Every novelist dreams of being on Oprah. Catapulted to literary stardom with one simple TV appearance. I—Claire Everett, writer of novels—am no different from the hopeful masses. I mean, I don’t really think I’ll ever have enough “twinkle, twinkle” to be a true star. Still, a girl can hope. Well, not hope, really. Hope is the evidence of faith. And I don’t really have any faith that I’m ever going to be on Oprah. I do dream about it, though.
Catty-cornered from me, Oprah sits with queenly confidence, holding a copy of my most recent novel. She peels back the cover, turns the first few pages to get past the dedication and acknowledgements—the pages we authors labor over, but only our proofreaders and best friends read. I relax for the first time, settling into the soft leather, anticipating the rush I’ll get from hearing my words flow melodiously from the lips of the Divine Miss O. My pulse and respiration rise as her mouth opens.
In that wonderful, rich voice the world has loved for the past twenty years, she begins to read. “See Dick run. See Jane run. Dick and Jane run fast.”
I suck in a lungful of air as shock rockets to my gut. “What? Wait! That’s not my book!” But the words somehow don’t make it to Oprah’s ears. No one can hear me. I’m a dream ghost. I see my body on the couch, but I’m floating above the roaring crowd. They’re laughing at me. And all I can do is sit helplessly with my jaw open, eyes wide like I’ve just opened the closet door and there’s a rat staring at me.
Oprah smirks. Oh, Lord, please wake me up! Oprah’s smirking at me. “Jane runs faster than Dick.”
“Wait! Stop it, Oprah—uh, Miss Winfrey. Please. That’s not the right book!”
Suddenly, as I look down at my body, every stitch of clothing is gone. Frantically I reach for a couch pillow. Great. Not only a bad book dream. A naked dream, too. Why can’t this be a romantic Greg dream? Wake up, Claire—you slug! What kind of a person has a bad book dream and a naked dream at the same time? I need some major identity counseling.
But the dream just goes on and on, and it’s apparent that Oprah is getting a real kick out of the whole thing. “Jane and Dick walk home.”
Cut it out, already! Suddenly I reach out and snatch the book from Oprah’s hands. My eyes go wide as I realize I just did a bad thing. Rudeness to Oprah doesn’t go over anywhere! Not even in one’s own dream. This nightmare is getting worse by the millisecond.
She frowns at me then. And because Oprah frowns, so does the audience. I think I’m in big honkin’ trouble. To be dissed by Oprah would be worse than receiving a bad review, worse than being black-balled by an elite authors group, and, yes, even worse than my book tanking in sales.
“Th-that’s not my book, Oprah.”
She points to the cover. “Your name is right there, girl.”
I look down and, just below a picture of little Jane in a red dress and Dick in pleated blue shorts, is my name. Claire Everett.
I can’t hold back a big dream groan.
“Mom?” I hear my daughter’s voice far away.
Ari? I don’t remember Ari being with me on the show.
The crowd’s laughter rises to a feverish pitch and drowns my daughter’s voice. As much as I try to keep tears at bay, they spring to my eyes and spill over, hot and fast. Oprah generously hands me a tissue. The crowd “ahs” at her kindness.
“Mom! Snap out of it.”
My eyes fly open and I push at the hands stinging my face. “Stop slapping me!” Sheesh. I sit up and glance around. As clarity settles on my sleep-fuzzed brain, a relieved sigh escapes me. My living room. My couch. I flash my gaze downward. Oh, praise the Lord. No nudity. My body is fully clad in SpongeBob SquarePants jammie bottoms, a faded old blue T-shirt, and fuzzy leopard-spotted slippers. Which, at three o’clock on a weekday afternoon is, admittedly, pathetic. But at least my book isn’t being mocked on Oprah.
Ari snatches the remote from my hand and clicks off the TV. She stands in front of the couch, obstructing my view of the now-blank screen.
“What do you think you’re doing?” I demand of my almost-seventeen-year-old daughter. “I was watching that.”
“You were not. You were sleeping. And, for the record, you were crying and groaning in your sleep.”
“I was not.”
“You were.” She shakes her head and slips me a tissue. “Why do you watch Oprah when you know it makes you have that dream?”
Wiping my eyes and nose, I purse my lips for a second. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Highly emotional dreaming always feeds my appetite. Highly emotional anything, really. I grab a half-empty box of Milk Duds from the coffee table and pop one in my mouth.
“Dick and Jane?” Ari’s smug look is reminiscent of Dream Oprah. “I heard you telling Linda about it last week.”
