Authors: Claudia Mair Burney
an amanda bell brown mystery
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Â© 2009 Claudia Mair Burney
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Edited by Lissa Halls Johnson
This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental and beyond the intent of either the author or publisher.
Scripture quotations marked KJV are taken from the King James Version. Scripture quotations marked MSG are taken from
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For my father
James Harold Hawthorne, Jr.
August 29, 1936âFebruary 2, 2007
Because you'd want to know what happened.
AM ALWAYS GRATEFUL
to my amazing family for their love and support. I extend the same gratitude to the friendsâyou know who you areâwho helped and loved me on this journey.
And I thank you, dear reader, for trying me again with Bell's third adventure.
Lissa, the dance was lovely. I let you lead even more this time. No regrets on the ending.
Thank you, Chip MacGregor, for weathering all these storms with me.
And to my wonderful team at Howard Books, thank you, thank you, thank you.
July 11, Feast of St. Benedict
Jesus said unto him, If thou canst believe,
all things are possible to him that believeth.
OCKY SHOWED UP
at my apartment door with an offer that, in his words, I “no coulda refuse.” Or maybe those were Marlon Brando's words. I couldn't be sure. My blond, dreadlocked former pastor slash ex-boyfriend locked me into a stare with those big brown puppy eyes. He'd puffed out his jowls to utter the Godfather's most famous line, while grazing his cheek with the backs of his fingersâan excruciatingly amiss imitation. I've seen newborn babies' smiles that were more intimidating.
“You look more like a hamster than a mobster, Rock.”
“Hamsters are cool.”
“But less compelling, you must admit.”
Rocky grinned and wagged his finger at me. “Never underestimate the power of a furry little creature.” He twitched his nose and started making hamster noises.
“Amen!” I said.
I thought of my vicious former pet sugar glider, Amos. Although he'd become my friend and hero, I had to give him away to another nocturnal creatureâotherwise, I'd never sleep again. My husband's best friend, Souldier, had taken the murderous marsupial. Now Amos happily shreds
“Come on in, my not-so-furry friend,” I told Rocky, mostly so he would stop making weird rodent sounds.
I moved aside so he could enter my little slice of paradise: shabby chic meets Africa is what Jazz, my husband, called it. Rocky loved my funky, eclectically furnished place, too. He just didn't describe it as aptly as Jazz did.
Who was I kidding? Rocky didn't do
as aptly as Jazz did. I had lost them both six weeks ago, and now here was Rocky, surprising me by showing up at my door like unexpected grace.
“Welcome back, Rocky,” I said. I know I sounded lame, but I wanted him to know I was glad he'd come, no matter what the reason.
He muttered a shy “Thanks.”
We stood in my foyer exchanging reticent glances until I got bold enough to take a long look at him. I'd missed him so. He wore a typical Rockyesque uniform underneath his white down jacketâkhaki pants and a long-sleeved
T-shirt. A cupid earring dangled from his right ear. Every year about this time, he wore it to remind me to come to the Saint Valentine's Day feast.
Without thinking I blurted out, “I see you and cupid are still advertising ourâ” I bit my tongue. There'd be no “our” Saint Valentine's Day feast this year for prodigal Bell. “Sorry,” I muttered.
“No problem,” he rushed to say, and then an awful silence descended on us like a cold, gray fog.
When I was still a member of his church, befittingly named the Rock House, I never missed the event. Rocky would tell stories of Saint Valentine; we'd eat candy conversation hearts, listen to live music, and share abundant amounts of food and laughter.
It was Rocky's way of making sure the lonely hearts wouldn't spend the evening alone. There with my church family, not only did I get heaps of love, I could give out some from my meager supply.
That and we always had a chocolate fountain.
What was I going to do now?
I tried not to think about the sting I'd felt when Rocky kicked me out of his church. I didn't want to think about anything that had happened six weeks ago. Still, I figured whatever brought him to my door had an olive branch attached to it, and I'd be willing to do whatever he asked, short of sin, to reconcile with him.
Rocky hung up his jacket, kicked out of his Birkenstocks, and headed over to my rose-colored velvet sofa and sat. I followed, plopping down beside him.
“So what's the offer, Godfather?”
He stared at me. “Did you gain weight?”
