Meet Me in the Park:
Gretchen Whitaker heard a dog barking the split second before her own dog pulled against her leash, yanking Gretchen forward. "Betsy!"
"Ross!" Gretchen heard, making her spin around. In front of her stood a very handsome man with dark brown hair and the lightest blue eyes she'd ever seen. He was holding onto a short leather leash, attached to the collar of an adorable white dog, the spitting image of her own Bichon Frise named Betsy.
The man's dog nuzzled up to Betsy and licked her face.
"Wow," Gretchen said. "They look identical."
"Sure do." His voice was smooth and gentle. "I'm so sorry Ross ran up here. I don't know what came over him."
Gretchen watched the two dogs play and lick each other. "Your dog is adorable. He looks a lot like Betsy. Do you think they were littermates?"
"He's not my dog. He belongs to my sister, who's off on yet another vacation with her husband. I'm dog sitting dear old Ross here."
"Wait. His name is Ross? And I have Betsy? Betsy Ross?"
The man laughed. "It seems so." He pointed. "And they seem to know each other, too."
Gretchen studied the dogs, looking very happy, as if they'd found their long-lost friend. "Where was that dog born?"
"I'm not sure, but knowing my sister, I'm sure it was the best place in North Carolina."
Gretchen grinned. "I only know of one place close that would be described like that, closer to Clayton. It's called Bren—"
"Brenden Kennels. That's the name, and it is in Clayton." He nodded toward the dogs. "Ross is almost a year old."
"Yep. So is Betsy. She'll be a year old on October—"
She spun toward him. "Yes. Two months from now. No wonder they know each other—they're from the same litter. I never thought it was possible."
The man put out his hand. "My name's Jeff Thomas."
She shook his hand. "Gretchen Whitaker."
"Want to walk with me? I promise it's safe."
"Sure. I trust you. Anyone with a dog from Brenden can be trusted. They research all their owners." They walked for a few moments, as the dogs sidled up to each other. "So do you live around here?"
"Yes," he said. "I live right beside the Raleigh limits, in Cary." He pointed. "About a quarter of a mile that way in Pinetree Apartments."
She stopped walking and stared at him. "So do I. I just moved in a month ago, but haven't met anyone there yet."
"I live in 3-G."
"2-G. So I'm a floor below you? Is this weird or what?"
He shook his head. "Pretty weird. So do you teach at the elementary school beside the apartment complex?"
"No. I work at N. C. State University in Raleigh. I'm a professor in the computer science department."
He did almost a double take, staring at her. "You're a professor? Does that mean you're Dr. Whitaker?"
She laughed, shaking her head. "Yes, but don't hold it against me. It just means I went to school longer and worked in the private sector for a while. I now teach gaming, which is really fun."
"I wish I'd met you a few years ago."
He sighed and they continued to walk their dogs. "I used to be a high school guidance counselor. I had a few students who wanted to program games, but I didn't know anyone at N. C. State. I had one student named Amanda…" His voice trailed off and he seemed sad for a moment.
"What about that student?"
"She loved computer games. She came to me one day asking what she should do for her life, and was life worth living? I told her it definitely was worth it and she should do something she loved to do. The phone rang and she ran out of my office. I figured she'd come back with an idea of what she wanted to do…but she never did. That night, she tried to commit suicide and I never forgave myself."
"Did she live?"
"Yes. She ran out in front of a car and was hit. She hurt her head and was brain damaged."
"How do they know it was an attempted suicide?"
"She left a note." He sighed. "Anyway, my life fell apart after that, but I'm on the mend." He shot her a grin. "How about you?"
"Wait just a minute. You're on the mend? You can't let your soap opera of a life just stop like that. What happened?"
He chuckled, glancing toward her with his very blue eyes. "Well, the day she stopped in to see me was the night of my bachelor's party."
Gretchen felt her mouth fall open. "You got married?"
"Not exactly. I was upset when I heard she tried to kill herself about an hour before my bachelor's party. So I called my fiancée and told her about it. She was entertaining someone else in her apartment, and when I heard his voice, I knew it was over."
