Friday, September 9, 2016


"Like an apricot tree among the trees of the forest,
So is my beloved among the young men.
In his shade I took great delight and sat down,
And his fruit was sweet to my taste."
Song of Solomon 2:3

Joel was sorting peaches, but his head was somewhere else far away.  He really didn't mind working the family ranch and being in charge of the fruit--apricots and peaches--walnuts and honey part of their operation, it's just that it wasn't enough.  No matter whether it was lugging the peaches to the fruit stand or getting slicked up to go find some fun in town, it just didn't satisfy.  He felt like he had an itch harder to scratch than when he wore a cast on his broken arm as a kid. 

Life had come easy for Joel growing up in a stable, hard-working Christian family.  Even if they fought some of the time, he respected his two brothers, one older, one younger.  His livelihood was handed to him, no job search necessary.  Since he worked hard on the ranch, he was in prime physical condition and could eat want he wanted without gaining a pound.  He had a nice truck, good friends--well, some were immature, stuck in the high school jock persona--but they were loyal.  Girls had never been a problem.  Everyone told him he got the best of both his mother and father's good looks.  But though he dated about anything pretty in a skirt, it wasn't enough. 

Now both his brothers were practically engaged.  Neither had hardly even dated before. 
Nevertheless, they found the one for them.  It didn't seem fair.  It was a strange feeling to be actually jealous of his brothers.  Soon it would be just him and his mom at home.  He loved his mother, but good grief, he was twenty-two and wished for a special somebody of his own.  He'd sorted through the available females in his wide circle, and it was worse than sorting through peaches to find the perfect one.  Some were too hard, some were too soft, and some were bruised.  It made him wonder if he'd ever caused anyone to be bruised.  He hoped not.  Joel smelled a peach in his hand.  Sweet.  It was just the perfect ripeness, so he bit into it and let the juice drip down.

His mother handed him a paper towel.  "Here, son, don't let it get on your shirt."  She picked out one for herself and joined him sitting in the shade to rest in between customers at their fruit stand.

"So, Justice and Lizzie went to town for more wedding arrangements?"  He asked, using his shirt sleeve to wipe his mouth off rather than the paper towel she had handed him.

"I think it was one of those sessions with the minister that he requires before he does a couple's ceremony."

"Isn't it something how Lizzie just appeared back at the ranch and those two fell in love like they were shot with the same arrow?"

"I guess you and I were the only two who didn't recognize her even though she grew up right under our noses," his mother said.

"Yeah, well, she grew up all right.  For a bit there, I thought maybe I'd found the pick of the litter of all the girls around.  I guess I'll just have to keep looking."

"I must admit, I thought you'd be the first to get hitched, Joel, the way you attract girls like bees to the clover."

"Ah mom, did you ever think that those bees could sting?  For some reason, I've never wanted to get close enough to find out.  That's why I guess I hardly ever ask a girl out again after one or two dates.  Never really wanted to."

"You will.  And I predict that when you fall, you'll fall hard, young man.  Just you wait and see."

"It's harder than it looks.  There's a lot of expectation, you know, that can lead a fella to a load of trouble."  He cleared his throat before wading further into the kind of conversation a guy usually didn't have with his mother.  "I thought it was the guys who put pressure on the girls, but so many of the ones I've dated are aggressive.  They've been with so many men that they think the only thing they have to offer is physical attraction."  He looked nervously at his mother, "You know, it's hard not to cross the line, to fight that kind of temptation when it's so freely offered.  So that's why I don't get serious, if you want to get right down to it."

His mother patted him on the knee.  "I'm proud of you, son.  The Scriptures say, "Keep fighting the good fight."  I'll just keep praying that God will reward you with just the right girl and give you the strength to keep pure until He does."

"Thanks mom."  Funny.  Joel had never dreamed that sitting down to eat peaches with his mother would lead to the kind of conversation he never planned to have with her.  Yet, he felt better.  Since his dad was no longer alive to talk with, he figured he might as well get it off his chest with her.

Some customers drove up, so his mother went to help them while he went back to work sorting through the peaches.

"Well, my goodness, Lark, it has been a long time since I've seen you!" his mother exclaimed rather loudly.

