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Foundations: A Christian Fiction Boxed Set: Foundations

Foundations: A Christian Fiction Boxed Set: Foundations

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Foundations: A Christian Fiction Boxed Set: Foundations

Lunghezza:
1,720 pagine
16 ore
Pubblicato:
Oct 31, 2018
ISBN:
9781386618577
Formato:
Libro

Descrizione

Jesus told a parable about a wise builder and a foolish one, underscoring how important it is to have a solid foundation. He declared that obedience to His word was the surest foundation of all. In the Foundations series, the characters discover exactly what they've built their lives on. Sometimes those foundations prove firm and true. At other times, they crumble under the weight of life's trials and burdens. Each story, each situation brings the reader face-to-face with the questions, "What have I built my life on? Will I stand or crumble?"

Book One: Razed
A God who lets a 40-year-old woman die from cancer can't be good. That's Doug Bolling's theology. He can't seem to connect with his son, Mark, who found Jesus because of his mother. The more Mark grows in his faith, the wider the rift becomes. A series of events in Mark's life, from a call to preach, to a pastorate, to seminary, to the mission field are utterly incomprehensible to Doug, and he interprets them as extremism bordering on insanity. God may have ripped away his wife and now his son, but Doug draws the line at his grandchildren. In a desperate attempt to snatch them back from a life of who knows what, he files a lawsuit, seeking custody of the children.

Book Two: Refined
When Doug Bolling sues for custody of his grandchildren, he sincerely believes he's rescuing them from a life of religious fanaticism, but it is the latest battle in his long war with God.

Mark Bolling finally found the acclaim and respect he so desperately craved as a missionary in Kenya, but it meant abandoning a promise he made to his dying mother years earlier.

Father and son, locked in the legal battle of a lifetime, are forced to face their own fears and failures. As each man is stripped of what he holds most dear, Doug and Mark discover victory will require nothing less than complete surrender.

Book Three: Resolute
Doug Bolling has never walked away from a fight in his life, but when the doctor confirms he has Alzheimer's disease, he knows this battle will be unlike any he's ever faced. His greatest fear is not losing his memories -- it's losing control of them. There are things he's never confessed to anyone, not to Mark, not to his first wife, not even to Cass. What will happen when his mind loses the ability to guard those secrets?

For Cass, her storybook romance crumbles in the face of hard reality as she takes on the daunting task of raising their young sons and shouldering the ever-increasing burden of caring for Doug. She soon discovers that will mean untangling Doug's past and helping him find peace before time runs out.

For Mark, there was no question that leaving the mission field after hearing his father's diagnosis was the right thing to do, but clashes with Cass cause him to question how he fits in.

As the disease takes its toll on Doug and his family, he wonders if the diagnosis is the final word from the God he dismissed and defied for so many years. What if God isn't pronouncing judgment, though? What if He's asking Doug to surrender, to let go of everything he has built ... even his legacy.

Pubblicato:
Oct 31, 2018
ISBN:
9781386618577
Formato:
Libro

Informazioni sull'autore

Author, blogger, and speaker Paula Wiseman is a left-handed Southerner transplanted to Illinois. When not grading homeschool assignments or checking up on college life, she is proofreading her husband’s seminary papers. Keeping a bowl of M&Ms or Rolos close by helps her write award-winning Christian fiction bestsellers, like the Covenant of Trust, Foundations, and Encounters series as well as several devotional books. Find out more at www.paulawiseman.com.

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Anteprima del libro

Foundations - Paula Wiseman

25:32

RAZED

FOUNDATIONS: Book One

ONE

SIXTEEN YEARS AGO

Thursday, July 29

Doug Bolling clutched the small bag of cookies in his left hand. His right hand rested on the door handle to his wife's hospital room. No matter how many times he'd done this, it never got any easier.

He took a deep breath, pushed the door open slowly, and stepped inside. Images flickering across the screen of the muted television gave the room its only light. Judy's eyes fluttered open as he got closer, and she gave him her best smile. Hey, Babe, he whispered, and leaned down to kiss her, wishing her cheeks were still full with the almost babyish roundness they used to have.

You just missed the doctor. She pulled at the bedrails and managed to prop herself up.

There was a line at Schnuck's. He held the bag up for her to see.

What'd you bring? She stretched her arm forward, revealing her narrow wrists. Would she have enough strength to hold the bag?

Those cookies. The white chocolate and macadamia nut ones.

Bless your heart.

She labored to open the bag, and he fought the urge to do it for her.

She inhaled deeply. They smell wonderful. I can't wait to have one.

Why can't you have one now?

I'm not hungry yet. I'd rather be hungry.

You want me to set them on the table?

No, I want them close. She held out her hand, and he cradled it in his. Almost as close as I want you.

So what'd the doctor say?

Her smile faded and she hesitated. Not good. He's sending me home, Doug.

Home. Not home home. Home to die. There's not anything--?

She shook her head. He suggested some, uh, some hospice care providers.

How, how much-- He swallowed and tried again. How much time?

Her gentle smile returned. He's too slippery to give me anything definite. Christmas is probably, I mean, Christmas was his best-case estimate. He said I should think in terms of weeks . . . not months. I'm sorry.

The grief in her eyes tore at him most of all. Don't be sorry.

I hate for you to have to go through this.

Me? Don't worry about me. I'm a tough guy.

The toughest, she said, and he felt the slightest squeeze. I have a request. She raised her eyes to his. I want to be the one to tell Mark.

He nodded. She'd do it better than he would anyway. He hooked his boot around the leg of the bedside chair and dragged it closer without ever letting go of her hand. Home. Hospice. Christmas. They knew it was close. But hearing it, having a doctor pronounce that . . . Are you afraid? He hoped she'd say yes, because he was terrified.

No. I don't have any pain, really.

I mean to die. He regretted the words as soon as he heard himself say them. He shifted in the chair. I shouldn't have said that, he mumbled.

It won't be as frightening if we talk about it.

Which meant she knew he was terrified, so she would pretend she was, too. But you're not scared.

You remember when you asked me to marry you?

Like it was yesterday. I think it was just yesterday.

Seems like it. My parents were so worried. All they could see was this punk who barely graduated high school.

