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Authors: Francine Rivers

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Tom Hadley, the inspector, came late and went over the place as though he had a magnifying glass in his hand. Stephen laid out the plans, answered his queries, asked a few of his own, and told a couple of jokes. During his years as an apprentice, Stephen had learned that inspectors could turn a seemingly easy job into a nightmare. It only made sense to see them as men or women with a job to do and a life away from job sites. A strong business was built on the right blend of mutual respect and courtesy. Harboring an adversarial attitude toward inspectors was as constructive as using dynamite to dig a trench.

Hadley was a family man, eager to brag about his son and daughter, who were in college. He was still leaning on the front of his truck and talking when Stephen’s men started heading for their vehicles.

Glancing at his watch, Hadley straightened. “Didn’t realize the time.”

Stephen walked the site one last time. Everything looked good. He never tired of the excitement of designing and building something from the ground up. Still, for all the satisfaction he derived from his work, he couldn’t shake the restlessness that gripped him frequently. He climbed into his truck, slammed the door, and drove down the hill.

He wondered whether he’d be able to talk with his daughter tonight. The past several days, Kathryn had expertly blocked his every attempt. Remembering last night’s conversation set his teeth on edge. “What do you think I want?” he’d asked in response to her less-than-friendly greeting. “I want to talk to my daughter. I’ve been calling every evening, and getting nothing but your answering machine.”

“I’ve been busy.”

“I’m not checking up on you.”

“That’s good because you don’t have the right.”

“Could you get Brittany?”

“She’s in bed.”

“At six? Is she sick?”

“No, she isn’t sick. Not that you’d care if she was.”

“I’m calling, aren’t I? Why is she in bed?”

“She’s being punished. She refused to pick up her toys, and I’m not about to do it for her. She acts just like you sometimes. Stubborn, bull-headed.”

“Let me talk to her.”

“No. She’ll see it as a reward, and that would undermine my authority as her mother.”

“What about my rights as her father? I haven’t gotten to speak with her in eight days, Kathryn. All I’m asking for is a few minutes.”

“That’s rich, Stephen. You never had time for Brittany or me when we were married. How many times did I plead for a minute of your precious time? All you ever cared about was your business or your construction buddies or some football or baseball game on television.”

He clenched his teeth as he remembered the vitriol she’d poured over his head. He’d fought the urge to tell her she’d always loved the martyr role too much for him to interfere. Besides, who would want to spend time with a woman who took every opportunity to spew her litany of complaints? He’d almost asked her if she was still having an affair with her boss.

Kathryn McMurray Decker would have loved to put all the blame on him for her miserable life, but the truth was she’d been unhappy long before they hooked up. Before he married her, she’d blamed her unhappiness on her mother’s weaknesses and her father’s abusive tendencies. When he met them, he could only agree, and that put her on the defensive. She started blaming whatever job or boss she had. She always started a job raving about how wonderful everyone was, and six months later would be grousing because supervisors and coworkers weren’t treating her properly, or weren’t giving her the raise she deserved or the credit she felt she was due.

It had taken him two years of marriage to realize that trying to make her happy was a losing battle. When he stopped trying, she blamed her misery on him. She had self-pity down to a science. But then, to make matters worse, he used her as an excuse to drink. When she told him he’d had one drink already, he’d mix another. If she said he’d had enough, he drank more just to rile her. And so the merry-go-round went, round and round, picking up speed, making them both sick.

Old habits die hard.

Every time he called and heard Kathryn’s voice, the urge rose up in him again. The battle against picking up that first glass of scotch was becoming more and more difficult. He passed a liquor store, and it took every ounce of his willpower not to pull into the parking lot. He broke out in a cold sweat because he could almost taste the scotch on his tongue. He gripped the wheel.

Will this ever get any easier, Jesus?

The urge grew worse when he unlocked the door and walked into his empty apartment. The silence closed in around him like a prison. He flicked on the television and found a sports channel. Problem was it reminded him of how he used to sit in his easy chair with a drink in his hand. He flicked the television off and turned on the radio. He opened the refrigerator, but nothing in it appealed to him. Slamming it, he went back into the living room.

