It’s Friday and time for another sneak peek into one of my books! This week, our excerpt is from Taking Chances, a book which just happens to include a scene from one of my favorite places. Can you guess where?
It was the first time she’d been in church since… well, she couldn’t remember.
Rational, thinking people didn’t go to church. They didn’t believe a book full of made up stories, and they didn’t honestly think that there was a god of any kind. Faith was a poor substitute for accepting the truth – that you lived, that things just happened, and then, you were gone. The good you did didn’t count for much in the end, so what was the point of trying to hold to some system of beliefs that were fairy tales anyway?
And what was the point of adhering to a cultural set of moral absolutes, right?
Anything would go. And anything did go for Jill.
When you didn’t believe in anything apart from the present and what you could do to get ahead, like she did, you weren’t ill at ease about working in a place like this. River Fellowship, a church so big that it looked more like a shopping mall from a distance, then even more so on closer inspection with its bookstore, its coffee shop, its school, and its myriad of rooms and theater style auditoriums, all places that set the scene for perpetuating myths about a legitimate historical figure named Jesus who was delusional, quite frankly.
Jill had appraised it all on her way in, thinking little of the spiritual side of what went on here and thinking of it all from a business perspective.
That’s why she was there, of course.
Her last job had ended when the company laid off nearly every employee. Downsizing. Closures. A bad economy. She’d been inconsolable about it at first, but there had been another accountant there, one who was being transferred, who had passed her name along with his recommendation.
Thank you, Jacob Morales.
She’d said it and meant it at the time, even when he’d explained that it wasn’t a traditional accounting job but rather a position as a church treasurer with office manager and payroll dispensation responsibilities, a little of this and a little of that.
A busy job to be sure.
The personnel committee had handled most of the process. They’d interviewed her, they’d hired her, they’d briefed her on the particulars, and they’d set her up for a meeting with the senior pastor, who would fill in the rest of the details.
So, she found herself, on her first real day on the job, waiting in the reception area of the senior pastor’s office, admiring the new shoes she’d bought to celebrate. When she’d been laid off, she worried about making her mortgage payment, her car payment, and her payment on her student loans, but things had worked out so quickly that there wasn’t even a hiccup. The severance pay from her last job actually had her coming out ahead.
Hence the adorable shoes.
A religious woman would have counted it all as the provision of God, but Jill chalked it up to just how things work out sometimes. She glanced at her watch, wondering at the way she was being kept waiting, and pulled her mirror and her lipstick out of her purse to do a touchup to fight off the boredom.
She admired herself for just a moment. Not a gray hair. Not even the hint of any wrinkles. Still a youthful glow to her complexion, even now that she was in her late twenties. She let her mirror dip down a little lower as she put up her lipstick, admiring the curves there and the tone that came with long hours in the gym and were always appreciated by younger men, men her own age, and much, much older men.
She had a thing for older men, actually.
Her rational mind knew that her preference was probably because she had daddy issues. Her father was unfeeling, cold, distant… just like her, actually. Her mother was long gone, her dad was still around, had always been around, but he wasn’t really there, didn’t really see her, and certainly didn’t care.
Until the first time she’d brought around an older man, of course. An older, married man, at that.
No moral absolutes left the door open for a whole world of possibilities.
Her father nearly lost his cool over that and over the next one, too. But by the time he’d grown accustomed to her very active social life, she found herself enjoying older men less for the shock value and more because she appreciated them.
She appreciated that they were stable. That they knew what they wanted. That they didn’t play games like younger men. That they wanted her even more because they thought she was too young to have.
Her mind was on this when the senior pastor finally made his way into the office, which was likely part of the reason why her thoughts drifted the direction they did.
The other part of the reason, though, was because he was gorgeous.
“Hey, sorry about the wait,” he said by way of introduction, coming into the reception area and extending his hand to her as he stood before her, as she stood to greet him as well. “Stephen Hayes.”
Tall, dark, handsome. All those clichés fit, along with several others. He was older, probably old enough to be her father, but he wore his age well. Fit, well-groomed, and confident.
Just exactly her type.
“Jill Walker,” she said, sliding her hand into his, looking him over slowly.
He caught that. She could tell from the way his demeanor changed, from warm to guarded. Slight, so slight, but she picked up on it.
He was accustomed to women looking at him.
“Have a seat,” he said, indicating the couch she’d been on and taking the armchair across from her.
