Gifts should be used, not squandered.
That’s what Lesley Manning’s grandmother would say. And Lesley didn’t want to believe it.
Instead, she focused on her task at hand—washing dishes the restaurant’s breakfast crew “accidentally” left behind. Her shift at Mannie’s Bistro would begin soon, and she had to hurry.
As Lesley dunked the dishes into the deep well of suds, her attention was drawn to the window. Her eyes swept down from her mountainside perch to the valley below overflowing with thick trees bursting with vibrant autumn foliage, reds deep as bricks and oranges rivaling mountaintop sunrise. Fall time in Eureka Springs, Arkansas was gorgeous. It didn’t matter how many years Lesley had lived there.
Her gaze dipped from the colorful valley to the neighboring mountainside’s massive statue of Jesus Christ. She’d had picnics there with her grandparents, but those memories were long gone. When they died, she’d left the church.
She tore her focus from the statue and to the soapy water. Even in her frustration, a song hummed from her lips, its words not far behind.
“You were sure born to sing, honey.” Lesley turned and met her co-worker’s knowing expression. “You have the prettiest voice I’ve ever heard.”
“Oh, Tonya,” Lesley said, flinging a hand full of suds in her direction. “You know there’s not money in being a singer. And I’m a bit underpaid as it is.”
Tonya grinned, then her expression turned serious. “What were you singing? It’s not your usual.”
What had she been singing? The tune was still on her lips. It fell back in her mind like a gentle hand on her shoulder. I’d Rather Have Jesus.
But why’d she sing that? Lesley shrugged. “It’s just a song my grandma sang in church. I hadn’t thought of it in a long time.” Her face betrayed the pain that jabbed at her heart by mentioning her grandmother. Her Nana.
Tears welled up. Tonya placed a hand on Lesley’s shoulder. “Just know that you’re not alone. I’m here for you—and so is God.”
“Sure, sure. I know.” She turned back to the dishes, effectively knocking Tonya’s hand away. Tonya left, and Lesley’s vision roamed once more to the statue.
She believed in God, in Christ, or at least she had until He took away everyone she loved. In her heart, she didn’t want to give up on her faith, but she’d felt alone for so long, working steadily forward in a lonely existence.
Trust in me. Give me one more chance.
Lesley froze. Where did that come from? It’d been clear as cloudless sky. God asked her to trust Him. She didn’t want to, knew it was against her better judgment. But she realized deep down she wanted to.
All right, God. I’ll give You one more chance. Have someone seek me out today and invite me to church. Her eyes lingered a moment on the statue before heading into the dining room.
There was no letting up that Saturday with more customers then they’d had in a long while. If Lesley wasn’t carting out food or taking orders then she was refilling drinks and delivering checks.
Then, he came in and for a moment all the jangled rush of the place slowed—at least for her it did.
The man must have been in his mid-20s, medium build with dark shaggy hair darting down over green eyes, the color of clover. It wasn’t that he was overtly handsome. He was good-looking, but there was more. It was how he carried himself, the kind smile he gave the hostess as she led him to Lesley’s last free table. She had an odd feeling then, a stirring in her stomach, not unpleasant.
“Miss, may we have our check?”
And then she was off to the register and back.
A filled glass and handed napkin later she stood at his table, trying to keep calm when instead her fingers trembled. “Uh—umm, what may I get for you?”
“Hi—” The man looked at her nametag. “—Lesley. How are you today?”
A smile met her lips. “I’m okay. How are you?”
“Great. Thanks.” He smiled up at her, which made her nearly drop the pen. The green eyes were light, welcoming like he was an open book.
“What would you like?”
“Oh! I guess I’m here to eat, huh?” he said with a soft laugh and glanced at the menu. “I’ll have a cheeseburger and fries please with sweet tea.”
Lesley’s fingers thankfully wrote the order. She nodded, couldn’t think of anything to say, and dashed to the kitchen.
Those few moments with the kind stranger were the only slow ones she’d had the entire shift, and now she was back to running. She placed his drink on the table and was met with another charming smile, which dazzled her. This guy was different.
His attention didn’t make her feel uncomfortable like other male customers. He made her feel relaxed, at peace, like all would be okay—though she didn’t know how.
