Lauren Tate opened the screen door of the back porch, holding tightly to the handle to prevent the wind from yanking the door out of her hand.
When she got no response, she called even louder. “Skip-py, time to go for your walk!”
A small, golden brown mutt rushed out of the house to dance excitedly around her feet.
“Are you ready, girl? Let’s go chase those sea gulls.”
Skippy raced down the hill of dead winter grass while Lauren took the faded wooden steps one at a time.
The brisk January air felt even colder when the strong wind blew in off the bay. She pulled her windbreaker shut and zipped it up. Perhaps she should have brought her coat.
Skippy ran in circles, barking near the bottom step, impatient to begin her dash along the beach.
Lauren’s reassurance brought the dog to a stop for a second, wagging her tail as if to encourage Lauren. When Lauren reached the sand, Skippy turned away and ran down the beach without waiting to see if Lauren followed.
She trailed after the dog, enjoying the feel of salt air blowing against her face. She’d left her long, brown hair free and occasionally had to reach up and pull it out of her eyes.
Skippy found a seagull at the end of a pier and dashed after it. She never caught one, but that didn’t discourage her from trying.
Lauren raised her hands to her mouth and called, remembering the hostility of one of her neighbors.
Most of the residents along the bay didn’t mind strangers on their docks, but some relished their privacy and didn’t appreciate the dog’s foray into their domain.
Lauren reached her favorite spot on the point and called Skippy to stay near. The energetic dog bounded up, sliding to a stop in the white, powdery sand.
After Lauren gave her a scratch behind the ears, Skippy nosed around the sea oats growing out of the dunes.
Lauren leaned back, settling into the sand. This spot was right on the edge of a man-made inlet and with no houses nearby, she could sit as long as she wished. Occasionally, a powerboat or sailboat idled past, but the cove ended in a residential area and not many boaters ventured there, especially in January.
The sun was sliding downward, and the sky offered a palette of bright orange, purple, and pink. Just as it dropped below the horizon, she heard the tread of someone jogging on the beach.
She looked up. It was rare to see anyone on the beach this time of year. A young man approached, one she’d seen several times recently. She offered him half a smile in response to his grin as he continued on.
Lauren clicked her tongue at the dog, which dashed at Lauren’s feet to entice her to play.
Lauren jumped up and ran zig-zags along the beach. Skippy bounded from one position to another, waiting for the next attack. Lauren stood stock still then leaped out at Skippy.
Before her feet could touch the ground, she made contact with a hard body. Strong arms encircled her, stopping her forward motion.
She gawked up into clear gray eyes set in a chiseled face. Dark bangs had fallen over his eyes, and she considered pushing the stray hair to the side. Probably not a good idea with a stranger.
For an eternity of seconds, neither spoke as they stared at one another. Then the mountain of a man moved.
“Hi, my name is Jack Wheeler.” He held out his hand. “I just moved into that blue cottage about…” He looked up at the line of houses. “…six houses down.”
Slightly breathless, Lauren offered her hand. “Nice to meet you. Lauren Tate. Sorry to have run into you…I was watching the dog. Are you and your family visiting or permanent residents?”
Jack’s large hand engulfed hers in a strong clasp. “I’m alone, and I’ve got a six month lease. I’m teaching at the junior college this semester.”
“What do you teach?”
“Oh,” Lauren said, shifting her feet.
“Why so glum? Don’t you like Humanities?”
“Not particularly. Most of the humanities teachers at the college are so esoteric they have no grasp of what really matters. Their classes are a lot of hot air.”
“And you do…have a grasp?”
Lauren turned to glance at Skippy. It was a little early in the acquaintance to share the mysteries of the universe.
“Probably not, but I had an inkling at one time. It was nice to meet you. I’ve got to take Skippy home before she runs off.”
Lauren turned away. Why can’t I keep my big mouth shut?
“Hey, what’s your inkling?” he called after her.
Lauren had almost reached the halfway point of the steps. Did she know the answer to that anymore? She turned back to look down at him.
“My parents told me it’s God, the Author and Finisher.”
She didn’t wait for his reaction but continued up the steps.
