First Impressions: And the Greatest of These is Love 7/16/2021

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by:  Staci Stallings

First ImpressionsOne of the things I think is strange about my writing life is how clear certain scenes are when they come out of me and how those scenes never really leave my memory.  Each book seems to have a few of these, and often, years after the book is finished and I’ve moved on, I still can put myself right back into that scene as if it really happened and isn’t just a figment of my imagination.

Recently, I’ve started watching The Adventures of Lois & Clark, one of my favorite TV shows from the 90’s, and as I watch, I remember why “Clark” inspired the book And the Greatest of These is Love.  The heroine was actually from another movie I fell in love with at the time. She was the best friend in Bed of Roses.  In the story that they came together for me, Clark’s name is now Andrew Clark, and he like his inspiration is a reporter for a big city newspaper (though he doesn’t actually have super powers in this one), and Gabriella, just like her inspiration in the film, works in an after school and daycare program for kids whose families are struggling to survive.

One of the things I so love about their first face-to-face meeting is that Gabi doesn’t wilt like a wallflower though Andrew’s societal position probably warrants it. This is one of those almost mistrust-at-first-sight books, which sets up their challenging road to relationship throughout the rest of the book.

So today, I thought I’d share their First Impression story with you. It’s kind of long, but I’d love to know what you think…

~*~*~

The Greatest of These is LoveAndrew’s heart soared as he looked at her, the leaves and twigs still clinging to her almost straight dark hair, and in his soul he knew without asking that she was the cause of the laughter he’d heard outside. He couldn’t have stopped himself from smiling at her if he’d wanted to— which he so didn’t.

“Gabi, this is Andrew Clark, the reporter from The Herald that I mentioned. Andrew, this is Gabriella Treyvillion,” Jerry said, tipping his head in introduction. However, neither of them moved as they both stood there, staring at the other.

“Oh. It’s nice to meet you, Gabriella.” Andrew managed to extend his hand though it took real effort to get himself to keep thinking straight.

“It’s nice to meet you, too,” she said, the final word catching in her voice when her hand touched his. She seemed to shake herself a little before she smiled the most amazing, heart-stopping smile he’d ever in his life seen. The dimple in her cheek stopped his heart with one brief appearance. “And please, call me Gabi.”

“Oh, okay, Gabi,” he said, holding her hand in his a moment more. He never wanted to let go. Why did he have to again? She looked at him and then glanced down at their hands still connected between them. A jerk of his thoughts, and he finally managed to pull his hand away. That didn’t stop the joy dancing in his soul as he noticed the leaves in her hair once again. Reaching over, he plucked one from the strands and held it up. “Looks like you’ve been attacked by an oak tree.”

“Oh, my…” Instantly Gabi reached up to her hair and swiped at it in utter humiliation. Her smile disintegrated as she realized how middle school she was acting. “The children and I were just playing outside. I…  didn’t have time to…” but explanations were useless at this moment because nothing was making any sense to her anymore anyway.

“Gabi, Andrew tells me he’s going to do a whole series on the center,” Jerry said, and there was a lilt in his voice she hadn’t heard in a long time. “I thought he might want to interview you as a start.”

“Me?” she asked. The swiping stopped, and she looked at Jerry in surprised panic. “Why me?”

“Because next to me you know more about this place than anybody,” Jerry said matter-of-factly. “I thought maybe I could take your class for a little while and give the two of you a chance to talk.”

“Now?” Gabi asked, her eyes widening as the air clutched her lungs.

Jerry leveled his gaze at her as if to express the gravity of the situation. “Yes, now. Is that a problem?”

Andrew pleaded with God that it wouldn’t be a problem for her. If he could just spend a few minutes with her, he would never ask another thing for as long as he lived. She was fascinating, amazing, beautiful.

“Well, we’re going to lunch in a few minutes,” Gabi said, glancing at him but only that. She seemed to be shrinking back or becoming angry, and he didn’t like either one.

“Oh. I can take them to lunch,” Jerry said quickly.

That stopped her and she verily glared at her boss. “You?”

“Yes, me,” Jerry said with indignation. “I run this place — surely I can take care of a few children for one lunch.”

Gabi looked at him, skeptically twining her lips, but she said nothing.

“You can use my office,” Jerry continued, without pause. A long conversation passed between them, only some of which Andrew could read.

“Okay,” she finally relented. “Just give me a minute to get these leaves out of my hair, and I’ll meet you there.”

“Okay. Great,” Andrew said, trying to keep the breathlessness out of his voice. It didn’t work.

Gabi stared at her reflection in the tiny mirror wishing desperately for make-up of any kind, but she only owned two pieces of make-up, and she reserved them only for important occasions — certainly not a normal day at the center.

“This is stupid,” she berated herself harshly in the mirror. “He’s a reporter. A reporter. He’s not here to see you. He’s here to get a story. Get a grip already.”

But her heart said differently, and no words were talking it out of anything.