Joel jerked his head around.  There weren't too many girls by that name, and his mother knew only one.  He had not seen her since they graduated high school.  When she stepped back
from hugging his mother, his breath caught in his chest.  It wasn't just 'cause she was a looker-- and she had more than the whole package--it was because the young woman still had the aura of someone who had it all together, beautiful and unattainable.  It left him tongue-tied and feeling like a dork.

"Joel, look who's here!  You remember Lark," his mother beamed.

"It's nice to see you again, Lark." His voice cracked like he was sixteen.  Since his hands were sticky from the peach juice he didn't try to shake her hand.  The whole conversation with his mother swirled around his head almost making him light-headed.  This was the one girl who turned him down after just one date.  He'd even had to beg her to go with him that one time.  She said she didn't want to go out with a player.  He'd never forget her response when he tried to kiss her goodnight.  She said that someone who had kissed so many other girls, wasn't worth kissing her."

"Hi, Joel."  Lark glanced at him then looked away like she'd seen all she wanted to of him.

Then she went back to talking with his mother saying,   "I haven't been to your fruit stand in ages.  I like how you've fixed it up," she said looking around at anything but him.  "I heard Lizzie was working for you, so I thought maybe I could catch her here.  We used to be good friends and rode horses together and stuff in the summer.  She wrote to say that she's engaged to Justice now.  I think that's just great.  I know she had a crush on him for years."

His mom chuckled. "I think they both had something for each other, but we were the ones who crushed it.  By God's grace they found each other again.  Lizzie's usually here, but she and Justice had a meeting with the minister this afternoon.  You are welcome to wait here until they get back.  I know Lizzie will be thrilled to see you.  She mentioned you to me just the other day."

She had?  Joel had no idea that the two of them knew each other.  All he'd heard was that Lark had gone away to a Christian college out of state.  He was just standing there gawking at her like a boy fresh out of puberty.  Oh no, his mother had one of those secret smiles.

"Why don't you take Lark up to the house and get her something cool to drink and maybe make us some sandwiches since I can't leave the fruit stand right now, Joel.  I'm getting hungry for lunch.  I hard-boiled some eggs to make egg salad sandwiches.  I'd appreciate it if you'd make some and bring me back one.  By then, Lizzie and Justice should be back."

"Is that alright with you, Lark?"  Joel finally felt his manhood pumping back into his veins so he could walk and talk again.  "If you aren't too hot, we can just walk up to the house."  He was totally conscious of how he must smell like sweat while he caught a whiff of something like honeysuckle as he stepped closer to her.

"I don't mind.  So, what have you been doing with yourself, Joel?"

As they walked, he began to tell her all about his dad's death and how they were all just beginning to pull out of it, how they were now operating the ranch as a team and what his part was.  He kept on talking.  Good grief, he'd never put any of that into words before.  She just listened. 

Finally, as they reached the house, he said, "So, tell me about yourself.   I don't think I've talked with you since the summer after we graduated."

Her laugh was so sweet to his ears that he yearned to make the sound keep ringing.  It was like he was caught between heaven and earth.  He knew his feet were walking up the dusty dirt road, but his head was in the clouds. 

She was saying, "I was so full of myself and thought I had it all together back then.  I don't know if you remember when I finally agreed to go out with you that time." 

"Of course I remember going out with you.  It took two solid weeks of hounding you to make it happen.  I also remember you refused to go out with me again after that one measly little date.  Does that mean you'd go out with me again now?"  He couldn't believe he'd just asked her out and knew if she refused him again, he'd be devastated.  Why did he throw his heart out there where she could stomp all over it again?

"Sure."  Her eyes drew him like a magnet.  Was she blushing?

"Sure, as in I will go out to dinner with you tonight?"

"Yes, I'll go out with you tonight," and she laughed again, but now more nervously.  "It'd be nice to catch up.  I don't have many friends still around, so yes, that would be nice.  Thank you."

"Alright, we'll just call it a catching up date then."  Once again, Joel found himself floating between heaven and earth.  Hey, a chance to date such a quality person like Lark didn't come his way often.  She was like the ring to reach for on the merry-go-round.  She'd be the prize of a lifetime.

