Miracles are instantaneous, they cannot be summoned, but come of themselves, usually at unlikely moments and to those who least expect them.
—Katherine Anne Porter
Joe Rhodes gritted his teeth as the last rays of sun slid behind the Rocky Mountains. Turning from the French doors, he let the floral draperies fall, cutting off the scenic Pikes Peak view. A view he’d planned on sharing with Mari Baker in this third floor bedroom suite designed just for her.
The tall blond took one more look around the space that was part bedroom and part library with its King-sized bed, built in shelves, and cozy chairs perfect for snuggling up with good books. Mari’s love of literature had been the inspiration for the reading nook for two. On the other side of the room, there was a bistro-sized table and chairs with a view onto the curved balcony that graced the front of the house. A kitchenette with a small sink, microwave, and refrigerator for late night snacks was close by.
Joe walked to the doorway of the Victorian’s attached turret and couldn’t help picturing Mari in the big whirlpool tub soaking in bubbles, her long, brunette curls spread over the edge—the sun streaming in the high windows and gleaming off her shoulders above the bubbles. His chest tightened, and he turned away, heading for the stairs.
Even if I’ve lost the house, I’ve still got her. That’s what matters.
As he walked down the two flights of stairs, he reminisced about the hours he and his two brothers, Ben and Eli, had put in on the house, restoring it to its full Victorian beauty. They had just started putting on the finishing touches when the bottom fell out of the housing market, and Rhodes Construction took a serious dive.
They probably would have been all right if it hadn’t been for their last big project—a gated luxury apartment complex being developed by Tony and Bud Marshall. With plummeting housing values, the Marshalls had ended up in bankruptcy, unable to pay Joe and his men, putting their construction company near the brink of bankruptcy as well. Joe had found another buyer for the apartments, but he had to take a loss.
Joe paused at the bottom of the stairs, pulled his key ring out of his pocket, and twisted the house keys off. He gripped them a moment in his hand, picturing the horrified look on Mari’s face when he had told her he was going to have to sell the house. Taking a few deep breaths, he strode along the stair rail to the kitchen and laid the keys on the table beside those already left there by his brothers. The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.
He turned abruptly and headed for the door. Mari would be home from her community college classes soon, and with his heart aching, he just wanted to hold her. Grabbing his denim jacket off the peg by the door, he let himself out and jogged down the porch stairs. He shuffled across the lawn through the fallen, dry leaves to the little cottage next door that Mari rented. A rather blustery day, the path he made was obliterated almost immediately as the stirred-up piles shifted with the swirling winds.
He let himself in with the spare key she had given him and smiled at the long-haired, orange cat that was yawning and stretching on the love seat in the middle of the room. He didn’t think he’d ever seen a creature that slept so much. He walked over to her and stroked her head before she jumped to the floor and headed toward the back of the house and the kitchen. “Is this the beginning of your one hour of activity?” he called after her.
He scooped up a catnip mouse off the floor and tossed it her direction. She paused, giving it a sniff, then continued to the kitchen. Joe smiled and turned back to sit on the love seat—the only comfortable piece of furniture in Mari’s small living room. It had been a fairly ugly thrift store find, but the taupe throw and bright pillows made it work.
Pivoting, he draped his legs over the low arm of the discount store bargain and lay down. With a good chunk of his tall frame hanging off, he fit perfectly. Joe ran his hands through his slightly-too-long sandy blond hair and locked them behind his head. He sighed. Well, what now?
He looked around the room that Eli had decorated for Mari back when they were dating. The artwork was bright floral paintings, and apple green drapery panels were looped over black rods to create swags.
Eli worked for his construction company as their architect in residence, but in the last year, he had begun to branch out in house designs and even doing designer work like he had done for Mari.
Joe sighed again. Diversifying probably has saved his neck right now.
The door opened, and in walked Mari with books hooked in one arm and a camera bag in her other hand. Joe sprang back up to take the books while Mari set the camera down by the coat tree to untie the belt around her bright pink jacket. She smiled up at him while she slipped out of it.
He was pleased to see that she was wearing the outfit he had just given her for her recent birthday—a rich blue, long-sleeved knit top with a slender brown and blue plaid skirt. He had never been one to be too concerned about clothes, but he found he enjoyed buying them for Mari.
