand on her back, he guided her through the crowd over to two seats along the wall.  She sat down next to him, abandoned the purse, and heaved a sigh.  Her gaze traced to the ceiling.  He glanced at her but could stand no more than that.

 

“Is someone picking you up at the airport?”

 

“Rebecca said she’d be there so I don’t have to take a cab.”

 

Gabe nodded, feeling the slow tearing of their souls from one another.  It was like the gut-wrenching rip of Velcro. It echoed through his spirit.  Desperate to make it stop, he reached over and took her hand.  Why did that hand have to fit so perfectly in his, those fingers feel like they were made for him? This would be so much easier if they didn’t.  With two bounces between them, he simply let their hands rest there, together, the last connection to be broken.

 

Holly leaned back in her chair and put her head back on the wall.  He couldn’t really read her face.  Sadness maybe but mostly devoid of anything.  He took her lead and put his head back.  If he could just get through this without breaking down, if he could get her on that plane without it killing him, then somehow he would go on without her.

 

“First call for passengers Flight 29 to Chicago O’Hare. Pre-boarding and first class passengers please come to the boarding gate.”

 

The breath next to him was hard as people around them slid into motion.

 

“Well.”  Holly stood up, pressing her jeans down on her legs.

 

His gaze caught the butterflies woven there.  He loved those butterflies.  They reminded him of every “Morning” he’d ever heard.          He pulled himself up next to her and adjusted his shirt at his waistband.  “Well.”

 

“I guess this is it.”  Her gaze was on the carpet not on him.

 

“I guess so.”  He glanced out across the gate where others stood saying their good-byes.  Was this as hard for them? His gaze fell back to her. “Have a safe flight.” Every word took effort. “You have my number, right?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Okay.”  He watched her, wishing she would stop digging in that purse.  He wanted to hug her, to hold her one more time.

 

“All passengers seats 50 through 100.  Please have your boarding passes ready.  We will now board passengers seats 50 through 100.”

***

Suddenly the tears were there, and Holly had no idea how to make them go away. She took a breath, but that didn’t help.  Her face crumpled over them, pushing them back, but still they spilled over her lashes and streaked down her cheeks.  She swiped them away furiously, but new ones just took their place.

 

“Hey,” Gabriel said softly.  Gently he reached down, cupped her face in his hands, and ran his thumbs over her tear-streaked cheeks.  He lifted her chin, and she could hide no longer.

 

She looked up at him, and sadness crumpled over misery.

 

“Hey,” he said again, softening the word even more.  “It’s going to be okay.”  He folded her into him, and she latched on for dear life.  He held her there, kissing her head lightly. “God has a plan, remember?”

 

She nodded even though the tears were washing down her face. Her arm was arched under his arm and up over his shoulder.  For another moment she clung there desperately. The gasps for air jammed into her.

 

“Passengers in seats 101 through 150 may now board.”

 

The breath he let out was slow and long.  He backed up.  Her grip refused to release. Tilting his head to look at her, his gaze called to hers.  “Hey.”

 

Holly lifted her gaze to his, willing herself not to completely lose it.

 

“This isn’t good-bye.  Okay?” His smile asked her to believe that.

 

Her gaze fell as she nodded.  The sniff was hard and loud. She gasped for air and looked back up at him.  Her soul searched his eyes for some assurance that when he walked out of here he wouldn’t just forget her.

 

A peace she hadn’t anticipated floated through his gaze as he took her face in his hands gently.  His gaze burrowed deeply into hers.  “I love you, Holly Jacobs.”  He nodded.  “I love you.”

 

And once again she was hugging him, holding him, crushing him to her.

 

“Passengers seats 151-200 are now cleared to board.”

 

Nodding for no reason she could really see, she backed up from him.  “That’s me.”

 

He looked over at the thinning crowd and nodded.  Then just as she expected him to let go, his gaze came to hers and his hand yanked her to him.  Their lips met like a flash of lightning from a sudden thunderstorm.  The kiss, the feel of his lips on hers raced through every part of her.  It took her knees right out from under her. Had his arm not been supporting her, she was sure she would have collapsed to the ground in a pathetic heap.

 

And then his lips were gone.

 

Stunned, she didn’t so much as move for the longest moment of her life.  Then she opened her eyes and found his, kind, gentle, hope-filled gazing back at her.  “I love you,” she whispered. She could think of nothing else.

 

A smile slid onto his face.  “I know.”  Slowly he released her, making sure she could in fact still stand.  “Now get going.”  There was a little push to get her feet moving, and once again she was walking with no real understanding as to how.

***

The Velcro started its slow rip as Gabe stood there, anchored to the spot, watching her walk away.  He’d said what he’d come here to say.  It was all up to God now.  At the door to the plane, she stopped, turned, and with a sad, soft smile, she waved.  He waved back, the clamp of pretending he knew everything would be okay was solid for one last moment. When she turned and disappeared through the door, Gabe wondered if he would ever see her again.  He let his eyes fall closed.  It was the worst moment of his life.

***

He stayed to watch the plane take off for no other reason than he had the absurd hope that maybe she wouldn’t go through with it, that maybe she would realize she couldn’t leave and get off the plane and run into his arms.  But as the big bird lifted into the sky and disappeared onto the horizon, he knew that a fantasy, a pipe dream he’d somehow talked himself into believing would happen if he ever really let himself love her.

 

Turning from the window as desolation overtook him, he stalked back through the airport.  Even the air stank now—the divergent smells cramming together in a head-spinning crush.  He pushed that thought and every other one away from him as he jammed his hands into his pockets.  In the parking garage, he found his pickup and slid inside.  Only then… Only then did he let his heart really begin to feel what had just happened, what he had just let go of, what he had just walked away from.

 

How could he ever stop loving her?  At that moment nothing seemed more impossible.  He laid his face into his elbow arched on the steering wheel and let the tears take him. “God, be with her… wherever she goes from here.”

***

“In preparation for our final descent, please make sure your seatbacks and tray tables are in their upright and locked positions, and welcome to Boston.”

 

Exhaustion gripped Holly as her gaze went to the overhead speaker.  She had thought so many times about how nice it would be to be in Boston again. Somehow it never felt like this.  When the plane came to the full and complete stop, she pushed herself up, hoping she could keep upright long enough to get off the plane and back on solid ground.  She retrieved her carry on from the luggage bin above and made her way slowly up the aisle with the other jostling passengers.

 

In the causeway she pushed the wayward strand of hair back. A shower sounded really good as did a bed.  She walked into the terminal and stood for a moment both to get her bearings and to see if she could locate her ride.  One scan and then two, and she began to wonder what she should do if Rebecca hadn’t come.  How would she ever know if her friend was simply waiting somewhere else or had decided in fact not to come?

 

“There she is!”

 

“Holly!”

 

Holly turned to the voices and found Rebecca and Eric striding up, looking even happier than she had left them.  Eric got to her first and pulled her into a hug.  She still couldn’t get over how nice he was even though she had been so horrible to him.  It was then as she backed up that she noticed his new silver, wire-framed glasses.  “Hey, nice specs.”

 

He smiled widened as he lifted them up for emphasis.  “The better to see you with, my dear.”

 

With a laugh, Holly turned to Rebecca.

 

“I’m so glad you’re home,” Rebecca said, wrapping her into a hug.  Her friend was a good four inches shorter and smaller in every way.  She stepped back and looked at Holly, her hands still on Holly’s arms.  “How you doing?”  There was concern there and also compassion.

 

“Starving.  All I’ve had is airplane peanuts and Sprite.”

 

“Well, then let’s get this girl some real food.”  Rebecca spun so her arms linked on either side of her with Holly and Eric.  They started through the terminal.  “How was your trip?”

 

It was the beginning of a thousand questions.  Napa, summer, the job, upcoming school—until Holly thought they’d covered every subject other than the only one crowding her mind.  Rebecca thankfully waited for that subject until Eric had said goodnight at their apartment.  And then, like she’d been shot out of a cannon, Rebecca raced to the couch in their new living area where Holly and Emily were talking.

 

The apartment was nice.  Weird, but nice.  And now suddenly here the three of them sat—Holly, Rebecca, and Emily.

 

“We should’ve made some popcorn,” Emily said in her little girl voice that was at once excited and sweet.

 

“Popcorn can wait,” Rebecca said, grabbing a pillow.  “I’ve got to hear about this Gabriel guy.”  She turned directly to Holly.  “Tell us everything.”

 

At first Holly thought she would never be able to tell them anything without the story knifing her to the core.  However, as she talked about him, about their time together, somehow it felt like pulling him closer.  She left out a few parts, like exactly how they met and the disaster beach date with Jean Paul.  Otherwise, it was a pretty faithful telling of the events of her summer.

 

“So, is he coming out here to see you then?  Are you going back there?” Rebecca was still all questions.

 

Slowly Holly shook her head as her gaze fell.  “He doesn’t have the money, and neither do I.”  She fought to quell the rising emotion.  “It’ll probably be Christmas if it even works out then.”

 

Both faces fell into concern.

 

“What do you mean?” Rebecca asked.  “Why wouldn’t you see him then?”

 

Holly shrugged.  “It’s going to take a miracle for us to stay together.  That’s 18 months of only talking on the phone. I don’t know if I can do that.”

 

Emily nodded.  “Well, then we start praying for miracles.”

 

At that moment Holly’s cell beeped.  In surprise, she looked down at it.  She didn’t recognize the number.  Flipping it open, she put it to her ear. “Hello?”

 

“I know.  You’re probably not even home yet, but I had to call and make sure you’re all right.”

 

“Gabriel,” Holly said with a lift to her voice.  She stood as the other two squealed in joy.  She waved her hand to shush them.  “What are you doing?”

 

“Laying here thinking about you.  Did you get there all right?  Was your friend there to get you?”

 

Holly laughed at the barrage of questions, sensing she would be doing a lot of keeping the various pieces of her life up-to-date on what was happening with the others.  “Yeah.  I made it okay, and Rebecca hasn’t stopped talking since I got off the plane.”

 

“Hey!” Rebecca said from behind her.

 

“Well, I’m glad.  Listen, I don’t want to burn your minutes.  I just wanted to make sure.”

 

“Thanks.”  She wanted to say so much more.  “I’ll talk to you again?”

 

“Count on it.”

 

She nodded and signed off.  Then she turned to her friends.  “You guys don’t waste any time praying those miracles down now do you?”

 

The two faces beamed at her.

 

“Ah!” Holly collapsed into the chair.  “This is crazy!  How did I ever get so lucky?”

***

Their conversations were never long, but they were enough just so Gabe could hear her voice and know she was all right.  Three days later he finished his own packing, said good-bye to his mother, and went to set up his own new life.  Moving on wasn’t what it was the first time he’d left home.  This time, he couldn’t help but think he was missing something, someone.  “God, please be with Holly.”

***

“We’re having Bible Study downstairs in a little while,” Rebecca said as she sat at her desk, the computer on and books everywhere.  “The guys are coming, and maybe a couple other people.”  She never really looked up.  “You’re welcome to join us if you want.”

 

On the bed Holly heard the offer.  It was as if she hung suspended between who she was and who she was becoming.  They only knew her as old Holly, and she wasn’t completely sure new Holly had followed her across the country.  Closing her eyes, she took a breath.

 

Do not be afraid. Have courage.

 

“Okay. It sounds like fun.”

 

Rebecca’s gaze snapped to her.

 

“What?” Holly asked.

 

Slowly Rebecca shook her head and smiled.  “God is so awesome.”

 

Holly’s smile met her friend’s.  “Yes, He is.”

***

As good as this sounded Holly questioned her sanity when she was seated in the living room with seven other people.  They were going to think she was an idiot.  What could she possibly add to the discussion?  She’d only been doing the God thing for a couple months, and even then, it was more Gabriel than her.

 

“Let’s get started,” Emily said as she sat on her knees next to Holly’s chair.  Flipping her long, dark hair over her shoulder, Emily held out her hands to Holly and to her fiancé, Jeremy, on the other side.

 

Holly bowed her head, hoping she could get through this.

 

“Dear Lord,” Emily said like a cool breeze on a warm day, “thank You so much for bringing us here together again.  We are so grateful for the summers we’ve each had and all the blessings in our lives.  Thank You so much for bringing our new friends to us.”

 

The squeeze on Holly’s hand could not have been a coincidence.

 

“Please help us open ourselves to You—Your grace, Your peace, Your hope, and Your love.”

 

Why had she waited so long to do this?  Holly couldn’t clearly recall.

 

“Amen.”

 

“Amen,” the others echoed.

 

Emily let Holly’s hand go.  Holly sat back and cleared her throat.  Once again fear clutched her, and she hated that.  Why wouldn’t it leave her alone?  Then like a long forgotten echo, she remembered.  Without really closing her eyes, she sank into herself. Satan, you are hereby banished from this place by the Blood of Jesus Christ.  Fear, you too.  Get!  Be gone!  Now.  Jesus fill the gap with You.

“I think you all know how much I prayed for my roommate last year,” Rebecca said, and Holly’s gaze snapped to her.  Around them, heads nodded.  “Well, over the summer, Jesus came through.  I’d like you all to meet my roommate and my friend, Holly Jacobs.”

 

Holly tried to smile, but it felt more like tears.

 

“We’re so glad you’re here,” Rebecca said.

 

It was strange how much peace glowed back at her from those faces.  They seemed like reflections of the sun itself.

 

“Thanks for inviting me,” Holly said, and grateful didn’t touch how she felt.

 

“Tonight we’re going to talk about miracles,” Emily said, and Holly turned her attention that direction.  “Big ones.  Little ones.  And the ones that totally blow us out of the water.”

 

Jeremy laughed. “Oh, my gosh. We could be here all night.”

 

“And that would be a bad thing?” Eric asked from his spot by Rebecca.

 

Jeremy’s smile was wide and full. “Never.”

***

Holly had thought they were teasing, but when she looked at her watch after the final prayer, she was stunned to see that it was nearly 11 o’clock.  Where had that much time gone?  The others stood and stretched, gave each other hugs and started toward the door.  Unsure what to do, Holly stepped with them.

 

“So, Friday night then?” Eric asked the others.

 

“Student Union?” Emily asked, her arm under and around Jeremy’s.

 

“What like 8 o’clock?” Jeremy asked.

 

Eric nodded. “Yeah, that sounds good.”  Then suddenly his glance landed squarely on Holly.  “Get your cue stick ready, Holly girl.  We’ll play the three of you against the two of us.”

 

“Ah, that hardly sounds fair,” Rebecca said.  “You guys will be so out-matched.”

 

Eric rolled his gaze heavenward.  “Oh, you’re so funny. She’s so funny.  Don’t you think she’s funny, Jeremy?”

 

“Like I’m going to get into the middle of that one.” Jeremy held up his hands in surrender.  “I’m afraid of her, remember?”

 

“Yeah,” Rebecca said, pointing at him although none of them thought she was particularly menacing.  “And don’t you forget it.”

 

The laughter encompassed all of them.  Then it was time for good nights.  Holly carefully made her way to the hallway.  “Good night, everybody.”

 

“Good night, Holly” came from every direction.

 

She slipped down the hallway, wishing only that Gabriel could’ve been there to share the night with her.  In her room she pulled out her cell phone and dialed his number.  It was the five minutes every day she most looked forward to.

 

His phone clicked.  “Hello, love of my life.”

 

Happiness drifted through her.  “Have I told you how cool God is?”

 

He laughed.  “What’d He do now?”

 

Telling him about her night, about her new friends was like reliving a dream.  As always Gabriel was thrilled for her.  Even long after she crawled into bed, his words seeped into her soul. “I told you God has a plan.”

 

Yes, He did, and she was beginning to love that plan.

***

August faded into September and then into October.  For Holly life could only have been better if Gabriel was right there rather on the phone each night.  Otherwise, she was happier than she ever had been.  She’d officially enrolled in the Early Childhood program, had gotten a part time job at the campus daycare facility, and had even started going to church with Emily and Jeremy every Sunday.  It was opening her world in ways she never would’ve thought possible.

 

Rebecca and Eric went to a different church, and although that had seemed weird at first, Holly had begun to see and accept that they were each where God put them.  It wasn’t a matter of fighting over whose religion was the best. It was a matter of accepting and loving each other where they were.  It was Bible Study Wednesday the first week in October when she got those thoughts into words.

 

“You know, I’ve been thinking,” she said and stopped for a minute when the other gazes turned to her.  Gathering her courage, she worked to put it into words. “We all are so different.  Some of us go to one church, some to another.  We all came at this thing and come at this thing so differently, and yet it’s like, wherever you are with it, you’re accepted here.”  She brushed a strand of hair back off her forehead. “I’ve never really had that before.  Where I went to school, you had to wear the right clothes, be in the right groups, do the things everybody else did to really be accepted.

 

“And that’s the way I always saw church too.  I didn’t really understand it at the time, but I noticed there was a Baptist Student Union and a Catholic Student Union and a Methodist Student Union, and I always kind of thought they were separate groups.  I never really thought of them all as Christians.  It was more, this group was here and that group was there, and never the two shall meet.

 

“But you guys are so different.  I mean you’re Baptists and Catholics and Pentecostals and whatever else, but nobody runs the other one’s faith down.  You just let each other be where you are.  I think that’s very rare in our world.”  Her voice left a void for a long minute.

 

“I don’t know if this is why,” Emily finally said, and all the gazes thankfully swung to her, “but in the Bible I know that Paul talks about how some Christians were saying Peter was their teacher and others were saying Paul was theirs… or something like that.  I don’t remember exactly.  Anyway, Paul basically says, ‘Stop it already.  We’re not this group and that group.  We’re one group under Jesus Christ.  Start there, and all the little, petty differences just don’t matter so much any more.’”

 

“I think it’s the whole competition thing that kills so many of us and scares those who really need Jesus away,” Jeremy said.  “I know it did me.  I was like, ‘I don’t want any part of people who proclaim they love you and then talk about how you’re never going to make it behind your back.’”

 

Eric nodded in agreement.  “I just wish everyone could feel as accepted as I have with you all.”  His gaze fell to the carpet. “When I first came, I didn’t know Genesis from Revelations.  But that didn’t bother you guys at all.  You took me in and let me be who I was and where I was.  Then you came under me and lifted me up to who I am now.”

 

Taylor, one of the non-coupled guys, sat forward. “I think that’s just it. I read the other day about the phrase coming under, and it’s like we’ve talked about, not that you put yourself under someone like they now run your life, but like you come under them to lift them up and support them.”

 

“Like the stem under a flower.  It comes under and holds the flower up so it can become what it’s meant to be,” Emily said. “I like that.”

 

“And it’s so cool to have too,” Rebecca said.  “It gives me so much strength and peace to know that even when I’m freaking out about something, I can call one of you, and you’ll say, ‘Wait. Wait. Wait. Stop. What does your heart say?’  You don’t let me stay stuck in yuck like I would’ve been before.”

 

Holly took a breath.  “You know, I don’t know what I thought you all did at these things.  I always knew, or thought I knew, that I could never fit in here.  But I think I was really wrong—even back then.  I think you would’ve taken me in and loved me where I was.  I wish I had done this sooner.”

 

“Hey, I’m just glad you did it now,” Rebecca said, and when Holly looked at her, there was true love shining from her eyes.

 

“Yeah, so am I.”

 

Chapter 22

 

Holly’s feet hadn’t touched the ground.  Ever since the night before at Bible Study, all she wanted to do was shout God’s love to the world.  She saw now how many people were so hungry for it, how they were dying in deserts of destructive behavior and hurt.  “Lord,” she prayed as she headed across campus after work, “please help me learn to be a light for others.”

 

In her purse her cell phone beeped.  She dug it out and clicked it on.  “Hello?”

 

“Holly?”

 

Her name crashed through her like a wrecking ball.  “Mom, what’s wrong?”

 

“I just wanted you to know.”  Tears overtook the words.  Then she sniffed them back hard. “It’s over.  I just filed the divorce papers.”

 

Under her, Holly’s legs wobbled, and she slowed her steps. “What?” It was as if her entire world tilted away from her.  People walked by her, brushing past, even as she ducked her head into the call and put her finger to her ear.  “Mom, what are you talking about?”

 

“I’m talking about I should’ve known it would never work.  I moved out last night.”

 

“Moved out?” The wobbling of her legs was such that it pulled her down onto the hard concrete of the steps of some building she’d never realized was there.  “But…”

 

“I went through your room too, but I didn’t see anything you’d left.”

 

Holly’s mind was spinning, spinning, spinning in and through her mother’s words which were suddenly making no sense.  “I don’t understand.”

 

“I’m on my way to Oregon.”

 

She fought to stay rational. “What’s in Oregon?”

 

“Brian’s there.  He said I could come.”

 

The shaking of her head did nothing to get sense to start.  “Brian?  Who’s Brian?”

 

Her mother sniffled, but it was clear she’d composed herself by a remarkable degree.  “Didn’t I tell you about Brian?  He’s the one I met when I went with Luke to Paris.  The CEO of that big bottling company.  Of course, he’s married, but at least he offered me a place to stay until I can figure out what to do next.”

 

Holly’s heart slammed into her ribcage, and her breathing hurt.  “What… about Luke?”

 

“What about him?”

 

“Well, what does he have to say about all this?”

 

“He said it’d probably be better if I just left, that he couldn’t make life the way I needed it to be.” There was a sniff.  “You know, the usual stuff.” It was as if she could see her mother shake the upsetting thoughts away. “But that’s in the past. Time to move on now.”

 

“Move on…?”  There was only space in the center of those words.

 

“Listen, I’ve got to go. I’ll call you when I get somewhere.”

 

Holly couldn’t move.  “Okay.”  She didn’t really hear the end of the conversation, just clicked off the phone and dropped it between her knees.  Just like that, they were gone.  Swept right out of her life as if they had never been there at all.  The thought of losing Luke and his fatherly presence hurt to be sure, but never before had there been such a hole as was left by the thought that her mother would string her up and let her rot if she ever so much as went back to Napa Valley.

 

It probably didn’t matter.  She could never face Gabriel or Luke again.  What could she say?  My mother’s unstable.  She’s insane and selfish? Of course that was all true, but underneath that was the distinct understanding of what it said about her.  Ache piled on ache.  She should’ve done something, something to keep them together, something to keep her mother from being the wreck that she was.

 

Suddenly thoughts of “now what” slid through her.  With Luke out of the picture as Dan had been and Jack before him… Jack.  She’d done everything she could to forget him since she’d left Springfield with every last thing she owned packed into the two suitcases she brought with her.  Disgusting images crowded through her, yanking up her belief that things could ever get any better.

 

Chase in high school.  Gabriel.  They were all destined to be caught up and shredded by her life, her past, her sins.  How could anyone ever truly love her?  They didn’t even know her.  Not the real her.  Not the her that found herself in bed with her stepfather.  That memory ripped all the others loose, and she stumbled to her feet.  There was really no decision, only the need to get away from the memories, to drown them out once and for all.

 

She wondered as she disconnected from herself if happy hour had started yet.

***

Gabe had just walked into his apartment when the phone rang.  It was going to be for one of his roommates, of that he was sure.  Grabbing a piece of paper and a pen, he answered it.  “Hello?”

 

“Gabriel.  Oh, good. I caught you.”

 

“Hey, Mama.  What’s up?”  He pushed the paper back to its spot and dropped the pen into the holder with a clank.

 

“Listen, I hate to interrupt, but Rosa just called.” The pause was odd as if she was afraid of saying her next thought. “I was wondering if you’ve talked to Holly today.”

 

Nothing in him liked the tone in her voice.  “No, not since Monday. Why?”

 

“Oh.”  Nothing else.

 

“Why?  What’s going on?”  Fear crept into him even as the prayers started flowing from his heart.

 

Still she didn’t start for another five seconds. “Well, it seems that Mrs. Teracini moved out last night.  I don’t know the details, but the gossip is she had a boyfriend upstate somewhere.  Mr. Teracini caught them together.”

 

“What?” Gabe grabbed for the back of a chair to keep him standing.  “Are you sure?”

 

“I just thought you should know in case you talk to her.”

 

“Yeah, okay.  Thanks, Mama.”

 

“Tell Holly she’s in my prayers.”

 

“Okay.  I will.  Listen.  I’ve got to go.”  He clicked off the phone and speed dialed her cell phone with his finger.  “Come on.  Pick up.  Pick up, Holly.”  The phone rang and rang and rang again.

 

“The customer you have called has traveled outside the service area or…”

 

He snapped off the phone and raced to his room to find her Boston number.

***

Holly felt the appreciative looks of the other patrons as she slid up to the bar at Ace’s.  “Double vodka on the rocks.”  Seeing the look of the bartender, she flipped out her wallet.  Legal wasn’t going to stop her tonight.

 

He nodded and went to pour the drink.  Holly let her gaze glide around the room as the cell phone in her purse buzzed again.  It had been doing that, but she was too intent on the mission of deleting all that had gone before that she didn’t even bother to shut it off. Link by link she consciously disconnected from all she knew would never be again. The Bible study group?  They wouldn’t be surprised.  This was what they had always known her to be.  Her mother?  Innocence had ceased to be even a fantasy the moment her mother had walked into that bedroom.  The feel of Jack’s hands on her body shrieked through her.  Where was that bartender anyway?  She swung back to the bar.

 

Setting the glass in front of her, he looked at her like they all did.

 

“What?” she barked.

 

He held up his hands and backed away.

 

Those stupid pearls.  If she just hadn’t wanted to wear those pearls to impress Chase.  With a tip of the glass she downed the stinging liquid.  She held the glass up to get the bartender’s attention.  “Another please.”

***

“Hello?”

 

Gabe had been trying for nearly 45 minutes, and this was the first actual voice he’d gotten to pick up.  “Hi. Is Holly there?”

 

“She should be. Just a sec.”  The phone clanked before he had a chance to say more.  Minutes piled up on minutes as he waited, his chest constricting further with each one that passed.  “Hello?” the voice came back on.  “I’m sorry.  I don’t know where Holly is.  She’s usually here by now.”

 

That did nothing to calm his panic.  “Umm, who—who is this?”

 

“This is Emily. Emily Vasquez.  Holly’s roommate.”

 

It was crazy.  He didn’t even know Emily, but this was serious.  “Emily.  This is Gabriel Cabrelos from California.”

 

“Oh, Gabriel! Hi.  I’ve heard so much about you.”

 

That should’ve been comforting.  It wasn’t.  “Listen, Emily, do you know where Holly is?”

 

“No.”  She seemed to pick up on the panic.  “Why? Is something wrong?”

 

“Well, I just got a call from my mom.  She works at the mansion where…”  Boy, he didn’t know how to finish that sentence.  He put his hand up to his head in frustration.  “Umm, do you know if Holly has talked to her mom today?”

 

“Umm, no.  I don’t know. She didn’t say anything about it.  Why?”

 

With a long exhale, Gabe decided to go for broke.  “Well, apparently her mom moved out of the mansion last night.”

 

That hit its target. “Oh, no.”

 

“Yeah, do you know where Holly is?  I can’t get her on her cell phone.”

 

“No.” The words stopped. “Let me think.  She usually works on Thursdays until 5.  She should be home by now.”

 

Gabe sensed he was frightening Emily. That wasn’t what he wanted to do. “Okay.  Well, if she comes in in the next few minutes or so, have her give me a call.”

 

“Yeah.  Okay.  Does she have your number?”

 

“Yeah, but I can give it to you just in case.”  He transferred the number.

 

“Okay.  I’ll tell her.”

 

When they hung up, Gabe could think of not one other thing to do.  “God, please, please be with Holly.  Satan, you get away from her…”

***

The second Emily got off the phone with Gabriel, she dialed Rebecca who was probably headed home anyway.  However, this couldn’t wait.

 

“Hello?”

 

“Becca, have you talked to Holly today?” Emily asked, the concern twining through her spirit.

 

It transferred instantly to Rebecca. “No. Why?”

 

The news slipped across the lines. In the span of two sentences, Becca sounded as panicked at Emily felt.  “Okay, Em, you call Jeremy.  I’ll call Eric. Then call me back.  Got it?”

 

“Yeah. Okay.”

The phone calls began in earnest then.  Emily to Jeremy.  Jeremy to Eric.  Eric to Rebecca who was still talking to him when she walked in the front door.  “Yeah, okay.  K.  We’ll head over there right now.”  She beeped the phone off.

 

Emily stood, hands on her hips, trying to get a handle on what to do next.

 

“Jeremy and Eric will meet us at Avalon in ten minutes.  They think we should start there and work our way out.”

 

Nothing in Emily liked that thought. “You think she went to the bar?”

 

Rebecca sighed. “Well, she’s not here.”

 

As hard as she tried to push it away, Emily’s mind kept going to the hunched over figure who had sat on that dryer eight months before, pouring her grief out but never really finding the bottom.  They had to find her, and they had to do it quick before she did something really stupid.

***

Minutes had begun to look good in comparison to the hours that were beginning to slide by.  Gabe paced, thought, and paced some more.  But what could he do all the way across the country?  Nothing but worry and pray.  At six-thirty his time, he called back.  This time there was no answer even at the apartment.  Where were they?  It was nine-thirty there. Full-blown panic fell on him.

 

Seeing nothing else to do, he picked up the phone and dialed the mansion.  It made no sense to call there, but it was the only thing he could think to do.  It took a conversation with Rosa and then one with Yuri to get Mr. Teracini to the phone.  As he waited for the older man to come on the line, Gabe had to keep himself from hanging up.

 

“Hello?”

 

Gabe spun the receiver to his mouth. “Hi, um, Mr. Teracini.  I’m sorry to bother you, Sir.  This is Gabriel.”

 

“Oh, Gabriel.  Nice to hear from you.”

 

“Yes, Sir.” He cleared his throat.  “Listen, I hate to ask this, but have you heard from Holly?”

 

“Holly?  No.  I haven’t.”  The words brought a dawning that Gabriel heard.  “Is she all right?”

 

“I don’t know, Sir.  I’ve been trying to contact her all evening.  Her roommate said she was out three hours ago, and I haven’t been able to get anyone since then.  I’m really getting worried about her.”

 

“Yes.  Yes.  I hadn’t thought about calling her myself… I suppose you heard.”

 

“Yes, Sir.  I’m terribly sorry.”

 

“Yes, well.  These things happen.  But Holly… Holly.  I’m afraid she hasn’t called here.  She probably didn’t take the news well.”

 

Gabe knew that was an understatement.  “Well, Sir.  If you don’t mind, please give me a call if you hear something.”

 

“I will, son. I will.”

 

They signed off, and once again, Gabriel was left with no real course of action.  He hated that.  He really, really did.

***

Rebecca and Eric were headed to Fire and Ice, Emily and Jeremy to Ace’s.  It was abundantly clear to Rebecca how outmatched they were.  Four of them and how many bars in Boston?  It wasn’t at all a fair fight.  “I’m calling Taylor.”

 

Eric nodded.  “Tell him to call Sam and have them head back to Avalon. He can call us if she shows up. I just have this feeling that’s where she’ll go eventually.  But if she’s not there, we can’t waste time waiting for her to show up there either.”

 

Forcing the rising panic down, Rebecca dialed the number and glanced out at the darkened night dotted with neon and white lights.  “Holly, where are you?” She reangled her attention to the phone. “Taylor, hi, this is Becca.”  It seemed like shorthand to her by now.  He promised to head over to Avalon and to call if he found any trace of her.  Rebecca clicked off the phone, and put her head back.  “God, please help us find her.”

***

All propriety had been ditched at the door to Avalon.  It was Holly’s third stop, and by the time she got there, she could hardly stand up.  She managed to pull herself together enough to get in the door, but once inside, her only thought was to find a warm body and get wasted in whichever order that happened.  She didn’t care anymore about anything.  It didn’t really matter who it was or even what he looked like—just someone to spend her last night on the earth with.

 

“Well, lookie what we have here.”  In the alcohol and ache haze she couldn’t locate the memory of that voice. The answer of who it was kept jerking away from her at the last possible second.

 

Turning on her charm, she spun so she could plant both elbows on the dance floor railing behind her.  “Hi, there.”  The room spun around that face.  Gabriel.  His name went through her first.  No, it wasn’t Gabriel, but it was a G… Greg. No. Gavin.  No.  Gus.  Yeah.  That was it.  Gus.

***

“Where are they?”  Gabriel had been calling non-stop for an hour.  It was now past midnight there, on a school night.  He wished he had thought to get Emily’s cell number or someone’s number.  In exasperation, he hit the off-button.  Knowing it would do no good, he turned it back on and called her cell phone.  Closing his eyes, he pleaded, “God, please, please, let her pick up.”

 

The rings went through him, one at a time.  “Where is she?”

 

“The customer you have called…”

 

He hit the off button and seriously considered throwing the phone across the room.  However, that wouldn’t help.  If he could just get a hold of her friends, if he just knew where they were, knew what was going on… “God, please, I’m asking You here, please let her be okay. Send Your angels to protect her, God.  Send every angel You have available. She needs You, Lord.  She needs You now!”

***

They were dancing.  The lights spun around them, making Holly have to hang onto Gus’s shoulders to keep from falling.  The alcohol was finally working its magic, blocking out every memory that threatened to get in. Gus held her just like the others had, that pawing thing which used to make her so nauseous, but that she now recognized as part of this game.  It was a game she knew well. There was a memory in her that floated through her consciousness. He had a gun. Gus had a gun. Somehow, she remembered that part.  When he asked to take her home later, which he would, she could carry out her plan then.  No one would care.  One less problem to have to worry about without her around.

***

“Satan, get away from Holly by the Holy Blood of Jesus Christ,” Gabriel said more vehemently than he’d ever said anything.  “You cannot have her.  She is a child of the King. He has claimed her for His, and He will not let her go… ever.  God, send Your warring angels to protect Holly from harm—even from herself.”

 

His mouth went dry at that thought.  What if… What if like those nights in the carriage house, Satan convinced her that would be the answer?  His heart twisted at the thought, and he dropped to his knees.  “God, please, please.  One light.  One tiny light. Something. Anything.  Please. God.  She needs You, Lord. Please.”

***

It must’ve been the alcohol.  That was the only explanation for it because for one second the lightheadedness lifted.  Like she was floating outside herself, Holly looked around at herself and her surroundings. “Oh, God, what am I doing?”

 

At that the darkness closed in with frightening velocity.  She felt it tightening its grip, sucking her down, down into nothingness.  “Oh, Jesus, help.”

 

Gus backed up from her, presumably to find out what she was babbling about, but all she could do was mumble the name over and over.  “Jesus.  Jesus, please help me. Please help me.”

 

“What do you think you are doing?” The voice was hard and harsh behind them.

 

Gus let go of Holly so fast, she almost toppled over.  Through the haze of alcohol and hurt, she gazed at the guy standing not two feet from her, not really recognizing him because her eyes were blurry and her brain fuzzy.

 

Stepping between them, Gus gave him a shove. “Get lost, pretty boy.”

 

“You get lost.” Eric pushed back like he was used to starting barroom brawls. Gus apparently wasn’t ready for that move as he stumbled backward toppling into several dancers.  Yells and anger came from every direction.

 

In the next breath Eric had her wrist. “Come on, Holly.”

 

With that she was moving.  The name clicked. “Eric?”

 

He pulled her behind him and then pushed her into someone there. “Take her.”

 

“You shove me like that and think you’re going to get away with it?” Gus took a menacing step forward.

 

And then like a mirage, they were all standing there—Jeremy, Sam, and six foot, five inch Taylor.  And there were others Holly didn’t recognize.  Two or maybe three, she couldn’t clearly tell.  Each pushed her one more layer back until there was a virtual human wall between her and Gus.

 

“Come on, Holly, let’s get you out of here,” Rebecca said, materializing from nowhere.  Holly looked around, the motion making her woozy.  She stumbled, tripping on her shoes as if they were six-inch heels rather than tennis shoes.

 

“Becca?  What…?  Where…?” The room tilted like a ride at the amusement park.

 

“Em, get on that side of her.”

 

Another set of arms came around the other side.  The lights spun, and the next thing Holly knew the floor was coming up to meet her.

***

“Oh, for Pete Sake’s!  This is ridiculous!”  Gabriel mashed the off button, and hit two buttons to speed dial her cell phone.  “Come on.  Pick up!”  One ring.  Two.

 

“Oh, uh, hello?”  The noise in the background was deafening.

 

“Holly?” he yelled although everyone where he was had gone to bed.  “Where are you?”

 

“This isn’t Holly.  It’s Emily!”

 

“Emily?  Where’s Holly?  Is she all right?”

 

“Well…”

 

He didn’t like that at all until he remembered that he’d called Holly’s cell number. That meant at least Emily was with Holly.  “Emily, talk to me.  What’s going on?”

 

“She’s coming to!” someone else yelled.

 

“Emily!  What’s going on?”  His heart was beginning to fill his chest.  Fear, concern, and the overwhelming need to do something battled for control.

 

“Gabriel, can I call you back?”

 

“We’ve got to get her out of here,” the voice in the background said again.

 

“No, Emily!  I want to know what’s happening.”

 

“I’ll call you right back.”  And with that, she clicked the phone off.

 

“Grrr.”  A breath, and he knew what he had to do. He’d never had a crazier idea, but he had to.  With a beep he had the phone on and he was dialing the number, trying not to really think about it.  Two rings and thankfully Mr. Teracini actually answered his own phone.

 

“Hello?”

 

“Hi, Mr. Teracini, this is Gabe.  Listen, Holly’s in trouble.  I don’t know what’s going on, but she is.  Her friends found her, but it sounds like a mess.”  The question was there, right on his tongue.  He needed the help, but the asking—that was the hard part.  “I really feel like one of us should go out there.  I don’t know where her mom is, and to be honest, I don’t think she would help much anyway.”

 

“There I happen to agree with you.” Mr. Teracini thought a moment.  “If you wait for commercial, there’s no telling when you’ll get out there. I’ll call my pilot and see what I can do.”

 

“I…”  Reality shifted around him. “So you’re not going out too?”

 

“No, unfortunately I’m buried in work right now.  But get your things together, and head out to the airport.  My pilot will meet you there.”

 

Gabe knew this was what he’d wanted to hear, but the thought choked his courage. “Sir, are you sure?”

 

“Go help Holly, Gabriel.  She needs you.”

***

Eric wasn’t at all sure who he was happier to see—the other guys or the bouncer.  Either way, they pulled his neck from the noose as Gus came at him intent on pounding him into the ground, but taking on four guys and the bouncer, that was asking a bit much. When Gus was effectively neutralized, Eric turned his attention to the knot of people around Holly.  It was worse than he’d feared. “Dear, God, we need You.” He stepped up next to Rebecca.  “How is she?”

 

At that moment Holly leaned over and vomited all over his shoes.  His stomach turned dangerously at the sight.

 

“It’s okay, Holly,” Rebecca said as Eric backed up, fighting not to be sick himself.  “Just get it out.”

 

She leaned over and heaved again.  Eric turned his head.  He couldn’t watch.

 

However, with far more courage than he possessed, Emily braved the smell and the sight to come to the other side of her friend.  She simply sat on her heels behind Holly, rubbing her back and talking to her soothingly. “It’s going to be okay.  We’re all here.  You’re safe.”

 

“What happened to Gus?” Jeremy asked, walking around the circle to Eric.

 

“He got hauled out for starting a fight.”

 

Jeremy raised his eyebrows. “Uh, didn’t you kind of start the fight?”

 

Eric wiped his shoe on the carpet still fighting the churning of his stomach. “Let’s not get technical right now. Okay?”

 

Rebecca’s movement snagged his attention. “Okay, Holly. You’re ready? She’s ready.”

 

On the floor Holly was reaching out for help to get to her feet.

 

“Get her up,” Rebecca said, standing from the floor.  Without question Eric got on one side of Holly, Jeremy on the other.  She was standing if it could be called that.

 

Never, in a gazillion years would Eric have thought Jeremy would look so unfazed much less how together he himself seemed.  He’d almost started a barroom brawl. His shoes were a mess.  And here he was supporting a young woman who reeked of alcohol and vomit, yet his brain was calmly telling him what to do next.

 

“Where’re we going?” Jeremy asked.

 

“My car.”  The way Eric figured it, why spoil anyone else’s car?  At least he could clean the car with the shoes.

***

As Gabe threw a few things into his duffel bag, his mind traced through everything he might need.  Just before racing out, he grabbed two essentials:  his grandfather’s rosary and the True Power & Real Peace book.  He wasn’t sure who would need it more—her or him.  Either way, he would have it.  “God, please be with Holly.”

***

Rebecca slipped out of their room and shut the door with no noise.  In the living room stood six very concerned college and just-out-of-college kids.

 

“How is she?” Taylor asked.

 

“Sleeping.  Finally.”  Rebecca sighed.  “Thanks for coming, guys. Man, I was really panicking there for a minute.”

 

“What next?” Jeremy asked, not looking at all like he wasn’t still panicking.

 

“Well, I’m going to let her sleep it off tonight.  I’ll skip classes tomorrow to stay home with her. I don’t think she should be alone.  And then…” Rebecca shrugged her lack of a plan beyond that.

 

On the table Holly’s purse started fluttering.

 

“Oh, no!” Emily jumped up and grabbed it.  “I forgot to call Gabriel back.”  She yanked the purse opened and retrieved the phone.  “Hello?”  Silence drifted over the room as all gazes went to her. “Yeah, I’m sorry about that.”  She turned from them and put her finger in her ear.  “Things got a little crazy here for a while.”

***

“How’s Holly?  Is she okay?”  The drone of the plane beneath him did nothing to calm Gabe’s nerves.  He’d never been on a plane before, and this little puddle jumper wasn’t making him feel very safe. Between that and the mess in Boston, his stomach was in tight knots.

 

“She’s… well, she’s sleeping right now.  She got really sick at the club, but we got her out of there before Gus could do anything stupid.”

 

Gabe’s world tilted dangerously. “Gus?”

 

“He’s…” Emily stopped.  “Well, he was Holly’s old boyfriend or something like that at one point. Apparently she hooked up with him again tonight.  I don’t think she was really in her right mind though.”

 

He fought through the fear. “But she’s okay now?”

 

“She’s safe.  ‘Okay’ might be pushing it.”

 

At the moment Gabe would take what he could get.  “Well, that’s something.  Listen, Emily, I’m headed your direction.  I’m on Mr. Teracini’s private plane.”

 

“Mr…?”

 

“Holly’s stepdad.”

 

“O… kay.”  It was clear she was trying to put pieces together that didn’t fit.

 

He shifted in the seat, uncomfortable in the role he now found himself. “We decided someone needed to get out there and check on her, see what we need to do next.”

 

“Well, she’s safe now, so…”

 

“I know, and I appreciate that.  I just want the chance to see her with my own eyes, you know?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

As well as his overtired brain could, Gabe gave her the flight landing information, told her he’d be there first thing in the morning, and then wrote down the final instructions for himself to find their apartment.  Thanking her again, he hung up.  He put his head back, knowing he should be exhausted to the point of falling asleep even here flying over cornfields.  However, the thoughts of her and the events of the evening wouldn’t let him.  Finally he gave up on the idea of sleeping. Reaching up, he flipped the light on over him and pulled the book out.  At least that would be productive.

 

It is imperative that the rich soul realize why he is rich.  It is not monetary or material possessions that make one rich, rather it is the conscious accumulation of the lessons of life that signify riches.  The difference between a poor soul and a rich soul is that a poor soul will look at a challenge and see only the challenge while a rich soul will look at the same challenge and search diligently for the lesson behind it. Lessons are the currency of the rich soul.

Lessons build character.  Why?  Because character is built by learning and growing from every experience—whether to the outside world the event appears good or bad.  Learning the lesson holds within it the seed of doing better, of being better next time. A rich soul can learn from the worst experiences and come out richer.  Rich souls gain riches by learning the lessons presented to them, and so you can as well.

To learn these lessons you must be open to the understanding that lessons are inherent in every situation.  They are the seed that is harvested when the sheaf dies.  A rich soul gathers the grain in, separates the chafe from the seeds, and then knowing the next harvest will surely come from those very seeds, promulgates them in anticipation of new growth.

All of life follows this cycle:  life, death, new life.  To resist death is to resist new life.  Jesus Christ Himself died for our transgressions and then rose again to new life.  So it is with every rich soul.  They do not resist the death of their former selves rather they welcome the death and anticipate the rebirth into a new, better self, a more compassionate self, a more understanding self.

True Power & Real Peace come from understanding this cycle and surrendering to it.  By surrendering to the life cycle, the rich soul begins to see death not as an end but as the chance at a new beginning, a rising to the next level of understanding.  A rich soul does not fight to remain the same today as he was yesterday because he realizes that the seeds of today arose from the death of who he was yesterday.

Each new step is the product of the death of the old step.  Such is life, and the rich soul embraces this cycle and diligently learns the lessons of each step in preparation for the next step, the next rebirth.

Gabe put the book down, turned his head to the darkness outside. He let out a sigh and closed his eyes.  “Yesterday I was fine with where I was, with where we were.  Tonight, Lord, I’m not so sure.  I thought I could go on with my life whether Holly was in it or not.  Tonight, I’m not so sure.  I feel like maybe I am dying tonight to the idea that I can live without her, that going on as if we are just friends or acquaintances is not something I want anymore.  But that scares me to death. How can I need someone in my life that much?”

 

His thoughts hit the words he had just read, and he laughed.  “Death? Is that it?  Am I scared to die to being on my own, am I scared to admit I want her in my life, am I scared of who I will have to become to make a life with her work?”  His gaze searched the dim light in front of him.  Yes, that was indeed what it felt like—dying to being the loner, the outsider, the one scraping by but always with his eye to the next level.  Worrying about only himself and what was best for him.  “Okay,” he said softly.  “Then show me.  Show me what to do, show me how this can work.  I surrender to the lessons of this step.”

 

Instantly the thought of how helpless he’d felt the day she left came through him followed by the helplessness of the last 12 hours.  In fact, helpless was a feeling he’d come to know very well in his time with her—even from the first moment they had met.  “But God, I don’t want to feel helpless my whole life.”

 

And then the superseding feeling of what it was like to do it anyway came through him.  “Do it scared,” he said, recalling the words of a long-ago read book.  He’d thought at the time that was about going for his education, and maybe it was—then.  Now it was about becoming a man who could be a husband, a man who might not know how it would work, but who was willing to do it scared.

 

His gaze went back to the book, and he opened it to a different page.  Confusion slid through him at the neatly written note at the bottom.  He’d been so enthralled with this book, he hadn’t written in it much.  He turned the book to the side, and his heart flipped over.

 

This is what I wish for you. May it be as you become the rich soul you were always meant to be. HJ

 

HJ.  When, where, and how jumped to his mind, but all were overtaken by what.  What did she wish for him?  He followed the arrow, somehow knowing this moment would be a rebirth.

 

The rich soul knows he need not know every bend and twist in the road because he knows the One Who does, and if he is smart, he will trust that Knowledge.

Gabe laughed out loud and shook his head.  How did God know?  How did she know?  He kept reading even as the understanding of how close they both were to him slipped into his spirit.

He will put his life into the Wisdom of the great I Am and know that he has never to worry about the future.  The future is held in the Providence of the great I Am.  The past likewise is given to the Mercy of the great I Am.  The Present, that mystery that surrounds every rich soul, is held in the Love of the great I Am. So past, present and future he is forgiven, loved, and protected. Thus, he can step out in courage and freedom that amazes those around him.

Those around him, nothing.  He was beginning to think no one would be more amazed that he had the guts to step out than he was.  “Okay, God.  I get it.  You know where this is going.  You do it through me.  I’m not standing in Your way anymore.”

Copyright Staci Stallings, 2007

Posted in A Light in the Darkness, Novels | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A Light in the Darkness, Ch. 19 & 20

Chapter 19

 

“Do you mind if I borrow your car?” Holly asked Luke as he sat reading the newspaper in the sitting room.  She’d formulated a plan, but she needed transportation.

 

“My car?  I can call Rio.”

 

“No.”  The thought of a limo pulling up at Gabriel’s made her shake her head. “I’m going to visit a friend.”

 

“A friend.” He nodded.  “Ah. That’s different.  The keys are in the garage.”

 

She smiled at how nice this felt. “Thanks, Luke.”

 

“Tell Gabriel I said hi.”

 

Embarrassment climbed into her cheeks.  Oh, well.  So he knew.  He wasn’t protesting and throwing a hissy fit like everyone else did.  Quickly she went to the front door and slipped out into the bright sunshine.  In long strides she ran down to the carriage house.  He needed it, and if he wasn’t going to come here to get it, then she was going to bring it to him.

***

Vaguely Gabe heard the tires outside.  Maybe his mom was back already.  He rolled over, trying to get back to sleep.  After all, it was only ten o’clock.  He didn’t have to be up for another 24 hours.  However, the knock on the door pushed concern into him.  Who would be here that didn’t have a key?  Maybe they would go away.  He snuggled deeper into the covers, pushing the world away.  The knock sounded again, louder this time. “Ugh. Go away.”

 

But the knock came again.

 

He ripped the covers from his legs.  “I said go away.”  But he only said it to the darkened room.  The knocking continued, and anger snapped into him.  “Fine. I’m coming.  I’m coming. Hold your horses.”  He reached for the ratty old bathrobe.  Whoever it was would take one look at him and run away screaming.

 

“I’m coming,” he said again as he went through the kitchen.  He tried to look outside to see who it was through the kitchen window, but the sunshine was mind-numbingly bright.  Three more knocks and he yanked the door open.  “What?”

 

The screen was between them, but he could see the determination scrawled across her face regardless.  All at once concern hit him.  “Holly?  What’s wrong?”

 

She took one long look at him and scowled.  “You.  Get dressed.”

 

He looked down at himself, wondering how she could just show up here like this. His fingers raked through his hair in frustration with life in general.  “I’m going to bed.”  With his hand he pushed the door to close it, but like lightning she was through the screen door blocking his ability to close the main one.

 

“Okay.  I get it.  You don’t want me around.  That’s fine, but you are scaring your mother to death, and that is not fine.”  She stepped into his house, and Gabe backed up at the onslaught.  “So, like it or not, you are getting out of this house and coming with me.”

 

He was having trouble deciphering so many words at once.  “Where are we going?”

 

She planted her hands on her hips, a movement he was coming to know really well. “Out.  Now go get dressed.”

***

As he changed, Gabe asked himself over and over what he was doing.  He should tell her to get lost, but with the mood she was in, she’d probably hog tie him and pitch him in the trunk.  Holding the misery to him like a badge, he stepped out.  He hadn’t bothered to take a shower or to shave.  He didn’t care. It was either too much trouble or the thought that being scruffy had a real chance of scaring her off—either of which was a good enough excuse for him.

 

Down the hall he trudged on lead feet.  In the kitchen he found her sitting at the table, and the morning they went to church together drifted through him.  He batted it away, but in seconds it was back.  It seemed like eons ago.  “I hope this doesn’t require a suit and tie.”

 

Holly looked up at him, and there was a mix of emotions in her eyes he couldn’t fully read.  “That’s fine.” She stood.  “You ready?”

 

His laugh was more of a sigh. “Like I have a choice.”

***

Ever since she’d thought about this excursion, Holly had been praying.  If this was up to her, they were all sunk.  So she stepped back and let God take control.  This was God’s garden, and He was going to have to plant it.  All she was capable of was being available.  They walked outside.

 

“Nice wheels,” he said when he saw the black BMW, and she heard the dig.

 

“It’s Luke’s.”  She got in and unlocked his side.  It wasn’t hard to notice how hesitant he was.  Once in the car he sat there, stick straight, eyes fixed ahead of him.  “Seat belt?” she said in reminder.

 

“Oh.”  It was like programming a robot.  He reached back and pulled it on.

 

Holly started the car.  “I brought you this.”  She held up the True Power & Real Peace book.  “I’ve been reading it. It’s really good.”

 

His gaze barely grazed it and then went back out the front window.

 

She laid it between them, backed out, and drove onto the highway.  California stretched before them.

 

He shifted uncomfortably in the seat. “Where’re we going anyway?”

 

Her glance at him was small for her heart’s sake. He looked so sad, lonely, and scared. “Where do you want to go?”

 

Anger punched through his voice. “I thought you said we were going some place.”

 

“We are.”

 

“Where?”

 

“Not here.”

***

At first Gabe thought she was kidding, but as they drove farther and farther, it occurred to him that she might in fact be serious.  “There are laws about kidnapping, you know.”

 

Holly glanced over to him, the clip in her hair making it turn with her.  “Oh, yeah.  How do you know that?  You ever kidnapped anybody?”

 

“No.”

 

She shrugged. “I’ll take my chances.”

 

On and on they drove.  They were now hugging the coastline, the waters of the Pacific spread out beyond his window.  Gabe remembered years before. On days like today, he’d be out with his friends riding those waves.  That seemed so long ago as to be a different lifetime.  “I hope you’ve got enough gas money to get back.”

 

“What happens if I don’t?”

 

Fight leaped into him. “Well, then I hope you’re good at washing dishes because I don’t really want to hitchhike back.”

 

“I can do dishes, enough for me anyway.  But you’re on your own.”  Her smirk was the only signal that she wasn’t totally serious.

 

“Kidnapping and abandonment?  The charges are piling up here.”  He let his hand fall to beside him, and it landed on the book.  He sucked a hard knot of air in and yanked his hand back.  “Are we planning to be back for church tomorrow?”

 

“Depends.”

 

“On what?”

 

“On how long this takes.”

 

“How long what takes?”

 

“This.”

 

She said no more. She was making no sense, talking in circles.  He fought not to care as he let his gaze drift out the window to the surfers.  He’d always loved that feeling, being out on the waves, letting them challenge his ability and his body.  It was a rush.  He glanced over at her.  If he was here, and he was a prisoner, the least she could do was talk to him.

 

“How’s things going up on the hill?”  He meant the dig, but she didn’t seem to notice.

 

“Now that I’m not climbing ladders, pretty good.”  She laughed. “Tim banned me from them.”

 

“Yeah, I heard something about that.  What happened anyway?”

 

“Oh, I was my usual graceful self.  Don’t worry. I’m almost healed.”  She pulled the light windbreaker up at the cuff to show him a jagged scab that went right up her wrist.

 

Concern whacked into him.  If it was still that bad after this much time, it must’ve been really bad when she did it.  “Holly…”

 

“Oh, yeah. That’s nothing.  You should’ve seen my face.  Darius wanted me to go to Hollywood and try out for the new Batman villain.”

 

Life slid back to him. “What were you doing out there anyway?  You didn’t have to be doing that.”

 

She laughed.  “Like I had anything else to do.  It was okay though.  It let me meet the guys.  They’re really nice.  Bad medics but really nice.”

 

Guilt for not being there for her knocked into him.  “I guess… The garden’s probably in shambles by now, huh?”

 

“It’s not too bad.  Me and my morning coffee are trying anyway.”

 

The understanding that she hadn’t quit going when he did wafted over his battered spirit.  The white caps out in the surf grabbed his attention again, and he let his gaze go that direction.  It really was beautiful out there.  The waves stretched as far as the eye could see.  He breathed in the sight, glad for having witnessed it.

 

“So, we’re really not going anywhere?”

 

She glanced at him.  “No.  We’re just driving.”

 

Just driving.  It was weird how comforting that sounded.  “You got lunch, or are you going to starve your prisoner too?”

 

“We can stop.  You hungry?”

 

“A little.”

 

Without another word, she pulled into the next town and over to a McDonald’s.  “How’s this?”

 

French fries suddenly sounded like heaven as she parked.

 

She shut off the car and unlatched her seat belt.  “Now, no making a break for it. Got it? I’d hate to have to use the handcuffs.”

 

Gabe nodded in bewilderment as he got out of the car, wondering if there really were handcuffs somewhere.  The sunshine hit him full-on, and he breathed in the salty sea air.  He let his eyes go closed as he took one more breath and then he crossed to the back of the car where she was waiting.  “You’re paying, right?”

 

“Either that or we’re both doing dishes.”

 

Funny how that suddenly sounded like a lot of fun.

***

Holly could see the light coming back into his eyes, and she hoped that was a good sign.  If nothing else, he wouldn’t starve any time soon.  Two burgers, large fries, and a Coke the size of a small truck were inhaled at the pace of a motor speedway.  She was in awe that he could eat that much and still move.  For her part, she ate pieces of a small salad.  Her nerves about doing what God was telling her left no room for food.

 

“That was great.”  Gabriel sat back, stretching.  “Can’t beat a Big Mac.”

 

“Or two,” she said, taking a sip of her water.

 

“Or two,” he agreed, and for the first time there was the smallest hint of a smile.  He glanced over at her salad.  “Are you going to eat those cucumbers?”

 

She scrunched her nose.  “Slimy little green things?  I don’t think so.”

 

Without asking he reached over and snagged the two of them from her tray.  He inhaled them as well.  “So, are we getting ice cream?”

 

Holly’s eyes went wide.

 

He looked at her.  “What?  Ice cream sounds good.”

 

She only hoped she’d brought enough money.  She might not have enough for tuition at this rate.

***

“Are we going back?” Gabe asked when they got out to the car.

 

She glanced over at him. “Only if you want to.”

 

Gratefulness drifted through him. “Not yet.”

 

With a nod, they were headed south, going nowhere.  It was the best ride of his life.

***

It was only when the sun hit a 45 degree angle to the sea that Holly knew they had gone as long as they could.  She didn’t want Luke to worry about the car, and she didn’t want Gabe’s mother worried either.  That wouldn’t help anything. “We’d better go back.”  She angled the car into the little filling station and turned around.

 

When they were again headed north, Gabe glanced over at her. “So when do you go back to school?”

 

The thought jabbed into her.  “Two weeks on the 12th. It’s a Saturday.”

 

He nodded.  “So, who am I going to get to replace you weeding everyday?” The question was soft, gentle like a breeze.

 

The memory of his mother’s words drifted through her.  “Won’t they be replacing both of us?”

 

He fell silent.

 

She fought the urge to say something, to tell him he was making a huge mistake, that his mother was worried sick.  “You are going back, right?”

 

Slowly he shook his head.  “I don’t know.”

 

“Don’t know what?”

 

Again he shook his head, his gaze on his fingers. “How can I just leave her like that?  She needs me.”

 

“She needs you, Gabriel.  The real you, not the you that you think you have to be to make everybody else happy.  Can you honestly tell me that you want to be a groundskeeper forever?  Can you?  Is that really what you want to do?”

