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Encounter Church wasn’t only the largest church in the area when it came to congregation size. Its building stretched much further than any other church structure in Spencer Valley and anywhere in a 60-mile radius.
The building housed a full-size gym with a basketball court, a moderately large sanctuary set up stadium-style, a state-of-the-art sound system, and separate rooms that stretched down long, well-lit hallways and served as a spacious nursery, two conference rooms, and six adult Sunday School rooms.
In the lower level, there were rooms for Sunday School from kindergarten to high school, as well as a kitchen stocked and furnished as if it was in a culinary school.
This wasn’t the church Matt had grown up in and it wasn’t the type of church he ever saw himself being a member of up until a couple of years ago.
Now, though, he couldn’t imagine attending anywhere else. The music was outstanding, the pastor’s sermons were electrifying, and the congregation had become like family to Matt, even more so after his dad passed away.
“Matt! Good morning!” Jake Landers stood from the table he’d been sitting at in the Sunday School room and held out a hand.
“Glad to have you with us tonight.”
Matt took the older man’s hand and shook it firmly. “Glad to be here. I finally got a Wednesday night off.”
Jake shook his head as he sat. “I don’t know how you do it, kid. You go 1,000 miles an hour all day every day and still look refreshed.”
Matt laughed as he sat his Bible down and reached for an empty mug by the Keurig machine. “I might look refreshed, but I don’t often feel it.”
He waited for the mug to fill with the hazelnut cream flavored coffee he had chosen and then stirred in a dash of creamer and a packet of sugar. By the time he was done, the room was filling up with more men and they were seating themselves in the comfy chairs set up in a circle around the room.
He had been trying to attend this men’s group for a couple of months now. He needed this pick-me-up, the reminder that he wasn’t alone in his struggles and in sometimes feeling emotionally and spiritually drained.
The session turned out to be exactly what he needed and when it was over, he felt a renewed energy as he walked toward the gym to meet with a group of teenage boys he had agreed to mentor through a bi-monthly youth Bible study.
When it concluded, he challenged the seven boys to a pick-up game of basketball while they waited for their parents. The game reminded him he wasn’t young as he used to be and despite being a police officer, he also wasn’t as in shape as he should be.
“See you next week for a rematch, old man,” Trevor Banks called to him as he left the gym.
Matt grinned and waved back. “Challenge accepted, Stretch. I’ll be ready for you next time.”
He collected his Bible and notebook from the floor against the wall and as he looked up, he saw the head pastor Taylor Jenson strolling toward him, his charismatic smile firmly in place.
“Matt. Good evening.” He spoke in his familiar, smooth Southern accent that hadn’t faded in the least in the ten years since he’d lived in the north. He stuck out his hand and once again Matt was struck with how tall the man was and how the cowboy boots he wore with his crisp blue jeans and polo shirts made him even taller and even a more imposing figure.
“Pastor. How’s it going?”
“Good. The Bible study go well?”
Matt nodded and filled the pastor in on the young men and how each one was doing.
“That’s great, Matt.” Taylor slid his hands in his front pockets and propped his side against the gym wall. “Listen, I need to talk to you about something.”
Matt propped his Bible under his arm, hoping the pastor wasn’t asking him to take on another commitment. His schedule was completely booked.
Taylor looked at the floor and tugged at his earlobe, a move Matt had seen before, usually when Taylor was about to bring up a tough subject he really didn’t want to address. “I had a couple calls today from some members of the congregation. A couple of them were parents, a couple weren’t. They had some concerns about you leading the youth after what they read in the paper this week.”
“What they read in the paper?” Matt wasn’t following. What had been in the paper that might — “Oh. The birth announcement.”
Taylor winced and brought his gaze back up. “Yeah. That.”
Matt’s words about not caring what others thought about the announcement echoed back in his mind. Maybe he hadn’t thought this all the way through.
“They’re just a bit concerned about you leading the youth, being an example to them if you’ve had a child out of wedlock.”
Taylor was rubbing the back of his neck now, then held his hand there. “I didn’t know what to say to them. I didn’t even know you’d had a baby until someone showed me the announcement. I mean, I had seen you with Liz, taking her to some appointments, but I had no idea you were even dating.”
Matt blew out a breath and chewed on the inside of his bottom lip for a few minutes. “We’re not.”
