White Water Preacher
Kelli Martin needs out—out of San Francisco, out of the advertising rat race, out of a dead end relationship.
She washes up in Roaring River, Nevada, in every way about as far from Frisco as Mars is from Venus. Roaring River gives her a roaring headache. Every person is an exasperation, the most popular dish in town is fried zucchini, and the river's out to get her. The one thing the place has going for it is Spencer Tulane. The man preaches a fine sermon, brings dead things to life, and looks great in flannel. Oh, and he guides rafting parties down the aforementioned river of death. Fortunately, Kelli did not leave her heart in San Francisco—only her brains. Once again, she heads for the exit, only to discover that the door swings just one way.
Did I mention the flannel?
She halted in her tracks.
The man belonging to the voice coming from the open office door had someone with him and made no attempt to conceal their conversation. He must think he’s alone. The ancient clapboard church, high ceilings, thin walls, and linoleum floors did little to muffle either his words or their meaning. If anything, they echoed embarrassingly loud.
“Don’t you worry, sweetheart. I think you’re the prettiest thing on legs. Such gorgeous eyes…the soft curve of your neck…”
Kelli Martin slowly edged back toward the double oak front doors of Riverside Chapel. She should leave.
“…so smooth, so velvety soft. Yes, yes, I know and I love you, too, little honey. It’s been such a long time…”
In a church of all places! Does the man have no shame?
Unfamiliar with the surroundings, she clumsily hooked a green canvas boat shoe under the claw-footed coat tree near the doors, just managing to grab it before it caromed off the polyethylene folding table supporting a stack of metal offering plates. Still, the ensuing clatter ricocheted off the linoleum like dropped buckets at a funeral.
“Miss Martin, is that you?”
She bit her lip and sidled toward escape.
“I watched you come across the lawn just now. Please, won’t you join us?”
The nerve! She thought San Francisco cornered the market on brazen. Apparently, small town America wasn’t far behind. Maybe this is the way they conduct their private affairs in the boondocks.
“Please, I’ve wanted to meet you.”
Doesn’t he draw the line anywhere, a man of his position in the community?
She’d been seen; she had to say something. “No, that’s all right. I didn’t mean to disturb you,” she called. “You have someone with you. I’ll just, uh, come back another time.” She turned, one hand on the crash bar, one foot poised for a dash into the early October Nevada sunshine.
“Nonsense, I want you to meet Katherine, and she wants to meet you. Besides, I’ve been thinking about what you asked on the phone, and I think I can help. Only keep you a minute.”
It was a strong voice, baritone, part politician, part Ponderosa. There was a tinge of something else. Amusement? Kelli sighed. It wouldn’t be the first exasperating thing about the town. Roaring River, Nevada, was proving itself a bee’s nest of contradictions.
She took a steadying breath. She couldn’t not meet the man. According to half the people in Roaring, he was Mr. Everything, including spiritual leader and town answer man. No matter what sweet nothings he dispensed on the side, if this mad decision of hers had a hope of working, they needed to be introduced. She didn’t have to like it.
Then why had she liked the way he’d said, “I’ve been thinking about what you asked…?” Ruggedly smooth. Smoothly rugged. Easy on the ears…Get a grip, Martin!
“Yes. Right,” she muttered and squared her shoulders. Conduct your business and be gone.
She hesitated only slightly at the office doorway. The sign above it read: Pastor’s Study. She entered.
He languished in a straight-backed mahogany slat chair out of the ’30s, tipped precariously back on two spindly supports. The Reverend Spencer Tulane was six feet of blue flannel, faded denim, and battered black boots soled in a deep tread so clotted with soil, sand, and gravel, she half expected to see native plants taking root. The desktop beneath the boots was a tangle of papers, empty used coffee mugs, crumbling dirt clods, and a stiffening, half-eaten glazed doughnut once the size of a salad plate.
His lean, tanned expression was a mix of good cheer, barely disguised curiosity, and—was she reaching?—self-satisfaction, as if he’d just won a ten dollar pool hall bet. She’d seen that same smug look on any number of rising young stars in the advertising world. Usually it changed soon enough into stricken, hangdog defeat when they sobered to the realization that only the fittest survived and Kelli Martin was pretty fit.
