With God's Blessing:
"Hey, buddy!" Angie Dakota slammed on the brakes of her old beat-up pickup, making the backend slide. The offender waved as he ran the stop sign in his upper end black four-door SUV with a Missouri license plate. He was cute enough, but he had no idea what running a stop sign meant in this tiny Colorado town…and how he'd be the gossip of every gathering until Christmas—six months away. "Must be a tourist," she muttered. "I hate tourists. Ever since they built that pass in the mountains, everyone and their brother think they can go up there to ski without permission. It just makes me sick."
She waited until he passed, then proceeded on her way. Considering she had the right-of-way, that guy just irritated her. She hoped he was just passing through so she'd never see him again.
Angie turned up the radio, singing along, and pulled in to her parent's driveway, where she visited every night on her way home from her emergency room nursing job. Her brother, who lived next door to her parent's home with his wife, worked the ranch, but it was nice to see if her parents needed anything, since they were both older.
After parking her pickup in the tree-lined driveway, she got out of the car and walked inside, carrying a huge chocolate cake with chocolate icing—her father's favorite.
"Hey!" she said, stepping inside. "What's up here?"
"The ceiling," Henry, her father said. He never looking up from his paper while sitting in his wheelchair. "Do you have a date tonight or should I officially declare you an old maid?"
"That comment's getting old. I brought you something."
He lifted his eyes and sniffed the air. "Chocolate cake?"
"Yeah, with chocolate icing." She put it on the counter and opened the box. "And I bought it at your favorite bakery, too."
"Yeah. She's doing fine and ready to drop that kid any minute."
He wheeled his chair toward her, glancing into the box. "How are her other kids?"
"They were working today, since it's summertime. Jenny's the most help, since she's ten, but Sam is just too young. He wanted to taste the icing and Addie had to call Dave and have him take him to work with him."
"With his dad at the garage?"
"Yeah. Go figure." She grabbed a plate from the cabinet and a knife from the drawer. "Don't tell Mom and I'll get you a piece of cake."
"She won't be home for hours. She's at the neighbor's house." He rolled his eyes and sighed. "She spends more time over there than with me. All she does is gossip…"
"…gossip, gossip. I hear this same thing every day." Angie cut a piece of the cake, put it on the plate, and laid it on the table with a fork. "Be thankful she's not here, so she can't see you eat this before dinner. You know it'll make her mad."
"Yeah." He forked a piece of the cake into his mouth, letting it melt as he moaned. "That's delicious."
The front door opened and both Angie and Henry stared at each other. She grabbed his plate and took it to the table in the family room, hidden slightly from the kitchen. "Hurry up and eat the evidence," she whispered as Henry wheeled into the room. Angie walked into the kitchen right as her mom entered. "Mom!" She gave her a hug, hoping to stall for time.
"I'm so glad you're here. Come in here and have a seat. You have to hear what I just learned." She grabbed Angie's hand and pulled her toward the living room.
"Oh, Mom, before we go, check out this cake from Addie's place."
"You went to see your sister?" Her mother, Evelyn, stopped and headed back into the kitchen, staring inside the box. "There's a piece missing."
"Oh, we had it taste tested already."
Evelyn spun around toward Henry. "And I bet I know who's doing it, too."
Angie cleared her throat. "What did you want to tell me?"
Evelyn leaned against the counter and crossed her arms, facing Angie. "Well, Helen told me that Ruth told her that a young single man moved in to the old Connelly place."
Angie felt her mouth fall open. "The ranch across the street? It finally sold?"
"Yeah. Yesterday, and he moved in today. He's single."
She rolled her eyes. "I heard that, Mom. What does he do for a living?"
Evelyn reached out and touched Angie's arm. "Brace yourself. He's a youth minister, but used to teach psychology and sociology at college. He wants to change that ranch into a place for churches to take kids for retreats, with horseback riding, working on the ranch, and having fellowship. He wants part of the land rezoned so he can build a few buildings for the staff, with beds and everything. I bet he needs a nurse." Her smile was all-telling.
