Monday, May 31, 2010

TOUR: "What Happened to My Life?" by Danna Demetre

For those suffering from a spirit of discontentment, this book is a good pick-me-up. It’s not all roses, though… there is much conviction to be found here.

In the first half of the book, Danna talks about the importance of taking the focus off of your circumstances and putting it on Christ, where it belongs. She even shares six other womens’ stories in order to help you see that you’re not alone in your struggles, but also that you can rise above them if you keep your focus on God and His purposes.

The last half of this book is a 40-day devotional. Each day is focused around a particular Scripture, and then includes journaling space to record your worship, confession, gratitude, prayer requests, and more. The check-boxes and other questions guide you in replacing the lies you’ve believed with truth from God’s Word.

Overall, this is a helpful book. Recommended.

Rated: B-

This book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. Available at your favourite bookseller from Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

TOUR: "A Tailor-Made Bride" by Karen Witemeyer

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old...or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!


Today's Wild Card author is:


and the book:


A Tailor-Made Bride

Bethany House (June 1, 2010)

***Special thanks to Karen Witemeyer for sending me a review copy.***

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:


Karen Witemeyer holds a master's degree in psychology from Abilene Christian University and is a member of ACFW, RWA, and the Texas Coalition of Authors. She has published fiction in Focus on the Family's children's magazine, and has written several articles for online publications and anthologies. Tailor-Made Bride is her first novel. Karen lives in Abilene, Texas, with her husband and three children.


Visit the author's website.

Product Details:

List Price: $14.99
Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Bethany House (June 1, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0764207555
ISBN-13: 978-0764207556

AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:


Prologue

San Antonio, Texas—March 1881
“Red? Have you no shame, Auntie Vic? You can’t be buried in a scarlet gown.”

“It’s cerise, Nan.”

Hannah Richards bit back a laugh as Victoria Ashmont effectively put her nephew’s wife in her place with three little words. Trying hard to appear as if she wasn’t listening to her client’s conversation, Hannah pulled the last pin from between her lips and slid it into the hem of the controversial fabric.

“Must you flout convention to the very end?” Nan’s whine heightened to a near screech as she stomped toward the door. A delicate sniff followed by a tiny hiccup foreshadowed the coming of tears. “Sherman and I will be the ones to pay the price. You’ll make us a laughingstock among our friends. But then, you’ve never cared for anyone except yourself, have you?”

Miss Victoria pivoted with impressive speed, the cane she used for balance nearly clobbering Hannah in the head as she spun.

“You may have my nephew wrapped around your little finger, but don’t think you can manipulate me with your theatrics.” Like an angry goddess from the Greek myths, Victoria Ashmont held her chin at a regal angle and pointed her aged hand toward the woman who dared challenge her. Hannah almost expected a lightning bolt to shoot from her finger to disintegrate Nan where she stood.

“You’ve been circling like a vulture since the day Dr. Bowman declared my heart to be failing, taking over the running of my household and plotting how to spend Sherman’s inheritance. Well, you won’t be controlling me, missy. I’ll wear what I choose, when I choose, whether or not you approve. And if your friends have nothing better to do at a funeral than snicker about your great aunt’s attire, perhaps you’d do well to find some companions with a little more depth of character.”

Nan’s affronted gasp echoed through the room like the crack of a mule skinner’s whip.

“Don’t worry, dear,” Miss Victoria called out as her niece yanked open the bedchamber door. “You’ll have my money to console you. I’m sure you’ll recover from any embarrassment I cause in the blink of an eye.”

The door slammed shut, and the resulting bang appeared to knock the starch right out of Miss Victoria. She wobbled, and Hannah lurched to her feet to steady the elderly lady.

“Here, ma’am. Why don’t you rest for a minute?” Hannah gripped her client’s arm and led her to the fainting couch at the foot of the large four-poster bed that dominated the room. “Would you like me to ring for some tea?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, girl. I’m not so infirm that a verbal skirmish leaves me in want of fortification. I just need to catch my breath.”

Hannah nodded, not about to argue. She gathered her sewing box instead, collecting her shears, pins, and needle case from where they lay upon the thick tapestry carpet.

She had sewn for Miss Victoria for the last eighteen months, and it disturbed her to see the woman reduced to tremors and pallor so easily. The eccentric spinster never shied from a fight and always kept her razor-sharp tongue at the ready.

Hannah had felt the lash of that tongue herself on several occasions, but she’d developed a thick skin over the years. A woman making her own way in the world had to toughen up quickly or get squashed. Perhaps that was why she respected Victoria Ashmont enough to brave her scathing comments time after time. The woman had been living life on her own terms for years and had done well for herself in the process. True, she’d had money and the power of the Ashmont name to lend her support, but from all public reports—and a few overheard conversations—it was clear Victoria Ashmont’s fortune had steadily grown during her tenure as head of the family, not dwindled, which was more than many men could say. Hannah liked to think that, given half a chance, she’d be able to duplicate the woman’s success. At least to a modest degree.

“How long have you worked for Mrs. Granbury, Miss Richards?”

Hannah jumped at the barked question and scurried back to Miss Victoria’s side, her sewing box tucked under her arm. “Nearly two years, ma’am.”

“Hmmph.” The woman’s cane rapped three staccato beats against the leg of the couch before she continued. “I nagged that woman for years to hire some girls with gumption. I was pleased when she finally took my advice. Your predecessors failed to last more than a month or two with me. Either I didn’t approve of their workmanship, or they couldn’t stand up to my plain speaking. It’s a dratted nuisance having to explain my preferences over and over to new girls every time I need something made up. I’ve not missed that chore.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Hannah’s forehead scrunched. She couldn’t be sure, but she thought Victoria Ashmont might have just paid her a compliment.

“Have you ever thought of opening your own shop?”

Hannah’s gaze flew to her client’s face. Miss Victoria’s slate gray eyes assessed her, probing, drilling into her core, as if she meant to rip the truth from her with or without her consent.

Ducking away from the penetrating stare, Hannah fiddled with the sewing box. “Mrs. Granbury has been good to me, and I’ve been fortunate enough to set some of my earnings aside. It will be several years yet, but one day I do hope to set up my own establishment.”

“Good. Now help me get out of this dress.”

Dizzy from the abrupt starts, stops, and turns of the strange conversation, Hannah kept her mouth closed and assisted Miss Victoria. She unfastened the brightly colored silk, careful not to snag the pins on either the delicate material of the gown or on Miss Victoria’s stockings. Once the dress had been safely removed, she set it aside and helped the woman don a loose-fitting wrapper.