Still, there was nothing of failure about this man. Curly black hair, dusky gray eyes crinkled at the corners with pleasant laugh lines, firm jaw peppered by a day’s stubble. In his lap, granting her an imperious blue-eyed stare, lay one enormous tawny-coated, long-haired Siamese cat in tooled black leather collar studded with rhinestones and dangling a dainty silver bell.
Reverend Tulane stared at Kelli a moment too long before swinging his booted feet and three sheets of correspondence to the floor. He ignored the papers, hoisted the big cat in his left arm, and stuck out a strong, worn right hand with a large turquoise signet ring on the fourth finger.
With mild interest, she noted there was no ring on the corresponding finger of the left hand.
“Where’s my manners? Miss Martin, I’m Spencer Tulane, and this fine feline is none other than Katherine the Great. Not Kate, too common; not Katie, too familiar; but Katherine the Great, empress of Russia, 18th century.” The Siamese ignored the showy introduction and squeezed its eyes shut in what Kelli took for royal displeasure.
“She doesn’t like having her morning scratch interrupted,” Spencer explained apologetically.
Kelli looked at the cat and flushed pink at the thoughts she had so recently entertained. He saw, and she saw that he saw. He looked from Kelli to Katherine, and back to Kelli. “Sheesh, I’m sorry, you must have…it’s just that Katherine doesn’t like people to use baby talk when they speak to her, so I tell her what I think straight out like I’m talking to a person. She’s the church cat and I…uh…she…uh…we haven’t connected in awhile. I’ve been so busy taking folks downriver…”
Kelli looked away, right at a stuffed hawk on a filing cabinet. The raptor stared back in frozen, yellow-eyed reproach.
The cat struggled, and Spencer placed her gently in the windowsill. Katherine sat and curled a handsome tail around her feet as if it, too, must obey. The inscrutable, bewhiskered expression revealed little interest in hem-hawing humans.
“Whew!” Spencer ran a hand through his hair, then grabbed another chair from next to the filing cabinet. He blew the dust off the seat, plunked the chair on the side of the desk opposite his own, evidently thought better of it, plunked it down near his chair, thought twice, scooted it a more proper two feet farther back, then motioned for her to “Please sit. Don’t they say nowadays never put a desk between you and a visitor ’cause it appears you have power and they have…uh…none?” He laughed nervously. “Power. What a word.”
Kelli wondered what that was all about but thought she had better take what dignity she had left and get to the point. He’d twisted enough, although she did think that discomposure in one so physically imposing was oddly appealing.
“I appreciate you taking the time to see me, Pastor Tulane.”
She hesitated. The roar of the river that ran its course just beyond the church penetrated even here. It sounded now very much like her carefully prepared speech, so much white noise. “Pastor Spence?” she groped. Why was she behaving so tentatively around this man?
“Pastor nothing, ma’am. We don’t go in much for titles here. Had a town manager once, from outside. Reno, believe it was. Robert Buchanan was so hung up on formalities that he insisted on being called Manager Buchanan. Sheesh, folks started calling him something all right. About the nicest name was Comptroller Bob, but he didn’t last long. Besides, I’m just the interim pastor. Have been for three years.”
“That’s a pretty long interim,” she said, glancing at her watch. Something else annoyed her. He had called her “ma’am.” Did he think her old?
“Yeah, well,” he said, his grin bright, but pleasingly shy, “that’s the way Roaring works. Most folks around here are part-time something. Me, I’m part-time preacher, part-time river guide, a little taxidermy on the side, and now, part-time postmaster since the full-time one bunged her hip slipping on a wet leaf in the garden. Can you picture that? She’s outlived a husband and half this town and gets ambushed by a wet leaf! She’s a tough old bird that Lotti, but she doesn’t heal like she used to, and she’s got a ward to look after. I’m sorting the town mail, Ben Rush is working on her roof, Fiona comes in once a week to clean…”
“Pastor…” Kelli started, then stopped. He held up a finger in mock reproof. “Excuse me, Spence,” she continued, “I don’t mean to be rude, but I’ve got some other errands to run so if we could just get to the matter I called you about…”
She trailed off because it was obvious he was not listening. Face clouded, eyes distant, he stared out the window in a pose not unlike the cat’s.
