Just the Way You Are
After surviving a fire, Noelle Walker is finished with undergoing unsuccessful operations to eliminate facial scars and to restore the use of her hand. Her neighbor, owing his life to Noelle's selfless rescue, finances her Valselo pilgrimage where she might experience the living presence of the Mother of God. Noelle silently prays to receive the miracle of self-acceptance so that she might live normally despite her gnawing self-consciousness about her appearance. When she meets the handsome Shane Thompson, his avid, romantic attention makes Noelle believe that perhaps miracles do happen in the quaint Adriatic village. The renowned maxillofacial surgeon doesn't seem to care that her hand is crippled and her face is scarred-that is until he claims he can give her "her miracle." Noelle survived the fire, but will she survive her broken heart after concluding Shane's interest is conditional on fixing her appearance? Will Shane acknowledge that only God can perform miracles, and can he convince Noelle that he loves her regardless of her scars, and not because of them?
Two Years Earlier
“What will it be tonight? Calorie conscious or guilty conscience?” Noelle assessed the contents of her nearly bare freezer. “After the day I had in the classroom, deep-dish pizza it is.” She withdrew the pizza from the freezer compartment, worked the cardboard lid off the aluminum pan and placed the pie on a cookie sheet. Carrying the tray over to the kitchen counter nearest the stove, she tapped the buttons to preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
“I’ll share a piece with Mr. Jarvis when it’s done. Even though he won’t appreciate it. The miserable old coot doesn’t have the words, thank or you, in his vocabulary.” Amused, she grinned. “And I’ll stop talking to myself now.”
Pacing across the tiny galley kitchen to the dainty, ice cream parlor table in the corner, Noelle slid a packet of papers out of her briefcase to grade before dinner. The oven beeped and she retraced her steps back to the stove, placed the cookie sheet on the middle rack, set the timer and carried it with her down the hall to her bedroom. Soaking in a bubble bath seemed a far more attractive use of pre-dinner time than extending her workday in evaluating the results of the pop quiz that had her students in an uproar that afternoon.
The half hour she allotted for relaxation flew. As Noelle tugged on her favorite sweatshirt and leggings the smell of smoke spurred her to race into the kitchen.
Grabbing an oven mitt from a drawer, she turned the oven off, yanked open the door and lifted a perfectly cooked pizza off the rack. Puzzled, she placed the tray on a trivet.
Although she couldn’t detect the source, the pungent aroma of a grease fire increased. Digging inside her purse, she located her cell phone, and then slid open the patio door. Cell phone in hand, Noelle scanned the area outside her ground floor condo. No plumes of smoke curled from autumn bonfires near the street, and the tree-lined property appeared tranquil and undisturbed. But acrid fumes pinched her nostrils. The hair on the back of her neck stood signaling imminent danger.
When Noelle noticed a thin stream of black smoke snaking from under her neighbor’s door, she dialed 911 and ducked back inside the kitchen. Shrugging her right shoulder up to balance the phone against her ear, she stuffed papers and her laptop inside her briefcase and then slung the strap over her shoulder.
The call connected while she was in motion towards her door. “911. What is your emergency?”
“My name is Noelle Walker. Smoke is issuing from my neighbor’s condo. Four-sixty-four Ogden Avenue, unit number seventy-five, Naperville. Please send help immediately. My neighbor is handicapped and is confined to a wheelchair.” Noelle’s voice quavered in squeaky bursts as she flung open her door.
“Stay calm, Ms. Walker. I’ll alert the fire department and police. They should be there soon.”
“Thank you.” Noelle disconnected the call, dumped her briefcase against the baseboard in the outer hallway, and sprinted to her neighbor’s front door.
“Mr. Jarvis, can you hear me?” Terrified, she pounded on the door. “Mr. Jarvis!”
The smoke detector alarm blatted within her neighbor’s condo. She grabbed the spare key off the top ledge of the doorframe and unlocked the door. A curtain of black smoke obscured her field of vision. Dear God. Please help me. Wrenching the waistband of her sweatshirt to cover her mouth and nose, Noelle barreled through the smoke into the apartment.
“Mr. Jarvis! Mr. Jarvis, answer me!”Her eyes stung and watered, heightening the nightmarish disorientation.
“Over here!” came a guttural cry.
She located the man, who sagged in his wheelchair, head in hands, outside the kitchen’s entrance. Noelle lightly tapped the wheelchair’s handles to make sure they weren’t scalding hot. Then she grasped them firmly and shoved the chair toward the door.
His hands clutched the wheels, braking abruptly. “I can’t find Trudy,” he sputtered. A fit of coughing shook the chair.
“Let go, Mr. Jarvis. I have to get you out of here,” Noelle rasped, her throat burning.
“Her chop meat…on the stove…”
“It will be all right. Just let me get you outside.” She shoved and met resistance as he clenched his hands harder on the wheels. “I’m not leaving without Trudy.”
