Josie was standing way off to the side by the tire swing, sipping her sweet tea, while Sarah made her initial pitch to the group. She wasn’t really paying much attention to her friend, though. Oh, it wasn’t like she was trying to be rude. Truth was, Josie had already heard her best bud’s big idea the night before and had given it her full support. So, rather than listen to it all again, she opted instead to engage in one of her favorite all-time things to do: people watching.
To be sure, the person she most liked to watch was seated not twenty feet from her. Of course, she loved to watch how animated he could get when he talked. Nor could she help but smile when he would run the fingers of his right hand through his hair because he didn’t know what to say next. Plus, the way he’d wiggle his eyebrows at her when he caught her watching him, always made it such a fun game to play. There was more to it for her than the obvious, though. Truthfully, she got a kick out of watching him because Rennie seemed to have this uncanny ability to surprise her – like that morning at church, for example.
Well, actually there were a total of three surprises, but they were all connected. The first one was real subtle, so much so that Josie didn’t catch on to it right away. But when she did, she was truly puzzled. Having sat with Rennie while he practiced the night before, she discovered the phenomenal guitarist was also incredibly gifted on the piano. For some reason, however, he was holding back that morning. True, his playing was flawless and beautiful but it was also simple, totally devoid of those little flourishes and embellishments that top-notch performers commonly do.
Josie probably would have just tucked that surprise away for later and possibly forgotten about it, had not the second one come along. It actually showed up after the worship service was over when Father O’Malley was sharing announcements with the congregation. With a glance and gesture toward the balcony, after talking about the repairs being made to the church, the good Father did what Josie personally thought was a really neat thing. He introduced the substitute pianist to everyone, praised Rennie’s selections and skill, and then led the congregation in showing their appreciation with a round of applause.
Josie proudly watched on as the concert hall worthy musician stood to receive their thanks, but was shocked to see that Rennie was actually quite angered by it all. Oh, he hid it remarkably well with a smile and a wave but Josie could tell he was unhappy. In fact, he was so agitated when he returned to the piano bench, that she decided to stand behind him and rub his shoulders in order to calm him down. Josie couldn’t help but laugh a little, though, when she heard him muttering something about how “Lutherans don’t clap.” She knew he wasn’t serious. It was just his way of letting off some steam.
As she gave it a bit of thought, though, Josie started to wonder if Rennie was upset for a more spiritual reason; that maybe he viewed his playing as something he was offering up to God and that the applause somehow diminished that for him. She actually said as much to him after everything was over – which is when he surprised her for the third time.
Turned out, all he’d really wanted to do that morning was to lead worship and not show up the regular organist in the process. He knew congregations all too often took their musicians for granted, so he didn’t want anything he did that day to possibly make her feel unappreciated. And so his anger was actually directed at himself, because he felt like he had failed her when everyone started clapping. He didn’t want to get something she’d perhaps never received.
Josie was deeply touched by his thoughtfulness. And probably would have done far more than just squeeze him and kiss him on the cheek, had a certain troop of red headed teenagers not arrived in the balcony at that moment. At least Megan had the presence of mind to blush a bit when they burst through the doorway.
“No matter,” Josie said to herself with a smile as she glanced over at her amazing guy. “I’ll get to him later.”
As it was, she couldn’t help but beam with pleasure as she watched him share a boisterous laugh with the very organist he worried so much about, 63 year old grandmother of 9, Margaret Grotelueschen. Sarah, for her part, gave the two troublesome noisemakers a stern glare for interrupting her ... again. At least Maggie had the decency to look contrite. Her partner in crime, however, just grinned back at the very professionally attired blonde and winked. He’d already heard the pitch, too.
Josie watched as her best friend, with a small but irritated sigh, returned her attention to the rest of the forty or so folks seated there in the O’Malleys’ backyard. The location, of course, was Megan’s idea, as Sean and Lindsey’s home was situated just north of the town and had suffered only minor damage. When Sarah explained to them yesterday evening everything she was thinking, the preacher’s daughter quickly got on the horn to her mom and had it all set up. Lila, for her part, immediately volunteered herself and Marge for the food – which had been absolutely delicious as usual, by the way – while Sarah, Rennie and Josie made all the respective phone calls they each needed to make.
