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Prayer of Innocence (The Innocence Series Book 3) by Riley Knight (1)

ONE

 

The air was too hot, and too dry, even though it was getting later in the year and Judah had been here for just over a month. It had been the height of summer when he’d arrived, and he had been sure, for at least the first couple of weeks, that there was no way he was going to survive it.

For the boy who had been born and raised in Utah, Texas, it was quite the surprise. He hadn’t been prepared at all for this, and until his body had adjusted somewhat, he had been sure that he was going to sweat himself right into his grave. But here was where he had been called, been placed, and here was where he would stay.

He was getting used to it, though. He had heard it said, and found it generally to be true, that people were quite adaptable. And they were, at least, in the middle of September. He had to think that the winter months would be somewhat more pleasant.

“Pastor Judah!”

He had been drifting off again. The heat did that to him, which made him possibly the worst possible person to be here in Texas. He took a deep breath and brought a smile to his face, which really wasn’t very difficult.

“Yes, Ruby?”

He kept his voice gentle because these teenagers in the youth group that he’d started hadn’t known what to do with him at first. Of course, Judah had been expecting that, given what had happened in this town. The only reason he was being given the chance he was, he knew, was because he was a Methodist minister. He’d been told that the Baptists that had been sent before him hadn’t done well at all.

As odd as it was for Texas, this town didn’t want a Baptist church. And that was why Judah was here, getting to make friends with the fine folks of this small, remote, hot corner of the world.

“When we first came, you said that you had something you wanted to talk to us about!” Ruby was an energetic young woman of about thirteen or so, and she seemed to exclaim everything that she said.

When Judah looked around the room, he was gratified to see that all of the other kids in the room were also looking at him. With teenagers, it could be hard to tell. Sometimes he felt like they didn’t listen to him at all, but in this case, at least, that wasn’t true.

“Yes, thank you, Ruby,” Judah told her, and she beamed at him and fell onto the comfortable, worn, overstuffed couch that was just one of many pieces of dilapidated furniture in the basement. “I do have something I’d like to talk to you all about.”

There were more than twenty of them in the room, and honestly, Judah had never expected for this youth group that he had started to garner nearly as much attention as it had. But Serenada, Texas, was a small town, and there weren’t many other things for the older kids to do.

“I’m going to be starting a choir.”

Even as he said the words, he knew how stuffy they had to sound. He was sure that he was about to be laughed right out of the room, but, to his surprise, there wasn’t as much as a snicker. Rather, they all looked rather solemn, as though giving his words serious consideration.

“There’s already a choir.”

The words came from Stephen, the oldest of the group of teenagers, a young man with striking amber eyes and hair so dark it was almost black. He was sitting on the same couch as Ruby, not so close as to be improper, but he didn’t seem to be exactly heartbroken to be there.

It had to be said that Ruby, too, seemed to be having a good time. Sometimes, Judah had to envy these kids their simple pleasures. His own personal life was quite a bit messier or would be if he let it.

Stephen was one of the reasons that Judah had thought of this group. The youth group was relatively new, but again, it was pretty well attended. Stephen had been early one time, along with the boy, Jesse, who seemed to be his best friend, and they had been fooling around, laughing, listening to music before the meeting.

Jesse was fairly tone deaf, though he sang in a loud, clear voice with a lot of energy that made up for a lot, but Stephen. Stephen was something else, a high tenor that so few boys kept past childhood. It had blown Judah away, and he had to wonder what other talents this little town might be hiding.

The adult choir was good to have, but a youth choir? Well, Judah knew that his job was to get people into the church, and who wouldn’t want to come if their kids were singing? Not to mention that Judah really, truly, and deeply loved music. This would be a way to bring that music to everyone else.

“Yes, there’s already a choir,” Judah spoke gravely, not letting the little smile twitch up the corners of his lips too much. Stephen sounded so hopeful, but it was sort of sad because it was like he wasn’t quite sure that he dared to hope. Like he wasn’t used to hoping very much. “But it’s for adults. This would be just for you guys.”

Stephen wasn’t the only one in the room who looked interested now, but he did look like he was paying the most attention. Someone with a voice like that, who wanted to, should be able to show it off, and it seemed like Stephen might just agree.

No one spoke, though, the group of teenagers looking around at each other, no one wanting to seem too uncool by jumping at something before they knew if their friends wanted to. Some people found teenagers hard to read, but it hadn’t been all that long ago that Judah had been one, and they didn’t seem so mysterious to him.

“Think about it,” Judah suggested. He had planted the seeds, and only time would tell if anything would come of it. Besides, some of the parents were coming downstairs, ready to pick up their kids. Ruby gave Stephen one more lingering look. Then, with delicate color high on her cheeks, she ran off to a man, her father, maybe, who had come to pick her up.

Oddly, he didn’t recognize either Ruby or the man from his church services. Most of the kids who came to this group also came to church, but he knew that he would notice this man, with his slightly cocky smirk and his round jade green eyes. He would notice him anywhere, probably more than he really should.

The man gave him a friendly enough smile and a nod, and that was one thing about the people here. They were all neighborly, more than he was used to, especially since he was a stranger. He nodded back, but the guy didn’t stay to talk, or to introduce himself, which was also a bit odd because most of the other parents had done so.

