Authors: Kristin Wallace
With great restraint, Julia pulled herself together and laid a comforting hand on Ms. Allen's shoulder. “I'll say a prayer for you, and for Elsie of course.”
“Thank you, dear,” Ms. Allen said. “I'm sure the Lord will provide a solution. Such a sweet girl. Our Pastor Graham is so lucky to have found you.”
She patted Julia on the head as if she were a faithful collie and then tottered off.
“Seth will get a call about the van tonight,” Julia said with a deep sigh. “Before you know it, I'll be on a committee to find a replacement driver. I hate committees.”
The idea struck so fast Emily gasped. Driving. A library van. Perfect. She may have been a disaster in the kitchen, but she could drive. Plus, she'd be doing a service for her temporary adopted community.
“What happened?” Julia asked, reaching over to pound Emily on the back. “Are you choking?”
“I don't think you'll have to suffer being on a committee,” Emily said, as she jumped up from the table.
“Where are you going?”
“I'm about to be an answer to prayer.”
Nate slammed on the breaks as his truck rounded the corner and nearly broadsided the decrepit, black van perched on the edge of the road. He peered out the windshield and stared in disbelief. Then a reluctant chuckle rumbled through his chest.
Seemed destiny demanded he run into Emily Sinclair everywhere he went.
He pulled in behind the van and stepped out. “You kill another car, Miss Sinclair?”
Emily started gesturing, and Nate knew a storm of words were about to erupt. He couldn't wait to hear the explanation as to why she was out here in the middle of nowhere.
“It's my first day driving the library van, and they told me the gears were tricky,” Emily said. “I figured I could handle it. I have driven a stick before â in Italy no less â and if you think those tuna cans they call cars aren't temperamental, think again. But this thing is way beyond anything the Italians can dream up. I've been trying to shift into second all morning because going fifteen miles an hour isn't getting me anywhere, but every time I tried, it kept stalling and now I think I've flooded the engine.”
A hand slapped against her forehead, and she took a deep breath. “I have
to stop spouting nonsense.”
Nate bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing. “At least I managed to figure out your problem this time.”
“You must think I'm the world's biggest spaz.”
“I think you're pretty cute when you turn into racer mouth,” he said and then wished he hadn't.
Mentally shaking his head, Nate walked over to the stalled van. The keys were still in the ignition. He climbed in and tried to start the engine, but all he managed to produce was a sick coughing sound.
“Yeah, flooded,” he said. “Have to give it a few minutes.”
Emily leaned her arms on the frame of the open window. “That was my plan.”
“You can sit in the back of my truck if you want,” he said, as he eased out of the van and slammed the door shut.
He flipped the tailgate down, and she hoisted herself up. He picked a spot at the opposite end of the bed. No sense in getting close to temptation.
“What are you doing driving the library van anyway?” he asked.
If she noticed he'd chosen to sit as far away as possible without falling off the truck, she didn't comment. “It's my new job. I take books to homebound people all over town.”
“What happened to the bakery job?”
Her nose wrinkled. “Baking wasn't my thing, you know?”
How could a woman scrunching up her nose be sexy? And why was he noticing something like her nose anyway? He tried to concentrate. “I know.”
A grimace twisted her lips. “You could at least pretend to be surprised.”
“I saw you at work. Twice.”
“You distracted me the last time,” she said with a little huff.
And what a distraction it had been. He hadn't had a decent night's sleep since. “Yeah.”
Her blue eyes widened and her breath hitched. Before he did something stupid, like reach for her, he jumped down to the ground.
“So, what happened to make Jessie finally pull the plug?”
“Why do you assume she was the one whoâ” She stopped and snorted. “Who am I kidding? It was only some smoke in the end. Unfortunately, I didn't get the alarm off before the firemen came.”
An alarm of another sort went off inside his chest. “Firemen! Emily!”
“It's all right. I wasn't hurt,” Emily said. “I got caught up in an idea, and I had to write it down. Before I knew it, the oven was spewing smoke like a fire-breathing dragon with a head cold.”
“You were writing?”
“I was trying to anyway.”
“I thought you said you couldn't write anymore. No more ideas. Isn't that the whole reason you decided to stay in Covington Falls and become a baker's assistant?”
“Oh, I get ideas, they just don't go anywhere,” Emily said, making a sound of disgust. “I can think of a beginning, but then I get stuck.”
“Maybe you're trying too hard,” Nate said. “I always get confused when I'm frustrated. If I just try and relax the wordsâ¦ I mean, everythingâ¦ is much clearer.”
