Gabe Reynolds paced the photo-lined hallway, back and forth past baby and childhood pictures of his daughter, past the door where that same daughter did whatever pre-teen girls did behind closed doors. Considering the amount of time he spent coaxing her out of there these days, he figured he’d wear a path in the finish of the hardwood floor by the time his only child was grown and gone—something he intended to delay as long as possible.
He finally stopped and banged on the bathroom door. “Hurry up, Chels. You’ll be late.”
His dear, sweet daughter growled at him. Growled.
With a badge on his chest and weapon at his hip, he should be prepared to deal with anything. But give him a drunk or a thief any day over this soon-to-be-teenaged-girl business.
He pounded the door again. “I’ve gotta get back to the station. What are you doing in there?”
“For the thousandth time, I’m coming.”
He knew without a doubt that she was in there rolling her eyes at him. “What’s taking so long?”
“A work of art takes time,” she said in her best theatrical voice. Then she giggled, more like her normal, little girl self.
This switching from girl to young woman then back to girl in the blink of an eye was making his head spin. “You better not be putting on makeup.”
“I’m a teenager. All my friends wear makeup.”
“You’re not thirteen yet. And if all your friends jumped off—”
She yanked the door open so fast it banged into the wall. She glared at him. “No. If all my friends jumped off a bridge, I would not jump, too. This is totally different, and you know it.”
Her cheeks glowed with a too-bright pink that matched her tinted lips. Her mascaraed eyelashes, clumped into several uneven spikes, seemed a mile longer than usual. She looked grown-up. Too grown-up—the kind that would attract the attention of guys. “All I know is I forbade you to wear makeup and…and...” He jabbed his finger at the pile of containers on the bathroom counter. “That looks an awful lot like makeup. Where’d you get it?”
She huffed and tossed her dark curls over her shoulder. “I bought it with my allowance. And I’m learning to put it on so it accentuates my best features.”
She was accentuated all right. And sounded like she was spouting something she’d seen on an infomercial. He squinted as he checked out her face, so much like her mother’s it made it hard to look sometimes. And even though he had the urge to drop the subject and run the other direction, it was his job to deal with this kind of situation now. “You’ve got on lipstick. Wipe it off.”
“I want to look nice for our youth group meeting at the church tonight.”
She shrugged. “No reason.” She fingered a small picture frame on the counter, then quickly placed it face down before he could see whose photo it held. “Now, please let me finish. I’ll be out in five minutes.”
A boy. It had to be because of a boy. “Who is he?”
“The boy. The one you’re putting makeup on for.”
She rubbed a finger with brown sparkly goop over her eyelid. “No one. I’m doing it for myself.”
“Hand it over.”
She sighed and slapped a little compact into his hand. “There, are you happy? No more eye shadow.”
“No. Hand over the photo. Of the boy.” He reached toward the picture frame.
“No!” She stopped him by grabbing hold of his hand. She looked terrified.
Which terrified him. If the guy was some high school punk, Gabe would be out the door and into the squad car in five seconds flat.
He shook Chelsea’s hand off and grabbed the gold frame. But he didn’t find some guy. All the frustration and fear whooshed out of him along with his breath when he found his wife. His sweet, beautiful wife.
Once he recovered his equilibrium, he said, “Chels, why do you have your mom’s picture in here?”
She gave a little shrug, this time not so rebellious. “I told you. I’m learning to put on makeup.”
Pain steamrolled him flat to the floor as he remembered Chelsea watching her mom put on lipstick on Sunday mornings before church and often asking if she could have some. Tina would smile, kiss a pink lip print on Chelsea’s cheek and promise to show her when she got older.
Now here their daughter was, studying Tina’s face, learning to apply lipstick by herself. Gabe ached for Chels. Ached period.
It had been five years since the accident, and just when he was making headway and felt like he might finally be able to breathe again, this had to happen.
“Please, Dad?” She took the frame from his hand and held the photo up beside her face. “See? I tried to do just what she did.”
He wanted to hug her. To protect her from any more pain in her young life. She needed her mom, especially for moments like this. But no, all she had was a cop dad who didn’t have a guess at how to handle his daughter growing up. He swallowed, then cleared his throat. “I’m sorry. But you’re just not old enough. You’ll have to wash that stuff off your face.”
