Truffles by Leah Atwood

Chapter One

Colorful balloons in every color of the rainbow filled the cafeteria of Hope House. Matching confetti covered the center of the tables. One would think it was a birthday celebration, not a going away party.

But as sad as every person at Hope House was to see Rachel Bradley leave, they couldn’t help but celebrate the next phase of her life. Rachel and her husband, Aaron, were expecting their first child, and had made the decision to move closer to Rachel’s family in California.

Alexis Simmons stood back, contemplating the shoes she had to fill. As the new director of Hope House, she prayed she’d continue the work and growth Rachel had fostered. She’d started her new position three weeks ago, in order for Rachel to train her and teach her the ropes before leaving.

She still couldn’t believe she’d landed her dream position. Years ago, she’d seen the difference a shelter like Hope House could make in a person’s life, and she’d known since high school what she wanted to do.

Of all the applicants, she knew she was the least qualified. While she had the formal education and some experience with shelter work, she’d not held a leadership position like the other candidates. She’d sat in a group interview with each of the finalists, answering questions in front of the board.

Her chances had seemed slim, but somehow, she’d been the one to receive the offer. Rachel had let it slip last week that Alexis had beat out the competition because the board members could feel her passion for the position.

As she surveyed the room, though, the task ahead was daunting. Rachel was clearly loved by all the employees and residents. Alexis closed her eyes, said a quick prayer. God had brought her here, and of that, she was certain. He would give her the wisdom and discernment to succeed. He was her confidence.

When she saw Rachel had slipped away to grab a cup of punch, Alexis took advantage of the opportunity. “You’ll be missed, for certain.”

“I’m going to miss everyone here dreadfully, but Hope House is in great hands with you.”

“I pray so.”

Rachel offered her a compassionate smile. “You have the same expression I often wore during my first days here, but don’t worry. You’re going to do an amazing job.”

“Thanks. I am nervous, but excited as well.”

“Not that you’ll need it, but I’m only a phone call away. If you have any questions, you can call anytime.”

Alexis tilted her head, giving Rachel a pointed stare and laughed. “With what time? You’ll have your hands full settling into a new house and preparing for a new baby.”

A light sparked in Rachel’s eyes. “Plus, a new job.”

“You got it?” Alexis had to stop herself from squealing. She’d gotten to know Rachel well, and she knew how much Rachel wanted the position of assistant director at a shelter local to her family in California.

Rachel put a finger to her lips and nodded. “Yes, but don’t say anything. They called minutes before the party started.”

“I’m so happy for you. It will be perfect.”

“It’s a God thing. He knew I wasn’t ready to give up my work but being the assistant director and working part-time will give me the best of both worlds.”

Alexis gave her a congratulatory hug. “That’s amazing. They hired the right person.”

Tiffany Dempsey, the daycare director, joined them. She gave Alexis a subtle wink when Rachel looked away briefly. “Sorry to break this up, but you’re needed in my office Rachel. You never signed those papers for the contracts on the new playset.”

Squinting her eyes, Rachel appeared confused. “I signed those last week. Can’t Alexis take care of them? She’s in charge now.”

Tiffany shook her head adamantly. “Your name is on all the other paperwork. This is another one they faxed over this morning.”

“Okay, I’ll take care of it.”

As Tiffany and Rachel walked away, Tiffany turned to look at Alexis, mouthing, “Thank you.”

She’d been happy to do her part in keeping Rachel distracted while most of the women had discreetly left the cafeteria. They had one more surprise in store for Rachel, and Alexis was grateful to be included in the planning.

When everyone who was leaving had left, Alexis made her way to the daycare. She heard Rachel’s shocked squeal before she reached the area. Alexis smiled. They’d pulled off the baby shower without Rachel finding out.

There were no traditional baby shower snacks, as there was plenty of party food in the cafeteria, with the exception of iced sugar cookies in the shape of elephants and rattles. They’d decorated the main room of the daycare with neutral baby colors—Rachel and her husband wanted the gender to be a surprise.

Cardboard elephants hung from the ceiling, connected by crepe paper streamers. The men had brought in metal folding chairs earlier and arranged them in a circle, with one of the rockers pulled out from the nursery and placed among the folding chairs. A tall pile of gifts sat beside it.

“You guys.” Rachel dabbed her eyes. “I thought I was all out of tears. How did you pull this off?”

“Lots of planning and secret meetings.” Tiffany tugged her to the rocking chair. “Sit down and let us spoil you.”

Alexis sat at the far side of the circle. She was the newest to the group, and while everyone had welcomed her, she knew this moment was especially bittersweet for those who had known Rachel for longer. She was content to let them have this moment while she waited and participated in the background.

In the middle of Rachel opening her presents, Carl, the head of security and a former Marine, knocked on the door. His wife, Luna, part of the group and a former resident, began to stand, but he motioned for her to sit, then waved for Alexis to meet him.

She stood up, quietly excusing herself and stepped outside the room. “What’s going on?”

“I’m sorry to interrupt, but the board of directors are here. They’d like to wish Rachel farewell in person, but I know how important this baby shower is.”

