Potter Springs


By Britta Coleman

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Britta Coleman’s Texan background proves an asset in her first novel, infusing the language with a home-grown twang as she wittily and charmingly captures the larger-than-life characters and communities in urban and rural Texas.



Copyright © 2005 by Britta Coleman

Reading Group Guide copyright © 2006 by Hachette Book Group USA

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

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The Center Street name and logo are trademarks of Hachette Book Group USA.

First eBook Edition: September 2009

ISBN: 978-1-59995-324-3


brown penny

Months Earlier

Mark watched the Houston traffic snake around his building like a lazy, lethal predator. Smog drifted outside the wall-to-wall window, the glass impenetrable and sterile.

Turning to the velvet box on his desk, he opened the lid and a marquise diamond flashed at him. The gem was small, but flawless. He'd paid high dollar to make sure no internal flaws, no yellowish hue, marked the stone.

Amanda deserved at least that much.

A discreet knock sounded at the door. Mark palmed the jewel box just as James Montclair poked his salt-and-pepper head inside the office.

"Show time," James announced. "Ready, buddy?"

"Sure thing." Mark gathered his jacket and slid the treasure into an inside pocket, tapping it once for security.

Downstairs, he greeted a thousand faces. Perfumes and colognes and mothballs stained the air. The fine whir of silk and wool defined movements. Sit, rise, stand and sing.

Lights dimmed and the pews filled like a Broadway theater, anticipation broken by muffled coughs. Ten-thousand-dollar screens lowered to highlight PowerPoint images and cue the congregants to the next hymnal page.

Mark approached the stage with grace. He strode toward the podium and adjusted his tie microphone. "Good morning, everyone. Welcome. I'm Mark Reynolds, associate pastor here at Pleasant Valley Baptist Church and your host for today's services."

Morning worship ran smoothly, a well-oiled machine orchestrated to perfection. James Montclair, senior pastor, spoke from the pulpit like a middle-aged Billy Graham. Poised, beautiful even. His sermon on grace, punctuated with a guest testimonial from a former drug addict, jerked plenty of tears.

"Well done," attendees praised afterward, shaking James's hand as they withdrew in elegant fashion.

"Excellent devotion this morning," one matron complimented Mark. "You'll be taking over before long, I imagine."

"That's the plan." James chucked Mark on the shoulder. "I'll have to retire someday. We've got a fine runner-up here."

The praise flushed Mark's cheeks and made him feel even taller. To be James's successor, to helm this kind of megachurch, the biggest and fastest growing in Houston, had been his heart's desire since the day he entered seminary.

To actually work with a man like James Montclair, multipublished and nationally known, had been more than he could have hoped for.

When the last convert from the altar call slipped away, still sniffling into wadded tissues, James and Mark headed for the elevator to the executive-level offices.

"I meant that, you know," James said. "About you taking over. With the last book doing so well, they've mentioned more speaking engagements. Makes it tough to be here Sundays."

Emotion clogged Mark's vocal cords. "When?"

"It's all conjecture right now, and we're still a couple years out. But I thought I'd give you a heads-up. Course the board will have to approve."

"Of course," Mark said.

"But between you and me"-James grinned-"you're the man. Providing that you want it."

"You know I do."

"All right, then." The elevator shot upward, lit numbers dinging a faint rhythm. Muzak piped in through the speakers, instrumentals of the latest Christian pop.

Mark dreamed of future Sundays. He would helm the pulpit, and fill James's shoes to capacity. Maybe even better. The congregation would love him. The board would adore him. And his wife, his future wife, Amanda, would stand beside him.

He felt the ring in his pocket. His future started today.

"Where's Amanda?" James asked, as if reading Mark's thoughts. "Didn't see her this morning."

"Not sure," Mark said. Though Amanda made it a point to attend Pleasant Valley, her Presbyterian upbringing gave her full freedom to play hooky every now and then, guilt free. He almost envied that in her. "We're supposed to have lunch."

"Want to go with us? Sarah should have the kids wrestled into the van by now." Watching his reflection, James loosened his tie and unbuttoned the top of his dress shirt.

