Hey, friends! This week’s sneak peek is Take Heart, one of my 99 cent books. (It’s also FREE on Kindle Unlimited.) I love, love, love Aaron and Libby’s story and hope you will, too. Libby’s conversion experience is my own, with just a few changes, so it’s super special to me.
Check it out…
They’d tossed their hats up into the air on the football field, like every class had for decades before them, cheering as mortar boards and tassels soared through the sky then rained down on them, landing right in the mud.
It had been a stormy spring. There had been so many flash flood warnings, overflows from the bayous that surrounded their town, and even threats of funnel clouds. The school had made arrangements for an emergency graduation ceremony plan in case the rain kept on, but a few days before all the seniors were scheduled to pick up their diplomas and go out into the big, wide world, the rain stopped.
The ceremony had been clear and cloudless, and when the night came, it was filled with stars.
And mud. So much mud.
None of Aaron’s classmates had even considered the foolishness of running out into the swampy field, and as he’d watched them, he’d imagined what the coaches would have to say in the morning when the field they had to start two a day training on in just a couple of months would be in clods and clumps, all along the fifty yard line. Even as he’d shaken hands with friends and posed for pictures, long after they’d tossed their caps into the sky, he’d tucked away a mental reminder to himself to come out here tomorrow and to see what he could do to help.
That’s the kind of guy Aaron Lucas was. Always ready to help, always ready to go the extra distance, and always focused on doing the right thing.
He’d met up with his family and graciously accepted the congratulations that came for something that had been taken for granted most of his life. He’d graduate high school and go to college, of course. His grades were exceptional, and he’d been president of the honor society, a letterman in three different sports, a top student in his FFA chapter, and the unspoken leader of his church’s youth group. The scholarship to LSU had been confirmation of all that he knew was up ahead and a testimony to the hard work he’d done and a life well lived to honor Christ.
By the time he’d gotten done posing for all their pictures and had told them that he’d meet them back at the house for cake and gifts with the extended family, most of the other graduates had moved on. He grimaced even as he made his way out onto the marshy field to retrieve his hat, knowing that his mother would want to put it away in one of the many boxes she kept in the garage, full of baby sleepers, kindergarten drawings, elementary report cards, trophies, pictures, and –
“I think you have mine.”
He glanced up from his muddy boots, positioned right by the purple hat his fingers had just barely touched, and he saw her.
For the second time that night, his heart picked up its pace. The first time had been when he heard her name called, watching her from his valedictorian seat as she walked across the stage, shook the principal’s hand, and gave a small smile to the crowded bleachers.
Silly reaction, most definitely. He’d known Libby for thirteen years, after all. In their small town, there was only one elementary school, and there were only three kindergarten classes. He and Libby had been in the same one together, and because Lucas and Phelps sat next to one another in the alphabet (no M, N, or Os in the class), so they, too, had sat next to one another. He’d been a helpful boy even back then, raising his hand up as high as he could that first week of class, eager to let his teacher know that Libby had been bitten by an ant at recess and was still crying about it. Because he was such a helpful boy, he’d walked her down to the nurse’s office, the hall pass in one hand and her hand, wet with her tears, in the other.
Aaron Lucas, the nurse had said, as he’d stood by Libby’s side, as the nurse had seen other things that caused her concern, things that he hadn’t noticed in the days he’d sat next to his tiny classmate, could you ask Principal Collins to step in here?
He was a helpful boy even then, going and getting the older man, who had looked at the abrasions and scratches, at the odd patterns on Libby’s arms, matching his fingers to the black bruises there. Aaron hadn’t known what they were talking about as they murmured in hushed tones, then as they gave Libby permission to go back to class with her ant bite now covered with a Sesame Street band aid, and as the secretary in the front office put in a call to the police just as the two kindergarten students were leaving.
He’d only told Libby, now you won’t have to cry anymore! And she had smiled at him uncertainly, her hand still in his.