“Gotcha.” She glanced over her shoulder, saw the pile of unwrapped presents dwindling. “The shower part is almost over. Where are the board members? I’ll meet them and talk to them until the ladies finish.”

He clasped his hands together. “Thank you for understanding.”

“No problem.”

“I’ll take you to them.” Stretching out an arm, he indicted the way to go.

She began to walk down the hall. “Are they all here?”

“Yes, and no.” He muttered something unintelligible under his breath.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“It’s nothing.” Shaking his head, he grumbled again.

His behavior was completely out of character for him, which put her on alert. “Obviously, it’s something.”

He sighed. “You’ll find out soon enough. They replaced Mr. Alleman’s spot.”

Her stomach clenched. As the new director, she should have been informed. “Why did no one tell me?”

“I just found out. From what I understand, the official announcement will come tomorrow.”

“Great,” she mumbled.

“Don’t take it personally. I only found out because I was the one who met them when they arrived.” He gave her an assuring smile. “I don’t believe Rachel even knows.”

But Rachel isn’t the director as of today, she wanted to say. She shook her head, ridding herself of the offense. Carl’s explanation was logical, even if she didn’t exactly agree with it. It wouldn’t even bother her so much, but she was a firm believer in open communication. However, she realized her insecurities were playing on her, and she had a professional demeanor to uphold.

Her thoughts trickled back to Carl’s reaction. “I’m guessing the new board member didn’t make a great impression on you?”

“He seemed…disinterested. As though being here was an inconvenience.”

“Then why and how is he on the board?”

Carl shrugged. “Don’t know, wasn’t my place to ask.”

“Maybe he’s having an off day,” she suggested, trying to give the benefit of the doubt.

“Could be. I guess we’ll find out.” He didn’t sound convinced.

She’d learned quickly that Carl was an excellent judge of character. This was one time she hoped he was wrong. The board needed members who were passionate about the cause and mission of Hope House. Anything less would have a damaging effect on the shelter.

“I served them cake to eat while they were waiting.” Carl grinned and winked. “Maybe it will sweeten up the new guy.”

Alexis laughed. “Smart idea.”

They walked through the side double doors. Alexis spotted the group sitting around the table, talking with several of the children. Her heart warmed, alleviating her doubts. The board was full of solid members who loved Hope House and truly wanted to help these ladies and the children. They wouldn’t bring on a new member who didn’t feel the same.

She spotted Mr. Randolph listening to six-year-old Landon O’Neil tell a knock-knock joke. Mrs. Guillory cradled Micah Tenney, the youngest Hope House resident at two-months old. Mrs. Gerald and Mr. Wilson spoke with Tyson, who’d recently been promoted from part-time to full-time security.

Which left the new man, who must be the person who sat beside Mr. Randolph. She could only see him from the rear. His back was rigid. It could be that he didn’t want to be there, or it could he was nervous. She could understand that. Coming into a new position, especially when those around you were well established, was difficult.

He also appeared younger than the rest of the board members. Looks could be deceiving, especially when she could only see his back and the rear of his head, but she’d be willing to bet he was a good two decades younger than the other members. Interesting.

Alexis went to Mrs. Guillory, the de facto chair of the board. “Carl told me you’d like to tell Rachel goodbye in person. They’re finishing up in the daycare, but they’ll only be another ten minutes.”

If they were longer, she’d send someone to alert them.

“That’s no problem.” Mrs. Guillory smiled adoringly at the baby in her arms. “I’m enjoying every second of baby snuggles.”

“He is precious, isn’t he?” Alexis brushed a finger over barely-there strands of Micah’s downy soft blonde hair.

“Absolutely. My grands are all toddlers and older now, but my daughter is expecting another this fall. I can’t wait.”

“How many grandchildren do you have?”

“Seven,” Mrs. Guillory answered, her smile beaming with pride. “Soon to be eight.”

“That’s wonderful.”

“I’ve truly been blessed.”

Elena, one of the daycare workers, came to them and asked for Micah. “I know you have business to attend to, but you’re welcome to come anytime for more snuggles.”

“I definitely will,” Mrs. Guillory answered.

And she would. Mrs. Guillory came every other Tuesday to read a story and do a small craft with the young children of the shelter. When she finished, she’d stop by the nursery to help but it was no secret she adored babies and children.

After Elena walked away, Mrs. Guillory turned to Alexis. “How is it going so far? Are you settling in?”

“Rachel’s been an amazing teacher. I’m nervous because this job is a huge responsibility, but I’m thrilled to play a part in helping these ladies get their lives back on track. Whatever their reason for being here, I want them to leave more confident and equipped than when they arrived.”

An approving smile stretched over Mrs. Guillory’s face. “You are the woman for the job. I have every confidence you’ll succeed far beyond your own expectations.”

“Thank you.”

Mrs. Guillory laid her hand softly on Alexis’s arm. “Let’s gather the others. I’d like to introduce you to the newest member of the board.”

“Carl mentioned the spot had been filled.”

“Yes.”

The abrupt answer left Alexis unsettled. There wasn’t malice in Mrs. Guillory’s tone, nor was there pleasure. For whatever reason, no one yet seemed thrilled over the new appointment. She drew a long breath, praying for composure and strength.

Something told her she’d need it in the coming weeks.