Talia Ashby is a perfectionistic data analyst who, on occasion, sees her “fat” self when she looks in the mirror. As a svelte former obese girl, she reunites with her secret teen crush, now a pastor in the church she attends.
Cooper Valiant is dazzled upon meeting a high school friend he doesn’t immediately recognize due to her drastic weight loss. Since his sister had an eating disorder, he’d often felt empathy toward Talia as classmates teased and bullied her. In his pastorate position, he asks her to help girls in the youth group come to grips with body-image.
While working with the girls, Talia's recollections of youthful hurts stir up past insecurities. She must reassess her spiritual journey, and what bothers her in the present.
Added to the mix are her reawakened emotions toward the man who once came to her rescue. Will their joint journey include a personal relationship?
~ Psalm 29:2.
“OH, NO.” THE SCENT OF gasoline combined with heat from the late August sun had already turned Talia’s stomach. Now a twist of despair completed the knot in her gut. “I can’t believe I let this happen again.”
The clunk of a nozzle sounded from the other side of the pump, followed by a footfall scrape against concrete. She ignored whoever stood behind her.
“…how could you?” Talia moaned and pressed her forehead against the top of the car window frame. Muted motors merged and gave way to the noisy buzz in her head.
Cookie leaped to the driver’s seat and stuck her hairy gray paw through the crack in the window.
“Sorry, not your fault, baby. I’m an airhead.”
“Hey, don’t call yourself names.”
Talia jerked at the masculine voice near her shoulder, mortified her folly had been witnessed. Blank space replaced the dilemma in her mind.
It took concentrated effort to keep an exclamation of recognition from escaping her lips. Cooper Valiant. Hero, and ninth grade through graduation crush. After all this time, he wore the same infectious wide grin. Flashing deep blue eyes were now accented by character revealing crow’s feet. Attractive laugh lines set off his smile. He’d turned into a whole lot of endearing man.
“It can’t be that bad.”
“Uh. The door’s locked. With my keys inside.” She shifted her attention away from his face as a loud pickup engine roared to a low rumble, and grounded herself again in the present surroundings.
“My dog did it.” She sounded like a dolt. At the familiar resounding thud that signaled a full tank, she swiveled and reached for the gas nozzle hanging from her Jeep. “I guess I need help.”
“Here. Let me.” He notched the handle onto the tank and twisted on the gas cap.
A guy in a tricked out pickup pulled behind her Jeep and gunned his motor. Cooper waved at the driver and signaled for the man to switch to another pump.
He revved his engine a couple times, and then backed up to park in another line.
Talia shrugged, her cheeks heating as she grabbed the receipt. “Cookie’s done this before.”
“My golden.” She wiggled her fingers through the window in the face of her adorable hairy, gray dog. Cookie’s back legs bounced on the driver’s seat, searching for purchase, with tongue lolling from a goofy grin.
“Your golden what? Never seen one like it. Still a pup?”
“Yes. Nine months. A high energy goldendoodle. The Poodle is obvious by the hair. She’s smart and obedient like a golden retriever, so she makes a great companion. And she cheers me up just because she doesn’t have a care in the world other than keeping me company.”
“She looks happy. I’d be happy, too, in the presence of such a beautiful woman.” He paused and sobered as if he’d spoken without thought. “I won’t apologize but that was out of place. As for your dog, I’d love to hear more about her. But it seems her energy has put you in a pickle. Will I be okay if I try to get my arm through the window?”
“Sure. She’s a lovable marshmallow, safer than a cat. But my keys are further away than your arm can reach.”
He rounded the hood, shot her a challenging just-watch-me grin over the top as his hand disappeared inside the passenger window. Much to her surprise, the lock clicked open.
Talia refrained from making a face at him. He’d hit the button on the door to release the handle rather than reach for the keys on the seat, where she would have sought the fob with her shorter arm. Guys just plain thought different than women.