 

His shrug was hardly there. “It’s where I am.”

 

“But you don’t have to stay there.  Look at me.  I was a drunk-suicide waiting to happen.”

 

He started to protest.

 

“Was.  I said, ‘Was.’  That’s not who I am anymore.  Yes, I still have moments when I don’t see how any of this could ever work, but thinking I have to have all the answers, letting people run over me because I don’t, that’s not me anymore.  The question is not who you were or even who you are.  The question is who do you want to be, and more to the point, who did God make you to be?”

 

He thought about that and then sighed.  “I don’t know.  There’s so many things in the way.”

 

“There always will be.” She glanced at him.  “Don’t you get that?  There are always obstacles.  That’s how we grow, how we step into who God made us to be by doing it anyway.  Yes, it’s hard.  You do it anyway.  Might you fail?  Yes.  But you do it anyway.  Otherwise, you sit in your room, and you take yourself out of the game.  I’m sure Satan just loves that.”

 

The conviction of her words ran deep.  They weren’t just words, they were her.  “God didn’t give up on you, Gabriel.  Why did you give up on Him?”

***

It was what he had felt since that casket had closed. That he was here alone, that God had somehow forgotten he was alive.  Gabe’s gaze fell to his hands.  “Why?  Why now?  Why him?”

 

She looked over at him.  “Your dad?”

 

He nodded as the pain took a swipe at him.  “We needed him.  Why would God do that to us?”

 

The question hung for a long moment.  “Well, maybe He’s giving you the chance to stand on your own, to see what you can do.”

 

The futility of life collapsed on him. “That’s just it. I can’t do it like this. I can’t, and he knew it.”

 

“God or your dad?”

 

His gaze slid down.  “Both.”

 

“Why? Did they know you couldn’t?”

 

How they had gotten here, Gabriel couldn’t quite tell.  He’d been so proud of himself for shielding her from the gory details of his life for so long, and now here they were.  He could tell her, and she would surely be gone.  But then again, that’s what he wanted, right?  There was no good answer to that question.

 

Her gaze called to his. “Gabriel?”

 

Without looking at her, he let the words whisper from him. “When you let someone down as much as I did, they don’t ever really trust you again.”

 

She glanced over at him, longer this time.  He felt it.  “How’d you let them down?”

 

Nothing in him wanted to go back there, to those feelings, to that night.  Outside the sun was dipping into the ocean.  The sky was lit by colors he couldn’t even name, and yet in minutes they would be gone.  Overtaken by the darkness.  “It was a long time ago.”

 

“How long?”

 

“Back in high school.”  He couldn’t believe he was saying these words out loud, to her.  It occurred to him that he’d never actually said them to anyone who didn’t already know.  “I was a freshman.  There were these kids at school.  They were my friends… I guess.”  He wondered now at his loose definition of friends back then. “There was this one guy, Taran Ortega.  He was the coolest thing on two legs, or so I thought.  All the girls wanted him, all the guys wanted to be him.  He didn’t take nothing off of nobody.”

 

He could smell the high school hallways. “My dad knew he was trouble from a mile away, but more than anything I wanted to be in that circle.  If I could just get there, you know?  Then I’d really be somebody.  I’d always wanted to play football like my dad, but when it came time to sign up in the summer, Dad said I could pick anything else.  Anything but what I really wanted to do.”

 

Holly looked across at him. “You don’t look like any football player I’ve ever met.”

 

He couldn’t tell if that was a compliment or not.  “I wanted to play quarterback, and I was good.  In middle school I could out throw anybody, and I had hands.”  He lifted them into view as if to remind himself.  “But Dad… he wouldn’t back down.  He had a real stubborn streak, and you didn’t cross him.

 

“He wouldn’t sign the paper saying I could play, so I couldn’t.”  Gabe fell into the memories, forgetting for a moment that she was there.  “That’s why Dad got me a job at the mansion—to keep me busy so I wouldn’t have time to think about it.  Pool boy.  Big deal.  I hated it.  They’d have parties at the mansion, big parties with lots of rich snobs who had no need for a dumpy little kid like me.  That was before Whitaker died, before Mr. Teracini took over.  There was so much money running through there, they could’ve swum in the champagne.  Whitaker was like Mr. Teracini only more so.  The more you did and the less he saw you, the better.

 

“Dad kept telling me to keep my chin up, that other people couldn’t determine who I was.  But I was 15.  What 15-year-old bases their opinion on anything except what other people think?  Anyway, a few weeks into school Taran called one night.  He was drunk as usual, and he wanted me to meet him at a liquor store where we used to get our stuff.”  There. That was an admission, but it was just a small one.

 

“Dad was mad because I’d been slacking off with work.  I didn’t care.  The football games had started, and I wasn’t out there because of him. I thought it served him right that he was getting yelled at for stuff I didn’t do.  Anyway, we got in a big fight, and I told him I was leaving and that I was going to meet Taran.  Dad told me I couldn’t go, that Taran was trouble coming and going, but I was so mad, ‘don’t go’ wasn’t in my vocabulary.  I told him he couldn’t run my whole life, and I stormed out and took the car.  Man, I remember that drive.”  The words became hollow and distant as the memories overtook him.  “I drove into town, and I wasn’t coming back.  I wasn’t.  I don’t know what my plan was, just that I wasn’t going home. I was 15, and I thought I knew everything.”

 

He closed his eyes as the snaking terror of that night slipped into his spirit.  “I drove up to the liquor store.  I was just supposed to meet him there, that’s what he said.  But when I got out, he came running out, screaming at me to get in and drive.  I didn’t understand.” Gabe narrowed his eyes trying to see that night as it was rather than only as he now remembered it. “I stood just there, asking him what was going on, trying to get him to tell me what was happening.  He was out of his mind, like he was high or something.  I couldn’t get him to calm down.  And then I heard the sirens, the police.” His breath struggled to get out. “Man, I can still hear those sirens.

 

“Everything started happening in like in double speed.  Taran was cussing me out. He took off running, but I was still standing there by the car, trying to figure out what was going on.  I remember weird things.  The lights. I remember the lights.  And the blinking Coors Light sign in the window.  That’s a weird thing to remember.”  Images, singly and all at once streamed into him.

 

“And I remember the ambulance.  I thought they were coming for Taran.  They hauled him back to the parking lot from where he had run. He was spitting at people and fighting the officers who were holding him.  Everyone was yelling and running around.  Everyone except me. I just kept thinking this must be some horrible nightmare.  And then, they were telling me my rights. I kept asking what I’d done wrong, but they just kept reading.  I didn’t know what was going on, but I knew whatever it was, it was bad.  They put me in the police car, handcuffs and all.” He shivered at that memory, the helplessness, the confusion, the fear slithering through him once again. “It wasn’t until I was at the station that they told me I was being charged with first degree murder.”

 

Chapter 20

 

“Murder?” Holly breathed the word, the world closing in on her as the darkness outside fell in earnest.

 

Gabe breathed, seemingly relieved now that the word had come out of him. “I knew there were things about Taran’s life that weren’t great, but that night his dad came home and found him doing drugs.  They had it out.  He left, just like I did.  Except he had a gun and a death wish.”

 

Holly was having trouble holding onto life. “But you told them.  You told them, right?  That you didn’t do it.  That you weren’t there.”

 

“I tried, but I spent three days in jail before they put all the pieces together enough to figure out I was telling the truth.  The surveillance video finally proved I never actually went in the store, but the truth is… I was there.  I went, and I went with the intention of making someone pay.”

 

“But you didn’t.” Her voice was as panicked as her insides were trying not to be. “You never actually went in though.”

 

“No, but had I gotten there five minutes earlier, I probably would have.  Taran had a way of talking me into stupid stuff, stuff I knew was wrong but that I’d do just to hack Dad off.  We spray-painted the football field, shoplifted for the fun of it, and beat kids up at school because they looked at Taran wrong.  And then I would go to church with my folks on Sunday and feel like the biggest hypocrite in the world.”

 

Holly heard it, but it was difficult to see the guy sitting next to her now as the messed up kid he was describing.  “So what happened?  How’d you turn it around?”

 

He took in a long, slow breath.  “I wish I could take credit for that, but it wasn’t really me. When they let me out, I was called to testify.  Taran sat there staring at me, and I knew if he’d had a gun or a good run at me, he would’ve killed me on the spot.  I was having nightmares every night.  School was horrible.  I was in detention for fighting, and my grades were in the toilet. I was in real trouble, not from the law but from the demons that wouldn’t leave me alone.  They had me.  I know that now.  They had me, and they knew it.

 

“Mom and Dad were at the end of their ropes with me.  Dad wouldn’t even speak to me, and Mom was so scared and hurt, she didn’t know what to do.” He shook his head, and Holly knew how bad he felt about the grief he’d caused his parents.  It was palpable.  “I was the promised child, the one they had prayed so hard for.  Mom was almost 40 years old when I was born, and they’d basically given up on ever having kids. Then I came along, and now here I was in trouble with the law, drinking all the time, and paranoid out of my mind. I would wake up with sweats. I started skipping school and getting into all kinds of trouble. I’m sure they wondered what the heck they ever did to deserve me.”

 

What he was describing was an outright nightmare compared with the idyllic existence she had assumed he grew up under.  “But you’re so different now.  The anger, the fear.  That’s like… not you.”

 

He nodded.  “At the bottom of the bottom, they went to the priest at the time and asked him for the name of a counselor—somebody who might be able to help me.  That was the last thing I wanted.  What I really wanted was a gun to blow my brains out, but they loaded me up and took me to a rehab place down south.  I withdrew from school and for a month I sat in sessions at the clinic trying to make it look good. But I’m a really bad actor.

 

“And then Marvin took over, and everything changed.”

 

Holly snagged on the name. “Marvin?”

 

“He was the chaplain at the clinic.  Cool guy.  Only about 30 from what I remember.  I don’t know why really but he and I clicked.  He was kind of like Taran, only in a positive way.  He started with challenging me to a basketball game and ended up changing my life.”

 

“Basketball?”

 

“Horse.” Gabe laughed. “Only I’d never played Horse like that.  For every letter he won, I had to tell him one secret that I’d never told anyone else.  For every letter I won, I got to ask him one question.  We’d play for hours, long after his clock time was over.  When he figured out I was pretty much a natural athlete, he took me out, and we started weight training and running at his gym.  He was like the big brother I never had.”

 

“And when you got out?”

 

“It was tough.  I had to learn a new way to be around Mom and Dad and at school. I’d call Marvin a couple times a week, just to talk.  He suggested I go out for the soccer team because it was spring.  I couldn’t play much because my grades were so bad, but I liked it.  I was good at it. From sophomore year on, I played basketball and soccer every year.”

 

“You never did play football?”

 

“No.”

 

“And your dad?”

 

Gabriel sat for a long, long moment before he said anything.  “Dad was Dad.  He always kind of knew I would be a failure like he thought he was, and I don’t think he ever really trusted that I’d changed.  He was always kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop, for me to mess up and destroy everything again.”

 

“What happened to Taran?”

 

This answer took even longer.  “They charged him as an adult.  He’s serving life—armed robbery, first degree murder, drug possession, possession of a stolen firearm…  It got to be a long list.”

 

Holly took that in, thanking God for the delay of Gabriel getting to the store and for anchoring his feet to the ground when he did get there.  Had he gotten in that car and driven…  She shook those thoughts away.  “What about Marvin?  Do you still talk to him?”

 

Gabriel exhaled slowly.  “I haven’t talked to him in almost three years, since I started college.”  He reached down and picked up the book.  “He sent me this a couple months ago, but that’s the last I’ve heard from him.”

 

“Do you think you could call him now?  Just to talk?”

 

He nodded.  “Yeah, I think so.”

***

It was almost 10:30 when they got back to his house.  The stop for gas and snacks hadn’t filled either the tank or them up very much.

 

“You want to come in?” Gabriel asked, knowing he could never, ever repay her for today.  His spirit was tired but not flailing anymore. “I could make us some sandwiches.”

 

She didn’t say anything for a moment.  Then her gaze trailed across the tiny yard to the house beyond. “No, I’d better get home.  I don’t want Luke to worry.”

 

“Oh. Okay.”  Gabe let his gaze stay on his fingers for a long moment.  “Thank you.”  He glanced at her.  “For coming today.  I know how hard that was.”

 

Her smile was only halfway.  “Hard doesn’t matter as long as it helped.”

 

When he smiled at her, it came from his heart.  “It did.”  He reached for the door handle and slid out.

 

“Oh,” Holly said, picking up the book and holding it out to him. “Don’t forget this.”

 

Gabe took it from her, knowing the gift God had given him when she’d come into his life.  “I’ll see you Monday?”

 

She smiled.  “Bright and early.”

 

With that, he waved, and she backed out.  No, he would never be able to repay her.  He turned and walked into the house.  He was in the kitchen getting a drink when his mother walked in.

 

“Oh, Gabriel!  Thank God.  I was so worried. Where were you?”

 

His gaze found hers, and he knew they needed to lay out new ground rules about who he could date and who made the decisions of his life.  “Mama, we need to talk.”

***

Holly was still praying for him, praying for every step he took as she walked into the mansion from the garage.  Sitting at the breakfast table, Luke and her mother looked up.

 

“It’s about time you get here,” her mother said, standing.  “Where have you been?”

 

She shrugged although one part of her was readying her shield. “I went for a drive.  It took longer than I thought it would.”

 

“It is hardly appropriate for you to take someone else’s car and be gone the entire day without so much as calling to let us know where you were.  Luke was worried sick.”

 

Luke stood, not looking particularly worried about the car.  “How’s Gabe?”

 

Holly’s gaze fell, knowing her mother was about to go ballistic.  “Better, I think.”

 

“Gabe?  You were out with Gabe all day?”  She looked at Luke.  “You didn’t tell me that.  You knew she was out with that boy, and you didn’t tell me?”

 

“It would’ve served no purpose.”  Luke looked at Holly.  “How are you?”

 

She nodded.

 

“Of course she’s all right.  She’s been out spending our money with a guy who will take whatever he can get from her or anybody else.”

 

“Mom,” Holly said in horror, “Gabe’s not like that, and you know it.”

 

“Oh, I do, do I?  Why would he be any different than all the others?  Huh?  Look at you, Holly. You’ll give yourself to any guy who walks by.”

 

“Linda!” The name was sharp, and Luke’s expression dropped into a harsh scowl.

 

“What?” She turned on her husband with all the venom she’d been aiming at her daughter for three months.  “Do you not see that she’s using you, Luke? She’s using all of us.”  Seeing she was getting nowhere in her argument with him, she threw her hands up in the air.  “This is so typical. Fine.  Let her walk all over you.  See if I care.”  And she stomped out.

 

After the torrent of emotions of the day, Holly’s spirit absorbed the blows, each landing square and true, right in the soft spots.  When her mother was gone, she expected Luke to start yelling as well or to look betrayed and hurt.  Instead he stood gazing at her for a long time.

 

“Are you sure you’re okay?” he finally asked.

 

Holly’s gaze lifted to meet his, and tears stung her eyes.  “I will be.”

 

He smiled slightly.  “Good.  Why don’t you get on to bed?  You’ve had a rough day.”

 

He had no idea.

***

It hadn’t been easy, but Gabriel knew this was a new start between his mother and him.  She still wasn’t convinced about Holly, but owing to Holly’s daring rescue, she was now willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.  He went to his room and shut the door.  One look in the mirror and it was clear that whatever had motivated Holly to the day’s actions, it wasn’t his looks.  He looked like the crypt keeper. He needed a shower and a shave, badly.  But there would be time for that.

 

He flipped the covers back and forward, trying to get them at least a bit untangled.  His room looked like a bomb site.  The damage a couple weeks could do was unbelievable.  Shaking his head, he vowed to get it cleaned up tomorrow.  Tonight, however, he wanted to reconnect.  It felt like it had been forever.  He grabbed the book and opened it to no page in particular.  It didn’t matter.  He didn’t remember where he was before anyway.

 

Trials will come to shake our peace, to convince us that God is not enough, to convince us that we are on our own. The nature of a trial is such that it has the capacity to take our eyes from Christ and put them on the storm, on the wind, on the waves.  When we look not at Christ, but at the storm, we, like Peter, will sink.  When hope fades and our faith proves not enough, we will sink. When we stop relying on Christ and start relying on our own knowledge, our own resources, our own strength, we will sink.

It would take absolutely perfect faith for even a rich soul to withstand the temptation to look down, to see the storm, and to become afraid.  But the rich soul knows that he does not have to have perfect faith himself because the moment he begins to sink, the moment he lets the wind and the waves overtake him, a hand reaches out through the storm to snag his descent. In whatever guise—a book, a reading, a song, a friend—God arrives to pull you back up, to bring the lost sheep back to into the fold.

It is this knowledge that we do not even have to be faithful, that all we must do is fall into the ever-faithfulness of the Great I Am, which brings the breath of Real Peace to our lives.  When we do that, when we stop relying on our faith and begin to trust only His, we begin to understand how close Real Peace is at every moment.  Real Peace comes from never putting any worth into our own faith.  Our faith is weak.  Even the richest soul who ever lived had but a drop of faith in comparison with the faith God exhibits every day in the lives of His children.  It is not the rich soul’s faith at work in his life that is so incredible, but that he relies only on God’s faith at every turn, at every moment.

The point is not that you never sink, but that you know He is always there to lift you back up. Each time this happens, the rich soul learns a little more about God’s faithfulness, a little more about God’s love, and a little more about God’s ability to reach out even in the roughest of storms and pull His child back to the safety of His embrace.

As St. Paul said, “I boast only in my weakness for in my weakness, His strength is made manifest.”  Therefore, you do not have to be perfectly strong, you do not have to walk on the waves perfectly.  All that is required of a rich soul is the willingness to step out, knowing that God’s faith will always be enough, that He will be there to lift us up even in our darkest hour.  Real Peace comes from knowing this and trusting your whole life to it.

 

Gabe laid the book on his chest.  “Those waves were pretty fierce, God.”  He closed his eyes, feeling himself pulled up, born on a strength he knew was not his own.  “I really thought I was going down there, but I should have known You were here all along.”  It was a lesson he wouldn’t soon forget.

***

The center of her heart floated right away at the sight of Gabriel digging in the bushes Monday morning.  Holly stepped down the walk and right behind him.  “Morning.” She took a sip of her coffee.  It tasted much better today.

 

Gabriel turned, pivoting on his knee to look up at her.  “Morning.”  Even his smile was back.  He looked much better today.  Shaved, showered, clean clothes.  It was definitely an improvement.  “Are you just going to stand there, or are you helping?”

 

She set her coffee on the walk and joined him.  “You haven’t forgotten how to do this?”

 

With one more long look at her, he dove into the bush.  “It’s like riding a bicycle.  Once you know how, you never forget.”

 

As she gazed at him, she knew the truth of those words.

***

The loft had never felt so right.  Gabriel glanced over his book at her lying on the armrest opposite the side he sat on.  Slowly he shook his head.  How he had ever gotten so lucky, he would never be able to tell.  Suddenly she looked up and caught him staring.

 

“What?” she asked with some concern.

 

His smile came from his heart.  “You.”

 

At first she tried to fight it, but in increments her smile slipped to her lips. “I’m just reading.”

 

“What are you reading?”

 

She readjusted her head on the armrest so she wasn’t on her side but looking at him.  “About how God has a plan for my life.”  Her eyes fell into thoughtfulness.  “It’s weird.  I never thought I had a future, you know?  That there was a plan for me.  I makes me wonder if I can live up to that… if I’m ready for whatever He has planned.”

 

Gabe couldn’t have torn his gaze from hers had he tried.  “That’s just it though.  That’s what He’s shown me through all of this.  When I freaked out about my dad and school and my mom and everything, He’s shown me that I don’t have to know everything.  I don’t have to have it all figured out.  All I have to do is take this step, the one He’s asking me to take right here, right now.  If I do that, I know He will take me where I’m supposed to be.”

 

With a push Holly sat up.  “But doesn’t it scare you sometimes?  The future I mean?  There are so many things that could go wrong.”

 

“And so many things that could go right.”

 

She looked like she wanted to argue.  “That’s not what I meant.  I mean how do I know that this step is going to lead where I want to go?  I don’t even know where I want to go.”

 

“But He knows how He made you, what He made you to do.  It’s like I read in a book a long time ago about how a potter carefully chooses the clay he will use based on the type of pot he wants to make.  I didn’t know a lot about pottery, but the gist of it was that if you wanted a smooth pot, you used one kind of clay.  If you wanted a tall pot, you used a different kind.  God knows what kind of pot you are supposed to be, so that’s the kind of clay He used when He made you.”

 

Holly nodded slowly.  “That’s why He says He knows what plans He has for me.”

 

“Plans to prosper you and not to harm you,” Gabe finished.  It was a promise he knew he would need the day she was no longer in this loft and he was 100 miles away living a life he could only imagine right now.

 

“You trust Him, huh?” she asked although he couldn’t clearly understand why.

 

“Yeah.  Probably now more than ever.”

 

She thought about that a moment. “Does your new apartment have a telephone?”

 

His eyebrows arched to the ceiling above.  “At school? Yeah.  Why?”

 

“Because I’m thinking I may have to burn up the lines from Boston back here.”

***

The next two weeks were like a dream Holly never wanted to end.  In the morning they weeded, in the evenings they read, in between he was never far from her thoughts.  Even as she packed the three suitcases of clothes to take back with her to Boston, she wondered how she would ever be able to get on that plane.  Yes, it felt like the move she was supposed to make.  He had his life here with his school starting in just a few weeks. In fact, he would be packing soon as well.

 

However, nothing in her wanted to let this summer go—this magical, life-changing summer.  The thought that it would never be the same again dogged her.  What if he found someone else?  What if they never found their way back here?  What if after tomorrow she woke up from this dream to find a reality she didn’t want to live staring back at her?

 

The cell phone on her table beeped, and she snatched it up, hoping it would be him.  “Hello?”

 

“Holly-girl!  It’s Rebecca.  How’s packing?”  She sounded so happy.

 

Holly let the worry out in a sigh as she plopped onto the bed.  “Lovely.  You want to come help?”

 

“Come to Napa Valley?  I’d love to. When does my flight leave?”

 

Oh, if it were that easy.  She sighed again.  “Is my bed ready?”

 

“It looks lonely without you.  What time are you getting in?”

 

“I’m supposed to be there about eight.”

 

“Do you need a ride?”

 

“I can get a cab.”

 

“A cab?” Rebecca made it sound like that was the worst suggestion in all of suggestion-hood.  “I don’t think so.  We’ll be there to get you.  What airline is it?”

 

“American.”  Holly wanted to protest, but she also knew she would need every drop of support from her friends that she could get.

 

“Cool.  So eight o’clock it is then.”  Rebecca paused.  “How’s Gabriel?”

 

“Good, I guess.  I think he’s taking this a lot better than I am.”

 

“Holly…”

 

“No, Becca.  This is for the best.  It is.  I just have to find a way to get myself to do it.”

 

“You know, Em says all the time that she doesn’t do it, she lets the Holy Spirit do it.  So don’t do it.  Let Him do it.”

 

Holly almost smiled.  “Okay.  I’ll do that.”  She glanced over at the partially full suitcase.  “I’d better get this stuff packed.  I’m supposed to be on the plane at 8:20 in the morning.”  The thought of that cross-country trip was enough to buckle her courage.

 

“K.  I’ll see you when you get here, and Holly?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“It’s going to be okay.”

***

Somehow Gabe had never really thought this night would come, this last night.  Him.  Her.  In the loft, together for the last time.  Somehow that had never seemed like an actual possibility.  Now it was here, and he was in an all-out battle with his heart to keep from begging her to stay.  His thoughts went round and round about what if he just asked her to marry him right now?  What if he could convince her not to go back?

 

But he knew he couldn’t do that.  She was going back.  She’d made that decision, and he didn’t want to make it any harder on her than it already was.  Still, the thought of her leaving stabbed machetes into his heart every time he looked at her.  Tomorrow night he would be here without her, and there was no guarantee that they would ever be here in this space together again.  He knew he couldn’t ask her to stay, but something in him said he needed to tell her, tell her how much she meant to him, how much she had changed his life, how he would never forget her nor regret their time together.  It was just so much, he didn’t know where to start or how.

 

Behind the guise of reading, which he wasn’t, he closed his eyes.  “Holy Spirit, help.  I don’t want to mess this up.  Please help.”  The prayer was a mere breath.

 

“Say it,” the voice seemed to whisper to him.  “Just say it.”

 

He cleared his throat having no idea if any words would come when he opened his mouth.  “So, tell me about these friends of yours—Rebecca and…?”

 

Holly sat up as if waking from a dream.  “Emily?”  She laid her book on her lap.  “They’re great.  They’ve come through for me more than once.  I just hope…”

 

Concern skidded across him at the look on her face.  “Hope?”

 

She glanced at him, and her gaze fell.  “I’ve really pulled them through the wringer.”  The thoughts overtook the words.  “I did some really dumb things my first semester there.  Things I’m not proud of, and I know they didn’t judge me or anything, but I so want this to be a new start for us, for them to see that I’ve really changed, that I’m not the same person I was when I left.”

 

The opening of her heart pulled him to her.  He wrapped his arms over her, and she leaned into him.

 

She sniffed softly. “I just… what if I can’t do this when I get back there?”

 

“Do what?”  He loved the smell of her hair, the feel of her shoulder under his arm.  It felt so right, so natural.

 

“This.  Trust.  Be with Him.  What if I go back to being the old Holly?”

 

“Do you want to go back to being the old Holly?”

 

Slowly she shook her head.

 

“Why not?”

 

“Because she made stupid decisions about guys and drinking and trying to be someone everybody else wanted to be around.”

 

“And the new Holly?”

 

He felt the smile that crossed through her.

 

“Let’s just say she’s learning.”

 

Gabe nodded.  “Do you know what the number one thing God says over and over in the Bible is?”

 

“What?”

 

“Do not be afraid.  Have courage.  Fear not.  I am with you.  366 times He says that in the Bible.”

 

“Really?  366, huh?”  She let the thought settle.  “One for every day.”

 

“And leap year just in case.”

 

Again she nodded.  “And old Holly?”

 

Peace washed through him at the memory of those first few moments together.  “Bless her.  Let her be what teaches you to take others where they are.  You don’t have to change them, just love them where they are, and let God do the rest.”

 

“Bless her?  I would’ve never thought to do that.”

 

“It’s like me.  So many nights I cursed that night at the liquor store.  Then one night Marvin pointed out to me that without that night, I would probably be in huge trouble or dead by now.  So now I bless that night for what it taught me.  It wasn’t the way I wished I’d learned it, but I’m still glad I learned it.”

 

The sniff wafted up to him, and his heart broke that she was struggling so much.  He reached down and with his finger lifted her chin so her gaze met his.  “It’s going to be okay. I promise.”

 

Vulnerable, shaky trust met his gaze.  “God has a plan?”

 

He nodded. “God has a plan.” And though he knew it might crack his own resolve in two, he leaned toward her.  This kiss was at once sad and grateful.  His hand came around her waist, and suddenly forever wouldn’t have been enough.

 

Before his sanity and hands got away from him, she pulled back.  He was glad because he would’ve never been able to walk away from her if it had gone too far.  One tiny smile, and she snuggled into him.  He tightened his grip on her.  “God has a plan. God has a plan.”  It was the only way he could ever hope to let her go.

Copyright Staci Stallings, 2007

Posted in A Light in the Darkness, Novels | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A Light in the Darkness, Ch. 17 & 18

Chapter 17

 

Confusion.  It was all Holly could clearly feel.  Gabriel was gone.  She had thought about this moment at odd times—what she would do without him, what she would feel if anything.  She’d broken up with so many others, it was almost a given that at some point they wouldn’t work out either.  However, why today of all days?  She had stood there, by his side all day, even though she didn’t want to, even though the fear was overwhelming at times.  Still she had stood and done her best to get him through the day.

 

And what did he do?  He broke up with her anyway.  Yet, she knew why.  She understood.  He was now stumbling in the darkness, unsure of anything.  He wasn’t in his right mind.  In fact, that was supremely obvious by his erratic behavior.  First he was kissing her, and then he was telling her to get lost.  Gabriel, the Gabriel she knew, would not toy with her like that.  No, he was hurting, and he was pushing her away, maybe not even because he wanted to but because he was trying to get through the pain moment by moment, not really thinking any farther than that.

 

As she climbed the stairs, Holly reached for the one and only thing she could think to do—prayer.  “Dear Lord, please give Gabriel peace.  Whatever that means for me, for us.  Just give him peace.  Be with him, God.  Station Your angels around him to protect him.  Please, dear Lord.  Please, I’m asking.”

 

The prayer stayed with her the rest of the night.

***

“So you took Holly back to the mansion?” His mother didn’t so much as wait for Gabe to get all the way into the kitchen.

 

“Yeah.”  He was a wreck—emotionally, physically, spiritually, mentally, and he knew it.  There were only tiny shreds of sanity clinging to him, but even they were slipping.  He stepped into the glaring light of the kitchen and blinked it back.  All he wanted to do was crawl into a hole and disappear.

 

At the table sat his mother, his aunt and his uncle.  They all looked at him, watching him.  He walked to the cabinet and took out a glass.  He felt like he hadn’t had water in a month.  With a jerk he turned on the water, filled the glass, and then shut it off. He turned to lean on the cabinet.  Still, they were looking at him.  “What? What did I do?”

 

His Uncle Adolfo glanced at the two women.  “Gabe, we’re a little concerned about this relationship.”

 

A knife dug into his heart, but defiantly he took a drink.  “What relationship?”

 

“You and this girl… Holly.  Do you really think this is a good idea?  Can’t you see she’s using you?”

 

Staying strong hurt worse than it ever had.  “Using me? For what?  Entertainment?” His laugh was hollow. “Holly’s not like that.”

 

“I know you think she’s not,” his Aunt Ida, said.  “I know you want to believe that, but…”

 

Gabe felt the emotion rising, disintegrating everything in its path.  If he didn’t get out now, he was going to do or say something he’d likely regret.  He spun around and pitched the last of the water in the sink.  “Well, you don’t have to worry about it.”  The glass clinked to the cabinet.  “I won’t be seeing her anymore.” His grip on the cabinet felt good because it hurt worse for a moment than the pain.

 

He heard his mother’s sigh, but he couldn’t get as relieved about that as she sounded.

 

Pulling stone-hard into him, he turned.  “So, what are we doing with the food? I don’t want to be up all night.”

***

Holly was still praying the next morning when she got up and put on her sweatshirt and jeans.  She hoped his night was better than hers.  “God, be with Gabriel today.”  The prayer continued as she went through the kitchen, got her coffee, and headed out to the back.  The more she got done now, the less he would have to do when he came back.

 

As she got to work unstringing the lights from the bushes and the fence, she thought how hard it would be for him to come back.  Everything, everywhere would remind him, even as it reminded her now.  The thought that he might decide not to come back went through her, searing every tender place left.  How could she go on without him, without hearing his voice, and feeling his arms around her?

 

Dragging two sets of lights to the gazebo and going back to the ladder, she couldn’t help but see the unfairness of it all. Others fell in love, and everything was wonderful for them.  She thought of Eric and Rebecca.  Sure, they’d had a few rough spots at the beginning, but hurting like this?  No way.  They were head over heels.  She knew Emily less well, and had only been around Jeremy a few times.  Yet they too, knew how to make this work.  They were, after all, getting married in January.

 

Find someone, graduate, get married.  It seemed so easy for everyone else.  Why was it so impossibly impossible for her?  The thought of being relegated to the merry-go-round of relationships her mother tried to make normal dragged her spirit down even as she descended the ladder, picked it up, and moved it six feet over.  She climbed back up.

 

No, she would not be like her mother.  She would rather live her whole life by herself than to go through that gauntlet.  The lights on the fence snagged.  She reached over and yanked up on them to dislodge them, but the fence’s hold didn’t yield.

 

“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me.  Come on.”  One toe was all that was left on the ladder’s third rung as she reached, straining to untangle the strand of lights.  “Come on!”  She yanked, her frustration with life going right into the string.  The ladder wobbled under her, and her heart lurched.  She tried to find something to grab onto but found nothing.  “Ahh!”

 

Sharp branches of the bush below met her on the way down, slicing into her skin.  They were the only things that slowed her plummet.  As she fell through them, they jabbed and cut, slicing into her face, hands, and arms.  And then, she was lying on the ground face up.  The crash of the ladder in the opposite direction made her cringe.

 

“Ugh.” Her back screamed in pain, not letting even a modicum of breath into her lungs.  “Oh.” She couldn’t get in a real breath.  It was completely impossible. “Ugh. Ugh.” She gasped for air, coughing because her lungs hated the air trying to come in.

 

“Hey!”  The yell kept her from losing consciousness although she couldn’t really tell where it had come from or who it was. “Are you okay?”

 

Holly couldn’t stop the groan.  She fought to breathe, but her lungs still wouldn’t let much air in at all.  She closed her eyes to squeeze out the pain shooting through her.

 

“What were you doing?”  The guy’s gaze was frantic and worried.  “Look at you.  You shouldn’t be out here doing this stuff.”

 

Reaching for his sleeve, she sat up with his help.  That made her head spin. “I’m sorry.  I was trying to…”  Nausea swept into her.  “Oh.” She needed something to lean on.  Careful not to make the movements too big, she scooted over to the little bench but didn’t crawl up onto it, rather leaning against the cool metal supports, she worked on getting her breathing back to normal.

 

Her senses were coming back, and she realized she had, in fact, seen this guy before.  That day out by the pool.  She groaned at the memory.  Putting her head against the cool metal, she tried to find the words to tell him she was fine, but they swam around in her brain like a school of frightened fish.

 

“Look at you.  You’re bleeding.”  His frantic meter was heading into the danger zone.  “We need to get you inside.”

 

“What in the world happened?” A second guy came hurrying up along the path.  This one was tall and black.  She had seen him too, but she had no idea what his name was.

 

“She fell,” the first guy said.  “She was doing the lights.”

 

“Why was she doing the lights?”

 

“I don’t know.  She was up on the ladder trying to get them down when I got here.”

 

Holly didn’t want them fighting over her and her stupidity.  She waved her hands at them.  “I’m fine.  I’m fine. I just wasn’t thinking.”  Pushing her feet under her and praying they wouldn’t fail her, she reached up to the bench.  “Here, help me up.”

 

Although he looked less than sure, the black guy reached down for her hand.  He helped her gently to her feet and didn’t really let go even when she was up.  Concern etched in his gaze.  “You’ve got some nasty scratches there.”  He reached over to her face.  “Are you sure you’re okay?”

 

It was only then that she looked at her hands.  There were tiny trails of blood all over them.  She put one thumb knuckle up to her forehead to get her head to stop pounding.  “I’m sorry. I’m okay.  Really I am.”  Lowering her hands to her knees to regain her composure, she pushed the pain and the blood away from her as she looked back at the lights. “We need to get these things down.  I already got some down, but I didn’t know what to do with them.”

 

She pointed over to the gazebo, the pain pulling her energy down farther.  It was still difficult to breathe.  She reached up and scratched the side of her face, desperately fighting to get back to normal.

 

The two guys looked to where she pointed and then to each other.

 

“Who took all the chairs down?” the black guy asked.

 

“I did.  Yesterday.”  Holly pushed herself up to standing and started for the ladder.

 

For one moment neither of them moved. Then suddenly they were a whirlwind of action.

 

“Here, I’ll get that,” the Hispanic guy said just as she got to the ladder.

 

“Yeah.”  The black guy stepped over to her.  “Why don’t you take a little break?  We can get this.”

 

Holly shook her head.  “No. I want to help.”

 

“Okay.”  The Hispanic guy drew the two syllables into about five.  “Then why don’t you help Darius roll up those lights?  I’ll get this.”

 

She really didn’t have the energy to argue.  Instead she just bobbed her head up and down and started for the gazebo.  “God, just keep me on my feet.”

***

It was noon before Gabe woke up.  His mind still had that fog of needing more sleep, but he fought through it.  No one was supposed to sleep this late. His father would… He snapped that thought in two. He forced himself up and trudged down the hallway. In the kitchen he pulled a bowl out and grabbed some Apple Jacks.  The way he felt, that might even be too exotic.  He was sitting at the table before he remembered the milk.  But he was too tired to get milk, so he poured some cereal and dug in.

 

Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.  It echoed off the hollow walls of his mind.  Memories hazed at the far fringes of his mind, but he deliberately shut them down.  They didn’t need to remind him.

 

“Oh, Gabe,” his mother said as she stepped into the room from the other side. “I didn’t hear you.”

 

“Sorry.”

 

“That’s okay.  Would you like some lunch?  I can make salami sandwiches with extra cheese.”

 

“No thanks.”  The thought made him ill.  “Did Uncle Adolfo and Aunt Ida leave?”

 

“They said they were sorry they missed you, but they needed to get back.”

 

Gabe nodded. The movement spun through him.

 

“I was thinking we need to go into town today.  I think I’ll put you on our… I mean, on my checking account, so you can sign checks on it.”

 

“Fine.”

 

“And the car’s timing is still missing.  I was going to ask… We never did get that fixed, and I’ve been afraid it was going to leave me stranded for a month.”

 

“I’ll look at it.”

 

“You better do that before we go into town.”

 

“I said I’ll do it.”  The words were harsh, sharp, and Gabe slammed his eyes closed, trying to take them back. His heart jammed into his throat.  “I’m sorry, Mama.  Really I am.”

 

She gazed at him, looking older than she ever had.  “I know.”

***

Holly couldn’t take another minute alone in the big, empty house.  The cuts on her hands and face looked worse than she thought they would, but they were not worth calling out the National Guard like the guys wanted to do.  She’d worked most of the morning with them–Tim and Darius.  They were nice guys, funny. Although she knew they were trying to be serious with her around, funny was never very far away.

 

As she slipped out the front door and started for the carriage house, she thought about how worried they had been about her when she fell and even throughout the morning.  In fact the top two things on the list of things she’d said were, “I’m fine” and  “Don’t worry. I’m fine.”  On the outside she was, the inside was another story.

 

Absurdly she hoped Gabriel would be there when she opened the heavy door.  She knew he wouldn’t, but it didn’t stop the hope.  With a yank she pulled the door open and stepped inside.  Strange how the chill seemed to permeate the space even when the weather outside was full-on summer.  She reached out and pulled on the little light.  Up the stairs she went, wrapping her arms in the long, oversized cable knit sweater. She had chosen it in anticipation of the chill.

 

At the top, she let her gaze lead her down in to the memories.  The breath was one of acceptance.  As much as she hated to admit it, Gabriel probably had a point.  Not that she deserved better, but that he did.  She walked over to the little bookshelf and pulled one off.  True Power & Real Peace.  It was the one she had seen him reading.  Taking it, she went over to the couch and curled onto it.  Even here, alone, she felt his presence, and it helped.  For a moment she could once again believe she wasn’t trash, she had a purpose, and there was someone in the world who actually loved her.  It was a feeling that would be hard to get used to living without again.

***

“I think tomorrow we need to go to the lawyer,” his mother said from across the table.

 

The spaghetti, always his favorite, was tasteless. He ate anyway, not wanting to hurt her feelings.  But his mind was elsewhere—in the mansion, wondering how Holly was doing.

 

“I found the will earlier.  Not that I want to, but I think we need to get that settled.”

 

Gabe thought he nodded, but he didn’t really hear any of it.  He wondered if he would ever hear anything again.

***

Time was divided between her desk, the loft, and the garden.  Always, always, the prayers went with her.  She had started reading the book, and it now weaved in and out of the words she sent to Heaven.

When true power and real peace join, the lion lays down with the lamb in perfect harmony.  The rich soul knows he need not know every bend and twist in the road because he knows the One Who does, and if he is smart, he will trust that Knowledge.  He will put his life into the Wisdom of the great I Am and know that he has never to worry about the future.  The future is held in the Providence of the great I Am.  The past likewise is given to the Mercy of the great I Am.  The Present, that mystery that surrounds every rich soul, is held in the Love of the great I Am.  So past, present and future he is forgiven, loved, and protected. Thus, he can step out in courage and freedom that amazes those around him.

Each piece of understanding he gains in this regard will allow the rich soul to break free of the fears which seek to keep all truly great souls in chains.  This understanding will allow the rich soul to take leaps of enormous faith to the point of walking on water because he will slowly learn that love, providence, mercy and joy will be his even in the midst of outward worry and grief.  No setback will ever stop him for long. No trial will yield his defeat.

There were no markings on this page, and Holly wondered at that.  Had Gabriel not made it to this part yet?  Or had he not found anything to take away from this passage?  Holly considered.  It wasn’t her book, nor was it her place.  However, in her heart the lion suddenly laid with the lamb, and she knew it was right.  Gabriel may not ever know what he had given to her, but here, this was a way that someday he would know.

 

Taking the pen that was never far from her when she read, she carefully underlined the last three lines.  Then, in her flowing script, she wrote:  This is what I wish for you. May it be as you become the rich soul you were always meant to be. HJ

 

And once again, she said the prayer that was never far from her heart.

***

“Hey, how’s it going?” Rebecca asked the next afternoon when Holly picked up the cell phone that bleeped to life on her bed.

 

Holly sighed. “It could be better.”  She flopped down onto the bed, not really caring about eating supper alone again.

 

“Why?  What’s going on?”

 

In as few words as possible, Holly related all that had transpired since their last phone call.

 

“Oh, man,” Rebecca said when the story wound to a close.  “How’s Gabriel?”

 

“Who knows?  I haven’t seen him since the night of his dad’s funeral.”

 

“He hasn’t been back to work?”

 

“Nope. I’m sure he’s helping his mom with things, and Luke told him to take some time off.”

 

“How are you doing?” The question was hesitant, full of trepidation.

 

Holly searched her heart for the words.  “I’m okay.  Really.  I miss him like crazy, and I wish how I knew this was all going to work out. But every time I ask God, He says to be patient and give Gabriel time.  So that’s what I’m doing.”

 

Rebecca said nothing for a long moment.  “God?”

 

“Yeah, we’re getting to be really good friends.”  Holly laughed.  “I know. I know.  But it’s nice to have Someone to talk to when things go spinning out of control.”

 

“Yeah, it is.”  Rebecca paused.  “Listen, Holly.  I hate to add more stuff to your plate, but the lease for this place is coming up on the first.  We talked to the landlord, and we can keep it if we want.”

 

There were moments when peace was really hard to hang onto. This was one of them. “Oh.  So you’re thinking about not coming back to the dorms then?”  Man, that hurt to say, to even think.

 

“Well, actually, we can’t really afford it just the two of us, but we were hoping… Well, we’ve talked about it, and we thought maybe you might consider…”

 

Absurd hope slammed into her. “You want me to room with you guys?”

 

“You’ll have to room with me actually.  Em would have her own room down the hall. We’d get the big one.  But I didn’t know if you’d be able to swing it, you know with everything that’s going on.”

 

Everything that’s going on.  That wasn’t a small consideration.  “Yeah. Well, I’m going to have to ask Mom when she gets back.”  The thought of them coming back raked through her.  “I don’t know how keen she’ll be on the idea.”

 

“Yeah. I figured that, but we wanted to ask, to give you a little time to figure it out.”

 

Loneliness crept into her spirit at the thought of going back without them. “What happens if I don’t?  What happens if Mom vetoes the idea? Will you guys come back to the dorms?”

 

Rebecca paused.  “Why don’t we see what your mom says first?  Then we’ll figure out what we’re doing.”

 

“Oh, okay.”  What else could she say?

***

Gabe went with his mother to church on Sunday, but the persistent fog draped over his whole life like a heavy curtain.  What the readings were about, what the sermon was about, he had no idea.  When they walked out, people stopped his mom and asked if they needed anything.  Gabe hung back, trying to disappear.  These were his mother’s friends, not his.

 

The conversation with Rosa was longer than Gabe’s nerves could take.  Finally, he leaned down to his mother.  “I’ll be in the car.”

 

“Oh, Gabe, will you be back to work tomorrow?” Rosa asked.

 

He had to search in the far corners of his mind for the answer. “I guess so.”  Not an ounce of him wanted to think about that.  “I’ll be in the car.”

 

His mother nodded, and he fled.  It was strange.  Just a couple short months ago, he was worried about what classes he would be taking in the fall.  Now, school, work, life—all of it seemed way outside his grasp.  He got in the car that was working better than it had in years.  That might have been due to the 14 hours he’d spent beating it into submission over the course of the last week.  If he wasn’t with his mother, attending to things that needed dealt with, he was working on the car.  It was a channel for his frustration with everything else.

 

Unfortunately, now it felt like a cage, a trap.  He sat there, watching his mother talk with Rosa, praying she would hurry up and simultaneously hoping she never quit talking.  Why that was, he couldn’t clearly tell, but it was how he felt.  Only a few more minutes and she turned and started for the car.

 

He held his breath.  The whole keeping everyone in one piece thing was draining.

 

She got in, and he put the car in drive.  They were out of the parking lot and in the sparse traffic when she glanced at him.  “So, you are going back to work tomorrow?”

 

Gabe shrugged and turned down the AC.  It was making him shiver.  “I have to go back sometime.”

 

His mother nodded more with her eyes than with her head.  She didn’t want him to leave, but he didn’t know how not to.  Even with his working, they might well have a tough time making it.  And that was if he didn’t go back to school.  The ride home was silent, and once home, Gabe went straight to his room.  How could a person be so tired and not have done anything all day?

 

He flopped onto the bed and arched his knee, laying his wrist on his eyes.  For a split second he considered calling Holly, but with a punch he knocked that thought away.  She didn’t want to hear from him.  Worse, he knew one note of her voice could crack his resolve in two.  How he would ever face her tomorrow was beyond his comprehension.

 

Trying not to think about that, he stood and went to the desk.  His new schedule for classes, unopened, lay on the desk.  Heavily he sat down on the little chair and opened it.  Fifteen hours, hours that would take him that much closer to his ultimate goal.  The sigh sliced through his heart.  Who was he kidding?  He couldn’t make this work.  School was too far from work.  Work was too far from school.  He couldn’t do both, and there was only one his mother needed him to do.

 

With a slow blink, he took the sheaves, crumpled them, and let them fall into the wastebasket next to the desk.  There was no feeling left as he stood, walked back to his bed, and lay down.  All he wanted to do was sleep, yes, to sleep forever. Maybe then this claustrophobic existence would be bearable, but he doubted it.

***

The chairs were long gone as were the lights.  Still, Holly spent every morning in the garden, weeding and praying.  It was all she could think to do.  He hadn’t been back to work.  That much she was sure of, but when he would come back and how she would react when he did, was anybody’s guess.  It had been a full week of wondering, worrying and praying.

 

By the time the sun came up Monday morning, hot and bright, she had to accept the fact that he wasn’t coming today either.  “God, please, please be with him.”

***

“Hey,” Gabe said, trying not to make his entrance anything remarkable.  He walked straight through the work shop office to the filing cabinet.  It was difficult to remember how to do this.

 

Darius looked up from the table. “Oh, hey.”  He paused as Gabe got a cup of coffee.  “How’s it going?”

 

“Good.”  Gabe wondered if anyone would buy that lie.  “What’s up for today?”

 

It took Darius a moment to understand the shift.  “Oh, well.  I was going to send Tim over to do the pool, but since you’re here…”

 

Gabe took a drink, tasting nothing.  “I think I’m going to take the mower into the shop in town.  I’m tired of that dragging blade.”

 

It was clear that Darius had no idea what to say to that.  “Okay.  So you want Tim to do the pool then?”

 

“Yeah.  I guess somebody had better get it done.”  The impossibility of finding the right words crawled over Gabe.  He needed to get out of here.  “I’ll just get it loaded.”

 

“Oh, do you want help?”

 

“Sure.”

***

At half past two Holly saw the movement out the back window, and her heart jumped into her throat.  Knowing she shouldn’t, she went to the living room doors and peered out.  However, her spirit fell at the sight of Tim patiently skimming the pool.  He looked up and caught her watching.  There was a soft smile and a wave.  She couldn’t be mean.

 

“Pool duty?” she asked, stepping out.

 

“Guess so.”

 

Everything in her wanted to ask, but she wasn’t sure she should.  She didn’t want to tip the guys off to how worried she really was.  After all, they weren’t together.  What right did she have to be worried?  However, she was out here, and she did want to know.  “So, did Gabriel come in today?”

 

Tim stopped his work and gazed at her.  “Yeah.  He took the mower into town.”

 

Holly lifted her chin in understanding.  “Oh.  Okay.  Well, I was just wondering… in case they ask when they call.”  The middle of her heart ached.  He was back at work, yet he hadn’t come this morning.  “Well, I’ll let you get back to work.”  What else could she do?

***

With everything in him, Gabe wanted to go by the carriage house after work.  Just looking at the mansion all day had been more than his heart could take.  The thought that she was so close but so unbelievably far away was enough to overload every circuit in his brain.  Knowing that going, risking that she might be there and that she might not was a bad idea, he turned the pickup out of the front gates and headed home.  His mother needed him at home anyway.  He didn’t have time for silly things like reading anymore.

***

Holly waited for him, hoping and wondering, but by the time her watch said eleven o’clock, she knew he wasn’t coming.  She’d never been more alone in her life, and that was saying something.  It was truly, truly a good thing for God.  Had it not been for Him, she hated to think what she might have done to compensate for feeling like no one in the world cared whether she lived or died.

 

She closed the heavy door and wrapped her arms over herself.  “God, please be with Gabriel.  Please show him Your love. Please show him You have his future in Your hands.”

***

Gabe was hunched over a bowl of Cheerios the next morning.  The sun wasn’t up, but he had no intention of moving until it was.  Besides he liked the dark.  It felt like not living. In the dark he didn’t have to face how bleak his life had become, how scared he now was with his father gone, how lonely he was with her gone.  Even God seemed very, very far away.  That hurt, but he could see no way to remedy it.  He thought about going to the loft later to get something to read, but what good would that do?  It wouldn’t change anything.  All it would do is show him how many stupid, worthless dreams he’d let himself get sucked into believing.

 

Well, he didn’t believe them anymore, and in all probably with the way he felt now, he never would again.

 

Chapter 18

 

“I saw her on Tuesday,” Tim was saying when Gabe returned from weed eating around the barrier trees by the front gate, “by the pool.  She looked better.”

 

“By the pool?” Darius asked from inside the office.

 

“Yeah, I think she just came out to say hi, and she asked about Gabe if he was back.”

 

The center of his heart constricted at the sound of his name.

 

“Were the cuts better?  I swear I still think we should’ve taken her in. That one on her hand was pretty bad.”

 

“Yeah.  The ones I saw were better. That one down her neck is almost gone.”

 

Gabe could take no more.  As if he’d just come in from the outside, he walked in and flipped the tool belt to the chair.  Both gazes went to him.  He felt them, but self-defense wouldn’t let him acknowledge them.  He nailed Tim with one glance. “I thought you were going to mow.”

 

“Oh, yeah.  I… I was headed.”  Tim stumbled to the door, and in seconds the sound of the mower reverberated through the room.

 

With maximum noise and force, Gabe yanked the file cabinet open and rifled through the papers trying to remember what he was looking for.  The mower sound faded as Tim drove it out into the sunlight.

 

“The bill for the chairs and stuff came in this morning,” Darius said, holding up a letter.  Quiet reasserted itself.

 

“Oh, yeah?”

 

“I was wondering if you wanted to pay it out here or take it up to the house.”

 

Gabe half-turned, glancing at it.  Why did he have to make every decision?  “Whatever. Take it up there if you want.”

 

“You don’t want to take it up there?”

 

Turning back he shrugged.  “Do what you want. Whatever. I don’t care.”

 

Darius said nothing for a long moment.  “You know, for what it’s worth, I think we seriously misjudged her.”

 

“Who?” Gabe asked as if her name wasn’t burned on his heart.

 

“Holly.”

 

He had to swallow to get anything out.  “Oh, yeah? Why’s that?”

 

Darius leaned back in the chair, folded his hands at his stomach, and watched Gabe’s every move. “Well, when you were gone, those first few days, she took down all the chairs, and she was in the middle of taking all the lights down when Tim found her impaled on a bush.”

 

The story beat across Gabe’s mind.  “What was she doing out there?”

 

It took a moment for Darius to answer. “Well, if I don’t miss my guess, she was trying to help you.”

 

He doubted it, and he pushed the implication away.  “I didn’t ask her to do that.”

 

“Yeah?  Well, she ended up about killing herself over the deal anyway.”

 

The words dug into him.

 

“She’s worried about you, man.  She didn’t say it, but I know she is.”

 

Gabe didn’t say anything.  He couldn’t.

 

“Dude, look. Holly’s great.  What are you doing?  Why are you being so stubborn about this?”

 

Gabe’s fist curled tight.  He thought about making up some stupid excuse, but that took too much energy. “Because she deserves better.  Look at me.  I’m a two-bit maintenance guy who just had his future handed to him in a casket.”

 

Darius looked at him, assessing.  “Is that really what you think?”

 

Fury cracked into him, and he slammed the cabinet closed.  “What else am I supposed to think?”

 

“This isn’t you, Gabe.”  The slow words from his friend startled him into listening. “This isn’t the guy I’ve worked with for three years, the one who was going to the top, who wasn’t going to let anything stop him.  What’s going on?  Is it your dad?”

 

He couldn’t answer, so he didn’t try.

 

“He wouldn’t have wanted you to shut down your life over this,” Darius continued.

 

Gabe set his jaw and shook his head. “I’m going to help Tim.  I need to see if that mower’s any better.” He headed out.  He didn’t need a psychoanalyst to tell him life stunk.

 

“I’m putting that bill here,” Darius called. “It needs handled one way or another.”

 

Handled.  Gabe would like to handle the whole lot of them.

***

As Holly sat in the loft on Thursday night, she wondered where he was, how he was doing, what he was doing.  Okay, so he didn’t want to be together with her.  What was the harm in being friends?  Was that really so awful?  Would it kill him to stop in and say hi?

 

Logic told her he was hurting too badly to do that, but the knife of knowing he was avoiding her hurt more than she had thought it would.  There were moments when even breathing hurt, moments when she would’ve given anything to be with him in the garden again.  But then her head would take over, reminding her that sooner or later this would’ve come.  He just spared them both the pain when she went back to Boston.

 

She curled onto the couch, the book in her hand.  Sleep began to drift over her eyes.  She didn’t want to go back to that big, empty house.  It was creepy.  The dark shadows seemed to lie in wait for her, ready to pounce if she ever let her guard down.  At least here the light could stay on, and nobody would know.  With that thought she let sleep take her all the way down.

***

“Dragon lady’s supposed to be back today,” Tim said as they stood in the workshop, sorting tools from the garden revamp they’d just come back from the next Monday.

 

Gabe was in the office, trying to make sense of the fall pruning information.  He’d never really thought he’d be here past August, and now it seemed he might be here forever.  He hated sending them out to do jobs he should be overseeing, but too much work and too much likelihood that he’d run into her at the house kept him right here in this seat.

 

“So soon?” Darius asked Tim.

 

“It’s been two weeks,” Tim said.

 

“So soon?” Darius asked again, and they laughed.

 

“Holly said their plane lands at two.  They should be here by four.”

 

With the mention of her name, the voices dropped in volume.

 

“How’s she doing?” Darius asked.

 

“Good, I guess.” Tim put the wrench up on the wall. “I think being up at the house by herself has kind of freaked her out though.  She told me she’s been sleeping in the… loft?”

 

“The loft? What’s that?”

 

“I’m not sure.  She didn’t say.  Just said it’s creepy up there by herself.”

 

It was the height of insane, but Gabe could take it no longer.  He jumped from the desk, went to the filing cabinet, and grabbed the receipts.  She needed the receipts and the bill for the chairs which he still hadn’t dealt with.  He strode out and through the workshop.  “I’ll be back.”

 

“Where you going, boss?” Darius asked.

 

“I’ve got to turn these receipts in up at the house.”  He knew there was a glance between them, but he pushed that away.  They could think whatever they wanted.  All he cared about was making sure she was okay.  That was all.

***

Holly heard the doorbell, and questioning concern snapped into her.  Luke and her mother weren’t due for another five hours at least.  Her ears picked out the voices at the front door.  Rosa, and who?  She tried to make it out, but it was too muffled.  Then she heard the footsteps coming down the hall toward her office.  She stood, and halfway up, Rosa appeared in the doorway.

 

“Miss Holly, do you have a minute?”

 

“Uh, sure.  What is it?” Gazing at the doorway, she had the sensation of hoping the chair would catch her shock.  Behind Rosa, Gabriel appeared, gaze down.  His glances up told her he didn’t want to be here even now. Holly stuffed all the fear, pain, and anger down as she resumed her seat.  “Oh, it’s okay, Rosa.  Thanks.”

 

Rosa nodded and left.

 

Gabriel took a hesitant step forward as Holly pulled professional to her.  “Umm, we got this bill down at the work shop.” He held up a letter.  “I didn’t know if you wanted to pay it or if we should.”

 

So, this was only about business.  That swept the net from under her, but she fought off the stabbing pain in her heart.  She held her hand out for it. “What is it?”

 

He stepped closer to her desk, and she noticed how cautious he looked.  He reached up and scratched the side of his head and then held out the letter. “It’s for the chairs from the wedding.  I mean I can pay it… if you want.”

 

Holly brushed her hair back.  “That’s fine. I can get it.”

 

“Okay.”  He handed it to her, and just the close proximity of his hand to hers clutched her.  The transfer made, he didn’t move, didn’t even really back up.

 

The fact that he was so close was stifling to her. She opened the bill, looked at it without seeing it, and stuffing it back into the envelope, she looked up. “Is there something else?”

 

“Yeah.”  He stopped, obviously not remembering what that something was.  He seemed so scattered, so ill-composed.  “Oh, yeah.  The receipts.”  He looked down and dug in his pocket.  “There aren’t as many this time.”

 

Holly nodded, wishing he would just leave already.  This was worse than him being gone, knowing how much he didn’t want to be here.  “Is that it?”  She hated how prickly her tone sounded, but she couldn’t stop the hurt in her from winding through them. He couldn’t even look at her.

 

There was a nod, but still he didn’t move. A second, two, three.  She was about to ask again when he started. “I’m… uh, I was wondering if you wanted paid.”

 

The word slapped into her, and her gaze snapped to him.  “Paid? For what?”