Linda is my best friend. Her daughter, Trish, is Ari’s best friend, so between the four of us, no secret is safe.
Still, some things should be sacred. I scowl at my daughter. “Eavesdropper,” I accuse around chewy caramel and chocolate. The phone chirps from the kitchen. I fling myself back on the couch, glad I’m about to be alone in my misery. “Go answer that. It’s probably for you anyway.”
Ari’s roll of the eyes tells me she isn’t the least bit concerned about my eavesdropping comment. “You need help.” She tosses me the remote and stomps off.
The kid has a point. I do need help. But then again, in my defense, I really don’t have a lot of reason to be optimistic as far as my career is concerned. My last book barely made a blip on the sales radar, and my publisher felt we would both be happier if I moved to another publishing house. Newsflash! They might be happier, but I’m the one sitting on my couch every day, aimlessly watching Oprah, Dr. Phil, and Ellen, trying to find some direction in my life (well, I watch Ellen purely for entertainment purposes, but the other two . . . definitely therapeutic).
To top it off, my agent dumped me, too. The little weasel. So at the moment, I’m a writer with no publisher and no agent. And all my Milk Duds are gone. I think I need pizza. Or maybe a power walk—get those better-than-happy-pills endorphins kicking in. Or—well, no . . . I definitely need pizza.
“Pick up, Mom,” Ari calls from the kitchen. “It’s Greg.”
The truly happy news in my life revolves around my boyfriend, Greg. Correction. Fiancé. Yes, I have a fiancé. Can you hear me singing? “Goin’ to the chapel . . .” I smile and snatch up the cordless from the table next to the couch.
“Hello?” I put on that sexy tone that I know drives him crazy.
“Hi,” he growls back, and my heart flips. Touché. “I have news.”
“Oh?” I stay guarded. He didn’t say whether it’s bad news or good, and that sort of ambiguity hasn’t boded well for us in the past. “What is it?”
The doorbell rings.
“Let me in and I’ll tell you.”
I gasp. Holy Toledo. My house is a wreck. I’m a mess. I’ve gained five pounds this month, plus I’m retaining water from Doritos and PMS. My vanity wars with my need to see Greg. I take a quick look in the little diamond-shaped mirror in the foyer, just above the coat rack. Fat face, no makeup, and bad hair. I think not. Vanity wins. Now, how do I get out of this gracefully?
“Greg, you can’t come in.”
“Why not? Got another guy in there?”
I laugh, low and husky. I love it when Greg flirts. “Maybe.”
“Is he better looking than I am?”
“Hmm. Not possible.”
“Tell me the truth. It’s Andy Garcia, isn’t it?”
Greg knows I have a crush on the Latino actor. “Never, baby. I only have eyes for you.”
“Then how about letting me in? Don’t you want to see me?”
Oh, be still my heart. “You know I do. But I look terrible right now. So does the house. Go down to Mom’s for an hour and I’ll call you when the coast is clear.”
Mom and Greg have been playing musical mortgages. He bought the house down the street from her when she moved to Texas, and she bought it back a year later when she got sick of the Lone Star State and my brother Charley’s whining kids. The timing was perfect, considering Greg was off to Bible school in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He won’t need it when he finishes school and comes home to marry me. His mom is deeding her Father of the Bride dream house to us as soon as we say our “I do’s.” Is it any wonder I love my soon-to-be mother-in-law?
Anyway, now my incredible fiancé is home for his weekly visit and I can’t even open the door and greet him properly. But there’s no way I’m going to let him see me looking like this. I mean, a girl has her standards. “Okay?” I say. “One hour?”
“Fine, but this is setting a bad precedent for our marriage.” Greg is pouting. I can hear it in his voice. Very cute. “Don’t you know I’ll expect you to be gorgeous and keep a perfect house all the time once we’re married if you don’t give me a dose of reality now?”
Nice try. No one can say the guy doesn’t give it his all. “No, you won’t. You’ll see the real me the morning after the wedding. After it’s too late for you to back out.”
“The morning after the wedding,” he says wickedly. “Let’s talk about that.”
Heat bursts across my cheeks. “Let’s not.”
He chuckles. “I’m headed down to your mother’s. Maybe she’ll let me in and give me food.”
“I’ll call you in an hour.”
A frustrated breath hisses through the phone line. “Hurry up, woman. I miss you.”
Amazing how those words from the right man, said in just the right tone of voice, can make a girl trip all over herself. From the wrong man . . . well, that’s another story, isn’t it?