Lark worked alongside him peeling the hardboiled eggs while he sliced then and added the salt and pepper and mayo with a squirt of mustard.  Their shoulders brushed occasionally, and each time it felt like he'd been shot with a quick jolt to his heart.  Joel knew he was a goner.  It was probably a hopeless case, but he couldn't help himself.  He was worse off than the first time he went out with her.

Lark seemed unaware of his turmoil as she went on about what it was like in school.  Then she said the words that clipped his wings.  "My boyfriend and I decided we needed a little time apart to know if we are truly meant to be together, you know meet other people..."

He cleared his throat and made sure she looked up at him.  "Was that your idea or his.  Because in my experience, that is code for it's been nice knowing ya.  You know like adios, adieu, arrivederci,  sayonara, auf Wiedersehen."

"Lark laughed, "So you are multi-lingual?"  Then she hung her head using her arm to try to wipe the curl of hair that stubbornly stuck to her cheek.  Joel wiped his hands on his pants and gently moved the lock tucking it back behind her ear.  She looked in his eyes then his glance looked down at her mouth.  He bent down slowly towards her.  She didn't move.  He just brushed her lips.  He couldn't breathe.  His arm went around her waist and he pulled her closer to kiss her again.  It was more than another brush this time.  Her arms rested against his chest.  After a minute, he pulled away.

"Who are you thinking about now, me or Mr. Had-His-Chance?"

"See!"  she shoved him away.  "That's what I meant.  You have kissed every girl you've ever gone out with.  I'm just another one of your kissing conquests."

"Well, I didn't get to kiss you before," he spoke intensely, "but I've had a lot of years of wishing I had."  He stepped back,  "But I understand why you didn't let me,  and I guess I should be sorry I kissed you just now, but I'm not.  If you never let me near you again, that's one I'll always remember.  You'll never be just another one of those...what did you call it?"  He couldn't think straight.

"Kissing conquests," she said and giggled before slapping her hand over her mouth.  Just then Lizzie and Justice walked in.

"Lark!  I'm so excited to see you," Lizzie ran over and hugged her.

Justice looked at him and raised his eyebrow.  Joel could only shrug.  He had no answer for his brother.  He had no idea where he stood in Lark's eyes.  He just hoped she'd allow him to still take her out to dinner after that fool kiss.

Justice offered to take their mother her lunch at the fruit stand while the rest of them sat at the table and visited.  Joel just listened while the young women talked.  He found out a lot of what had gone on in her life that way.

"So," Lizzie asked, "Are you seeing someone, Lark?"

Lark looked at him nervously and said, "Umm, I was, but we are taking a step back for awhile."

Lizzie looked confused.  "What does that mean?  Are you going to date other people or something."

"Maybe..." Lark glanced up and caught him grinning.  "I guess so."

"Then you weren't that serious with the guy it sounds like," Lizzie went on trying to grasp the concept that was foreign to her."

"Yeah, what exactly does that mean?  It sounds like two people breaking up without calling it breaking up," Joel prodded.

Lark glared at him.  "It means that we will re-evaluate in a couple of months at the end of summer and decide if we want to get back together and get serious in our relationship then."

Lizzie wouldn't let it go.  "So, are you upset about it?  Was it his idea or yours?"

"Yeah, that's what I wanted to know," Joel couldn't keep himself quiet for the life of him.  He really did want to know.  He didn't have a trace of a grin left on his face.

She looked uncomfortable. "It was his idea, but I agreed.  We'd been going together for the last three years..."

"Three years, and you don't know if you love each other?"  Joel was astounded.  He raked his hands through his hair and stared at her.

She squirmed.  "We were busy, you know, taking classes."

"Wow, Justice and I knew immediately, give or take a week, that we were in love," Lizzie admitted.

"I think you've always been in love with Justice, Lizzie," Lark said. "Maybe he just didn't know it.  And what about you, Joel?  After all these years, and all your dating experiences, haven't you come close to having a serious relationship?"  She practically sneered.

"Actually no I haven't.  There hasn't been anyone that's held my interest that long," he crossed his arms over his chest and held her gaze.

Lizzie looked back and forth between them and suddenly her eyes grew big.  "I just remembered something the minister wanted me to ask your mom about the wedding."  She jumped up and grabbed her sandwich to take with her. "I'll talk to you later, okay, Lark?"