They still see that.

She smiled and squeezed his hand again. They never heard you say that you'd take care of me, and that you'd never, ever leave me. She twisted and pulled herself up a little straighter. I know this makes no sense to you, but God's made those same promises to me, so I'm not afraid. I trusted you. I trust Him.

He dropped his head and hoped she couldn't see his jaw clench in the low light. The God she trusted was a fairy tale, a happy story to help her sleep better at night. A real God, a good God wouldn't kill a wife and mother in the prime of her life.

I see that line of discussion is a dead end.

He smiled at the spark of attitude. I'm glad your, uh, your faith helps you.

I wish it helped you.

It does. When I see you optimistic and brave and-- He had to look away again. If he didn't shut up, he'd lose it in front of her. So where's that doctor? I need to get you out of here.

For Mark Bolling, three thirty was the best part of the day, and his favorite thing about working for Bolling Developers. He didn't hate construction work exactly, even though he missed the air conditioning at his grandfather's car dealership. His dad was rarely on-site and the guys were okay to work with. He liked being able to see progress when he left every day.

His mother smiled with quiet approval any time he mentioned working for his dad. That was the main reason he was doing it. Plus, it was her idea. Right after she got sick last summer, she suggested--no, insisted--he ask his dad for a job. His father said, So help me, if you pull an attitude and embarrass me, you'll wish you were shoveling horse barns for a living. Am I clear?

Crystal.

You need work boots. Pack your own lunch and be ready to leave by six-thirty in the morning.

That was his orientation talk.

The first two days she was in the hospital this time around, it looked like this was her last trip, but she rallied once more. He planned to grab a quick shower then spend the evening there with her.

His father's truck was in the driveway. That meant his parents were home--both of them. They'd sent her home. Great!

The stillness in the house sucked that optimism right out of him. He walked as carefully and quietly as his clunky, steel-toed boots would allow, checking the living room and the kitchen. Outside? He peeked out the back door and saw his dad fussing with the charcoal grill.

Charcoal. The guy was a million-dollar-a-year homebuilder, but he was too cheap for a gas grill. Not only that, they still lived in the same three-bedroom place he built the first year Bolling Developers was in business, and he still drove the pick-up truck he bought that year.

Mark slipped off his boots and left them by the back door, then he took the stairs two at a time, doubly anxious to talk to his mother. He heard the television. Hopefully that meant she was awake. He knocked gently as he pushed the door open. Mom?

Mark? Is it that late already? Her voice was soft, but her eyes shone. She reached for the remote and clicked off the television. Come and sit with me and tell me about your day.

I'd rather hear about yours. He eased himself down onto the edge of the bed.

Oh, it was about what I expected. She tugged at the sleeve of her warm-up jacket, pulling it toward her wrist. The sicker she got, the more athletic her preferred attire became. She thought the bulky clothes hid things better. She was mistaken.

Her eyes fluttered, hardly daring to rest on his. I shouldn't have to go back.

No more treatments? he asked, knowing exactly what that meant.

She shook her head. The doctor said . . . well . . . his primary concern from here on out . . . is that I'm comfortable.

Here on out. The death sentence. The air in the room thickened until it was like trying to breathe syrup. Hot, smothering syrup.

She put a hand on his knee and winked with an impish grin. I can have all the morphine I want.

He had to smile at her. How did . . . ? Mark swallowed hard and wiped his eyes. How's Dad?

Her smile faded. That's what hurts me. Watching him. She smoothed the comforter. He's so lost. He needs you more than he will ever admit, more than he understands even.

His father didn't need anyone, least of all him. Excuse my cynicism.

She took his hand and spoke with urgency. I want you to remember this when I-- She shook her head gently. Your dad, he carries everything inside, and he's going to need someone he can vent to. Someone who can take it.

You mean someone to yell at?

Yell at, yell to. It's all the same to him.

Then I've been there for him for years.

I'm not explaining this right, she said. There's much more to your dad than the blustering guy in the hardhat. Give him a chance. Be patient and he'll come around. Promise me you will.

Have you given him this speech? he asked, carefully avoiding the promise.

Not yet. He's on my schedule. She smiled. If only I could have a few more years with him. She blinked away her own tears. He just needs someone who will love him.

She wanted, expected, him to be the one--a worshipful son to take the place of the smitten wife. He was in so much trouble.

Doug sat at the kitchen table sorting through the latest stack of bills. Doctor, doctor, hospital, ambulance, radiology. What a mess. He wrote check after check, stuffed them in the envelopes, and dropped the KEEP THIS PORTION in the box at his feet. He didn't have time for this. He should be in there with Judy. Christmas. Christmas was only five months away. He couldn't be ready in five months.

If she didn't eat any more than she did today, he didn't see how she could last that long. She used to have this metabolism most people would give anything to have. She could eat whatever she wanted, and still keep a cheerleader's figure. He teased her about out-eating him.

She was never what anyone would call beautiful. Judy was cute. Petite and youthful, she never seemed to age. She'd never let herself get old, she said. Terminal cancer took care of that for her.

Mark strode into the kitchen and pulled a glass from the cabinet. She's asleep. The teenager got a two-liter bottle from the refrigerator and it hissed loudly when he twisted off the cap. You want a Coke or something?

No. Doug laid down his pen and pushed his chair back from the table. He'd dreaded this conversation all day, especially the part where he'd ask the center of the universe to relinquish his position. Listen, I think you need to sit out this semester coming up.

Why? Mark gulped the Coke, then set the glass on the counter, clinking it against the sink.

Really? I have to explain this to you? Your mother is dying, Mark. It'll be a miracle if she lives past Christmas. Don't you think you belong here with her instead of some frat house somewhere?

I'm not even gonna respond to that.

Doug had seen the same condescending sneer on Judy's face more times than he cared to remember.

Mom specifically said not to drop out of school. She told me to go on with my life.

I bet she did, Doug muttered.

Fine! You want me to stay home? I'll stay.

Oh no. I'm not taking the blame for bullying you into dropping out of college.

You bully me into everything else.

And Mommy always rescues you, doesn't she?

