To catch up with the rest of this story (a work in progress presented in serial form), click HERE. Let me know in the comments what you think and what direction you think the story should take, or if there are certain characters you would like to hear more from.
They were the perfect couple.
At least that’s how everyone at church saw them. Ellie and Jason had always sat together during the service, led Bible studies together, and even volunteered for the same church events.
Their break-up had sent a ripple of shock through the congregation, though most were tactful enough not to say anything to Jason or Ellie about it.
“Ellie Lambert, what’s the story with you and Jason Tanner? Have you called it quits or what?”
76-year-old Sandy Murphy had lost her tact years ago. She pursed her lips, tilted her head back, and looked down her nose at Ellie, waiting for her answer.
Ellie informed her she and Jason were taking a break and suggested Sandy pray for the situation, if she felt led to.
Sandy scowled for a few moments, her eyebrows knit together, then offered a quick, mischievous smile. “Which direction should I pray for things to go?”
Ellie laughed. “As Jan Karon suggests in her Mitford books, pray the prayer that never fails: ‘God’s will be done’.”
Sandy had winked, squeezing Ellie’s hand. “That sounds like a plan, but I must admit I’m praying God’s will is for you two to work things out.”
Sitting now with her parents in a middle pew of the church, Ellie tried her best to ignore the strange sense of loss stirring in her chest as she starred at the back of Jason’s head. He was sitting next to his parents and sister, four pews in front of her. What was God’s will for her and Jason? She wished she knew because right now she didn’t feel led in any direction, even after praying the “never-fail” prayer.
She and Jason had always sat next to each other before the break-up, his arm around her shoulder, rubbing his hand along her arm absentmindedly as he listened to the pastor, or her fingers intertwined with his, her thumb tracing circles along the top of his hand.
Now she sat alone with her parents and he sat alone with his, if he ever showed up at all. In fact, this was the first time he’d shown up since their shouting match in the parking lot three weeks ago.
Ellie’s eyes shifted from Jason to Molly. Her curls were hanging long down her back, unusual for her during the week when she usually kept it in a messy bun or a ponytail while working the barn or at the country store. The only time Ellie actually saw it in all its reddish brown glory was on Sunday. Ellie had always thought Molly was beautiful, but knew Molly didn’t feel the same about herself.
She also knew Molly had been oblivious to the way Alex Stone had been watching her for months when she wasn’t looking. Ellie had noticed Alex’s gaze more than once, but had never said anything to Molly. She hadn’t wanted to encourage a relationship between two people who were what the Bible called “unequally yoked.” That could create a lot of conflict in the future.
But now Molly and Alex were romantically linked. Ellie didn’t believe that was a good thing. Molly was a Christian, and based on what Ellie knew about Alex, she was sure he wasn’t. There was no future in that type of relationship, which was why Ellie had always been glad that she and Jason were on the same page when it came to their faith. But now . . . well, she wasn’t sure what page she and Jason were on, but it definitely wasn’t the same one.
Her gaze drifted across the rest of the church, across the rows of chairs and familiar faces as the congregation stood for the singing.
Pastor Joe’s wife, Emily was sitting in her normal spot in the front row of chairs. She’d styled her honey blonde hair in curls around her face this morning. That was different. She usually kept her hair pulled back with a headband, a style that Ellie thought made her look twice her age, which wasn’t a good thing since Emily was only a couple years older than Ellie.
Behind Emily were Ginny and Stanley Jefferies. Their daughter Maddie and son-in-law Liam were sitting next to them, visiting from Washington, D.C. where Liam worked as a press secretary for his brother, a United States senator. Next to Maddie was Ginny’s youngest daughter, Olivia, who must have been home visiting from college. Ginny’s son Clint lived out of state with his wife Tiffany and their four children. Or was it five now? Ellie had lost count.
Liz Cramner, Tiffany’s younger sister and Molly’s best friend, was a row over from the Jefferies family, yawning as she sang. Ellie had always thought it was interesting Liz attended Grace Community since her parents were leaders at Encounter Church, the small town’s equivalent of a mega-church. Liz’s dress stretched tight against her stomach, swollen from eight and a half months of pregnancy.