“No, I mean — it’s just. Liz and I are friends. I’m not her baby’s father. I told the nurse I was to keep Liz from having to connect her baby to the real father. I asked the nurse not to send the announcement to the paper, but I guess there was some kind of mix up.”
Taylor whistled, his hand still on the back of his neck as he tipped his head back. “Oh, man. That’s crazy.” He tipped his head back down and laughed softly. “I had a feeling there was a bigger story here. Sounds like you were trying to do the right thing.” He kicked at the gym floor with the tip of his boot. “It’s put us in a tough spot here at the church, though. I don’t want to reveal your private business but at the same time, I don’t know how to answer the parents without doing that very thing.”
Matt pushed his hands into his jean pockets and shook his head. “I don’t want to put the church in a difficult position. Why don’t I just step down for a bit, until I figure out how to handle this? I told Liz we should just ignore it, go on with our lives, and maybe I should explain it to some people, but I don’t know how to do it without making Liz look bad.”
Taylor sighed. “I really hate to do that to you, Matt. You’re an important part of this church, a leader to these boys.”
“But I’ll also be gone in a couple of weeks. You’ll have to find someone new to step in anyhow. I’ll just step down a little early.”
Taylor nodded. “That’s true. I guess that will save us both from the awkwardness.” He rubbed his hand across his chin. “I really am sorry about this. You’re a good guy, Matt. If there is anything I can do, please let me know. Can I pray for you at least?”
“Of course. Prayer is always welcome.”
Taylor took the time to pray for Matt left and then men shook hands. A few minutes later Matt was behind the steering wheel of his truck, laughing to himself. If he wasn’t leaving for the academy in a couple of weeks that conversation would have caused him more concern. He easily could have been offended that the church members who had a concern hadn’t approached him before they approached the pastor. At the same time, their concern made sense. Who would he be to tell a group of boys that waiting to have sex before marriage would protect their hearts and their bodies if he himself had been sleeping with a woman he wasn’t married to?
It did feel a bit like a betrayal that part of the congregation had made up their mind about him without even asking about the situation, but he wouldn’t have been able to ask someone about something so personal either.
He could just imagine approaching a person whose name had been listed as the father of someone’s baby when no one even knew they were in a relationship. “Hey, so . . .um . . . About this baby thing . . .”
Yeah. It would definitely be an awkward conversation to have.
He turned the radio on and tapped his hand against the steering wheel to a Christian song playing on his favorite radio station.
It was his decision to tell that nurse he was Bella’s father. No, he hadn’t thought it through, but he had to live with it and in the end, it would be worth it, as long as it meant Bella and Liz wouldn’t have any official ties to Gabe Martin.
“I can’t believe I did it.”
Ginny turned her head and tilted it to get a better look at her hair. While it had previously fallen across her shoulders when she let it down, it now stopped at ear level. She blew out a slow breath, tilting her head up again. What was Stan going to think about this impulsive move? She truly wasn’t sure.
Liz stood behind her, admiring her own shorter cut. “It looks fantastic, Ginny. Seriously. You’re drop-dead gorgeous. Just wait until Stan sees you. He won’t be able to keep his hands off you.”
Ginny’s chest tightened. Wouldn’t he, though? He was certainly able to keep his hands off her a lot these days. She couldn’t even remember the last time he’d hugged her, let alone held her in his arms.
“Well, I don’t know about that, but your cut certainly came out great. It will be a lot easier to manage for you, which will be great for when you start back next week.”
Liz pulled her lower lip between her teeth, still looking at her hair in the bathroom mirror, pulling the strands against her jawline. “I can’t believe my maternity leave is already over. It was nice of Linda to even give it to me. I don’t think it was easy for her to give me that much time off.”
She ruffled her hair and pouted. “Look, I look like a brunette Taylor Swift that time she chopped her hair. Well, the haircut does at least. Not the rest of me.”
Ginny cocked an eyebrow. “Who?”
Liz snorted. “A pop singer whose music I don’t even like.”
“Oh. Well, I’m old. That’s probably why I’ve never heard of her.”
“Be glad. You’re not missing much other than a lot of sappy songs about broken hearts.”
Ginny touched her finger to her chin. “Oh wait. Is she the one who breaks up with men and then writes songs about her breakups?”