"Okay, see you around," she forced a smile then studied her sandwich when Lizzie left. 

He was quiet.  He wanted her to say something first, then was shocked when she did.

"So, are you still willing to go on a date with me, Joel, since I might not be available by the end of summer?" She spoke as if it were a challenge.

"What do you think, Lark?  I'd like to believe it's more than a casual date, but I'd take friendship if that's all you've got for now."  He was practically groveling at her feet.  "But if I'm just your guinea pig to hold up as an experiment against whatever your relationship is to that other guy, then I guess I'd still offer you my guinea pig services."  He swallowed hard.  He'd never been so humble before with a girl.

"That kiss wasn't one you'd give in friendship, Joel."

"No, to be honest it wasn't.  And I wasn't just playing with you either.  I'm dead serious about being with you like I haven't been with anyone else," Lark.  "I've always figured you to be pretty  special."  He reached for her hand, and she didn't pull away.

"I hope that's not just one of your lines," she said so softly he had to lean in to hear.

"I've never offered to be any woman's guinea pig before, so no, it's not a line."

Lark laughed.  There it was that sound that sent him straight back up to hovering between heaven and earth.  He couldn't have wiped his grin off his face if he had to.  What he really wished was that he could kiss her again, but that would be the end to the guinea pig experiment.

"I guess we'll just have to see how long a guinea pig's lifespan is." she teased.

"I heard they mate for life," he joked.

Again her laughter filled him to the brim.  "That's swans, silly."

"You never know," he winked at her.  "So how about if I pick you up tonight at six o'clock.  I'd like to drive to the city so we won't have everybody hovering over us like fruit flies."  He immediately kicked himself for his stupid expression.

Once again she laughed, "Oh, Joel.  I forgot how funny you are.  I'll be ready at six then. Casual?  More dressy?"


She giggled.  "So that means high heels with jeans?" And she laughed again.  "Do you remember where I live?"

"Of course I do.  You don't know how many times I drove by your house hoping to catch a glimpse of you before you flew away to college," he admitted.  "That was before and after our one and only date that I did that drive-by thing."  He was babbling, but he couldn't help it.

"You did," she squeaked.  "I had no idea." She went on nervously shredding her napkin in her hand, "You know I liked you back then.  A lot.  But I didn't want to be just another one of those girls.  It's a small town and I heard them talk, you know.  You'd leave them crying when you walked away after they were hopelessly in love with you.  I couldn't do that."

"Honestly, Lark, I never tried to lead any girl on.  I tried to just date around.  That's all I've ever done.  I could count on one hand the girls I've had more than three dates with.  And yes, I did kiss a lot of girls.  In hindsight, that was wrong.  I can see that now.  But dating as a young adult rather than a teen isn't fun anymore.  It's harder to, you know, to keep it casual,.  But I haven't found anyone yet who I'd want to get serious with before..."

"Before now?"

"Yes, before now.  Well, you might say I'd hoped for that all those years ago, but it wasn't God's timing, I guess.  I really do appreciate you giving me a chance, Lark, I do."  He was as earnest as he'd ever been.  His heart was thumping like he'd swallowed a jack rabbit.  "It may not seem like it, but I have tried to walk a Christian walk even if I may have gotten a little too lukewarm a time or two.  God'd give me a nudge if I tried to walk too close to the line.  He's always convicted me and got me back on the straight and narrow each time."

"That's good to know.  Thanks for being honest with me."

"You know I'm crazy jealous of that other guy.  I don't even want to know his name or I'd be tempted to threaten him or something."

Lark's laugh soothed him.  "You don't have to be jealous.  He never kissed me the way you just did."  She blushed brighter than he'd ever seen since his little cousin had the slap-cheek virus.

"Now, you're the one being totally honest and I appreciate it.  I felt it too.  Just so you know, even though I've kissed a lot of girls as you just reminded me, no one got my heart racing like that."

He liked to make her blush.  He marveled at the pink hues until she covered her face with her hands.  He wanted more than anything to try another kiss to make sure its effect wasn't just in his head, but he knew she would balk at that.   So Joel settled for grasping her hand across the table, sad egg salad sandwiches forgotten.

