Homecoming Blessings

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Chapter One

Broken glass, glittering in the warm Georgia sun, covered the sidewalk outside a storefront in the nearly completed strip mall. A white truck with blue lettering on the side that read, “Do It Yourself Movers” sat half in and half out of one of the windows. Taking in the mess, Peter Dalton carefully pocketed his cell phone in a conscious effort to keep himself from slinging it across the parking lot.

Rubbing the back of his neck, he approached the police car where two uniformed officers questioned a young man about the runaway truck. Before Peter reached them, his cell phone rang. Now what? He yanked the phone from his pocket and looked at the caller ID. His boss, Richard Hiatt of Hiatt Construction, wasn’t going to be happy about this.

Perspiration trickling down his back, he answered the call. “Hello, Richard, I suppose you’ve heard about the accident at the Carson Corners project.”

“Yes, something about a truck.”

“Smashed right through the front window of one of the units. The police are investigating now.”

“I’m sure they’ll get to the bottom of it.”

“I’ll check into it.”

“Don’t bother. I’m sending Mark Becker over there to deal with it. He’s on his way. I’ve got something more important for you to do.”

“What’s that?”

“I’m up here in Alpharetta, and the traffic on Georgia 400 is stopped dead because of an accident. I’m supposed to be at the airport to meet Ashley in less than an hour. Even if traffic clears, I’m not going to make it. I want you to pick her up.”

Peter gripped the phone. Taking care of the boss’s daughter was the last thing he wanted to do, but Peter’s primary goal in life was to please his boss. “Isn’t Mark closer to the airport?”

“Yes, but Mark’s a stranger. She knows you.”

“Barely. Are you sure she remembers me?”

“At least you’ll be a familiar face. She’s never met Mark.” The concern was evident in Richard’s voice. “I feel terrible. Here she is, coming back after five years away from home, and I can’t be there.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.” With guilt nipping at his heels, Peter strode toward his silver SUV. Uneasiness replaced the guilt as he slipped behind the wheel. Richard Hiatt had mentored him through the construction business, and Peter didn’t want to take one step that would jeopardize their relationship or his rising opportunities with Hiatt Construction. “Does she have a cell phone?”

“No cell phone. No need for one of those in the African countryside. Besides, after the unrest started, she barely escaped with a few belongings.”

“That’s too bad.”

“I’m just grateful she’s fine.”

“How’s she going to know I’m picking her up instead of you?” Peter wondered whether he would recognize the girl he’d met on brief occasions in the years he’d worked for Hiatt.

You can make a sign with her name on it.”

“Okay, and I need her flight info.”

“I’ll have my assistant text you the information.”

“I’m on my way.” Peter started his car.

“Oh, and, Peter, when you bring Ashley home, I want you to stay for dinner. We have some things to discuss.”

What could his boss possibly want to talk about? Surely the man wouldn’t want to discuss business when his daughter had just returned. Impressions of Richard and his daughter Ashley raced through his head like the cars zooming down the interstate. Over the years, Peter had heard Richard say that he and Ashley didn’t agree on much. What was the state of their father-daughter relationship now? Before today, his boss hadn’t mentioned that she was coming home, much less that unrest in the country where she served as a missionary teacher had precipitated the return.

Had Ashley changed in five years? He had a vague memory of a tall, thin girl with an unruly mane of honey-colored hair and light brown eyes hidden behind owlish glasses that were always slipping down her freckled nose. She’d been just out of college when she left to serve on the mission field.

The questions flitted through Peter’s thoughts as he passed by Georgia Tech and The Varsity, Atlanta’s famous drive-in hamburger joint. The skyscrapers of downtown Atlanta loomed ahead, and he forced himself to pay attention to the traffic as a sea of red taillights spelled trouble. Stepping on the brake, he glanced at the clock on the dash. Ten minutes to one. Not only was Richard unable to be at the airport to meet his daughter, but it appeared that his stand-in wouldn’t be there to greet her, either.

