by June Foster
The rippling influence of Ryan Reid’s less than moral mother and absent father left a mark on his soul. Yet everything changed when the young teacher gave his life to the Lord—almost everything.
An earthquake hurls the beautiful Sandy Arrington into his life, tossing his world upside down. When God calls him to build an annex for needy teens at his church, he discovers an unholy inclination toward his male partner in the project. That and Sandy’s growing attraction to him forces him to face the issue he’s buried. Sandy’s wealthy cardiologist father and the battle Ryan is powerless to win are hurdles to their romance. Can he dig his way out from under his secret to find Sandy’s love?
The walls at Starbucks groaned and crunched. The cardboard cup of steaming coffee flew from Ryan’s hand and spilled onto the tile. His body swayed as his foot slid out from under him on the undulating floor. He caught himself against a chair.
“What’s happening?” A scream behind him split the air. “Help me.”
He spun toward the woman’s cries.
She tottered in the center of the room, eyes round and mouth wide. Her hands gripped her pale face.
Sympathy sifted through his own fear.
“Take cover, everybody,” the barista yelled from the coffee bar. The strong smell of espresso filled the room.
“Quick. Under here.” Ryan grabbed the panicked young woman’s arm and pulled her beneath a wobbling table. “Hold on to one of the legs.”
“Please don’t let me die.” The slender, dark-haired woman’s face contorted as she sobbed beside him on the floor.
Ryan’s normal sense of calm fled, and fear gripped him. He sucked in a breath. Would they survive or be crushed by the walls caving in upon them?
The shaking earth seemed relentless. A bag of coffee toppled from the counter and split, spraying brown beans across the quaking floor.
“God, please help me.” Terror shrilled her piteous wails. She grabbed him, holding on tight.
“It’s okay. It’ll be over in a minute.” Ryan closed his eyes. Almost as an instinct the prayer sprung out of his spirit. “Lord, we need Your protection. Please calm us and keep us safe.” The words to God appeased his own fright, but more than that, he hoped they would quiet the woman’s anxiety.
The incessant rolling refused to let up. A display case toppled to the floor with a crash, and coffeemakers, mugs, and tins of tea flew in all directions. As the aroma of flowers wafted over him, the woman tightened her clutch around his shoulders.
The room shook, and so did his thoughts. Most people would’ve chosen to hold on to a table leg, but she continued to cling to him. She sucked in air and exhaled in jagged spurts, no attempts at deep breathing. Terror obviously possessed her.
How should he attempt to comfort her? His hand hovered over her shoulder then gave it a pat or two. “Don’t worry, ma’am, God is in control. Try to breathe.” Thank goodness, his voice didn’t sound as shaky as his stomach felt.
Bottles of coffee flavors flew from a shelf behind the bar and landed with a thud. Shattering glass startled him. The syrupy aroma of vanilla and hazelnut blended with the dust in the air.
Warm breath fell on his neck. “How…how…much longer?” She tucked her face against his chest. Hot tears soaked into his shirt.
Rising panic threatened to unravel his last fragment of control. Was it the quake or her death grip? “Dear God, see us through this.”
He’d walked into Starbucks like any other day. Then the onslaught of the quake. Now an eternity elapsed since it began. Lord, protect Uncle Frank and each of my students.
The woman gripped him harder. Was she going to pass out? He forced a pat to her shoulder again. “Shh.” What else could he say to reassure her?
Cracking and creaking and a crash sliced into his composure. His emotions were at the breaking point, and he wanted to yell, but he had to keep his sanity—for the sake of the frightened person under the table with him.
What if this was the day the Lord called him home? Death didn’t frighten him, but the process did.
A piece of drywall fell to the floor, exposing the building’s frame. His ears rang from the woman’s shriek. He hadn’t planned to grasp her shoulder when he jolted, yet the gesture brought a shred of comfort.
Almost as quickly as it started, the rocking and pitching ebbed and a semblance of normalcy returned to his world. Was it over? He remained under the table, forcing his heart to slow as his tablemate still clung to him. He couldn’t have endured the tremors much longer.
