People of all shapes and colors teamed in a constant hustle around her like a disturbed ant hill. Lexie Baltimore studied the erratic stream of passengers straggling in from the arrival gate. Three hours of waiting and still no sign of Nate.
She tugged her phone out of her purse and checked her messages again. No updates on his cryptic message. No word from the man during the last six months and now this. Even Nate’s old friend Clarence hadn’t heard anything, which surprised her more than anything, considering the man had agreed to act as interim pastor for Nate at Freedom Church.
Flying into SFO on Tuesday. Meet me. Urgent.
His message hadn't completely surprised her though. Barely a day had passed since she'd finished the sculpture of Nate’s head and face. But a string of unanswered questions still remained, along with the string of unanswered texts she sent in reply. She’d given up after the tenth one.
“A few details would have helped, Nate.” She shoved her phone back into her purse. After dropping her son Jeremy off at day camp, she’d headed straight to the airport and had scoured the arrival area and baggage claim in case he’d already landed. Yes, a few more details would have helped. The flight boards hadn’t given her much help either.
The biggest sigh of her life fluttered past her lips. Impatience had set in and so had hunger pains. Lexie rubbed her growing belly. A sharp kick poked in reply. “You’re hungry too, I know.”
* * *
Angels surfed on clouds like these.
Nate Winslow stared out his airplane window. A cloud bank rolled over the distant hills cuddling San Francisco like a wave rolling in from the Pacific and kissing the shore. In fifteen minutes he’d step foot again in a city filled with busy people and bustling technology. After a year of walking the lemon grasses and rice paddies near where he lived and pastored in China, he didn’t know how his senses would react to the noise and chaos.
Memories flooded back of Hugh and Lexie. And how Nate had almost destroyed their marriage. Shame still tried to dog him at times over that one—how easily he’d fallen into Tobias’ evil plan to draw Lexie away from Hugh and into his own arms. Had nearly worked too.
Instead of hating him, Lexie had helped restore his faith, which made him realize his deal with the devil wasn’t what had saved his daughter Samantha. No, God had.
In the end the truth had won out, and he’d left on good terms. He even stayed in touch with Lexie. Well, at least for the first six months. But then all hell broke loose.
The demonic presence they’d encountered—and successfully overcame—over the last six months made Tobias look like child’s play—a minor demon in a small play. Which brought to mind his reappearance in Nate’s neck of the world. And his words…
“The past comes back to haunt us, Nathaniel.”
The memory filled him with dread. What was Tobias planning?
Nate had known who—and what—the unfamiliar man was at first glance. He didn’t boast about his ability—gift—to recognize demons. He just accepted it as what God had done with his year of hell living under the lies and deception of one demon in particular.
The whole beauty from ashes bit, except his bit wasn’t so beautiful. But it was needed. He walked in greater authority now to help others.
Thus, why he had to come back to San Francisco. Nate couldn’t stay in China, knowing Tobias had set his sights on the Baltimores again. He had to help Lexie and Hugh.
Yet every time he prayed for them, Nate felt a stronger urgency to pray for Lexie than for Hugh.
Something had shifted or changed—sensed it deep in his spiritual gut. But what?
* * *
Lexie caught site of a vendor down the walkway. She tugged back the wayward curl that had crept out of her ponytail holder. A split decision propelled her toward the promise of food. If Nate showed up while she was foraging, he’d find her somehow. God would make certain of that.
She laughed at herself. She and Hugh had weathered so much in the last year. She remembered a time when she wasn't certain of anything and doubted everything. Abby would be proud—the woman had become so much more than a dear friend over the last year. Hugh even agree with her. Abby had become like family to them. Especially to Jeremy, who didn’t have the blessing of grandparents in his life.
So why was she feeling so unsettled? Why was Nate back in the States? And what did it mean?
“That one’s tuna salad, miss.”
Lexie blinked at the cashier she hadn't noticed move from her station at the register to where Lexie stood holding a sandwich she didn't remember picking up.
“Oh, thanks.” Resisting her first instinct to drop it like a bomb about to explode, she put the sandwich down. Just the thought of tuna made her want to retch. Thank goodness she couldn't smell it. Tuna, popcorn and chocolate had been and still were the bane of her pregnant existence.
Cheese. She wanted cheese. She plucked out four sticks of string cheese and a container with two hard boiled eggs. At least this kiddo liked protein. Jeremy had been her chocolate baby. She swallowed back the thought. Barely. Lexie grabbed a bottle of water and added it to her purchase.
She paid the cashier, then scoped out a bench within site of the arrival corridor. The stream of questions she had somewhat successfully avoided most of the morning took residence in her thoughts again.
Bite of egg.
What was so urgent that Nate had to return San Francisco?
Bite of cheese.
What would Hugh think?
Bite of egg.
What was God getting her into this time?
The baby kicked at that one. Lexie stared at her stomach. “Are you hearing my thoughts too?”
“Let's hope not.” Nate's warm voice demanded her full attention.
She smashed her cheese stick into the egg container, dumped it on the seat next to her and stood as fast as her off center mass would allow her.
“You're back.” Her statement sounded borderline questioning to her own ears.
