Do you have a favorite hero yet? Voting will begin tomorrow (Wednesday) at Noon, Eastern time. We'll post the final hero tomorrow morning like usual, and then, at noon, we'll post the ballot for you to choose which hero you think best fits Mara.
Read Chapter One.
Read Chapter Two.
Read Chapter Three.
Read Chapter Four.
Read Chapter Five.
Read Chapter Six.
Read Chapter Seven.
Read Chapter Eight.
Read Chapter Nine.
Read Chapter Ten.
Read Chapter Eleven.
Chapter Twelve - December
Mara smoothed the burgundy cowl-necked sweater over her khaki slacks. Looking into the bathroom mirror, she dragged the brush through her long tresses. How many more jobs would she flub before she managed to keep one for more than a week? Now, she’d see how long she could last in Columbia, South Carolina.
Since Megan, her sorority sister, offered her a place to stay, she’d be able to save cost of rent. No telling how long it would take to locate Derrick. She still had one more trip after this one, and it was fifteen hundred miles from home. Funds were tight. She couldn’t afford to lose this job.
Mara shrugged into her jacket, buttoned it, and headed out the door. She shivered as the chilly air brushed her face. Well, at least Christmas would soon be here, and she’d spend a long weekend with her family back in Spartanburg.
Mara’s car sputtered to a stop just as she pulled into the employee parking lot behind Columbiana Centre mall. She shifted the gear to park and tried to crank the engine. Second and third attempts were no more successful. The motor wouldn’t even turn over.
Great! Like I need another thing to go wrong.
She shoved the gearshift into neutral, opened the door, and slid a leg out. She tugged on the steering wheel and grunted as she pushed the small car into the first empty spot. When she tugged her leg back into the car and lifted her head, her eyes focused on the sign at the head of the space. RESERVED FOR CALVIN DOOLEY.
Well, the guy obviously wasn’t here, and since she couldn’t push the car back out and shove it into another space, it would have to remain until she could call AAA. Sure paid off that her dad had signed her up for road service before she began her journeys. He was just full of surprises since she’d returned home.
Mara pushed some stray hairs out of her face, swung her feet around, and propelled her way out of the car. As she pushed the lock button down, she felt a sharp pain in the nail bed of her pinky finger and heard a snap. She squeezed the knuckle in an effort to ease the pain. Then she pulled the broken nail off and watched a drop of blood ease to the surface.
Tears began to form. No, not now. You can’t cry now. What will these people think if you show up with bloodshot eyes and a red nose? After all she’d been through these last several months, things just didn’t seem to be getting any better. She fumbled in her purse, managed to pull out a Kleenex, and wrapped her finger tightly.
Mara glanced at her watch. Eight forty five. Well, at least she wasn’t late. She held herself erect, pulled her purse strap up on her shoulder, and scurried into the building. As she reached for the door handle, she squared her shoulders and put on her game face.
The stern-looking clerk in the department store office looked up with no sign of a smile and said, “May I help you?”
“Yes. I’m Mara Adkins. I’m starting work here today. Could you please direct me to the orientation room?”
The squinty eyes of the unfriendly employee grazed her from top to bottom.
“You the new gift wrapper?”
“Yes.” Mara’s palms began to sweat. Squeezing her injured finger with her thumb, she wrapped her arms around her waist to calm her quivering stomach.
“Lockers are down the hall, second door on the left. Orientation meeting is in the conference room next door to that.”
The woman reminded Mara of Cruella De Ville.
“Uh, thank you, Miss…?”
“Samantha Cruz. See? It’s right here.” Samantha tapped her crimson acrylic nail on the top of the engraved metal name plate atop her cluttered desk.
“Oh, yes, I see that now.” Mara nodded her thanks, whirled around, and trekked down the hallway. She locked her purse in a cubicle and stuffed the key in her pocket. She took a seat in the conference room along with one other person and looked up to see a grimacing old man enter.
“Is someone in here driving a 2008 blue compact car?” He slapped a notebook on the speaker’s podium. Mara’s felt her jaw drop, and she slowly raised her hand. Lovely. He’s the boss. How many more lessons in humility must she endure?
“I thought it must be someone new. Anyone else in this building would know not to park in my parking space.”
“It’s … it’s … my car stopped running, and I had to push it somewhere. That was the only space nearby.” Mara’s voice quivered.
“My name is Calvin Dooley, Miss …?”