Her gaze sought him out after delivering his food, which gave her view of his head bowed in prayer over the meal.
Oh, he’s a believer, she thought. But he was still unlike any other Christian guy she’d met. And through her shift, she’d glanced at him more times than she cared to admit and even caught him looking at her.
Lesley’s customers trickled out, but the man stayed. He’d taken his time eating and ordered dessert and a cup of coffee until he was the final one left.
What was going on? Lesley wasn’t sure, but she was somehow glad he’d stayed. Approaching the table, she walked around Tonya sweeping and delivered his check. “Here you go. I hope you enjoyed the meal.”
“I did. It was great, Lesley,” he said, handing over a debit card. The handsome stranger had a name. Skylar Welch.
She had to find out why he was there. Visiting family? On business? Returning to the table, she sat the card down and stood with clasped hands. “So, Mr. Welch—” He grinned and interjected, “Please call me Skylar.”
She smiled in turn. “Skylar … I was wondering if you’re from this area.”
“No, no. I’m passing through really. Well, my family and I are.”
Family? He was married! Her eyes went to his empty ring finger. He must’ve seen her. “Not my wife. I’m not married or anything. It’s my parents and siblings. We have a Christian singing group, and we’re giving a concert tonight at Thorncrown Chapel.”
He sang? That must’ve been the reason her heart sped up when he’d said it. As much as she loved to sing, she’d always wanted a guy who sang too. What was she saying? She didn’t even know him.
He turned his head a moment and then returned, fumbling with his wallet. “May I ask you something, Lesley?”
The hesitance in his voice, the slight nerves showing sent tingles in her chest. Was he about to ask her out?
“I need some help actually,” he said softly. “Would you show me where to get a haircut?”
“A haircut?” she said, trying to hide the surprise and disappointment in her voice.
“Yeah, I’ve let it grow out a bit much.” He flipped the bangs back. “I can’t see too well. I might fall offstage.”
She laughed then, freely and suddenly, which made him grin. No matter the strange request, she’d help him. “I can’t say I’ve had a customer ask that before,” she said, taking his plates. “I’m off in a few minutes. It’s a stop along my way.”
“Thanks. I’ll wait outside.” He rose and looked down at her, causing her to step back.
He nodded and went out. In the kitchen, Tonya met her face-to-face around the corner with raised eyebrows. “Who was that guy? Did he ask you out?”
“Huh?” Lesley breezed past her to place dishes in the sink, her gaze lighting on the Christ statue before facing Tonya.
“You know what I’m talking about. Who is he?” she said, planting hands on ample hips.
“Just some guy.”
“He didn’t look like some guy—and you’re blushing!”
“It’s nothing!” Lesley pulled off her apron and pivoted to hang it up, hoping her burning cheeks would cool.
Finally, she explained the feelings she’d had, the looks they’d shared, and what he’d asked. Tonya grinned and pushed her out the door. “Go. I’ll clean up for you!”
“Are you sure?”
Tonya scooted Lesley outside, handing over her purse. “Have fun!”
Skylar sat on a bench and hopped up when she arrived. His smile sent her heart skidding. She nearly forgot she was leading.
“Well, shall we?” she said and walked left. He followed her down the steps and onto the sidewalk.
Then, their path joined alongside the quaint downtown with tiny shops tucked closely together as if they’d been trapped in time with their purchases of crushed felt fedoras, gilded first edition books, and intricate dollhouses trimmed in delicate Queen Anne’s lace wood cutouts that resembled the houses lining the street farther up the steep incline.
Lesley loved the town and its character, especially at Christmastime. She’d always felt like a doll walking in a snow globe scene. She smiled with the memories of walking hand-in-gloved-hand with her grandpa to the Christmas Eve church service. She’d felt so safe, comforted, loved.
“Are you from here?” Skylar asked, breaking into her thoughts.
“Why? Do I seem like a small town girl?”
“I’m not sure what that means exactly, but you do fit here. It’s a neat place.” He tilted his head to catch a glimpse of an antique roadster ambling uphill. “It’s unique.”
“It is. And, yes, I’ve lived here all my life.” The sigh that escaped her lips was long, drawn-out, and edged with wistfulness.