I click off the phone and spring into action, dashing toward the stairs. Then I stop short. Darn it! There’s no way I can make both the house and myself presentable in the time frame allowed. There’s only one thing to do. Dig into the money jar.
“Kids! Ten bucks for each of you if the house is spotless in an hour!”
“I’m playing Xbox!” My eight-year-old, Jake, calls from the bedroom he shares with his twelve-year-old brother, Shawn. “I don’t want to clean.”
“I get his ten dollars!” My oldest son, Tommy. The money mogul. At not quite fifteen he has already won some cash prizes at local skate competitions. Skate. As in skateboarding. The kid’s a regular hotshot on wheels. And my prayer life has increased tenfold just to avoid the potential bone breakage.
“Get moving, guys! I have to take a shower and get ready to see Greg. I need your help. All of you!” I try to sound more authoritative and less desperate.
“You don’t clean my room for me when I have a date,” Ari pipes in.
So much for authoritative.
In no mood for arguing, I start up the steps. “What dates?” I pause for effect. “Oh, you mean the ones you used to have before you were grounded until graduation—which, according to my calculations, is about seven months away?”
Ari opens her bedroom door and stands there with a quirky grin on her face. The grin of defeated good humor. “Gee, Mom. I’d love to help clean the house.” Defeated good humor and sarcastic wit. I’m so proud. “Thanks for the opportunity to serve you. And for not taking away my dating privileges for the rest of the year. Oh, yeah. And the ten bucks.”
I reach out and pat her cheek as I pass. “Don’t mention it. You have the kitchen.”
Followed by the sound of her moan, I continue down the hall and peek into the younger boys’ room. Jake’s practically drooling over his controller, and his eyes are bugging. “Get off the Xbox, Jake.”
I glance over the pigsty and feel a little guilty that I’m making them clean the house instead of their room. Shawn, the only child yet to voice his opinion about my request/command to tidy up for Greg, is sprawled out on his bed, reading.
“Let’s go, Shawny, my boy. You and Jake go downstairs and pick up any clothes or toys that belong to you.”
He looks at me, surprise lighting his eyes. “You mean I have to clean, too?”
Okay, he’s been in one play and is currently starring in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe and he’s a diva all of a sudden? Do you call male divas, “divas”?
“What? Of course you have to help.”
The outrage on his face would be comical if I hadn’t just wasted seven and a half minutes coercing my children into doing what I told them to do. By my calculations, that leaves me fifty-two and a half minutes. I’m not in the mood to deal with this from him when I have magic to perform in order to capture the essence of my youth and vitality. All with the help of Clinique products.
“Mom, I’m studying my lines. Mr. Wells said I should know my whole part by tomorrow’s rehearsal.”
“Family stuff first—including chores. Acting second. Remember?”
Heaving a great sigh, the future Brad Pitt (minus questionable moral issues) sets his script aside and hauls himself up from the bed with a dramatic flair his acting coach and play director would be so proud of.
I glance back to Jake. Video Boy hasn’t budged. “Jake, I mean it. Do you want to be grounded from that thing?”
“I’m going.” He tosses the controller on the carpet and clumsily shoves himself up from the floor. And that’s when I notice for the first time—Jake’s sort of . . . chubby. I barely contain a gasp, but apparently my dismay shows in my expression. Jake cuts me a wary look as he passes. “I said I’m going.”
Okay, time for an intervention. With childhood obesity on the rise, I do not want my boy to be a statistic.
Lord, please give me wisdom to handle this without lowering his self-esteem or starting him on a yo-yo dieting course.
I try to shake it off for now. Will deal with that later. Healthier meals, more exercise, less TV and video games. The boy is not going to be happy. Not one bit.
Just before I turn on the shower, I hear the kids downstairs arguing over who does what. Satisfied they’re working on it, I focus my attention on preparing to meet my fiancé.
Approximately fifty minutes later and forty dollars poorer, I open the front door and there he is. My man. The true love of my life. My soon-to-be husband. I haven’t seen Greg in a week and I’m more than ready to throw myself into his arms.
He doesn’t wait for an invitation. His hand is already on the storm door and he yanks it open with John Wayneish machismo (yeah, baby!), takes one step inside, and snatches me around the waist, pulling me close. He pauses, his face so close to mine that I can feel his warm breath on my face. And by the way, I can tell by the minty-freshness that he’s recently popped a Tic Tac—what a guy.
He doesn’t disappoint me and gives me the kind of kiss you’d expect from a man in love after a whole week of separation. My toes are curling by the time he lets me go.