Ellie had mentally scolded herself more than once in the last several months about her judgmental thoughts toward Liz, knowing her jealousy was tainting her view of Liz’s situation. Here was Liz, single and recently out of an abusive relationship, but even she was going to be a mother before Ellie. It was ridiculous to think that way, of course; to believe that a person had to act a certain way for God to reward them and that those who made mistakes would, or should, be punished. Still, the thoughts crept in, and she had to constantly ask God to forgive her for her warped thinking.
As the singing ended and she sat back down, her gaze slid back toward the front of the church and she glimpsed Walt Tanner, his wife Marcia, and sitting next to Marcia, Brad.
She looked away quickly as Brad glanced at her, winked, and smiled. Embarrassment and shame rushed through her, even though she had nothing to be ashamed about.
It wasn’t a lie. You just never told Jason about it. What he kept from you was much worse.
“Good morning! How are we all doing this morning?”
At the sound of Pastor Joe’s voice, she realized she had done everything that morning except pay attention to the actual reason she’d come to church.
She pulled a journal and pen from her purse. If she took notes during the sermon, it would keep her more focused. That was her hope anyhow.
“Today we will be reading from Psalms 103:12.” Pastor Joe paused to wait for the congregation to find their place in their Bibles. “Let us read together. ‘As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.’”
Ellie’s pen glided over the page, looping patterns of leaves and vines and roses around the verse. The pastor’s voice faded into the background as her mind danced over another topic she had never discussed with Jason, another secret she’d kept from him.
Her mind shifted to that day in the doctor’s office all those years ago. She’d been 18, scared, hands cold, hoping that clenching and unclenching her fingers around the sweater she’d laid across her lap would help bring feeling and warmth back, but it hadn’t.
Ellie’s mother had reached over and taken her hand as the doctor spoke. When he finished, Ellie’s lower lip quivered under the weight of reality.
“Does this mean —”
“We really don’t know,” the doctor had said. “If your condition worsens, then, yes, it could be harder for you than other women.”
Glancing at her journal, her eyes traveled over the doodles scribbled around the only words she’d transcribed from the sermon.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
She sighed, leaning on her hand. She was glad that God knew the plans He had for her, but wishing He’d share them with her.
After church she was grateful she’d decided to keep the tradition of spending Sunday afternoons at her parents, even though she had moved out. It was better than sitting alone in her apartment, replaying her conversations with Jason over and over in her head. Driving the 20 minutes to her parent’s, though, she thought about the day she’d first seen Jason at the farm store after he graduated home from college.
She hadn’t been able to take her eyes off of him.
Standing across the store, close to the new display of spring flowers, he was talking to his Uncle Walt, one hand on his hip as he gestured with the other.
Ellie was mesmerized.
Has he been working out? Even more than before he left for college?
She shouldn’t be looking at him, right? Was she lusting? They’d just talked about this at Bible study. Taking a deep breath, she’d closed her eyes briefly, then opened them again to take in the full view of him.
She wasn’t lusting. She was simply — she pulled her lower lip between her front teeth, then released it again, her eyes drifting over his muscular upper arms — admiring God’s handiwork. Right? She drew in a sharp breath, wishing she had a fan to cool off the heat rising up from the center of her chest.
She’d seen Jason over Christmas break a few months before, but his muscles seemed even larger, even more well-toned now. Overly muscular men had never interested her so she was glad Jason had never been, and still wasn’t, overly muscular. He was simply the right amount of muscular.
Light brown whiskers dotted his jawline. The unshaven look coupled with the faded blue jeans and a nicely fitting gray T-shirt with the words The Cows Aren’t Going to Milk Themselves emblazoned in red across it, gave him a rugged, should-be-on-the-front-of-magazine vibe. Like a magazine called Hot Farmers or Steamy Country Men or Real Men For the Country Girl in You. If there were such magazines. That last one sounded like the title of a book she would be willing to write it, making Jason and herself the main characters. She couldn’t believe she was even thinking this way. She’d never say any of it out loud, especially around any of the women she met with for Bible study.
It was like she was in high school again, wishing he’d look her way, flash her one of his drop-dead gorgeous smiles, maybe even a wink, anything to let her know he knew she was alive.
