Andersen Brothers 

Book 1:  A Christian Christmas excerpt

 

        As Christian crossed the parking lot, Joy admired his swagger, then shivered, not from the wind, but from the warmth Christian seemed to take with him. Shaking her head, Joy climbed into her Buick Enclave. “That was the oddest encounter I’ve ever had with a stranger.”

        Looking into her rearview mirror, Joy grinned as she spied an opening Christian had left for her to see to back up. Christian Andersen was amazingly handsome—tall; a deep, rich brown skin tone; and a well-trimmed mustache. He looked comfortable in his jeans, turtleneck and jacket. Joy smirked. As he checked her ring finger, she couldn’t believe she did the same to him. Why? She wasn’t interested, neither had time to entertain romantic thoughts.

        The man didn’t blink when she mentioned four children. Was he deaf? What man wouldn’t? She wouldn’t trade any of them for the world. Joy didn’t need a man to keep her warm at night. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t out of the ordinary for her to wake to find one or two kids sprawled across her bed. Motherhood had never been so fulfilling…and heartbreaking.

        Five minutes later, she turned into the grocery store’s parking lot. Joy reached for her purse and got out, hurrying into Schnucks—a local chain of family-owned grocers. On a mission, she marched down the produce and fruit aisles, then cereal, meats, and food for Bethani’s lunch. A few times, she looked over her shoulder, hoping to see Christian again. After three peeps she gave up, disappointed.

       It took Joy less than thirty minutes before she was ready to check out. What if she didn’t have enough money again? Would Christian come to her rescue a third time in one day? Joy wasn’t about to chance it by getting something that wasn’t on her list. Once she was at her SUV, Joy wasn’t as meticulous as Christian, stuffing the bags in the seats, on the floor and even putting one in her lap.

          Fifteen minutes later, Joy pulled into the driveway of her two-story four-bedroom home. As soon as the garage door went up, Bethani stuck her head out the kitchen door and waved.

          Waving back, Joy smiled and parked. Bethani headed her way. “Hi, Auntie!”

         Accepting her niece’s hug, she kissed the top of Bethani’s head. “Hey, sweetie. I have a lot of bags, some groceries, and…” She paused and looked over Bethani’s shoulder. “I picked up some small toys for the little ones from Santa Claus.”

        “Aunt Joy, there’s no such thing as Santa Claus.”

      She wished the ten-year-old would enjoy being a child instead of trying to be a grownup. “Yeah…right.”

        More than anything, Joy wanted her niece to have a happy childhood, despite this being the second Christmas without Bethani’s mother and Joy’s older sister. At only thirty-two, Regina Starr had died of breast cancer, leaving behind two grieving daughters, a baby boy, a devastated sister, her only niece and an uncaring husband.

      A faithful Christian until the end, Regina had instilled in Bethani that the purpose of Christmas was to celebrate God’s greatest gift: salvation. Joy, along with the majority of the people in the world, viewed Christmas as a holiday for children—period—and nothing more. 

The pair unloaded the car quickly before Bethani’s two siblings, four-year-old Darla and two-year-old Shane came storming through the house, along with Joy’s only child, Jada, who had just turned three. At times, Joy thought she was running a daycare, because they all lived with her.

        While Regina lay dying, her husband, Langston, spent more time away, stating he couldn’t watch her die. Neither could she, but as Regina’s only sibling, Joy was determined to be there until her sister took her last breath, and she was. It wasn’t long after Regina was buried, that Langston had remarried. His children weren’t part of his life’s restructuring plan, so Joy had filed to become the children’s legal guardian before her brother-in-law returned from his honeymoon.

         Her widowed neighbor had been a godsend when Joy took on the added responsibility as the children’s caregiver. Mrs. Thomas was there at a moment’s notice when Joy needed her just as Christian had stepped in earlier. She pushed that encounter aside.

         “Yay. Strawberry ice cream,” Bethani said, pulling it out the bag. She hugged the carton as if it were the pair of ballerina slippers she wanted, then frowned. “It’s not the end of the month.”