She heaved a sigh that seemed to start at her toenails. “Okay.” She stared at the photo for a second. “Do I look pretty?” She’d said it so softly he wasn’t sure he heard her right. But then she turned to him and waited, looking everywhere but directly at him.
Oh, boy. “Well, now, I guess you better let me get a good look at you.”
She smiled shyly as she looked up, but then the smile went crooked as she gnawed on her lip. He had a feeling she wasn’t quite as comfortable being in makeup as she thought she would be.
“You look beautiful. Always.”
“I do look a little like Mom, don’t I?”
He breathed in through his nose, then forced a smile. “Even prettier.”
“Thanks.” She threw her arms around his waist, and for a split second, all was as it should be. Or at least it was back to the norm of the last few years. It would never again be as it should be.
He gave her a quick pat on the back before stepping away.
A horn honked outside. Chelsea’s ride to church.
“Hurry. You know Gary and Audra have other kids to pick up.”
“Go tell ‘em I’ve got to wash my face and to wait up.”
“Okay. Hey, I’m making your favorite dinner this evening. Tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.”
She splashed water on her face. “Daaad. You know we eat at church. And I guess I forgot to tell you a bunch of us are hanging out tonight after the meeting.”
All he could do was groan as he walked away. Why couldn’t everything just stay simple? Go to work. Come home. Eat dinner. Watch a little TV. Go to bed… But Chelsea had insisted on staying involved in the church.
The youth counselors had been kind to offer to drive her every week. Of course, they volunteered for everything at the church while he, on the other hand, didn’t even make it to Sunday morning worship on the rare Sundays he was off.
The services didn’t feel right with that empty seat beside him.
When he stepped outside, the hot, humid air slapped him in the face. Another stifling July evening in Corinthia, Georgia, that made him long for winter. A blue Ford sat in his driveway with the engine running. It looked like the one that belonged to his next-door neighbor, Faith Hagin.
She rolled down her window and waved. “I’m filling in for Audra and Gary tonight.”
“She’ll just be a minute,” he hollered.
Faith had bought the local coffee shop and moved to town about a year ago. Though she tended to keep to herself, he’d gotten to know her a little as they worked in their yards and through his daily visits to her café for coffee and homemade pastries. They mainly talked about work, but he’d found out bits and pieces about her family.
He’d learned she was divorced and had a teenage son. For some reason—and Gabe hadn’t pried—the boy lived with his dad. Gabe hadn’t pushed Faith on the topic as they’d gradually formed a sort-of friendship. He figured it wasn’t his business. But if she was going to be helping with the church youth…
Chelsea barreled outside. As she spotted the car, she came to a stop. “Is that Faith?”
“Yes. Looks like she’s driving tonight.”
“Cool.” Chelsea went around to the passenger side of the car as Gabe ambled to Faith’s open window. Air conditioning blasted him in the face.
“I’ll bring her home by nine,” she said.
“Why so late?”
Chelsea rolled her eyes and shook her head, exasperated. “I told you. We’re hanging out.”
He wasn’t positive, but it looked as if Chelsea had reapplied the pink lipstick. He squinted, trying to see better, while worrying about her “hanging out” with a group that included high school aged youth. Ignoring the possible makeup infraction for the moment, he asked Faith, “Where are they hanging out?”
Faith gave him a sympathetic smile and he once again wondered about her relationship with her son. It seemed she understood his worry. “At the café tonight for some decaf and live music.”
He’d heard her coffee shop was turning into a regular teen hangout. But Chelsea, too? “As long as you’re there with them...”
“Of course.” She pointed at the seatbelt to remind Chelsea to buckle. “She’ll be fine.”
“Thanks.” He leaned inside the window and couldn’t help but notice how good it smelled inside. He filled his lungs and wondered if his daughter was wearing perfume. But he hadn’t smelled it in the house.
He glanced at Faith, and for the first time wondered if she wore makeup. He couldn’t really tell for sure. She was a natural beauty, with light brown hair she pulled into a ponytail and gorgeous greenish-blue eyes. He’d never noticed her wearing that particular flowery fragrance.
She shifted the car into reverse. “You know, if you’re worried about her, I hear they’re always looking for more volunteers to help with the youth.”
Why did someone bring that up every single week? It was all he could manage to drop off Chelsea on Sunday mornings.
Time for a subject change. “New perfume?”
