“I’m sorry, please give me a moment.” Jessie Thompson returned the insufficient cash to her wallet and retrieved a credit card. She’d always thought it wrong to use credit for groceries, yet now had no other choice.
“No, no, I’ve got this.”
She turned to the familiar voice of her neighbor, Corbin Vaughn, and frowned. “What are you doing? You’re not buying my groceries.”
“Buying groceries with a credit card? Never a good idea.”
She despised being treated as if she didn’t know better—like an irresponsible youth.
Corbin’s arm brushed past her as he handed his money to the cashier. “Just add my deli order to hers.” He glanced at Jessie with a look of disapproval. “We’ll settle up when we get home.”
“When we—you make it sound like we’re married,” she hissed.
The clerk’s penciled in eyebrows perked with interest.
“Which we’re not. We’re neighbors.”
“Uh-huh.” The woman didn’t sound convinced.
“He has his house. I have mine.” Jessie was rambling and knew it. Why of all checkout lines did she have to choose this woman’s register? Her reserved expression came across accusing. What did she think—that Jessie and Corbin were having an affair!
God help me, I shouldn’t even care what the woman thinks. It was Corbin’s fault and his constant way of making her feel inferior.
In a sudden rush for time, Jessie left the warmth of the store and pushed her cart through the automatic door. She pulled her coat together to block the instant chill. The smooth tile beneath her feet changed to rough pavement as she hurried toward her car.
Corbin caught up with her in the parking lot. “Do I need to pay you more?”
“No—of course not. It wouldn’t even feel right. I love your kids.” Jessie watched Corbin’s two children after school and throughout the summer. His pay was fair. Life wasn’t.
A car honked as it passed. Jessie waved without looking then pointed at Corbin’s overstuffed deli bag with a smirk. “Besides, with the way you eat, I doubt you could afford it.”
“Very funny. I got lunch for the crew.” He withdrew an individually wrapped sandwich with his burly hand and pulled down a corner of the paper wrapping. With one bite, half the sandwich disappeared. He mumbled around his food, “You have to try this.”
Before she could smart-off another comment, he shoved the sandwich into her mouth.
He swallowed and asked, “Are you having problems?” Despite his chauvinistic ways, Corbin did care.
“I’m fine. Great.” She spoke while trying to manage the mouthful of food. The flavor of the sandwich sparked her taste buds to life. “And so is that. What is it?”
“Deluxe ham salad. Here,” he pressed the remainder in her hand, “finish it off. I have a couple more.”
He reached for a bag to load into her car, but she waved him off. “From the looks of your purchase, your crew’s waiting on lunch. I can load this. It isn’t much.”
“If you say so.” He frowned and stepped back.
Had she offended him? Probably. He always offered a hand, and she always refused. Not that it helped. Corbin would get his way when he really wanted to. Just like in the grocery store.
Moments later Jessie pulled into her well-kept suburb, and out of habit, glanced past her house down the street toward Corbin’s. Why did she always do that? More than likely for comfort. Since her husband died two years ago, Corbin was the one person in her life that provided any source of . . . what—protection, security? It didn’t make sense. They fought over everything, but even that was better than the emptiness of widowhood.
She put the groceries away in a hurried mess. The day had sped by leaving little time for work, though after turning on the computer she’d had little reason to fret. Still no buyers. Jessie searched through the photos of antiques she’d listed. The pictures were good, clear, and caught the different angles of each piece.
In another window, she opened her email and typed, “Tara, how’s your sales? Are they down like mine?”
Tara Holden, Jessie’s best friend and beautician for the past ten years, had helped her start a part-time business. But there wasn’t any security flipping antiques. One day the market would be hot with buyers, the next a freeze.
“Jessie, we’re home.”
Jessie glanced at the clock on her computer. Where had the time gone? “I’m coming.” She left the office and greeted each child with a hug. “How was your day?” She directed her question to include everyone.
Shannon Vaughn jumped up and down. “I got the part I wanted in the Christmas play!”
Jessie’s heart leaped with excitement. “You’re the orphan girl—the main character?” She’d never won a leading role during her school years. Pride welled inside her for the shy eleven-year old.
“No, I didn’t want that. I changed my mind.”
For the last month, Shannon had worried over the most important role. Perplexed, Jessie asked, “Then what part did you get?”
“Lead singer.” Shannon glowed with the announcement.
“And she singed to me on the way home.”
“Sang.” Jessie corrected her six-year-old daughter, Layla.
Not long after, the boys called for help. Jessie stepped outside to see what mess they’d gotten into this time. Her Timmy, and Shannon’s brother, Garret, were both eight and possessed way too much creativity when together.