He spoke softy, an odd distance in the words. “This was an errand, you coming here today?” He looked at her suddenly, propped elbows on the arms of the chair, tented his fingers, and leaned forward earnestly. “As soon as you’re done with this chore, you’re just going to check it off the list? Bread? Check. Gas? Check. Job? Check.”
“No, I didn’t mean it like that.” She was taken aback at his directness. “I just meant that I have to—to…” What? Under his intense gaze, her “to do” list shrank to an insignificant scrap.
Some independent woman she’d turned out to be. Peter had been right. She couldn’t last in the middle of nowhere. The longer Kelli was in Roaring, the more the whole escape to Hicksville seemed a bad idea. She and this town were mismatched from the start. Enough people had made that abundantly clear.
What she had imagined as Norman Rockwell’s America turned out to be a tiny, narrow-minded, tight-knit bump in the road that was lost in time, full of eccentrics and seething with suspicions. She should just get back on the bus, limp back to the city, and admit the whole idea had been an experiment in futility. They’d give her her old job back. Maybe.
He was looking at her with, what, sympathy? Up close, the sunlight streamed in the curtained window and flooded him in shafts of yellow. She saw the sparkling flecks in his eyes, a fleeting glimpse like the golden fireflies on a warm summer’s night at her aunt’s home in Tennessee. She liked the way he rolled back his sleeves a couple of turns. The forearms were deeply tanned and thickly muscled.
“It’s OK,” Spence said. “I see it all the time in the folks who come here for a day or a weekend of rafting thrills. They think they’ve left the city behind, but they wear it like a straight jacket. Impatient, demanding, everything by the clock. They laugh and scream their heads off when we buck the white water and get drenched in waves of snowmelt straight off the Sierras, but you dare to beach a quarter hour late, and they’re crying for a refund. They’re wound too tight. When I fished one Chicago guy’s hide out of the drink because he’d stood up in the raft when I told him not to, he threatened to sue me for unsafe conditions! We did not send him home with an apple pie, as my grandma used to say.”
Kelli’s smile tightened. Despite the man’s pointed assumptions, which revealed a rural prejudice that dogged her every step in this town, she was determined not to lose composure. “My Aunt Ethel always said, ‘Don’t let the barn door smack your good side on the way out.’” Kelli wondered where she’d dug that up. Her favorite aunt, dead just four years, lately hadn’t occupied her thoughts much at all. Why should a first meeting with a pinewoods pastor, part-time at that, unleash selective memories?
“Guess maybe my expectations are a little out of tune with the town,” she went on, wishing now that she had left the expensive green and yellow silk floral blouse and cream Donna Karan pants at home. This wasn’t like applying for a job at some upscale agency. When in Rome, it wouldn’t hurt to own one flannel and denim outfit.
Spence leapt to his feet. “Would you like coffee?” He took two strides to an ancient coffee maker that had been blinking red and sighing mournfully every thirty seconds or so. “Elmer was in to fix the rainspouts yesterday. I’m sure he made this then. Cream or sugar?”
Though she would kill for a double tall mint chocolate breve with whip, she suspected the closest one of those was a mountain range and a couple of valleys away. “Sure,” she said gamely, “a bit of both, please.” She didn’t have to drink, simply stir.
He began to pour, swirl, and sing under his breath what may have been a blend of “Oh, Susanna” and “Dixie.” Kelli couldn’t be sure. She thought she heard, “She’ll be coming around the mountain in the land of cotton,” but whatever it was, it was happy.
Clearly, she had ruffled the man’s feathers.
She took the sturdy navy blue mug he offered, noting the scars on the fingers and back of his hand, then quickly diverted her attention to the crossed gold pickaxes embossed on the ceramic. The words “Comstock Lode,” also in gold, circled the rim.
She flinched back from the steaming brew. “Much mining around here?” she asked. So much for her to-do list.
He settled back at the desk and took a scalding gulp of the sludge from a thick, cracked white mug that looked as if it might once have been used for shaving. Kelli winced, but Spence showed no signs of harm. Katherine flicked her tail with scant enthusiasm. The bell tinkled daintily.