He was going quietly nuts in this apartment. He felt as badly as he had the first few weeks he’d checked himself into the Salvation Army facility. In desperation, he picked up the telephone and pressed one of the stored numbers.

“Hello?”

“Mindy, it’s Stephen.” He glanced at his watch and grimaced. “You’re just sitting down to dinner, aren’t you?” He could hear children’s voices in the background. “I can call back later.”

“No, it’s all right, Stephen, really. Hold on and I’ll get Rick.”

Stephen leaned forward, rubbing the ridge of his nose as he held the telephone.

“Hey, Stephen, I haven’t heard from you in a while. How’re you doing?” his counselor’s deep voice was Stephen’s only lifeline.

“Not so good.”

“Want to talk about it?”

“You’ve heard it all before. Just tell me something, will you? Does it get any easier?”

“Depends on how you look at it: as a curse or a blessing.”

“Right now, it’s a curse.”

“Well, you made the first step in the right direction by calling me instead of pouring that first drink.”

“Don’t congratulate me yet.”

“Are you reading your
One Year Bible
?”

“Every day.”

“Have you found a church yet?”

He made excuses.
No time. Too much work to do
.

“You know what you have to do to make it work, Decker. So what’s really stopping you?”

Stephen knew what he had to do all right, but that didn’t make it easy. “I’ve never attended a church other than the services at the facility, and we were all on the same footing. Every man in that place was an alcoholic or drug addict or both.”

“Oh, I get it. You figure you have to clean up your life completely before you have the right to set foot in a regular church. Right? You know, you don’t have to brand an
A
on your forehead.”

Stephen gave a low laugh.

“No one expects you to walk into a church and say, ‘Hi, my name is Stephen Decker, and I’m a recovering alcoholic.’ Save that for your AA meetings. By the way, I haven’t seen you at any meetings lately.”

“I know that, but it still galls me that I can’t do this on my own.”

“It galled me, too, Stephen. And the first time, I didn’t make it because I let my pride get in the way. Remember what we talked about? The devil prowls like a lion. Alcoholics tend to live in self-imposed isolation. That makes us easy prey. Have you looked for an AA meeting?”

“There’s no guarantee these feelings will go away if I do start going to church.”

“And no guarantee they won’t. One thing you will have, though.”

“And what’s that?”

“Accountability.”

Back to that again.
“Okay. Okay. So what’s the procedure?”

“You walk in the door. You sit down, and you listen.”

“Easier said than done.” The last time he’d walked in, sat down, and listened to a church service, it was because it was required in order to stay in the facility and get the help he needed. By the end of the six months, he’d found himself waiting for Sundays. But he hadn’t attended a service since graduating from rehab. He was thirsty again. Better if he drank deeply from the Living Water than from a bottle of scotch. “Thanks, Rick.”

“Anytime. I’ll pick you up for a meeting or for church. All you have to do is ask. Mindy and I are praying for you, Stephen. Every morning. Just remember. Take it one day at a time.”

“Yeah.” Some days were harder than others.

He hung up, but he still couldn’t rid himself of the restlessness. He was hungry now, but didn’t feel like cooking for himself. Grabbing his keys, he went out to find a place to eat. As he drove down Main Street, he spotted two guys from his crew going into the Wagon Wheel Saloon and Restaurant. It would be easy to pull over and join them, and hard to say no when they ordered the first round of drinks.

He found his way to Charlie’s Diner instead. The parking lot had two spaces left. People. Too many people. He fought the urge to turn around and head back to the grocery store and home again, but Rick was right. He did tend to isolate himself, and the more isolated he was, the harder it was to fight the temptation to buy a bottle of good scotch and take that first drink that would send him into the black hole again.

“Hey! Stephen Decker came back, Charlie!” Sally called to her husband. “I told you I didn’t chase him away!”

“So, invite him to sit down and give him a menu, why don’t’cha?”

“Would you like a booth, or would you prefer to sit at the counter?”

Stephen looked around and saw one booth left. It was back in the corner. If he took it, he would have complete privacy. He could eat alone and then go home again to his empty apartment and brood some more. “Counter,” he said.

Grinning, Sally waved her hand. “Pick your spot.”

He took a stool near the middle and opened the menu she handed him.

