Chapter 31

A large, wooden-looking cardboard cutout shaped like an ark stood erect in the far right corner of the kindergarten classroom at church. Two shades of contrasting, silky blue fabrics skirted the boat, designed to look like waves. Majestic stuffed giraffes stood guard over the homemade plank, and miscellaneous animals, paired two by two, lined the main wall leading onto the ark. Near the ceiling, a large cellophane rainbow arched over the top deck of the boat, drawing attention to the words, God’s Promise to Me, taped to the wall. A variety of beautifully crafted papier-mâché birds also hung from clear strands of thread, attached to overhead tiles, making the birds appear to be suspended, mid-air.

“Such creativity!” I raved. “I bet the kids are really enjoying this theme.”

Val smiled and nodded at four-year-old Raychel who had plopped herself down onto the back of one of the plush lions, stroking its mane. “It would appear so.”

“Aww, so cute!” I gushed.

Val’s eyebrows rose in a teasing manner. “Who? The girl or the guy?”

Following her gaze, my attention landed on a young, well-built gentleman play-wrestling with two older boys in the far left corner of the room. His facial features animated when he talked, and his eyes sparkled when he laughed. Just under six feet tall, his chiseled bone structure, inflated biceps, defined jawline, and Ken-doll-perfect hair made me wonder if he had just stepped off the pages of GQ Magazine. A long-sleeve forest green dress shirt had been rolled at the cuffs, and black pleated slacks, silver/gray paisley tie, and black polished Oxfords accentuated his pristine look.

“It’s hard not staring, huh?” Val chuckled. “He’s quite the looker!”

I cleared my throat, hoping the instant heat in my cheeks didn’t show on my face. “I meant the little girl,” I clarified, “but who is he? I haven’t seen him before. Is he new to our church?” I couldn’t hide the awe in my voice.

Val’s eyes danced as she observed my intrigue. “His name is Brad. He’s been volunteering here for the past few months. By what I hear, he teaches at the grade school across town. I’m only subbing here tonight; but, by what I’ve seen, the kids really like him.”

“I can see that,” I responded. We both watched for a moment while children flooded in around him, drinking up his attention. Two little girls giggled, engaging Brad in their game of tag. Tapping his arm, they made funny faces at him then ran the opposite direction, out of his reach. He catered to their antics, acting like they had made a grand escape. This made the girls giggle even louder.

“See what you miss when you don’t come to church on a regular basis?” Val teased. She nudged me with her elbow.

I rolled my eyes and nudged back. “You know I’ve been going to church elsewhere,” I debunked her allegation. “Five hundred miles away at college makes driving here every week a bit excessive, dontcha think?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I might be convinced to drive some crazy-long miles if it meant the chance getting to know this guy.” She grinned, nodding at Brad.

I chuckled. “So, are you going to introduce us, or are ya just going to stand there making fun of me?” I challenged.

“Since you asked so nicely,” she grinned, adding a wink, “I guess introductions are in order.” Waving at Brad, she elevated her voice above the noise. “Hey, Mr. Brad! Can you pry yourself away from those munchkins for just a minute? There’s someone I’d like you to meet.”

“You did not just do that,” I admonished. I touched my fingertips to my eyebrows and shook my head, waiting for the floor to swallow me up.

“Aww, c’mon,” Val feigned sympathy. “There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. If it makes you feel any better, he saw you earlier this evening in the lobby and asked me to introduce the two of you. Appears the attraction is mutual.”

My eyes grew big. “He what?”

Amusement twinkled in Val’s eyes. “He mentioned something about you having a ‘fascinating smile’ and that he was interested in meeting the person behind ‘those big, bright eyes’—or at least I think those were his words,” she teased.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I whispered, swatting her forearm with my hand.

“I just did,” she loudly whispered back, faking a pitiful, “Oww.” Rubbing her at pretend injury, she chuckled. “You can thank me later.”

I let out a bemoaned sigh. “Yeah, right.”

Brad made his way across the crowded room, a blonde-haired girl with braids clinging to his right hand and an auburn-haired cutie in pigtails swinging his left hand back and forth. “Hey, Brad, this is my friend, Hope. Hope, this is Brad,” Val dispensed formalities.

Brad loosened his right hand and extended it my direction. “Nice to meet you. I don’t believe I’ve seen you here before.” I stared up into the greenest eyes I had ever seen. Lifting my hand, I allowed him to shake it.

“I’ve been away at college,” I smiled. “It’s been a few months.”

“That would explain it,” he grinned, revealing perfectly straight, white teeth.

“I was just telling Hope, here, that you have a teaching position over at the elementary school,” Val piped in. “You might not know this, but Hope is an education major, herself.”

“Really?” Brad’s interest piqued. “I did not know that. What grade level? Fifth graders are my poison of choice,” he winked.

I held his stare, flustered I couldn’t find anything intelligent to say. “Elementary,” I finally spoke. “I’m studying to be an elementary school teacher. Third grade is my passion,” I smiled back. “They’re like little sponges at that age, ready to absorb the world—old enough to follow directions, but still young enough not to think they know everything, yet.”

“Makes sense to me,” Brad approved. “The world can use more positive role models. I’m sure the kids love you.”