 

He stuck his hands in his back pocket, and his gaze was solidly on the floor. “For picking up the chairs and stuff.”  He glanced up.  “The guys told me what you did.”

 

“Oh,” she laughed softly.  “That was nothing.  I was just out… in the garden.” Why did that feel like admitting all the things she couldn’t tell him?  How she wished she could turn that part off as easily as he had.  Then she realized she didn’t want to turn it off.  Right or wrong, she cared.  It was impossible to even pretend that she didn’t.

***

Gabriel never really moved, only stood there desperately trying to get himself to get out of that office.  But he couldn’t.  All he wanted was to talk to her for another moment and then another.  His heart was screaming at him to do something, something so he wouldn’t lose her again or something so it would be over for good.  But he couldn’t take this—this being there with her but not.  Her gaze slid up to him.  He felt it.  Oh, to get his feet to move. All he wanted to do was run far and fast.  Get away from her, away from this once upon a time that could never be.  Why couldn’t he move?

 

“So how are you doing?” Holly asked. The soft, kindness touched the raw nerves it found. “The guys have really been worried.”

 

“Oh? Me? I’m fine.”  He tried to laugh it off, but it seared every part of him.  He shrugged, which didn’t help either.  “Back to work.  You know?  It’s fine.”

 

For the span of a breath he thought she bought it.

 

“Liar.”  As harsh as the word was, she didn’t sound unkind.

 

He swallowed hard. “I’m not… I…”  He slammed his eyes closed to keep the tide back, but it rose with frightening velocity, overtaking the wall he’d carefully built.  The breath came in short shivering puffs. “Work’s a little rough, catching up and everything, but besides that…”

 

Her face was somewhere between mirth and worry. “You are such a bad liar.”

 

“I’m not lying.” Vehemence rose in him, but every fiber of him knew differently.

 

Softness graced the depths of her eyes. “Gabriel.  This is me. Holly.  You don’t have to put on the nicey-nice face and pretend with me.”

 

“I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t have come.”  He turned.

 

“Gabriel!” She stood.  “Wait.”

 

Stupidly he stopped.  Why couldn’t he just leave? The breaths were strangling him now, but he fought them back with everything in him.

 

She came around the desk to where he stood by the door.  Six inches from him, she tilted her head to look at him.  “It’s all right, you know?  You don’t have to be Superman with this.  Everybody gets scared.  This would’ve knocked the props out from under me, but you don’t have to do this alone.  Let your friends help. They care.”

 

“I’m fine,” he said again, wishing he believed it as strongly as he said it.  “Really. I am.”

 

“Yeah, and that’s why you haven’t been out to the garden or up to the loft in two weeks, that’s why Tim’s doing the pool, and Darius is worried out of his mind. Gabriel, listen to me, you don’t have to carry the world on your shoulders like this.  You don’t.  Let us help.”

 

“Us?” His gaze lifted to hers on the word.  There was a strength in her eyes he hadn’t remembered being there before.

 

“Yes, us.  What? Do you think I don’t care anymore?  Good grief. Tim is getting tired of giving me updates.  I care about you, okay?  I do. Is that a crime?”

 

He wanted it to be.  It would be so much easier that way.  If she was mad and never wanted to see him again, yes, that would be much better. This was impossible.

 

“You need a break.” Her gaze searched his. “You need some time to yourself.  Why don’t you come out to the loft tonight?  Just for a little while.”

 

His brain remembered Tim saying something about her and the loft, but he couldn’t exactly remember what that was.  “I don’t… I need to get home.”

 

He felt the softness in her gaze as she laid a gentle hand on his shoulder.  “Holing up at home isn’t going to bring him back.”

 

“Mama…”

 

“I know.  She needs you. And you need somebody too.  You don’t have to do this alone, Gabriel.  You don’t.  If you won’t talk to me, then talk to Darius or Tim, but don’t crawl in a hole and give up.”  Passion twined through her words.  “Don’t do what I did, don’t give up.  Okay? You have too much good to give to the world.”

 

He felt like all the good he’d ever get done had already passed him by. “I’ve got to get back down to the shop.  They’re going to think I left.”

 

“If you need me, I’m here.”

 

Gabe nodded although he didn’t let her words get all the way to his heart.  However, instead of letting him leave, Holly inexplicably stepped up to him and put her arms around his shoulders.  That gesture was enough to collapse the dikes holding back the flood of emotion.  He had to get away.  “No. Okay.  I’m fine.”  He backed out of her arms and away from her.

 

He couldn’t look at her, couldn’t let her see into his soul, or she would know just how deep the denial went and what was really at the bottom of it.  His heart ripped in two as he turned and hurried out.

 

“I’m here,” she called after him.  “If you need me…”

 

But he didn’t need her.  He couldn’t.

***

When he was gone, Holly closed her eyes as the pain in his eyes mixed with the pain in her soul.  “Well, that went well.”  Knowing nothing else to do, she said a prayer and went back to work.

 

***

Eat fast and disappear.  That was Gabe’s strategy when he got home.  He had the microwave humming when his mother walked into the kitchen.

 

“Do you mind explaining this to me?” she asked, and Gabe turned at the anger in her tone.  He caught one look at the crumpled papers and turned back for the microwave.  “I found these in your trash can.”

 

The microwave dinged, and he yanked it open.  Maybe he would just eat in his room.  Why couldn’t they all just leave him alone?

 

“Gabriel Jose, what is the meaning of this?”

 

He spun the food with his fork. “I don’t need them anymore. I’m not going back.”

 

Five seconds of utter silence followed the statement.

 

“What do you mean you’re not going back?” There was anger laced with fear in her voice.

 

Gabe shrugged as if it didn’t matter at all. “I’m not going back to school. Why would I need those?”

 

Hurt and anger pulled her face down into a scowl.  “That’s not funny.  You are, too going back.  I’m not letting you throw your life away.”

 

Pushing numbness over all the hurt, Gabe stabbed into the macaroni and cheese. “You need me.  I can’t do that and work too.”  He took a bite that he didn’t taste.

 

“Then you’ll go and I’ll get a job,” she said firmly.

 

He laughed a hollow laugh.  “You’re not getting a job.  Come on, Mama. You know better than that.”

 

Then she did something he’d never before seen.  She pulled herself up to her full five foot, three inches, put her hands on her hips, and stuck out her chin.  “What do you think?  That I can’t get a job?  I’ll have you know I worked many years before you showed up on the planet and many more after you showed up too.”

 

He wanted to argue, but he couldn’t clearly tell how far he would have to go to convince her, and starting down that road was scary.  “It’s okay, Mama.  Really.  You don’t have to worry about getting a job.  I’ve got one.”

 

“Yes, and it’s making a future for yourself not taking care of your mother.  You are going back to school.”

 

Frustration poured through the overwhelming exhaustion.  “No, I’m not.  I know where my place is.  It’s here… with you.  End of story.”  He slid his empty plate to the counter.  He was tired of fighting, of defending himself, and explaining everything again and again.  This was his fate, he’d accepted it.  Why was that so hard for everyone else to get?  “I’m going to my room.”

 

“Gabriel.  Stop.”

 

For the second time that day, he stopped although if he’d had any sense, he wouldn’t have.

 

Her gaze was firm with only a hint of soft. “What is up with you these days?  You are walking around here like a zombie, biting people’s heads off, and being more stubborn than I’ve ever seen you.  This isn’t you.”

 

Lord, how many times did they have to point that out?  He took a breath to calm the desire to scream at her.  Slowly he turned, and the sadness in his heart wouldn’t let his gaze hold hers.  “Look, I get it. Okay?  I do, and I’m trying to make the best of it if you all would just leave me alone.”  He snatched the papers out of her hands, crumpled them up, and fired them at the trashcan.  “It’s over for me.  I get that.  End of dream. Stop making this so hard.”  And he spun and stomped out.

 

In his room he closed the door and flipped the lock. He should take a shower, but he didn’t care enough to do that at the moment.  Instead he fell on his bed and willed the tears away from him.  The dream was gone.  He didn’t even care about it anymore. Why did everyone insist on reminding him of what could never be?  It was getting really, really old.

***

Holly had slipped out long before.  They were home again.  In a way it was nice.  In a way it was not.  She sat in the loft, trying to put all the pieces of their talk together.  Gabriel had been a rock before his dad’s death.  He’d even been moving them forward.  She remembered the almost kiss just before the whole world had blown apart.  Confidence and hope had been his hallmarks.  Now there was only despair and fear.

 

Fear.  It was the thing she saw in his eyes most.  If she could just talk to him and if he would just talk to her, maybe they could find a way to erase that fear.  A memory snapped into her.  She closed her eyes.  “Fear.”  She spoke the word out loud.  “You must leave Gabriel by the Holy Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.  You are banished from anywhere around Gabriel.  Heavenly angels, take up position, surround Gabriel morning, noon, and night.  Do not let fear or any of Satan’s other tools get close to Gabriel.  Keep him safe. Amen.”

***

The next morning she prayed and the next.  By Friday she had sent so many demons away from her and from him that she felt like a warrior in battle.  She couldn’t be at all sure any of it was helping.  Darius was still worried, and Tim had come to clean the pool again.  She hadn’t seen Gabriel at all.  She was deep in the middle of another prayer when the small woman turned the corner into her office at midday.

 

“Oh!” Holly stood up the moment she realized who it was.  “Mrs. Cabrelos.  I… is everything all right?” Compassion and fear spun around her mind’s track at breakneck speed.

 

The lady’s gaze went reflexively to the ground. “I’m here to see Mr. Teracini.”

 

Holly noticed the clutch on her purse and wished they could find some common ground so they wouldn’t feel so much like adversaries.  “Oh, of course.”  She sat, but not without hesitation.  She hit the intercom button.  “Mrs. Cabrelos is here to see you, Sir.”

 

“Good. Send her in please.”

 

“Right this way.” Standing, Holly went to the office door and opened it.  “Sir?”

 

Luke stood from his desk and came around to greet the older lady.  There was a warmth that permeated everything he did.  “Renita, please come on in.”  His glance at Holly snagged her attention.  “Thank you, Holly.  If you’ll please close the door.”

 

“Yes, Sir.”  She stepped out and did as instructed.  She wondered what was going on, what Mrs. Cabrelos was doing here.  But then again, it was probably to be expected. After all she was getting things in order from the death of her husband, finalizing the work issues was to be expected.

 

Holly went back to work and was in serious concentration over a letter 20 minutes later when the door snapped open.  She looked up, forgetting for a moment who it was.  They stepped out, and she re-anchored her gaze on the computer screen wishing she could disappear.

 

“Holly,” Luke said, “would you give Renita an application and have her fill out a W-9?  And then you can get her information put into payroll.”

 

“Payroll, Sir?”

 

“Yes, she will be filling in for Rosa in the kitchen.”

 

“Oh, sure.  No problem.”  Holly struggled for composure.  There were so many questions she wanted to ask.  Mrs. Cabrelos sitting down in front of her desk did nothing for her nerves.  She slipped out the paperwork and pushed it across the desk. “If you’ll just fill this out.”

 

She tried to get back to writing the letter, but that didn’t work at all.  Instead, she kept looking over to the lady, bent over the application.  After several minutes of watching while pretending not to, she was startled when the lady pushed the paper back to her.

 

“Is that everything you need?” There was more to that question in the woman’s eyes.

 

Holly looked over the application and nodded.  “It looks good.  I’ll just get this put in.”

 

“Thank you… Holly.”  The lady stood, and she extended her hand.

 

“You’re welcome.”  How badly she wanted to ask, wanted to know if he was living even at home, but she couldn’t get the words out.  With the barest of shakes, Mrs. Cabrelos turned and left.  For the first time in weeks and weeks, all Holly wanted to do was get on a plane and go back to Boston.

 

Boston.  She’d never called Rebecca back.  Her gaze fell to the calendar.  The 28th.  She needed to ask so her friends could make a decision.  But the thought of asking made her stomach queasy. Hoping he wouldn’t be mad, she walked to the office door.  “Luke?”

 

“Yes?”

 

“May I come in?”

 

He pitched his pen to the desk as she entered. “Sure.  What’s on your mind?”

 

Holly walked across the room but didn’t sit down.  Once again the net disappeared.  “Umm, I’ve been meaning to ask you.”  Slowly she laid out the case for the new apartment.  He listened, patiently through the whole story.  Then they came to the yes or no part. She wanted to run so badly her feet wouldn’t stay still.

 

“So you’re going back to Boston then?” he asked instead.

 

That put her back. She couldn’t even really look at him. “Well, yeah.  That was the plan.  I was only here for the summer.”

 

He nodded thoughtfully.  “And you wouldn’t consider staying here?”

 

“Here?”  The word hurt.  No, she wanted to get away from here.  Here where thoughts of Gabriel were everywhere.  At least in Boston, she might be able to get a new start.  “Umm, no.  I really want to go back.”

 

Again he nodded only now he narrowed his gaze at her as if to divine the bottom of her motivation.  “And what about Gabriel?  Where does he fit into all of this?”

 

“Gabriel?” She had to swallow to get the name out.  “Umm, we’re not… He’s not…”  Why was that so hard to say?

 

“I see.  You do know he is trying to find his new path now.” The statement hung there for a moment. “When my father died, I struggled for a long time to come to grips with where that left me.  It was a very difficult time in my life.”

 

“What helped you?” She asked it because she still so wanted to know how to help.

 

“Time and a lot of patience on the part of those closest to me.”

 

She considered that. Finally she breathed and shook her head.  “I don’t think I’m right for Gabriel anyway.  Maybe if I’m not here, he can get back on a good track, find his legs again.”  She shrugged. “I don’t know.  All I know is he won’t have anything to do with me anymore—even as a friend.”

 

“Okay, so you go back to Boston.  Then what?  You forget about him?”

 

Forget? That would be impossible.  Her heart curled around the thought. “No.  I’ll never forget about him, but I have to let him make his own decision, and he’s made it.  If his life doesn’t include me, then it doesn’t include me, and somehow I have to let that go and move on. I don’t want to, but…”  She shook her head.  “It’s okay. If you don’t want to help me with the apartment…”

 

“Who said I wouldn’t help you?  I just want you to make a good decision, the best decision for you.”

 

She looked at him, willing her heart not to give her away. “This is the best decision for me.”

 

Luke smiled a barely smile. “Okay then.  Call your friend and tell her it will be taken care of.”

 

Holly’s heart swelled to overflowing.  “Really?  Oh, thank you, Luke.  Thank you so much.  I promise you won’t regret this.”

 

“Regret what?” the harsh voice behind her spun her around completely.

 

All heat drained from her body. “Mom.”

 

Luke stood.  “I just told Holly I would be happy to help her pay for school when she goes back.”

 

Her mother’s gaze could’ve melted steel.  “How nice of you, Luke.  What are you going to do to pay him back, Holly?”

 

Holly wanted to disappear.

 

“She doesn’t have to pay me back,” Luke said.  “It’s a gift.”

 

Her mother nodded knowingly. “Holly, may I speak with my husband… alone.”

 

“Oh, s-sure.”  Her feet carried her back across the room although she had no idea how.  Out in her office, she closed the door.  She didn’t know whether to be happy or sad, ecstatic or crushed.  So she wasn’t any of them. She simply pushed it all away and went back to work.

***

“For the love of Pete, Gabe.” His mother walked into the kitchen on Friday evening and stopped at the sight. “You have got to get out of this house.”

 

“I went to work.”

 

“Not work.” Gabriel’s mother hovered over the table where he sat, scooping through the two-day-old enchiladas on his plate although he wasn’t eating any of them.  “Why don’t you call some of your friends from school?  Maybe you could go out with them. Do something.  Go bowling.  Anything.”

 

He didn’t answer.  It took too much energy.

 

She planted her hands on her hips.  The determined look was back. “You can’t sit here all weekend by yourself again.  I’m going to work tomorrow, and I’m not leaving you here like this.”

 

Work.  Oh, yeah.  The bombshell she’d dropped on him the day before.  The creeping fingers of failure’s icy grip crawled up him.  His dad would be furious.  It had to be some record somewhere. He hadn’t even been able to keep his mother out of the poorhouse for a month.  He was a miserable failure of a son to both parents, and he knew it.  He stood.  “I’m tired.”

 

“Gabriel, this isn’t helping.”

 

He put his dish in the sink and headed out.

 

“Gabriel.”

 

But he was walking, and once he got started walking, it was too hard to quit.

***

“I don’t know what to do with him anymore.”

 

Holly stopped short at the sound of the voice.  It was Saturday morning, and she was headed to the kitchen for coffee.  However, she knew that voice, and it stopped her with a thwack.

 

“All he does is come home, eat, and sleep.  Sometimes I don’t know if anything’s even getting in anymore.  I haven’t seen him like this since Taran’s trial.  It scares me to death.  I do not want to go down that path again.  I almost lost him once, I can’t lose him now. Not like this.”

 

“Have you prayed about it?” That was Rosa, Holly knew her voice too.

 

“That’s all I do anymore, but I don’t know if it’s helping at all.  Now he’s decided not to go back to school.  He thinks he’s got to stay here and take care of me.  I love him for that, but it’s not what’s best for him.  But do you think I can convince him of that? No matter what I say, he just looks at me with those blank eyes and walks away. I can’t let him throw away his future, but what do I say when he won’t listen?”

 

Holly’s feet pushed forward. Although she really felt like standing to listen more, eavesdropping was rude. She walked into the kitchen, and the conversation stopped.  “Good morning.  Oh, don’t mind me.”  She poured her own coffee and went to the door. “I’ll just be out in the garden if anyone needs me.”

 

Once outside her spirit started going through her options.  Gabriel was in trouble.  Serious trouble.  And one way or the other she was going to stop him from jumping even if she had to tackle him to do it.  It was the least she could do.

Copyright Staci Stallings, 2007

Posted in A Light in the Darkness, Novels | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A Light in the Darkness, Ch. 15 & 16

Chapter 15

“How is he?” Gabriel’s long strides were nearly impossible to keep up with, and racing through hospitals wasn’t what her heels had been designed for.  They skidded to a stop next to a tiny gray-headed lady, seated next to a window.  She looked up at him, and Gabriel’s hand slid out of Holly’s.

He sank to sit on his heels, putting both hands on the woman’s arms.  Then he knelt for real and gathered his mother to him. Watching the scene, Holly wrapped her arms around herself, feeling the chill of where they were and what was happening.

A moment slipped into the next.  When he pulled back, the lady wiped her eyes.

“Have the doctors been out?” he asked.  “Do you know anything?”

Slowly she shook her head.  “They just told me to wait here.”  Her gaze searched his.  “They told me not to come back there, that they would do everything they could.”

“Okay.” It was clear he was trying to comfort her, but with little to go on, that was difficult.  “When did it happen?  Were you at home?”

“He went out in the garage.  He was just going to get a screwdriver to fix my can opener.”  Sobs overtook her as all pretense at being strong crumbled.  “I don’t know how long he was out there.  I don’t know.  All of a sudden I thought he’d been gone a long time.  I didn’t know…”  She looked at Gabriel in utter desperation.  “I would’ve gone looking sooner had I known.”

“No, Mama.  No.”  He gathered her into his arms again.  “It wasn’t your fault.  It wasn’t.” His gaze floated up to Holly pleading for her to do something.

But what could she do?  What could anyone do? The question drove into her heart as his gaze fell into the effort of comforting his grieving, frightened mother.  Still, the beseeching of his spirit pulled her toward them.  Not knowing what else to do, she stepped over and sat in the chair on the other side of his mother. Gently she put her hand on the lady’s shoulder.  She was so frail, so tiny. Her shoulders felt like mere bones. Holly had never felt so helpless, so utterly devoid of any way to make one ounce of difference in this woman’s life, much less in the life of her son.

“God, please,” she said softly, the words coming out of the depths of her own helplessness, “we need You.  We need You, Lord.”

Gabriel’s hand came up and caught hers.  “God, please be with Dad. Hold Him in Your hands.  Be with him, Lord.”

“Mrs. Cabrelos?”

The voice yanked all three of them upright.  From the floor in front of his mother, Gabriel stood.  The doctor had stopped not three feet from them. Gabriel’s mother got to her feet, and Gabriel reached over to support her.

Broken hope filled her eyes and voice. “How… how is he?”

The doctor looked first to Gabriel, then to Holly, then to the frail lady in front of him.  His gaze fell in apology. “Ma’am, I’m sorry…”

“No! Oh, God, no.”T

The wail shrieked through Holly who felt the weight of the lady falling and reacted to it.  She caught her with all the strength she could muster.

“No. He can’t… I’m not… He was just there.  He was going to get a screwdriver.”

Holly followed his lead as Gabriel sat his mother in the chair.  Then she stepped back helplessly as he tried to calm her.  A moment and Holly looked at the doctor, trying to figure out what she should do. Should she ask? Was that her place?  Then she realized it should be Gabriel dealing with this part.  So, knowing this was going to require both of them working as a team, she sat down, and with no real words told Gabriel she would take care of his mother.  There was a numbness to his movements as he transferred his mother to her, and she was as worried for him as for the lady now in her arms.  Gently she let the bowed and quaking shoulders lean into her.  She nodded to him and bent her head over the grieving woman, gathering her in.

Gabriel stood, and although Holly knew his own grief was overwhelming, he stoically stepped away from them to converse with the doctor.

“God,” Holly begged silently, “we need You here.  Please.  We need You.  Gabriel needs You. I need You.  How can this be happening?”  Questions.  Thoughts.  Memories.  They raced through her in no definite patterns.  Gabriel’s dad was gone.  Gone.  He was here, and now he was gone.  Trying to get her mind around that concept was impossible.  She’d just seen him earlier in the afternoon giving orders, making sure everything was perfect.  Now it was, and he was gone.

“Shh,” she soothed the lady still quaking in her arms.  She bent her lips to the lady’s hairspray stiff hair, wishing she could do more.  Running her hand up and down the lady’s back, she could think of nothing else to do for her.  Everything seemed pathetically inconsequential.

And then, Gabriel was standing in front of her again.  Her gaze caught his shoes just as her spirit caught his presence. His hands were on his hips, and suddenly he looked very tired.  It was truly amazing how quickly he’d gone from gorgeous to haggard. He stood for a moment more looking down at them, pushed his fingers through his hair in thought, and then, gathering himself, he sat on his heels in front of his mother.  “Mama.”

The tenderness of the word ripped into Holly.  It was clear he was fighting his own overwhelming grief as he reached out and put his hand on the older woman’s shoulder.

He tilted his head slightly. “Mama?  The doctor said he went peacefully.  It was over very fast.”  The words were tearing him apart, but he said them just the same.  “He was gone before they got there.  He didn’t suffer.”

Holly began to wonder who he was trying to convince and comfort—his mother or himself.  Her heart went out to him, trying so hard even as his own heart split in two.  Then she felt the nodding, and her gaze fell from him to his mother.  He was holding her hands now, speaking right to her although she never really looked up.

“The doctor asked if you wanted something… something to help you sleep tonight.  He can prescribe something if you want.”

The faded eyes came up and gazed numbly at her son.  “I think that would be good.”

***

The tiny house was quiet.  Holly stood, finishing up the dishes in the sink.  The electric can opener still lay forlornly on the cabinet, untouched.  She tried not to think about it, focusing instead on the fact that the last thing they needed was to be worried about dishes the next morning.  She could do nothing to really help them, so she did the only thing she could find to do.

In the doorway, Gabriel appeared, not stepping into the room. Instead he leaned on the doorframe watching her.  When she looked over at him, his eyes were blank and filled with exhaustion.  The blinks were slow and heavy. His hands were in his pockets, and for a long moment he didn’t move.  “She’s asleep.”

Holly looked at him, scared for him, for what came next.  “Good.”  She let her gaze stay on him.  What to say to take the grief away wouldn’t come.

“Thanks,” he finally said, the word barely making it to her.

The overwhelming thought that somehow she should’ve done more knocked into her.  “For what?”

A wave of sadness washed through his eyes.  “For being there.”

One look and she left the dishwater.  Stepping to him, she tilted her head and smiled sadly as her gaze searched his.  What it found was fear, exhaustion, and pain so deep there seemed no bottom. No words came as she simply stepped to him and put her arms around him.  He caught hold of her like a drowning man in a riptide.  Her arms arched up and over his shoulders, gathering him to her, pulling his head down onto her shoulder.

She felt his tears although he didn’t make even a single sound. Time ceased to be as they simply held each other, feeling everything they hadn’t dared to in the past few hours.

“He’s in a better place,” Gabriel finally said, wiping his eyes as he pulled back from her.  “He is.”

Holly nodded in agreement although his father’s peace was doing nothing to assuage the anguish his family was in.  Another moment and Gabriel let out a hard breath. He shook his head as stone-seriousness dropped to his face.  He scratched his head and tried to look at her, which didn’t really work.

“They’re going to take the body to Graham’s Funeral Home tomorrow.”  The fight to deal only in details was evident.  “They’d already made the arrangements.  I think Dad did it the last time, so we wouldn’t have to worry about it if…”  Gabriel stopped. “I’m sure Mom will want to meet with Father Monihan in the morning after Mass.  They probably have that whole thing planned too for all I know.”

The weight of life suddenly became too much, and he grabbed for a chair in the kitchen.  Holly watched helplessly as he collapsed there, putting his head into his hands.

“Oh, God, how can he just be gone like that?  How?  God, this isn’t fair.  He had so much more to do, so many people counting on him.”

Knowing it was all she could do, she knelt in front of him.  Her love was going to have to be enough.  It was all she had. “He loved you, Gabriel.  He loved you so much.”

Pain etched deep on his face and in his eyes.  “He would’ve loved you too.”

Once more she gathered him into her arms.  “We’re going to get through this.  I promise. Okay?  You’re not alone.  I’m right here.”  And at that moment, the assurance was as much for her as it was for him.

***

The next morning the pickup made its way slowly up the driveway toward the mansion. Holly, still in her dress from the night before, sat between his mother and him.  She didn’t touch him, didn’t even reach out for his hand, but he was glad she was there just the same.  At the apex of the circle drive, Gabe put the pickup in park and reached for his door handle.  Wordlessly, he climbed out and then offered her his hand as she slid out.

When she was toe-to-toe with him, she willed his eyes to hers, but he couldn’t look up.

“Call me, okay?” she asked softly. “I want to know.”

He simply nodded, not trusting his voice.  She reached out for him then, and he gathered her into his arms.  Now he knew for sure, it wasn’t the dress or the movie star quality that made him love her, it was her amazing ability to make him feel like everything would be all right even when life was falling apart around him.  He squeezed his eyes closed, trying to capture that feeling for one more moment. Then reluctantly he released her.  She stepped back, tears glinting in her eyes.

Her gaze was somber. “I’m right here. Okay?”

Again, he nodded.  It wasn’t that he didn’t want to tell her, it was just that he couldn’t trust himself.  Moving to the side, she let him get back into the pickup.  With a slight wave in her direction, he put it in reverse and backed away.  She was still standing there, watching him go as he drove out of the gate.

***

“Oh, God, be with them,” Holly whispered.  The prayers flowed through her as she turned to climb the steps. She let herself in quietly.  Gabriel had called Rosa last night when they got home.  The maid, who apparently was a good friend of his parents, had shown up with a huge pan of rolls for them this morning.  So it was pretty certain that anyone who wanted to know here already did.

Holly tried to push Rosa’s coolness toward her during the brief visit from her consciousness. It wasn’t outright hostility, but it wasn’t acceptance either. Although she was warm and consoling to Gabriel and his mother, there was no mistaking the double-take she did that Holly was still there.  That was okay.  It didn’t matter what anyone else thought.  What mattered was that she was there for Gabriel when he needed her.

“Holly?” Her mother’s voice from the sitting room, startled her so badly she tripped on the first step.

“Y-yeah?”

“Could you come here for a minute?”

She was too exhausted to summon any angelic help.  In fact, she never even thought about needing any.  She simply walked to the sitting room door. “Yes?”

One long disapproving look trailed down her clothes.

Holly put her hand up to her shoulder and swallowed hard, wishing she had more brain cells left at her disposal.  “Umm, Gabriel’s dad…”

“I know.  We heard.”  The wave dismissed that issue completely.  Her mother walked to the table with the plants.  She picked up the watering can and did a passing job of watering the plants there.  “I guess you’ve notice we’re not gone.”

Yes, she had noticed although for some reason she hadn’t remembered they were leaving.  Reality seemed so very far away she really couldn’t see it at the moment.

“Luke wanted to stay for the funeral.”

“Oh.”  Holly nodded, uncomprehendingly.

“So, I guess you’re happy then.”

Happy?  It was the last word to describe her feelings at the moment.  “Why would I be happy?”

Her mother dripped with sarcastic disbelief at the question.  “Well, you ruined our wedding, and now you’ve ruined our honeymoon too.”

“Ruined…” The word, meant to slice her to ribbons, went through the exhaustion, grief, and numbness meeting nothing.  “I didn’t ruin anything.  Gabriel needed me.”

“Gabriel.  Gabriel.  Gabriel.  Let me explain something about Gabriel. Gabriel is a guy. A boy really.  He will use you as long as it suits him or until you are no longer needed, and then he will discard you for a newer model.” Her laugh bordered on sadistic.  “You think he’s in love with you?  You think he cares about you?  Get real, Holly.  He’s using you, and as soon as he gets enough of what he wants, he will be gone.”

“That’s not true.  Gabriel’s not like that.”

“Oh, my. Open your eyes, Darling.  They’re all like that, but the poor ones are worse.  At least the rich ones only want your body.  The poor ones want your body and your money.”

Like a whip hitting its mark, the words tore at her spirit, ripping the new fabric of it with cruel precision.  Ache reached up and grabbed her tight and hard. She wanted to run, but to where would she run?  Worse, this time she couldn’t run.  Gabriel needed her too much, and she wasn’t about to add to his burdens by taking off.

“I’m going to my room,” she said, letting the numbness overtake her again.  She needed to talk to someone, but not like this.  She turned on her heel and ran smack into Luke.

“I thought I heard you come in.”  He put his hands on her arms and held her out so he could look at her.  “How are Gabriel and his mother?”

Holly nodded, the events piling onto her so that she might crack at any moment. The longer he held her like that, the harder it became to hold it all back.  She squeezed her eyes closed, willing the tears away, but they were too heavy.

“Oh, sweetheart.”  He pulled her into his arms, and the flood of tears that had been building for 12 hours burst through its dam.  They came, spilling over her eyelashes in torrents she had no control over.  The helplessness, the exhaustion, the grief, the fear.  It all came flowing out.  Had she been able to think, she would have known how dangerous this was, but she couldn’t think.  It hurt too much.

It took more than a minute for her to pull herself together enough to step back and wipe her eyes.

“You’re exhausted,” Luke said, looking at her with sympathy.  “Why don’t you go on up and lie down?  We’ll come get you if he calls.”

Holly nodded, her system in shock from all the hits it had taken.  With not even a backward glance, she walked out, climbed the stairs, and went to her room.  At her mirror, she gazed at the shadow of herself looking back.  Her hair, now down, was a wreck.  The dress was hopelessly wrinkled.  She’d wanted last night to be so perfect, and it was for one flash of a moment.

Pushing everything that had happened since away, she went to the bathroom, drew a bath, and climbed into the warm water.  She let her mind drift through that one moment of being in his arms, swaying together.  His gaze searching hers.  Had it even really happened?  Maybe she had dreamt the whole thing.  Maybe she had misread the desire in his eyes.

Dark doubts clouded over her mind as her mother’s words cut through the memories.  The words weren’t true, but they rang in her head like an unwanted bell just the same.  Did her mother think that of even Luke?  Luke, who had been so wonderful to them?  It seemed utterly incomprehensible, and yet it was true.  Holly knew it to be true.  Luke was a rung on a ladder, and one day her mother would leave him behind as well.

Staring into a future that had no solidity, Holly’s heart panged forward.  And when Luke was gone, what then?  If she couldn’t come back here… If Gabriel finished school and moved on…? If her mother changed course again… then what?

The water had grown tepid, and her mind was shutting down.  Sleeping on a rock hard couch in a satin dress had done nothing for REM sleep.  She pulled herself out of the tub, grabbed her robe from the hook, and padded out to the bed.  Thinking she would just lay down for a minute or two, she collapsed into the pillows.  Sleep drifted over her, but it was laced with ugly thoughts and terrifying visions of a future she couldn’t really see.

***

Gabe didn’t want to, but he’d promised to call her.  So when they made it back from taking his father’s best suit to the funeral home, he picked up the kitchen phone and placed the call.  One ring.  Two.

“Hello?”

He swung the receiver under his mouth.  “Umm, Rosa?  Is Holly there?”

“Holly?  Yes, I believe so.  Just a minute.”  There was the noise of the phone knocking into the cabinet.  In the background he could hear the voices and just barely make out what they were saying.  Something about Holly taking a nap and to tell them she’d call them back.  Then Rosa was back.  “Holly can’t come to the phone right now.  Could I take a message?”

He thought about not bothering but decided against that.  “Yeah, can you tell her Gabe called?”

“I’ll tell her.”  Rosa paused.  “Is your mother there?”

“Oh, uh, yes, Ma’am,” he said, snapping back into son mode.

“May I speak with her?”

Gabe took the phone to his mother who was sitting in the chair, going through old pictures for the newspaper.  He held out the phone.  “It’s Rosa.”

She nodded and took the phone.  He really didn’t want to be in the middle of that conversation, so he ducked out and went to his room.  Holly was sleeping. That was good.  She needed some rest.  He did too, but he was afraid if he ever went to sleep, he might never make it back up again.  They were supposed to be at the funeral home at 5:30 for the wake service and procession to the church.  The funeral was scheduled for 10 a.m. the following morning.

His mother’s sister and brother were on their way from down south, and once they arrived, it would be wall-to-wall mourners.  He fought off the overwhelm.  If he could just talk to her, hear her voice, hold her hand, he knew he could get through this.  But without her, life looked very cold and immensely lonely.

He picked out his clothes and went to take a shower.  Maybe that would wake him up.  He yawned even as he closed the door and stood at the mirror.  He looked worse than he felt, and that was saying something.  He ran his hand over the dark stubble on his jaw.  It was going to take a miracle to get himself cleaned up and ready for the coming few hours.  And to top it all off, he could hardly keep his eyes open.  Still, he had to.  This wasn’t something he could just duck out of.  It was time to step up and be a man.

***

What woke her up, Holly didn’t really know.  It wasn’t a sound so much as a feeling.  It jolted her from her sleep, wobbling her senses when she sat straight up.  She looked at her clock.  4:40.  With a yank, she pulled the covers from her feet and raced outside heedless of being only in her robe.  She ran down the stairs, looking for anyone who might know if he had called.

In the kitchen, she found not Rosa but a young lady almost her own age.  She pulled the robe closer to her.  “Umm, hello.  Is Mr. or Mrs. Teracini here?”

“Oh, no.  I’m sorry, Ma’am.  They went out.”

Holly put her hand to her hair. “Where’s Rosa?”

“She had a wake service to go to.”

The words yanked Holly’s world into chaos.  “Is there… was there… do I have a message?”

“Oh, yes.  I almost forgot.”  The young lady handed over a slip of paper.

One look and Holly needed no more.  She almost wiped out on her way back up the stairs.  Rosa was headed to a wake service.  That could mean only one thing.  In one motion she had the phone open and was dialing the number.  She didn’t even wait for him to pick up before going into her closet and rifling through the clothes.

“Hello?” a voice she didn’t recognize said.  It was nearly drowned out by the myriad of voices behind it.

“Uh, yes, is Gabriel there?”  With one hand she yanked a smoke-colored blouse off a hanger.

“Just a minute.”

Tossing the blouse over her shoulder, she pushed the clothes one way and then the other.  Where was that black skirt?

“Hello?”

“Gabriel, oh, thank goodness you’re still there.  This is Holly.”

“Hey, I was beginning to think you weren’t going to call.”

“Yeah, I just woke up.” Hopping she tried to get both legs into the skirt. “Did I hear right?  Is the wake service tonight?”

“Yeah, we’re about to head out to the funeral home.  We’re supposed to be there at 5:30.”

She tossed shoes out of the closet until she came to the ones she wanted. “Are you leaving right now?”

“We’re about to.”

“Can you come get me?” The task of buttoning the blouse while carrying on a conversation proved too much. She dropped the phone.  With one scoop she had it again.  “Sorry.  Dropped the phone.”

“You know, you really don’t have to come.  I’ll understand.” He sounded so tired.

“No, I’ll be ready just stop by and get me.”  Forgetting the blouse for now, she raced to the sink.  The mirror told a sad tale.  “I’ve got to go.”

“O… kay.”

“See you in a bit.”  With that she hung up.  “Oh, Holy Spirit, help.”

***

Gabe wasn’t at all sure what shape she would be in when he pulled up.  He would hate to be late, and if she wasn’t ready… However, he hadn’t even gone all the way through that thought when she came racing out the door and down the steps.  On full-tilt, she jumped into the pickup.  His eyebrows reached for the ceiling.  “Are you okay?”

“Hey, this is what ten minutes to get ready will get you.”  She was still fighting with one shoe on the floorboard. Finally securing it, she sat back. “You should’ve had them wake me up.”

Amusement crowded through even the exhaustion.  “And miss this show?  Not on your life.”  A real smile played through his heart.  “You look beautiful.”

“Nice try. I look like the creature.”  She finger brushed her hair twice. “But I’ll let it slide this time.”

He pulled out of the driveway and to the gate.  There, Fredrico held up a hand to stop them.  Gabe rolled down his window.

“Hey, man,” Fredrico said, holding out his hand.  “Sorry about your dad.”

“Thanks,” Gabe said with a nod.

“Just wanted you to know, I thought he was a really great guy.”

Again Gabe nodded.  “Thanks.”  And once again they were rolling.

He glanced across the seat at her.  She was still raking her fingers through her hair, which looked fine to him but was obviously stressing her out.

“You look fine,” he said, trying to be helpful.

“Let me guess,” she said, raking and re-raking, “your family’s going to be there.”

“Dad’s three brothers, their families.  Mom’s brother and sister and their families.”

“Terrific.”  She ducked her head and with both hands in her hair flipped it up.  She reached for the visor.

“Oh, don’t…”

But the warning was too late.  Ten years of dust and debris fell in a cloud of dust over her.  Sputtering, she coughed, waving her hand to get herself through it.  “Oh, don’t?”  She looked at him and coughed again.  “I guess that would mean, ‘Holly, don’t do that. That visor-thingy is going to cover you in garden ash.’”  She held out her hands in helplessness although she wasn’t really mad.  He could tell by her voice.

He laughed. “Yeah, something like that.”

“Uh-huh.”  She looked down at herself in resignation.  “Terrific. Some great first impression I’m going to make.” Brushing at her skirt, she sent a cloud of dust into the air.

It was truly amazing that she couldn’t see what he did.  Even covered with dust, minimal make-up, and a blouse that wasn’t on quite straight, she was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen.

“Tell you what,” he said, reaching for her hand.  “I’ll tell them you’ve been out weeding the garden with me.  The way I always look, they’ll understand completely.”  He lifted her hand to his lips.  “Don’t worry about it, K? You look fine.”

It was clear she wanted to protest, but she chose not to.  She squinted into the dust-covered mirror on the visor and tried again with her hair.  “I just wish I had a brush and some hairspray.”

“Hey,” he said gently, “you’re beautiful.”  He spun the wheel and pulled into the parking lot and then into a space.  “This is it.”

“Oh, gosh. What time is it?” Holly asked as if it was one word.

Gabe looked at his watch.  “5:20.  Why?”

“Okay. I’ll meet you in there.”  And with that, she was out of the pickup.

He shook his head.  What could she possibly do in five minutes?  He pushed out of his side and started up the walk.  The knot of people by the doors turned to him, and a hush fell over them.

“Gabe, buddy.” His cousin Joe caught him in a hug.  “We’re so sorry.”

“Yeah,” he said, and when he stepped back, he was distinctly aware of her absence.  It would’ve been nice to have a hand to hold at that moment.

***

“I don’t believe this.” Holly pulled cosmetics from her purse.  There had to be a brush in there somewhere.

“Need something?” a Hispanic lady about a decade older than her asked as she watched Holly’s meltdown from the mirror at the other sink.

“Ugh. Hair spray and a brush would be really good right now. I don’t want to make a complete fool of myself out there.”

“Oh, well, here.”  In a second the tiny foldable hairbrush was in her hand.

Stunned, she looked at it and then at the lady gratefully. “Oh, wow.  Thanks.”  She ran it through her hair, thanking Heaven for sending her an angel.  “You wouldn’t have a ponytail holder in there, would you?”

“You’re in luck.”  The lady held up a black one.

“Oh, fabulous.  You are a life-saver. You know that?”  With a quick motion she had her hair pulled back.  She gazed in the mirror as she readjusted her blouse and perfected her lipstick.  Then she turned to the lady who was finishing up.  “I’m Holly by the way.”

“Allise.  I’m Carlos’s niece.”

Carlos?  Carlos?  “Oh, right.”  Holly stuck her hand out.  “Nice to meet you, Allise.  Well, I’d better get in there.  Thanks again.”

“Any time.”

With a breath to calm herself, Holly opened the door of the ladies room and stepped out.  The number of people milling about was truly amazing.  How was she ever going to find Gabriel in this?  She walked quietly past and through a number of softly talking couples.  It wasn’t until she chanced by the large double entrance way leading into the chapel that she spied him.  He was up front, looking at the sprays of flowers, talking with someone next to him.

For a moment Holly shied back from going in there.  This was crazy. What was she thinking?  She’d never even been to a funeral save for her father’s when she was two, but she didn’t even remember that one.  Her gaze traced back to the doors leading outside.  What she wouldn’t have given to be able to run. But she couldn’t do that to Gabriel.  Like it or not, she had to go in there. With effort, she retrained her gaze on the little chapel. A push and she was walking again, toward the front.  The shiny gray casket was in the center.  Its lid was opened, and there were people near it.  Her heart slammed inside her, screaming at her not to take even one more step.  However, she fought it back and forced herself to keep moving.

At the front, she walked up to him but only stopped and waited for him to notice.  The prayers she sent up were to keep her standing there and not to let her completely freak out.

Just then Gabriel glanced back and noticed her standing there.  His smile was muted as he reached for her. “Frank, I’d like you to meet Holly.  Holly, this is my cousin, Frank.”

The man was taller than Gabriel and older, but the resemblance was definitely there.  “Nice to meet you, Holly.”

She smiled, and was about to say something when the funeral director strode up to Gabriel.

“We’re ready,” he said, ducking closer.

Gabriel nodded, and with her hand in his, they walked over beside his mother.  The crowd hushed on cue, and the funeral director said a few words about the procedure for the procession.  Then he asked them to start for the cars.  Holly felt all thumbs.  Nothing she did seemed exactly right. She wished she had done this before.  Even once would’ve been nice, so she would know what to do.  However, the sad truth was she was flying with no instruments.

“I’ll ride with Ida,” his mother said, turning to them.  Her tired smile drifted across Holly and sent her own discomfort scattering from her consciousness.  “Nice to see you again, Holly.”

“You, too, Ma’am.”

Gabriel’s hand on hers steadied her, and she was glad for it.  As his mother turned with the woman who must be her sister, Holly’s gaze took in all the people.  She leaned in to Gabriel.  “Are all these people your relatives?”

“Most of them, why?”

She couldn’t get it all into words at that moment, but the differences in their lives were undeniable.  He had a thousand relatives.  She had her mother.  It wasn’t the time or the place, but the thought of what their wedding would look like flashed through her mind.  His side, packed.  Her side, three friends if she talked real hard.  With that vision, it was hard not to fall right into a deep pit of insignificance right there.

***

The evening’s events slipped over him like a river over smooth rocks.  There was the procession, the short service, standing by the casket, knowing it was his father and yet knowing also that it wasn’t.  The muted conversations, the sympathetic hands brushing his back, hugs even. Still, it didn’t seem real.  None of it.  Not a single minute. Somehow even though he was there, it didn’t seem possible that it was all happening, that tomorrow morning he would be burying the man who had shaped and molded his life into something worth living.

Emotions were right under the surface, but Gabe made sure they never crested.  He had to hold it together for his mother and in honor of his father.  It was all but impossible, and yet, he knew he had to stay just on the surface and never dip below that.  If he could do that, maybe, somehow, he would get through this.

When they pulled up to the mansion after the final meeting with the priest and the funeral director, he put the pickup in park and heaved a sigh.  Her hand was still in his as it had been the whole night.  He didn’t want to think about how he would’ve made it without her.

From the passenger’s seat, Holly looked over at him.  “You’re wiped.  I’d better let you get home.”

“Yeah,” he said, laying his head back on the seat, but he didn’t let go of her hand.  He didn’t want her to leave just yet.  More truthfully, he didn’t want her to leave ever, but for now he would take the next few minutes.

Although his eyes were closed, he heard the concern in her voice. “Did you get any sleep today?”

“Sleep?  What’s that?”

She shook her head.  “You are taking Tuesday off, right?”

Tuesday.  He hadn’t even thought that far ahead.  “I don’t know.  I’m sure there’ll be something that needs done.  Those lights in the back need taken down, and I don’t know if anyone even got the chairs picked up.”

“No,” Holly said, firmly.  “You are taking Tuesday off.  You need sleep.”

He let his head fall to the side as he looked at her, still unable to keep his eyelids from falling closed.  She was so beautiful.

Seriousness draped her face. “I’ll clear it with Luke, but you’re staying home.  You got that?”

He was too tired to argue.  In fact, it felt so good being here, like this, with her, falling asleep right now was a real possibility.  There was nothing for a minute as his senses let go of reality.  He couldn’t have been out for five seconds, but the drop off was head-snapping.  With a jerk he came awake.

“Go home.”  Her hand brushed gently across his jaw.  “And call me when you get there.”

Forcing his head up and his eyes open, he nodded. Then, looking at her sitting there, it was the most intense pull he’d ever felt.  He didn’t know if it was because his defenses were trashed or because she was so beautiful or because he was so grateful to her or any one of a million other reasons.  Whatever it was, it slid him slowly across the seat.  His gaze snagged hers and refused to let go.  He wanted her, and he was tired of denying it. “Holly…”

He reached for her through the graying darkness, wanting only to get closer to her and then closer still.  He had turned all the way to her so that his advance was more like that of a hungry lion determined to devour its prey.  “Holly…”

At the last possible second, he saw the panic in her eyes as she reached for the door handle. “I’ve got to go.”  She slipped out of the pickup and into the night.  “Call me so I know you made it home.”  With that, she shut the door.

Stung, Gabe stopped the advance, let out a hard, angry breath, and retreated to behind the steering wheel.  Calling himself every horrible name in the book, he watched her climb the stairs and disappear inside.  He sighed and ran his hand over his eyes and down his face. She was right.  This was all wrong.  He was using his vulnerable moment to trap her into something they would both regret. Vowing to apologize when he saw her again, he shook his head to keep himself awake and backed out.  She was right on that count too.  He needed sleep.  Days and days of sleep.

Chapter 16

Holly fought to block out that look, that last, wild, I-have-to-have-this-or-I’ll-die pleading look in his eyes.  Even six months ago she would’ve given him exactly what he was asking and although the regret would probably be there, she would’ve filed it away with all the other meaningless, one-night stands in which one or the other was simply looking to fill a void by killing a few hours.

But that life no longer held the allure it had once seemed to.  Back then, she viewed sleeping with someone as the best way to get what they both wanted.  Now, with him, she wanted so much more than that.  And giving in for less cheapened it.  He deserved more.  He deserved her, all of her… if he wanted her.

The confusing questions and thoughts ran through her as she went to the kitchen to wait at the phone.  She had never been so loved, and so why now did it feel so important to wait?  Why now did she withhold what she had so freely given so many times before?  The memory of Chase drifted through her, and breathing through it hurt.

Chase.  He deserved better too.  She sat down in the dark kitchen as her mind twisted around that time.  She had thought he was her forever too.  She had convinced him to sleep with her by telling him it was forever.  And then… Then her whole world had been dumped upside down.  The fact that she’d hurt him was indisputable, but as she sat rewinding through the memories, she realized it was her warped idea that she was in fact protecting him that ended her up in the backseat of Eddie Danillo’s car.

She could still see the look of horror and betrayal on Chase’s face.  The horror. The hurt. The cut was deep, as deep as a cut can go.  Yet she knew it was for the best, even at that moment, she knew it.  He deserved better, and so did Gabriel.  Better than a night in the front seat of a pickup.  Better than having to prove something that shouldn’t have to be proven. Now, however, it wasn’t at all clear to her that he would think her leaving like that was for the best.  Maybe he was mad, hurt by her leaving.

Doubts attacked her from all sides.  The last thing she wanted to do was make him think she was leading him on or toying with him with no intentions of this going anywhere.  She didn’t want him to get the idea that she wasn’t serious about this, that maybe for her it was a summer thing which would end with her getting on a plane in a month.

That thought threatened to take the blocks right out from under her.  One month.  The phone rang, jangling through the thoughts.  She jumped up and snatched it off the wall.  “Hello?”

“Hey.”  He sounded so tired. It drilled through her.

“Hey.  You made it, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay.”  She wanted to ask him, wanted to talk about it, but that was selfish.  There would be time later. “Get some sleep.  I’ll be ready at 8:30.”

“You really want to go?”

“I’ll be ready.”

“Okay.”

“Gabriel,” she said softly.  “Get some sleep.  I’ll be praying for you.”

He didn’t really say okay or good night or even good-bye, but she heard them all anyway.

“Goodnight,” she said.

“Yeah.”  And he was gone.

As she hung up the phone, the prayers began.  “God, please be with Gabriel.  He needs Your strength.  Please hold him, please lift him up, tie him to a support.  He needs that.  Amen.”

***

The next morning her alarm went off as it always did on Monday mornings at 6:30.  Unfortunately this wasn’t like any of the other Mondays she had spent in Napa. For a long minute she lay there and considered simply rolling over and going back to sleep.  He wouldn’t be in the garden this morning.  But then the thought of why he wouldn’t be in the garden slipped into her mind.

Determination to be his support came into her.  She tossed off the covers and said the first prayer of the day.  “God, be with us all today.  Be with Gabriel and his mom.  Be with me, and show me what to do, what to say and how to say it.  Do this through me, plant the garden the way You want it to look.  I’m here.  Show me what to do.”

The lights.  Why she thought of them, she couldn’t clearly tell, but they were what came into her mind.  She dressed quickly in her jeans and sweatshirt.  In minutes she was in the kitchen with the coffee in hand.  The morning had only begun to show its head as it shrugged off the night.  She went around and down to the gazebo.

The chairs were still up in neat rows.  Lights were still draped everywhere.  With a heave to settle the determination, she set her coffee cup on the walk, stepped off the concrete, and grabbed two chairs.  “God, be with us today.”  The words flowed freely from her.  There was no real effort.  She knew them by heart.

***

Details were the only things keeping Gabe going.  Details like what tie to wear, what time he was supposed to be there, remembering to grab Grandpa Isaiah’s rosary from the drawer.  Little things that in the whole general scheme of today didn’t really make a big difference, and yet as long as he thought about them, he didn’t have to think of the bigger issues of the day.

Truth be told, he hadn’t slept all that well.  He’d graciously given his bed to two cousins from Oregon, and the egg crate on the hardwood floor was not as comfortable as it sounded.  That was bad enough, but the thoughts of dragging Holly through this mess and not being who she needed him to be twined in and out of his dreams until he wasn’t sure what was real and what was simply shadows of things he had pushed aside in his hopes that this could ever work.

Awake wasn’t any better than asleep.  He wondered if anything would ever be better again.

“Are you leaving already?” his mother asked with some degree of concern when he grabbed one of Aunt Ida’s famous breakfast burritos and headed for the door.

“Yeah, I’m supposed to pick up Holly.  She doesn’t have a ride.”

The other family members in the kitchen fell into a hush.

His mother, across the room, sat, staring at him clearly making every effort not to get upset. “She can’t come with her mother?”

Gabriel caught the concerned look Aunt Ida sent to his mother from the other side of the table. It was impossible to miss, and it told him so much.  Somehow he had thought the Holly-to-her-mother connection hadn’t been made.  But obviously it had.  He stood there, his mind scrambled and scrambling.  What should he say?  Should he defend Holly?  Make some excuse for her mother? Or should he give in to his mother and let Holly fend for herself?  After all, his mother was fragile right now, and the last thing he wanted was to make the load she was carrying heavier.

“Umm, well, I don’t know when the Teracini’s are coming,” he said. “And I told Holly I’d be there.”  There was no winning in this situation.

“Oh,” his mother said in that tone that said ‘obviously whatever I want doesn’t matter to you.’

“But I could call her.”  He was in the deep end with no idea which direction to swim.  “If you want me to ride with you.”

The hush dropped another octave into utter silence.

“No, no,” her mother finally said, her words betraying their actual meaning.  “If you told her you were going to pick her up…”

“I don’t have to.”  Trapped.  He was absolutely trapped.  “I can stay here if you need me.”

“No, go.”  She waved him out, the tears in her eyes.  “Go.”

His heart broke as he nodded and turned.  He didn’t want to make his mother cry, not today when she would have enough to cry about, but he’d promised Holly.  Seeing no way not to break someone’s heart in this miserable situation, he fled out the door and to his pickup, knowing his standing in the family had taken a hard hit.  It was this side of a mortal sin to choose anyone over your mother, and he’d just done that on the day she needed him the most.

***

The chairs were stacked against the fence.  Four strings of lights were laid out in the gazebo.  Holly would’ve put them away, but she wasn’t sure what to do with them. As promised, she was ready, and this time she even had her shoes on.  She was standing at the front door, looking at her watch, wondering when he would be there when Luke came down the stairs.

“I guess you’re going with Gabriel.”

Holly looked back at him, wishing so many things about this situation were different.  She let her gaze fall to the hardwood floor. “He’s coming at nine.”

Down the last step and three strides to her, Luke reached out and took her in his arms.  His white business shirt felt stiff beneath her cheek, but she was grateful for the warmth of his hug. Then he pulled her back and looked at her with concern.  “How are you?”

She gazed up at him, and it was impossible to be strong.  Everything in her heart came spilling out. “I’m really worried about Gabriel and his mom.  This is all happening so fast, and what happens afterward, you know?  I mean Gabriel’s been going to school, but if his mom can’t make it on her own, what then?  I don’t want him to have to quit school and give up on his dream, but how can he support her if he’s not here and not working? And he was so tired last night.  He’s trying to be so strong for everybody else, but I know how hard this is for him.”  She shook her head in desperation.  “I don’t know.  I don’t know what to do for him, how to help him through this.”

“Do what you’re doing,” Luke said gently.  “Just be there for him.”

When her gaze found his, she pleaded with him.  “But that doesn’t feel like enough.”

There was the slightest of smiles on his strong features. “It will be.  Trust me on that.”

The sound of the pickup on the driveway jumped both of their attentions that direction.

“We’ll be there in a little bit,” Luke said, and he gave her one more hug.  “Now, go take care of Gabriel.”

Holly nodded, grateful for Luke’s stable presence.  She grabbed her purse off the little table and headed out the door.  In the driveway, Gabriel was just getting out of the pickup.  Haggard.  It was the first word that fell into her mind when she looked at him.  He looked so tired and even more badly in need of a hug than she remembered.  His gaze barely found hers, and even when it did, it fell instantly back to the ground at his feet. Rather than go to the passenger’s side, she walked right up to him.

There was no hesitancy.  She simply lifted her arms and let his come around her.  Holding him there, his arms tightening on her, she felt his sadness, his exhaustion.  After a moment, the thought went through her to let go, but he was holding on for dear life.  The question of who was there for him at this moment drifted through her.  Others were surely trying, but it wasn’t the same.  They were dealing with their own grief.

The vow that she would be here for him went through her. She ran her hand up and over the loose curls on his head, and she heard the sniff. “We’re going to get through this.  Okay?  I’m right here.”

He tightened the hug and nodded.  Then with one more squeeze, he let her go and stepped back.  Gut wrenching grief sliced through his eyes.  No words were necessary as she climbed into the pickup and slid only to the middle.  When he got in, she took hold of his hand with both of hers.  She was here, and she wanted him to know that.

***

Gabriel was glad for her presence.  It kept him standing, kept him from falling completely into the pit.  They climbed the little hill at the parish building hand in hand.  Several of his relatives greeted them, and he shook their hands.  It was nice of them to be there, but it was better that she was.  They went inside, and he raked his fingers through his hair, knowing he looked like a zombie, but hoping it wasn’t as bad as it felt.

Through the milling crowd they walked down to the little room where his father’s body was laid out for final viewing.  His heart constricted at the thought.  Pushing that away to concentrate on details, he wondered if his mother had made it.  Part of him hoped not so he wouldn’t have to deal with that part of his life just yet.  However, when they turned the corner into the room, there she was in the front row just as she had been the night before.  Last night he had let Holly go so he could sit by his mother, but today, he didn’t want her to leave even for a moment. On the far side of the room was the casket flanked by candles and wreaths of fresh flowers.

He took a breath, trying to stabilize his heart because it was stopping and starting in no discernable rhythm. He hadn’t thought anyone would notice, but instantly he felt Holly’s gaze drift over his face.  She tightened her grip on his hand.  He didn’t look at her, but he didn’t need to.  She knew.

It was time.  He knew it to the depths of his being.  It was time to say his final good-bye.  How he would ever manage that, he had no idea.  One more moment and it would be heaven before he saw his father again. One more breath and he was moving toward the casket, for no other reason than he knew he had to.

The others standing around parted to let him through.  He felt the sympathy of their gazes.  Most of them were older than he.  All still had their parents.  He was the first through this gate, and that just didn’t seem fair.  Then as if he had been traveling his whole life to get to this one moment, he was standing at the casket gazing down at the face of the man he had fought with, learned from, loved.

There was a pastiness to his father’s face he didn’t remember.  It didn’t look healthy and strong as it always had.  It looked waxy and unnatural as if it wasn’t even the man he had known.  Gabe stood there as a thousand memories of that face and those hands ran through his mind.  The first time he’d ridden his bike.  The last time they’d been in the shop together.  Mowing, weeding, fixing, working.  Together so much. And now it was over.

The red-padded kneeler next to the casket beckoned him down. He let go of her hand to lower himself onto it.  He bent his head, realizing then that his father had taught him how to do even that.  There were so many things he wanted to say, so many things he had thought he would get the chance to tell this man.  His gaze came up, and as he took in the vision that he would never forget, a realization came over him.

