Chapter OneI know God will not give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish that He didn’t trust me so much.
Merit Sullivan pressed the accelerator to the floor and held her breath as her minivan shot through the tail end of a yellow light. Okay, red,
she admitted it. Colored lights flashed in her rearview mirror, and a police officer on a motorcycle materialized behind her.
Her cheeks flushed crimson and her mouth went dry as she maneuvered to the shoulder of Oak Grove Road, the motorcycle cop pulling up behind her. The light had turned red a half second before she flashed into the intersection, but it had to help that she’d never received a ticket before. The piercing blue lights sliced their way into her head, and Merit felt the twinge of a budding headache. She closed her eyes and tried to breathe slowly.
“Driver’s license and registration, please?”
Merit jumped and looked at the helmeted officer stooped by her window. She fumbled through her purse, prospecting for her wallet. By the time she found it, she’d built a small pile of lipsticks, her checkbook, expired grocery coupons, mints, and tissues on the passenger seat, none of which would interest the waiting policeman. Meanwhile, her tongue had cemented itself to the roof of her mouth.
Finally she was able to hand over her California driver’s license. Thank the Lord it wouldn’t expire until her forty-fifth birthday next year.
“Oh yes. Of course.” She pulled at the visor above her head, and an envelope from the insurance company fluttered to her lap. “My husband, Will, usually takes care of that kind of thing. I’m sure it’s here, though.” She handed him the envelope.
“Yes ma’am.” He glared at her from behind the traditional cop sunglasses and fished out the little certificate he needed. Well, that was good. “Do you know why I stopped you?”
“I think so.” She pressed her lips together so they wouldn’t quiver and fought back the sudden urge to cry. She slid down in her seat, in case someone she knew drove by.
By this time the policeman had retreated to his motorcycle, perhaps to see if she had stolen her minivan or if she was wanted for murder. Merit popped a mint into her mouth to calm herself and prayed for mercy, knowing she didn’t deserve it for a minute–except that she’d never… Well, she’d already covered that excuse.
Still his glacier-blue lights encircled her poor car, needling her eyes every time the lights glanced off the rearview mirror. Couldn’t he turn them off now? She shivered and choked down the mint, waiting for her sentence and trying to ignore the cool March wind whenever it found its way inside her car. Maybe it would rain again before Easter. Or maybe the officer would make her wait on the side of the road until the Fourth of July.
Finally she heard the squawk of his police radio as he stepped toward the minivan and passed her license and registration back through her open window.
“I probably shouldn’t do this,” he began, “but I’m going to let you go with a warning this time, Mrs. Sullivan.”Please feel free,
she thought, sagging back against her seat. That’s quite all right.
“Thank you,” she managed, “I–”
“Only let’s not be in such a hurry, okay? Wherever you’re going, you’re not going to get there faster by causing an accident.”
She nodded stiffly, willing him away, but he paused a moment before peering over his sunglasses.
“And tell Will hello for me.”
Merit thought she saw the slightest hint of a grin on his lips. Without making it look too obvious, she tried to read the man’s little silver name badge, but he turned away before she could make out his name and walked back to his waiting motorcycle.
Who was he? Will knew him, obviously. A friend from Rotary, maybe. Someone he’d met at work. Not anyone from church, since the policeman would have known her too. But then again, it would be easy to miss the couple who only managed to show up for the late service once a month.
She started her vehicle, clicked her seat belt in place, and checked the side mirror like a careful driver. Then she hit her left turn signal and waited for a hole to open in traffic. How long had she been sitting on the side of the road?
Ten minutes? An hour? Will had to be wondering what had happened to her, but why hadn’t he–Her cell phone’s voice mail alert beeped, announcing that someone had
tried to call–probably in the middle of all the excitement. Keeping an eye on her rearview mirror and holding her speed ten miles under the posted limit, Merit punched in the voice mail code before hitting the Speakerphone option.
“Hey, honey.” Her husband’s husky voice sounded nearly out of breath. “It’s four fifteen and I’m just passing Lafayette. Sales meeting went long. Bruce started making a big stink about quotas again, and I couldn’t get out of there the way I’d hoped. Typical. Just tell Fred to hang on, and I’ll be there before you know it. Love you.”
Merit slowed as she approached the next intersection, her foot hovering over the brake pedal, anticipating a yellow light. Will might arrive the same time she did. Even later, perhaps. And judging by the lineup of red lights stretching down the avenue in front of her, that wouldn’t be any time soon.
“This has to be some kind of sign,” she said to herself. But she was afraid to check with the Lord, considering what they were about to do. Where she came from, red lights meant “stop and wait.”
She stopped and waited six times before pulling into the parking lot at Fred Gribbon & Associates. As she found an open space, she scanned the parking lot for Will’s forest green Land Rover, but there was no sign of it.
What else could she do but gather and replace the contents of her purse, check the mirror to see how badly her makeup had smudged, and head for the office? She even thought of a nice way to apologize to Fred–an explanation that neatly left out any mention of her scrape with the law, blazing blue lights, or husbands who hated their jobs.
As it turned out, though, she needn’t have worried. Belinda, the office receptionist, looked up from filing her nails and flashed a well-rehearsed smile as Merit stepped inside.
“Mr. Gribbon called to say he’d be here by four thirty,” Belinda said. The clock on the wall behind her desk showed ten minutes shy of that time. “You can wait for him in the conference room, if you like. Can I get you some coffee?”