 

***

 

Barely able to keep her eyes open, Ashley clung to the pole in the train as the automated voice announced the departure to the next concourse. Catnaps on what seemed like a never-ending plane ride hadn’t been much help over the past twenty-four hours. When the voice declared their arrival at baggage claim, she joined the crowd that surged out of the train and jostled to get on the escalators. Her backpack felt as though it weighed a ton.

When she stepped off the escalator, she glanced around the area, searching for her father. A large man with thick gray hair, he was easily identifiable, even in a crowd, but she didn’t see him. A sinking sensation hit her stomach when she spied the handsome man with medium-brown hair, clutching a makeshift sign with “Ashley Hiatt” written on it in bold, black letters. He looked much the same as the last time she’d seen him, except he now sported that scruffy unshaven look. She wondered if her dad approved.

Why was Peter Dalton here instead of her father? Ashley tried to smile, but it was hard to do, knowing her father couldn’t be bothered to come to the airport to greet her. After five years, how could he ignore the arrival of his only child?

Even the man her father had sent to get her was looking past her, as if she were invisible. She’d never been the type to attract the attention of a man like Peter. Growing up, she’d seen him numerous times at church or at her father’s social gatherings. He always had a beautiful woman on his arm.

Adjusting her backpack, she maneuvered her way through the crowd. But before she reached Peter, he glanced her way. His gaze held hers, and he smiled. She stopped. Her pulse raced, a completely unexpected reaction. She swallowed a lump in her throat as he continued toward her. Taking a deep breath, she gave him a little wave.

“Ashley.” His smile broadened into a grin. “I was afraid I wasn’t going to get here on time or find you when I did.”

“Well, you did.” He remembered her. Why did that please her? She pushed the question to the back of her mind.

“Your dad sent me to get you because—”

“I can see that.” Not wanting to hear her father’s excuses, she cut Peter off.

“Do you have luggage?”

“Just the backpack.”

“Would you like me to carry it for you?”

“Sure. It’s getting heavy.” Ashley shrugged out of the pack and handed it to him.

Their fingers brushed, and her pulse jumped again. Why was she having heart palpitations over Peter Dalton? Her reaction must be due to lack of sleep and the adrenaline rush that had come from her hurried departure from the place she’d called home for the last five years.

He lifted the backpack onto his shoulder. “Wow! You have rocks in here?”

Ashley laughed as they made their way toward the exit. “No. A few clothes and some books, but I was beginning to feel like it was filled with rocks, too.”

Hazel eyes twinkling, he laughed in return. “My car’s this way. Follow me.”

Ashley fell into step beside him as they walked toward the parking lot. “I suppose my dad was too busy working to—”

“Actually, he’s stuck in traffic up in Alpharetta. Some big accident on 400. He felt pretty awful about not being able to meet you.”

“Stuck in traffic,” Ashley repeated, barely above a whisper and wondered if that was really true. She hated doubting her father’s word, but he’d always been good at making excuses for missing important events in her life. After her mother died, her father had never been quite the same fun-loving man. He’d let work take over his life.

“Yeah. You can use my cell to call him if you’d like.” Peter unlocked his SUV and opened the passenger door.

“Thanks.” She climbed in and settled on the leather seat.

He held up the backpack. “Do you want this, or should I put it in the backseat?”

She reached for it. “I’ll take it.”

Their fingers brushed again. She steeled herself against her earlier reaction, but her pulse still raced. Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes.

“Tired?”

“A little.” She opened her eyes and glanced at Peter.

He held out his phone to her. “His number’s already up.”

“Thanks.” Ashley listened to the ringtone as they merged onto the highway.

Her father’s voice came over the phone. “Peter, you got my baby?”

“Daddy, it’s me. I’m using Peter’s cell. And I’m not your baby.”

Her father’s big, booming laugh sounded in her ear. “Ashley, sugar, you’ll always be my baby as long as I live. So sorry I didn’t make it to the airport. This Atlanta traffic gets worse every year.”

“That’s okay, Daddy.”