Let go you impossible old man! The smoke alarm continued to bleat a discordant racket. Woozy, every breath searing, she leaned over attempting to disengage his hands. “I’ll come back for her. We need air now!”
“Promise?” he wheezed.
He folded his hands and Noelle propelled the chair into the hallway, nearly colliding with Liz and Jim Munson who lived on the other side of Noelle’s condo.
“Here.” Noelle let go of the chair handles. “Take him outside. I have to go find his dog.”
“No, wait for the firemen!” Liz yelled as Noelle spun on her heel and reentered the smoke-filled apartment, determined to keep her promise.
Crouching, Noelle scanned the floor hoping to spy the dog under the furniture. Flames consumed the kitchen curtains, flickering torches oozing jet-black smoke. Crawling down the hallway toward the bedroom Noelle hollered, “Trudy! Here Trudy!”
Please God, let me find this sweet animal. The smoke is too thick. I can’t see. Please lead me.
The floor plan here was identical to her unit, and Noelle instinctively maneuvered down the hallway to enter the bedroom. Flames danced on the drapes. The hem of the bed skirt quivered. Flat on her stomach, Noelle reached under the bed encountering the trembling body of the miniature Boston terrier. She reached out. “Come here little one. I am not going to hurt you.”
A warm tongue lapped her hand and then the dog scooted out. Noelle captured the wiggly animal and cuddled her in her arms. Lifting the dog as she rose, a flaming cloth fell onto her right shoulder. Intense heat seemed to swallow her as the bedclothes ignited. Noelle lunged from the flames, sent up a quick prayer, and blindly skittered in a low crouch toward a way out, the dog tucked under her arm.
Light. Stomping thundered in her ears. Cold air filled her lungs as she gagged against the piercing pain. The dog yelped. And then a smothering blackness. Rolling, rolling. An awful smell of roasting meat. Weightlessness and then a jarring landing. Something hard covered her nose and mouth.
“ Thank you.” Mr. Jarvis’s phlegmy voice.
Screams. Who’s screaming? Incessant howls. God, please help whoever is screaming.
Although he might have sailed by all his fellow airplane passengers twenty minutes ago, first class, priority, boarding pass in hand, Shane delayed embarking until the final call. Experience had taught him that his long legs ached less at arrival if he strolled the airport concourses before long stretches of confinement on international flights. Shane couldn’t avoid the lengthy travel time from Chicago to Frankfurt, that went from an overnight stopover, on to Split, and then a rumbling ride onboard the bus to the remote Adriatic village that was his destination. He was eager to arrive in Valselo.
“All aboard, Dr. Thompson,” Celia called. She was one of the many gate attendants Shane knew by name.
Passing through the plane’s cabin door with a bent head to shrink his six two frame for clearance, Shane found his usual seat: starboard, second row, aisle, and away from the portholes. Hopefully, the woman who already occupied the window seat would cooperate and share his preference to close the window shade immediately after take-off.
Ensconced in his first-class pod, Shane toed off his boots and kicked them alongside his duffel on the floor. He accepted a flute of champagne, dewy with condensation, from the flight attendant and then offered it to the lady across the aisle.
“Miss, would you care for a glass of champagne?”
“Uh… Sure.” She raised her head from the book in her lap and focused on Shane.
When her huge green eyes met his, his heart somersaulted and his breath caught in his throat. Shane had seen the rolling, verdant hills in Ireland, painted in green hues so bold and brilliant he could almost taste the rich color on his tongue. The Emerald Isle paled in comparison to her eyes.
His hands went clammy as he handed her the plastic flute and plucked another from the tray the flight attendant suspended near his ear. Unable and unwilling to tear his gaze from hers, he smiled and extended his glass forward for a toast.
Interpreting the overture, she tapped her glass against his, those enchanting eyes upturned beneath long bangs. Glossy auburn hair curtained her cheeks.
Either shy or quizzical.
“To a safe journey,” Shane declared as he gulped a swig of the effervescent drink. He set the glass on the console that separated them. “I sincerely hope you and I are heading to the same place, although I highly doubt it.”
A tiny frown line creased her brow as she abandoned her untouched drink. “I’m just going to read for a while if you don’t mind.” With a swing of silky hair she turned back to her book.
Then Shane noticed the pocked pattern of scar tissue on her right cheek extending up around the eye socket and under a rim of bangs. Similar scarring continued down the right side of her face and neck where a soft, jade green sweater skimmed the too-taut skin. Registering the balled, right hand curled within a smooth, unmarred left hand, Shane surmised a fire or chemical’s path of assault on this lovely woman’s flesh. He noted the surgeon’s telltale tracks, too. Not bad skin grafts, overall. But I could eliminate all visible puckering.
Nothing, however, detracted from those exquisite, soulful eyes or the mystical magnetism she exuded, seemingly unintentionally. Her gaze now flicked in his direction, and then away with an apparently irritated clench of her jaw. Perhaps she’d observed his clinical assessment.