Thursday, April 17, 2014

April 17: FIRESONG

      "Boring," a tenor voice whined somewhere behind Kurt.
      He didn't know which of the White Knights had said it, and right now, he didn't care. Only two hours into his babysitting duties, and already Kurt wished he had been in the car wreck instead of Wade Klinghoffer. He suspected he would only be able to relax while the White Knights were too busy performing to get into trouble, or else asleep. Or else they were occupied somewhere and cut off from all temptation and opportunities for mischief -- meaning no college girls to dazzle and lead off into dark corners. Half an hour ago, he had walked in on the band members speculating on what the college girls here looked like, and making bets on how many each of them could score with.
      Remembering his own college days, when he also used his music to impress girls, Kurt could almost sympathize. But he had fallen away from his commitment to God back in college, and his band never pretended to serve God with their music. The White Knights claimed to be Christians, yet they intended to use their music to seduce girls at a Christian college.
      No wonder Wade wanted out of this contract.
      Kurt had stepped into the dormitory lounge given over to the band and was relieved when they changed the subject. He didn't see any guilt on those faces, and that had made him angry enough to lecture them on the conduct expected of guests on campus. Obviously, his lecture had gone over their heads.
      He couldn't trust the White Knights to behave themselves while his back was turned. If they were bored, they weren't heading toward a lawsuit from some outraged parents.
      "Don't you guys have to practice? Aren't you playing tonight?" he asked. It was bad enough he had to sit in the same room with them while he worked on his notebook computer and caught up on paperwork and correspondence. Did he have to think for them, too?
      "Nah," the baritone said with a lazy grin. All the White Knights were skinny and blue-eyed, with long blonde hair. Kurt had a hard time telling them apart. "Some other group's driving in from Ohio. We can have a good time tonight."
      "Hope so," somebody muttered. Kurt didn't look, but he felt the scorch of angry glances turned his way. He fought a smile and told himself he was performing a good deed.
      Then the baritone's words registered. He could be wrong -- there were probably hundreds of bands in Ohio. But didn't Katie say something about Firesong performing at a conference for youth leaders this weekend?
      Pulling his cell phone from his pocket, Kurt stepped out into the hall. He hoped the White Knights were all too lazy and self-absorbed to listen as he placed a call to Katie.
      "Yeah, they're probably halfway to Fort Wayne by now," Katie said, when Kurt asked her. "Why?" She laughed when he gave her the abbreviated version of what he had heard. "What do you know? You and Dani might finally get to spend some time together without a thousand errands pulling you apart."
      "Very funny, Miss Matchmaker," Kurt growled. But he grinned at the dormitory door in front of him. She might just be right. This might be the chance he had been praying for, wishing for.

      But that meant he had to protect Dani from the White Knights. How could they resist someone so alive and vibrant?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

April 15: FORGIVEN

      Nikki came back into the office later that afternoon, just before closing time for the daycare, and found Brock standing behind Claire at her desk, studying the computer screen from over her shoulder. For a moment, Nikki just stood there in the doorway, poised to go in but already turning to go out again. Her face felt so hot she thought the temperature of the office could go up five degrees.
      "Hi," she finally said, startling them both. Brock stepped back from Claire, putting more than arm's length between them. "What are you doing here?"
      "Pastor Glenn sent him over to help us clear up this mess with the accounting program," Claire said. "Isn't that great?"
      Brock went very still, watching Nikki, waiting for her response. Did he wait for her to denounce him?
      "Pastor Glenn sent you?" Nikki swallowed, forced herself to relax. She trusted her pastor's instincts; or was it his sensitivity? "This is the project you mentioned you were waiting to hear about?"
      "I told him I wanted to get involved and help out and use my talents and..." Brock spread his arms, indicating the entire Mission. "Here I am."
      "Great. How are things going at the Picayune?"
      "Getting there. Claire's explaining the computer program--"
      "Trying to explain," the woman broke in, laughing. "We were so glad to have this program donated, we should have known something was fishy. It's a beta test of a program that isn't even out on the market yet -- that's why we got it free. This thing is never going to sell if it works this badly and the manual is so hard to untangle."
      "I haven't really investigated that far," Brock added with that deprecating little smile and a glint in his eyes that meant he was interested in the challenge. "I have this feeling, though, that we'll have to start from scratch. Maybe go back to paper records, and if we try computer programs again, get a different program."
      "Can I have a witness?" Claire chirped.
      "Uh, Claire... I think Nikki needs to see me about something." He stepped around the desk and headed for the door. "Be back in a minute."
      "Okay. The problem'll still be here when you get back."
      Nikki followed Brock around the corner, down the hall toward the gym. It was quiet and dark now. Not even echoes of splashing water or thuds of a mop handle on a metal bucket. That was strangely comforting.
      "I'm sorry," Brock said. "I had no idea Pastor Glenn was planning on sending me here."