“I’m anxious to have these details put in order,” Miss Victoria said as she took a seat at the ladies’ writing desk along the east wall. “I will pay you a bonus if you will stay here and finish the garment for me before you leave. You may use the chair in the corner.” She gestured toward a small upholstered rocker that sat angled toward the desk.

Hannah’s throat constricted. Her mind scrambled for a polite refusal, yet she found no excuse valid enough to withstand Miss Victoria’s scrutiny. Left with no choice, she swallowed her misgivings and forced the appropriate reply past her lips.

“As you wish.”

Masking her disappointment, Hannah set her box of supplies on the floor near the chair Miss Victoria had indicated and turned to fetch the dress.

She disliked sewing in front of clients. Though her tiny boardinghouse room was dim and lacked the comforts afforded in Miss Victoria’s mansion, the solitude saved her from suffering endless questions and suggestions while she worked.

Hannah drew in a deep breath. I might as well make the best of it. No use dwelling on what couldn’t be changed. It was just a hem and few darts to compensate for her client’s recent weight loss. She could finish the task in less than an hour.

Miss Victoria proved gracious. She busied herself with papers of some kind at her desk and didn’t interfere with Hannah’s work. She did keep up a healthy stream of chatter, though.

“You probably think me morbid for finalizing all my funeral details in advance.” Miss Victoria lifted the lid of a small silver case and extracted a pair of eyeglasses. She wedged them onto her nose and began leafing through a stack of documents in a large oak box.

Hannah turned back to her stitching. “Not morbid, ma’am. Just . . . efficient.”

“Hmmph. Truth is, I know I’m dying, and I’d rather go out in a memorable fashion than slip away quietly, never to be thought of again.”

“I’m sure your nephew will remember you.” Hannah glanced up as she twisted the dress to allow her better access to the next section of hem.

“Sherman? Bah! That boy would forget his own name if given half a chance.” Miss Victoria pulled a document out of the box. She set it in front of her, then dragged her inkstand close and unscrewed the cap. “I’ve got half a mind to donate my estate to charity instead of letting it sift through my nephew’s fingers. He and that flighty wife of his will surely do nothing of value with it.” A heavy sigh escaped her. “But they are family, after all, and I suppose I’ll no longer care about how the money is spent after I’m gone.”

Hannah poked her needle up and back through the red silk in rapid succession, focused on making each stitch even and straight. It wasn’t her place to offer advice, but it burned on her tongue nonetheless. Any church or charitable organization in the city could do a great amount of good with even a fraction of the Ashmont estate. Miss Victoria could make several small donations without her nephew ever knowing the difference. Hannah pressed her lips together and continued weaving her needle in and out, keeping her unsolicited opinion to herself.

She was relieved when a soft tapping at the door saved her from having to come up with an appropriate response.

A young maid entered and bobbed a curtsy. “The post has arrived, ma’am.”

“Thank you, Millie.” Miss Victoria accepted the envelope. “You may go.”

The sound of paper ripping echoed in the quiet room as Miss Victoria slid her letter opener through the upper edge of the flap.

“Well, I must give the gentleman credit for persistence,” the older woman murmured. “This is the third letter he’s sent in two months.”

Hannah turned the dress again and bent her head a little closer to her task, hoping to escape Miss Victoria’s notice. It was not to be. The older woman’s voice only grew louder and more pointed as she continued.

“He wants to buy one of my railroad properties.”

Hannah made the mistake of looking up. Miss Victoria’s eyes, magnified by the lenses she wore, demanded a response. Yet how did a working-class seamstress participate in a conversation of a personal nature with one so above her station? She didn’t want to offend by appearing uninterested. However, showing too keen an interest might come across as presumptuous. Hannah floundered to find a suitably innocuous response and finally settled on, “Oh?”

It seemed to be enough, and Miss Victoria turned back to her correspondence as she continued her ramblings.

“When the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railway out of Galveston started up construction again last year, I invested in a handful of properties along the proposed route, in towns that were already established. I’ve made a tidy profit on most, but for some reason, I find myself reluctant to part with this one.”

An expectant pause hung in the air. Keeping her eyes on her work, Hannah voiced the first thought that came to mind.

“Does the gentleman not make a fair offer?”

“No, Mr. Tucker proposes a respectable price.” Miss Victoria tapped the handle of the letter opener against the desktop in a rhythmic pattern, then seemed to become aware of what she was doing and set it aside. “Perhaps I am reticent because I do not know the man personally. He is in good standing with the bank in Coventry and by all accounts is respected in the community, yet in the past I’ve made my decision to sell after meeting with the buyer in person. Unfortunately, my health precludes that now.”

“Coventry?” Hannah seized upon the less personal topic. “I’m not familiar with that town.”

“That’s because it’s about two hundred miles north of here—and it is quite small. The surveyors tell me it’s in a pretty little spot along the North Bosque River. I had hoped to visit, but it looks as if I won’t be afforded that opportunity.”

Hannah tied off her thread and snipped the tail. She reached for her spool and unwound another long section, thankful that the discussion had finally moved in a more neutral direction. She clipped the end of the thread and held the needle up to gauge the position of the eye.

“What do you think, Miss Richards? Should I sell it to him?”

The needle slipped out of her hand.

“You’re asking me?”

“Is there another Miss Richards in the room? Of course I’m asking you.” She clicked her tongue in disappointment. “Goodness, girl. I’ve always thought you to be an intelligent sort. Have I been wrong all this time?”

That rankled. Hannah sat a little straighter and lifted her chin. “No, ma’am.”

“Good.” Miss Victoria slapped her palm against the desk. “Now, tell me what you think.”

If the woman was determined to have her speak her mind, Hannah would oblige. This was the last project she’d ever sew for the woman anyway. It couldn’t hurt. The only problem was, she’d worked so hard not to form an opinion during this exchange, that now that she was asked for one, she had none to give. Trying not to let the silence rush her into saying something that would indeed prove her lacking in intellect, she scrambled to gather her thoughts while she searched for the dropped needle.

“It seems to me,” she said, uncovering the needle along with a speck of insight, “you need to decide if you would rather have the property go to a man you know only by reputation or to the nephew you know through experience.” Hannah lifted her gaze to meet Miss Victoria’s and held firm, not allowing the woman’s critical stare to cow her. “Which scenario gives you the greatest likelihood of leaving behind the legacy you desire?”

Victoria Ashmont considered her for several moments, her eyes piercing Hannah and bringing to mind the staring contests the school boys used to challenge her to when she was still in braids. The memory triggered her competitive nature, and a stubborn determination to win rose within her.

At last, Miss Victoria nodded and turned away. “Thank you, Miss Richards. I think I have my answer.”