“Want something to drink?” I ask, trying to steady my rubbery knees. “Coffee? Coke?”
He shakes his head and follows me into the living room. “Your mom plied me with chai latte. What is it with her and that stuff?”
I grin. “Newly acquired taste.” Not to mention the newly acquired latte machine Charley bought for her. I think he’s trying to lure her back to Texas with gifts. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if he ups the ante to satellite TV and Tivo. “She likes showing off her latte machine.”
“I’ll say. I must have slugged down three mugs in the last hour.” He groans. “The woman was relentless. She wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”
I curl my fingers through his and lead him to the couch. We sit, facing each other, knees touching comfortably. “So, what’s this news?”
He swallows hard and shifts a bit. The guy’s about as nervous as a horse at the starting gate. What’s up with that? Dread begins to weave through me, because the last time he needed to have a heart-to-heart, he told me he was going to Bible school and—guess what?—he wanted to be a pastor to boot. Which, of course, means I am going to be a pastor’s wife. Something I’m not crazy about. But I’ve stopped fighting it. No, really—I came to terms with it . . . after a slight break-up, some soul-searching, and reconciliation. But it’s a shaky sort of coming to terms. I’m not sure I’m emotionally stable enough for the other shoe to drop.
I brace myself as he takes a deep breath. The kind of breath that comes right before a big announcement. “Okay, you know how we talked about going to Hawaii for our honeymoon?”
Oh, no. Lord, please don’t tell me he’s taking away my Hawaii. My beautiful, tropical tan. Making love in a bamboo hut while the moon shines through the straw roof. Oh, what a dreamer I am. “Greg . . .”
“Honey, we might need to postpone our trip.”
Deep breaths. Breathe, one . . .two . . .three . . . . Postpone is better than cancel, but still, just to be clear . . . I stare at him. “Do you mean we need to postpone the wedding and the honeymoon?”
I suppose his oh-so-winning smile is meant to reassure me. Yeah. Not so much. “No. Just the honeymoon. We can still get married when we planned.” He shifts on the cushion and sits up just a bit straighter. “Here’s the thing. One of my instructors is moving his parents to Tulsa in June, right after the end of spring term at the Bible school.”
“Okay . . . and he needs your help to move them?” This is noble. We can postpone a day or two. I can be gentle-spirited, start the marriage as a real Proverbs-Thirty-One woman.
“Um, no. Honey.” He reaches forward and tucks my hair behind my ear. I love those little intimate touches that show I belong to him.
“Could you just get to it? You’re starting to make me nervous.” I raise my eyebrow and brace myself.
“My instructor’s dad is the minister of a small-town church, and they need an interim pastor while they find someone to take Pastor Miller’s place.”
I don’t even want to know what this has to do with my honeymoon, but suddenly I see my sleek Hawaiian tan fade to bumpy white thighs. I’m thinking maybe I’ll go to the Islands alone. Maybe get my groove back. Greg’s looking a little scared.
“So what are you saying, Greg?”
“Professor Miller has asked me to take over his dad’s church for a few months.”
“Take over? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“As pastor. Preach for them.”
Wait. What? This doesn’t make any sense.
“But you haven’t graduated.”
“I know. It’s a small independent church. I don’t have to have a degree for it. My ordination through our church is enough.”
I know many churches work this way. Especially country churches and small-town independent churches. But what was the whole point of uprooting everyone if he doesn’t plan to stick it out at Bible school? “I think it’s important to finish something you start.”
He nods and swipes his hand through his hair. “I agree. I plan to take correspondence courses. And the last couple of months are supposed to be spent on an internship, anyway. Professor Miller spoke with the administration, and they’re willing to consider my months there as an internship for my final grade.”
“Which months are we talking about?”
“Early June through August, at least. I’ve already explained that I start back to teaching school in the fall, so they’ll have to have a permanent replacement for Pastor Miller by then.”
Suddenly a burst of light—more like an explosion—blasts through my foggy confusion, and I get it. I know exactly what he’s saying and . . . I shoot up from the couch. No, no, no! Wedding . . . honeymoon . . . me time. Haven’t we been apart enough over the last few months? “Didn’t you tell him you had plans?” Like a perfect June wedding and a perfect two-week Hawaiian honeymoon? The rest of the summer decorating our perfect new home to our tastes? Do those things ring a bell at all?
His expression crashes. “I told him I had to discuss it with you.”
