A Time to Surrender: Safe Harbor, Book #3
by Gary Smalley
A Time to Surrender
By Gary Smalley and Sally John
Few things unhinged Jenna Beaumont Mason. She could do cool, calm, and collected. She could do serene. She could go with the flow. She could chill.
Honestly, she taught grammar and John Donne’s poetry to sixteen year olds!
A rushing noise whistled through her head again. Her ears burned. The base of her throat pulsated in sync with a wildly erratic heartbeat. She flicked her straight black hair off a shoulder. “Jenna?” Behind the podium onstage, the high school principal, Cade Edmunds, smiled in a gentle, expectant way.
Which was totally out of character for him.
Which totally defined the insanity of the moment.
Jenna sat with ninety-nine other abnormally subdued faculty members in the high school auditorium. Ten of those people, including herself, were related to military personnel, all currently deployed overseas. Ten teachers who had an infinite number of other things to do before the first day of school tomorrow. Ten teachers who had countless better things to do than sit around while their principal singled them out for a salute to the armed forces—aka pity party. Cade extended his hand, palm up, waiting.
Beside her, the sophomore lit teacher touched Jenna’s arm. The woman’s eyes looked like overfilled bathtubs.
Evidently Jenna’s fairy godmother had taken a hike. There would be no poof ing her from this wretched scene. Jenna rose to her full five eight height, careful not to slouch, and stood rigidly next to her seat.
“As most of you know,” Cade said, “Jenna’s husband is Kevin Mason, last year’s winning varsity football coach and PE teacher here at Sundance High. He’s a Marine, serving in . . .”
Jenna tuned out her boss and glanced around. Two others stood with her. That left seven to go. Seven more loved ones to name along with their branch, rank, unit, platoon, or whatnot numbers. Seven more foreign, unpronounceable locations to reference.
John Donne had it all wrong. “No man is an island”? Yeah, right. She disagreed. She was totally an island, hemmed in by huge swells of dread. The warm fuzzies directed her way at that moment could not build bridges over such waves. Applause could not warm her bed or explain why he left or fill the lonely dinner hour night after night. Jenna blinked rapidly, focused on Cade Edmunds, and blinked some more.
The principal was a good guy. Great with the students, respected by his staff, liked by most parents. His tearing her inside out in public, however, was the most idiotic thing he’d ever done. She remained deadpan throughout his presentation and imagined chiding him. The mental exercise worked. She made it through seven more intros, ears still aflame but serenity intact. Yes, Jenna Beaumont Mason could do cool.
And then the applause evolved into a standing ovation. Okay. So her mascara was getting smudged. Not a problem. Jenna Beaumont Mason could do damage control, no sweat.
The scolding and makeup repair were both put on hold. As soon as Cade ended the meeting, several teachers surrounded Jenna, offering hugs and words of gratitude and concern. Finally the last one stepped front and center.
The woman was vaguely familiar. She had short, bouncy blonde curls and a perky demeanor to match. Wasn’t she a cheerleader coach? “Jenna, I am so, so sorry I didn’t get with you last spring when Kevin left, but Joey shipped about the same time.”
“You know how crazy life is when that’s all happening. I mean, to tell your husband good-bye for a year—” She mashed her lips together, shook her head, and then gave her shoulders a quick shrug. “So anyway. You made it through the summer, too, and here we are. Trust me, work is a godsend. At least it always has been for me.” “Mm.” Jenna hummed a noncommittal reply that got lost in the woman’s monologue.
“Put me in a lab with a bunch of kids and I’m content as a gecko with a cricket in its gullet.”
Science department. Biology. Ann, Angie, Abby, Alison? “Of course when we cover explosives, the kids are all over it. They say ‘Mrs. Ames, why can’t we build just a little bomb?’ Then I’ve got Joey right there in the room with me. It’s his specialty. Bombs, explosives. Not that I tell them that, but you know what I mean. I can’t help but imagine what he’s up to over there.”
Amber Ames. Chemistry.
“Jenna, did you notice that out of the ten of us introduced, you and I were the only ones with spouses in the military? Everyone else had an in-law or a cousin. I bet this is your first, huh?”
“Deployment.” She pointed at one of her own eyes. “I gave up mascara the second time Joey went.”
“This is his third. That I know about, anyway.” She leaned toward Jenna and lowered her voice. “He’s a Navy SEAL. What am I going to do?”
Jenna felt an arm brush hers and turned to see Cade. He said, “Amber, you could join up.”
“Ha! No disrespect, Mr. Edmunds, but those guys are certifiable. Stop laughing.”
“Well, you are married to one.”
“Which makes me only half-certifiable.” Amber grinned. “Besides, I could never do the chin-ups. Jenna, let’s get together and compare notes sometime, ’kay? Maybe over dinner. That’s always the worst time of day for me. Gotta go!” She hurried off, waving a hand backward over her shoulder.
Cade chuckled. “No disrespect, but talking to her is like taking a drink from a fire hydrant.”
Jenna shrugged. Fire hydrant or whatever, the chat with Amber had flushed the desire to lambaste Cade right out of her. She grabbed her shoulder bag from the seat. “I better get to work.”