Exultation flashed through her for a brief second at her victory, but self-recrimination soon followed. This wasn’t a schoolyard game. It was an aging woman’s search to create meaning in her death.

“Forgive my boldness, ma’am.”

Her client turned back and wagged a bony finger at Hannah. “Boldness is exactly what you need to run your own business, girl. Boldness, skill, and a lot of hard work. When you get that shop of yours, hardships are sure to find their way to your doorstep. Confidence is the only way to combat them—confidence in yourself and in the God who equips you to overcome. Never forget that.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Feeling chastised and oddly encouraged at the same time, Hannah threaded her needle and returned to work. The scratching of pen against paper replaced the chatter of Miss Victoria’s voice as the woman gave her full attention to the documents spread across her desk. Time passed swiftly, and soon the alterations were complete.

After trying the gown on a second time to assure a proper fit and examining every seam for quality and durability, as was her custom, Victoria Ashmont ushered Hannah down to the front hall.

“My man will see you home, Miss Richards.”

“Thank you, ma’am.” Hannah collected her bonnet from the butler and tied the ribbons beneath her chin.

“I will settle my account with Mrs. Granbury by the end of the week, but here is the bonus I promised you.” She held out a plain white envelope.

Hannah accepted it and placed it carefully in her reticule. She dipped her head and made a quick curtsy. “Thank you. I have enjoyed the privilege of working for you, ma’am, and I pray that your health improves so that I might do so again.”

A strange light came into Miss Victoria’s eyes, a secretive gleam, as if she could see into the future. “You have better things to do than make outlandish red dresses for old women, Miss Richards. Don’t waste your energy worrying over my health. I’ll go when it’s my time and not a moment before.”

Hannah smiled as she stepped out the door, sure that not even the angels could drag Miss Victoria away until she was ready to go. Yet underneath the woman’s tough exterior beat a kind heart. Although Hannah didn’t fully understand how kind until she arrived home and opened her bonus envelope.

Instead of the two or three greenbacks she had assumed were tucked inside, she found a gift that stole her breath and her balance. She slumped against the boardinghouse wall and slid down its blue-papered length into a trembling heap on the floor. She blinked several times, but the writing on the paper didn’t change, only blurred as tears welled and distorted her vision.

She held in her hand the deed to her new dress shop in Coventry, Texas.




Chapter One

Coventry, Texas—September 1881
“J.T.! J.T.! I got a customer for ya.” Tom Packard lumbered down the street with his distinctive uneven gait, waving his arm in the air.

Jericho “J.T.” Tucker stepped out of the livery’s office with a sigh and waited for his right-hand man to jog past the blacksmith and bootmaker shops. He’d lost count of how many times he’d reminded Tom not to yell out his business for everyone to hear, but social niceties tended to slip the boy’s notice when he got excited.

It wasn’t his fault, though. At eighteen, Tom had the body of a man, but his mind hadn’t developed quite as far. He couldn’t read a lick and could barely pen his own name, but he had a gentle way with horses, so J.T. let him hang around the stable and paid him to help out with the chores. In gratitude, the boy did everything in his power to prove himself worthy, including trying to drum up clientele from among the railroad passengers who unloaded at the station a mile south of town. After weeks without so much as a nibble, it seemed the kid had finally managed to hook himself a fish.

J.T. leaned a shoulder against the doorframe and slid a toothpick out of his shirt pocket. He clamped the wooden sliver between his teeth and kept his face void of expression save for a single raised brow as Tom stumbled to a halt in front of him. The kid grasped his knees and gulped air for a moment, then unfolded to his full height, which was nearly as tall as his employer. His cheeks, flushed from his exertions, darkened further when he met J.T.’s eye.

“I done forgot about the yelling again, huh? Sorry.” Tom slumped, his chin bending toward his chest.

J.T. gripped the kid’s shoulder, straightened him up, and slapped him on the back. “You’ll remember next time. Now, what’s this about a customer?”

Tom brightened in an instant. “I gots us a good one. She’s right purty and has more boxes and gewgaws than I ever did see. I ’spect there’s enough to fill up the General.”

“The General, huh?” J.T. rubbed his jaw and used the motion to cover his grin.

Tom had names for all the wagons. Fancy Pants was the fringed surrey J.T. kept on hand for family outings or courting couples; the buggy’s name was Doc after the man who rented it out most frequently; the buckboard was just plain Buck; and his freight wagon was affectionately dubbed The General. The kid’s monikers inspired a heap of good-natured ribbing amongst the men who gathered at the livery to swap stories and escape their womenfolk, but over time the names stuck. Just last week, Alistair Smythe plopped down a silver dollar and demanded he be allowed to take Fancy Pants out for a drive. Hearing the pretentious bank clerk use Tom’s nickname for the surrey left the fellas guffawing for days.

J.T. thrust the memory from his mind and crossed his arms over his chest, using his tongue to shift the toothpick to the other side of his mouth. “The buckboard is easier to get to. I reckon it’d do the job just as well.”

“I dunno.” Tom mimicked J.T.’s posture, crossing his own arms and leaning against the livery wall. “She said her stuff was mighty heavy and she’d pay extra to have it unloaded at her shop.”

“Shop?” J.T.’s good humor shriveled. His arms fell to his sides as his gaze slid past Tom to the vacant building across the street. The only unoccupied shop in Coventry stood adjacent to Louisa James’s laundry—the shop he’d tried, and failed, to purchase. J.T.’s jaw clenched so tight the toothpick started to splinter. Forcing himself to relax, he straightened away from the doorpost.

“I think she’s a dressmaker,” Tom said. “There were a bunch of them dummies with no heads or arms with her on the platform. Looked right peculiar, them all standin’ around her like they’s gonna start a quiltin’ bee or something.” The kid chuckled at his own joke, but J.T. didn’t join in his amusement.

A dressmaker? A woman who made her living by exploiting the vanity of her customers? That’s who was moving into his shop?

A sick sensation oozed like molasses through his gut as memories clawed over the wall he’d erected to keep them contained.

“So we gonna get the General, J.T.?”

Tom’s question jerked him back to the present and allowed him to stuff the unpleasant thoughts back down where they belonged. He loosened his fingers from the fist he didn’t remember making and adjusted his hat to sit lower on his forehead, covering his eyes. It wouldn’t do for the kid to see the anger that surely lurked there. He’d probably go and make some fool assumption that he’d done something wrong. Or worse, he’d ask questions J.T. didn’t want to answer.

He cleared his throat and clasped the kid’s shoulder. “If you think we need the freight wagon, then we’ll get the freight wagon. Why don’t you harness up the grays then come help me wrangle the General?”

