Excerpt

* * *

After tucking her boys in, Bonnie headed toward the kitchen to make herself a cup of tea to sip in the tub. As she turned to the pantry, she heard a soft tapping at the kitchen door and froze.

Bonnie turned toward the door slowly, half dreading what she might see, yet hoping against hope that somehow Jeff might have reconsidered his decision and come to see her again. Nothing could have prepared her, however, for seeing Anna Lee Adkinson looking at her through her kitchen door window. After a moment’s hesitation, Bonnie walked over and unlocked the door.

“Guess I’m probably about the last person you ever expected to see at your door,” Anna Lee said with an ironic smile.

Bonnie ignored the comment, but remarked to herself that perhaps Anna Lee was not so shy after all.

“Please, come in. I’m just about to have some tea. Would you care for some?”

“Sure, that sounds great.”

Anna Lee sat down at the kitchen table and waited for Bonnie to finish preparing their tea. Dress for church on Sunday evenings was always casual, but the sweatshirt Anna Lee wore over her jeans did little for her figure. Bonnie recognized her running shoes as one of the more expensive brands, but they weren’t very new or clean. Anna Lee just didn’t seem to care much about her appearance. Her glossy auburn hair, which was beautiful despite its relatively neglected state, hung to just below her waist; she alternately wrapped and unwrapped a long strand around her forefinger as she slouched in her chair. Bonnie set two steaming mugs of tea on the table, sat opposite Anna Lee, and waited to find out what had brought Clara’s daughter to see her.

Holding her mug with both hands, breathing in the fragrant aroma of chamomile, Anna Lee looked thoughtful for a moment and then began:

“I didn’t get a chance to talk to you at Jenny’s tonight, but I did want to talk to you. Guess you’re wondering why.”

Bonnie acknowledged this truth with a nod.

“I know you realize that I have no control over what my mother does.”

Bonnie sighed and looked into her teacup.

“I just wanted you to know how very sorry I am that you had to get caught in the middle of all of this.”

Bonnie looked up, her eyes searching Anna Lee’s face.

“All of what? What’s going on?”

 

* * *

 

“But isn’t there anything you can say to her that would convince her to give up her crusade to marry you off to Dr. Wells?” Bonnie asked. “Have you tried telling her that you’re not interested in him?”

At this, Anna Lee’s face clouded. She said nothing at first, but just looked intently into her mug. She took another sip of tea, as if buying herself time.

Then, almost in a whisper, she said, “I almost got married once. A long time ago. Someone I met in college.”

Bonnie watched Anna Lee, fascinated.

“I brought him home to meet Mom over spring break in our senior year. He was going to enter the seminary in the fall. He wanted to be a minister of music.”

Anna Lee set her mug on the table and looked at Bonnie, fire in her eyes.

“Well, Mom had a fit. She said there was no way she was going to let her daughter throw herself away on some preacher so she could be poor as a church mouse. No pun intended, I’m sure.” She smiled a sardonic little smile.

“Your mom’s kind of fixated on money, huh? Did your dad not leave you guys much when he died?”

Bonnie really didn’t think this could be the case, given the model of car Clara drove and the size of the house they lived in across the street from Jeff Wells.

“Died?” Anna Lee looked at Bonnie incredulously. “My dad isn’t dead! He lives in Jacksonville, Florida. Where’d you get the idea that he was dead?”

“I...I don’t know,” Bonnie stammered. “I guess I…I just assumed that your mother was a widow. Like her friend, Mertis.”

It struck Bonnie that she, too, had been guilty of drawing hasty conclusions. Now that she thought about it, she realized that she couldn’t recall ever speaking with anyone on the subject. She had simply assumed Clara was a widow because most of the women in the Senior Adult group were widows.

“Oh, no, Mom and Dad have been divorced since I was about nine or ten. He was a sales rep for a textbook publisher before he retired. One Monday morning he left to visit campuses in northern Florida. He called to check in every night that week, just as he always had, and then on Friday evening, he called to say that he wasn’t coming back. Mom was furious, of course, but I have to say, it was hard to blame him. Even as young as I was, I could see she led him a dog’s life. He married a woman he met in Jacksonville about two years after the divorce was final. Her name is Shirley—she was one of the math professors he sold textbooks to. They’ve been happily married going on fourteen years. I don’t get to see him as much as I’d like to, but I’m happy for him.”

Anna Lee drank the last of her tea and set her empty cup on the table.

“The problem was, Mom was the one who had money. I don’t know all of the details, of course, but she apparently had to settle quite a large sum on him when they split up. She’s very bitter and doesn’t believe that he ever loved her. She thinks he was always after her money, which is kind of irrational—they were married over twenty years. They were married twelve years before she finally had me.”

Then, after a thoughtful pause, she continued, “Still, if people thought she was a widow, I can see where she wouldn’t go out of her way to set them straight. She’s never forgiven Dad for making her a divorcee.

“Well, anyway, as soon as I was old enough to date, she tried to instill in me the importance of finding a man whose family had money so he wouldn’t be after mine.” Anna Lee rolled her eyes at the memory. “It was such a relief to go away to college and not have to have her pass judgment on every guy who asked me out. Because, believe me, there weren’t that many to begin with.”