She sat slowly, crossing her legs even more slowly, watching him as she did so.
A defining moment, one where he could take it or leave it, quite honestly.
There was great hesitation in his eyes as he watched her. Hard to read, this one, but she smiled confidently even so, certain that it could still go her way.
“So, the new job,” he began, sitting back in his chair.
It was only then that she noticed the picture on the side table, next to a stack of books, a coffee mug, and a pad of paper.
He was in the picture, standing on the beach in swim trunks, his hair all messy and sandy, with his arms wrapped around a short, blonde woman wearing a long sleeve shirt and a floppy sun hat, with huge, bug-like sunglasses covering half of her face.
Who dressed like that at the beach?
Jill made some quick assessments.
His wife. Clearly, given the huge ring on her hand and the answering band on his. A woman who was a real drag. Obviously, given the way she was dressed for a day at the beach. A lady who had probably, despite the smile in the picture, gotten onto him for getting her dirty afterwards.
Women like her were like that.
Jill suddenly felt even more confident.
“Yes, the job,” she said, picking up where he’d left off. “The personnel committee has already walked me through most of the workload. I toured the office, started learning all the computer systems, and had a long chat with the staff secretaries.”
All standard stuff, of course. She’d learn the job as she went, but she already felt like she had a good grasp of what was ahead.
Well, most of what was ahead, as her mind went back to the man sitting in front of her.
“The workload will include a little more than what you’ve already heard about,” he said.
“Those secretaries are part-time, as you may have found out. They were all full-time until this past year, when we had to cut back and downsize.”
A church this huge, downsizing? Maybe religion wasn’t such a moneymaker after all.
He didn’t hear her think this, but he offered an explanation anyway.
“Changing times,” he said. “Church ministry isn’t what it was thirty years ago, and we no longer have the resources to keep up with what we once did. So, there have been a lot of changes. The guy you’re replacing didn’t give us much notice before jumping ship, so we’re in a bind.”
“I can get started right away,” she said.
“Which I’m thankful for,” he noted. “But the big question you’ve got to answer for me is whether or not you’re willing to take the job, knowing that it’s going to require you to do more than your standard accounting job.”
Was he flirting with her? Was this some kind of proposition?
“Being on duty here at the church to do your work, of course, and being the face of hospitality when the secretaries are out,” he said, apology in his tone. “I know it’s not what you’re accustomed to…”
Oh, he wasn’t flirting after all. He was just checking to make sure that she wasn’t above answering a phone or two, smiling at people who came into the office, and doing a little bit of everything.
She couldn’t be picky.
“That’ll be just fine,” she said. “I’m happy to do it.”
The relief and pleasure on his face made him even more attractive as he nodded, thankful for this answer.
It made her bolder.
“So… who will I be reporting to?” she asked.
“To me,” he said. “Downsizing and all, so I get to take on a lot of jobs that are new to me as well. Overseeing clerical staff falls into that.”
“New is good,” she said, smiling at him. “So… I’ll be spending a lot of time with you, huh?”
He narrowed his eyes just slightly. “Some. Yes.”
She raised her eyebrows at this, giving him a knowing smile.
A long moment of silence passed between them there in his office.
Before Jill could wonder at what he was thinking, at whether or not she’d made her point clear, he moved towards her.
“I think we should have dinner,” he said softly, leaning forward as he watched her carefully.
Yes. Please. And make sure it includes dessert.
“I think that can be arranged,” she said, just as softly, smiling at him knowingly.
“Tonight,” he said. “My house.”
Well. Maybe the prissy blonde in the picture would be out at some spa or out shopping, spending his money, not understanding him, being cold and frigid.
That’s the way some wives were. Jill despised them for it and appreciated them for it all at the same time.
Because it opened the door for her.
Wow. First day on the new job…
“I think,” she said slowly, watching him and imagining the evening ahead with very colorful imagery, “that sounds perfect.”
Seven Years Later
She was four miles into her run when her phone lit up.
She smiled at this, even as she pushed a button to stop the treadmill, looking around the crowded gym, knowing just exactly how this conversation would go, how these conversations always went, making sure there weren’t church people anywhere near, people who would hear, who she had to censor her words around.
Delicate topics, secretive talk… this had been going on a while.
Seven years, give or take a few weeks, at least. One of the longest relationships she’d ever had, frankly.
She never would have imagined the longevity all those years ago, sitting in his office. Never would have imagined how much that one night at his house would forever change her whole life. Never would have dreamt of all that would have happened in the meantime.