Great. The Frisbee had landed on the roof. Though not the trouble she’d expected, still, she wasn’t sure how to get it down. “I don’t know guys, but I’ll give it a try.” She walked to the garage, shaking her head. Isn’t Frisbee a summer sport? What are they doing playing it now?
The ladder hadn’t been put to use in years. She considered the ten foot frame hanging in the garage. How would she wrestle it out on her own? An image of Corbin handling the job with ease ignited her determination. She didn’t need another reason to rely on him—and fuel his . . . his what? What was it about Corbin Vaughn that so easily built resentment? True, he would be able to do the job easier than her. True, she hadn’t wanted to pay with the credit card. But relying on him made her feel small.
Jessie stood inside the garage and stared at the wall. She needed a ladder just to reach the ladder.
“Mom, maybe we should just leave it.”
“Yeah, Jessie, let’s just wait for my dad. He can fix anything.”
Her spine stiffened. “Well so can I. Move back, boys, and watch what a woman can do.”
Once the boys were safely to the side, she backed her van out then drove into the garage again, closer to the wall. From the front bumper, she climbed onto the hood then the roof of the automobile. “Easy, peasy.” Full of confidence, Jessie grabbed the ladder and hoisted it from the wall brackets. It was heavier than she realized. The weight caused her to teeter on top the car. One glance between the wall and the car confirmed she couldn’t let go. Paint thinner and who knew what else lined the shelf.
With a deep breath, she turned around. One end of the ladder caught another shelf and scattered boxes on the floor of the garage. “Oops.”
Giggles erupted from the young glee club. “Thanks for your support, boys. Later you can help me clean up.” She lowered an end of the ladder. The weight rushed the extension forward, obnoxiously clicking past the rung locks until the aluminum slid against her front bumper, grating against the finish. Lovely.
She glanced at the wide eyes of the boys. “Not a word to your dad, Garret, okay?”
He nodded as if he understood. Hopefully, he did.
Full steam ahead, Jessie dragged the over-sized tool to the side of the house and propped it up.
“Mom, that’s not even.” Timmy pointed to the lop-sided ladder.
The lawn on the side of the house slanted downhill. Jessie chewed the inside of her lip and glanced around the yard. Given this particular suburb’s rules, the area was immaculate. Not even a rock to use under the ladder.
Garret ran from the garage. “Will this work?” Held in his palm was a wedge used to hold back a door. Leave it to the general contractor’s son to find a solution.
“Perfect.” Jessie slipped it beneath a foot of the ladder. Checking its balance with her hands, she climbed to the porch roof. Only when she reached the top, did she realize she should’ve moved the ladder over a foot. Not a problem, she could reach.
Her fingers brushed against the Frisbee. Almost there. Leaning out a little more, Jessie’s confidence grew. There were a lot of things she never thought she could do until becoming a single parent. She stretched a little farther.
“Aha! Got it.” In her excitement, her precarious perch teetered to the side. Jessie grasped at the shingled roof with one hand while the other clung to the prized saucer. She’d almost righted herself when her hand slipped.
The ladder slid downward along the overhang, scraping and creaking against the shingle edges. Realizing her doom, Jessie let go of the Frisbee and snatched at the roof, but momentum was against her. The yell that followed would’ve sounded more like a scream, if not for her pride. She braced herself for the impact that would more than likely involve entanglement with the ladder … and a broken leg.
“Oof!” Her landing came sooner than expected, followed by the sound of the ladder slapping the ground. “Corbin?”
“Of all the crazy notions.” He promptly set her on her feet. “You don’t have any business on a ladder.”
A surge of anger colored her words. “And who made you king of my palace? When I want your opinion, I’ll ask for it.” She felt the heat in her face as much as the bruises caused from falling into his rock-hard arms.
“I have a right to state my opinion when the woman I’ve trusted to watch my children tries to break her neck.” He hefted the ladder off the lawn with one hand and disappeared inside the garage.
Why did they always argue? Jessie sighed and picked up the mail scattered on the lawn. Corbin had probably dropped it on his way to her rescue. He often brought her mail in when picking up his kids. She figured it was more from curiosity than courtesy.
She shuffled through the contents as she climbed to the porch. One envelope was of particular interest. She tore the end off, ripping through the return address of her bank and plopped on the top step.
“Bad news?” Corbin was beside her, changing in an instant from a drill sergeant barking orders to a kind and compassionate friend.
Jessie read through the formal jargon already knowing what it would say. “I guess you need to know.” She sighed, all fight slipping from her body. “Since the car broke down, then the refrigerator, and I don’t remember what else, I fell behind on my payments.
“Without Richard’s paycheck, I can’t afford this house.” She waved toward her home. “It’s too big for us anyway.”
“What are you saying?”