Again, I'm not going to respond. You're just ranting at me, and I've learned not to try to reason with you when you're like this.

I'm unreasonable?

Right now, yes.

Doug jerked himself out of the chair and stood inches away from his son. The boy, the man now, straightened himself until he stood half a head taller than Doug, with a look of annoyed indifference he inherited directly from Judy's father.

Then Doug stopped himself. He waved his hand and stepped back. Mark couldn't understand, and he didn't have the strength or the words to explain it.

Go ahead and say it, Dad.

This time it wasn't a challenge. Mark was inviting him, the way Judy did. Maybe the long talks with his mother were paying off. Maybe he was listening.

Just . . . you better pray to that God of yours that you never have to stand by and watch your wife . . . watch her go through something like this.

He's your God, too.

I have no God.

That's your problem.

Tuesday, August 3

What do you think you're doing? Doug leaned against the kitchen doorframe, his arms crossed over his chest as he watched his wife rummage through the kitchen cabinets.

Making your dinner. Judy hugged a skillet close to her body.

You have no business-- He gently took the skillet from her hand and set it on the counter.

She huffed like an angry teenager. Will you please, please, let me do as much as I can for as long as I can?

But you shouldn't be wasting your energy--

It's not wasting it if I'm doing what I enjoy.

You enjoy making my dinner? Since when?

She pulled the skillet toward the stovetop. All right, all right. There have been times when making dinner was not my favorite thing.

Like the first nineteen years of our marriage, Doug teased.

Get out the spaghetti, smart aleck.

That's more like it. He handed her the box of pasta and watched her brown the ground beef. He wasn't joking, though. She had begrudged everything she did for him until she got sick.

You know, this reminds me of the time we were at Disney World and Mickey or Goofy or somebody sat down beside Mark and begged for his spaghetti. She smiled as she stirred. He wouldn't walk close to the characters anymore after that. Do you remember?

No.

Oh, sure you do. Mark was about . . . five . . .

Judy, I wasn't there. You and your parents took Mark. I couldn't get away.

Or wouldn't.

That's not fair.

She sighed with a heavy sadness. Why did we treat each other that way for so long?

We were young. We didn't know what we were doing.

I was selfish, Doug. She struggled to pull a heavy pot from the cabinet, so he steadied it for her. I married you because it infuriated my father. She slid the pot into the sink and turned the water on. You deserved a woman who loved you for you.

I have one.

But I'm not gonna be around to finish the job. She turned off the faucet and held out a hand. He slipped in beside her and put an arm around her waist. She was so thin now. Can you forgive me?

For what?

For being such a horrible wife.

That's crazy. He dropped his hand and stepped away. You were, I mean, are, you are a perfect wife.

Now who's crazy. She arched an eyebrow at him, and he smiled. I know better.

At least we had the last couple of years when things were good. Some people don't have that.

It has been good, hasn't it?

He nodded and lifted the pot from the sink, then set it on the stove for her. I think we both learned what was really important.

I learned what love was. I couldn't give you what I didn't have.

Doug braced himself. He recognized the set-up for another Christianity commercial from her.

She wrinkled her brow at him. All right. I won't say anything else.

No, say it. I don't want to leave anything unsaid between us.

She faced him and spoke with urgency. You're a good man, Doug. You've made your own way. You work hard, and you have great integrity. I love all those things about you.

He smiled, trying to diffuse the heaviness of the moment. Tell me more.

Those things aren't going to be good enough. The only thing, the only thing that scares me is an eternity without you. Mark finally came around, and I pray every day you will, too . . . and I pray I'll get to see it.

He saw the tears in her eyes, and guilt washed over him. Why couldn't he simply say he believed whatever she wanted him to, make her happy, let her have peace these last few months?

Because he couldn't lie to her.

Babe, here's how it looks to me. God . . . I don't trust Him. He could fix all this and He won't. He's holding out.

But He's not like that!

Not to you.

Let me find somebody who can explain things better than I can--

I don't want to talk about it with somebody else. I only talk about it with you because--

Because I'm dying. You're patronizing me.

I'm not patronizing you. I'm trying to be supportive. He sighed deeply at the hurt in her eyes. Just save your religion talk for Mark.

You hate that, too.

I don't. He turned his back to her, paced away, and took a deep breath. If she saw his eyes, she'd know he was lying.

You resent every minute I spend with him.

It was a soft declaration, not an accusation, but she still knew how to cut into his very soul. He faced her again. Can we compromise on this?

Can we? The light in her eyes faded, and her hair seemed to gray before his eyes. She'd spent all her energy on him.

Talk about your religion, your faith. Tell me all about it, but I don't want to hear how much I need it. No hard sells, no sob stories, nothing.

And you won't give Mark a hard time?

Mark and I will be fine.

Wednesday, September 22

Mark met his father at the top of the stairs outside his mother's room, and to his utter surprise, his dad held out a hand. Mark shook it as grieving fear took hold of him. Is she . . . ?

They said it was a matter of days now. His father glanced back toward the door. She's on a lot of medication. She's kind of in and out.

Mark nodded. You tell her I was coming?

He shook his head. She didn't want me to call you. Afraid your schoolwork would suffer.

As if he had anything more important to do.

I'm gonna grab her a glass of water and throw a load of her things in the laundry. Did you get the mail on your way in?

It's on the table.

Thanks. His dad stepped around him and headed down the stairs.

Dad?

What?

We'll get through this.

His father shook his head and shuffled into the kitchen.

Mark pushed the bedroom door open, and his breath caught when he saw his mother, ashen-faced and motionless, propped up against a pillow. Mom?

Mark? It's not Friday, is it?

No, it's Wednesday.

Your dad doesn't listen. She managed a smile.

I'm glad he called me.

She reached for his hand. Your dad, he reads my Bible to me. I wish you could hear him. Her eyelids drooped until they were only half open. It's the most beautiful thing. Mark. She let out a dreamy sigh. Would you let him read at your wedding?

My wedding?

You're still dating the preacher's daughter, aren't you?

Well, yeah.

You love her?

I do.

See, you're already practiced up on the 'I do.' She smiled again and rolled her eyes to look at him. Don't wait, Mark. Don't wait until you're older . . . or you're more settled . . . or you have more money. There are no guarantees.

