Spring 1969, Chicago, Illinois
Stormy days call for Rachmaninoff. Rain thrummed the window and blended with cantata chords Sheila Franklin coaxed from her piano. Soon she’d be done with the choir piece and could continue her Rachmaninoff affair. Or maybe she’d play jazz, wild and free, though Edward had forbidden it. But Edward wasn’t here . . .
“Jesus is love.” She sang as she played, but her movements jerked rather than flowed; a second-year music student could do as well. Eager to be done with it, she glanced at the clock. Ten more minutes, that would do it. Ten more minutes, and she’d play the jazz she’d heard when Papa set a needle on a scratched record in their marvelous Esplanade parlor. Or Rachmaninoff. Yes, Rachmaninoff would be better. Safer. Sheila sat up straight, precisely positioned her hands on the keyboard, but her past refused to be disciplined. Her past . . .
Oh, New Orleans! Images of the noisy French Quarter and Maman’s heart-shaped face pulled her into a keyboard promenade, slow and sassy, toward the Mississippi. A tugboat sounded . . . or a wrong note. She glanced at her hands, again heard the musical hiccup. She hadn’t missed a key. It was that darned phone, threatening to shut down a riotous Mardi Gras parade. Irritation clapped through her. She continued to pound the keys, but the wretched thing buzzed insistently.
When icy resentment froze her hands, she stared at them. Her diamond solitaire dazzled her eye and reminded her of her commitment eighteen years ago. She’d agreed to interruptions like this when she’d married Edward Franklin . . . and his congregation. Life, death, or a dozen things in between waited at the other end of the line; the knowledge propelled her toward his phone. She and Edward had battened down their marriage with the surety, the safety, of Christ. And it was enough, Lord. Yes. It would have to be enough.
As she moved to his study, she kneaded her knuckles but could do nothing for the memories. Beautiful memories. Painful memories. The lonely Russian composer understood—she knew from his music—but Rachmaninoff would have to wait.
She picked up the phone from its perch on Edward’s roll-top desk. “Hello?”
Static answered, and a noise like the wings of a large bird taking flight. She leaned against the desk, reminding herself to be polite, even if it was Mr. O’Leary, ringing up Edward from the pay phone outside the neighborhood pub. Or someone who needed money. “Franklin residence. Can I help you?”
“Is this Sylvia Allen?”
She tried to breathe; nearly choked. Her elbows banged against solid oak. Nobody knew she’d once been Sylvia Allen except . . . What was this? Blackmail?
The room whirled, rows of Bible commentaries reduced to smears of gold and blue against a wash of brown. Only the surety, the solidity, of Edward’s desk kept her from crumbling to the floor.
When Edward found out about Sylvia Allen, her marriage would crumble, like a mansion built on sand. She would crumble, all her secrets exposed. Who would dare do this? She gripped the phone and stumbled into Edward’s chair. The telephone cord stretched taut, but the connection held. Her mouth opened. Nothing came out.
“Hello? Are you there?”
This is a man’s voice. Could it be?
It’s not a blackmailer. It’s . . . him. Intuition set a wildfire ablaze with blues and reds, violets and oranges, in a heart accustomed, with his absence, to a sputtering light. He’d found her, after all these years. Heat raced to her limbs and set off sparks in her fingertips.
“Y—yes. I’m Sylvia Allen,” she whispered, though she longed to burst out in song. He’s alive! As if she’d put on glasses, Edward’s study came into brilliant focus. She took in the glorious words on Edward’s book spines, the glowing face of a portrait of Jesus. Even the rain let up to gift a window view of scarlet Japanese maples and budding tulips. Alive! Like . . . him.
“This is Samuel.”
Yes. I know, baby. An inner symphony began, the chords so dramatically chromatic, her slick hand struggled to hold the phone. “Y-yes,” she managed.
“I’d like to see you, if it’s possible.”
If it’s possible? I’d give my life for it. “Of course.” Somehow she’d managed to answer in a controlled way. Hadn’t she? She cradled the receiver against her shoulder, wanting him to speak again and fill the tinny void. He really wanted to see her? Could that mean he’d forgiven her?
“I hoped we could have dinner. Friday night. Do you know a place?”
She closed her eyes to concentrate. He had such a lovely voice!
“Ma’am? A place?”
His all-business tone muffled her music. She’d best gather her wits. “Y-yes.” She cleared her throat to stall for time. Somewhere discreet. Out-of-the way. “Yes,” she repeated, “Etienne’s.” Her voice sounded shivery, distant. Like it belonged to someone else. And wasn’t she somebody else? Three somebodys?
A time was arranged. Forty-eight agonizing hours away. The dial tone sounded, and she fell to her knees, shag carpet cushioning the phone receiver as it plunked next to her. “God,” she prayed, “thank You.” Whispery words fought their way out. “Make him understand. Make him love me.” Her heart thumped the pleas until her chest ached, but she gladly accepted the pain. How long had she prayed for this moment? Twenty-two years, two months, and five days.
The chiming clock reminded her of choir practice, prayer service, and the shirts that needed to be pressed and hung in the clothes bag for Edward’s three-day meeting in Dallas. An amazing coincidence, that meeting. A coincidence allowing her to arrange this other meeting with her Samuel.
She rose from the floor, hung up the phone, hobbled to the kitchen. As if she were in a stranger’s home, she grazed the chair arm, the counter edge, yet she was ushering in hope, joy, and something else. Something looming, now that she’d had decades to pay the price for what she’d done. Had one call changed everything? Had God sent a precious, dangerous gift her way? Something akin to the explosive power tucked into an atom? As she gathered her things, she prayed that she could harness that power which had been stored up all these years and keep it from destroying them all. Her Edward. His church. Most of all, her Samuel.