“Our special this evening is roast beef with garlic mashed potatoes and baby carrots. It comes with a fresh-baked roll and your choice of homemade minestrone soup or a garden salad.”

“Sounds good. I’ll take the soup and a cup of coffee whenever you get around to it.”

“Coming right up.” She clipped the order to the wheel over the cook’s counter. Turning, she picked up an orange-capped coffeepot from a burner and a white mug from a rack. She set the cup in front of him and filled it. “How’s the construction business?”

“Booming.”

She set out a napkin and put a knife, fork, and spoon on it. “That exciting, huh?”

“You know anything about the churches in the area?”

Charlie banged his bell. Sally picked up the soup and set it down in front of Stephen. “Well, you’ve got your pick. Catholic, Protestant, Mormon, and everything in between. We even have a mosque a few miles down the road, and some Buddhists who meet in a little shrine out on McFarlane. But if you’re asking for a recommendation, I say Centerville Christian.” She lowered her voice. “It always had good solid Bible teaching, if you know what I mean. Dry as bones, though. Not much going on. Just a handful of old-timers in the congregation up until a year ago when they got a new pastor.” She straightened. “Centerville Christian. If you want a happening place, that’s where you should go. Charlie and I go there, don’t we, honey? At least, when I can get him out of the kitchen. Pastor Paul preaches there. You met him the day you came in for breakfast.”

“The jogger?”

“That’s him. If you’re interested, you can attend the Bible study tomorrow night. Meets at seven-thirty in their fellowship hall. Charlie and I can’t go because we’re both working. But we would if we could.” She nodded toward an elderly couple sitting in a booth. “That’s Samuel and Abby Mason. They’ve been members for years. In fact, Samuel’s one of the elders who called Pastor Paul to the pulpit. Hey, Samuel, what’re you studying on Wednesday nights?”

“We just started the book of Ephesians.”

“Got room for one more? I got a live one on the line here.”

“Plenty of room.” He gave Stephen a nod.

Stephen nodded back.

“There, Decker,” Sally said, grinning again. “You’re all signed up.”

“Assuming he wants to go!” Charlie yelled from the back.

“He asked me about churches, you old coot!”

“Don’t you have some dishes to wash?”

Sally winked at Stephen as she called back, “He’s got to get his dinner and eat it first.”

Charlie slid a plate of roast beef, mashed potatoes, and baby carrots onto the cook’s counter and banged the bell.

Stephen laughed with the others supping at the counter. As he ate dinner, he noticed how Sally talked with her husband as she washed dishes and put them in sterilizing racks. She laughed at something he said. He came out and carried the loaded rack into the back room for her. And then the banter would begin again. Needling without the sting.

Sipping his coffee, Stephen felt lonely again. Even in the middle of a crowded diner, his walls were going up. And he knew if he allowed himself to stay inside them, he’d self-destruct. Maybe the Bible study would be a good start.

If he was going to build a new life, he was going to have to build new habits.

P
AUL SPOTTED the contractor he’d met briefly at Charlie’s Diner. He was entering the fellowship hall with a Bible tucked under his arm. Paul wove his way through the gathering of regulars. “Stephen Decker, isn’t it?”

Decker’s brows rose slightly. “You’ve got a good memory.”

“It’s good to have you join us.” He’d worked out a method of name associations while on staff at Mountain High. People felt accepted when their names were remembered. It made them feel significant and cared for, and gave them a sense of belonging. When he’d met Stephen Decker at Charlie’s, he set memory triggers:
deck, contractor, builder, Decker, Stephen, first
martyr
. It was also important to learn what skills people possessed and how they could best serve the church.

They shook hands. “Don’t let the noise get to you,” Paul laughed. “We start off our Bible studies with refreshments. Gives people a chance to mingle. Let me introduce you around. Did you see the notice about the study in the
Centerville Gazette
?”

“No. Sally told me about it.”

“I’ll have to thank her.” Paul ushered Stephen around and introduced him to everyone, but focused on people with whom he’d have common interests. Matt Carlson was a roofer. Phil Sturgeon was a plumber. Tom Ingersol was an electrician. All had been involved in various projects around Centerville and as far north as Sacramento, and had become new and valuable members of the church. An architect who was also a contractor would be invaluable as CCC out-grew its sanctuary and fellowship hall.