"Mom, don't fix me up and especially not to a youth minister again. I'm happy where I am now."
"In an apartment in Brownstown? Alone?"
"At least I'm not in over in Pueblo. Then you'd be really upset, being so far away."
"I guess you're right. But fifteen minutes seems like a long way, ever since your dad had his stroke." She turned and sighed toward Henry. "And you know better than to eat before dinnertime."
"What are we having?" he asked with his mouth full.
"Yuck. I'll just have cake, thank you."
Evelyn rolled her eyes, facing Angie again. "He's difficult at best. Why don't you take a few pieces of cake over to our new neighbor?" She walked over to the cabinet and grabbed some paper plates.
Angie wasn't about to be set up, glancing at her watch. "Will you look at the time? I really have to run." She inched toward the door. "Besides, I'm…uh…busy tonight."
The door opened right behind her, knocking her face first onto the floor.
"Oh, sorry, Angie," her brother, Jake, said. "I was just coming in to introduce you to the new neighbor who bought the Connelly place. His name's Nathan Reed."
Angie got up to her knees, rubbing her head, when she felt two strong hands lift her to her feet. The hands spun her around and she came face-to-face with the driver of the rotten SUV who had cut her off. Great. The new neighbor was a speed demon who disobeyed the law.
"You! What are you doing here?" Angie said, backing away. She lifted her finger in anger. "You need to learn how to drive. Did you know you almost rammed into my pickup when you went through the stop sign on County M?"
The man looked more than surprised with his eyebrows lifted, showing off his very blue eyes framed by his short dark brown hair. "I'm sorry. I didn't even know I did anything wrong. What stop sign are you talking about?"
"At the intersection of County M and Redbird Road."
Henry wheeled out to the kitchen, wiping his mouth with his good hand. "That stop sign fell down two days ago and they can't come out for a month to fix it. Gossip lady heard about it." He nodded toward Evelyn.
"I'm gossip lady?" Evelyn asked, her hand flying to her throat in innocence. "I hardly gossip, and never near a man of the cloth." She reached out and shook the neighbor's hand. "I'm Evelyn Dakota, this is my husband Henry, and I guess you met Jake."
"Yes, I did." He shook Henry's and Evelyn's hands, while Angie crossed her arms. This man was being way too nice, even if the stop sign was gone. She didn't care if he was an out-of-towner…he should know better.
"And this is my youngest child who's very single, Angie," Evelyn said.
"Mom, stop," she said. "Don't pawn me off on a criminal."
"He's not a criminal. And our other daughter is married and runs a bakery. Angie brought us some of her cake. Want some?"
Nathan's gaze locked on Angie's face, but she was giving him her full wrath, her arms crossed as he held out his hand.
Evelyn nudged her. "Shake his hand and be neighborly."
"No. He almost killed me. I don't like death."
"I'm sorry," he said. "But there was no stop sign. Want me to go over there right now and put it back upright, so no one dies?"
"That would be nice…for starters. Then all your visitors to your home will know not to kill me."
"Visitors?" he said, his eyebrows lifting. "What visitors?"
"Oh, church people," she said, waving him off. "I'm going home." She headed for the door. "Bye, and Dad, don't eat too much of that stuff."
"Wait just a minute," Nathan said, then reached out and touched her arm. "I want to talk to you."
Pulling from his hand, she continued out the door. "What about?"
"Wait," he said, and grabbed her arm as soon as she walked down the ramp to the house.
She spun toward him and crossed her arms. "What do you want from me?"
A small smile lifted his lips. "Want to help me with the stop sign?"
"I…hmmm…" She stopped talking and watched his face. "Why do you need me? Why not ask Jake? He's got more muscles than I do."
"Because I asked you. I don't want an enemy when I didn't do anything wrong…at least I didn't think so. I want to apologize to you properly and show you I'm not a bad person or a criminal."