“Mara … Adkins,” she squeaked out.
“As soon as your shift is finished, Miss Adkins, I suggest you get it towed and from now on, avoid taking the reserved parking.”
Mara found her workstation near the register at the entrance to the store. She surveyed the array of Christmas wrapping paper, ribbons, and bows. This should be fun. She could use a little gaiety right now. Looking around her, she rested in the fact that this seemed like an accident free zone, and she was a master gift wrapper from way back. After all, design was design whether you dealt with fabrics or with paper.
She smiled at customers laden with packages and clad in jackets, coats, and knit caps as they strolled by. A few small children, gripped by their parents’ hands, squealed in delight as they scampered out of the store and headed toward Santa’s huge chair.
A tinge of melancholy enveloped her. Oh, to be so young and carefree again. It’s not like she felt so old, but the last year had provided some coming-of-age lessons she’d rather have done without. Yet, the Lord had given her grace to endure the embarrassment.
Her first customer, a tenacious little girl with long black curls, reached her package above her head to the counter. Her eyes widened. “Can you please wrap this for me? It’s for my momma.”
For a second, Mara saw herself in the persona of this little child.
“Certainly. What kind of paper would you like?”
“It’s pink slippers. You want to see them? You can look in the box.” The child had her brows raised high in anticipation.
Mara’s heart warmed, and she lifted the lid off the box. “Why, they’re beautiful. I bet pink is your mom’s favorite color.”
“Yeah, and mine, too.”
“So, which paper do you like?” The little girl’s dad lifted her so she could see the rolls of paper on the rack behind Mara. She pointed to the metallic gold.
“Could we put a happy face on it, too?”
Her dad’s wide smile demonstrated the pride he must have felt for his daughter.
“How ’bout if we put a happy snowman face on it?”
The little girl bobbed her head up and down. Mara wrapped the package and added a red bow and a snowman gift tag.
She left a bit of cut ribbon and paper on the floor, but she could clean that up later. A line was forming. She would need to keep up the pace.
“That’s beautiful.” The little girl beamed, clutching her package to her and walking away with her father.
A stout, white-haired woman with large azure eyes stepped forward with her packages and selected holly-covered paper and red ribbon. Mara smiled. She could do this all day. Finally, a job she couldn’t mess up.
She swung around with a joyous pirouette, expecting to find herself in front of the wrapping paper and bows.
Her spin didn’t stop there. The ribbon under her heels made the floor like a slick layer of ice, and she was no longer a ballerina. She was Peggy Fleming on a small pond, and Mara could swear the floor rose up to meet her head.
Mara roused. Two people in scrubs stood beside her. She was lying on a gurney. Her head throbbed, and her blurred vision prevented her from focusing. “Wha—what happened? Where am I?”
“Mara, you just took a little spill. You sustained a mild concussion, but you’re going to be fine. You’re at Lexington Medical Center emergency room.”
That voice. Could it be? No way.
“Who…what?” Mara squinted and her vision began to clear. “Derrick?” The trim, clean-shaven man without glasses before her didn’t match the bearded, stocky man with black horn-rimmed glasses she’d known back in college.
Derrick Howser’s gentle laugh soothed her. “What in the world are you doing here? Um, besides getting your head examined.” He chuckled.
Mara managed a weak smile. “I, uh, I don’t know. Last thing I remember, I was wrapping a … oh, I must have fallen at the store.”
“Yes, the EMT said you’d slipped on a piece of ribbon.”
“Oh, boy. First day on the job and I’ve created a scene.” Mara squeezed her eyes closed and shook her head.
“Accidents happen, Mara. Don’t worry about it. It wasn’t your fault. Megan’s in the lobby waiting for you to be released. She’s going to take you home. You’ll need at least twenty-four hours rest, and you can resume normal activity day after tomorrow, as long as you aren’t dizzy or in pain. Call the ER if you have any problems, okay?”
“All right. Thanks, Derrick—er, I mean Dr. Howser.”
The next morning, Mara’s cell phone rang as she sat in the recliner watching a movie. She peered at the screen but didn’t recognize the number.
“And how are you feeling this morning, Miss Adkins?”
“Derrick. Do you call all your patients after they’ve made a fool of themselves?”
“No, not all my patients. How are you feeling today?”
“I’m fine. Wishing I could be at work, but doctor’s orders, you know.”