      "It's okay." She grinned at his surprise. Truth to tell, she was just as surprised at how calmly she seemed to be taking this. Maybe because of last night's revelation, and the prayer she had prayed Saturday night, turning over to God everything concerning Brock and her past pain. Nikki had no idea how long the peace and confidence was going to last, but she was going to take advantage of it.

Monday, April 14, 2014

April 14: FORGIVEN

      Kat and Amy showed up with their carload, along with two more of Lisa's sisters-in-law, by the time Nikki and Bekka got their car unloaded. They stayed to help unpack and generally organize the other two carloads, and by then Todd had showed up with the rental truck and the big furniture. The next trip had the apartment emptied, and when Nikki and Bekka brought the Jeep's load into the cottage, they decided to help set up a picnic dinner in the living room. Nikki kept careful watch and she approved of the smiles Lisa and Todd shared, the tentative touches, and the way he looked after her and hurried to take any load she tried to carry. She also returned the bag of ring binders and galley proofs -- and was relieved when Lisa said she wanted to talk about the whole 'baby issue' but that it would have to wait until later. She had deadlines to meet, and a house to settle into.
      Nikki was pensive on the quiet drive home. She remembered the few short days of dreaming about settling into a little house and decorating the nursery and the idyllic life she wanted to have with Brock. Then he had come back to their hotel from a week-long trip away -- which, she learned during the trial, had been to meet with his DEA contacts and pass on the first batch of information -- and her dreams had been shredded by his reaction. He hadn't told her right away to abort, but it was clear he didn't want their baby. He never accused her of deliberately getting pregnant, but he did blame her for being careless with the over-the-counter contraceptives she used.
      Looking back, Nikki wondered if Brock had deliberately been picking fights with her to drive her away. He couldn't be honest with her about the work he was doing, either the drug dealing work for Ringo or the information gathering he was now doing for the DEA. He couldn't pack her up and send her home to Tabor without making Ringo suspicious. Especially if Nikki put up a fight about going home.
      "He had to drive me away," she whispered as she pulled up in front of her parents' home. Nikki blinked hard against tears she had promised herself she would never cry again. Tears for Brock Pierson and the relationship they had once shared. She sat there in her Jeep until the ache in her chest faded and the tears dried, leaving her eyes feeling hot and scratchy.
      Even when he hit her, Brock still loved her. That much was obvious.

      The question was if that changed anything.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

April 13: FORGIVEN

      "So, how about going out to dinner with me?" Rich greeted Nikki, when he met her in front of the church that morning.
      "Can't." She tamped down another flare of anger. The service was about to start, and she had been standing out here with Aurora, waiting for him, for nearly half an hour.
      At least the little girl was too busy chattering at her plush bunny to notice her father's arrival and the tension flaring in the air. She kept putting the toy as big as her head in and out of the Easter basket Doria had put together for her at the last minute. It wouldn't have been nice for Aurora to have nothing to do, no basket to fill, when Brandy and the boys scrambled around, hunting for their Easter baskets and then ran around outside in the dawn chill, hunting for all the plastic eggs Nikki and Dr. Holwood had hidden just moments before.
      "You are always busy. What's wrong with you?" Rich snapped, stomping one foot so hard his battered loafer nearly came off.
      "What's wrong with you? It's Easter. I'm spending it with my family. Don't you have plans with your mother?"
      "Oh. Yeah." His face twisted as he visibly fought anger and embarrassment. "Hey, Rory, ready to go?" He bent and scooped up the little girl, putting her astride his hip with enough force to knock the basket out of her hands. "For Pete's sake, can't you shut up just once?" he blurted, when the little girl let out a wail and tried to leap from his arms to retrieve her treasures. "I should have left you with your grandmother last night."
      "Wasn't your mother out of town?" Nikki said quietly.
      "No. Where'd you get--" Rich let Aurora slide down to the ground again. "Oh, yeah. Look, things changed at the last minute. And Rory was so excited about staying with you, so I figured, what would it hurt?"
      "Nothing." She swallowed down the shiver of uneasiness that crept up from deep inside. "But considering our past, I think focusing on honesty would be good for both of us."
      "Oh, come on, Nikki..." He raked both hands through his hair and turned around once, as if searching for inspiration or help from the parking lot. He nearly tripped over Aurora, on her hands and knees, picking up her scattered treats. "Why do you have to keep picking on me?"