She studied his face, muscular and strong. He'd done hard work before in his life, not just a college professor. She didn't want to agree, but there was something in his eyes—a sort of compassion she'd only seen in her father's eyes when her own boyfriend had dumped her three years before. "Fine. But this is only so no one else will die. I don't need to see them in my hospital."
"Yeah. I'm a nurse in the emergency room and always change before I leave work so no one will tell me about their ouchies."
He laughed. "Ouchies?"
"Yeah." She headed for her truck. "I'll drive."
He grabbed her hand and walked her past her truck. "Oh, no. I don't think so. I have tools for this."
"How can I trust you?"
"I'm a man of the cloth. Why wouldn't you trust me?"
She narrowed her eyes at him. "Prove it."
"Oh, you're mistrusting." He left go of her hand, reached into his pocket, and pulled out his wallet. "You do know Thomas doubted that Jesus had risen again, right?"
"I don't trust anyone these days. And you're not Jesus."
"You're right." He opened his wallet and showed her his license, then an identification card with the title 'Reverend' on it. "That's me. I take a great picture, don't I?"
"Arrogance gets you nowhere."
"I see we have a lot of work here. You're great practice for me."
"Practice? For what?"
He leaned closer. "For rebellious kids who don't want to cooperate."
"Oh, what a nice comment. Do you hire out for little kid's birthday parties, too? I bet you have them in tears in a moment, don't you?"
They crossed the road as he laughed. "Yeah. Kind of strong, huh? Give me a break. This is a new job for me. I went to the Seminary when I was teaching at the University in Missouri."
"I heard about that. Mom is the town gossip, by the way. I wish she wouldn't do it and would stay home with Dad. He hates being alone."
"I'll handle that for you, if I can. I can go visit him and keep your mom home somehow. Do they go to the Brownstown River Church?"
"They used to, but it's tough with Dad, now. Dad used to be a big shot there, before his stroke. Now, he watches everyone else get involved while he flips through the television channels. It's horrible for him."
"That's sad. I wonder if I can put him to work?"
"He's brilliant. He used to be a veterinarian and ran the ranch. He loves animals, too."
"Good. I have two dogs over here. I'm going to give him a job, which will help, too." He walked up the front stairs of his porch and opened the door. Two big yellow lab dogs bounded out, looking happy.
"Adam and Eve. Did you miss me?" He knelt down and hugged both of the dogs, but Angie wasn't impressed. So he liked dogs. She knew some men used that to their advantage to get women to go out with them, thinking of them as stable. Not her.
Nathan stood up. "These are my buddies. Adam and Eve. A mom and her puppy…and they're both young. Eve's four and Adam is one."
"Nice to know."
He glanced down at her crossed arms. "Are you still upset about the stop sign? I really didn't know."
"Like I said, I don't trust people when I first meet them. It's a job hazard." And especially not youth ministers.
He sighed and walked inside, the dogs following him. "Come on in and ignore all the boxes. I'm still getting things situated."
She glanced around at all the empty rooms, a few boxes here and there. "You don't have much."
"Nope. I sold almost everything in Missouri. It was cheaper to buy just what I needed after I got here than to move everything."
"And you're not married, but have this huge home."
"Oh, someday I'll be married. I want to fill this home with kids." He walked to a box and knelt in front of it, then looked up at Angie. "And no, I don't have a girlfriend right now, either. The last one raked me over the coals and made me start studying to be a pastor."
"Why is that, if it's not too personal?"
He opened the box and looked inside, then opened another box and stuck his hand in, searching for something. "No, it's not personal. My life's an open book. She thought she was permitted to date anyone else when I was teaching. And she did…and she got pregnant, but I can guarantee it's not my kid, because I require a commitment before anything would ever happen. Before I became a Christian, I did a lot of work in sociology and psychology, getting my doctorate, and found out so much about dating, I wasn't about to make the same mistakes that a lot of people make…including my girlfriend. She was gone as soon as I found out. I started surrounding myself with Christians, because one can become like the ones with whom they associate. It made a world of difference and I decided that more people needed to realize that fact. That's what made me want to go into the ministry."