“Believe me, I've tried relaxing. Yoga, meditation, I've even been hypnotized. Nothing works.”
“Why are you so worried? I saw the way Kara Baker and those other girls reacted to you. And then there's my brother. He got excited over a book about a fairy princess.”
Her mouth twisted. “A
“Whatever. You're a famous writer. A successful one. If you're able to travel all over the world taking odd minimum wage jobs for fun, you must not be hurting for money.”
“You don't understand. Money and fame don't mean anything toâ” She bit her lip.
Nate took a step closer, even though he knew it was dangerous. “They don't matter to who?”
She let out a deep sigh. “My family.”
Okay. Family issues he could understand. “They aren't proud of you?”
“Writing books for children doesn't exactly garner respect, unless you're writing about weighty social issues or winning Newberry Awards. I write stories about grand adventures and fantasies. They don't have any redeeming social value. They don't comment on the ugliness of the human condition or enlighten anyone. They don't have a real purpose other than to entertain.”
“Sounds like a quote.”
“From my mother.”
For a moment the sparkle left Emily's eyes, like a candle had been blown out. Anger rose in Nate's chest. What kind of mother would make her child feel so ashamed of herself?
“No disrespect, but your mother is an idiot,” he said.
Her eyes nearly bugged out.
“Sorry,” Nate muttered. “I shouldn't have said anything.”
A gurgle of laughter bubbled up. “It's okay. I've probably said worse, or at least thought it.” She sobered and her grin disappeared. “You don't understand. My parents are important. Celebrated literary geniuses, in fact. Have you ever heard of Vanessa and Clayton Sinclair?”
“Right, I forgot. You don't read much,” Emily said. “My parents have written ten books together. Great books. The kind literary critics slobber all over themselves in their praise. They're both college professors, too. They're respected. My siblings followed in their path. My brother Virgil has been compared to Hemingway, and my sister Charlotte is so smart it's almost scary. She went to college when she was sixteen. Graduated in three years. Then she wrote a philosophy book when she was twenty. Her book is being used on college campuses all over the world. She's been compared to Nietzsche.”
“I bet it sticks in their craw that you had more fame and fortune with one book than they've all had combined,” Nate said.
“With a book about a fairy.”
“So what? You made kids want to read. I wish there'd been a book I'd wanted to read as a kid. I'd just as soon use the paper as kindling for a fire.”
“What a horrible thing to say,” Emily said on an outraged gasp.
“Sorry to offend you,” he said, with a small grin. “But your parents should be proud of you. They should be bragging about you so much that other people want them to shut up.”
“They're not the bragging type,” she said with a resigned shrug. “Anyway, my family has never known what to make of me. I swear they must wonder if they brought home the wrong baby from the hospital. I don't look like them, don't think like them, and I certainly don't write like them.”
“Is that why you're so desperate to find a new idea? Because you have something to prove to your family?”
“I can't be a fluke,” she whispered. “They may never understand me, or the creatures I see in my head, but at least I have those creatures. Or I did.”
Her usually animated face was tight and unhappy, her mouth curved down in a frown of confusion. Nate itched to reach for Emily. The need to comfort and protect her was overwhelming.
“Maybe you should have a little faith in your talent,” he said instead. “I think you've been listening to your family for too long. Believe me, I know what can happen when you let other people's opinions shape your own worth.”
Emily studied him. “Quite profound, Nathan. Whose opinion shaped your worth?”
“I thought we were talking about you.”
She slipped off the tailgate. “Me, too. Who made you feel bad about yourself?”
“No one,” he said, backing up a step. “I was only saying it can happen.”
“Must have been bad.”
Nate realized he was still backing up. Disgusted with his own cowardice, he planted his feet. “I don't have time for this.”
She stopped a few inches from him. “Time for what?”
Such a challenge could not go unanswered. He grabbed her arms and pulled her up against his chest, ignoring the way her eyes went wide and the hiss of indrawn breath. “This.”
Emily stared up at him, lips parted. The temptation to lower his head and taste them grew until his insides clenched.
Talk about bad impulses. Really stupid.
“Have to check the van.” He set her away from him and spun on his heel. “Should be fine by now.”
His hands were shaking as he turned the key. Thankfully, the engine sputtered to life on the first try. He waved her over.
She paused next to the door. “Thanks. You've become quite the hero. I'm sure I'll get the hang of the van now.”
Oh, now why did she have to go and act all brave? And look so adorable at the same time? He considered driving away for all of two seconds. He would have, if not for his mother. She'd take a switch to his backside if she knew he'd left a woman with a temperamental old van alone on an isolated road. He could hear her nagging at him as though she were standing by his shoulder.