Jessie could feel his imploring eyes searching for an explanation. She chanced a look beside her at the man who’d been a constant part of her life for the last few years. A surprised emotion flickered across her heart. She’d miss fighting with him. “I have a buyer for the house. They’ve always wanted it.”
“What?” His mouth moved in a silent stutter. “Where will you go?”
She shrugged. “I’ll find a place in town. I’ve spotted a few apartments.”
Corbin was shaking his head before she even finished. “You can’t live in an apartment. You’re a house person. Your kids have been raised here—in this small subdivision—they wouldn’t know how to behave in an apartment complex.”
Now he was irritating again.
“What do you mean they wouldn’t know how to behave? What do you think I’m raising? Baboons?
“No, but they feel safe here. What if they’re too trusting and you find out one of your neighbors has a criminal record?”
She rose, and he followed her inside. His ease in her home didn’t surprise her. She’d watched his kids since before her husband passed.
“What if they start hanging with a bad group of kids?”
“Stop. What you’re really upset about is losing your babysitter.”
“This is ridiculous. Why are we even doing this?”
“Wow.” This had to be the first time he’d backed down. But he should. This wasn’t any of his business. “I’m glad you finally came to that realization. After all, this is my life.”
“No. I mean why are we doing this?” He gestured between them and the basement toward the sound of the children. “We should just get married. Then we wouldn’t have to worry about,” he slapped the bank paper she still held, “all that.”
“Are you crazy?” She stared at him, trying to catch a glimpse of humor. His eyes were steady. He wasn’t joking. “All we do is fight.” She turned to gather his kids’ school bags.
“I know a good way to settle this.” He called down the basement steps. “Hey all you monkeys, come up here and answer a question for me.”
Like a herd of elephants, footsteps clamored up the steps while Jessie’s heart plummeted to her feet. He wouldn’t. He couldn’t.
“What would you kids think if I married Jessie and we became a family?”
Jessie rounded the corner of the hallway to hear a resounding cheer. Shannon was the first to hug her. “Now I can call you Mom like they do!”
Trouble didn’t begin to describe what Jessie was in.
Shannon pulled away and hoisted Layla into the air. “And you’ll be my little sister!”
The boys cheered in unison. Jessie turned to the instigator. Her head pounded with a force she wanted to unleash on him. “Corbin, may I have a word with you?”
“Sorry, Shannon has a dentist appointment. We’ll talk later.” He called for Garret and herded his kids out the door.
“Mom, I didn’t know you and Corbin liked each other. That’s great. Now Garret and me will be brothers.”
Not if I wring his neck first.
“Tara, how can I marry him? He gets on my every nerve.” Jessie slumped back in the booth after sharing yesterday’s details with her best friend. The fries she’d consumed in a nervous haste settled heavily in her gut.
Tara’s gay-hearted laugh proved she wasn’t convinced of the impossible situation. “I don’t see you have much of a choice.”
“Of course I have a choice.” A rush of indignation warmed Jessie’s cheeks. “I can support us fine, just . . . with a smaller house.”
“And you’ll do great, even though you have no previous skill set, you’ll still have those other payments to meet and less income because of the loss of your babysitting job. Not to mention how this might affect his children.” She took a long drink from her glass of sweet-tea.
Tara was right. How could she keep up rent and bills without the extra income from Corbin? Her throat tightened. Memories of the past painted a haunting possibility. Her mother had lost her job and then her home. They’d lived out of their car for over a year. Jessie wouldn’t put her children through that.
“Stop frowning. The marriage makes sense. You’ve known him and have watched his kids for several years. What’s so wrong with it?”
Despite the risks, how could she go through with the marriage? Corbin didn’t love her. Not that she had any real feelings for him either. Her mind stalled at the thought, but she chose to ignore it. “You know how chauvinistic he is.”
“Um … no.”
“Okay,” Jessie ran her fingers through her hair. “He talks like women can’t do anything. Like when I was getting the Frisbee off the roof, or pressure washing the house. And the time I was charging the car battery!” She wadded the napkin in her hand.
“So … because he caught you when you fell off the ladder and he had the gall to turn the pressure down before the water ate a pattern of squiggles on the vinyl siding? And because he kept you from shocking yourself with the battery?” She tapped a long finger on the edge of her glass. “I see your point. Total male-chauvinist.”
“You weren’t there so don’t defend him. What he didn’t say—which wasn’t much—his body language said for him.” Jessie wrinkled her nose and huffed. “You’re supposed to be on my side.”
“Well then, in all reality, you could probably find a job that pays enough to get by. But with so little time left before you have to be out of your house, do you want to take that risk? Also, if you were truly honest with yourself, I think you’d admit to feelings for the guy.”
Jessie gasped, “Are you crazy?”
“I’ve known you a long time. There’s definitely something there.” Tara glanced at her watch. “As much as I’ve enjoyed this live, romance audio, I have to head back to work.”