He couldn’t remember even now how it had all progressed from there. He was too busy answering the teachers’ questions, learning how to read, running faster than the other boys at recess, finger painting pictures in art class, and singing as loud as he could in music class. Libby was still there next to him, Lucas and Phelps, every day, but someone else began picking her up at dismissal time. Strange adults he’d never seen, with important name badges and fancy clothes, came to get her out of class, and she’d come back from wherever she’d gone with them, red-eyed and sniffling.
He’d known, even without knowing why, that raising his hand high up in the air and telling the teacher that Libby was crying after these meetings was the wrong thing to do. So, he’d just reached over, taken her wet hand in his, and let her cry.
Until, of course, girls contracted cooties. After those years of elementary school when Aaron wouldn’t be caught dead touching a girl’s hand (eww!), there had been some strange years in middle school where touching them was the ultimate goal… but then, what were you supposed to do with them? He still hadn’t figured it out by high school, when girls he had known since kindergarten became interested in him in ways they had never been, always hanging out around his locker, finding him after games, and fighting to sit next to him in class.
Libby Phelps was still there.
But there were more stories around her then, things that Aaron understood.
Abuse. A bipolar mother, who was never on her medication and lost custody of her children again and again. Drugs that weren’t given by a doctor and didn’t make anything better, only worse. Then, she’d killed herself when they were in middle school.
Horrible things had happened to Libby between that kindergarten classroom and high school graduation. Horrible things that his parents protected him from knowing about as much as they could, but things they were unable to keep him from hearing from classmates as they whispered about Libby Phelps.
People talked in a small town, after all.
Then, something changed for Libby.
As often as they saw one another at school, it was still like there was a new girl in town when she’d shown up at his church during their junior year of high school. She was so quiet at school that he was surprised to hear her speak up in their Sunday school class, answering questions about Jesus and asking even more.
Aaron, who had little trouble talking to anyone anywhere at any time… well, he’d found himself struck silent by the way she spoke about a faith he knew so well.
Ridiculous as it had been, he’d spent the past thirteen years very nearly silent in her presence, and even more ridiculous, he’d wasted the last two years simply watching her and listening to her, too idiotically shy to even ask her if he could take her out, spend time with her, hold her hand like he had back in that kindergarten class, Lucas and –
“Phelps,” she said softly, taking the hat from his hand gently, turning it upside down, and pointing to the name.
“Ahh,” he breathed.
Wow. Thirteen years of silence, and this was the best thing he could come up with as she watched him. He silently wished for the muddy ground to open up and drag him down to its filthy depths to spare him the humiliation of standing here with his mouth practically hanging open.
Because she loved Jesus. And she was beautiful, in a quiet, gentle, and unassuming way. As she watched him, his heart sped up again.
“Yes,” she said, holding out another hat to him. “And your hat hit me in the head. You see? Lucas.” She pointed to the name.
“Oh, wow,” he said, reaching for it and glancing down at her with apology in his eyes. “I’m sorry about that.”
But she was smiling. “Probably my fault. I threw my hat into the air, then just kept standing there like an idiot, staring up at the sky. And your hat just bonked me right on the head, almost like God was trying to tell me to find you out here.”
God was definitely on Aaron’s team if that was the case.
“Hard not to look at the sky,” he said, looking up at it himself. “Haven’t seen those stars in ages, it seems.”
She looked up, too, her long, brown hair falling farther down her back as she did so. Aaron watched as she blinked her large blue eyes towards the stars, her mouth settling into a pretty, warm smile.
“So beautiful,” she said.
“Yeah,” he answered, looking at her now, having entirely forgotten the stars as he stared at her. Then, as she caught him looking at her, he fumbled for a reason for why he was so mesmerized by her. “Did you get hurt? I mean, when my hat hit you and all?”
“No,” she said. “Though you would think I would be, given how fast and hard you throw.” At this, she grinned.