Stephen shook hands with Tom. “You did the wiring on my Vine Hill project.”

“Sure did. That’s some house you’re building up there. Who’s moving into it? Bill Gates?”

Decker laughed. “It’s not quite that grand.”

“Bigger than anything else we have around this neck of the woods.”

With Decker assimilated, Paul felt free to head for the podium, where he made a last-minute check of his notes. “Okay, folks, let’s get started. We have a lot to cover this evening.” He counted heads as people took seats. Thirty-eight. Good mixture of men and women, middle-aged and older.

He hoped the complainers who continued to come would behave them-selves. He didn’t want any of them beating newcomers over the head with doctrine. The sooner the church grew, the better. He wanted to revamp the board of elders. If this church was going to grow, men like Otis Harrison and Hollis Sawyer were going to have to retire from leadership. They lived in the past, and Paul was sick of trying to reason with them. If they had their way, this church would remain the same today as it had been for the past forty years.

“Let’s open in prayer.” Paul prayed fervently that all those present would have open hearts and minds to the lessons God was about to give them, that they would assume the role Jesus had for them, that they would accept God’s leadership in the days ahead, and that the Lord would bless them for their obedience.

After reviewing the historical context of Ephesians, Paul moved through the book verse by verse, heavily emphasizing that each person in attendance was chosen of God and should never cease to be thankful. He further stressed that wisdom and revelation would enlighten them as to what service the Lord had created them to do for His church. Samuel Mason raised his hand. Paul ignored him. How many times did he have to explain this was a class and not a discussion group? He had worked out his lesson plan so that it would last exactly fifty minutes, leaving ten minutes for prayer requests at the end. He didn’t have time for interruptions or going off on some rabbit trail of discussion.

As the end of the hour approached, Paul closed his Bible and asked for prayer requests. He jotted them down on a slip of paper. To save time, he prayed through the list himself, summarized what he’d taught that evening, and thanked God for His Word. He dismissed the class at nine o’clock. His father had told him years ago that newcomers were more likely to return to a class that had a definite beginning and ending.

Tucking the prayer requests into his Bible, Paul prepared to talk with those who lingered. Now was the time for questions. Several people came up to tell him what a wonderful teacher he was, and how he made the Bible come to life.

“God brought you here, Pastor Paul,” Edna Welty said. “Henry Porter was a good man, but he put me to sleep preaching the same thing over and over again.”

Samuel and Abby joined them. “Henry Porter taught about grace, Edna,” Abby said quietly.

Samuel looked into Paul’s eyes. “A lesson that bears teaching again and again because it’s beyond the understanding of men.”

Paul forced a smile. How long would he have to listen to the plaudits for the old pastor? Did Samuel Mason and the other two elders not yet realize that Reverend Porter had almost led this pathetic little flock into complete oblivion? “Those who receive God’s grace are also called to greater responsibility.” Most of the parishioners had come to church out of habit, not out of faith. Faith was living and active, not boring and complacent.

“Yes, but the work comes out of gratitude, not obligation.”

Samuel Mason was like gum on his shoe! He couldn’t shake him off. “Gratitude, yes, but people with a calling upon their lives are useful and vital.”

“Every member of the body of Christ is vital.”

“But not all are useful. Some just come along for the ride, giving nothing back to the Lord who saved them.”

“Still, it’s important not to give the wrong idea.”

Paul’s confidence evaporated. “What wrong idea was I giving in my lesson this evening?” He had been so careful.

Abby looked distressed. “Oh, I don’t think that’s what Samuel is saying, Paul.”

Samuel didn’t amend his words or apologize. “Salvation is a free gift from God, not something we can earn through good works.”

“Faith without works is dead.” Paul hadn’t meant to sound so hard-edged, but Mason deserved a reprimand. The elder had no right to embarrass him. Who had graduated from seminary? Not Mason. Who had spent countless hours poring over the Bible preparing for this class? Who was pastor of this church now?

“Faith and works are interlocked,” Samuel said.

The old man was dogged. “A man is justified by works because they show his faith.”

“Abraham offered his son Isaac because he
believed
God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. It was because of his faith that he was called the friend of God.”