Liz laughed as she picked up a brush and pulled it across her hair. “Yes. That’s her. Maybe I should have written a song after I left Gabe. I might could have made a few bucks.”
She turned and looked at Ginny, at the way Missy had angled her hair so it was short in the back and longer along the sides. Ginny looked ten years younger, if not more. Her entire persona seemed brighter now. Maybe this would help raise the heaviness the woman had around her some days. Maybe her husband would see her and whisk her out the door for a fancy dinner, bringing a bright spot to her day. She certainly deserved it.
“Is Stan going to be home tonight?”
Ginny shook her head. “No. We’re going to a real estate banquet together. He’s up for real estate agent of the year for the region.”
Liz’s eyebrows raised. This was a change from Ginny’s usual answers to questions about Stan. Most of the time he was away on business or not home at all. “That’s awesome. He’s finally taking a night away from work and taking you out to boot. Way to go Stan.”
Soft pink spread along Ginny’s cheekbones as she hooked an earring in. “Yeah, it should be a nice night out. We haven’t been out in —” The pink darkened to crimson. “Well, a while anyhow.”
Liz leaned back against the dresser behind her and gnawed at her thumbnail, pondering the color along Ginny’s cheeks. Was it brought on by anticipation or something else?
“Do you think he’ll win?”
“He has before and he’s been even busier this year so I’d be surprised if he doesn’t.”
Liz didn’t hear the excitement in Ginny’s voice she thought she should. She studied the woman for a moment then let her gaze drift across Ginny’s bedroom to the lightly -colored dresser and the mirror attached to it, the queen-sized bed set up high off the ground, covered in what looked like a handmade quilt of various colors, to the peach-colored walls and pillows that matched the walls. The headboard and armoire against the wall near the bed matched the dresser she was leaning against and a walk-in closet was open on the other side of the room.
“This is a beautiful house, Ginny.”
“You’ve never been in here?” Ginny turned her while adjusting her other earring. “I thought you were here for the engagement party.”
Liz shook her head. “Just the backyard. I was so focused on feeling out of place and left out I barely noticed even that.” She walked toward the walk-in closet. “I would say I’ve matured since then but it’s a work in progress, as you know. Hey.” She reached for a black gown hanging in the closet. “This is lovely. You should wear this tonight.” A white blouse with a silver sheen caught her eye and she reached for it too. “Oh, and you could put this over it. It would set off your eyes.”
She turned to see Ginny blushing again. “You think so? I don’t know. Maddie bought that for me two years ago and I just — well, I never — I didn’t have anywhere to wear it. I thought about wearing it to last year’s banquet but it seemed a little too . . .” Her voice trailed off and she shrugged. “Revealing? Sexy? I don’t know.”
Liz laid the dress and blouse on the bed. “It’s hot is what it is and you will look hot in it. Stan isn’t even going to want to go to the banquet when he sees you in it. He’s going to want to get you right back out of it again.”
The blush had spread to Ginny’s neck and chest now and she laid a hand at the nape of her neck as if to stop it.
“Oh — well, I don’t know about that but I — I mean, I could wear it, I guess.”
Liz walked to the dresser and flipped open the jewelry box. “I bet you have a necklace that would go great with this.” She shut the box abruptly and turned away from it. “Oh, my word. What am I doing? I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be getting into your things like that.”
Ginny laughed and opened the box again. “Actually, I would appreciate your advice and opinion. I haven’t really dressed up in a while. I do have a couple necklaces that might work.”
The women looked through the necklaces for a few moments. Liz pulled her gaze away when her phone dinged. She reached for it and checked the message.
She sighed. “It’s McGee. Asking what to bring for dinner.”
Ginny swung around with a gold necklace in her hand and placed a hand on her hip. “Dinner, eh?”
Liz scowled playfully. “Calm down. It’s like a potluck dinner. Molly, Alex, Ellie, and Jason are all going to be there too. Then we’re going to watch Ellie and Jason’s wedding video.”
She texted a response and tossed the phone onto the bed. “Matt and I are just friends. Like I told you.”
Ginny held the necklace up in front of her while she looked in the mirror. “A friend who is clearly in love with you. I get it.”