She paused and bit her lip pensively, then continued softly: “Then, I met this guy, and we fell in love. It wasn’t love at first sight or anything like that. We were good friends at first. For a couple of years, actually. We met at the Baptist Student Union on campus. We both played guitar and sang, although he was much better than I was. We began to sing duets together at BSU events and local churches and for weddings. We just got along great—and we were really in demand. We were pulling in some pretty good money for a couple of college students. Then, one night...”

Anna Lee’s face was transformed. She was in a place and time long left behind, but obviously not forgotten.

“One Friday night, he’d driven me back to my dorm after we’d sung together at a wedding. I turned to say goodnight, as usual, and it was like BOOM! We looked at each other like it was the first time we’d ever seen each other. He kissed me, and we both wondered how we’d missed each other before.”

There was amazement in her eyes at her memory of the moment.

“Oh, Bonnie, if you could’ve known him. He was so wonderful. Such a strong Christian. And he was gorgeous. All the girls in the BSU were half crazy over him. Why he liked someone like me, I’ll never know. But after that kiss, there was some serious chemistry between us!” Her eyes were far away, remembering.

“Don’t sell yourself short,” Bonnie murmured.

“Well, looks didn’t cut any mustard with my mother. Nor did the fact that he was a sweet, wonderful, Christian man. Her daughter wasn’t going to marry a poor seminary student wanting to be a poor preacher, and that was that.”

“Kind of ironic that now she’s moving heaven and earth to get you to marry a preacher, isn’t it?”

Anna Lee laughed derisively. “Yeah, only this preacher’s got bucks.” She paused, playing with a strand of her long, auburn hair. “And I guess—Oh, I don’t know! My mother has always been so intimidating!”

Bonnie could vouch for that.

“She had me doubting my own judgment. She said that college romances wouldn’t last because we lived in a make-believe world, that I wouldn’t know what real love was until I’d lived in the real world, whatever that means.”

Tears streamed down Anna Lee’s cheeks now. The words tumbled out of her, as if she had wanted to tell this story to someone for a long time.

“She asked me how I could be so sure about being in love when I’d never dated anyone else seriously before. She kept reminding me about my dad leaving her and getting all that money from her. I mean, Mark didn’t even know our family has money. I knew he liked me just for me, but somehow, I let her talk me into breaking off our engagement, anyway.”

Bonnie was stricken for the young Miss Adkinson, defenseless against her mother’s intimidation tactics.

“Mark was his name?”

“Yeah,” she whispered. She looked at Bonnie, gratitude in her eyes, as if it meant a lot to her that Bonnie understood her side of the story. “So, if you ask me why I haven’t told my mother that I’m not interested in Jeff Wells, I guess I’d have to say, experience has taught me she hasn’t always been too concerned about what my preferences were.”

“Oh, Anna Lee!”

“Those last two months of school were awful. I’m lucky I graduated. I was so depressed, I could hardly study anymore. I had to quit going to the BSU so I wouldn’t see him. People couldn’t understand why we weren’t available to sing together anymore, but no one really knew that we’d been seeing each other, you know, dating each other.”

She plucked a paper napkin from the holder in the center of the table and wiped her eyes and blew her nose. She began again with a sigh: “After we graduated, he went home to Nashville and I came home to be a teacher.” Through her tears, she smiled enigmatically. “I guess in a lot of ways, I’ve never really gotten over him. I’ve never felt even remotely the same about anyone since Mark.”

“Did you ever hear from him again over the years?”

“Not from him,” she answered slowly. “I don’t think he ever was able to forgive me for breaking up with him. Can’t say that I blame him. But I’ve certainly heard of him. Instead of going into church work, he got involved in a Christian singing group that became very popular, and then he went out on his own. Joke’s on my mom, I guess, ’cause now he’s pulling down some seriously big money. He’s probably worth several million by now.” She paused and looked at Bonnie. “Maybe you’ve heard of him. His name is Mark Miller.”

Bonnie was thunderstruck.

“You were engaged to Mark Miller?”

He was only one of the most popular contemporary Christian singers in the country. In fact, he had a crossover hit, a re-make of the seventies rock anthem, “Spirit in the Sky,” on the Top 40, Country, and Christian radio stations right now. Bonnie knew that he even had a couple of Grammy awards to his credit.

“Believe it or not,” she answered, resignation in her voice. “Not that anyone knows about it but Mark, my mother, and me. I doubt seriously that he told anyone that a mousy little girl like me turned him down.”

It pained Bonnie to hear Anna Lee talk that way about herself. Anna Lee looked at Bonnie through tear-swollen eyes.

“Even though your husband died,” Anna Lee began again slowly, “you were lucky to have married the man you loved and known happiness with him. I hope you never have to go through falling in love with someone you’ll never be together with. I hope you never have the pain of feeling there’s someone you’ll never be over.”

As Bonnie thought once again about the kiss she and Jeff had shared Friday night and felt again the sinking sensation in her stomach she’d had when Jeff had told her he didn’t want to see her anymore, she fervently hoped so, too.