Rennie was absolutely furious as he stormed out of the trailer. “Of all the damned, idiotic, stupid, ridiculous, shitheaded people in this world...” His word selection became more coarse and heated as he walked away.
“Sir,” came the voice from the doorway behind him, “that kind of language is totally uncalled for and I’ll have to ask you to stop.”
“Uncalled for?” Rennie spun and faced the power-tripping, bureaucratic imbecile some fool left in charge while he went gallivanting in his helicopter. “Uncalled for?” Rennie’s cheeks were bright red, his hands actively accenting his speech. “I only stopped in to be helpful, just like I was with those folks in St. John.”
He angrily strode back to confront the clearly incompetent Deputy IC. “And you had the gall to not only prohibit me from returning to help them but actually threatened me with arrest if I do?” He snorted. “Uncalled for?” Rennie firmly tapped his right index finger on the man’s chest to emphasize his words. “Buddy, I don’t think you have any earthly idea what that even means.”
“Sir,” the wiry balding man spit out with disdain. “If you insist on physically accosting me, I will have you detained and charged with assault.”
“Assault?” roared Rennie. Fury threatened to engulf him. All the anger and rage that had built up over the past many months, but could never be let out, finally began to break through. “Are you serious?” He leaned in with a menacing glare. “You think that was assault? Well, I can...”
Rennie felt a pair of small hands grip his right bicep and tug gently. “Rennie?” came the soft voice.
It was Josie. He turned his head to see her pale blue eyes filled with worry. “Rennie ... please ... let’s walk away for a bit ... okay, baby?” she pleaded. “He’s just not worth it.”
His body relaxed at her touch. The rage that threatened to overwhelm him just moments before now drained away and a sense of calm returned. He smiled at her. “You’re right,” he said, as he took her hand and began to walk away.
“Smart move, listening to your girlfriend,” the man jeered. “Now, run along and let us professionals do our jobs.”
“Are you a complete moron?”
The two of them had already taken a few steps away when the idiot just had to open his mouth again. Releasing Rennie’s hand, Josie walked back to confront the pompous fool. “Seriously ... could you be any more stupid?” she challenged, glaring at him.
With another step, she was now facing him nose to nose. “Did you actually want a beating?”
“Miss,” he snarled, motioning to the two sheriff’s deputies that were standing nearby. “I can have you arrested, just as well as him.”
“Gentlemen,” she calmly called out to the two as they approached. “I want you to pay very close attention both to what I do and what I say,” she declared as she deliberately took one step back, her hands raised in deference.
“I have, in no way, indicated to this ... worm,” her voice pausing for emphasis, “that I ever intended to cause him any physical harm.”
The deputies stopped in their tracks, now desperate to contain their own amusement at their supervisor’s expense.
“My words were solely intended to convey to this ... pathetic excuse for a human being ... the exact opposite, actually.”
Josie was being very deliberate in her speech, visibly choosing her words with incredible precision. All that came from the object of Josie’s ire, however, was a lot of huffing and sputtering. Meanwhile, the sound of whirling rotors slowly winding down could be heard coming from the nearby field.
“Let me be perfectly clear. I was simply informing this ... worthless lump of pig excrement,” the look she gave him was one of pure contempt, “that my own timely intervention had kept his ... squirrelly little face ... from being beaten to a pulp.”
She paused, tapping her slender finger to her lips as if in serious contemplation. “Which, now that I think about it, would probably have been an improvement.”
A few snickers and hoots could be heard emanating from the small crowd that had begun to gather, with more people pouring out from the nearby work trailers to see what was going on.
“Why you little...” The man attempted to interrupt her, his face a deep shade of crimson. But Josie silenced his attempt with a fierce stare and the simple wave of her finger, much to the delight of the crowd.
“And ... that his foolish attempt at bravado was threatening to undo all my dedicated work in keeping this lovely man,” Josie gestured at Rennie, taking his large hand in her own, “from possibly damaging his beautiful hands on that wretch’s miserable useless hide.”
Josie turned to gaze deeply in Rennie’s eyes. She raised his hand to her lips, kissing it. “Now that would be a crime,” she said with a mischievous glint in her eye.