        She didn’t want her niece to have to keep track of her financial woes. Bethani understood Joy’s budget only allowed for treats at the end of the month when she received her bonuses. Although Joy earned a comfortable salary as a top sales rep at a radio station, feeding four children seemed to put her under the poverty level.

        The children’s father had practically cut off all communication thanks to his new wife. Joyce tried to reason with him to do the right thing, to no avail. Then she had to contend with her ex, Steven, who never uttered a word about marriage or expressed a desire to be a father to Jada.

With no additional source of income, Joy wondered if this might be the year she would become a regular fixture at the food pantries.

        “Consider it a gift from a kind stranger who made sure I had the money to buy it.” Christian’s handsome face flashed in Joy’s mind—again.

Bethani’s eyes widened. “He was probably an angel,” she said excitedly.

        “Sweetie, he was a flesh-and-blood man,” she said, amused. A cute one at that. “Believe me, he was no angel.”

         “You never know, Auntie. The Bible says we entertain strangers unaware.”

 

#                                                                                ###

A Christian Easter  excerpt

“That woman had a lot of nerve.” Joy was steaming as she paced the plush carpet in their master suite. He had waited to relay his conversation with the stranger until after the children had taken their baths and were in bed.

Now they were discussing how to keep Christ in Easter for their children, especially after his wife mentioned her displeasure of a fashion show on Easter.

Christian was amused. If the love of his life didn’t look so cute when she was angry, he would have saved her the tirade. But whenever Joy was passionate about something like her family—their family—it was definitely an allure.

As he fingered the hair on his mustache, he admired her God-given beauty inside and definitely out. Besides her eye-stopping long legs, her second best asset was her shoulder-length jet-black hair against her rich-brown complexion. He had a thing for women with jet-black hair. She and her daughter had the same brown eyes that could melt his resolve on anything—well almost.

Standing from the lounger near their balcony window, Christian walked toward her and then gently tugged her fists off her shapely hips. “Hey, I handled it,” he said softly to calm her down. Trapping his arms around her, he silenced Joy with a kiss as he indulged in the scent of vanilla on her skin.

He reluctantly released her, so they could deal with the heart of the issue. “Okay, we agree that the cute little bunnies are a deception to mask the Lamb that was slain for our sins…and we can’t yield to the commercial hype, but I’m confused on your hesitation with Bethani being in a fashion show.”

Joy sighed and then gnawed on her bottom lip. “Don’t get me wrong, my sister and I were in fashion shows as children. I don’t know a girl or woman who doesn’t like to dress up, but since I’ve been walking with God, the more I read my Bible, the more convictions I have about certain things.” She paused. “Remember when we first met and you showed us your interpretation of Christmas?”

“Yep. Christ should be the center of His birthday bash.” He nodded and dragged her back to the lounger, then guided her to perch on his lap. Christian really wanted to understand her passionate opposition to this.

“I know the birth of any child is adorable and the birth of our Savior was glorious, but His death is just as important. How can we make Easter more than about clothes, chocolate bunnies and dyed eggs?” Joy shrugged, got up before he could trap her, then disappeared into their walk-in closet.

While she disrobed behind closed doors, she continued, “As a practicing Christian, I want to be aware of Satan’s subtle trickeries. I can’t go with the majority anymore. Before I came to Christ, my philosophy was ‘Live and let live.’ When the Holy Ghost opened my eyes, I realized that only what we do for Christ will last.”

When she stepped in attire that teased him, Christian got up and methodically dimmed the lights on the wall sconces in their master bedroom. He tried to keep the conversation going to prove he was listening, but his attention was fading fast. Christian had other plans, but Joy hadn’t seemed to notice.

“Evidently, one of her classmates always comments on Bethani’s clothes and invited her to model her Easter best in a fashion show at her church next Sunday. I think it sends the wrong message. What do you think?” She padded into the adjoining master bathroom to brush her hair, not waiting for his answer.

“Hmm-mmm.” Climbing in bed, Christian pulled back the covers. When she reappeared and leaned against the doorframe, he patted the empty space beside him.