He waited impatiently as she slowly and teasingly hung her jacket up before sliding his free arm around her and hauling her against him.
He looked down into Mari’s brown eyes, and she smiled up at him. “I could get used to this—a tall, strong, gorgeous guy waiting in my house when I come home.” She raised up on her toes, and Joe inclined his head to meet her lips.
She gave him a peck and reached for her books, but Joe pulled them away from her reach with eyebrows raised. “You’re not getting off that easy, little lady.” Looking around Mari’s sparsely furnished home for somewhere to set the pile, he took her hand and led her toward the love seat, depositing the books on the end table on the way. Then he sat and pulled her onto his lap. Since the top of her head only came to his shoulder when standing, it was always easier to kiss her sitting down.
Mari slid her hands around his neck and let him have his way with her lips. Kissing Mari was one of his favorite things. It was exciting and calming all at the same time, and he couldn’t help thinking of his wedding day just a month away.
And his wedding night.
A night they’d planned on taking place in the luxurious third floor bedroom suite of the house next door. Damn.
He broke off the kiss and bent his head with his eyes closed. “I’m so sorry, Mari.”
She leaned her forehead against his. “If you’re apologizing for kissing me, I’m going to be pretty upset.” She sat back and ran a hand through his hair. “If you’re apologizing yet again about the house, then stop it. What’s done is done. God has another house for us.”
Joe lifted his gaze to hers, his voice husky. “Have I told you how much I love you?”
“Yes, but feel free to tell me again.” Mari’s eyes sparkled, and Joe slid his hand into her hair, pulling her lips toward his once more. He took his time, exploring and nibbling, each kiss lightening the burden of losing his Victorian treasure. Giving her one last dizzying kiss, he snuggled his nose into her hair and held her tight. This treasure is all I need.
“So, are you going to tell me?” Mari whispered.
“Tell you what, sweetheart?”
She pulled back to look in his smoky blue eyes and blinked. “How much you love me.”
The corners of his mouth lifted in a sly smile making his dimples pop, and his fingers dug into her ribs just a bit—a warning for impending tickles. “I thought I just did.”
She squirmed against his probing fingers and quirked her lips to the side, looking peeved. “I suppose I shouldn’t tell you this, but Eli used to kiss me like that, and he didn’t love me.”
Joe’s fingers stilled as he pondered the relatively short span of time that Mari and Eli had dated around the first of the year. “He kissed you like that?”
She nodded and went on. “And I’m sure you kissed Beth like that, and you say you didn’t really love her.”
Joe shook his head, considering the kisses he’d given his ex-fiancée. “No, Mari, I never kissed Beth like that, but just so you know…” He ran a hand down her cheek then let his thumb play over her lower lip. “I need you more than my next breath. I love you more than my life. I’d have no life at all without you. You’re my heartbeat.”
Mari smiled. “Very poetic. A+.”
Joe’s hand at her lower back slid over and up the curve of her waist. He leaned toward her ear, his baritone voice rumbling, “So, Teach, do you grade on a curve?” He paused his hand on her rib cage, his index finger teasing a spot right below her breast.
Mari’s eyes widened, and she slipped off his lap. “Very funny.” She started toward the kitchen. “I think it’s time to fix some supper.” Pausing at the door, she turned back. “Somebody’s getting hungry.”
Joe laughed at her double entendre but knew she was right. He’d wanted to get married right after proposing in April. Now that he’d found the right woman, he was a bit impatient. Why do women need so much time to put together a wedding? He had found patience in the third floor renovation, creating a bridal suite. He sighed, picturing Mari lying on a pile of brightly colored pillows in the middle of the King-sized bed wearing something see-through.
He ran a hand over his jaw and got up to get a breath of fresh air. I’m a thirty-five year-old virgin—of course I’m ‘hungry.’
After a light supper, Joe stood looking out the side window of Mari’s living room until two vehicles pulled into “his” driveway next door. Patti, the realtor he’d been working with, got out of her car behind the Wilburs—the middle-aged couple who had bought his house.
Mari came up beside him, and he flung his arm around her as the threesome went up the porch steps and into the house. Lights came on, and Joe let out a heavy breath. Mari turned and wrapped her arms around him as he reached up to grasp the pleated shade cord. After lowering the shade, he wrapped his arms around her, and the two stood in silence.
