Along Came a Spider/C28

A/N: I’m happy to welcome and share my thanks with a new member of my pre-reading team, EdwardsFirstKiss. Thank yous to NKubieAnakinSmom, and princeselisa for pre-reading and Midnight Cougar for beta-ing. xx

Song inspiration for this chapter: “Soon You’ll Get Better,” Taylor Swift

(Playlist for this story can be found on my YouTube channel, if you search for “ghostreader24”)

Disclaimer: Stephenie Meyer owns Twilight. The NHL owns anything that sounds familiar. I’m here having fun.

/ /\ (oo) /\ \

Chapter 28

I wake slowly from knocking on my bedroom door and my father’s voice.

“Bella?”

“Yeah?” I whisper, rubbing my eyes in the low light.

His knocks become more forceful and his voice urgent when he doesn’t hear my reply. “Bella?”

For a moment, I’m filled with panic, wondering if something could be wrong with Mom. When my legs tangle in the bedding, I nearly fall in a rush toward the door, wrenching it open.

“What is it? Is everything okay?” My eyes shift sharply past him to their open bedroom door, searching for her. “Mom’s—”

“In the shower. She’s fine. Sorry. I didn’t mean to alarm you.” He looks away sheepishly, glancing toward the closed bathroom door where we can hear the water running. “Your mom didn’t mention it last night, but we’re going to . . . church this morning. She asked me to find out if you wanted to join us.”

“I don’t understand.” I shake my head and shift behind my door, concealing my Edward sleepwear as my heart rate returns to normal. I look over his polished appearance, which I realize includes a crisp new button down shirt with a tie and dress pants. “Um . . . you’ve never gone to church.”

He shrugs and scratches the back of his neck. “We’ve been going for the past two weeks. She was attending a church in Jacksonville and I . . .”

“Want to make her happy. I know.” I run my hand through my sleep-tangled hair. “Yeah. I’ll go. When are we leaving?”

“In about an hour.” He thumbs behind him toward the stairs. “I was on my way to start the coffee.”

“Okay, I’ll be down shortly.”

Closing my door, I disconnect my phone from the charger, then flop on my bed, noticing a text Edward sent about an hour ago. I must have slept through the vibrations.

Good morning, beautiful. X

I release a contented sigh and smile at his morning greeting. This is a much better way to wake rather than my father freaking me out unnecessarily.

Hey handsome.

When I notice the time, I realize he’s probably already at his morning skate, and I don’t anticipate a response anytime soon since it’s game day.

No sleeping in for me.
I’m off to church with Mom and Dad.
Then I’m driving us to Seattle this afternoon.
I’ll check-in once we’re at the hotel.
Good luck tonight.
I miss you. xx

Focusing on the screen, I try willing him to send a response, but when one never comes, I huff my resignation and toss it to the side. This is one of those days where I doubt we’ll have a chance to talk until late tonight. The two-hour time difference helps, but I’m feeling like a text just isn’t enough right now. We’re finally at the day before Mom’s surgery and I’m a little . . . overwhelmed. Or unsettled. I don’t know. My thoughts are spiraling in every direction.

I haven’t been sleeping the greatest while I’ve been here and miss my bed or even Edward’s at this point. Or maybe it’s the comfort from being wrapped in his arms at night. I brush away a tear that escapes.

Fuck, I miss him.

This sucks.

I’ve been trying to do all the traditional Christmas things with my parents, keeping busy, but nothing really feels right this year. Maybe it’s a good thing we’re attending church today. I’m trying to hold it together, but it isn’t easy. My mind drifts easily to the possibilities this could be her last of many things—I swallow around the lump forming in my throat at refusing to complete that thought and sniff back more tears threatening to fall. I could use some uplifting Christmas songs and inspirational words this morning. Maybe we all could.

Staring at the ceiling, I consider my limited clothing options since I didn’t anticipate I would need something for church. It’s the Sunday before Christmas, so there will probably be quite a few in attendance, even for this small town. I’ve worn the two dresses I brought with me. The one for Dad’s retirement dinner was a modest ruffled black dress, while the other I wore out with Leah was a more revealing sweater dress. I doubt a repeat of either will be acceptable. Almost everything else I packed is casual. Maybe it’s time to call in the big guns. Or maybe I just need to hear their voices.