Liz scoffed. “He is not in love with me. He’s just a good friend. I mean, don’t get me wrong, he’s a very good friend. He’s been there for me in the worst moments of my life and in the best. He brought me food when I was too big and sick to get around when I was pregnant. He drove me to a few appointments when my car broke down. He, well, obviously delivered Bella. He’s also stopped by plenty of times and held her while I cleaned the apartment or took a nap. He’s just a good guy. You know that. He’s good to everyone.”
Ginny held up another necklace, narrowing her eyes as she studied her reflection in the mirror. “He’s not as good to everyone as he is to you, and I can’t say I’ve ever heard him say he was in love with you, but I do know that he was very upset when you had that fall at your apartment last year.”
Liz’s chest constricted and a lump pushed up into her throat. Her hand trembled as she straightened the dress she’d lain on the bed, averting her eyes from Ginny. “What do you mean?”
“Stan said Matt asked for prayer for you during the men’s Bible study a couple nights after you were taken to the hospital. He didn’t give any details, but said there had been an accident and he’d arrived before the ambulance.”
The room suddenly seemed small and tight as Liz sat on the edge of the bed and took a deep breath. Matt was at her apartment that night? She’d known there was an officer there, but she’d been told it was Tom Landry, Matt’s older partner. If
Matt had been there, why had he never told her?
The idea of him seeing her, barely conscious, at the worst moment of her life. Bile clutched at her throat and she gagged.
Ginny whirled to look at her. “Uh-oh. Are those tacos we stopped for causing an issue?”
She shook her head against Ginny’s concern then changed her mind and nodded. “Actually, yes, they are a little. Will you excuse me?”
She found the bathroom down the hall, doubled over the toilet as she shut the door, and gagged again. She closed her eyes tight, desperate to remember the voices that night. Had Matt’s been one of them? She couldn’t remember. She needed to remember.
Dear God . . . Please no.
So when she’d first lied to him, said she’d accidentally taken too many pills from a prescription for painkillers for her knee, he’d known all along. He’d most likely even known she was pregnant. She wretched into the toilet bowl, grasping the seat as colors played across her vision.
Reaching for a piece of toilet paper, she wiped it across her mouth and shook her head. He’d never said a thing. He hadn’t told her he already knew. That had been almost a year ago. And he’d never said a thing. She couldn’t believe it.
He had now twice seen her at her most vulnerable. If the earth opened up right now and swallowed her whole she wouldn’t have been totally fine with it.
“Really God? How much more do you need to punish and humiliate me for what I did?”
She stood and turned the sink on, cupping a handful of water to wash her mouth out with. She pictured herself in the bathroom floor of her apartment that night, desperately trying to get the pills to come back up again. She hadn’t wanted to die. Not really. She’d simply panicked. She hadn’t wanted the baby to die either. She hadn’t even really accepted there was a baby yet.
In those moments when she shoved those pills in her mouth, she had told herself it was the best way to keep her parents from finding out how she’d been living, from Molly being disappointed in her, from feeling the same day after day. But at the moment she stuck her finger back against her tonsils a different kind of panic had set in. A panic that she might actually die, that she’d never had a chance to say goodbye to Molly or her sister.
There was a baby to think about. The baby hadn’t done anything to deserve a death sentence. She had to stop the pills from taking effect and there was no way they wouldn’t. She’d downed half a bottle of opioid painkillers.
Praying to God, she had begged while vomit trickled down her chin. It obviously wasn’t enough vomit to bring the pills back up because blackness had encroached across her vision quickly. She had chased the darkness away with a deep breath that was more like a gasping scream.
“Jesus! Save me!”
She couldn’t even feel the phone in her hand when she’d hit the 9 and collapsed against the cool linoleum.
A knock on the bathroom door ripped her from the memory and back to the present. She tried to gather herself, remind herself she wasn’t in her old apartment, begging to live. She was at Ginny’s and she needed to get it together already. She splashed her face with water and snatched the hand towel to dry herself off.
“Liz? Honey? You okay in there.”
“Yes, I’m fine. I’ll be right out.”
There she went again, lying. How many times in her life was she going to tell everyone she was fine when she clearly wasn’t?
She smoothed her newly cropped hair back, took a deep breath, and forced what she hoped was a natural-looking smile on her face.
Faking happiness had become like breathing to her.
This time would be no different.