Read And the Greatest of These Is Love: A Contemporary Christian Romance Novel Online

Authors: Staci Stallings

Tags: #Christian Books & Bibles, #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Religious & Inspirational Fiction, #Religion & Spirituality, #Christian Fiction, #Inspirational

And the Greatest of These Is Love: A Contemporary Christian Romance Novel (5 page)

BOOK: And the Greatest of These Is Love: A Contemporary Christian Romance Novel
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Andrew pleaded with God that it wouldn’t be a problem for her. If he could just spend a few minutes with her, he would never ask another thing for as long as he lived. She was fascinating, amazing, beautiful.

“Well, we’re going to lunch in a few minutes,” Gabi said, glancing at him but only that. She seemed to be shrinking back or becoming angry, and he didn’t like either one.

“Oh. I can take them to lunch,” Jerry said quickly.

That stopped her and she verily glared at her boss. “You?”

“Yes, me,” Jerry said with indignation. “I run this place — surely I can take care of a few children for one lunch.”

Gabi looked at him, skeptically twining her lips, but she said nothing.

“You can use my office,” Jerry continued, without pause. A long conversation passed between them, only some of which Andrew could read.

“Okay,” she finally relented. “Just give me a minute to get these leaves out of my hair, and I’ll meet you there.”

“Okay. Great,” Andrew said, trying to keep the breathlessness out of his voice. It didn’t work.

 

Gabi stared at her reflection in the tiny mirror wishing desperately for make-up of any kind, but she only owned two pieces of make-up, and she reserved them only for important occasions — certainly not a normal day at the center.

“This is stupid,” she berated herself harshly in the mirror. “He’s a reporter. A reporter. He’s not here to see you. He’s here to get a story. Get a grip already.”

But her heart said differently, and no words were talking it out of anything.

 

Andrew studied the office as if his life depended on how it looked. Sad and dismal were the two best words for the place, and he wished with all of his heart he could change that. He had one shot at this, and he wanted it to go well. He turned the two extra chairs toward each other, then pulled them to the side of the room, then replaced them. There was no getting around the fact that this felt like a principal’s office — and that was definitely not the feeling he wanted to evoke at this moment. Candlelight and roses, wine and chocolate strawberries. That would have been so much better.             

Suddenly she slipped in the door, and when he saw her, his heart stopped again. How could anyone be so amazing? He fought with his mind to stay with him, but it was a battle he was losing quickly. There were no more leaves in her hair, and he kind of missed them. He smiled at her shyly, his eyes asking questions he didn’t dare say with his lips.

“Thank you for taking the time to visit with me,” he said as professionally as possible.

“Oh, you’re welcome,” she said as if she was both worried and intimidated. “I don’t know how much help I can be, but I’ll sure try.” The dimple was back, and its twin joined it.

             

“Oh, I’m sure you’ll do just fine,” he said, smiling at her, and Gabi’s breath caught and locked. How was she supposed to sound rational and intelligent when she couldn’t get her mind to work or the words to come out of her mouth when she looked at him?
Gabi, get a grip!

“Would you like to go somewhere else?” he asked, seeming to sense her discomfort.

She shrugged and glanced around the tiny office. It was less than inspiring. “I don’t care. Sure if you want.”

“Maybe we could go outside or something.”

“Okay.”

He pulled the door open and held it for her. Gabi ducked her head to step through it and led the way outside. As they walked in silence down the hall, her mind struggled with the unavoidable impression that she knew him from somewhere. They had met before, but when? Her mind couldn’t quite come up with the answer. It wasn’t like she went all that many places. Home, church and the center. That was about it. No. She was wrong. She didn’t know him, but why couldn’t she shake this feeling?

             

Andrew concentrated on each step down the darkened hall, willing himself to stay calm and professional. Sure, Gabriella — Gabi — made his mind mush, but he needed to get a grip. He had a job to do here, and that took precedence. They crossed through another door and entered the warmth of the sunshine outside. It was a beautiful day — one of the few remaining before the winter came.

“We can go over there to the steps,” she said like a breath on the air as she pointed across the playground.

“K.” He wished he could be cool about this like Bryan would be. Bryan would have her eating strawberries and drinking wine at his place by nightfall. As it was, Andrew hoped he would be granted five minutes.

She climbed the light, baby blue painted concrete steps and sat down pulling her long dark skirt in around her knees. Adjusting his medium gray suit coat, he sat down next to her and pulled out his reporting notebook. It was time to get serious.