SOS

Al responds immediately.

Text or call?

Video call. Are you decent?

Never! LOL

I chuckle at his response and call, sitting up on my bed while waiting for him to answer.

“Good morning, darling.” He smiles, filling my phone screen.

“Hey, Al. Am I interrupting?”

“No. Gare is making brunch.” He turns the phone to where I see Garrett standing at the cooktop in their kitchen, watching over two skillets.

“Hey, Bella!” He waves the spatula in his hand.

“Hi, Garrett. What’s for brunch?”

“Pancakes.”

“Yum. I fixed those yesterday.”

Al returns to my view, lifting a glass. “And mimosas. How are you doing?”

Shitty.

And feeling a little sorry for myself, but refocus on the reason for my call.

Or excuse.

I avoid answering his question directly. “I’m having a clothing emergency. We’re going to church and I need to pull something from my minimal choices here that would be appropriate.” Moving to my open closet, I tilt the phone so Al can see them as I shift the hangers. “I have two dresses, but I wore them both this past week, and I anticipate I could see the same people today. So, no repeats. Plus, they’re not very churchy.”

“How much time do we have?”

“Less than an hour.”

“Oh, we’ve got this. Show me anything red, if you have it or sparkly.”

“Sparkly?” I snicker. “Do you know me at all? Maybe I should ask Garrett for his help.”

“You know I’m always going to ask. Everyone needs sparkly in their life, but it can also mean jewelry. Anything big and noticeable will work too. And Gare has me—we both know I’m the ultimate sparkly arm candy.” He winks and giggles, taking another sip from his glass. “Did you bring heels or boots?”

“Yes. I brought both.” I point my phone lower, showing him my selections on the floor of the closet. “I have my black heels I wore to Dad’s dinner with a little black dress and the brown boots I paired with the sweater dress when I went out with my friend. But I also have a pair of gray ones that are a heeled shoe boot.”

“Gray dress pants or a skirt?”

“Neither, but I have a pair of gray jeans and another pair that’s dark blue. Either could work. Everything else is comfy casual.” I turn the phone back toward me as the shirt I’m wearing shifts, revealing a little more than only a bare shoulder.

Al gasps. “Darling, what in the world are you wearing?”

“Edward’s T-shirt,” I explain, righting the shirt and crossing an arm self-consciously over my chest.

His grin widens and he wiggles his eyebrows. “And not much else.”

“Sorry.”

“I’ll bet Edward’s not. Has your hunky spider enjoyed my current view this morning?”

My smile fades and I release a deep sigh. “He sent a text. It’s something he does every morning. And night.”

“Awww.”

“Today, he’s busy. It’s game day and I won’t hear from him until late.” I shrug, wiping away another tear.

“Hey, I saw that.” Al’s voice softens. “You’re not okay, are you? What’s going on? Tell me, Bella.”

“No. I’m not.” My eyes fill with more tears at my admission. I return to sitting on the edge of my bed, lowering my voice, but it shakes as I attempt to explain why I feel like I could crumble at any moment. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’ve been trying to follow Edward’s advice about keeping a positive outlook, but I just . . . I don’t know. I . . . I’ve been putting on a happy face while I’ve been here, but everything feels off and beyond my control. I don’t know what’s going to happen this week. It’s such a helpless feeling. I wish Edward were here, but he’s not.”

Blowing out another deep breath, I continue my rambling, unable to pinpoint what’s wrong exactly. “I’m feeling alone or . . . fuck, I don’t know . . . dependent? Or-or maybe disappointed in myself that I wish he were here instead of so far away. I know I’m stronger than this and it’s only been a week. A fucking week away from him. What’s happening to me?

“I’m being incredibly selfish, because this isn’t about me. I’m not the one undergoing major surgery tomorrow. I hate to say it out loud, but I feel guilty for wishing I were on my way to Aspen in the morning with Edward instead of Seattle today with my parents. I feel like the worst daughter in the world for even saying that,” I vent, brushing away more tears that roll down my cheek.

“Awww, hun. First, you aren’t alone. We are a phone call away—anytime—day or night. You say the word and we’ll be on a plane tomorrow.”

“No! No changing your plans. You promised you wouldn’t do that. I would feel horrible knowing I was the reason keeping you both from going to Houston and spending Christmas with Garrett’s family.”

