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The Matchmakers of Butternut Creek
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A traumatic experience as a college freshman has left Gussie Milton ‘once bitten, twice shy.’ Although she’d like a relationship, she’s frightened, so she’s thrown herself into caring for her aging parents, her photography business, and her church. In the eyes of Miss Birdie and her friend Mercedes, aka ‘the Widows,’ Gussie would make their young pastor the perfect wife. And though the attraction proves mutual, first Gussie’s past and then the pastor’s hopes for the future threaten to keep them apart. Can the Widows’ meddling be the catalyst that changes the couple’s lives forever?
Table of Contents
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This book could not have been written without the love of church members who have supported and taught me since I was a child. Thank you.
Nor could it have been written without the joy my husband, George, has brought in all our years of marriage. I give you my eternal love and appreciation.
Many thanks to my writing friends, too numerous to mention, who have generously guided and critiqued and taught me everything I know and without whom I would never have published, and to Ellen Watkins, my pal.
To my agent, Pam Strickler, and editor, Christina Boys, great gratitude. You have believed in me and made my books better. Everyone in Butternut Creek thanks you as well. To all the nice people at Hachette, your expertise and kindness have made the way so much easier.
From the desk of
Adam Joseph Jordan, MDiv.
I continue to be a sad burden for Birdie MacDowell. Since I arrived at the church in Butternut Creek seven months ago, I've attempted to lift that weight from her shoulders and to correct the many errors she expects me to atone for.
If she were to comment on the first paragraph of this letter, Miss Birdie would point out that I wrote a run-on sentence and ended it with a preposition. Despite my earnest efforts, I have failed her again, at least grammatically.
When I first arrived here in Butternut Creek, called to serve the Christian Church, she saw me as too young and too inexperienced for almost everything. She was correct. She believes she always is. Personally, I'd hoped the passage of time would take care of both my flaws, but Miss Birdie is not one to wait around and hope for change.
Although she's never expressed this, an odd omission for a woman who prides herself on her speaking out fearlessly, she knows that a man of my age (too young) and with a sad lack of piety could never act as her spiritual guide.
She's probably correct. I am woefully incompetent to lead another person to faith when I struggle daily with my own flaws. Thank goodness for grace from the Lord if not from Miss Birdie.
But I have discovered a few things in the months I've been here. First, I fell in love with this small town in the beautiful Hill Country of Texas the moment I arrived: the friendly people, the Victorian houses, the live oaks shadowing the streets, the downtown square surrounded by coffee shops and gift stores and antiques malls with a few businesses—the barbershop and the diner where Miss Birdie works—sprinkled in.
Second, I found out I do possess some skills. I preach a good sermon, teach an interesting adult Sunday school class, have an active youth group, and make much-appreciated hospital calls and evangelistic visits regularly. I've also improved my basketball game.
But there was one area in which Miss Birdie still found me lacking: finding a wife and producing children to populate the children's Sunday school classes.
Yes, she wanted me to find a bride. Wanted is an inadequate word here. Even determined doesn't approach the level of her resolve. Add to that adjective single-minded and unwavering and the total comes close to her desperate need to marry me off. Do not add choosy to that list because she'd marry me off to any single woman still in her childbearing years who lives within a fifty-mile radius of Butternut Creek. Her task is made nearly impossible by the dearth of single women in small Central Texas towns.
Could be she expects God to create a mate from my rib, but that hasn't happened yet. Nor do I expect to wake up, as Boaz did, to find a bride lying at my feet. Of course, if a woman should appear in my bed, whether at the foot or cozily snuggled next to me, her presence in the parsonage would create a scandal from which neither the church nor I would recover.
Because Miss Birdie has renounced these biblical approaches to finding me a wife, I shudder to imagine what she has in her fertile and scheming mind. All for my own good, of course.
For the protection and edification of all involved, I decided to document every one of the efforts she and her cohorts, the other three Widows, have made in their attempts to find me a mate. In addition, this book will cover my next year as minister in Butternut Creek, my search for experience and a wife, as well as the joy of living here with the wonderful people who inhabit this paradise.
