Jockeying for position beside the jaded businessmen and -women who lined the curb on 42nd Street, Melanie LaSalle hesitated, then stepped onto the pavement and raised a hand half-mast to hail a taxi.
The brisk November air filled her nostrils with an intoxicating mix of aromas—fragrant steam from a pretzel vendor’s offerings, a hundred different colognes wafting from the crush of bodies; even the exhaust from a million automobiles added its own pungent spice to the mix that was uniquely New York.
The morning sun was just beginning to peek over looming skyscrapers and high-rise apartments. Excitement rose in her at being here in the city again. Shading her eyes from the glare, she looked down the street.
Half a block away, a tall man stepped off the curb and opened the door of the Yellow Cab that had pulled up. Melanie’s heart beat quickened as she watched him. The man’s confident demeanor, the tilt of his head, and the way his hair curled defiantly into his collar stabbed at a place deep inside her. If she didn’t know better, she could almost imagine that she knew that athletic bearing…knew how the coarse, sand-colored curls would feel against her fingertips .
Wanting to banish the unwelcome thoughts, she watched the man slam the door as his taxi eased into the flow of traffic. If she could just get a look at his face through the cab window, she could put it out of her mind.
It had happened often at first—after the letter. She would be stopped dead in her tracks by a familiar posture, an identical square jaw in profile. The shock—when the face, head on, turned out to be unknown—had overwhelmed her those first months after Joel had disappeared. Once, she’d chased a man through a congested parking lot after a concert, only to be thoroughly embarrassed when it was a stranger who turned to answer her insistent cries.
She had long ago learned to quell those unrealistic hopes, and yet now she still felt compelled to take one look at the man’s face. The cab rolled slowly up the street toward her. Melanie strained her eyes as the passenger inside leaned forward to give the driver instructions. As he settled back against the seat, he turned his head slightly in her direction.
Patterns of light played on the darkened windows of the cab. The glare fashioned distorted images of towering buildings and triangular patches of blue sky on the glass, but as the taxi moved into shadow, for a brief moment the face of the man inside was clearly visible. The dim light revealed a thin gash of a scar creasing his right cheek.
Melanie’s breath caught in her throat. No! It can’t be!
The man shaded his eyes and turned to look out the window. For one haunting second their eyes met, and recognition flowed both ways. Then he turned away quickly, leaning forward again to speak to the driver.
Her hands grew clammy and in spite of the chill autumn breeze , perspiration seeped through every pore. It is him! Even after all these months, there wasn’t a shred of a doubt.
It was Joel.
Two Jerica LaSalle sat forward on the velvet cushion of the church pew, fidgeting and swinging her white-stockinged legs back and forth in a noisy rhythm. Melanie laid a warning hand on the little girl’s knee, thinking wryly that her almost-five-year-old daughter wasn’t the only restless worshiper. From the kitchen area beyond the sanctuary, mingled savory and sweet aromas wafted over the congregation. Judging by the number of people checking their watches and glancing toward the fellowship hall, the enticing smells threatened to upstage the speaker at the lectern.
But Joel Ellington had the advantage. Not only was the man a newcomer to the congregation—and a good-looking one at that— but he spoke with such a thick East Coast accent that it required their studied attention to translate his English into something their Midwestern ears could understand. Halfway through his speech, Melanie realized why the new Christian education director seemed so familiar: He was the one she’d almost mowed down at the office last week.
As Mr. Ellington addressed the congregation, Melanie smiled down at her daughter, who was decorating the bulletin with purple tulips. She retrieved a stray crayon from the pew cushion, handed it to Jerica, and turned her attention back to the front of the church.
There was no denying that the Lord had put this particular man in an attractive package. Tall and athletic, with an olive complexion and startlingly green eyes, he wore his sandy brown hair cropped close, except at his neck where it sprang into short, unruly curls. The thin two-inch scar that marred his smooth-shaven cheek only served to give a rugged handsomeness and a touch of mystery to his face. His large hands had long tapered fingers. He gestured expressively as he spoke, reminding Melanie of the man who sometimes signed for the deaf in the eight o’clock service.
She watched those hands with fascination, equally charmed with the rounded As and the slightly nasal intonations of his Eastern brogue.
Jerica looked up at her mother and wrinkled her nose, apparently amused by the peculiar accent. Melanie put a finger to her lips, suddenly afraid that her daughter would laugh or point.
Now Joel Ellington stepped from behind the podium and stretched his arms wide. “I look out across this sanctuary, and though I’ve never met most of you before, I feel somehow that I know you because I see God’s love written on your faces.”