He nodded, shifted the duffle hanging by his side to his back. Held his arms out to hug her but looked perplexed and a bit surprised as to how to proceed.
“You've changed a bit, Lexie.”
“That's one way of putting it."
She saved him the trouble and hugged him. This was the Nate she remembered a year ago, not the Nate of the baffling text messages. She stepped back. He looked the same except the eyes. Just like her sculpture, there was a deep weariness there. No, not weariness. More like the man had lived an entire lifetime in the year he’d been gone. A difficult one.
What had living in China done to him? “What’s so urgent and kept you from replying to my texts?”
His gaze dropped as he pushed back the satchel hanging on his should and shoved his hands into his jean pockets. “Sorry about that. My phone tanked. I planned to get a new one when I landed.”
That was it. All he had to say? She waited, then lifted her hands out. “And?”
“And…” He parroted her word back with a deep breath. “"I can fill you in on the way.”
She grabbed her bag and the remains of her breakfast…lunch …whatever it was. “Fine. I can drop you at the church, but then I have to get Jeremy.”
“The church can wait.” Ten paces ahead of her already and he didn't seem to be slowing down.
Lexie quickened her pace as much as her baby bump would allow. “Slow down there, partner.” She caught his sleeve with a tug. “Can we just back track to the church part. Where am I taking you?”
Though slower, he kept walking at a steady pace. “Your place.”
“What?” Now she yanked him to a halt. “Fill me in here, Nate. In case you didn’t notice I'm living for two at the moment and have no desire to jump into the fray again. So, what’s so urgent and where is Sam?”
“She and Sen might come in a week or so. Don't know yet.” He seemed a bit unconcerned about his daughter and sister-in-law.
“Now I'm really confused. Why are you here?”
Now he stopped, studied her face while an inner battle waged war across his own features. He inhaled deeply in preparation to release the worst news she could ever hear.
“Tobias is back.”
* * *
Lexie hadn’t said a word during the walk from the airport to her car and still hadn’t said a word as they left the freeway and entered the idyllic streets of Palo Alto. Only her clenched hands on the steering wheel gave him any indication of how she felt.
The gaping pit in his stomach churned again. He could have stayed in China and prayed from there. That would have been easier. But no peace came with that strategy. He didn’t fully understand what was about to unfold, only that he needed to come back.
She turned the car down a well-established street lined with trees, aged sidewalks and houses nestled in floral gardens. Once in the driveway, she shut off the engine, then turned in her seat as much as her growing stomach would allow.
Her eyes shimmered with fear. “What do you mean, ‘Tobias is back’? Because in a few minutes we’re going to walk into that house, and Hugh is going to look at me and know something is wrong. And I haven’t a clue what to tell him.” She flopped back into her seat, covering her forehead with her hands. “I don’t hear from you for six months and then you just show up with the worst possible news I can think of?”
Nate ducked his head and shrugged. Much like his daughter. “I did text ahead.”
She snapped her head to face him. “Yeah, great text. No time or details. I had to sit there for hours waiting for you.”
“You didn’t have to do that. I would have just texted you.”
“But you said your phone tanked!”
He wiggled his replacement phone by his face. “New phone, remember?”
Her hands flailed as she struggled for words. “How would I know that? Did you tell me that in your text?”
“Uh…no.” He nodded his head, agreeing with the still small voice telling him to quit trying to be right and just apologize. “You’re absolutely right. I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?”
A long, breathy sigh accompanied her slumping shoulders. “Of course. I’m just tired and hungry. My usual state these days.” She rubbed her stomach.
Nate’s spirit expanded in his chest as he recalled the urgency he’d felt to pray for Lexie. Was it because of the baby? What was God trying to tell him?
“It’s a girl.” She glanced at him long enough for him to see the tears building in her eyes. Her unspoken words said everything. This baby represented the restoration of their hope in this life and so much more.
And he’d somehow known it was a girl. He reached out a tentative hand and rested it on her stomach. The knowing in his gut went deeper. Losing their first daughter, Mandy, had nearly ripped Lexie and Hugh’s marriage apart. And Nate’s interference last year almost severed the last tendrils holding them together. Would his return threaten the newborn state of their marriage or the babe yet to come? Residual guilt clogged his throat and reduced his voice to a whisper. “A miracle.”
And all the more reason he had to come. Why Tobias bothered to reveal what he did, Nate hadn’t a clue. Demons lie and deceive. He knew that, but Nate had to be sure.
She sniffed and cleared her throat. With a deep breath she grabbed the steering wheel again, arms straight as if to brace herself. “Why are you back, Nate? What has Tobias thrown at you this time that you need my help?”
“I’m not here for me, Lexie.”
Hugh stepped out of the front door and padded barefoot to stand in front of the vehicle. He hooked his thumbs into the belt loops of his jeans, shoulders hunched and a small grin on his face, then confusion as he took note of Nate’s presence in the vehicle.
Lexie stared at her husband. He stared back at her, along with the wild-haired Albert Einstein on his T-shirt. The guy was definitely a geek—one Nate had come to really care about.
Would Hugh notice through the windshield the slight tremble of his wife’s smile? Turning his eyes forward as well, Nate forced an equally shaky smile. “I’m here to save Hugh.”