Collin slumped at the table, staring at the palm of his hand as he absently rubbed it with his thumb. His stomach was in knots. A hundred thoughts circled in his brain of things he wanted to tell her, but as he sat there, heart racing and hands sweating, he had absolutely no idea what he would say.
She dried the last dish, put it away and neatly folded the dishtowel before turning around, her small frame propped against the counter, as if for support. For the moment, those green eyes were calm, resigned and almost cold. But not quite, he noticed, as she quickly averted her gaze to the floor.
“You can’t hate me, you know––it’s against your religion.”
He was teasing, but she didn’t seem to care. Her head snapped up and her eyes singed him. His heart started pounding, and his slow smile reengaged. She was like a chameleon––calm and placid one minute, all fire and flash in the next, and it never failed to rouse him.
“Get it over with, Collin. Father said you wanted to speak with me, so do it.”
She was clearly not happy with him, and somehow it turned his smile into a grin, which only managed to aggravate her further. He tried to temper it a bit, but it was so blasted hard with her looking like that. A little girl with pouting, green eyes and wild, auburn hair tumbling her shoulders. Holy saints above, she was beautiful! Why hadn’t he realized before just how much? Before he had courted Charity and set things in motion that were now too difficult to change? Things could have been so different, he thought, then frowned. No, they would have never been different, he realized. Something much bigger than an engagement to Charity still stood in the way. His smile relaxed into a sober line.
“Will you sit down, please? It’s difficult to have a conversation with someone who looks like they’re ready to bolt from the room.”
Her gaze focused past him as she slipped into the seat farthest away, hands folded on the table before her.
Collin cleared his throat and shifted in his chair. “I owe you an apology, Faith, and more than one, I suppose. I should have never taken advantage of you like I did. I regret it, I really do. Not just because of what it’s done to you, but what it’s done to Charity …” He looked away. “And to me.”
He closed his eyes, leaned back and massaged his forehead with his fingers. “I saw myself with Charity, Faith, I really did. I thought we’d marry, have lots of kids and grow old together. But that day in the park, something happened. I don’t know, I felt something––something strong—and it scared me. I hated it because it made me feel vulnerable. I didn’t like that. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it, either—about you—and believe me, I tried. I was certain if I could see more of Charity, if I could fill my mind with her love, I’d be fine. Only it didn’t work that way. Then I thought, well, once Charity and I are married, I’ll get over it …”
She watched him now with eyes rimmed raw, hands shaking as she picked at her nails.
“I was pretty slow on the uptake, I guess. It wasn’t until the night on the swing that I realized I was falling in love with you.”
He heard her sharp intake of breath as her eyes began to well and reached across the table to take her hand in his. “I love you, Faith. Marry me.”
She jerked her hand from his and stood, quivering as she caved against the chair. “I can’t marry you, Collin.”
He leaned forward. “I know you love me. Can you deny it?”
She didn’t speak, and he jumped up and rounded the table, gripping her arms to lift her to her feet. When she wouldn’t look at him, he grabbed her chin and forced her. “Look at me! Can you deny you love me?”
She stared at him through a mist of tears. “Let me go, you’re hurting my arm.”
“Tell me you don’t love me.”
“I don’t love you.”
“You’re lying, Faith. I would have thought better of you than that.”
“Well don’t!” she screamed, “I’m not better than that. You’ve said your apologies, Collin, now let me go.”
She tried to turn away. He jerked her back. “I know you love me. Don’t you think I can feel it every time I touch you?” He pulled her to him, and she cried out before his lips silenced her with a savage kiss. She struggled to pull free, but he only held her tighter, the blood pounding in his brain. His mouth was everywhere—her throat, her earlobes, her lips—and he could feel the heat coming in waves as she melted against him. She was quivering when he finally let her go.
“You love me, Faith,” he said quietly. “You know that, and I know that. Your heart belongs to me, and nothing can ever change that fact––not Charity, not you and not your god.”
A sob escaped her lips, and she collapsed into the chair, all fight gone. “I know,” she whispered, “I know. Oh, Collin, if only you could tell me what I need to hear.”
He was tempted to lie, to tell her anything to keep her. He had done it once––managed to convince her family he was something he wasn’t; he could do it again. The back of his neck swarmed with frustration and somehow he knew, no matter how convincing the lie, she would know. Somehow that god of hers would trip him up, and then he would lose her forever. It was only seconds before he answered, but it seemed a lifetime. “I can’t now,” he said, his mouth dry, “but I don’t know it couldn’t happen. Maybe you’ll save my soul, who knows?” His attempt to be light fell flat, and inwardly he cursed at how hollow it must have sounded.