"It was my best man. So the wedding was off and I sat in my apartment and thought about my life. I opened the dusty Bible sitting on my bookshelf and decided I wasn't doing anything important with my life. I quit my job the following Monday and, after fulfilling my two week obligation, I went to work for the "For His Glory" Mission group. I never looked back and have never been happier."
This poor man. "So you proselytize door-to-door?"
He laughed again. "Not at all. We're different. We serve others who are in need. I work on counseling people who are homeless, or single mothers, or the elderly. I really love it."
"Who pays your salary?"
"Actually, the state pays part of it, because part of my job is through the city. The rest is through donations."
"That's really cool."
"Do you go to church?"
She didn't expect him to ask her that question, and didn't know how to answer. Church wasn't part of her scheduled life. She had to pull the oldest trick in the book and looked at her watch. "Will you look at the time? I really must be going."
"At seven o'clock on August third? Do you have classes tomorrow…on a Saturday?"
Gretchen was caught, biting her lips as she faced him. "Uh…"
"It's okay. I was just going to ask if I'd see you in church on Sunday. Don't worry…it's not a test and I'm not judging you."
"Uh-huh. I've been judged most of my life because of church and I don't like it."
"My grandfather was a minister. He made sure everyone went to his strict church and would berate me for not agreeing with him. He blamed everything bad in the world on Eve, and therefore, all women were evil and second class citizens."
"He said that?"
She nodded. "So I stay away from church." They reached the apartment complex and went inside. He stopped at the elevator, but she headed for the stairs. "I have to go now, but it was nice talking to you."
Jeff shook her hand. "Meet me in the park tomorrow morning, because I want to prove your grandfather wrong."
"What are you saying?"
He winked as the elevator door opened. "Tomorrow morning. Five o'clock?"
"That's Betsy's schedule, too."
He walked inside and the door closed. Gretchen dreaded the thought of what he meant. All she needed was for someone to make her listen to a sermon during her morning walk.
Betsy woke Gretchen at five, right on the nose. "No. I can't get up yet. It's Saturday. Please Betsy, please?"
Betsy whined and nudged her nose against Gretchen's arm. She wasn't going to relent, so Gretchen climbed out of bed and threw on some shorts, a t-shirt, and sneakers. After pulling her hair into a quick ponytail, she grabbed Betsy's leash and her key, then walked out the door, locking it behind her. Betsy pulled her down the stairs while Gretchen tried to keep up. For a little dog, she had a lot of determination.
"Wait!" Gretchen yelled. The dog stopped at the doors, but as soon as Gretchen opened it, the dog yanked her into the lobby and to the other door. "What's the rush?" she asked. But Gretchen knew—Jeff and Ross would be waiting for them, she was sure.
As soon as she opened the door, Betsy took off for Ross, lying peacefully beside Jeff, who was sitting at a picnic table with two cups in front of him.
Gretchen almost fell while Betsy ran for her buddy. Jeff stood up and grabbed her arm before she fell face first onto the table.
"Someone's falling for me already."
Gretchen rolled her eyes. "You're hilarious. I'm not in the mood for—"
He shoved a cup into her hand. "I figured as much. Drink it. It's a latte with sugar."
She shot him a confused look. "How did you know?"
"Drink it. We have something to discuss."
"Yes." He took both leashes and his cup of coffee, then walked beside her. "Do you remember what you told me about your grandfather?"
"Yes. Women are evil and cause men to sin. It was his favorite saying."
"He's not right." He sipped on his coffee. "I looked up a lot of Bible verses last night, and no where does it say women are evil. Sure, there are women who aren't of good character, but there are more mentioned who are classy. It even says that women should be treated with respect and loved, because they can give life. You need to be treated well, like that. Women should be treated like gold."
"Who taught you that?"
"My father. He was a doctor and had utmost respect for women. He used to tell all of us that women endured more than any man could ever handle. I believe him, too, just from childbirth and the emotional side of things."