She felt a guilty weight lay on her heart. "That's very cool. I dated a minister once, but he wasn't anything like that. He just felt sorry for people. I figured you were the same."
He searched through yet another box and pulled out some tools. "Nope. I don't feel sorry for anyone, because they usually choose their own paths, never talking to God, first." He stood up and walked toward the door, watching the dogs. "You two stay here." He opened the door and Angie and he walked out, and he locked it behind them. "Who was the minister?"
"He used to be the youth minister at your church. Randall Hart."
"You dated him?"
"Yeah." She sighed and warmed her arms.
"So what happened? No one told me anything."
She swallowed hard. "He took a job out of state then dumped me. He said long-distance dating didn't work and knew I wouldn't go with him. He told me that on my answering machine. When I tried to call him back, his phones were disconnected and he was gone. Even his email disappeared."
"That was nice and personal of him. So do you go to church now?" He opened the passenger's side of the SUV and helped her inside, putting the tools in the back seat.
"Nope. I didn't need to be made fun of after he just up and left. No one knew it was coming, either."
He stood at the open door and watched her. "Why not come with me? I could use a friend at church, since I'm new."
"Don't answer me yet." He closed her door and walked to his side of the car, then got inside. "It's Friday, and I want you to think about it before saying anything." He turned the key and backed out of his driveway.
"But how would that look? The youth minister dumps me then I show up talking to the new youth minister?"
He shot her a grin. "That you're a nice and forgiving person?"
"No, that I'm a youth minister stalker. Sorry, but you're out of luck. Find another sucker…I mean friend to join you."
He chuckled, glancing at her as he drove. "Tell me how you really feel? I hate when you hold back your real thoughts."
"Very funny. So Mom said, from the grapevine, that you were a college professor and wanted to start a retreat ranch or something."
"You were talking about me?"
"Yeah. Before you just showed up and slammed me to the floor in my parent's kitchen, after almost killing me at the disappearing stop sign."
"I didn't know about the stop sign, and I didn't open the door…it was your brother. And I did help you up."
"Regardless, I think you have a goal to see me dead or hurt."
He paused for a moment. "Wait. You just changed the subject. You were talking about me at your house?"
"Yeah. I already told you that."
"And your mother said I was teaching at a college and wanted to start a retreat ranch?"
"Yep. Is it true?"
"Yes. All of it. I was a professor in the social sciences, with a Ph.D. in that field. But that's past history. I want to help people and this seems to be a great job for me."
"Teenagers. Are you sure about this?"
He smiled. "Yeah. I worked with troubled teens while teaching at the University. It was a volunteer job for some of my students and me. They let you know exactly what they're thinking, kind of like…you."
She turned to stare out the window. "Get over it."
He slowed down and went through the intersection, stopping across the road from the stop sign. He got out and she joined him at the front of the SUV. "I would've helped you out of the car," he said. "I am a gentleman."
"There are no gentlemen left in the world. I'm on my own." She looked both ways, then crossed the street, the wind blowing her hair slightly back from her face. She stood where the stop sign should've been, seeing only bushes. "Where did it go?"
"See?" he said, moving closer to her ear. "I don't have a death wish for you."
"I guess not, but I still don't trust you." She moved the bushes away, seeing the stop sign bent slightly to the right. "Oh, it's here, and you did disobey the law. I wish I were a cop. I'd throw you in jail."
"I don't think it would stick," he said with a small laugh. He walked to the other side of the sign and pushed it up into place, but it wasn't straight. Angie walked to the other side and pulled while he pushed, when all of a sudden, a big speeding truck headed for her. Nathan grabbed her hand and pulled her off the road, and both of them watched the truck barrel through the intersection, never stopping.
With his arms around her, Angie looked up at his face, seeing the compassion in his eyes again. His eyes lowered to hers while his smile grew. "You okay?"
She couldn't move her eyes from his face; he was that magnetic. "Yeah."