My temper is starting to flare. Pace. I must pace. Why does Greg keep changing the plan? I wouldn’t do that to him. Doesn’t he even care how I feel? “You mean like you discussed going to Bible school in the first place? Like you discussed quitting your teaching job and becoming a pastor instead? You shared the information, but discounting my feelings doesn’t constitute a discussion, Greg.”
His head is moving side to side, following my frantic pacing. In direct contrast to my losing it, he is infuriatingly together. “It’s not about feelings, Claire. I had to obey God’s call to go to school and become a pastor. But I don’t have to go to Shepherd Falls.”
I know he’s meeting me in the middle. But I can’t help but think about all the history behind this whole Bible-school issue. I know Greg’s following God. And I’m really trying to surrender my will to God’s. But I guess I’m still a little frazzled at how my life is falling outside of the neat little package I’d envisioned. Me: New York Times best-selling author. Greg: schoolteacher (the noblest of professions, after motherhood) and part-time praise and worship leader/sometimes fill-in preacher. Us: living the all-American dream in our dream home with my four children and his one daughter (possibly the only fly in the ointment, but I’m working on that). Suddenly, I can’t hold back my discontent. “You were supposed to work at our church as associate pastor after graduation. Remember? And you were going to go back to teaching school?”
“I know.” He raises his hands and lets them drop back to his thighs. “I told you, this is only through August.” He takes my hand and presses it against his heart. So not fair. He knows that gets me every time. Still, I love this man. Shouldn’t I be willing to follow him anywhere?
“I’ve never even heard of Shepherd Falls,” I grumble. But it does sound like a picturesque town, doesn’t it? I’m envisioning Victorian Christmas carolers and town hall meetings. “Where is it?”
An indulgent smile tips the corner of his mouth and his shoulders relax noticeably. “It’s a little town right at the Arkansas/Missouri border.”
“And you couldn’t wait just two weeks for our wedding and honeymoon?”
He shakes his head, and I see a cloud of regret pass over his face. “Pastor Miller is having health problems. But he’s adamant about not leaving his flock without a pastor. If I don’t promise to be there every Sunday, he won’t leave.”
“If his health is so bad, why is he waiting so long to pass the torch?”
“He wants to wait until the church’s anniversary. He’ll have been preaching in Shepherd Falls thirty years on the last Sunday in May. He wants to make it until then.”
“And your first service there?”
He barely looks me in the eye. “I’ll actually start preaching a couple of times a month until June. And then the first Sunday in June, I’ll take over as interim pastor.”
My heart drops. “The day after the wedding.”
He nods. “I can say no.”
Oh, sure. Let the old guy keel over some Sunday while he’s preaching so I can hula dance in a grass skirt and drink tropical drinks with those little umbrellas. I rear back and kick the coffee table. “Darn it.”
“Someone else can take the church.” Greg mumbles this, and I can tell he’s trying hard to be noble. “I mean it. I don’t want to start off our marriage with something between us like this. If you have your heart set on Hawaii, we’ll go. Professor Miller has a couple of other guys in mind, just in case I can’t do it.”
I cut my eyes to him. “Really?”
He swallows—hard. “Yes. I was honored that he gave me first dibs. But I’m definitely not the only qualified student.” He stands and meets me in the center of the room. His hand is all warm when he takes mine and presses my fingers to his lips. “I love you. My biggest priorities right now are finishing school and marrying you. I know you need a vacation after the tornado last spring and being without a book contract right now. I don’t know what I was thinking. You’re right. I’ll tell Professor Miller to ask someone else.”
Now, see? I feel like a jerk. I really want to just lie on the beach for two weeks in June and soak up the sun with my new husband. But the question my heart raises is: Since when did two weeks in Hawaii become more important than Greg’s chance to do what his heart is telling him to do? What would the Proverbs-Thirty-One woman do?
“And we’d still get married when we planned, right?”
“No question.” He leans forward and presses his forehead to mine. “You’re the most important thing to me right now. You and my daughter. But you have to understand that if I give the board my word, I’m not going back on it. So you need to decide if you can live without your honeymoon.”
“You’re giving me the choice? Really? And you won’t be mad either way?”
“I won’t be mad.”
I know this is my out. My chance to take my man and run off to the islands to soak up sun and discover the intimacies only husbands and wives should share. But . . . this is Greg. And as much as I’d love to keep him all to myself, God has a purpose for his life. A purpose that apparently doesn’t include a tropical paradise, for the time being.
Love isn’t selfish (my paraphrase)—a little positive self-talk.
My shoulders rise and fall with my next quick breath. “So, this Shepherd Falls . . . Any chance there’s even one honeymoon suite in the whole town?”