|A dark tidal wave of fear swept through Calista Sheffield as she paused at the door of the Downtown Denver Mission. She took a deep breath and wiped damp palms on the legs of her jeans. Her image was reflected in the glass door as clearly as in a mirror, the bright Rocky Mountain sunshine as backlighting. Giving her casual outfit a quick scan, she tucked a strand of honey-blond hair behind her ear and tugged at the hem of her black cashmere sweater. She prayed no one in the shelter would be able to tell the difference between Donna Karan and a knockoff, because she wasn't here to impress anyone. She was here to volunteer.|
Her reflection showed a pair of large green eyes shadowed with anxiety. Calista squinted, hating her own weakness. There was no reason to be afraid when she ran a multimillion-dollar company. She gripped the handle and swung it open, striding inside before the heat escaped.
The exterior of the five-story mission was a bit worse for wear, but the inside seemed clean and welcoming. In the center of the enormous lobby, a tall pine tree bowed under the weight of handmade ornaments and twinkling lights. Calista's gaze darted toward a group of men clustered near the double doors at the far end. Probably the cafeteria.
Maybe she was just in time to help serve a turkey dinner with trimmings. A vision of handing a plate piled high with steaming mashed potatoes and gravy to some desperate soul passed through her mind's eye. This was going to be great.
No, this was going to be more than great; the start to a whole new life. Not like the lonely existence she had right now with only her passive-aggressive Siamese cat for company. No more pretending she had somewhere to go on Thanksgiving, then suffering through everyone else's happy chatter after the holiday. It was her own fault for letting work take over her life, but that was all in the past.
This Christmas would be different.
Calista scanned the lobby for a secretary. The long, curving desk spanned the area between the elevator and far wall, but it was empty. An oversize wooden cross took center stage on a staggered section of ceiling that connected the lobby to the upper level. A small smile tugged at her lips, thinking of how that sight would have made her cringe just a few months ago.
A young man with the mission staff uniform and close-cropped dark hair exited the double doors, papers in hand. Calista stepped forward into his path.
"Excuse me, I need to see Grant Monohan," she said, in the tone she reserved for secretaries and assistants. Her eyes flicked from his deep brown eyes to the ID badge pinned to his shirt to the solid pattern of colorful tattoos that covered both of his arms from biceps to wrist.
He paused, frowned a little, glanced back at the empty desk.
"The director," Calista added, hoping she wasn't speaking the wrong language. His dark coppery skin and angular features made her think of paintings she'd seen of the Mayans.
"Just let me drop these papers in the office and I'll tell him you're here," he said, waving the stack of papers at her. He started off again without waiting for a response and punched in a series of numbers at the keypad by the far door.
The brown patterned couches were arranged in groups of three but none of them were occupied, except the very last one, near the large windows that faced the street. An older woman sat hunched in the corner, rocking and murmuring to herself. Her brown shawl slipped off one shoulder and pooled at her feet like a stain. Dark tangles framed a wrinkled, but somehow expressionless, face. Calista swallowed a sudden wave of anxiety.
A door swung open to her right and a wheelchair-bound woman rolled to a stop behind the desk. Her short gray hair was spiked on top and touched with violet. She maneuvered to the middle of the desk just as the phone rang.
"Downtown Denver Mission, this is Lana. How may I help you?" she responded in a cheerful tone.
None of this should have made her feel queasy, but the combination of the rocking elderly woman, the young man's tattoos and the purple-haired handicapped woman had Calista struggling with her resolve. She wandered toward the windows and gazed out at the snowy sidewalk, taking deep breaths. Life isn't pretty, she should know that. But after ten years of clawing her way to the top of the business world, Calista had buried any memories she had of imperfection. Memories of her own rough childhood in a place where there were worse things than purple hair and tattoos.
"Ma'am?" She snapped into the present at the word spoken quietly behind her. The young man was back. "The director is just finishing up but he can see you for a few minutes before his next appointment. Go ahead and have a seat."