I send it off with my love and my blessing and in the desperate hope that someday Miss Birdie will smile upon me and say, Well done, Pastor.
Adam Jordan stood in the upstairs hall of the huge Victorian parsonage. A wide hallway stretched to his right with three bedrooms on each side. At the end of the hallway, a stairway led up to a finished attic. He turned in the other direction and started down the curving stairs, his shoes clicking across the hardwood floors. The sound echoed through the three-story house, an enormous space for one man.
"Hey, Pops, Janey and I are leaving for school," Hector shouted.
But he no longer lived here alone. Six months ago, Hector Firestone and his younger sister, Janey, had joined him when they were left homeless.
"Bye, guys. Have a good day." Adam watched them head off before he left the parsonage, Chewy panting by his side.
For a moment he paused on the porch to look around. To the north stood the stately church he served. From here he could see only the parking lot and the back entrances, but on the front and facing the highway, tall white pillars stood out against the red brick. On the other side of the parsonage sat the house of his neighbors, Ouida and George Kowalski and their two young daughters.
As he breathed in the clean, warm air, he noticed a partially masticated backpack under the swing on the porch. He glared down at Chewy, the enormous, ugly, and affectionate creature who had arrived with Janey. Chewy smiled back at him.
"Bad boy," Adam said.
Chewy's tail went into overdrive. Adam often wondered why the dog didn't ascend and hover like a helicopter with all that spin.
"Bad dog," he repeated, which caused Chewy to perform pirouettes on his back legs.
Adam didn't have time right now to investigate or return the item to its owner. Since the habit had started a month earlier, Chewy brought home backpacks and sweaters and hoodies and water bottles, anything he found. Adam tried to keep the dog inside, but Chewy was an escape artist who zoomed through the front door whenever someone didn't watch carefully. He'd return home hours later, exhausted and happy and smelling of whatever disgusting substance he'd found to roll in. In expiation for that behavior, the dog delivered these offerings of his deep affection.
Reminding himself to get Hector to return the backpack, Adam glanced toward the Kowalski house. He hoped to see his neighbor Ouida, a Southern name that, oddly, was pronounced Weed-a. Many mornings she greeted him with a daughter hanging off one hand and a plate of muffins in the other. If not, he'd walk across the lawn between the parsonage and the church he happily served.
At six this morning, when he'd had to get up and let Chewy out, Adam had glimpsed Ouida's husband, George, heading toward the garage in back. In contrast with Adam's shabby robe, George wore a dark suit, tailored and conservative. Once Adam had seen George dressed casually when Ouida had forced him to help her plant a garden. Even then he looked successful and well dressed if unenthusiastic in spotless khaki slacks, expensive athletic shoes that never got dirty, and a shirt that fit him perfectly. Occasionally, Adam saw George pushing his daughters Carol and Gretchen on the swing, still immaculately dressed, still unenthusiastic.
He and George had waved. As Adam and Chewy started back to the house, George backed his spotless black Lexus out and headed toward his accounting business in Austin.
Now, three hours later, Adam waited, but Ouida didn't appear. Disappointed and muffinless, he headed toward the church, Chewy frolicking behind him.
* * *
Running late as usual, Ouida set Gretchen on a kitchen chair and tied the little girl's shoes. George always told her if she planned better, she wouldn't always run five or ten minutes behind. She agreed in principle, but Carol and Gretchen, their young daughters, never stuck to a schedule—possibly because they couldn't tell time—all of which left Ouida attempting to catch up all day long.
This morning Carol couldn't find her favorite socks, which turned up, inexplicably, in the bathtub. George would've told Carol to choose another pair of socks. He didn't understand that forcing Carol to choose another pair would upset her and make her even slower.
Then, after Ouida and Gretchen had walked Carol to preschool, Gretchen…
Well, it seemed to be one thing after another. When she finished tying the shoes, Ouida picked up the plate of apple-cinnamon scones. "Let's see if we can find Pastor Adam."
With that, Gretchen ran to open the front door and hurry out to the porch. "There, Mama." She pointed toward Adam's back.