"Well, I bet you have to get back to your work, but I'll see you tonight," she said pulling away.  He walked with her down the dirt road to the fruit stand where his mother, brother and Lizzie all were staring at them looking extraordinarily happy.  After she drove away, his brother slapped him on the back, Lizzie elbowed him giggling, and his mother kissed him on the cheek.

"Now that's about as fast an answer to prayer that I've ever had," she said with a smile in her voice.  Then he remembered their conversation right before Lark arrived.

"Yep.  Your prayer must have moved heaven and earth, Mom!"  He grinned.  "Don't mess with a praying woman is all I've got to say about it."

The date was amazing.  They ate at the nice steak house and then talked until they shut the place down.  Joel was glad they still had a bit of a drive back from the city so they could talk some more.  When he walked her up to her door, she allowed him to kiss her.  He held himself back so that she knew he was smitten, but not too much to scare her away.  Phone numbers had been exchanged, so they still talked when he got home until she made him hang up at 2am. with a promise to see him after work the next day.

Joel was so absorbed in his thoughts of her that he had no idea of the looks Lizzie and his mother kept exchanging.  He did not hear anyone calling his name.  He lived in LaLa land of a man besotted. 

"I think I'll call it a day, if it's alright with you mom, and clean up so I can go see Lark before she closes up her mom's flower shop."  He was already running up the hill to the house and did not wait for a response from his mother.  She could only grin.

But when Joel arrived at the shop, Lark's mother glanced up at him with a funny look on her face.

"Hi, Joel.  All Lark could talk about was how much fun she had with you last night, but I have to tell you that he showed up and took her away.  I'm a little worried because she didn't seem to want to go with him.  I didn't see it, but a customer came in concerned that Lark had almost been forced into a car with that man.  Lark isn't answering her phone either.  If she doesn't come back soon, her father and I are going to go looking for her.  It isn't like her to just up and leave the shop like this."

"What kind of car was he driving?" he asked hesitating at the door wanting to jump in his truck and go after her.  "Do they know which direction they were headed"

"The customer thought it was a late model Toyota sedan, silver.  They headed south."

He ran out then hurried back in.  Let me get your phone number and I'll give you mine so we can keep in touch while we look for her.

He jumped in and roared off with his blood boiling.  No one had to explain who "he" was who had shown up. 

Joel looked in every parking lot of restaurants and even went inside to see if they were there.  He called his mother to pray and to ask his brothers Justice and Jake to come help him search.  It was going to be dark soon.  He finally turned around after slapping his hand into his steering wheel with frustration when he had not found her at any eateries in the next town either.  It was dusk. Joel had just turned his headlights on when he saw someone walking along the highway.  It was Lark.  He pulled up behind her, but she started running without looking back.  He jumped out and called her name.  She stopped, then froze as he ran and clasped her to his chest.

"What happened?  Did he hurt you?  Are you alright?  I was so worried."  They stood there in the high beams of his truck lights hugging each other as cars and semis passed, some honking. 

When she didn't answer him, but seemed dazed, he finally realized they shouldn't keep standing there so he gently said, "Let me get you out of here, sweetheart.  You don't have to tell me until you are ready, but I want to help you."

Joel opened the truck door, helped her in and ran around to his side.  But before he pulled back onto the highway, he glanced over to see her hang her head and saw a tear drip down her cheek.  He wanted to hold her and never let her go, but he had to call Lark's parents and his brothers to tell them he'd found her. 

"Do you want me to take you to the ranch or to your house, Lark?"

"To your place."  Her voice was so soft he could hardly hear her.  So that's what he told her parents, and they insisted that they'd meet them there.

Lark was quiet, and he didn't feel led to push information out of her.  But Joel didn't know when he'd been more angry in his life.  He wanted to find that guy and smash his face in, but she was more important right now.

When he pulled up and shut off his engine, he said, "Come here.  Let me hold you for a minute before we go in."

"Do you want to tell me about it?"

She heaved a big sigh.  "He didn't hurt me so much as he scared me.  Badly.  After three years, I thought I knew him.  But this was a side I'd never seen.  He was insanely jealous and possessive."

Joel was thankful she was willing to seek comfort in his arms.  Still he waited for her to tell her story without interruption.