Calista nodded and smiled brightly. "Thank you," she chirped, hoping she oozed positivity and enthusiasm. They wouldn't want unhappy people around here. She was sure they had enough of those already.
Grant Monohan checked the balance-sheet numbers for the third time. He knew better than to get upset at the decreasing number in black and the increasing number in red. The shelter scraped by most of the year until they got to the season of giving, or the "season of guilting," as Jose called it. God had provided every day of the past seventy-five years, so he wasn't going to start worrying now.
A light knock at the door and Jose popped his head in. "We got another one."
Grant wanted to roll his eyes but he nodded instead.
"Actress?" Aspen's popularity had been great for them, even all the way out here in Denver. The megarich had started to settle in the area a decade ago and it showed right around the holiday season. Every year, right when the store windows changed to sparkly decorations and Santas, the famous faces started appearing. Most were dragged in by agents or managers, but a few came on their own. They would spend a few days, sign some autographs and go away feeling good about themselves. He wasn't one to turn away help, especially when it came with good publicity and a donation, but it got real old, real fast. Last year they had a blonde starlet stumble in with a twenty-person entourage. Most of them were as high as she was. He cringed inside, remembering the scene that erupted as he informed them of the "no alcohol, no drugs" policy.
"Not sure. She's pretty enough but she came alone." Jose shrugged. Grant wished he would come all the way in, or open the door wider, but Jose always seemed to be in constant motion. It was all the kid could do to hold still for a few minutes.
"Why didn't Lana call back here?"
He shrugged again. "The lady just came up to me and said she had to see the director."
Grant frowned, wondering if it was worse to have a volunteer who demanded special treatment, or a volunteer who ignored the disabled secretary. He stood up and stretched the kinks from his back. Maybe he'd look into a better chair after the crazy holiday rush was over. The ratty hand-me-down was obviously not made for a six-footer like himself. Or maybe turning thirty was the start of a long, slow slide into back trouble.
"Tell her I'll be right out." Jose's head disappeared from the doorway. Grant crossed the small office space and absently checked his reflection in the mirror near the door. He was looking more and more like his father every year. Women told him what a heartthrob he was, like a classic movie star. They never knew how close they were to the truth. But what he sawinstead of the dark wavy hair, strong jaw and broad shoulderswas the man who walked away from his mother when he was just a kid. Grant shook his head to clear it. All things are made new in You, Lord. He had a heavenly father who would never run away and he needed to remember that.
Grant pushed open the heavy metal door and stepped into the lobby, letting the door close with a thud behind him. It wasn't hard to pick out the new volunteer. It wouldn't have been hard to spot her in a crowd at the Oscars, she was that pretty. She had the California party-girl look with an added healthy glow, but had wisely left the party clothes at home.
At least she was dressed conservatively. If you could call cashmere and designer jeans conservative. He sighed. Rich people could be so clueless. He watched her for a few moments as she stood near the window, arms wrapped around her middle. She sure didn't have the confidence of a professional actress. Unless the whole nervous attitude was an act.
She turned suddenly and looked straight into his eyes as if he had called her name across the lobby. Grant felt heat creep up his neck. He must look like a stalker, standing there silently. He strode forward, forcing a welcoming expression.
"Grant Monohan," he said, extending his hand. She took it, and he was surprised by the steadiness of her grip.
"Calista Sheffield," she answered. "Wonderful to meet you." The name sounded familiar. Her smile was a bit too wide, as if she was worried about making the wrong impression. Or maybe she was turning on the star power. As if that sort of thing worked on him.
"Jose told me you wanted to see me. Would you like to sit down?"
She frowned down at the couch and said, "You don't meet with anyone in your office?"
"Actually, I don't. We have meeting rooms for groups, and we have a reception area. There's another building at the south end of the block that we use for most of our administration needs."
There was a pause as she tilted her head and regarded him steadily. He could see her processing that information. "Is it a shelter policy?"