Paul smiled stiffly. “Then we both agree, don’t we? We just have different ways of getting to the same conclusion.” He saw the troubled look in the old man’s eyes and leaned closer, speaking in a low tone. “We should end this conversation before others think we are quarreling. The last thing we want is a divisive spirit in the church.” He hoped that was enough to shut the old man up.

Abby’s face flushed deep red. “Now just a minute!”

“Enough said.” Samuel put his arm around her. “Good night, Paul.”

Mason sounded tired. Nine-thirty was probably past the old guy’s bedtime.

Paul felt a twinge of conscience as he watched the Masons leave the fellowship hall. They meant well. He didn’t want them to leave like this. As he started after them, a woman stepped into his path and said she’d been nourished by his teaching. Paul looked past her toward the door. The Masons were already gone, and it would be rude to brush past this woman. Maybe he’d call Samuel tomorrow and suggest they have lunch together. They needed to have a meeting of minds if the church was going to continue to grow. This church needed workers. Samuel should realize that better than anyone, considering the years of work he had put in keeping this church going. Why was he resisting now? Surely he wanted Centerville Christian Church to become a beacon in the community and not go on being a dead light bulb. Samuel Mason was an elder, but that didn’t give him the right to challenge Paul’s authority.

Locking the doors on the way out, Paul argued with his conscience on the short walk home to the parsonage. Eunice always waited up for him, but he didn’t want her getting wind of what had happened between him and the Masons. He thought he had his emotions completely under control when he walked in the front door and found Eunice mending Timmy’s coveralls. She glanced up with a smile and her eyebrows rose in question. Depressed, Paul dropped his binder and Bible on the desk. She could read him like a book. “Don’t ask.” He had blundered with Samuel and Abby and didn’t want Eunice to jump to their defense. She loved them like a second set of parents.

His father had told him to be careful how much he shared with his wife. “Women are so easily deceived,” he had said. Paul sank into his easy chair.

Euny went back to stitching up the torn seam of Timmy’s coveralls, but Paul wasn’t fooled. She was waiting for him to say something. Maybe he should talk to her, listen to her take on what had happened. She might be able to advise him on how to make amends without backing down on what he had been teaching.

“We had another newcomer tonight. Stephen Decker. An architect. He’s the one in charge of that mansion going up on Vine Hill road.” God was sovereign. It was no accident so many people involved in construction were coming to Centerville Christian Church. It was a sign.

“I can see your wheels spinning, Paul.”

“I have great hopes for this church.”

“Rightfully so, but it wouldn’t hurt to slow down a little.”

“CCC didn’t have a soul under the age of sixty when we got here, Euny, and now we’ve got a youth group of twenty and young families are starting to show up. You know as well as I do that the future of the church is in its youth. And Sunday services are filling as well. We had 107 last Sunday.”

“You don’t have to defend yourself to me, Paul.”

“I’m not defending myself!”

She blinked.

He winced. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to snap like that.”

“What happened?”

“Nothing’s come up that I can’t handle. You know, some people think it’s wrong to be ambitious for God’s work.” He stood up, knowing if he sat again, he would pour out his frustrations, and she might end up saying something that would weaken his resolve. “I’m going to take a shower and then hit the sack. I’ve got some early-morning visitations.”

“Are you going over to see Fergus Oslander and Mitzi Pike at Vine Hill Convalescent?”

“No.” He hadn’t been out to Vine Hill in weeks. He didn’t have time. “I’m going to drop by Stephen Decker’s job site.” He sensed her disquiet. “I can’t be in two places at once, Eunice. It would help if you’d go to see them.”

“I
have
been going. Every week since we arrived. But sometimes they need to see their pastor.”

“Have they asked for a visit?”

“Not exactly.”

“I’ll try to swing by and say hello to them on my way back into town.” Saying he would try didn’t mean he actually had to do it.

“Samuel goes every week, too.”

“Samuel is retired. He’s got plenty of time. He can pick and choose where he goes and who he sees. I haven’t got that luxury.” He felt that uncomfortable pinch of conscience again. He said good night and left her alone in the room.