“Yes, sir!” Tom bounded off to the corral to gather the horses, his chest so inflated with pride J.T. was amazed he could see where he was going.

Ducking back inside the livery, J.T. closed up his office and strode past the stalls to the oversized double doors that opened his wagon shed up to the street. He grasped the handle of the first and rolled it backward, using his body weight as leverage. As his muscles strained against the heavy wooden door, his mind struggled to control his rising frustration.

He’d finally accepted the fact that the owner of the shop across the street refused to sell to him. J.T. believed in Providence, that the Lord would direct his steps. He didn’t like it, but he’d worked his way to peace with the decision. Until a few minutes ago. The idea that God would allow it to go to a dressmaker really stuck in his craw.

It wasn’t as if he wanted the shop for selfish reasons. He saw it as a chance to help out a widow and her orphans. Isn’t that what the Bible defined as “pure religion”? What could be nobler than that? Louisa James supported three kids with her laundry business and barely eked out an existence. The building she worked in was crumbling around her ears even though the majority of her income went to pay the rent. He’d planned to buy the adjacent shop and rent it to her at half the price she was currently paying in exchange for storing some of his tack in the large back room.

J.T. squinted against the afternoon sunlight that streamed into the dim stable and strode to the opposite side of the entrance, his indignation growing with every step. Ignoring the handle, he slammed his shoulder into the second door and ground his teeth as he dug his boots into the packed dirt floor, forcing the wood to yield to his will.

How could a bunch of fripperies and ruffles do more to serve the community than a new roof for a family in need? Most of the women in and around Coventry sewed their own clothes, and those that didn’t bought ready-made duds through the dry-goods store or mail order. Sensible clothes, durable clothes, not fashion-plate items that stroked their vanity or elicited covetous desires in their hearts for things they couldn’t afford. A dressmaker had no place in Coventry.

This can’t be God’s will. The world and its schemers had brought her to town, not God.

Horse hooves thudded and harness jangled as Tom led the grays toward the front of the livery.

J.T. blew out a breath and rubbed a hand along his jaw. No matter what had brought her to Coventry, the dressmaker was still a woman, and his father had drummed into him the truth that all women were to be treated with courtesy and respect. So he’d smile and doff his hat and make polite conversation. Shoot, he’d even lug her heavy junk around for her and unload all her falderal. But once she was out of his wagon, he’d have nothing more to do with her.

———

Hannah sat atop one of her five trunks, waiting for young Tom to return. Most of the other passengers had left the depot already, making their way on foot or in wagons with family members who'd come to meet them. Hannah wasn’t about to let her belongings out of her sight, though—or trust them to a porter she didn’t know. So she waited.

Thanks to Victoria Ashmont’s generosity, she’d been able to use the money she’d saved for a shop to buy fabric and supplies. Not knowing what would be available in the small town of Coventry, she brought everything she needed with her. Including her prized possession—a Singer Improved Family Model 15 treadle machine with five-drawer walnut cabinet and extension leaf. The monster weighed nearly as much as the locomotive that brought her here, but it was a thing of beauty, and she intended to make certain it arrived at the shop without incident.

Her toes tapped against the wooden platform. Only a mile of dusty road stood between her and her dream. Yet the final minutes of waiting felt longer than the hours, even years, that preceded them. Could she really run her own business, or would Miss Ashmont’s belief in her prove misplaced? A tingle of apprehension tiptoed over Hannah’s spine. What if the women of Coventry had no need of a dressmaker? What if they didn’t like her designs? What if . . .

Hannah surged to her feet and began to pace. Miss Ashmont had directed her to be bold. Bold and self-confident. Oh, and confident in God. Hannah paused. Her gaze slid to the bushy hills rising around her like ocean swells. “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.” The psalm seeped into her soul, bringing a measure of assurance with it. God had led her here. He would provide.

She resumed her pacing, anticipation building as fear receded. On her sixth lap around her mound of luggage, the creak of wagon wheels brought her to a halt.

A conveyance drew near, and Hannah’s pulse vaulted into a new pace. Young Tom wasn’t driving. Another man with a worn brown felt hat pulled low over his eyes sat on the bench. It must be that J.T. person Tom had rambled on about. Well, it didn’t matter who was driving, as long as he had the strength to maneuver her sewing machine without dropping it.

A figure in the back of the wagon waved a cheerful greeting, and the movement caught Hannah’s eye. She waved back, glad to see Tom had returned as well. Two men working together would have a much easier time of it.

The liveryman pulled the horses to a halt and set the brake. Masculine grace exuded from him as he climbed down and made his way to the platform. His long stride projected confidence, a vivid contrast to Tom’s childish gamboling behind him. Judging by the breadth of his shoulders and the way the blue cotton of his shirt stretched across the expanse of his chest and arms, this man would have no trouble moving her sewing cabinet.

Tom dashed ahead of the newcomer and swiped the gray slouch hat from his head. Tufts of his dark blond hair stuck out at odd angles, but his eyes sparkled with warmth. “I got the General, ma’am. We’ll get you fixed up in a jiffy.” Not wasting a minute, he slapped his hat back on and moved past her.

Hannah’s gaze roamed to the man waiting a few steps away. He didn’t look much like a general. No military uniform. Instead he sported scuffed boots and denims that were wearing thin at the knees. The tip of a toothpick protruded from his lips, wiggling a little as he gnawed on it. Perhaps General was a nickname of sorts. He hadn’t spoken a word, yet there was something about his carriage and posture that gave him an air of authority.

She straightened her shoulders in response and closed the distance between them. Still giddy about starting up her shop, she couldn’t resist the urge to tease the stoic man who held himself apart.

“Thank you for assisting me today, General.” She smiled up at him as she drew near, finally able to see more than just his jaw. He had lovely amber eyes, although they were a bit cold. “Should I salute or something?”

His right brow arced upward. Then a tiny twitch at the corner of his mouth told her he’d caught on.

“I’m afraid I’m a civilian through and through, ma’am.” He tilted his head in the direction of the wagon. “That’s the General. Tom likes to name things.”

Hannah gave a little laugh. “I see. Well, I’m glad to have you both lending me a hand. I’m Hannah Richards.”

The man tweaked the brim of his hat. “J.T. Tucker.”

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Tucker.”

He dipped his chin in a small nod. Not a very demonstrative fellow. Nor very talkative.

“Lay those things down, Tom,” he called out as he stepped away. “We don’t want them to tip over the side if we hit a rut.”