“Well, our offer still stands. Second, it’s okay for you to need Edward. It’s a natural progression of your relationship. I have no doubt he would want you to reach out to him with how you’re feeling. I think it’s time to lean into this relationship a little farther and be more vulnerable with him. Darling, he’s going to have your back.”

I consider Al’s words for a moment, because I have been opening up more. “He met Mom and Dad last night. Unfortunately, it was over the phone.”

“Why do you say it like that? There’s nothing wrong with meeting them in that manner. It’s probably easier for him right now. How did it go?”

“Okay. I suppose. He was great, like always. Introducing them this way was my idea and he jumped on it.”

“That right there should tell you everything you need to know. And when was the last time they met a significant other in your life? Or you suggested it?”

“It’s been . . . a long time. Was it too soon? I’m just full of worry and feel so . . . unbalanced.”

“It’s okay to be scared. I know you and you’re doing better than you think you are. I shouldn’t have to say it, but it sounds like you need to hear it.” Al smiles gently. “You are a wonderful daughter for supporting your parents, especially when they’ve been shady with you about rekindling their relationship. I still think they had plenty of time to mention it in the past six months, including your mother’s worsening condition. They shouldn’t have kept either of those things from you.”

“I don’t know. I want to give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they thought it was something I always hoped would happen and didn’t want to get my hopes up, if it didn’t work out. But I never imagined they would get back together. Ever. It still boggles my mind that Dad is willing to start over, as if there was never an issue in the past thirty plus years—because trust me, there were plenty.”

“That’s between them, but I completely understand your reservations. You love him and don’t want to see him hurt.”

“Al . . .” I release another deep breath, wanting to bring up something else that’s been bothering me. “Dad asked me the other day if I would ever consider moving back, and join or start a dental practice here.”

Al’s eyes widen. “What did you say?”

I shake my head and run my hand through my hair. “I was surprised by his suggestion. I didn’t know how to answer, but I’d be lying if I said it never crossed my mind, especially since Thanksgiving. I just . . . I don’t want to leave Dallas.”

“Or do you really mean, Edward?”

“Or Edward,” I concede. “It’s my home. It would be tough to leave both, but now, my mom is living here . . . and I don’t know. Time with her is . . . fleeting. It’s another new twist moving forward. My current work situation is less than ideal. I love my job and my patients. But maybe I need to look into my options here regardless of what that could mean for Edward and me.”

“Bella, Sam needs you more than you need him. Remember that. You’re the backbone of that practice. You could tell him to go fuck himself tomorrow and you will be fine—anywhere.”

“It’s a big risk. I can’t imagine going out on my own and the money involved, or starting over by joining a new practice. But there could come a point when I don’t have a choice.”

“There are always choices. You will figure out what’s best. You always do. And I think you’re underestimating Edward. There’s a very good chance he would find a way to follow you anywhere.”

“I think that’s a lot to ask of Edward when we’ve been dating for only two months. He’s pursuing his own goals—especially living closer to his family and they’re in Dallas.”

He smiles. “And your family is here too, Bella.”

“Oh, Al.” He and Garrett do feel like my family. “You’re the best.”

“Don’t you forget it.” Al winks and blows me a kiss. “And don’t make any decisions without Edward’s input. I know you’ve been making them on your own for years and that’s worked in the past. But if you want to see this relationship continue to strengthen in ways maybe you haven’t had previously—include him. Ask for his advice. He may surprise you.”

I wish I could have one of Al’s hugs right now “What would I ever do without you?”

“Let’s never find out. Now, it’s time to get you ready for church.”

“Al?”

“Yeah?”

“Thank you. You know how much I love you both, right?””

His smile widens. “We do. And we love you too.”

/ /\ (oo) /\ \

When Al is disappointed by my lack of colorful or sparkly solutions, I “shop” across the hallway in Mom’s closet. At his prompting, I ask to borrow a silky burgundy-colored blouse when she finishes her shower, which thrills her more than it should. Pairing the blouse with my gray jeans and suede shoe boots, I get dressed, then slip into the bathroom while Mom contemplates her own clothing options. After adding a touch of makeup and a quick brush through of my hair, I’m ready for church. Returning to my bedroom, I snap a photo in my full length mirror and send it to Edward. Maybe it will get a response out of him when he’s available later.