She’d do it all over again.
No regrets. Absolutely none.
“Hey,” she whispered, answering the phone and still looking around. “I was going to call you as soon as you were alone.”
Like she did most mornings. Like she did after each and every night like the one she’d just had.
Oh, she knew what this call was going to be about, reliving all the details, planning for the next time…
“But you couldn’t wait,” she murmured. “You never can.”
“Holy cow, Jill, I couldn’t! And you’re right, I never can! Your love life is like my own personal soap opera, hearing your date recaps, especially since I keep sending the possibilities your way. Please tell me this guy wasn’t an absolute putz because I’m starting to lose faith in my ability to differentiate idiots from godly men in my old age.”
Jill hid a smile at the assessment.
“Chloe, you’re not old,” she said reassuringly.
Hayes. Chloe Hayes. The best friend she’d probably ever had.
She’d never seen it coming.
She’d gone to Stephen’s house seven years ago, ready for whatever he had planned. He’d answered the door with a welcoming smile, and she’d been able to smell dinner cooking.
Oh, he’d really meant dinner when he’d leaned over and asked her, when he’d put her number in his phone and texted her his address, when he’d ended their meeting with a “see you soon.”
They were going to have dinner.
First, of course. Something was definitely going to happen later, though. Because, wow, he was gorgeous, and she was already into him, only a few hours into knowing him.
And judging by the smell of dinner, he could cook.
Older, established, able to cook.
Take me now, Pastor. Seriously.
A flirty remark of just that nature had been on her lips as she’d slid past him, brushing up against his arm, his hand, where he was still wearing his wedding band –
“Oh, you must be Jill!”
Jill had very nearly jumped out of her skin at the sight of the cute little blonde from the picture in Stephen’s office.
The wife. Here. At dinner.
Oh. This really was dinner.
She’d managed a smile that was more like a grimace.
“Hey. Yeah. And you…”
You aren’t supposed to be here, lady.
She’d looked to Stephen, but he’d been looking at his wife.
Looking at his wife with a smile on his lips. With honest appreciation in his gaze. And with a quick trail of his eyes over her tiny little body, a gesture that said a whole lot.
And his wife had raised her eyebrows at this, grinning even more broadly.
Well. He wasn’t just married. He was happily married.
Great. Just great.
“This is Chloe,” he’d said as Jill had watched him with sad, unreciprocated longing.
Chloe saw that, obviously.
But she didn’t let it keep her from smiling as she’d actually reached out and embraced Jill, not at all awkwardly but genuinely.
“I’m his wife,” she’d said, as though it wasn’t totally obvious and completely disappointing. “And I know what you’re thinking.”
“I look like I’m young enough to be his daughter, right?” she’d grinned. “Or at least, I did, back before old age set in and all. Do you color your hair?”
What an odd question.
“No need,” Jill had answered.
“Oh, I hate you,” Chloe had said, still smiling. “Been coloring mine forever. And everyone else’s in this part of town, too. I have a shop. You have to come by and visit! Even if you don’t need your hair colored. I could give you bangs. You’d look really great with bangs.”
Jill had doubted this.
“And your skin,” Chloe had observed. “My skin was once that clear and smooth. And what did I do with it? Lounged around on the beach in tiny little bikinis all the time when I was a teenager, and you know what? Can’t undo the damage that causes. Thought I had skin cancer a few years ago, so now, I have to dress like I’m going into a snowstorm every time we head to the beach. Lame, right?”
Ahh. The picture had an explanation.
“But listen to me, going on and on,” she’d said, laughing. “It’s because my daughters have moved away, to another state and an another country, and I just…” She had taken a deep breath.
Was she about to cry? Was she a total nutcase, telling a stranger all of this then bursting into tears?
Poor Stephen, with an insane wife.
“We should probably check on dinner, huh?” Stephen had cut in.
“Yes!” Chloe said, grinning again. “Jill, come on in with us.”
And she’d done just that because what else could she do? Leave? Say something really awful about how she’d come to seduce the preacher, not sit around the kitchen chewing the fat with the preacher’s wife?
Jill had prepared herself for more lame conversation, but Chloe had been silent at the stove. Jill had even thought she heard a few sniffles.
Stephen had heard them, too. He’d left his job of setting the table, gone to Chloe’s side, and put his arm around her.