"You're very wise for your age." She sipped her coffee. "Where did you get this?"
He nodded. "Down at the corner. Ross had other plans at four this morning. My sister has it easy—she has a fenced in yard."
"So your father…was he a Christian?"
Jeff nodded. "Yes. He'd pray for every patient of his, because he knew he couldn't heal them without help from God. God loves you, Gretchen, even if you think it's not true because of what you've been taught."
She sipped on her coffee, his words hitting her hard. She felt the tears behind her eyes, because she'd always believed otherwise.
"I bet that's why you went on for your doctorate, huh?" he finally asked.
"You're a little too intuitive." She wiped a tear then held out her hand. "I can take the dogs."
"No. You need to be treated well, and I want to do it."
"Is this payback for the girl who was hit by the car? Maybe a guilt release?"
He laughed. "Not at all." He checked his watch. "I have to go see Amanda today, but would you like to have breakfast with me?"
"Sure. How about I meet you at a diner?"
"Sounds like a plan." His smile covered his face and they headed back toward the apartment complex.
For the next few weeks, Gretchen met Jeff in the park before work, even though Ross had gone back to live with Jeff's sister. They became good friends, and Gretchen even started making dinner for both of them in her apartment. With's Jeff's guidance, Gretchen began going to church, enjoying it for the first time in her life.
In mid-September, Jeff had taken Gretchen out to eat at a nice restaurant. They had just finished the meal when Jeff reached up and touched her hand. "So what are you doing tomorrow?"
"Well, it's Saturday. I don't have a lot to do tomorrow…no class, nothing pressing. I even have all my work done for next week, thanks to you."
He smiled, then lifted her hand to his lips. "Good. Meet me in the park in the morning."
"But don't you have to visit Amanda tomorrow?"
"Amanda's moving home. They think they have everything set at home, since it's been over a year and they've accepted her condition. It took a while, but she's actually improving. She even has a job at an assembly line."
"That's phenomenol." She weighed her words, but needed to know. "What did her suicide note say?"
"It was weird. Her parents showed it to me, because they didn't know what to make of it. It said, "'Time passes with the moments, moments of darkness make way to the light, and the pain is gone.'"
"You memorized it?"
"It runs through my mind every day. I can't forget it."
"I've heard those phrases before."
He lifted his eyes, appearing stunned. "What did you say?"
"I've heard those phrases before." She pulled out her cell phone and worked on an internet search. "Yeah. I thought so. It's a song entitled 'Time on the planet' by 'Zeza.' It's hard rock, but not bad stuff."
He leaned forward and kissed her cheek. "God put you in my life for a reason, and I thank you and thank Him. From what you're saying, she didn't have a suicide wish and it wasn't my fault."
Gretchen watched him wipe his eye. "You thought it was your fault?"
"Yes. I was the last one to talk to her, and had to answer the phone. Do you know why my phone rang?"
"It was my fiancée, telling me she was going to be late to the rehearsal dinner, to go out with her friends. I found out later her 'friends' was the best man. They'd been dating for a while behind my back."
"That's just mean. But you've been harboring that guilt for over a year?"
"Yes, I have. I can't wait to tell Amanda's parents. I know it'll ease their guilt, too. No one saw any signs, and they're good church people. It just made no sense, but now it does." He studied her face. "You're a gift from God."
The next morning, Betsy woke Gretchen at exactly five o'clock. She rolled out of bed and changed, then walked down the stairs to where Jeff was waiting for her with two cups of coffee, once again.
"Thank you," she said, trying to see. "My head's cloudy this morning. I really need to get a home with a doggie door and a fenced-in back yard."
Jeff chuckled, then sipped his coffee as they headed outside into the cool September air. "If you had that, though, you wouldn't have anyone get you coffee in the morning."
"That's true, unless I could teach Betsy how to turn on the coffeepot." She yawned then took a sip. "So why did you want to meet me here? We come here every day anyway."
"I wanted to make sure you didn't wimp out on me."