She reached over and gave Jessie a quick hug. “You should answer yes. It’ll all work out.”
Jessie watched Tara leave, unable to grasp her lack of support. “You weren’t any help,” she hollered in retort. Other patrons turned toward her with curious glances. Jessie gathered her purse and rummaged for a tip. Let them stare, it was better than trying to explain her situation and having them agree with Tara.
After returning home, Jessie punched her computer on. “Yes!” An email revealed she’d made a sale of one-hundred-fifty dollars for a set of Corning Ware cookware. The money would cover this month’s electric bill as long as the temperature didn’t take a drastic drop.
She printed out the address of the buyer and marked the product sold. Her fingers thrummed on top of the desk while waiting for the printed label. Slowly, her hand became still. The desk had been her grandfather’s. Solid oak, the wood had aged beautifully leaving dark lines trailing in the grain. For a moment, she wondered how much the desk would bring before coming to her senses. She could sell every piece of furniture she had and still be looking for a paycheck in a couple of months.
God, I need something steady. But even as the prayer left her thoughts, she didn’t want her lifestyle to change. She loved working from home, watching Corbin’s children, and not answering to anyone.
Was that why she didn’t want to remarry? She pulled her mouth to the side in thought. She’d loved being married to Richard, living the day to day life of raising children and doing things for him. A pain shot through her heart. If it weren’t for his car accident, she’d still enjoy life as his wife.
With Corbin, everything was different. They were just neighbors, not a dating couple. Not even a blip on the radar screen. Which is why the possibility seemed so outlandish.
Yet, one she still considered.
The day rolled by in a predicted haze. After school, she blocked the children’s constant chatter from her mind and concentrated on driving to church where Corbin would meet them like he did every Wednesday.
“Good, we’re early.” She turned to address Shannon and the three faces seated in the back. “I want all of you to take a seat once we’re inside while I visit with the pastor.” A round of nodding heads acknowledged they’d heard her.
Inside, the comforting smell of lemon and pine greeted her like an old friend. She walked beneath the timber framed ceiling and past the pulpit, her shoes clicking against the polished hardwood floor. Pastor Wade was busy in the choir practice room which had temporarily been turned into a pantry. Lined against the wall were several flats of food that had been dropped off in preparation for Thanksgiving.
Jessie’s stomach tightened and threatened to steal her confidence. But she had to talk to him. As a man of God, he would see the situation for what it was and talk sense into both her and Corbin.
He jerked up from counting the cans, causing Jessie to jump back. “Oh, hi. Didn’t realize I had company. Did you have something to donate to the shelter?”
“Actually no,” Jessie swallowed the lump in her throat. “I need some advice.”
He glanced at his watch before leading her to the folding chairs against the wall. “What is it?”
She always appreciated how this busy man slowed down for anyone in need, but now that she had his undivided attention, Jessie struggled with where to begin. “For the last couple of years, things have been a little tight at home, but we’ve managed to get by.” She cleared her throat. “But more recently, that’s all changed. Because of a few breakdowns and such, I fell behind on my house payments.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” Concern marred her pastor’s brow.
“And that’s my fault, because I didn’t want to be a burden to anyone.” The pastor tried to speak but she plowed ahead, knowing if she didn’t she’d find herself agreeing to accepting money from the church, something she couldn’t do in good conscience. If she wasn’t able to work it would be different. Despite knowing she could probably make more money with a steady job, she’d stubbornly chosen not to work outside the house.
“All of that was to say, I’m about to lose my house …” a cascade of emotion threatened to break free as the fact was spoken aloud, “and Corbin has asked me to marry him.”
A mixture of responses played across Pastor Wade’s face. “I’m sorry to hear about your house, but that’s wonderful news about you and Corbin.” He paused in his evident approval and peered closer. “Or is it not?”
“I don’t think it’s wise to marry just to solve my money problems.”
A smile slid across his face. “No, I wouldn’t think so either. But you aren’t marrying only for those reasons. When do you want me to perform the ceremony?”
Jessie blinked and shook her head. “You’re not listening. I can’t marry someone who doesn’t love me.”
This time, the man actually laughed. “Jessie, Corbin has—”
“Pastor Wade,” Mavis Gardner, well-known church gossip, entered with a jug of apple cider. “Well hello, Jessie, didn’t mean to intrude on your counseling. I’ll just leave this here beside the canned food and let you be.”
She paused in the door way. “It’s time for church to start. And Jessie, you know you can always come to me, dear, if you need anything.”
Jessie forced her upper lip to move in a semblance of a smile. Only if I want the whole town to know. She turned back to the pastor. This week wasn’t going as well as she’d planned.