“Before we start, I need the spelling of your name — so I get it right, you know,” he said formally, which was good. Keep it formal. Professional. To that end, he put his pen and gaze on the paper.

             

“Okay,” Gabi said and spelled it slowly for him, watching his hands intently.

There was no ring, she noticed in spite of her brain reminding her that this was an interview and nothing more. Besides, no ring didn’t always mean anything anyway.

“Okay, Gabriella — Gabi,” he said, glancing at her and then retraining his gaze to his notebook with only a slight adjustment of his glasses. He cleared his throat. “How long have you worked here?”

“Six years in January,” she said, looking around the sparse playground. It was so easy to grow wistful at the thought of the place.

She remembered the first time she’d seen it. Her first thought had been that she would make an immediate request for more equipment. That was six years ago, and not a single thing had been added since then. But she was still writing equipment requests in the hopes that something would change. It didn’t. It never would, but she adamantly refused to give up hope that it would.

“So, what made you want to work here?”

“A lot of things,” she said, still studying the grounds. It was far safer than looking at him. “I guess I thought I could make a difference, you know? It just seemed like this was where God wanted me to be at the time.”

“And did you plan to stay here when you came, or was this a stepping stone to something else?”

“You mean onto something bigger?” she asked, and he nodded. “No, not really, but I did think at the time that this place would get better…  But all it’s gotten is bigger — more kids, more parents, more problems.” Putting her elbows on her knees, she sighed the hopeless feeling back out of her spirit.

His gaze drifted over to her and didn’t move. “So you know about the financial problems then?”

“Yeah.” She nodded, feeling his gaze on her but not being able to return it. “I knew about them when I started here. I just didn’t know how bad things really were until a few days ago.”

The pen stopped writing as if they were now just talking. “How bad are they?”

Gabi wondered how much to tell him. How much had Jerry told him? How much did he already know, and how much should he know? “Pretty bad,” she finally hedged. “Let’s put it this way, I may be looking for a new job very soon.” As the tears she hadn’t let fall threatened, she pressed her lips together and ducked her head away from him.
Keep it together, Gabi. He doesn’t need chapter and verse of your sob story.

He wrote something down and let out a breath. “I see. So, in your estimation how bad would it be for the community if the center had to close?”

A knife sliced through her heart at that thought, and the tears became much harder to hold down.

“The center and the schools are the only stable places most of these kids know. For them it would be devastating. For their parents too, I guess, but mostly for the kids.” Gabi’s gaze slowly slid out across the yellowing grass, and she shook her head and closed her eyes to the pain dredging up in her soul.

             

The depth of the sadness in her voice stopped Andrew cold, and he let his gaze fuse to her and hold.

“It sounds like this is pretty important to you,” he said, watching at her hair blowing softly in the breeze. He wanted to reach out to it and her, gather her into his arms and keep every bad thing from getting anywhere close.

“Yeah, I guess so.” Her words were soft and barely audible. “I guess I know how much of a difference a place like this makes to these kids, and it’s hard to think what will happen to them if it does close.”

“Yeah,” he said with half-a-shrug, “but even with the center, how much of a chance do they really have? I mean look at what they come from.”

Gabi bristled instantly, and her dark, angry eyes knifed over to him. “The kids that come through here are good kids, Mr. Clark. They don’t have fancy sports cars or big houses, but that doesn’t make them bad kids.”

“Oh. I... I didn’t mean that like it sounded,” Andrew said, catching his mistake. “I just meant… that they have so much against them already.”

The anger dropped to an even more dangerous level. “Yeah, they do. And that’s why it’s important for them to have the center. It might be their only chance to get out of the life they were born into.”

“So,” Andrew said, wanting to steer the conversation away from this hot button subject. “Have you taught the little ones your whole time here?”

“No.” That worked as she half-smiled and then laughed. “When I started, Jerry put me with the ten year olds.”

He lifted his eyebrows in surprise. “I take it that didn’t go well?”

“Oh, it went well enough, but after six months we both agreed I’d do better with the little ones. Besides I was one of the only full-timers here, and he needed someone for the all-day four-year-olds.”

“Four-year-olds?” Andrew shivered at the thought. “That must be like going into war every day.”

“It’s not so bad.” Gabi smiled and leaned back with a shrug. “They’re great — most of the time anyway.”

Thankful that she didn’t look like she was about to shoot him anymore, Andrew nodded. “So, how many do you have?”

“Oh, anywhere from 20 to 25 a day. It depends on the parents. I probably have 18 regulars who are here most every day and then about six that drop in once or twice a week.”

“So, you don’t have the same ones every day?”