Why couldn’t she understand that he had to make hard choices? It made more sense to spend the time with a man who could become a vital part of the congregation rather than with two sick old people living out their final years in a convalescent home. They couldn’t even attend services anymore and didn’t have so much as a dollar to spare for the cause of Christ. Besides, all they ever talked about was their dear old pastor, Henry Porter, and what a good man he was. Porter may have been good, but he had also been ineffective.

Eunice was better with the old folks. He’d encourage her to keep going to see them. But he had to put his energy elsewhere. There were only twenty-four hours in a day, and he needed to use what time he had in cultivating relationships with men like Stephen Decker, who could build this church into something that would glorify God.

Stephen returned to Centerville Christian for the Sunday morning service. He took the program offered by a greeter and slipped into the back row. He hadn’t been to a church service since leaving the Salvation Army facility, and he wasn’t sure how comfortable he would feel in this one. He’d enjoyed the Wednesday evening Bible study, with Paul Hudson moving confidently through the Scriptures, explaining historical significance, literal meaning, and application. Maybe he’d learn something that could help him get through his days without getting the shakes.

Whoever was playing the piano must’ve had training. Leaning to one side, he spotted the pretty blonde in front. She looked familiar, but he couldn’t place her. Paul Hudson came in from the side door, went up the steps, and took the seat to the left of the pulpit. The blonde pianist finished the last few bars of music, rose, and took her seat in the front row.

For the next hour, Stephen absorbed every word said. Hudson was speaking from Romans, and the sermon seemed designed for Stephen, addressing the struggles he’d been going through over the past five years. It was as though Hudson had an uncanny ability to look into his heart, and was using a laser to point out areas Stephen needed to change, while reminding him what he had learned over six months in an alcohol treatment center.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage
to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Rick always added, “Thy will, not mine, be done.” Stephen remembered the essentials. He admitted he was powerless over the alcohol and that his life had become unmanageable because of his addiction. He believed that only Jesus Christ could restore him to sanity. But what had happened to the decision he’d made six months ago to turn his will and his life over to Jesus Christ?

He’d started out okay and then stumbled over that one, which had given him the excuse not to do a thorough searching and fearless moral inventory of his life. It was still easier for him to take Kathryn’s inventory than look at the havoc his own behavior had caused in their marriage and their lives. He’d gone back to living by old habits, rationalizing and justifying his behavior and attitudes.

“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

Stephen winced. Even sitting in the back row—head down, eyes shut—he saw his shortcomings and the areas of his life that needed cleansing. It was easy not to face up to things when you stayed away from people who might actually tell you the truth. He had held off coming to church because he thought he was strong enough to go it alone. And why did he want to go it alone? Because he didn’t want to have to apologize if he fell off the wagon. Alone, he could pretend he was accountable to no one. Alone, he could go on pretending his life was his own, that his actions didn’t affect anyone but himself, that what he did didn’t matter. He could view one drink as a small slip instead of a hard tumble into sin.

I’m here and I’m listening, Jesus. You know I’m fighting for my life. There isn’t
a soul in this place who knows where I’ve been or what I’m struggling with. Why
should they care? I sat here in the back because I thought I could get up quietly,
unnoticed, and walk out that door and do whatever I please without anyone
knowing the difference. But You’d know, Lord. You know. That’s why everything
that’s coming out of this guy’s mouth is cutting me to the quick. I can’t
make it on my own. I’m setting myself up for another fall if I try to make it
alone. And every time I fall, it’s a little harder to get back up.

The congregation stood. Disoriented, Stephen followed suit, bowing his head as Hudson prayed for all those present, that they would heed the calling of Christ on their lives, whatever that calling might entail.

When the service ended, Stephen lingered. Instead of making a beeline for his car, he went out the side door and down the steps to the courtyard, where coffee and cookies were being served. He recognized a few people. An elderly gentleman approached and extended his hand. “Glad to have you join us. My name’s Samuel Mason and this is my wife, Abigail.”

“Stephen Decker.”

“Are you new to the community, Mr. Decker?”

“Call me Stephen, ma’am.”

“Only if you call me Abby, Mr. Decker.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He laughed. “Abby.” She had blue eyes that glowed from the inside. “Yes, I’m new to Centerville. Temporary relocation. I’m building a house up on Vine Hill.”

“Oh, you’re a carpenter, then.”

“More like a jack-of-all-trades.”