"No, but thanks. I better check on Amanda."

Back in his office, he autodialed her phone number. No answer.

Not at church, not home at her apartment, sick. Where?

The park. Watching people from her bench in Memorial Park, scribbling in that journal of hers. On a day like today, sunny and still cool for spring, she probably hadn't been able to resist the temptation of a morning outdoors.

He'd have to find her. He couldn't wait one more day. Not one more hour.

He'd waited too long already.

At the park, Mark slung his jacket over his shoulder and surveyed the grounds. Streams of sweaty joggers clogged the trails. Going against the flow, his size worked to his advantage, unpadded shoulders slicing through their disgruntled waves.

Then he saw her. In her favorite spot, away from the path next to a lush, landscaped area. He slowed, enjoying the chance to catch her unaware. Her copper hair shielded her face. Sunlight echoed off the waves in amber sparks. Legs tucked underneath her, she wrote furiously in the black book on her lap.

Amanda Thompson had the worst handwriting in the world. Mark often teased her that she had the laugh of a child, the lips of a goddess and the penmanship of a serial killer.

He inched through the grass, oxfords glinting in the dew. How close could he get before she noticed? "Mandy."

Startled, she slashed her pen stroke, running over the scrawls. "Oh. Mark." She sat straight, pushing her feet into the gravel. Pink polish sparkled against green flip-flops.

His girlfriend never wore socks, but kept an impeccable pedicure in five-dollar sandals.

"Hey, you." He brushed the concrete next to her and sat down. Her head still only reached his shoulder. "Where you been?"

"Here." She shifted, touching knees to his and pulled the hair away from her face.

Freckles winked up at him from her nose. He'd memorized their pattern, spread out over her cheekbones, frail and high. He traced them now, the sweetness of the curve.

Her eyes fluttered closed, dark lashes against her cheeks, letting his hands love her this way.

"Missed you this morning," he whispered.

"Sorry." Her blue eyes shone like hot glass. The corner of her lips tugged up for a half second, then disappeared. "I'm glad you came." She squeezed his hands. "I figured you would find me."

Such strength, in those little hands. He loved the passion within her. How she laughed loud and cried hard and joked with him. She'd never hurt him, and her pure kindness wrapped around him until everything about her sang in his veins and made him alive and whole.

Belonging. She made him belong.

Two 10-speeds clicked by on the path. A car backfired on the busy road just over the bridge and a siren sounded in the distance.

Not exactly the piano serenade he'd planned in the upscale restaurant. But this spot was her oasis. The place she ran to. She'd read him a poem here one afternoon, from one of her ever-present books. Clear honey, her voice poured over him. Because he loved her, he hid his hatred of poetry and simply watched her as she read. Craving her nearness while he casually discarded the words.

Yet, one day, from a skinny volume of Yeats, the lines surprised him. They took life and crept inside his apathy, inscribed themselves into his heart.

I whispered, "I am too young,"

And then, "I am old enough";

Wherefore I threw a penny

To find out if I might love.

"Go and love, go and love, young man,

If the lady be young and fair."

Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny,

I am looped in the loops of her hair.

She finished the last part theatrically, twirling her curls at him. Then she'd tossed the book aside, slapped her hands together and dug in the picnic basket. "What's for lunch?"

While his heart, invisible, lay twisted at her feet.

Now the Tightness of it clicked inside him. Her oasis, he thought. Brown Penny. This was the right spot. The perfect spot. He should have trusted she would lead him to it.

"I've got something I want to ask you." He closed his hand around the box in his pocket. The box he'd hidden in his sock drawer for months. Bought and paid for. Ready.

Fear had kept him from giving it to her. Fear had kept him waiting for the right moment. Fear had paralyzed him. That she might say no. That she didn't love him enough to marry him, not enough to step down from her rich family to be a preacher's wife.

But today was the day. He knew it in his soul. I am too young. He pushed the whispers aside. I am old enough. He grasped her hand and felt no fear. To find out if I might love.