She was quick, this one. "It is. To protect the residents and myself from accusations or suspicion. We have plans drawn up for a new office that will have glass partitions but that's still a few years away." He motioned toward the long lobby desk. "So, for now we have Lana get pertinent information on visitors first."
She surprised him with a grin, green eyes crinkling at the corners. "That's usually the way it's done, isn't it?"
Grant hesitated, adjusting her age upward. Not for the laugh lines but for the gentle ribbing. He'd been told before he was slightly intimidating but she seemed able to hold her own.
"There was no one at the desk when I came in, so I just asked Jose."
He gave another tally mark, this time for remembering Jose's name. She might not be a total loss after all. He wasn't such a fool to think she'd stay more than a few days, but maybe she could do more than sign photos.
Grant motioned to the clean but worn couch behind her. "Let's sit down and you can tell me why you're here."
She settled on the edge, hands clutched together. Her anxiety was palpable. "I'd like to volunteer on a weekly basis. Not just for Thanksgiving or Christmas."
He plopped into the corner of the couch angled toward hers, putting a good three feet of space between him and those green eyes. "Why?"
She opened her mouth, but then closed it again. He raised an eyebrow and waited patiently. She looked down at her hands, then up at him again, emotions flitting across her face. Confusion, sadness, yearning.
Grant wanted to wrap his arms around her and tell her it was going to be okay. Shocked at how fast he'd forgotten his professional role, Grant frowned, eyes narrowing. She was good at playing the little lost girl, that was clear.
"Miss " He struggled to remember anything more than those eyes trained on him.
"Sheffield," she whispered.
"Miss Sheffield, let me tell you a little about the mission. We welcome any and all support. Seventy-five years of serving the community of downtown Denver has made our organization one of the most respected in the country. We provide shelter, addiction counseling, parenting classes, transport for schoolchildren and job training. There are five separate buildings and almost a hundred staff members." He paused, making sure she was following him. "But everything we do here is aimed at one goal, meeting the deep spiritual needs of all people. We want to be the Gospel in action, be His hands and feet in this world."
Usually at this point in his speech, the new recruit's eyes glazed over. They nodded and smiled, waiting for him to finish. She leaned forward, eyes bright.
"So, you mean to say that you provide for the physical needs but the spiritual needs of the person are just as important?"
"Just as or more. If it makes you uncomfortable, there is also the Seventh Street Mission a few miles away. They are a very respected shelter that doesn't adhere to any spiritual principles."
"No, it doesn't bother me at all," she said, her whole face softening. Grant struggled to reclaim his train of thought. Maybe he needed a vacation, had been working too hard. He felt as if he was a knot with a loop missing and that smile was tugging him undone.
"Good," he said, eyes traveling toward the plain cross on the balcony overhang. "That's the only reason we're here. The only reason I'm here." He sure wasn't in it for the money. He paused for a moment, trying to get the conversation back on track. "Did you have anything specific in mind?"
"What about the cafeteria?"
A vision passed before him of men, young and old, lined up for limp broccoli served by a stunning blonde, while the regular servers stood abandoned, lasagna pans growing cold. "How about intake or administration? You would be working with Lana to get the paperwork in order and maybe interview new visitors or assign sleeping places."
She blinked and then nodded. "That sounds fine."
"We'll need to get some basic information and do a background check for security reasons. But you can start today, helping out in the cafeteria. We've got a lot of prep work for Thanksgiving."
"Lana can help with the details." He stood, offering his hand once more. "It was a pleasure to meet you and I'm grateful for your willingness to serve the disadvantaged in our community."
She stood, gripped his hand and whispered, "Thank you."
Grant's heart flipped in his chest as their hands met and he looked into her eyes. Her heart-shaped face shone with hope and her bright green eyes glittered with unshed tears. There was more going on here than a rich person's guilty conscience.
But there was no way he was going to try to find out what. He had enough trouble keeping the mission afloat without adding a woman to the mix. Even a beautiful woman who reminded him that he might need something more than this place. Plus, with the secret he was carrying around, no woman in her right mind would want to get anywhere close.