Samuel chuckled. “Mr. Decker is being modest, Abby. He’s the architect and contractor. Am I correct? I read about you in the
Sacramento Bee
. You built several homes in Granite Bay, as I remember. One was purchased by a movie star.”

The article had been written almost two years ago. “You have a long memory.”

“I liked the looks of the house.”

“What movie star?” Abby said.

“Nobody you’d recognize,” Samuel said. “We don’t attend many movies.”

“Last one we went to was
Return to Snowy River.”

Stephen laughed with them.

Paul Hudson approached, the pretty blonde beside him, a little boy in a neat Sunday suit holding her hand. “Stephen, good to see you again.” They shook hands. “I’d like you to meet my wife, Eunice. Eunice, this is Stephen Decker. He dropped in on the Wednesday night Bible study last week. I hope you’ll keep coming.”

“I plan to.”

“You haven’t made it to the refreshment table yet, Mr. Decker,” Eunice said. “Can I get you something?”

“Don’t trouble yourself.”

“Oh, it’s no trouble.” When she smiled up at him, he was caught off guard by the shock of attraction. He’d never felt a jolt like that, even in the early days with Kathryn. “Timmy and I were on our way to the plate of cookies.”

Others joined their small party. They offered small talk and friendly greetings to make an outsider feel welcome.

Eunice handed Stephen a cup of punch and a small plate on which were several homemade cookies. His fingers brushed hers accidentally. “I enjoyed your music, Eunice.”

“Thank you.” She blushed.

Was he staring?

An old man with a cane and a sour look interrupted. “Excuse me, Paul, but I’d like a word with you.”

Stephen caught the irritation in Hudson’s eyes before he covered it. “Of course, Hollis. But first, let me introduce you to Stephen Decker. Stephen, this is Hollis Sawyer, one of our elders.”

“Nice to meet you, I’m sure,” Hollis said in perfunctory fashion before he glowered at Hudson again. “I’ll only take a minute of your precious time, and then you can come back to your hobnobbing.”

Paul Hudson’s face reddened. He extended his arm and turned aside with the old man.

“Oh dear,” Abby said softly.

“If you’ll excuse me, Stephen.” Samuel joined the two men heading for the edge of the gathering.

It was obvious Hollis Sawyer was upset about something, and Eunice was distressed as well. An elderly lady drew Abby Mason aside. Eunice glanced toward her husband again, and bit her lip.

“Where did you study music, Eunice?”

She looked up at him. “Excuse me?”

“Music. Where did you study?”

She said the name of Midwest something or other. He’d never heard of it.

Stephen nodded toward the three men talking near the front corner of the church building. “I wouldn’t worry about that. Your husband looks like a man who can handle himself in a crisis. Besides, it’s refreshing for someone like me to know everyone in a church isn’t perfect.”

Hollis turned and hobbled away. He jammed his cane into the ground with every step. Samuel said something to Hudson. Hudson’s head came up and he said something back.

“We’re far from perfect,” Eunice said softly.

Stephen smiled wryly. “Ah, then, maybe there is space for a divorced recovering alcoholic.”

She looked up at him. “That’s not the sort of information I would expect anyone to share on first acquaintance.”

He rubbed the back of his neck uneasily and gave a soft laugh. “No, it isn’t, and I’m not exactly sure why I did.” He never blurted out private business. Kathryn complained all the time about how little he shared of himself. She claimed that was one of the dozen reasons she decided to file for divorce. The trouble was every time he did share something, she’d used it as a weapon against him.

Now, he had the programmed excuse: anonymity was an integral part of his recovery. He had to fight his own demons without adding the beast of public condemnation to the mix. So what was he doing blabbing his personal life to this young woman? He didn’t know her from Adam, and he’d just put information in her hands that could ruin him in the community as well as the church before he’d even tried to sink in roots.

Maybe he was hoping the opportunity would evaporate.

“It’s all right, Mr. Decker.” Her smile was gentle and made him weak in the knees. “I’ll remember to forget.”

Time would tell if she was a woman of her word.

Just to be safe, Stephen decided to shut his mouth and leave before he blurted out the fact that she was the most attractive woman he had met in a long, long time.

BOOK: And the Shofar Blew
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