 A temptress without trying, Joy was making it difficult for him to focus. But he couldn’t dismiss the frown on her face that signaled she was really struggling to do the right thing. Closing his eyes, he gathered strength.

Acknowledge Me in all your ways and I shall direct your path, God spoke.

Christian meditated on Proverbs 3:6 before opening his eyes. “I agree that the Resurrection shouldn’t be the sideshow and the Bible does say bring up a child as you should have them go and when he is old, he shall not depart from it.”

Joy curled up her lips and moved toward their bed, but sat on the foot of it. She didn’t look at him when she said, “Proverbs 22:6, the golden text of the Andersen household.”

Maybe it was a good thing that they were physically separated because if he touched her one more time, this conversation would be put on hold. And it appeared the Lord was drawing him into the conversation. “God is letting me know nothing is too insignificant not to bring to Him.”

“Then we need to pray fast because she has to tell Leah yes or no by tomorrow evening.”

“Now?” He gritted his teeth.

She nodded.

Outnumbered two-to-one, Christian closed his eyes, cleared his head and began to pray as Joy joined in. “Lord, we know the magnitude of Calvary. Help us to instill that in our children’s minds and hearts...”

Soon, God’s spirit took over their tongues as they mingled intercessory prayers on their behalf.

When they finished, Joy sniffed and looked at him. “Did God give you a word?”

“Not yet.” Reaching out, he squeezed his wife’s hand. Peace seemed to replace her physical angst.

“Thank you for asking me to marry you,” she said out of nowhere. “A godly man is so irresistible.”

He smirked. “Really?” Christian took that as his cue to rekindle the fire from earlier and shower his wife with all the love God gave him.

                                                                     ###

A Christian Father's Day  excerpt

 

 

Newlywed Christian Andersen couldn’t wait to celebrate his first Father’s Day. As a matter of fact that was all he could think about, especially when he reflected on the fond memories of his childhood. His dad coined Father’s Day as a “boys’ day out” with his three sons.

Camping, fishing, barbecuing—you name it, the Andersen boys did it. Ultimately the outings progressed to the greens once they all became teenagers. Christian and his brothers, Nathan and David, accompanied their dad to the golf course after morning worship until dusk. They would return home famished and ready to devour the feast their mother had prepared. Yes, Father’s Day was “the holiday” in the Andersens’ book.

Countdown. In ten days, Christian would begin his own tradition with his new family. Less than a year earlier, he had married the former Joyce “Joy” Knight. The stunning beauty had the most unselfish heart of any woman he had ever met. The fact that she was a struggling single parent—three girls and one boy—didn’t deter him from pursuing her and adopting them.  The children needed a father, and Christian was willing to fill that role.

 “I can’t believe you’re going to be missing in action next Sunday,” Nathan said, distracting Christian from his distraction.  The Andersen brothers had just dismissed their staff after the morning meeting and it didn’t take long for Christian’s mind to drift—again.

The siblings were not only business partners, but served as one another’s confidant. They were close. The only hint of resemblance among the three was in height and build. As far as facial features, Nathan, the oldest at thirty-five, was endowed with rich dark skin, a bald head, and he sported a thick beard. David was their baby brother at thirty. He possessed light skin and showed off a recent haircut and goatee. Christian was stuck in the middle at thirty-three and preferred a thin, trimmed mustache.

Christian eyed his oldest brother and grinned. As the middle son, he was the first one to get married and become a father, albeit through adoption.  He loved those children as if they were his flesh and blood.

“Yep,” he answered without a tag of guilt. 

“So what do Joy and the children have planned?” David rubbed his jaw as he shut down his laptop.

Folding his arms behind his head, Christian rocked in his leather chair, where wheels weren’t an option. An inch farther and his back would hit the floor.

“I’m not sure, but it’s amusing to watch them try and keep a secret, especially the little ones. I could bribe Darla and Jada with a cookie and they would spill classified information,” he chuckled. The pair were first cousins, four and three, respectively. Then there was Shane, the only boy who was a terrible two about to turn into a temper-tantrum three and his sister, Bethani—the oldest of all the children at eleven years. Only Jada was Joy’s biological child.