      "I'm not. Look," she said, holding up a hand to stop him. Judging from his expression, he was ready to argue long and loudly. "I have to get inside. The service is starting. My folks are probably holding a seat for me, but since it's Easter, seats are at a premium. Bye, Aurora." She hurried to pull the door open and enter the building and get away from Rich and his daughter as quickly as she could. If Aurora even noticed she was gone, Nikki had no idea.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

April 12: FIRESONG

      Dani bent to pick up another stack of boxes to take from the fellowship hall, out to Andy's truck. The shower was over and she could only breathe a sigh of relief as she thought about it. The wedding would be much easier to handle, because she wasn't choreographing everything.
      "So, how did it go?" Kurt asked, coming up behind her.
      "Don't do that!" She nearly dropped the boxes.
      Kurt leaped forward to catch and help re-balance them in her arms. There was a box with a set of frying pans on the bottom, three boxes with towels, one with cooking utensils, and on the very top a box filled with tissue paper and airy spun glass napkin rings. Someone hadn't bothered reading the registry of practical and useful items Katie and Andy had requested.
      "Sorry." He grinned and didn't look repentant. Just like she remembered from when they were children. "Need some help? Aunt Kathy's sure there won't be enough room in Andy's truck."
      "Yeah, well, some people aren't very practical. I mean, I said to just give them money." She shrugged, nearly losing the napkin rings. Kurt came to her rescue again. "Lead the way!"
      They made uncounted trips out to the cars and truck waiting in the parking lot, aided by other members of the bridal party. Andy and Katie directed and packed up their gifts, deciding what went to Andy's new apartment now and what went to Katie's house until after the wedding.
      Kurt didn't say much, but every time Dani turned around, she found him watching her. That little tilt to the head, the slight upturn to one corner of his mouth, the sparkle in his eyes -- what was he thinking?
      "Okay, what's up?" she demanded, when they came back into the fellowship hall and found themselves alone for the moment.
      "Up?" Kurt shrugged and jammed his hands into his jeans pockets. "Nothing. Yet."
      "Uh oh." She grinned as she realized she felt very comfortable around him. It was easy to fall into the same teasing pattern she had with her cousins and Katie. Maybe that was it -- he was her best friend's cousin, after all.
      "Hope not." He stepped up to the main table, half-emptied, and held out his arms for her to fill. "I was just wondering where I could take you, if you'd go out with me."
      "Go out with you?" For a few seconds, the words made no sense, and that scared her. She was the wordsmith, the one who came up with lyrics to every single melody Andy composed.
      "Yeah, you know, maid of honor and the bride's cousin? It's the law, gotta spend some time together."
      "You're crazy. Which makes sense, considering your family." Dani was glad to finish loading his arms and turned away to pick up a stack of thin boxes and put them into a huge wicker laundry basket she seriously wanted to borrow from Katie.

      "Does that mean you won't go out with me?" Kurt didn't sound at all discouraged, and she rather liked that.