Jack yelled again. “Lauren, could we discuss it sometime?”
Was he asking her out? He looked a little older than the men she’d dated in the past. What could it hurt?
“Sure. Come by anytime!”
She disappeared behind the screen door.
Two weeks later, Lauren accompanied Skippy outside for their usual evening walk. She gripped the flashlight firmly in her hand. This was the one thing she really hated about winter. By the time she got home each afternoon, it was already dark.
While she walked, Lauren thought about how much time had elapsed since she began her sojourn near the sea. The Jamiesons would return next May so she had about five months left to hide out and think…to recover.
She sighed and kicked at a piece of driftwood. It was time she considered the future. Her parents had asked her for years what she wanted to do. Now concerned friends and relatives were asking her. She was twenty-four years old and had always lived with her parents, and she still didn’t know what to do.
When she had started college, she had chosen a business degree because that would cover just about anything. Growing up, she’d been told that she’d find her purpose in life because it would interest her more than anything else. She would find her passion.
She didn’t feel passionate about anything. In fact, she felt nothing. And it was time she thought about the future.
Skippy paused near the water’s edge, barking ferociously at something. Lauren walked closer to investigate with the flashlight.
“You better leave that crab alone, Skippy, before it pinches off your nose.”
Skippy looked up and tilted her head then barked at something behind Lauren.
Lauren whirled around just as a voice called out.
“Hi, does your dog bite?”
The jogger…Jack Wheeler.
He stopped just behind Lauren, and she could barely make out his smile in the light of a florescent security lamp.
He was at least seven inches taller than her five feet seven.
He stepped into the beam of light, and she noticed his eyes. Warm and inviting, with tiny crinkles at the corners when he smiled. He really must be older.
“No, Skippy doesn’t bite, she just barks. But she’s not mine.”
“She must go with the house you’re staying in.” He turned his attention to the dog. “Well, excuse me, Skippy. I enjoy bumping into you, but I’ve got to finish my run. See you later, Lauren.”
She gazed after him until he disappeared in the dark, one of the most perfect specimens of a man she had ever seen.
Since the day they’d met, she saw him often on the beach, and he had stopped for idle chit-chat but nothing more.
She thought about him as she walked slowly back to the empty house. He said his name was Jack, he taught humanities, and he liked to run every day on the sand because it built up his endurance more than running on the road.
She shrugged and hastened to catch up with Skippy. She had enough to worry about. Mooning over a good-looking neighbor wasn’t going to solve any of her problems.
Jack continued his jog up the beach as he reflected on Lauren. She was unexpected. She had mentioned God as if she knew Him. He had never thought about finding another Christian so close to his new home.
He’d been in Pensacola only three weeks, but already he felt homesick for familiar faces. He hadn’t found time to look for a new church or anything else you searched out in a new town. Once he started teaching, he’d been busy.
Unfortunately, Lauren was young. After hearing of her college graduation last year, he knew her to be about 22 or 23. He’d have to be extremely careful not to encourage any wrong ideas.
It prevented him from pursuing an acquaintance. She was strikingly attractive with that long brown hair fanning out in the wind and those long legs, extremely nice legs.
He’d seen her many times over the last two weeks just sitting and staring out into the bay. That haunted, vulnerable look made him want to wrap his arms around her. What could have happened to make her seem so broken?
He turned back toward the cottage he had rented. After his long run, his lungs ached. He had been jogging about two miles on the beach every evening since his arrival, and now his legs and ankles were powerful. Because he stood or sat teaching classes every day, he felt he had to have some outside exercise.
When he passed the house of Lauren Tate, he glanced up at the windows. They were lighted now. If he didn’t want to eat alone, he could probably ask her to accompany him somewhere. She could probably even suggest a nice place. She would probably get the wrong idea and so would any other woman.
Why was it so difficult to form an acquaintance with a woman without her expecting anything beyond friendship?
He continued on. It was nearly dark, and he had to watch out for stray driftwood and branches so he didn’t trip. He’d just take a shower and fix something there. Then he would watch TV alone…again. There had to be something better to do than TV.