"Wait, Adam," Ouida called.
He turned and smiled. She hurried toward him as quickly as a short, round woman—she was all too aware of her plumpness—carrying a plate and holding the hand of a toddler could.
Living next to the parsonage had advantages, the best being that ministers and their families were nice people. However, preachers also nagged non-members about their faith and invited them, over and over, to come to church. She and George didn't want to, they were perfectly happy as they were. Adam didn't hound them, which made her like him even more. After she'd explained, he simply accepted the fact that the Kowalskis lacked the spiritual gene. "Do you like scones?"
"I like anything you bake." They chatted a few seconds before Gretchen tugged on her mother's hand in an attempt to pull her mother back toward their house.
"Thanks," he said with a wave and headed to church carrying the plate of goodies.
Ouida watched him walk away, then turned toward her home, thinking perhaps someday she and Adam could enjoy a real conversation without a child distracting her. They should have him over for dinner, should have done so months ago, but she just didn't get everything done.
Once inside, Ouida settled Gretchen in the kitchen with her toys and tackled the pile of wash in the laundry room where she could keep an eye on her daughter. After she had a load of sheets churning, she pulled the plastic bag of George's clean shirts and shorts from the freezer, opened the bag, and allowed them to warm up before she sprinkled and ironed them. George had heard that putting clean laundry in the freezer killed bugs. She allowed him to think she did but, honestly, if she put all the sheets they used in the freezer, there wouldn't be room for food. Besides, they didn't have a bug problem. But seeing that plastic bag of his things kept him happy.
By the time she'd ironed a couple of shirts, dumped the wet towels and sheets in a basket, and started another load, she'd already taken Gretchen to the bathroom several times.
"Let's go outside." Ouida helped her daughter into a sweater, picked up the basket, and followed Gretchen through the back door. The breeze would dry the sheets in no time. She loved how they smelled when she made the bed, like spring. For a moment, she leaned back, closed her eyes, and drew in the warmth of the sun. Usually, the lovely day would warm her inside and out, but not today. No, within she felt a niggling that was connected somehow to the laundry in the freezer and sticking to a schedule. Something didn't feel right, but she had no idea why she felt like that.
* * *
Aah, Texas! Mid-March and Adam wore a light jacket. The lack of snow in the winter and the warmth of early spring were the trade-offs for the horrendously hot summers here.
His poor old Honda sat in the church parking lot. After nearly a year of sitting in the sun, it looked worse than it had when he'd arrived. Paint flaked off by the handfuls and huge patches of rust showed through. It looked as if an especially virulent paint-eating bacteria had attacked it. Not apparent from the outside, a spring poked through the upholstery on the passenger side, which meant that any rider who didn't have a cast-iron butt opted to sit in the backseat. Still, it usually ran, and often the radio worked.
The other car in the parking lot belonged to the part-time secretary, Maggie Bachelor. The lack of vehicles could mean no one awaited him inside, or it could mean that whoever did wait for him hadn't driven. Few places in town couldn't be reached on foot.
When he entered the church office, the look on Maggie's face warned him all was not well. She jerked her head toward the open door of his office in a manner that tipped him off. Miss Birdie and maybe another Widow or two waited in his study and, he felt sure, not patiently.
The Widows came with the church—a group of women whose husbands had died (obviously) and who did good works. Without them, there would be no community thrift store or food pantry, no Thanksgiving community dinner or outreach to the homeless.
"Mary Baker went to the hospital this morning with chest pains," Maggie said, scratching Chewy's head and sneaking him a bite of her breakfast burrito. "Jesse says his wife's feeling poorly, is going to the doctor and wants your prayers, and…" Maggie paused before she said in a slow, calm voice, "And Gussie Milton called about ten minutes ago." She glanced at Adam and winked. "Here's her message." She handed it to him with another wink.