Andrew studied the office as if his life depended on how it looked. Sad and dismal were the two best words for the place, and he wished with all of his heart he could change that. He had one shot at this, and he wanted it to go well. He turned the two extra chairs toward each other, then pulled them to the side of the room, then replaced them. There was no getting around the fact that this felt like a principal’s office — and that was definitely not the feeling he wanted to evoke at this moment. Candlelight and roses, wine and chocolate strawberries. That would have been so much better.

Suddenly she slipped in the door, and when he saw her, his heart stopped again. How could anyone be so amazing?  He fought with his mind to stay with him, but it was a battle he was losing quickly. There were no more leaves in her hair, and he kind of missed them. He smiled at her shyly, his eyes asking questions he didn’t dare say with his lips.

“Thank you for taking the time to visit with me,” he said as professionally as possible.

“Oh, you’re welcome,” she said as if she was both worried and intimidated. “I don’t know how much help I can be, but I’ll sure try.” The dimple was back, and its twin joined it.

“Oh, I’m sure you’ll do just fine,” he said, smiling at her, and Gabi’s breath caught and locked. How was she supposed to sound rational and intelligent when she couldn’t get her mind to work or the words to come out of her mouth when she looked at him? Gabi, get a grip!

“Would you like to go somewhere else?” he asked, seeming to sense her discomfort.

She shrugged and glanced around the tiny office. It was less than inspiring. “I don’t care. Sure if you want.”

“Maybe we could go outside or something.”

“Okay.”

He pulled the door open and held it for her. Gabi ducked her head to step through it and led the way outside. As they walked in silence down the hall, her mind struggled with the unavoidable impression that she knew him from somewhere. They had met before, but when? Her mind couldn’t quite come up with the answer. It wasn’t like she went all that many places. Home, church and the center. That was about it. No. She was wrong. She didn’t know him, but why couldn’t she shake this feeling?

Andrew concentrated on each step down the darkened hall, willing himself to stay calm and professional. Sure, Gabriella — Gabi — made his mind mush, but he needed to get a grip. He had a job to do here, and that took precedence.  They crossed through another door and entered the warmth of the sunshine outside. It was a beautiful day — one of the few remaining before the winter came.

“We can go over there to the steps,” she said like a breath on the air as she pointed across the playground.

“K.” He wished he could be cool about this like Bryan would be. Bryan would have her eating strawberries and drinking wine at his place by nightfall. As it was, Andrew hoped he would be granted five minutes.

She climbed the light, baby blue painted concrete steps and sat down pulling her long dark skirt in around her knees. Adjusting his medium gray suit coat, he sat down next to her and pulled out his reporting notebook. It was time to get serious.

“Before we start, I need the spelling of your name — so I get it right, you know,” he said formally, which was good. Keep it formal. Professional. To that end, he put his pen and gaze on the paper.

“Okay,” Gabi said and spelled it slowly for him, watching his hands intently.

There was no ring, she noticed in spite of her brain reminding her that this was an interview and nothing more. Besides, no ring didn’t always mean anything anyway.

“Okay, Gabriella — Gabi,” he said, glancing at her and then retraining his gaze to his notebook with only a slight adjustment of his glasses. He cleared his throat. “How long have you worked here?”

“Six years in January,” she said, looking around the sparse playground. It was so easy to grow wistful at the thought of the place.

She remembered the first time she’d seen it. Her first thought had been that she would make an immediate request for more equipment. That was six years ago, and not a single thing had been added since then. But she was still writing equipment requests in the hopes that something would change. It didn’t. It never would, but she adamantly refused to give up hope that it would.

“So, what made you want to work here?”

“A lot of things,” she said, still studying the grounds. It was far safer than looking at him. “I guess I thought I could make a difference, you know? It just seemed like this was where God wanted me to be at the time.”

“And did you plan to stay here when you came, or was this a stepping stone to something else?”

“You mean onto something bigger?” she asked, and he nodded. “No, not really, but I did think at the time that this place would get better…  But all it’s gotten is bigger — more kids, more parents, more problems.” Putting her elbows on her knees, she sighed the hopeless feeling back out of her spirit.

His gaze drifted over to her and didn’t move. “So you know about the financial problems then?”

“Yeah.” She nodded, feeling his gaze on her but not being able to return it. “I knew about them when I started here. I just didn’t know how bad things really were until a few days ago.”

The pen stopped writing as if they were now just talking. “How bad are they?”

Gabi wondered how much to tell him. How much had Jerry told him? How much did he already know, and how much should he know? “Pretty bad,” she finally hedged. “Let’s put it this way, I may be looking for a new job very soon.” As the tears she hadn’t let fall threatened, she pressed her lips together and ducked her head away from him. Keep it together, Gabi. He doesn’t need chapter and verse of your sob story.

He wrote something down and let out a breath. “I see.  So, in your estimation how bad would it be for the community if the center had to close?”

A knife sliced through her heart at that thought, and the tears became much harder to hold down.

