Sterling Lakes Series, Book 3: Praise of the Heart by Regina Andrews
Spiritual malaise permeates the hearts of the residents of a scenic small town with a troubled past, tenuous present, and an uncertain future.
Librarian Laura Matthewson is content to stay far out of the limelight. But when pro baseball star Cliff Markham returns home to Sterling Lakes to help with the St. Luke’s Church Renovation fundraiser, will she be able to resist the magnetic power of the Sterling Lakes’ hometown hero?
Revised and re-issued
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GENRE: Inspirational Romance ISBN: 978-1-922233-20-2 ASIN: 1922233218 Word Count: 47, 098
As he viewed the scene in the St. Luke’s Vacation Bible School picnic area, Cliff ‘Clean-Up’ Markham adjusted the brim of his baseball cap and said a silent prayer of Thanksgiving. You brought me back here to Sterling Lakes, Lord, safe and sound again after another year.
He eyed the somber children sitting dutifully on benches in a group. Not all of them are as fortunate as I’ve been. One of the gifts You gave me is enthusiasm for life. So let’s liven up this place. Help me impart the joy of Your spirit, Lord.
Bounding across the lawn on the long legs that’d been key in his career as a major league baseball outfielder, Cliff cried, “Play ball!”
Every head turned his way and soon the lush lawn was a kaleidoscope of color and motion as youngsters flew to him in excitement.
JB Norwood, head of the St. Luke’s Vacation Bible School and a resident fairly new to Sterling Lakes, exclaimed, “It’s Cliff Markham! He’s back for another Bible Camp!”
“Clean-Up!” A laughing group of children swarmed him.
“There you are, Russell. Jeremy, whoa, you got tall. Hey, Margaret, how’ve you been? Say, Bucky, what’s up?”
“It’s Billy now,” the boy replied, kicking the ground.
“Right. Good to know.”
Cliff reviewed the sea of faces before him–some familiar to him and others new from last year’s session. In each expression he read hope, youth, goodness…and a desperate need for direction as well as connection.
Movement from the edge of the grass caught his attention and drew it helplessly. Whoever she was, she was unusually tall, wearing a blue dress that swirled around her knees in the light breeze and resembling something that could have been conjured from a painting of celestial beings.
She walks in beauty… Cliff found himself fighting to catch a breath as she moved toward them. Her long, dark hair blew behind her with her every graceful step. She smiled once she reached them, and Cliff easily could have believed the ground shuddered under his feet at her approach.
Not often in his twenty-six years had Cliff Markham been brought up short. Since his hard work had paid off, life had become his own personal game with plenty of fun, baseball, travel, and beautiful women. With his natural charm and ease combined with a successful career, good times were a given. But he’d yet to find someone who shared his values and goals.
A challenge radiated from the woman’s coffee brown eyes, stopping him dead in his tracks. I think I’m in trouble here.
He took a few steps toward her, struggling for an instant to remember the name JB had provided when he arrived in town few hours ago for Vacation Bible School. He held out his hand. “We haven’t been properly introduced, Miss Matthewson. I’m Cliff Markham. I grew up in Sterling Lakes and play baseball with the Tampa Bay Stingrays these days.”
“I grew up here as well.”
“Did you? I can’t quite recall–“
“We weren’t in the same grade. I was several grades behind you. My brother was closer in age to you. Call me Laura. I work at the Sterling Lakes Library.”
When she shook his hand, Cliff felt its softness and warmth. On its heels, he caught the floral scent of her perfume dancing on the breeze. He grinned. “You’re a lot different from the librarian who was here when I was a kid.”
Laura’s eyes crinkled when she laughed with him. “I remember. And I’ve been told that before.”
“Have you now? Maybe we could talk about it over dinner tonight?”
“Hey, we gonna play or what?” Russell called impatiently, socking a baseball in his mitt repeatedly.
Smoothly, she turned to the boy, saying, “Russell’s right.” She glanced back long enough to say softly over her shoulder, “I don’t think dinner is possible, Mr. Markham. I’m on duty at the library and, alas, there’s no one to fill in for me. But thank you for the invitation.”
“Cliff. And anything is possible, Laura. All Christians know that, right?”
All right, let her go this time. I’ll get to her later.
An hour later, the kids shuffled into formation and headed toward the entrance of the brick schoolhouse. JB hustled over to him and shook his hand vigorously. “So good of you to come back during your only break in the season, Cliff.”
“I wouldn’t miss this for the world. The All-Star break is made for guys like me to go out and do something meaningful. Just wish I had more time to give.”
“Let me tell you, we’ll take whatever we can get. The kids love you, and the adults are absolutely drooling. They can’t wait for the big fundraiser on Friday night.”
“I’m looking forward to it, too,” Cliff said, his tone thoughtful.