“We’d better go, too, then. Let’s say a prayer before we leave.” The pastor bowed his head.
Leave? He hadn’t finished what he’d been about to say. He hadn’t told her not to marry Corbin.
“… and bless the union of these special people. I can’t think of two better suited for marriage, and thank you, for finally opening their eyes.”
Jessie moved methodically back to the sanctuary. The children were out of their seats, running and hiding between pews even as more members arrived to take their seats. Her mouth tightened in aggravation. They knew better—Corbin stood where the children were supposed to be seated, his back to their mischievous acts.
She rolled her eyes. If he was serious about becoming a father to four, he should be exercising his parenting skills not talking to … a sway of light colored hair reflected in the fluorescent light.
Great. Alyssa Halpin.
Jessie made her way down the aisle as Alyssa turned to go to the choir loft. Glowing, the younger woman smiled brightly at first then, as if realizing who Jessie was, narrowed her eyes.
Jessie brushed off the unfriendly act. She’d never understood Alyssa’s distant attitude and wasn’t about to worry about it now. “Kids, take your seats.” One by one, her and Corbin’s children stopped their play and scooted down their usual pew.
Layla patted a vacant seat between her and Shannon. “Sit between us, Mommy.”
Jessie did as requested. Corbin turned from talking to yet another member who’d stepped inside. Instead of sitting behind them as he often did, he surprised Jessie by joining them in the same pew.
She had to acknowledge his presence, but didn’t know what to say. Like the tin man in need of oil, her neck turned with reluctance until finally resting on the man seated one child over.
He repositioned himself, casting an arm over the back of the pew. His fingers brushed against her shoulder for the briefest moment. “Did you have a good day?”
Jessie rolled her eyes before focusing forward again. “No.”
From her side view, she saw Corbin’s mouth tilt in humor as he shook his head. He thought this was funny? The man was blind. But as soon the service ended, she’d enlighten him.
From the choir, Alyssa straightened her robe over her tall, slim figure then cast a glance toward Corbin. She had her sites set … no wonder she didn’t like Jessie.
A spiral of irritation wound around her spine. Jessie reconsidered. The conversation wouldn’t be had here. Too many interested parties.
At the end of service, those who would be working at the shelter were asked to remain. As church members mingled on their way out, Jessie turned and hid herself in conversation with the children. With Corbin sharing their pew, there was sure to be speculation over their relationship, and she couldn’t bring herself to look her church family in the eye.
“Dad’s going to marry Jessie!”
“Shannon!” Jessie turned and, to her instant relief, saw only one member standing by their pew. “We’re, err, discussing the idea.”
“That’s nice. You’ll make a lovely family.”
Corbin smiled. “Yeah, Jess, we’ll make a lovely family.”
The woman patted Corbin’s shoulder before moving on. “She’s such a sweet lady. Take good care of her.”
Jessie shrunk down in the pew. Could this day get any worse?
Once Pastor Wade finished shaking congregants’ hands, he returned to the front. He cleared his throat, and for one panicking instant, Jessie feared he would announce her and Corbin’s engagement. A surge of relief washed over her when he, instead, brought up the subject of the shelter.
“As most of you know, the renovation of the old community hall is nearing completion. We did find a section of floor still needing replaced. That, and painting the partitioning wall. I believe Corbin Vaughn has volunteered to repair the floor. And Jessie, you did such a nice job painting the kitchen, would you be willing to tackle the last painting project?”
“I’ll probably be out there anyway with … err … yes. That’s not a problem.” Her face heated with the almost mention of Corbin’s name. She kept her focus forward, not wanting to endure Corbin’s gloating.
After the meeting, Jessie buckled Layla in her booster seat. Layla yawned and wrapped her arms around Jessie as she reached over her.
“I’m tired, Mommy.”
She squeezed back, thankful that one of her two children still gave spontaneous hugs. Her babies had grown up before she was ready. “We’ll be home soon, and you can go to bed.”
“Will you carry me?”
Layla was too big to be carried, but Jessie wouldn’t pass up a chance to hold her close. “If you’re asleep I will, sweetie.” As soon as the answer left her mouth she knew she’d have a sleeping child whether by innocence or playing possum.
Corbin stood beside her open driver’s door. “Since you’ll already be working at the shelter, want me to pick up the kids after school and bring them over with me?”
“Um … yeah.” Though he often had spurts of thoughtfulness, they never ceased to surprise her. Jessie touched the top of the door, her hand inches from his. “Thanks for thinking of it.”
“Come on, Mom, I’m cold,” Timmy pleaded from the back seat.
She hesitated a moment longer before climbing behind the wheel and starting the engine. Corbin shut the door. No “good-night, Jess.” No peck on the cheek. In fact, he hadn’t so much as touched her. Odd behavior from a man having just proposed.