This wasn’t his father.  Yes, it was his father’s body.  It was the face Gabriel had come to know as his father, but it wasn’t really his father.  His father, the essence of his father was not here anymore.  This body, this shell had died, but the essence, the spirit lived on. Overwhelming gratefulness for the life he had known trailed through him, touching his heart.  The spirit had taught him so much, had seen him through his darkest hours, and even now, it was still alive—in his own heart it beat as it always had in the body now lying before him.  That spirit of strength and hope and love. He shook his head slowly, knowing he could never be grateful enough for what this man had done for him.

It was then that he felt her hand on his shoulder, and he glanced back at her with a small smile.  She stepped up beside him, and he leaned into her, his head resting on her stomach.  She bent then, arching over him, gathering him in.  He wished he’d had the chance to show his dad who she really was—not a spoiled little heiress but a beautiful, kind woman, full of grace and love.

“He loved you,” Holly whispered from above him.

Gabriel nodded.  He knew that.  “God’s taking him home.”

Holly nodded.  “Maybe he’s getting a place ready for you and your mom up there.”

The laugh attacked him without warning.  “Every project’s going to be on time from now on up there.”

“The lawns will never have looked better.”

Gabe sighed through the blur of tears.  “Can you imagine his garden?”

Her hug on his shoulders tightened.  “It’ll be the prettiest one ever.”

He nodded, overcome by the thought.  “Do you think he’s letting God do any of it?”

“I think he’s learning.”

They stayed like that for a few more minutes, and then Gabriel knew it was time to let go.  He closed his eyes.  “God, take him home.”  The thought was there, and he reached over and touched the hands, wrapped with the rosary.  They were cold.  Ice cold.  And with that, he knew his father was truly gone.

He took a breath and stood. Holly backed up to give him room.  He stepped over to get the holy water.  With four snaps of the wrist, he blessed the body.  Without thinking, he handed the silver handle to Holly.  It was only when she glanced at him with concern that he remembered.  She was new to this.  Gently he lifted her hand, and together they made the sign of the cross with the holy water over the body.

He put the silver handle back into the little bucket, and when they turned, he put his arm around her.  His mother still sat in the front row. Presumably she had seen it all although she wasn’t even looking at them now.  Torn, his mind fought for what he should do.  Then his gaze chanced to the clock 9:30.  They would be coming any minute to head the short walk to the church.

He bent to Holly.  “I’ll be right back.”

She nodded and let go of him.

In five strides he was in front of his mother.  She seemed much smaller than she had even at the house earlier.  There was a slump to her shoulders and care on her grief-stained face.  He sat on his heels in front of her.  “It’s almost time, Mama.”

When she turned them on him, her eyes pleaded with him to forestall the inevitable.  Just a few more moments, not yet.  Please, not yet.

He glanced up at the clock, wishing he didn’t have to, but knowing he did.  “They’ll be here any minute.”

Finally she nodded, and his heart wrenched.  As hard as it was for him to say good-bye, it would be worse for her.  Gently he helped her to her feet, and together they crossed the room to the casket.

***

Holly faded off to the side, watching them.  She had no idea how hard this must be for them.  These three.  They had been a team.  Them against the world.  And now the captain of their team was gone.  At the casket Gabriel bent his head and body so as to talk softly with his mother.  His arm was around her, and Holly knew how comforting that arm could be. As she watched, the priest entered from the other side and walked up to the casket, joining them.  It was then that she saw the funeral directors come from the sides making their way up as well.  Her breath snagged.

It had been so weird to see Mr. Cabrelos lying in that coffin.  She had never seen a dead body.  Even the night before, she had purposely not gone close.  But now, to see them close the lid, that would be more than she could take.  The priest spoke softly with Gabriel and his mother, and then he motioned the funeral directors forward.  Gabriel stepped back with his mother still under his arm.  Holly was glad he had forgotten she was even present.  But then she caught the glance he shot behind him. Worry trounced through her.  He was looking for someone.  But who?

She looked around, wanting to help him find whomever he was searching for. Then, as the scene played out before her, she realized who that was.  Her.  Never would she have believed she would have the courage to do it, but she had made a promise to be there for him.  She pushed forward from the wall, stepped through the quiet crowd, and sidled up next to him.  Just as he had before, he grabbed onto her, turned his head onto hers, kissed her hair, and together they stood watching as the funeral directors turned in the beige satin cushioning, checked it a final time.  And slowly closed the lid.

From Gabriel’s other side, his mother let out a small gasp.  He reached over and hugged her to him as well.  Then the woman who looked like her sister came to the other side of her.  In what felt like seconds they were again walking, moving, first to back out of the way of the pall bearers and then following the closed casket out of the room, down the hall, and out into the bright summer sunshine.

The priest was praying, loudly.  Intoning, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of darkness, I fear no evil for You are there with Your rod and staff to give me strength…”

Step for step, they walked together.  The sound of shoes scraping concrete echoed through the somber crowd.  As dismal as the moment was, Holly had the distinct impression that this was right where she was meant to be—by his side, his arm around her, walking through the valleys of life.

***

The service was a mix of her caring for him and him caring for his mother.  Holly found the rhythm of being there for him when he needed her and letting him go when he needed to be there for others.  Hold, support and let go.  It was how life was meant to be between them.

It wasn’t until the graveyard that her life, her reality reasserted itself between them.  The casket lay on the straps suspended over the grave.  The priest had said the final blessing, and one-by-one people filed past them, giving them their condolences.  At first, Holly felt somewhat out of place being in the front with him and his mother, but owing to the fact that he either had his arm around her or was clutching her hand, there wasn’t much other choice.

Fifty people or better had already filed past them, including many of the other workers at the mansion. As the crowd thinned, it was then that she saw them approaching, and oh-no flew into her mind.  Mr. Teracini held her mother’s hand as they followed the line toward Gabriel’s mother.  Had she been able to, Holly would’ve thrown herself bodily between them, vowing they would never get close.

As she watched helplessly, fear attacked her in droves.  What would they say?  What if her mother said something horrible?  What if his mother said something horrible back? Inexorably, they came closer. There were so many ways this could go badly, it was impossible to see any way it could go well.  Then as bad threatened to completely overwhelm good, she remembered the only weapon she possessed to ward off disaster.

Taking a breath to gather her courage, she gazed right onto the scene, seeing the unseeable. “Satan and all your minions, you must leave this place right now by the Blood of Jesus Christ,” she said under her breath but commandingly.  “You are hereby banished to the throne of the Most High God to be dealt with there as He wills.  Now be gone.”

Courage charged into her heart.  She anchored her gaze on her mother, knowing if the demons were with anyone, that’s who they would be hovering around.  “Satan,” she said, looking right at her mother who was seven people from the front of the line, “get away, right now. By the Blood of Jesus Christ, I command you to leave.  Jesus and the Holy Angels of God flood the area with Your peace, Your strength, and Your Holy Presence.  Banish any remaining demons from this place.”

And then her mother stepped up to his mother, and Holly sucked in a breath.

“Please accept my condolences,” her mother said, holding out her hand.

The acceptance was almost instant as Mrs. Cabrelos held out her hand. “Thank you for coming.”

Stepping from his mother to Gabriel, her mother held out her hand as behind her, Luke hugged Mrs. Cabrelos.

“Gabriel,” Holly’s mother said, “I’m very sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you,” he said.

Holly’s gaze snagged on him.  She knew his feelings about her mother, and yet there was none of that in his eyes.  Instead, he smiled softly, gratefully.  Somehow Holly hadn’t even realized her mother would follow the others right in front of her.  They looked at each other for one moment, and Holly tried to smile.  But there was nothing in her mother’s eyes—not hate, not love.  Nothing.  And then she stepped on.

It took a moment for Holly to collect herself.  When she looked up, she found Luke standing there.  Tears flooded through her as she looked at him.  It took only that for him to gather her into his arms.  “I’m sorry for your loss, sweetheart,” he said.

Holly nodded, soaking in the love and the hug, and then wiping her eyes, she stepped back.  She sniffed the tears away.  “Are y’all leaving?”

He nodded.  “We’re taking off from here.  We’ll be back Monday after next.”

She smiled and nodded slightly.  “Have a safe trip.”

“We will.” He lowered his gaze at her.  “You take care.”

“I will.”

He started out.

“Oh, Luke,” Holly called, snapping back to reality. He turned back to her.  “Can Gabriel have a couple days off?”

Hearing the request, Gabe turned to them to protest.

Luke smiled. “Take as long as you need.  We’ll work out the pay when I get back.”

Gabriel looked on the verge of a breakdown, but after a moment, he held out his hand.  “Thank you, Sir.”

Luke shook his hand and then looked at Holly.  “Take care of her.”

“Yes, Sir. I will.”

***

At the little meal afterward, Holly hardly tasted her food.  Next to her Gabriel ate almost nothing.  Holly couldn’t tell if that was from not being hungry or from all the people who came up to talk with him.  After fighting the battle for a while, Gabriel abandoned it altogether when Frank came up.

“I think we’re going to take off,” the older man said.

“Oh, so soon?”  Gabriel stood.  “Well, thanks for coming.”

It was only then that Holly realized who the woman standing behind him was. Quickly Holly wiped her face and smiled at the woman.  Allise.  Holly stumbled to her feet, trying to get the chair out without falling over it.  Once on her feet, she held out her hand.  “My angel.”

Allise smiled and shook Holly’s hand.  “It was only a hairbrush.”

Holly laughed.  “And a hair tie.  Don’t forget the hair tie.”

Gabriel looked at her with narrowed, confused brows.

“Allise saved me last night,” Holly said by way of explanation.  “She came to my rescue in my hour of need.”

Still he didn’t look like he comprehended what she was telling him.

“So, you’re Holly,” Allise said, seeming to put the pieces together.

Frank backed up and put his hand on Allise’s back.  “Didn’t I tell you?  Gabe introduced us last night.”

It was strange to be there as a couple, but to not really be able to act like it.

Allise nodded. “Gabriel was the ring bearer in our wedding.  He was the cutest little thing.”

Holly looked up at him, thinking not much had changed.

“Don’t start,” Gabriel said.

“He kept throwing the pillow up and catching it,” Allise continued.

Gabriel shook his head. “Oh, here we go.”

“I think that pillow still has the mud stain on it from you dropping it in the puddle.”

“Like that was my fault.  You don’t put a white pillow in a three-year-old’s hands and expect him to understand, ‘Don’t get it dirty.’”

Frank laughed.  “Gabe never was very good about staying clean.”

Holly joined them.  “He still isn’t.”

“Hey, hello.  Did I ask for this?” But Gabriel laughed just the same.  As Holly looked at him, she was glad to see a faint glint back in his eyes.

“Well, we’d better take off.”  Frank shook Gabriel’s hand and then Holly’s.  “Don’t be a stranger.”

“You either,” Gabriel said, giving Allise a hug.

And then they drifted off.

“They’re nice,” Holly said.

“Yeah.”  Before they could say any more, a steady stream of people came up, so that lunch was completely forgotten.

Holly did her best to stay in the background unless spoken to.  She shook hands, accepted hugs, and thanked everyone for coming.  She knew next to no one, but that didn’t seem to matter.  They knew her. Whether that was good or bad she couldn’t tell.

When the others had gone, they went over to Gabriel’s mother.  As much as Holly liked her, fear sprang up any time they had to talk to her.

“I’m going to take Holly home,” Gabriel said, her hand tucked in his as it had been most of the day.

“Oh.” His mother’s gaze still held only hurt and grief.  “Well, don’t be long.  We have to get the food taken care of.”

“Okay.”  He leaned down and kissed her. “I won’t be long.”

Holly had no idea what the protocol for this situation was.  Whatever it was, she was sure she would mess it up.  She tried to lean in for a hug, but it was more of a touch.  “Bye.”

“Good-bye, Holly.”

And then they were walking out.  On the way through the parking lot, Holly took a long look at him.  The exhaustion pulled at his eyelids.

“Why don’t I drive?” she asked.  He’d done enough.

“Drive?  Why?”

Her gaze found his, and love drifted through her.  “Because you’re exhausted.  Here.”  She took the keys from him and opened the door.  Then she stepped back. “Get in.”

He looked like he might protest, but after only a moment, he crawled in.

Holly followed him, feeling how different everything looked from over here.  “Sit back, and close your eyes.”

At that moment she glanced over and found herself lost in those green eyes. “Thanks for today, Holly. I would never have made it without you.”

It should have been so easy to brush it off, but she couldn’t.  His hand came up to the hair at her neck. The moment slid between them, and then like she’d been drawn there, she lowered her lips to his.  A brush, a touch.  Warm and soft he called to her not to leave, and she didn’t for another long moment.  Then the reality of where they were kissing and who might see them flooded through her cheeks.  If his mother came out and found them like this…

Holly backed up. “We’d better go.”

***

Gabe knew this whole thing was nuts.  Here he was kissing her, falling deeper in love with her every minute, but reality was, in a month she would be gone.  His mother and others in the family had already made up their minds about Holly, and he knew the uphill battle it would be to convince them otherwise.  Still, every time he was with her, every time she looked at him like that, he somehow managed to talk himself out of every single reason this would never work.

Yes, she was beautiful.  Yes, she was kind and thoughtful.  But he couldn’t let himself be sucked into those thoughts. Reality was, she was leaving in a month, and then what?  They couldn’t make a coast-to-coast relationship work, and he couldn’t ask her to stay, nor could he go.  However, as tired as he was, as he watched her drive, his heart overtook his best reasoning.  She didn’t seem to care at all that his pickup was 2,000 years old or that the blinker wouldn’t stay on.  She drove as if made to drive this vehicle.  It made him love her all the more.

In disgust at his own weakness, he turned his head from her and looked out the opposite window.  It was because he was so tired, because of all the junk that had happened in the last couple of days, because of the questions of his uncertain future.  It had to be.  There was no other rationale for his sudden desire to throw all caution to the wind and beg her to marry him on the spot.

The drive was longer than he remembered, and as want washed over reality, his eyes closed, and he gave in to the dreams.  They were better anyway.  In his dreams he didn’t have to fight. He could take her in his arms and believe that it would all work out.  He could kiss her and sweep her off her feet, and let the world be as his heart wanted it to be.  He didn’t have to worry about his place or her place in anything.  He could just be with her, and nothing could ever come between them.

“Hey.”  Her voice, soft and gentle wafted over him.  “Gabriel, we’re home.”

For one perfect moment his dreams met reality.  He opened his eyes, and every dream he’d ever had came true.  She was looking at him, gazing down with the sweetest face he’d ever seen.

Then suddenly reality snapped over him hard.  He pushed himself up with a groan.  “Ugh.”  He rubbed his eyes.  “How long was I out?”

“About 20 minutes.”

Forcing reality to stay clamped over the dreams, he pulled all the way up.  The mansion stared down at him, reminding him of all the reasons the dream could never be.  “I guess… I guess you’d better get inside.  They’re going to be wondering about you.”

Holly’s gaze never left his face.  “Mom and Luke are gone.  They left right after… Today.  Monte Carlo for two weeks.”

“Oh.”  Gabe glanced up at the house. “Then you’re here by yourself?”

A hesitation, and she nodded.  “Do you want to come in?”

Every part of him screamed to take this offer.  Take it and never look back. She was, after all, the one who’d said it, the one offering.  However, he knew he’d already probably set his heart up to be shattered the way it was—going any farther was the definition of insanity.  Unfortunately, he also knew the mixed signals he’d been sending her about where they stood.  It was confusing enough for him. He couldn’t imagine being her.

Gaze down, he turned to her and took her hand.  “Look, I have to be honest with you, Holly.  I owe you an apology for last night.”

“No…”

“No.”  He stopped her.  “Let me say this. Please.”

She stopped and waited.

“You have to know by now how I feel about you, but this… us.  It can’t happen.”  He glanced at the dark house. Why did he have to say these words? “Not like this.  Okay? I don’t want to feel like I’m sneaking around, taking advantage… of you, of them.”  His gaze grabbed hers, pleading with her to understand.  “You deserve better.”

There was no being sure of anything in her eyes. His gaze fell so as not to have to see the confusion he was putting there.

If he could just explain enough… “I’m sorry if I led you on, but I never thought.”  He took a breath. “I never thought I would feel this way, that it would go this far.”  The words choked him trying not to come out, and he squeezed his eyes closed as his heart tightened in his chest.  “Look, I don’t know where my life goes from here.  I don’t know if I’ll go back to school or what.”

“Gabriel…”

“No.” The firmness of his gaze stopped her.  “I’m serious, Holly.  My future right now is like this dark room, and I have no idea where anything is.”  He closed his eyes on the fear washing through him.  “All I know is my mom needs me right now, and I need to be there for her.”  Tears stung the backs of his eyes, sending shooting pain like arrows into his heart.  “Besides you deserve more than I can ever give you.” He glanced at the house. “You deserve to be happy, to have a guy who can give you everything you’re used to. You deserve to live on the hill not in the work shop at the bottom of it.”

When he looked at her, there was real panic in her eyes and real grief in his heart.

He tried to make light of it, but it didn’t work. “Don’t worry.  You’ll be all right.  There are plenty of guys who would love the chance to treat you like a princess.”

“Gabriel?  What are you saying?” As she looked at him, her face crumbled under the emotion.  “No.  Don’t… You can’t…”  Pain trounced across her features. It killed him not to take her in his arms and comfort her, but he held his emotions in check even as he reached over to hug her lightly.

“Hey. Hey, please don’t cry.  This is for the best.  Really.” It was as if he could feel the tearing of his heart, feel it rip him right in half.   “I’m sorry.”

She backed out of his arms and over to the door, nodding.  Real, true cold permeated every bone in his body.  She swiped at the tears.  Her face was hard when she looked at him although she tried for it not to be.  “Luke said you can take a few days off.  I think you should.”

“Holly…”

“No.”  She stopped him with one look.  “You’re exhausted.  You don’t know what you’re saying.”  Her hands were moving, reaching for the door handle.  She stumbled out into the fading light.  “Go.  Take care of your mom, do what you have to do.  I’ll be fine.”

His heart fell further and further with each inch she put between them.  This was impossible.  He didn’t want her to leave, but how could he ask her to stay?

As she stood at the pickup door, holding it open, she took a long breath.  “I’ll be praying for you.”  And with that, she slammed the door, jarring his fragile hold on sanity.

Helplessly, Gabe watched her, arms folded across her middle, as she raced up the stairs to the dark house.  He shook his head to get himself to believe this was for the best. After all, there were others with her—Rosa, Yuri.  They would take care of her far better than he ever could.  Besides, his mother needed him.  Closing his eyes, he slid into the driver’s seat and put it in reverse.  It felt like a knife to his heart not to look back.  He couldn’t. This way she could go on with her life, and he could go on with his—bleak as it was.  Although it felt like life itself had fled with her, she didn’t need him, and he would have to find a way not to need her.  It was the only thing that made any sense.

Copyright Staci Stallings, 2007

Posted in A Light in the Darkness, Novels | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A Light in the Darkness, Ch. 13 & 14

Chapter 13

 

By Saturday night in the loft, the idea of not seeing her on Sunday was causing Gabriel’s brain gears to spin out of control.  On the couch, her head lay on his leg as both of them read.  He picked his book up slightly to look at her.  No, tomorrow without her wasn’t going to work.  The question of how any tomorrow without her would ever work tried to get in, but he pushed that thought away.

 

“So what are you doing tomorrow night?” he asked, the options racing through his mind.

 

Holly’s book fell to her chest as she looked up at him.  “I don’t know.  Am I not welcome here anymore?”

 

He smiled at the teasing tone.  “Like I’d ever say that.  No.”  He moved, and she sat up.  “I was just thinking.  If you’re into all this praying and God stuff now, it might not be a bad idea to try church.”

 

He saw the word go through her eyes.

 

“Oh.”  Her gaze fell.  She mulled the suggestion for longer than it seemed necessary. “Well, okay.”  Then she nailed him with her gaze.  “But what about your parents?  I don’t think your dad would be too keen on the idea.”

 

They hadn’t really confronted that issue, and Gabe nodded his understanding.  “I think Dad’s a little gun shy where your mom is concerned.”

 

Holly lifted her eyebrows. “Did you tell him, welcome to the club?”

 

Gabe laughed.  “That’s why I’m thinking we should go to the youth Mass instead of Sunday morning services.  At least for now.”

 

She nodded although he couldn’t clearly tell if he had offended her with that suggestion.  “Okay.”  Lost in thought, she sat for a moment.  “So, will you come pick me up or what?”

 

Ugh.  The logistics of this were enough to give a person a headache.  “Yeah. I guess that would be the easiest. I’ll be here about 6:30?”

 

There was an almost smile.  “Okay. I’ll be ready.”

***

Sunday evening as Gabriel drove through the front gate and waved to Fredrico, the gatekeeper, he realized how many spies there were around.  They didn’t mean to be spies, but in reality they were.  Nerves slithered over him as he drove up to the mansion.  He must’ve been crazy to even ask her.  Eventually her mother would find out, or Mr. Teracini, or his father.  The list was enough to make him seriously consider turning around.

 

However, before he had that chance, she bounded out of the house and down the steps.  He couldn’t tell if she’d been thinking the same things, or if she was just excited. She hopped into the pickup, her soft blue sundress swirling at her ankles, and the question of what he was doing ran through him again.

 

Still he couldn’t stop the smile.  “Ready?”

 

Her smile glowed on her face. “Let’s hit it.”

***

There was no real way to tell if what she was feeling was excitement or fear.  When they pulled up at the little church, Holly slid out and let her gaze take in the scene.  The white church stood on an incline, rising above the sidewalk and ramp below.  There were trees standing guard on either side of the front doors which were dark and edged in black wrought iron.

 

Fear snapped over her, and a voice deep inside her asked what she thought she was doing here.  If her mother ever found out, death would look preferable.  She reached up and ran her hand over her other arm. A moment and Gabriel came around from the other side.

 

His green eyes exuded concern.  “You okay?”

 

Holly’s gaze slid from the church to his, and courage filled her spirit.  Slowly she nodded.  Then between them, she felt his hand come around hers.  It shocked her senses in a way she hadn’t expected.  His hand was warm, and the long, smooth fingers curled over hers.  Unnerved, her gaze fell to his hand.

 

Her heart sped up as she looked back up to him, and his smile was more in his eyes than his lips.  It stopped her breathing with its depth and compassion. A moment of letting herself fall into the courage his eyes gave her, and then she nodded.  The smile transferred halfway to his lips, and he turned for the church, pulling her along.

 

The climb was arduous, but in no time they had entered the tiny passageway.  Inside, the church was stark, hardwood, with very few frills.  Still, it was cozy.  Up front and to the left the guitarists and singers tuned up and sifted through song sheets.  Holly was following Gabriel, being pulled behind him a half step.  They got to one bench, and he knelt to one knee reverently.  He crossed himself as she had seen him do before, and she made a mental note to ask him about that.  Then he stepped back so she could enter the bench first.

 

His hand had left hers, and she wrapped her arms over themselves, sitting but unsure of what to do or where to look.  Next to her, he pulled out a padded kneeler and putting his head down, he made that cross thing again.  And then, it was as if he had entered his own little world.  She watched him from behind, trying to ascertain what he was doing and why.  Yes, he was praying.  That was obvious, but as she looked around, she noticed no one else was really doing much of anything.  They certainly didn’t look like he did.  The question of what he was telling God went through her, and at that moment, she would’ve given anything to hear it.

 

Then as suddenly as he had knelt, he crossed himself and sat.  There was a brush of his lips with his thumb as well that she noticed this time. Once at her side, he only glanced at her as his hand found hers again.  His world was so simple to be in.  She wished at that moment that the rest of the world would go on spinning and just leave them here forever.

 

In minutes the choir started, and she stood with the others.  It was a good thing for his hand because it steadied her.  There were words and prayers she couldn’t really follow.  Everyone else seemed to know what to do without much if any of a cue, but all she could do was stand there and take it all in.  After only another few minutes, they sat and listened as a reader went to the front and said some words.

 

That one left, the choir sang, and another came to the front.  Holly wanted to ask Gabriel a million questions by that point.  Why they did it this way.  What were they reading?  Who was it reading?  How they knew what to sing.  It was overwhelming and mesmerizing at the same time.  And then suddenly he stood, and not knowing what else to do, she stood next to him.

 

The man in the long, flowing green robes stepped to the lectern and began reading. Holly tried to follow.  It was something about a vine and some branches and what happens if a branch isn’t producing.  She wondered if this was tailored for this area of the world.  Did they do this reading every time?  It seemed so appropriate.  Then in a breath it was over, and they were sitting down again.  Just the ups and downs were enough to keep her guessing as to what was next.

 

The man with the green robes stepped from the lectern to the center of the top step.  He was probably older than 50 but no older than 60 with darkish hair that had patches of silver in it.  For a moment the crowd settled, and then they were still.

 

“The vine and the branches,” the man said.  “We’ve all heard this story a hundred times, but it wasn’t until I went out recently to a vine grower and asked some questions that I learned some very important insights into this reading.  You see, I’m new to this area, and vine growing is not really my specialty.  So I wanted to find out what Jesus was talking about here.”

 

Gabriel’s hand slid over and into hers.  Holly couldn’t stop the intake of air that caused, but she forced herself to refocus on the preacher.

 

“I’m sure you all have noticed the line in that reading about if a branch does not produce, then it is to be cut off, bound up, and thrown into the fire.  It sounds harsh. So, when I went to my vine grower friend, I wanted to understand exactly what this process is about. What I learned on my trip to the vine dresser is this.  Long before a branch is considered useless, a vine dresser will do everything in his power to coax it back to health.  Far from going down the rows and cutting off anything that doesn’t produce or is not producing enough, the vine growers will go out in search of branches that have suffered setbacks. Let’s say he finds one that is covered in the mud of the earth, the vine grower does not cut it off and throw it out.  No, first he lifts it gently from the earth, cleans it off carefully, and ties it up onto one of the supports.  He may also give it extra nourishment for a while to coax it back to health.

 

“Why?  Well, those of you who are in the vine growing business know why.  It is because every branch is precious. Every single one. And the vine dresser knows that each has the potential of bearing much fruit if it is cared for properly.  If he were to vindictively and impulsively cut off any one that had fallen, soon there would be few left and the rich harvest he is hoping for would never come to pass.

 

“So, every vine is precious in His sight.”  He pointed to the ceiling.  “Every single one. If you have fallen in the mud, He doesn’t just cut you off and throw you in the fire.  He will first lift you up, clean you off, tie you to a support, and give you a chance to feel His power flowing through you again.  It is true that apart from Him, you can do nothing, but with Him, ah, with Him, you will bear much fruit so the world will know that He cares for you, that He is working through you, that He loves you so very, very much—even if you’ve been in the mud, even if you thought you could never get out.  You couldn’t, but He can.  Trust Him to pick you up, clean you off, and give you a support.  He will.  It was His promise.”  He walked back to the two little chairs.  “Let us stand.”

 

And they were back to the up and down thing again.  Holly heard not one more word.  Not even one.  Gabriel had told her that God would give her a second chance if she let Him.  What had he said?  Something about nothing in her past being bigger than God?  As strange as it seemed, it was as if God was speaking directly to her through the preacher’s words.  She wondered if Gabriel had come and spoken to the pastor, telling him about her situation.  However, before she really had that thought, another sensation filled her body.

 

She felt it as surely as if it was happening right there in the church.  She closed her eyes to its power.  There was nothing else to do.  Her breathing constricted so that she was almost panting.  Tears threatened as she felt herself lifted up, taken up by strong, powerful hands.  Warmth spread down her back, starting at her shoulders and heating all the way down.  Her chin raised to the feeling of the sun on her skin even as knots of the knowledge of unworthiness knit across her brow.

 

“God,” she said from the depths of her heart, “are you sure?  I’ve done some really awful things.”

 

It was as if she could see His smile from the depths of her soul. “Oh, little one,” He seemed to say, “you have no idea how much I’ve loved you.  I’ve been there through all of it, waiting for you to turn to Me so I could show you how much I love you.”

 

“But Lord, they tried.  Rebecca tried.  Emily tried.”

 

“They were Me calling you back.  But don’t worry about that.  You are here now. That’s all that matters.”

 

“But how can You love me?  Look at me.  I’m a mess.”

 

She didn’t even question that she heard Him laugh. She did hear it. “That’s not the point, little one.  The point is I love you.  That’s all that matters.”

 

“But what will people think?  Some of them know how I am, how I’ve been, how I was.”

 

“Oh, Holly, sweet child of Mine, you do not have to worry about what the world thinks of you.  All that matters is what I think, and I think you are perfect just the way I made you.”

 

“But since then…”

 

“Doesn’t matter.”

 

“But what about…?”

 

“Doesn’t matter.”

 

“But how…?”

 

“Because I love you.  Do you understand that?  Because I love you.  That’s how.  That’s why. That’s all that has ever mattered, and all that will ever matter from now on.”  Then He said it very slowly emphasizing each word as it fell from Heaven to her being.  “I love you.”

 

She felt the tears sliding down her cheeks.  His love filled her whole soul, spilling out, and splashing at her feet.  How could it be that He could love her so much even after everything she had done?

 

“I love you, Holly,” He said over and over again, filling her spirit with the words.  “I love you so much.  I’ve always loved you, and I always will.”

 

Next to her, softly, Gabriel’s hand came over hers, and gratitude to God for him gushed through even the love, expanding her heart with its power.  Like a vine now tied to its support, she grabbed on, sniffing back the tears that were flowing freely.  When she opened her eyes and looked at Gabriel, the best she could do was smile through the tears.  His eyes said he would ask, later.  She was sure of it.  But would she ever be able to put this into words?

 

Once again, she closed her eyes.  “Thank You, God.  Thank You so much.”

 

The choir started singing.  It was about opening your heart to His love, about letting Him in.  Holly had to beat back the laugh to keep her joy from finding the air around her.  How could anything feel this wonderful?  How could she ever have waited so long?

***

Gabe knew as surely as he was standing next to her that God had done something amazing.  In fact, all during the sermon he was praying that she would hear and grab on.  God sure had a way with things.  In the pickup on the way back to the mansion, Gabe looked over at her, wanting to ask, but not wanting to intrude.  She was glowing.  It was as if she wasn’t even in the pickup anymore, so he turned his attention back to the road.

 

At the gate he hated to ask, but he had no choice.  “You want me to take you home?”

 

Surprise jumped to her face.  “We can’t go to the loft?”

 

He smiled.  “No, we can. I just wasn’t sure…”

 

“I don’t want to go back.  Not yet.”

 

With a spin of the wheel, they were headed down the back trail.  They bounced over the couple of potholes and pulled up to the carriage house.  However, when he shut off the pickup, she only leaned her head back onto the seat.  Her gaze was out the front windshield on the eastern sky painted in pinks and purples as the sun sank behind them.

 

“He’s incredible, huh?” she asked softly.

 

Gabe knew immediately.  He let his heart say it. “Yeah.  He is.”  Leaving it at that, he gave her the space to be in the moment without his interference.

 

“Did you always know He loved you as much as you do now?”  The question was breathless and deep.

 

His gaze went from her out to the sky beyond as well.  It was like recalling a different lifetime, one that seemed now but a dream.  “No,” he said simply.  “I had to learn the hard way.”

 

She nodded.  “I wonder if it’s better that way.”  Her eyes narrowed on the thought.  “If you always knew He loved you, maybe it wouldn’t feel like this.”

 

Gabe slid his leg over an inch.  “No, I think there always comes a point when you realize just how special what He’s offering you is—even if you’ve known Him your whole life.”  He traced through his own life.  “Take me for example.  I was baptized when I was two weeks old, but I didn’t really get any of it until much later.”

 

Holly shook her head.  “There’s so much I don’t know, that I don’t understand.  Like that… bap….”

 

“tized,” he finished for her.

 

“I don’t even know what that means, but it’s like on one hand I want to know all of it, and on the other, I know it really doesn’t matter.  All that matters is how much He loves me.”

 

The center of Gabe’s heart filled with gratefulness to God for saving her life.  His thoughts slid back to the moment of seeing her under those stairs, and a whisper of thanks went through him.  “It’s funny how knowing that changes so many things.” His own past slipped into his memory.  It hurt to remember he’d ever been so lost.  “And how hard it is to learn and accept sometimes.”

 

“I know.  Why didn’t I listen a year ago when Rebecca tried to get me to go to Bible Study?  And why did I all of a sudden get it when I came here?”

 

“I think sometimes,” Gabe said slowly, wondering how deep he was allowed to go, “we have to get to the bottom of thinking we can do it ourselves.  We have to come to the end of our power before we will accept His help.  For some of us, that takes more than a few knockdowns.  Sometimes it takes a few knockouts.”

 

Her gaze turned to him, and in it he read so much.  “Thank you.”

 

The smile brushed through him. “It wasn’t…”

 

“I know.  It wasn’t you.”  Serenity drifted through her gaze.  “But you didn’t take off, you didn’t run.  You let Him shine through you.  That was you.  It was you being willing.”

 

He knew well what she was saying.  A light in the darkness could make all the difference.  “I’m just passing on the gift that was given to me, and one day you’ll pass it on to someone else.”

 

“I hope so,” she said softly.  “I hope so.”

***

For two weeks Holly had been living in God’s love, and it was truly amazing.  The fear which had once clung to her every move had been banished.  The one night she’d come back from the loft to find it hanging around in her room—telling her this couldn’t last, telling her it would never work, telling her it was silly to even think it was working now—she had banished it like a bat knocking one out of the park.  It felt great to know Jesus was standing with her against the forces that had controlled her life for so long.

 

She had finished This Present Darkness and Grace Walk.  She was now deciphering The Ragamuffin Gospel.  It wasn’t always easy around all of Gabriel’s markings.  Some of them cracked her up.  Some intrigued her.  Twice they had spent an entire evening discussing two pages he had marked so much they were all-but unreadable.

 

Her spirit was opening up in ways she hadn’t been able to even think possible before.  Prayers in the morning, reading, being with him in the evenings—each experience was blessedly tailored to the exact lesson she needed right then.

 

Even the shower for her mother, which she had dreaded like the plague, went off so smoothly, Holly knew she wasn’t the one running this thing.  She couldn’t be.  If it had been her, she would have been reduced to tears by her mother’s best friend Judy’s snide remarks about her current employment situation.

 

“Well, now you getting that job was awfully convenient, wasn’t it?” Judy had asked over her punch glass.

 

“Yeah,” Holly said, truly without thinking about it, “especially after Mom practically locked me in my room to keep me from getting one.  It was sure a good thing there was one so close.”

 

Judy sneered at the reply and slunk off.  What Holly felt wasn’t even pride.  It was gratefulness.

 

She stirred the punch a bit more.  “Thanks, Holy Spirit.”

 

And so it was the Sunday before the big day the coming Saturday.  Holly’s whole being was focused on getting through dinner and out to the loft as fast as she could.  She didn’t even see the wild pitch coming at her.

 

“So I guess you and Jean Paul have made plans already,” her mother said over her soup.

 

Holly choked on the potato.  “Plans?  For what?”

 

“For what.  The wedding of course.  Will he be here early, or is he coming for the rehearsal on Friday?”

 

Wow.  It was completely unbelievable how speechless one person could be.  The trains of thoughts smashed one into another, sending cars hurdling through brain air.  “Oh.  I don’t know…”  A lie was right there, winding its way into being when suddenly she stopped it with a whack.  She pulled herself up, holding courage to her.  It felt like stepping out into nothingness.  “Actually, Jean Paul and I broke up.”

 

Her mother spewed the soup in her mouth back into her bowl.  Quickly she grabbed for her napkin and dabbed at her mouth, grasping for ladylike and missing by a mile.  “Broke up? When… when did this happen?”

 

“A while back.  We just weren’t right for each other.”

 

Across the table, Holly felt her mother look at Luke.  “And when were you planning on telling us this?”

 

Holly shrugged as she took a sip of her soup.  “It’s not national news.  We tried it.  It didn’t work.  No reason to get upset.”

 

It took her mother a full minute to get anything else out.  Remarkably Holly’s nerves were on full stand down.  There was no panic anywhere in her.

 

“So you’ll be dateless for the wedding then?  How will that look?”

 

Luke set his water glass down.  “Like she is a young woman who is charting her own course in the world.”

 

She smiled at Luke gratefully even as the craziest thought in the world attacked her.  “Who says I don’t have a date?”

 

Both gazes found her as she ladled more soup into her mouth.  True, she hadn’t made church since that first time, but they were planning to meet later in the loft.  The thought that Gabriel might tell her no, or worse, laugh in her face brought up a bit of trepidation, but she was out of the boat walking on water.  This was no time to look back.

 

“Who is he?” Luke finally asked.  “Do we know him?”

 

Holly demurred.  “It’s not really finalized yet.  I’d hate to say something, and it not work out.”

 

“Ah.”  Luke raised his chin in understanding.  Then he lifted his glass to her. “Well, I for one think this mystery man is very, very luck indeed.”

 

The smile was easy, even under the glare from the other end of the table.

 

Chapter 14

 

“Hey, girl,” Gabe said when he heard the door squeak open and her steps begin up the staircase.  “What took you so long?  I was starting to get…”

 

The words trailed into oblivion as up the stairs came every dream he’d ever had.  Normally she wore minimal make up and raggedy jeans.  Tonight it was obvious she had done more than throw whatever on.

 

“Wow.”  He sat back on the couch, his eyes going wide as he let his gaze take in the full picture of her.  The make up, not heavy but enough, brought out the pink in her cheeks and her full red lips.  Her sleeveless white top sparkled in just the right places setting off the black pants and the silver belt.  The transformation was incredible.  He surveyed her slowly, first trying to get his brain to believe his eyes and then trying to figure out what it all meant.

 

Nervously, she ran her red fingernail up and to her hair.  She looked on the verge of running, and Gabe’s brain caught up with the rest of him.  He swallowed all the comments and sat back, hoping he could sound semi-normal through the shock.

 

“So are we reading, or do you have other plans?”  The thought that she might in fact have other plans slammed into him.  Maybe Steve had come back, and she was coming to tell to let Gabe know she wouldn’t be coming over any more.  Concern slapped into him hard.  If she did have other plans, what then?

 

“No, I don’t have other plans.”  Her gaze fell to the floor, and a slow step at a time she approached the couch where she sat down primly on the other end. His gaze followed her every step and then all the way down.

 

He was beginning to be seriously concerned.  “Okay. So what’s the deal then?  You look like you’re headed out to the Country Club.”  It wasn’t him talking.  It really wasn’t.  It was the shock or maybe the fear, but it wasn’t him.

 

“I just…” She looked at him for a split second and then turned her gaze away. For a moment nothing came, and then she closed her eyes and heaved a breath.  She stood and walked over to the railing, a move he didn’t like at all.  His gaze followed her to where she stood, looking over.

 

Finally, he could take not knowing no longer. “Holly?”  He stood, going to her as what would happen with his heart paled in comparison to whatever she had to tell him.  At the railing, he took hold of her elbow and turned her to him. When she still wouldn’t look at him, he tilted his head to be able to see into her eyes.  “Hey, what’s going on?” His hands were on her bare arms, and she made no move to shake them off.  Fear slammed his heart against his chest.  “Whatever it is, it’s okay.  You can tell me.”

 

She glanced at him and shook her head.  “This wasn’t supposed to be so hard.”  Her eyes searched his for courage and assurance that she wasn’t about to make a huge mistake.

 

He willed peace into his gaze and heart. It wasn’t easy.  “Hey, it’s okay. Just say it.”

 

Her eyes fell closed, and she blew out another long slow breath.  When her eyes came open again, she was gazing right into his soul.  “I want you to go with me to the wedding.”

 

The words hit him like a one-two punch.  For one moment he couldn’t move at all.  It was as if his brain and body had flash frozen.  He couldn’t have heard her right. Slowly his hands dropped from her arms.  “The wedding?  Me?”  He took a step back, turned from her, and ran his hand through his hair.  She couldn’t be serious.  The wedding?  His heart rammed into his ribs so hard it hurt.  If he showed up at that wedding, her mother would call the cops, not to even mention what his father would do or say.

 

“I know what you’re thinking,” Holly said from behind him.  “Believe me, I know, but it’s a really big day for me, and when I think about it, I can’t imagine anyone other than you being there with me.”

 

Utter disbelief seeped into every fiber of his body, and when he turned back to her, the fact that she was Miss America didn’t help.  “You can’t be serious.”  He tried to laugh it off, but it didn’t work. To show her how crazy this was, he held his hands out and looked down at his clothes.  “Look at me.  I’m the handyman, the groundskeeper.  I’m beer and pretzels not Dom Perignon and caviar.”

 

“I don’t care about that, any of it.”  Her eyes shimmered with unshed tears as she pleaded with him not to say no.  “I’m going to need all the encouragement and strength I can get that day, and I want my best friend by my side.”

 

“Best…”  It should have been the biggest compliment of his life. Instead, he shook his head to keep himself from letting hope get a grip.  “Holly, this is crazy.  I can’t go with you.  How would it look?  What would people say?”

 

She shrugged.  “Doesn’t matter.”

 

“Doesn’t matter?” he asked incredulously.  “Are you kidding me?  Of course it matters!  Those people have a code of honor, and me showing up isn’t in it.”

 

A moment and she pulled herself up and lifted her chin.  “Well, I don’t care.  If they judge you because of your clothes or because of what you do for a living, then they don’t really know you, and that’s their problem.”

 

Helplessness overtook him. “But…”

 

“Look,” she said, sounding more emphatic than he’d ever heard her, “I want you to go with me.  Okay? Now, if you don’t want to go with me, fine.  Tell me that. But don’t turn me down because of what some stuck-up, conceited snobs have to say about it.  Let them talk.  That’s about them, not about us.”

 

Us.  His mind spun with the word.  “What about…?”

 

“Mom?”

 

He nodded unable to get all the fear into words.

 

Holly shrugged.  “She can deal with it.  Remember that verse you read me the other night about how God judges each of us not on the merits or failures of our parents but by our own actions?  Well, she’s my mother.  She’s not my keeper. This is my life, not hers.”

 

Had he only known this moment would come, he would never have read that verse to her.  “Holly. Come on. Really.”  He laughed a short laugh, hoping she would abandon this craziness. “Look at you.  I can’t show up looking like me.  I look like the Hunchback compared to you.”

 

Concern went through her eyes.  “You’re kidding, right?  Don’t you get it? I’m standing here because of you.  Because of you I’m not splattered all over that floor down there or lying in some coffin somewhere.  Do you really think I care that you’re not showing off your tan from Bermuda?”

 

His protests ran smack into her sincerity and the fear in her eyes.

 

“If you don’t want to go with me, tell me that,” she challenged and then stood waiting for his answer.  “Just say it, and I’ll drop it and never ask again.”

 

Of course he wanted to go with her.  That was the only thing he was certain of in this whole situation. In fact there was nothing he wanted more.  But was wanting it enough to trump every obstacle standing in their way?

 

“Are you sure about this?” he finally asked in partial surrender.

 

“I would’ve have asked if I wasn’t.”

 

He closed his eyes, trying to get ‘No, I don’t want to go with you’ to come out.  He was as crazy as she was even to consider this.  Still, his heart wouldn’t let him say what he knew he should.  After a moment he opened his eyes and scratched the side of his head.  “Well, okay, as long as I can go on record with the fact that you are certifiable for even thinking this is a good idea…”

 

Hopeful joy sprang to her eyes.  “Is that a yes?”

 

He shook his head.  “I can’t believe I’m saying this.  That’s a yes.”

 

“Yea!”  She literally jumped in the air twice clapping.  When she stopped, she looked up.  “Oh, thank You, God.  Thank You.  Thank You. Thank You. Good job, Holy Spirit.”

 

Gabe corkscrewed his face.  “Hey now, no fair ganging up on me.”

 

“Hey, I’ll take all the help I can get.”

***

Holly had done it so many times, she didn’t even think about it.  Quietly she let herself in the front door and climbed the stairs.  She opened her bedroom door with no sound at all.  What she really wanted to do was scream her happiness to the world.  Instead she’d have to be content to wait until tomorrow to phone Rebecca.

 

Two steps into the room, however, she stopped at the odd chill that permeated it.  It hadn’t felt this cold since…

 

“Where’ve you been?”

 

The yelp of fear leaped from her just as she reached for the light on the nightstand.  She yanked it on and spun around.

 

Next to the bathroom door sat her mother on the little vanity table chair.  She stood, slowly, regally, menacingly.  “I said, ‘Where have you been?’”

 

Fear pummeled into Holly, but she stepped through it and over to the balcony doors, standing open.  She grabbed them and shut them.  Then she turned.  “What do you care?”

 

“Does the fact that I’m your mother not even register with you any more?  Look at me, I’m beating my brains out here to make a nice life for you, and what do you do?  Disrespect me at every turn, take advantage of our hospitality.  Is this how you repay me?”

 

Holly strode over to her desk.  “This isn’t about repaying you, Mom.  This is about me living my life, my way.”

 

“What? Running around doing God knows what with God knows who?”

 

God knew very well, and Holly was proud of that fact.  She turned and faced her mother.  “If you must know, I was out with Gabriel.”

 

There, it was out.  The fireworks could officially start.

 

“Gabriel?” Her mother’s face fell into dark confusion.  “Who is Gabriel?  One of Jean Paul’s friends?”

 

It was so funny that Holly laughed.  “No.  He’s about as far from Jean Paul as you could get.”  She knew what the next admission would bring.  She wasn’t worried for herself, but she said a quick prayer for Gabriel and his family.  “He’s on the grounds crew.”

 

“The grounds…  He’s the groundskeeper?”  The words tilted on the fury.

 

“One of them.  We’ve been seeing each other for a while now, at night and in the morning in the garden.”

 

“You’re sleeping with the groundskeeper?”

 

It was the strangest thing because Holly only thought of being with Gabriel someday in some far away place where they could be together for real.  She’d never asked, but she knew instinctively that he wasn’t a summer fling kind of person.  “I’m not sleeping with anyone, Mother.  Gabriel is my friend, and I intend to keep it that way no matter what you say.”  She reached for the dagger.  “In fact, we’re going to the wedding together.”

 

What she expected was nothing compared to what came. “Over my dead body.  You will not show up with that trash to my wedding!”

 

Holly squared her shoulders.  “Then maybe I just won’t show up at all.”

 

Fiery arrows shot out of her mother’s eyes.  “You wouldn’t dare.”

 

With a shrug, Holly turned back to straighten the papers at her desk.  The letter from Boston Central that she hadn’t yet opened stared up at her.  Her class schedule, but she pushed that thought out and with one more tamp, turned back for her mother.  “What difference does it make?  In a month I’ll be going back to Boston anyway, and you can spin whatever lies you want to about me.”

 

“I forbid you to see him ever again.”

 

Holly actually laughed.  “Like you forbade me from getting a job?  Like you forbade me from going to Boston?  The forbidding thing doesn’t work anymore, Mom.  I’m me.  I’m Holly.  I don’t need your permission to be who I am anymore.”

 

“You are a selfish little wench.”

 

Funny how the barbs didn’t even hurt.  As she looked at her mother, what she saw was Satan losing a battle he had thought he’d won a long time ago.  “If you don’t want us there, that’s perfectly fine, Mom.  We’ll find somewhere else to be, but if I’m coming, I’m bringing Gabriel.”

 

“We’ll see about that.”  With that, her mother stomped out of the room.  When she was gone, Holly sighed.  She hated that her mother didn’t understand, that she questioned every motive her daughter had and every move her daughter made.  Still, Holly understood now that she had no control over that.  Her mother made her own decisions; she no longer spoke for Holly.

 

Quietly she got ready for bed.  Gabriel would’ve been proud of her—if he wasn’t horrified.  When the light was off, she looked up at the ceiling.  “God, guide my steps with Gabriel and my mom.  Give us all peace.  Amen.”

***

“I hear you’re bringing a date Saturday,” Luke said the following day.

 

Holly had assumed he would say nothing since he hadn’t until nearly four o’clock.  However, with that one sentence her hopes fell into good luck with that.  “Yeah.  I don’t think Mom is too thrilled.”

 

He leaned on her desk. “I kind of gathered that.  So this boy is the groundskeeper here?”

 

She couldn’t read his tone, so she nodded.  It was important to her that he didn’t think the horrible things her mother already did. “He really is a nice guy, Luke. He works hard, and he’s really smart.  He’s even going to college…”

 

Luke laughed.  “You don’t have to sell him to me.  Gabriel and his father have been here since before I arrived.  They are very humble, hardworking people.”

 

“But he’s not rich.”  Then she corrected herself.  “Not like money rich anyway.”

 

He slid his leg slightly.  “There are many more things in this life than being money rich.  Believe me.”  He thought for a minute and then pointed at her.  He stood from the desk and sat in the chair across from her, touching his finger to his bottom lip thoughtfully.  “Have I ever told you about my father?”

 

Holly shook her head, wondering what that had to do with anything.

 

Luke nodded as he put the story together in his head.  “My father was a ship builder.  We were not rich growing up.  We hardly had ten lira to our name, but my father taught me about how to work hard and how to believe in what you are doing.  He would ask me every day who I had helped that day and why.  He wanted me to learn to work hard, but he also wanted me to see something other than wealth as important and worthwhile.”

 

The words stopped as Luke gazed up and around at the house.  “I think he would be impressed with what I’ve managed to accumulate, but he’d be more impressed with the lives I help by using my skills and my love of wine to help others.  Do you know how many people this winery employs?”

 

“Seventy-two,” she answered, having seen the reports.

 

“Seventy-two.  That’s 72 families who have food on their tables and a roof over their heads.  That’s not a boast.  That’s a responsibility, and that’s what I see in Gabriel and his father too.  They care about doing a good job.  They care about those around them.  They may not have great material wealth, but they are wealthy were it really counts.”

 

Hearing him talk like this, Holly wanted so badly to ask him why in the world he was marrying her mother—the queen of take all you can get and squash anyone who gets in your way.  However, she was too grateful to put those ugly words into the air.  “So you don’t mind then?”

 

“Mind?” Luke stood. “I think you’ve made a fine choice.  Now, what did I come out here for?  Oh, yes, the lot numbers of last year’s crop.”

***

The rest of the week Holly did her best to stay out of her mother’s way.  It wasn’t terribly hard because the whirlwind of getting ready for the wedding had shifted into full-gear.  The ceremony would be at the gazebo and the reception by the pool.  Although Holly joined Gabriel for weeding in the mornings, the truth was his mind was too preoccupied with the coming events to do too much talking or praying.

 

He seemed much more nervous than he ever had, and when she tried to ask about it in the loft, he told her they were all working overtime trying to get things ready.  He assured her it had nothing to do with her or her offer, but she wasn’t at all sure she believed him.

 

On Saturday late in the afternoon she stood at her mirror, turning slightly to observe the off the shoulder deep indigo dress.  It was held up with two faux diamond straps and had an undulating neckline with sleeves that dropped off each shoulder.  She examined her hair which was parted on the far side and swept back into a tight ponytail.  It wasn’t salon styled like her mother wanted, but that was okay.  It suited her and the dress.

 

The cell phone on her bed beeped, and she snatched it up.  “Hello?”

 

“Are you sure you don’t want to just meet me at the loft?”

 

She laughed.  “Maybe we’ll escape right after they say their vows.”

 

“I can’t talk you out of this?” He’d never sounded more nervous.

 

“I promise,” she said, knowingly.  “I’ll protect you.”

 

“That’s comforting.” He sighed. “Okay.  I’m here.  Now what?”

 

“Meet me at the front door.”  She snapped off the cell phone and pitched it to the bed.  “God, be with us.”

***

There simply were no words to describe getting out of that pickup and walking up to the front door.  Gabe wasn’t even breathing.  True, he was moving, but he had no idea how. His brain hurt from lack of oxygen or from fear, he couldn’t tell which.  He readjusted the tie at his neck, snapped out his sleeves, reached up, and rang the doorbell.  What greeted his sight when she opened the door almost made up for all the nerves.

 

With wide-eyed shock, he gazed at her up and down.  This had to be some kind of elaborate dream.  “Wow.  You look… amazing.”

 

And as if by some magic, she smiled and amazing went flying off the charts.  “Thank you.” She raised an eyebrow.  “You’re looking pretty amazing yourself.”  She reached for his elbow.  “Come on.”  Dragging him in, she shut the door.

 

Gabe put his hands in his pockets.  They were so sweaty, he didn’t trust them anywhere else.

 

She linked her arm through his and leaned toward him.  “I’m so glad you came.”

 

“Holly, you’re wanted for pictures in the garden,” Rosa said, ducking in.  “Miss Judy is about to have a fit.”  She ducked back out.

 

“Miss Judy?” Gabriel asked, wide-eyed with the fear spiraling inside him.

 

“My mother’s best friend and matron of honor.”

 

That did nothing to calm the fear. “Oh.”

 

“Come on before they have a meltdown.”

 

Gabe allowed himself be led through the house into and through rooms he had never even seen.  The house was truly huge. On the other side of the living area, Holly slid the pool door open.  The sunshine beyond was just beginning to cool.  It would be a nice evening for the wedding.  As they strode around the pool, Gabriel mentally checked everything.  He’d been out here not three hours before making sure everything was perfect, and now here he was again—not as the help this time but as a quasi-guest.  It was a weird shift to make.

 

“Oh, Holly, thank goodness,” a tall lady in a pink taffeta said, appearing at the trellis.  “You need to get out here. They’re doing the family pictures.”

 

Although the nerves were about to take him under, Gabe noticed how Holly never even sped up.  She was moving to her own commands now not everyone else’s, and he smiled at that understanding.  Arm-in-arm they crossed under the trellis into the garden.  How many times he had seen that garden, he had no idea, but it had never looked like this.  Darius and Tim had spent the day stringing up tiny sparkling lights from one end to the other.  Coupled with the explosion of color from the flowers, the effect was breathtaking.

 

Holly leaned over to his ear. “Good thing we’ve been weeding.”

 

He looked at her in awe. “Yeah, no kidding.”  However, his gaze stayed on her as her beauty overtook everything else.  Only when they went past the pond and out into the open area of the gazebo did he retrain his gaze to the surroundings.  The gazebo was lit with those same pinpoints of light.  It was truly gorgeous in the fading West Coast sunshine.

 

“Finally you’re here.”  Her mother, regal in her white satin gown, motioned to Holly from the gazebo.  “Come on. We’re ready for you.”

 

Letting go of Gabe’s arm, Holly gazed at him for a second that stopped his heart.  “Don’t run, k?”

 

He needed the reminder.  “Smile pretty.”

 

Like she could get any prettier.  He watched her walk over, and take her place on the gazebo steps next to her mother and Mr. Teracini.  They really made a lovely picture.  Gabe rubbed his nose as anxiety grabbed him, and he faded back into the leaves of the tree.  He watched as they took four pictures and then broke up to get ready for the service.

 

“Gabriel,” Holly called from the gazebo.  She motioned for him to come over, and terror grabbed hold of him.  She had to be kidding.  But still she was waving him over with a smile, and he really couldn’t pretend he didn’t hear her.

 

His steps had never been slower, or his reluctance as great.  Had he walked all the way to China, it wouldn’t have felt as far.  When he was finally by her side, it was all he could do to keep himself from fidgeting right out of his shoes.

 

“Luke, Mom, this is Gabriel Cabrelos.  Gabriel, Luke and my mother.”

 

Without pause Mr. Teracini held out his hand. “Gabriel, it’s nice of you to come.”

 

“Sir.”  Gabriel shook his hand.  Then he turned to the Ice Queen.  He held out his hand, hoping she wouldn’t freeze him in place. “Ma’am.”  For the longest moment of his life, she didn’t move.

 

“Gabriel.”  Her hand was as cold as her eyes.

 

“Thank you for letting me come,” he said, stepping back beside Holly and putting his hand on her back.  “It’s an honor. Really.”

 

Holly was looking up at him with pride. He could feel it, and he needed that look more than she would ever know.  Yet he couldn’t look at her lest they all guess everything that was in his heart.  If he could just keep this nice and on the surface, maybe his heart had a chance at surviving.

 

“Linda!” Judy hissed from just beyond the chairs.  “The guests are arriving, girl.  Get in here.”

 

“It’s show time,” Luke said.  Then he held his hand out to Gabe once more.  “Thank you for coming.”

 

Gabe shook his hand and then watched Luke give Holly a hug.  The truly happy smile on her face made his heart happy as well.

 

“Love you, sweetheart.” Luke kissed the top of her head.

 

Holly soaked the love in.  It was plain to see how much she needed a stable father figure in her life. Gabe was glad she had someone as solid and kind as Mr. Teracini to be her stepfather.  She deserved that.  When she stepped back, she smiled at the older man.  “Thank you.”

 

“Thank you,” he said.  His gaze traveled over them to the arriving guests. “And now, if you’ll excuse me.”  He stepped past them and down the gazebo steps.

 

Watching him go, Holly put her arms over herself.  “Man, I wish this one would have a prayer of working.”

 

Gabe’s gaze went to her with concern.  He wanted to ask, but he didn’t have the heart.  After a moment, her gaze met his.  She smiled, and in that smile he read it all—the hopes of the past crushed, the let downs, the tears.  She knew going in it wasn’t going to last, and it was killing her.

 

Putting her hand on his arm, she stepped past him.  “Come on.  Time to shine.”

***

The wedding really was lovely—much better than the Justice of the Peace thing with Dan, the Vegas escapade with Jack before that, and the church thing with Peter that even Holly barely remembered.  After all, how could you get any better than sunset overlooking a vineyard?  Still, Holly knew as they said their vows that her mother would try.  Some day she would try to top even this.  There was a hollowness in Holly’s spirit, a space that happiness couldn’t quite reach.  That place knew her mother meant nothing of what she said.  They were empty words.  Nice and romantic, but still empty.

 

When the minister said Luke could kiss his bride, there was applause, and Holly clapped but with no real feeling.  And then it was over.  Luke and her mother walked up the aisle.  It was the beginning of the end.  She knew that in every part of her.  The clapping subsided, and people began to file out toward the pool area.

 

Gabriel turned to her, and his smile told her he knew too.  “That was nice.”

 

“Yeah, nice,” she said.  Her gaze dropped from his. “How long do we have to stay before we can leave?”