Nathan didn’t laugh with him, but held a blank stare, which usually meant something was on his mind. With a stubborn streak, he could be king of the hold-out.

Lifting a brow, Christian gave him a pointed look. “What?”

Nathan shrugged and looked away at the black artwork that lined the walls—oils, sketches and photographs—complementing the old black and white print photo of the founder’s portrait, their grandfather, Kaplan Andersen who started Andersen & Associates in the early 1950s. As his business grew, he continued to invest. Their grandfather’s work philosophy provided wealth for the generations that followed. The flagship company headed by their father, Philip, now boasted five thriving subsidiaries.

The three were Ivy League graduates and founded Andersen Investors & Consultants, LLC. Their firm helped entrepreneurs get funding for their invention concepts, then assisted them in getting their products mass-produced in the U.S., and marketed them in non-traditional ways like infomercials, product demonstrations at conferences and web seminars.

Christian continued to press Nathan until his brother opened his mouth and then shut it.

“Ah, nothing,” Nathan paused, and then gave Christian a look of awe. “I still can’t get over the fact that you’re a ready-made daddy. I’m glad those little crumb snatchers are lovable. To be honest, I never thought any of us would marry a woman who had another man’s kids. I guess it’s the relationship norm of the day.”

“However you meant that, it didn’t come out right.” Now Christian wished Nathan hadn’t voiced his comment. He frowned and took a deep breath. It wasn’t as if Christian hadn’t heard the murmur before, but coming from his oldest brother, it pricked his heart. “I thought you liked Joy and the children.”

“I do. The girls are well-mannered and little Shane is the spoiled baby brother like you knuckleheads used to be.” He tilted toward David who shrugged his indifference. “You’re doing a good job as a stepdad.”

 Drumming his fingers on the table, Christian wouldn’t allow Nathan to backpedal on this one. “I love you, bro, but I don’t do step—not for my wife or my children,” he said, thumping his chest.

“I meant no disrespect.” Nathan nodded. “That came out wrong. I admire you. I just don’t think I could have gotten serious about a woman with a child. All I would have seen were diapers and baby bottles.”

Instead of feeling insulted, Christian had to smile because that’s exactly how he had met Joy—in the checkout line—buying training pants for Shane. Even with her coupons and mental calculations, she had come up short and Christian had stepped in. The rest, as they say, was history.

“Sometimes, the love of your life will come in a different package. My beautiful wife came with four more presents.”

David spoke up and slapped Nathan on his bulky back. “You and your stipulations. Didn’t you learn anything from me? I almost lost Valerie because of my hang-ups. Relationships don’t come in neat little gift boxes anymore.”

Nathan grunted. “I can’t believe my younger brothers are giving me dating advice.”

Stretching out his legs, Christian shook his head. “I’m not dispensing anything. I’m praying as I go along to make the right decisions. Yes, the thought of being an instant father was scary, but eventually I was going to be one anyway, so what if it’s sooner rather than later.” And he hadn’t regretted his decision.

The room was quiet as the cooling system’s humming serenaded their private thoughts. “I’m going to say this and then leave it alone,” Nathan said, then added, “But what are you going to do when they grow up and throw ‘You ain’t my daddy and you can’t tell me what to do’ in your face?”

David seemed to be waiting for his answer, too. “You know Philip Andersen didn’t tolerate disrespect from us, so I’m wondering the same thing.”

He tried not to entertain such thoughts. “I have to trust God that if I nurture a fatherly relationship in a Christian setting, then that won’t be an issue, but I do know how to handle disrespect—blood or no blood.”

Lord, I’m trusting You to be the anchor in the storms of my life. Since everyone is watching me, let them see You, he quietly prayed. Although Christian knew his brothers and parents supported his choice for a wife, they tried to prepare him for the unknown.

All conversation ceased when Christian’s smartphone alerted him that Joy had sent him a text. He scanned the message and immediately stood. “I’ll look forward to seeing the new proposals for the inventions we discussed in the meeting later today.” Excusing himself, Christian tapped her name on his phone as he headed back to his office. Yes, there was more pressure for being a good father, but he refused to neglect his wife’s need while focusing on the other aspects of his family. Whenever she called, he made himself available.