Manners. Sometimes they were a real curse.
“Hold on.” Muffling an oath, Nate hurried around to the passenger side and climbed in.
“What are you doing?” Emily asked, gazing at him across the seat.
“I'm giving you lessons in how to operate a rickety old vehicle,” he said with more sharpness than he'd intended. “Someone needs to make sure you don't kill yourself.”
She caught the shift in tone, and her blue orbs flared with sudden annoyance. “No need to put yourself out. I told you I could handle it.”
Anger flooded through him. He knew his own spike of temper had more to do with frustrated desire, but he couldn't stop the surge. “Oh, like you handled the van right into a ditch?”
“There's no ditch here,” Emily said, throwing her arms out. “Do you see a ditch?”
Nate fixed her with a glare. “Would you get in? I'm already late, and I don't have time to rescue you again today.”
“All the more reason for you to go on and let me finish my deliveries. Far be it from me to keep you from your schedule.”
He took a breath, trying to reign in the roiling mass of unwanted emotions. Another deep inhale before he spoke again. “Emily, please get in.”
Fire continued to shoot from her eyes, but the inferno became more subdued. “Fine,” she said, with a distinct sniff of irritation. “What about your truck?”
“We'll come back for it later. Now, put her in first and let's go.”
She glared but reached for the gearshift. “My hero.”
Despite her pique at Nate's highhandedness, Emily had to acknowledge his tutorial in the intricacies of decrepit old vehicles proved invaluable. She managed to make it through the rest of her stops without stalling the van again. Which meant she'd have to apologize the next time she saw him.
Not that she had plans to see him.
At her last stop, she pulled up in front of a simple, one-story home. The neighborhood seemed a little run down compared to some of the others she'd visited today, but 135 Magnolia Street had been painted a lovely salmon color that gave the place a touch of elegance. She reached in the back seat and grabbed the package marked
She rang the doorbell and a moment later a stout black woman with a streak of white running up the middle of her hair opened the door. Her shoulders were strong, and her obsidian eyes glistened with gentle warmth, making her a formidable figure, even though she barely came up to Emily's chin.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
“I'm Emily from the library. I'm dropping off some books. Are you Rachel?”
Even white teeth flashed, and deep grooves bracketed her age-old eyes as she smiled. “No, I'm Anna. I visit every day and sit with Miss Rachel when she's feeling poorly. Come on in. She loves visitors.”
Emily stopped short when she spotted the frail, balding woman sitting in an easy chair by the window. Sunlight reflected off the few wisps of hair left on her head, giving the effect of a halo. Emily imagined Rachel had once been a pretty woman, but illness had hollowed out her cheeks and drained the color from her skin.
She swallowed and forced herself to smile and not think about what sad fate could be awaiting the poor woman. Emily had often visited children in hospitals and seen how disease had wasted their bodies and stolen their lives by slow degrees. Every visit had carved a little hole in her heart. The rift tore open again as she approached.
“Miss Rachel, you have a visitor,” Anna said. “She's come from the library.”
The woman opened her eyes. They were gray and seemed to be the only spark of life left in her withered body. Emily moved forward and concentrated on not flinching as she took Miss Rachel's cold hand.
“I've brought your books,” Emily said. “
he Bell Tolls
. I have to say you're a woman after my own heart.”
Anna cleared her throat. “I'll go fix some tea.”
“I don't want to tire you out,” Emily said, thinking the woman didn't look well enough to talk.
“I don't have much time left to visit with friends,” Rachel said with a knowing smile. “I'd rather fill my mind with wonderful memories than stare out the window and dwell on the pain of leaving.”
Shock raced through Emily's body. Rachel spoke so matter-of-factly about dying. What kind of strength did the woman possess beneath her fragile exterior? Where did such a deep assurance come from? Not knowing what else to say, Emily nodded and sank into a nearby chair.
“You're new,” Rachel said. “Where is Elsie?”
Since Emily had repeated the explanation a half a dozen times today, she could recite the story by heart now. “She injured her back. I happened to overhear about the trouble, so I volunteered to help out while I'm here.”
“Very generous of you. Are you visiting someone in town?”
“More like passing through. My car broke down out by the lake. I was lucky someone came along, or who knows how long I would've been stuck out there. I'd never been so glad to see anything as that white truck.”
Rachel went still. “Someone with a white truck stopped to help you?”
“Yeah, although when I first saw it coming around the corner, I had serious doubts. Nothing good can come out of that rattletrap, I thought. Guess I've seen too many horror movies. All the best ones start with someone lost on a deserted road.”
