Dreaming of His Pen Pal’s Kiss

Chapter 1

“Is that another name for your pen pal program?” Journee asked her dad while seated across the desk from him in his church office in Mistletoe, Arkansas.

“It is.”

Her dad, glasses perched on the end of his nose, his salt-and-pepper hair not nearly as thick as it used to be, tapped the desk in front of him with one finger, as though thinking.

Journee’s stomach shivered, just a little, for some odd reason. She already had four people she was writing to in the church’s new pen pal program. But out of those four people, only one had written her more than once.

She wondered if she came on too strong in her original letter. Maybe she just didn’t write the kind of letters people wanted to respond to. Maybe people were too busy. She didn’t want to admit to her failure, but she had to admit to being discouraged.

Her dad, Pastor Race, tilted his head and narrowed his eyes just a little, as though he were thinking. Or as though he knew what she was going to say before she said it. Which was most likely the case.

Her mouth opened anyway, and the words he probably knew were going to come out spilled. “I can take the name.”

“I haven’t even told you whether it’s a man or woman.” Humor laced his words, along with a heavy dose of affection.

She’d lost her parents when she was pretty young, and it was funny how she had nothing but good memories of them. Like her brain had completely blanked out and recorded over anything bad that had ever happened.

Still, Race and Penny had adopted her and her five siblings, and she honestly had nothing but good memories of them either. It wasn’t that everything that had ever happened in her life had been good, other than her parents being killed a car accident, but God had blessed her with two sets of wonderful parents.

She wasn’t quite sure why, when some people didn’t even get one.

“Dad, you know it doesn’t matter. I just love writing people. Or maybe, I just love writing in general. And things really get slow in the ER at night. I have plenty of time.”

The ER in a small town was an odd thing. For days, they’d go with barely a soul showing up, and then one night, they might have nothing but chaos all night long.

Most of the time though, it was quiet and she had plenty of time to daydream or, as she’d been doing, write her letters.

“I know you do. I just don’t want to give you more than you can handle.” He tapped his finger some more. “Although, while I do have at least forty people writing from the church, I have more requests for partners than I do people to match them with. I was almost thinking of writing to this person myself.”

Whoever it was, they would definitely benefit from writing to her dad more than they would from writing to her. She’d never met a wiser person.

“Maybe that’s what the Lord would want you to do.”

Race shook his head slightly. “Actually, when the name first came in, I thought of you immediately. I probably would have asked you to do it then if I didn’t know you were already paired up with four people.”

“Dad, I can do it. Especially if you think I should. If you think it’s meant for me.” She tried to keep the hope out of her voice. All of her siblings except Shawn, who would probably never get married, had found God’s plan for them and, at the same time, found a lifetime love.

It was her fondest hope.

She thought she’d had it with her high school sweetheart.

Thoughts of Alex turned the excited shiver in her stomach into something which felt more like congealed gravy.

Thoughts of Alex didn’t hurt anymore, but they made her sad.

Because she viewed him as a big mistake.

And wished she wouldn’t have wasted so much time on him when she was younger. Maybe she’d missed God’s plan and God’s big love story for her because she’d been focused on the wrong guy—because she’d definitely been focused on Alex.

Or maybe Alex had been right for her, and he just hadn’t been strong enough to stand up to his parents and say so.

But she didn’t want a man who wasn’t respectful to his parents, and she admired him in an odd kind of way for listening to them.

Still, it was hard not to think of what might have been.

Her dad didn’t answer for a moment, and she gave him time. He’d warned her from the beginning that Alex probably wasn’t right for her. Not in so many words, but anytime she’d gone to him for advice, his advice would have turned her away from Alex.

To her shame, she hadn’t usually listened and hadn’t gone to him as much as she probably should have anyway.

Her dad breathed deeply and straightened the pen in front of him that was already straight before looking up at her. “This was a little different. And I think there’s potential on both ends for things to go badly, so while I know that you have never had a problem obeying the rules, I’m going to remind you. It is imperative that you not use your real name and that you not ask for theirs.”

She nodded. She’d not broken any of the pen pal program’s rules, and she didn’t plan to.

“It’s also important that you don’t give too many identifying details about your life.”

He smiled, the love he felt for her reaching deep inside and swirling around her chest. From the very beginning, she’d never had a doubt about how Race and Penny felt about her. It was amazing that they loved her no matter how stupid she was. How many dumb mistakes she made. And how often she messed up and didn’t listen.

After the debacle with Alex, she couldn’t imagine her dad giving her advice that she didn’t follow.

“I suppose I’m a little overprotective of you, because not only are you my daughter, but you’re the youngest. I know you’re all grown up now, able to support yourself, and you don’t need your old dad anymore…”

“I need you, Dad. Don’t ever say that I don’t. I would have avoided a lot of heartache in my life if I would have listened to you.”

“Water under the bridge.” He shook his head and reached his hand out across the desk. She put hers in it easily. Race and Penny had never hesitated to hug them or touch them, and she appreciated it. It was part of what made her feel loved.

“Regardless. Your advice means everything to me. Whatever you say, I’ll do it to the best of my ability.”

