“I need to talk to Jake’s attorney and probably the kid’s family, too,” Alex said. “Wait for me outside. I’ll buy dinner.”
Tina hesitated. She’d hoped they could leave before Jake came out of the courthouse. As if reading her mind, Alex pleaded, “You at least have to give him a chance to talk to you. I know you’ve been through a lot, but I also know you love him and he loves you. You can’t give up until you’ve talked to him.”
She lifted her hand in a gesture of grudging assent and turned to leave. There, waiting by the door, wearing matching smiles, stood Poppy and Kate. She hurried over to them and as soon as they were out in the marble hallway they embraced.
“Group hug,” Austin giggled and wormed his way into the midst of the three-way huddle. “I just came inside to go to the bathroom and there you were!”
“You’re still a rascal, aren’t you boy?” Poppy released the two women and picked up Austin, throwing him over his shoulder, head first, like a sack of oats. He carried the child as the three of them walked out into the warm sunshine.
“How do you do, Ma’am,” he said, extending his free hand to Gloria. “This grandson of yours is quite a boy, Mrs. Stoner. I’m Poppy VanderLeiden, and this is my wife, Kate. I understand you know our Christina.” He set Austin on his feet.
“I am delighted to meet you at last,” she said, shaking first Poppy’s hand and then Kate’s, “and please call me Gloria. Yes, Austin is a handful. Thank you for taking such good care of him.”
“This can be none other than Austin’s mama,” Kate said, as Laura stepped down from the minivan after nursing the baby, “and she has her hands full, too.” She held out her arms to the kicking and crowing Ariel. “Your children are beautiful, my dear. They look just like you.”
Laura smiled gratefully and finished buttoning her blouse before shaking hands with Poppy and Kate. “She is growing so fast I can hardly hang on to her when she sees someone who might play with her,” she said. “Thank you for taking care of our son. He did a very foolish and naughty thing, and he’s just lucky it turned out well.”
She turned her head as Gloria ‘ahemmed’ loudly. “Oh, I know, Mom. Not lucky, blessed. We prayed for him, and then we found out he was safely at your house,” she explained to Poppy and Kate. “I guess you could say you were an answer to our prayers.”
Tina stood watching, wondering at all the goodwill flying around like gnats at a picnic.
“I believe I need a cup of tea and maybe a little something sweet.” Kate said. “Shall we all go?” Without waiting for an answer, she said “Christina, why don’t you wait for the men and then you all can join us at Debbie’s Diner down the street, just off the square.”
Austin and Allison chimed in, demanding ice cream.
“Ice cream sounds good to me, too, especially if they have hot fudge sauce to pour over it.” Kate said. She handed the baby to Laura and, grabbing a child in each hand, started walking toward the restaurant. Poppy and Gloria followed.
“You go on ahead,” Laura called after them. “Save a place for me.” She smiled at Tina. “Let’s sit on this park bench and have us a little confab, okay?”
She couldn’t think of a good way out of it, so she sat down. As Laura moved to sit next to her, Ariel opened chubby pink baby arms. Tina couldn’t resist reaching out to take her.
While Laura talked, Ariel lifted her hand to Tina’s hair, apparently fascinated with the way it slipped through her fingers.
“You’re a little flirt, yes you are, ha-BOO, ha-BOO!” She shook her hair and Ariel threw herself back in a chortle Tina could feel bubbling up from the little girl’s tummy.
“I hope you don’t mind,” Laura started to say, but went back to what she had been talking about when she saw Tina making kissing sounds at the baby.
“You’re a natural, Tina,” Laura said, and went on, blithely unaware of the hollow ache in the pit of Tina’s stomach. “I want to talk to you about Tuesday night.”
She continued to play with the baby. “What about it?”
“Please forgive me?”
“For what? I would have been a whole lot meaner than you were if I had a little boy like Austin and some hairdresser chick showed up with him.”
“There were so many things I didn’t understand Tuesday night.”
“Forget about Tuesday night. What about today? What’s the matter with you people? Austin’s family, the very people who have been put through hell, offer to make bail for the guy who ran off with their son? What’s up with that?”