Mom, it's a little--

She managed another smile. Your dad doesn't know about her, does he?

It's not like I'm trying to keep it a secret. It just never seemed like the right time to bring it up.

Practice then. Tell me about her. Tell me what you love about her. She settled back against her pillow, her eyes drooping shut again.

Um, well . . . She's, uh, she's pretty, of course, and smart. She listens to me.

His mother nodded slightly. Mmmm. You need that. Men need that. They need someone who believes in them . . . then they can do anything.

Did you believe in Dad?

Not like I should have. Look what's he's accomplished in spite of it. What if I'd been what he needed? What could he have done? She reached for his hand and squeezed it gently. Her fingers were soft and cool. With, uh, tell me her name again.

Julie. Julie Hammell.

With Julie behind you, there'll be no stopping you. I wish I could have met her. I'm sure she's wonderful.

Mark smiled and nodded. She is. Julie Hammell was his ticket to respectability, acceptance, and purpose, and it didn't hurt that she was crazy about him. Does Dad know you want him to read?

He promised me today.

You pick out the passage?

First John, chapter four. Where it talks about love, God's love for us. He read it today. She sighed and closed her eyes. 'There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out all fear.' It was beautiful. He has a beautiful voice . . . and he read it slowly so he didn't stumble.

Are you getting tired? I should let you rest.

No, stay. I have one for you, too.

Something to read at my wedding?

No, a promise. I want you to make me a promise. She squeezed his hand weakly again. Promise me you won't give up on him. Promise you'll make sure your dad becomes a believer.

Mom, I can't. He has to make that decision.

You have to tell him. You have to. It's like in Ezekiel. You're the watchman. If you don't tell him . . . if he dies in his sins, Mark, we're accountable. Maybe not responsible, but . . . Please tell me you won't let that happen. I have nightmares--

I won't, Mom. I'll take care of it. How could he not promise?

She relaxed against her pillow, apparently exhausted, and guilt closed off his throat. He couldn't make his dad become a believer. He'd just lied to his mother on her deathbed.

Talk to me, she said without opening her eyes. I love hearing you. I'm listening.

Mark talked about his classes, his homework, the drive home, whatever he could think of, but the promise hung in the back of his mind. I'll take care of it. How?

The more he talked, the more each word came with a keen awareness of every breath she took. If she passed without his father there at her side . . . God help them all.

Friday, September 24

Doug rubbed his eyes and shifted in his chair. In the pale early morning light he squinted, trying to make sure Judy was still breathing. Finally, he reached his hand to her chest. It rose and fell in a slow, shallow rhythm. That reassurance was costly. Now he was afraid to pull his hand away for fear he'd miss the last one.

Ellen and Russell Carson had passed the night with him here, hovering over their only daughter. Of course they belonged here, had a right and a need to be here, but Doug hated it. When Ellen slipped out to get a quick shower, at least Russ left to make coffee, giving Doug these precious few moments alone with Judy.

You've never answered anything I've ever asked, he whispered. But . . . I'll do . . . anything. Or take me instead . . . Just . . . Don't . . . You can fix this. I read those stories to her, I know what You can do . . . I need her. Take anything else of mine . . . Just not--

Judy drew in two quick breaths and opened her eyes. Doug?

I'm right here. He slipped his hand around hers. Right here.

I love you. She labored to draw the corners of her mouth into a smile. Mark . . . ?

He's down the hall. He'll be right here.

Were Mom and Dad . . . ?

He nodded. Your mom's down in our bathroom getting a shower and your dad's making a pot of coffee. They've been here the whole time.

She closed her eyes. You need . . . that.

Need what? Coffee? he asked, daring to tease her at this moment.

She blinked slowly in place of a smile. I heard . . . you pray.

He felt himself flush with the shame of desperation. I don't think it did any good.

I pray . . . for you . . . and Mark. You need . . .

You, he wanted to say. I need you, Judy.

You need someone . . . someone who deserves to have you. She squeezed his hand. You . . . I love you. We will meet again. I have that peace.

What are you talking about?

I can let go. You'll . . . Her hand relaxed, and everything inside Doug Bolling died.

TWO

Tuesday, October 5

Mark traded the biology text for the monster accounting book from his backpack. His professors had graciously extended his assignment deadlines. Extended not erased. Between catching up and staying current, he was swamped.

It had been eleven days. Eight days since the funeral. Two days since he'd come back to school. In those last days, the times when it was just him and his dad, he counted a grand total of eight complete sentences between them. He couldn't keep the promise to his mother, couldn't win his dad to Jesus, if he couldn't talk to him.

But he couldn't pretend a relationship magically existed because his mom died either. His father was still the same guy who chose sixteen-hour workdays over his family, regardless of what his mother said. Years ago, after another dinner at his grandparents', his mother said that if his father were smarter, he wouldn't have to work those long hours. When he asked her about it, she said, He can barely read, Mark. If it weren't for math and shop, he would have never graduated.

At least he inherited the math stuff from his dad. He spread out the accounting book, the syllabus, and the lecture notes from the girl who sat behind him. Before he could focus and pick up the flow, a wadded piece of paper bounced across the library table.

He picked up the paper and carefully smoothed it out on the table. You have to eat sometime! it said. He smiled and Julie Hammell slipped from between the stacks and joined him. Someday he'd explain to her that her turtleneck sweaters only highlighted her curves and the giant cross necklace drew his eyes right to her chest. Someday. Not too soon.

How long have you been here? she asked.

Since I got out of class. Ten-thirty or so.

And it's almost five. Did you have lunch?

He shook his head. I didn't feel like eating, anyway.

Listen, Mom and Dad are coming over and they want to take us to eat. She scooted her chair closer and laid her hand on his. Even that caused her to blush like she'd committed an outrageous transgression. It's probably someplace boring like Cracker Barrel, but it's real food.

I'm not sure I'm ready to meet your folks.

But they suggested it. They want to see this boy I'd drive all the way to St. Louis for.

I still can't believe you did that. He rubbed his thumb across the back of her hand. I barely spoke to you during the funeral and everything.