Truth be told, most of the people present, Josie noted while looking around, were there because she called them. Of course, there were a few that were a total surprise – well, to everyone except their hosts – namely, a tall, thin man with glasses and a shorter, slightly heavier woman, both of whom were sitting just on the other side of Rennie. Well, them and also the five college kids they brought with them from Wisconsin.
Rennie was absolutely ecstatic to see them and quickly introduced his good friends, Darren and Shelley Burke, to her. Turned out, they had brought the college students down the night before for what they called a “servant event.” In other words, the seven of them were going to spend the next two weeks getting very dirty, helping some of the good folks of St. John get back on their feet.
Rennie had spoken of Darren and Shelley to her several times before, so Josie had a fair idea who they were. The reverse, however, was clearly not the case. Josie had to work real hard not to laugh at Shelley’s expression the first time the term “girlfriend” was used. In fact, she still found it funny. Mainly because every time Shelley would glance her way now, she’d have this deeply concerned look on her face.
It was clear that she was more than a little protective of Rennie. Josie couldn’t help but smile at that thought. Shelley was hardly alone. Nearly every member of the O’Malley clan had tested her in their own way over the past few days. With the twins, Hannah and Grace, it was eerily reminiscent of watching a tennis match or, better yet, ping pong. While with their mother, Lindsey, it was a gentle interrogation, if there is such a thing. Josie really didn’t mind, though. She knew they were all just looking out for someone they cared about. And as she was frequently the object of Shelley’s gaze all afternoon, Josie instinctively knew another round of questioning was likely not far off.
With Sarah’s initial presentation now over, however, Josie didn’t give her most recent critical observer much more thought. That, of course, was due mostly to Shelley heading off to the house, presumably to use the bathroom. Instead, Josie strolled over to her good friend, who had temporarily dismissed the crowd so they could all talk among themselves for a bit about what she’d proposed. Waving Megan over, the three of them put their heads together about what would come next.
“Okay, so tell me about this Fontenot girl.” The tone of her voice was a bit harsher than she intended, when she came through the French doors and into the kitchen, but Shelley was more than a little concerned.
Turning off the water, Lindsey glanced over at her most recent houseguest and chuckled. “She’s quite the looker, isn’t she?”
Shelley frowned. “Well, that’s one of the things that worries me.”
“Shelley...” came the reproving reply.
“No, I’m serious, Lin. Ren barely knows her. I mean, he picked her up on the side of the road, for crying out loud. And now she’s his girlfriend?” She shook her head and let out a long sigh. Walking back to the door, she turned to look out, her eyes catching sight of Josie talking with Sarah and Megan. “Bella’s going to flip when she finds out.”
“She already knows. I talked to her yesterday.”
Shelley’s straight, shoulder-length brown hair twirled a bit as her head jerked back toward Lindsey in surprise. “What? Who told her, you or Ren?”
“Neither, actually. It was Josie’s friend, Sarah,” she replied with a nod toward the backyard as she covered a partially filled plate of chocolate chip cookies with aluminum foil. “Turns out they work at the same record company in Nashville, just in different areas. She was pretty sure she recognized the name when Ren gave it to her the day he picked up Josie, so she gave Bella a call.”
“So, what did she think about all this?”
Lindsey shrugged. “She’s concerned, naturally, but felt better after we talked.”
“What did you tell her?”
“The truth,” she replied while sliding a pan of green Jell-O, covered in plastic wrap, into the refrigerator. “That Josie’s a great girl and while Ren is clearly infatuated, he hasn’t lost his head.”
“But, Lindsey, he’s still married,” Shelley protested somewhat sadly.
“Yes, he is,” the redhead answered matter-of-factly, the door of the refrigerator closing on its own behind her. “And the two of them are very aware of that. But seriously, Shel, what’s left of that marriage anyway?”
Stopping momentarily from her busywork, Lindsey turned and gave Shelley a probing glance. “I mean, you, better than anyone, know just how hard the guy tried to single-handedly hold it together for well over a year and how Helen pretty much finished it off with this last stunt.”