Laura nodded and smiled, leaning close to wipe the baby’s chin. “What is that perfume you’re wearing? Austin has been pestering me to wear perfume like yours.”
“I wear Red Door by Elizabeth Arden. It’s the only thing that works for me. Everything else smells like diesel fuel on me after a couple of hours.” She answered distractedly. She felt vaguely guilty that Austin talked about her to his mother.
“Austin is funny. Don’t mind him, Laura. He has a big crush on me—it’s what boys that age do—but there’s no one on earth like his mama. Nobody, believe me.” She heard herself rattling on, as she tended to do when she felt nervous. She hated it when she rattled on.
“I know. My mother told me the same thing. Say, how do you know so much about kids? Look at you here with Ariel. And Austin thinks you’re the perfect woman. You don’t have children of your own, right?”
“No.” Tina wanted to cooperate with Laura’s attempt at friendliness, she really did, but all this talk about children made her jumpy.
“You and Jake are in love, right? Well, you’re young enough so you can still have as many children as you want. I guess you’ll be raising his two from his first marriage, too. You’ll have a house full before the wedding!”
“How do you know about Jake’s kids? Or me, for that matter. And what wedding? I’m not marrying him; let’s be clear bout that!”
“Are you sure? Poppy and Kate—what fabulous people!—called us last night—that’s how we knew we needed to be here this afternoon—and explained all about why Jake freaked out when Austin—I should absolutely beat the child for what he did—when he found Austin in his truck.”
“Poppy and Kate called and spent time explaining? Now I know you’re out of your mind. Poppy’s so paranoid about the phone I have a hard time believing he called, period, never mind telling you ‘all about Jake.’ So what’s the deal here? How do you go from being ready to string me up to auditioning for the job of being my wedding planner?”
Laura smiled, dimpling prettily.
“I just know you and I could be great friends,” Laura said, “You have almost as much patience for listening to horse hockey as I do, and how are you at being catty? Shall we sit here awhile and make fun of badly dressed people?”
“So this friendly bit. It’s all…horse hockey, is that what you call it?”
“No, but I can see why you’d think so. Tuesday night? I wanted to scratch your face, spit in your hair and pour skunk oil all over you to see if Austin still thought you were a heavenly-smelling goddess.”
“That seems fairly extreme. What changed?”
“David first. He totally met God at that prayer meeting, Tina. It was amazing! And now I have a whole new husband. Well, I loved him the old way too, of course. And he loved me, but we’d drifted into being this plain old couple with kids, which can be okay, I suppose, but we were just going through the motions.”
Tina could imagine worse things than ‘being this plain old couple with kids.’
Laura went on, “Mother says that he’ll still be David and we’ll still have struggles, but he’s trying so hard to be a good husband and dad! I’ll give you an example: Like Tuesday night? He didn’t dishonor me in front of everybody or anything, but when we were back to my parents’ house he sat me on the bed and talked to me in a way he never has before. He said I’m beautiful, but my attitude was making me ugly.”
“He talked to you and now you’re fine with everything? Forgive me, but isn’t that a little simple? David found God, talked to you, and now you’re ready to be bosom buddies with the woman you wanted to pour—what, skunk oil? Skunk oil? Where were you going to get skunk oil?”
She looked at Laura whose eyes sparkled back at her and she couldn’t help it. She laughed.
They both laughed.
And the baby couldn’t contain herself. She giggled until she had to rest her head on Tina’s chest.
Laura was the first to regain her composure. “You know very well there was more than talk. We prayed together and I prayed about getting closer to God myself. You’re a Christian too, so you know I had to repent of my stinkin’ thinkin’ where you and Jake are concerned. But enough about David and me. Let’s talk about you and Jake.”
“There is no me and Jake.” At Laura’s look she confessed, “Sure, I love him. I’m crazy about him. He’s sweet and funny, and—“
“And absolutely adorable! I may be married but I’m not blind. Whooh!” She fanned her face with her hand.
“Yes, that too. But think about it. He ran away! Instead of talking to me about it, he dumped me. Laura! Listen to me: He left a wretched message on my answering machine and dumped me.”
Ariel looked up, her eyes big and solemn. Tina lowered her voice and patted the child reassuringly.
