***WARNING, WARNING, WARNING, SPOILERS ABOUND***
Like…seriously. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Venice: Day 2
Drew and Elisabeth go to church…
Drew’s leg brushed Elisabeth’s, and her heart stuttered. She closed her eyes and prayed for the fifteenth time in the last hour.
I’m trying, God. I’m really trying. It’s not that I’m not thankful for this particular distraction, because I’ve never been more thankful. But please… just help me concentrate for thirty more minutes.
She opened her eyes and focused intently on the Bible in her lap. No good. She didn’t even know where they were anymore. Instead, she looked up at the pastor. He was a young guy, probably their age or a little older. He had blonde spiky hair, and he wore jeans and a graphic tee-shirt. He was perched on a high stool, probably borrowed from one of the science classrooms, and reading from a small well-worn leather Bible held together with silver duct tape.
He spoke in English with a Midwestern or Northern accent. There was no interpreter, so it was safe to assume everyone here understood. She looked around the gymnasium that also served as a cafeteria. There were people from almost every ethnicity. Besides the stale food smells and ugly metal folding chairs, she imagined Heaven would be a lot like this—people of every nation and tongue, every walk of life, coming together to worship.
She and Drew had come in late and slipped into the back row just as the service was getting underway. There’d been no time for introductions, but Elisabeth still felt at home here among the family of God. She hoped Drew was feeling the same way. And judging from the rapt attention he was giving the sermon and the misty sheen in his eyes, she figured he was.
I’m doing it again, God.
She glanced at her watch. Focus. Just twenty more minutes.
Drew was literally on the edge of his seat. The ability to sit here with other believers, to have someone teach him from Scripture, to sing songs of worship—all things he would never again take for granted.
When the pastor closed in prayer, Drew wasn’t ready to leave. He was still in prayer mode—eyes closed, head bowed in silent thanksgiving, his forearms resting on his knees—when he felt Elisabeth’s hand tentatively touch his back. He said a quick amen and looked up at her to see that the pastor and his wife were standing at the end of their row, wearing matching smiles.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” He shook his head and smiled back. “I was just . . . I really enjoyed the sermon. Thank you.” Drew shook the man’s hand and wrapped his other arm around Elisabeth’s waist drawing her into the conversation.
“Don’t apologize. We didn’t mean to interrupt.” The pastor mirrored Drew’s body language, looping an arm around his wife as well. “We haven’t seen you guys around before, and we thought, if you’re new to the area, and you’re interested, we could have you over for lunch—maybe show you around a little.”
Drew looked at Elisabeth, who was smiling brightly beside him. “Uh, yeah. I think we’d like that. I’m Drake, by the way. Drake Larkin, and this is my wife Evangeline.”
“It’s great to meet you. We’re the Tremblays. Chad and Lindsey.” The ladies shook hands and started a conversation of their own as Pastor Chad led them toward the exit. “Do you guys have a car here, or do you want to ride along with us?”
“No, we’re staying not far from here. We just walked,” Drew answered.
“Awesome, well, let me just make sure everything is torn down and ready for school tomorrow, and we’ll get going.”
The four of them piled into the Tremblay’s tiny Fiat, and Chad began telling the story of how he and Lindsey had come from Saskatchewan to start an international church in Venice. Then, the inevitable return questions. Where are you from? What are you doing in Italy? How long have you been married? How did you meet?
Luckily, Drew’s CIA training made him fast on his feet. Concocting cover stories was second nature for an agent. He was surprised at the little twinge of guilt he felt for lying to the Tremblays. He caught Elisabeth coughing to cover a laugh when she realized that the story of how they met was eerily similar to the plot of one of the romantic comedies she’d forced him to watch during their dating days.
Chad pulled the little blue car into a narrow alley and killed the engine. “Well, this is it. It’s not much, but it’s home.”
The building was very old, and a shade of gray that probably used to be green. The stairs up to their apartment were crumbling brick, but inside, the home radiated warmth. It was clean and cozy. Every wall and surface held a picture of Chad and Lindsey in some exotic location—in hiking gear on a mountainside, sitting in the back of a jeep on safari, snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef.
Elisabeth followed Lindsey into the kitchen to help with lunch preparations. “Can I get you guys something to drink?” Lindsey’s voice floated in from around the corner. “We have water with or without the bubbles, Coke, ginger ale, or coffee and tea if you prefer something hot.”
Elisabeth came in a moment later and set two glasses on coasters on the coffee table. She gave him the smile that made his ribs ache and disappeared back around the corner.
“Newlyweds,” Chad said, drawing Drew’s gaze back from the kitchen doorway.
He laughed as he ran a hand through his shaggy hair. “Guilty.”
He employed some of his best operative skills keeping up with his conversation with Chad about all the places they’d traveled while simultaneously listening to Lindsey and Elisabeth talking in the kitchen. He worried about Elisabeth’s ability to keep their cover. She was smart, but she didn’t have any training in covert operations. He prayed that Lindsey wouldn’t ask anything too personal.
“… garlic… Italian… cookbook… shopping…” He only caught snatches of Elisabeth’s voice, but he could tell she was sticking to safe topics. That’s my girl.
Lunch passed in a din of clinking silverware, passing plates, and laughter. Drew dropped his napkin onto his empty plate and draped his arm across the back of Elisabeth’s chair.