“What does it matter anyway? I won’t stand in your way if you want to believe in your god. Please, Faith, just say yes!”
He was speaking too fast, as if he were desperate. He was. The only woman he ever really wanted would not have him, and it was about to crush him. Never in his life had he ever begged a woman for anything. A sick feeling suddenly cleaved to his throat.
She started to cry, and he knew before she spoke what her answer would be. His hands dropped to his sides. Slowly, he walked to the sink to pour himself a glass of water. He emptied it and set the glass on the counter before turning to face her. When he did, he felt a spasm quiver in his jaw. His eyes itched hot as they pierced through her. “That’s it, then? God wins and I lose? Well, I’m glad we settled that. It’s been eating at me for a long time.”
“Collin, please …”
“Please what? Go away so you don’t have to face the fact you’re in love with me?” He moved to his chair, slamming it against the table.
“It wouldn’t work. It has to be right—”
“No! I don’t want to hear it! I’m sick to death of hearing it, and I don’t have to listen. We’re oil and water, Faith. I’m in the real world, and you’re out there somewhere in a world I don’t understand.” For a split second he stared past her before his eyes shifted back, finally resigned. “It’s good for me to go away. You don’t have to worry anymore, Faith. I don’t need a ton of bricks to fall on me to know it’s time to move on.”
He squeezed his eyes shut and pinched the back of his neck. “I suppose marriage needs a bit more than passion anyway, doesn’t it? It helps if you’re on the same wavelength, at least, like Charity and me. We seem to understand each other, and then there’s passion too.” His voice sounded so strange to his own ears, a low monotone, emotionless, almost stream of consciousness.
He heard her move toward him. “You know, Collin, someday we’ll be friends––good friends.”
His eyes flew open, and he didn’t blink once. “I don’t want to be your friend, Faith. I want to be your husband and your lover.”
A dark blush invaded her cheeks. She lifted her chin. “Me, too, Collin, more than anything in the world.”
He heaved the chair against the table again, the sound as explosive as the fire in his gut. “That’s a lie! But, it doesn’t matter now, because I finally get it. I don’t understand it, mind you, but it’s finally sinking into this thick head of mine that we don’t belong together. Not that what we have between us isn’t strong and real. No, this thing is so real it makes us crazy every time we’re even near each other. It’s what most people dream about, and we have it! But you––you’d rather turn your back on something so real for something that’s only real in your own mind.”
“It’s not just real in my mind. God is real, whether you believe it or not.”
“Yeah? Well you can’t prove it by me.”
“Collin, please … don’t do this! You can’t possibly know how sorry I am.”
“Yes I can, Faith.” He started to leave.
He stopped, hand splayed against the door.
“I am sorry, so sorry. And for what it’s worth, I’ll never stop praying for you.”
He turned, all anger siphoning out. “Yeah, you do that.” He took a deep breath and forced a faint smile. “Well then, I guess that’s that. Chapter closed. Man goes to war, ex-fiancée waits for him, and sister moves on with her life. Here’s to a happy ending.”
Tears streaked her cheeks. “I hope so, Collin, she whispered. “I’m staking everything on it. Somewhere in Mrs. Gerson’s Bible it says, ‘All things work together for good to those who love God.’ I’d like to think that’s assurance of a happy ending.”
As he stared at her now, he almost envied what she had. Almost. He hung his head, then glanced up, his lips curved in a tired smile. “Well, one thing’s for sure––I’m glad I’m leaving on good terms. If I’m going to be target practice for some Germans, I’d much rather have you praying for me than against me.”
“Count on it,” she said, wiping the wetness from her face. “And, Collin, I wish the best for you. I really do.”
He studied her, completely certain she meant it. “Thanks, Little Bit.” Without another word, he turned and left, causing the door to creak to an eerie stillness.
Over the last month, Faith had gotten to know Briana better, only to discover her involvement with Collin was the very least of her problems. Her alcoholic father had often come to her room at night since she was a young girl, almost up until the day he died. Briana’s mother had simply turned a blind eye to it all and to Briana as well. Briana compensated with a hard veneer, which Faith managed to penetrate, through prayer and persistence. It was slow, but they were becoming good friends.
The dinner Mrs. Gerson prepared was magnificent, and Faith couldn’t remember when she’d eaten so much. Apparently Briana and Maisie were feeling the same way. All three moaned, pushing their chairs back from the table, stuffed, but content.
Mrs. Gerson poured tea, obviously enjoying the role of hostess once again. Spooning a bit of sugar into her cup, she turned her full attention to Briana. “So, Briana, Faith tells me you are no longer seeing this Collin McGuire. That must be very difficult for you. I understand you care for him very much.”