“Well, mostly, but these parents don’t always have set work hours so you just have to go with the flow and teach who you have.”

“That must be a challenge.”

“It’s all a challenge,” she said, sighing as the dark cloud that was never far away crossed her face once again. “The kids, the parents, the hours...”

“The hours?”

She came forward, putting her elbows on her knees once again as she glanced over at him. “Yeah, most of the time I’m here by at least 6:15. I try for 6:00, but that doesn’t always happen.”

“Six in the morning?” he asked in horror and dismay.

“Yes, six in the morning.” When she smiled, the dimples were back. “And if I’m really lucky, I’m out of here by 7:00, but most of the time it’s 7:30 or 8:00.”

“Wow. What does your family think of those hours?” he asked before he’d thought about the question.

Another bad question. She looked away again and said nothing for a long moment. “I don’t... really... have a family to worry about,” she said softly. “It’s just me.”

“Oh,” was all he could say. His heart broke for the sadness pouring from her 

A second and she shrugged. “I guess you could say the people here are my family,” she said so softly he barely heard her. “It’s really gonna be hard to see them go.”

“So you think you’re going to have to see them go?” he asked immediately catching her meaning.

             

Gabi sat in silence, unable to put what was in her heart into words. It was the thought that kept creeping into her mind. The one she had desperately tried to avoid thinking about for three days.

“I think I’d really better be getting back to help Jerry,” she said, standing quickly and making sure to brush her skirt off. “He’s not exactly a natural with the little ones.”

“Oh.” A surprised second and Andrew followed her up. Even with him a step down, he was still taller than her by several inches, and this close, the magnetism of him pulled her inexorably closer. Lands, she needed to get away from him before she did or said something truly humiliating. Then with a soft smile in his dark eyes, he held his hand out to her. “Thank you for your time, Gabi. I really appreciate it.”

“No problem,” she said, swaying back and forth on the light breeze. She took his hand, praying she wouldn’t lose her balance with the swirling of her world. With him this close, anything was possible. A breath and she willed a smile onto her face. “I guess I’ll see you around?”

His smile was beyond amazing. “Count on it.”

Chapter 5

 

“Look at my picture, Miss T.” Ross held the crayon creation up for her inspection.

“Wow, Ross.” Gabi took it from him as she bent down next to him. “Can you tell me about it?”

“This is my house, and this is a tree, and this is Bongo, my dog, and this is me.”

“Wow.” Gabi said as though it were a masterpiece hanging in an art gallery. “That’s amazing. You are a really good artist, you know that?”

The child’s little eyes plummeted to the cracked tiles at their feet. “I made it for you.”

“For me?” Gabi knelt down beside him, sensing there was more to this story. “Why?”

“So, you don’t forget me,” Ross said as his eyes turned to liquid when he lifted them to hers.

Worry crashed over her. “Forget you? Why would I forget you?”

“Because my mom says we are leaving tomorrow.”

She put her hand on his back. “Oh, really? Where’re you going?”

“My gra’ma’s sick, so we have to go stay with her,” Ross said before pausing for a beat. Then he looked right at her as the tears shimmered on his lashes. “Will you forget me when I’m not here, Miss T?”

“No, Ross,” she said gently, feeling the tears welling in her heart. “I won’t forget you, and do you know why?”

Ross shook his head very slowly side-to-side.

“Because I have this.” She held up the picture that suddenly had taken on a whole new meaning. She opened her arms out to him, and he put his arms around her neck and clung to her. Tears threatened to fall from her heart again as she held him. What kind of world was she letting him go into? He was so tiny, so fragile. All she wanted to do was hold him like this forever.

“I’ll think of you every night,” Ross said as tears pooled in his eyes. “I love you, Miss T.”

“I love you, too, Ross,” she said, choking back the tears. She ran her hand up and down his back as if memorizing it for when he was no longer here.

The knock on the door startled her, and she let him go and swiped her eyes before standing. She opened the door to Julie Taylor and called for Devon, who quickly retrieved his things and departed. There was a steady stream of parents after that, and suddenly Ross’s mother was there, and then they too were gone.

Gabi sent up a silent prayer for Ross as she helped Leslie, the last of her charges, gather her things and depart with her mother. Then the room around her was silent. It looked like a tornado had struck — rainbow colors of paint littered the tables, and discarded forgotten pieces of paper were strewn about the tables and floor, but at that moment, all Gabi could see was the little picture lying all alone on one table. A four-year-old, his house, and his dog… drawn just for her so she wouldn’t forget.