Mari’s mind wandered to the man she had seen that day on campus who seemed to be already there, wherever she went. She had never noticed him before, and yet he seemed to be in every one of her classes. You can’t just start classes at the beginning of December.
The fellow’s age was hard to pinpoint. One minute Mari thought he looked young enough to be a Freshman, and the next, she was sure he was older than her thirty-one years. With blond hair and blue eyes, he reminded her of Joe and Ben, but these eyes were like sapphires—a piercing blue that seemed to look right through you. She was embarrassed to admit that she had sneaked looks at him more than once; his magnetism was palpable.
She looked up at Joe, ready to tell him about this “mystery man,” but one look at his solemn expression told her it wasn’t a good time. He’s grieving the loss of his home. She gave him a squeeze then loosened her grip to lead him over to the love seat. She had spent so much time at the Rhodes‘ house in the last eleven months, she felt the loss as well. She and Joe had brain-stormed the third floor design together, with Eli’s architectural skills turning their ideas into blueprints, and all the Rhodes brothers’ muscles making them a reality.
She never told Joe, but she hadn’t been able to resist using the whirlpool tub at least once before he sold the place, going over when everyone was out. It had been glorious.
Mari sat on one end, and Joe sort of tumbled onto the couch, putting his head in Mari’s lap, his legs dangling over the arm at the other end. Mari laughed. “Hello, Joe.”
He gave her a half smile. “Hello, Mari. Do you mind?”
She ran one hand through his hair while she slid her other hand down his arm to his resting on his stomach. “Not at all.”
He closed his eyes, and she studied the face she already knew so well. All the Rhodes brothers were handsome with straight, precise noses and perfect lips, although Eli deviated from his fair-haired brothers with his dark hair and eyes. Both he and Joe had dimples, but Joe was the tallest, the broadest, and in Mari’s opinion, the most stunning of the good-looking trio. Dazzling Joe. “My angelo d’amore,” she whispered, and Joe smiled.
Mari’s smile slid into contemplation. Angelo. Wasn’t that the mystery guy’s name? Her expression grew more perplexed as she tried to remember how she knew that. As far as she could remember, she never heard him speak once in any class and didn’t think she saw anyone interacting with him.
When she looked back to Joe, he was looking at her. “What are you thinking about?”
Mari almost voiced what was really on her mind but decided against it. “Nothing. Everything. You know.” She ran her hand down his cheek, feeling the stubble trying to take over. “I know you put far more into the house, but I’m sad, too. You guys did a great job restoring it, and I would have been very proud to live there.”
Joe reached up to run his fingers through her curls, looking pensive. “I was proud of it, too. Maybe that’s why God has taken it away. Maybe I was too proud.”
Mari shook her head. “I don’t think so, Joe. Sometimes things just happen. Do you really think God designed this whole economic downturn just to divest you of your house?” Mari’s eyebrows rose. “Do you think it was really all about you?”
The corners of Joe’s mouth quirked up. “Well, when you put it that way… it does seem kind of ridiculous.”
“And you got a good price out of it, furniture and all. You got enough to pay the bank with a bit extra to pay outstanding debts. God was looking out for you.”
His smile grew. “I love you, Mari.”
She smiled back. “I love you, too.”
Joe jumped as Mari’s cat, Tawny, leaped to his stomach and proceeded to walk up his chest and lick his chin. Joe turned his face and pulled her away. “Sorry, cat, but you’ve got Friskies breath.” He gave her gentle encouragement to lie on his belly then stroked her fur. A loud purr soon followed. “So how was school today?”
Even though Joe was making a valiant effort at small talk, Mari could tell he was still pretty depressed about the house. She continued to stroke his hair. “Good. I can’t believe the semester is nearly over. I have to write one more short story and do one final photography project that will have a student critique; then it’s off to finals.”
Joe scowled. “Student critique, huh? Is your grade in the hands of another student?”
“Not completely. The prof will evaluate the photos also, but it’s supposed to help us to look at photography critically—to see what’s right and what’s wrong. To assess if it really evokes the feelings and emotions that the photographer was going for.”