"I guess he'd called last night and my mom told him I was on a date.  It was just how we'd agreed.  But he was enraged and just showed up at the shop.  I saw him and went out to talk with him in the parking lot, but he shoved me in.  I guess he had put on the child safety locks on the doors so that I couldn't open my door to get back out, and he took off even though I told him to let me out.

He yelled at me and even swore at me for cheating on him, though I know good and well he had been seeing someone back at college, even before he broke up with me.  But I guess since he already got dumped he decided he felt entitled to go back to being exclusive without my say-so.  He wouldn't stop, wouldn't let me out until a little before you found me.  I guess I finally made him mad enough so he jerked off the road and screamed at me to get out.  I didn't care where I was, I was just so relieved to get out of his car.  He floored it out of there and left me."

"What about your phone?"

"He grabbed it out of my hands and threw it out the window within a block of leaving the shop when I tried to call you."

She started really crying like a dam broke.  "I was so scared," she sobbed.

He was holding her tightly and stroking her hair and whispering, "I'm so sorry, sweetheart," and "I promise, I won't let him hurt you again."


When she got control of herself, she nodded, so he opened the door so she could slide out and walk in with him where his family was waiting along with hers.  Lark was tightly gripping his hand.

"Do you want to tell them, or do you want me to do it?"

"You can, please." 

So he told it just like she'd said it, and she added no more.

Her dad stood up pacing.  "The police picked him up for reckless driving, but they are considering possible kidnapping charges as well.  They want us to make a report first thing in the morning when we decide what to do.  I think it will be good for that young man to sit in a cell for at least overnight.  According to our customer who saw the whole thing in the parking lot, you didn't go willingly with him, but were forced."

She only nodded in agreement.  Her mother came over to hug her crying.

The veins in Joel's arms were corded as his hands were clenched in tight fists.

Pretty soon her parents were ready to go home, but Joel offered to bring her later.

His family sat around stunned into silence.  "I am so sorry, Lark.  We were all praying for you.  I believe that must have been why he suddenly pulled over and told you to get out even though that was awful to leave you out in the dark in the middle of the country along a highway."

"But I found her almost immediately," Joel added.  "That must have been God too.  I'd been driving everywhere looking for her and just happened to see her shortly after he forced her out."

"You did?" Lark asked.

"Of course, sweetheart.  So did your parents, my brothers and then even the police when your dad called them worried.  We were all out looking for you."

She just nestled in closer.  "Thank you everyone."

Jake cleared his throat.  "Since we are all here, which is kind of a rare thing actually with us all going different directions lately, Windy and I have something to tell you."

At first everyone looked around smiling thinking that the young couple was going to officially announce their engagement, except Jake and Windy suddenly looked too miserable.  Their faces fell to showing concern waiting for Jake to speak.

"You know that Windy and I love each other.  It's no surprise that we want to get married, I guess.  But we have been spending a lot of time together, actually too much time together and umm..."

Windy covered her face and started crying while everyone looked around at each other dreading what Jake would say next.

"Well, she's two months pregnant, and we want to get married right away."

You could almost here all the air get sucked up out of the room.

"We know it was wrong, it was going against all we have been taught, all we believed, but we just fell into sin and once we did, it was hard to stop whenever we went to her house and her parents were still at work..."

Their mother held up her hand before he could say any more.  She spoke first after that.  "I'm sorry, son, that I didn't make you more accountable for your time and where you were spending it.  It was just easier to believe you were always working your cattle.  And since your dad died..."  She fought back the tears while lumps in her sons' throats convulsed and left the rest of that thought unsaid.  "But I'm glad you acknowledge that it was breaking God's laws and hopefully have repented."

The young couple who were gripping each other's hands looked at each other then nodded at the same time.

"Good.  God desires true sorrow for sin, not just a sorry that you got caught.  But Scripture also tells us 'He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.' The hard part for you will be to forgive yourselves and not let shame continue to hover over you like a shadow or let guilt eat away at you.  In other words, once God has forgiven you, don't let the enemy of your soul beat you up and lie to you.  Likewise, we as your family will  love you and support you all we can, right boys?"

Justice and Joel's deep voices spoke their agreement.

"Thank you,"  the young couple managed to echo each other.

Justice, would you pray for Jake and Windy in this new direction of their lives?"