Friday, April 11, 2014

April 11: FORGIVEN

      Gray, who had wisely taken up his post out in the hall away from the dust and clutter, now raised his head and whined. Nikki pulled her thoughts back to the present. How long had she been staring unseeing at her clipboard? Then she heard the tight male voices. They kept low and urgent, which signaled trouble to her. Ringo had been that way, almost purring before he shot Brock.
      That was Brock's voice, she realized with a prickling sensation up her back. What was he doing here? She hurried around the corner, into the lobby. Brock stood in the doorway to outside, and Rich blocked his way with the bucket and mop handle.
      "I don't care what you think," Rich growled. "You're not coming in until you tell me what you want with her."
      Nikki felt sick. She glanced at her watch, only quarter after twelve. The scenario was easy to guess. Brock had walked over from the Tabor Picayune to see her on his lunch hour, and Rich had gotten possessive and protective. He had been trying to inch his way into the position of being her assistant and bodyguard in the last few days, and had intervened a dozen times already when other people wanted to talk with her. Nikki thought her last talk with Rich had finally sunk in -- but obviously not.
      "You were looking for me?" she asked, as Brock opened his mouth to retort.
      "Yeah. Mr. Clean here seems to think I need a hall pass." Brock moved to cross the lobby to her. Rich hesitated and missed thrusting the mop handle in his way. Nikki had the oddest feeling he had tried to shove the stick between Brock's legs to trip him.
      "I told him you were busy and he wouldn't go away," Rich grumbled.
      "It's break time." Nikki tried to think of where she could lead Brock where they wouldn't be alone, but still have privacy to talk without being overheard. The noisy cafeteria a few dozen steps away might be the perfect place.
      "He's got no business wasting your time."
      "Why don't you let Nikki decide for herself?" Brock snapped. "I'll bet you didn't give her any of my messages the last few days, did you?"
      "Messages?" Nikki hated how her face got warm. She didn't like Brock getting angry when it came to her. Not through fear, but because for so long, making him happy had been the focus of her life.
      "Hey, I'm a busy guy." Rich jammed the mop back into his bucket and slowly wheeled it down the hall. "Not your secretary."

      Since when? she wanted to snap at him. If he insisted on getting involved with everything she did, everywhere she went, knowing every detail of her entire schedule, then he had better accept some responsibility with it. Especially if he accepted messages from Brock for her, and yet neglected to deliver them.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

April 10: FIRESONG

      "So... what's with you and Rich?" Dani said, as she helped Nikki inventory the closet off of the gym that held furniture and tools dating seemingly from the Civil War.
      "Nothing, I hope." Nikki straightened up from digging through a box that looked like it held nothing but scraps of wood and dust. She slapped her hands together and stepped away from the cloud she generated. "I went out with him last Thursday, but..."
      "It's complicated?" She wondered if she should have registered her complaints about Rich a long time ago, even if she did sound like a back seat kid, complaining that 'He's looking at me!'
      The entire Rich Thomas problem might have been fixed, and Nikki wouldn't have to deal with that ghost from her past on a daily basis. If he was trying to start up a relationship with her right from the day she returned to town, was that a good thing? All Dani knew was that Rich had been practically invisible around the Mission for the last three days, keeping busy with work instead of loitering in the halls.
      Meaning he was straightening out because Nikki was in town. Was that a good thing, or bad?
      "Major complicated. Then there's the whole baby problem."
      "Aurora's adorable, but yeah, I can see how you wouldn't want to get stuck with someone else's responsibility."
      "Huh?" Nikki went pale, then a moment later went red. Then the glisten of tears touched her eyes.
      "Hey!" Dani caught hold of her hands and led her over to a splintery bench splattered with enough different colors to have survived a paintball war. "What's wrong?"
      "Nobody knows, do they?" She wiped at her eyes with her clean wrists and leaned back against the wall for a few moments. "Arc does a fantastic job, keeping things quiet. I was terrified of the gossip when I came home, but..." She sighed.
      "Knows what?" Dani sat down next to Nikki and dug in her pockets. No luck -- no tissues.
      "You heard about the big mess, when I was trying to come home?"
      "Yeah, you broke up with Brock and left him, and then his boss kidnapped you to use you as a shield for some deals he was trying to make."
      "Brock was working for the DEA, getting evidence to use against Ringo. It turns out all the witnessing Mum and Daddy did when he was here did have some effect. Delayed, but..." Nikki closed her eyes and wrapped her arms tight around herself. "I was pregnant, and Brock ordered me to abort, so I left."
      "Good for you," Dani whispered.

      "He knew I wouldn't abort. He did it to make me leave, before I got hurt. But Ringo decided a pregnant woman and then a new mother would be the perfect decoy. Nobody would suspect what he was up to and ... There was a fight and Brock nearly got killed and an accident and... I was seven months along. My baby lived for a little while." Her eyes snapped open and she gasped, fighting a sob. "I named her Mercy Grace. She's buried at Quarry Hall, in the willow garden."