Lindsey brought a little black case over to the table. “Babe, I forgot to take my shot, and I’m feeling a little shaky. Can you help me?”
Chad jumped up. “Yeah, of course. Sorry guys.” He unzipped the case to reveal a small vial of insulin and a couple of syringes.
The flashback almost knocked Drew out of his chair. Needles. The stabbing, the gas. He closed his eyes and counted to twenty while taking deep breaths.
“Hey man, you okay?”
Drew looked up to see three sets of eyes fixed on him. The spoon in his hand was bent almost in half. “Yeah. Yeah. I’m sorry. Actually I umm… I’m not feeling great. I think maybe we ought to head out.” He shoved his shaking hands under the table.
Elisabeth squeezed his knee. “This was really great. Thank you for everything. We’ll have to come back and visit the church again.”
The Tremblays looked perplexed but saw them out with promises to get together for coffee in the next week.
Drew tucked Elisabeth’s arm under his as they walked back toward their apartment. It may have appeared chivalrous, but he needed the contact, needed to lean on her to stay rooted in reality.
Elisabeth was real. The sky above him, real. Food, fresh air, freedom.
“Sorry, Lisbeth. I don’t know what—”
“Hey. You don’t have to be sorry. Just… hold on to me. I’ll get us home.”
Three Years Later…
Elisabeth adjusted the place settings for the third time and rearranged the bouquet of daisies and button poms Drew had brought home that afternoon.
“It looks perfect.” His arms snaked around her waist from behind, and he pressed his lips to the ticklish spot behind her ear. She melted against him.
The baby monitor lit up as someone stirred in the nursery. She sighed.
Never enough time.
“I’ll get him!” Drew’s voice rumbled in her ear.
She walked to the oven to check the roast and smiled when she heard his voice come through the monitor. “Hey Tater! That’s quite a hairdo you’ve got going, there. Did you have a good nap?”
She opened the oven, and angry black smoke poured out. “What? No no no no no!” She dropped the burning roast into the stainless steel sink and fanned the smoke with her pot holders.
Ben skidded around the corner with Gatsby nipping at his heels. “Are they here yet?”
The smoke detector blared, and Ben clapped his hands over his ears. Gatsby sat down and howled.
She shooed them both from the kitchen. “Why don’t you go be my look out, okay?”
Drew came around the corner with a sleepy faced Tate in his arms. She threw him a look of desperation, and he laughed. Laughed! Her eyes welled with tears.
“Hey, hey. Don’t do that.” He dropped a kiss onto her forehead and handed Tate over. “Here. You take the baby. I’ll put out the fire.” He picked up a cookie sheet and waved it under the smoke detector.
The doorbell sounded over the cacophony, and Gatsby ran between her feet and the door barking excitedly while Ben sang a chorus of “they’re here, they’re here!”
She followed the exuberant three-year-old to the door. He swung it open with such force that she had to jump backward to avoid getting hit.
Ben launched himself at their guest. “Uncle Gabe!”
Gabe caught him and stumbled backward. “Whoa, there slugger. Take it easy on Uncle Gabe. I’m not as strong as I used to be.”
“You’re almost as strong as my daddy.”
The blare of the smoke detector quieted, Drew walked to the door and clamped his hand on Gabe’s shoulder. “Almost.” He winked.
Gabe smiled and leaned in to tickle Tate’s belly and kiss Elisabeth’s cheek. “Hey, beautiful.” He sniffed the air. “We havin’ briquettes for dinner? You know they’re my favorite.”
She fake-punched his shoulder. “Shut it, or I will pull it out of trash and make you eat it.”
The beautiful raven haired girl beside him laughed. “I vote, we make the guys eat the burned… whatever that was supposed to be, and the ladies go out for Happy Hour.”
Drew pulled out his wallet. “Compromise? How about Gabe and I make a Chinese run?”
Al bent down to pet Gatsby, who immediately rolled on his back and showed off his belly. “I’ll take a Hunan Chicken, extra spicy.”
“You know what I like.” Elisabeth mouthed a silent “thank you.”
Drew gave her a quick peck on the lips. “No time for that now. We have company, and I’m hungry.”
She smacked his arm and rolled her eyes at Al.
He held up his hands, the picture of innocence. “Alright. Should we pick up anything for dessert?”
“Oh, I’ve got that covered.” Al picked up a bakery box from the table in the foyer. “I happened to stop by a certain diner on my way home from work for the world’s greatest apple pie. Don’t tell Uncle Gino I said that.”
Elisabeth took the box from her and carried it to the kitchen. “You better hurry, guys, or we might start on dessert without you.”
Elisabeth was stowing away the last of the leftovers when Drew walked back into the kitchen. “Alright, the boys are down for the count. What do you say we take this party to the living room for dessert?”
Alessandra popped up. “Can we help?”
“Nope we’ve got it. You two go sit down.” Elisabeth cut the pie while Drew got the dessert plates down from the cabinet.
Gabe and Al were sitting knee to knee, whispering about something. Elisabeth handed them their plates, and Drew brought the coffee in on a tray and set it down on the coffee table.
Drew and Gabe regaled the girls with stories of their glory days. Though she’d heard them a thousand times, Elisabeth couldn’t help beaming up at Drew and feeling like the most blessed woman on the planet.
But from the way Alessandra was looking at Gabe, she might soon have some competition on that front.