“Really?” I countered. “We just met. You don’t even know me. What would make you say that?”

“Just a feeling,” he smirked. “I’m pretty good at reading people. Call it a hunch, I guess. You seem the likable type.” His eyes exuded confidence.

“Likable, huh?” I’m not sure whether to be flattered by your compliment or annoyed by your cockiness, I scrutinized him internally. In my experience, no one this good looking is genuinely nice, too. Proceeding with caution, I reciprocated his interest. “I’ve lived in Florida most of my life—with the exception of school—but I can’t say I’ve ever seen you here before. Do you live in the area?” Raychel flung her arms around my waist and gazed up at me for attention. I acknowledged her presence and squeezed back.

“I hail from the West Coast,” Brad continued. “Did most of my studying in So Cal—enjoyed surfing and beach parties with the best of ’em, but chose to pack it all in and follow my girlfriend cross country a couple years ago when she accepted a job offer at a nearby hospital after graduation.” He motioned to the world just beyond our church walls.

“So, you have a girlfriend,” I noted.

Had,he emphasized, making eye contact with me. “Broke up with her a few months ago.” I raised an eyebrow. “We both wanted different things,” he indulged. “I wanted faithfulness in our relationship. She wanted several other guys—had an issue with commitment. I needed someone I could trust.”

Studying his eyes, I nodded. Plausible story.

Brad read the hesitation in my face. “Oh, don’t feel sorry for me. I have a lot to be thankful for. She’s the one who helped find God and connect with the church. I’m also blessed, because it was a clean break. No marriage. No divorce.”

I smiled, acknowledging his good fortune. “I’m sure that made breaking up much easier.”

“In some ways yes, in others no,” he answered. “Sure, there weren’t kids involved or household belongings to divvy up—since we weren’t living together—but you still go through all the stuff like questioning God and wondering how He’s going to help you move on—especially living thousands of miles away from the norm and what you used to call home.”

“I get that.” Similar standards and a personal relationship with God. There could be potential here, I weighed the possibility. “Do you have any family in Florida?”

“Nope. My mom lives in Cali, and I’m an only child. My dad left when I was about twelve years old, and I haven’t seen or heard from him in about twelve or fifteen years. Aunts and uncles are scattered across the U.S., but we rarely contact each other. So, really, it’s just my mom and me—and now just me.”

“I’m sorry.” I didn’t know how to respond. “I’m really close to my family. I can’t imagine living that far apart. College in a different state has been a real adjustment for me,” I acknowledged. “Feels good to be home right now.”

“Don’t get me wrong. I’m really close with my mother. We talk on the phone almost every day, but I’m not a mama’s boy. I can get along just fine without her living next door,” he grinned.

I suddenly felt ashamed of how I had worded my thoughts. “I apologize. I didn’t mean to imply….”

“It’s OK,” he offered assurance. “Your questions don’t bother me. People ask me about my family all the time. I pretty much left home straight out of high school and never looked back. It is what it is.”

I smiled at his kindness.

“Can I interest you into going out for some ice cream after things wrap up here, tonight?” He eyed the kids milling around the room. “I’d love to be able to chat some more, but it’s kind of hard hearing much with all this ruckus.”

Raychel released my waist and started tugging on Brad’s elbow. “Mr. Brad, will you come be my customer? I need someone to come to my pretend store, and Lily doesn’t want to play with me.” She batted her irresistible doe eyes.

Dimples caved in the sides of Brad’s cheeks as he responded. “I would love to come to your restaurant. What’s on the menu tonight?”

Raychel’s back straightened with pride. “Sketti,” she beamed, “and green beans, but don’t worry, Mr. Brad,” she quickly added. “I won’t tell your Mommy if you don’t want to eat your veggies. I don’t like mine, either.”

Brad chuckled. “Well, give me about two seconds, and I’ll be right over. I want to finish my conversation with Miss Hope, first. OK?”

Raychel pressed her cheek to her shoulder and sheepishly grinned. “OK.” Giddy about her newly acquired pal, she darted across the room and found a drawer filled with plastic food supplies and started pulling out what she needed.

“You just made a friend for life,” I laughed.

“Yeah, all the girls love him,” Val added, reminding me of her presence.

“They just want what any of us want,” Brad downplayed the moment.

“And what’s that?” I asked.

Brad smiled. “Someone to care.”

I melted. Is there anything about you I can find to dislike? I wondered. Maybe we should talk some more, so I can find out.

“So, ice cream, later?” he reintroduced the idea.

“I’ll take you up on it,” I agreed, “but you better not make your hostess wait any longer. There’s a little girl over there eagerly awaiting her customer.” Raychel’s face lit up as the three of us glanced her direction.

Brad turned and winked at her. “I’m coming. I promise.” Turning back to me, he added, “It’s a date.” Smiling broadly, he nodded at Val. “Thank you for the introductions.”

“My pleasure,” Val responded. As Brad walked away, Val leaned toward me and simply whispered, “A date.”

“It’s not a date,” I light-heartedly protested. “It’s ice cream.”

“Well, Brad thinks it is,” she snickered. “I told you you would thank me.”

I rolled my eyes. “I barely know the guy. I may not even like him once I get to know him.” I nudged her in the arm.

Val smiled, then she chuckled. “You will.”

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