Cool sips of water trickled through her constricted gullet, easing her garbled voice. “Thanks. I don’t think the police escort would’ve offered me a chance to decompress. I don’t want to keep you late. You’ll probably have to be at your office early in the morning.”
“No problem. My work day gets going after sunset.” He swept his empty coffee mug in front of him. “Welcome to my office.”
Laina’s shoulders relaxed against the booth’s padded vinyl back. “Ah, so Reverend is just a nickname, then? You’re not really a church-type preacher.”
He poured a second cup of muddy brew. “Well, now, I s’pose that depends on how you mean it. I’m ordained but I preach at the Hope Center’s chapel, alleys, or twelve-step groups most of the time. I steer clear of churches, unless there’s some special occasion. Father Risemore and Pastor White let me borrow their sanctuaries if I need ’em. In return, I go where they’re uncomfortable and my denim’s welcome.”
She pressed a warm mug against her palm, not intending to drink its contents. The heat seeped in to soothe the tension in her aching hand. “You’re not like any preacher I’ve met before.”
“I reckon you’re a little different from most of the folks I hang out with.”
“Well, let’s see.” He twisted his mug on the table, steam furling up from the black java. “You an addict, dealer, prostitute or got one of the above in your life?”
“No. I work at a publishing company down the street.” She studied the glint of gold in his hazel eyes. “It must be tough. How do you work with stuff like that every day?”
“I been where they are. In a lot of ways, I’m still just like them.” Arden shrugged. “We’re a lot more alike than different, Ms. Journalist. Sometimes it takes a face full of dirt to see what a man’s made of. And that all the mud on earth won’t hold him up in an earthquake.”
“That a saying from your home state or something?” She picked at a honey-glazed pastry. The buttery cinnamon scent would have seduced her lips to devour it on any other day. Acid curdled her stomach, and the sweet aromas tempted her to gag. Laina pushed the plate aside and grabbed a pack of crackers from the table basket. “I’m not actually a journalist, by the way. Just a copywriter. Nothing adventurous.”
“You must like writing to risk your life every day to go to work. Your life’s got more adventure for you than you might’ve thought.” He winked, his grin coaxing a dimple into his right cheek.
“Not if I can avoid it.” Laina twirled her hair, a habit she’d broken in college. “I did study journalism once. Then I found out success requires tramping through the riskiest places to get stories. I love writing, but no way would I go into a war zone on purpose.”
“What if the war zone’s already around you?” Arden raised a brow.
She swallowed, stale saltine crumbs resisting the descent. “If you’re trying to encourage or comfort me, that’s not helping.”
He folded his arms on the tabletop and leaned forward. “There’s always a battle. My folks here on the streets need a partner in the fight with ’em. I go into the front lines because that’s where we win.”
Laina squinted at him. “Aren’t you scared?”
“Fear’s dangerous.” He shook his head. “I steer as clear of that as I do booze. Don’t touch the stuff. It’ll kill ya.”
“Sounds a little like religious extremism there.” She folded her arms. “Isn’t a little healthy worry what keeps us safe?”
“I got much more reliable protection than fear.” He pointed to her pastry. “You gonna eat that?”
She scrunched her nose. “Kind of picked it to a mess. You still want it?”
“Miss Cambly’s pigeons will consider it a high-class treat when I visit her tomorrow.” He unfolded a napkin and wrapped the shredded honey-bun into it.
“One of your parishoners lives near the park?”
He tucked the package into the pocket of a coat folded on the seat beside him. “She lives in the park, usually under the carousel or behind the shed. She used to live in an apartment, but after the fire she was too scared to go back.”
“With the murders in my building, I can understand how she feels.” Laina forced herself to gulp water, if only to silence the course of her words. The water spilled from the edges of her lips. She patted her chin, heat climbing through her face.
“Looks like you have a drinking problem,” Arden said, just as the waitress returned to the table.
She glared at Laina, then turned a softened expression toward her regular customer. “Will you be needing anything else, Reverend?”
“Not right now. You can leave the check with me.”
Laina put a hand over the paper slip as the waitress laid it on the table. “No, please let me cover it. I’d like to repay you for the gas at least.”
“If you can trust me a little . . .” He snatched it from under her fingers. “I’d rather you just owe me a promise.”
She studied his gentle eyes and scarred cheeks. Weathered and life-worn beyond his years, he exuded a genuineness she had not seen in other men. “For someone I just met, I suppose I trust you far enough to give me a ride. But, I’ll need to know the promise before I agree to it.”
He rose and donned a battered corduroy coat. “Nothin’ too forward. Ms. Journalist. Just promise me you’ll call me if you need someone to talk or pray with you.”
“Sure.” She accepted a plain white business card from him. With no other text, logo, or even his name, the cell number’s digits covered the center in bold print. She followed him to the door. “But, I told you I’m not a journalist.”
Arden held the door open and waved her through. “I call ’em like I see ’em, ma’am.”
“Those who wage war against you
will be as nothing at all.
For I am the Lord your God
who takes hold of your right hand
and says to you, Do not fear;
I will help you” (Isaiah 41:12-13).