Loud, spontaneous applause and cheers erupted around them but Rennie saw no one but Josie.
The man so thoroughly insulted by her, however, lost it. Red as a beet, he shrilly ordered the two deputies to arrest her. When they refused, he went off the deep end, screaming and flailing his arms, threatening them both with dismissal.
“Russell!” The booming voice brought the out of control man to a complete stop, as the previously gathered observers quickly and quietly found other places to be. “My office ... now!”
Rennie, however, heard none of that. He was simply taken in by the bewitching spitfire clinging to his hand. Pulling her close, he wrapped his arms around her waist. She did the same to him, her face tipped up to his.
They just stared at one another until Rennie broke the silence. “You were amazing.”
“Not really.” Josie shook her head and laughed. “When you’ve been around as many bar fights as I have, you learn how to talk to cops.”
“I’m serious! You were audacious ... and gutsy, and courageous, and valiant, and brassy...”
She blushed. “I think your word for the day calendar is really getting a workout today.”
“With you around, I suspect that’s going to happen a lot now,” Rennie chuckled. “I think I just got a glimpse of brash Jaycee in all her glory.”
“Oh, no!” She shook her head decisively, an impish grin on her captivating face. “What you saw was 100% Josie. That idiot was trying to mess with my man and I was havin’ none of that!” Her arms contracted in a brief but vigorous squeeze as she looked up at him with a playful sparkle in her eyes.
“So I’m your man, huh?” Rennie whispered softly, drawing her closer.
She nodded, her eyes dancing in the sunlight.
“I think I like the sound of that.”
Rennie was entranced, her lovely face filling his vision. Her coal black tresses that shimmered in the sun and cascaded in waves off her shoulders surrounded it gracefully. Her sky blue eyes with just a hint of rain widened in recognition of what he was thinking. And her generous lips, framed by adorable dimples when she smiled, now parted slightly in anticipation ... as he started to lean in.
Unfortunately, the gravelly sound of someone clearing their throat nearby brought them back to reality. They were standing in the middle of an increasingly warm asphalt parking lot, surrounded by emergency trailers and rescue vehicles, with a somewhat uncomfortable sheriff’s deputy watching them.
“Um, excuse me, Mr. Erickson?” the young man interrupted awkwardly.
Rennie turned to face him, slipping his arms out from around Josie’s waist and then taking her hand in his.
“The Sheriff would like to speak to you and Miss... ?” He glanced at Rennie’s companion with curiosity.
“Fontenot,” Josie filled in for him.
He nodded to her and then looked back to Rennie. “Sheriff Frohm would like to see you and Ms. Fontenot, if you have a moment.”
“I take it he’s the actual Incident Commander here?” Rennie inquired.
“Yes, sir, for the time being until someone from the Governor’s office arrives to take over. You can find him over in that trailer over there,” the deputy replied, pointing to a large fifth-wheel trailer just off to Rennie’s right, toward the diner.
“That’s three kisses you now owe me,” Josie teased provocatively after the deputy walked away.
“Not a bad debt to have, I suppose,” he tossed back. But then, as they walked to the trailer, he started to laugh – a deep throaty rumble that threatened to erupt into something more.
“What?” Her curiosity was piqued.
Rennie wouldn’t answer, only shaking his head and chuckling as they continued to walk.
“What?” There was a harder edge to her voice this time, as they approached the trailer steps.
He stopped and turned. “If you only knew what ran through my head whenever I look at you,” his dark eyes nearly smoldering as he glanced her way. “You’d have that count a heck of a lot higher.”
Absolutely stunned, Josie could feel the heat rising in her cheeks. Looking up, she saw his crooked smile and the laughter dancing in his eyes.
“And you call me audacious!” she muttered, as he drew her by the hand up the steps to the trailer door.
“Hazelton is gone.”
A whole town of 1200 or so people wiped off the map in the span of ... what ... fifteen minutes? It used to be about ten miles northeast of Ferris. Used to be, he said. How many injured? How many dead? Sheriff Frohm didn’t know yet.