“Thank you. I know you will. You were such an easy child to raise. And you’ve grown into such a wonderful woman. But I don’t want to see you hurt. And…” He looked down at the name in front of him. “I think this person is vulnerable too. I know you would never do anything to harm them on purpose, and I don’t think that most people would look at this person and see how fragile they are, but I just want you both to be careful. At least for a year. If you’re still writing after that time, I think it would be safe to say you could probably open up a little more.”

He said the last slowly, like he hadn’t quite thought it through. His eyes were on the calendar, and Journee’s eyes landed there too.

February seventh.

The rest of the world would be celebrating Valentine’s Day tomorrow, but not in Mistletoe, Arkansas. For them, it was Christmas year-round.

“I don’t have a problem with that, Dad. No identifying details, and no names, and no real address, until we’ve been writing for a year.”

She looked down, running her finger over the picture frame on her dad’s desk that held the first picture of their family that had ever been taken. Race and Penny stood behind them with Ethan, whom they’d never adopted but had lived with them for a while, with Journee and her five siblings in front.

A hodgepodge of people maybe, but she loved that picture, because it represented a new beginning. She thought her birth parents would smile at where their children had landed and what God had done for them.

Still, Race hesitated, and she felt she needed to say something. “Dad, if you don’t think that this is something I should do, don’t give it to me.”

He was silent for a bit, although the air around them was alive. Sounds of children from the daycare playing on the playground outside came muffled through the window, and ladies’ laughter from the Bible study down the hall seemed to seep under the door.

That was one of her favorite things about the church. She could go into the sanctuary and just feel the stillness and peace of God, and she could walk out of the sanctuary and feel the life and breath of the saints who made up the church.

It was just a building, but it always felt alive to her. Always gave her peace. Comfort. And hope.

Finally, Race shifted and swallowed. “No. I actually know this is something you should do.” Concern overshadowed every other emotion on his face. “I want to protect you. I know your heart was already broken, and love can be hard sometimes. Not that I’m expecting you to fall in love with this person.”

He tapped the paper on the desk. “Not romantic love. But even friends can break your heart. I just can’t help but think that even though I know this is what you’re supposed to do, there’s going to be tears ahead. As a father, I don’t want that. Still, I know that sometimes it’s the hard times in our life where we grow the most. It’s what God uses to bring us closer to Him and to make us into the people that he wants us to be. I can definitely look back over my own life and see that as a stark reality. The hardest times of my life ended up being the best times for me. It’s just…they’re so hard to walk through. But I think even more than that, it’s hard to watch people we love walk through them. If you love someone, their pain is yours. So, if I’m hesitating, maybe it’s about my own heart as much as it’s about yours.”

Journee smiled at that. Her dad wasn’t more concerned about himself than her, but he was also a humble man, and he wouldn’t boast. “I love that you care about me. And I know I am a dreamer. I know I have a tendency to make really bad decisions, but I think I’m doing better, and I’m also stronger than what I get credit for. I might be the youngest, but I am grown up.”

She didn’t really mind the tendency of everyone in her family to treat her like she was still a child. In some ways, she kinda felt like she was.

She had made some foolish choices. Although, at least for the way some people thought, she’d made a wise decision in completing her four-year nursing degree, but she’d passed up a lot more lucrative opportunities in order to come back to her hometown and settle down. She had no desire to leave her family and friends in the town she grew up in.

None.

“I know you do.”

At that, Race pushed back away from the desk and came around. Journee stood, and he embraced her, the strength of his arms and the scent of his aftershave familiar and beloved, comforting, making her feel safe like she always did when Race hugged her. She knew he’d protect her with everything he had, but she also knew she was an adult and had to be responsible for her own decisions and her own life.

He squeezed her for a bit and pulled away first. “Here’s the address. It’s a man. He’s not retired. And, like all of the other pen pal recipients in our program, he’s in the hospital. He hasn’t been in quite as long as most of the others, only a couple of weeks, but because of the nature of his job, people who care about him know that being in the hospital is psychologically excruciating for him. They felt that giving him a pen pal—someone like you,” Race said with a smile, “is what he needs to get himself back to where he needs to be in order to do his job to the best of his ability.”

“Are you saying he’s depressed?” She tilted her head, having had some experience with depression in her schooling. Also, Alex had been going to be a psychologist.

“I don’t think he’s there. Yet. I do think it’s a distinct possibility, especially if he doesn’t get better.” Race’s words were slightly hesitant, like he didn’t want to say too much.

Journee nodded. She didn’t need to know all the details. She had a good imagination, and she could fill them in with whatever she wanted. She could have a conversation with herself. Or with a reluctant man who needed to be encouraged. Of course, she had been worried she came on too strong with her other pen pals. Maybe she should start slowly.

“I’ll do my best, Dad.”

“I knew you would, Journee. I love you.” He squeezed her again before letting go.

She fingered the paper as she walked out of his office. Somehow, the idea of this pen pal, and writing to this man, stirred threads of excitement that she hadn’t had when her dad had handed her the addresses to the other people.

She had a feeling…this man was going to be different.