"Mandy." He set his face, his game face from a thousand football fields, and tossed the penny like he tossed the ball, far and sure and spiraling. "Will you …"

His hope shot forward with all the power he possessed, swirling high and perfect. The sun crisp on his shoulders, the roar in his ears the roar of the crowds. Confidence surged through him, he'd timed it just right and she'd catch his heart and make him whole….

She put a hand on his arm. "I'm pregnant."



"What?" Amanda saw the panic register on Mark's face before the word shot out of his mouth.

"Are you sure?" He ran a hand through his blond hair, making it stand on end. A Mad Hatter effect atop a heart-stopping face. Her Goldenboy.

"I took a test." Amanda spoke slowly, to let it sink in. She'd had a week to mull it over and still found the truth unbelievable. Like an exotic rock, she'd pull it out from time to time, feeling the ragged edges. Wondering at its depths, its crevices, before tucking it away again, to share later. Show-and-tell.

"A test? What kind of a test? Did you go to the doctor? Without me?" The questions rolled out of Mark at a lowered pitch as oblivious joggers crunched past them. The sun shone. The birds sang. They sat, two pretty people, the truth an invisible boulder between them.

"Blue lines. One if you're not, two if you are. We got two." She held up a peace sign to show him, as if it were some kind of victory. Allowing herself to smile.

He didn't smile back. "It could be wrong."

"It's not. I did more than one. To be sure." The tests only confirmed what she had already known from her swollen breasts, the calendar days not adding up.

Still, she had stared at those pieces of plastic long enough to know. Read the directions over and over, looking for a loophole, some miscalculation to put the tests in error.

At first, leaning against the tiled white of her bathroom counter, she willed that second line to disappear. Shook the test, blew on it, held it upside down to see if it would go away.

It didn't.

"I'm pregnant," she informed her reflection in the mirror, and saw the disbelief there. She lay down on the bathroom floor, fear pouring out in sobs and gasps.

The bathmat tickled her nose as she cried, yellow acrylic gathered in her fingers. Mr. Chesters, a silent witness to despair, brushed against her.

Amanda flipped to her back and grabbed toilet tissue from the roll above her head. She considered the ceiling and the heavens above.


No answer, only the pounding of her heart and the gurgles from her clogged sinuses.

The toughest part would be telling him. Harder than skulking in the drugstore with her illicit home pregnancy tests, like a beer-buying teenager. Worse than squatting over her potty, trying to hit the miniscule square on the wand.

Scarier even than owning up to what they'd done. Telling friends. Family. Church.

Though it terrified her, deep down she wanted this child. Without question. A secret exhilaration grew as the possibilities raced through her. A baby. Mark's baby. They'd be together, and have a family. A real one, not like either of the homes they'd come from.

She knew, with Mark by her side, the rest didn't matter. If only he'd stay by her side.

Now, on the stone bench that felt like quicksand, she prayed for strength. "I'm going to the doctor tomorrow. For blood tests-to find out how far along I am. You can come with me if you want."

"I just can't believe it." Mark shook his head, as if he hadn't heard her. Still cycling on the curve she'd thrown him. "You can't be pregnant. How is that possible? How did this happen?"

"Mark." She smoothed his hair. "I think we both know how this happened."

He flushed, that athletic color, high and red as if he'd been running sprints. Her heart stretched thin that she could love him even more, now.

She had first realized she loved him, oddly enough, on her initial visit to his church. He'd invited her after one of their early dates. A sense of curiosity, more than obligation, prompted her to go. Confirmed along with the rest of the sixth graders in her parents' church, Amanda had helped warm the family pew her entire childhood.

Still, church attendance as an adult had been spotty at best. Since college graduation three years ago, she'd landed the job at the communications firm and gotten caught up in life as a single girl in Houston. But something about Mark, his sincerity, his earnestness, fanned the flame of faith that still burned, quiet and long untended, within her.

She got up early, dressed in a fluttery jersey skirt and a yellow sweater. Mark would sing, not preach that morning. She was anxious to see him at work, to meet his friends and his boss, to watch him in his home base.