She seemed surprised, but then she raised her eyebrows as if impressed. “Ah, so you’re a master of avoidance.”
His sweet daughter snorted a laugh. “Yep. Avoiding me growing up.”
He snapped his mouth closed on his automatic rebuttal and decided he wasn’t going to get drawn into that trap. Though, surely Faith would see his view on the subject. “See you at nine.” As he patted the car door to let them leave, Chels smiled at Faith, and a sheen of forbidden gloss on her pink lips flickered in the evening sun.
They honked and waved. As they drove away, toward the church, he realized just how empty his world was whenever Chelsea left. Eventually, he’d have to “get a life” as Chels always told him. But for now, he had to focus on her—and on figuring out how in the world she had managed to pull one over on him yet again.
Faith wasn’t sure how the youth counselors, Gary and Audra, had roped her into driving the group of kids. She planned to help this once, then get back to service more in line with her gifts—cooking, cleaning, volunteering in the church office…
After picking up the last child who needed a ride to the Sunday evening youth group meeting, Faith observed the four middle schoolers in her vehicle, the two girls giggling and the two boys jostling each other around. Her son Ben had moved to live with his dad five years ago, during seventh grade. Watching the seventh and eighth graders interact made her ache for what she’d missed. Of course, Ben hadn’t been in a good place in seventh grade. He’d hooked up with a bad crowd and hadn’t taken part in the joyful laughter and harmless teasing this bunch of kids enjoyed.
Like the oppressive humid air, guilt settled over her, pressing her into the contours of the car seat, making it difficult to breathe…reminding her what a failure she’d been.
She forced air into her lungs and tried not to think of the past. Ben was doing great now, and that’s what mattered.
“We’re here.” Faith dropped the noisy middle school youth at the back of the church where they found the others outside throwing a fluorescent green Frisbee. “I’ll see you for coffee later.”
“Thanks!” they called as they piled out of her SUV.
Her pastor, Phil, flagged her down as he pulled a cloth hanky out of his pocket and swiped it across his brow and into his graying temples. “As you may have heard, Audra and Gary are moving, so I could really use your help with the youth.”
Teens dealing with peer pressure, sex, drugs. Dealing with crises of faith. Asking my advice…
It pained her to tell anyone no when they needed her. Especially Phil, who had been kind and tried to make her feel welcome from the day she moved to town. But as much as she loved kids and would like to help, there was no way she was prepared for a youth leadership position. If Phil knew her track record with Ben, he probably wouldn’t even ask.
Besides, her work schedule wouldn’t permit it. “Phil, you know I’d do anything—clean the church, produce the bulletin, cook the meals. But with my café to run I can’t make such a big weekly commitment.”
“Think about it. They’d really like you.”
“I’m sure I’d love them. But this summer is crazy enough with getting ready for Ben’s visit.”
“Maybe in the fall.” He waved as he headed toward the air-conditioned building. “Hey, I look forward to meeting Ben.”
Yes, Ben. Her number one priority continued to be her relationship with her son. Soon to be a senior, he would graduate and move off to college before she knew it. Since he lived forty-five minutes away with his dad—and lived and breathed baseball year-round—time with him was scarce. He’d be coming soon to stay for two week. She couldn’t wait, especially since he’d cancelled his visit the previous summer. After having to settle for quick trips to ballgames or at his dad’s house for the past year, she looked forward to uninterrupted time together and wanted it to be perfect.
First on her to-do list was to train Natalie to run the café while Faith was on vacation with her son so she could give him undivided attention.
It was her last chance to heal their relationship.
“I need a life,” Chelsea said later that night as Faith drove toward home, the last orange and pink rays of the sunset fading on the horizon.
Join the club, she almost said without thinking. Thirty-four years old, divorced half a lifetime ago from a man who chose the partying college life over his wife and new baby, with a nearly-grown son who acted like she didn’t exist. Yes, she also needed a life. “Give your dad a break. He’s used to the little girl who depended on him for everything.”
She sighed and looked at Faith with twinkling brown eyes—more like milk chocolate than the dark chocolate of her father’s. “I had so much fun tonight. Why can’t he let me hang out with my friends more often?”
“You’re twelve, not sixteen. Be patient.”
With arms crossed and head shaking, Chelsea tsked, sounding and looking like an adult. “Twelve is old enough to spend the night at my best friend’s house. He won’t even let me do that. And he caught me putting on makeup today and made me wash it off.”