Throwing up her hands in disgust, she continued with a question. “Is it sad that it’s come to this? Of course, especially for the girls, but it’s not like we didn’t see something like this coming years ago. Now, with her in Little Rock and Ren headed for Nashville, all that’s left of the mess is the paperwork.”
“Besides that,” she added after a few moments with a twinkle in her eye, “they really are behaving themselves. And if you watch them for any length of time, you’ll see that they are rather sweet together.”
“I’m just not so sure...” Shelley started in before she was interrupted by a loud feminine voice from somewhere else in the house.
Lindsey raised her hand to pause Shelley and then called out, “In the kitchen.”
Thinking it could very well be a while, Shelley pulled out one of the stools from under the kitchen counter on her side and sat down. Moments later, it was Megan who strolled in.
“Oh, hi Shel,” she greeted the woman with a bit of surprise in her voice, before turning back to her mother. “Mom, have you seen Dad’s old dry erase board? It wasn’t out in the garage and Sarah wants to use it when she gets everyone back together.”
Lindsey furrowed her brow and thought for a moment. “Did you check Connie’s room? I think she and her friend, Stacy, might have been using it the other day.”
Her daughter just shook her head. “I thought of that, too, but it’s not there either.”
Shelley couldn’t help shaking her head in disbelief as she watched the two of them try to locate the missing whiteboard. With Lindsey in a pretty yellow sundress and her deep auburn hair pulled back in a cute ponytail, she and Megan honestly looked more like sisters than mother and daughter. It wasn’t fair.
“How in the world does she manage to look so good after having seven kids?” she grumbled to herself. “While I look like this after only having three,” she mused, looking down at her own still rather pudgy frame with disgust. Her youngest, Michael, wasn’t quite a year old yet and Shelley felt she wasn’t even remotely close to where she wanted to be. “I eat like a rabbit, workout like a dog and still look like a hippo,” she silently complained. “Though I should be thankful,” she admitted after a bit. “I should be able to lose some weight on this trip, at least, and since it’s not a vacation, no one will have to see me in a bathing suit!”
Suddenly noticing a lack of conversation in the kitchen, Shelley glanced up only to see Megan gone and a somewhat perturbed hostess, with hands on hips, staring back at her with those piercing blue eyes of hers. Instantly realizing she’d been busted, Shelley felt color flood her cheeks.
“Come on, Shel, we’ve been over this. You look good. You really do.”
Shelley let out a groan and laid her face down on the counter in embarrassment. “Yeah, right,” she mumbled, more to herself than anything.
“Oh, don’t you ‘yeah, right’ me, missy!”
Startled by the harsh, commanding tone, Shelley’s head shot up like a rocket. The amused smirk on her friend’s face, however, immediately let her know she’d just been had.
“You are still so easy,” the sadistic homemaker chuckled at her.
Shelley couldn’t help but smile, at least a little, as she shook her head. “You are such a twerp.”
Lindsey laughed but then grew serious. “All teasing aside, Shel, I know what you’re going through. I’ve been there myself more than once. But you really have nothing to worry about because you do look good.”
The disbelief on Shelley’s face elicited an enormous grin from her friend.
“Ever the skeptic, I see. So what part don’t you buy—that you look good or that I’ve struggled to get the baby weight off a time or two?”
“Both, I guess.”
“Shelley, what am I going to do with you?” she exclaimed with an amused sigh. “Look, are you at the weight that you want to be? No, of course not. But considering where you were six months ago, when we saw you at the youth ministry conference down in Orlando, you look terrific.”
Seeing no real response, Lindsey continued.
“Seriously, I really do know how hard it is to drop the weight after a baby. Heaven knows I gave the Goodyear blimp a run for its money after the twins. And then with Brandon coming so soon afterwards – let’s just say,” she paused, gesturing with her hands hovering out past her hips. “I was shopping in the plus sized area for quite a while.”
“So how did you lose it? I mean, it’s been almost a year since Michael was born and I still look and feel like a sack of potatoes.”
“I totally get what you’re saying but you need to take a longer, more patient view of it, my dear. Think of it this way. Your youngest is 11 months, while mine is almost thirteen years old. In other words, I’ve had a lot more time over the years to spend on my treadmill, while you’ve been more than a little preoccupied having to pick up after your four.”