 

Concern and disbelief ripped to the surface. “Holly.”

 

“I know. I know.  I’m kidding.” She glanced at the departing guests. “I think.”

 

There was hardly a smile. Looking at her with barely concealed worry, he stepped out and let her out as well.  He stayed right there next to her, close enough to be there, but not close enough to look gaudy.  She liked that about him.  He never pushed.  Protected, supported, encouraged, yes.  Pushed, no.  They walked slowly back through the garden.

 

“It really does look nice out here,” he said, gazing around at the flowers.

 

“Wonder why.”  Holly’s heart lifted for the first time in over an hour.  “It is beautiful, you know.”

 

His green eyes wrapped hers in compassion and gratefulness. “I had lots of good help.”

 

It was crazy, she knew, but she couldn’t help herself.  She let her hand fall between them to search for his.  The second his long fingers wrapped over hers, she wanted nothing more than to skip the reception.  Why was it imperative that they hang out with these people they didn’t even know?  Why did she have to be here when it was so obviously her mother’s night in the spotlight?  But she knew.  They wouldn’t leave.  They couldn’t.

 

Crossing into the pool area which had the lights circling it as well, they didn’t stop until they were on the other side of the twinkling pool.  People jammed into every inch of the space, and Holly suddenly knew why her mother wanted the pool area for the reception—it was smaller than the garden, so it looked more crowded.  Anger and embarrassment to be put in the middle of such a charade traced through her.  How did she keep ending up here?  She took her hand from his, depressed that she had dragged him into her nightmare.  He didn’t deserve this.  Why had she thought bringing him here was a good idea?  It wasn’t a good idea.  It was a selfish idea.

 

She considered apologizing, but that might be bad etiquette.  Worse, he might ask, and she might have to explain, and right now she couldn’t chance putting what she was feeling into words.

 

Time stretched through itself.  It was awkward standing there, being there but not having anything to do.  Across the way Luke and her mother were cutting the cake, toasting each other, smiling for the camera.  It was hard not to think all the thoughts that came at these moments.  How long?  What next?  When?  Why?  How?

 

Only the details were lacking in how the whole thing would end.  Dread began its slow creep into her spirit.  Her gaze fell from the happy scene in front of her that was ripping her heart out with each passing second.

 

“Would you like some punch?” Gabriel asked, leaning closer to her, clearly searching for something to do.

 

She shrugged.  “Sure.”  She followed him around the pool never allowing herself to really attach to the moment.  At the punch table, he took two small glasses and handed her one.  A sip of the tart lemonade style punch made her pucker.  “Wow.  That’s some serious punch.”

 

“Better than my coffee,” he said as he tipped his own cup up.

 

The laugh attacked her without warning.  Had she had lemonade, she would’ve spewed it all over everything.  Instead she whacked his arm.

 

His laugh joined hers as he put the cup to his lips. “What? Am I lying?”

 

She shook her head.  “No.  Your coffee is pretty awful.” Her spirit began to uncoil.

 

He tipped his cup at her.  “Like I said.”

 

The waiters now had the cake and were striding through the milling crowd serving it.  One waiter came by them.

 

Holly waved him off. “No thanks.”

 

“Me either,” Gabe said just as music filled the area.  Near the cake, Luke took his bride into his arms, and they began to dance.  Even Holly had to admit they looked happy.

 

For a moment she watched them. Then she turned to Gabriel, not wanting to put more memories of the futility of this night into her brain.  “So tell me about school.  What are you taking this semester?”

 

The question threw him for a moment.  He scratched his eyebrow with his thumb. “Oh, well I’ve got a couple of senior electives, final management classes, that kind of thing.”  He swirled the lemonade and crushed ice in the glass.  “You?”

 

“I don’t know.  I haven’t really declared a major yet.  I think I’d like to teach preschool or kindergarten, but that’s not very glamorous.”

 

Playful skepticism slid across his dark features. “Are you kidding?  I’m still in love with Miss Russo.”

 

Intrigued, she turned to him. “Who’s Miss Russo?”

 

“My kindergarten teacher of course.  Oh, man. She was the greatest ever.  Finger painting, story-telling, tag— my kind of woman.”

 

Holly laughed and pushed him good-naturedly. “You nut.”

 

“What?  I’m serious. She was awesome.”

 

She knew he was kidding, but still, it was nice to know he didn’t dismiss her dream outright.  Others at the reception began to drift out to dance.  Holly watched them, wishing but knowing he wouldn’t ask.  Anchoring her arm across her body, she took another sip. They were here as friends.  Friends.  That was it. She turned slightly away from him to watch the others.

 

It was a beautiful night.  The sky had faded to soft navy, and there was only a hint of a breeze drifting through the festivities.  It would’ve been absolutely perfect had it been just the two of them and the possibility of being together for real in their grasp.

 

Moments and more moments piled up.  Then suddenly, Gabriel turned to her.  Without really asking, he took her glass from her hand and set it on the table with his.  Then he turned back to her.

 

“Holly?”  He put out his hand.

 

Butterflies jumped to life in her stomach. “Yes?”

 

His green eyes glinted with amusement.  “May I have this dance?”

 

Never would she ever have even had the guts to pray for this.  Carefully she laid her hand in his. “I’d be honored.”

 

He led her a few steps away from the table and turned gallantly. His hand on the small of her back was warm and gentle, pulling her to him.  She put her arm up to his shoulder, and at first told herself she needed to keep her distance.  With no effort his movement started hers.  Her gaze slipped to his, and everything else vanished.  The music moved through them, over them, around them, caressing them in its softness.

 

The admonitions in her vanished as he pulled her ever closer.  Her breathing fell through her heart as she suddenly found herself in the only space she’d ever truly wanted to occupy.  Knowing it was a dream but wanting only to hold onto it forever, she closed her eyes and melted into him.  The feel of him holding her, guiding her as if she had to do nothing other than follow was incredible.

 

Slowly she let go of everything—the hurt, the concern, the past, the future.  The present, this present, being in his arms was enough to anchor her to this one moment.  Gratitude for everything he had done for her flowed through her spirit.  The talks, the prayers, all of it. She wanted to tell him, to thank him, but how could she?  How could she ever put it all into words?

 

The night wrapped around them as the emotion of how utterly perfect this was and how much she wanted it never to end jammed into her throat.  How she’d even gotten lucky enough to spend even one magical summer with him was beyond her.  The lights relinquished their hold on them as they swayed from the lights of poolside to under the roof overhang.  That was okay.  She didn’t want to be front-and-center anyway.  This was about them, not everyone else.  For this one blessed moment they were together, and nothing else in the whole world mattered.

 

At that moment, his lips brushed her shoulder, warm and soft.  Her insides jumped at the feeling. It should have scared her, shocked her, made her want to flee.  However, not one of those things was anywhere in her.  Instead she wanted only to give her whole life, her whole self to him.  He wouldn’t hurt her.  She knew that to the depths of who she was, and so knowing her body wasn’t in jeopardy, her spirit had the freedom to say no or yes.  And the answer in every part of her was yes.  Not kind of yes or maybe yes, but please yes.

 

His hand on her back and his other wrapped over her hand tightened. She had known about her attraction for him for some time, but somehow she had convinced herself the feeling wasn’t mutual.  But with him holding her like this, it was impossible to hang onto that illusion.

 

She pulled back slightly, wanting to see in his eyes what she felt him saying with the rest of him.  His gaze met hers, and suddenly she was falling through the forever she found there.  The way he was looking at her… It wasn’t so much desire as love that she saw, and it pushed unfettered hope all the way to the top of her heart.

 

His eyes fell closed as the magnet of his lips pulled her toward him and him toward her.  A breath melted the last bridge between them as she willed his lips to hers.

 

“Gabriel.  Gabriel Cabrelos. Is Gabriel out here?” The high-pitched, anxiety-laden voice split through the moment, sending them both careening backward.

 

Holly backed up so fast, she almost lost her balance.  Dazed, Gabriel stepped back too, shaking his head and only barely managing to keep his arm around her. He ran his thumb under his bottom lip although there was no way lipstick was there as it had never actually touched hers.

 

Just then, true panic sliced through his eyes as Rosa, the maid, came racing up through the crowd which turned with her approach to see what the commotion was about.  “Gabriel! Gabriel. Oh, I’m so glad I found you.”  She was winded to the point of breathless.

 

Unnerved concern went through his eyes.  His hand dropped from Holly and reached out to the older woman. “Rosa, calm down.  What is it?  What’s the matter?”

 

“It’s…”  She gasped the air in.  “It’s your father, Gabriel.  Another heart attack.”

 

The entire world cracked like a shot around Holly.

 

“What?” Gabriel’s panic transferred directly to her.  “When?  Where are they? Is Mama all right?”

 

“Yes, your mother’s with him.  She called.  They came and got him in the ambulance.”  Fear and compassion met in the center of the small lady’s voice.  “They’re on the way to the hospital right now.”

 

This was bad, Holly knew it.  She looked to Gabriel for an indication of what came next.

 

“Okay.” He nodded, formulating a plan. “Then I’ll meet them there.  If she calls back, tell her I’m on my way.”

 

Rosa nodded, taking in the instructions.

 

Memories of his memories flashed through Holly.  She was still sorting through them when he turned to her.

 

“Holly.”  Unbelievably there was an apology in his eyes.

 

Determination flowed into her and right through her voice. “I’m going with you.”

 

His gaze snapped to the all others standing around looking at them.  “No, you don’t have to.  You should stay.”

 

However, no was not an answer.  She laced her hand through his.  “No. I’m going with you.”

 

He probably would have argued had there been time, but there wasn’t.  Finally he half-shook, half-nodded.  “Fine.”

 

Together they started toward the doors pushing through those looking on with curiosity.  Just as they got to the doors, Luke and her mother broke through the crowd.

 

“Where do you think you’re going?” her mother asked with hate twining the question.

 

“Is there a problem?” Luke asked right over the top of her.

 

“It’s my dad.”  Gabriel looked like a trapped animal as his glance took in each of them in turn.  “He’s had another heart attack.”

 

Her mother scoffed at the statement, and Holly’s fist curled at her side.

 

“That doesn’t mean you have to go, Holly,” her mother said.  It was more of a demand than a request.

 

“I’m going,” she said simply, and she tightened her grip on his hand.

 

“Of course.  Of course, you should go.” Luke stepped back and put his arm around her mother.  “Let us know if there’s anything we can do.”

 

Gabriel bowed.  “Thank you, Sir.”

 

Holly heard the emotion crack into Gabriel’s voice, and her gaze went to him with concern.  She put the hand that wasn’t in his to his shoulder.  “Come on.  We need to get there.”

 

It was at that moment that Holly felt the support role shift from him to her.  He had been there at her worst moment, and now it was he that was losing the battle to stay rational and in control.  With a breath she accepted the responsibility for somehow getting him from here to the other side.  “We’ll let you know as soon as we know something.”  And then she turned him through the doors.

***

The whole night had been surreal.  From seeing her for the first time to holding her in his arms, dancing to a rhythm they both felt, it had all seemed like a dream.  But suddenly here he was, not in a dream but a nightmare.  At the pickup Gabe watched her race to her side and get in.  There was something about that, her getting into his beat up pickup looking like a movie star who should be walking down a red carpet, that felt so wrong.

 

In the pickup himself, he fought to get rational into him.  “You really don’t have to go with me.”  He started the pickup but didn’t back out.  “I hate to drag you away.”

 

Firm resolve shown in her eyes.  “I’m going.”

 

He wanted to argue.  At least most of him did.  She didn’t have to shift her life around because his had tilted.  She didn’t have to drop everything to go with him.  But there was a part of him that clung to her being right there at his side.  As much strength as he was afraid this could take, it was comforting to know she was there to lean on.  He put the pickup in reverse and backed out carefully.  Weaving in and out of the other cars, he took his mind off her and concentrated on doing what had to be done.

 

As they got to the highway, his mind went through every scenario of what might have happened.  He said a soft prayer for his mother to hold up until he could get there.  Thoughts raced over thoughts and began overtaking sanity.  He should’ve been there. He should’ve stayed home.  He never should have…

 

At that moment the soft, smooth hand that had held his so many times in his dreams drifted over his on the steering wheel.  Emotion overran his heart as he clutched onto her and glanced toward her.

 

She held his hand, not saying anything, but just to let him know she was there.  It was the single greatest act of friendship and love of his life.

Copyright Staci Stallings, 2007

Posted in A Light in the Darkness, Novels | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A Light in the Darkness, Ch. 11 & 12

Chapter 11

 

“Morning,” Holly said, plopping down beside him on the walk.

 

Gabe glanced up. “Morning.”  But his gaze held on her and fell into concern.  “Long night?”

 

Dropping the side of her head into her hand, she yawned. “I shouldn’t have started that book.  It kind of freaked me out.  I didn’t get much sleep.”

 

He turned sheepish eyes on her.  “Oh, yeah, sorry.  I didn’t think about that.”

 

She shook her head and yawned again.  “Not your fault.  I just… I’ve never thought about life like that, you know?  With the demons trying to get into our lives and the warring angels being on the case if we pray.  It’s kind of woo-hoo, out there.”  She didn’t mean to mock it, but that’s the way it came out.

 

He shrugged and went back to weeding.  “It’s not for everybody.”

 

“No,” she said, quickly, realizing her mistake.  Her head came up, but she yawned again. “I mean, I get it. And I even believe it.  Maybe that’s the problem.”

 

Less defensive, he sat back, examining the bed.  “How so?”

 

Hoping that physical activity would wake her up, Holly took up her position on the fire bush next to him.  “Well, I got in bed last night, and it was like I could see the demons, feel them sitting there in the darkness waiting to get me, you know?”  She shivered.  “It was weird.”

 

He was still watching her. “Did you pray?”

 

Her heart dropped through the suggestion.  Praying was so easy for him, second nature in fact.  For her it was last resort at best, and fake and useless at worse.  “I don’t think God would care to save me anyway.  After all, I invited them in.  It’s up to me to get rid of them.”

 

Gabe shook his head vehemently as he looked at her.  “Man, you’re sunk if you believe that.”

 

Dread traced over her, but she beat it back.  It was the truth.  If even he didn’t think she could do it, what was the chance that she could?  “Why’s that?”

 

“Look, there are some things you just can’t do on your own.  Saving your soul and banishing demons are two of them.”

 

She tore at the weeds as fear crept over her.  Somehow she had thought he might know the way out of her life.  If he didn’t and she couldn’t do it anyway, what hope was there? The grass under the knees of her jeans was wet and cold.  It seeped into the cloth in neat circles.  “I think my soul’s pretty much already a lost cause, so I guess I don’t have much shot at getting the demons to leave either.”

 

“On your own, no.  But you don’t have to fight that battle on your own.”

 

“I know. I know.  The angel thing, but seriously I don’t think they want to help me.”  She pushed a strand of hair back that had fallen out of the ponytail.

 

Suddenly he was beside her, gently pulling her out of the bush.  She let him because she was tired of fighting a battle she was sure to lose.  When she was sitting on the grass, her gaze glued to the green grass under her legs.

 

“Now, you listen to me,” he said, his voice filled with intensity.  “Don’t sell yourself out like that.  You deserve better.”

 

Helplessness drifted through her spirit.  She shook her head. “I think it’s too late for me.”

 

“It’s never too late, Holly.  God is all about giving you a fresh start especially when you don’t deserve it.  He’s done that for every single person who’s ever given their lives to Him.  He doesn’t require you to be perfect.  All He asks is that you trust Him and let Him help you.”

 

She looked up at him, tears clinging to her heart and lashes.  “But what if He can’t?  What if I’ve done things…”  Her gaze dropped on the weight of every sin of her past.  They pressed down on her, bowing her shoulders under their load.

 

“That’s just it,” he said softly.  “We’ve all done things.  Stupid things.  Things we can never, ever take back.  But it’s not about those things.  It’s about Him.  It’s not about the things you’ve done—good or bad.  It’s about Him and what He did for you.  He hung on a cross and shed His blood so that you didn’t have to beat yourself up over this stuff.”

 

“But it’s so big.”

 

“Not bigger than Him.  Look, you’re trying to do this yourself because you think you have to, but it’s not true.  Look at it this way.” He sat back, taking his hands with him.  The chill they left drove through her whole spirit.  “Let’s say that you want a garden like this one.  And let’s say you happen to know about a master gardener, someone who’s been doing gardens for years—beautiful, extraordinary gardens.  Everyone you know says he does the most amazing gardens they’ve ever seen. You’ve even seen a few of them, and they are just the kind of garden you want.  Now, you’ve got three options.

 

“First, you can go out, get a bunch of seeds and bulbs, read all the gardening magazines you can find, start planting and watering, and hope it turns out.  Unfortunately you didn’t get the kind of tulip bulbs that bloom well here.  The guy sold you some with mildew on them, and most of them will never even sprout, but you bought them because you didn’t know any better.  Worse, he gave you seeds for plants that need pollination without giving you the plants that pollinate them.  You’ve got herbs that stink, and flowers that aren’t much better.  Unfortunately, you didn’t know the difference when you bought them.  So you start planting and watering and pretty soon you have a big mess instead of the garden that you really wanted.  But you know what? You did it yourself, so it’s up to you to fix.  Right?

 

“Or, let’s say you know this master gardener pretty well.  He’s a friend, but you don’t want to impose.  So you go out and buy all this stuff—hoes, rakes, maybe a tiller.  You call the master gardener to get his suggestions for plants and a reputable place to buy them.  Then you push up your sleeves and get to work.  Of course, you don’t really know what you’re doing, and you plant everything way too close, giving nothing room to grow.  Worse, you’ve now got some plants that like shade planted in full sun, and some that don’t need much water planted right next to ones that would grow well in a pond.  Now you called the master gardener for his advice, but you don’t want to trouble him too much, so you try to fix as much as you can on your own.  But it’s still pretty much a mess that you don’t really know how to fix.  True, you did it mostly by yourself, but it’s not much to be proud of, and you know when people look at it, they’re going to see all the flaws.  That’s your second option—expensive, time-consuming, difficult, and not really producing the results you want.”

 

Gabriel’s eyes narrowed, and Holly had the feeling that they might laser holes right through her so all the yuck would spill out.  Still, she couldn’t look away.  It was as if her whole life had suddenly focused into this one moment, sitting on cold, wet grass, listening to a story about a master gardener and a garden that needed a lot of help.

 

“Your third option.”  A glint broke through Gabriel’s dark eyes as a knowing smile played across his lips.  “Is to ask the master gardener to just do the garden for you.  Top to bottom.  Whatever He wants to do, do it because you know… you know He knows what’s best.  You know you don’t have a clue, so you just get out of the way and let Him work.  Give it all to Him, and say, ‘Plant what You want where You want it.’  I trust You.”

 

“But you’d have to pay him,” she protested.  “What if I don’t have enough money?”

 

Gabriel shook his head.  “All He wants is the chance to work your garden.  He wants to so badly that He’s already purchased the land it sits on with His own blood.  He’s carefully assembled every tool, seed, and bulb He will ever need, just hoping that you’d give Him the chance to put in this garden of yours.  He’s got it planned down to the last gladiola, and it will be magnificent.  All you have to do is give Him permission and let Him get to work.”

 

Her heart wanted so much to enter that garden he was talking about—the one that had been planned and could be wonderful.  She wanted it, but she had no idea how to get it.  “But how do you do that?  How do you give Him permission?”

 

Slowly Gabriel slid across the grass to her and took her hands in his.  “Just say this.”

 

Her gaze locked on his, trusting as if she was stepping off the steep side of a cliff with no guarantee anything would hold her up.

 

“Dear Jesus,” he said softly.

 

She closed her eyes, feeling the words as much as saying them.  “Dear Jesus.”

 

“I give my life to You.”

 

“I give my life to You.”

 

“I give You those things I have done well and those times I’ve really messed up.”

 

“I give You those things I have done well and those times I’ve really messed up.” Tears began trickling out her eyelids and running down her cheeks.  It was as if she was handing her heart to Jesus, touching Him through space and time.

 

“I give You my garden because I want it to shine with the spectacular beauty You have been planning for all of eternity.”

 

“I give You my garden.”  She had to take a breath.  Life was closer than it had ever been before.  “I want it to shine with the beauty You have planned for it for all eternity.”

 

“I want You as my Savior.  I need You as my Savior.”

 

The words wouldn’t come.  Tears and only more tears flooded over the top of them.  The harder she fought the more she was gasping.

 

“Satan,” Gabriel suddenly said harshly, “You and your demons are hereby banished from this garden.  Get away by the Blood of Jesus Christ.  Immediately.”

 

The whoosh from her body was almost physical.  It was like a breath and yet not.

 

“Breathe,” Gabriel said softly.  “Just breathe.”

 

She did, taking in the fresh morning air that was warming with the arrival of the sun.  Finally she nodded the understanding that she could continue.

 

“I want You, Jesus,” he said.  “I want You as my Savior.  Come into my life. I open it to You.”

 

“I want You, Jesus.”  Suddenly her words were strong and clear.  “I want You as my Savior and none other.  Come into my life.  I give it all to You—the good, the bad, all of it.  Wreck the garden if You have to start over.  Do whatever You need to.  I trust You.  I open my life, my garden to You.  From this moment on, it’s Yours.  All of it.  I’m tired of planting and watering and coming up with trash.  You can do it so much better than me.  I trust You.  Just do it.”

 

When her words stopped, Gabriel waited another moment.  “Amen.”

 

A breeze of full-blown peace settled into her.  It would be all right.  That much she knew.  With a nod to the unseen Lord she’d just given her life to, she opened her eyes.

 

His eyes, concerned yet hopeful gazed back.  Holly brushed the tears from her cheeks.

 

“You okay?” he asked.

 

She nodded and smiled.  “Yeah.  I am.”

 

The moment stretched for two, and then he backed up.  He looked at his watch. “I’d better get.  Dad’s going to be wondering where I am.”

 

“Yeah,” she said, still trying to gather herself together.  “I’d better get too.”  She scrambled to her feet and watched him do the same.  Tucking her hands in her back pockets, she knew somehow she had to put her gratefulness into words.  “Thanks, Gabriel.”

 

“Hey, don’t thank me.”  The playful wink traipsed through her.  “Thank Him.”  He pointed up, smiled, then swiped the pathetically small pile of weeds from the walk.  Today’s work had pulled a different kind of weed up.  “Have a great day.  K?”

 

“You too.”  She felt like she might lift right off the walk and float away.  It wasn’t planned.  In fact, she hardly had time to know she was going to do anything, but impulsively she tip-toed toward him and pecked the side of his cheek.  Then she bounced backward and winked at him.  “See you later.”

***

Stunned.  It was the only word that came even vaguely close.  Gabe stood on the walk, watching her ponytail swing as she hopped down the walk.  It was weird how light she looked.  There was a part of him that said he must be imagining things, but still, it was so obvious.

 

He looked up at the sky.  “God, You have a weird sense of humor. You know that?”  With a shake of his head, he went to start his day.

***

The earth had no hold on her.  That much Holly knew because she could feel it.  Humming just because it felt good to, she sat at her computer typing the letter Luke had given her.  He walked in to look through the file drawer.  A moment and he stopped his search.

 

He turned his gaze to her. “You seem happy.”

 

“That’s because I am.  I so am.”  How could one body contain so much joy, she had no idea.  “This letter is ready.  Do you want to read it over?”

 

“Already? Sure print it out.”  He went back to the file cabinet.  “Do you know where the production costs from last year are?  I know they’re on the computer, but I was thinking…”

 

Holly stood as the printer started.  “Yeah, I filed all the accounting things in the second drawer down.”  She stepped between him and the cabinet.  A shadow of fear slid over her, but with a breath she batted it away.  “Here they are.”  She turned and handed him the file.

 

He looked at it and nodded.  The printer finished, and she picked up the letter.

 

“And here’s this.”

 

He took it as well, perused it, and shook his head.  “Amazing.  What did I ever do without you?”  His smile made her spirit once again take flight.  There was pride there and genuine admiration.  “It’s too bad you’re going to Paris next week.  I’m going to be lost without you.”

 

Holly took that statement in, breathed through it, and knew.  “I’m not going to Paris.”

 

He stopped. “You’re… not?  Why not?”

 

She sat down at her desk as determination flowed through every fiber of her.  “Well, first of all, I have a job to think about.  Second of all, I hate flying.  Third of all, my life is here not in Paris.”

 

Slowly he backed up to the little chair which he more leaned against.  He tilted his head to look at her.  “Does your mother know about this?”

 

Again she had to breathe as she shook her head.  “Not yet.”

***

“Are you out of your mind?” her mother hissed.

 

It wouldn’t have surprised Holly in the least had her mother yelled it.  Her mother’s motto had always been ‘do as I say or else,’ and Holly was about to find out what or else meant.  Her mother stood from the little couch in the sitting room, walked regally to the sliding doors, and quietly slid them closed.

 

“Now, what’s this all about?”  She turned from the doors and folded her arms over themselves. “You can’t be serious about not going. It’s Paris, Holly.  Paris.  When are you going to get another chance like this?”

 

She shrugged. “If I do, it’ll be right.  If I don’t, that’s okay, too.”

 

Her mother’s gaze bored into her, searching for either an answer or a weakness. Suddenly she relaxed.  “Does this have to do with Jean Paul? Oh, honey.  He’ll still be here when you get back.”

 

Man, how easy it would’ve been to use that excuse.

 

Squaring her shoulders, Holly sat up straight. “No, Mom.  This is about me. It’s about what I want, and what I want is to stay here and work.”

 

The word hovered in the air.

 

“Work?  What work?”  The arms uncoiled.  The scowl deepened. “I thought we talked about this. You’re not working this summer.”

 

Holly gathered all her wits. She would need them.  “Yes, I am, Mom.  I have been for a week. Luke asked me to fill in for his secretary, and…”

 

The look of pure hate in her mother’s eyes struck terror into the center of her.  It was the piece of information she had kept silent as long as possible.

 

“Why you little…”  Her mother clutched the edge of the chair back.

 

Not backing down, Holly breathed a silent though stumbling prayer.

 

“I cannot believe you would go behind my back like that.”

 

“I didn’t, Mom.  Honest.  We were just talking, and I mentioned I had wanted a job.  One thing led to another…”

 

“One thing led to another.”  The words were spiteful.  “Where have I heard that before?”

 

Guilt and shame slapped into her as heat crept up into her face.  “It’s not like that.  Luke’s not like that.”

 

“Get real, Holly.  They’re all like that.”

 

Strange.  For the first time, Holly recognized the eyes.  They were not her mother’s—not really.  They were straight out of hell.  The recognition flashed through her.  “No, Mom.  They’re not.”

 

“Oh, yeah.  You’re a great judge of character.  Look at you.  You little tramp.  All dressed up to be a secretary.”  It sounded like being equated with a pole dancer.  Her mother shook her head and dropped her gaze.  “I should’ve known letting you come out here was a mistake.”

 

“Letting me come out here?” The words flew out of her wrapped in utter disbelief.  “You made me come out here.  Remember? I wanted to stay in Boston, but no…  I had to come out here so you could show me off to your new fiancé.  Well, you know what, Mom?  I’m not your trophy, and I’m not you.”

 

“You are not going to be his secretary.”

 

“Why not?”

 

“Why not?”  The hate tilted dangerously.  “You’re going to stand there and ask me that question?  I don’t believe this.  I don’t.”  She turned to the cold fireplace.  When her voice came again it was dripping with venom.  “I am one month away from my wedding, and I’m not going to let some little, home wrecking tripe ruin this for me.”

 

The arrows found their marks, but instead of tears, they brought only more determination.  Holly pulled herself full up, steadying her nerves.  “Maybe I should’ve stayed in Boston, but I’m here now.  And I’m not quitting.  I like this job, and I’m good at it.  For once, I feel like I’m worth something.  Luke is a nice guy.  He’s not like…” The name stuck in her throat.  “He’s a nice guy.  And you should learn to trust him.  After all, he’s going to be your husband.  Isn’t he?”

 

“Oh, no, ho, ho.  Don’t even… I do trust Luke.”  Her mother pointed a long, slim finger at her.  “Don’t try to play that game with me, young lady.  I wrote that game.  Now you listen to me.  Tonight at dinner, you are going to tell Luke that you appreciate the offer but that the job is just not working out for you.”

 

Holly moved to protest.

 

“And then you are going to quit.  End of discussion.”

***

Sitting at the desk in her room, Holly put her hands together and then let them hold up her head, which she laid on her knuckles.  “God, I told You about my garden.  But you know there are vipers and poison ivy growing everywhere.  You know them better than I do.  Please, please, do something about this mess.  I give it to You—all of it because I don’t know what to do about it anymore.”

 

She thought about telling Him how much the job meant, about how much she didn’t want to go to Paris, but it didn’t seem necessary.  He knew.  She felt how clearly He did.

 

Having no idea why peace would be anywhere around, she lifted her head.  “Thanks, God.”

 

He’d heard.  The next step was up to Him.

***

They’d been seated at the table barely a minute.  Holly kept her gaze down. Tension filled every molecule of the room.

 

“You know, Linda,” Luke said, cutting into his steak.  “You’ve raised one remarkable daughter.”

 

Holly wasn’t sure which gaze snapped to him the fastest.  She smiled gratefully and let hers fall back to her plate.

 

“Oh?  How so?”  Ice encapsulated the statement.

 

“She’s gotten the files more organized than they’ve been since I’ve gotten here.  The expense reports are up-to-date, and I haven’t missed a meeting in a week.”

 

The battle to stay mad at her daughter while fawning over every word Luke said was taxing her mother’s facial muscles.  “Oh, really?  Well, that’s wonderful.”

 

Strange how that word could have two separate meanings simultaneously.

 

“I’m sure glad she’s decided not to go to Paris even though I know how much she wanted to go on the trip of a lifetime.”  Luke raised his glass to his lips and took a drink.  “Kids don’t learn that kind of work ethic just anywhere.  She must have gotten it from you.”

 

Holly was cutting and eating as if nothing at all was being discussed.  If she had wanted to look up, she couldn’t have.

 

“Oh, well, thank you.” Her mother laid her knife down and forked into the steak. “I’m sure she’s learned a lot of things from me.”  There was a razor-sharp edge to the statement that Luke somehow missed.

 

“Yes, she must’ve.  She’s polite and businesslike with all of the clients.  I’ve been very impressed with everything she’s done.”

 

Her mother absorbed that in silence for a long moment.  Then she cut off a piece of steak.  “Well, it doesn’t matter anyway.  I’ve decided not to go to Paris after all.”

 

That yanked Holly’s gaze up.  Her mother smiled sweetly at her and then at Luke.

 

“I just realized our wedding’s in less than a month, and there’s so much to do here.  I can’t be traipsing around Europe for weeks at a time.  I need to be here to keep an eye on things and make sure nothing goes awry.”

 

“Oh,” Luke said, sounding genuinely happy.  “Well, wonderful.  Then it’s settled.”

***

Three minutes after she’d shut her door for the night, Holly grabbed the little backpack she had from college, threw the book in it and escaped into the night.  She should’ve asked him, but if he wasn’t there, she could always come back.  This night held no chill only a slivery moon lighting her path.

 

Her thoughts bounced from the day’s events to the book in her backpack.  She couldn’t wait to find out more of what happened.  When she pulled the heavy door open, her heart surged.  The light was on.

 

“Hey, Gabriel?  You here?”

 

“Yep.  I’m up here.”  And so he was, standing at the railing.  There was no way to explain what that did to her heart.

 

On the tips of her toes and her heart pulling her forward, she climbed the stairs.

 

“I thought you weren’t coming,” he said.

 

“And miss all this?”  She held her hands out to indicate the sparse loft.  “No way.”  Peace once again drifted through her as she sat on the couch.  “So, how was your day?”

 

He collapsed on the other side.  The stubble had gotten darker since the garden, and he really looked tired. “Ugh.  Don’t ask.  My dad is as stubborn as a mule.  He’s going to kill himself trying to make everyone happy.”  Gabriel leaned his head back on the couch and ran his fingers over his eyes.  “This wedding may kill us all.”  He froze.  Then he sat up uncomfortably.  “Oh, I’m sorry.  I forgot…”

 

Holly held up her hand to stop him.  “Hey, you don’t have to apologize to me.  Believe me, I know.”  She nodded, wishing her mother was going to Paris for Gabriel’s father’s sake if nothing else.  Tilting her head, she gazed at him. “Have you prayed about it?”  She’d seen it work once that evening.

 

He fell into seriousness as he shook his head. “Well, kind of, but I don’t even know what to pray for anymore.  At first I prayed that he’d live and be all right, and now I’m trying not to pray that he won’t be so all right so he’ll quit scaring my mother to death by insisting on working.  I don’t know.”  He looked more scattered and uncertain than she’d ever seen him.

 

Worry traced through her. “This isn’t you, Gabriel.  You’re the one who taught me about trusting.”  Her gaze searched his strained features.  “What’s really going on?”

***

This was impossible. How could he tell her what her presence did to him?  How off-kilter he felt every time she showed up—or didn’t?  Yes, his father was an issue.  Yes, the wedding and her mother were not helping.  Those things weighed on his heart and soul, but he sensed that he could’ve handled them had it not been for her complicating everything all the way to his core.

 

“Isn’t God bigger than your dad’s illness?” she asked softly, using his own words against him.  “Can’t He handle this too?”

 

He didn’t want to answer. “Yeah.”

 

“Then why haven’t you given it to Him for real?”

 

Although she was talking about his father, he was talking about her when he looked over at her.  “Because I’m scared of what happens either way.”

 

She nodded.  The knowing in her eyes drilled into him.  “Then maybe you don’t need a big miracle.  Maybe you’re overlooking the little ones.”

 

When had she suddenly become the teacher?  He laced his fingers together as his elbows leaned on his knees. “Like what?”

 

“Well, like being able to work with your dad right now.  Most people never get the chance to know their dads the way you’re getting to.  Most people never have the chance to have the kind of memories you’re making with him.  Those are priceless, you know.  And once they’re gone, you’ll never get that chance again.  So be grateful to be there… with him.  Love him right now, and let God take care of the rest.”

 

“I really can’t imagine life without him,” Gabe said, his true feelings about his dad crashing to the surface.  “He’s so strong about everything.  He always has been, but now… I see how he gets winded doing simple things.  I see the times he stops and puts his hand to the wall to rest, and I wonder… I just think… What if this is it?  What if he falls over this time, and that’s it?”

 

Softness caressed her face.  “Tell me about the first time.  The first heart attack.  Where you there?”

 

For the span of a small eternity he couldn’t answer.  The images were still too fresh. “We were refinishing the gazebo.  It used to be white.”  He shook his head.  “It was peeling and awful.  Dad had just climbed up the ladder.  It was really hot that day, and we were way behind schedule on the thing. We were all out there busting our butts to get it done.  Why he was doing the high work…”  He closed his eyes and then yanked them open, afraid to go too deep into the memories.  “I don’t really know who saw him first, me or Tim.  I looked up, and I remember asking him what was wrong. Then he looked down at me.” The breaths fought to get out. “I’ll never forget that look.  It was like, ‘Help me.’  And then he fell.  Just toppled right off the ladder.  The ladder went one way, and he went the other.  And then he was on the ground.”

 

Memories he hadn’t let himself remember surged through him.  “It all happened so fast.  I ran over to him, and he was in so much pain.  I was begging him not to leave, begging him to stay with me, to fight.  Then the ambulance came, and they took him away.  I just kept thinking, ‘I should’ve known. I should’ve done something. He shouldn’t have been up there. I should’ve known.’”

 

Then as if she belonged nowhere else, Holly was at his side.  Soft as an angel’s wings, her arms came around him, and he grabbed onto her.  Fear and helplessness from that day came out of him in gushes.

 

“I didn’t want to lose him.  I don’t know what I’d do if he was just gone.”

 

Her fingers brushed over Gabe’s hair as she cradled him to her.  “It wasn’t your fault.”

 

But that’s not what it felt like. “He’s always been so strong.  He could break a board with his bare hands.  Now, he just seems so… old.”

 

“Old isn’t a bad thing.  It reminds us to cherish the time we have.”

 

She held him until the emotion subsided, leaving him unbelievably tired.  He leaned back on the couch, her hand still on his thigh.  She was gazing at him, not eight inches away.

 

After a moment he laid his head to the side. “How’d you get so smart?”

 

Her smile was soft and concerned.  “I had a good teacher.”  The smile fell.  “Do you want to pray?”

 

The idea knifed into him.  He didn’t know what to pray for; however, in exhaustion he nodded.

 

Gently Holly took his hand in hers.  He wished he’d had time to put a bucket of lotion on it because compared with hers it was like sandpaper.  However, she didn’t seem to notice.  “I’m not very good at this, but…”  She closed her eyes, and because fascination gripped him, Gabe couldn’t get his to close.  “Dear Jesus, we know that You know what’s best here.  Give Gabriel peace and wisdom to meet the coming challenges.”

 

Finally his eyes closed too.  To feel her touch, hear her words, that was enough.

 

“Be with Gabriel’s dad and mom.  Help them to make good decisions.  Help them to seek You each moment, so that no matter where this journey takes them, they end up with You.  Please bless, Gabriel, dear Lord.  He’s very special to me as You well know.  Give Him peace, dear God.  Just give Him peace.  Amen.”

 

When she finished, he couldn’t help himself.  He leaned toward her and wrapped her into his arms, pulling her to his chest.  He’d never felt closer to anyone in his life.

***

It was late once again when Holly made it back up to her room.  This time she didn’t bother to read.  She simply slipped between the sheets and let herself remember what it was like to be in his arms.  There was no describing the warmth and safety of those arms. Closing her eyes, she breathed. “God, keep him safe for me.”

 

Demons and angels from the day battled for her remaining moments awake.  Her mother.  Luke.  The memories—hers and Gabriel’s.  And what it was to sit on wet grass and give her heart to God.  The shadows in the room retreated at that thought.  “God, whatever happens, just show me what to do.  This is Your garden now.”

***

Their morning sojourn together the next day sent Gabriel’s spirits soaring.  It had always been an incredible way to start the morning, but now to have her there with the promise of seeing her again in the evening was just too much momentum for his heart to hide.

 

He strode into the work shop and tossed the weeds into the trash.  If only he could convince his brain that this could last, he might have broken into actual song.  As it was, he settled for turning on the radio.  Liking the beat he did a little mock-samba on the way to the office desk.  The schedule for the day.  Did it really matter?  Whatever it was would be great beyond belief with the likelihood of seeing her at the carriage house later.

 

The schedule in hand, he sat down at the desk.  The pool needed attention.  They hadn’t gotten to it yesterday.  He would see to that one himself.

 

“Morning, boss,” Darius said, walking in and over to the coffee pot.  “What’s on tap for today?”

 

“I need you and Tim to head out to the bluff and get it mowed and weeded.  I’m going to tackle the pool.”

 

Darius raised his eyebrows.  “Taking your life in your hands, I see?”

 

“She’s not that bad.”  Gabe defending the Ice Queen? Who would’ve thought?  Movement at the door yanked his attention up.  “Morning, Dad.”  He pushed from the desk.  “You want your chair?”

 

“No. No.” His father, a mountain in a tan work shirt, waved him off.  “I’m just looking for some WD-40 for that cabana door.  It’s squeaking again.”  He pushed his straw hat backward and opened the cabinet.

 

Gabe’s eyes narrowed.  “Did they send a work order?”

 

His father held up the little cell phone that he had taken back the moment he got to the job.  “Imperative it is fixed immediately.  You know the drill.”

 

Yes, he did, very well.  Gabe stood, leaving the schedule.  He held out his hand for the blue and yellow can his father had pulled off the shelf.  “I’m headed that way anyway.  Why don’t you let me get it?”

 

For the span of a blink the world froze.  His father looked at him and then as if passing the torch to his son, he held out the can.  “Don’t forget the…”

 

“Knob.  I know, Dad.”

 

Slowly his father nodded, tired in his eyes although it was barely eight o’clock.  “Yes.  You do.”

***

It was crazy to think he might see her, but nothing could stop Gabe from hoping.  Being this close to the house, it was a possibility although most likely she was chained to a desk impressing everyone.  He smiled at the thought.  He was glad the job was working out.

 

Lifting the latch, he let himself through the back gate and into the backyard.  He’d only gone another three steps when an angry voice stopped him in mid-step.

 

“I’m telling you, he is serious about her working for him, and nothing I say makes any difference.”  It was the Ice Queen, poolside.  Well, so much for pool duties; however, the lack of a second voice made Gabe curious.  Carefully he peered through the thin spikes of the large fern at the corner.  No wonder.  She was on the phone, lounging on one of the long chairs.

 

He started to turn and leave.  There was no reason to get into that caldron if he didn’t have to.

 

“The little tramp.  I should’ve put her on the first plane back to Boston when I found out.”

 

Boston?  The word stopped him cold.  His gaze narrowed with concern, and he turned back slightly. He shouldn’t listen.  Really he shouldn’t, but he just couldn’t get his feet to move.

 

“Oh, you know Holly, playing the innocent card like she created it.  Then she acts like Paris is akin to hell.  No, she doesn’t want to go.  She wants to stay here.  Like she’s fooling anybody with that act.”

 

Paris?  The world tour swam through his head.

 

“My only hope is Luke’s nephew, Jean Paul.  He’s a real hottie, you know.  25, Armani and Dom Perignon. ‘ course he’s a nice kid, which lessens my chance of this working out, and he lives all the way down in San Francisco.”  There was a pause. “Are you kidding? If he was here, I have her married off already.”  Her laugh froze Gabe’s blood.  “Yeah, no lie.  That would solve a lot of problems.  Yeah.  Well, I just wanted to tell you why I’m going to be hanging around the mansion a lot more.  I don’t trust her for a minute.”  She listened.  “Yeah.  Okay.  I’ll see you for the shower next Saturday.  Take care.  You too.”

 

The beep signaled the end of the conversation.  She dropped the phone to the little table and put her head back to the warmth of the bright sunshine.

 

The world slammed to a stop. Now what?  She could well be there for hours, and he really needed to get the cabana door fixed lest she call his father again.  But how?  If he walked up now, she would know he’d been standing there.  Carefully, quietly he stepped back to the gate, lifted the latch, and shut it loudly.  He walked in as if not realizing she was there.

 

However, halfway around the pool, he felt the ice of her stare.  “Must you do that now?  I’m trying to get some sun.”

 

He played the innocent card too, but it probably didn’t work too great. “Oh, I’m sorry. I promise. I won’t get in your sun.  I’m just going to fix the cabana door.”

 

“Well, it’s about time.  I called the foreman hours ago.  Is it really too much to ask that things work properly around here?”

 

Hours ago would’ve been before the sun was up, and in all probability before she was up, but Gabe held his tongue.  Fighting wouldn’t solve anything and would probably precipitate her yelling at his father again. He went to the cabana door, opened it, hearing the nearly imperceptible squeak from the bottom hinge.  His sigh went all the way through him.  In disgust he glanced over at her.  Lying there in a microscopic gold bikini, her eyes covered by gigantic sunglasses, she looked like a French fried raisin.  Who had skin that color anyway?  It was near-orange it was so dark.

 

He was sure she thought she was incredibly attractive.  The fact was, anything attractive about her was drowned out by her sheer malice for anyone and everyone she deemed inferior to her.  That most assuredly included her own daughter.  What was all that ‘not leaving her alone for a minute’ speech about anyway?  And what in the world was she so worried about?  Holly was just doing a job, and from all accounts she was doing rather well at it.

 

Then again he knew enough about Satan to know anyone who was doing a good job at anything they enjoyed needed to be put down and eliminated.  He hated to think that, but Holly’s mom had a lot of characteristics that made him pray for the cover of warring angels.  In fact, he said one more prayer just before he finished with the knob and stepped out of the cabana.

 

“Umm, Ma’am.” He walked over to her, knowing he should probably leave without mentioning it. However, it was as if either way he went, it would be wrong.  The moment he got to her chair, he swallowed hard. What was polite and proper in this situation?  “Umm, I need to clean the pool also, but I could come back later if you’d like.”

 

“Oh, for Heaven’s sakes, do you people not know the meaning of making yourself scarce?”  She stood, a position which made him equally uncomfortable.

 

He took a step backward and pasted his gaze to the concrete. “I’m sorry. I just thought…”

 

“Let me offer you a tip, okay, honey?  If someone is poolside, assume you are not welcome.  Secondly, if you would clean the pool properly in the first place, it would not need to be cleaned every other day.  And lastly, you are maintenance.  You got that?  Maintenance. You do not own the place, you fix the place.  You are to be seen and not heard, and preferably not seen at all.  Is that understood?”

 

The lashing ripped through his spirit. “Yes…”

 

“And in the future, tell the old man to stop bothering us with his yammering about the need for more help.  How much work does it take to mow a few lawns and sweep around a pool?”  She whipped her towel off the lawn chair.  “Oh, and don’t forget that back corner.  You could grow mushrooms for all the dirt over there.”

 

With that, she flounced off.

 

When the sliding door closed on her dramatic exit, Gabe pulled his eyebrows together.  “Does that mean yes, I can clean it?”  There was no answer, so he turned to get the cleaning supplies.  No wonder Holly acted like a hive of bees might sting her at any moment.  All he had to do was work for the woman.  He couldn’t imagine living with her.

 

Chapter 12

 

“Don’t mind me,” for the nine-millionth time that day her mother breezed into the office.  “I just have to talk with Luke about tonight.”

 

Holly wondered if she had ever been in there before.  Today she seemed to be nowhere else.  Burying her gaze in her computer screen, Holly continued working on the budget report for coming month.  She was working on the grounds information, which made her feel just a little closer to him.  That was always nice.

 

“Oh, Luke.  We haven’t been out of this house in months,” her mother whined in the office. “Now, I’ve made a reservation at Costa del Sol for six o’clock.  Surely it wouldn’t hurt to take off a little early just for tonight.”

 

“I really need to get these payroll tax forms taken care of.  I’ve put it off until today.  They’re due tomorrow.  I hate being behind.”

 

“Well, then get that secretary of yours to do it.  Isn’t that why you hired her?” There was no misinterpreting the dripping sarcasm.

 

“It seems a waste to teach her this when she’s only going to do it once.  It would be so much easier if I…”

 

“Luke.”  The pleading was pathetic.  “Please.  We haven’t spent an evening alone since she got here.  Please.”

 

If she could’ve closed the door, Holly would have.  Instead, she closed her eyes and took a breath.  “Don’t let her get to you.”

 

“Well…”

 

“Please.”

 

“Fine.  Costa del Sol it is.”

 

You would have thought someone won the lottery.  “Oh, Luke!  That’s fabulous.  I’ll just go up and start getting ready.  And I’ll wear that slinky little number you liked so much in Italy.”

 

The noises were embarrassing.

 

“Okay,” Luke finally said, “you’d better let me get some work done, or we’ll be staying in for the evening.”

 

“That could be fun, too.”  A squeal emanated from the room.  “Be good, Pooky Bear.  I’ll see you in a little bit.”

 

“Count on it.”

 

When her mother sauntered past Holly’s desk, she brushed her hair back with one set of bright red fingernails.  “Don’t wait up, Darling.  We could be gone for a while.”  And with that, she stuck her chin in the air and pranced out.

 

Holly wasn’t sure whose benefit that little show was for.

 

“Holly,” Luke called, “could you come in here a minute?”

 

“Oh, sure.”  She jumped up, praying she would be able to handle whatever this was going to entail.

 

“Listen, save what you’ve got on the budget.  I need to get these payroll forms in the mail this afternoon.”

 

“Okay.”

 

Launching into a set of instructions that would have made an accountant’s head spin, he laid out the steps to completing the form, ending with, “And if you get it done before I have to leave, I’d like to check it over.”

 

She accepted the papers he handed her.  “Yes, Sir.  I’ll do my best, Sir.”

 

His smile was grateful. “That’s all I ask.”

 

Holly turned to go out.

 

“Oh, and Holly?”

 

She turned back.  “Yes?”

 

“Please call me Luke.  After all, I’m going to be your stepfather in a few weeks.”

 

It would’ve been really nice if that detail hadn’t been in the equation.

 

“Yes, Sir.” She stumbled on the word. “I mean Luke.”

 

He nodded with a smile, and she went out to work on the mind-numbing payroll forms.

***

“So, what was that thing you did?” Holly asked later in the loft as she sat on the couch with Gabriel on the other side.

 

He took a bite of one of the carrots she had brought for the faux picnic set up on the coffee table.  After putting all the pieces together and realizing she’d be eating alone if she hung out at the mansion, she’d quickly formulated a plan which was so much better than eating alone.

 

Leaning back into the couch with one arm draping over it, he looked at her.  “What thing?”

 

She ducked her head, wishing his intense gaze didn’t throw her so badly.  “Umm, you know the other day in the garden.  You were like, ‘Satan, I command you to come out of her.’ Or something like that. What was that?”

 

He laughed, leaned forward, and snatched a sandwich from the table.  “Well, you know how in This Present Darkness the demons and warring angels are real, right?”

 

Holly nodded, her gaze now solely on him.  She wanted to know everything he knew.

 

“Well,” he continued, “I’ve read other books that explained how the demons must obey any command from a follower of Christ and most especially a command in which Christ is placed as the head of the demon.  There are several places in the Bible where Jesus calls out the demons, and they have to obey.  They have no choice. It’s the same concept.”

 

He finished the sandwich, dusted his hands off, and pulled his knee up onto the couch so he was talking right to her.  “I call it banishing the demons.  When you banish them, you have to do so under God’s authority because there’s also a place in the Bible where two guys tried it, and the demons said, ‘We don’t know who you are’ and turned on them and devoured them.”

 

Holly made a face. “Ew.  That sounds a little rough.”

 

Gabriel shook his head.  “Not if you know what you are doing and you have a sincere heart, a heart truly committed to Christ.  What you do, you recognize that a demon is present.  Like the other day, in the garden.  You were just about to commit your life to Christ, but you couldn’t get the words out.  It’s like in This Present Darkness when the demons are playing with people’s minds.  They prevent you to the best of their ability from turning to Christ.  They can’t stop you, but they can confuse you and make it really tough.  I just recognized that’s why you were having trouble saying the words, and I called them out.

 

“You can do it in a lot of ways.  You can speak to Satan and his minions in general, or you can speak directly to whatever demon happens to be trying to control the situation.”

 

Holly’s gaze drilled into him, wanting more.  It felt like her life hinged on it. “Show me.”

 

He sighed one small breath.  “Okay, it’s not really that hard.  You say, ‘Satan, get away by the Blood of Jesus Christ.’ That’s the basic formula, but you can do it a whole bunch of different ways depending on what the Holy Spirit gives you to say at the moment.”

 

“Like what?”

 

“Like, ‘Satan and all your minions, you must leave this place by the Name of Jesus Christ.  You are hereby cast out and down.  Be gone.’  Or you can say, ‘Fear, you are hereby cast out and commanded to go to the throne of the Most High God by the Blood of Jesus Christ to be dealt with there as He sees fit.’  They hate that one.”

 

Her gaze snagged on the small gleam in his eye. “Why’s that?”

 

“Well, I used to just send them to hell, banish them out and down.  Then I realized one day that was too good for them.  They deserve to have to go stand before the throne of their enemy and let Jesus or God deal with them.”

 

She nodded in concentration.  “That reminds me.  You say, ‘Jesus.’ And you say, ‘God.’ And sometimes you say, ‘Holy…’”

 

“Spirit.”

 

“Right.  What’s up with all three of them? I thought there was only one.”

 

Gabriel considered the question.  “Well, there’s God the Father.  He’s It.  He’s Everything.  He is the Great I Am from the Old Testament.  Then there’s Jesus, God’s Son, but they aren’t really two separate beings.  The Son comes from the Father, and Jesus said, ‘Anyone who has seen Me has seen the Father.’  They are One in the same.  Then the Holy Spirit.  I like to think of the Holy Spirit as the love between the Father and the Son which is so real, so present that it becomes a Person of its own.

 

“When Jesus left the earth, He sent the Holy Spirit, the love between Him and His Father to dwell in our hearts, so that we’re not just people walking around on this earth.  We are literally part of God Himself, and He is us.”

 

It was mesmerizing to hear him talk about it.  Holly shook her head to break the spell.  She reached for a cucumber.  “I think you should’ve been a preacher or something.  It’s totally cool to hear you talk about it.”

 

Gabriel shook his head slowly.  “God doesn’t just speak through preachers and priests.  I think when we fall into the trap of thinking that, we don’t see the awesome power He can wield through each one of us. There’s a line in the Nicene Creed—it’s a prayer we say every week at church.  The line’s talking about the Holy Spirit.  It says, ‘He has spoken through the Prophets.’  I used to think that meant like Isaiah or Ezekiel or one of those guys.  Then I heard a priest one time talking about how we are all baptized priests, prophets, and kings.  He said we are called to be prophets for each other.  That’s when I put that together with the Nicene Creed line, and I got it.  We are called to be prophets for each other, and if we let Him, the Holy Spirit will speak through us into the lives of others, and He speaks through others to us—if we’re listening.”

 

He nodded as if he was even now getting it on a deeper level. “It’s like in the garden.  I kept trying to get out of it, of us talking in the mornings, but you just kept showing up.”

 

The words sent her gaze and spirit plummeting.  “Oh, I’m sorry.”

 

“No.” Gabriel’s hand went out to silence her protest.  “It’s not that.  It just took me awhile to realize that you were God’s assignment for me, that He sent you to me because He knew I wouldn’t try to deal with it on my own, that I would let Him do it through me.”

 

Sheepishly she looked up at him. “He doesn’t give you easy assignments, huh?”

 

The smile sliding across the deep olive skin and ending with bright white teeth lit her heart.  “They’re getting easier.”

 

She was glad of that.

 

The smile fell into thoughtfulness. “Right before you came, I was getting pretty good at just showing up.  You know, take the steps He’s giving you and just show up and let Him do it through you.  Like letting Him plant the garden. Letting Him do it.  At least I was until the heart attack and everything else.”

 

He didn’t have to elaborate on the everything else part for her to know he meant her mother.

 

Slowly he shook his head.  “Sometimes walking on water feels so easy, and sometimes it’s like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me, God. That is insane.’”

 

That intrigued her.  She reached for a carrot. “Walking on water?”

 

His eyes narrowed as if he was squinting to see something.  “It’s what I feel like sometimes.  When I don’t know what’s going to happen or how this is ever going to work out.”  His gaze found hers.  “It feels like I must be walking on water because there’s no way I’m doing this on my own.”

 

The middle of her heart softened at the vulnerable look in his eyes.  “Well, I for one think you are doing a fabulous job of walking on water because I would’ve never guessed this.”  Her gaze drifted around the loft.

 

“It’s Him,” Gabriel said softly.  “Believe me, it’s all Him.”

 

She scooted over to him then and laid her head in the crook of his arm just below his shoulder.  Her hand rested on his chest as their breaths fell into rhythm together. “Then I’m going to have to thank Him because this is the best thing that ever happened to me.”

His arm came full around her, gathering her in, and she felt the brush of his lips across her hair.  “Me too.”  He breathed.  “Me too.”

***

The ground had relinquished its hold on her feet by the time Holly made it back up to her room.  The mansion was silent up and down the hallway, and she let herself in and closed the door.  What a perfectly wonderful night.  She stepped over to her bed and pulled the chain on the small reading light.  A note stuck to her pillow caught her attention.

 

Two calls.  Rebecca Avery.  Jean Paul Von Doran.  Both requested a return call. The numbers were listed.  Holly sat down on the bed, hard.  Rebecca, okay.  That was fine. Good even.  Holly couldn’t wait to tell her everything that had transpired.  But Jean Paul was another story altogether.  She glanced at the clock. 10:30 meant after 1 in Boston, so calling Rebecca was out for now.

 

Jean Paul was probably still awake.  For a moment she couldn’t decide if to bring herself down by calling him now, waiting and hoping he would forget, or just getting it over with.  The memory of Gabriel talking about walking on water drifted through her.  “Take this step.” She picked up her cell phone and punched it on.  Closing her eyes, she breathed a small prayer.  Then she dialed the number and waited for the ringing to stop.  Maybe he wouldn’t be there.  Maybe he’d forgotten.  Maybe…

 

“This is J.P.”  The noise in the background thundered through the phone.

 

Holly cleared her throat to get the words to start. “Jean Paul?  Hey. This is Holly.  I got the message you called.”

 

“Hol…? Oh.  Holly.  Yeah.”  There was a break during which she fought to figure out what was going on wherever he was.  “Well, I was going to ask you out for tonight.  A bunch of us got together to go clubbing in Frisco. It’s Ladies Night at The Blue Iguana.”

 

“Oh.”  She nodded, thanking Heaven above for letting her miss that offer.

 

“But we could go out tomorrow night if you want.”  He continued to talk as her thoughts went to the non-option of missing the loft to go to some crowded bar packed with desperate people pawing each other on the dance floor.  Not one part of it sounded even vaguely inviting, not to even mention the part about it being with Jean Paul.  “Steve said he was hoping I’d bring you around again.”

 

Steve, the name and the memory slammed into her.  Resolution solidified in her heart. This was not what she wanted for her life, trying to impress people because her mother said it was smart, not saying no when the answer in her whole being was clearly no.  No, whatever her life might bring from this point forward, this was most definitely not what she wanted.  “You know, Jean Paul, thanks for thinking about me, but I’m going to have to say no.”

 

“What?” he asked, shouting the answer.

 

“I’m going to have to say no.  I don’t want to go out with you.  Not tonight, not tomorrow night.  Not ever. Please don’t call me again.”

 

“What?”  The noise behind him was deafening even through the phone.

 

Holly put the speaker of the phone to her mouth with the earpiece right on her forehead. “I said, ‘Don’t call me again!’”  And she pulled the phone away and beeped it off. She snapped it closed and tossed it to the bed.  “Have a nice life, J.P.”  Standing, she walked to the bathroom.  A hot shower sounded incredibly good.  Besides it would give her a chance to melt into the memories of being in the loft with Gabriel again and dream about the days to come.

***

“I’m going to be out of the office for a few days,” Luke announced the next morning when Holly went in to get her first assignments for the day.  “Your mother thinks a pre-wedding get away would be… how did she put it?  Awesome.”

 

Holly nodded. Her feet were still in the clouds.  Praying with Gabriel as the sun came up was the best miracle she’d ever stumbled upon.  It had a way of making every minute that followed somehow glorious.  “Oh?  Where did she talk you into going?”