“The center and the schools are the only stable places most of these kids know. For them it would be devastating. For their parents too, I guess, but mostly for the kids.” Gabi’s gaze slowly slid out across the yellowing grass, and she shook her head and closed her eyes to the pain dredging up in her soul.

The depth of the sadness in her voice stopped Andrew cold, and he let his gaze fuse to her and hold.

“It sounds like this is pretty important to you,” he said, watching her hair blowing softly in the breeze. He wanted to reach out to it and her, gather her into his arms and keep every bad thing from getting anywhere close.

“Yeah, I guess so.” Her words were soft and barely audible. “I guess I know how much of a difference a place like this makes to these kids, and it’s hard to think what will happen to them if it does close.”

“Yeah,” he said with half-a-shrug, “but even with the center, how much of a chance do they really have? I mean look at what they come from.”

Gabi bristled instantly, and her dark, angry eyes knifed over to him. “The kids that come through here are good kids, Mr. Clark. They don’t have fancy sports cars or big houses, but that doesn’t make them bad kids.”

“Oh. I… I didn’t mean that like it sounded,” Andrew said, catching his mistake. “I just meant… that they have so much against them already.”

The anger dropped to an even more dangerous level. “Yeah, they do. And that’s why it’s important for them to have the center. It might be their only chance to get out of the life they were born into.”

“So,” Andrew said, wanting to steer the conversation away from this hot button subject. “Have you taught the little ones your whole time here?”

“No.” That worked as she half-smiled and then laughed. “When I started, Jerry put me with the ten year olds.”

He lifted his eyebrows in surprise. “I take it that didn’t go well?”

“Oh, it went well enough, but after six months we both agreed I’d do better with the little ones. Besides I was one of the only full-timers here, and he needed someone for the all-day four-year-olds.”

“Four-year-olds?” Andrew shivered at the thought. “That must be like going into war every day.”

“It’s not so bad.” Gabi smiled and leaned back with a shrug. “They’re great — most of the time anyway.”

Thankful that she didn’t look like she was about to shoot him anymore, Andrew nodded. “So, how many do you have?”

“Oh, anywhere from 20 to 25 a day. It depends on the parents. I probably have 18 regulars who are here most every day and then about six that drop in once or twice a week.”

“So, you don’t have the same ones every day?”

“Well, mostly, but these parents don’t always have set work hours so you just have to go with the flow and teach who you have.”

“That must be a challenge.”

“It’s all a challenge,” she said, sighing as the dark cloud that was never far away crossed her face once again. “The kids, the parents, the hours…”

“The hours?”

She came forward, putting her elbows on her knees once again as she glanced over at him. “Yeah, most of the time I’m here by at least 6:15. I try for 6:00, but that doesn’t always happen.”

“Six in the morning?” he asked in horror and dismay.

“Yes, six in the morning.” When she smiled, the dimples were back. “And if I’m really lucky, I’m out of here by 7:00, but most of the time it’s 7:30 or 8:00.”

“Wow. What does your family think of those hours?” he asked before he’d thought about the question.

Another bad question. She looked away again and said nothing for a long moment. “I don’t… really… have a family to worry about,” she said softly. “It’s just me.”

“Oh,” was all he could say. His heart broke for the sadness pouring from her

A second and she shrugged. “I guess you could say the people here are my family,” she said so softly he barely heard her. “It’s really gonna be hard to see them go.”

“So you think you’re going to have to see them go?” he asked immediately catching her meaning.

Gabi sat in silence, unable to put what was in her heart into words. It was the thought that kept creeping into her mind. The one she had desperately tried to avoid thinking about for three days.

“I think I’d really better be getting back to help Jerry,” she said, standing quickly and making sure to brush her skirt off. “He’s not exactly a natural with the little ones.”

“Oh.” A surprised second and Andrew followed her up. Even with him a step down, he was still taller than her by several inches, and this close, the magnetism of him pulled her inexorably closer. Lands, she needed to get away from him before she did or said something truly humiliating. Then with a soft smile in his dark eyes, he held his hand out to her. “Thank you for your time, Gabi. I really appreciate it.”

“No problem,” she said, swaying back and forth on the light breeze. She took his hand, praying she wouldn’t lose her balance with the swirling of her world. With him this close, anything was possible. A breath and she willed a smile onto her face. “I guess I’ll see you around?”

His smile was beyond amazing. “Count on it.”

Read more… Click here!

About the Author:

Staci StallingsA stay-at-home mom with a husband, three kids and a writing addiction on the side, Staci Stallings has numerous titles for readers to choose from. Not content to stay in one genre and write it to death, Staci’s stories run the gamut from young adult to adult, from motivational and inspirational to full-out Christian and back again. Every title is a new adventure! That’s what keeps Staci writing and you reading. Although she lives in Amarillo, Texas and her main career right now is her family, Staci touches the lives of people across the globe with her various Internet and writing endeavors.

 

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