“He didn’t trust me enough to talk to me. We could have worked through this together.” She felt like crying but set her jaw and refused. She had to stay mad or she wouldn’t make it. “He didn’t respect me enough or need me enough to tell me what was really going on. I married one man who didn’t share his life with me or respect me. He excluded me from what was important to him! I don’t need to do that again! I will not do that again.” She heard the rage in her voice. “Jake has proved that’s what he’d do, too. Any woman who thinks she’ll change a man after marriage is a fool, and I won’t be a fool again now.”
“Left a phone message, huh? That was pretty lame.” Laura twirled her finger through her hair. “Poppy told us about Richard, too.”
“Poppy sure turned into a blabbermouth all of a sudden!” She bit her lip to keep from crying.
“Yeah, but I’m glad he did. Everything makes a sense when you think about it. I must say that Richard guy must have been some special kind of stupid to cheat on you, but he wasn’t a Believer, was he? And neither was Jake when he did all those dumb things you talk about. He’ll be different from now on.”
“Please! He received Jesus as his personal Savior; he didn’t have magic dust sprinkled on him. And now he’s going to be perfect?”
Tina suddenly remembered something Laura said earlier in the conversation “Wait. Didn’t your mother tell you that David will still be David and you’ll still have struggles?”
“Yes, but he’s already become much more in charge. He’s more…fatherly and a better husband. And my attitude change will help a lot, too. What about you? You’re a Christian, right? Shouldn’t you be willing to give Jake another chance? From what I hear, his first wife treated him like dirt. How would he know he could count on you to be more supportive?”
“What makes you think he even wants me anymore?”
“Now you’re being ridiculous. Even Austin, who would prefer to keep you for himself, tells everybody that Jake is crazy about you. Austin says Jake told him that you’re a “babe.”
“How much is Jake paying you to argue his case?”
“I’m not arguing his case. I’m arguing your case. You love him, and he loves you, and I think you’d be crazy to miss out on a wonderful guy because you’re hurt and ticked off.”
“Of course you are, and I don’t blame you. Tell me this: have you prayed about this? Because if God wants the two of you together—and He might, you know; Jake is going to have to raise his own kids, too—Poppy told us about how Jake’s ex is on drugs and going to jail and all—then God will give you all the help you need to make it work.”
She brought her hand to her mouth, shocked. “I’m sounding just like my mother. Horrors! But it’s the truth anyway.”
“What? I want to get back to your theory about God wanting us together, but first tell me about Jake’s ex and how in the world Poppy knows all this?”
“Jake’s attorney, working with some guy—I can’t remember his name but Austin calls him a giant—found out about it. You’ll hear the whole story when they’re finished inside.” She checked her watch. “Listen, I have to go over to the diner and help Mom with Austin and Allison. Will you keep Ariel? You can bring her over when the men come out.” Without waiting for an answer, she left.
Tina looked down at the child in her arms and thought that if she ever had a baby of her own she wouldn’t let anyone touch her, much less walk away while a relative stranger held her.
And yet she understood. In a sudden, gracious glow she sensed the presence of the Lord. Understanding washed over her: This was Laura’s way of demonstrating the mystery of fellowship, of being family. Because they both, she and Laura, were members of the Body of Christ, they were sisters, not strangers, and Laura authenticated God’s powerful love by trusting Tina with her baby.
The child in her arms also prevented her from leaving before talking to Jake. At that moment Tina loved Laura’s baby intensely.
Ariel looked up at her, smiled, and reaching up to pat Tina’s lips, softly cooed and bounced gently. She knew instinctively what the baby wanted.
“Jesus loves me, this I know,” Tina crooned, looking into trusting eyes as blue and deep as a pure mountain pool.
When she bent her head just right, she could feel the baby’s breath on her face. She stood, rocking back and forth as she sang. Slowly, reluctantly, feathery golden lashes fluttered and finally closed while Tina’s song went on.
Across the square, Denny stepped down from the Humvee. His breath caught in his throat as he observed Tina with the child, swaying back and forth in the dappled sunlight. Without taking his eyes off them he reached back into the truck and fished around under a tarp to retrieve a point-and-shoot camera that he thanked his lucky stars was still back there. He held it up to his eye and clicked until the auto-rewind told him he was out of film. He replaced it in its hiding spot, hitched up his jeans as well as he could and disappeared inside the courthouse.