“Jen.” Cade touched her elbow, lightly, briefly.
She turned to face him.
“I know you’re ticked at me.”
Lowering her head, she unzipped her bag and rummaged through it—for what exactly, she had no clue. “I’m just generally ticked at life these days.”
“You’ve taught in my building for six years. I know when you’re ticked at me in particular.”
She jerked the zipper shut and met his gaze.
It was rumored that Cade Edmunds bled ice water. Hence the nickname Mr. Ice Guy. His aggressive demeanor supported the bad guy rep. Unwavering steel-gray eyes and biceps that even her husband admired did not exactly mitigate the image. His naturally balding head—already, at thirty-nine—only added a layer of toughness. Not to mention the stories of his off-campus encounters with gang members and gun-toting parents.
“And,” he went on, “I know you hate the sort of attention I just directed your way.”
“Is there a point to this conversation?”
“The point is you and Kevin are making a huge sacrifice. Your personal life went down the tubes when he shipped out.”
She begged to differ. It happened the day her husband reenlisted. Yes, she had married a Marine. He wore his dress uniform in the wedding—gorgeous as all get out, but within weeks it was packed away, put away for good. Or so she thought. Then along came a war—and a husband compelled to serve his country.
“Jenna, you’re on my team. When you’re injured, I call for reinforcements. That’s what this salute to the military was all about. We are here for you. The attention was necessary to drive the message home, to you and everyone else.”
Rah, rah. “Got it, coach.” She gave a thumbs-up.
He closed his eyes and exhaled audibly. “Okay.” His tone hushed, he looked at her. “Just promise me one thing.”
The tough guy vanished. Jenna felt her control slip again. “Promise you will tell me when things get unbearable. When you want to pitch an unabridged Webster’s at some kid’s head, talk to me first.”
She shifted her weight to the other foot and glanced around. The auditorium had emptied.
“Can you promise?”
“Okay, okay! I promise.”
“And I promise I won’t hassle you if you want extra time off. Or if you need to leave spur of the moment. Hey, in a pinch, I’ll even sub.” “Cade! I’m fine!”
“Yeah.” He paused. “Don’t they make waterproof eye stuff?” “Oh, go take a hike.”
“Good idea.” He gave her a brief smile, spun on his heel, and walked across the front of the auditorium. “I think,” he said without turning, “Amber will be a good friend for you.”
Now he was choosing her friends?
Still without a backward glance, he called out, “Stop rolling your eyes, Mrs. Mason!” The door swished shut behind him.
So the rumor was true: Edmunds had eyes in the back of his head. And they were watching over her. Jenna felt the tug of a smile.
Skylar Pierson poised her finger at the doorbell, inhaled deeply, and blew out through pooched lips.
“Okay, Skylar,” she spoke aloud to herself. “Here we”—she pressed the bell—“go.”
The electronic device struck her as an anachronism on the obviously old, patched-up adobe wall. But then the whole place seemed to have hit a time warp. The hacienda and Wild West setting were straight out of a Zorro flick, pre-Antonio era.
The door opened. A middle-aged woman flashed a smile, full-on Diane Keaton–esque. “Hi.” She glanced beyond Skylar’s shoulder toward the driveway, a frazzled expression chasing away the smile. “You’re not the delivery man . . . person.”
“Uh, no. I’m here about the ad.”
“I really, really wish he’d show up.” Sunlight glinted off the woman’s silver-rimmed glasses as she went up on tiptoe and peered sideways at the road. “You said ad? What ad?”
“For cook.” Skylar slid her thumbs under the shoulder straps of her backpack and shifted its weight.
“Cook?” Now Diane swung her full attention onto Skylar.
“Uh, is this the Hacienda Hideaway Retreat Center? The sign out front says—”
“Yeah, that’s us, but I didn’t know we placed an ad for a cook. Where did you read it?”
Uh-oh. Twenty-Questions Diane was leading them nowhere fast. The woman chuckled. “Well, obviously, really. You found us, didn’t you? I’m new at this. So then, I assume you cook and you’re looking for a job.”
“Do you need a cook? Or housekeeper?”
Again the quick smile beamed. “I’m Claire Beaumont.” She put out her hand.
Skylar shook it, wishing the woman would just answer the question. “I’m Skylar Pierson. Skylar with an a.”
“Welcome to the Hacienda Hideaway, Skylar. Come on inside. My mother-in-law will want to meet you.”
Skylar followed Claire Beaumont across a narrow mudroom, its walls lined with coat hooks. A half-open door revealed a laundry room. They passed through another doorway and entered a huge, open space. A kitchen filled one side, family room and dining trappings the other. Curious. All the appliances and furniture looked brand-new: shiny stainless steel, crisply bright upholstery, and wood that reflected like a mirror.
“Indio,” Claire said.
On the other side of a stone fireplace, a woman in a padded rocker looked up from the book on her lap. She resembled every Native American grandma squaw portrayed in a western, complete with round face and a single thick braid of hair.
As they approached her, Claire said, “Do you know anything about an ad for a cook in some gazette?”