“Oh, thank God, it’s stopped.” A man’s loud voice reverberated off the walls.
“We’re okay.” Ryan pried at her arms, trying to disentangle himself.
Tousled dark hair hung in her eyes. She pushed the strands from her face and attempted a weak smile.
Good. Maybe she’d get a hold on her emotions now. “Are you okay?”
She nodded. “I…guess so.”
“Come on. Let’s get out from under here.” Ryan grasped her arm as they inched out. Starbucks looked like a war zone—tables on edge, chairs broken, the front window shattered. Water poured into the room through a broken pipe somewhere. Shattered dishes and pastries cluttered the floor. The odor of rotten eggs filled his nostrils—a gas leak.
He pulled the woman with him toward the door. “We need to go.” He kept his voice quiet, hiding the undeniable fear inside of him. She was hysterical enough already.
A man in a business suit pushed in front of them. “Jack, wait for me,” he called to someone ahead of them.
Another man pressed ahead of Ryan’s tablemate, causing her to stumble. He grabbed her waist and righted her, then tightened his fingers around her hand as they shuffled through shards of glass and pottery that littered the floor.
An employee elbowed his way out the front door. Ryan almost stumbled but hung on to the frightened woman as they followed the crowd. Polite notions of civility seemed to be secondary in a crisis.
He pulled the petite lady across the parking lot in front of Starbucks and stopped at the street to gulp a breath of clean, dust-free air.
On the sidewalk, a man checked his watch and another woman wiped her eyes. Clusters of people gathered in front of stores in the strip mall.
The woman beside him pinched her lips into a thin white line. “I’m…I’m Sandy Arrington. I’m sorry for my ridiculous behavior.”
He had to admit, for a while, he thought he might have to carry her out and take her to the hospital. “Ryan Reid.” He gave her a quick smile. “It’s okay. I can understand how you felt.”
He knew fear when he saw it, had lived a childhood full of it. How many times as a boy had he been alone in the house? Every creak and bump sending a shiver down his spine.
A bird up in the poplar tree chirped, as if nothing had happened. Yet only moments ago, Ryan’s world had tumbled upside down.
Sirens filled the air, and a few seconds later, a red and white truck with Cedar Fork Fire Department painted on the side screeched to a halt in front of them.
“There’s a gas leak in Starbucks,” Ryan yelled at the firemen scrambling out.
“Yeah, we got the report. Everyone needs to move away from this area. Now!” Two men in protective suits, oxygen tanks on their backs, pushed into the coffee shop.
Sandy glanced at him with eyes the color of cinnamon and chewed her little finger. The remnant of a tear hung on her lash. “I know I’ve been enough trouble already but could I…impose on you to walk with me to my car? It’s in front of Cramer’s Drugs.” She shielded her eyes with a cupped hand to her forehead and pointed toward the other end of the strip mall.
Was she in any condition to drive home? He couldn’t be sure, though she wasn’t crying anymore. He’d better be positive before he said good-bye. “Be happy to.”
They trudged past broken store windows and downed tree branches.
Sandy’s shoulders shook, but it probably wasn’t due to the cool late-spring day in Western Washington. Fear was one thing. Terror another. She looked as if she were on the edge of a meltdown. Better keep her talking. “Do you have to go somewhere?”
She shook her head and blinked as if something important had occurred to her. “I…yeah. The hospital ER.”
“What?” He looked her up and down. No signs of injury. “Are you hurt?”
She scanned the parking lot that now looked like a scene from a post-apocalyptic video game. Chunks of black top protruded up in rough edges.
If the quake could create the two-foot-wide chasm which ran the length of the sidewalk in front of the mall, what other damage occurred?
Emergency vehicle sirens wailed in the distance. “Sandy, are you hurt?” he repeated.
“No.” She closed her eyes then opened them. “I’m a nurse. I work in the ER. I need to get to the hospital.”