He stopped. Why not take a chance? He would never find his way around Pensacola, Florida, without some help. The city was too spread out, and there seemed to be a church or a restaurant on every corner. Perhaps Lauren went to a good church.
He retreated until he found the steps climbing up to her house then ran up before he had a chance to change his mind. After banging away for a few seconds, he saw her approach the back door.
Skippy was barking her head off.
The door opened cautiously. “Hello?”
Jack moved into the light of the back porch. “Lauren, it’s Jack. I know it’s forward of me to ask, but would you direct me to a place where I could get something to eat? I’m getting tired of sandwiches and my own company. I was hoping you might accompany me.”
Ugh, that sounded stuffy. He should have thought out his opening line first.
Lauren peered into the darkness. Even though she had wanted Jack to ask her out, now she wasn’t sure. She didn’t even know this man. He could be a total maniac, and they were completely alone.
“I know you don’t know me,” he said with a sudden smile. “Perhaps you could drive your own car, and I could follow you somewhere. I would really appreciate an opportunity to ask your advice about what business establishments to frequent.”
Lauren thought for a moment. She didn’t have that sick feeling in the pit of her stomach, telling her no. Perhaps she could let him follow her into town to Marchello’s. It wasn’t much to look at from the outside, but they had the best Italian food around.
“All right. You can follow me. Do you like Italian?”
Jack had watched the indecision on her face. Just when he thought she was going to pass, she said yes. “Very much. Would thirty minutes be all right? I need to take a shower.”
“Sure, I’ll pull up in your driveway and honk the horn. You can follow me.”
Though her face wore a polite expression, her eyes lacked the usual inviting light of someone who wanted to get to know someone. She didn’t trust him. No wonder, but she would. He would see to that.
“Fine. See you in a few minutes.” He smiled slightly.
Lauren nodded at him and pulled Skippy back so she could shut the door. Apparently, Lauren was a cautious girl, but not too cautious, or she would have said no. He hoped he hadn’t made a mistake, but it was too late now.
Lauren had brought all her clothes with her while house-sitting so she had an adequate selection. She dressed with care, choosing blue jeans and a peasant blouse. It wouldn’t do to encourage this man before she knew if she even liked him. He didn’t seem to be flirting with her though. His eyes had been clear and sincere. She had always been hyper-sensitive to men on the prowl. Even the ones that weren’t supposed to be, like married men.
She brushed out the tangles from her hair caused by the sea-laden wind. Living on the beach was hard on her hair, but she didn’t have anyone to impress, so she didn’t care.
Maybe she should pull it back, but she did look better with it loose and long. She left it down.
After a fresh touch to her make-up, she was ready. She placed Skippy on her bed in the laundry room, set the house alarm, and went out to her car and drove down to Jack’s. She found him waiting in his car in the drive-way.
What type of car would a Humanities’ college professor drive?
Hah! A black convertible Viper.
She grinned. As long as he had his priorities right…his philosophies could prove interesting. Not that a philosophy professor shouldn’t have an expensive sports car. She’d reserve judgment.
It took them almost twenty minutes to drive into town, even though there was little traffic. Living on the water had advantages, but it did take a while to get anywhere. Still, it was better than living in a big city where it took hours to get somewhere.
In the parking lot at Marchello’s, Lauren noticed Jack looking at the nearby bridge. She walked toward him. “That’s the Naval Air Station. This town is full of military. There are two other bases, Corry Field and Saufley, but Saufley isn’t really active. Most of the military personnel are stationed at NAS or Corry. Ready to go in?”
Jack nodded, placing his hand at the small of her back as they walked.
Lauren chose not to make excuses for the old, battered appearance of Marchello’s. It’s popularity was evidenced by all the people in military uniforms seated at the tables and waiting near the door for seating. Jack gave his name and party number to the hostess and walked back to Lauren.
She watched as his eyes scanned the room. She could just imagine what he thought. Every decoration that you would expect to find in an Italian restaurant was somewhere in Marchello’s, from the used wine bottles topped by dripping candles to the red and white checked tablecloths. There were framed maps of Italy on the walls, neon lights, and because they were in a coastal town, there was also a large stuffed marlin hanging in a place of prominence. Jack surveyed it all without comment.