Rachel's shoulders shook with quiet laughter. “A woman alone can't be too careful. What did you think when you saw your rescuer?”
“To tell you the truth, I thought I must be the luckiest girl in the world. I got rescued by my own Heathcliff.”
“You know, from
“Yes, I know the book. It's rather depressing if you ask me,” Rachel said. “I'm glad you didn't encounter an ogre on the road.”
A grin stretched the corners of Emily's mouth. “No, I got a hero in a rusty steed. Pretty fitting, considering the way my life's going these days.”
“You've hit a rough patch?”
Emily started to confess her troubles, but something stopped her. Here she was sitting with a woman who probably didn't have much longer to live. What right did she have to complain about a little writer's block?
Rachel seemed to read Emily's mind. “We all have our trials to endure, dear. Yours are obviously causing you pain. I can't do anything about this cancer in my body, but perhaps I can help you.”
A twisted type of logic, but Emily saw the sense in the words. “The truth is I've hit a jagged, torn up, filled-with-potholes patch. I'm a writer, and my brain's been on the fritz for what seems like forever. I keep hoping the answer to my problem is just around the corner, and if I keep moving long enough, eventually I'll get to the right one.”
“Emily, have you ever considered your car breaking down in Covington Falls was no accident?” Rachel asked. “Perhaps you're here now for a purpose.”
“I'm not sure I believe in fate. I'll make my own destiny.”
“Rely on yourself, you mean?”
“Exactly. People only let you down anyway.”
She shook her head, and Emily had the feeling Rachel now felt sorry for
. “You're quite young to be so cynical.”
Pride made her stiffen. “Not so much cynical as realistic.”
“I gather you don't believe in a higher power.”
“You mean God? I took a couple religion courses in college, and the theories are interesting, but I can't say I bought any of them.”
“I'm not talking about
,” Rachel said, her tongue clicking as she waved a hand in dismissal. “I mean a God who loves and wants the best for you. A God who has a plan for your life.”
“Not the way my life has gone. What about you? Is God in control when you're sick andâ” Emily gasped and clapped a hand over her mouth. “I am so sorry! What a horrible thing to say.”
Rachel didn't respond with outrage. Instead, her gray eyes turned serious. “I suppose I could lose myself in bitterness. Blame God for my illness.”
“I think you'd have a right to be angry. If your God is so in control, how do you explain why terrible things happen in the world? Why is there cancer? Why do children die? Why do we have wars and evil people who want to wipe out entire races?”
“What you intended for evil, God intended for good.”
“What?” she asked in bemusement.
“It's one of my favorite stories in the Bible. Have you ever heard of Joseph?”
Emily shook her head.
“Your professor didn't cover his story in your religions class?” Rachel asked. “Joseph was the son of Jacob, who later became Israel. He had twelve sons.”
Emily sat straighter. “Oh, right. The tribes of Israel descended from them. I remember now.”
“Yes. In any case, Joseph was the favorite son, and his brothers resented him. They hated him so much they sold him into slavery.”
Who knew soap operas started in the Old Testament? “Wow, talk about sibling rivalry. I thought I had it bad with my family. What happened to Joseph?”
“He ended up in Egypt, and eventually found favor with the Pharaoh because of his gift for interpreting dreams. One of those dreams predicted a great famine. Joseph ended up being put in charge of making sure Egypt would have enough food stored up for the people to survive. Once the famine hit, people came from all over the land in search of food. Including Joseph's brothers.”
Emily snapped her fingers. “Oh, sweet. Justice.”
Rachel gave a look Emily recognized from disappointed college professors lamenting over brainless students who just did not get it. “Not justice. God's plan. Joseph was sent exactly where he needed to be in order to protect his family, and the future of Israel. Which is what he told his brothers. What you meant for evil, God meant for good.”
“Do you think your cancer is going to stop a famine?”
A weak chuckle rumbled through Rachel's chest. “I doubt I hold so much importance. I do know God's plan is perfect, but we don't always understand His ways. Perhaps I'll only know when I'm back with Him again in heaven. We're all here for such a short time, but I have an eternity to look forward to with my Heavenly Father.”
“Have they made you a saint yet?” Emily asked.
Again, Rachel responded with warmth rather than offense. “No, dear. Don't think I'm perfect. I have struggled. I still do.”
“But you have faith.”
“I do. It's gotten me through some bad times and made me grateful for the good ones. Which is why I can say
are here for a purpose, and if you keep your mind and heart open, I believe you will discover what that reason is.”