Jill had watched uncomfortably as he’d placed a kiss on his wife’s head as she’d finished up cooking and wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her shirt.
Sensitive. Caring. Kind.
And married, she’d noted again, as Chloe had reciprocated the love by reaching over and grabbing her husband’s butt.
Well, perhaps that had been for Jill’s benefit, as Chloe had likely seen the looks he’d been getting.
Okay. Message received.
The meal had gone quickly, thankfully, and she’d made her way back home, full and disappointed but now informed of what could never be with the handsome pastor.
But it hadn’t been her last involvement with Chloe.
The crazy pastor’s wife had arrived at the church that very next week, where Jill was the face of hospitality and all, looking for Stephen. He’d been at the hospital, so it had been Jill who’d been the first to hear the news.
“My baby is having a baby,” Chloe had sobbed. “She’s pregnant. And she’s so far away.”
Jill had never been one for fake pleasantries or being anyone other than who she was, but she’d reached down deep into herself, knowing that it would be bad for the office and her job if she couldn’t be hospitable then, with the crazy woman weeping in the church, and hugged Stephen’s wife.
What had that done for Chloe? More than Jill could have known at the time. More than she would learn in the months to come, as the small kindness she’d shown to Chloe out of obligation on that hard day came back to her exponentially.
The sad, older woman was lonely. The church had changed, her daughters had moved on, and she was facing her own life changes as well, and Jill’s friendship was something that she sought out.
Random visits to the office. Coffee breaks. Lunches out. Even a trip or two to the salon to, yes, see about those bangs.
In time, Jill began to appreciate her. In time, they became friends. In time, Chloe Hayes, the crazy pastor’s wife, spoke truth to Jill’s heart in a way that no one else ever had, leading her to Christ and a complete life change.
Jill smiled about it, even as Chloe dismissed the age comments.
“I am that old,” she said. “And I don’t even have a clue anymore when it comes to men. Stephen has forever ruined me because no one looks as good as him. But Eric looked good, right?”
Eric, the latest in a long line of men that Chloe had fixed Jill up with, the man who had taken her to dinner the night before.
“Stephen,” Chloe said, “Eric looks good, right? Or am I going blind as well as senile?”
“Chloe,” Jill sighed. “Is Stephen still there, hearing my drama?”
Her boss. Nice.
“Close your ears, Stephen!” Chloe hissed. Then, “Why, no, of course not.”
“Well, if he’s there, then he might as well hear it with you,” she said. “Eric was very nice. Very godly. A gentleman. And a runner.”
“A runner?” Chloe asked.
“Yes, as in he ran far, far, far away when I told him that I came to Christ in my twenties and had done a whole lot of living before then.”
She wasn’t quiet about her past. Not at all. Not even because it brought glory to Christ to talk about what He’d brought her from but because she felt, in some strange unspoken part of her heart, that it was her cross to bear, to always have to carry the shame and burdens of the past with her.
It was all grace. She knew this logically.
But to feel it was something else.
“But he was supposed to be a good guy!” Chloe whined.
“They’re all supposed to be,” Jill agreed. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be going out with them, you know.”
“Not all that godly, though,” Chloe muttered. “A real godly man will see you for who you are now and for all that Christ has brought you through. Like Stephen. You need a guy like Stephen!”
Oh, how different things were now than they’d been seven years ago.
Jill had smiled, thinking about how it had worked out better than she could have ever hoped, even if she’d be alone forever.
“Maybe,” she said. “But I’m okay by myself.”
“I know… I just want more for you.”
Because she cared. Like a mom.
“I appreciate that. You just keep right on, then, okay?”
“I will. But fixing you up with someone else is not why I’m calling,” Chloe said. “I need you to come over to dinner to help us entertain a missionary.”
Ugh. She’d done that a few times over the years. Always a dull experience, with ancient preachers and their quiet, homely wives, which is why Chloe needed reinforcements, someone else to make witty conversation, another nodding, smiling head for when things got really boring.
“How bad is this one?” she asked, packing up her gym bag, done with her workout for the day, checking her watch.
“Haven’t even met him,” Chloe said. “But Stephen says he’s an important one, so our best foot forward and all.”
“I’ll be ready,” Jill answered, swinging her bag onto her shoulder. “What’s his name, just so I’m prepared?”
“Mark Jackson,” Chloe said. “I bet he’ll be weirder than all the others combined, knowing our luck.”
Want to find out what happens next? Get your copy of Taking Chances on Amazon!