“Do you think Bethani is responsible enough to babysit tonight? I mean, she’s only ten.”

He restrained laughing at her needless concern. Joy’s niece was respectful and very mature beyond her pre-teen years. “Baby, as of a week ago, Bethani is eleven years old. The little ones practically follow her instructions now. She’ll be fine. Plus, mom and dad will be in constant Skype with her. Let’s enjoy our date night with no worries.” He imagined her full lips pouting.

Joy didn’t respond right away. She sighed heavily in the phone. “You’re right.”

“We agreed before we exchanged our vows that we will always find ‘us time.’”

“Okay…then it’s your turn to serve me dessert in bed.”

“My pleasure. I love you.”

He entered his office as she blew him a kiss over the phone. “I love you back.” Once he was comfortable behind his desk, he and Joy dueled in a round of who loved the other more until they disconnected. He would prove to the doubters, whether family or friends, that a blended family could be blissful.

###

                                        

Book 2: A Woman After David's Heart  excerpt

 

 

It was the week before the most celebrated love fest of the year—Valentine’s Day—and Valerie Hart knew no red roses would decorate her office, no silly card was in the mailbox and no secret admirer would be asking her out to dinner. At twenty-seven, her single status was starting to get to her.

Somehow, love had eluded her, or she had scared it off. Valerie could handle New Year’s Day, Easter, the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, but not the love fest. None of those other days required a significant other to celebrate.

Without any prospects, she was on the path to  join the ranks of thousands of women, especially Black women, who would still be unmarried by thirty, which for her, seemed right around the corner, not three years away.

Valerie maneuvered her new Ford Focus on the snow-packed streets of Mid-town St. Louis, not far from her one-bedroom apartment near the Washington University campus. Her mind always drifted when it snowed. It reminded her of a whimsical world of romance.

More than once her best friend, Brittany Stanton, blamed Valerie’s empty social calendar on her lifestyle conversion.

“There’s barely enough men in the world. The church is the last place you’ll find a happily ever after.”

Only God knew that for sure. Before Valerie surrendered her life to God four years ago, her old boyfriends had been jerks with commitment issues, so the relationships fizzled. She didn’t ask God to save her from her sins to get a husband, although that would have been a bonus.

Granted her options didn’t look good at Salvation is Free Church where she was a member. The women did outnumber the men—in her opinion—one hundred to one. Still, Valerie didn’t regret her decision not to step her stilettos inside another social event at a club with Brittany. So far, she hadn’t regretted forfeiting the craziness of the world to serve Jesus.

Dismissing all thoughts of love, Valerie negotiated a curve as her cell phone rang. She glanced at her caller ID and chuckled. “Speak of the antagonist.” Valerie activated her hands-free device. “Yes, madam.”

“Whatcha doing tonight?” Brittany asked.

“Evidently, you aren’t out on the roads. A blizzard is coming. Even Friday night youth service at church was canceled.”

“Two to three inches is not a blizzard.” Brittany tsked. “Since you’re not going to church, why not go with me to this fraternity fundraiser? It’s not at a club—before you ask—it’s being held at the Radisson Hotel. You know my crossover is a four-wheeler.”

“No thanks. One inch or ten, snow is snow. When I get home, I’m in for the night.”

“You can’t find the love of your life at home and Valentine’s Day is a week away. I know you don’t want to go for a record of four consecutive years without a Valentine.” 

“Thanks for keeping tabs.”

“You’re welcome. Well, suit yourself. I have to go and get ready. I don’t care how long it takes me to get there. I’m determined to be someone’s Valentine this year.” Laughing, Brittany ended the call.

Lightly pumping her brakes, Valerie slowed to a stop at the intersection when the traffic light flashed from yellow to red. She exhaled and admired the snow resting on tree branches—beautiful and surreal.

When the phone rang again, she tapped her Bluetooth. “Hello.”

“Hey, sweetie. Have you made it home yet? I heard the streets are bad…” her mother, Helen Hart, said.