Because I know it's rude to kill your loved ones, I let that one slide and gave him a polite smile, but I did grab a mud-cloth throw pillow to cover my expanding waistline.
“So what's the offer, Rocky?”
He gushed in a most
-Godfatherly way, “I want you to go to a meeting with me. It's only going to be the way-coolest event you've been to in forever.”
I cuddled the pillow and eyed him cautiously. He didn't mean the Valentine's Day feast. I braced myself. Rocky's idea of way cool could be scary. “Can you be a little more specific?”
He didn't answer. Just reached out and touched my hand, rubbing his thumb across my knuckles. “I really missed you.”
Oh, man. That small gestureâhim touching the hand no
body held anymoreâhad the effect of a pebble in a pond, creating ripples of unexpected sadness that circled out of my soul. Lord, have mercy. I didn't fling myself at him, begging like a rhythm-and-blues singer for him to keep loving me, not to give up on me, but something in me wished I could.
I didn't want to
Rocky, or even date him. He had never been the love of my life. In that moment I simply wanted to banish the nearly incarnate loneliness that had been dogging my heels as a solemn, maddening companion, shuffling me through all those days without my best friend Rocky.
And without my husband Jazz.
I gazed up at him with my own version of puppy eyes. “I missed you, too, Rocky.”
We let a bit of silence sit between us on the sofa like a third and very quiet presence. Our heads hung low. Apparently we were both still smarting over the pain of separation.
Minutes passed, our hands still clasped together, but Rocky's merciful presence soothed the dry patches of my soul like olive oil.
Thank God. Thank God for every kind soul I don't deserve in my life who loves me anyway
“Rocky.” I made my voice as soft and small as a baby's blankie.
He turned to me, his face as open and vulnerable as that blankie's little owner.
I squeezed his hand. “I'm so sorry I hurt you.”
Those puppy eyes shone with compassion.
“I'm sorry for the things I did, too, babe. For the things I said that night.”
“Don't call me babe.”
He chuckled. “Some things never change.” Again, those gentle peepers bored into me. “Why didn't you tell me you married Jazz?”
“At the time I didn't seem too clear on it myself. Things happened pretty fast, and the next thing I knew, I was a wife.” I paused, the weight of that statement shifting just a bit with Rocky there to help bear my burden. “He's mad at me.”
“Duh-uh. You were kissing your blond boy toy.” He nudged me with his tattooed arm. “What's going on with the two of you now?”
“I've seen corpses on Carly's autopsy tables more alive than our marriage.”
I wondered if I'd ever get over what I'd lost with Jazz.
“I can only imagine what his parents think of me. I guess they'd say I'm the nightmare that took his ex, Kate's, place.”
He regarded me with the care and concern I'd seen him lavish on the fortunate souls he counseled as a pastor. Rocky may be only twenty-eight years old, but he'd been a pastor for two years. Two good years. He didn't have the life experience an older pastor would, but God had given him an extraordinary shepherd's heart.
“You're not a nightmare,” he said. “You jumped into a marriage with no spiritual or emotional preparation.”
Like I, the clinician, needed
I sighed. “Yet another âpsychologist, heal thyself ' thing.” I looked away from him, guilt gnawing at me. “Maybe Jazz and I just aren't meant to be, Rocky.”
“Have you talked to him?”
I shrugged. “Just once. He came over for a few minutes on Christmas Eve. I let him know I wanted him in a way I knew he'd understand. And then I waited. He never came back.”
“Why didn't you go to him?”
“The same reason I didn't come to
. I wanted to give him some space to feel whatever he felt and then to decide on his own.”
“But maybe he's not like me, babe.”
? And don't call me babe.”
“Maybe he needs you to
him decide. Like some extra reassurance or something.”
“That's crazy, Rock.”
“It's not so crazy, babe.”
I took back every nice thing I'd just thought about him. What did he know? Yes, he pastored a church of more than two-hundred members. He did missions work. He had a shepherd's heart. He took pastoral counseling classes in seminary, but honestly! His voice sounded just like Patrick's from
Rocky glared at me. “Babeâ¦”
“Don't call me babe.”
“Babe! You gotta go to him.”
“But he yells. Sometimes he cusses like a fishwife.”
“What's a fishwife?”
“I don't know, but my great-grandmother used to say that and it stuck with me. Maybe only females cuss like fishwives. Maybe he cusses like the fish.” Now
sounded like Patrick!