“I’m getting married.” Corbin spoke as he looked over the tightly scheduled calendar. “Guess we’ll have to fit it in on a weekend, maybe even a Sunday.”
He and Jessie could empty her house over the Thanksgiving holiday and marry that Sunday. “Think you could help us move during break?”
“You’re what?” Brock Warner’s deep voice filled the tiny trailer.
Corbin turned to his lead worker and glanced up at the taller man. “That’s what I said. Jessie’s about to lose her house, and there’s no sense in her moving to town and struggling to make ends meet.”
“How—” Brock scratched his dark, bald head. “I thought you two fought as much as got along.”
“No, not really. She’s a bit of a spit-fire, but you just have to know how to take her.” Corbin ignored Brock’s widened eyes and moved to business. “We’re close to falling behind schedule with the extended parking add-on. Let’s see if we can’t wrap up the west-wing of this plaza by the end of the week. That should keep us on target.”
“When did she agree to this?” Brock followed him outside, completely unfocused on their current task. “You have asked her, right?”
“Of course I asked her.”
“And she said yes?”
Corbin stopped short and repositioned his hat. “More or less. I’m talking with her again tonight. Yesterday was too busy. Now focus. We’ve a job to finish.”
He’d expected Brock to respond with a slap on the back. He knew all about Jessie from the numerous stories Corbin shared. Corbin and Jessie had known each other for years and understood the other’s personalities, their kids loved each other, and most of all Jessie wouldn’t have to struggle anymore.
“I got the guys started.” A couple minutes later, Brock reappeared at his side. “How long has this been going on?”
Corbin scrunched his brow. “Not every couple has a dating relationship before marriage, Brock.”
“Uh huh, name one.” He thunked Corbin’s hardhat before walking away.
Jessie tightened her robe around her worn flannel pajamas and waved to the children as they climbed the school bus steps. She closed the door and stared at the smudged fingerprints left in the paint more than a year before by Timmy. Soon she’d be sending her kids off from a different house, onto a different bus.
God, what am I to do?
The few apartments she’d checked into cost almost as much as her monthly house payment. And her electric company wasn’t the same one that serviced town, which meant higher rates and a bigger bill. She could barely pay the one she received now. There wasn’t any way she could afford to pay more.
Her mother had faced similar issues, and life hadn’t proven any easier with age. She currently lived in a one bedroom apartment near senior citizen housing where she managed the social activities for the ninety-plus community. Obviously, living with her wasn’t an option.
Jessie turned and dropped to her knees in front of the couch. With her arms on the cushion she buried her head in her hands. “Speak to me, God. Tell me what I should do.”
“Fear not; I will help thee.”
“For I know the thoughts that I think toward you … thoughts of peace, and not of evil ...”
“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you … Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”
Verse after verse flooded her mind in unmistakable clarity. She’d never been aware of God answering her this quickly. Jessie stood and paced the room while rubbing a knot at the base of her head.
“… for thou shalt not be ashamed: neither be thou confounded … and shalt not remember the reproach of thy widowhood anymore.”
She froze and a chill raced up her spine. That couldn’t be a real verse. She reached for her Bible beside the table. What was God talking about?
In the back, she found the unnerving word, widow, followed by a list of verses locating its uses. She flipped to Isaiah 54 and scanned the first half of the chapter. “Lord, You’re talking to Israel here, not me.”
The verses came again, quieting her soul. God was communing with her in a voice she would recognize. His Word.
Jessie took a deep breath. “If this is Your will,” she chewed her lip, “then I won’t fight it.” She held her breath, hoping to be given another option. None came.
Maybe I didn’t hear Him right. Maybe this was just my mind making up possibilities. Even as she searched for other explanations, part of the Pastor’s sermon came back to her. Something about heeding the voice of God and the consequences of not listening.
Okay. Fine. She took a deep breath. So what’s the next step?
Corbin. Her stomach clenched at the thought of telling him. Even more at the thought of being married to a man who had yet to show any sign of affection. But if this was God’s will, who was she to argue? She pressed her lips together in an effort not to answer her own question.
In her bedroom, Jessie picked up a brush and stared at the mirror as she combed her hair. Tears sprang to her eyes, not so much from the tangles the bristles caught as from pity for herself. Being married to a man who showed little or no emotion would be as awkward as a never-ending blind date.
Static raised her hair to stand on end. Great. The morning was even starting out like a blind date.
Half an hour later, with her mass of hair dampened and braided down her back, Jessie arrived at the shelter with a change of clothes in the seat beside her. She hoped to finish painting the new partition tonight to ready the rooms for anyone in need.
She stepped from her vehicle surprised to feel moisture in the air and glanced up. If the dull sky was any indication, she’d get a break from the woes of static. She grabbed her things from the van then entered the back of the shelter. The pastor’s wife already had the back door unlocked and stood in the kitchen cracking eggs in a bowl.