Joining Dad downstairs, I prepare us an easy breakfast of buttered toast and soft scrambled eggs with coffee while we hear Mom scurrying between the bathroom and bedroom upstairs. With time slipping away, I top off our coffee cups and we nibble on the cherry snowball cookies from yesterday while we wait. When she finally hurries downstairs, a glance at the clock confirms we’re running late. Again. But neither of us says a word as I grab her a granola bar to eat on the way.

Arriving at the packed church parking lot, Dad drops us off close to the door, knowing there are a few open spots available near the road and returning to take one of those. Mom and I rush inside at the sound of the organ playing. After scanning the pews for any open seats, I’m surprised when I notice space near someone I never anticipated seeing this morning.

“Hey.” I grin, closing the distance between us and giving her a quick hug. “What are you doing here?”

Leah tilts her hymnal, concealing our whispered conversation. “I could say the same thing about you.”

“Mom and Dad asked if I wanted to tag along, and I figured why not,” I explain. “I could use some inspirational words this morning. I’m feeling a little shaky.”

“Awww, Bella.” She gives me another hug. “Are you okay?”

“I don’t know,” I admit, shrugging off my coat and leaving it on the back of the pew. “I will be. I hope.”

She glances past me to where Dad’s arrival doesn’t go unnoticed by everyone around us. He’s busy shaking hands like a politician running for office while Mom is searching for the right page in her hymnal.

“Well, my invite came from a new client, Pastor Isaac,” she whispers, wiggling her eyebrows.

Our eyes shift to where he’s standing near the pulpit, holding the hymnal, and singing with the rest of the congregation. As if he realizes we’re talking about him, he looks up and his eyes instinctively seek those of the beaming woman beside me. He looks away quickly, but she doesn’t, and there’s no missing the grin he’s trying to suppress.

“Leah,” I warn.

“What? I can’t help it if he’s hot and single.”

He is incredibly handsome. As I look around the crowd, I have little doubt the predominantly female congregation is all vying for the spot to become the pastor’s next wife.

“Mom said that he’s widowed on the way over here,” I share, while everyone continues singing around us.

Leah shrugs. “Not a deal breaker.”

“With two kids. Something you don’t do,” I remind her. “And since when are you a churchgoer?”

“I have an open house after this, but I showed him three homes yesterday morning. He’s looking for a new one to flip. Apparently, pastoring, or whatever you call this, doesn’t cover all his expenses. And maybe I can be flexible on the kid thing.”

“Oh, Lord.” I shake my head.

“How could I turn him down? Especially with how enticing he looks. I mean, damn Bella. I love his combination of creamy dark skin and those sexy blue eyes. You should see his arms. Fuck me,” she mouths the last two words. “He clearly works out and I’m more than a little curious about what he looks like without all those clothes.” Her eyes scan up and down his robed body. “He makes my tongue twitch with a need to explore.”

I chuckle, but pause my response when the organ stops suddenly with the last notes still hanging in the air. Pastor Isaac’s booming voice carries over the packed crowd.

“Welcome! This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

After his brief greeting, the organist plays the introduction to the next song while Leah flips through the pages, locating the correct hymn.

“Do you know any of these songs?” I wonder.

“Mostly the Christmas ones, but I can follow along. I’m adaptable, especially if it sells a house. Or gets me a coffee date.” She winks. “Let the sermonading begin.”

I leave Leah to her not-so-subtle ogling of Pastor Isaac and tune into his words. The church service is full of festive hymns I recognize, insightful scripture readings, and prayers that prompt me into saying a few of my own. Once we settle into our seats after another hymn, Pastor Isaac looks out over the crowd and begins his sermon.

“Life is full of seasons. For the past three weeks, we’ve focused on the season of Advent. We’ve discussed hope, peace, and joy. They’re all interrelated, and this week we’ll add love to that list. It’s one of my favorite subjects.”

I glance at Leah and she wiggles her eyebrows, leaving me with little doubt she’s interested in where he’s going with this. I return her smile, but don’t bother correcting that he said love, not lust.

Pastor Isaac continues, “Christmas is a season full of stress and commitments. There are office parties, school concerts, and unexpected visitors. We shop, decorate, wrap, and bake until we’re so overextended we have no idea how we will ever find our way through it all. Or pay for everything.” He grins while everyone chuckles. “It can sometimes feel like there is very little peace, but we must remember that Christmas is our season of hope. Our path to peace.