I didn't expect to be entertained. You needed somebody there for you. Your dad . . . seemed to have a lot on his mind.

She had no idea.

So anyway, they're gonna pick us up here at five. I told them we'd be waiting outside.

Sounds like my decision's been made for me.

Get used to it, she said with a smile and a wink.

She wrapped her arm around his and led him outside, but as soon as the dark blue Buick pulled up, she quickly took a step away from him. Don't hold my hand or anything in front of Daddy, she said through a smile.

What--?

She was already gone, trotting toward the car. When Julie threw her arms around her mother's neck, the fresh ache inside Mark sharpened.

Mom, Dad, this is Mark Bolling.

Debbie Hammell was younger and more . . . glamorous than he'd imagined a pastor's wife would be. Her hair was perfectly styled, and her sweater and slacks, while simple and modest, were flattering.

She surprised him with a gentle hug and a smile that started in her eyes, the way his mother's always did. It meant more than she'd ever know. I'm so sorry about your mother, Mark. You've been in our prayers. Thank you for letting us do this for you.

Oh, I really appreciate it. Uh, and your prayers. Thank you for those.

Julie's father rounded the car. He was five, no, ten years older than his wife, with gunmetal hair and stern expression. He smoothed his Jesus fish tie against his dress shirt and held out his hand. Paul Hammell.

He gripped Mark's hand with a bulldog handshake. Mark Bolling. But . . . I guess Julie already said that.

Let's get 'em in the car, Deb. I've got a seven o'clock, he said, heading back to the driver's side.

Julie's mother dutifully opened the rear passenger door. Mark, you sit up front with Paul.

Uh, sure. Mark slung his backpack onto the floor and got in. The interior of the car was immaculate like his mother's always was, but with the strong scent of a vanilla air freshener.

That looks like a heavy load, young man, Julie's dad said as he pulled away from the curb. What are you studying?

Business management. Mark cleared his throat, doing his best to fake confidence and self-assurance. I'd like to get into hospital administration.

It's a good field. We need good men there. Julie's told you I pastor a church, hasn't she?

Uh, yes, sir. Mark struggled to get the seat belt lined up to slide into the buckle.

It's a joyful burden. Where is it you attend church?

And now he was dead. Well . . . sir . . . I, uh . . . I've never . . . uh, really been to church . . . not regularly anyway.

How can that be? If you're a genuine believer. A not-so-subtle judgment.

I understand your concern, sir. I . . . well . . . I've only been . . . I went with my mother when she was able, but I don't know the first thing about choosing a church. I need some guidance there, I guess.

Now I agree it makes a difference where you attend, but that doesn't justify forsaking the assembling of yourselves together. You see, that's a command we're given in Scripture.

He launched into a lecture about the body of Christ, while Mark stole glances at Julie in the rearview mirror. She smiled at him, but he didn't dare smile back.

Julie's father pulled into the lot at Cracker Barrel as she predicted, and as soon as he parked, Mark got out and opened Julie's mother's car door. His mother had told him if he won over a girl's mother, her father would follow. Julie's mother was his best hope. He escorted her around the back end of the car, delivering her to Mr. Hammell, before taking his place beside Julie.

There aren't many decent restaurants around that don't serve liquor, Julie's father announced.

But if you're not going there to drink, what--

You have to think of your witness, Mark. How does it look for a follower of Christ to be helping out the liquor industry? How would it look for me as a pastor to condone that? He took long strides across the parking lot toward the door.

Yes, sir. I see.

There's much more to living a Christian life than people think. It's a hard road you've chosen. Did you grow up with liquor in the house?

Well . . . I, uh . . . I mean, my father . . . he has . . . a beer from time to time. Not often.

Paul frowned and nodded. We'll be praying. I've counseled with more people than I care to admit who have allowed a tragedy to lure them into an addiction. He held the outer door for the rest of them.

Great. He didn't go to church and his dad was a half-step from alcoholism. At least he knew to step out of the way so Julie's father could charge to the hostess's stand and give his name. His dad would've done the same thing.

Mark eased as far out of the walkway as possible and stuffed his hands in his pockets, safely away from Julie.

Mark, do you have brothers and sisters? Mrs. Hammell asked with a painfully familiar tenderness.

No, it's just me and my dad now. He and my mom were both only children, too. I guess that's all I've ever known.

And he's a contractor?

Mark nodded. He builds homes. He's good at what he does. It suits him.

But you didn't want to follow him?

I've worked for him the past two summers. It's not my thing long-term.

At least you tried it out before you decided, Julie's dad said. The hostess called them to a table before Mark could respond. He hung back and let the Hammells fill in the seats to ensure he got the appropriate one. He was allowed to sit by Julie this time.

As he listened to Mr. Hammell try to make small talk, the pattern of questions began to make sense. Julie's father was trying to gauge how much influence his father held over him. He wouldn't risk allowing his daughter to associate with the son of a heathen. After all, How would it look? You have to think of your witness.

His mother was wrong this time. He'd have to win over the preacher before he could win the preacher's daughter. When the server stopped by, he ordered the country-fried steak, just like Julie's father did.

So, Mr. Hammell, from what I've read, if I want to follow Jesus' example, I need to be baptized. How does that work exactly?

Julie's father's eyes brightened and he pulled out his concealed weapon New Testament from his suit jacket and launched into a discourse. He welcomed Mark's questions, instructed without lecturing, and never berated Mark's ignorance. At one point, Mark asked Julie for a piece of paper and a pen so he could write down references, and the pastor smiled in approval.

What began as a shameless attempt to get on Mr. Hammell's good side, however, ended with Mark anxious to get back to his dorm room and study the references the pastor gave him. If he could prove himself to someone like Paul Hammell, that might be enough credibility for his dad to listen to him.

As soon as the Buick disappeared around the corner from the library, Julie bounded into Mark's arms and kissed him. You were brilliant!

I wasn't trying to be.

But you were! He loves you. Did you see how he talked to you? Oh my goodness!

He shuffled in the general direction of his dorm with her hanging on his arm. You could have given me a little bit of a heads-up, you know.

You didn't need it.

That's not the point. And what's the deal with your mom? Why won't she sit in the front seat of the car?