Shelley was nodding her head in agreement when she caught what Lindsey had said at the end. “Four? What do you mean? You know I just have...” She stopped abruptly, having just caught the joke. “Oh, Darren’s the fourth.” She began to snicker. “Good one, Lin. You have no idea how true that is.” She quickly reassessed that comment, however, when she noticed her friend’s bemused expression and raised eyebrow.
“Or maybe you do.” Shelley chuckled as she quickly followed Lindsey’s shifting line of sight out the front door to the driveway where Sean and Darren were horsing around playing some basketball with Brandon and a few of his high school friends.
“They never really grow up, do they?” She asked, somewhat rhetorically.
The pastor’s wife just pursed her lips and shook her head as she turned to look back at her guest across the peninsula countertop.
“Anyway, with all that chasing around I do, you’d think I’d have lost more weight than I have.” Shelley laughed and then shook her head. “I’m sorry, Lin, I’m just having a hard time imagining you even remotely close to being a blimp.”
“Well, Shelley, my dear,” the redhead replied sweetly, “you’ll just have to trust me because there is no way I’m getting any of the pictures out.”
A devious thought flashed through Shelley’s brain but, judging from Lindsey’s quick response, it must have made its presence known on her face as well.
“And don’t even try asking Megan or one of the other kids, because the incriminating evidence is well hidden and my crew know better than to go looking for it,” she warned sternly.
“She’s not kidding, Shel,” Megan advised conspiratorially, as she came back into the dining area with the missing whiteboard. Lowering her voice to a faux whisper and cupping her hand to her mouth, she continued. “There used to be eight of us. But then Justin discovered the photos one day ... and, well ... let’s just say, we’ve never seen him since.”
Megan solemnly dropped her chin but then yelped rather loudly when she was struck on the bare shoulder with a soggy dishrag.
“You twit!” her mother affectionately growled. Looking back at Shelley, she explained. “Do not believe anything my daughter tells you. Justin was the name of her pet hamster when she was twelve.”
Picking up another dishrag, she mischievously glanced over at her daughter. “Don’t you have somewhere else to be?” She threatened.
“I’m going! I’m going!” the younger O’Malley exclaimed amid giggles as she proceeded to haul the rediscovered and somewhat bulky whiteboard and easel out the French doors – to the laughter of two pastors’ wives in the kitchen.
Josie caught Rennie’s attention and gave him a little wave as she walked by. He was deep in conversation with Grant, Sheriff Frohm, and a rather professional looking older woman who Sarah told her was actually the Lt. Governor of Illinois – one Wendy Capriati. Evidently, as the Governor’s new point person for the recovery effort, her permission and assistance would be crucial for Sarah’s idea to even get off the ground. Fortunately both Rennie, who responded with a delightful wink, and Grant, were the perfect ones to be making the case to her at the moment.
With a totally different errand altogether, Josie headed straight away to Marge and her crew who were still cleaning up from the lunch. Well, Marge, Henry and their son, Rance, were cleaning up. Lila, on the other hand, was busy chasing a giggling three year old around one of the tables. Well splattered from head to toe with mashed potatoes, not to mention gravy, and holding the offending serving spoon aloft like a sword, the little boy was an absolute sight.
Try as she might, Josie couldn’t help but laugh, even after the boy’s mother gave her “the look.”
“Do not encourage him!” She growled in frustration, as he eluded her yet again. With that adorable belly laugh that all small children seem to have, he was off like a shot with Lila in hot pursuit.
Taking pity on her friend, Josie squatted down on the grass and waited for him to pass back by.
“Tommy, sweetie,” she called as he drew near.
The little tyke immediately slowed up at the sound of her voice, his head swiveling until his enormous brown eyes locked in on her.
“Can I have the spoon, please?” Josie asked sweetly.
Suddenly a very shy Tommy stopped in front of her, head down but eyes up, and spoon-occupied-hand outstretched.
Gently taking the mashed potato encrusted utensil from his equally encrusted hand, Josie smiled warmly at him. “Thank you so much, Tommy!” she gushed. “That was so nice of you!”
His eyes lit up like a Christmas tree at the praise and a grin from ear to ear quickly emerged as well.