Tuesday after lunch Jared knocked on the back door. He had caught glimpses of Mary earlier in the kitchen while he hauled weeds to the front yard for trash pick up, so he knew she was up and about. He needed to ask Mary what she wanted to keep in the back garden, which used to be some sort of herb garden judging from the plants growing wild. He pulled a twig of mint off his pants and crushed the fragrant leaves. The mint sure smelled good. Maybe he should rub some on his shirt to mask the sweat.
Mary opened the door, looking fresh and lovely in a simple white sundress dotted with yellow daises.
“Hi, Jared. Come on in.”
Jared wiped his feet and stepped into the cooler kitchen. The outdoor thermometer registered eighty-six degrees. A hot June day, but at least it wasn’t a humid one.
“Want something cold to drink? I just made some sun tea fresh this morning.”
“That would be great.” He moved to the kitchen table and pulled out a chair.
“Hot out there?”
He wiped his forehead with a paper napkin. “Yeah, getting that way.”
She clinked ice into two tall glasses and splashed in the iced tea. Jared put down the napkin and picked up a colorful brochure with a man’s face on the cover over the map of Peru and the words “Bringing Christ to Latin America.”
“What’s this?” He held up the paper. “Is this a new missionary the church is supporting?”
Mary froze mid-step. Her cheeks paled and her eyes darted from the brochure to Jared’s face and back again. He wondered why she was so rattled about a pamphlet for a missionary.
She walked over and set down the glasses with a thunk. “Oh, that’s someone who’s going to be a missionary to Peru.”
Jared raised his eyebrows as he watched Mary fiddle with her glass. “That’s what it says on the cover.” He pointed to the words.
Her eyes slid over to the other vacant chair and Jared saw a box sitting there that he hadn’t seen before. A few brochures of the same man peeked out from the open top. “Are those more brochures?”
Mary sighed and nodded. “Yes.”
Jared waited but Mary remained silent, eyes on the glass. He kept his voice low and gentle, the tone he used when talking with particularly nervous patients. “Mary, why do you have a box full of missionary brochures?”
Silence. Her lips parted but no sound came out. She clamped them down again and kept her gaze on the table.
Jared closed his eyes, knowing he couldn’t let it drop, that he would push her to find out what was going on with the brochures. This might be the opening to find out about her involvement with Soul Believers. He opened his eyes and studied her. Her demeanor revealed that it wasn’t shame or a desire to be furtive that kept her from sharing, but embarrassment. Knowing that gave him the approach he needed.
“You don’t have to be embarrassed, Mary. We’re friends, right? We used to be able to tell each other anything.”
At his words, she raised her eyes to his face. He sucked in a quick breath at how lovely she looked in that moment. An overwhelming desire to pull her towards him and kiss her nearly drove him to forget his mission. He blinked, breaking the spell. “You can trust me, Mary, Mary, quite contrary.”
Whether it was the familiar nursery rhyme or his earlier reference to their long-standing friendship that spurred Mary to open up, Jared wasn’t sure. Whatever it was, her words tumbled out in quick succession.
“His name is David. I’m helping him raise money so he can go to Peru as a missionary. He’s on a compressed time frame because the missionary couple currently there have to leave in six months. The wife has some medical problems that need more care than they can get in Peru.”
Jared stared at the man on the cover. The man certainly had movie-star good looks. But there was something cocky about the man’s smile that got under Jared’s skin. “Where did you meet him?”
Mary took a sip of iced tea before answering. “Since I don’t get out much, it’s hard to meet people, especially single guys. A couple I know slightly at church met online, so I decided to try it.”
Jared felt his pulse speed up. Was this the break they had been waiting for? “What sites do you like?”
“I tried a few of them like Christian Café and Hooking Up With Jesus.” At his horrified face, Mary laughed. “Yes, the last one was as bad as it sounds. I was on there about a nanosecond. But then I found Soul Believers and I really like it.”
Jared tried to keep his expression from looking too eager at her mention of Soul Believers. “So that’s where you met David?”
Mary nodded. “He actually approached me. I received a three-month trial in January, but by March, I was thinking of not renewing. Most of the men I’d met only wanted to chat for a brief time before they moved on.”
She wasn’t the unworthy one, it was the men who were jerks. How could anyone pass up the opportunity to know Mary better? He kept his voice light when he said, “Their loss.”
Mary offered him a sweet smile and he reached over and grasped her hand without thinking. After a second, she turned hers over and they sat holding hands and grinning at each other like a couple of Cheshire cats. With difficulty, Jared returned to the subject of David.