“No, it’s not okay, but I’ll make it up to you when you get home. I can hardly wait to see my baby girl.” He laughed again. “This traffic still isn’t moving. You’ll probably beat me home.”

“I’ll be glad to see you, too,” Ashley said, feeling much better. She should forget the past. This was a chance to have a new start.

“Remind Peter that I want him to stay for dinner, and have him stop so you can buy a few clothes.”

“He probably doesn’t have time for that.”

“Sure he does. You have to have something to wear until your things arrive from overseas.”

“Okay. I’ll see you in a little bit. ’Bye.” Ashley laid the phone in the nearby cupholder. “Daddy said to remind you that you’re supposed to stay for dinner.”

Peter kept his focus on the road. “What else did he say?”

Lying wasn’t an option, but she was tempted. If Peter was like most guys, he probably wanted to take her shopping about as much as he wanted to set his feet on fire.

She let out a sigh. “He said to stop so I can buy some clothes. I had to ship most of my stuff. With our rushed departure, I’m not sure if it’ll ever get here.”

“That’s tough, but there’s no problem stopping. Where do you want to shop? Perimeter Mall?”

“Just take me to that discount store close to our house.”

“Gotcha.”

Ashley studied him as he concentrated on his driving. He said he didn’t mind stopping, but did she detect irritation in his voice? Sometimes her father could be overbearing, but she thought she remembered Peter as a man who wasn’t intimidated by her father’s authoritative style. Yet Peter always seemed to do whatever her father asked.

But why, on her homecoming, had her father insisted they share dinner with a business associate? Wouldn’t it be better to have a private family reunion? Would they spend the time discussing business? She hoped not. She couldn’t figure out her father. Never could, probably never would.

“How does it feel to be back home?” Peter gave her a sideways glance.

“To be honest, I haven’t considered Atlanta home in a long time. I’m used to a simple life without a lot of the things people here take for granted—like air conditioning, TV and cell phones.”

“I had no idea your conditions were so primitive.”

“Primitive?” Ashley stifled a laugh. “Oh, I hardly call living without those things primitive. The missionaries had a very nice residence. But primitive conditions exist in some of the villages, where the people still live in grass huts. They have very few possessions. They taught me that material things aren’t the important things in life. You should hear them sing praises to God. Their voices are marvelous.”

“Your father said something about unrest in the country. What happened?”

Ashley closed her eyes and pressed her hand to her mouth in an effort to control her emotions.

“You don’t want to talk about it?”

Shaking her head, Ashley looked at Peter. Concern wrinkled his handsome brow. He seemed to understand her reaction, and she was surprised. She’d never had a very positive view of this man. He always seemed interested in money and beautiful women. In her opinion, “shallow” described him perfectly. But maybe he wasn’t shallow after all. “You can’t imagine what it was like. I already miss the people there so much. I know they’re in God’s hands, but it was hard to leave them. I’ve been praying constantly that they’ll be safe.”

“It was bad?”

Ashley nodded. “Daddy will want a report, so I’ll explain everything at dinner. I don’t think I can relive it twice.”

“Sure.”

“All I’ve ever wanted to do is serve God. Now I’m wondering what God wants for my life?” Leaving the mission field hadn’t been in her plans. She hoped the bitterness in her heart didn’t come across in her words.

“Maybe God wants you home with your father.”

Why would God want that? The question sat on the tip of her tongue, but she bit her bottom lip in order not to ask it. Peter couldn’t be right. Her father didn’t need her. He had everything money could buy.

Peter took the exit for Abernathy Road off of State Road 400. “Are you sure you only want to go to the discount store? The mall’s just down this road the other way.”

“The discount store will be quicker.”

“Whatever you say.”

“I hate that you have to do this.”

“I don’t mind. I can pick up a few things myself.”

As he turned into the parking lot and found a parking space near the main entrance, she wondered whether he really had shopping to do. Maybe he was just being polite. She hated feeling like a burden.

“I won’t be long,” she said as they entered the store.