“Hi, Vera.” In her early forties, Vera possessed more spiritual wisdom than any woman Jessie had ever met.
Jessie plopped her bag onto the counter and reached for an apron. Made by an elderly member of their church, the fifties’ style patterns always brought a smile to her face. Today, she chose the one embellished with cherries.
“Wade told me the good news.” Vera smiled as she effortlessly whipped the eggs.
Jessie nodded and blinked back an instant response of tears. She licked her lips, delaying how to go about asking advice. Vera watched her closely.
“I am going to marry him.” There. She’d said that much. Now moving on to the real issue. “But how do I deal with his—” The back door opened as her question finished silently in her mind … lack of affection?
The other Thursday volunteers from church, Daisy, Oscar, Bobby Joe and Marilyn, filed in to join lunch preparations. Pastor Wade had masterminded the whole affair, stating their church had all the volunteers needed to make an impossible situation more bearable. Since then, whether small or large, a group of volunteers arrived at the shelter every Monday through Friday to prepare a meal for their area’s increasing amount of homeless.
“What are we cooking today?” Bobby Joe reached for the menu and nodded his head in approval. “I like chicken and dumplings.”
“And no one makes them better than you!” Vera turned as she spoke and poured the well-beaten eggs into the already prepared skillet. They sizzled over the hot pan drawing the attention of everyone in the room.
They were soon immersed in beginning preparations, all the while anticipating Vera’s announcement of breakfast. It had become their Thursday ritual to start the day with a healthy dose of protein to get them through the hours of serving.
Bobby Joe prepared a large pot of water for boiling the chickens, while a husband and wife team, Daisy and Oscar, chopped vegetables for salad. Jessie watched the couple work in sync with the other as they washed and chopped, filling the bottom of a bowl with carrots, celery and pecans.
Jessie measured flour and sugar into a bowl. Sugar cookies were always a good hit, especially with those who had little teeth left to eat with. The counter mixer whirred with the determination of a jet fighter. It was no wonder someone had donated the old thing. She couldn’t imagine having to use something like this every day in her home.
Someone tapped her shoulder causing her to jump.
“Time to eat.” Daisy turned back to the table centered in the kitchen and took her usual seat beside Oscar.
Marilyn passed out the plates then her husband led the prayer.
Jessie watched the couples interact as she ate in silence. Oscar leaned over and stole a piece of bacon from Daisy’s eggs.
Daisy playfully slapped his hand. “Now, Oscar, you stop that.”
Their playful banter started up as usual, amusing the rest of the table. Had they always had this type of comradery or had it come about from years of relying on each other? She turned her focus to the other couple. Though they didn’t often tease, there was an unmistakable comfort that came from years of trust. Would she and Corbin ever have that?
The morning sped toward lunch and soon, the cookie scented air was thick with expectancy as familiar faces lined up to accept a hot meal. Jessie greeted each one. Many she knew by name, others she still had to learn.
“Hey, Jessie-girl.” Nevin, a disabled veteran, waved to her from his usual seat.
Jessie grabbed her bag and left the kitchen. She greeted the wiry gray-haired man by draping an arm across his scratchy wool, covered shoulders and hugging him tight. “How are you today? Did they put enough on your plate?”
Nevin snuck a look toward the kitchen. “I wouldn’t mind another cookie if there’s any left over.”
“No need.” She reached into her bag. “I brought you some from home.”
Nevin accepted the small bag of chocolate chip cookies, his favorite. His eyes watered as he laughed. “You’re spoiling me.”
“You’re worth spoiling.”
Jessie moved on to give him a moment to collect himself. Nevin was still coming to terms with the recent changes in his life, and his emotions were often near the surface. As part of a program from a city shelter their church cooperated with, good conduct had earned him a chance to move here where they helped secure him a small home and a part time job. Nevin’s disabilities limited labor potential, but not his spirit. Always jovial and optimistic, he was often the first to lend a helping hand with new members in the shelter. His compassion for others had woven a path into Jessie’s heart. Even her children were always excited to see him.
After wiping down a table, Jessie returned and pulled out a chair across from him. Her job at the shelter didn’t end with serving food, but connecting with as many as she could. “Have you heard from your daughter lately?”
Nevin took a napkin and wiped cookie crumbs from his beard. “Yes. She got hired at that fancy vet office I told you about. I guess she’s one of the owners or partners now or something like that.”
“That’s great news.”
From stories he’d shared, Nevin returned from the war and became a wealthy businessman. But continued pressure for success coupled with posttraumatic stress, Nevin lost his energy and drive. Then his family and career. No longer hopeful, he took to living on the streets.