“The barber shop’s next door,” Lesley said, picking up the pace. She couldn’t let herself get attached, especially to some wayfaring stranger rolling into town and then out again. Her heart couldn’t take more loss.
“All right,” he said, leaving the candy display window. Not much farther, Lesley paused underneath the swirling red and white sign.
“Here you are. Mr. Parson’ll take good care of you. I guarantee.” She tried to smile, but it came out stilted. It didn’t feel right to say goodbye.
Skylar looked into the window, and then his eyes found hers, holding them for a long moment. She couldn’t look away.
“Lesley, do you have plans tonight?” he said in a rush. She didn’t know what to say, so he continued, “I want to invite you to the church service. Would you come?”
“Skylar, I—I’m not sure.”
“Please try. I’d love to see you there.”
How could she say no? She didn’t want to. “I’ll try to make it.”
“Great. I’ll have tickets for you at the door. How many will you need? One, two? Please bring friends or family.”
Her gaze flitted to the ground before darting back to meet his. “I only need one.”
“Oh, okay. I’ll have it saved under your name.”
“Thank you, Skylar. Goodbye.”
He hesitated a moment and with a smile said goodbye and went inside.
Lesley’s feet were fixed to the cement. She knew in her heart she’d be there but not because she was drawn to this handsome singer. She’d go because God had answered her prayer. Someone had sought her out.
That evening, Lesley approached Thorncrown Chapel upon the hill, brilliant warm light radiated from its glass walls. She shoved open the thick door to a crowd assembled inside. A young woman greeted her, and Lesley gave her name. The woman smiled. “Skylar told me about you.” Lesley was sure there was a gleam in her eyes. “Here’s your ticket. And there’s someone he’d like you to meet.”
She called out to a young woman standing nearby. “Anna, this is Lesley.”
The woman’s face lit up in a welcoming smile. “Oh, you’re Skylar’s friend.”
“Uh, yes. I am.”
“I’m so glad you made it. I’m his sister-in-law. Come with me. I’ve saved you a seat.”
Lesley was taken aback but trailed behind Anna to a seat near the front. Skylar had planned it, so she wouldn’t be alone. She and Anna conversed a few moments until the opening chords of a song.
And there was Skylar—onstage, dashing with his new haircut and in a crisp gray button down and navy slacks. Lesley was mesmerized, and it wasn’t about his looks or how his face lit up when he saw her. It was the joy and peace that shone through him as he sang. His rich baritone rose and fell in perfect blended harmony with his brothers and sisters, but it was his uninhibited worship when his face turned heavenward, and he sent songs of praise to His Creator that stayed with Lesley.
The evening’s final song welcomed the congregation to join in. Lesley stood as the words flashed upon a projector screen.
Lesley knew it. Her eyes closed as the words of drawing back to God and His faithfulness poured over her. God, please forgive me for turning my back on you. You’ve never left me. I was never really alone.
Tears formed and slid down her cheeks as peace filled her soul. She began to sing, not worrying where she was or about Skylar or her past. She only felt God’s Spirit surrounding her, and His love covering her. Her hands lifted, and she sang from her heart to the God who sought her out, invited her in, and hadn’t forsaken her. Now, he’d welcomed her home.
After the close of the song, she wiped at tears during the prayer. Then, the service adjourned. She took a deep breath, relished the lightness inside her, and met Anna’s wide eyes.
“Lesley, you have such a beautiful voice. God has definitely given you a very special gift. You should be up there using it.”
All Lesley said was, “I know.”
Lesley glanced out across the congregation. Some people dabbed at their eyes, others smiled, or sat motionless. Maybe they knew what it was like to feel alone, like God wasn’t there. Perhaps they’d needed to hear her story of how God restored her. She wasn’t sure what God was doing, but she was glad to be a part of it.
The slow strands of a song filled the sanctuary. She’d know the melody anywhere, and the words she couldn’t forget. It was the same song Tonya had caught her singing in the restaurant kitchen several years before. She raised the microphone and sang for how Jesus had fulfilled the empty ache that loss and loneliness had left inside her, how she’d rather have Him than riches or men’s applause. I’d rather have Jesus than anything the world affords today.
A deep male voice joined in, weaving their voices together as intended. Her husband, Skylar, joined her onstage with this song to tell others of what only God could give—a melody of hope.