“Take your time.” He motioned toward the women’s clothing section straight ahead. “I’ll meet you right over there when I’m finished.”

“You think you’ll be finished before I am?”

He chuckled. “I’ve never known a woman who could pick out clothes in the time it’ll take me to throw a few items into a cart.”

“Then you don’t know me.”

Grinning, he shook his head. “You’re right, but I still don’t think you can pick out your clothes faster than I can get the things I need.”

“We’ll see about that.” She grabbed a cart and hurried off while he went in the opposite direction. The grin he’d given her when he left was almost a smirk. He thought he knew so much about women. Well, he didn’t know about this woman. She’d show him that it didn’t take her forever to shop for clothes.

Speed was the most important part of this shopping trip. Hoping Peter wouldn’t notice them when they check out, Ashley plucked three packages of ladies’ briefs off the shelf and threw them in the cart, then added other items she needed, along with a comfortable-looking pajama set.

Next stop: sportswear. Feeling like one of those contestants in a shopping spree show, she wheeled her cart through the aisle, almost running into another shopper. She whipped through the rack of twill pants and selected two pairs in khaki and black, then two pairs of cropped pants, one navy blue and the other white. She scurried over to a tiered table with a display of knit tops and grabbed four in various colors.

Casting a glance over her shoulder, she strode into the dress section. No sign of Peter. That was good. She rifled through the sale rack and found a little black dress and a red shirtdress in her size and dumped them into the cart. As she sped toward the checkout, she noticed the shoes. Did she need shoes? She glanced at her comfortable, clunky sandals. They would have to do for now. Time was more important than shoes. She could get those later. Peter wasn’t going to win, even if she had to go barefoot.

While she contemplated her need for shoes, Peter came down the aisle. He pushed a nearly empty cart. The surprise on his face was priceless and worth going without shoes.

He stopped beside her. “You’re done?”

“Yes. How about you?” She fought the smile threatening to curve her lips. “I said you wouldn’t have to wait.”

Glancing at her cart, he chuckled halfheartedly. “Did you try any of that stuff on?”

“No.”

“Are you sure that’s wise?”

“It’ll be fine.” She maneuvered her cart into the checkout lane. When he went into another lane, she breathed a sigh of relief.

“Who gave you the lessons in speed shopping?” he asked as they exited the store.

“My dad.”

Laughing out loud, he unlocked his SUV. “That explains it.”

“Why? Have you been shopping with Daddy?”

“Not for clothes, but I went with him once when he was shopping for tools. He was in and out of the store before I’d found a place to park.”

“I come by it naturally then. Leisurely shopping isn’t in our genes.”

“I’ll remember that the next time I take you shopping.”

Yeah. Like there would be a next time. To her surprise, this little excursion had been kind of fun. The thought of there being a next time gave her a slight thrill of pleasure. She shook her head to clear her thoughts, unsure as to why Peter was making such an unexpected impression on her today.

Minutes later, Peter turned his SUV off Roswell Road. A sense of anticipation unsettled her, as they entered the subdivision surrounding the golf course where her father played every weekend. When Peter drove up the street leading to her childhood home, a lump formed in Ashley’s throat, while a strange pressure filled her chest.

Birch and pine trees surrounded the two-story, tan-brick house that sat on a hillside covered with English ivy. White dogwoods dressed the yard in lace. A lump rose in her throat when she saw the welcoming warmth of the red front door. She never expected this reaction to seeing this place again.

“Well, we’re here. Whose car is in the drive?”

Ashley shrugged. “It doesn’t belong to my dad?”

“I don’t recognize it.” Peter hurried around the front of the vehicle as Ashley got out. “When you talked with him, did he say anyone would be at the house?”

“No. He only told me we’d probably beat him here.” Adjusting the backpack on her shoulder, she grabbed the bags of clothing from the back seat.

“Do you need help with your stuff?”

She looked up at him, and noticed again how handsome he was. She smiled and shook her head. “No, thanks. I’ve got it.” She lowered her gaze and turned toward the front door, wondering again who she would find on the other side.