“You bet. Silver mines south of here. Hand-dug turquoise and salt mines to the east. Obsidian, opalite, chalcedony, agate, jasper, and quartz all through the state. Once a year, I go to the school at Big Rock and lecture the junior high kids on mineralogy and taxidermy.”
She breathed the aroma of strong coffee and caught herself just before taking a reflexive sip. “You sound as if you know something about it.”
He sighed longingly. “Thought at one time I’d go in with another fella and open a small placer mining operation, but you really need someone to watch the numbers, not my strong suit, and the price of gold and silver’s not what it used to be. I had big dreams, but come right down to it, they weren’t based in a whole lot of reality.”
“I get that,” she said with a nod. “All I knew for eight years were brand identities, power packaging, and campaign pitches. That’s a real art you know. Nowadays they call it ‘pitchcraft’ or ‘the art of the pitch.’ Land one major corporate account and your agency could rocket to the top. Lose one, and you’re on a cordless bungee jump to oblivion.”
Had she heard herself just say “nowadays”?
He eyed her over the top of his mug. “You ever lose one?”
“No, not really. I was lucky. Oh, I see what you’re getting at. I must have lost one and they banished me to outer Roaring River.”
“Sorry,” he said, “let me state it more positively. Did you ever land one?”
It was her turn to eye him. She met a beautiful smile that radiated warmth. Excellent oral hygiene. Still, there was a hint of something else in his words, something in a minor key. Though momentary, pain flashed across the soft, penetrating eyes. Despite herself, Kelli gave an involuntary shiver. Why should she be unnerved by Pastor Spencer Tulane and his past? It was none of her business. “Yes, actually, I was quite good at what I did, and we had a great team. Our star was rising.”
He waited, blowing on his coffee, watching her with what she thought was more than professional interest. Weren’t clergy, even temporary ones, supposed to maintain a beneficent distance from those who sought their counsel?
“I…I was pretty driven, life was passing me by, and certain relationships were taking their toll,” she continued. “I had a decent savings and stock portfolio, so I decided to make a break before I got broken. I landed here because though it’s barely over the border, it is technically a state away and as far from San Francisco as I could go without landing in the desert. I don’t do deserts.”
He set down his mug and actually applauded. “Bravo! Too many stressed out, strung out, burned out hulks have washed up in Roaring thinking this place will give them back everything they sold to the devil in the city. You’re different. You knew when to call a halt and you did it before the damage was irreparable. And you are the only one who has ever come to me asking if there’s anything you can do around here to redeem the time you’ve been given. What can you do?”
She was taken aback at the abruptness of the question. “Excuse me?”
He seemed not in the least phased by her surprise. “What kinds of work suit you?”
She thought a moment. “Well, as I said, I know advertising. I can design catalogs, produce client comps, develop creative programs, do media buys, manage client budgets—“
“Excellent,” he interjected, “the perfect set of skills for life in Roaring.” She looked, but saw no sign of sarcasm on the sincere, welcoming face.
“I want to suggest three jobs for you, each of which pays dividends, just maybe not what you might expect. You’re free to accept or reject any of them, of course, but if you truly want to fit in here, and you’d like to make better sense of both the past and the future, I think you should give them serious thought.”
Kelli’s annoyance at his presumptions, accurate as they were, and at her quickness to confide in him about the recent past, vulnerable as it made her appear, was quickly replaced with surprise. Who’d have guessed there was so much opportunity in Roaring River, and in her line of work? “Go on.”
“The job that pays money,” Spence said, eyeing her closely, “is helping harvest a large vegetable garden for the postmaster. That woman has a prize-winning green thumb, but she doesn’t know when to stop. She could feed half the county with what she grows, and does. But with that hip near broken, she stays pretty close to the bed nowadays. Barbara, her niece, is a visiting nurse, but with only one doctor hereabouts she doesn’t have the time to…”
“Slow down a minute, reverend. Nobody said anything about picking anything.”