While he perused their accommodations, Lauren speculated about him. His jeans were nice though certainly not on a par with the Viper. His shirt didn’t have any trendy logos on it. He was very attractive, but he hadn’t gone to any trouble to impress her. What was this guy’s motivation?
After waiting ten minutes, they were shown to a table in the back room. There were three dining rooms at Marchello’s, and they were all dark. Suffused lighting hung around the outer edges of each room, and candles lit each tabletop.
“What do you suggest?” Jack asked, opening the menu.
“I always get the same thing, chicken parmesan. But I have tried the alfredo, calamari, and their pizzas are notoriously superb. Make sure you hold the anchovy’s if you don’t like them. A small side dish of spaghetti comes with most of the entrees, so I wouldn’t order that unless you really like a lot of spaghetti. That way you can try two dishes.”
He nodded, and Lauren opened her menu so she wouldn’t have to look at him.
He didn’t seem in a talkative mood, though he’d always been interesting when they talked on the beach. If she had to carry this conversation, she was going to be extremely uncomfortable. Thank goodness, there was loud Italian music in the background.
After a few minutes, he laid down his menu. “Have you decided?” His eyes studied her as if he knew she was hiding.
“Yes, I’ll have the chicken parmesan.”
She set the menu to the side. She would have to talk to him now.
“What would you like to drink?”
“I really just want water, thank you.”
“Will you have the house dressing on your salad or something else?” Why was he asking her every little detail? Was he one of those men that did all the ordering for their dates?
“I like the house dressing. What have you decided on?”
“I’m going to try the pizza, so I’ll have something to take home for tomorrow. My sandwiches are getting boring.”
His confession brought a tiny smile to Lauren’s face. Maybe he was one of those helpless bachelors that couldn’t accomplish anything in the kitchen.
The waitress walked up to take their orders, and Jack recited all their selections by himself. The waitress walked off but returned quickly with a glass of unsweetened tea, which Jack left unsweetened.
“Do you always drink water?” He looked at Lauren curiously.
“Yes, in the evenings. Caffeine keeps me awake at night. Do you always drink your tea without sweetener?”
“Always. So you’re a creature of habit, chicken parmesan every time. Do you order the same thing everywhere you go? Is this your favorite place to eat?”
“No and no. But I assumed you were familiar with national chains and wanted to try some “local color.” If I want Italian on this end of town, this is where I come. Besides, I thought you might like to see the entrance to NAS. There’s an interesting aviation museum on the base that’s open to the public. The Blue Angels display is particularly impressive. There are four planes suspended in the air as if in formation. Windows surround the ceiling and when the sun streams through and hits the planes, it looks as if they’re really flying through the air. People around here are crazy for the Angels.”
“I can imagine. I’ve seen them fly at an exhibition in Houston. Do they have a schedule?”
“Oh, yes. It’s a big deal when they fly. The papers will announce it, and the show will be in a location where the general public is allowed to go.”
“Perhaps you could let me know the next time you hear about it.”
Lauren drummed her fingers on the table. She hated to ask him questions about himself. He hadn’t asked any about her, but she didn’t want to run her mouth the whole dinner either.
Jack watched Lauren’s nervous drumming. That girl is uncomfortable with strangers, but she certainly is lovely. Her movements are graceful; her voice is melodic. How could he put her at ease so he could get to know her? If he started talking about himself, she would think he was self-absorbed. He settled on her living arrangements.
“Why are you house-sitting?”
“The couple that owns the house went to India on a mission trip. The man is an eye-doctor and they’re doing a tour with a medical mission group. My family has known them for years, so they asked me to stay. I usually live with my parents.”
Jack was surprised. “How old are you?”
“Twenty-four. How old are you?”
The amused look on her face told him he had blurted that question out without thinking.
“Ah, an old man. And what brings you to teach in Pensacola?”
Could she tell he thought she was young? She was humoring him. Perhaps she was more perceptive than he’d first thought.