The glossy building held no intimidation for her, but the crowds of strangers did. She chose a seat a few rows back from the stage, wanting a good view but not the spotlight. She hoped no one would notice her, but other attendees greeted her anyway. They shook her hand at the "Welcome Friends" portion of the service.

With the stubby pencil from the pew in front, she discreetly checked off her bulletin. Choir, check. Opening anthem, check. Communion, check. She doodled in the margins, flowers and stars, waiting for the best part.

Special music.

Up front, Mark stood alone with his guitar. He strummed the strings with a practiced hand, cleared his throat at the side of the microphone, and started singing.

His song-she couldn't think of the words now, but the tune stayed with her. The notes soared from him, unworldly and rare. The guitar played itself, matching his voice seamlessly. Perfect.

The music pierced her, picked her out among all those suits and panty hose, to cut to her very soul.

His song tied her to him, fused like wings to an angel. Bound by his precious heart. He caught her stare, just once, at the end.

See? his face asked. Do you see?


The rest of the service blurred as she stood and sat and prayed like a normal person. A person whose heart hadn't been revealed and broken and healed by a song. Changed.

How do you tell someone, I'm bound to you for an eternity because I heard you sing and I saw your heart and wherever you go I will follow and now I believe in your dream because you were living it and it was beautiful?

Afterward, he strode directly to her side. Claiming her.

She had gone willingly, and never looked back. Now, she must be gentle, and help him understand what she already knew. That, regardless of timing, together, they were home. Scooting forward, she brushed his hair away from his face and kissed him on the forehead. "Are you asking, literally, how did this happen? The time, you mean?"

"No, I don't mean that." He ran his hands down his slacks, the sharp crease wilted from the humidity. "What I wonder is, what are we going to do?" Bewilderment softened his face, made him look younger.

"I know what I'm going to do." She pressed her face to his neck. "How about you?"

He pushed her away. For a moment, her worst fears bloomed into reality.

But then his hand disappeared inside his coat pocket. An instant later, he was on his knees, on his knees in the dusty gravel in his very best suit. A tiny pop and a stone, brilliant bright, flashed up at her and he said the words. The words her ears had grown tired of straining to hear. The words her heart had been weary of waiting for him to say.

"Will you marry me?"

Pebbles ground her shins as she knelt too, her toes gritty, not caring, as she pulled those broad shoulders to her. "Yes, yes, yes, oh yes!"

He slid the ring on her finger and she pulled away to admire it. "I love it," she announced. A marquise from her Mark. "When did you …" She raised her gaze, expecting his joy to mirror her own.

Instead, sadness swept his features. A look of resignation. Still on his knees, he no longer seemed heroic, but defeated.

Her question died in her throat and fell, the words drifted like leaves to the ground. Unspoken, they rustled, whispering in her heart. Not when, but why?

Had he asked her for honor? Or for love?



On Tuesday, after spending his day off making plans, practicing speeches, Mark waited outside James Montclair's office. The sun barely tipped the edges of the morning traffic, but it looked like James had been hitting it hard already.

A phone dangled from his ear and a pile of paperwork cluttered the streamlined desk. Still busy with the call, James motioned for Mark to enter. He rolled up starched white sleeves as he spoke. "Yes, Mrs. Timsley. I'll let the committee know. Thanks for your prayers, Lord knows we need them." He rolled his eyes at Mark and said his good-byes.

"What do you need?" James checked his Omega watch.

"To talk."

"Sure. Just a sec." A thought line divided his brows as he clicked more keys.

Mark took the time to admire James's office. Leatherbound books on the shelves, ivy dangling from spare corners, a hand-painted oil of the baptism of Jesus. The painting depicted a white dove descending on the Master's shoulders with John clad in camel hair and shadows in the background.

"Okay, I'm all yours." James leaned back. "What's up?"

"I don't know how to say this." Practicing in front of the mirror this morning only made Mark see the unnatural color of his face. He felt green even now.

"Just shoot."

"It's about Amanda. And me." Mark's legs seemed overlong for the visitor's chair, even though he'd sat there many times.

A slow grin spread on James's features. "Are congratulations in order? Did you finally do it? Ask her to marry you?"