She was being polite, Mark, she said with a bite of indignation.

It had nothing to do with us not being 'allowed' to sit in the back seat together? He could bite, too.

Maybe, I don't know. She pulled him to a stop. Look, my dad is very attuned to how things appear--

I got that part.

He doesn't want to risk anything damaging his ministry or reflecting badly on Jesus because of it. So yeah, he probably goes a little overboard.

A little?

She raised her eyebrows at his interruption. But, he has a good heart, and you totally won him over.

He frowned and started walking again.

What's wrong? she asked.

Listening to your dad . . . I don't know where to start. Stuff rolls out when he talks. You're the same way. He gave her a sideways smile and she yanked on his arm in protest.

You're new at this. It takes some time.

But I don't want to wait. His mother's words echoed in his head. Because I don't think he'll let you marry someone as theologically ignorant as I am.

She stopped him again. Marry? Are we getting married?

Of course we are. I thought you knew that.

She grinned and kissed him. Actually, I did.

Friday, October 8

Mark dug in the pocket of his jeans for his house key. His mother had suggested that if he stuck with his routines, like coming home every two weeks, things would be easier on him after she was gone. He had his doubts whether sitting around in the silence watching his dad grieve was easier.

His dad's truck was in the driveway, which, this early in the afternoon, was weird enough. A locked front door with his dad home was even stranger. The conversation about Julie might have to wait.

He turned the key in the deadbolt and eased the door open. Dad? No answer. Dad? Are you home? Mark did a quick check of the downstairs, but there was no sign of him. The answering machine light flickered and the caller ID showed calls from Sandy at the office, from Jim Lowry, from his mother's pastor, and the half dozen or so from him. So his dad wasn't answering the phone.

Mark took the steps two at a time. No sign of him upstairs, either. Back porch. He trotted downstairs and eased the back door open. His dad sat on the top porch step, staring out across the yard. Dad? You okay?

His father slowly raised his left hand, as if his wristwatch weighed a hundred pounds. I didn't realize it was this late, he said. He gripped the banister and pulled himself to his feet. How's, uh, school?

Fine. Good. Mark held out his hand and his father shook it, still moving in an odd, slow motion. Dark shadows rimmed his eyes, and Mark noticed gray at his father's temples he knew wasn't there a couple of weeks ago. You feel all right, Dad? You look exhausted.

Yeah, I took a couple of days off to try to get some rest, you know?

I called a bunch of times.

I'm sorry. I just . . . I don't know . . . I haven't felt like anything.

Lost. Alone. Hopeless. His dad gave him the perfect set-up, the wide-open door to jump right into a discussion about faith. He'd promised his mother he'd do it, but the words died in his mouth. So is Jim running everything?

Jim Lowry? Yeah. He's making sure the guys get paid, and finishing up a project.

He's a good guy. I always liked working for him.

He keeps talking about going out on his own, though. He shook his head. Wouldn't surprise me. He exhaled from deep in his chest. You know, if you ever change your mind about that hospital accounting thing or whatever . . . His father seemed to flip some sort of internal switch and tapped into some source of energy. He hopped up the step onto the porch. Wanna grab dinner somewhere?

Yeah, but I kinda wanted to talk to you about something first. Not the faith thing. Julie.

Me? Why?

Mark rolled his eyes. You've been here before.

Whatever it is, do the opposite of what I did.

Mark shook his head. I don't think so.

This should be good, then. His father crossed his arms tightly over his chest as the grief and vulnerability evaporated and the more familiar, impossible-to-please Doug Bolling reappeared.

I, uh, I want to get engaged. I mean, I need to get a ring.

A ring? His dad paled and reached for the porch railing. You're . . . you're sure about this?

If you think it's too soon, or whatever--

It's not that, Mark. It's . . . There's some news . . . I never pictured I'd be hearing it . . . alone, you know. He rubbed his chin, seeming to regain his strength as he stroked it. If you're sure, then congratulations.

THREE

So, what'd he say? Julie's giddy enthusiasm made Mark even more hesitant. He switched the phone to his other ear, stalling.

He asked if I was sure, and then he said congratulations.

That's a good thing, right?

Again Mark hesitated, but the sooner she understood about his dad, the better. He didn't ask me anything about you, not even your name. The biggest thing that's ever gonna happen in my life, and he doesn't care.

Maybe it's not as bad as you think--

It's probably worse.

Tell me the whole conversation. You didn't just walk in and say, 'I'm getting married!' did you?

Give me a little credit.

Look, you called me, and I'm trying to help.

I know, I'm sorry. He blew out a deep breath. Here's how it happened. I was kinda surprised he was home when I got there, but I found him out on the back porch--

Does he sit out there a lot?

What difference does that make?

Plenty. Does he?

Yeah, I guess. Anyway, he looked like he hadn't slept in a week. I don't think he's been to work either.

Mark, your dad's still grieving.

Shouldn't good news help him out of that? Or couldn't he have faked it for my sake? How hard would that be?

Maybe he'll be different tomorrow after he's had some time to absorb it.

Julie, the first rule of Doug Bolling--he never changes his mind about anything.

Saturday, October 9

Doug carefully balanced the two paper sacks on his knee as he unlocked the back door, but then Mark appeared and opened it for him. You're up early. Doug leaned against the door to close it again.

And you're out early. Groceries?

Yeah, there's nothing to eat here. He swung the sacks up onto the counter and began unloading them. A box of cereal, a loaf of bread, lunchmeat. If only he could unpack words, an explanation, this easily. He'd seen the soul-crushing disappointment in Mark's eyes last night. He knew Judy would've whooped, and kissed him, and cried, and then hit the phones. And he knew Mark deserved that. But he . . . couldn't.

Listen, Mark. He never raised his head as he spoke. I'm . . . I'm glad. Really. He took the first empty bag, carefully folded it. Only then did he turn and face his son. I'm no good right now, you know?

You miss Mom.

Doug couldn't stop himself from flinching. Missed her? It was an insult to pass it off that way. He missed Mark when he was at college. No, he didn't miss her. He ached for her. His ambition, his vision, his future were all sucked into the bitter void she left.