Ryan smothered a chuckle. An ER nurse who handled a natural disaster as badly as she did—what a contradiction. He cut his gaze to her. “See your car yet?”
A woman holding on to a baby whisked past them. She stared at her cell phone and threw it in the diaper bag.
Sandy’s mouth fell open as her hand flew to her throat. She pointed toward the end of the mall and gasped.
He peered in that direction.
“My car. Oh, my car!” she cried. “It’s crushed.”
Ryan gaped at the luxury vehicle. A huge cedar had broken off mid-trunk, flattening the silver Mercedes parked in front of Cramer’s Drugs. The top half of the tree lay crossways over the car’s roof. Bits of glass reflecting the sun like a million diamonds decorated the parking lot around the damaged sedan. Sticks and leaves littered the pavement.
He glanced at the mess in front of them and back at Sandy. Never had he seen such a look of shock on a woman’s face. She gulped and raised wide eyes to him as if he had answers.
Not his problem, yet he couldn’t allow her to drown in fear. “I hate to tell you, but it’s probably totaled.”
“Let me think.” She rubbed her forehead. A search through her purse turned up a cell phone. “I’ll call a friend for a ride.” Her trembling hand punched a button, and she raised the phone to her ear.
Good. She appeared to have control now. Maybe he’d take off.
She grabbed a clump of hair and paced behind the useless Mercedes. “No cell service.” She expelled a short breath. “I really hate to ask. Could you give me a ride to the hospital?”
He glanced at her car, then in the direction of where he’d parked his vehicle. What could he do? Leave her here alone when she couldn’t find a ride? If he were stranded, he’d want someone to offer him help. “Sure, be glad to.”
A Mercedes meant wealth, the finer things in life. His Corolla wouldn’t impress her much.
Pink crept up on Sandy’s cheeks. “I’ve never had a meltdown quite like the one back in Starbucks. You’d think after all my years studying Kung Fu I’d have a little more courage. I’m braver when confronted by people than acts of God.”
“Forget it.” He slowed so she could keep up. “So, you’re a martial arts fan?”
The beginnings of a smile crossed her lips. “Yep. Took lessons for years.”
Kung Fu was the last activity he’d participate in. He didn’t like any contact sports. Jogging alone in the park appealed to him more. Besides, his mother never encouraged him to take lessons of any kind. If she managed to feed him every couple of days, he’d counted himself lucky.
They wound around rocks, toppled trees, chunks of pavement, and scurrying people and neared Big Lots at the other end of the strip mall. The smell of burning wood stung his nostrils. A fire somewhere?
He spotted his Toyota parked next to the street. She’d see it now in all its glory. “Not even an earthquake could destroy a car like this.” At least it was in better condition than her Mercedes. Something to be grateful for.
Once he opened the passenger door, she climbed in. He traced a line with his finger through the dust on the faded blue paint as he rounded the front of his vehicle. When he climbed in, he glanced at Sandy. “We’ll probably have to take some back roads to the hospital to avoid traffic.” The torn leather on the seat scratched his leg through his jeans.
Sandy smiled, seeming not to notice his fifteen-year-old car.
Ryan eased out of the parking spot. As they approached the exit, a lone figure drew his attention. Propped up with the heel of his old tennis shoe hiked on a tree trunk, a boy about fifteen gazed off toward the destruction. The kid’s shaggy blond hair was a little too long, as if he’d missed a haircut or two. His tattered black T-shirt was dirty. Next to him, a rusted relic of a faded red bike lay on the ground. The look on his face tangled Ryan’s heartstrings into knots. Not just forlorn and lonely, but his face was hard, disheartened as he scowled at no one.
Ryan didn’t know the young kid, but the image clawed at his heart. He comprehended all too well the feelings he saw on the kid’s face. Not too many years ago, that boy could have been him.
Later, would the kid get on the broken-down bike and return to an empty house? Or maybe he’d try to ease his pain with a substance some willing drug dealer might sell him. Or would he try to fill the gaping hole in his heart with love—love he never received from a mother and father?
Ryan’s pulse pounded in his ears. More than anything, he wanted to help the boy. Help other boys like him. But what could he do?
As Gwen drove back to the office, she thought about how this job was not turning out to be anything like she had expected. Perhaps it was all a big mistake after all. But as dismal as it seemed, there was still something inside her that didn’t want to give up. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to prove something to Candice or to herself. But no matter how difficult it was, Gwen was determined to give it everything she had.
Sandy glanced at the tall, dark-haired man. His hands gripped the steering wheel as he peered out the front window. What was he thinking?
His presence beside her brought peace, as if he could protect her from her fears. If nothing else, his prayer had calmed her. She didn’t know any guys who considered it important to talk to God.
The familiar route to the hospital looked different with rubble in the road, trees lying prone here and there, and a few toppled buildings. Almost as if she’d been transported to a parallel universe. She shuddered, trying to dismiss her bizarre thoughts.
What would she find at the hospital emergency room? Dozens of injured people? Ryan pulled into the circular drive in front of the ER. An orderly helped an EMS worker roll a patient on a gurney through the entrance.
“Is this the best place to let you off?” He glanced at her and then to the front door.
A man jumped out of a car in front of them, opened the passenger door, and lifted a woman into his arms, then made his way inside.
Sandy directed her attention back to Ryan. “Thank you. Looks like the ER could be busy this afternoon.”
Ryan stared at her with an expression she couldn’t interpret. “If you’d like, I can check with you when my shift at work ends and see if you’ve gotten a ride home.”
“Thanks. I’ll probably be okay. My parents are in Indianapolis at a conference, but I have a friend who could possibly give me a ride.” She took a scrap of paper out of her purse, scribbled, and held it out to him. “Here’s my number just in case, if cellular service is restored by then. Do you mind calling me when you get off?”
“Yeah, sure.” Ryan’s voice held concern, as if he cared that she would make it home tonight.
Sandy climbed out of his car and bent down to the window. “I appreciate this, Ryan.”
He nodded. His eyes expressed kindness. A trait she found appealing in a guy.
Ryan trudged through the break room and used his employee’s code to get out the back door. Though he felt exhausted, he couldn’t complain. The extra money he made at his part-time job at CF Hardware supplemented his teacher’s salary, allowing him to pay off his college loans faster and still meet his monthly bills with a little left over.
He figured the store would be packed, but they’d had very few customers this evening. People were probably still recovering from the shock of the earthquake. They’d start coming in tomorrow for supplies to make repairs. Sales would most likely triple in the next several weeks.
Ryan unlocked the car door and pulled out his cell. His muscles screamed at him after stacking lumber all afternoon.
His new acquaintance had probably gotten a ride home by now, but he’d call just in case. The scrap of paper was still tucked in his shirt pocket. He pulled it out and pressed the numbers.
“Hello.” A feminine voice mixed with other sounds and voices met his ear.
“Sandy? This is Ryan.”
“Oh, hi, Ryan. I’m so glad you called. The doctor in charge of the ER is sending all unscheduled staff home, and I don’t have a ride. My friend can’t take me. I hate to ask you, but could you give me one more ride?”
He rubbed his aching shoulder. “Sure, I’ll be there shortly.” He drove around the edge of the massive building to the front parking lot and the street.
How long would it take to drop her off? He hoped she lived somewhere close to the hospital. The thought of a hot shower and his bed beckoned.
An annoying headache spread across his forehead. The quake had stressed him out more than he realized. After switching on a praise CD, he turned onto the street that ran in front of the hospital.
Sandy waited at the entrance to the ER where he’d let her out. A man in a white jacket stood next to her, his arm draped over her shoulder. Her friend?
Ryan stopped on the curved drive, lowered the volume on his CD player, and rolled down the passenger window.
She stepped toward his vehicle, followed by the man in medical garb.
He stared at Ryan’s car and raised his eyebrows. “You think this wreck can get you home?”
She laughed. “Well, it got me here.” She bent down and smiled. “Ryan, this is my friend Dr. Jason Jeffries. He’s an intern here at the hospital.”