“When we think of seasons, our thoughts naturally turn to the weather associated with each one, but seasons can also reflect our individual journeys. It’s rare to find anyone who looks forward to winter. It’s cold and drab. Sickness inevitably finds us. The days are long and dark, leading to loneliness, and for some, even seasonal depression. Gone are the lush green days of spring, full of blossoming new beginnings. We miss the warmer summer months full of sunshine and outdoor adventures. And don’t forget autumn with its cooler temperatures and leaves fluttering to the ground, reminding us that there’s beauty in letting go.

“But winter . . . winter is tough. We enter it reluctantly, as it is determined to test our mettle. Sometimes it arrives unexpectedly. Sometimes we know it’s coming, like an approaching storm we can see in the distance. We hunker down, bracing ourselves for the worst.

“As we wander in the darkness full of the unknown, winter encompasses us with fear, pain, and suffering—leaving us to wonder if it will ever end. How much can we bear? Winter pushes us to our limits, then a little further. And a little further still. We hold on tightly with all the strength we can muster. ‘You won’t beat me,’ we shout, waving our fist at the storm. ‘I’m never giving up.'” Pastor Isaac smiles reassuringly. “The pain will not last forever. It’s temporary. And our suffering—suffering is a test of love. Our love of Him.

“When challenged, love multiplies. Love deepens. Love pulls us through the darkest times. It’s what we cling to in our times of need. When we think we can’t go on—God’s love is there, giving us the courage to continue. He encourages, ‘Keep going. You’ve got this.’ Through comfort and understanding, our beliefs are confirmed. Through God’s love, our strength builds on the hope that everything will get better. We know God is good. Generous. Kind. And above all, loving.

“The epitome of God’s love can be found in the New Testament. The book of John chapter three, verse sixteen—you know the one. You can probably recite it by heart with me.” Pastor Isaac holds up his closed Bible to the congregation as he speaks. “‘For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.’ Does it get any better than that? It’s a mic drop kind of moment. How would you ever top that gift?” he asks, lowering his Bible and his voice softens. “Spoiler alert in case you haven’t read your Bible cover to cover, you can’t.”

I smile when I hear an “Amen” from someone in the front pews and a few chuckles from those around us.

“All you have to do is believe. It’s that simple.” Pastor Isaac tilts his head in question. “But is it? Let’s check in with Mary, and where her story begins, because God needs her. She’s crucial to his plan. According to the book of Luke, chapter one, verses twenty-six through thirty-eight, we learn who she was as a young woman through her encounter with an angel, Gabriel.

“His first words to her are those of comfort. ‘Don’t be afraid, Mary.’ He can see she’s scared, and rightfully so. He hasn’t even shared the message yet and he’s worried by her reaction to his presence. ‘You have found favor with God. You will become pregnant, give birth to a son, and name him Jesus.’ Can you imagine?” He shakes his head, lifting his open Bible and reading the passage. “‘The Holy Spirit will come to you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the Holy child developing inside you will be called the Son of God.’

The Son of God. She has to be stunned with this information. It’s unfathomable. Or maybe a better word we use when we can’t explain an astonishing event without divine intervention—miraculous. But this isn’t the first time Gabriel has delivered a message of this nature. He has insider information he offers to her as comfort.”

Pastor Isaac returns to reading from his Bible. “From Luke, chapter one, verse thirty-seven, ‘Elizabeth, your relative, is six months pregnant with a son in her old age. People said she couldn’t have a child. But nothing is impossible for God.’ Think about that. Nothing . . . is . . . impossible when God is involved. Mary ponders his message, undoubtedly overwhelmed with his insight.

“Perhaps, this is when she realizes Gabriel is truly a messenger of God or he reveals himself as a heavenly being, because Mary softens with her next words according to Luke. ‘I am the Lord’s servant. Let everything you’ve said happen to me.’ She gives her consent. She accepts her fate, securing her crucial place in our history as a humble woman of great spiritual strength and humility. A selfless act. She accepts the responsibility of raising a child sent to save us—redeem us—of our sins.”