They walked across the grassy side yard of St. Luke’s church. Mounds of dirt, walls of plywood, 2x4s, and heavy duty construction equipment filled the parking area. Yellow ‘caution’ tape sealed the church area off from the public. “There seems to be progress on the renovation project. How’s it going?”
JB shrugged. “Okay, I guess. Seems we’ve run into a few issues. An unhappy faction from Clarke’s Falls says our project will affect their town because the stream runs right through our renovation area.” He pointed across the parking area to a gently sloping hillock with water sparkling in the background.
“Sounds like history repeating itself to me. Clarke’s Falls has always been testy about the water issue between our two towns.” Cliff fiddled with the brim of his cap. “Goes way back to probably before you moved here, JB. The bad blood between Sterling Lakes and Clarke’s Falls doesn’t seem to go away. Worst time was quite a few years ago when someone in Clarke’s Falls built a dam upstream of the city reservoir and blocked the water from getting to Sterling Lakes. Nearly destroyed the town.”
“Well, we can’t let that happen again. This isn’t some hick town in an undeveloped nation. Politics and economics are involved.”
Cliff raised an eyebrow, grinning soberly. “And religion.”
JB sighed, not disputing him.
“Let me go get settled at my hotel, and I’ll catch up with you back here later to start my classes.”
They shook hands again and the VBS coordinator said, “Sounds good.”
“Let’s try that one again, okay?” Laura Matthewson focused on the sea of shining faces sitting on the floor around her piano. “Ready?”
She played the introduction to the song and counted, “Three, two, one…” Immediately a chorus of angel voices rang through the room. Billy kept pounding the rhythm on his tambourine. Tapping her Jimmy Choo’s, Laura swung into the song without missing a beat. Directing them, her designer bracelets jangling, she continued to play the piano with her free hand.
When the song shifted into a cappella, they all stood in a circle holding hands. Laura’s heart swelled with pride as she encouraged, “Great job. Keep moving, just like we did this morning. Let’s sing our song every step of the way!” As a group, singing at the top of their voices, they marched around the room she’d arranged to allow this.
They were nearly finished with the final verse when the classroom door opened and in strolled Cliff Markham. The kids went crazy, rushing over to him, forgetting their rehearsal requirements for the upcoming presentation.
Laura bit her lower lip, unable to be upset. She would have done the same thing at the sight of this blond-haired, blue-eyed hero who made the room brighter just by entering it. She’d seen from the first that the kids–many of whom led rough home lives–responded to him and he to them. Especially Billy.
Billy Lazarus had gotten more and more withdrawn throughout the school year, she’d noticed whenever he came into the public library. Laura recalled that his sister, Abby, had come back in town for a visit recently. Rumor had it she was trying to help the family, but far too many in town were more concerned about her shocking piercings and tattoos to care that her heart was in the right place.
Laura caught Cliff’s eye over the tumble of kids surrounding him and had a sudden memory of him in high school. He’d been older than her, a sports all-star already. He’d been surrounded with his own fan club, and, regardless of age, all the girls had harbored crushes on him.
Though he was interrupting them, she reminded herself the kids needed structure, discipline–along with plenty of good, old-fashioned fun. “Mr. Markham. What a wonderful surprise,” she greeted him warmly.
“Cliff, if you please, Miss Laura. I was just passing down the hall. When I heard the music, I had to find out what was going on. I hope you don’t mind me barging in so unceremoniously?”
“Our door is always open, and we’re thrilled to see you. Aren’t we, children?”
While the kids gave an enthusiastic chorus of agreement, Laura thought how happy Cliff looked with them and how naturally he interacted with them. His sun-streaked hair was both adorably shaggy and rebellious, his ragged sneakers a rule all unto themselves.
His sky blue eyes sparkled at her. “Well, now, I’m glad to hear that ’cause I’m a huge music lover. Huge.”
“Are you really?”
Everything about Cliff Markham seemed easy, free, and relaxed to her. Here’s a man totally comfortable in his own skin. Laura tried to tell herself she didn’t find him wildly attractive, but she knew she was lying to herself. That he was a major league baseball player, probably set for life financially, was beside the point. He’s just plain gorgeous. But life has taught me I don’t need the glamorous life or a lot of money to be happy.
“Let’s sing for him, Miss Laura. Could we?” A pixie-like blond girl jumped in place.
“What do you think?” Cliff asked Laura.
“We would love to sing for you, Cliff. But only if you join us.”
He grinned, obviously noticing she’d decided to call him by his first name. “Music to my ears.”
She smiled, laughing, as she sat at the piano and began playing an introduction that the kids instantly recognized and so began singing without delay.
Laura closed her eyes, hearing Cliff’s deep, rich voice joining them. Why did the prayer of praise threaten to break her today more than usual?