He stopped petting Tawny long enough to cover her hand resting on his chest with his. “You should take a selfie. That would be an easy A.”
Mari laughed. “Well, self-portraits are allowed as long as it says something other than ‘Look at me; this is my face.’” The mystery man’s piercing blue eyes jumped to Mari’s mind unbidden, and she shook her head to dislodge them.
Joe looked at her quizzically. “What? You just had the oddest look on your face.”
“Did I? I don’t know. Just pondering the self-portrait idea. Maybe I should photograph you.”
Joe huffed out a surprised laugh and sat up, sending Tawny jumping to the floor. “I think that’s my cue to head… out.” He paused without looking at Mari, and his expression drooped. “I almost said ‘home,’ but that little apartment with Ben doesn’t feel like home.”
Mari slid closer and stroked his head. “It doesn’t need to, Joe. We’ll be making a home together soon enough.”
He looked her way and squeezed her knee. “You know, this place isn’t much bigger. And there’s no way we’re both fitting in that tiny bed of yours. Shall we start looking for something else?”
“I suppose. This place barely holds my stuff. What’s our… budget.” Mari immediately wished she hadn’t brought up the subject of money. She knew that Rhodes construction was having a hard time of it, especially when the congregation that wanted the new synagogue in Oklahoma City was now having second thoughts about building.
Joe sighed. “I don’t know, but we will probably have to rent until we get some cash flowing again to save for a down payment. I know you’re not fond of apartment living, and frankly, neither am I, so I’ll see if Patti knows of any nice houses for rent.”
Joe rose and headed for the coat rack, and Mari followed. “Is it too soon to think about another fixer-upper?”
Joe slipped into his jacket with a lop-sided smile. “I don’t know. Maybe. We’ll need a down payment, though, even for a fixer-upper.”
She followed him to the door, and he took her in his arms. She raised up on tip-toes, and he met her lips with a tender kiss goodbye. Then she watched him with her arms crossed against the chill night air as he strode to his pickup, giving her one last wave as he pulled away from the curb.
She gasped as a man was revealed on the other side of the street, standing with his hands in trench coat pockets, looking directly at her. Quickly stepping back inside the house, she closed and locked the door. Unnerved, she strode to her dark bedroom to let down her pleated shade. She almost considered calling Joe back and wondered how he didn’t see the guy as he got into his truck. Surely he wouldn’t have just left if he’d seen a strange man staring at my house.
She got down on her knees and risked lifting a corner of the shade slightly to look out. There wasn’t anyone there. She shifted to look up and down the street, but there was no one. Letting out a breath, she released the shade and sat back on her heels. She hadn’t been able to see any of his features except the blond hair glinting in the glow of the streetlight.
Joe was up with the dawn, although he really didn’t know why. He had given the rabbi in Oklahoma City until the end of the week to decide if they wanted him to get started on their synagogue or not. Until then, he didn’t really have a thing to do. In the last several years, whenever he’d had some down time between projects, he and his brothers just worked harder on the house.
Now he had no house to work on.
After pulling on jeans and a navy t-shirt, he made his way to the kitchen, rolling his shoulders and taking his head in a slow circle, stretching out his neck. He had brought his bed with him—the bedroom furniture on the second floor wasn’t included with the house sale—but somehow it didn’t feel the same in this new space. He’d awakened with a stiff neck nearly every morning since. Maybe I need a new pillow.
Standing in the small apartment kitchen, he pondered what to eat for breakfast. He had a heavy feeling in his chest, and nothing really sounded good. Finally he pulled a box of Crispix out of the cupboard and rounded up a bowl, spoon, and carton of milk. With the first bite he knew he wasn’t in the mood for cereal either, but he forced himself to eat it. Throwing out good food was tantamount to throwing out money, and Joe was too practical to do that.
He was rinsing out the bowl in preparation for the dishwasher when Ben showed up in the kitchen wearing boxers and a gray t-shirt. Fourteen years younger, Ben was a smaller version of Joe with tousled hair; he just lacked the dimples and the smoky quality to his blue eyes.
He ran a hand through his hair and yawned. “Morning, Joe.”
“Morning, Ben. What’s on your schedule today?”
“I’ve got classes all morning, then volunteering at the zoo this afternoon.” He pulled two slices of bread out of the bag and slid them into the toaster. “How about you?”