“Oh. Wait just a minute, please.” There was no telling what foul things had been carted around in that wagon bed before today. It didn’t matter so much for her trunks and sewing cabinet, but the linen covering her mannequins would be easily soiled.

“I have an old quilt that I wrapped around them in the railroad freight car. Let me fetch it.”

Hannah sensed more than heard Mr. Tucker’s sigh as she hurried to collect the quilt from the trunk she had been sitting on. Well, he could sigh all he liked. Her display dummies were going to be covered. She had one chance to make a first impression on the ladies of Coventry, and she vowed it would be a pristine one.

Making a point not to look at the liveryman as she scurried by, Hannah clutched the quilt to her chest and headed for the wagon. She draped it over the side, then climbed the spokes and hopped into the back, just as she had done as a child. Then she laid out the quilt along the back wall and gently piled the six dummies horizontally atop it, alternating the placement of the tripod pedestals to allow them to fit together in a more compact fashion. As she flipped the remaining fabric of the quilt over the pile, a loud thud sounded from behind, and the wagon jostled her. She gasped and teetered to the side. Glancing over her shoulder, she caught sight of Mr. Tucker as he shoved the first of her trunks into the wagon bed, its iron bottom scraping against the wooden floor.

The man could have warned her of his presence instead of scaring the wits out of her like that. But taking him to task would only make her look like a shrew, so she ignored him. When Tom arrived with the second trunk, she was ready. After he set it down, she moved to the end of the wagon.

“Would you help me down, please?”

He grinned up at her. “Sure thing.”

Hannah set her hands on his shoulders as he clasped her waist and lifted her down. A tiny voice of regret chided her for not asking the favor of the rugged Mr. Tucker, but she squelched it. Tom was a safer choice. Besides, his affable manner put her at ease—unlike his companion, who from one minute to the next alternated between sparking her interest and her ire.

She bit back her admonishments to take care as the men hefted her sewing machine. Thankfully, they managed to accomplish the task without her guidance. With the large cabinet secured in the wagon bed, it didn’t take long for them to load the rest of her belongings. Once they finished, Tom handed her up to the bench seat, then scrambled into the back, leaving her alone with Mr. Tucker.

A cool autumn breeze caressed her cheeks and tugged lightly on her bonnet as the wagon rolled forward. She smoothed her skirts, not sure what to say to the reticent man beside her. However, he surprised her by starting the conversation on his own.

“What made you choose Coventry, Miss Richards?”

She twisted on the seat to look at him, but his eyes remained focused on the road.

“I guess you could say it chose me.”

“How so?”

“It was really a most extraordinary sequence of events. I do not doubt that the Lord’s Providence brought me here.”

That got a reaction. His chin swiveled toward her, and beneath his hat, his intense gaze speared her for a handful of seconds before he blinked and turned away.

She swallowed the moisture that had accumulated under her tongue as he stared at her, then continued.

“Two years ago, I was hired by Mrs. Granbury of San Antonio to sew for her most particular clientele. One of these clients was an elderly spinster with a reputation for being impossible to work with. Well, I needed the job too badly to allow her to scare me away and was too stubborn to let her get the best of me, so I stuck it out and eventually the two of us found a way to coexist and even respect each other.

“Before she died, she called me in to make a final gown for her, and we fell to talking about her legacy. She had invested in several railroad properties, and had only one left that had not sold. In an act of generosity that I still find hard to believe, she gave me the deed as a gift, knowing that I had always dreamed of opening my own shop.”

“What kept her from selling it before then?” His deep voice rumbled with something more pointed than simple curiosity.

A prickle of unease wiggled down Hannah’s neck, but she couldn’t quite pinpoint the cause.

“She told me that she preferred to meet the buyers in person, to assess their character before selling off her properties. Unfortunately, her health had begun to decline, and she was unable to travel. There had been a gentleman of good reputation from this area who made an offer several times. A Mr. Tuck…”

A hard lump of dread formed in the back of Hannah’s throat.

“Oh dear. Don’t tell me you’re that Mr. Tucker?”



***MY REVIEW***: This is your typical Western, historical romance, with the two main characters at odds, yet strangely thrown together repeatedly. But the story was very sweet, and the characters were well fleshed-out and loveable.

Several of the plot points were easy to see coming from a mile away, but that didn't detract from the enjoyability of the story.

I only wish the author had tied up the Cordelia and Ike storyline, as well as the main one -- it only would've taken a few more pages.

Overall, though, this is a great, quick read, and I would highly recommend it. Being that this is the author's first book, the few quirks are definitely forgiveable, and I will be looking forward to future books! :)

[This book was received through FIRST Wild Card Tours]

Sunday, May 16, 2010

TOUR: "Flirting With Faith" by Joan Ball

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old...or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!


Today's Wild Card author is:


and the book:


Flirting with Faith: My Spiritual Journey from Atheism to a Faith-Filled Life

Howard Books; Original edition (May 11, 2010)


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:




Joan Ball is a professor in the Peter J. Tobin College of Business at St. Johns University in New York, and a writer at Beliefnet.com. She and her husband, Martin, have three children and they live in suburban New York.

Visit the author's website.






Product Details:

List Price: $14.99
Paperback: 213 pages
Publisher: Howard Books; Original edition (May 11, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1439149879
ISBN-13: 978-1439149874
Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 6.5 x 0.6 inches

AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:


Struck

Thirty-seven is way too young to be having a heart attack, I thought, resting my hand on my chest and struggling to catch my breath. I’m sure it’s nothing.

But somewhere deep inside I knew I was lying to myself. Although I was a firm believer in mind over matter, my attempts to will away the waves of nausea and shortness of breath were failing miserably.

As my stoic resolve began to dissolve into genuine concern, I think there might actually be something wrong with me.

I looked at my watch, then over my shoulder into the serious-looking faces of forty or fifty strangers scattered in little clumps throughout the massive, mostly empty main sanctuary of a church we’d been attending for about a month. These clean-cut, well-manicured families in their suits and dresses and sensible shoes were way too straitlaced for my taste. In fact, they perfectly embodied the stereotype of church folks I’d carried along on my spiritual (and sometimes not so spiritual) journey from staunch atheism to recovery-based, power-greater-than-myself pseudo-agnosticism. They appeared boring and predictable; I saw nothing of myself in these people, and I was confident that their conception of Jesus as God was a farce.

Despite my growing concern over the pressure in my chest, I sat motionless, proud enough to choose the anonymity of the pew over creating a scene with a quick exit.

Of course, this begs the question: What was I doing there in the first place?