Everyone in the room reached out and grabbed the hand closest to them until the circle was unbroken. 

"Dear God, you alone know everything going on in our lives.  Thank you for the love you have for us and the love that you have seen fit to bring into our lives.  We especially are grateful for bringing Lark back safely.  We know we are all sinners saved by grace here, so we lift Jake and Windy up to you for a cleansing of their hearts before you.  We pray also for this unborn baby..."  He paused and had to wait until he wasn't so choked up.  "Please keep your hand upon this little one as he or she grows and may these two be the best parents with your help to raise the child in the way it should go.  May we also be the family surrounding Jake and Windy and their little one as we should be.  In Jesus name, Amen."

There was a kind of  holy hush in the room. 

Finally Lizzie asked softly, "Have you told your parents yet, Windy?" 

Jake looked at his girlfriend with deep compassion and spoke for her.  "Yes, and they kicked her out.  I had just finished moving her things to her grandpa's when we got the call to look for Lark."

"Oh, Windy, I'm so sorry," their mother said.  Windy's parents were not Christians and evidently were more worried about what others would think about them than about their daughter and now their grandchild's welfare.  Fortunately, her grandpa would be there for her.  He was what you might call a crusty ol'Christian since he had come to Christ so late in his life.  Her husband had been faithful to visit this neighbor in the hospital before his surgery, and that's when he finally softened his heart toward God a couple of years back.

Windy spoke up then.  "Grandpa says that he is leaving us his place in his will anyway, so he invited us to live with him.  He's not getting around so good anymore since his hip surgery.  This way I can cook and clean for him."

Jake added.  "He's agreed to start smoking only outside from now on, but we'll need to rip out the carpet and stuff, you know, so it won't hurt the baby with all those fumes from all those years."

"And maybe replace all those upholstered pieces of furniture since they reek.  We both have some money saved we can use." 

Lizzie spoke up again.  "You know Justice and I found a brand of paint that helps absorb some of the smell left from cigarette smoke, and we're using it on my gramps place since he was a smoker too.  It doesn't take away all of the stink, but it certainly helps."

"We can fit it in the ranch budget I'm sure, Jake, if you need help getting new carpet.  Let us know what else," Justice offered.

"Well, I don't want Lizzie around the paint fumes either, so I'd appreciate any help y'all can give with the painting.

"Sure!" was echoed all around.

"So when do you plan to get married," Joel asked.

Again, the young couple looked at each other and said, "We thought we'd go to the courthouse and get the license and get married there this week."

"Oh, my!" Their mother was dumbfounded.

Lizzie kept looking between Justice and his mother and finally said, "Well, I haven't asked Justice yet if he would mind, but maybe we could simplify our wedding and move it up, and then we could have a double ceremony maybe after the first of the month.  We haven't sent out any wedding invitations yet, and I was just telling him today how uncomfortable I am about having a big church wedding since I don't have any family to speak of to be there.  I'd rather have a simple ceremony here at the ranch."

Windy looked so wistful, that Justice was won over.  "Hey, if  my lady wants to hurry up the ceremony, who am I to complain," he grinned.  "I wouldn't mind sharing the ceremony with my little brother."  He got up and fist bumped Jake.

Joel squeezed Lark's hand and whispered into her ear, "I wish..."  More than anything, he wished he could marry the girl, this one who had brought out all his protective instincts today that still pumped adrenalin through his veins.  But the last thing he would do would be to rush her.

"We could do the flowers for y'all," Lark said.  Then Joel about fell off the couch when she went on to say, "Hey, who knows, maybe we might join y'all and have all three Shield boys in one ceremony, but that might be jumping the gun a little too soon."  She blushed as brilliant as a Texas sunset.

The girls all squealed jumping up to hug her while the boys were all slapping each other on their backs.  His mother clapped her hands over her mouth with obvious joy.

"Maybe I should hurry up and propose then," Joel began teasing, but then he decided he might as well go for broke and seize the chance.  He slid down on one knee and said, "Lark Hansen, will you marry me and let me take you under my protection and love you the rest of our lives?"

"Yes, Joel.  I will marry you.  I may not have let you have that second date back in high school, but  I've regretted it ever since.  And after the day I've had, I'd like nothing better than to be your bride.  I may have misjudged you back then, but I highly respect the kind of man you've become."