“Almost. I’ll call you when I get there.”

“Don’t forget. I’ve got something to tell you. Now be careful!” she ordered and ended the call.

Humored by her mother’s excitement about something, Valerie smiled. Now, she was the romantic in the family.

She adored her overprotective widowed mother who had been twenty years old when her father, Bernard, had snatched her up. Thinking about romance, Granny Martha, Helen’s mother, had found the love of her life at eighteen.

Even her sole sibling, Rachel, had found love at twenty-four—now five years later, her sister and brother-in-law were trying to have their first baby. Valerie groaned. What was her problem?

Valerie’s pity party ended when she pulled in front of Dove Nest’s parking garage and waited for the security guard to lift the gate. Her home was in a beautiful but pricey gated community of fifty apartment and condo units.

Most of the residents were either young working professionals or graduate students. Although she could afford a modest house, she felt more secure as a single woman living in an apartment.

Plus, it wasn’t far from her work at The Stallings Group where she handled creative development, matching their clients with the right person to get the message across about various products. Parking in her designated spot, Valerie grabbed her purse and two bags of groceries. She was thankful that the maintenance crew had shoveled the walkway to the building even as it continued to snow.

Minutes later, she was riding the elevator up to the second floor. Outside her apartment door, Valerie used her key card for entry instead of actual keys.  She had barely removed her coat when the phone rang. Setting her purchases on the counter separating the kitchen from the living room, she checked the caller ID. “Mom? What did you do, time me?” She chuckled as she sat on a barstool.

“Of course. Please tell me you’re not going back out to church in this weather. We’re supposed to get more snow.”

“Nope. Service was canceled.” Peeking out her kitchen window, she noted the snowfall was getting heavier. One thing about St. Louis weather, the temperature would plummet one day, then soar the next, melting most of the snow. “I’m about to whip up a stir-fry with chicken strips.”

Getting up, Valerie tended to her groceries as her mother switched to the dreaded subject of Valentine’s Day.

Since her father’s passing five years earlier, Valerie and her sister, Rachel, had started treating their mother to a sumptuous Valentine’s Day dinner. But Rachel and her hubby now lived in another state. A few times, the couple had surprised their mother with a visit home, but this year, Thomas was taking her sister on a romantic getaway to Miami for three days.

Without a significant other of her own, Valerie was satisfied to listen to her mother embellish tales about her first love. That seemed to be the only way she would feel butterflies fluttering in her stomach.

 Everyone teased that Helen and Bernard found love in the water, literally. The two were baptized in Jesus’ name at the same time, then ironically, they both received the Holy Ghost baptism the next day. After a short courtship, the two tied the knot and had been married for thirty-five years until the Lord took Bernard home after years of battling heart disease.

The only other candidates that were baptized the same day as Valerie were an elderly man, and a young teenage boy. There was no husband material there. 

 “This is what I wanted to tell you. I received an invitation in the mail from an organization called Thy Mother’s Keeper. They are sponsoring a night of pampering…”

For some reason, Mrs. Helen Hart was a magnet for free offers for shopping sprees, day trips, and groceries. Of course her mother always said the offers were God’s way of taking care of widows. Valerie wasn’t that gullible. She always felt it was her duty to tag along to make sure everything was legit.

“The invitation’s so cute.” She seemed tickled. “It’s called the First Corinthians 13:4-7, Chocolate Affair. You know, ‘Love is patient, love is kind….’”

And love keeps you waiting. Valerie held her tongue. More than once she had bought herself a box of chocolates.

“It’s absolutely free,” her mother continued. “It’s for widows, single mothers, and it’s free.” Her mother raved about the door prizes, what was being served, and the entertainment.

Pinching the phone between her shoulder and ear, Valerie stood and walked to the sink. Once she rinsed her hands, she reached for a skillet. How many times in the Bible did the scriptures admonish Christians to take care of their widows and motherless? Well, bravo, someone was taking heed to do that. This event was setting the perfect example of showing God’s love. “Well, Mom, as long as it doesn’t cost anything, I think you should go.”