“So he changed your mind about the site?”
“Uh, huh. He was friendly but not pushy. And he always answered my emails in a timely fashion. Then we started chatting in real time. Now we chat online every day at 4 p.m.”
“Every day? You must know him pretty well by now.” He kept light pressure on her hand, afraid to move his fingers. She seemed to have forgotten they were even holding hands and he wasn’t ready to break their contact yet.
“I’d like to think so.” She tugged her hand away and picked up her glass.
He watched her take a sip. It looked like she wasn’t as affected by their touching as he had been. “I read something the other day in Atlantic Monthly about online dating sites.”
“What was that?” Mary put down her glass.
“Something about how one estimate suggested that as high as three-quarters of singles looking for a mate now use dating sites like OkCupid, eHarmony, and Match.com. The article said more people rely on those sites and their algorithms to find a date because they believe they have a better chance at success due to the sets of questions asked by the sites for matching.”
“I know I would never have found David through the old ways.” Mary picked up his brochure. “I don’t go to bars or singles groups. Everyone I know is either married or involved with someone. I went on a few blind dates set up by well-meaning friends or church members, but those were disasters.”
Jared frowned. “I thought you said you didn’t go out much.”
Mary averted her gaze, picking at a hangnail on her hand. “I don’t. I mean, I go out some, but not a lot.”
Her loneliness reached across the table and he again wondered about her aunt, the woman who had raised her but apparently not shown her much love. He opened his mouth to probe why that meant she didn’t leave the house much when she spoke again.
“After that, I had to focus on my career. Geraldine didn’t have much money to leave me, only the house and its contents, which overall weren’t very valuable.”
“Except for the portrait of your aunt’s family.”
Mary nodded. “Yes, the Eakins is worth quite a lot.” She returned her gaze to David’s brochure. “Anyway, how else do people like me meet potential mates if not online?”
Seeing Mary gaze adoringly at David’s photograph made Jared clench his hands. “I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, just that it’s become more prevalent. I think it’s easier for people to misrepresent themselves online. There’s less chance for checking up on someone you met online. In person, you can pick up on inconsistencies more easily. Online, those red flags could possibly be ignored for longer.”
Mary looked up from the brochure with her brow furrowed. “What are you saying?” Her spine straightened and her eyes flashed as if a thought had just occurred to her. “Do you think David’s not being honest with me? Look at him. He’s going to be a missionary to Peru, for goodness sake.”
He had certainly put his foot into his mouth with that comment. He should have kept his mind on the mission and not on the way Mary’s hair curled around her shoulders. Now he had to convince Mary that he was sincerely sorry and get back in her good graces. “I didn’t mean to imply, I wasn’t talking about you and David.” Jared raked his hand through his hair. “Oh, dang it all.”
She tapped the brochure on the tabletop and glared at him. “What did you mean, then?”
If her eyes were lasers, he’d be toast. He backpedaled fast and told a half-truth. “I was thinking about something else I was working on that involved online chats used for a scam.” He blew out a breath. “Forgive me?”
Mary cocked her head. “Since you’re such an old friend, I suppose I will this one time.” She unfolded the brochure and stared at its contents.
“I take it things are going well with you and David?” For some strange reason, once the words were out of his mouth, Jared wanted to take them back. He didn’t want to hear about her relationship with another man, certainly not one as handsome as David. He reminded Jared of a model air-brushed to burnished perfection.
Mary blushed. Jared let his eyes linger on the becoming flush of red staining her pale cheeks like a painter’s brush. A lock of her midnight hair fell across her face and his fingers itched to brush it back from her cheek. He lifted his hand and had nearly touched the strand before he checked himself and let it drop to the table. That was too close. Thank goodness she was looking at the brochure and not at him.
Jared raised his eyebrows. “Is that so?”
Mary shook her finger at him, playfully. “Yes. So you can put your mind at ease. He’s a real person who’s going to be a missionary to Peru.”
Jared raised his glass and took a long drink of the tea. He started to ask something else when the doorbell rang. Mary jumped up from the table.
“That will be Mr. Sullivan, right on time.” She looked down at Jared. “Feel free to finish your tea.”
As she hurried away, Jared wondered who Mr. Sullivan was and what he was going to do about his growing attraction to Mary. He certainly couldn’t afford another mishap like the last time when his feelings clouded his judgment.
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Phantom Love is copyrighted and cannot be used in any form without permission from Sarah Hamaker.