"Um. Yes. In a sense."

"That's fantastic!" James rose from the desk and grasped Mark's hand in a vigorous shake. "She'll fit in perfect here. Sarah loves her to pieces. It'll be great to have another minister's wife. They can run the women's retreats and the luncheons-"

"She's pregnant."

Confusion dulled James's face and the handshake stopped. "No, after the last one, Sarah had her tubes-" He stopped, catching himself. "Oh," he said stupidly. "You mean Amanda."

Disappointment filled the room, like a silent, unwelcome guest.

"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." Mark pulled away, rubbing his temples. Not able to look his mentor in the eye.

"How did this happen?" James's voice echoed Mark's earlier bewilderment.

"That's what I said."

"How long have you two been …" Ever the genteel ambassador, James let the question trail as he collapsed into his chair.

"Months," Mark admitted. "It's not like we meant to, it was just an accident."

"It's never an accident." Anger tinged the declaration.

Mark snapped his head up.

"You don't just trip and suddenly you're having sex. There's a progression."

"Okay. It wasn't an accident." Mark couldn't help the anger, the defensiveness. "We're getting married."

"Do you love her?"

"With everything I am."

"Then why didn't you wait?"

Regret twisted in Mark as James voiced the question he'd asked himself in the mirror. The one his conscience asked him. The one he ignored even as his flesh melted into hers. "I don't know." He did know, but couldn't say. Wouldn't say in this room where he'd prayed and planned sermons. "I should have. But we didn't. Now what? How do we handle this?"

"We, as in you and Amanda?"

"No, we're clear," Mark said. "She's excited about the baby, the wedding. We still have to tell our parents."

"Your mother." James sighed, familiar with Marianne Reynolds.

"I know," Mark agreed.

They pondered that particular coming collision in silence.

"I may wait until after the wedding, just so she doesn't make some kind of a scene." Although Mark knew that where his mother was concerned, some kind of a scene was a guarantee. "What I mean is we, as in you and me. The church. How do we deal with this?"

"Well, to be honest, I'm a little thrown, Mark." His voice held an instructor's tone.

"Yeah, me too."

"It's not what I expected of you. At all." The anger rose in degrees.

Mark took it like a tackle, impassive.

"I'll have to talk to the board." James flipped open his calendar.

"Would you?" Hope descended like the dove in the painting, breaking through the clouds of gray with specks of holy light. Mark spoke in a rush. "I'll go before them, tell them what happened, and that we're getting married. Before the church if I have to, like a testimony, tell them how even people in leadership, in the church, can make mistakes and that we're not perfect, just forgiven-"

"Mark," James said, gentle and sad. "It's over."

"Over?" The specks disappeared, the shadows covered the flight, as if it never happened. Turning what had been hope to an overwhelming gray.

"We have to let you go. Surely you can see that. Being on staff here-doing what you've been doing-we can't keep you on."

"Wait. Sure, the timing's off-that was a mistake. But we're in love. We're getting married. It's not like this is a totally awful thing."

"All that will help you, and I'm glad for it. No, it's not totally awful, but it doesn't fit with your purposes, our plans for you here. I'll call the board chairman, we'll work something out. To help with the wedding. And the baby." James picked up the phone, the sad smile lingering still.

"James, it's not like I'm the only one. Half the congregation, more than half, I bet-"

"You'd have made a fine pastor, Mark. Maybe somewhere down the line, you still will. But it won't be here."

*   *   *

PROGRESSION. STOPPED IN traffic on the way home, Mark thought about progression.

He'd met Amanda at some forgettable social. A single's mixer in downtown Houston, a friend of a friend. She teased him, called him a preacher boy. Flirting. Her head tilted up to his-her figure, full-blown curves on a petite frame. Completely unselfconscious and confident, the room dazzled where she saw fit to land, circling with this group and then that. A woman amidst silly girls. He couldn't keep his eyes off her.

I'll catch you if I can, he thought. She awakened the wolf in him, and he decided to chase.



On Sale
Sep 26, 2009
Page Count
304 pages
Center Street