"Never. Betsy wouldn't let me. I think she has a thing for you."
"Just like her owner?"
Gretchen laughed. "You bet. There's no doubt about that."
"When did that happen?"
"Oh, I don't know. Maybe back when you told me Ross and Betsy were related?"
He laughed. "When we met?"
"Yeah. I work fast." She turned toward his face as they walked down a path. "I think I'm falling in love with you. Just know it's coming and I can't do anything about it."
He took Betsy's leash from her hand and stopped them from walking on the blacktopped path. "I'm already there."
He reached up and stroked her cheek. "Yes, and have been for a while now. You're amazing and I love you so much…" He stopped talking and leaned closer, touching his lips to hers for the first time, surprising her. "I've been waiting for you to let me know you were interested."
She touched her lips to his, feeling the warmth of his skin giving her a very comfortable yet exciting feeling. "I don't invite just anyone to dinner."
He grinned, moving his hand to her hair. "I appreciate it, more than you know. I have a question for you."
"Yeah? Is it something about breakfast?"
His grin grew into a chuckle. "You like food, don't you?"
"Yeah, and I love you." She leaned up and kissed him again. "Because you taste like coffee. So what's your question?"
He inched away, then knelt in front of her, opening a box in his hand containing a big gold diamond ring. "Marry me?"
Gretchen felt her eyebrows hit her hairline while her mouth gaped open in surprise. "Yes! Definitely. Absolutely. I'd love to."
He laughed again as he stood up and put the ring on her finger. "Can you be a little more specific?"
She leaned up and gave him a long kiss. "Is that specific enough?"
"Yeah." He grinned. "I love it and you. I have another surprise for us."
He took her hand and guided her toward his car. "What do we both need?"
"Sleep?" she asked, then sipped the coffee.
"Other than that, even though that's related."
"I don't know. Tell me?"
He helped her inside the car with Betsy, then got into the driver's seat. "Let me show you." He drove her out into the country, past gorgeous homes with big lots. "Now, I know you like to sleep in, and Betsy likes to get out. So I went ahead and did a little research."
"Wait and see." He took her hand and kissed the back of it. "Just know I love you and wanted to surprise you."
After driving for a few more moments, he pulled into the driveway of a home with a 'for sale' sign in the front. Pasted over the sign was the word 'SOLD.'
"Where are we?"
Jeff just smiled, then got out of his side of the car. She joined him, with Betsy at her side. He took Betsy's leash and walked around to the back of the house, opened the gate to the big fence, then took off her leash and walked inside the fenced-in area with Gretchen and Betsy.
"Where are we?" Gretchen asked.
"Our new backyard. I bought this home for us, and I hope you like it."
She was surprised, but tried to reel it in. "You bought us a home?"
"Yes. I just hope you're not upset."
"Upset?" She laughed and pulled him in for a hug while Betsy ran around their feet. "I couldn't be happier. When can we get married in the church?"
He smiled, looking down at her face. "Two weeks? Can you fit that in?"
"I'd love to."
"And your brother has already agreed to be my best man. I'm not going to tempt fate again."
"Like I'd ever do that. I'm committed to you and you should know that." She laughed and he walked with her back to the front of the home and unlocked the door. She entered, seeing the entire home furnished in gorgeous new furniture. He took her on a tour of the home, then they sat on the back porch in comfortable overstuffed chairs while Betsy chased birds then lay at their feet.
"You did this all by yourself," Gretchen said. "How did you afford it?"
"I had some savings, just waiting for the right time. Bethany and I had bought a home, and because she left me, she gave it to me. We'd paid cash for it, and I sold it the Monday after the wedding date. So I had the money just waiting in the bank. I didn't want to live in that house, because it brought back bad memories. I moved into the apartment so I wouldn't feel alone." He reached up and stroked her cheek. "I'm so glad I did."
"I love you," she said.
He leaned up and gave her a kiss. "I love you, too. God brought us together, and I know it's going to be a great life with you at my side."