“Fish don't cuss.”
“Okay, I know I should have reassured him.”
He sighed. Looked at me with those eyes. Squeezed my hand. “Will you ever let anyone love you?”
“People love me, Rocky. My sister. My secretary. Sasha.”
“I have doubts about Sasha.”
I thought about that and chuckled with him. “You may be right. My mother
done a few things that make me wonder. Now I'm really depressed.”
“I want to see you happy.”
“I want to see you happy, too. Speaking of which, how are you and Elisa?”
He grinned, reddened, looked away.
“What? Did you marry her in six weeks? My goodness!” For the first time, I didn't feel jealous that someone was interested in Rocky. Well, not much.
“No. I'm not married. I'mâ¦”
“She's really special, but it hasn't been that long since she left creepy cult dude. I'm not sure I should be involved.”
“How involved are you?”
“I'm involved, babe.”
“You're in love?”
He wouldn't say anything, but his goofy grin spoke for him.
He nudged me. “Cut it out, babe.”
So, Rocky was really in love. Wow. I always knew it would happen, but I didn't realize I'd still have the teensiest bit of pain knowing he'd moved on from me for good. The last time I saw them together, I could see a flower of astonishing beauty
blossoming between them, even though it nearly killed me at the moment. But God knows Rocky deserved the biggest, juiciest love he could find. He needed to look beyond the nonexistent us. And he
called me babe.
“Just take it slow, Rock. Trust me. The cost of moving too fast is astronomical, even if you are in love.”
I could tell he didn't feel comfortable talking to me about Elisa. I decided to let their love blossom without my tending, pruning, or pulling up weeds. I got back to the business at hand. “Are you ever going to tell me what your offer is?” I eased into the lush upholstery of my sofa.
Rocky's face lit up. Honestly, if that guy had a tail to go with those puppy eyes, it would be thumping my sofa with joy.
“It's gonna be awesome, baâI mean, Bell.”
Apparently our little chat about Elisa made him correct himself. “You think everything is awesome, Rocky.”
“I don't think
“You said my Love Bug is awesome. You said Switchfoot's new CD is awesome. You said my new zillions braids are awesome, and you said the ice cream at Cold Stone Creamery is awesome.” Okay, the ice cream at Cold Stone happened to be awesome for real. Lately I'd been craving it like the blind crave sight.
There he went again. Honestly! A holy war couldn't make that man stop calling me babe.
He went on. “Those things
is awesome, Rock. âAwesome' meaning the subject inspires awe, as in reverence, respect, dread.”
your tricked-out VW Beetle,” he said. “And I
Switchfoot, especially Jon Foreman, and your way-cool, African-goddess hair
me to get dreads.”
I stared at him. Comments like these coming from Rocky tended to render me temporarily speechless.
He filled the silence with his proposal. “I want you to go see Ezekiel Thunder with me.”
My eyes widened. Electroshock therapy wouldn't have given me such a jolt. “
” I screeched. I jerked up from my slouch. I'd heard the
-right reverend wanted to hit the comeback trail, bringing his miracle crusade with him.
Rocky gave me a wicked grin and smugly settled himself into the soft folds of my sofa. He knew I'd left Thunder's particular brand of Pentecostal fire many years ago and had no desire to go back.
Rocky bobblehead nodded, as if his physical movement would effect a change in my attitude.
“Stop all that nodding!”
“I'm just trying to encourage you.”
I did not feel encouraged.
“It'll be fun,” he said, blasting me with the full puppy-eyes arsenal. Oh, those eyes. Powerful! Mesmerizing! Like a basketful of cocker spaniel puppies wearing red ribbons. I could feel myself weakening.
“Rocky, that meeting will torture me. It will torture
“No, it won't. Ezekiel is my friend.”
“He led me to Christ.”
“Ezekiel Thunder led you to Christ?”
“I told you I came to Christ at a Bible camp.”
“It was a Sons of Thunder Bible camp. I'm a Thunder Kid!” He beamed with what I hoped wasn't pride.
“You never told me that!”
Honestly! You think you know somebody!
He was my ex-boyfriend for goodness' sake. We'd talked about
. I couldn't believe I had no idea he was close friends with the infamous Ezekiel Thunder.