Kelli felt that all she had been was irritated from the time she first rolled into town on the Greyhound three weeks before. Now here she was getting angry again. “This town wouldn’t warm up to a blow torch. I’ve had nothing but cold looks and gossip behind my back. Let them think what they want, but I’m not about to tell them my private affairs. I told you my work experience is strictly professional. Now somebody around here must need a sign designed or a newspaper ad conceptualized. The Comstock Commentator must run ads, so how does a girl land a job like that?”
She felt lousy. Thirty minutes with the pastor and she was ranting like a sea hag. She should have left when she thought he was seducing the secretary. Stupid cat!
The dead hawk, stiffened in attack mode, glared in steely silence.
Spence gulped more coffee and kept his gaze steady. “Truth is, a girl doesn’t land a job like that. Not here. You’ve probably noticed that the signs in this town haven’t been replaced since Eisenhower was a pup. If they did replace them, they’d get a man to do it because it comes under What Men Do, not under What Women Do. Now, you can beat your head against a wall and try to change a hundred years of Roaring, or you can find out what Roaring’s like and try to fit in with it.”
She blinked at the effrontery, but he wasn’t through.
“That said, the second job I’d like you to consider is a volunteer position on the pastoral search committee. We could use a smart cookie, uh, an intelligent person like yourself, I mean, someone from outside who can help us tap into some quality candidates. You know, a little third party objectivity?”
This man took the prize. Was he listening? “Look, pastor, I appreciate your willingness to help, but in the first place, it’s been years since I’ve darkened the door of any church, much less yours, and in the second, I don’t know what you believe or what type of person would be qualified to lead this congregation.”
He held up a hand. “Miss Martin, God doesn’t choose people to do his work on the same basis that the world chooses. He uses willing vessels…”
This time Kelli held up a manicured hand. “Not only is this vessel not willing, this vessel is sinking. I’ve been fired upon and my hull’s full of holes, and all I want is a few hours a day doing some mindless task until I can feel more at home here. Let me sort Roaring’s mail or make this town a decent pot of coffee. Please!”
Spence reached back and scratched Katherine behind the ears. She squeezed mysterious blue eyes and gave him a look that telegraphed her royal sympathies. The look said the lady visitor was quite obviously a handful.
Kelli felt like yanking the cat’s imperial tail and chiding its lack of fashion sense. Rhinestones indeed.
Without a word, Spence took Kelli’s mug of coffee out of her hands and set it on the sill next to Katherine. The cat sniffed the contents, gave the handle a lick, and squeezed its eyes shut again. In her frayed state, Kelli was strangely moved by the feline gesture.
Spence folded his arms across a broad chest. Flannel did wonders for him. “People in Roaring don’t like having their mail touched by strangers. So that just leaves my third offer, one you cannot refuse. You are appointed the official coffee-maker for the church. I’ll even buy a new machine of your choice if you consent to attend Sunday worship this weekend. Deal?”
She looked to be certain he was serious. He was.
Without a moment’s hesitation, she rose from the chair, thanked him for his time, and crossed the room to the door. She stopped, slowly turned to face him, and before she could stop herself, said the exact opposite of what she was thinking. “Yes, reverend, that I can. It will do the town good to see that I’m not entirely a godless heathen. You get the coffee maker in before then, any make as long as it’s new. I’ll stop for some fresh coffee on the way. Doughnuts?”
He nodded approval. “Arletha at the bakery brings them. Gets up early Sunday mornings to make them fresh for church. Service is at ten thirty. And please, Miss Martin, call me Spence. I’m not ordained or anything, just a year of Bible school.”
Kelli nodded. “All right, Spence, as long as you agree to call me Kelli. Miss and ma’am mess with my self-esteem.”
He laughed his agreement, and the way he did it made her face flush again. Am I coming down with something?
“OK. And just so you know, the search committee meets here Tuesday night at seven, and the vegetable garden’s not far from here. I can take you.”
She gave a dismissive wave and headed for the exit. “Thank you for your suggestions. I’ll need to think about those offers.”
“Oh and another thing, Kelli?”
She stopped at the coat tree and looked back.
He leaned in the doorway of the Pastor’s Study, silhouetted by the sun. “What people say about you may not be half as negative as you think. And lastly, green and yellow flatter you something fierce.”
Kelli gave a weak wave and left the church with a nagging suspicion that she may have met her match.