Pastor Isaac pauses, glancing down before speaking again. “Mary doesn’t tell Joseph about her visit from Gabriel before she rushes to visit Elizabeth, who verifies everything the angel told her to be true. Can you imagine Joseph’s state of mind upon Mary’s return three months later and finding out his betrothed is pregnant? I imagine he must have felt betrayal, sadness, and undoubtedly, a broken heart when Mary shared she was with child in a way no man could imagine. He knew there would be no hiding Mary’s pregnancy from others. Gossip would spread and follow him wherever he went. There would be no peace for either of them. Joseph’s winter was only beginning.

“Mary and Joseph were real people dealing with an extraordinary situation.” Pastor Isaac’s voice rises. “We are them. They are us. Just like the Holy family, we understand and can relate because life is full of ups and downs. Relationships are never easy. Families are fragile, full of conflicts, and egos can get bruised easily.”

He looks out over his congregation for a moment, then continues. “We know very little about Joseph in comparison to Mary, but we can understand his love for her. He didn’t want to see Mary publicly shamed or stoned to death for her illegitimate pregnancy. Joseph makes the decision to divorce her quietly or ‘put her away’ as it’s referenced in scripture, until God intervenes. Joseph is reassured through an angelic visitation in a dream that confirms the divinity of Mary’s pregnancy.” Pastor Isaac smiles knowingly. “God has a funny way of doing that when we need him most, doesn’t he? He sent Joseph a message of reassurance. Mary needs him. Don’t abandon her.

“There’s no doubt Mary was frightened at the possibilities of what could happen to her, but with God as her anchor, she relied on her faith and a growing hope that Joseph would remain by her side. God’s message brought comfort and peace to them both. Joseph knew welcoming Mary into his home wouldn’t be easy, but he put aside his pride and made the decision without hesitation. ‘We’ll weather this storm together,’ his actions told her. God is with us.

“When Joseph is mentioned briefly throughout Jesus’s life, I find him to be selfless and protective. Don’t tell me there isn’t a man or woman among us who doesn’t have the capacity to do as Joseph did. To accept what he didn’t understand—a child that was not his own—by trusting Mary and also putting his faith in God’s hands. Because He’s always there, standing by us in our times of crisis. Be like Joseph. We don’t need all the answers. We only need faith, knowing winter won’t last forever.”

There’s no stopping the tears that escape periodically as I get caught up in the message, realizing my father is Joseph. Maybe Sue too. Mom laces her fingers with mine and she gives me a squeeze of support when today’s sermon hits a little too close to home. Leah smiles and passes me a tissue.

“Our faith—I like to think of it like . . . building muscle. Many of you are aware of my love for working out at our local gym and I enjoy seeing you there regularly.” Pastor Isaac grins at all the bobbing heads. “But it’s unrealistic to believe we can build muscle without being consistent. Consistency. Pays. Off. It’s only then when we will see results. Faith works the same way. It strengthens with every church service we attend. With every prayer. With every time we reach beyond our comfort zone—helping anyone in need.

“When the world is dark and frightening and it feels like we’re all alone, we have to wonder, will this winter ever end? Will we ever experience happiness again? What about joy? Happiness isn’t the same as joy. No.” He shakes his head. “It’s not. Not even close. Our joy is deeper. Through God’s promise—the gift of his Son—through Him, we are able to experience joy. You know the song. We sang it earlier, ‘Joy to the world! The Lord is come! Let earth receive her King!’ We’re gathered here today ready to celebrate His birth this week. His light. Because where there is light, there is joy . . . peace . . . and reassurance.

“I hope you are praying daily. It’s our direct line to God. I invite you to have a conversation with Him. Pray for your neighbor. We don’t always understand what they are going through, but it’s a selfless act. Or perhaps pray for someone you don’t know. Pray for our first responders. Pray for the doctors who heal us. Pray for those in our military protecting our country and others fearlessly. Pray for those who lead us. Pray they can find the way to peace. Pray for love.” He pauses, looking out over the congregation. “Prayers are powerful—when we are passionately . . . honest. Your. Words. Are. Power. Use them. They give hope to those drowning in a sea of despair. In the midst of crisis, hope is the foundation our strength is built upon. Kindness shouldn’t be a random act. We should find a way to extend it every single day.