 

“Paris.”

 

That stopped her.  “Gracious.  That’s some pre-wedding get away.”

 

“Yes, well.  I have some business associates I need to touch base with one-on-one anyway, so it won’t be all fun and no work.”

 

Work.  The possibility that the job would leave with him knocked into her. “What should I do while you’re gone?”

 

“Oh, there’s plenty to do.  That budget and the expense reports we talked about.  I’ve got some dictation here for you to do.  And we’ll be back on Monday, so it’s not like I’m absconding for more than a couple of days.”

 

The understanding that no one would be keeping tabs on her wafted through her consciousness.  “When are you leaving?”

 

“This afternoon at three.”

***

She really did need the receipts, Holly told herself at four o’clock as she headed down the driveway to the work shop.  The budget needed them.  Still it wasn’t only the budget that wanted her to go to the work shop, her heart did too.  Three steps in, she called, “Knock. Knock.  Anybody here?”

 

“In here,” the deep voice rumbled back.

 

She followed the voice through the work area into the office where she found an older gentleman seated at the desk.  His dirty straw hat sat next to him on the paperwork. His hair was solid white in perfect relief to his brown-leathered skin.

 

“Oh. Um. Hi,” Holly said tentatively.

 

The man looked up and stumbled up to his feet.  He was a good seven inches taller than her, and panic mode struck her at the disparity.  However, he smiled which helped.  “Can I help you, Ma’am?”

 

“I’m Holly.”  She stuck out her hand.  “Holly Jacobs.  I’m Mrs. Keller’s daughter.” The fear that went through his eyes at that statement was undeniable.  She hated that.  “And you are?”

 

“Oh, excuse me, Ma’am.  Mr. Carlos Cabrelos.  I’m the head groundskeeper.”

 

Understanding filled her.  “Oh, you’re Gabriel’s father.”

 

Confusion scrawled across his dark eyes.  “Yes, Ma’am, I am.  You know Gabriel?”

 

Noise from behind her jerked her attention backward. “Tim’s finishing up…”

 

Holly turned to the voice, and her heart skipped inside her.  How could anyone be so gorgeous in an old, dirty gray T-shirt?  He put the other guys she’d ever been with to shame. Those green eyes alone would pull a girl’s heart to its knees.

 

“Oh,” he said, his gaze bouncing from her to his father and back.  “I’m sorry.”  His eyes questioned her. Why she was here, what was she doing talking to his father.

 

“Umm, I came for the receipts,” she said in answer to his unspoken questions.  “I’m working on next month’s budget for Mr. Teracini.”

 

“Mr. Teracini?” Gabriel’s father asked.

 

She turned back to him feeling the tug between them. “I’m filling in for his secretary for the summer.”

 

A cloud of tension that she didn’t understand wafted over the room. It was difficult to figure out what to say next.

 

“I’m sorry,” she finally said, sensing her presence was not welcome.  The two men hardly looked at each other or her. “I should have called.  I’ll just…” She pointed to the door.

 

“No, that’s okay.” Gabriel broke out of the awkward trance although he wasn’t really looking at her.  “They’re right in here. I was going to bring them up to you on Friday… um, tomorrow.”  Making enough noise to be heard at the mansion, he dug in the file cabinet and produced the receipts.  “I didn’t know you were going to do a budget.”

 

“I got all the filing done.” She shrugged. “I think he’s giving me busywork now.”

 

Gabriel handed her the receipts, and for a moment she was locked in his gaze, their fingers inches apart.  She wanted to ask if she would see him tonight, but that suddenly seemed a dangerous question.

 

Finally she backed away, the receipts in hand.  “Well, thank you.  I’ll just be going to get these done.”  At the last possible second she remembered her manners and turned to Mr. Cabrelos.  “It was nice to meet you, Sir.”  She held out her hand which he shook without saying a word.  Then she turned and half-smiled at Gabriel.  “I’ll just be going now.  See ya.”

 

With a small nod, she ducked and crossed past Gabriel.  In ten strides she was out in the hot afternoon sunshine.  It took ten more strides away from the work shop before she could breathe. She couldn’t shake the feeling that the past few minutes hadn’t gone as well as she had hoped they would.  She couldn’t read the look in Mr. Cabrelos’s eyes, and even now, she wasn’t at all sure what he thought of her showing up like that.  Worse, it worried her what he thought of her knowing Gabriel.  If she would’ve known he would react that way, she would never have said anything.  “God, please be with Gabriel.  I’m afraid he might need You right now.”

***

“She said she knew you,” his father said, looking at Gabe with the intensity of a laser beam.  “What did that mean?”

 

Gabe went over to the cabinet and started stacking cups.  “We’ve just met a few times when she came to get receipts.  That’s all.”  His heart hurt lying, but to tell his father the outright truth felt very dangerous at the moment.

 

“Well, you’d better keep it that way.”  In a huff, his father sat down.  “The apple never falls very far from the tree, and we all know what tree she came off of.”

 

Ache sliced through Gabe at the implication.  She was nothing like her mother.  Nothing at all.  But how could he say that and risk his father getting upset over it?  Worse, if he started to defend her, how far would he have to go to explain how he knew anything about her at all?  No, it was better to simply let it slide.  “I’m going to go check on Darius watering the garden.  That pond filter might be leaking again.”

 

His father grunted in response, and Gabe traced out into the sunshine.  He saw her up by the house, just climbing the steps and going into the front door.  One big part of him said his father was right.  What chance did he think he might have with her?  But another part knew he would savor every moment with her even if they had no chance at all.  He wondered if she would be at the loft later, and as he started for the garden, he sent up a silent prayer that she would be.  And from now on, he wouldn’t take any of those stolen moments for granted ever again.

***

Holly took off at precisely five o’clock.  She made sure her desk was in perfect order, snapped off the computer, and headed for her room.  She had a call to make before she went to the carriage house, and above all, she didn’t want to be late.  In her room, she shut the door, grabbed her phone, and sat on her bed.

 

Speed dial worked its magic, and in seconds the phone was ringing.

 

“Hello?”

 

“Becca.”  Holly’s heart lifted at the voice.  “Hey. It’s Holly.”

 

“Hey, girl.  How are you doing?  We haven’t heard from you in awhile.”

 

“Yeah, I know. Sorry about that.” Holly flopped back onto the pillows.  “It’s been kind of crazy around here.  I got a job.”

 

“A job? Really? How’d that happen?”

 

“Mr. Teracini, the owner, is letting me be his secretary, just for the summer, but it’s good.  I love it.” Her heart was so grateful for every good thing that had happened.

 

There was a long pause.  “Okay, what’s really up?  You sound happy.”

 

“I can’t sound happy?”

 

“Not can’t, but you usually don’t.”

 

Holly flipped over and traced her finger across the daisies on the bed.  “Would you believe I met somebody?”

 

“Somebody?” Excitement surged through Becca’s voice. “The count?”

 

“The count?  Jean Paul?  Oh, gosh no.  He’s an idiot.  In fact, I just broke up with him last night.”

 

That slowed Becca down. “O… kay.  So what’s up with this guy you met then?”

 

On wings Holly rolled so she was looking at the ceiling.  Even that was beautiful in a way she had never before noticed.  “Oh, he’s great, Rebecca.  You would love him.  He’s so down to earth and just a really nice guy.  He’s a Christian, really into Jesus and God and everything.  We stay up all night just talking and reading…”

 

“Reading?  You?”

 

“I know.” Holly laughed from the depths of herself.  “Who would’ve thought, huh?  But no, we get up in the morning and weed the garden together and pray…”

 

“Okay, who is this and how did you get Holly’s cell phone?”

 

Holly laughed with pure joy dancing in her heart. “No, it’s me.  Really.  I just… Oh, he’s so great, Becca.”  Happiness slipped from her tone and her spirit.  “I just hope I don’t mess things up.”

 

“Okay.  First of all, if he’s as wonderful as you say he is, you can work through anything together.  Second of all, you deserve a great guy, Holly.  You do.  Don’t go doing something stupid because you think you don’t.”

 

“That’s just it.  I don’t want to do anything stupid.  Not like I’m afraid I’m going to, but like it’s not even an option.”  She debated for a moment whether to tell Rebecca the whole story, but it was right there to be said so she said it.  “The other morning, on the walk…”  The memory of that moment wafted through her.  “I gave my life to Jesus.  Gabriel talked me through it, and I did it—for real.”

 

“Oh, Holly, that’s so great.”

 

“Yeah, and since then, things have been… well, different.  I told my mom I didn’t want to go to Paris, I fought for the job when Mom flipped out about it, I told Jean Paul I didn’t want to go out with him any more.  I don’t know.  I just feel so… free.  Like I can be the real me and not have to apologize to anyone for it.”

 

The pause stretched between them.

 

“I don’t know what to say,” Rebecca finally breathed.  “That’s so great.  This Gabriel guy must be one special person.”

 

“He is.”  Holly closed her eyes, and his were right there.  “He so is.”

Copyright Staci Stallings, 2007

Posted in A Light in the Darkness, Novels | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A Light in the Darkness, Ch. 9 & 10

Chapter 9

 

One second she was standing, the next she was flying.  The whack of her body onto the hard wooden floor cracked through Holly, sending peels of pain shooting through her. It ricocheted through the alcohol making everything tilt and then spin dangerously.

 

“Holly. Holly,” Gabe said only inches from her, still gripping her. “Are you okay?”

 

“Okay?” Fury overtook her.  “Okay.”  She kicked to get free of him.  “How can I be okay?  You just tackled me for crying out loud!”

 

“I-I’m sorry.  I didn’t know what else to do.”  He rolled slightly so he wasn’t right on top of her, but he didn’t release his hold on her either.

 

“Would you… get…”  She was kicking and pushing, struggling to get him away from her.  Calm evaporated.  Fury ripped through her.  “Who do you think you are anyway?  Get off of me!”  Once she was free of him, she scooted away until she came smack against a soft upright cushion.  “What do you think you’re doing?”

 

He was heaving, gazing at her from three feet away.  Fear and terror met in his eyes.

 

She shook her head.  “You should’ve let me jump.  It would’ve saved everybody a bunch of trouble.”

 

“Yeah,” he said, oddly sounding like he agreed. “That would’ve been just the highlight of my life to watch you splatter yourself all over the place down there.  Oh, not to mention getting to clean it up in the morning.  Yeah, that would’ve been excellent.”  He leaned up against the slats of the railing and put his head back as he gasped for breath.

 

Guilt took control, and she let her head fall.  Somehow she hadn’t thought of those things.  He was right.  She should have thought of a better plan.  “I’m sorry.” Her head felt like a wrecking ball had taken a solid whack at it.

 

His wrist rested on his upright knee as his head came up so he could look at her.  “Mind telling me what that was about?”

 

Alcohol swam around in her head, making her wonder what was real and what wasn’t.  At that moment her body decided the alcohol had to go.  “Oh, no.”  She stood. Not solidly, but still she was on her feet.  The stairs down looked more like waves than wood.

 

He scrambled up. “Where are you going?”

 

“I’ve got to go.” She was stumbling, hoping the next step would catch her foot and not send her pitching down into the darkness. Holding her stomach and her mouth, she knew she had to get outside before her insides came up.

 

“Holly.”  Inexplicably he was next to her as she shoved her way out of the door.

 

The cold air slapped reality back into her face.  “Ugh!”  She made it all the way to the side of the outside wall before whatever was in her stomach wasn’t any more.  She wretched and wretched again.  Her stomach cramped and arched. It was as if her entire body was on full reverse.

 

Stinging liquid poured out of her in waves.  Exhaustion yanked her to her knees.  The cold ground felt good, and she felt so bad.  It beckoned her down, and she relinquished herself to its pull.

***

Gabriel stood, hands on his hips, lips pursed watching her.  There was nothing he could do.  He knew that much, having been in on that fight with himself more than once.  The stench crawled up to him, and he put his hand up to his nose to ward it off.  It was then that he saw her start to the ground and just as she passed out, he made it to her.

 

She was covered in stench and heavy as a lead pipe, but he picked her up anyway.  He couldn’t leave her out here to freeze.  Only then did he realize how little she had on in the way of clothing.  It was hardly anything. In the carriage house, he debated bringing everything down, but it seemed easier to take her up.  So he climbed the steps carefully.  She was no picture of grace, all arms, legs, and dangling head.  It wasn’t a pretty sight.

 

Better of course than had he not been here.  Gabe pushed that thought from him.  Not tonight.  Somehow he had to get her cleaned up and get the mess she’d made cleaned up.  The gut-wrenching stench of alcohol that filled the space roiled his stomach.  No wonder his mother had flipped out the night he came home like this.  He made a mental note to thank her for not killing him that night.

 

Gently he laid Holly on the couch and stepped back.  He reached over and pulled on the light, illuminating just how disgusting the whole thing was.  He ran the base of his thumb up the bridge of his nose.  “Oh, thank You, God for telling me to stay.”  His gaze tripped over to the railing, and a sinking feeling went through him.  If he hadn’t been here… With that thought screeching to get through, he scratched his head and turned to get to work.

***

Nothing about anything felt familiar.  The only thing that could adequately get in was how rotten she felt.  “Ugh.”  Her moan echoed through her head, causing it to pound like someone was whacking it with a hammer. With even the slightest of movements, her stomach heaved and rolled, so she vowed never to move again.  As reality began to advance on sleep, she moaned a second time, wishing it would all go away. “Ugh.”

 

It was a pretty sure bet that no one had ever felt as bad as she did at that moment.

 

“Morning,” his voice said from somewhere high above her.  It wasn’t cheerful and happy like normal.  Today it sounded worried and scared.

 

“Ugh.”  She flopped her arm over her eyes to block out the light. Then she squeezed her eyes closed for good measure.  Every muscle, every tendon, every everything hurt with an ache that drove right through her ability to move.  “Ugh.”

 

“It’s okay.  Just rest,” he said quietly.

 

Strangely that felt better—to not try to push herself awake.  He was here, and she was safe.  Those two things she knew, and everything else disappeared.

***

Her waking brought Gabe up off the loft floor of the carriage house.  She was still an outright mess, but at least she was alive.  His thoughts began working through the issues that the morning brought with it.  How to get her cleaned up and back to the mansion.  How to get her on solid footing so she wouldn’t try this again because as much as he didn’t want to admit it, the next time they might not be so lucky.

 

Carefully, quietly he went about checking the wood in the stove and making coffee.  From his vantage point on the ground floor, he looked up into the loft.  That railing seemed so very high from here and so very fragile.  His stomach flipped at the thoughts of her smashed like the glass that now lay in a small pile next to the broom by the side wall.

 

Two bottles and a whole lot of pain.  It wasn’t a good combination.  He wondered again what Steve had done.  Whatever it was, he wanted even more to punch him.  How could anyone hurt her that badly and then just walk away?  It twisted Gabe’s gut to think of that jerk.  He deserved to have his face smashed in.

 

At that moment Gabe heard her moan again. He raced up the stairs and grabbed the coffee he had on the hot plate.  She sat up just as he got back to the couch, and he set the coffee on the table before sitting next to her.  Like a rag doll, she leaned into him.  The stench was overwhelming.

 

“I’m sorry.”  The words were ghostlike and hollow.

 

“Don’t worry about it.”  He lifted the cup of coffee and held it for her.  “Not the best in the world, but it’s better than nothing.”

 

She accepted it and took a drink.  When she wrinkled her nose, he laughed.

 

“Told you.”  He took a breath to settle the plan.  “Tell you what. I can take you over to my folks’ house.  You can get cleaned up, and we can get some breakfast there.”

 

The blanket was around her, and she clutched at it tighter. “I… your folks…?”

 

He shook his head.  “They’re at church, and then they’ll go to my aunt’s house for a while.  We’ve got a couple hours.  If you want to.”  He wasn’t at all sure she would agree, but showing up at the mansion with her in this state was about as ill-advised as showing up at the Super Bowl with a greased pig.

***

Holly made sure to keep the blanket even when they went down the stairs and out the back to the pickup.  He helped her into the passenger’s side which was a good thing because on her own she might never have made it.  The engine was loud, and the movement did nothing to calm her stomach.  Finally she simply pushed it all away from her mind as if she was watching herself in a dream rather than really living it.

 

They went out a back way of the estate she hadn’t even known existed.  They probably didn’t tell her for fear that she might bolt.  As they drove, her gaze stayed on the rolling green hills lit brightly with warm sunshine.  It should have been paradise, but for her it was anything but.

 

At the little house up the winding road a few miles away, Gabriel stopped and got out.  She knew he was coming around to help her, and something said she should do it on her own; however, getting herself to actually do that wasn’t in her capability at the moment.  Before all that had even gone through her mind, he was at her door with it opened.

 

She slid out, ducking so he wouldn’t see what he already had.  She was an utter mess.  There was no need of a mirror for proof.  Like a supportive shadow he walked with her to the door and then slid in front of her to open it.  The smell of a baking roast hit her and rocked her stomach.

 

“Here, it’s back this way.”  Gabriel seemed so shy and uncertain.  He kept his gaze mostly lowered and what little smile there was held only compassion.

 

Holly followed him down the hallway to the back.

 

“Here’s the bathroom.  There’s new towels up here, and shampoo and stuff in there.”  He wouldn’t even look at her.  “Oh, and.”  He stepped in front of her and over to a room opposite the bathroom.  In seconds he was back. He handed her a small stack of clothes.  “It’s not much.  A pair of sweats and a T-shirt.”

 

She nodded, feeling the gratefulness, but not being able to express it.

 

After an awkward moment, Gabriel pointed back toward the main part of the little house.  “I’ll just go start some breakfast.”

 

Again she nodded and watched him walk back down the hallway.  He really was nice.  Too bad the nice ones never worked out.  With a tired shake of her head, she stepped into the bathroom.  One look in the mirror brought a disgusted moan.  Her hair was a disaster.  Her face was worse.  No wonder Gabriel couldn’t look at her.

***

By the time Holly came out dressed in the black sweats and navy Hyde Junior College T-shirt, Gabe had scrambled eggs, toast, and bacon all laid out.  The sight of her, fresh and clean from the shower, jolted his already fried nerves.  However, now was not the best time in the world to let himself think about things like that.

 

“You want some milk or orange juice?”

 

She shrank into her shoulders and tilted her head. “Coffee?”

 

He smiled without really smiling.  “I figured you swore off my coffee after the last time.”

 

Her smile ran though him like a gas light. “Well, you have a coffee pot now.”

 

Turning to the coffeepot sitting on the counter, he nodded.  “Oh, yeah.  Coffee it is then.”

 

Holly slid into a chair at the table, and he felt her apprehension.

 

He glanced over his shoulder. “Go ahead.  There’s plenty.  I’ve also got grape jelly for the toast and more salt for the eggs if you want it.”

 

She shook her head although he really didn’t see it. “This is fine.”

 

Careful not to spill anything, he measured out the coffee and got it started as she put a few scoops of food on her plate.  When he turned, the only thing he could think was what he wouldn’t have given to have a garden of weeds to focus on.  Sitting next to her while he ate could be very hazardous to his mental stability.

 

“So your…” she started.

 

“Do you…” he said, then stopped.  “Sorry.  You first.”

 

“Your parents are at church then?”

 

“Yeah.  Every Sunday morning rain or shine.”  Gabe turned a chair around and sat on it backward. It was good to put some distance between him and certain disaster.

 

She nodded as she took one small bite of bacon.  “You live here then, with your folks?”

 

“Just ‘til next year when I get out.  Then I’ll get my own place.”

 

“Get out?”

 

“College,” he said, his wrist dangling over the chair back.  “Marketing and management.”

 

“Really?”  She seemed surprised by that.

 

“I’m about 30 hours out.”  He let his gaze fall to the table.

 

“Then…?”

 

He let out a breath.  “Then I pack up, get my own place and a real job.”

 

Her own life seemed to drift from her as she immersed her attention in his instead.  “A real job?  Working the vineyard isn’t a real job?”

 

“Oh, it’s work all right.  Just not the kind I want to be doing.”

 

She nodded as she took a small bite of the eggs.  “So what do you want to be doing?”

 

The coffee maker beeped, and he stood to go over to it, feeling her gaze on his back.  He liked that she looked more stable.  He liked that she seemed more normal. However, he didn’t at all like that she was digging into him and his life.  “Well, ultimately, I’d like to own the vineyard, or one like it.  But I’d settle for starting as manager on one.” He said it as if it didn’t carry the weight of his world on top of it.

 

For a long moment she said nothing. “I bet you’d be good at it.  Managing, I mean.”

 

He glanced over his shoulder as he poured the steaming hot liquid.  “You think?”

 

“Yeah.  You’re patient and hard working.  And you do great work.”

 

Where that assessment came from, he had no idea, but he was grateful for it just the same.  He turned and brought the coffee over.  “Cream? Sugar?”

 

“A little sugar maybe,” she said, her gaze anchored to the cup.

 

Grateful for something to do to keep his insides from shaking completely out of him, he went to the cabinet and brought out the little sugar bowl his mother kept only for guests.  Not that they had many guests, but it was one of those things mothers think about.  He set it in front of Holly, and she spooned only half a teaspoon out.  She stirred as the quiet in the room grew.

 

Gabe spun the chair and sat down to his own breakfast.  How he would ever eat with his insides in knots was beyond him.  He scooped out a few eggs and grabbed a piece of toast as if he really thought he could eat it.  However, when the plate was full, he stopped cold.  Asking now was to point it out that she hadn’t, but he couldn’t eat without it.  He shifted the plate just slightly and glanced over at her. “Umm, do you mind if I say grace?”

 

“Oh.” She dropped her spoon onto the plate with a clank. “I’m sorry. I forgot…”

 

The calm in his eyes gave no clue as to the turmoil rumbling through his system.  “It’s okay.”

 

She bent her head, and his heart flipped over.  He had to drop his gaze lest he get so caught up watching her that he forget how the memorized prayer went.

 

Quietly he made the Sign of the Cross. “In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.”  He heaved a breath. “Bless us, O, Lord, and these Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty through Christ, our Lord.  Amen.”

 

“Amen,” she breathed.

 

He crossed himself again and waited a moment for her to look up.  When she did, there was a softness there, a glow that hadn’t been there before.  Trying not to stare so as not to make her self-conscious, he picked up his cup and tipped his lips to his coffee. If they could just get through this and get her home…

 

“You pray a lot then?” she asked so softly he almost didn’t hear.

 

His gaze betrayed his stern warning to himself and went right to her. “Enough.  Most of the time I don’t do a lot of formal praying, but I talk to Him a lot during the day.”

 

“I’ve noticed that,” she said, nodding. She wasn’t looking at him either, and he couldn’t tell if that was a good thing or not.

 

In self-defense, he took a bite of eggs and another of toast.  It was then he noticed her stirring her eggs rather than eating them.  His attention narrowed on it. “My cooking that bad?” He indicated her lack of consumption.

 

She laughed, kind of.  “No, they’re good.”  The smile fell altogether, and concern pounced through him.  “I just…”  Her gaze locked with his.  “Why are you being so nice to me?”

 

The question threw him off-guard.  He grabbed his coffee and took a drink to stall the answer lest what came out be too truthful.  Finally he shrugged.  “You’re a friend.  Aren’t you supposed to help friends?”

 

A scowl dropped on her face.  “But you’re a nice guy.  Nice guys should take one look at me and run the other direction.”

 

He set the coffee mug down with a louder clang than he wanted.  “Why do you say that?”

 

Her gaze slid around the kitchen—anywhere but on him.

 

He waited, the food forgotten.  The depth of what she wasn’t saying dragged his spirit down with a yank. “Holly?”

 

Finally her gaze fell to her eggs.  “I’m sorry about last night.”

 

For something to distance him from the grip of his heart, Gabe forked into a mound of eggs but didn’t eat them. Somehow he knew he had to give her enough space to say what she needed to.

 

She closed her eyes, and he saw the pain etched there. “It was stupid.  The whole night was so stupid.”  Disgust for herself twisted her jaw.  “I didn’t plan that.  Just so you know.  I don’t normally go around drinking like that.”

 

He nodded, wanting her to keep talking, but in truth not being able to formulate any real words to make the ache in her voice go away.

 

“It’s just… things were going so well with the job and everything.  And then…” The words stopped again.

 

He glanced at her unable to keep himself from it.  Blank was clamped firmly over everything else.  In the next second he was captured by her gaze.

 

“Why were you there?” she asked softly.  “It was the middle of the night.”

 

He dropped his gaze to shield himself from every question her eyes were asking.  “I sleep there sometimes.  I go up and read and just hang out.  It’s cool up there.  It’s like my own little place.  I crashed there last night.”

 

“They don’t know?”

 

He shrugged. “I think Dad does, but it’s an old building.  No one else even really thinks about it being there.  So, it’s a nice place to study or to read, to just be.”  Unless suicidal people show up bombed out of their minds. He wanted to know, but he didn’t ask.

 

She nodded. “It’s kind of cold though, isn’t it?”

 

“Not if you get the stove going, and there’s a little space heater upstairs if it gets too cold.”

 

A pause as she absorbed that.  She pushed through her own memories of the evening, latching on to his. “So what do you read—when you’re up there?”

 

Somehow he hadn’t thought she’d even want to know.  He shrugged and took a sip of coffee that was now barely tepid.  “Lots of stuff.  I buy second hand books in the Valley, and sometimes I bum them off other people.”

 

“Like what?” she persisted.  Why she suddenly looked so much more at ease while throwing him totally off his game, he couldn’t clearly get lined up in his head.

 

How in the world did he get here anyway?  She was going to think he was crazy, just like the rest of them did.  His gaze followed his cup down.  “Self-help, positive thinking, God stuff mostly.  Good things to keep me on the right track.”

 

Her brows furrowed in skepticism.  “You read that stuff?”

 

He nodded although his face was growing hotter by the second.  “It’s a way to stay grounded, a way to keep myself focused on doing what’s right instead of what’s easiest.”

 

“How many books do you have?”

 

“Fifty?  Sixty?  Something like that.”

 

“And you’ve read them all?”

 

“Most of them.  Some I read a while and then pick something else up.  Some I get through right away, some it takes me a while.”

 

She shook her head. “Wait. Wait.  You don’t read them all all the way through?”

 

Uh-oh.  He’d known he should never have gone down this path.  He couldn’t even look at her. “Not always.”

 

“But aren’t you supposed to? Read them all the way through I mean.”

 

They were definitely careening toward how weird he really was, and nothing in him said that was a good idea.  “That’s what I always thought too, but sometimes a second book fills in holes the first book left.  A lot of times they almost go together, like they were written to be read at the same time.”

 

Holly corkscrewed her face.  “That makes no sense.”

 

Gabe hunched over his empty plate, wanting only to find a way out of this discussion.  These types of conversations never panned out the way he thought they should.  Everyone who knew anything about him thought the way he lived was completely weird.  He couldn’t explain it to them, but he couldn’t not live this way either.  “I know.  I’m weird.  It’s just… I don’t know.”  He narrowed his gaze trying to see the way to explain it that wasn’t really there.  “For a long time I lived thinking I had to break the rules to live outside of them.  But then when I really found… well, God… Life opened up in a way I’d never even knew was possible.” He laughed hollowly at himself.  “Weird.  I know.”

 

But she wasn’t laughing.  “How do you know which books will… go together?”

 

Seriousness crashed in on him followed in the next second by the understanding that she wasn’t laughing or making fun of him.  “I don’t, really.  I just pick out the one that feels right.”

 

“And how do you know what feels right?”

 

Oh, boy.  It was much easier to live than to explain.  “I just… know.  I don’t know. I can’t explain it.”  He let out a breath.  “It’s like going to the closet to pick out what to wear.  Sometimes you just know.”

 

Holly considered that.  “And you read, what?  Two books at a time?  Three?”

 

He wasn’t breathing anymore. “Sometimes I’m reading six or more at a time.  I pick up the one I’m drawn to and I read that.  Then the next night I may pick up a different one. It just depends.”

 

“So what are you reading right now?  Like what, ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’?”

 

Gabe laughed.  “No, I used to read those kind, but I don’t really anymore.”

 

“Why not?”

 

Exasperation that she kept asking crept through him. “Because they’re about what man can do.”

 

She tilted her head.  “As opposed to…?”

 

He took a breath because his heart jumped at the question.  “What God can do?”  He put his fork down and looked at her plate.  “Do you want any more?  Eggs?  Toast? Coffee?”

 

Holly looked into her empty cup.  “Coffee would be good.”

***

She could tell the topic made him nervous, but it was impossible to let it go.  He was so fascinating.  He lived with his parents, slept in a cold loft because he liked to read books about God.  Not to even mention his ability to make the world beautiful or to make her feel like there was hope.  She wanted to know how he did it, but the closer she got, the farther away the answer seemed.

 

Gabriel grabbed three empty dishes from the table and headed for the coffee pot on the back counter.  When he came back, he poured the steaming liquid into her cup without looking at her.  She looked up at him, grateful for every simple moment they spent together.

 

“Thank you.”  Her heart meant far more than the coffee.

 

His gaze locked on hers.  Rugged and strong, he stood there in the morning sunshine like a mirage that’s far too good to ever be true.  A moment and then another, and he shook out of the spell.  “Uh.  Hmm.”  He backed up.  Then he reached up and scratched the side of his head.  “I’ll just get these…”

 

He started collecting the dishes, clanking them together loud enough for people in Los Angeles to hear.  Dishes in hand, he went over to the sink and turned on the water. Holly watched him, mesmerized by the quiet depth in his hazel eyes and the shaky, unsteadiness that permeated him when he looked at her like that.

 

She stood and stepped over to where he was doing dishes, impressed that he wasn’t afraid of even this kind of work.  In fact, work seemed to be woven through him like a tough cord.  The dishes clanked as he put them in the little dishwasher.  She took a sip of coffee.  “So, you didn’t go to church this morning.”

 

“No.”

 

Guilt slid over her.  “Because of me?”

 

His gaze snatched hers again as he straightened from the work.  “God will understand.” He went back to putting the pans in the dishwasher.  “Besides, I can always go tonight.”

 

That stopped her. “Tonight?”

 

“There’s a teen Mass.  I don’t do it real often because I like going with Mom and Dad in the mornings, but I can hit that one later.”

 

Holly took a sip.  “So church is a big deal to you then?”  She knew she was digging, but letting it go wasn’t an option.

 

“Yeah.  I go every week, and sometimes during the week if I get off early enough.”

 

She laughed slightly.  “What’re you, trying out for the priesthood?”  Then the thought that maybe he really was torched through her.  If so, she was making an idiot of herself.

 

“No.”  He put the skillet in the dishwasher and then the detergent.

 

Well, at least the answer was no.  She breathed an absurd sigh of relief.  Taking a sip, she waited for him to answer further. However, he didn’t.  “Why not?  You seem pretty keen on all the God stuff.”

 

He shut the dishwasher door and pushed the button.  “Not my calling.”  Grabbing the dishrag, he went to wipe off the table.

 

Her gaze followed him. Why did it feel like dragging a hairball out of a cat to talk with him about this—especially when it seemed to be the very essence of who he was?  “How do you know that? That it isn’t your calling?”

 

Back at the sink, he washed the rag out, looking busier than the task required.  “I just know.  It’s like the books.  I can’t explain it.  I just know.”  He glanced at her.  “You finished with that?”

 

She looked down at her empty cup.  “Oh, yeah.”  Handing it to him, her gaze followed his every movement as he washed and then rinsed it.  “I wish I could do that.”

 

Surprise jumped to his eyes.  “What?  Wash a cup?”

 

“Know.”

 

He didn’t look at her, didn’t even move. “You do.”

 

Confusion slid through her.  “No, I don’t…”

 

“No, Holly.” Gabriel turned to her, his hands still on the edges of the sink.  He drowned her protest with one look.  “You do know.  You just choose not to follow it.”

 

Her confusion morphed into anger.  She put her arms over themselves in front of her.  “You say that like you know anything about me, about my life.”

 

He shook his head.  “I don’t have to.  I just know how we all are.  We know what to do.  God tells us what to do. He puts it in our hearts, whispers it to us, telling us what we should do, but most of the time we’re either so into doing things our own way or so scared of listening that we don’t do what we know we’re supposed to.”

 

Anger was quickly turning to annoyance. “Oh, yeah, and how are we supposed to know this stuff?  What do we have, God telepathy or something?”  She hated the sarcasm, but she couldn’t stop it.

 

His gaze fell from hers.  When it lifted back up, there was no fight, only an unexplainable peace.  “Something like that.”  He pushed back from the sink.  “We’d better get you home.”

 

Home.  It was the first she had thought of it in hours, maybe even days.  She didn’t want to go, but she didn’t know how to tell him that.  “I guess so, huh?”

 

Chapter 10

 

The drive back was quiet as Gabe sat on his side, trying to figure out why she wouldn’t just leave well enough alone.  She didn’t want to know, her defensiveness told him that, and yet she kept asking.  Why?

 

Worse, his spirit felt like it was in an all-out battle.  He told her he knew and yet being with her threw all knowing out the window.  If the situation were different, if she was just someone he’d met at school, then maybe.  But he, of all people, knew there was no real chance of a relationship with her, and that was killing his chances at staying logical and tranquil with her around.  Even surrendering to God was becoming a challenge like it never had been before.  How could he surrender when he knew by doing so, he would surely get his heart smashed?

 

“You want me to take you up front?” he asked, barely glancing over at her.  Looking at her too much was a bad idea.

 

She shrank into the circle of her shoulders.  “Why don’t you take me to the work shop? I can walk up from there, tell them I’ve been out walking or something.”

 

He didn’t want to understand, but he did.  “You got it.”

***

When Holly got out of the pickup and looked up the hill at the big house looming there, her knees threatened to buckle underneath her.  How was she ever going to make them believe she’d gotten up early to go out walking?  Still there wasn’t a better excuse.  She tucked her hands under her arms and did a passable job of disappearing from the scene altogether.

 

He shut off the truck, apparently planning to go into the shop to do some work.

 

“Well, thanks,” she said, scuffing the toe of her flip-flop on the ground.

 

His smile wasn’t much of one.  “No problem.”

 

She wanted to stay.  Everything in her wanted to stay, but she couldn’t, and she knew it.  She swiveled her gaze up the circle drive to the mansion.  It looked like it would take days to climb.  Teasingly she shot a glance over at him.  “Pray for me?”

 

He never even flinched.  “Always.”

***

Why he said it, Gabe would never have been able to explain, and yet even as the word came from his mouth, he knew it was true.  She was always with him, always in his thoughts and running through his prayers.  As dumb as that sounded, she was twined within the fabric of every moment he now lived.

 

And now she was walking away from him, up the hill that would take her back to her real life.  He watched, unable to tear his gaze from the unshapely drape of her borrowed clothes.  Even they didn’t hide how beautiful she really was.  And yet she didn’t know how beautiful she was.  She wanted to destroy herself because others had confused her to the point that she believed lies that no one else even believed.

 

Smaller and smaller she got as she rounded the far edge of the driveway.  He should get to work, should do something, but he couldn’t.  Not until he was sure she was safe.  There was an absurd thought that she might turn around and wave, acknowledge him still watching her, but she never did.  At the apex of the driveway, she turned and climbed the steps.  Not that he expected her to ring the doorbell, but a knife went through him when she simply opened the door and walked right in.

 

Yes, they each had their place in the world, and neither place had space for the other.  With renewed determination, he turned for the work shop.  If he ever wanted to get out of here, he needed to keep his mind on productive pursuits, not on dreams that could never come true.

***

Holly had hoped with everything in her that she could get in and get up to her room with no one the wiser.  However, luck was not on her side, halfway up the stairs, she met her mother coming the other way.

 

“Well, well,” her mother said, sounding far too happy for Holly’s frayed nerves.  “Are you just getting in?”

 

“Umm, yeah… I…”  The words ‘went to for a walk’ were supposed to follow that statement, but it never got that far.

 

“Ooo, so where’s Jean Paul?  I didn’t hear his car.” Her mother tried to look past her to the driveway.  “You should have invited him in for brunch.”

 

“Oh.” Holly slid her finger to her ear. “He had to get back.  He’s got a paper due this week.”

 

Her mother’s face fell in consternation.  “That’s too bad.  I’d really like to talk to this boy that my daughter is so crazy about.”

 

Crazy about.  There was a good way to put it.  “Maybe some other time.”  She started to climb again.  “I’m going on up.  I’m exhausted.”

 

There was a knowing in her mother’s eyes.  “Exhausted.  That’s a good sign.”

 

The implications rolled through Holly’s stomach, twisting it in unnatural positions.

 

“Maybe I’ll have Luke call and invite him for our going away night Thursday. I’m sure he’ll want to see you before we leave.”

 

Leave.  The trip.  Paris.  The words pummeled her like punches.  How could every single decision her mother made for her life be so utterly wrong?  “Oh, no. Umm, Mom.”  She spun on the words.  “He’s really busy.  And it’s such a long drive.”

 

Still her mother waved her off.  “Long drives are nothing for a young man in love.”

 

Holly sighed in resignation. Why did she even try?

***

True to his word, Gabriel spent most of Sunday and Sunday night praying for her.  Whatever had set her off hadn’t been resolved, and it made him more than a little uneasy to think of what she might do if Steve showed up again.  It was becoming more and more of a challenge not to get boiling mad at the mere thought of her oafish boyfriend.  Who did he think he was anyway?  Someone needed to set that guy straight.

 

Gabe was ripping weeds out of the soil under the philodendrons Monday morning when he heard the footfalls.  How could that sound make his heart feel like fists against a punching bag?

 

“Morning,” Holly said softly.

 

He glanced back at her and smiled.  “Morning.  You bring your work gloves?”

 

“What?  Are you going to make me weed cactus?”  She sat down on the walk next to where he was working, but she didn’t get to work, only sat drinking her coffee.  “Looks like you’ve made some progress.”

 

There was a medium-tall pile of weeds already next to him.

 

“Summer time.  The weeds always catch up with me.  I’m probably going to have to get Darius and Tim out here this week to make a clean sweep of the place.”

 

She set her cup down, slid over next to him, and started pulling weeds.  “Darius and Tim?  Are they the two who do the pool?”

 

The fact that she knew anything about the grounds work slid through him.  “No, I do.  Why?”

 

Puzzlement crossed her face.  “Really?  That’s weird.  That day I was out by the pool two guys showed up, and I really don’t think one of them was you.”

 

“Oh.” Now Gabe remembered the day in question.  “No, that was them.  I couldn’t get to it.  At least I thought I couldn’t, but they kind of got…”  His brain caught up with his words.

 

“Yeah.  I know.”  She smiled, an apology behind it. “She can be that way.  She acts like she owns the place.”

 

The thought of their respective places in life knifed into him. “Well, she does, doesn’t she?”

 

Holly didn’t reply for a moment.  “They’re not married yet.”  She shrugged.  “And once they are, it’s only a matter of time.”

 

There it was again.  The instability.  The fear of having to be uprooted again. He yanked a weed out with particular vengeance.  “I bet that gets old.”

 

“What?”

 

“Never being sure about the future, about what happens tomorrow.”

 

She shrugged.  “You get used to it.”

 

That, he doubted.  He could see the reining in of trust and confidence.  She knew it could all be gone tomorrow, and so she was hedging all of her bets today.  His prayers found a new dimension.  “Maybe that’s what I like about this.”  He swept his hands in front of him and then sat back and put his hands on his angled thighs.  “It’s the same.  Once you learn the cycle, you know what comes next.”

 

She continued weeding.  “Must be nice.”

 

He looked over at her and snagged for several seconds.  “Yeah, it is.”

***

Thankfully her mother had been out shopping all day.  Holly worked as fast as she could, knowing this would be her last day.  The moment her mother found out about her job, the job would be over.  It wasn’t wholly clear that she would even be welcome in Napa at that point, but she tried not to think about it.  It was just depressing, and with everything in her, she was trying to stay away from that emotion.

 

At dinner her mother was in fine form, and Holly ate silently, wishing she knew how to pray a little better.  This was an illusion, a total and complete illusion that would soon evaporate like boiling water.  The illusion wobbled dangerously with the mention of Jean Paul.

 

“Holly, did you tell Luke how much fun you had this weekend with Jean Paul?” Her mother had a way of sounding thrilled about exactly the memories that made Holly sick.  “They went to the beach together.”

 

It was a leading statement, meant to get Holly to fill in the details.

 

“Yeah,” she said, swallowing the roast duck with great difficulty.  It was dry and tasted like cardboard.  “It was great.”

 

Luke smiled at her.  “I’m glad.  Jean Paul is in need of a settling influence.  My sister will be thrilled.”

 

“So, Holly,” her mother asked, gazing at her hopefully, “do you see a ring in the near future?”

 

A ring? It was so patently absurd she almost spit her soup across the room laughing.  No.  There would be no ring.  There probably wouldn’t even be another date if she had anything to say about it.  Not that she would have to make that decision.  After Saturday, he was probably hot and heavy with Carly.  “Uh, I don’t know. Maybe.”

 

It wasn’t the ringing endorsement her mother wanted, but it was the best she could do.

 

After only a second of concern, her mother squared her shoulders.  “He will ask.  Don’t you worry.”

 

Two dates.  A guy who hardly knew she was around except to show off to his friends?  Yeah, she was going to hold her breath for that one.  “If you say so.”

***

As crazy-bizarre as the idea sounded, Holly couldn’t get it to leave her alone.  The possibility that he was out at the carriage house pulled her heart and soul out onto the balcony.  But what would she tell him?  She wasn’t running tonight.  Not really.  Tonight she just wanted to be with him, to feel that peace for another fleeting moment.

 

She turned and looked back into the room, partially trying to talk herself out of it, and partially looking for a good enough excuse to go.  Then she thought of it.  Pushing from the railing, she went over to the little dresser.  Rosa had brought them up earlier—washed and ironed.  And really, who ironed sweats and a T-shirt?

 

The decision settled in her.  Without another thought she strode to the balcony, tossed the clothes down to the ground far below, grabbed the trellis, and climbed down.  This was crazy, but her heart knew it was right.

***

Peace at any price is not real peace.  Trying to maintain peace when it is only a façade is not real peace.  It is a denial of the truths of a soul, a belief in a control that is not truly available.  To gather false peace with no truth underlying it is to hold to an illusion that will eventually be discovered because no illusion can ultimately stand the illumination of truth.  Only that peace which would withstand full illumination is real.  This is the real peace known by a rich soul who has surrendered his life to the light, banishing the illusions in favor of only those things that are truth.

The squeak of the door brought Gabe up off the back of the sofa.  He needed this part about peace because if he allowed the truth to reach his mind, he would’ve had to confess that peace was very far away.  He almost sat back, berating himself for being so jumpy, but in that moment he heard her voice.

 

“Gabriel?  You up there?”  She sounded hopeful yet unsure.

 

He stood slowly, laying the book aside, and walked to the railing.  The picture of her standing there at the door, haloed by the soft moonlit night raced through his heart.  “Yeah. I’m here. Come on up.”

***

Seeing him up there, hovering, made Holly sense the angelic quality she had perceived to emanate from him from the very beginning.  She ducked, closed the door behind her, and started up the stairs.  Flashes.  Broken images of climbing these stairs in the dark assaulted her.  She closed her eyes to block them out, beating the pain back as well.  She didn’t want to feel the pressing of the fearsome darkness that had so clouded her soul when she had last climbed these steps.  Still it followed, taunting her.

 

She was hardly breathing when she got to the top—not for the climb but for the all-out battle to erase every bad thing that had ever happened in her life.  It seeped into her with a damp chill.  Nonetheless, with everything in her, she wanted to be that for him—the angel he deserved, pure and hope-filled with no bad stuff anywhere around.  It hurt that she never would be.  She tucked a blonde strand behind her ear. “Uh, sorry to bother you. I just wanted to bring these back.” Holding the clothes out to him, she let her gaze plummet to the wooden planks at her feet.  “Thanks.”

 

He held out his hands and took them, gazing at her in the way that unnerved her. In the red T-shirt with the dark unbuttoned shirt over it, his soft gaze touched the middle of her heart.  Those eyes, like two pools of deep compassion, held out understanding that gripped her with a respect she didn’t deserve.  He would never look at her like that if he knew.

 

Suddenly she had no idea what to do.  The silence between them had stretched too long. She stuck her hands in her back pockets and glanced back down the stairs.  The floor below seemed fathoms and fathoms away.  “Well, I guess I’d better… go.”

 

His nod was slow and delayed. “Oh, okay.  Yeah, of course.”

 

Not wanting to impose on his sanctuary anymore than she already had, she turned and put her hand out for the railing.

 

“Unless,” he said, stopping her with the word.  “I mean, I’m sure you have tons to do, and everything, but…”

 

Holly turned back to him, hoping he was asking what she thought he might be.  Her heart surged in her chest, wishing, hoping that she wouldn’t have to leave just yet.

 

Gabriel half-smiled, hopeful but hesitant.  “You could stay a little bit… if you want.”

 

Overwhelming gratefulness filled her.  She looked at him and met his half smile with one of her own.  Not trusting her voice, she nodded.  With his other hand full of clothes, Gabe put his hand out to her in invitation.  Holly came back up the stairs and stepped past him into the loft she’d been in but had never really seen.

 

“Wow.  This is nice.”  She sat down on the old, threadbare couch and let her gaze take in the room.  It wasn’t huge exactly, but the space above and below made it feel much bigger than it truly was.  A single light dangled from the high ceiling above, fully lighting the immediate loft, but leaving the far side of the carriage house in shadows.  As she perused the area, her gaze fell upon the half bookshelf standing to the side and back of the couch.  “Are these your books?”

 

She stood and went to the bookshelf.  It was crammed with books of every shape and size.  “Man, you weren’t kidding.”  She sat on her heels, running her hand over the spines, taking them all in.  They held the key to him.  She was sure of it.

 

Reverently she reached out to touch one stack on the second shelf down.  Tilting her head, she read the titles.  This Present Darkness.  The Ragamuffin Gospel. Grace Walk. Grace Rules. “And these are all about God?”

 

“More or less,” he said from behind her.

 

Her gaze slid down the five shelves once more.  “Wow.  I can’t imagine reading this many books.  You must be a fast reader.”

 

“You get better, the more you do.  I was terrible at first.”

 

“Really?”  She picked one up.  This Present Darkness.  She thumbed through it.  It was hardly kindergarten reading material.  The print was tiny, and there were several hundred pages in it.  Her knee was cramping from the awkward position, and without really thinking about it, she turned her leg and sat down cross-legged.

 

Laying the first book on the floor beside her, she pulled another one out.  The Ragamuffin Gospel. However, when she opened this one, the first thing that broke through her understanding was the incredible amount of markings on the pages.  She laughed. “Wow. This one must’ve really been second hand.”  She continued looking through it.  There were pages that were hardly legible for all the markings.

 

“No, that was the first one I really started with.  I go back to it a lot.”

 

Holly glanced up at him and then tried to read some of the writings in the margins, tilting the book first one way and then the other.  “I don’t understand.  You write in them?”

 

He shrugged.  “It helps me remember the good parts.”  There was a hesitation, but she was too enthralled to notice.  “Sometimes it’s like I kind of have a conversation with the book as I write in them.  It’s like the author and I are sitting down talking.”  He reached up and scratched the back of his head.  “Pretty weird, huh?”

 

“Oh.”  She hadn’t really heard the question.  “No.  Not really.”  She laid that book down and grabbed another one.  It was like wanting to drink all of the ocean at one sitting.  Grace Walk came off the stack next.  She opened it and again there were markings. “So you write in all the books you read?”

 

“Only the good ones, but then, those are the only ones I get through.”

 

“And you’ve read all of these?”

 

“Yeah, a couple times.”  He crossed his arms and  shifted feet.  “It helps me remember.”

 

A desire so deep it swept everything else away whipped through her.  She read one sentence.  Then another.  Then a paragraph.  Reading, but feeling somehow immersed rather than simply decoding words.  How long she sat like that, she wasn’t at all sure.  But the words were fascinating even if she couldn’t clearly grasp their depth.

 

“You know, you don’t have to sit over there in the dark,” he finally said.  “The couch is a lot more comfortable.”

 

“Oh.” She looked up at him like she’d forgotten he was there.  “Do you mind?”

 

He held his hand out for her, and she laid her hand in his.  It was rough but strong. He pulled her to her feet and instantly stepped back and away.

 

“Hmm.”  He cleared his throat as he ran the hand that had been in hers across the back of his neck.  With unsteady movements, he went over to the little coffee table and moved the books on it.

 

Holly grabbed up the three books she’d been looking at and stepped over to the couch.  Somehow the darkness by the bookcase was less intimidating.  Nonetheless, she didn’t want to be rude after he’d been so nice to offer her a seat, so she sat down, pressed herself against the far side, stacked the books beside her, and opened the top one.

 

It was the big one with no markings.  She flipped it to the first chapter and pushed her hair back to start reading.

 

Carefully he sat on the other side of the couch and picked up his own book from the coffee table.  There was something so cozy about this, but at the same time it was completely weird.  Here she was, sitting in a damp loft, with a guy, reading—of all things.  Rebecca would never believe this one.  However, Holly had hardly gotten that thought through her head when reading really kicked in, and she forgot the present reality and let herself fall into the story in her hands.

***

It was really hard to concentrate with Holly, the beauty queen, sitting on the other end of the couch.  Gabe wanted to ask what she was doing here, if she was playing some kind of game with his mind or what.  It couldn’t be that she was really interested in books.  Were girls like her interested in books?

 

He thought back to high school, but there was so little of that time he’d wanted to remember that little details such as this hardly had a chance to stick.  In frustration, he forced himself to focus on his own book.  It was best to just let her be and concentrate on his own stuff.

The world does not hold out real peace.  The world’s peace is a fake peace that says, “You will be at peace if you have… the newest car, the biggest bank account, the largest house on the block… if you just had your debt paid off or your house paid for… if you only had a better education or your own business…, then you will be at peace.”  Tragically, those who get these things often find that peace has not arrived with their latest acquisition.  Instead, peace is now, once again, out there, only now it’s somewhere else.  Poor souls chase the rainbows of acquisition—acquisition of wealth, fame, and things.  They have bought into the lie that peace can somehow be attained from something outside themselves.

This is not true, of course.  Real peace is about where you are with yourself and recognizing where your greatest desires meet your greatest opportunities.  Not some day.  Not when or if… But right now. These desires are not the desires of the world, but those whispers of your being that God has planted deep in your soul to be your guiding force in showing you what your life is meant to be.  They are what both shows you the next step and lets you take it in perfect confidence, knowing He has already ordained this moment long before you got here.

As you find these desires and begin to honor them for what they are showing you, and bringing you, you will stop chasing the false rainbows of the world and start believing in the you God created.  You will begin to realize that most mountains are in your mind and most impossibles are only impossible because you say they are.  Rich souls allow God to decide what is impossible.  Poor souls think they know what is.

Gabe breathed that in and re-read it.  Rich souls allow God to decide what is impossible.  Poor souls think they know what is. Furtively he glanced over the book at her.  She had pulled her feet up under her and was leaning both on the back and on the armrest of the couch.  For all outward signs, there was no awareness of the outside world in her at all.

 

A soft gratefulness wafted through him.  Maybe she was meant to come here.  Maybe there was a purpose for their paths crossing.  Quietly he closed his eyes and put his head back on the cushion.  “God, show her what she’s missing.  Fill in the pieces so she sees You.  Give her You, God.  She needs You so badly.”

***

Holly had long since lost track of time.  It melted away like ice on a warm summer’s day. She turned yet another page, lost in the story, in the idea that there were angels standing at the ready to protect and defend against the demons stalking every move the characters made.  It was like some giant chess match, influenced by the people’s choices but carried out on a plain mortals never see.

 

Halfway through that paragraph, motion on the other side of the couch attracted her attention.  She glanced over, yanked back to reality by the understanding that he was still there.  It was then that she noticed he was not reading.  Instead his head was back, his eyes closed, his breathing soft and rhythmic.  Holly lowered her book, enjoying the chance to simply watch him sleep.  He seemed so peaceful, like he always did.

 

Her heart yearned for the peace his soul exuded.  She noticed the book in his hands and tilted her head to read the title.  True Power & Real Peace. She almost laughed out loud as she wondered if he had that one memorized.  Feeling the hazy dream of being in a place so perfect slip over her, she laid her head on the couch back, watched him for a moment more, and then went back to reading.

***

The dream was so real.  As the heaviness of reality began to press back in on him, Gabe shook his head and rubbed his eyes.  Being with her, it was always such a good way to sleep.  However, when he yawned the dream away, his gaze found hers looking at him.

 

She smiled that angel’s smile which made his heart dance.  “Good morning.”

 

Panic both at how many hours might have passed and at her actually being here with him broke over him. “Morning?  I haven’t been asleep that long, have I?”

 

Quietly she laughed.  “No, not quite.”

 

He rubbed his eyes again. “What time is it anyway?”  He picked up his arm and moaned.  “Midnight?  Why didn’t you wake me up?”

 

“I was afraid you might make me give the book back.”

 

Gabe pulled himself up from the couch and stacked his three books on the coffee table.  “Mom’s going to kill me.”  He sensed the hesitation that clung to Holly, but he didn’t really understand it—nor did he have time to contemplate it.

 

Slowly she stood as he gathered up the books and put them on the bookshelf.  She followed him, making him feel the enormity of her presence in the loft.  “Here.”

 

He turned, and she handed him two books.  Then she held up the third.

 

“I’m kind of…”  She didn’t finish the sentence, and there was something in her eyes he couldn’t quite read.  “I mean… It’s your book and everything.”

 

A gear at a time his brain jerked into gear.  “Oh, yeah.  No problem.  Take it.”

 

“I’ll bring it back. I promise.”

 

He spun to the bookcase, nerves and heart jumbling all the logic circuits in him.  “Don’t worry about it.  I won’t be reading it any time soon.”

 

“Are you sure?  I’d hate…”

 

“Hey.” He turned back to her, wishing he wasn’t so flustered.  His hand reached up and brushed across the tangled, matted hair on his head.  He really needed a shower.  “It’s fine.  Don’t worry about it.”

***

At 2:30, Holly had to force herself to put the book down and turn off the light.  The shadows in her room always brought a shivery chill to her.  It was as if they had a life of their own.  Now, she realized, they probably did.  She felt the little fear demon huddling over in the corner, waiting for her to sleep so he could spin the web of darkness all over her in her dreams.  She pulled the covers up to her chin and then over her head.  Yes, it was comforting that there were warring angels from God out there, but they were in the loft—not here.

 

Breathing was like lifting a giant anvil up from her chest.  She couldn’t wait for 7 a.m. to arrive.  To be with him and the angels that surrounded him. They always had a way of chasing away all of her demons.

Copyright Staci Stallings, 2007

Posted in A Light in the Darkness, Novels | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A Light in the Darkness, Ch. 7 & 8

Chapter 7

 

The alarm sounded Tuesday morning, and Gabe reached over, hit it, and pulled his head up to look at the numbers.  Why, he wasn’t really sure.  They said the same thing they did every morning.  5:45.  He dragged himself up and out of the bed, trudged to the little bathroom, and snapped on the light.  His eyes protested the invasion.  He made his way to the mirror, and looking at himself, rubbed his hand up, down, and across his eye.

 

It was weird, he could stay up all night, but the getting up early thing would never be second nature to him like it was to his father.  He yawned as he turned the water on in the shower.  His thoughts flowed from point to point examining the day ahead.  The fact that he’d be babysitting his dad again made him sigh.  He stepped into the shower and let the hot water pour down on him.

 

If he could just find a way to explain to his dad that his presence was more important at home than at work, that would take a lot of the stress off of him.  However, he knew that would never happen.  No, his dad was stubborn.  He would go to work whether anyone liked it or not.  The stress clasped itself across Gabe’s chest, and the water did nothing to release it.  No, like it or not he had to pick up as much slack as he could without his dad knowing or even suspecting.

 

He turned so that the torrent hit him smack in the face.  Staying here forever sounded good.  However, his thoughts turned to how soon he needed to leave and then to the garden.  The sigh this time was more of a moan.  She would be there again.  Why, he had no idea, but she would be—drinking her coffee and asking question after question about things he really couldn’t answer.  What was he supposed to do about that?  How was he supposed to tell her to get lost when telling her to get lost might well get him fired?  Then again, after his brilliant performance yesterday, she probably wouldn’t show up again anyway. However, that thought tightened his heart like even the others hadn’t. It was a no-win situation.

 

As he re-shampooed his hair which always seemed to hold as much dirt as curl, he remembered the book from the night before.  The Source.  True Power.  He breathed that in, and the stress released some of its hold.  Circumstances bend to True Power, not the other way around. It was something like that.  So did that mean if he was going on the power of God, his circumstances would change?  If so, maybe that meant she would no longer come around and that he wouldn’t care one way or the other.  Maybe that ultimately meant he wouldn’t be stuck in a situation he couldn’t change but couldn’t live with either.

 

He rinsed off one more time, then cut the water, and grabbed a towel.  This thought held out some hope.  He stepped out of the shower and over to the fog-covered mirror.  Tying the towel at his waist and using his forearm to clear the mirror, he looked at himself.  “Okay, God.  I don’t know how to get her to quit coming, and her coming is driving me nuts.  But today I’m trusting Your Power to change this situation.  Do it the way You want.  I’ll do whatever You tell me.”

***

The fact that she was supposed to be at work at nine didn’t deter Holly in the least.  She grabbed her coffee and a muffin and quietly traipsed past the pool to the trellis.  She couldn’t explain it, but she was drawn to these early morning weeding sessions.  They grounded her somehow.

 

He was on the other trail, the one she had walked down the first day.  Just the sight of him sitting there lifted her heart.  She wanted to tell him about the job, about Luke, but she wasn’t even sure he would want to hear it.  However, she wanted to tell him just the same. Softly she stepped up as she watched him, digging under the large purple-flowered bush.  The sight made her heart lift as if on wings. “Morning.”

 

When he turned, she couldn’t quite read his eyes.  “Morning.”  He went back to weeding.

 

“Mind if I join you?” Her behavior from the day before slid back into her memory.  He must think she was crazy.

 

He didn’t remove himself from the bush. “Suit yourself.”