"What a way to break the ice. I thought I'd have to drag you back to my place and make you spend time with me, too."
She couldn't speak, glancing down at his lips.
He leaned closer to her ear. "Do you feel what I feel?"
She cleared her throat. "Yep."
He moved his arms, pulling her closer to him. "What would you like to do about it?"
She backed away from him and crossed her arms. "What are my choices and what are your intentions?"
"Well, I was going to ask you out, date you, marry you, then have kids with you and grow old, running the retreat business from my home, but I might be jumping ahead just a little bit."
She chuckled, watching him put his foot in his mouth while her own heart leapt for joy, just thinking about it. "One step at a time. At least you have the Christian thing going for you. That's on my list. But how can I guarantee you're not like Randall?"
"Because this is where I want to live. I'm really ready to settle down, because I've done everything wild in my life. It's time to turn over a new chapter." He took a step closer to where she stood and took her hand, then guided her back toward the SUV. "At least have dinner with me tonight. I don't have any food at my place yet, and would really like to get to know you. I can tell you have a wall up in your heart, and just know I'm praying for you. I want God in our relationship, so get ready for it."
"That's good, because I go to Him for just about everything. He's probably ready to hear more from me other than I'm lonely and bored."
With a laugh, Nathan helped her into the SUV, but she could only stare, drawn to him for some reason. "Let's do dinner," she said. "Then talk about this. For some reason, I want to know what you're really like. I must be insane, but when someone prays for me, that hits my heart, hard."
"Good. And it should." He closed her door and walked to his side while she watched him. It was time to get out more and since he was nice and a fun guy, Angie knew she was hooked.
After dating Nathan every night for a week, Angie realized there was more to this guy than she thought possible. And after a month, she had to think she was in this for the long haul. But when September hit, she knew this was meant to be.
She no longer went to her parent's home first, but straight to Nathan's house after work. He'd meet her at the door as soon as she drove up.
"Well look who the dogs dragged in," he would say, pulling her into his arms for a kiss as soon as she approached the door. "How was your day?"
"I have some news," she said, walking into the house with him. "They're moving me to nights. I hate working nights, so I'm going to be crabby until they move me to days again."
"Thanks for the warning and for being so honest." He kissed her again as soon as they walked inside, and pulled her in for a hug. "Tonight's a big night for us."
"Yeah. I just didn't tell you yet. We have a dinner party to go to."
She looked down at her jeans and a t-shirt. "You could've warned me."
"Oh, no. It's really informal. As a matter of fact, it's at your parent's place."
"And they didn't tell me?"
He leaned closer to her ear. "It's a secret."
"You'll see." He gave her a hug. "Just know I truly care about you and never want to let you go."
"I'll have to eat sometime. You're going to have to let me go, you know."
He smiled, then moved his lips to hers. "Nope. You've been really helpful getting this place in order, and we'll be able to have retreats starting in November…and not just for teens. You're very smart in putting in things for adults and cross-country skiing, as well. I'm hiring staff next week, with the blessings of a few donors."
"You got the donors?" she squealed, backing away. "Congratulations!"
"That's part of the secret. Ready to go?"
"Lead the way, Mr. Boss."
He laughed as they walked out of the home and across the street. The cool September air whipped around them, making Angie move closer to Nathan. "I'll take care of you," he said. "Lean on me."
She looked up at his face, seeing the sentimentality of the words fill his face.
"And that's forever," he said, leaning closer to her ear.
"Something's different today," she said. "What's going on?"
"You'll see." They headed up the wheelchair ramp to the home and walked inside, where her entire family was waiting for them. Even Addie, Dave, Jenny, Sam, and the new baby, Alyssa, were there. They rarely came to family functions, with their two businesses and the children.
Jake and his wife, Belle, were laughing in the kitchen, talking to Addie and Dave.
"Hey, Angie and Nathan are here," Henry said. "We can start dinner now. I'm hungry."