“You’re beautiful without it.” Just like her mother had been. Faith had seen the photos in Gabe’s living room.
It had to be tough for a girl Chelsea’s age to go through so many life changes without a mom around. Though Faith’s dad deserted them when she was about the same age, at least she’d had her mom during that transitional time.
“Well, I like wearing makeup. And it’s going to be a constant battle. Unless…”
She cut a glance in Chelsea’s direction. “Unless what?”
“Unless you help me.”
Oh, boy. Even though she and Gabe had formed a bit of a friendship over coffee, he’d always been private where family matters were concerned. He would not want her butting in. “I’m sure he’s doing what’s best for you.”
“I don’t think he’d be so stubborn if my mom were here. So maybe if you could sweet-talk him about the makeup…and about letting me hang out at the café…” She turned and pretty much begged with her big brown eyes.
Faith shouldn’t get involved. She had her own family mess to deal with and might cause a bigger one with Gabe’s family.
But poor Chelsea. It did sound like Gabe was being overly protective. And she knew personally how that could backfire. He could certainly stand to give Chelsea a little bit of freedom. “If I get the chance, I’ll see what I can do.”
Chelsea squeezed Faith’s arm and squealed. “Thank you!”
Of course, Faith had heard the stories of how Chelsea nearly died in the auto accident that killed her mother. She’d spent months in the hospital and rehab. Faith would probably be protective, too, in that situation.
Just thinking about it brought back memories of worrying about her son when he moved two hours away from her former home in Augusta to live with his dad and stepmom in Atlanta. Will they love him as much as I do? Will they discipline him like he needs? Will they protect him?
What utter helplessness…and rejection. Pain she never wanted to feel again.
When she and Chelsea arrived at the house, Gabe stood on his front porch with his arms crossed in front of him. “You’re late.”
“I’m sorry.” Faith’s watch showed a mere ten minutes after nine. “Had to get the café ready for the morning.”
“Understandable. But Chels, you should have called.”
“I would’ve if I weren’t the only person on earth without a cell phone.” She smirked at him and, judging by his scowl, it was not a good thing to do at the moment.
“The café has a land line. Now go on in and get ready for bed.”
“Man, I was just teasing.” With all the earlier joy wiped off her face, she stomped inside and slung the door shut with a bang.
Let it go, Faith. Don’t butt in.
But she’d promised Chelsea. “Gabe, may I offer a suggestion?”
She couldn’t read his expression as he recrossed his arms. For a second, she thought he would refuse.
“I guess,” he said instead.
He didn’t exactly look receptive, but she plowed ahead anyway. “Lots of kids Chelsea’s age are allowed to do things with their friends. Could you maybe consider giving her a little wiggle room?”
“If you give an inch…”
“She’s a good girl.”
“And she’s also strong willed.”
Faith knew a whole lot about strong willed children. She’d tried to raise one and had struggled the whole time. “You can’t be too hard on Chelsea or she might rebel.”
Memories of Ben storming out of the house—and stumbling back in—brought a wave of nausea. Who was she, a total failure at motherhood, to give advice?
He stared into her eyes as if he was thinking it over. But then the staring went on just a moment too long, and she felt like she was being examined. Could he see through to the real Faith Hagin?
She tightened her ponytail as the chirping of the cicadas crescendoed in the otherwise silent night. She shoved her hands into the back pockets of her jeans to keep from fidgeting. “What?”
“I’m just trying to figure out if you wear makeup?”
Makeup? “I, uh, don’t usually wear makeup. It’s too much trouble when I have to go to work so early. But I did put on a little for church this morning.”
He stepped closer, gently took hold of her chin and tilted her face up so he could see better in the porch light. But his touch didn’t linger and he acted surprised to have done it.
She backed up a step. “I could teach Chelsea how to apply basic cosmetics—enough to appease her.” Faith’s face blazed with heat, especially where he’d touched her.
His dark brown eyes bore into hers, as if he still held her under a microscope. A searing blush crept to her chest and seemed to squeeze her heart.
He finally blinked and stepped back toward the door. “You’re a natural beauty. I don’t see much difference between most days and Sunday.”
His matter-of-fact declaration made her heart skip a beat or two.
Before she could put two coherent words together, he shook his head. “Thanks for the offer, but no. I’m not going to give on the makeup issue.”