Football. Baseball. Yes, he’d thrown plenty on this field and out on the baseball diamond just over the hill.
“Off season,” he said, smiling. “Just track up until this past week. We didn’t even make it past district in baseball. And football? Well, you probably know all about that.”
“I don’t, actually,” she said, shrugging. “I work every Friday night, so I missed it all. But I heard about how you lost the big game for everyone. Broke the town’s heart and all.” At this, her smile grew.
Was she being sarcastic? “Are you kidding me?” he asked, unable to stop from smiling with her.
She laughed out loud. Wow. His heart kicked into a higher gear again.
“I’m being serious, Aaron,” she said, his name sounding just exactly right coming from her lips. “This town lives for football, and when you went away that weekend for the youth discipleship training and missed the game? You broke their hearts. I’m surprised they let you graduate tonight.”
“They did,” he said, holding up his diploma, thinking about that weekend and all that he had learned, all the ways that he’d grown in Christ, and how the Scripture he’d studied since had led him to greater faith.
“Congratulations,” she said softly, still blessing him with that beautiful smile.
“You, too, Libby,” he said.
Was it his imagination, or did her eyes become brighter when he said her name?
“What’s next for you?” he said, wondering what her plans were, hoping that maybe they might include him.
“Working this summer, of course,” she said. “At the grocery store. Like I’ve been doing forever.”
“I know,” he said. “My mom always mentions that she sees you up there.”
She did. Every time she went. Aaron, that Libby Phelps is such a sweet girl. Do you talk to her much at school? You see her every week in church, don’t you? Are you ever going to finally man up and ask her out?
Well, maybe she didn’t say that last one. Probably thought it, just like Aaron himself did.
“She’s a sweet lady,” Libby said. “And she’s always got at least thirty dollars worth of coupons.”
He laughed at this. “Feeding a house full of –”
“Men is so expensive,” Libby finished, laughing with him. “Yeah, that’s just what she says, every time.”
“It is,” he said. “And she does. But she’ll be saving some money soon.”
“Oh?” Libby asked, obviously not sure what he meant.
“I’m going away for the summer,” he said.
“Oh,” she said, her voice different. Was she disappointed that he would be gone?
He was more than a little disappointed himself, given how natural and easy this conversation with her was, what it might have meant for the future had he not had plans –
“How exciting,” she said, her earlier disappointment gone. “Are you going away for a job?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Working at a kids’ camp. I’m a Bible study leader for kindergarten boys.”
“Hmm,” she murmured, fighting back a grin. “That sounds… fun.”
He smiled, too. “Talking about Jesus, studying Scripture, playing around…”
“Well, that all sounds great,” she conceded. “But five year old boys…”
“I like kids,” he said.
“Yeah, I know,” she said. “I see you high-five them all at church every week. You’re, like, their biggest hero.”
She watched him, too. Just like he watched her.
Why had he wasted so much time?
“And then what?” she asked him. “Where to after that? I heard about all of your scholarships, but I never heard where you’re going.”
“LSU,” he said, thinking about the money God had worked out for him through so many different means and how it was going to take care of his college education. “Gonna major in some kind of engineering.”
Her face lit up at this. “Me, too,” she said. “I mean, the LSU part. Not sure about the major, but yeah. I’ll be there, too.”
This news made him feel like cheering. It was better this way, having been given this chance to know her and pursue her when it could honestly lead to something real, rather than having made a move earlier when they were so young, too young…
No, he still wished he had said something sooner, done something sooner.
He’d do something now.
“That’s awesome,” he said, sincerely meaning it. “Maybe we’ll see each other and can meet up, you know. Go out.”
So smooth, Aaron, he chided himself. He talked to girls all the time. Even took some of them out. But he didn’t feel much towards any of them or carry on with any of them beyond a date or two.
Libby Phelps was different. In the way he felt, in the way his heart raced, and in the way he couldn’t seem to say anything to her without sounding like a giant dolt.