He frowned and tried again. This girl--

Julie. Her name is Julie Hammell. You didn't have the decency to ask me last night.

And that was wrong, Mark. He shook his head. Look, if you love this girl, Julie, and she makes you happy . . . Seized with the realization he had no idea what he was talking about, he gave up and pulled the other bag of groceries closer.

Mark came over and leaned against the counter. What? Say the rest of it.

He sounded like his mother, and for that reason alone, Doug looked his son in the eyes. If she makes you happy, then you marry her. Forget what anybody else says or thinks. They . . . they don't know what they're talking about.

Seriously?

Yeah. You need somebody. And if you're lucky enough to find somebody who'll have you . . . then you . . . be happy.

What about you?

What are you talking about?

What's it gonna take for you to be happy again?

He'd settle for indifferent. Or not waking up with the gnawing emptiness that got more intense as each day dragged on. Every single, solitary, empty day. Happy? Happy was too far beyond his grasp.

Mark cleared his throat and dropped his eyes briefly. You know, Mom and I talked a lot about you. About how we, how I, could help you after she was gone.

Doug could feel it, like a sixth sense. He knew it was coming.

She wanted me to . . . she asked me, two days before she died, Dad, to--

I don't want to hear it. I didn't want to hear it from her and I'm not listening to it from you. He ripped the grocery sack as he jerked the rest of the items out and slammed them to the counter. Your God is a liar and fraud. He took away . . . She was the reason I built houses, the reason I got up in the morning . . . and now what . . . what's the point?

Ashamed, aggravated with himself for violating the sacred silence of his grief, he coughed and started folding the torn grocery sack. Tell Julie . . . tell her congratulations.

Sunday, October 10

But there were so many positive things in the conversation. Julie slipped her hand in Mark's as they shuffled toward his dorm.

I shouldn't have called you and complained. That was bad.

I'm glad you called. I'm glad you trusted me enough to confide in me like that. Makes me feel special.

You are special. They walked along in silence for several minutes, then he gambled and pressed a bit further. So how long do you need to get ready for a wedding?

If you think that qualifies as asking me, you're mistaken. She wasn't smiling.

No. I just . . . My mom told me not to wait. My dad even said if I was sure, I should marry you.

Even him?

Even him. He said . . . Mark cleared his throat, blinked, and did a dead-on impression of his father that always made his mother smile. If you, uh, if you found somebody who makes you happy . . . well, then you marry her.

Julie smiled at him. Just like that?

I think he expects us to go to the courthouse or something. That's what he and Mom did. Her dad hated him, so they kinda sneaked.

We don't have to sneak. My dad doesn't hate you. He asks about you every time I talk to him now.

Every time? How often do you talk to him?

He usually calls twice a day.

Isn't that a little, I don't know, crazy?

Completely, she said. But he worries a lot since I'm at a public university. Afraid I'll be brainwashed. Or worse. She laughed gently. He tells me he loves me and he's praying for me. Asks me about my classes. I guess I could tell him to stop.

No, I wish my dad cared that way. He pulled Julie to a bench across from his dormitory. That sounds bad. He does care, I guess. He's just . . . He does his thing, I do mine. When those overlap--

Like this weekend?

He shook his head. He's still not over losing my mom. I mean, not that he should be 'over' it, but he's not working yet. I think he sits on the back porch all day.

Awww, he must've really loved your mom.

She was his whole world. He still can't understand how she could get sick. He thought she was perfect.

That's incredibly sweet. He told you this?

Mom did. He raised his arm and draped it around Julie's shoulder, pulling her closer. So, do I need to ask your dad's permission before I marry you?

Do you need to? No. Would it be wise? Yes.

What if he says no?

He won't. Worst thing he'd say is 'wait.'

I'm not waiting past February.

Mark! Are you insane? That's only four months away!

Do you love me?

Of course I do.

Do you trust me to take care of you?

She opened her mouth, but no words, no sounds came out.

He pulled his arm down from her shoulder. I see.

Mark, no. It's . . . we're both in school. What will we live on?

Do you trust me?

It's not that--

It's exactly that. Mark twisted on the seat beside her and took her hands. Julie, I love you, but I'm not gonna live the next fifty years wondering if I'm good enough. If you marry me, it has to be because you know I can take care of you. I did learn that much from my dad.

If I marry you? Don't you mean 'when'?

Do I?

I think that goes 'I do', not 'do I.'

I'm being serious.

I know, but this is sudden. We've talked about getting married, but never with specifics.

So you're not sure.

I'm sure I want to marry you.

But not now.

I just . . . I never dreamed . . . I figured we'd get through college first.

Why wait? What good would that do?

Okay, first of all, this is not an attack on you or your decision making, and it's not about any doubts I have, so lower your defenses. Second, you thought about this all weekend. I'm hearing it for the first time. Give me a couple of days to think about it. She took his hand and grinned. And then we'll figure out how to tell Daddy.

Friday, October 15

Mark had always thought his father was the most intimidating person on earth. Now he realized his father was an amateur.

I doubt this is a social call. Pastor Paul Hammell folded his hands in front of him and leaned up to the desk. What's on your mind, son?

Mark cleared his throat, scooted forward in his chair, and wished the air conditioner in the pastor's office would kick on. He likes you, Julie said. You'll be fine, she said. Of course he would. That's why it felt like he was getting ready to commit assault and battery.

Uh, no, sir. Not exactly social. I, uh, well, sir, Julie and I have been dating for a while now, and the topic of marriage has come up more than once.

Mr. Hammell pressed his lips together and his eyes narrowed, but Mark was too far down this road now. Mr. Hammell, I'm asking for your permission to marry your daughter.

And if I refuse?

I'd be very disappointed, sir.

But you'd still marry her?

Yes, sir.

The chair squeaked loudly as Julie's father shifted away from his desk. As he slowly blinked, Mark sat like a granite statue, afraid to breathe. When the pastor spoke, Mark could barely make out his words over the pulse drumming in his ears.

I think you're a fine young man, Mark. You're very thoughtful. I believe your faith is genuine, and that you sincerely desire to grow in Jesus Christ--

But?

He raised his eyebrow at Mark's interruption. Maybe it was a new experience for him. Julie is very precious to me, and this is serious business. I'm not sure you understand that.