Faith aside, church and a nice brunch made for a surprisingly relaxing Sunday-morning routine that offset nicely the insane pace we managed to maintain Monday through Saturday. And since the kids liked meeting their friends there, it seemed like a benign sacrifice of an hour in exchange for some quality family-bonding time.

Even so, I didn’t really trust these church people. There was something about their unwavering propriety that I was sure amounted to little more than a thin disguise for a subtle yet palpable wariness of “outsiders.” Maybe it was the body language or the tone of their voices, but I always came away with the distinct sense that our presence was more tolerated than welcomed. Sure, they did all the right things. The smiles, hellos, and “how-was-your-week’s” were delivered perfectly, as if on cue. But, in the white space between the pleasantries, there was this underlying something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

It was kind of like a friend hosting a party who meets you at the door with a pleasant “Come on in. Make yourself at home. Can I get you a drink?” while shooting daggers at the husband she was fighting with as you pulled up the driveway. The words and actions say welcome, but you can’t help but feel otherwise.

Seven years in addiction recovery had conditioned me to believe that the newcomer—on the wagon or still drinking—is always the most important person in the room. This made the perceived lack of warmth distasteful enough that I thought it best to maintain a polite distance, just to be safe. That said, at this point in my life the polite distance suited me just fine. In fact, the protective cordiality on both sides allowed my husband, Martin, our three kids, and me finally, after nearly two years of halfhearted church shopping, to consider this a place where we might hang our spiritual hats.

I probably wouldn’t have been at church at all if I’d not married Martin six years earlier. When we met, in 1992, I was a single mother and a rabid atheist. More than that, my most potent venom was reserved for theists of the Christian persuasion. I’ve since been told that this brand of anti-theism is frequently born in bad experiences with the church or parochial school, but I was raised without any of that religious baggage.

Although my parents had grown up Roman Catholic, they abandoned the practice before I started grade school. So, coming from what could best be called a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps secular environment, I’d pieced together my own personal philosophy on religion and faith. In my view, people who embraced God and religion were emotionally, physically, or intellectually weak and unable to carry themselves through life on their own. This elaborate ruse called faith provided them with an external construct to prop them up. A fantasy scaffolding that I was smart enough and strong enough to avoid.

Although I vehemently disparaged believers, certain people or groups were paradoxically excluded from my disdain. My devout Catholic grandmother and others in my mother’s family fell into this category, as did anyone who embraced a spiritual path that I perceived to be cooler than Christianity—which included almost every religion or faith tradition on earth that wasn’t Christianity. I have to admit that their pardon was based on random criteria that made neither logical nor theological sense. Naturally, Martin—at the time a Bible-believing, Pentecostal-church-attending Christian—was exempt from my ire. But that was mainly because he was sexy, played guitar, and rarely talked about God unless someone else brought it up.

Note
“In my view, people who embraced God and religion were emotionally, physically, or intellectually weak and unable to carry themselves through life on their own.”

I was like one of those aggressively discriminatory people who hate blacks or whites or gays, yet has one of those “friends who is different” from the stereotype. Somehow, the people I loved and respected were excused from my considerable contempt for Christians, yet I never disbanded my theory that faith was an illusion. It was this kind of convoluted mental calculus that allowed me to agree to a church wedding to Martin in 1996, and that fueled my sporadic church attendance—devoid of Christian faith—for the years that followed.

Surprisingly, in those months before and after we were married, I actually came to like going to church. There was something about the rhythm of doing the same thing once a week, every week, that was . . . I don’t know . . . comforting. Like playing house as a child.

And I got pretty good at playing church.

We went on Sundays and took the kids to a family program on Wednesdays. I even stepped in as a substitute Sunday-school teacher once or twice, which was really weird, since I couldn’t have answered even the simplest questions about the faith with any depth or accuracy if I’d been asked. Thankfully my students were four- and five-year-olds, and I’d been given a pretty thorough syllabus, so no one ever called my bluff. I probably could have continued attending church like that forever—a polite, clandestine agnostic—and no one would have been the wiser. But then we decided to move.

When we settled into our house in Warwick, a rural suburb of New York City, church became an inconvenience. The longer drive from our new house to church got real old, real quick and it didn’t take long for us to realize that losing twenty minutes of sleep to make it to church on time required a greater sacrifice than we were willing to make. After a couple months of setting the clock, overusing the snooze button, and vowing to “try again next week,” we figured we’d try to find a new church in Warwick. When our admittedly halfhearted search for a new place failed, we gave church a little rest. Surely Martin’s Jesus would understand that we were busy people with busy lives. Sunday was the only day that we were guaranteed a chance to sleep in. This omnipotent God had to know we worked hard to balance our careers, the kids’ activities, and the house all week and that we wanted—no, we deserved—a little extra sleep on Sunday mornings.

What we thought would be a short hiatus from church lasted about two years, until our daughter, Kesley, who was thirteen at the time, asked a plaintive question.

“Mom? Do you think we’ll ever go to church again?”

I had never gone to church as a kid, but I do remember what I was up to when I was thirteen. If I had a kid who was actually asking to go to church, I figured I should probably listen.

“Sure, Kels,” I said, trying to sound enthusiastic. “We’ll go back soon.”

So, as quickly as we’d abandoned the Sunday-morning church routine, we reinstated it.

The routine was simple and predictable. We’d start out calm and quiet. Andrew and Ian, who were fourteen and five at the time, were the early risers. They’d wake up and make their way down to the basement family room, where they’d stretch out on facing couches and watch TV or play video games. Kelsey, who was a little slower and a lot grumpier in the morning, usually slept in until the last possible minute. Martin and I fell somewhere in the middle. We’d set the clock for far earlier than either of us intended to wake up and hit the snooze (love that snooze) before lounging in bed, talking or reading (or whatever . . .), until we’d lingered just long enough to get to church almost on time.

Now, if you ask me, being almost on time for anything is far worse than being completely late. Completely late makes it easier to resort to a simple, more relaxing Plan B, like “Let’s just sleep in” or “How about breakfast instead?” Being almost on time, on the other hand, held out a faint but real hope that, despite evidence to the contrary, Plan A may still be achievable. Almost on time got our competitive juices flowing and opened the door to chaos. It told us that, if we hustled, we might just make up the time—even if it meant tormenting ourselves and our children and ruining an otherwise peaceful morning. Martin and I took the bait every time.

“Kelsey, can you please finish getting ready and help your brother find his shoes?” I’d shout up from the bottom of the two-story foyer.

“You can’t wear that shirt, it’s dirty. Go change.” Martin would say as he abruptly intercepted Andrew in the kitchen.