“Yeah,” she said, smiling as though he’d said it perfectly. “I’d love that.”
And before he could ask her if she’d like to go somewhere right now, totally willing to blow off his own graduation celebration and his entire family, the stadium lights went out.
Their cue to leave from school administrators who were quite done with their graduating class, apparently.
“They weren’t kidding when they told us not to loiter, huh?” she asked, somewhere there in the darkness.
“All these years of keeping us late in class and dragging out the school term, and they can’t give us five minutes,” he said, finally able to make out her shape in the starlight.
“Aaron, can you see anything?” she asked, her hand in front of her, even as she held her hat and diploma in her other hand, close to her heart.
“I see you,” he said.
I see you. I’ve always seen you.
He could see her smile at this, even though she couldn’t see him.
“Here,” he said, finally taking her hand, just like he had so many years ago, just like he’d wanted to do so often ever since. “Let’s get out of this mud pit together.”
“Okay,” she said softly, following his lead, her arm pressed up against his as they made their way back to the parking lot, his head ducked close to hers as he warned her of rocks and clumps that she couldn’t easily see.
Step by step, over way too soon. There was her tiny, old car, not so far from his huge, old pickup.
He was about to try again to ask her if she’d go somewhere with him right then, but before he could get the words out, she looked up at him as she took her hand from his and said, “Have fun with your kindergarten boys this summer. I’ll see you around, huh?”
Instead of saying that he didn’t want to leave just yet, he said, “Yeah. We’ll definitely see each other soon.”
Missed opportunity? No. Because he would see her soon. The fall wasn’t so far away after all, and she’d be there. He’d find her.
And with a wave, she was gone.
Aaron Lucas in her rearview mirror, standing there looking after her like she was someone.
Thrilling, to say the least.
She’d watched him plenty throughout the years. When she was much, much younger, when he’d been her playground protector, when he’d noticed her tears, even when he was too young to understand the reasons behind them.
Then, during those funny transitional years where they went from kids to something in between what they were and what they were becoming, she’d still watched him. Life had been pretty awful for her back then, deviating from the mess it had been into something worse. Violence at home was a given, towards their mother, towards them, from any number of men who came through because Mom was sick, made bad choices, and always brought them into their lives. It took a sinister turn when Libby had come of age, with her older sister, Riley, preceding her into the unwanted attention, the advances they tried their best to avoid, and the eventual end of it all, when Mom, dear old Mom, who was only coherent half the time and charitable none of it… well, she killed herself.
It was hard enough being a preteen girl, trying to figure out who you were as you were so quickly changing. Throw in all of that, along with being the talk of the town and going to live with a distant third cousin who wasn’t much better than the mother who raised you, and it was no wonder that Libby had been having a rough time of it.
There had been no time for regular things, like most girls her age. Friendships and sleepovers, make up and clothes, crushes and drama. These were luxuries normal girls could have. No, for Libby, life was about avoiding conflict at home, keeping to herself, trying her best to get through school, and dreaming about a day when she’d put it all behind her.
But then, even then, she’d watched Aaron Lucas.
All through middle school and up to the end of seventh grade, she’d thought he was the most handsome boy in all the world, all scrawny and wiry like all the other boys, his voice high-pitched and his face still childlike. Perhaps the attraction had been that he’d been joyful, real in that, and honestly the kindest person she’d ever known. He was a friend to everyone, and she remembered watching him leave school on the last day of seventh grade, going out to his mom’s car where his two younger brothers literally cheered to see him, all three of them already shouting about all the days they were going to spend at the pool.
No one else had been watching him. Just Libby.
All of the other girls started noticing him in the fall, though. He wore new clothes on his much taller, much broader frame. He had a deeper voice, more definition in his smile, and a strange something that had them all watching him with interest.
There must have been something in that pool water.