“Don’t be afraid,” Pastor Isaac echoes the angel Gabriel’s words. “God has found favor with all of us. Through the gift of His Son, He knows life is difficult. He knows we’re vulnerable and helpless at times. He expects us to struggle. We are all capable of extraordinary things with His love. And He will not abandon us in our time of need. Pray freely. Open your heart. Fill it with hope. Peace will follow. Your joy will expand and an unwavering love—God’s love—will carry you through the darkest times toward the light with days full of new beginnings. And we will welcome spring once more. Let us pray . . .”

Pastor Isaac shares a closing prayer, but I can barely focus on it. I sniffle my way through the final hymn until we reach the benediction, marking the end of today’s service. Fortunately, I’ve pulled it together when it’s time to depart. The organist continues to play as we shuffle our way toward the exit where Pastor Isaac takes the time to greet and thank everyone individually for attending today. I shouldn’t be surprised when he looks up, scanning the line. His eyes land on the woman behind me, prompting another smile toward our group. Or specifically, Leah.

As we make our approach, Pastor Isaac reaches out, shaking Mom’s hand gently. “Renée. It’s wonderful to see you again.”

“Thank you for another lovely service.” She releases his hand, turns to me, and smiles. “I don’t think you’ve met our daughter . . .”

I can see the confusion fill her eyes as she struggles to remember my name and I supply it softly. “Bella.”

“Right. Of course.” She chuckles nervously. “Bella. She’s a dentist and lives in Texas. We’re grateful she could be here visiting us for a couple of weeks.”

It’s a little more than just a visit, but I don’t correct her. This isn’t the only instance when this has happened while I’ve been here. Dad’s retirement party was one struggle after another. I know she’s been minimizing her condition to others, but even this brief glimpse of not remembering my name at this moment reaffirms the need for her surgery tomorrow.

“Hello, Pastor Isaac.” I shake his hand briefly. “Thank you for today’s sermon.”

“You’re welcome. I’m always happy to share the words of the Lord. I hope they brought you comfort and reassurance.”

“They did.”

His eager eyes shift past me and he offers his hand. “Leah.”

“Pastor Isaac.”

Mom and I share a surprised look when Pastor Isaac doesn’t release her hand, but covers it with his other.

“Did you enjoy today’s service?”

“Absolutely. It was an A-plus.”

His widening smile matches hers and they both chuckle at what I suspect is some sort of inside joke.

“Maybe we can grab a coffee, if you have time this week, and discuss the properties we saw yesterday. Or other possibilities,” he suggests.

I’m not sure his definition of possibilities and Leah’s are the same, but who knows with these two. There’s no doubt something is simmering between them.

“Sounds like a plan. You have my number.” She winks, glancing at her hand he’s still holding with both of his. “I’m on my way to an open house.” Leah nods toward her clasped hand. “I should go.”

“Right. We’ll talk again soon.” He releases her hand reluctantly, watching her turn as we depart before focusing on my father. “Charlie, glad to see you here . . .”

Once we make our way down the steps and out of earshot, Mom is the first to speak while we wait for Dad to join us.

“Leah, what have you done to the good pastor? I think he was blushing. And you are too.”

I grin, unable to resist teasing Leah. “Mom, I suspect she’ll have a gym membership before the end of the week.”

“You two underestimate me. I’ll have it before the end of the day.” She chuckles, reaching out to hug Mom first, then me. “Keep me updated on how everything goes this week.”

“I will,” I promise, releasing her.

“And call if you need anything.” She smiles, walking toward her car as Dad joins us.

“Thanks, Leah,” I shout and wave as she slides into the driver’s seat.

“Are we ready?” Dad asks, reaching out to hold Mom’s hand and looking between us.

I release a deep breath and smile, filled with a renewed hope that everything’s going to be okay, and if it isn’t, I’m more confident than ever it will be with the support and love of those closest to us.

“We’re ready.” I nod at Mom.

“Good. If we get on the road soon, then we won’t miss the kickoff of the Seahawks game at the hotel.”

“Oh, Dad.” I laugh, embracing the normalcy of his concern. “Let’s go. We wouldn’t want you to miss it.”


A/N: A special shoutout to my daughter this week for our lengthy discussions in regards to the content of Pastor Isaac’s sermon. She was an exceptional sounding board as I struggled with the ideas of creating a message that I thought would be true to his character. Thank you. xx