“I’ve never been here before. I wanted a short teaching term somewhere, and this was the first college to offer a position limited to one semester.” He shrugged. “And it’s near home, close enough to drive.”
“You’ll only be staying in Pensacola one semester? Why…if you don’t mind my asking?”
“I’ve accepted a six-month stint with a mission organization and it doesn’t start until June. I’m going to visit Central America and teach English as a second language. We’ll also teach them other skills and evangelize.”
Lauren eyed him with ambivalence. “Interesting. When you say evangelize, what do you mean?”
“Introducing people to God, our heavenly Father, Jesus, His Son, and The Holy Ghost, active in spiritual gifts today.”
He spouted the litany concisely, as if he was instructing someone. Yep, he was a philosophy teacher. Dogmatic whether you wanted it or not.
Jack noticed her cooling attitude and wondered if he’d made a mistake about her spiritual condition. “Where do you go to church?” He tried smiling at her.
She returned a polite smile as she gave the name of a church.
“I’ve visited a few times with my parents. It teaches God, the Father, Jesus, His only Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
She appeared to have withdrawn, but Jack didn’t understand why. He kept trying to draw her out. “Have you been in church all your life?”
“No, have you?”
“No, I was in high school when my father got saved and took the whole family to church. It changed my life. My entire family is saved now…parents, brothers, and a married sister. Have you got any siblings?”
“No, there’s just me.”
“You said earlier that you graduated from the college where I’m teaching. What was your major? What are you doing now?”
“Business, but I don’t know what I want to do or what I want to be.” Lauren took a deep breath as if preparing herself for something unpleasant. “There is nothing in life that interests me. I’m good at everything but excellent at nothing. So, I don’t know, and I don’t hear God yelling out any answers either.” For a moment, the haunted look had left Lauren’s eyes. She looked positively fierce.
Jack could see right through the defiance in Lauren’s tone. She was deeply hurt by something, even struggling with it. But he wasn’t sure what questions to ask to open her up. He decided right then to make Lauren his pet project while he was here. Maybe he could help her sort out her questions. It would be good practice before he went on the mission field.
Their waitress returned with their meal, and Jack waited before responding to her statement. “Why are you in a hurry to finalize every detail of your life?”
Lauren’s whole body stiffened with that question. “My house-sitting will soon be over, and because of my parents. They wanted me to have a career as soon as I finished college. There just isn’t much to do in Pensacola. It’s completely devoted to tourism, real estate, and the military. None of which appeals to me. I graduated with a business degree and no business interests with which to put the degree to work.”
“Why did you choose a business degree?”
“Oh, I like business. I like understanding how things run. I just don’t know which business I’m most interested in. I don’t want to manage a restaurant. I don’t want to manage a clothing shop in the mall. I hate real estate. I don’t know…”
Lauren looked so forlorn that compassion welled up in Jack. This 24 year-old girl was trying to decide her entire future like she was going to be locked to that one decision for the rest of her life. Lord, help me become Lauren’s friend and give her support the next few months.
Perhaps it was time to change the subject. “How is your food?”
“Oops, I’m sorry. It’s great. Forgive me for complaining. How’s your pizza? I hope you like it.”
“It’s surprisingly delicious. I wasn’t sure about this place, but you knew what you were doing.”
“I wondered when you didn’t say anything. Everybody thinks this is a dive until they try the food.”
The rest of the meal went more smoothly. Jack told Lauren about his home and family in Texas. She sensed there were things he kept back, but she hadn’t revealed all either, so she wasn’t too concerned.
She told him about the different shops she used, her favorite dry-cleaner, which supermarket was the best for meat, which one for vegetables, which was the cheapest.
He learned that she loved living on the water but hated swimming in it. She was afraid of sharks.
“What about sailing? I can’t wait until it warms enough to go out. Would you go with me?”
“If you promise not to turn the boat over like my best friend did when we were seventeen. We were on a tiny sailboat in the bay, and we had to swim back to shore, fearing whatever might go bump in the murky depths. I was afraid to move my legs.”