“Yeah, her mama did a fine job of raising her.”
“And no doubt, your training in her early life had something to do with it, too.” Jessie squeezed his hand.
“Nah, I don’t deserve any credit, and that doesn’t bother me. I’m just thankful for her success and pray for her continued happiness.”
As always, Jessie swallowed down other questions that loomed in her mind. Did his daughter ever visit? Didn’t they want to see each other? But it wasn’t her business or her place to ask.
Jessie made her way to visit others before those who’d arrived by bus had to leave. It wasn’t until she started to clean the kitchen that she noticed a new family huddled near the door. The mother’s timid face took in the interior of the room. Her eyes seemed hungry, not for food, but for something to hope in. Jessie nudged Vera, “How much do we have left?”
Vera set down the pot she’d removed from the counter and glanced over her shoulder at the family of six. “Enough.”
Jessie looked in the pot. There didn’t seem enough to feed two people, much less six. But God had performed greater miracles than this numerous times in the Bible. She was sure He could handle this small need. Instinctively, they bowed their heads and said a prayer over the food.
Jessie moved to the dining room. “Please come in and take a seat. We’ll bring you something to eat.”
The eldest of the five boys encamped around their mother couldn’t have been older than her and Corbin’s sons. He worked his mouth in worry, while his younger brothers smiled and sniffed the air as if eager to fill their bellies.
After shuffling through the refrigerator, they found left over rolls from earlier in the week and cleaned carrots. By adding them to each plate, there was plenty of food. Thank you, God.
Leaving the family to eat in peace, Jessie resumed her task of cleaning. Bob and Marilyn had already done a good share of the work before they left. Oscar stayed in the dining room, drawing laughter from the boys.
Vera drew to her side. “Did you want to finish what you started earlier?”
Oh, yes, she certainly did, but not with so many chances for interruption. “Maybe later. I think we’re still too busy for conversation.”
Vera nodded in understanding. “I’ll keep praying for you.” Her statement wasn’t made lightly. Vera’s prayers were full of enough wisdom and heartfelt need they would rival a saint.
Daisy draped her cleaning cloth over the handle of the oven. “All the tables are clean except for the one still in use.” She tapped her fingers over the rings on her left hand, a habit she had when something was on her mind. “I heard the young woman mention they were living in a motel. I can’t imagine how they’re making ends meet.”
They’re not. Jessie watched the boys interacting with Oscar. One climbed on his lap and pulled his ear lobe. “Why are your ears so long?” She stifled a giggle as she caught the look of embarrassment from his mother. The woman said something Jessie couldn’t hear before gathering the empty bowls and bringing them to the kitchen.
“Thank you, so much. The food was delicious.”
Jessie took the dishes and handed them to Vera before focusing on the young mother. “You’re welcome. By the way, I’m Jessie.”
“My name’s Heather.”
Although Jessie had heard Daisy’s comment of how they lived, she used the subject as a lead-in to learn if there was another way they could help. “Do you have a place to stay?”
One of the younger sons turned and announced, “We live in a hotel!”
“Motel, silly,” the eldest corrected.
Heather’s gaze studied the counter which separated her from Jessie. “It’s just ‘til we get back on our feet.”
The woman didn’t look like she lived a rough life. As always, Jessie, wondered at the events that led to their homelessness. Not everyone could be saved, this she realized. Some wouldn’t manage no matter how much was given them. But there were others, like Nevin, who just needed a little support to get them back to being self-sufficient.
Jessie studied the boys and their growing rowdiness. “How do you do it? With all boys.” Shame for asking heated her face. Experience had taught her you do what you have to do to get by. “I’m sorry. It’s just that my two boys are so rambunctious.”
“That’s okay. I appreciate the sympathy.” She gave a short laugh. “Sometimes a friend helps out. And we try to go to the park a lot after school. The oldest aren’t there today because they had slight fevers when they woke up. I thought the hot lunch might help them get over it quicker.”
Jessie sucked her bottom lip between her teeth. If they were sick, the chilly weather wouldn’t help. “Did you walk?”
“An’ it was cold!” The same hyper boy added.
Heather’s gaze again dropped as she concentrated on wiping her toddler’s face.
Jessie couldn’t let them walk. With her mind made up, she said, “Let me get some cookies for your boys to take with them and then you can ride home in my van.”
She knew not to word it as a question or the woman would likely turn her down to save pride.
The women in the kitchen turned questioning glances her direction. Vera met her as she bagged the cookies. “I understand you wanting to help, but we know nothing about them. I can’t let you go alone. I’ll go with you.”
Vera’s protectiveness came as no surprise. They’d been warned of the dangers they could face when starting the shelter. Still, Jessie felt it was the right thing to do. “You can’t. There won’t be enough seats.”