 

Herself said she wanted to, so she sat down.  The sidewalk was cold because the sun was only now tinting the world pink.  She huddled into her sweatshirt, wondering what time he actually got here in the mornings.  Maybe he just stayed here all night.  It still wasn’t totally clear to her that he wasn’t an angel that appeared and disappeared like magic.  She ate the last few crumbs of her muffin and took a drink of the hot coffee.  Then, with nothing left to do, she simply sat and watched him.

 

It was hard to explain why that was so fascinating. There was a rhythm there that she hadn’t noticed until now.  The movement seemed choreographed to some unheard beat.  If she listened, she could almost hear it.  Kind of like listening to the flowers.  It wasn’t something you noticed if you were busy, but when you got quiet, it was right there.  She took another drink of her coffee. “So, how’s God this morning?”

 

Gabriel looked back at her, his dark, thick, curly hair sticking out at strange angles from being combed by the bush.  “Good.  He says, ‘Hi.’”

 

She laughed and then let the laugh die.  “I doubt it.  I don’t even think He knows I’m alive.”  She took another drink as he moved down the path.

 

“Oh, yeah?  Why’s that?”

 

The shrug hurt although she didn’t want it to.  “We don’t talk much.  I don’t really see the point.”

 

He was carrying on the conversation in the midst of a wall green of leaves.  “You don’t go to church?”

 

“Not unless I have to.”

 

He moved under the bush. “When was the last time?”

 

She let the question wind around her brain.  “I don’t remember.  When I was two?”

 

“And you haven’t been since?”

 

“What’s the point?  God doesn’t want to hear from me.”

 

The weeding stopped, and he looked at her.  “I wouldn’t be so sure about that.”

 

She let herself get trapped by his eyes. The intense green dragged her into them. “Why’s that?”

 

He went back to weeding, yanking the plants from the earth. “Well, you come out here every morning, and He’s all you want to talk about.  I’m just wondering if He’s doing some work on getting you to remember He’s around.”

 

Holly recoiled at the idea.  “I’m only asking because you said you were praying.”  She took a drink.  “Not because I’m interested.”  Where the defensiveness was coming from, she wasn’t quite sure.

 

“Uh-huh.”  He pulled a particularly big weed out and moved down the path.  “And curiosity about what He thinks about you isn’t something you think about at all.”

 

“Oh, I know what He thinks about me.  That’s pretty obvious.”  It seemed as much as she wanted to come, when she was here, she always ended up wanting to run away.

 

“How so?”

 

She shook her head and let out a frustrated breath.  “He’s seen me… when I’m sure He was wondering, ‘What did I waste My time making that?’”  She shook her head again.  “I think He probably wants to forget all about me.”

 

There was a hesitation.  The rhythm skipped a beat.  His motion slowed and then stopped altogether.  He removed himself from the midst of the clump of yellow brush.  Turning, he caught her in his gaze.  He laid his hands on his criss-crossed ankles. “Is that really what you think?”

 

Holly swallowed hard.  She blinked twice. Yes, that was what she thought, but with him looking at her like that, she couldn’t say it.  Instead she shrugged as her gaze fell.  How could she tell him about the nights with guys she didn’t even know?  How could she explain about Gus and hiding out in a bathroom waiting for the door to come crashing down so he could get a clean, point-blank shot at her?  How do you put that kind of terror into words?  How could she explain the emptiness and the shame she felt every time her actions came to light?  How could she say it without bringing them to light?

 

She knew he was moving back toward her, but she couldn’t pick her gaze up to him.  If she did, he would know everything.

 

Then he was right next to her, no more than a foot away.

 

“Hey,” he said softly, and she felt the heat of his gaze glide across her face.  “Hey.” This time his finger, soft and gentle, grazed under her chin, lifting and turning it so her gaze met his.  He searched her soul with his eyes, reading every word on her heart.  “Whatever it is.  It doesn’t matter.  God loves you, right now, just the way you are.”

 

Pain and horror at the things she had done, the things she had allowed herself to be a part of, ripped to the surface.  Her spirit crumpled around them as the tears came.  She dropped her gaze from his, letting gravity pull her chin from his touch.  The shaking of her head was not so much caused by a signal from her brain as from the torment of her heart.

 

“Hey,” he said as she collapsed under the weight of all her stupid decisions.  “Hey.”

 

And then she was in his arms.  Why and how she had no idea.  But he was holding her, stroking her back, as tears upon tears came gushing out of her.

 

“Shhh.”  His touch was gentle and solid.  It felt so different than every other guy who had ever held her.  They always used this kind of moment to their maximum advantage.

 

At that thought, she yanked herself from him.  He was a nice guy.  That much was clear.  He believed in God.  He prayed, and he cared.  The last thing he needed was the concrete block that was her life hanging around his neck.

 

“I’ve got to go.” She jerked herself to standing.

 

“Wait.  Holly.  Why?”  He jumped to his feet, blocking her path.

 

However, she shook her head and brushed past him.  She couldn’t stop when running made so much more sense.

***

And once again, Gabe was left standing on the path looking after her.  He called to her twice, but she never so much as slowed down.  Frustration poured out of his sigh as he looked up at the sky.  “Okay, God, You and I have to have a serious talk.”

***

“Right on time,” Luke said, looking up as Holly strode into his office.

 

Hoping he wouldn’t notice that her eyes were still red from the crying, she pulled herself up to her full height and let out a solid breath.  “Holly Jacobs, reporting for duty, Sir.”

***

The pain and fear in her eyes haunted Gabe all day.  Cleaning the shrubs lining the entry of the driveway, he couldn’t get those eyes out of his mind.  Maybe it had something to do with the noise of the weed whacker or the noise-blocking headphones, but for four solid hours, all he thought about was her.

 

The fact that his father was gone when he got back barely registered.  It was, after all, long past quitting time.  The dirt fell in clouds from his body, face, and hair as he replaced the protective eyewear and headphones on the wall.  At the little sink in the work shop, he glanced at himself and shook his head.  “I look like a raccoon.”

 

He washed as much of the dust off as he could, tossed the towel to the side, and went to the desk.  Neat piles were stacked in three places.  His father’s piles.  He had seen them like this since he was a child.  Carefully he sat down to examine them, trying to divine the system.  The schedules lay in one pile, in the others a myriad of information connected only because it had to do with the grounds.

 

A full thirty minutes passed as Gabe sat going piece by piece through the stacks.  His father knew the system, and with everything in him, Gabe wanted to know it too. However, as the clock wound round and down to 7:30, he finally gave up.  Figuring it out would have to wait for another day.

 

As he left the work shop, he considered going straight home.  He was a mess from the weed eating, and it would be nice to get a full night’s sleep for a change.  Nonetheless, the carriage house called, and as always he turned the pickup up the little trail and headed that direction.  At the crest of the hill, part of him tried to tell him he was just too tired tonight.  He really should go home.  Tomorrow might be better than today anyway.

 

After all, he couldn’t think straight what with her and the ringing of his ears.  But determination to not waste a moment of the time God gave him pulled him out of the cab and to the heavy door.  He opened it and stepped in.  It was still strange.  It had been almost a week, and yet every time he stepped into the dark, cold air, he still stopped and listened for her.

 

She wasn’t here.  She never would be, he told himself harshly.  “Forget about her.”

 

He turned on the swinging light and climbed the steps to the loft.  With every step something told him he should just go home.  Go home.  Get some rest.  Take a break. It was crazy to keep coming here.  What was he searching for anyway?  He was all the way to the top of the stairs when the understanding struck him like a throw brick.  Satan.

 

That yanked tired away and replaced it with anger. “Okay, Satan and all your little minions, that’s enough.  You are hereby banished from this place by the Blood of Jesus Christ, my Lord and my God.  Get away right now.”  He closed his eyes.  “Holy Spirit, fill the void with You—Your peace, Your love, Your direction.  Amen.”

 

It never ceased to amaze him how that simple prayer brought utter peace to his soul.  He walked over to the bookshelf, pulled off True Power & Real Peace and then the Bible.   He put the two books on the tiny coffee table, picked up the old quilt he used for just such times, and tossed it over the couch to protect it.  Then he sat down.  Ever since pulling out of the work shop, he had meant to read the book that had held him captivated; however, instead he grabbed the Bible.

 

With a shrug he opened it to the first page he came to and started reading.

 

I, the Lord, chose you because of My kindness, and I am here at your side.  I created and appointed you to bring light and My promise of hope to nations.  You will give sight to the blind and set prisoners free from dark dungeons.

 

Taking the Bible, he sat back into the couch.  I, the Lord, chose you.  Those words.  They seemed not random but pointed, very much like the signs he had gotten so used to when he first came back from the brink.  I, the Lord, chose you. You.  It echoed in his mind.  Not somebody else.  Not the President or the mayor.  You.

 

“But why, God?  Why me?  What is it You want me to do?”

 

His gaze fell back to the words.

 

Bring light… hope… give sight to the blind… set prisoners free from dark dungeons. The words filled him to the top so that a breath could hardly get in.

 

“How?  How do I do what You’re asking?  I don’t know how.  Set prisoners free from dark dungeons?  I don’t know any prisoners, and how could I free them anyway?  What is this?  You want me to be a lawyer?”

 

The message felt so close, as if God was standing right there saying the words right to him, and yet Gabe couldn’t quite get a handle on them.  “I know, God.  I know You’re trying to tell me something, but I don’t see it.  Help me to see it.”

 

He reached down and picked up True Power & Real Peace.  Instead of opening it where he had left off, he opened it randomly, and his gaze snagged on a phrase.

 

Because you know He is at your side.

 

Gabe’s breath stopped.  His gaze backed up to the top of the paragraph.

 

Real peace comes when you know in your deepest self that you are not alone, that you do not have to take even a single step by yourself because you know He is at your side, that His power is IN you.  Real peace is grounded in the understanding that you can never be harmed for any trial that you are faced with must first pass through Him for He stands in your future waiting for you to get there.  And so you can walk with confidence, knowing His power is in you and His peace surrounds you.

As you walk on this path, you will become aware that not everyone understands these things as you do.  Some will try to knock you off the path.  Some will try to tell you that there is no path like this, that the world’s way is the only way.  Some will consider you crazy for believing anything of the kind exists.  But some… some will be inspired by your walk to begin their own.  It is these for whom God has called you to light the path.

Through the understanding of True Power that we spoke about earlier, you know that God does not expect you to light this person’s path on your own.  You must only be there to reflect God’s light into their lives as His Power and His Peace is shown in yours.  As you do this, they will be called forth from their dungeons of darkness and begin to seek the light, His light, reflected in your life.

This is the ultimate calling of all rich souls.

Light.  Darkness.  Dungeons.  Sight.

 

Gabe had seen this kind of thing before, when all messages pointed to one thing.  Like shortly before his father’s heart attack when he had signed on to fill in “for a few days” because one of the other guys quit.  The book slid to his knees.  This job was supposed to be temporary, a couple days, a week maybe.  And then the heart attack and the frightened pleadings of his mother, and now, here he was.

 

There is a reason.  The words floated as if from nothingness to him.  For a moment he reacted. Then he let them into his consciousness.  There is a reason.  It is what he had felt from the first moments of his father’s heart attack.  He had been here for a reason.  And yet… Yet, he wasn’t sure he liked the reason.

 

Maybe he wanted to be somewhere else—at the corporate offices of Smithe & Jenkins perhaps.  They’d offered an apprenticeship.  He’d even accepted.  And then came the heart attack.  That moment seemed to have changed the whole trajectory of his life, but he hadn’t been scared or even especially angry.  As weird as that sounded, it had felt… right.

 

But now.  Now he was facing a future blurred by that moment.  The only thing that kept his feet here was the constant reminder that God had a plan, that there was a reason, that he must be willing to take the next step and trust.  Sometimes that was the hardest thing to do, trusting when there was no real evidence that being here was at all the thing he should be doing.

 

In fact no one at school understood.  There were times he didn’t even understand.  Like tonight.  And now, here was God, once again, telling him there was a reason and that he was not alone.  A book he had read sometime in college drifted through his consciousness.  It was something about getting out of the boat and walking on water.

 

He didn’t remember much about it other than how it felt while he was reading it to consciously choose again and again to get out of the boat of doing it himself in order to do it God’s way.  It always seemed like God chose the most impossible option, but it always turned out to be exactly the decision that led him to his heart’s truest desire.

 

And here he was again, walking on water, only this time he couldn’t define just why.  There was his father’s situation, yes.  And there was the overwhelming amount of work to be done, the question of how to go back to school when that time came, and what to do when school was over.  But even all those seemed inadequate to what God was asking of him.

 

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.  “Show me, God.  Show me.”

 

Instantly behind his closed eyes Holly’s face came into focus, and he gasped at the clarity of it.  His eyes flew open, and he shook his head.  “Oh, no. No. You can’t be serious.”  He jumped to his feet and paced to the railing.  “She doesn’t even believe in You.”

 

However, even as he said it, he knew it wasn’t true.  She was lost, that much was abundantly true, but she was also seeking, reaching out for answers, for The Answer.  His gaze dropped back to the book still in his hand.  He opened it.

 

You must only be there to reflect God’s light into their lives as His Power and His Peace is shown in yours.  As you do this, they will be called forth from their dungeons of darkness and begin to seek the light, His light, reflected in your life.

This is the ultimate calling of all rich souls.

 

It was crazy to even think he could make any kind of difference in her life.  She wouldn’t even stay to finish a conversation!  However, the protests were drowned out by the deep knowing.  Holly was his assignment, sent to him by the Holy Spirit.  He was here for a reason, and the reason was her. The only problem was, he felt dry himself.  How could he let God’s love in his life overflow into hers if he was using every drop of it to keep going himself?

 

Trust and know I am at your side.

 

“Okay, God,” he finally said, letting the words jump into the void in him.  “But You’re going to have to do this if You want it done because I know I can’t.”

 

Interestingly peace filled his heart as if God replied, “That’s all I needed to hear.”

***

The next morning for the first 20 minutes of weeding, Gabe had done nothing but pray for her.  First it was for the right words when she came.  Then it was for God’s light to find her life without going through Gabe.  Finally it was for her safety because the fact that she hadn’t shown up yet was starting to worry him.

 

He was deep into weeding the Russian Sage when he heard her “Morning” behind him.  A smile spread all throughout his spirit as he breathed silent prayers of thanksgiving and for courage and peace.

 

He turned slightly.  “Morning.  I was beginning to think you weren’t coming.”

 

In her oversized maroon and gold Boston Central sweatshirt and jeans, Holly lowered herself to the walk and huddled there, sipping her coffee.  “Sorry. I was laying out my work clothes.”

 

Hope and surprise surged in him.  “Work clothes?  You got a job?”

 

She took a sip.  “I had it yesterday.  I just didn’t get to tell you.”

 

The sight of her retreating the day before played through him.  He considered saying something about it but stopped himself.  “Well, congratulations.  That’s awesome.  Where are you working?”

 

“For Mr. Teracini.  He took pity on me.”

 

Gabe disengaged a knot of weeds.  “Pity?”

 

“Yeah, I was about to atrophy sitting around the house all day.”  She took a sip.  “And shopping and Paris aren’t exactly my ideas of total excitement and joy.”

 

“Paris?”  This was easier than he thought.  He didn’t hardly have to say anything, just let her talk.

 

“My mother.” Holly rolled her eyes dramatically.  “She’s all into this now we’re rich illusion.”

 

He pulled more weeds.  “Why’s it an illusion?”

 

Holly put her elbows on her knees and leaned forward looking at him.  She seemed to be working on getting the right words to line up in her head.  Gabe didn’t push.  He knew better.  He’d learned better.

 

“Mr. Teracini is rich, and to my mother, that means we’re rich.  But I know how this works. I’ve lived it too many times.”

 

He nodded, watching her for clues to the depth of what she was telling him.  “How does it work?”

 

She took a sip and a breath.  “We get attached to some guy, Mom gets him to fall in love with her, they get married, and six months later they can’t stand each other.  So they get a divorce, and we’re back to square one.”

 

He yanked on a particularly stubborn weed. “And you think that’s going to happen this time?”

 

Holly shrugged and took a sip.  “Why won’t it?”

 

Understanding of how perilous it must be to live like that struck him.  For him, he’d lived in the same house nearly his whole life.  He’d known the same two parents, the same environment, the same everything for as long as he could remember.  He couldn’t imagine being uprooted every six months for a completely new life. “That must be tough, never really being sure.”

 

She took a sip and smiled a smile he didn’t like at all.  “You get used to it.”

 

He continued weeding, but only half-heartedly. “So, tell me about it.  If you’re constantly scared it’s going to be over, or thinking that it might be, you must make some assumptions about how to live now.”

 

“I used to try to make them stay—you know the guys she hooked up with.  I’d do the dishes, do the laundry, do my best to stay invisible and out of the way, or whatever else they wanted.  But they always left.  They always found a reason to hate us and leave.”

 

“Us?” That word stopped him. “I don’t think it was you they hated.”

 

She shrugged.  “Same difference.  They left, didn’t they?”

 

He couldn’t argue with that.  “But you’re doing it different this time.  You’re making your own way—like with this job.”

 

There was actually a small flicker of light that came through the gloom on her face.  “I’m just his assistant.  I’ll file and type—stuff like that, but it’s pretty cool.”  She took a small sip. “I don’t think Mom knows about it yet.”

 

Something in her tone made the hope in his fall into an abyss. “Oh, why not?”

 

Holly shook her head.  “She’d never allow it.” The sun peeked into the garden, and she jumped.  “What time is it?”

 

Gabe pulled his watch up to read it.  “Almost eight.”

 

“Oh, wow.  I’ve got to be going.”

 

Not wanting her to leave but ever the gentleman, he stood and reached for her hand.  “Yeah, me too.”  When she was up, he took a real look at her.  It was true, she was beautiful, but there was so much more there that he had never really bothered to see.  His hand stayed on hers for one more moment.  “Will you be back tomorrow?”

 

Her gaze met his, holding there.  “Will you?”

 

His smile slid slowly from his heart.  “I’m always here.”

 

For several seconds she didn’t move.  “Then so will I.”  She shook her head to get her gaze to disengage.  “I’ve got to go.”

 

He let her go and watched as she started up the walk.  “Have a good day, Holly.”

 

She turned, ever-so-slightly and waved.  For once he felt the peace of not having totally messed things up with her.  He reached down and grabbed the weeds.  She was so complicated.  Everything about her seemed complicated.  She lived so much on the surface of life that it was hard to get her to go deeper.  The sense that she didn’t want to go deeper slipped into his spirit.

 

“Dear Lord, please be with Holly today.  Protect her, Lord, and give her the strength to find the light.”

***

Holly wasn’t late, but she felt like she was.  In fact, she felt like a teenager sneaking in after curfew.  There was no reason she shouldn’t be out in the garden, but something about it made her feel the need to sneak those mornings past anyone who might be watching.  She raced up to her room, thankful she had laid out her clothes.

 

The ice blue button down shirt curved with her, and the black pants set off her slim legs.  When she looked in the mirror to wind her hair and secure it with a clip, she nodded.  She looked like assistant material.  After slipping on the black slingbacks, she hurried downstairs to the office.  On her swing she strode into the office.  “Good morning, Sir.”

 

Luke looked up from his desk and smiled.  “This is the kind of assistant I like.”

 

She went over to the credenza to see what he had laid out for her to do.  “How’s that?”

 

“She’s happy.  She’s cheerful.  She’s on time.”

 

Holly smiled at the list.  Maybe, just maybe for the first time in her life she might actually do something right.  “Is this the filing we talked about yesterday?”

 

“Oh, yes, and I noticed we’re behind on the receipts from the grounds crew.  The last one in there is like from April.”

 

She nodded understanding the problem but not how to fix it.

 

Luke continued to write on whatever he was doing. “We need to get those in the computer, so I can have a breakdown of what’s going where.”

 

“Okay.”  She held up the stack to file.  “And where do I get those?”

 

“You’ll have to run down to the work shop.  It’s at the bottom of the drive and off to the left in the trees.  Mr. Cabrelos should be in today.  He can get them for you.”

 

“Oh.”  The name sliced through her thoughts.  “Okay.”  She pulled herself up.  “Is this all?”

 

He barely looked up.  “For now.”

***

His father had gone into town for ten things that Gabe had forgotten they needed.  They weren’t on the list, and he was beginning to feel the pressure of being second in control with no idea what he was doing.  He had just come in from watering the roses in the private backyard when he heard the first noise.

 

“Knock. Knock.”  Her voice flitted through him like a butterflies on Alpine Columbine.

 

“Oh, y-yeah.”  He knew it was her without even seeing her. He cleared his throat.  “Come in.  I’m in here.”

 

The vision that stepped through the doorway trapped him in a trance so thick it fogged over his entire mind.  Beautiful didn’t even come close.

 

“Hey, I thought you might be who Mr. Teracini was talking about.”  That smile.  Those lips, now fully covered with bright red lipstick.  They sent him into spirals of unreality such that he had never before experienced.

 

Stunned silence was his only reply.

 

“So this is your office.” Holly’s gaze danced around the work shop that suddenly seemed horribly dirty and rank.  “Nice.”

 

“It’s…” Gabe jumped up, grabbed three rags from the top of the table, and tossed them into the trash.  “We haven’t really had time to clean it up here lately.  We’ve been kind of…”  When he turned, his breath was whisked from him.

 

She laughed. “Busy?”  Her nod and smile held him captive.  “I know.  That’s why I figured you haven’t had time to run the receipts up to the house.”

 

“The receipts?”  Even following a simple sentence was impossible.

 

“Yeah, I’m putting all the expenses into the computer for Mr. Teracini, but we’re behind on the receipts for the grounds work.”

 

Nerves and all-out confusion attacked him from all sides.  His hands fell from his hips.  “Oh, really?”  He cleared his throat again because a fist was choking the breath out of him.  “Well, when do you need from?”  He strode to the filing cabinet, seeing every single thing that was out of place or dirty, and that was like everything.

 

He started to open the metal monstrosity, but he didn’t get the silver latch all the way open, and the pull only made a lot of noise when his hand slipped from the handle with a thunderous clang. He tried again, fighting to calm himself down enough to think straight.  Hold, slide, open.  It seemed so simple ten minutes ago.  He scratched the side of his head. “Now, what do you need again?”

 

“From April,” she said, her voice tinkling like a million little bells.

 

“April.  April.”  He searched, wishing he had any idea what he was searching for.  Finally he came out with the folder that had been stuffed full of receipts he knew to keep but that he had no idea where or how or what to do with.  He pulled the mess out before he realized how disorganized and muddled it looked.  “This?”

 

Holly raised her eyebrows when she caught sight of it.  “Looks like you need a secretary too.”

 

Gabe handed her the folder, wishing he could hire her on the spot.  “I’m not always real good with paperwork.” Sheepishly he tilted his head and scratched his ear.

 

She leafed through the receipts until she was satisfied that this is what she had come for.  Then unexpectedly her gaze caught on his.  “Hey, we can’t be good at everything, right?”

 

The moment froze mostly because Gabe couldn’t think of anything else to say.

 

“Well, I guess this is what I needed,” she said, holding it up.  “Thanks.”

 

“Oh, y-yeah.  No problem.”

 

She turned to walk out, and he followed her, liking the back view as much as the front.

 

He couldn’t even feel himself moving, it was more being pulled by her. “Well, now that I know who to give them to, I’ll be sure to bring them up.”

 

She glanced back at him, clearly wary about falling into the dirt on the floor.  “Thanks. That’d be great.”

 

At the door, he leaned on it mostly so his jelly legs would have help holding him up.  “See you tomorrow?”

 

This time she really turned.  “I wouldn’t miss it.”  And with that she started up the trail to the driveway.

 

Never before had a girl affected him like that.  Then again, she was no ordinary girl.  She was Holly Jacobs, and just the name made his heart do flip-flops.  He turned back to work, anticipating the sunrise as he never had before.

 

Chapter 8

 

“Miss Holly,” Rosa said, knocking on the door softly.  “You have a phone call.”

 

For one absurd moment Holly’s heart took flight.  Maybe it was Gabriel. Then sanity took over.  It wasn’t Gabriel. She rolled off the bed wanting only to tell whoever it was to go away.  Downstairs in the sitting room, she picked up the phone.  “Hello?”

 

The night sky swathed the window behind her.

 

“Holly?  Hi, this is Jean Paul.  How are you?”

 

She closed her eyes and summoned her best act.  “I’m fine.  How are you?”

 

“Great.  Listen.  A group of friends and I are going out to the beach on Saturday.  I was wondering if you might want to come along.”

 

The beach?  That screamed trouble.  But if she said no, that would get back to her mother and to Luke, and Luke had been so nice to her, she didn’t want to mess that up by rejecting his nephew.  Plus, Jean Paul wasn’t that bad, and it was one day.  She wouldn’t let herself think beyond that.  “Okay.”

 

“Cool. I’ll pick you up about noon.”

 

“Okay.”  They were two of the hardest syllables she’d ever spoken.

***

Tapping into the True Power of The Source gives the rich soul the ability to see things not as they are but as they could be.

Gabe sat on the little couch absorbed in the depth of the words.  They held the keys, the answers he needed—not for himself now but for her.  Somehow that felt more important than any self-help tome he’d ever read.

 

The Bible says, “Faith is the evidence of things hoped for and the substance of things not seen.”  What this means for the rich soul is that you must learn to look not at the finished flower but at the seed and be able to see in it what no one else can—the potential it carries—that it is already the flower it is to become.

He smiled at the reference. Sometimes God was so funny.

 

This seeing takes something few Christians have learned to develop, but all rich souls must—the ability to imagine a world that is not visible to the world at large.  It is the letting go of what is termed reality to be able to see the possibility inherent in any situation. It is calling into the physical realm what already is in the spiritual realm.  It is what is meant by “Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”  Notice it doesn’t say “as it will be some day in Heaven,” but rather as it already is. It is understanding that what could be on earth already is in Heaven and bringing the two together in a powerful way.

For example, Oskar Schindler’s reality was that of war, killings, and utter hopelessness, but in the face of that hopelessness, he managed to imagine a business that helped save countless Jews.  Had he been bound by the reality of his situation, he would have been helpless to act in any meaningful way, much less to save others.  But he was not bound by reality.  He was not limited to what he could see.  He had faith.  He had imagination—the True Power of being able to see not what is but what could be, being able to see the solution Heaven already held.

It is the hallmark of a rich soul.

Gabe closed the book and sat for a moment.  When he glanced to the side, he saw it.  Carefully he reached over and picked the little stone up from the bookshelf.  It was the one Marvin had given him as a reminder of his probation years before.  He could still hear Marvin as he held the lumpy, bumpy, dirty outside of the rock into the light.

 

“You see yourself as the outside of this rock.  But I see you like this.”

 

Gabe remembered the very moment the soft, flat, shiny inside was revealed.  Even as he turned the geode over in his hands now, he remembered seeing it for the first time.  It was the beginning of a new life for him, one that to that moment he hadn’t even been able to imagine.

 

Faith is seeing what nobody else does.

 

His mind traced back to Marvin.  He hadn’t talked to the man in almost five years.  Gabe leaned back and tossed the stone into the air.  “He’s probably still pulling troublemakers out of the fire.”  With a breath he sat up, leaned forward, and closed his eyes.  “Thanks God, again, for Marvin.  You and I both know he saved my life.”

 

The night outside was drifting down into the depths of ebony when Gabe stood and replaced the rock.  It was a constant reminder of what could have been, and for that, he would be eternally grateful.  He pulled off the light, descended the stairs, and pushed through the heavy door.

 

The night beyond was humid and warm.  His gaze drifted up the hill to the mansion he couldn’t even see.  Faith and imagination let him see for a moment the possibility of making his dreams come true.  For now, that was enough.

***

“Morning,” Holly said when she finally found him by the pond.  There must be some system to where he weeded when, but so far she hadn’t found it.

 

“Morning,” Gabriel said from his position next to the large gray rocks.  “Did you get the receipts taken care of?”

 

She nodded as she sat down.  “I did.”  The moment drifted into the next before she spoke again.  She took a sip as she watched him.  There was something so peaceful about just doing that. “How’s the weeding coming?”

 

His movement snagged for a moment. “Great.  How’s the new job?”

 

“Fun.  I actually feel like I’m doing something right for a change.”  She lifted the cup to her lips.  “It’s scary.”

 

Gabriel pierced her with those soft green eyes.  “Must be nice to feel like you’re contributing again.”  He was sitting on a rock, pulling tiny weeds from around it.

 

“Nice to feel like someone knows I’m around.”

 

His hands were working with minimal thought on his part.  “So this is a permanent position then?”

 

“If I don’t mess anything up. As permanent as summer gets anyway.  I’ve got school back East in August, remember?” Teasing him was so easy, and she loved his smile.

 

“Back East.  Boston.”  He nodded at her sweatshirt.  “You must be very proud of going there.”

 

Confusion traced over her.  “Why’s that?”

 

“You wear that sweatshirt every morning.”  He shrugged and returned to working.  “You either love school, or you don’t have many things in your closet.”

 

Holly looked down at her sweatshirt.  She’d never even thought of it.  “It’s the only warm thing I brought with me. Unless you think weeding and cashmere go together.”

 

He didn’t say anything in reply.  She watched him for a long moment, thinking of the argument she’d had with herself the night before.  It wouldn’t hurt to ask.

 

“So, is this weeding thing like a solo assignment, or do can anybody do it?”

 

Genuine surprise lit his face.  “You want to weed?”

 

She shrugged.  “It looks relaxing.”

 

He laughed.  “Unless you’re on deadline.”  After a moment he motioned for her.  “Come here. I’ll show you.”

 

Holly set her cup down, pushed to her feet, and brushed off her jeans.  She picked her way through the grass and over to him.  As she folded herself down, she could feel his hand come out to steady her lest she fall.  Once on the ground, she wound a strand of hair over her ear, wishing she had thought to put it up but knowing it was too late now.

 

“It’s pretty simple.  The plants that are growing are supposed to be there.  Everything else has to go.”  He pulled a weed and held it up as if it was the secret to life.  He bent again, this time under the twining vine chasing out in all directions behind the waterfall.  “Just feel around.  You’ll know what’s not supposed to be there.”

 

On the plant next to him, Holly took his lead.  She got on her hands and knees not looking anywhere near as graceful as he did.  She patted around on the ground, not really feeling what he was telling her.

 

“Sweep your hand,” he instructed.  “You’ll feel them sticking up.”

 

She obeyed, and sure enough her hand brushed across something two inches higher than everything else.  With a small tug it came out.  She held it up for his inspection.

 

“See,” he said, taking it from her, “easy.”

 

At first awkwardness clung to her, telling her this was silly, but eventually that voice got tired and quieted down.  She pulled a weed here, two there as the peace and quiet of the morning wrapped around her.  Three plants down she sat back to watch him again.  There was a certainty about his motions that she didn’t feel quite yet, but it was nice to not be criticized for trying.

 

Her laugh came from deep down inside her.  “Well, now you just have to teach me to pray, and we’ll be all set.”

 

It was a joke.  At least she thought it was until he snatched her up in his gaze.

 

“Are you serious?”

 

Suddenly she wasn’t sure about anything.  “Well, that’s the point, right?”

 

He sat for a long moment just looking at her.  “Okay.  Well…”  He bent over so that his gaze was no longer on hers.

 

She waited a breath and then followed him.  She reached under the red and pink flowers.

 

“Dear Lord,” Gabriel said, his voice mixing with the breeze, “thank You for this morning.  Thank You for the blessings in our lives—those we see and those we haven’t yet seen.”

 

Holly’s spirit breathed in the words.  She pulled a small weed and then another.

 

“We ask You to guide us today in our work and in our relationships with others.  I ask that You be with my parents today.  Please show my dad he doesn’t have to be Superman, and give my mom the strength she needs to bear watching him try.”

 

There was a small pile gathering at her side.

 

“We ask that You be with Holly as she tackles this new job, that her skills and talent will be suitably recognized and rewarded.  God, we thank You and we praise You for finding a way to get her this job even though at one time it seemed impossible.”

 

The words wound into her heart, touching it softly in places long-ago hardened with bitterness and fear.

 

“Remove the obstacles standing in her path, Lord.  I ask that Your light shine in her world so that she will see You for Who You really are—loving, kind, generous, and gracious.  Rain Your Grace and Your Hope in our lives, Lord.  Where there is fear, sow love.  Where there is hate, sow love.  And where there is unbelief, Lord, give us faith and hope.  We ask this, Lord, in the Name of Your Most Beloved Son, Jesus Christ.  Amen.”

 

Long after the prayer drifted away on the breeze, Holly’s spirit continued it.  God, she prayed softly, thank You so much for Gabriel.  Give him every good thing because he’s been there for me when no one else cared.  Bless Rebecca and Emily and Eric too.  They’ve tried so hard, Lord, and I don’t know what I would do without them. Thank You for everything good in my life right now.  For Luke and for my mom.  Show her that I’m not as bad as she thinks.  And God, if possible, give her peace.

“Well,” Gabriel said, leaning back and dusting off his hands.  He looked at his watch.  “I think that’s it for today.”

 

“Oh.” Holly leaned back and looked at the small trail of weeds that had followed her movement down the garden.  It wasn’t impressive, but it felt good anyway.  She stood and arched her back.  Only then did she notice the dirt caked across her fingernails.  “I’d better get so I can get cleaned up.”

 

“Yeah.”  Gabriel’s eyes were gentle and kind.  “I’ll see ya around.”

 

She smiled gratefully.  “Around and around.”  Her gaze fell to the concrete, and when she looked at him, it was peeking out from under her fall of hair.  “Thanks.”

 

His smile lit his whole face.  “You’re welcome.”

***

By Saturday morning Gabe could think of little other than that precious hour spent each day with her in the garden, weeding, working, and praying.  It settled him, gave him a moment to look forward to the rest of the day.  He was working around the base of the gazebo when he heard the footfalls, and his heart shot forward like a racehorse.

 

“Morning,” she said from behind him.

 

He turned and couldn’t stop the smile.  “Morning.”

 

She knelt next to him, and the scent of her wafted over him.  Beauty and grace met in her being, and he breathed a prayer of thanksgiving for her presence in his life.  From all accounts work was going well, and he had the distinct impression that it was changing her in ways he couldn’t even articulate.  She was more confident now, less passive.  He counted those as good things and marveled at them as he watched her pulling up the weeds around the wood planks of the gazebo.

 

Somehow he had completely forgotten about everything else when suddenly her gaze snagged on his.

 

“So are you praying, or am I?” she asked with a teasing tone.

 

“It’s Saturday.  I think you should do the honors.”  For a second he was horrified by his own suggestion.  What if she freaked and took off again?

 

She let out a breath.  “Well, I’m not very good at it.”

 

Fear attacked him, but he staved it off.  “That’s okay.  Just talk to Him like you’d talk to me.”  That did nothing to calm him.  What was he saying?  This was totally putting her on the spot.

 

“Okay.”

 

Gabe’s heart slid through him.

 

Holly pulled three more weeds before she started.  “God, hi.  It’s me and Gabriel again.”

 

The fact that he wasn’t breathing hardly registered. However, he liked the sound of his name coming from her voice.  Silently he prayed his own prayer to help her with hers.

 

“Thank You for giving us today.  Thank You for the flowers and the trees and the vineyard.”  She sat back as her gaze traveled out, down, and across it.  It truly was beautiful. “Thank You so much for bringing me here and teaching me about You.”  One more moment and she dropped back to work.  “Thank You for Gabriel and his patience with me.  Thank You for everything You’ve done for me this week.  God, please be with Gabriel’s dad.  We put him in Your care.  Help Gabriel make good decisions about his parents and about his life going forward from here.

 

“I know how much You must love him, God.”  The words stopped, and Gabriel fought not to look over at her.  A few heartbeats and she found the train of thought once more.  “Thank You for everything.  Amen.”

 

She had made it a quarter of the way around the base.  A moment of the breeze taking the prayer to Heaven, and she glanced over at him.  “You think He heard any of that?”

 

Instantly he was caught in the hope in her eyes. “Do you?”

 

A weed.  Another.  “Yeah.  I think maybe He did.”

***

It seemed no time at all before Gabriel was standing to help her up.  How an hour could go by so quickly, Holly had no idea.

 

“Well,” he said, his gaze sliding out to the rolling hills far in the distance, “I guess it’s that time again.”

 

She dusted off her hands.  “Yeah, I guess so.”  She glanced up at him, and her heart gripped her breath.  How could anyone look so good in an old T-shirt and dirty jeans?  The breeze snagged her hair and sent it flitting across her face.  She brushed it away. “So same time tomorrow?”

 

Concern streaked across his face.  “No. Tomorrow’s Sunday.  I don’t come out here on Sundays, remember?”

 

Sad depression swooped in on her. “Oh, yeah.  I forgot.”  She tried to brush it off like it was nothing, but her heart peered into the abyss of 48 hours without the sound of his voice and the strong presence he exuded with absolutely no effort at all.  It was truly frightening. “Well, then I guess I’ll see you Monday.  Same time, same place?”  As if it was some sort of business transaction, she held out her hand.

 

“Can’t wait,” he said, looking into her eyes as their hands met.

 

The breath she took in with the strength of his touch threatened to fill her to overflowing.  It was all she could do to act like her brain waves weren’t scrambling.  “Cool.  I’ll see you then.”

 

“Yeah,” he said, but he never moved.

 

Holly sensed that if she didn’t break the spell, they’d still be standing here come Monday morning.  She took a step to the side.  “See you Monday.”  And with that, she forced her feet to follow the path toward the house.

***

“Monday,” Gabe said, not at all sure anything he was saying made any sense.  It was like falling into a black hole in which all of everything other than her was swallowed up and dispersed.  It was minutes at least after she had disappeared up the trail that he got enough of his senses back to move.

 

She should be outlawed he decided as he gathered the weeds and started for the work shop.  ‘Beware:  Hazardous to Your Sanity’ should’ve been tattooed to her forehead.  It was enough that she came and prayed with him, but touching her hand, looking into her eyes, hearing her say his name—those were just unfair to any man trying to stay calm, cool, and collected about the whole situation.  After all, it was a given that she wouldn’t be interested in him.  Why she even came was a mystery.

 

His mind was still on her when he made it to the work shop.  He walked into the office and found his father sitting at the desk.

 

“When Tim gets here, the two of you need to see about the front gate,” his father said.  “They called ten minutes ago, something about one of the hinges dragging.”

 

“K.”  In truth Gabe never really heard the order.

***

“Oh, London is so beautiful this time of year,” her mother had made Holly’s room her first stop upon her return, mostly because Luke was out of town on business.  “I can’t wait until Paris next week.”

 

The thought of telling her she couldn’t go traced through Holly, but she didn’t want to endure the yelling, so she said nothing.  Laying out her clothes as her mother prattled on, she wished with everything in her that she didn’t have to wear the bikini.  It said so much about her—things she wished weren’t true although she knew they were.

 

“Headed poolside?” her mother finally asked, noticing the accumulation of swimming paraphernalia.  “If you wait a minute, I’ll join you.  I have got to work on my tan anyway.  I’m going to look like a sick ghost by July if I don’t hurry.”  She stood to go.

 

“I’m not going to the pool.” Holly hated this part.  She grabbed the towel and the suntan lotion and shoved it into the bag.

 

“Well, then what’s all of this for?”

 

Holly sighed.  “I’m going to the beach.”

 

“By yourself?”

 

If she could figure out a way to not say it, she would have.  “With Jean Paul.”

 

Her mother’s eyes widened in sheer delight.  “Oh, how wonderful.”  She stepped over to Holly and laced her arm there.  “I’m telling you, this is going to work out for both of us.”

****

Gabe was perched high up on the ladder by the broken gate.  The top hinge was going to need some significant welding to get it working again.

 

“What do you think, boss?” Tim asked from the ground.

 

Movement down the drive caught Gabe’s attention.  “I think you’d better move, or you’re going to get run over.”  Only then did he really stop to see the car as it approached.  His eyes narrowed.  The black Porsche.

 

Below him, Tim pressed himself up against the trees to avoid the car that barely slowed down at the gate.  “Gee, hello!  We’re working here!”

 

“Like he cares,” Gabe spat.  He went back to examining the gate.  “We’re going to need the welder.  Bring the glasses, helmet, and everything.”

 

“You got it.”  Tim started off down the trail.

 

Gabe worked another ten seconds, and then his gaze followed the car up the driveway.  It couldn’t be, could it?

***

The ring of the doorbell went right through Holly.  He was here.  Great.  She heard Rosa open the door and her mother gush over him.  It was ridiculous how her mother couldn’t even open a door anymore.

 

“Holly!” her mother called so the dead could hear.  “Jean Paul is here!”

 

With a reluctant tug, she pulled her bag of swim gear off the bed.  Might as well get this over with.  She trudged down the stairs and was a little perplexed to find no one in the entryway.

 

“Oh, Darling, we’re in here,” her mother said from the sitting room.

 

When Holly reached the doors, she had to restrain her frustration.  There stood her mother, Armani suit and all, her arm hooked through Jean Paul’s.  Of course he couldn’t be rude and remove himself from her clutches.  Although she didn’t want to, Holly had to save him.

 

“Hi, Jean Paul.” She strode up and claimed him from her mother.

 

His eyes lit when he saw her.  “Wow.  You look amazing.”

 

She smiled.  “Thanks.  Are we ready?  I’d hate to be late.”

 

“Late with the beach crowd?” Jean Paul asked.  “They’d hardly notice I wasn’t there.  Although after they see you today, they’d definitely notice if you weren’t.” His gaze traveled all the way down her mini-skirted shirt dress.

 

It felt like he was undressing her with his gaze, and she fought not to squirm uncomfortably.  “Well, we’d better go.”

 

Her mother followed them to the door.  “You two have fun.  Don’t worry about curfew tonight.”

 

Holly cringed. Thanks for telling him that.

***

The moment the door opened, Gabe’s attention glommed onto them.  Tall and handsome her boyfriend looked like he’d been chosen to be the perfect compliment to her.  Blonde hair, athletic build, blue eyes that Gabe couldn’t see but knew were there anyway.  And the way he looked at Holly made Gabe want to punch him.

 

How stupid could he possibly be to let himself think he might ever have a chance with her?  There was no chance.  She came in the mornings because she was bored.  That was all.  He dropped his gaze to the hinge, trying not to watch.

 

The little Porsche roared to life just as Tim returned lugging the welder.  He dragged it to the side of the driveway and turned to watch the little black car wind down toward him.  He backed up off the asphalt and onto the dirt, yanking the welding cart with him to get it out of the way.  The Porsche never slowed down.

 

“Well for Pete sakes, people!” Tim yelled to the departing car.  “You could have a little patience.”  He spat an obscenity as he worked to get the welder unstuck from the soft dirt.  “Well, I guess that answers our question about the Ice Princess.”

 

“What question’s that?” Gabe asked, half-heartedly because the other half hurt too bad to follow the conversation.

 

“She is just like her mom.”

 

Fresh, stinging pain punched to the surface.  Fighting it, Gabe looked down.  “Are you going to get that thing together, or am I going to be up here all day?”

***

Thankfully it wasn’t Gabriel they’d almost run over although Holly was quite sure he would hear about the incident.  Jean Paul seemed wholly unfazed that he’d just sent a man stumbling into the trees to avoid bodily harm.  Holly glanced over at her escort, and dislike bordering dangerously on hate twined through her.  She readjusted her gaze outside.

 

Don’t think about it.  Get through it.  Clamp a good face down over whatever it is you really feel if you can’t make what you really feel go away altogether.

 

At that moment, Jean Paul looked over at her.  His hand traveled from the gearshift onto her bare knee.  “I can’t wait to show you off.  Lash is going to be there today.  He’s going to totally flip out when he sees you.”

 

Holly tried to smile like she couldn’t wait.  In reality she started saying prayers that someone was praying for her because she could certainly use them to get out of this mess in one piece.

***

“It’s JP!” one of the girls on the beach screamed.  She waved up to them.

 

Holly was abundantly conscious of his hand holding hers.  Had it not been, she might well have turned around and run.  There were at least fifteen people in the little group with the girl.  Nerves began inexorably taking over, but still Holly walked, following like a good little pre-wife.  Down the wooden steps they went until they arrived on the soft, warm sand.  It seeped in over her pink and yellow flip-flops.  What she would give for a good, cold, icy Boston snow right now.

 

“You made it, man,” one of the guys with long shorts but no shirt on said, holding his hand up for Jean Paul to hit. The guy had a tan the color of red clay.

 

“I said we would.”

 

The guy’s gaze went to her and down approvingly.  “So who’s your new friend?”

 

“Steve, this is Holly.”  Jean Paul stumbled on the last name.

 

“Jacobs,” Holly said, thankful she could remove her hand from Jean Paul’s to shake Steve’s.  However, the way Steve held it as he appraised her again made her skin crawl.

 

“Steve Lasher.” He looked at Jean Paul and smiled a toothy smile.  “I hope you brought your keys.”

 

Jean Paul held them up with a smile all his own.  “Of course.”

 

Steve’s gaze went down her again.  “Excellent.”

***

All day long against his own better judgment Gabe watched the front gate and the driveway.  If they went for lunch, they should be back by now.  But for all he knew they left for Tahiti to get married.  Frustration with himself for ever letting his guard down with her poured through him.  She was trouble from minute one.  He should have known that the second he saw her under the steps.

 

She wasn’t sweet and innocent, and he was no knight in shining armor.  Of course she said they weren’t rich and all of that, but that was probably a game too, meant to get his hopes up.  No, Holly Jacobs only went out with Porsche-driving hill boys who had no concern for anything or anyone other than themselves.

 

By quitting time, he’d worked himself into an all out pity party.  They were probably off at some exclusive club somewhere drinking martinis out of crystal.  It galled him to no end.  The thought of going home to face his mother’s disappointment with him as well as the sheer loneliness of his entire life sent him driving to the one place on earth he didn’t feel completely worthless.

 

In the door up the stairs and onto the couch.  The thought of staying the night crowded in on him as he buried himself in the cushions and pillows.  At least here he was left to his dreams.  Scornful sarcasm dripped from his laugh.  Tim was right.  He was such a dreamer.  What made him think that this could ever be better?  That he could ever be any more than the son of a groundskeeper?  It was all a dream.  A stupid, sorry, disappointing dream.  Just like everything else in his disaster of a life.

 

He didn’t even bother to read. He simply switched off the light, pulled the blanket over himself, and let the rest of the world slide into oblivion.

***

“Just so you know,” Steve said, sidling up to Holly as she sat watching the firelight on the beach, “mine’s the one with the L on the ring.”

 

Incomprehension went through her as she looked at him.  However, she was intent on playing the game of making them like her so she smiled and nodded.  More than that, she’d been conducting surveillance on Jean Paul’s alcohol consumption during the day and into the evening hours, and that had her more worried than whatever Steve was talking about.  Sure, she’d had a couple too—that’s what you did when you were out with friends, especially if those friends were not your friends.  No need to cause a scene or draw unwanted attention.

 

In fact, since the Gus fiasco, she had practically perfected the art of drinking just enough so no one caught on but not so much that logic and reason got drowned out.  Nonetheless, Jean Paul had definitely had his share, and there was no sign of him slowing down either.  The ride back home would be a long one at this rate.

 

A cold wind whipped down the beach, and she huddled into her skimpy cover-up. Somehow she had envisioned leaving long before the sun went down.  But here she was, her hair still-damp from the brief ocean swim earlier, trying to stay warm next to a fire that wasn’t helping much.

 

“Okay, everyone,” the girl from earlier whose name was Carly said, striding into the center of the circle.  She looked like she should be in the Miss America pageant.  Her high-cut suit accentuated her long legs, and she walked with an air of knowing everyone was thinking that as well.  “I’ve got the hat.”

 

A small whoop of excitement rose from the group.  On one side of Holly sitting on the sand instead of the log, Jean Paul clapped, dulled by the alcohol-haze surrounding him.  On the other side, Steve let out a deep throated howl.  Holly tried to take it all in and figure out what they were doing, but she wasn’t getting very far with that.  Her gaze homed in on Carly as she tried to ignore the two guys.

 

“Gentlemen,” Carly said, striding around the group as the guys dropped things into the hat.

 

Steve held his up for Holly to see.  The keys to his car and sure enough there was a gold L linked to it.  She fought the growing nerves screaming at her to run in order to smile at him, but her heart was pounding like a jack hammer.

 

“Okay, ladies.  It’s your turn.”  Carly held the hat above her head.  “I’ll go first.”  She fished for only a moment.  “And I’ve got…”  She pulled the keys out, and her gaze flashed to Jean Paul.  “Jean Paul.”

 

“Surprise. Surprise,” Marjorie, one of the other girls, said quietly.  However, she was next.  Each girl in turn pulled a set of keys out until it was Holly’s turn.

 

Nothing in her wanted any part of whatever this game was.  She looked up.  “Oh, I don’t…  Umm…”

 

Steve leaned over to her.  “It’s okay.  Go ahead.  It’s fun.”

 

Tamping down the rising fear, Holly reached into the hat and took hold of the last set of keys.  She pulled it out, her hand shaking.  There in the bright flickering of the firelight shone the L.

 

“Good job, baby,” Steve said, and in the next instant his hand was on her thigh.

 

Inexplicably Jean Paul stood and didn’t so much as look back at her as he went over to Carly.

 

“I… What…?” Sheer panic attacked her, and her lungs clamped hard over the air in them.  What was going on?  “Jean Paul?” But he was already walking off away from the fire down the beach with Carly.

 

Next to her Steve stood.  “Come on, babe.  I know the perfect place.”

 

Couples in random pairs stood and left the fire together.  It was like fruit basket turnover without the fruit.  Holly wrapped her arms over themselves.  She stood but anchored her feet in the sand. “What… What’s going on?”

 

“It’s the key game,” Steve said.  “Haven’t you ever played the key game?”

 

“No.  What’s the key game?”

 

Steve smiled at her with a gleam she didn’t at all like.  “Come on.  I’ll show you.”

 

She didn’t want him to show her anything.  Jean Paul and Carly had already faded from sight into the darkness just outside the circle of the firelight.  She looked after them, but apparently she was on her own with this one. What other choice did she have?  Keeping her arms tight across her middle, she stalked away from the fire in front of Steve. However, the farther away from the fire they walked, the colder Holly became.

 

Glancing over her shoulder at the fire, she realized there were only two people left, and in the glow she saw them kissing like an R-rated movie.  Her brain struggled to figure out if they had been a couple prior to the appearance of the hat, but she couldn’t clearly recall.

 

As the crash of the waves took over all other sounds, fear clutched her hard and tight.  She wound part of her hair over her ear, fighting not to shiver.  “You know.  It’s getting late.  I really should be getting home.”

 

“Home?  The fun’s just getting started.”  Steve led her over to an enclave of rocks.  There was a bit of the beach tucked between them.  In the next instant his hands were on her hips, and she was pressed against the smooth gray surface of the tallest rock.

 

“Hey. Whoa.  What’re you doing?”  She pushed at him, but his hands pawed every inch of the bare skin they found under her pullover.  “Hey!  Let me go!  What are you doing?”

 

He was kissing her neck if it could be called that.  “Come on, baby doll.  Relax.  Steve’s got everything under control.”

 

She beat back against him with the palms of her hands. Panic ran through her like a hot sword. “Stop it!  I’m here with Jean Paul, remember?”  Why did she seem to be the only one who remembered that?  The heat of Steve’s hands scalded her cold skin.  “Stop, Steve, please.”

 

“Hey, you played the game,” he said harshly.  “Now quit being such a baby.”

 

Tears stung the backs of her eyes.  It was happening again.  This guy.  This person she didn’t even know was pawing her as if he owned her, and there wasn’t one single thing she could do about it.  The only thing she could wish as the all-too familiar drift of her thoughts consumed her was that she would’ve been smart enough to drink more of the alcohol.

 

At least then she would have an excuse.  At least then she wouldn’t remember.

***

The events of the evening had rendered Holly completely numb.  Jean Paul said good-bye to the others.  She hid in the shadows hoping no one guessed what everyone knew.  She was a slut, a slut who gave her body away for nothing because it was a game to everyone else.  It was what she felt like, too.  Nothing.  Empty.  Hollow.

 

She followed Jean Paul up the beach and up the steps to the ledge above.  Something in her said she should be angry or hurt, but even those would have required a sense of dignity that she simply didn’t have anymore.  They got in the car, and she shivered with the slam of his door.

 

He started the car but didn’t put it into gear.  Instead, he looked over at her with a pathetically bad impression of guilt.  “I’m sorry about that.  They didn’t tell me they were playing tonight.”

 

Holly didn’t believe him for a minute.  But what did it matter if he was telling the truth?  The fact that his friends played pass the girlfriend around at all told her all she needed to know.

 

Then inexplicably he reached over and held his hand up in invitation to hers.  “I could make it up to you.  We can go over to my place.”

 

Her hands didn’t move from under her arms. Tears ripped to the surface, but she beat them back. “Take me home.”

 

He seemed absurdly unhappy about that. “Are you sure?  It’s almost an hour drive back.”

 

She looked at him with deadly seriousness.  There was no doubt at that moment that she could have killed had the opportunity been presented.

 

The arrogant confidence fell from him.  “Jeez, I don’t know what the big deal is.  It was just a game.”

 

She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of seeing her cry.  She wouldn’t. Instead she anchored her gaze to the darkness outside feeling herself falling through it as surely as if she was in a black hole.  It dragged her down, sucking the desire for life right out of her.  The whole world was an ugly, horrible place to live.  Sooner or later it reared its hideous head intent on swallowing her whole, and one day it would.  She didn’t even have to search for bad anymore.  It found her, and in truth, it always had.  Why fight it?  It was bound to win anyway.  It already had.  There was nothing left to fight anymore.  She leaned her head on the cold window and wondered if there ever had been.

***

When they pulled up to the mansion, Holly jumped out before Jean Paul could try to explain or make another excuse. They were sickening, and in the last hour she had heard them all. All she wanted to do was get away from him—far, far away.  She ran up the steps to the front door, wondering how she didn’t know who he was the first time she’d stood on these steps and kissed him.  She’d thought he was a nice guy, a possibility even.

 

Inside, the mansion was dark.  Deep ebony shadows stretched across the entryway.  She dove into them and shut the door behind her. After only a few moments the lights of the Porsche swept across the back wall, and the noise of the motor retreated down the driveway.  Hot tears of humiliation and resignation breeched their dykes, sliding in streaks down her face.  How could she ever face anyone ever again?  How would they not guess what she was? Pain clutched her, gripping the breath from her. She wanted, no, she needed something to cover the slashing pain or it would kill her outright.

 

On prior trips to the kitchen she had seen the little bar tucked away in the back.  Like a magnet to metal she made her way to it.  Anything. Anything so she could stop thinking about his hands on her body, his breath on her skin.  The helplessness.  The horror. The disgust. At the cabinet she yanked the door opened and pulled out the first bottle her hand found.  She didn’t care what it was.  It really didn’t matter. With a twist the cap was off.

 

The liquid splashed onto her face and down her neck as she swallowed that first burning, stinging drink.  The thought of her mother or Luke finding her trashed out slipped over her when the last of that liquid was gone.  So moving without thinking, she grabbed two more bottles.  It would be enough.  With that thought she treaded back through the dark house and out the front door.  She didn’t need an audience for this.

 

Her steps meandered across the grass.  Drink after drink stung down her throat. She swiped at the tears, angry with herself for letting them fall.  Forget.  Forget it all.  Cover it.  Kill it. It didn’t matter how, what mattered was that she couldn’t face the pain that filled every space of her.  If she couldn’t kill it, then it might as well kill her because this wasn’t living.

 

However, rather than mask the pain, the waves of alcohol brought it up in fistfuls. She drank each one down with splashes and gulps.  “God, please, just make it go away!” she screamed to the sky.  “I don’t want to live like this anymore.  I can’t.” The sobs choked the words from her. “I can’t.”

 

Swaying in the moonlight, her eyes blurred with tears and ache. The ground called her down, but just before she fell, she saw the carriage house looming in the distance.  A breath and she stumbled on toward it. By the time they found her, it would be too late.  Calm numbness overtook the pain then.  A jump from up high onto the hard, cold stone.  She imagined the broken pieces scattered on the floor, but there was no feeling left for them.

 

One moment and she would be released from this horrific existence that others absurdly called life.  This wasn’t life.  It was death, clawing, clinging, suffocating death.  The fact that she was breathing and walking was only an illusion.  She took a defiant drink.  The taste gave her courage.

 

Her steps pulled her toward the door.  It would be open, and it wouldn’t look like it had with the stove going.  No, it would be dark.  Marvelously dark. A darkness to disappear into.  Pulling open the door she slipped inside.  There she stood, bowing under the weight of the undertaking.  For a moment courage failed, and she lifted the bottle to her lips to squelch that feeling.  This was the only thing that could help, the only thing that made any sense. However, the bottle yielded not even a drop to prop up the decision.  It was now empty too.

 

She tossed it to the side with a heart-jarring crash and lifted the other one.  It stung her throat. One drink. Two, and she wiped her mouth and started up the steps.

***

The thunderous crash brought Gabe full awake in one second.  He lay without moving in the all-encompassing darkness. His heart smashed into his ribs, readying him for whatever it was that had shattered.  It was then that his senses caught the footfalls on the stairs, and his mind slid around the room.  A weapon.  A plan.  What could he use? He turned his head slowly and without noise, trying to ascertain who or what it was and what he should do next.

 

At the top step, the figure swathed in black stopped, and all his senses snapped to it.  If he took a flying leap, he could knock whoever it was down the stairs.  He had no idea if they knew he was there or not.  After all, he’d parked around back as he always did if he stayed the night.  What sense was there in alerting the hierarchy to his presence if not necessary?  But right now, it would’ve been nice had someone known he was there.  It could be days before they found him if this maniac had murder on his mind.

 

A sound split through the silence, and his senses collapsed through it.  A sob.  A gasp for air.  He heard the splash of liquid, and the horror of who it might be snaked into him.  His breathing slowed as his mind worked through what she was doing here and more importantly what her intentions were.

 

She was moving again along the railing that hovered above the ground floor.  He heard it again, the sobbing, and fear hit him hard.  She thought she was alone, and this time she wasn’t looking for a place to hide.  He knew in that second that he had to do something, but what to do without ramping up the danger on an already out-of-control situation?

 

She was now standing at the center of the railing.  Strangely she held up something, swaying with the effort.  “To all the Steves of the world,” she said then she let the object go.  It disappeared, and for a split second silence reasserted control.  Then the silence was shattered by the crash below.