Joe shrugged, wishing his schedule wasn’t one big blank. “Maybe I’ll try to catch Mari for lunch. I’m sort of on hold waiting for Rabbi Yelson to call. I’m not sure what to do if he says ‘no.’ Nobody who’s called lately about building has had any follow-through.”
Ben’s toast popped up, and he looked thoughtful as he spread on the butter. “Time to advertise?”
Joe leaned back against the dishwasher in the cramped kitchen and crossed his arms. “Maybe. Advertising is expensive, though.” He let out a big breath. “I haven’t had to advertise in years. I always had a waiting list.”
Ben made to open the refrigerator directly across from where Joe stood, and Joe counter-crossed to sit at the small folding table to get out of his way. Ben brought a jar of strawberry jam and a knife back to the table and sat. “Everyone seems to have been affected in some way. Even the zoo is hurting. The attendance numbers are down.”
Joe nodded grimly. He hadn’t been thrilled when Ben had switched from a business manager degree to zoo studies after two years in college, but Ben’s obvious enthusiasm had won him over. Now he hoped Ben would be able to get a job at the zoo once he was through school.
Ben spread a generous amount of jam on his toast and poured himself a glass of milk. Restless, Joe pushed away from the table. “Maybe Grandma and Paps need some work done around their yard. I’ve got to do something, or I’m going to go bonkers waiting for that Oklahoma call.”
Ben nodded slightly while drinking then wiped his mouth on his napkin. “They probably do, but if you drive up to Greeley, I don’t think you’ll be having lunch with Mari.”
Joe pulled his jacket out of the small closet by the door. “No, I suppose not. I’ll catch her tonight.”
“So who has their final project figured out?” The tall girl with black and purple chin-length hair who had asked the question looked around the table before popping a tater tot into her mouth.
Mari had followed most of her creative writing group to the cafeteria after class and joined some of them for lunch. She looked down the table to Tirzah, trying not to focus on the piercing that always made her think the girl’s nose was dripping. Several close to her had jumped into the discussion, so Mari didn’t feel the need to interject. She brushed a crumb off the front of her brown sweater and went back to eating.
Even though the group didn’t treat her like she was older, she felt the difference in their ages. Her long, curly hair, big brown eyes, and small nose belied the fact that she was a good ten years older than most of them.
She had spent over a decade in college trying to find a career she could not just live with, but love. She had a B.A. in Literature and had gone through masters programs in Design, Psychology, and Education, but none had seemed to truly satisfy her. She had moved from Oklahoma to Colorado Springs nearly a year ago to enroll in Zoo Studies, but a circulatory condition that makes it difficult for her to withstand cold had her rethinking that plan, and she latched onto photography. After Joe read some of her writing, he encouraged her that direction as well.
She still had a hard time believing it whenever someone praised something she had written. Even though it had been a secret passion for years, she had assumed it wasn’t good enough to show anyone. It had taken some persuading, but Joe finally convinced her to take some classes and “just see.” She was so glad she did; some of her poetry had even been selected for a campus literary magazine last spring.
She hoped that now she had found her “groove,” but she felt she was walking two paths with one foot in photography and one in writing. She hoped over time, one would show itself to be the better way to go, although she knew there really wasn’t anything wrong with doing both.
She quietly nibbled on chicken nuggets while the rest of the table threw around story ideas for their last big project. “So, Mari,” Bill, the sandy-headed guy next to her began, “you’re awfully quiet over here. Keeping all your A+ ideas for yourself?”
Mari looked into friendly brown eyes that also held a hint of challenge. “No, I really haven’t decided what to write. I guess it will come to me when I have my fingers on the keyboard.”
Jade, the short, round woman across from her, pushed her purple glasses up and smiled. “I’m sure whatever the topic is, Mari will turn out another great story.” She flipped her long, straight, auburn hair over her shoulder. “Where do you get all your ideas?”
As the entire table seemed to focus her way, Mari self-consciously hooked her hair behind her ear. “Oh, I don’t know. They haven’t all been great.” She nervously sipped her hot tea that had cooled considerably.
A tall, wiry fellow laughed. “Yeah, I think Mari once got an A- instead of an A.”