Jack held up his hand and pledged. “I solemnly promise to do everything in my power to keep the boat upright. And if it does tip over, you can sit there and wait while I swim back to shore.”
Lauren laughed again. It made Jack feel as if he had accomplished something great, to take the sorrow out of her eyes, at least for a little while. She was charming when she forgot her pain. It would be easy to spend the next five months as her friend.
Lauren was the first to look at her watch. “I think we’ve been sitting here over an hour.”
“Oh, of course. Ready to go?”
When she nodded, Jack jumped up to pull out her chair. He had already paid the bill and left a tip on the table so they walked out together.
He put Lauren in her car and said good-night. “I’ll follow you home.”
“No need. There’s a security system, and I go home alone all the time. I’m not afraid. Besides, there’s always Skippy to let me know if anyone’s there.”
He grinned. “Is that a good thing?”
“She’s noisy, but I like her. The house would seem too empty without some company.”
“Maybe I could come over and keep you company some night. We could watch TV or play a board game.”
“Sure. I could fix you dinner to pay you back for tonight. I really enjoyed myself, thank you.”
She had the most forlorn expression, even though she was trying to smile. Jack was taken aback by the strength of his reaction. He wanted to make her eyes come alive. Right now she was looking at him as if he was a valued friend, and he had the desire to prolong that moment. He leaned down to her window.
“I wouldn’t mind some home-cooking. Are you any good? I’m pathetic.”
“I know a few things. My Mom did most of the cooking, but sometimes I took over for her. By the way, if you don’t want to swim with the sharks, you’re welcome to use the pool. It’s heated…but the air is cold when you get out! Good night.” Lauren rolled up her window, and Jack walked to his car.
He followed Lauren all the way back, and she honked her horn when she turned off at her house. Jack continued to his cottage, but he was too restless to sleep so he walked out to the shore to think about the evening.
It was Thursday. Should he wait to see her again until church on Sunday? He had forgotten to ask if she was dating anyone. She might have a boyfriend. She wasn’t overtly flirtatious like many girls her age, so he couldn’t be sure. Jack finally decided to run into her by chance, even if he had to run up and down the beach a lot to “run” into her.
Lauren pondered her new acquaintance as she pulled into the driveway. She had enjoyed her unexpected evening out. Jack was too old to date, but he certainly was handsome. She could just imagine the reaction from the female student body when he walked onto campus as the new instructor. Humanities would definitely get an increase in enrollment.
When she got inside, Lauren turned off the security grid then grabbed a jacket and let Skippy out of the laundry room. The dog headed straight for the back door.
Lauren followed, and they went outside together. The air was chilly, but crisp and clean. Skippy ran down the steps, and Lauren followed after her. The moon and stars were bright this far from the city, so the path was well-lighted after you let your eyes adjust.
While Skippy sniffed around, Lauren looked out at the bay. There weren’t any waves, but the current moved the water, making the reflection of the twinkling lights from the stars above look even more fluid in the black water.
She heard the water slap at the pier and stepped up. She rarely ventured out on the pier in the dark when she was alone. There was no railing. If she fell in, there would be no one to save her, but she did want to look down the beach.
Skippy came silently up to Lauren, so they turned back toward the house. From the corner of her eye, she caught movement and whirled around. There was someone walking on the beach, and it looked very much like Jack.
Skippy barked and ran forward to greet the newcomer. “Yeah, it’s me, Lauren. I’m going for a moonlight stroll. Care to join me?”
“I’d love to, but if I don’t get ready for bed, I won’t be able to get up for work in the morning. Goodnight and thanks again for dinner, I enjoyed it.”
“You’re welcome. You never mentioned a job. What do you do?”
“I work for a marketing firm. Even Pensacola has to have someone to put up billboards.”
Jack walked closer as she stepped off the end of the pier and onto the sand. “Would you and your parents be interested in joining me for dinner after church on Sunday?”
“My parents died in an automobile accident about a year ago, right after they started going to church. Good night.”
Lauren walked up the steps leading to her house without a backward glance, Skippy close on her heels. She left Jack standing on the beach in the dark with his mouth hanging open.