The relaxed smile on Briana’s face faded as she shifted in the chair. “It is. But Faith has been praying for me, and I guess you have, too, because somehow I’ve been able to do it. I haven’t seen Collin since the last time I was at Brannigan’s when I told him I couldn’t …” Briana blushed slightly. “Well, you know … I told him no.”
“And he hasn’t bothered you since?”
Briana shook her head, a real sadness in her eyes. “No, he hasn’t. Oh, he was angry with me at the time, almost like he actually cared, but he doesn’t really. I think he was angry at Faith.”
Faith stopped chewing, her jaw suddenly stiff and cheeks lumpy with one of Mrs. Gerson’s sugar cookies.
“Angry with Faith?” Mrs. Gerson seemed confused.
“Yes, at least I think so. When he asked me why, I told him I had been talking to this girl at work and mentioned it was someone he knew. The minute I told him Faith’s name, he went quite pale, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so angry before. He slammed his beer on the bar, spilling it everywhere, all over me, all over him. I smelled like a brewery. He muttered something about …” Briana blushed, glancing at Faith. “Well, I can’t exactly repeat the word he used, but something about ‘that “blank” woman interfering in his life.’ And then he left, just like that. That was a number of months ago, of course. I haven’t been to Brannigan’s since.”
Maisie and Faith exchanged looks.
“That’s good, Briana,” Mrs. Gerson said, pausing to reach for a cookie off the plate in the center of the table. “Briana, do you enjoy games?”
Briana blinked. “I suppose so, at least I did when I was young. Why, Mrs. Gerson?”
“Games are great fun, especially when you win. But, to win it takes great skill, and of course, you have to follow the rules.” Mrs. Gerson munched thoughtfully, her tongue swiping a crumb from the corner of her mouth.
“Yes, of course …”
“You know, Briana, I think of life as very much like a game. The one who created it gave us the rules by which it is to be played, rules designed to help us win, rules to help us be happy. The problem is many times we choose to play by our own rules, and then we’re at a loss to understand why we never win.”
Mrs. Gerson leaned forward to stare straight at Briana as if her vacant eyes could see her clearly. “God has a great deal of love for you, Briana. He made you, and He’s given you His Word as the rulebook for your life. He wants you to win, but to do so, you must follow His rules. Up to now, you haven’t experienced a lot of genuine love in your life, but that’s going to change. You’ve been looking for love in ways contrary to God’s law. You thought you could find that love in an intimate relationship with Collin, but you found only heartache.”
Mrs. Gerson paused to take a sip of her tea, then patted her mouth with a napkin. “The love you’re seeking is available, Briana. In fact, it’s exactly what God has in mind. It’s right there in the rulebook––the Bible. It says in Ephesians 5:22, ‘Husbands, cherish your wives.’ Tell me, Briana, do you know what ‘cherish’ means?”
“To love and care for, I suppose.” Briana’s eyes were fixed on the old woman’s face.
“Yes, my dear, and much more. It means to hold dear, to protect, to view as the most precious thing in your life. If it’s in God’s plan for you to marry, He wants it to be a man who will cherish you––love you to the depth of his soul, just like God does. But for that to happen, my dear, you must commit yourself to this God who loves you far more than any man ever could. And when you do and then follow His Word, it will lead you to the kind of love your heart longs for, not lustful love like you experienced with Collin. The Bible says the wages of sin is death. God’s Word admonishes us to flee sexual sin. Why? Because He knows it’s not only death to your soul, but death to the kind of love you’re seeking. Death to the only kind of love that will ever make you happy. The choice is yours, Briana, but trust me, the strength to do it is all His.”
Briana’s eyes glistened with wetness as she stared at Mrs. Gerson. Her gaze flitted to Faith, then back to the old woman’s face. Wiping her eyes with her hand, she sat up straight, pushing her chin out. “I want it, Mrs. Gerson. I want what you and Faith have. How do I get it?”
The old woman beamed and nodded her head. Faith stole a glimpse at Maisie who was watching the entire scene with rapt curiosity.
“It’s simply a heart thing, Briana. All you have to do is acknowledge you’re a sinner and that Jesus is your Savior. Then simply ask Him to come into your heart and be Lord of your life. You’ll never be alone again. I’ll be delighted to lead you in prayer and then, if you like, you may keep one of my Bibles to see all He has in store for you. I can assure you, my dear, your life will never be the same.” Mrs. Gerson took Briana’s hands in hers. “Shall we?”
Briana nodded, her hands trembling. “Yes, please,” she whispered.
With the softest of smiles gentling her lips, Mrs. Gerson nodded and led them in prayer, her voice strong and sure as they all bowed their heads.