A tiny smile played at the woman’s mouth. “I might.”
“Mm-hmm. This is Skylar with an a. Skylar, this is my mother-in-law, Indio Beaumont.” “Hello, Skylar.” Indio held out her left hand, tilting her head at the right one resting atop the book. It was wrapped to the wrist in a cast. “Tripped over a rock.”
Skylar grasped the offered hand. “Hello.”
“I placed that ad two years ago.”
“I found the gazette in a stack of old papers, in a coffeehouse in Seattle. It was torn, the date was missing. Uh, I guess you don’t—do you still even need a cook?”
Without responding, Indio released her hand. Her eyes were bottomless black pools, communicating the sense of an old soul, of an ancient wisdom. They held no threat. Skylar understood she could speak her mind and was probably expected to do so.
At last the old woman said, “You didn’t call first.”
“No, I didn’t call. I prefer to feel the energy of a place before I even consider asking for an interview. So”—she shrugged—“I just stopped by.”
“And decided to stay a bit.” Indio’s eyes twinkled; the crow’s feet bunched. “The energy is more yang than yin, then?”
Skylar couldn’t help but grin. “I’d say that’s a fair assumption.” “Take off that heavy pack and have a seat.”
“Thank you.” She hefted her bag to the hardwood floor. Sitting in a low swivel chair, she glanced around.
Despite its size and upscale touch, the room delivered a snug ambience. A warm cinnamon scent lingered. The rich ticktock of a big, old-fashioned wall clock added a rhythm. There were braided rugs, plaid upholstery, and afghans. A sofa and loveseat formed an L in front of the fireplace. Her chair and the woman’s rocker flanked a tall window that overlooked the front yard, parking lot, and distant hills. Sunlight flooded through its southern exposure.
Claire set a glass of iced tea on the end table between the chairs. “I thought you might be thirsty. It’s chamomile ginger.” Herbal, no less. Trippy. “Thanks.”
She looked more closely at the wall behind Indio. Again she was struck with the collision of time periods. There in the middle of an Ethan Allen showroom and Wolfgang Puck’s kitchen was an exposed adobe wall. Literally covered with religious artifacts, it might have been transported up the hill from one of the historical California missions. Indio caught her eye. “Some of the things on this wall are from the original chapel that was part of this hacienda. My husband’s great great grandmother hung several of the crucifixes. Her husband built the hacienda in the 1850s, after he found gold here.” She smiled. “So tell me, Skylar, do you like to cook?”
Skylar nodded. “I like to cook. Actually, I love to cook. And I’m drooling over your Sub-Zero fridge and Decor ovens.” Indio laughed softly. “You noticed.”
Claire carried a stool from the island and joined them. Sitting, she exchanged a knowing smile with the other woman.
Indio said, “Okay, Skylar. Would you like the job?”
“Uh, that’s it? I love your kitchen?”
Claire chuckled. “Indio, she might want to know what exactly is involved, or at least what she’ll be paid.”
The old woman waved her left hand. “We’ll make it up as we go along. The woman who worked here for years moved away last month. We need a cook.”
Skylar said, “Don’t you want information about me?”
Indio shook her head vigorously. “Nope. Got all I need.”
Claire burst into laughter. Indio guffawed with her. The joyful noise grew louder, until Skylar saw tears stream down their cheeks. At last Indio dabbed her face with a handkerchief. “Excuse us. We get a little loony when things like this happen. You see, we know exactly why you came in person and why you came today.”
An intense desire crashed through Skylar to grab her backpack and make tracks out the door. At some wordless level she understood life was spinning out of her control. She felt as if she were being nudged onto a path she hadn’t chosen, a path like the Yellow Brick Road. Great. Just great. All she wanted was food and shelter, not another flaming journey to the Land of Oz!
She’d leaned forward, ready to snatch up the pack, a “no thanks” forming on her tongue, when Indio fixed those twinkly black eyes on her. Skylar’s muscles flapped like wet noodles.
“Skylar, here’s what’s happening. I can’t prepare a cup of tea without help these days.” She lifted her braced arm and dropped it back onto her lap. “The Hacienda Hideaway reopens tomorrow with twelve guests, here for dinner, staying through breakfast on Sunday. This is Claire’s first experience with a retreat group. She has help with the cleaning, but I promised her that I would cover the kitchen.” She paused. “I’ve been praying for a week for a cook to be here by today.” The grin nearly scrunched her eyes shut. “I don’t need to know a thing except that our God answers prayer.”
Skylar blinked a few times. “Trip out. That’s heavy stuff.”
“It is. Now, dear, what do you think? Would you like the job?
Could you start today?” Indio pressed her lips together and waited, still as a statue.
Forget the gentle nudge. With the likes of the elderly sage staring at her, things had escalated into a definite shove onto that Yellow Brick Road.
Skylar’s stomach growled. The cinnamon scent had blossomed into a baking cake. Her legs and shoulders ached.
She liked these women. The positive vibes coming from them could not be denied. Why not give them a weekend? What could one weekend hurt?
“Sure. Why not?” The words skipped off her tongue as merrily as Dorothy and her friends flittering on down the road to Oz.