There wasn’t a lot of time to think about it, though. Other parents were close behind the handsome man, and soon enough, it was just himself, Jesse, and Stephen, who wore a deeply thoughtful look on his face. There was a woman there with the same hazel-green eyes and sandy brown hair that Jesse had, and both Stephen and Jesse were heading for her. She was clearly Jesse’s mother.

Judah smiled a little and nodded at the boys, and at the woman, too, one of the people he knew from church. She had been one of the friendliest people there, actually going so far as to bring him a basket of muffins just to say hi on the second day that he’d been here, just when he’d thought that he couldn’t bear the homesickness even a moment longer.

Just when Judah was starting to relax, to look forward to some alone time, Stephen turned back and ran back down the stairs with the clatter that only the very young could manage. He had been halfway up them, but he was down again in a split second, coming over to speak, with an anxious look back at Jesse, earnestly and softly.

“Do you think this choir could really happen?”

Judah looked into that hopeful face and had to stifle a smile. He didn’t want to make Stephen feel like he was being mocked, and teenagers could be quite touchy, but he had thought so. From the moment he had first heard that lovely voice, he had thought so. He had somehow known.

“Yes, I do, if there’s enough interest,” Judah told him honestly. And from what he’d seen, that interest had been there. Again, there just didn’t seem to be much to do in such a small town. “But you can help.”

Stephen looked astounded by that revelation, as though he wasn’t exactly used to being told that sort of thing.

“Me?”

Judah nodded firmly.

“You. You’re the oldest. They’ll follow where you lead.”

It was true, too. People were social creatures, and the other teenagers looked up to Stephen, he had already seen that. Maybe Stephen didn’t realize it, but he had a lot of power.

“Okay.” Stephen gave him a shy little smile and a slight nod, and Judah knew that he had him. He would have his choir. And he had a feeling that it would be good not just for Judah, and not just for the community, but also for Stephen.

“Stephen, I can tell that you love music. Have you done any formal training?” With a voice like that, it seemed almost a crime not to, but Stephen sighed and shook his head, his face falling as he spoke.

“My dad says it’s a waste of time for me to focus on my singing. He says I should be doing homework. Math. Science. Especially science, that’s his huge thing.” Stephen had been to this point a generally happy kid, from what Judah had seen, but his voice was flat and dull all of a sudden. Resigned, which seemed like a shame to Judah.

Not that studying wasn’t important. Judah had spent his own time enslaved to the higher mind, and he had loved it. But there was more to life than just books, more to do than just slave away.

“Math and science are important,” Judah was very careful to put that first, and he saw Stephen’s face immediately fall like he was expecting that sort of thing. “But so is art. Music. The world is a wide and varied place, Stephen, and there are many things to explore.”

Immediately, Stephen brightened up, and there was even a smile pulling at the corners of his lips. It seemed that this boy, who clearly loved his father, was having a lot of pressure put on him. Should he offer to talk to the man? Only that could rebound pretty badly. It was probably better to wait, for the moment.

Judah walked away from Stephen, going to one of the many bookshelves that lined the walls. He tugged out a hymnal and flipped through it, then beckoned Stephen over.

“If the choir does happen, I would love to have your help picking out songs,” Judah admitted. Stephen, after all, would have a much easier time knowing what would go over well with the kids around his own age.

“Okay,” Stephen agreed, and he was trying to sound casual, but it wasn’t really happening. This young man was excited, thrilled, even, to get the chance to do something like this, and it was times like this that Judah’s job felt deeply gratifying.

“Stephen.”

The voice that echoed through the basement would have been lovely, rich and full and smooth, like the auditory equivalent of salted caramel, Judah thought, if not for the sharp tone of suspicion which laced through it like poison.

“Dad! I told you, I didn’t need you to come pick me up. I’m going over to Jesse’s.”

There was a strange tone to Stephen’s voice, defiant, but embarrassed. It was hard to put his finger on, exactly, but this relationship between father and son seemed strained, to say the least.

Judah kept his eyes focused on his book, uncomfortable and not sure how to deal with it, other than to stay out of the way, to listen, to not make any assumptions just yet. Not until he knew more.

“Go wait in the car, Stephen,” the newcomer demanded, and slowly, drawn by more curiosity than was good for him, Judah raised his gaze to look into the most intense, sultry, warm pair of eyes that he had ever seen, eyes that couldn’t be robbed of their beauty even by the annoyance that snapped in them.

Stephen hesitated, but then obeyed, though not without a pitying look back at Judah. And despite it all, despite the near hostility that this man was displaying toward him, he still couldn’t seem to tear his eyes away.

This man was dangerous. Not because of the annoyance glimmering in his eyes, but because of the beauty of those eyes. Because of the sharp intellect in them. For a moment, Judah forgot how to breathe, forgot how to do anything but stare at this man, so forbidden to him, as was every other man.

Forbidden had always been fine. He’d never really had much trouble ignoring those urges, so then why, with this one glance, did he feel like he’d been tossed out into the middle of an ocean with no idea how to swim?

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