They all sat down at the huge dining room table and Nathan offered the prayer, asking for forgiveness, health, and happiness for the future. Then he asked that the evening go as planned, reaching over and holding onto Angie's hand as he spoke.
"Amen," he said, and everyone lifted their heads, passing plates around the table.
"Mom, you outdid yourself," Angie said. "I didn't even know we'd be here, or I'd have helped."
"Oh, I had help," she said and glanced toward Addie and Belle. They all giggled, making Angie almost irritated.
"So you didn't want my help," Angie said. "I know I'm not the best cook in the group—"
Nathan grabbed her hand. "Let it go. You'll understand more in a little bit."
His grin was priceless as his eyes pierced through her. "Have a little faith."
She was speechless, because he knew more than he was telling.
"We liked your sermon on Sunday," Jake said. "It really fit into everything going on these days."
"What is going on these days?" Angie asked. "It was about praying for big future decisions and always bringing God into your life for everything."
Nathan took a bite, then grabbed her hand again, holding it under the table. "I was asked to give the sermon on Sunday. That's what's going on, and the kids loved it."
"I loved it," Jenny said. "When can I be in youth fellowship with you and the older kids?"
"You have to be fourteen," Nathan said.
"Four more years? I want to go now."
"You can go to junior youth fellowship," Addie said.
"But I don't get to see my unc—"
Addie slapped her hand over Jenny's mouth, making Angie look up at her in surprise. "What was that comment?"
Jenny looked up at her mom as she moved her hand away. "Nothing," Jenny said with a laugh. "Can we get this meal over with?"
"I was thinking the same thing," Nathan said with a chuckle. "You read my mind."
She giggled, covering her mouth.
"Well, we have some news," Jake said.
Every eye turned toward him and he glanced toward his wife with a grin. "We're having a baby. We just found out this morning."
The room went silent, then everyone cheered. Evelyn hopped to her feet and ran to both of them, giving them hugs, congratulating them.
Angie leaned toward Nathan. "Was that the secret reason we're here?"
"Maybe?" He smiled, leaned over and kissed her cheek. "Just know I love you."
"You do?" she whispered, her family still gushing over Belle and Jake. "You never told me that before."
"Yes, I do, and have for a while. I didn't want to scare you off."
"Wow." She studied his face. "I love you, too," she whispered. "But don't let it get out to my family or they'll have us married."
He just grinned, then ate some more of his meal.
As soon as the main meal was over, Nathan, Dave, and Jake cleaned the table.
"Mom," Angie said. "Do you think we can have them clear off the table all the time?"
"Yes," she said. "It's our new rule."
"Good." Addy sat back. "It's about time they all pulled their weight." She and Angie just laughed, until the three men walked back into the room.
Nathan took Angie's hand and pulled her to her feet. "Now for the real reason we're here."
"I think I'm going to cry," Evelyn whispered.
Angie turned toward her. "What for? What's going on?"
A finger on her chin had her facing Nathan again. "My dearest Angie. The past few months have been a whirlwind for me, at least, and I certainly wasn't looking for someone to date, because I had to get used to my new job. But you've stolen my heart and I want everyone to know it." While reaching into his pocket, he knelt in front of her, then opened a small black box to a solitaire diamond ring. "I believe God introduced us, and we've both put Him in the center of our relationship, working together to get the retreat center ready to bring others to God. In that time, I've fallen in love with you and want to ask you one question. Will you make me the happiest man alive and marry me?"
Angie couldn't breathe, certain her heart had stopped while tears of joy and surprise filled her eyes. "I'd love to marry you. Name the time and place and I'll be there. Oh, and can I quit my job, too? I hate working nights."
Everyone laughed while Nathan slipped the ring onto her finger, then stood up and kissed her, still chuckling. "Whatever you want, my dear, because I want you to stay home and raise all the kids, including our dogs."
She smiled, then kissed him again, ignoring the giant chocolate cake with chocolate icing her brother and brother-in-law brought to the table. She was happy and with God's blessing, Nathan was all she needed, so they could live a life of nothing but happiness and love.