He’d had that same joy, though, even then, even as he seemed like a different person on the outside. Libby could recognize who he was, still the same sweet boy on the inside.
She didn’t get it, honestly. She didn’t understand why he had the joy he had.
She would have continued on not understanding it had it not been for the choir elective during her sophomore year of high school.
Libby would have been content to not involve herself in any elective or extracurricular activity throughout high school. She didn’t have the money or the time for cheerleading or band or drama or any of the other things their school offered. But there was a fine arts requirement for graduation, and seeing it early in those high school years, she figured she would take two years of choir (no great cost in that) and be done.
Courtney Smith, a junior at their school, had been sitting next to her on the first day. And she’d leaned over and said, “You’re wearing my jacket.”
Libby had looked down at the jacket Riley had cast off a few months earlier after buying herself a new one with money Libby had no idea how she’d gotten, given that the older Phelps sister had never had a job. Libby, at fifteen, had her beat there, as she’d been babysitting kids in their neighborhood for pennies, basically, for the past three years and already had a job lined up at the grocery store, where she’d begin real work when she turned sixteen the next week.
The jacket had been ugly. Hideously ugly, with clashing colors in a patchwork pattern. Cool maybe years ago when Riley had gotten it from some overpriced store (again, where was she getting her money?) but most definitely not cool on that day in the choir room.
“Pardon?” Libby had asked, as Courtney kept looking at the jacket.
“You’re wearing my jacket,” she had said again. “I mean, not that exact jacket. I have my own. One just like it. Got it at the mall a couple of years ago. You, too?”
Courtney had watched her expectantly. Libby had looked down at the ugly jacket herself. “Not really sure,” she’d mumbled. “It’s Riley’s.”
“Who’s Riley?” Courtney had asked.
“My sister,” Libby had answered, preparing herself for the reaction her sister’s identity always produced in this small town. “Riley Phelps.”
“Oh,” Courtney had said, her eyes growing a little wider.
Yeah, that was the reaction. Life had been tough for both of the Phelps sisters, obviously, but it had driven them down two very different paths. Libby was quiet and tried to disappear, thinking that the best thing to do was to go completely unnoticed. Riley was loud and up front, getting herself into trouble at school, around town, with the law…
Underage drinking, yes. Drugs, yes. Nothing too heavy, but still. Were there degrees of addiction? Like selling pot was somehow nicer than trying heroin?
“Wow,” Courtney had murmured. “Your sister needs Jesus.”
Libby had been too surprised by this assessment to say much of anything in response. By the time she’d settled in on an intelligent “what?” as a reaction, the teacher had come in and started discussing the class syllabus with them all.
It had been an odd friendship from that point on, to say the least. Courtney was a Christian, obviously, but not just a Sunday morning and the occasional Wednesday service thrown in believer. No, she really believed it, every word of Scripture, every utterance that Jesus made, and every step He told her to follow. It wasn’t a theoretical belief, held simply because she’d been born in the Bible Belt and that’s just what you believed down South, but she believed because He was real to her, because she’d experienced Him, and because He had changed her life.
“I’m going to have to pray about that, Libby,” she’d told her once, months into their friendship, long after they’d gotten past the newness of knowing one another, had discovered that they were similar in more ways than their poor fashion choices, and had become genuine confidantes.
Libby had asked her if she was going to try out for the district choir. It would mean a Saturday off of work, which Libby was stressed about taking, but it meant more to put on college applications, something that Libby had begun to think about given Courtney’s talk about them, about all that she was already going through with that whole process since she was a year older.
“You should pray about it, too,” Courtney had told her.
“Oh,” Libby had answered, nodding. “I… sure. I sure will.”
Libby hadn’t been one for praying. She knew about Jesus like she knew about Santa Claus, and while she hoped that one was more real than the other, she feared that her ignorance regarding the former meant that she was on shaky ground if He was who He said He was.