“Wish all my patients were as cooperative. I, um, I’m calling you to see if you feel up to having lunch with me today.”
Why would he want to take her to lunch after the way she’d treated him in college? Was it revenge or just a bad joke? At the hospital, he’d been concerned for her welfare, but that was his job, right? Mara opted for giving him the benefit of the doubt. After all, she deserved whatever he had to say to her. “Actually, I do need to talk with you.”
No doubt about it, back during the time they’d dated, he’d known where to find all the best eating establishments in town. After they parked at the Backyard Café, Derrick hopped out, scooted around the back of the car, and opened Mara’s door. Once inside, he held her chair as she seated herself, and he took the chair across the small rectangular table.
Mara looked into his dark chocolate eyes and remembered his shyness back in college. It might have felt like a big joke to try to make that humble med student fall for her, but it was no longer funny, and she felt the heat in her face.
“You look lovely, Mara, even after a bump on the head.” Derrick smiled. “You haven’t changed a bit since college.”
“Perhaps not so much in looks, but yes, I’ve changed quite a bit—in ways that matter.”
“What brings you back to Columbia?”
“I came here looking for … you,” Mara said.
“Me? What on earth for? And how’d you know I was still in town?” Derrick arched his brows.
A friendly older lady approached their table, and when she’d taken their drink order, they perused the menu.
“You’ve eaten here before, I take it. What do you recommend?” The vision of Derrick ordering for her on their last date clouded her thoughts, and she thought she was going to throw up. That’s when she’d won the bet. She’d belittled him and walked out on him right at The High Cotton Restaurant so many years ago.
“They have great salads, wings, specialty sandwiches … Mara, are you with me?”
“Uh, oh, yes. I’m sorry. I was thinking. Why don’t you order for us?”
Derrick nodded and smiled. He had more grace than she’d ever hope to have.
“You never told me how you knew I was in Columbia.”
“Garrett Jacobs told me. He saw your location on Facebook, but I didn’t have an address. Who knew I’d bump into you in the emergency room of all places.” Mara offered a sheepish grin. “I’ve been going … well, I’ve been searching for people and apologizing for the last eleven months, trying to make amends for some horrible things I did in college.”
“So. You say you’ve changed since college. How’s that?”
“After I committed my life to Jesus, I felt that He wanted me to make these apologies. He began to teach me some things I’d never really given much thought to, such as how my actions can uplift—or hurt other people. And that’s what brings me here—to find you.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
Mara lowered her head. She lifted a quick silent prayer that she wouldn’t blow it. As she brought her head up slowly, she caught his eyes looking deep into hers.
The waitress placed their sweet tea on the table, took their order for Greek salads, and scurried away.
“Derrick, I came to make a face-to-face apology for the way I treated you in college. I should never have led you into thinking I was in love with you and then dumping you like that—in public, no less. I’m so ashamed of myself for so many things I did back then. It was a sorority sister game, but I can’t blame them. I, alone, am responsible for my own actions—and the consequences. So, if you don’t forgive me, and if you want me to leave, I’ll understand.”
Mara’s eyes stung with tears of remorse. Derrick had been nothing but kind, considerate, and gentlemanly toward her for the weeks they’d dated. He didn’t deserve the treatment she’d dished out to him. She wiped her eyes with her napkin, folded her hands, and forced herself to make eye contact again.
Derrick offered no sign of emotion or response.
“It was such a game with us that we refused to think of others’ feelings. We were cruel and uncompassionate. I’ve come to feel so horrible about it that I committed this whole year to find everyone I’ve wronged to offer my apologies. I’m just so ashamed.” Mara dabbed her eyes again.
The waitress placed their meals in front of them. “Is there anything else I can get you?”
Derrick shook his head without taking his gaze off Mara, and the server turned and retreated.
Derrick spoke softly. “Let’s ask God’s blessing on the food and for bringing us together to have this talk.” He took Mara’s hands in his, and bowed his head.
“Father, we come to You with thanksgiving for Your many blessings, not the least of which is this meeting. How wondrous are Your works! I pray for grace for Mara in her endeavor. I ask that You continue to show her Your abundant mercy as You lead her in the life You have planned for her. Now, I ask You to bless this food to our bodies, and we’ll continue to praise You in Jesus Name. Amen.”
“Amen.” Mara sniffed, inhaled deeply, and wiped her eyes.