Merit declined with thanks and a wave. She was far beyond the reach of coffee. This day called for a nice, hot bath topped by a layer of bubbles to hide beneath until her skin pruned. But that would have to wait. In the meantime, she found a place in the firm’s old-fashioned, walnut-paneled conference room, the brown vinyl chair wheezing comfortably under her trim frame. She gazed at the framed scenic photos of Mount Diablo which, judging by how faded they looked, had probably been taken about the same time Fred Gribbon moved into this office more than twenty years ago.
She winced and closed her eyes. That headache again.
A few minutes later, Will’s quiet chuckle and the nasal sound of Fred Gribbon’s laugh told her that her husband and his uncle had arrived.
she is!” Uncle Fred gave her a warm, toothy smile as he breezed in with an armload of folders and a fistful of pink While You Were Out slips. The man probably still used the vintage tan IBM Selectric perched on a corner of his desk. “I hope we didn’t make you wait too long.”
Entering on his uncle’s heels, Will shrugged helplessly and mouthed the words I’m sorry
“Not long at all,” Merit replied honestly. She winked at her husband to let him know she was okay. For the most part.
Fred tossed his folders in front of them and deposited himself at the head of the table, then wiped his forehead with a white handkerchief. Who carried handkerchiefs anymore, Merit wondered. He folded it into quarters and replaced it in a shirt pocket before narrowing his eyes and looking from Will to Merit.
“How long have you known me, Merit?”
Merit smiled politely and tossed back the obvious answer. “Twenty-four years this summer, Uncle Fred. You came to our wedding, remember?”
“That’s right. And I knew this guy here when he was still a towhead in diapers.” Fred clapped Will on the shoulder. Where was this going? Merit fidgeted in her chair, and Uncle Fred held up a finger for patience.
“All I’m saying, kids…”
Merit held back a smile. Funny how he could call two adults in their midforties “kids” and get away with it. He took a breath and went on. “All I’m saying is that you’ve known me a long time, and I’ve never lied to you or let you down, right?”
Merit nodded, wishing Uncle Fred would get to the point so they could sign the papers and be done with it.
“So as your agent and your friend, I’m advising you not to do this.”
She blinked and looked across the table at Will. He returned her gaze for a moment before speaking. “I appreciate your advice, Fred,” he said, leaving off the uncle,
Merit noticed. “But Merit and I are both agreed on this.”
“You prayed about it, I assume.”
Will squirmed, the good Lutheran nephew sitting in his Pentecostal uncle’s office, the office with a big velvet Jesus portrait adorning the wall by the window.
“Well, sure,” Will said. “We always do.” Which was mostly true, Merit thought, if one assumed that the Lord’s Prayer recited over breakfast covered this sort of thing.
“And even after you’ve seen the place,” Uncle Fred pushed, “you want to go ahead with this?”
Merit jumped to defend her husband. “Remember, my sister lives there. And Will’s wanted to do this kind of thing for…for a long time.”
Uncle Fred’s question hit closer than Merit was willing to admit. Of course, in a do-over she would substitute we
, but they weren’t going to get into Will’s miserable stress cooker of a sales job right now or his boss who gave him ulcers and called on Sunday nights to chew him out.
“A man’s gotta do whatever it takes to keep his family together, right?” Will could defend himself too. Uncle Fred just squinted and studied his nephew.
“You’re big kids.” Uncle Fred finally smiled. “I just thought I’d ask you one more time before we charge ahead with this whole deal. Kind of my duty.”
“Which is why we pay you the big bucks,” said Will. “To ask all the right questions.” Uncle Fred chuckled and held up a sheet of paper with a lot of handwritten notes on it.
“All right, then,” he told them with a sigh. “The good news is that your offer is way less than what the estate is asking.”
That was the good news? He slipped on a pair of half-moon reading glasses, licked his thumb, and riffled through a stack of papers. Merit wondered how many colds were passed from office worker to office worker by people salivating on paperwork.
“So there’s a good chance,” he continued, pausing to lick his thumb again, “that the executor of that estate is going to laugh this off as a joke.”
“If that’s the good news, what’s the bad news?” Merit allowed herself a modest smile and tried not to worry about germs.
“The bad news? Ha!” By now, Uncle Fred had caught his stride, pulling out forms and stacking them in a neat pile on the table, ready for the ballpoint attack. Belinda had dutifully decorated each one with cheery little pink arrow stickers, so even Merit couldn’t mistake where to sign.
“Yeah.” Will grinned, picking up a plum-colored “Gribbon & Associades” pen, the word Associates
misspelled. “What’s the bad news?”
The bad news, Merit thought, would be giving up her job working with special-needs kids at the school, even if it was part-time. The bad news would be leaving her friends at the book club. The bad news would be leaving the house she loved, with neighbors she loved even more. The bad news would be…
“The bad news is that even with this ridiculously low offer on a horribly run-down resort in the Middle of Nowhere, Idaho…well, your offer’s probably way higher than what it’s actually worth.”
Some comfort. Merit ignored the pile of pens on the table, fished her own pen out of her purse, and sighed. Really, what other choice did she have at this point?
Oh, what we do for love,
Excerpted from Like Always by Robert Elmer. Copyright © 2007 by Robert Elmer. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.