Careful not to jar the tears loose, she sat down on one of the tiny chairs next to the desk and picked up the picture. It was never difficult to love these children, it was only difficult to let them go back into their own worlds — worlds she had no control over. They came here every day, and she did her best to get to know each one of them as the special little people they were, but it wasn’t until one left that she remembered how little she actually knew about any of them, and how little control over their lives she really had.

The tears came then for real, twisting across her heart in hot streams of grief, and she didn’t even try to stop them. These kids deserved better. All of them did. And somehow she felt she had let them down. She hadn’t done enough. Surely in six years there was more she could’ve done — should’ve done — to make their lives better. But now it was too late. Now…

“Excuse me,” the voice said behind her, and she jumped to her feet, suddenly embarrassed by the tears streaming down her face. She wiped them away before turning to face the voice.

“May I...” she said, turning and finding herself looking into those same incredible green eyes for the second time that day. Her cheeks flushed instantly, and more embarrassment flooded over her. “Oh.” She turned a half-turn and swiped desperately at the tears. “I’m sorry.” Sniffing, she shook her head. “I didn’t hear you come in.”

“Oh. I’m sorry,” Andrew said obviously seeing the tears. “Um, are you okay?”

Gabi took a deep breath and sniffed the last of the tears away. The last thing she wanted was make a fool of herself in front of this guy. Not that she hadn’t already. “Yeah, I’m fine. It’s just been a long day,” she lied, quickly turning her attention to cleaning up the room. She picked up several papers and headed for the trash. “So, what can I help you with?”

“Oh, I was just about to leave, and I thought I’d stop in and see your room. I didn’t get a chance to this afternoon.”

“Oh? Well, it’s not much to look at,” Gabi said, absurdly wishing at that moment that her room looked like the playrooms at the other daycare centers, with their plastic play equipment and shiny, new toys.

             

“It’s nice,” Andrew said, truly admiring how she’d made what was obviously a dingy hole in the wall magical to even his eyes. “Are these the children’s paintings?” He pointed to the drawings lining the broken and brittle tack board above the chalkboard as he walked slowly down the line to admire each one.

“Yeah, the kids get to display their favorite artwork here for a week or two. That way even if the drawings don’t get hung at home, they get seen somewhere.” Across the room, she stuffed paints into a can.

Andrew fingered one little drawing and thought about the state of Bryan and Pam’s refrigerator. It was the one place anyone could see they had a child. “Why wouldn’t they get hung at home?”

She swiped a stack of paper off of a table and swept it over to the shelving. “Most of these parents are more worried about what’s not in the refrigerator than about what’s on it.” Her voice was not exactly kind nor patient.

“Oh, yeah,” Andrew said softly as his hand dropped back to his side. “I never thought of that.”

             

“Yeah,” Gabi said softly, knowing it was often difficult for her to remember that. She picked up Ross’s painting again, and in one heartbeat the tears were back. It was hard to remember these kids led lives none of them would ever know about.

“It seems like you have a lot of stuff most of the other classes don’t.” He was now examining the two fish swimming around in the small aquarium.

Wiping the final tables off, she shrugged. “Yeah, I guess I can afford some things the other teachers can’t.”

He turned to her. “Afford?”

“Yeah, most of this stuff I either pay for myself or I beg for from people I know.” She dumped a final set of ripped paper into the trash.

“The center doesn’t buy this stuff for you?” he asked, puzzled.

Putting her hands on her hips to survey him, she scowled. “The center can barely pay the teachers much less get nice stuff for the kids.” She tipped her head. “But I happen to think the kids deserve nice things — or at least as nice as I can provide on $375 a week.”

His gaze swung to hers, holding only incredulousness. “$375 a week? That’s all you get?”

“Yeah,” she said, thinking what a jerk this guy was turning out to be. He was just like all the rest of them — money and status was all they thought about. Well, there was more to life than watching money pile up in some bank account.

“And yet you find the money to give back,” he said almost to himself in awe as he watched the goldfish swim back and forth in the tank.

“I get by just fine.” Defensiveness swam in her voice, and she hated that. Why was she defending herself to this jerk? “Besides I don’t need as much as some people.”

It was a dig, and she knew it, but he was getting on her nerves with his high and mighty attitude about her and her kids. What had he said earlier on the steps about them not standing much of a chance? These kids, her kids, didn’t need his kind of help. Condescending, arrogant, and patronizing — he was the personification of all of them and so much more. Why he was even here was a mystery.

“I... I don’t know what to say,” he finally said, turning to face her slowly and leaning against the wall next to the tank.