Just before he released her hands, he tucked something into one of hers. She opened her hand. “My bead bracelet!”
“I found it on the floor beside your chair at the restaurant after our last date. I tucked it into my jacket pocket with the intention of getting it back to you. After graduation, I started med school. I found it in my pocket when I took my suit out months later, but you’d left by that time. I didn’t know where you’d gone.”
Derrick reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out his cell phone, and glanced at the screen. “Mara, I’m sorry. It’s my answering service. I need to take this call. Please excuse me.”
“Sure, no problem.”
As Derrick stepped to the back of the restaurant, Mara looked around the room. Couples and families enjoyed happy conversation along with their meals. The kind of life she wanted. Would she ever find that special someone to complete her dream?
She checked for messages on her own cell phone. Nothing. She fingered her napkin while she waited and sipped her sweet tea.
The minutes ticked by. Was this his way of paying her back? Had Derrick slipped out the back door, leaving her to find out what that kind of treatment feels like? She panned the room, and still not seeing him, she pushed her chair back. Could she just walk out with food on the table? She’d need to pay for it, but …
“I’m so sorry. That call took longer than I’d expected.” Derrick’s voice came from behind her.
“Oh! Your startled me. I thought you’d left without saying good-bye. Can’t say I’d blame you. I deserve whatever you think of me.” Mara’s voice quivered as she pulled her chair back in.
Derrick’s chuckled. “I couldn’t have planned it better if I’d wanted to embarrass you. But I didn’t.”
Mara cleared her throat. “So you’ve forgiven me?”
“I saw something in you that I’d felt in my own life for years. I knew I had the intelligence to do whatever I wanted, but I was not physically attractive, at least not to the girls at school. But you had the looks and the brains. Yet there was something about you that caused you to crave acceptance. Kind of like those college beer-drinking contests. Take the dare, and the guys will be your friends. It’s a game and a dangerous one at that.” Derrick rubbed his thumb over his chin. “I forgave you long ago, once I came to understand it was insecurity that prompted you to engage in such behavior. Then I began to pray that you would allow God to show you the way.”
Mara studied his sympathetic expression in silence. Should she be relieved or insulted? She’d have to mull that one over. Then a Scripture came to mind: Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of Him who is the Head, that is, Christ. Perhaps Derrick knew her better than she’d thought. And he’d prayed for her. What an example of Christ’s love.
Derrick’s broad smile eased the tension in Mara’s stomach and relief washed over her. She fingered her bracelet. “What possessed you to hold on to my bracelet all this time?”
“I believed that one day I’d see you again. And, well, maybe under different circumstances, we’d become friends again.”
Tears stung Mara’s eyes as Derrick placed his hands over hers.
“You are way too kind.” Thank you, Lord for Your grace once again.
“Mara, I have a confession to make. I’ve never stopped caring for you. And I’ll continue to pray that the Lord will bless you in all that you do.” He squeezed her hands. “What do you say we eat now? That salad looks awesome.”
VOTE FEBRUARY 5 THROUGH FEBRUARY 8 FOR YOUR FAVORITE HERO!
Voting opens at Noon (EST) on Feb 5.
Because we want YOU to choose the best hero for Mara, we're going to try to keep the author/creator of each chapter a secret until after the voting is over. If you know one of the authors, and pick out her chapter, please help us keep the secret. We want the hero chosen based on his personality and his chemistry with Mara, and not make it a contest between authors.
We're depending on you to help us spread the word!
Our authors are also offering some inside glimpses into the writing process, some interviews with authors, heroes, and even the publisher. And that Marji - she somehow got hold of Mara's journal, so you'll be able to read some of her thoughts as she goes through this experience. Fay snagged interviews with all the heroes too. Check out all the links below to stay on top of the latest.
Thanks for joining us in Mara's adventure - we hope you have a great time!
Tuesday's Bonus Blogs:
Monday's Bonus Blogs
Friday's Bonus Blogs
Betty Owens–Fall is in the Air in Western North Carolina
Theresa Anderson interviews on Heart of the Matter Radio with Cynthia Simmons
Part 2 of Fay Lamb's fun interview with the Scriblerians
High Five Friday!
Theresa Anderson interviews on Heart of the Matter Radio with Cynthia Simmons
Part 2 of Fay Lamb's fun interview with the Scriblerians
High Five Friday!
Thursday's Bonus Blogs:
Wednesday's Bonus Blogs: