Crisp, cool November air gusted from the nearby lake of Lindsay Falls, sending a spiral of dried leaves upward as Reverend Mitch Kelly pulled into his usual reserved parking spot at the New Hope Baptist Church. He felt the chill of the breeze on his skin and pulled the collar of his winter coat tighter to his neck. Shivering, he locked the car and hurried to the front door of the charming white-steepled church. It was like one of those traditional churches with the slanted roof, like in a Thomas Kinkade painting.
Now, with Halloween over and the weather getting cold, Mitch begrudged the fact that winter was coming early this year. He was not a fan of the snowy season, but as a step of good measure, he’d just put his new winter tires on the shiny black Mercedes. It was Monday, and he sought to fend off the chill with a cup of hot coffee when he got to the kitchen. Walking briskly, he noted his secretary Maggie Baker beat him to it.
“Hello Maggie, I see you got the coffee brewing before I did.” Mitch smiled, showing gentle laugh lines by his blue eyes, bluer than a Montana sky. Time had been kind to his looks, with a handsome and gently-aged face, at forty-eight. Mitch had Scottish and English blood, which gave him a well-rounded look and short hair that was greying but gave him a distinguished resemblance to Richard Gere. At six-feet-tall, he was broad-shouldered and solid, yet athletic and lean from the jog he did at the crack of dawn to keep him fit and clear-minded. His mother had named him Mitchell because she loved the manly sound of it, and incidentally, it was French for Michael, meaning “he who is like God.” That part was inevitable; Jane Kelly must have branded him with his calling when he emerged from her womb.
The well-coiffed, smart looking lady in the tweed jacket and matching skirt smiled. “Morning, Reverend, I figured you could use a morning pick-me-up.” She was in her mid ‘50s, with silvery hair, pleasant, warm, and punctual. Maggie took care of the church financial records, mail and light cleaning duties. She’d been an indispensable fixture at New Hope for the past 15 years, and Mitch was eternally grateful to have her as part of the family. He honestly did not know what he would have done without her, probably would have drowned in stacks of papers on his desk, because frankly, with a weekly TV sermon and authoring a string of bestselling books, there was no spare time to get the housekeeping done in the church nor keep up with the office files.
“Did you survive the swarm of trick-or-treaters on Friday night?” Maggie cradled her coffee mug, letting the steam escape till it cooled down.
“Yes, thankfully. We had 130 of those rug rats.” He winked at her, reaching for a dark blue mug in the cupboard. “I think the wife was glad she bought a truckload of candy from Wal-Mart.”
Mitch poured the hot brew into his mug, placing the carafe down and finishing with sugar and cream.
“How ‘bout you? Did you get many gangsters?” He said it jokingly, because Mitch really did love kids. His warm-hearted ways and own fatherhood to a grown daughter named Cheyenne made it easy for him to interact with kids of all ages. Being a preacher, he pretty much had to be that way. Sunday school in a tightly-knit community was just as vital to the church fellowship as the actual congregation was.
“Quite a few, yes,” Maggie laughed. “But nowhere near as much as you! I bet they just showed up just to see what costume you’d be wearing this year.”
Mitch nodded. “I decided to play it safe this year and wear a red bandanna and some clip on earrings. I figured the pirate role was much safer than the Jabberwocky. Kids jumped out of their skin last Halloween when I answered the door.”
Maggie chuckled. “Sounds frightful.”
“Sure was. I’m surprised God didn’t crack my spine with a lightning bolt, as punishment for those antic.”
The playful Gemini in him was prone to pranking people…once in a while. Mitch admitted he could be a pain in the ass sometimes, but it was all in good fun. These days, he kept his ADD under control with meditation, prayer and a keen focus on his writing. The inspirational books he wrote hit the New York Times bestseller list for nonfiction, quite a few times. Right behind Joel Osteen, one of his mentors. It was an honour he held dear to him.
Gratefully, Mitch drank the coffee and carried it with him to his office next door. The clock on the wall said 9:00 a.m., the usual time he arrived there on weekdays, to deal with church business, write his sermon, and return phone calls from donors and churchgoers. While church tithing made up a huge portion of the church funds, Mitch also had a few generous donors who gave money to support the place. There were counselling services and a food bank they ran also, for those in need who could not afford it. Times were tough, with the closure of the mines in Lindsay Falls and so many families out of work. Hundreds of people were scraping by, and it was sad to see the faces of the little ones who suffered because of the cutbacks. He hired volunteers to run the food bank, and budget permitting, a few paid employees, but when Mitch
dropped in to oversee the operations, he glimpsed mothers with young kids who were hungry, and single men who’d lost their jobs with the mines closing, but also fathers and husbands, who had to relocate because of the lack of work in the region. It weighed heavily on the spirits of people, crushing them down to a devastating state. With money in short supply, there was a lot of foreclosures on homes and small businesses closed shop.
Church attendance was up, though, and that was good for the ministry. People facing hard times always hit rock bottom and that’s when Mitch felt blessed to have them join his flock. Mitch Kelly, always the good shepherd to his lost sheep. He was a prominent, endearing figure in Lindsay Falls. People came from hundreds of miles away to hear him speak. His sermons were uplifting, charismatic, funny.
Mitch had a true missionary’s heart, regardless of his pristine TV image and assumed holier-than-thou attitude. The man was warm and loving towards people from all walks of life. It’s what made him a true man of God and an even better preacher. His inspirational books topped the national bestseller lists for ten years now, and for that he was infinitely grateful. The income from the church was comfortable, but his true wages spawned from the books that were bought by the masses. He wrote about courage, of overcoming adversity, and loving yourself when the world didn’t; he chronicled miracles and supernatural stories of people surviving cancer or finding one another after the war. Most of all, though, he wrote of boundless faith, the kind one could only get from a Heavenly Father full of mercy and love. Yes, Mitch Kelly was a man sought after by publishers and evangelical circles; a star in his own right, but not a mega millionaire by any means. On Thursdays, he went to the local TV studio and taped his weekly
sermon that aired Sunday mornings. It was something he had done for 20 years now, and it was very fulfilling. He led a good life, a “just” life, with a lovely, devoted wife of 24 years named Janice and a daughter, Cheyenne, who was 23 years old and planning her wedding. It was exciting to see his little girl all grown-up, finding her prince and beaming with joy.
Life was good in Lindsay Falls, things were comfortable for Mitch, the money he made was great, and he had little to complain about. He’d gotten used to living a wholesome life with no spot or wrinkle, so to speak. Nothing scandalous ever happened in this community. The biggest news was the Jones family welcoming another baby or Mrs. McGuire’s prize-winning jam at the Spring Fair.
Now, sipping his coffee and reading emails, he settled in for a typical Monday morning routine. There was the blog to be updated and his editor at Grace Publishing wanted the synopsis for the new book. He also needed to follow-up with his donor Grant Marshall, a local millionaire who gave generously to the church fund, which greatly helped toward the food bank primarily. Though donations came from local supermarkets with overstock, the financial contributions from private donors was a huge part of the ministry as well at New Hope Church.
Mrs. Baker knocked on his half-closed office door, pulling him from his thoughts.
“Reverend, you’d better come out here and see this. There’s a group of angry picketers outside waving signs.”
“What in God’s name?” Mitch rose from his seat and looked out the window. She was right. A pack of women carrying signs and flags, and a few men, were parading around the property. He caught glimpse of a huge banner that read BOYCOTT NEW HOPE. ANIMAL KILLERS.
Mitch gasped, wide-eyed. Totally stunned, he grabbed his coat and high-tailed it outside. Maggie was close behind.
“What’s the meaning of all this?” His jaw clenched with fury.
“Read the signs. Your church supports killing innocent animals.”
“I never…” Mitch defended. Had these people gone mad?
“Murderers! Murderers!” The woman chanted loudly.
“Think again,” another lady blurted. “Your annual holiday bazaar and fashion show.”
Maggie interjected. “Reverend, I think she means the fur they’re wearing in the show.”
“I’ll be damned.” Mitch was livid. “But it’s a free country. I’ve never had a problem before!”
“The raccoons are being slaughtered because of you!” a man hurled at him.
Arms crossed, Mitch panicked. “Get off my property, or I’ll call the police.”
“Make my day,” the first woman spat. “I’ll go to my grave defending these precious sentient beings.” She hissed at him and her eyes rolled back like she was possessed.
Was there a full moon rising? Mitch wondered. Suddenly his head was swelling with a massive migraine.
“Maggie, call the police.”
“Yes, sir.” She ran off to the office, but not in time for the tossing of a brick through the front door. Glass shattered everywhere. Maggie ducked. “Reverend!”
“I’m dialing 9-1-1,” Mitch called to her. On his cell, he got the police station. They announced they were sending cruisers in five minutes.
“Who’s your ring leader?” angry Mitch queried.
“She is,” the man pointed.
Mitch’s eyes went to an attractive auburn-haired woman wearing a deep purple pea coat and ivory knitted scarf. Her flag was waving with STOP THE CRUELTY. ANIMALS ARE SOULS TOO.
She glared at him with dark eyes that burned him to the core. He didn’t dare budge. Seconds later, a torch emerged, and she held it high.
“Come any closer, and I’ll have you on fire.”
Bewildered, Mitch took her orders. He’d rather not become a human BBQ, not today. The police arrived just then, pulling into the parking lot. Two male officers approached the mob.
“You have ten seconds to vacate the property, or jail time is enforced.”
Some of the crowd scurried away with their signs and flags, but the auburn-haired woman with the torch stayed firmly planted in her spot.
“Lady, you’re coming with us.”
“Fine,” she retorted. The torch had been put out and was lying on the ground.
One officer cuffed her and put her in the back of the cruiser.
“Thanks guys.” Mitch shook hands with Detective Mark Callaghan. Being his wife’s brother, Mitch knew him well and could count on him to keep the community safe. Mark was a tall, dark and handsome cop, fitting the typical profile.
He shook his head at the woman in the back of his car. “Nutcases, all of them.”
A haunting look in the woman’s eyes made Mitch peer at her with intrigue. Not only was she incredibly beautiful, but a strong conviction gripped him when their eyes met. What would possess someone to so angrily picket in a church yard? In 100 years of running the ladies
group, the annual Christmas bazaar and fashion show that raised money for underprivileged kids had never seen such opposition. All over fur, Mitch pondered.
“Let’s get her booked.” Callaghan motioned to his partner.
“Wait.” Mitch held up a hand.
Callaghan raised a brow. “Mitch, what are you doing?”
“Don’t press charges.”
“Okay?” the officer was sure Mitch had gone insane. “Did she not vandalize your property?”
Grimly, Mitch bit his lip. “There’s been a change of heart.”
“Okay, let’s hear it.” Callaghan crossed his arms.
“I want her to do community service at my food bank and whatever else she can do to avoid jail time.”
“That’s up to the judge.”
“Mark, please. I know what I’m doing.”
The officer stared at him. “This is serious business. She could have burned your place down.”
“But she didn’t.” Mitch looked at her, and she was peering back at him with the huge espresso eyes and lovely face with the perfect features.
“I’m guessing you’re now converted to animal rights activist?” Callaghan opened the back door and released the detainee.
“What are you doing?” the woman retorted.
“Mister compassion and mercy here says you can go.” Callaghan smiled wryly. “Looks like it’s your lucky day, lady.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” She shot him a look that said you’re insane.
“Gimme your I.D. I’m gonna run it, just to be safe.” Callaghan put his hand out, while the woman got in her purse.
“Rhea Collins, at your service.” She handed him her driver’s license.
The officer went to the car and input her info to his database. Within minutes, he returned it to her. “Clean, no offenses, just a few warnings.”
Mitch stood there, eyeing her, half impressed, half intrigued. “That’s what I figured.”
“How?” She studied his handsome face, the round angles, the sparkling blue eyes that calmed her anger somehow.
“Just a hunch. From above.” A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.
Rolling her eyes, Rhea laughed. “Divine guidance? Pfffftt.”
Mitch sensed some bitterness in her tone.
“All good now Mark?” He looked at the officer, and back at Rhea.
“If you say so, Reverend.” Callaghan nodded to his partner and got into the cruiser. “Call me if you see anymore hoodlums busting up the place.” He saluted Mitch and the cruiser peeled away.
There in the chilly silence of that November morning, stood a compassionate yet curious pastor, dying to know the plight of this angry activist with the lovely auburn hair.
“So…” Mitch smiled at her, arms crossed.
Embarrassed, she hung her head. “You going to drag me off to heaven’s gates now and convert my atheist butt?”
“No, but that’s an idea.” He grinned smugly. “For starters, you can tell me why you hate my church so much.” He noticed her shivering. “Care to come inside for some warmth and a cup of hot coffee?”
“Is that how you get new followers? Put the moves on them?”
Mitch frowned. “That’s not what I meant…”
“I’ll spare you the trouble of trying to pity me with your Jesus talk.”
“I was offering you a cup of coffee. You don’t have to be so rude, Miss Collins.”
“ It’s Rhea. Let’s not be so formal. After all, I almost burned your charming little shrine down, now didn’t I?”
“Hey, I withdrew the charges. But I have officer Callaghan on speed dial, so don’t press your luck.” Mitch was fuming again.
“Go ahead, have me arrested. It’s a hell of a lot better than standing here talking to a religious fanatic like you, who cares nothing about the slaughtered animals your little church-going hussies are wearing in the fashion show.”
Rhea turned on her heel.
“Where are you going? I’m not finished.”
“State your point, reverend. I have house chores and a kid to pick up for lunch at 11.”
A mother and an activist, he mused. Wonder what other fabulous cards she had up her sleeve?
“Why me? Why here? This congregation has held the annual bazaar for 100 years.”
“Cause I’m new in town and I like to see that my neighbours learn some good morals about humanity. Starting with Thou Shalt Not Kill.” She scowled at him. “You know that one? It’s good. I believe it’s somewhere in the book of Exodus, chapter twenty.”
“I’m sorry if our little tradition offends you, but it doesn’t give you any right to storm my property and threaten me.”
Rhea shook her head. “So charge me then. I’d rather go down in flames, fighting for my cause, then to live among hypocrites and killers.”
“How are you getting home?”
“I have a car.”
Mitch nodded. “Okay.”
“Why are you so concerned about me? I’m the enemy.”
Shrugging, he looked at her, noting the pain in her eyes. There was something here, some story, something deeper, that raged in this woman’s soul. Mitch yearned to know. It bothered him.
“Because you’re a person too, and God loves everyone.”
Rolling her eyes, Rhea softened a little. “I’m sorry about the broken window. Send me the bill, I’ll cover it.”
“You didn’t do it.”
“My people did. And that’s my sole responsibility.”
“Here’s my business card.” Mitch handed it to her. “I want you to do the right thing, in exchange for the damage. Help in the food bank, we could use the manpower.”
“That’s it? You don’t want money?” Rhea was stunned.
“Not everything is dominated by money, Miss Collins.”
“Rhea,” she corrected.
“Sorry, Rhea.” He liked the sound of her name on his tongue. “Very different name.”
“For a very different woman.” She held her chin high in defiance. “Look, I don’t mean to be rude, but I really have to go, reverend.”
“Yes, my daughter joins me for lunch every day. She’s in grade seven.”
“Keep that good role model attitude, and you’ll go far.” His blue eyes pierced hers and she felt a shockwave of something strange ripple through her.
“Thanks for the business, card, I’ll call you.” She turned and headed to a silver Buick Allure parked halfway up the street.
“Hope so,” Mitch called out, and he watched her car drive out of sight, leaving him with his thoughts and a deep yearning somewhere in his stomach that he couldn’t quite fathom.