Ryan nodded at the guy and looked at her. “So he can’t get off duty yet to take you home?”
“Oh, he got off when I did, but he’s worn out and can’t drive ten miles out in the country. He has to save his energy for tomorrow’s shift.” Was it Ryan’s imagination or did he hear a note of sarcasm in her voice?
Her words made impact with his tired brain. Ten miles to her house? He glanced at his gas tank—plenty to get there and back. “No problem. Get in.”
Sandy peered out of the window of Ryan’s car, catching a glimpse of the towering Douglas firs bordering either side of the two-lane highway. The road curved and climbed past fields of grass barely visible now in the darkening sky with only the slender moon to guide them.
She tapped a finger at the windshield. “The next mailbox. Turn there.”
His headlights illuminated the paved path to the long circular drive. The wood and stone two-story mansion with its glass windows and gables came into view.
“This is where you live?” Ryan’s mouth dropped, then he shut it again. Same reaction she got from anyone who hadn’t been here before.
The home of her parents, Dr. and Mrs. Phillip Arrington. “Yes, since childhood.” Sure it was elegant and expensive, but it’d been all she’d ever known.
He stopped in front, coughed, and reached across her to open the passenger door. “I hope you’re able to get another car pretty soon. Look, I need to get going. I’ll wait until you’re inside. Nice meeting you.” He scratched his head and glanced at her.
Darkness shrouded the house, not a light shined. She hadn’t expected to work today, or she’d have left them on. She had enough trouble walking into the dark place when her parents were home asleep. But they weren’t due in until tomorrow. The familiar panic crept up her spine. She couldn’t go in alone. What if there was damage, looters?
He probably expected her to get out, but she was frozen. A deep breath didn’t give her courage.
Ryan’s stomach growled.
The way to a guy’s heart was through his stomach. Wasn’t that the old adage? Anything to get him to stay. “Hey, I bet you haven’t eaten. Let me fix you something. You’re probably starving.”
“Another time. Really.” He gripped the steering wheel, but she needed his presence just a little longer.
She slipped a hand to her hip. “I’m not taking no for an answer.” Piling out of the car, she dashed around the front and opened the driver’s door. “It’s the least I can do for a guy who drove me to work and home.” A bold move, but she was desperate. “Now come on. Get out.” She laughed. “I bet you’ve never been manhandled by a girl before.”
“You got that right. Especially a Kung Fu expert.” He stared up at her, closed his eyes for a moment, and opened them. “All right.” He climbed out of the car.
Though he seemed to be digging his sneakers into the pavement, her grip impelled him along. She pulled her keychain out of her purse, unlocked the door, and with one more yank, drew him inside. With a flip of the switch, the entry lights came on. She took in a deep breath.
Ryan’s mouth fell open as they stepped farther into the great hallway. He lifted his chin to look up at the ornate chandelier hanging from the ceiling and slowly took in the circular staircase which led to the second floor. “This place is huge.”
Sandy tensed every muscle. The large house was part of the problem. She’d probably feel safer in a smaller one, but she couldn’t move out yet. She shivered. “Please, just walk with me while I turn on all the lights and check the place.” If he thought her an idiot, she didn’t care. She couldn’t do this alone.
He nodded and followed her around the lower floor from the formal living room to her mom’s gourmet kitchen. She turned on light after light, sending the scary darkness back to the corners where it belonged.
Despite the well-lit rooms, the thought of Ryan leaving her alone sent a chill down her spine. Could she get him to stay a little longer so the panic attack brewing just beneath her sanity didn’t blossom into a full blown episode? She dashed into the kitchen.
Ryan paced in front of the mahogany stools separating the kitchen from the casual dining area. “To tell you the truth, I need to go. I’ve got to—”
“Just let me fix you something to eat.” In the stainless steel refrigerator, she found a whole ham, a chunk of cheddar cheese, washed lettuce, and some sliced tomatoes.