Jake spotted the little tableau when he and Denny emerged five minutes later, followed by Alex, Will and David. His heart felt as if it might explode. “What I wouldn’t give for a picture of that,” he breathed.
“Tell you what. Buy me some supper and I’ll see what can be arranged,” Denny said, following his remark with his unique chuff-chuckle.
Will and David exchanged raised-eyebrow looks.
“I could stand a hamburger or something myself,” David said. “Where’s the rest of our bunch?”
Tina turned and saw them. “Everybody went to Debbie’s Diner,’ she said, nodding toward the side street. “They are waiting for you there.”
“Page, you better take your kid,” Denny said. “Jake and Tina have serious talking to do.”
Tina crossed her empty arms over herself, chilled because of the absence of the baby’s sweet warmth. She lifted her chin and looked Jake straight in the eye, fighting to hold down the great lump of pain and anger ballooning inside her. She opened her mouth to speak, but her voice failed her. Before she could try again, Jake held his arms out and despite her resolve, she permitted herself to be swallowed up in his strength.
How can I do this, she wondered. How can I push him away when I need him to comfort me in my loss of him?
His arms felt so strong and safe. All her senses reached out to embrace him. She remembered the taste of his kiss and the way he liked to hold her face between his hands when he kissed her. She lost herself in the scent of him, the sound of his heart beating, and his voice saying her name over and over again—“Tina, oh, Tina, Tina, Tina.”
When he had walked up just now, his eyes, his incredibly warm brown eyes were brimming with tears. She wanted to comfort him. She wanted him to comfort her.
The message on the answering machine. Long, lonely days of being excluded from his life. A future of wondering where he was and who he was with.
She inhaled sharply and pulled away.
“How could you? How could you just dump me with nothing but a stupid little message?” She picked up her fists, ready to beat on his chest, but he grabbed her wrists.
“I was wrong to do it that way. I’m sorry, Kitten. You’re right. The message was stupid. I was stupid. How can I make it up to you?”
“I could forgive the stupid message. That’s not even what makes me the maddest. You didn’t trust me, Jake! You ran away. You left me out and you ran away.” She pulled her wrists away and fished in her pocket for a tissue.
“You are right. I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself for that.” He stood quietly. “Oh, Tina. Is there any chance for us? Please…”
“I don’t see how. How can I commit my life to a man who runs for the hills when something goes wrong?” She knew she was right.
“Something has changed, you know. I’ve changed. I’ll never be the same. May I tell you why?”
“You ‘got Jesus in your heart.’ Austin told me. That’s not magic, you know. I’ve had Jesus in my heart for over a year and I still sin sometimes.”
“You sin? That’s hard for me to believe.” Jake smiled, then grew serious again. “What I did was indefensible. I make no excuses. I simply ask you to forgive me.” He held her face between his hands but she shook her head violently and broke free.
“Whether it is because I am a Christian now, or because I finally grew up, I am a better man now today than I was a week ago.”
When she didn’t respond, he continued, in the manner of one remembering; of understanding dawning and confusion dissipating like morning mist.
“Barbara has been messed up for a long time, more than I ever realized, but it wasn’t all her fault. I should have been more involved in their lives; maybe I could have helped Barb. I think she’s sick, maybe. For sure I should have seen that she couldn’t take care of the kids.” He shook his head to clear it.
“I love you, Tina. I want you to marry me because I love you and I want to spend the rest of my life with you. I want us to be together.”
She couldn’t look at him. She couldn’t look in his face or she might weaken. For so long she’d prayed for him to become a Believer. She hadn’t even realized how she’d longed to hear those words, “I love you; I want you to marry me.”
But he couldn’t just show up all contrite and sweet and have the last few days go away. She wished he would stop talking and leave. But he didn’t. He just kept talking in that husky voice of his.
She loved his voice.
“Even if I hadn’t messed up,” he went on, “and you said ‘yes,’ you’d be letting yourself in for heavy-duty struggles. Not only would you be marrying a screwed up truck driver who tucked his tail between his legs when the going got tough, but you’d be marrying a guy trying to raise two kids who have had their lives jerked around for two years. More than two years.”
He stood with his hands in his pockets and it seemed to Tina that he was still thinking aloud, that he was working it all out as he talked to her. She had to admit he had changed somehow. He sounded peaceful, confident. The change looked good on him.
“It won’t be easy, I know that. I’ll need more guts and good sense than I’ve shown so far,” he went on, his voice growing more resolute.
“I can do this. With God’s help, I mean. I’ve only prayed for four days so far, but I’m determined that prayer is a way of life for me from now on. I have to learn how to really tap in to God’s wisdom or I’m not going to make it.”
“But I needed you, Jake. I needed you. When I heard that message, I hurt so much I wanted you to hold me, to comfort me. To hear you say I should forget you…”
She pressed her fist into her chest where she still felt his rejection like a knife to her heart. “You didn’t even trust me enough to tell me what was going on, or need me to help you. I can’t forget that message and how much it hurt when I heard it. You left me out of your life at a critical time. We should have gone through this together.”
He turned toward her again. “Remember the message, Tina. I don’t want you to forget it. What did it say?”
“You dumped me.”
“That’s not entirely accurate. I did tell you to forget me, but you didn’t, did you? Because we belong together and you know it. You wouldn’t be so angry if you’d forgotten how good we are together. I know I said I was no good for you, but I don’t believe that was ever true.” He shoved his fingers through his hair in frustration.
“I know I’m different now,” he said after taking a deep breath. “Do you remember that I told you I had never loved anyone the way I love you? That was the absolute truth. Still is. I love you: Christina VanderLeiden Hilbert.” He paused. “Christina VanderLeiden Hilbert. I want to change your name. I want to see you singing and rocking babies. Our babies, yours and mine.” His voice broke.
“I do need you. I need your help, and not only with the kids, although I can’t bear to think of doing it without you. I need you!”
Oh, it was tempting. She could see them praying together in their own kitchen—she wanted a big heavy old table—one baby in the highchair and another growing under her heart, Joey and Annie sitting there with them, knowing they were safe and loved…
No! I can’t do it! Life never turns out the way you dream it should and people don’t stay. They don’t really change, either. If I love them too much they die or run away and I’ll be alone again.
“If I hadn’t changed, if I still ran away from a tough situation,” he said as if he read her thoughts, “would I be standing here begging you to forgive me?”
Won’t he ever quit talking talking talking?
“But I do see where you’re coming from,” he said finally, when she didn’t answer him, tears in his voice. “I’m asking you to pray about it, to ask God to give you forgiveness for me. And I’ll be praying for you, too.” He sighed. “I ache for you, Tina. I want to be part of what God does in your life to make up for all the hurt you’ve gone through, but with or without me, I pray that God will heal your broken heart.”
She sobbed, and found the tissue inadequate. Jake reached into his pocket, pulled out a white handkerchief and like an old hand at being a dad, wiped her nose and jammed the handkerchief back in his pocket.
He tried to tip her chin up but she couldn’t trust herself to meet his eyes.
He stepped back, hands at his side, and said in an even tone—she heard a last-word kind of voice, “There is one more thing I must make clear. As much as I love you and need you, I cannot do what I intend to do and should have been doing all along—taking care of Joey and Annie the way they deserve—if I have to spend all my energy pleading with you to get on board. We’d need to be a team. Partners. We need to be two operating as one, with God’s help. I know that now.”
“No more begging, Tina,” he said, standing taller. “If you are going to stay mad, it won’t work at all. The kids would sense it, I’d resent it, and we’d all end up hating each other.”
This is what it must feel like to be told to stand in the corner, she thought. Cornered. She couldn’t think. For sure she couldn’t give in. Not after all she’d been through.
It might be too late anyhow.
“You’ve made yourself quite clear.” She lifted her chin but couldn’t make herself meet his eyes. “I understand,” she said, hating how little and mean her quavery voice sounded. Finally she waved him toward the diner. “Go. Find the others. Tell Alex I’ll wait for him in the car.”
She began walking away, every step taking her farther away from him, moving her closer to the loneliness she feared most.
Jake did not follow.