Scattered thoughts—he thinks I’m a natural beauty?—ricocheted around in her head. But she managed to refocus on Chelsea. “She’s almost a teenager, Gabe. You’ll have to start letting go eventually.”
He straightened up into his big, bad Chief of Police stance. “She’s my daughter. I know what’s best for her.”
And she’d thought she’d known what was best for her son. She’d been very protective of him, too. Trying to make sure he didn’t go down the drinking and partying path his dad had gone down many years before. But her controlling had pushed Ben in the opposite direction.
For some reason, she needed to make Gabe understand. “Yes, you do know what’s best. But sometimes, knowing best doesn’t matter. If we smother them and don’t give them room to become independent, we set them up to make bad decisions.”
He studied her through squinted eyes, this time with suspicion. “You sound like you speak from experience.”
“Yeah. I’d been left by my dad and my husband and thought if I worked hard enough I could hang on to my son. But it pushed him right into a group of friends who were an awful influence.”
She snapped her mouth shut before she revealed more. The townspeople knew Ben lived with his dad and that he was too busy with sports to come visit. But she’d never shared with anyone the details of her son’s problems in middle school, about his begging to live with his dad in Atlanta—about how he thrived once he moved there. When she moved to Corinthia a year ago to be closer to Ben, it was also to get away from the years of strange looks from former friends, to get away from the sideways glances. What’s wrong with Faith that her son did so poorly in her care, then had a complete turnaround when he got away from her?
“I’m sorry, Faith. I didn’t realize all you’ve been through, “ he said. “I’ll keep your advice in mind.”
She’d promised Chelsea she’d try to talk to him and she had. Duty fulfilled. “Okay, then. Good night.” She hurried down the porch stairs and along the front walk. By the time she reached the grass between their houses, she heard footsteps behind her.
“Hold up a second, Faith.” When Gabe reached her, he shoved his hands into his pockets. “Look, I’m sorry. I appreciate your offer to help. I do. But…” He looked at his feet. At the sky. At her house. “I know you’re right about Chelsea. In my head, I know it. But in here…” He thumped a fist on his chest. “…I can’t go there yet.”
Her heart ached at the look of pain on his face. “Children can do that to the best of us.”
“Yeah.” He rocked back on his heels. “I guess I actually could use your help. Some female guidance for Chelsea since she’s been pushing for independence. I’ve got to do something. I can’t let her…” His voice hitched.
Why, Lord? Why get me involved in this? She wished she could simply tell him good luck and turn away. But as if God Himself were forcing the words out of her mouth, she said, “What can I do?”
The breath huffed out of him and his tense expression eased. He laughed. “I have no idea.”
His smile ravaged her already-tender nerves. She’d always thought he was handsome. Especially when in uniform. But seeing him in angst over his young daughter sent his attractiveness to a whole new level.
“Well, I can tell you she was glowing with happiness after hanging out at the café tonight. Anything you can do to let her spend more time with friends will go a long way.”
He crossed his arms as he digested that bit of information. “Have the kids her age been coming to the café this summer?”
“Can Chels hang out with you one day this week?”
Oh, I don’t think so was pushing at the edge of her lips. But the earnest look on his face snapped her lips tightly closed. Instead, she uttered, “Of course. How about tomorrow?”
The strong, rugged man smiled, his nearly-black eyes beaming in the moonlight. He took hold of both her hands and gave a quick squeeze. “I appreciate your help.”
What on earth was she doing? She should run the other direction. She didn’t have any business taking a middle school girl under her wing. Chelsea was right about the age Ben had been when he started rebelling. Her kid with all A’s had done an about-face and had started on the slippery slope toward becoming a juvenile delinquent. And by the time Faith realized what was happening, she’d been too late to stop it.
What if Faith failed with Chelsea, too? What if her advice to Gabe backfired?
“I’ll bring her by during my lunch break tomorrow,” he said. “If that’s okay with you.”
“Sure. Any time.”
“Good night, Faith.”
His warm, deep voice brushed along her nerves, almost like a brush of his hand, soothing her.
He was a kind man. A good father. A strong leader in the community.
But he was hurting. Probably still grieving. Struggling with a strong willed daughter.
Okay, so it looked as if God may have put Faith in a position to help father and daughter. She would do what she could. But she better not fail this time.