He had apologized for the idiot – a Russell something or other – and Josie thought that was decent of him. He even asked about what they’d seen in St. John, but he’d already seen it from the air. Seems St. John just got a glancing blow. Hazelton took the full brunt. Preliminary teams were already there doing what they could and more resources were being mobilized. It wasn’t just here, either. This was just part of a whole line of twisters that stretched well to the south and west, almost to the Kentucky border.
So here they stood, as the morning sun continued to rise, watching all the rescue workers and their gathered equipment head out in a long convoy. Josie stood in Rennie’s embrace, her back to his chest, with tears streaming down her face.
Rennie softly kissed the back of her head. “Come on. Let’s get going.”
Josie nodded, brushing the tears away with her fingers. They couldn’t do anything for the people in Hazelton, but they had work to do in St. John. Sheriff Frohm had said that all the currently available resources were going to Hazelton, but St. John could expect help to arrive by mid-afternoon. The Illinois National Guard had been mobilized, and more equipment and personnel was even coming in from Missouri, Indiana and Kentucky. He then asked a favor of them, namely, to take an emergency satellite phone along when they went and give it to the pastor of St. John’s.
The Sheriff personally knew him to be a good guy in touch with the whole community – the perfect person to be his point of contact there. The pastor could be his eyes and ears in St. John and help coordinate rescue efforts there for the time being. Josie was surprised, though, when he referred to him as “Father O’Malley.” She could have sworn Lila said it was a Lutheran church, not a Catholic one. She didn’t say anything, however.
Rennie took Josie’s hand securely in his and walked her to his truck. Glancing over at the diner, she could see Marge and Lila through the large picture window, watching the rescue convoy slowly pull out. Their eyes were as moist as hers. They waved. Rennie and Josie waved back as they left in the opposite direction.
It was quiet for a time in the cab of the truck – for Josie a little too quiet. Looking around, she spied the satellite phone lying on the seat. Wanting desperately to think of something other than the haunting thoughts roaming through her brain, Josie picked it up to examine it.
“Isn’t the church in St. John a Lutheran church?” she wondered aloud.
“So, why did Sheriff Frohm call the pastor there Father O’Malley?” she asked, looking at him intently. “Do Lutherans call their ministers ‘Father, ‘ too? I thought Catholics were the only ones that did that.”
“Well, they aren’t the only ones—just the best known,” Rennie answered.
Rennie nodded. “The various Orthodox Churches have historically used the title, for example, as do Anglicans, though that’s a bit more recent development for them. But as far as Lutherans go, no, they usually don’t.”
He thought for a moment and then continued. “Back in Europe, as I recall, Lutheran pastors are still commonly known as priests and are sometimes called ‘Father’ out of respect. But here in this country, those titles and a lot of other traditions were ditched a long time ago because they sounded too Roman Catholic to other Protestants.”
Josie raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Okay, now that seems like a really dumb reason to do anything.”
He chuckled at her observation. “Spoken like a good Roman Catholic.”
“Well,” she crinkled her nose at his statement. “I don’t know about good. Haven’t been to Mass in a few years but, yeah, I was raised Catholic.”
She gave him a quizzical look.
“French last name? Born and raised in Louisiana Cajun country? I think the odds were in my favor.”
She nodded, an amused expression on her face.
He glanced over and smiled. “You know, I bet you were adorable in your little white dress for First Communion. Was your hair tied up with ribbons and bows or did you wear a headdress with a veil instead?”
Josie shook her head. “My folks couldn’t afford much, so I wore the same dress my older sister wore and it didn’t come with a veil,” she recalled. “It was pretty, though.” A wave of nostalgia hit her and her eyes grew a little misty. “I remember Mama spending what seemed like hours curling my hair, and how handsome Papa looked in his suit.”
Rennie reached over and affectionately squeezed her hand.
Josie smiled back at him.
With his hand back on the wheel, Rennie returned to the original conversation. “Well, to get back to your comment – you’re right. It’s a dumb reason to do anything. Understandable, but dumb.”
Josie watched as Rennie’s face grew serious.
“In this case,” he continued, “Lutherans were just trying to fit in. Remember, back then America was a country dominated by English Protestants and Freemasons – neither of whom had much love for the Pope.” Glancing over, he caught her eyes. “So, imagine then, what it would have been like coming here as German or Scandinavian Lutheran immigrants whose traditions and worship reminded their neighbors of dreaded Papists.”