Like everyone in town, Maggie showed great interest in his love life. Although it was non-existent at the moment, they all had high hopes for his eventual marriage and fatherhood. In fact, they hoped he'd be a modern Abraham, the father of a multitude. He had no expectations of such a prospect despite the Widows' shoving every woman in town at him until they finally settled on Gussie being the perfect mate. For that reason, he attempted to keep his expression neutral. Impossible. Only hearing the name Gussie made him want to laugh and sing and celebrate. If they heard one of those sounds, the Widows would start planning a wedding.
So he nodded and took a deep breath before heading toward his office, preparing himself for whatever was coming.
"Hear you haven't found a wife yet," Birdie said.
Miss Birdie sat in what she considered her chair: in front of Adam's desk but slightly turned so she could see the door as well, in case someone interesting stopped by.
Winnie Jenkins sat next to her and smiled at Adam. "Good morning, Preacher." She wore her white hair swept back and had a nice smile. An engagement ring sparkled on her left hand.
Miss Birdie wore her aggrieved look-what-I-have-to-put-up-with face, her usual expression with the young, inexperienced man who'd foolishly assumed he'd minister to her.
Short, no-nonsense hair and thick-soled shoes completed the picture of the pillar of the church. Because she barely topped five feet and had that snowy white hair, Miss Birdie resembled one of Santa's kindly and jolly but skinny elves. Ha! Amazing how quickly those lips became a straight line, her expression hardened, and disapproving words gushed from her mouth in time with her waving index finger.
But she had a good heart.
Yes, he repeated to himself, she had a good heart and was a beloved child of God.
"Sit down, sit down." With her right hand, the pillar waved graciously toward the chair behind his desk as if this were her office.
He could tell from the way she cradled her left arm that her shoulder hurt. Tough injury for a waitress.
After he placed the plate on the desk, he sat and tossed the message from Gussie next to it.
The pillar's eyes pounced on that piece of paper. He could read her thoughts, knew she was considering reaching over, picking the message up, and reading it. After an internal struggle that showed in her changing expressions, she must have decided that this would be ruder than even she dared to behave.
"It's a lovely morning, isn't it?" Winnie glanced at the plate.
With no reason to keep Ouida's goodies for himself, he took from his drawer the stack of napkins that he kept just in case something delicious showed up.
Each took a scone and savored it. He hoped it would distract the pillar from her purpose. Once in a while, he succeeded in slowing her down, but like a blue heeler, a favorite breed of dog among Texas hunters, she returned to the scent every time. "Mercedes will be here soon," Winnie said. "She had a meeting."
That explained the absence of the third member.
"I saw in the Butternut Creek Chronicle that Mac was initiated into the honor society," Adam said in what would be a failed effort to head the pillar off. Still, he tried. She expected it. He enjoyed it.
"Yes, she was, and Bree was named to the district third team in both volleyball and basketball. Don't try to distract me by mentioning my granddaughter, Preacher." She leaned forward to capture his eyes. "You know how proud I am of those girls, but that's not why I'm here." Once she knew he was paying attention, she settled back and smiled.
Now in charge, she was in no hurry. In every conversation, Miss Birdie considered him either the bait or the victim. Didn't much matter which. Neither came to a good end.
"What time are you leaving for the youth retreat tomorrow?" the pillar asked.
"I'm going to pick the kids up from school at three."
She knew this, but if it kept her from confronting him with whatever was on her mind, answering didn't bother him. "Your granddaughters, Hector, and his friend Bobby."
"What are you going to do there?" Winnie asked, sounding interested. "At the retreat?"
"I'm leading a small group and preaching at worship Sunday."
"What are you driving?" The pillar continued her interrogation with a glare at Winnie to leave the questions to her. "Not your car, I hope."
"Howard loaned me his van."
"About that sermon." She leaned toward him. "Don't make it long and boring. Young people like short."
"Right." His agreement always made her happy.
For a moment, the pillar studied him while Winnie grinned at the engagement ring the general, father of Adam's best friend, had placed on her finger only weeks ago.
"Will Gussie Milton be there? At the retreat?" Miss Birdie spoke casually, almost tossing off the comment.