 “You’re not coming with me? You can use some pampering, too.”

“I’m neither a widow nor a single mother,” Valerie reminded her.

“Single is single, girl. At least it’s something different.  And you know I like door prizes. But if you don’t want to go with me, then I guess we can do our usual boring dinner for two.” She sounded defeated.

Boring? You’ve got to be kidding me. “Ha.” After a few attempts of Helen laying the guilt trip on Valerie, she succumbed to her mother’s will. “Okay. What time should I pick you up?”

“Six-forty-five and don’t be late!” When they disconnected, Valerie suspected her mother was wearing a smirk.

###

Book 3:  A Noelle for Nathan

Noelle Foster didn’t, couldn’t exhale while studying the strikingly handsome man outfitted in a gray trench coat and hat and a bright yellow scarf that boasted a fashion lesson for any man.

His backdrop was a light snow shower creating a surreal vision as she stared out the restaurant window. He had a commanding presence among pedestrians on the sidewalk. He slipped a bill into the Salvation Army’s red kettle without missing a stride.

“Elle,” Stephanie Moore, her friend, called, rejoining her at the table with their food tray.

Although she was starving after Stephanie dragged her on an impromptu shopping spree, Noelle couldn’t even blink— afraid he would fade from her view—even if the burger’s aroma tempted her stomach to growl.

A beggar with tattered clothes blocked the man’s pathway. Noelle was curious about the man’s next move. Would his generosity be limited to the kettle? How would the scene play out? It was one thing to give anonymously, but coming face-to-face with poverty was another. She gnawed on her lips. Would he turn the beggar away? What was this fascination she suddenly developed?

“Girl, aren’t you hungry?” Stephanie whined, crunching on a fry at the same time. “What are you looking at?” She cranked her neck, peering through the large window that overlooked Washington Avenue in downtown St. Louis.

“Him.” Noelle pointed. Not only was she an underdog for the poor, Noelle believed in putting her money where her heart was. Some of her coworkers, at President Elementary School where she taught, gave faithfully to the United Way through payroll deductions and declared they had done enough. But it wasn’t. How far could ten or twenty dollars get a family of three or four? Anyway, that was her personal soapbox that few people shared.

“Ooh,” Stephanie said, sucking in her breath. “I wonder what he looks like under that hat and coat. That jawline...the precision trim of the thin beard is enough to make any woman want to test the texture to see if it’s velvety as it looks.” She sighed. “Hmmm. There’s a new sheriff in town—no—he fits the description of an outlaw.”

“Will you stop salivating over that man and stick to your sandwich.” Funny, Noelle hadn’t touched hers either. She was over what the guy was wearing. What he was saying to the beggar interested her now. Suddenly, both men laughed and that made her chuckle as if she was privy to the joke. “I wonder what they’re talking about.”

“Who cares?” Stephanie had angled her body to stare while sipping on her soda. “Ooh, they’re coming inside. I guess he’s going to buy him a meal,” she whispered and shifted in her seat.

Taking a deep breath, Noelle relaxed. She unwrapped her turkey burger and mumbled, “Now that’s a man after my own heart.”

She thrived on acts of kindness, which were magnified during the Christmas season. After that, kindness seemed to fade into the sunset.

The two men walked into the deli. What a contrast. The man seemed unbothered by the company he was keeping as

customers stepped back to give them space. They perused the menu before the benefactor ordered. All eyes were on the beggar while he scanned the dining room for a table, leaving a scent only a skunk could appreciate.

Despite her convictions, Noelle wasn’t immune, so she held her breath, but she refused to cast an evil eye at the hungry man. Soon the pair sat at a table on the other side of the room. Some people were so offended they gathered their food and stormed outside into the cold. But the beggar’s benefactor seemed unfazed as he removed his hat to expose a perfectly shaped shaved head. Noelle shivered, perceiving the chill for him or maybe he had that effect anyway on women.

The beggar blessed his food with a sign of the cross before attacking his meal, as if knowing his presence was unwanted. His dining companion ate unrushed. Did his olfactory system shut down?