As she grabbed her receipt, their gazes met again, and connected in a way that erased mature thought from her head.
“We’re holding up the line.” He flashed that ever-ready smile. “Nice ride, by the way. Purple suits you. I suggest you find another place to sling your keys the next time you get gas.”
He’d always been one with a ready answer.
Cookie slapped her front legs over Talia’s arm, so she body blocked the dog from escaping as she scooped up the keys dangling from Cooper’s hand. “I’ve got my hands full with this one. Thanks again.”
How could she have forgotten the kind expression in his bright blue eyes and the thickness of heart-shaped lips that any woman would covet? Close-fitting jeans revealed that he’d kept his lanky frame, and muscular definition told her he worked on keeping in shape.
She watched him climb into a sporty yellow two-seater. Cooper was dressed in a salmon Tee shirt, perfect for the fall season, not quite his favorite shade of orange, if she remembered right.
Why run into him again now? Just at the time she was taking on a new way of serving. She forcibly pulled herself together, took two deep breaths, and then engaged her own car ignition.
Talia broke into a satisfied grin. He hadn’t recognized her. Wouldn’t he have been surprised to know she was the fat girl he’d befriended back in high school?
Fifteen minutes later, Cooper was still dazzled by the breathtaking woman at the gas station. God had to have had a hand in his safe arrival at Southside Fellowship. He sure hadn’t paid attention to driving. She was beyond beautiful and svelte at three inches shorter than his six feet, shapely, feminine, and physically fit. Yep, he’d checked out her fabulous, toned long legs.
His mind still on the stranger’s exotic appearance, captivated by her wide-spaced brown eyes and jet-black hair, he checked his thoughts and said a quick prayer to get into the groove of youth pastor. He climbed out of his sports car and raced across the lot.
Upon entering the church, he paused to gaze at the banner above the chest-high welcome counter. All who entered the church building were greeted with the statement on the sign: GOD’S LOVE MAKES ALL THE DIFFERENCE IN THE WORLD.
“Hey, how ya doin’ tonight, Pastor Cooper?” June Rose, Pastor Kendall Winston’s wife, greeted him from behind the counter. “Are you all ready for Fall Explosion?”
“I keep reminding you that it’s plain Cooper. I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. This place was too quiet over summer.” He cocked his head at the pint-sized woman with short white hair. “Don’t you take a break from being his secretary and receptionist?”
She patted her hair and smiled wide. “Service for the Lord, Cooper, isn’t work. Besides, I’ve always believed the senior pastor’s wife needs visibility.”
“Bless you for standing by him. I hope to have a helpmate one day. But I doubt the Lord’s plan for me is in the pulpit. Better get inside.”
He entered the designated classroom and found a seat in the front row. His mind still filled with images of the classy gal back at the station, he paid no attention to the chatter as volunteers took seats behind them. Before long, Pastor Kendall stood and welcomed them all, albeit standing stiff except for his white-toothed smile. “I don’t know about you, but June Rose and I are especially pumped to get this new fall off to a great start. We’ll begin with the ministry leaders telling us who you are, followed by the rest of you.”
Cooper zoned out through introductions of other group leaders from tots up until he heard his name announced for junior high. He raised somewhat out of his seat and waved without making eye contact, and then nudged the high school pastor to stand up and take his turn. Starting with preschoolers, all kids except the high schoolers got together on Sunday nights, met on Wednesdays during choir rehearsal and mid-week Bible school for adults. He perked up at Pastor Kendall’s voice, tuned back in.
“I’m glad to welcome a couple of you who are new to Southside Fellowship. We’ll start in the back. Please tell us how you came here and a little bit more about yourselves. Then we can all get to know one another.”