According to a blurb in this morning’s bulletin, Ellington had previously held a teaching position at a small private college in New York. Melanie wondered what had prompted him to this rather drastic change in careers. And why the Mid west? Finding himself so far away from the home and friends he knew must be difficult.
Melanie forced herself to focus on his speech. He was telling the congregation how it had blessed him to travel a thousand miles across the country and find the same devotion to God among the people here as he had known in his church “back home.”
“It’s wonderful to realize that God’s people can feel quite at home even when they are far from home.” He pronounced the words without benefit of the letter R: even when they ah fah from home. “Thank you all for making me feel so welcome. I count it a privilege to serve the needs of this congregation,” he concluded.
The “amen” of the closing hymn had scarcely died away when the double doors leading into the fellowship hall were opened and there was a small stampede toward the source of the delectable aromas.
Melanie fell in line with the other young mothers. She helped Jerica get settled at the children’s table, then made her way to the end of the long serving line to fix her own plate.
Joel Ellington came in from the foyer where he’d been greeting church members and almost timidly took a place behind Melanie.
“Hello,” he said, a question in his voice. “I think we’ve met, but I can’t quite put my finger on your name.”
She smiled. “We, um…bumped into each other at my office the other day.”
His furrowed brow told her he still didn’t remember. “I’m sorry … I’ve met so many new people this week … ”
“You we re leaving By Design—the graphic arts firm where I work.”
He grimaced comically. “Ooh … you meant that ‘bumped into’ literally. I remember now. I’m so sorry. I practically knocked you off your feet.”
Oh, if you only knew how true that was. She felt her skin flush at the impulsive thought and quickly pushed it from her mind. She held out her hand. “I’m Melanie LaSalle.”
“Nice to meet you, Melanie.” He let go of her hand and dipped his head sheepishly. “I hope there wasn’t any permanent damage.”
“I think I’ll live,” she said lightly, still smiling.
He turned and craned his neck toward the buffet table, looking genuinely worried. “Do you think there’ll be anything left by the time we get up there?”
“I have never yet gone away from one of these dinners hungry,” she promised. “I don’t think you have anything to worry about.”
As the line crept forward, Melanie struggled to think of something to say. “I enjoyed what you had to say this morning, Mr. Ellington,” she said finally.
“Well, thank you. I am feeling very welcome here. And please… call me Joel. I’m not one for formalities. Have you attended this church for long?”
“Since the very first Sunday we held services.”
“A chahter member, huh?”
She couldn’t hide a grin.
“Did I say something funny?” he asked, clearly puzzled.
“I’m sorry. It’s just…your accent. It’s charming,” she added quickly, “but that East Coast twang is pretty rare in this part of the country.”
Now it was his turn to laugh. “And I thought y’all were the ones with the accent,” he said in a bad Southern drawl.
“Us? Y’all have obviously never been down to Texas—or Alabama, for that matter.” She attempted the Southern belle inflection, painfully aware that she was flirting with him. She cleared her throat and reverted to her normal voice. “To answer your question, yes, I am a charter member. My husband’s parents were good friends of Pastor Black. He’s the one who started Cornerstone. My husband and I followed them here as newlyweds. Maybe you’ve already met my in-laws? Jerry and Erika LaSalle? Jerry is one of the deacons.”
“I’m sure I have, but I confess I’m terrible with names.”
“Me, too,” she admitted. “Oh, there’s Jerry now.” She waved at her father-in-law across the room, and Jerry waved back.
“Oh, sure… I met him during my second interview here. You’ll have to reintroduce me. I’ll be anxious to meet your husband, too. Or maybe I’ve already met him, as well?”
She cringed inwardly. “I’m sorry. I should have explained. Rick—my husband—died several years ago. I’m … I’m still very close to his parents. Jerry owns By Design, and I manage the company.”
“Oh, so it was the boss I ran into the other day?”
“Quite literally,” she laughed, grateful he’d not felt it necessary to express sympathy. “So what brought you to By Design?”
“ Don—Pastor Steele—sent me to have business cards made up.”
“ Oh, of course. We design all the church’s stationery.”
“Is that right? I’ll have to remember that. Don’s put me in charge of the capital campaign for the new Christianed wing, and I’ve been thinking about some ideas for a logo…maybe even a newsletter … yo u know, just to keep people updated on how the fund-raising is going. I ’ll talk to Don and see what the budget looks like.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that. By Design does all the church’s design work gratis.”
“Really? That’s great. So, do you only handle the business end, or are you a designer as well?”
“I started out as a designer. My degree is actually in commercial graphics. Since I became manager I haven’t had time to do as much design work as I’d like, but I do still take on an occasional project—especially when it’s for Cornerstone.”
