"So," Shannon stage-whispered as she leaned close. "Is Erik a good kisser?"
Grace felt a line of heat rise from her chest that didn’t end until the roots of her hair. Why couldn’t she keep herself from blushing? "Shannon!" she blurted. The two of them stood side-by-side on scaffolding fifteen feet in the air, brushing soot from the ceiling of her great room. Grace heard a burst of laughter from down below and rolled her eyes. "Ladies,” she called down, “this is not the girls’ locker room at Carmichael Middle School," she informed them in mock high dudgeon.
First thing that morning, she'd opened her front door to find Shannon, Stephanie, Ruth and three other ladies from the church armed to the teeth with cleaning supplies.
"Surprise!" they’d all shouted.
Stunned, she could only stand there, mouth agape. They’d come to help clean after the fire. How she’d dreaded the messy job.
A few minutes later, her father, Marshall and their associate pastor arrived to set up the scaffolding they’d borrowed from the church. Then, after setting up the scaffolding, the men had pulled down the plastic covering from the doorway into the study and began the demo.
She rolled up onto her toes, but couldn’t quite reach a spot just at the peak of the ceiling.
“Hey Stretch,” she said, giving her sister a wink. “That spot is just out of reach. Can you get it?”
Shannon made a face at her. “Change places with me, shrimp, and let your big sister take care of it.”
“Are you two quite finished up there?” Down below, her aunt Ruth stood waiting, hands on hips, her dark eyes dancing with merriment. “We’d all like to hear the answer to Shannon’s question.”
“Uh-uh. You’ll have to kiss him yourself, because I’m not telling.” Grace called.
That brought a roar of laughter from the floor.
“Well,” Ruth said, “maybe I’ll just do that.” At the shout of laughter that followed, Ruth planted her hands on her hips. “I may be seventy-something years old, but I’m not dead yet.”
“Shouldn’t have said that, Grace,” Shannon whispered. “She might do it.”
“Why ask?” Stephanie said. “Just plant one on him right after church on Sunday.”
All morning long she'd worked side by side with Shannon, climbing down to the floor only when the scaffolding needed to be moved. To keep the soot from smearing the walls and ceiling, they used dry sponges. Unfortunately, the only way to clean the sponge was to shave away the soiled portion with a sharp knife. Still, it was a messy job.
Marshall came into the great room and looked around at their progress. Not he pointed to the section they’d just finished. “You missed a spot over there.”
Grace and Shannon exchanged conspiratorial glances. Without a word between them, they grabbed several remaining clean sponges and pitched them at him.
Grinning, Marshall raised his arms to protect his head. “Hey! You want to fight, come down here. I’ll take on both of you.” Marshall cast the pastor a long-suffering look. “See what I had to grow up with?”
“What a martyr!” Grace chided as she picked up the knife and shaved off a layer of the sooty sponge. It’d become so thin, she could hardly get a finger hold on it. “Could you toss me up a sponge?
Grinning, Marshall waggled his eyebrows. “Come down and get it.”
“If you want me to buy this group lunch, you’ll toss me a sponge. Come on, don’t make me climb down there.”
Marshall threw a sponge at her, but it didn't make it to the top of the scaffolding. “Marshall, you used to have a better arm than that.”
“The carpet and pad are in the truck,” her father said as he walked into the room.
Ruth and Stephanie came down the stairs. “We finished with the upstairs blinds and curtains.” Stephanie looked at the sponges scattered on the carpet. “Butterfingers. Here, Grace. Catch.” Stephanie picked up a sponge and hurled it up. Grace snagged it out of the air. The group—with the exception of Marshall—burst into laughter and applause.
Marshall took his wife’s hand and nodded at the stepstool she’d carried down with her. “Tell me you haven’t been climbing up and down on that thing.”
A guilty look flitted across her face.
“Oh, Marshall, I think I can manage two measly steps on a stool, for crying out loud.
“Stephanie,” Marshall said, “I told you not to. Not in your condi—” Marshall broke off the sentence, but too late.
“Stephanie, are you expecting again?” Ruth asked.
“Another grandchild. How wonderful!” Her father enveloped Marshall and Stephanie in a three-way hug.
After offering her congratulations with the rest, Grace took a deep breath and went back to the soot on the ceiling. Envy is not a fruit of the spirit.
Phillip clapped Marshall on the back. “Come on. We’ve got to finish loading up the rest of the damaged sheet rock. We'll pick up lunch on the way back.”
As the pastor turned to go with the other men, her gaze met his. In his eyes Grace saw understanding and compassion. Some people are too perceptive. Grace gave a slight nod and everyone went back to work.
“I’d give a decade off my life to have a child of Jim’s to raise,” Shannon murmured. “Even knowing I’d have to raise it alone, it’d be worth it,” Shannon reached out and squeezed Grace’s shoulder. “I’m so jealous of Marshall and Stephanie.”
Grace stopped brushing at the streaks of soot. “I didn’t know you and Jim were trying to—”
When Shannon brushed moisture from her eyes, Grace hugged her sister close.
“We weren’t,” she choked out. “We were waiting until our careers were more established, until we had more money in the bank. I still get so angry with that drunk driver. And at myself. Jim could have been convinced.”
At first Grace was stunned at her sister’s bitter words. “I’m sorry, Shannon. So sorry. I never knew you felt that way. It was selfish of me not to consider that you were going through the same thing I was.”
Shannon stepped back. “If you and Erik are sure you love each other,” she said fiercely, “don’t waste time. Get married and be happy. You can’t help but see he’s crazy about you.”