Mari laughed, too. “Okay, okay, but remember this isn’t my first time around. I’ve done badly in other fields.”
“Don’t give up on this one, Mari.” The woman in front of her emphasized her words with her fork as she spoke. “You have real talent.”
Mari smiled, blushed, and turned her gaze out the window. A man across the street seemed to be looking right at her, and Mari had a powerful déjà vu as she remembered the man looking at her house the night before. He was kind of far away, so she couldn’t really make out facial features, but the trench coat looked the same, and the hair was definitely blond. Mari’s heart started to race. Is it the same guy?
She turned back to the table of laughing students. “Does anyone know that guy across the street?”
Everyone turned their attention to the expanse of windows. “Which guy?” Bill asked.
Mari looked back and let out a sigh of frustration. Where a moment ago, one man stood alone, there now seemed to be a whole crowd of students bustling to and fro, and she didn’t see the blond in the trench coat anywhere. “Never mind, I guess. He seems to be gone.”
Tirzah sat back in her seat. “What did he look like?”
Mari told them what little she could see, and oddly, everyone of them knew a different tall blond who may or may not own a trench coat.
Mari started to rise, taking her tray of empty dishes with her. “Well, it was probably just a coincidence anyway. Bye, everyone.”
A “What was a coincidence?” followed her, but she ignored it and walked hurriedly to the conveyor to deposit her dirty dishes. Moving with purpose out of the cafeteria in a long denim skirt and brown fashion boots, she retrieved her pink jacket off a hook in the hall and forced herself to pause before heading out to her next class. You’re just being silly. It’s not the same guy. But she still found herself scanning her surroundings as she pushed the door open.
She hadn’t walked far when she heard a familiar voice calling her name. She turned, and Ben came up on her elbow. She smiled up at his angelic face, now a bit rosy from the chilly air. “Ben! How’s the new apartment?”
He stuck his hands in his jacket pockets. “Kind of small now that Joe’s spending time there. Are you sure you can’t move your wedding date up?”
Mari laughed. “Well, that would be kind of difficult at this point.” She put her hand on his arm. “The time will fly right by. You’ll see.”
She turned and resumed walking, and he fell into step beside her. “I suppose. I can hardly believe I’ve nearly finished two semesters since I switched to zoo studies.”
“How is that going? Do you still feel good about your decision?”
“Absolutely. And to think I probably would never have thought of it without you.”
Mari paused at the sidewalk leading to the building that housed her photography classes. “Oh, I’m sure God would have bent your mind in that direction eventually,” —she laughed— “but I’m glad he used me to bring that possibility to light.”
She gave him a little wave then headed for the door. “See ya later, Ben.”
“See ya, Mari.”
Abruptly, she turned back. “Oh, Ben, what’s Joe doing today? I tried calling earlier but just got voicemail.”
“He drove up to Greeley to see if Grandma and Paps needed anything done around the house. Not sure when he’ll be back.”
Mari nodded, and Ben lifted a hand as he turned to continue down the sidewalk. She felt a flash of gratefulness that she and Ben had been able to remain friends after the massive crush he’d had on her when she had first moved to the Springs, and the subsequent breaking of his heart when she didn’t reciprocate the feelings. For a long while she always felt that he was hiding his emotions from her. Now it seemed as if he had truly gotten over her and moved on. And since I’m marrying his brother in a month, that’s a very good thing.
She felt a sudden shiver run up her spine that jolted her out of her reverie. Students were moving past her into the building, but she couldn’t shake the sudden feeling of being watched. She scanned the area but didn’t see anyone in particular. Turning back to her destination, something pulled her gaze upward.
The sun was glaring off the windows, but she could see the shape of a figure on the second floor, looking her way.
What people are saying:
This book’s subtitle, “What if it didn’t happen then? What if it happened now” makes me think of CS Lewis, when asked if his Narnia books were allegories. He answered “I’m not writing in that way. I did not say to myself ‘Let us represent Jesus as He really is in our world by a Lion in Narnia’: I said ‘Let us suppose that there were a land like Narnia . . .'” Jodi does an amazing job of “supposing” the circumstances of the Messiah’s birth in our day, our culture, our society. I love the suspense, the drama, the romance, and especially the worship of the Savior told a way I’d never imagined.