“Well, it sounds like a great place to work. The building is certainly impressive. Not at all what I expected to find out here on the frontier.”
She laughed. “That’s Jerry’s creative touch. He’s definitely not a frontier boy.”
His gaze traveled across the room to where Jerry was holding court at a long table. “No. I can see that.”
She tipped her head. “Jerry’s a sweetheart, though. Don’t let that brash exterior fool you. I don’t know what I’d do without him and Erika. And they are wonderful grandparents.”
“Oh, you have children?”
“A daughter. Jerica’s almost five.” She pointed proudly in the direction of the children’s table. “She’s the little brunette in the red polka dots.”
Jerica chose that moment to jump up and let out a loud squeal as an older boy tried to swipe a cookie from her plate.
“She’s the one with the mouth,” Melanie said, hanging her head and shielding her eyes in mock embarrassment.
“She’s my joy,” she said with genuine emotion. “But she is a little spoiled. She was just six months old when Rick died, and Grandma and Grandpa LaSalle have—” She had been about to blame her inlaws for overindulging Jerica but caught herself midsentence. “Well, we’ve all spoiled her a little.”
They had reached the food-laden buffet tables by now, and Joel looked over the spread in front of them. “Wow. So much food, so l i ttle time… Any recommendations?”
“Oh, right here,” she said, picking up a serving spoon from a large casserole. “You have to try Margaret Unruh’s vrenika. It’s heavenly.”
“Vrenika? I’ve never heard of it.”
“I hadn’t either until I met Mrs. Unruh. It’s an old Mennonite dish … German, I think…a little like a dumpling but with a cottage cheese filling and the most wonderful gravy…”
He wrinkled his nose. “Sounds…um, interesting, but I think I’ll pass.”
“Your loss.” She shrugged, and scooped a small serving onto her own plate.
“Cottage cheese has never been a favorite of mine,” he said.
“You can’t even taste it. Honest.”
“Then what’s the point?” His smile was rather smug. “Thanks anyway, but I think I’ll go for something a little more familiar.” He reached for the spatula in a pan of lasagna and dished up a generous serving. “Now, this looks good.”
“Don’t say I didn’t try.” She put another dumpling on her plate.
They moved on to the end of the long stretch of tables where an impressive array of desserts awaited them. She took a small slice of cherry pie and snaked her way through dozens of tables as she looked for an empty place.
As she went by the children’s table, she checked to make sure Jerica was behaving. The Breyer sisters, eleven and thirteen, had unofficially taken charge of the younger children. Jerica was seated between the two adolescent girls, happily licking the frosting from a sugar cookie.
Melanie spotted some friends at a table near the double doors, but all the chairs we re taken. The only available seats seemed to be at a large table where several young married couples had congregated. She started for the empty seats.
“Hey, Melanie,” several voices chimed, accompanied by the screech of chair legs as they adjusted to make room for her at the table.
Reluctantly, she deposited her plate on the table beside Norm Arnett.
“Hi, Melanie.” Rita Arnett leaned around her husband’s burly form and greeted her with a smile, but Melanie didn’t miss the possessive arm that went around Norm’s shoulder.
She arranged her Styrofoam cup and plastic utensils near her plate. After four years it was still difficult to watch happily married couples interact. As much as they tried to include her, eventually their conversation would turn to marriage and family life, and she would be left out. It was a painful reminder of all she’d lost.
With her place saved, she went to check on Jerica again. When she returned, Joel Ellington had taken the seat across the table from her. Introductions were made all around, and the talk turned to Joel’s move to the Midwest.
“Have you succumbed to culture shock yet?” Marti Stinson asked.
“Well, I do miss my classical radio station. All I can seem to get a round here is country-western.”
“Kinda hard to sing about pickup trucks and hound dogs with an East Coast accent, huh?” Norm joked.
“Not to mention gee-tar pickin’,” Joel laughed good-naturedly.
By the time they got to dessert, it was obvious that Joel Ellington was going to fit in well here. Melanie relaxed a little, enjoying the amiable give and take and feeling happy that Joel was being made welcome. He was warm and personable, and she found herself more than a little attracted to him.
She shook her head as if to chase the thought away. This is ridiculous. Why am I thinking such things? I don’t even know the man. She forced her attention back to the conversation.
When she pushed away from the table and excused herself a few minutes later, Joel looked up and gave her a smile that caused her heart to beat an erratic rhythm. “It was nice to meet you, Melanie. I’ll be calling you about that logo.”
“Oh, sure … that’d be great.” Feeling uncharacteristically shy, she gave him an awkward wave and went to collect Jerica and gather the now-empty pie plate and casserole dish she’d brought.