Ryan twirled his car keys, shifting his weight from foot to foot. For the first time, she noticed. The guy was gorgeous. And single, she hoped.
He stuffed his hands in his pockets. “Look, I don’t mean to be rude, but I’ve got to go now.” He backed toward the entry.
Sandy sucked in a long breath. The lights were all on. Ryan had seen her through that. But there was still another thing she needed from him. His connection with God which had been so evident this morning in the earthquake, something she never learned from her parents. “Do you go to church?”
Ryan raised his brows. “Church? Yeah, I do.”
The words tumbled out Sandy’s mouth before she thought. “Would you mind if I tagged along sometime?”
He swallowed hard, his hand on the door knob. “Uh, yeah. Sure. New Day Community of Faith on Olympic Way? Tomorrow at ten?”
“Can I meet you there?”
He nodded. “I’ll wait for you in front.”
Was she supposed to take anything or did it matter? “I don’t have a Bible.”
He slid his hand in his coat pocket and pulled out a small, black book. “Here. You can have this.”
She stared at the little book with the black cover resting on her palm. She hadn’t expected him to give her his. The guy probably didn’t have a lot of material possessions, if his car and clothes were any indication.
He looked at her but not in the same way so many other young men stared at her, not the possessive way Jason’s eyes roamed over her.
“Okay, see you tomorrow.” Ryan backed out the front door, climbed into his car, and circled around the drive. The man was shy, guarded, even uncomfortable in her presence, yet at peace and comfortable with God. Not in a super-religious way, like the few church people she knew, but in a deep, personal way.
She waved a final good-bye and scurried inside and locked and bolted the door. Ryan knew about God, but was his God powerful enough to change the results of that night so long ago?
Sandy leaned against the wall and peered through the foyer. Then with a deep breath, she pushed away. Walking through the hallway, she stared into the living room. Her mother’s elegant draperies remained closed as they had since her parents’ departure for Indianapolis.
She smiled in relief and made her way to the kitchen. Then she sensed movement to her left. A yelp gurgled in her throat. The blinds to the sliding glass doors on the deck were open.
She reached for the kitchen wall and braced herself. Had she imagined it, or was someone out there? To find out she’d have to walk through the breakfast room.
I can do this. She sucked in a breath that got stuck in her chest and rushed to the door, tried the lock, and realized she hadn’t exhaled. With a quick yank, the blinds on each side of the doors came together. She pulled the chain beside the cord, and they closed, blocking anyone’s view. If there was someone outside, they couldn’t get in now.
She peeked out. The deck and yard appeared deserted. With a flick of her hand, she flipped off the outside light and hurried to the window over the sink to close the mini-blinds.
Now no one could see her from the outside. She could clean up the kitchen and climb upstairs to her bedroom where she wouldn’t feel so exposed.
Ryan’s prayer during the earthquake brought reassurance and drew her. Something about him was different. Did it have anything to do with the God he prayed to? She determined to find out more. She needed a God who could erase this fear inside of her.
Ryan maneuvered his car around the drive, down the paved road, and onto the main route back into town. His thoughts gave way to the youth at the strip mall’s parking lot. He hadn’t been able to forget about the kid.
The sight of the boy pricked a wound in his soul he’d tried to protect. The kid’s scowl spoke to Ryan, saddening him. The aura of the young boy wrapped around him like moisture on a humid day. Did he have parents? No young man should have to grow up alone.
He slowed as he approached a winding curve in the road. What would Sandy say if she saw where he lived? The small apartment he shared with Uncle Frank was an outhouse compared to her mansion. He sure wasn’t in the teaching profession for the pay.
After a while the city limits of Cedar Fork came into view as a thought nagged him. Her wealth clashed with his thrifty lifestyle.
When he finally pulled up
in front of the apartment, he parked on the street. The creak of the car door
reminded him of Sandy’s Mercedes crushed by the fallen tree. Was that why she still
lived at home? To keep up her opulent lifestyle? That didn’t make sense. She
was a career woman. Registered nurses made good money in this town. But then, he
never did understand women.