Then I’d snap at our youngest as he followed me from room to room, holding a hundred trading cards and a shoe. “No, Ian, you cannot bring your Pok√©mon cards. Go ask Kelsey to help you find your other shoe.”

And finally, as if playing a role in a recurring nightmare, Martin would call from the back deck, “If you guys are not in the car in two minutes . . .”

Getting two adults, two teenagers, and a five-year-old showered, dressed, and out the door of a three-story house with three bathrooms shouldn’t be that difficult. And yet somehow it always was. So much for the nice, relaxing family morning.

Eventually, we’d pile into our SUV and back down the cobblestone driveway, catching a glimpse of our picture-postcard, red brick center-hall colonial as we went.

That Sunday morning in 2003 was no different.

“Martin, can I have my sunglasses?” I asked, turning down the cul-de-sac straight into the surprisingly strong spring sunshine.

“Where are they?” he said as he leaned down to rifle through my bigger-than-necessary bag.

“They should be in the inside pocket,” I said, hitting the gas, checking my makeup in the rearview mirror, and handing him my glasses in one unconscious and mindlessly dangerous motion.

He took my black-framed, cat-eye glasses and handed me a pair of dark Jackie-Os that set off my shoulder-length blond hair and monochromatic black outfit, completing the New York urban-chic style that I was trying hard to make look easy.

I looked down at the digital display—9:54 A.M. With six minutes to drive five minutes across town, we were still in the game. I made a quick right out of the cul-de-sac, rolled through a couple of stop signs, and turned into the parking lot as the church bells sounded the last deep doooong. Breathing a sigh of relief, we hit our seats just in time for the organist to play the intro to the first hymn.

Yes, I thought, there’s nothing like landing on the right side of almost on time.

As the notes boomed out of the enormous antique pipe organ and the robe-clad choir fought a losing battle to find the right key, I found myself looking up at the arched stained-glass windows that flanked the massive stone church. Someone had once told me that the panels were museum quality, designed and constructed by Tiffany & Co. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were true. They were amazing. Intricate patterns of metal and glass joined to form complex jewel-toned images of Jesus and his crew that exploded when backlit by the sun. I followed the colored beams as they cascaded through well-defined images of faces, bodies, and crosses into an impromptu dance of color that shifted on the floor as if projected by a giant, priceless kaleidoscope.

Note
“With six minutes to drive five minutes across town, we were still in the game.”

I could always appreciate the majestic beauty of a church or cathedral. It was all that religion that happened inside that turned me off. I wonder how much you could get for those things at Sotheby’s, I thought as I turned my attention forward, where a boyish-looking man was calling the congregation to order. He wore a long white robe with a purple sash, the standard uniform for what the church people referred to as the traditional service.

This pastor, whom I will call Pastor Thomas, was about the same age as Martin and me—somewhere in his mid- to late thirties. Despite the fact that he was a little geeky, he seemed nice enough from a distance. We’d only spoken to him once or twice: brief, nice-to-see-you-back-again, so-nice-to-be-back conversations as we left the church. We might have avoided these rather awkward exchanges altogether were it not his custom to stand at the back door of the church sanctuary at the end of the service. It was like the receiving line at a wedding: people making their way down aisles at the left, right, and center of the enormous room, converging at the back into a human traffic jam.

“Before we get started,” Pastor Thomas announced with a broad smile on his face, “Mary Rooney and her son Jason [not their real names] are going to be accepted as new members of our congregation.” Apparently, anyone can go to church, but becoming a member took it to the next level. I just wasn’t sure what that next level looked like.

I almost applauded when the two of them stood up, but caught myself, forgetting that the people here never clapped. Even when singers did a fantastic duet or solo . . . nothing. No one else seemed to mind, but I found that pregnant pause while the musicians cleared their music and returned to their seats in silence to be distractingly awkward. One day I made the mistake of using the no-clapping thing as fodder for pre-service small talk with one of the women who seemed to be involved in a number of church activities.

Note
“I almost applauded when the two of them stood up, but caught myself, forgetting that the people here never clapped.”

“Why is it,” I asked, “that no one ever claps for the singers or musicians?”

She made no attempt to hide her disdain for my question as she said curtly, “This is a church, not a concert.”

As Mary and her elementary-school-age son came to their feet, I wondered whether they were alone because of a divorce, if her husband had died, or if she had just chosen to have a child on her own. Whatever the circumstances, they reminded me of how difficult it had been to be a single mother and how lucky Andrew, Kelsey, and I were to have Martin in our lives. Once Ian was born, our new family was complete.

Pastor Thomas made his way across the stage (I think there’s a more formal name for it, but it looked like a stage to me) and opened a huge book that sat on a quarter-sawn oak pedestal. Then, without speaking, he raised his hands and swept them upward in a small circle like a conductor, and we all came to our feet. After a short prayer, and maybe another hymn, he began to ask Mary and Jason a series of questions.

“Do you accept the gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ revealed in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the only way to eternal life?”

“I do,” they answered.

“Do you acknowledge that you are a sinner, sinful by nature, but that by the grace of God alone your sins have been forgiven and your old nature put to death, so that you may be brought to newness of life and set apart as a member of the Body of Christ?”

“I do.”

This Q and A went on for a few more minutes, covering promises to pray, seek God’s guidance, grow in faith, attend church, and accept and obey the rules and guidance of the church elders. They responded with dutiful “I dos” and “I wills” at the end of each question.

Next, the members of the congregation were asked if they would welcome the woman and her son into the “community of faith” and if they would “pledge to them your love, your prayers, and your encouragement as they live the Christian life with us.” The responses of the few dozen congregants in the large room sounded a little empty, as they delivered the best “We dos” and “We wills” they could muster. Not wanting to appear rude, I lip-synched the words along with the crowd.

Oh well, I thought, I guess I could never become a member of this church.

My understanding of the church-membership thing was still a little sketchy. Best I could tell, signing up with a certain church presupposed a heightened level of commitment, or maybe it just indicated that you intend to stick around. While I was okay with getting involved in some church activities or playing in the band, saying “I do” to anything involving Jesus was a commitment I was not willing, able, or interested in making.

Note
“Saying ‘I do’ to anything involving Jesus was a commitment I was not willing, able, or interested in making.”

Sure, given the havoc I had wrought on myself and on others in my twenties, I could almost accept the notion that I might be sinful by nature. I’d even come to a place in my thirties, through the literature and guidance of a 12-step program, where I could pray to a “power greater than myself” with some assurance that it was better to pray than not to pray. But Jesus? The Old and New Testaments? Eternal life? Martin believed in all of that stuff, but not me. Not today. Not tomorrow. No way.