“Yeah, most people don’t.” Gabi dragged in a deep breath, trying to control her rage as she stood with a handful of paint soaked towels facing him.

“Oh. Here, let me help you with those,” he said, noticing and reaching for them.

“I don’t need your help. I can get them.” Dodging his outreached hands, she almost made good on that statement, but his hands caught her wrists at the last possible second, and they both froze. He looked down at her and she looked up at him, fully prepared to knock him into next Tuesday if necessary. “Gabi, I’m really sorry,” he said, his voice soft, his eyes pleading for forgiveness. “I didn’t mean to insult you or your work.”

“Or the kids?” she asked with a knife-point on the edge of the question.

“Or the kids,” he relented. “I guess I have a lot to learn.”

She dropped her gaze to the towels still in her hands as she shook her head. “We all do.”

“Please? May I take those?” he asked, never taking his eyes off of her or his hands from her wrists.

With a breath she buried every horrible thing she wanted to say to him, to scream at him, as if he was the cause of this horrible mess. “Sure,” she said, finally, surrendering the towels to his care. Stepping back, she put her hands on her waist though her gaze hardly came up an inch. “Put them over in that wastebasket.”

“Okay.” He nodded, took the towels from her, and went to dispose of them as she had said.

Not wanting to prolong the conversation or to get into another fight, Gabi turned her attention to straightening her own desk, but she couldn’t deny that her wrists still burned from his touch. Being so near him was like being caught in a mind-altering vortex, and she was pretty sure that wasn’t a good thing.

“So, aren’t you supposed to be writing your story or something?” she asked coldly, wishing she knew more about him and berating herself for that wish at the same time. She moved papers one way and then the other, having no idea what the importance of any of them was.

             

“Well, I got one story filed today between the times I was here,” Andrew said, coming back to the center of the room, his brief appearance at the courthouse playing through his mind. “But I thought I’d come back here before I went home.”

“It’s on your way, I suppose,” she said, gathering her things and walking slowly to the door as he followed her. Why did it feel so incredibly difficult to keep himself from reaching out to her? What was this magnetism that fused him to her presence like a neodymium on iron?

“Something like that,” he said, but they both knew it was a lie. It hung in the air between them as she turned off the light and locked the door. He knew she hated him or at the very least wanted to get rid of him, so he decided with nothing to lose, he would go for broke and lay out all the cards he held. “Do you mind if I ask you a question?”

“Isn’t that your job?” she asked, a hint of teasing sarcasm lining the question. Their footsteps echoed in the empty hallway with an eerie, hollow sound.

Andrew had to breathe down the fear that was wrapping in dark shadows across his chest. “Yeah, well, this is kind of an official, unofficial question.” This was dangerous territory, and he knew it. “And if you don’t want to answer it, you don’t have to.”

“What’s your question?” Through the heavy wooden door she went, and with one push, they were out in the chilly night air.

“Well, I was actually wondering why you were crying earlier.”

 

Of every question Gabi had prepared herself for, nothing had prepared her for that.

“Oh,” she said as her heart began sobbing once again in the darkness that surrounded it. She took a deep breath and let it go slowly, willing herself to keep control. She would not cry again, not with him standing right there, judging her and her kids because he didn’t think they weren’t worth the tears. Forcing her shaking hands to stay steady, she locked the door. “I just found out one of my students is leaving, and I guess it just got to me that’s all.”

“Oh, why’s he leaving?” Andrew asked, almost as if he was genuinely interested.

“Sick relative so he says, but who knows,” Gabi said with an off-handed shrug, trying not to let the words find her heart. Together, they went down the steps and out to the parking lot.

He was walking slower now. Right next to her. Looking down at her in a way that made her senses stand on end, not in a threatening way, or at least not in a threatening way she wanted to name. “Do you lose a lot of kids out of the program?”

“Too many.” She headed across the lot to her car.

“It must be hard to let them go.”

“Impossible,” she said, and the depression wafted through her voice though she really was trying to make it sound like it wasn’t killing her.

“But you have to know you can’t save them all.” He said it as if it was the most practical, logical thing that had ever been said.

However, practical and logical weren’t in her grasp at the moment. In one step, she spun on him, and they both stopped only feet from her beaten-down car. “Oh, yeah? Well then, tell my heart that. Look, I might not have a whole lot of choice in the matter, but I don’t have to let them go without a fight, and believe me, Mr. Clark, I intend to keep fighting.”

BOOK: And the Greatest of These Is Love: A Contemporary Christian Romance Novel
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