Cooper always got a kick out of the senior pastor’s thick blond curls, perpetually untamed at the nape, and an easy object for distraction, same as the kid he was at heart. In contrast to Kendall’s military stance, Cooper was in constant jittery motion. Even at his advanced age of thirty-one, he continued with toe tapping, fidgeting, rapping fingers on his knee, or bouncing one leg. He’d never been able to sit still. Pa hadn’t believed in medication for hyperactivity. Cooper had driven certain teachers and church leaders out of their minds over the years. Figured that’d continue until the day he died, in perpetual motion.
He listened to the members as they said howdy and specified which area of ministry they’d be serving.
“Hi. I’m Talia Ashby. During the day, I’m a data analysist at a nearby hospital. I’m new here at Southside and will be working with the junior high youth.”
Say what? The Talia he’d gone to school with?
Cooper’s crossed knee dropped to the floor as he swung around. He scanned the chairs behind him, seeking the girl he’d known in school. He noted the woman who stood. Who wouldn’t? She turned and he caught her face from the front rather than profile. No way. Talia was the beauty from the gas station? He would have fallen over, had he been standing.
Someone said, “Glad to have you.”
“Because of my own rough younger years, I believe God wants me to befriend teen girls. So that’s why I’m here.” She flashed that gorgeous smile that hit him in the solar plexus. “Actually, I knew Cooper from when we were in school.”
His mouth dropped open in shocked disbelief. This stunning woman couldn’t be the same girl he once knew. She was dressed in slim-fitting mid-calf pants and black shirt trimmed in bright pink, and looked nothing like the chubby...Sorry, Lord. He gave himself a mental shake.
“I was rather lost in the huge congregation down the street, though I grew up going to worship there. I’d heard about Southside Fellowship from someone at work, so I visited a couple times over the summer and decided I’d like to switch memberships.” She slanted a quick glance Cooper’s direction, and then roamed the room. “I had quite the issues as a teen and during devotions over the summer, God spoke to me. I’m convinced His desire for me is to be a friend to young girls. The world was a difficult place for me, and I believe it’s worsened. Sorry. I’m repeating myself.”
“Welcome, Talia. No problem saying it twice. Your conviction comes out in your voice so that’s a good thing. You can turn around now, Cooper.” The group chuckled over Kendall’s teasing tone. “We can all agree with his high energy, he’s the perfect junior high leader and I’m sure he’s glad to have you. Okay, let’s continue down the row. Refreshments ahead once we hear from you remaining few.”
Cooper couldn’t move a muscle. How to wrap his head around this Talia Ashby compared to the heavy girl he once knew? Her creamy, coffee-tinted complexion had been clear even as a teen. Without the full face of the past, she was a knock-out with defined feminine bone structure that showed off her high cheekbones and large, almond-colored eyes. If he stared any longer, she’d think he’d turned into a stalker.
In school, he’d always gone to her defense if he heard anything derogatory, same as he went to anyone’s defense if they needed it. But he’d had a soft spot for Talia and often wondered what future she’d walked into.
The unbelievable change in body size rocked him. She must have dropped close to a hundred pounds. How had it come about? He whispered a silent prayer in the hopes she hadn’t endangered her health. He couldn’t wait to discover the whole story.
And, Lord, don’t let me get all mixed up in my thoughts, reliving regrets over Analise’s eating disorder. My sister’s life and Talia’s are totally different.
Nebraska country girl LoRee Peery writes fiction that hopefully appeals to adult readers who enjoy stories written from a Christian perspective, focusing on the romance. These include novels and novellas for women and men in the Contemporary, Romance, Historical, Time Travel, and Mystery/Suspense categories. She writes of redeeming grace with a sense of place. Her Frivolities Series and the book based on her father’s unsolved homicide, Touches of Time, are available on Amazon. She is who she is by the grace of God: Christian, country girl, wife, mother, grandmother and great-, sister, friend, and author. Connect with LoRee through these links: www.loreepeery.com
Find her publications at Pelican http://tinyurl.com/kwz9enk
And Amazon https://www.amazon.com/LoRee-Peery/e/B004UAGL2W/ref