I was hoping that the church-membership thing wouldn’t extend the service longer than the usual one hour. I was pretty hungry and looking forward to endulging in some pancakes and syrup, even though yogurt and fruit would have been the more responsible option. As the announcements finished, Pastor Thomas began his sermon. The message was from the last book of the Bible, called Revelation.

The end of the world as we know it, oh my.

I knew very little about the Bible beyond my absolute confidence that, despite the heartfelt claims of the radio Christians, it was not the divinely inspired Word of God. I mean, how could it be? All of those writers with their hands all over it across the centuries and not one typo? I couldn’t understand who in their right mind would ever believe that all of those angry monks and sadistic inquisitors never changed a little bit of this or that to tip the scales in their favor. How gullible could people be?

While it might have been a lovely notion that some benevolent creator of the universe whispered down two thousand pages of frequently contradictory text because he loves people, I believed the whole Christianity thing had started as an elaborate ruse, perpetrated by powerful and wealthy people to control the uneducated masses. Then, like some centuries-old version of the kids’ game Telephone, the rules and the false hope they promised became a sad and pathetic crutch for the weak and a powerful hammer for the pious.

Note
“I believed the whole Christianity thing had started as an elaborate ruse, perpetrated by powerful and wealthy people to control the uneducated masses.”

Pastor Thomas started talking about Jesus’ returning to earth—for what would be the end of the world—at a time that no one could predict. Judgment day. Armageddon. You don’t need to be a Christian to be familiar with these terms and the notions they conjure. I was half-listening and wondering what any of this could ever have to do with me when he began to read:

Then I saw Heaven open wide—and oh! A white horse and its Rider. The Rider named Faithful and True, judges and makes war in pure righteousness. His eyes are a blaze of fire, on his head many crowns. He has a Name inscribed that’s known only to himself. He is dressed in a robe soaked with blood, and he is addressed as “Word of God.” The armies of Heaven, mounted on white horses and dressed in dazzling white linen, follow him. A sharp sword comes out of his mouth so he can subdue the nations, then rule them with a rod of iron. He treads the winepress of the raging wrath of God, the Sovereign-Strong. On his robe and thigh is written, king of kings, lord of lords.



Apparently, unlike the love-everybody-Gandhi Jesus, the come-back-at-the-end-of-the-world Jesus is a wild warrior who’ll show up ready to rumble.

A sword in his mouth? I thought. These people are nuts.

That’s when my chest started to hurt.

At first it was just a small hollowness right below my sternum, like the sensation you get from swallowing too much pool water. Then came a wave of nausea. And then another. Finally, I started to have trouble catching my breath. Did I eat something bad? I wondered to myself. I hadn’t eaten breakfast yet, so maybe last night. Maybe indigestion? My watch read 10:45.

Just fifteen more minutes, I thought as I began to break into a cold sweat.

I contemplated leaving, but I was on the center side of a twelve-foot-long pew, which left me with two equally untenable choices: either I walk up the wide center aisle between row after row of intricately carved wooden pews while clutching my chest and gasping for breath, or I climb over Martin, the kids, and another family to get to the side aisle to do the same. I looked left and then right, considering my options, and decided that both involved more drama than I was willing to risk. And I was just image conscious enough to risk death by heart attack to avoid it. So I drew another deep breath and tried to focus on keeping myself from throwing up.

Note
“I was just image conscious enough to risk death by heart attack to avoid it. So I drew another deep breath and tried to focus on keeping myself from throwing up.”

Martin, who was sitting to my right, was completely unaware of what I was going through. The heaviness of his eyelids, the rhythmic bobbing of his head, and his occasional half snore revealed that he was fighting a battle of his own. He could usually count on me for a gentle but firm elbow to the ribs when he was about to descend into REM sleep during a sermon, but today was different. As the minutes passed and my condition worsened, I had to admit that something was very, very wrong.

“Martin,” I finally whispered with an uncharacteristic sense of urgency, “Baby, wake up.”

“What?” he said, looking around. “I’m not sleeping.” “You’re not going to believe this,” I replied, ignoring his I’m-not-sleeping delusion, “but I think I might be having a freaking heart attack.”

Martin had been with me long enough to know that I was more prone to ignore illness than to overstate it. Looking at me with a combination of uncertainty and concern, he asked, “Do you want to go to the hospital?”

“No,” I said, still allowing self-consciousness to trump my mounting alarm. “Let’s wait and see what happens.”

Intent on maintaining my composure, I quietly struggled to catch a healthy breath and endure the distinct sensation that there was a five-hundred-pound weight perched squarely on the center of my chest.

Just five more minutes.

When the service ended, I took Martin’s arm, and with the kids in tow, we made our way down the center aisle toward the exit. Trying to remain ever so dignified in the midst of my increasing distress, we weaved in and out of small groups of people as quickly as possible, intending to beat the exit traffic without drawing undue attention to ourselves. The church folks were in no hurry as they waited in line to be greeted by Pastor Thomas, who stood between us and the door.

Please don’t try to talk to us. I have to get out of here.

Thankfully, an ancient woman whose curved body stood about four feet high had cornered Pastor Thomas, serving as a welcomed detour on the highway of people squeezing past them to make their way into the parking lot. Still holding on to Martin’s arm to maintain my balance, I scurried to the car, fighting the sensation that my legs might go out from under me at any moment. Come on, come on, I repeated to myself. I needed to get into the car. I needed to get home. I needed . . . I needed . . . I didn’t know what I needed, but I knew I didn’t need to be standing in that parking lot.

Martin unlocked the passenger-side door and helped me lift myself into the seat of the SUV as he closed the door. The kids stuffed themselves into the backseat, ignorant of what I was going through and likely expecting me to ask where they’d like to go for brunch. But what they got was something very different.

Note
“Somewhere in the midst of all this, the pain in my chest lifted, and there I was . . . crying ugly and repeating over and over again, ‘It is all true, all of it, it is all true.’”

The minute I found myself in the privacy of the car, a wave of intense emotion came over me. It was like a dam had broken, a flood of pent-up pressure released behind it in the form of sobbing and hysterical crying. Somewhere in the midst of all this, the pain in my chest lifted and there I was—generally a model of rigid self-control and modern accomplishment—crying ugly and repeating over and over again, “It is all true, all of it, it is all true.” In that moment I knew I was not having a heart attack. Instead, despite lifelong skepticism and outright animosity toward traditional religion, without asking or seeking, this skeptical atheist turned churchgoing agnostic had somehow been struck Christian.

© 2010 Joan Ball




PLEASE NOTE: I did NOT receive a copy of this book, so I don't have a review. Thanks.