Does anyone, sir? I mean, when they first get married, does anyone truly grasp the seriousness?

You have a point. Even so, if I can speak frankly with you--

Always.

Mr. Hammell's eyes narrowed and Mark gathered that if he interrupted again, it would be a fatal mistake. Julie's never had a serious boyfriend.

Yes, sir, she's too discerning for that. I realize I don't have the pedigree you were expecting, but I promise you I will work as hard as I can to be the husband she deserves, the kind you taught her to look for, to wait for.

You want to go into hospital administration, correct?

Yes, sir. I'm working evenings there now in the maintenance department.

What about premarital counseling?

I'll see anyone you recommend.

And your time frame on this?

Mark looked the pastor in the eye and savored this last moment before the hammer dropped. February.

The pastor's jaw dropped. This February?

Yes, sir.

Four months from now?

Almost to the day.

He leaned back in his chair in slow motion, the frown never leaving his face. Is she pregnant?

No, sir! We never . . . I've kissed her goodnight, and that's all. Long, extended goodnight kisses, but nothing . . . well, probably nothing . . . he hoped nothing she was ashamed of. Mark raised his right hand. I swear to you. The frown remained. Swearing was the wrong thing.

Does Mrs. Hammell know?

I think Julie has discussed it with her.

His left eye twitched almost imperceptibly. Let me pray about this, Mark, and discuss it with Mrs. Hammell and with Julie, of course.

Yes, sir. When can I expect your answer?

I don't know that you can rush this.

With all due respect, sir, I believe you know what you're going to say.

But you don't want to pressure me, now, do you?

No, sir.

All right, then. I'll speak to you after I preach Sunday morning.

Mark grinned, then stood and leaned across the desk to shake his hand. Thank you, sir. He strode out of the office and called Julie from his car. Tell your mom thanks! She nailed him. Her answers were perfect. I couldn't have done it without her.

Sunday, October 17

Mark straightened his tie before he followed Julie and her mother into Paul Hammell's office. Every time he caught the preacher's eye during the eternal minutes they waited for the church to clear out, he got the disapproving glare of a victim of a conspiracy.

Shut the door, Mark, the preacher snapped as he dropped into his desk chair. Why shut the door? The building was empty. Even so, Mark did as he was told and took the last empty seat without glancing at Julie or her mother.

Julie's father cleared his throat and opened his Bible. My household has been in a state of turmoil, young man.

I'm sorry, sir. That wasn't my intent.

Even though you entered into this covenant of deception with my wife?

Debbie Hammell rolled her eyes. Honestly, Paul. She glanced at Mark with a quick smile. I am not going to sit here and let you torment this boy. He loves Julie. He's had a wonderful example of devotion lived out before him--

It's too soon, Deb.

When did we get engaged?

Now that's neither here nor there.

It was Valentine's Day, Mark. Her eyes twinkled, then she asked her husband, When did we get married?

That was twenty . . . two years ago. Things are different now.

The only difference is which side of the desk you're on. She leaned back in her chair and smiled the same teasing, knowing smile Mark had seen his mother shoot his father any time she bested him.

Paul Hammell pressed his lips together then relaxed them. He was beaten and he knew it. Julie, you understand this is forever. You truly believe you've seen enough to know he's God's choice for you?

For the first time since they walked into church this morning, Mark saw Julie smile. Daddy, I've prayed about Mark since I met him. He's the one.

Mr. Hammell sighed and turned to Mark. One of these days you may have to give up your baby girl. I imagine you'll have more sympathy for me when that day comes.

No doubt, Mark said.

Julie's father shook his head and closed his Bible. It's not you, son. It's me. I figured on a long engagement to prepare . . . He stood and held out his hand. You . . . take care of her.

Mark quickly got to his feet to shake the man's hand. I will, sir. Thank you. Then he turned to Julie. Guess we better make this official. He pushed his hand deep into the front pocket of his dress pants, thankful for the baggy pleats. Baggy enough to conceal a ring box.

He never took his eyes off Julie's face as she connected the dots. She gasped through a mixture of laughter and tears. Mark dropped to one knee and took her hand, then slid the diamond solitaire gently onto her finger. Julie, will you marry me?

Absolutely!

FOUR

FOUR MONTHS LATER

Friday, February 18

Doug paced in the small vestibule of Grace Chapel Church. This was too much. He wasn't ready to face people yet. Most days it was all he could do to shave. Driving down here to Springfield, then listening to hours of talk about a lifetime of love, he was way past his limit.

He crumpled the typed copy of his reading into a tight ball. Judy, I know I promised you I'd read this thing when Mark got married, but neither one of us knew--

Mark burst through the double doors from the sanctuary. Dad! What are you doing? Everybody's waiting.

They can keep waiting for all I care. He glanced at the door and muttered, Bunch of sanctimonious . . .

It's not that big of a deal. Anybody could think it was One John instead of First John.

And what the . . . what's a propit-whatever? Is that even English?

Propitiation. It means payment. I thought you practiced this once or twice before you got here.

Listen, I didn't say anything when you took up with this girl. I didn't question your sanity when you said you were marrying her after just a couple of months. I didn't object when I found out she's a preacher's daughter--

You're a saint, Dad.

Doug swept a hand back toward the doors. But that guy is an . . . He blew out a deep breath. He's everything I hate about religion all rolled into a cheap suit.

And he's about to be my father-in-law.

That's your problem, not mine. He shoved his hands in the pockets of his slacks and paced away.

No, I mean you need to cut him some slack.

Cut HIM slack? He's the jerk with no patience! I thought you Christian types were supposed to love everybody.

We do.

And it's love he's showing when he sneers at me? When he stops to explain everything to me like I'm six? He's condescending and insulting.

He thinks he's doing the right thing. He thinks he's helping.

Well, he's not!

You want me to talk to him?

I don't need you to take up for me.

Then quit hiding from him.

I was trying to spare you the humiliation when I punched him.

Again, you're an inspiration to us all.

I don't need your sarcasm.

You're acting like a little kid.

I swear, if I hadn't promised your mother--

"It's an hour tonight and another

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