What did it mean to believe? What did it mean to be saved? What was there to be saved from, exactly? Other than every bad thing that had happened to Libby since the day she’d been born. Jesus hadn’t saved her from that. So, what good was He, honestly?
She had no answers for this… but for the first time in her life, she began having questions about it. Courtney had that same something that Aaron Lucas had – joy. Unexplainable, illogical joy. She was flunking math and would likely have to retake her history class in summer school, but she had joy even still. As she was there for Libby at school, as the two met up outside of class, as Courtney met her at work for her breaks, and as the two became the very best of friends, Libby began to see that her life lacked the joy that Courtney had.
What was missing? Jesus, by Courtney’s first assessment.
Your sister really needs Jesus.
And if Riley did, Libby did, too. Though their lives had taken different routes, they were still the same. In need of healing from their past, in need of direction, and in need.
Just in need.
Libby, who never spent a paycheck frivolously, saving it all for college and for the clunker of a car she hoped to buy one day soon, took some of the money from her savings account and bought herself a Bible. All the answers Courtney could have given about who Jesus was, about why she needed Him, and about her place in eternity were nothing compared to the words Libby read for herself in Scripture.
He made sense. His words made sense. And He changed everything.
It was a bold move for sixteen year old Libby Phelps, the talk of the town with her history and her family’s poor legacy, to make her way into the First Baptist Church on that first Sunday morning she had off from work after meeting Jesus. But she did it, because she had more questions, questions that went beyond what even Courtney knew, and she wanted to know Him more. She found herself in the youth Sunday school class, where she never got to do much beyond just that brief hour and the hour of church that followed, given how many hours she worked at the grocery store and the choir rehearsals that she now had as well. But it was enough, hearing Scripture taught, making notes feverishly, and closing her eyes as they prayed, smiling because for once? Something about her life made sense. In this world you will have trouble, but take heart. I have overcome the world.
She believed it. She became someone new.
And Aaron Lucas was there, watching her in the same church, nodding his head at the same truths she was affirming in her heart, believing in and living for the very same Lord.
She couldn’t keep from smiling on graduation night, even as his truck disappeared from view, even as she drove farther and farther across town.
Soon, she’d leave it behind. The town. The job at the grocery store. The past. Her mother’s cousin had been dropping loud hints ever since she turned eighteen that it was time for her to move out. Libby had managed to convince her that it would only be a few more months before she was gone to Baton Rouge, never to return. The money for college was there in her account. Enough to take care of the first semester and a year in the dorm where she’d already been assigned a roommate for the fall. Libby planned to work in Baton Rouge to pay as she went.
She couldn’t wait to leave.
Would Aaron Lucas really find her? Would he really look her up? Would he really, honestly, actually ask her out?
Too wonderful to imagine, honestly, and…
All the thoughts stilled in Libby’s mind as her headlights washed over the familiar car already waiting in the driveway. An old, beat up Ford that had been in more than a few accidents and paid for through means that Libby hadn’t been able to figure out.
Had her sister come to the graduation ceremony? They heard from Riley once in a blue moon, honestly. She’d dropped out of high school years ago, moved out to live with a boyfriend in another town, and was sporadic in her communication with her sister. There were different men over the brief years, different apartments, extravagant gifts she brought home when she had so much unaccounted for money, and times when she’d come back and sleep for two days straight in Libby’s bed before getting up and leaving without notice in the middle of the night.
She was taking something. Dealing it, too, likely.
Would tonight be a broken night or an extravagant gift night? Libby wondered as she made her way to the front door, her key in hand, and her heart in her throat.
Take heart, Libby. It doesn’t always have to be bad news.
And when she opened the door, her words were there as well, stopped by the emotion as her sister turned towards her, the fullness of her pregnancy showing.
“Hey, Libby,” Riley said softly, smiling tremulously, her hand shaking even as she put it to her baby bump. “I need a favor.”
Want to read more? Get your copy of Take Heart here!