 

It was the same crash as before, and it jolted the understanding that she was drinking into him like a punch.  How long?  With who?  Was Steve her boyfriend?  Had they had a fight?  What about?  It was truly amazing the number of questions that streamed through him in mere seconds.

 

She moved again, swaying at the railing.

Stop her! screamed through him, and in the next second he was on his feet.  “Holly, stop!”

 

Like a trapped animal, she whirled on him, catching the railing as she did so.  He had no idea how secure that railing was, and his heart jumped into his throat that it might not hold her up.  He’d never really tested it, and it was old.  If a piece was rotten…

 

“Leave me alone,” she hissed.  “Do you hear me? Don’t you dare come any closer.” She wiped her eyes and sniffed as if to stop the tears he already knew were there.

 

He held up his hands. “Holly, please.  It’s Gabe.”

 

That took her a moment to absorb.  “Gabe?”  Confusion hung in the air.  “What are you doing here?”  Then she shook her head.  “No.  It doesn’t matter.  You’re not talking me out of this.  I’m sick of living, do you hear me? I’m sick of it.” She sniffed hard.

 

But what he heard most was the slur of the alcohol and the tilt of a mind off-center.  As absurd as everything else, she seemed to be dressed in a white sheet.  He couldn’t get that to mesh with anything solid, but it was information nonetheless. He held up his hands although in the darkness there was no way she could see him. “Listen to me, Holly.  Whatever it is.  Whatever happened, we can deal with it.”

 

Her laugh was a sneer.  “Deal with it?  Deal with what?  That I’m a slut from hell who doesn’t deserve to take another breath?  How do you deal with something like that? Trust me, even a saint like you can’t salvage that.”

 

He could smell the alcohol now. It permeated everything from the ground floor up. It was a struggle to keep his voice calm. “You’re drunk.  You don’t know what you’re saying.”

 

“Oh, I don’t, huh?  And how would you know that?  You don’t know anything about me.” She wiped her wrist across her nose.

 

The only thing he could think was he had to stay calm and somehow get her away from that railing.  “Look, Holly, you don’t want to do this.  This won’t solve anything.”

 

“It’ll make it so they can never do that to me again.  Never again.”

 

“Do what, Holly?  What happened?”

 

“Oh, you’d like to know, wouldn’t you?  The juicy details and all that.” She ran her hand under her nose again, sniffing.  “For all I know you’re in on it, too.”

 

Concern and confusion met in his chest. “In on what?”

 

“You’re just like all the rest of them.  Oh, yeah, you talk a good game.  All that God stuff and everything, but underneath, you’re just like the rest of them.”

 

“I’m not just like anybody.  What did they do, Holly?  What happened?” One inch at a time he started toward her.  He had to get her away from that railing.

 

The way she looked, she might not even have to jump.  She could pitch into it at any second, the force of which would send her right over it.  She sniffed and then crumpled into the tears.  “I’m such a slut, and they knew it.  They knew I’d be easy.  They knew it would be simple to talk me into it.”  The snap of her head up made him stop.  “There was no talking to it.  Just do it, Holly.  Just do it like always.  You’re such a slut.  It’s all you’re good for.”

 

Gabe was advancing again.  Step by cautious step.  “That’s not true, Holly. It’s not.”

 

Venom shot from her.  “Yes, it is.  It always has been.”

 

“No,” he said softly.  “Don’t buy into it.  It’s a lie.”  He was within feet of her now.  “Don’t give them that power.  They don’t deserve it.”

 

Her gaze snapped to him stopping his progress.  “Don’t, Gabriel.  Don’t try to save me.  I’m not worth it.”  She looked over the railing, turned to it and grabbed on.

 

Time had run out.  With no other option, Gabe dove for her.

Copyright Staci Stallings, 2007

Posted in A Light in the Darkness, Novels | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

A Light in the Darkness, Ch. 5 & 6

Chapter 5

 

The others had gone home. Finally.  Thankfully.  It was nice to have some peace and quiet after the stress of the day.  Gabe finished up the paperwork for the day, laid out the schedule for Friday, and closed up shop.  He headed out through the dying light and jumped in the pickup.  Tonight he was sure he wouldn’t have company, so maybe he could finally get some reading done.

 

He drove the mile to the carriage house down the bumpy make-shift trail. Pulling up to the towering, gray building, memories of the night before ripped through him, but he fought to ignore them.  He went to the heavy door.  Shut tight.  Somehow his heart dipped at that understanding.  He pulled it open, stepped into the darkness beyond, and tugged on the string of the little overhead light.  His motion stopped as he stood, listening.

 

Yes, it was empty.  It even felt empty.  His gaze slid to the rug, the cup, and the blanket lying on the floor by the stone-cold stove.  Vowing not to give in to the thoughts of her, he picked up the debris and headed up the stairs.  At the top, he reached over and turned on the main light which hung high above even the second floor.

 

Familiarity and gratefulness poured through him.  This was home—more so than the other places he had spent his life.  He pitched the things onto the couch, used the bottle of water and the basin to wash out the cup and set it in its normal place on the little shelf.  Turning back to the room, his thoughts went to what to read, what to study tonight.

 

He pulled two of the books he was reading from the bookshelf and then pulled out the third that he had yet to start.  With them, he walked over to the couch and sat down.  Closing his eyes, he concentrated on centering himself and calming down the rushing emotions inside him.  “Dear Lord, cast away all fear and all demons from this place.  Help me to see what You want me to see tonight. I ask this in Your Holy Name.  Amen.”

 

Reflexively his eyes opened, and calm returned to his spirit. He reached for one of the books and grabbed a pen from the side table.  He opened the book where he’d left off, and God’s tutoring commenced.

***

She’d been so stunned by the announcement that Holly hadn’t even been able to get a protest out. Instead she sat, forking through her meal without really eating much of it. However, just before the end of the meal even that wasn’t enough to stave off the complete lack of control she had over her life.

 

“Oh, I forgot to tell you,” Luke said as their plates were taken and dessert was served. “I finally talked to Jean Paul this morning.”

 

“Oh?” Her mother sounded so excited.

 

“He had plans for tomorrow night, but I talked him into taking you out on Saturday night,” he said to Holly.  Every shred of movement in her stopped. “He and some of his friends are going out.  He didn’t have a date lined up, so it will work out perfectly.”

 

Holly had to hold down the wretch.  She stared at Luke in utter shock.

 

“Oh, isn’t that wonderful, Darling?”  Her mother shivered with excitement. “This is so right.  I can just feel it.”

 

Funny how that feeling did nothing for Holly.

***

She had fled from the table the moment it was a possibility.  In her room she closed the door and flipped the lock.  Leaning on the door, she pushed the thoughts of her mother’s machinations in her life away.  She needed some sanity, someone to tell her she wasn’t crazy for not falling into line like a good little soldier.

 

Her gaze went to the doors, down the trellis, and out into the night.  But there was no guarantee he would be there again.  Why he had even come the night before wasn’t wholly clear.  Pushing that idea down, she flopped onto the bed and grabbed her cell phone.         She dialed the number, laid her wrist over her eyes, and collapsed into the pillows.

 

“Hello?”

 

“Hey, Becca.”

 

“Holly!”  Strange how happy Becca sounded about that.  “How are you?  We’ve been worried sick.  How’s California?”

 

Holly sighed long and hard. “Great.  I went sunning by the pool today, got to show off my tan to two of the workers here.  Now I’m signed up to go to Paris in two weeks. Oh, and I have a date Saturday night with Jean Paul.”

 

There was no way Becca would be impressed by any of it.  That’s why Holly didn’t even try.

 

“Gee, she doesn’t mess around, does she?”

 

“Oh, and I’m forbidden to get a car or to ride in anything other than a limo, so working is out.  I’m stuck in my room 23 hours a day unless she drags me out for mother/daughter bonding time.  You know, shopping, sitting by the pool, showing off for the staff.  Fun stuff like that.”

 

The concern was evident in Rebecca’s voice.  “Didn’t you tell her about wanting a job and wanting your own money?”

 

The laugh dripped with sarcasm.  “Who needs money?  We’re rich.  Remember? We’ve got credit cards and frequent flyer miles and counts asking us for dates.”

 

“Counts?”

 

Holly shook her head. “It’s a long story.”

 

The other side fell silent for a long moment.  “Isn’t there anything good at all?  Nothing?”

 

A memory of standing over a young man pulling weeds drifted over her, but Holly smiled sadly. “Nothing that’s real.”

***

Every truly rich soul needs a defining vision for life, a map, an understanding of direction.  Without it, you are left adrift on a sea of ever-changing destinations—none of which hold what you are most seeking.  They are like rainbows, beautiful, inviting until you reach them and find that they have moved.

Therefore, you must seek not just the rainbow that the world holds out as success, but true success.  The success that comes when you find True Power and Real Peace.  These two, the lion and the lamb, lying together in perfect harmony are the real destination, the real yearning of every soul.  Rich souls are those who seek them, find them, and mesh their lives around the framework and structure that they provide.

To do this, you must be willing to first understand the difference between worldly power and True Power, the difference between worldly peace and Real Peace.  Those are the aims of Part I in this book.

Gabriel yawned long and hard.  He pushed the sleep back from him, but it reasserted itself more forcefully.  Reluctantly he looked at his watch. He needed to be getting home.  His mother would be worried.  He reached for the little marker, slipped it into the page, and replaced this book along with the others.

 

As he shut off the overhead light and let himself down the stairs, he wondered at the book’s message contained in its title.  True Power and Real Peace. It was the one Marvin had sent.  Yet with at least ten other yet-to-be-read books sitting on his shelves not to mention the five he was already reading, he hadn’t pulled it down until tonight.

 

The lion and the lamb, he thought as he got into the pickup.  He’d heard that phrase before but had never really understood it.  With another yawn, he backed out and drove off.  If only there were more time to read and study the masters.  If only he didn’t have work now and school in a few months.

 

“There will be time, Gabriel.”  The familiar voice drifted through him.  “Be patient, and be content with taking this step.”

 

Gabe knew better than to argue with that voice.  Tonight especially.  He was worn out, body, mind, and spirit.  Tonight there could be nothing but acceptance of his human limitations.  Yes, tonight he would rest.  Tomorrow he would learn more because he had learned to believe in tomorrow, not as a way to put off today but as a way of understanding that today held today’s lessons, and tomorrow would hold lessons of its own.

 

“It’s that grace thing again, huh God?” he asked as he pulled up to his parents’ home.  “Grace for this moment, and trusting that the grace will be there for each moment at the moment it is most needed in the future.”

 

He might not be there yet, but he was learning.

***

Morning slipped over the eastern horizon as if opening its eyes for a new day.  No trumpets sounded to wake Holly up.  Not even an alarm clock—just the morning itself, and that was enough.  She pulled herself from the bed, slipped on her jeans that she had readied the night before, and grabbed a sweatshirt.

 

She pulled the brush through her hair only twice but never even thought of makeup.  In minutes she was flying down the stairs, one destination in mind.

 

“Good morning,” she said to Rosa in the kitchen.

 

“Oh, good morning, Ma’am,” Rosa said in surprise.  “I’m sorry, Ma’am, I haven’t even started the breakfast yet.”

 

Holly waved her off.  “I’m fine.”  She went to the coffee pot, poured herself a cup, added a little cream, and carefully picked up the steaming cup.  Her gaze chanced on the clock.  7:15.  If she was lucky…

***

“Thank You, Dear Lord, for this day,” Gabriel prayed as he pulled on the small weed.  It came up with no effort.  “Thank You for the beauty You so willingly share with us.  Thank You for letting me be a small part of that beauty, for teaching me how to be a part of it.”  He reached deep beneath a gladiola and pulled another weed.  “Please bless my parents today.  Bless Tim and Darius.”

 

The familiar litany stopped when his senses picked up movement just behind him.  He swung around, startled.

 

“Morning,” Holly said, and like an angel appearing from nowhere, she stood there, huddled over herself and her cup.

 

“Oh, hey.”  His brain immediately stopped the prayer and began work on why she might be standing there, but it kept crashing into the vision of her instead.

 

She seemed to sense his hesitancy, and the look of confidence fell from her eyes. “I’m sorry. I’m intruding.”  A moment and she started to turn.

 

“No, hey.”  He stumbled to his feet and held out his hands. “The garden’s yours to enjoy whenever you want.  I can just go over there.”

 

“Over… No!”  Wild panic leaped into her eyes.  “No.  I mean, I’m not… I didn’t… I just thought…” The breath sounded almost fearful.  “You don’t have to change what you were doing on my account.  I just… I didn’t see you again yesterday, and I wanted, you know, to come out here and say hi.”  Her confidence was waning with every word.  “You said yesterday that you weed every morning, so I thought… I might catch you out here.”

 

The idea that she might have come solely to see him brushed across his heart like the touch of a feather.  He smiled at it and her.  Then embarrassment cascaded on him, and he scratched the side of his ear.  “Well, you caught me.”

 

They stood like that, face-to-face for a long, long moment.

 

“You can, you know… You can work,” she said, indicating the flowers. “I don’t mind.”  She took a sip of the coffee.  “I just thought it would be nice to talk for a minute, while you work, if you don’t mind.”

 

Mind?  Other than he couldn’t think straight with her watching him and he might well pull up half the garden and none of the weeds?  Why should he mind that? “Oh, well. Okay.”

 

Awkwardly he lowered himself back to the ground, conscious that she was watching.  He bent under the flowers, feeling for weeds.  Locating two, he pulled them out and added them to the little pile.  Then he scooted down the trail.

 

“So you do this every morning?” she asked.

 

“Yep.  Except Sundays.  Sundays are for church and family.”

 

“Then you have a family?  I mean someone close.”

 

He pulled out a couple more and scooted down four more feet.  That was farther than he normally went, but he went anyway in the interest of putting more distance between them.  However, in seconds she was standing right there again.  “Yeah, my mom and dad.  They live about five miles thata way.”

 

“Oh, really.”  She took a sip.  “So no wife then?  No kids?”

 

“Nope.  No wife. No kids.”  His face lit with heat, and he pulled at the collar of his shirt.  It was going to be a scorcher today the way he felt.  “You?”

 

“No, no wife for me either.”  She laughed at the joke as he looked back at her and stopped.  Her beauty outshone even the sunshine.  Bending her head, she took a sip.  “It’s just me and my mom.”  Clouds of melancholy drifted over her face.  Then she jumped. “And of course Mr. Teracini.”

 

Gabriel returned to weeding, more intrigued than he could say.  “So, I guess you’re thrilled about the wedding then.”

 

“Yeah, thrilled.”  She sounded anything but, and he took that in as well.  A moment slid into the next.  “So, you said you pray out here.  What’s that about?”

 

Confusion traipsed through him. “What’s praying about?”

 

“Yeah.  I mean, you come out here early and pray.  Why would you do that?” She took another sip.

 

Why had never really been a question he’d thought of.  “Well, it’s usually quiet.  There aren’t many people out at this hour yet.  I don’t have to think about scheduling and chores for the day yet.  It’s just me and God’s beauty.” He sat back and waved his hands around in case she didn’t know what he was talking about.

 

She nodded in appreciation.  “It is beautiful.  Did you plant it?”

 

He leaned back into his work.  “Some of it, the annuals.  My dad planted the rest.”

 

“Your dad?”

 

Gabriel worked with the weeds for another ten seconds.  “He’s the head groundskeeper.”  A knifing pain slid through him. “Or he was until…”

 

The wait stretched.

 

“Until?”

 

He took a breath to stave off the fear. “He had a heart attack a couple weeks ago.  Stress and hard work, I guess.”  He pulled a few more weeds and slid down the walk.  “I took over until he can come back.”  Oh, the thoughts that pulled up.

 

“When will that be?”

 

The breath did nothing to calm him.  “Monday.  He’s supposed to be back Monday.”

 

She stopped. “You don’t sound too thrilled about that.”

 

Was there a way to not answer that question?  He didn’t see it.  “Mom’s worried about him—that he’s going to do too much.  But that’s Pop.  He doesn’t know the meaning of slow down.”

 

Holly nodded, the concern in his voice transferring to her motions.  “So you’re worried too?”

 

Gabriel pulled two more weeds out and sat back to look at his watch.  Surprise struck him like a sledgehammer.  7:54.  He hadn’t realized it was so late.  “Wow!  I’ve got to get.”  He jumped up, swept the little pile of weeds from the walk, and looked her right in the eye, shocked at his own ability to do so.  “Take care.  I’ll see you later.”

 

“Yeah,” she said, her gaze changing as she examined his eyes.  “Later.”

 

With that, he spun and strode out of the garden.  Away from her.  She had a way of making his mind mush and his heart do weird things.  Plus, she’d totally destroyed his praying hour.  Instead of centered and ready, he felt frazzled and scattered.

 

“Morning, boss,” Darius said when Gabe stalked through the work shop and dumped the weeds in the trash.

 

“Morning.”  But today would be a struggle. Gabe knew that to the depths of his soul.

***

The fact he hadn’t answered drifted around and through Holly as she stood and watched him go.  He was worried, that much was clear.  She wondered how bad the heart attack was and if his father really was ready to come back to work.  Strange how that suddenly felt like a void in her that she had no way to fill.

 

Pushing the thoughts down, she slid her feet along the path.  The flowers stood at attention to the growing sunshine.  She wondered how he knew the weeds from the flowers.  After all, everything he pulled was tiny.  As she opened the door to go back inside, she vowed to be in the garden the next morning to find out.

***

He was right.  The day was a disaster from minute two.  The lawn mower broke again. They tried to tackle fixing the fence between the vineyard and the estate only to find the supplies they needed would have to be ordered.  Then, later, at home his mother had begged him to find a way to make his father slow down.  Why she even asked was beyond Gabe.  He had as much control over his father as he had over the weather.  Worse, what little control he did have slipped completely from his grasp the next morning.

 

He was working on the other side of the path, praying—but mostly that she wouldn’t show up this morning.  He couldn’t take another day like yesterday.  “Dear Lord, I’m asking…”

 

“Good morning.”  She sounded so happy about that.

 

Gabe turned a tired, weary face up to her.  “Morning.”

 

The coffee was back as was the maroon and gold Boston Central sweatshirt.  She stood there, sipping coffee, waiting for the conversation he didn’t start.  Finally she simply sat down on the walk next to him.  That was sure to make thinking and breathing impossible—to say nothing about praying.

 

“So what do you pray about anyway?” she asked, taking a sip.

 

He glanced at her, thinking if he just told her off now, she would leave.  However, he had prayed for more territory, for more people he could touch with the lessons God had given him.  He just hadn’t expected one to show up in his sanctuary.  “Everything.”  He scooted down the walk, and she scooted with him.

 

“Like what?”

 

Frustration poured into him.  “Work, school, home.”  He shrugged.  “Same things everybody prays about.”

 

There was no answer for a long minute.  “I guess that means you believe in God then.”

 

That stopped him.  He glanced over at her.  “Of course.  Don’t you?”

 

She took a sip.  “I don’t know.  I mean what’s He ever done for me?  You know?”

 

It was a question he’d never really thought about because he’d been baptized two weeks after he’d been born and had never questioned the existence of God even when he turned his back on Him.  He turned his gaze on her seriously.  “Well, are you breathing?”

 

Her look was one of confusion.  “Breathing?  Well, yeah.  Why?”

 

Gabe scooted farther away from her.  “Then He’s done something for you.  What do you think, you’re the one who gave yourself life?”

***

It was a question Holly had never really considered.  True, she wasn’t responsible for her existence, but did that necessarily mean there was a God?  “No.  I guess not.”  The coffee she sipped to look nonchalant burned all the way down.

 

“And walking, talking, being?  You did all those yourself too, right?”

 

She was starting to hate this conversation.  “Well, no. But I don’t see…”

 

“That’s just it.” He shook his head.  “It amazes me how people can take the gifts God gives them and blow them off like they are nothing. They never stop to see, to think about it.”  He sat back and looked at the white gladiolas towering above them on the walk.  “Take these for example.  I didn’t tell them how to bloom.  I didn’t tell them what to become.  They knew.  Even when they were a seed, they knew how and what to become without any help from anyone.  And now, here they are an ordinary, everyday miracle, and we walk right by them without ever realizing they’re there.”

 

He reached beneath the plant and pulled a weed.

 

“It’s a flower,” Holly said, shrugging.  “Why’s it such a miracle?”

 

That brought him to a full, all-out stop.  He looked at her for a long moment, but she couldn’t read the words in his eyes.  Then suddenly he stood.  Her gaze followed him up.

 

“Come here.”  He reached for her hand.  In confusion she let him help her to her feet.  Gently he turned her from the side they were on to the other side of the walk.

 

She glanced at him in worried confusion.  “Where are we going?”

 

“Here,” he said, and he pulled her back down to the walk in front of a clump of a green plant with about a million blossoms. He pointed to the plant strewn with the brilliant red flowers. “There.  What do you see?”

 

What was that?  A trick question?  “Umm, flowers?”

 

His face softened along with his eyes.  He lifted his chin toward it.  “What kind of flowers?”

 

She wasn’t good at botany.  “Red flowers?”

 

“Big or little?”

 

“Little.”

 

“What about the leaves?”

 

Only then did she really begin to look at the distinctiveness of the plant.  “Little ones.”

 

“Why?”

 

She looked at him.  “Why… what?”

 

“Why is it like that?”

 

How was she supposed to know?  “Because… it was made that way?”

 

“By Whom?”

 

“By…”  Hmm.  She hadn’t really thought about it.  “I don’t know.  The gardener?”

 

“No, the gardener just plants the seeds, but the seeds already know what they are to be.  The gardener puts them in the ground, waters them, and keeps the weeds from choking them out, but otherwise they know what to do.  Nobody has to teach them to grow or how to grow or what to be.  They just know.”  He stood again.  “See, come here.”

 

Once again she was being helped to her feet.  This time she left the coffee cup where she had put it on the walk.  It was too much trouble to keep up with it too. She followed him solemnly to the other side of the walk.

 

“You see this one?” He pointed out a plant with long stems supporting delicate blue and purple trumpet-like flowers.  It was beautiful in its fragility.

 

“Yeah,” she said, trying to ascertain his meaning before he stated it.

 

His hand stayed on her back for no reason that she could adequately explain. “Why is it different than the other one?”

 

She felt his gaze slide across her face and suddenly the fact that he was mere inches from her invaded every other thought.  “I don’t know because they’re different plants?”  Her heart was hammering so loudly, she couldn’t even hear her own answer.

 

His gaze was intense, like a laser. “Who made them different?”

 

Holly knew the answer he wanted.  It was right there for the taking.  However, every thought of God made her angry, and to admit He was responsible for beauty was like having to give up part of her animosity.  “Why does it matter who made them different?  They are.  That’s all we need to know.”

 

He studied her, waiting.  “Do you really believe that?”

 

Well, she had until she looked into his eyes.  That look evaporated all of the blitheness that had gotten her to this point.  She couldn’t talk, couldn’t even think.  There was a knowing, a solid understanding so deep in him it took her breath away.  Thoughts scattered in a million different directions, and she couldn’t gather a one of them to save her life.

 

“I’ve got to go,” he said softly.  “But the garden’s yours.  The flowers are His gift to you today.  Okay?”

 

“Okay.”  Why she said it other than she could think of nothing else to say, she would never know.  She nodded, not fully comprehending the spell she’d somehow fallen under.

 

“Here.”  He led her to another set of plants.  They were white with large bowl-like flowers.  “Sit.”  He helped her to sit down onto the walk.  “Look at it, and let it tell you about Him.  They say it better than I ever can anyway.”

 

For a moment Holly looked up at him in fear, but his smile came freely.

 

“It’s okay.  It’s got all the time in the world to teach you.”  With that, he scooped up the few weeds he’d pulled and strode out of the garden, glancing back only once.

 

When he was gone, Holly wondered what kind of a weird person would think listening to a plant made any sense.  She almost got up without so much as looking, but her gaze swept across the little plant before she did.  The colors of it seemed to come alive. Stopping, she let her gaze hone in on it.

 

The little plant swayed in the gentle breeze.  When it came to a stop, one of the flowers almost central to it grabbed her attention.  She narrowed her eyes, thinking she must be completely crazy.  The petals seemed to be made of velvet.  She had never bothered to look that closely at them.  It had veins of deep gray running to the center of its core of yellow.

 

What had he said about not having to teach a seed?  This little flower, delicate but strong, beckoned her into a new understanding of life.  He was right.  No one had to teach this flower to be what it was meant to be.  It just was.  Nurturing and care, yes.  But it knew.  Its shape and size and color were coded into it before the first shoot even broke the soil.

 

A smile of soft recognition drifted through her whole spirit.  “You are a miracle, little one.  Look at you.”  The breeze picked it up, causing the flower to dance, and Holly laughed out loud.  “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were dancing for joy.”  Peace and calm settled over the whole garden.  She let her head fall back, her face warming in the early morning sun.  It was a glorious morning.

***

“Hey, boss,” Darius said as Gabe strode through the work shed and pitched the pitiful handful of weeds into the trash.  If she didn’t stop showing up, they were going to have to waste a full day weeding that darn garden.

 

“Tim not here yet?”

 

“Not yet.”

 

Why did that not surprise him?  “I think I’ll let you two take care of the front beds this morning.  I’ve got to get this mower going.”

 

Tires crunched on gravel.

 

“There’s Tim.  We’ll get right on it.” Darius walked out, letting the door bang behind him.

 

Gabe collapsed into the chair and put his fingers to his eyes.  Everything about him felt discombobulated and distracted.  With a heave of air, he launched himself out of the chair.  “Get it together, Gabe.  She’s just a girl.”

***

All morning long Holly spent in the garden, walking slowly, sitting with each plant.  Seeing, yes, but hearing more.  It was fascinating how each and every little flower had a different story to tell.  Some were happy, some seemed sad.  All spoke of a knowing—who they were and why they were here.  She wished she could be as sure as they were.

 

The sun was a quarter of the way into the sky when she finally made her way back into the house.  It seemed decidedly cooler than outside.  She put her arms over themselves to ward off the chill.  She left her cup in the kitchen and had started up the stairs when her mother came around the corner.  Already dressed in Armani, she looked ready for a meeting—or to take over the world.

 

“There you are!  Thank Heavens.  Where have you been?”

 

Holly didn’t want her mother to know, lest she invade that small oasis as well. “I just ate.  I was headed up to take a shower.”

 

“Well, we have got some strategizing to do.” Her mother climbed to her side and laced her arm through Holly’s.

 

Uh-oh. That couldn’t be good. “Strategizing?  For what?”

 

“For tonight of course.  Jean Paul.  San Francisco.  Hello. Is any of this registering?”

 

Her wonderful, beautiful morning crashed to her feet, splintering into a thousand shards.  “Oh, yeah.”

 

It was as if her mother was dragging her into a life she had no desire to enter as they climbed to the top of the stairs.  “I was thinking.  You need to be prepared in case he has plans for after you go out.”

 

“After?”

 

“Well, his apartment’s in San Fran, silly.  And it will be late before it’s time to leave.  He might well ask you to stay the night.”

 

Stay the night? The words screamed through her.  She didn’t even know this guy and already her mother had her sleeping with him?  “I don’t know, Mom.  I think I’ll just have him bring me home.”

 

They stepped into her room. “Well, it doesn’t hurt to be prepared… in case he asks.  After all, you don’t want to do something to mess this up right out of the box. It’s the chance of a lifetime.”

 

Dread had never meant so much.

***

Somehow he’d fixed the mower although Gabe was pretty sure the Holy Spirit finally took pity on him and fixed it Himself.  He mowed the side hill and the back and was just stowing the mower when the Porsche on the front circle caught his attention.  It was little, black, and fast.

 

Knowing he shouldn’t, he got the mower in, shut it off, and went to the door.  It was probably a business associate or a buyer.  On a Saturday night?  At seven o’clock? his brain asked.

 

The guy who got out was hardly old.  In fact, if Gabe was guessing, the guy was just about his age.  Tall, blond, broad shoulders.  He looked like a hill boy from school.  Hill boy.  It was what the scrubs called the rich pretty boys with their big bank accounts and bigger egos.

 

At the door to the mansion the guy ran his fingers through his light hair and rang the doorbell.  In a moment the door opened, and he disappeared inside.  Gabe shook his head.  What should he care who came to visit?  What business was it of his?  He turned his attention to his desk and picked up next week’s schedule.  It was the first his father hadn’t completed, and Gabe knew it would look like he couldn’t handle things if it wasn’t ready on Monday morning.

 

He pulled the three prior year schedules from the file cabinet and sat down.  However, he remembered the time cards on the far wall.  He would need them too before the night was over. He got up and was halfway across the opening of the work shed when his gaze snagged on movement at the mansion’s front door.  Like being hit with a punch, he stopped.

 

The sight ripped the breath from him, and he leaned on the door so he wouldn’t fall.  On the steps, the blonde hair flowing in the breeze, Holly reached up and brushed it away.  Dressed in a white top covered by a sheer white wrap, she moved with a grace that defied logic.  It was actually like she was floating.  She smiled up at Porsche boy.

 

Gabe’s heart crashed to the concrete when he realized the guy was escorting her out.  He led her to the car and helped her inside.  They were long gone before Gabe could so much as breathe again, and then it hurt like it never had before.  Closing his eyes, he set his jaw.

 

“What kind of fantasy life were you having anyway?  Of course she’s got a boyfriend.  She’s beautiful and rich.  What guy wouldn’t kill to go out with her?”  In disgust, he turned for the wall with the time sheets.  Work.  Think about work.  She’s a fantasy that never was, Gabe.  You knew it from the moment you saw her. Get back to reality here before you screw that up too.

***

She couldn’t breathe.  It was like drowning in new car clean air.  Holly chanced a glance at Jean Paul.  He was good-looking.  Dashing would’ve described him well.  He was blond instead of the deep ebony hair his uncle had.  It was thick and had a small wave to it.  He had a straight nose and an air of confidence that was impossible to miss.

 

“So, you’re here for the summer?” he asked, glancing over at her. There was a hint of an accent gracing the edges of the words.

 

“Yeah.  Just the summer though.”  She didn’t want him to get the idea that this would ever be permanent.  “I’ll be heading back to Boston in August.”

 

“Boston.  Wow.  You’re in college then?”

 

She wrapped her arms over themselves. “I’m a junior.”

 

He nodded in approval.  “Majoring in?”

 

She hated this part.  Her gaze chanced over to him, and she could hear her mother screaming at her to impress him. “Political science.”

 

“Really?” He sounded impressed.  It sent daggers through her.  “What do you plan to do with that?”

 

“Oh, you know.” She shrugged. “Take over the world.”

 

Jean Paul laughed.  He laid his hand on the gearshift in invitation to hers.  “My kind of girl.”

 

She knew the drill better than she knew her own name.  Pretending it was the invitation she’d wanted her whole life, she put her hand in his.  The touch made her want to throw up, but she held that back.  Why did she go down this stupid road every time?  Even when she swore she wouldn’t.  It must be woven into her DNA.

 

Sitting with a flower slipped into her consciousness, and she cringed at the parallel.  Maybe Gabriel was right.  Maybe you couldn’t fight what you were supposed to be.  She glanced over at Jean Paul.  A girl could do much worse, and if this was her destiny, then she needed to find a way to be happy about that.

 

He glanced over at her, and she smiled back.  Yes, she knew how to play the game as well.

 

Chapter 6

 

Thankfully Jean Paul didn’t invite her to stay.  It was nice enough being with him.  He held the doors for her and included her in every conversation.  He got drinks for her and stayed close the whole night.  Okay, so the talk about foreign posts and international events bored her to tears, and by the end he’d really had too much to drink for him to be driving her home.  Still, she of all people knew it could have been so, so much worse.

 

“I had a nice time,” he said as they sat in the circle drive under the gaze of the mansion.  His eyes were heavy with the latent alcohol and the late night.

 

“Me too,” she said, the nerves of ‘what next’ attacking her.  She swung her hair just so over her shoulder.  “Thanks for taking me even if you did get suckered into it.”

 

He slid his arm over her shoulders and took her hand in his other.  “I didn’t mind.”  His gaze searched hers, and the moment hung between them.  Then, carefully he leaned toward her.  Although the alcohol could have clouded more than his judgment, the kiss was sweet, not demanding or pressing.  In a heartbeat it was gone.  “Well, we’d better get you in.”

 

“Yeah,” she breathed.  He really was good-looking, and on par with her other dates he hadn’t been that bad.

 

In the next moment he was out of the car and around to her side.  He helped her out and walked her up the steps.  At the front door she stopped because he did.

 

“So, can I call you again?” he asked, sounding like it was possible she would say no.  He leaned on the doorframe, partly to block her exit, partly to stay standing.

 

Everything in her screamed no.  Why she wasn’t really sure because the truth was he was nice, and that was far better than any of the other guys her mother had set her up with.  “Sure.”

***

Gabe got nothing out of Mass on Sunday.  He considered going to the carriage house to get a book, but the thought of running into her was enough to keep him away.  Instead he spent the day mapping and remapping the last of his classes.  The next semester’s schedule was already set.  It was the following two that kept him up at nights.

 

What was the best way, the best electives to get him a leg up when he got out?  To own a vineyard, you needed business skills second to none.  It was a huge operation, and one whose success hinged on so many factors.  The why of wanting to own one drifted through him along with the ever-present admonition:  A strong enough why will drive the effort to find the how.

 

A strong enough why.

 

He heard the voices down the hall, and his planning stopped.  He’d heard it all before, but somehow with the approach of tomorrow, it seemed more critical today.

 

“I just wish you would listen to Dr. Hodges,” his mother said.  “Find something different.  Something that doesn’t involve so much lifting and hard work.”

 

“Hard work is all I know how to do, Re.  You know that.  Besides, I’d rather die doing something I love than to sit at a desk all day.”

 

“But, Carlos…”

 

“But nothing.  I’m going to work.  End of discussion.”

 

The thumping of the boots followed by silence told Gabriel his mother was alone again, sitting in the kitchen, fighting not to cry. He’d seen her like that many, many times growing up.  At the time he didn’t understand it.  Now he did.

 

His father’s job was not glamorous.  There was really no ladder to climb once you got where he had been for 20 years.  Worse, raises were few and far between.  He took odd jobs on the side to keep up with the bills, and when even that wasn’t enough, he’d suffered the indignity of having his wife get a job.

 

She had cleaned an office building in town until two years before when she hurt her back.  It had been solid and paid pretty well, but Gabe knew his father felt like a failure because of it.  And now, here they were facing the sunset of their lives, with little more than Social Security to fall back upon.

 

Gabe turned his attention back to his school schedule.  In a year and a half, he would have a new future, one his parents could only dream of, and he had done it without going to them for a penny.  He worked.  He found scholarships.  He studied his brains out.  He’d made the Dean’s List every semester and the President’s List three.

 

But he was under no illusions.  Good grades and hard work guaranteed nothing.  He would need a lot of good breaks and divine intervention to avoid the fate his parents had found.  However, his heart beat every beat toward something different, something better, for himself and for the family he wanted to have someday.  They would be counting on him, and with the last breath in him, he would never leave his wife crying in the kitchen because he couldn’t provide.  It was a solemn vow he’d made with the universe, and one he was determined to keep.

***

On Sunday morning Holly wandered the garden for two full hours waiting for him, but he never came.  It felt like a hole in the middle of her soul.  She thought about going out to the carriage house to look there, but she still had no idea why he’d even come that first night.  Bored and searching for something to hold her heart, she walked out to the gazebo as the sun arched into the sky.

 

She sat down and let her thoughts go.  This place, this garden seemed so magical, almost like the wardrobe that led to Narnia.  She put her arms over themselves and leaned back on the rough wood.  Narnia.  It had been her favorite book growing up.  Okay, one of her favorites along with Charlotte’s Web and Bridge to Terabithia.  They all held keys to worlds other than the one she occupied.  Had it not been for those books, her world would have been much smaller and even darker than it was.

 

Somehow when she went on the adventures with Lucy and the others, the details of her own life seemed less stifling.  In those far away lands, kids and pigs could battle even the wickedest of the wicked and not only survive but thrive.  They could step into their rightful places as princes and princesses and sit on thrones to rule over all the kingdom.

 

She had so wanted to do that—to rule over her whole kingdom.  In her kingdom the wicked would be punished, and the wise and good would be honored and revered.  The best of the best would never die, and all little children would grow up in peace, never even suspecting that darkness dominated the rest of the world.

 

Her gaze took in the sweeping vista of the vineyard below.  It was quiet and peaceful, much like the visions in her heart of her own kingdom.  A breeze streamed by, snagging her hair and sending it skittering across her face.  She brushed it back.  Why did, sitting here, everything she’d ever dreamed even in the most secret places of her suddenly seem possible. She had no idea, but it did.

***

“Well, you got in mighty late last night,” her mother said as they sat over a feast of roast beef and carrots.

 

“We had fun,” Holly said, stabbing a carrot.  She did not want to talk about her love life in front of Luke, but there wasn’t much of a choice.

 

“So, when are you going out again?”  Her mother’s expectant look drilled through Holly.

 

“He said he’d call me.”

 

“When?”

 

Exasperation slammed into her.  “I don’t know, Mom.  We had a nice time. He said he’d call.  What do you want, an engraved invitation to the wedding?” She regretted it the moment it was out of her mouth.

 

“A wedding?  Really?  So you really like this one.”  The knowing in her mother’s eyes made Holly sick.

 

“I was being sarcastic, Mom.”

 

“I think Holly is trying to keep the details to herself,” Luke said with a raise of his glass to her.  “And I think we should respect her privacy and let events take their appointed course.”

 

Holly wanted to say thank you.  Not being able to say it out loud, she said it with her eyes, and Luke responded in kind. Instantly she dropped her gaze lest he read more into her thank you than was there.

 

“Well,” her mother said, cutting her carrot with a fork and knife, “I don’t see what’s wrong with asking.  Is it so wrong for a mother to be curious?”

 

Again Holly glanced at Luke, who smiled.  At least he wasn’t going to drill her into the ground too.

***

Go.  Don’t go.  Go.  Don’t go.  The routine Monday morning was anything but normal.  If he went to the garden and she was there, his day would be shot.  But he couldn’t not go forever.  It was his job, and to add more to the list of chores that needed done would surely stress his father even further.  The plusses finally outweighed the minuses, and Gabe grabbed breakfast in one fist, coffee in the other, and headed out the door.

 

Praying like he’d never prayed before all the way there, he headed around the back of the estate.  “Dear Lord, please.  Please make her stay where she belongs.  I don’t need her here.  I’ve got things to do.”

 

Unfortunately the pleading did no good.  Ten steps down the walk, he found her sitting on the cold sidewalk, sipping her coffee.  Terrific. His steps slowed but did not stop.

 

“Good morning,” he said, picking up the stride, trying to pretend he was used to beautiful women sitting on the walk waiting for him.

 

“Oh, good morning.”  She sounded so happy about that, and her smile floated through his heart.

 

Stop it, he commanded himself. She’s got a boyfriend, remember?  A rich, Porsche-driving boyfriend. Still he let himself take one more long look. “You’re up awful early.”

 

The smile traveled to her eyes. “I couldn’t stay away.”

 

Ugh.  Did she know that she was killing him?  In desperation he flopped down onto the path and started his morning ritual, only nothing about this felt even vaguely familiar.  She watched him.  He felt it even as he dove into the bush of elephant ears.  He should say something, but he couldn’t think of anything.  Prayers and God seemed very far away.

 

“So, do you like pray in your head or what?” she asked after he’d completely stopped breathing.

 

He looked back at her from his position kneeling and leaning forward under the large gray and pink leaves.  “Huh?”

 

“You said you pray out here, right?  Well, I’ve never actually heard you, so I was wondering if you’re praying in your head or whispering it or something.”

 

The fact that he wasn’t praying at all, couldn’t pray with her sitting there, yanked frustration into him.  He took a hard breath to settle it.  “Well.”  He scooted down the path to the fall of yellow wisps of reeds and went back to work. Yanking the weeds out with a vengeance, he fought not to scream.  “Most of the time I pray in my head, and we kind of have a conversation.”  He pulled a fistful of weeds out, moved to the other side feeling more than seeing what wasn’t supposed to be there.

 

“We?” she asked, following him.

 

“We what?”  He was starting to wish he’d stayed in bed.

 

“You said, ‘We.’ ‘We have a conversation.’  Who’s we?”  She took a sip of her coffee.  He saw her even though he wasn’t really looking.  It was now a sight he knew by heart.

 

A plant wriggled at his nose, and he swiped at it.  “We.  You know, me and God.”

 

Skepticism rained down her face as he moved to the next green bush.  “You have a conversation with God?  Does He talk back to you?”

 

He would if you weren’t drowning Him out! “Yes, He talks back.”  Gabe  pricked four weeds up in quick succession.

 

“Like out loud and everything?”

 

Ugh.  How had he gotten into this conversation?  “No, it’s more like in my heart, in my head.  It’s like a feeling.”  He scooted down the path.  Oh, to have a quiet morning all to himself.  Why wouldn’t she leave him alone?

 

“A feeling?” She still sounded skeptical although he was trying not to look. “And you know what He’s saying like that?”

 

He was hardly breathing for the pent up frustration.  “Yeah, I do.”

 

For some reason she then became quiet, motionless on the walk behind him.  After a long moment of being in the midst of the plants, Gabe glanced back at her to make sure she was still there.  She was—looking at the plant in front of her, eyes focused in intense concentration.

 

That stopped his rush to get away from  her.  He laid his forearm on his knee, turned and watched her like that, listening to the flower’s whispered messages.  “What’s it saying?”

 

Nothing moved as he sat and watched her.

 

“That there’s a different way.”

 

The frustration evaporated from his body, and gentleness filled the void it left. “Different than what?”

 

“Than how I’ve been living.”  When her gaze slid to his, there was a depth of sadness he hadn’t expected. She shook her head as her gaze dropped to the path. “There’s just so much I want to do, so much I know I should be doing, that I feel I should be doing with my life, but I’m in this holding pattern waiting for something that might never come.”

 

“Something like what?”

 

This breath was long and slow.  “Permission to run my own life?”

 

His heart panged with the desperation in that question.  He tilted his head to be able to see her face.  “Who’s running it now?”

 

She looked up at him, dropped her head, sniffed, and looked off down the path. “My mother.”  She shook her head again.  “I don’t know.  Maybe it’s not even worth it.”

 

He had to know even if it meant getting nothing done the rest of the day. “Worth what?”

 

“Fighting about.”  The shrug was painful.  “Maybe I should just do it her way and forget about it.”

 

Deep worry cut into him.  “You’re serious.”

 

Her smile was one of resignation and surrender.  “She’s going to win no matter what I do.  What’s the point?”

 

He fought to come up with the words.  Then his gaze chanced on the pink quinces across the path.  “You know, if God made you to be a quince, you can’t be a tulip no matter how much you want to.”

 

She looked over at him.

 

“And no matter how much she wants you to be something else.  She doesn’t have the right to decide for you.  That’s between you and God.”

 

Holly considered that.  Then she took a breath and stood.  “I’d better let you get some work done.  Sorry I bothered you.”  In two strides she was past him, in two more she was at the bend.

 

Gabe was still working on what plans her mother had derailed, how many that might be, and what she might be derailing right now.  The moment his brain caught up with the fact that she was leaving, he scrambled to his feet.  “No, Holly. Wait.  Holly.”

 

But she kept walking.

 

“You weren’t bothering me,” he called.  However, she disappeared around the corner and was gone. He slammed the base of his thumb into his forehead and slid it upward hard.  “Well, that was great, Gabe.  Just absolutely fabulous. Way to go.”  His gaze fell to the plants at his feet.  She needed him.  She needed him, and what did he do?  He blew her off.  Why?  Because he couldn’t be bothered, because she had a boyfriend, because of his stupid pride?

 

He let his head drop backward so he was looking at the clear blue sky above him. “I’m really sorry, God.  Really.  I totally blew that one.  Please help her for me.  Please let her see what I meant.”  Short of knocking on their back door, there was nothing more he could do but hope and pray that God would send someone into her path who could say it better than he could.  She deserved that much.

 

With her sad eyes dogging his every step, he swept up the weeds and headed for the work shop.

***

Holly was ensconced on the bench seat which spanned the large bay window in the sitting room.  Her arms were woven around her knees. Her temple rested on the warm pane of glass.  Thoughts streamed over thoughts until she wasn’t sure which were even hers anymore.  She was so intent on listening to her thoughts that she never heard the footfalls enter and cross the room to the bookshelves.

 

“Oh, well hello,” Luke said in surprise when he spied her there.

 

Holly fought to smile, but it hurt.  “Hi.”

 

At first she thought he was going to find his book and leave, but when he turned, he looked at her over the top of the dark reading glasses perched on his nose.  He tilted his head to look at her, then shut the book.  “So, I guess you are all excited about Paris.”

 

She didn’t have the energy to put up the charade.  “I guess.”  Her gaze traveled back outside.

 

He didn’t move.  Then slowly he stepped over to the bench seat and sat at the far side.  “You’re not very excited about Paris, huh?”

 

What she’d just said jumped into her.  She slid straight up.  “Oh. I’m sorry.  I know it’s an amazing opportunity, and I should be so excited.”

 

“But you’re not.”

 

How could she lie when he was looking at her like that?  The act deflated, and she shook her head. “No.”

 

He nodded, thinking a moment. “I guess all this,” he said, lifting his chin and flitting his gaze about the room, “must have come as quite a shock.”

 

She let out a breath but kept her arms where they were.  “Yeah. Kind of.”

 

His gaze slid back to her.  “I hope you know that I love your mother very much, and I want us all to be a family.”

 

Of course he did.  They all did.  “I know.”  But it sounded flat even to her.  Her mother would be furious, but really she was trying.  It was just impossible to keep up this charade with new family after new family.  The expectation to fall into love with them and out of love with them on cue was draining.  “I never even got to say good-bye.”

 

“Good-bye?”

 

She shouldn’t say any more.  She’d already said too much.  “To Dan, my last stepdad.  She just called and said she was moving, and that was it.  I was supposed to drop everything like it was no big deal and follow her across the country, and now…” She looked around the house.  “Don’t get me wrong.  The place is great.  Really it is, but I keep wondering how long, you know?  How long until I get another phone call?  How long until I’m supposed to hate this place too?  How long am I supposed to keep living in her shadow, hoping she doesn’t completely destroy my life in the process of finding hers?”

 

Unbelievably it was understanding and compassion, not hurt and anger she saw on Luke’s face.  “It must be hard, starting over like that all the time.”

 

Tears threatened, but she fought them.  “Not half as bad as walking away from people you really love.”  She was losing the battle, and she shook her head vehemently to keep the tears from falling.  “I think it’s easier not to love at all.”

 

“Oh, sweetheart.”  Luke reached over to her and let his hand fall on her ankle.  His gaze drilled into her.  “I promise you, right here and right now, that whatever happens between me and your mom, you can come to me for anything.  I’m your dad now… No matter what.”

 

She wanted to believe him.  She really did.  But too many promises had been made and broken.  Too many guys had said the words and forgot them at the moment of greatest impact.  When she needed them the most, they evaporated.  It was how it was in her life.  She sniffed and sat up, trying to bury the hurt and all the accompanying tears.

 

“Better?”

 

She nodded because that’s what he wanted her to do.

 

“Good.  Now about this summer.  Are you planning to sit in windows and up in that room of yours the whole time?”

 

The sniffling gave her an excuse not to answer right away.  “Well, I wanted to get a job, but…”  No more came.

 

“But…?” he asked, surveying her carefully.

 

She shrugged.  “I don’t have a car, and I don’t think anyone would hire me for six weeks anyway.”

 

“Ah.”  Luke raised his chin in understanding. “Yes, that is a problem.”  He nodded slowly.  “But maybe… maybe there is a way around that problem.”

 

Holly ran her forearm under her nose trying to stop the dripping.  “Oh, yeah?  What’s that?”

 

Luke stood, and her gaze followed him up.  “Come with me.”

 

Concern went through her, but she got to her feet anyway. The melancholy shadowed her spirit as she walked with Luke down the hallway until at the very end they went through one small room with a completely clean desk.  At the other end, Luke opened a door to a very large room with a huge desk flanked by bookcases and an enormous window that spanned the entire back wall. She gulped the awe back.

 

“Please, have a seat,” Luke said, waving her to one of the leather chairs with the gold buttons holding the upholstery to it.

 

Carefully she sat down as the concern crawled up her gut. She watched every move he made.  However, all he did was go around and sit on the other side of the desk.

 

“Now,” he said, laying his hands on the desk, “why is it that you want a job?”

 

“Oh,” she said involuntarily.  It took a minute for the wheels to spin in her head. “Well, I have three semesters of college left, and I want to save some money up so I don’t have to rely on someone else to pay for it.  That way I can make my own decisions and not be worried about if they agree with what I want to do or not.”

 

Luke nodded seriously.  “And what about your major?”

 

“My… major?”  The word stuck in her throat.

 

“Yes, you have one, right?”

 

“I… Well, not really at the moment.  I’m trying to figure out what makes the most sense to do.”

 

He leaned over the desk.  “The most sense?  I don’t think I’m following you.”

 

The words crashed in her head.  How could she tell him all the reasons her life wasn’t her own?  “Well,” she said as her gaze fell to her hands, “I would really like to get a teaching degree—early childhood, but that… doesn’t pay very well.”

 

“So you are trying to find something else you like that pays better?”

 

Her gaze never came up as she nodded.  Watching that dream slide away hurt.  “I know I should find something wonderful like interior design or nursing or engineering, and I’ve tried those, but…”

 

“But?” he coaxed.

 

She shook her head. “They’re just not me.  I love little kids.  I love being around them and watching their eyes light up when they learn.  I want to be a positive in their lives because I know how often they don’t really have many of those.”  However, that was about as likely to happen as winning the lottery. The futility of even living descended on her with a thud.

 

“I see.  And this job for the summer, how does it fit in?”

 

She brightened for no logical reason. “Well, if I could get a job, then I’d have my own money, and I could choose what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go to school.  Even though no job really pays enough to do that.  At least it would be a start.”

 

His gaze narrowed at her.  “Do you type?”

 

“Type?  Uh, yeah.  75 words a minute.  I’ve also taken several computer classes in college, so I know how to work the latest software—word processing, database, that kind of thing.”  She sighed as the hopes for a summer job deflated inside her.  “Not that I can do anything with those while I’m stuck here.”  Her gaze drifted to the ceiling.  Then she heard her own comment, and it crashed back to him.  “No offense.”

 

Luke smiled.  “None taken.”  He leaned back and surveyed her.  “I think we could make it work.”

 

Work?  Huh?  What?  She cleared her throat and sat up straighter.  “Uh, what work?”

 

His eyes narrowed further until she thought lasers might shoot out of them. “How does nine o’clock tomorrow morning sound?”

 

Panic seized her.  “Nine o’clock? For what?”

 

“For your new job of course.”

 

“My new…” Alarmed disbelief surged, and she fought not to run. “Doing what?”

 

“Being my assistant.  I’ve got stacks of invoices that need filed, my computer is a mess.  I can never keep up with the messages that need written.  I’ve got expense reports that need done from six months ago.”  He nodded.  “Yes, this could work out very nicely.”

 

The panic increased to the point she couldn’t breathe.  “Oh, I don’t know.  I’ve never done anything like that. What if I mess it up?”

 

He laughed.  “Then you’ll be human.  Tell you what, meet me here at nine in the morning, and I’ll get you started with something.  We’ll play it by ear.”

 

Fear slammed through the panic. “What about my mom?”

 

“We’ll put it to a little test.  She leaves for London this afternoon.  We just won’t tell her until she gets back on Saturday.  That should give us some time to see if this arrangement has a chance.” With that he stood, and she scrambled to her feet as well.

 

She didn’t know whether to be grateful or worried. “I’m…” Fighting not to say anything dumb, she yanked grateful to her. “Thank you, Mr. Teracini.  I promise I’ll do a good job.”

 

“It’s Luke.” He put his hand out and shook hers. “And I have no doubt that you will.”

***

“Really, Dad,” Gabe said as the sun began its final descent in the sky, “I can get this.  Why don’t you go on home? I’m sure Mom’s got supper ready.”

 

His father was hunched over the paperwork on the desk. “Have you ordered more fertilizer for the grass? I noticed we were getting low.”

 

“I ordered it last week.  It was on the schedule.”

 

The nod did nothing to make him think he’d done anything special.  “How about the pool filters?  We always run low on them during the summer.”

 

“There are five in the pool house, and I have it on the list to order at the end of the month.”

 

“I’m worried about that mower.  That ticking sound has gotten worse.”

 

“Tim’s been working on it.  I think the timing’s still a little off.”  Gabe sighed.  “Really, Dad.  Everything’s good here.  Why don’t you go on home?”

 

A moment flowed into two and then three.

 

“Well.”  His father pushed away from the desk.  “I suppose that’s about all we can do for today anyway.”  He lumbered across the room and grabbed his hat before turning. “You coming?”

 

Gabe shook his head. “Not for a while.  I’ve got some things to do.”

***

As he climbed the steps up the side of the carriage house later, Gabriel’s thoughts went from his father to her, bouncing between the two like a ball with a mind of its own.  He hadn’t seen her all day.  Not that he ever did, but it was still strange how she seemed more like a ghost than a real person. He wondered what she was doing right now.  Probably eating a fabulous dinner at a table heaped with food.  Not that she looked like she ate more than a few crumbs a day, but it was the perception of what people in her position did more than anything.

 

Pushing those thoughts away because he knew they wouldn’t lead him anywhere productive, he picked up the book he’d been reading, the one that for now had captured his attention, True Power & Real Peace.  It was strange because although it wasn’t filled with big words and convoluted reasoning, it was deep in a way that few he had read really were.  He sat back on the couch, grabbed his pen, and thumbed through it to find his place.

 

Never underestimate the strength of True Power to radically change your life.  Those things that used to stop you with fear will be but leaves on the wind—blown away and gone.  However, it will not be your strength that sends them to their fate, it will be the strength that they perceive in you.  This strength is much like a river flowing inexorably to its destination.

A river is only as powerful as its source.  The same can be said of you.  A river that begins at the base of the valley from rains only in that area will run for the time the rains are present, but the moment the rains stop, the river becomes stagnant.  It will eventually go dry and become useless to the surrounding plants and animals as it awaits the rains again.

This is much like a person whose source is how circumstances treat him.  If circumstances are good—income is up, friends are plentiful, family is good—then his river of strength and power flows.  But the moment any of the circumstances change, the beneficial, replenishing rains cease, his happiness, his power dissipates to nothing.

A man who places his faith and worth on the shifting sands of circumstances is destined to see his power dry up and become useless.  It can be no other way. If circumstances are your power source, you’re in trouble.

But there is another way.  There is another Power Source which does not go dry, a Source which does not dissipate to nothing no matter what circumstances say.  This Source is like a river source that comes from high up in the mountains, fed by the snows and the rains.  A river fed by this type of source is continually replenished from the heavens, gravity pulls the power of the water down toward its destination, the ocean, where it rejoins the source once again.

A river like this is not at the mercy of circumstances for circumstances conform to it, not it to circumstances.  Towns build up around it.  Commerce comes to it.  Its path is sure, and its power is sustainable precisely because its source is not weak and fleeting.  Because its Source is the One True Source, it becomes a source for others—not the other way around.

So it is with rich souls.  They are not dependent upon the shifting sands of circumstances.  If circumstances do not favor them, they change the circumstances by the sheer power they embody.  This Power does not arise from outside sources that are weak and unreliable.  This Power comes from above.  It is True Power that comes only from God Himself.

God’s Power is not determined by circumstances.  It just is.  It flows from Him, the One Who made all things by saying, “Let there be.”  Understand, God’s Power is not obtained by taking power from something or someone else.  God’s Power is True Power.  It is The Source, and can be the only Source of a rich soul.

Trying to derive power from a position in a company, an award, money, even hard work is a fool’s game that will leave you with a pocket full of fool’s gold.  Those things are source with a small s—the little river sources that will dry up.  They are the world’s poor substitutes for how to really gain power. The only way to attain True Power is to connect your life unswervingly to The Source.

That means seeking His Wisdom, His Answer, His Way in every thing you do.  Not just the big things, but in the seemingly small things as well.  For it is the small things that determine the ultimate direction of your life.  You can choose to go to the best college in the world, but if you sleep late and skip class, it will do you no good. His power to make right decisions must flow through every moment of your life, not just a hand-selected few.

True Power lies in following God’s lead and letting His Power flow through you at every moment, in every situation—no matter how big or small.  Doing so gives the rich soul as the Gifts of the Holy Spirit imply:  Wisdom, Knowledge, Understanding, Right Judgment, Piety, Fortitude, and Fear of the Lord.  Perpetually acknowledging His presence in you and in your life will lead you to see that His Power works.  Your power doesn’t.  The power of the world doesn’t. Only His does.

The Bible says it best:  “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added unto you.”  Seek Him, put every moment in His hands, watch how He handles them, get to know Him, and you will begin to derive your power from The Source of True Power.

 

Gabe closed the book and lay very still, letting the words seep into him.  The Source of True Power.  The One Who said, “Let it be” and there it was.  From his other reading he had gotten glimpses of how much God loved him, how personally God cared about even the smallest things in his life, how at the moment of truth God’s power defined the moment.  If that were true, coupled with this new understanding, didn’t it follow that he could step out in absolute faith?

 

He knew about putting things in God’s hands, but prior to this, it had always felt like asking for more than he deserved.  But did the river ask for more water?  No.  It was simply connected to the highest source, and it let the rest of life take its course.

 

The stillness around him grew until it seemed to be made of light itself.  “God, I see it now.  I see how much I’ve been going on my own power even now, trying to find something that would make me feel like I was on something other than shifting sand, trying to get myself on something other than shifting sand.  I see it now. To have True Power, I need only to connect to You.  Help me do that.  Show me how—even in the little things.  This I ask in Your Name. Amen.”

 

He stayed like that a few more moments, soaking in The Source.  Then he opened his eyes and rolled off the couch.  Once again it was late.  Once again his mother would be worried, but it was worth it to have this time to get quiet and learn about The Source. He smiled as he bounced down the stairs.  Yes, it was definitely worth it.

Copyright Staci Stallings, 2007

Posted in A Light in the Darkness, Novels | Tagged , , | Leave a comment