She thought about that for a moment and for some reason, thought back to high school. “So you’re saying they changed what they did in order to fit in with the popular crowd – that they were just trying to be liked?”
“Pretty much,” agreed Rennie, “not that it really worked. Lutherans are still seen as not being ‘Protestant enough’ here.” He shrugged his shoulders. “Anyway, over the past three or four decades, a number of Lutheran pastors and theologians here and there have tried to bring the titles and other traditions back, seeing it all as part of their lost heritage.”
Rennie waved to a group of men loading the pole barn debris onto a flatbed trailer. He then looked back over at Josie. “Like with most things, some of it’s been good and some not. As for the whole calling a pastor ‘Father’ thing? I don’t think that’s ever coming back, at least not for American Lutherans, anyway.”
“Okay, professor,” Josie teased. “So what does this history lesson have to do with Father O’Malley?”
“Very little, actually,” Rennie conceded with a grin. “You just got me off on a tangent.”
Josie jokingly narrowed her eyes and glared at him.
Rennie just laughed. “Actually, the only reason Sheriff Frohm called him Father O’Malley is because he looks and sounds like he should be a Catholic priest. It’s more of a joke than anything – a very well-meaning and affectionate one – that Sean has always gone along with.”
Rennie saw Josie’s confusion and tried to explain. “You see, Sean Finnegan O’Malley is a big redheaded Irishman with the gift of gab and the lilt to match. After coming to this country, he settled down with a good Lutheran girl, had a gaggle of red-headed kids, and eventually became a Lutheran pastor.”
He shook his head in amusement. “Put the clerical collar around his neck and he simply looks and sounds like he should be called ‘Father.’ You’ll understand when you meet him,” he finished, looking back her way again.
“You actually know him?” Josie asked incredulously.
“Yes, though I haven’t seen him for a couple years,” Rennie admitted. “He and I went to seminary together.”
“Seminary? What do you mean?” Her mind was whirling with this new information. “You’re a ... pastor?”
“Not anymore,” he said as he shook his head. “Helen made sure of that. That’s why I was heading to Nashville yesterday when I picked you up.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Josie was baffled and a bit put out. “I mean, you told me a lot of other things about your life. Why leave that out?”
“Truthfully?” Rennie turned to look at her.
“Because I was afraid,” he admitted. “I’ve found that the quickest way for me to kill a normal conversation with someone I have just met – be it on an airplane or somewhere else – is to tell them I’m a pastor.”
Josie then saw a pained expression cross his face.
Rennie turned to gaze out the windshield again. “In that moment, I cease to be a regular human being. Suddenly, I’m either a predatory hypocrite with a hidden agenda, a judgmental religious zealot on a moral crusade, or some kind of holy man with a special hotline to God.”
“When the truth is I’m nothing special.” He shrugged his shoulders with an air of resigned weariness. “I’m just a man of faith with a bit more education than most when it comes to the Bible and religious matters, but that’s about it. When it comes to everything else, I’d say I’m pretty ordinary.”
Rennie paused for a moment and then let out a deep sigh. “Look. I’m far from perfect. I cuss more than a little. You’ve seen how I look at you. It’s pretty obvious I’m not the best person to ask for advice. And I hardly ever know the right thing to say, it seems.”
“I don’t know about that,” Josie smiled at him. “You’ve been saying the right things to me ever since I met you. I like how you listen without trying to give advice and I love how you look at me.” She paused, giving him a smoky glance. “I know my language is probably far more colorful than yours and,” she unbuckled and scooted over on the bench seat to be next to him, “I’ve known you were far from ordinary from almost the minute you picked me up.”
Josie’s smile grew even larger as she saw Rennie beginning to blush. “But I think I get what you’re saying,” she said as she rested her cheek against his shoulder. “You just wanted to be seen for who you are. And I do.”
“But I have to say,” Josie continued mischievously, “with as bad as I can be, it’s good to know I’m with someone who has a special hotline to God!”
Rennie just groaned but Josie scooted even closer when he put his arm around her shoulders.