“I…”

“This latest sermon series has brought more people into the Sunday service, and do you remember who gave me the idea? It was Shay, in case you’ve forgotten.”

“I know…”

“As long as I am pastor of this church, we will welcome one and all. I refuse to focus on our past mistakes; God takes each one of us exactly where we are and so do I. Instead of focusing on the past, I prefer to look at the potential God has given each of us. As far as I can see, He’s doing fine work in Shay.”

“Will you give me a chance to speak now?” Linda asked pointedly.

I gestured for her to have her say. “Go ahead.”

“I’m making no judgments,” Linda insisted. “If you’re in love with Shay, then so be it, but I feel you need to consider the consequences.”

“I am in love with her.” I realized that was the first time I’d said the words aloud. I did love her. If I was willing to put my future on the line for her, then that told me everything I needed to know.

Linda paled slightly. “Are you going to ask her to marry you?”

That was a loaded question. “I don’t know yet. It’s early in the relationship, but at some point I probably will.”

“That might cost you,” she said. “I’m afraid the elders will call for a vote of confidence if matters go that far. It isn’t what I want, but I feel you should have fair warning.”

“Then so be it.” I refused to back down to threats, veiled or otherwise, although I believed Linda’s intentions were good. If I was asked to stand before the elders, then I’d cross that bridge when necessary. My hope, naturally, was that it wouldn’t come to that. I trusted Shay and knew that if given the chance, Shay would win them over.

“Drew, do you understand what I’m saying?”

“I do,” I returned confidently.

Linda seemed more concerned than I was, and I wanted to reassure her.

Before I could say anything, she said, “If it comes to that, I want you to know Lloyd and I will do everything within our power to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

“I appreciate your support.”

Linda shook her head slowly, as if she had yet to fully grasp what had transpired between us. “You genuinely love her, don’t you?”

“I didn’t realize how much until just now.”

Linda had never been the kind of woman who wore her heart on her sleeve, so it surprised me when she reached out and gave me a big hug. Taken aback as I was, it took me a couple moments to respond.

“I hope Shay realizes how fortunate she is.”

Linda had it all wrong. I was the fortunate one. I didn’t expect her to understand, at least not yet, but she would in time.

If my morning meeting with Linda wasn’t enough to complicate my day, a phone call from Kevin later that same afternoon did.

“Glad to hear you’re back,” Kevin said after I picked up the call.

“It’s good to be back.” That was a slight exaggeration. My mind had been caught up on the conversation with Linda that morning. I’d tried not to let it get me down. Although she hadn’t mentioned names, she didn’t need to say who the rabble-rouser was. Alex Turnbull served as the head of the church council and he’d questioned Shay’s “acceptability” from the start. He’d been the one to put up the biggest fuss about renting her the apartment. The most annoying part of his censure was that he’d been the elder who’d proposed that the church rent the space in the first place.

I was tempted to tell Kevin about my morning confrontation but decided against it. Later, if I needed a sounding board I’d go to him as a friend. I didn’t need his advice; I’d made my decision when it came to having Shay in my life and that wasn’t going to change.

“I have news for you,” Kevin said enthusiastically. “Good news.”

“I could use some,” I admitted. Kevin would think I was emotionally down because of Joe’s death. I didn’t enlighten him otherwise.

“Thought that might be the case.” He paused for dramatic effect. “I believe I’ve found Shay’s brother.”

“You know where Caden is?” I could hardly believe it’d happened so quickly.

“As I suspected, he changed his name. He goes by Shane now. As soon as I had my contacts pass his photo around I got hit after hit.”

“He’s in Seattle?”

“Right here.”

This was a good news/bad news scenario. My hope was if we reached out to Caden he would recognize the help Kevin offered and accept the opportunity presented to him. I would avoid any mention of Shay. All I wanted was the assurance that she would be safe.

“As Richard suspected, he’s in one of the homeless camps,” Kevin said, cutting into my thoughts. “In fact, it was one that we visited last month.”

This was almost more than I could assimilate. Caden had been living in Seattle in a homeless camp—the very one Shay and I had visited while out with the Search & Rescue team. I had to wonder if he’d seen his sister the night we were there and if he’d hidden when he caught sight of her. I hated the thought that he might already know she was in the area.

“I want to be there when you talk to him,” I said, determined to see Caden for myself. I hoped to learn what I could about the man and where he was mentally. Keeping him away from Shay was my first priority, but now that I’d learned that he might possibly know she was living in the area, I was concerned. For all I knew, Caden could be looking to find her, looking to play on her sympathies again and that was something I wanted to avoid. I’d let Kevin do the talking but I wanted to be there when he spoke to him.

“Working on it, brother. I reached out to Richard and Chuck and asked if they could arrange a meeting.”

“When?” My eagerness made me edgy and anxious.

“No time like the present. If we wait and he gets word it might be enough to spook him.”

“I’ll clear the rest of the day.”

“Good. Meet me at Hope Center.”

I was already on my feet. “I’m on my way.” Grabbing my coat, I called out instructions to Mary Lou and headed for the door.

My heart pounded hard with anticipation when I met up with Kevin, who drove to the homeless camp. Right away I saw Richard sitting in an open area where a couple of card tables had been arranged close to an open fire pit along with a few chairs. Richard sat with Caden by the fire.

As Kevin and I approached Caden, he turned questioning eyes to Richard. “Hey, man, what’s this?” he asked.

“Friends, man. These are friends.”

Caden was dressed in a thick sweater with a long-sleeved shirt underneath. The sweater elbows had big holes. He had to be chilled to the bone in the winter cold. He apparently didn’t own a coat.

“Hi,” I said, smiling at Caden.

He didn’t respond. If I was looking for any family resemblance, none was visible. He’d changed from the fresh young man in the photograph Lilly had found. Staring at him now, with his yellowed teeth, straggly hair, and baggy eyes, he looked several years older than Shay instead of being her younger brother.

“I’m here to help you,” Kevin told him.

Caden snickered. “Sure you are.”

Kevin continued talking, but I noticed that Caden focused his gaze on me. His eyes narrowed and he frowned as if he was trying to place me. It was then that I knew he recognized me from the night I’d been on the rescue mission. If that was the case, then he must have seen Shay that night as well. My heart sank.

Recently, Caden had been talking to Richard and Chuck. A chill came over me at the implication. Both men had been with Shay that night, leading her through the camp. I had to believe Caden had seen her with them as well as with me, which might explain his willingness to agree to this meeting. It could mean that Caden was looking for a way to connect with Shay, use her.

“Who are you?” Caden demanded, focusing his attention on me.

I was about to tell him I was no one when Richard spoke up. “That’s Pastor Douglas. Show him some respect, man.”

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