Joel was stunned and sill knelt there looking at the young woman blinking.  He swallowed and hoarsely croaked, "You said, 'Yes'?"  He shook his head, "You're kidding."

"Why, were you just kidding?" Lark asked suddenly nervous.

"NO!" he yelped and scooped her up onto his lap and gave her a big kiss.

"I was just kidding about getting married that soon though.  I think we need to take some time getting to know each other before we plan a ceremony," Lark said almost shyly.

"Ahh, you got my hopes up, but I think you are right.  But I'm not willing to wait three years to see if it works though.  A few months sounds like plenty of time for me!"

"After all, Joel, We need someone to stand up with us to be Jake and my best man," Justice grinned.

"And I'd like you to be my maid of honor, Lark," Lizzie added.

"Sure!  Of course!" Lark and Joel agreed.  "I think we can just announce our engagement at the wedding if it's alright with y'all."

"You bet," his brothers agreed.

After the engagement and wedding hubbub died down a little, their mother cleared her throat.  "Well, since this is a night for surprises, I guess I'll just add one more, but I've been worried how y'all will take it, boys."   Justice, Joel, and Jake eyed each other with bewilderment.

"I have a date Friday night."

You could have heard a pin drop.

She went on hesitantly, "It's not like I'm going to hurry into a relationship, but it will be nice to go out to dinner with John Carter since your dad and John were such good friends for so long--we all were--and his wife has been gone about two years..."

Justice finally got his voice, "I'm glad for you, mom.  It's hard for us to think about it, but you certainly don't need our permission to date.  John is a good man."  He rubbed the back of his neck not at all sure that he was ready for her to do this.  It had caught them all in surprised shock.

Joel added, "I thought he was coming by the fruit stand a lot lately." He winked at her.  "I wondered how a single fella could need that many peaches."  Joel was so happy with his new fiancĂ© that you couldn't find a pin sharp enough to burst his bubble.

Jake stated the obvious, which none of them had really had time to think about.  "Well, since all your sons will be moving out of the house soon, Mom, you might as well get your own life. I'm all for it."  Jake was so grateful for the love his family had just shown them tonight in spite of everything, how could he not extend grace to his own mother?

Justice asked, "So where will you and Lark live when you get married?  Will you stay here at the house with Mom?"

"Umm, we obviously haven't got that far..."

"You know you are more than welcome to live here as long as you want, but is there a way we could swing bringing in a small modular home up here, Justice?  If they used the old foundation where your grandparent's original house burned down, it might simplify the process.  It has all the hook-ups already.  That would perhaps give us the time needed to provide for them before they get married."

"Justice rubbed the back of his neck again. He finally said, "Since Lizzie and I will be living at her grandpa Lester's home place, and Jake and Windy will be at her grandpa's place, it would make sense to do that.  I wouldn't want to leave you all alone without one of us close by anyway, Mom.  Joel and I can go by the bank tomorrow and see about a loan.  He hated to put the ranch more in debt, but such was a farmer's life.

Joel was listening, but he was hearing this all somewhere above where his heart was soaring. Holding Lark safely in his arms was his anchor.  They all were ready to embrace a future that meant a lot of change, but he had to confess while shaking his head, "Mom, I must admit, your news tonight almost floored me more than anyone else's, except this girl popping the question before I ever dared to, that is," he said grinning. Lark elbowed him.  "Now with all of us soon to be married, it's our mother who will be dating.  What do you know about that!  I'll bet even dad is looking down from heaven right now and smiling."

The living room was full of sniffles and smiles through tears, but their hearts were all full and overflowing.  From sin to grace, they all were thinking that love between a man and a woman was a God-given piece of heaven.

Finally, Lark shook off all the swirling events of the day and playfully punched Joel in the arm to ask, "By the way, since it looks like I'm marrying into this family, what do I call you, ranchers or farmers?"

Joel laughed and quoted his dad. "I don't care what you call me..." and his brother's joined in to say the last part in unison, "as long as you call me for dinner!" 

"Dinner?"  His mother jumped up.  "We forgot to eat dinner for the first time in our lives!"

Joel said, "Well, let's go celebrate!"


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