Exactly what Adam had expected was the reason for her visit. He tensed, almost feeling the trap vibrate milliseconds before it snapped shut. Dear Lord, please grant me patience and wisdom, he prayed silently. Patience and wisdom. Amen.
"Yes," he said aloud.
"She's a nice young woman. Unmarried, as I remember."
As if she didn't know that. "Yes," he said.
Then, in a quick attempt to change the subject, Adam turned toward the other Widow and said casually, "Winnie, now that you're going to marry Sam's father…"
"Don't know if she will," Birdie grumbled. "They may live in sin for tax purposes."
"Birdie." Winnie put her hands on cheeks that were turning pink. "How could you say that? Mitchell and I…"
"But don't try to sidetrack me, Preacher. You're not married yet, not engaged yet. That's our biggest worry and failure," she said with a sorrowful sigh that told of the unimaginable depths of her disappointment.
"All in good time," he temporized. "All in good time."
Miss Birdie wasn't finished. "What I'm saying is that if Gussie Milton's going to the retreat, you'd better put those days to good use."
He heard the wagging of a finger in her voice and shuddered to contemplate what Miss Birdie had in mind. She probably expected him to marry Gussie on Friday evening and have her heavy with child by Sunday.
"About Winnie's wedding," he said, restating his topic.
"About Gussie Milton," Miss Birdie countered.
"We hear she left a message this morning," Winnie said.
"I haven't read it yet." He gestured toward the pink slip.
Both Widows leaned far forward in an effort to read that square of paper tantalizingly close to them in the center of the desk. He picked it up, folded the note, and stuck it into the pocket of his shirt.
Then, thankfully, because he didn't put it past Miss Birdie to pluck the message from his pocket, Mercedes Rivera stuck her head in the door. "Sorry I'm late. Long meeting." She hurried in and settled in a chair on the other side of Miss Birdie.
"Welcome, Mercedes," he said.
In contrast with the other Widows, Mercedes, the town librarian, had dark hair, liberally streaked with white and pulled back into a French braid. With a fuller body than Miss Birdie, she also displayed a sweet smile, one that Adam almost always trusted. She was polite and, most important, seldom harassed him.
Adam took the few seconds her arrival gave him to return to his topic. "When Winnie marries Sam's father—"
"If she does," Miss Birdie said.
"We are going to—" Winnie started to say.
"—the number of Widows is going to decrease again," Adam finished.
"We're not going to kick Winnie out," Mercedes said. "We'll still have three Widows."
"Miss Birdie," he said with deep concern in his voice. "With work and raising your granddaughters and all you do for the church, I fear you might become…" He paused to think of a word that wouldn't insult her. There were none. Miss Birdie was easily affronted.
"Weary in my efforts?" She glared at him for suggesting she might possess limits of any kind.
He couldn't mention her health problems, especially that bad shoulder. If he did, she'd—as they said on the basketball court—open a can of whoop-ass on him.
"You're a very busy woman. All your good works are far more important than getting me married off." He turned to Winnie. "And with your engagement…"
* * *
Birdie glanced toward the other Widows, then back at the preacher as he trailed off. In that instant, Birdie noted a fleeting expression of satisfaction flit across his face and realized she and Winnie and Mercedes had walked right into his trap.
"Well, Mercedes, you missed our entire discussion," she said in an effort to circumvent whatever the preacher was fixin' to bring up. "We're finished. Time to get a move on." Birdie struggled to stand, but when she lifted herself an inch off the chair, that blasted shoulder collapsed and dropped her back down. Doggone it! Betrayed by her own body, but she'd be darned if she'd let anyone know about it. She pretended she'd only changed position.
"Not quite," the preacher said. "We were about to discuss the Widows with Winnie's change in status."
Mercedes whispered to Birdie, "I didn't think that's what you wanted to talk about."
Always truthful, that Mercedes. How in the world had Birdie ended up with a friend like her?
"Let's talk about the Widows," Adam repeated insistently. He stood, walked around the desk, and settled in a chair closer to them. "You'll be shorthanded with Winnie getting married."
- On Sale
- Nov 20, 2012
- Page Count
- 384 pages