Larkspur Linwood has returned home to Eden, Arkansas, from a mission trip in Kenya taken at the request of her charming professor, Franklin Keene. While in Africa, Lark learned that Franklin’s flirtation—and more—extended to other women on the trip.
Humiliated and heartbroken, Lark cut her trip short, departing just after the mission school director, Anson Schafer, learned that his deteriorating eyesight would make it impossible for him to continue at the school. Both Lark and Anson must now discover God’s new plan for them.
On Saturday, Lark stood before the mirror in the O’Neills’ guest room and straightened the collar of her blouse. The cuffs were a little frayed, and it wasn’t the latest style, but Lark thought the ivory shade flattered her fair complexion.
And she wasn’t about to wear the blue polka-dot dress she once thought Franklin Keene favored. Several times, she’d considered relegating the dress to the ragbag but couldn’t afford to sacrifice one of the few nice things she owned.
Mrs. O’Neill peeked into the room. “Benjamin’s ready to drive you over to campus whenever you’re ready.”
“Guess I’m ready as I’ll ever be.” With one more pat to her chignon, Lark snatched up her sweater and handbag. Since the moment she’d laid eyes on Anson Schafer’s picture in the news clipping, she hadn’t been able to quell the excited tremors. Until then, she hadn’t thought much about his being back in the States, figuring he’d probably get his eyes taken care of and be off to Africa again.
But now it appeared he planned to stay in Arkansas, and according to the newspaper article, he was in the process of launching an educational foundation to serve the neediest children around the state. If Lark could play some small role—if God had taken her all the way to Kenya just so she could meet Anson Schafer and become part of his outreach—then perhaps the last five months hadn’t been an utter waste of her time and the missions aid society’s investment in her.
Fifteen minutes later, Mr. O’Neill dropped her off in front of the lecture hall where Mr. Schafer would speak. On her way to find a seat, she said hello to several women she’d gotten to know over the past two years, and naturally they asked where she’d been since last spring. Only a few knew about her trip to Africa, and those friends wanted to know why she’d returned so soon. All she would say was that it turned out not to be a good fit.
An aisle seat in the third row remained unoccupied. Lark claimed it minutes before a silver-haired woman from the English department introduced Mr. Schafer. He stepped up to the podium with the same calm assurance and easy smile Lark remembered from Kenya. The only difference was the pair of round, gold-rimmed spectacles he now wore.
“Good afternoon,” he began, “and thank you all for coming.”
The rich timbre of his voice immediately carried Lark back to the day she first met him in front of Matumaini School, and her heart surged in her chest. She leaned slightly toward the aisle in hopes he might recognize her. Soon, though, she could tell from the way he held his head and how often he fingered the temples of his glasses that his vision hadn’t improved much. The thought brought a wave of sympathy and concern, along with even greater admiration as he described what he hoped to achieve on behalf of Arkansas’s most neglected children.
At the conclusion of his talk, two volunteers passed out fliers with more information about his foundation and how to volunteer or contribute financially.
As the lecture hall emptied out, Lark made her way to the front. She waited off to one side as Mr. Schafer spoke with two other students. When they left, she stepped forward and shyly extended her hand. “Hello, Mr. Schafer. It’s so good to see you again.”
He cocked his head with an inquisitive smile as he closed his hand around hers. “Forgive me, these eyes aren’t what they used to be. Your voice is familiar…” He squinted and bent closer, his face lighting up. “Miss Linwood!”
“Yes. When I found out you were speaking today, I had to come.”
“I’m so glad you did.” He motioned to someone beyond Lark’s shoulder. “Irwin, look who’s here.”
Dr. Young strolled over. When he recognized Lark, his brows lifted in a concerned smile. “Miss Linwood. How are you? We heard from Sister Mary John that you’d returned home.”
“Yes, I … decided it best.” Lark would have offered to shake Dr. Young’s hand, but Mr. Schafer had yet to release hers. He now covered it with his left hand as well.
“Are you back at school here now?” Mr. Schafer asked.
“Not yet, but I plan to enroll for the spring term.”
“But you’re well?” He drew closer as if trying to see her better. “I’ve been—that is, Irwin and I have both wondered…”
Stiffening her spine, Lark forced a smile and slid her hand free. “Last summer proved to be a valuable learning experience for me. I may have been disappointed in the outcome, but I’ll always treasure my memories of Kenya.”
After a moment of silence, Dr. Young gave a single nod. “I can see you have come through all the wiser for it.”
Lark moistened her lips. “Well, I…I just wanted to say that if there’s any way I can aid your cause—other than financially, I’m sorry to say—I hope you’ll ask.”
As she turned to go, Mr. Schafer took a giant step sideways and blocked her way. “Miss Linwood—Lark. Might you be free to join us for dinner this evening?”
Excerpted from Castles in the Clouds by Myra Johnson.
Myra Johnson’s roots are deep in Texas, but she now enjoys living amid the scenic beauty of North Carolina. The author of more than a dozen novels, she is a two-time finalist for the American Christian Fiction Writers’ Carol Award, and the winner in the historical fiction category of Christian Retailing. She and her husband, Jack, have two married daughters and seven grandchildren. She is the author of the Flowers of Eden series, of which Castles in the Clouds is the second.