A customer had stepped to the counter, moving into her line of sight, blocking her view of him temporarily. Those four minutes felt like a lifetime and when Mrs. Jenkins stepped away from the counter, Jason was gone. Disappointment settled like a hard rock in the center of Ellie’s chest. It really was like high school again.
She’d gasped and turned, slamming into solid muscle and soft flesh. He must have stepped into the back office area. Probably to talk to his aunt Hannah, the store’s manager.
“Oh gosh, sorry,” she’d mumbled. His chest was solid under her hands, as he caught her under her elbows to keep her from losing her balance. That brief touch lit a fire of memories of tender moments together. The memories had overwhelmed her then and they overwhelmed her now.
“Whoa. You okay?” He had smiled at her. The smile she had been waiting to see.
She stepped away from him quickly, her face flushing with warmth. “Yes. Of course, I’m fine.”
He’d leaned one side against the doorframe, crossed his arms across his broad chest. “Didn’t mean to startle you,but didn’t want to miss the chance to say ‘hello’ either.”
Warmth spread from her chest to the top of her head.
Good grief. This was ridiculous. She’d dated Jason from her senior year of high school up until two years ago. It wasn’t like he was someone she didn’t know. She knew him. Very well. And she wanted to know him very well again.
They’d started chatting until another customer came and then he’d left, saying he’d stop by again the next day.
He did stop by the next day.
And the day after that, until he finally asked if she’d like to go to the movies.
She’d agreed and their relationship was on again, almost as if they hadn’t taken that two-year break starting at the beginning of his junior year of college.
The knock against her car window startled her from her thoughts, yanking her back into the present. How long had her dad been standing there? She rolled the window down, lightheaded, still emotionally caught in the past she’d been remembering.
“You okay, kid?”
She laughed softly, hoping her face wasn’t giving away the emotions the memory had brought back to her. “Yeah, sorry. I guess I zoned out a bit while I was waiting for you guys.”
Tom Lambert held the door open for his daughter, smiling. “You can go right into the house, you know. We still don’t lock the doors and you’re still a part of the family.
Ellie accepted her father’s embrace as she exited the car. She closed her eyes, and breathed in the smells of the farm; freshly milled corn in the silo, flowers blooming, her father’s old spice mixed in. It was strange not living here anymore, but somehow it made her appreciate it all even more.
Her mom slid out of the passenger side of the dark blue sedan and gave her a quick, one arm hug, her Bible cradled in her other arm. “Hey there, hon’. So glad you came for lunch today.”
Dust billowed up around a truck driving down the road in front of the house, and Ellie watched as it turned into the driveway, parking behind her dad’s old blue Ford.
She tipped her head to one side, squinting against the glare of the sun, curious about who was behind the wheel. When she spotted the driver between the reflections of the trees and the barn on the windshield, her heart sank.
Oh. Perfect. Just perfect. Could this day get any worse?
“Good afternoon, Lambert family.” The driver was speaking to the family through the rolled-downed window with his naturally flirtatious charm. “Ellie. Hello. How are you?”
She answered curtly, eyeing him suspiciously. “Good.”
“Brad.” Her dad stepped into the sunlight and reached out, taking Brad Tanner’s hand as he slid out of his truck. “What brings you by today?”
Brad was still wearing what he’d worn to church — clean brown work boots, a pair of new-looking dark blue jeans, and a black t-shirt tucked in, fitting snug over his chest and arms, which weren’t as muscular as Jason’s, but close. His light brown hair was cut short, his jawline smooth shaven. The familiar Tanner dimple appeared when he smiled at her.
Brad jerked his head toward his truck, turning his attention to Tom. “I’ve been carrying around that engine part we were talking about and when I saw you all outside, it reminded me. I can unload it in the barn if you like.”
Tom nodded. “Thanks, Brad appreciate it. The small shed there would be a better place.” The men walked to the side of the truck.
“How is it going?” Tom asked. “Back for a visit?”
Brad nodded, dropping the tailgate. “It’s going good. I’m back to stay.”
Ellie raised an eyebrow, the words slipping out before she realized it. “Discovered city life wasn’t for you, huh?”
Brad held his hands out to his side, a smirk tugging at his mouth. “The city couldn’t handle all this beauty.”
Ellie groaned inwardly. Yeah. He’s definitely a Tanner.
She had already turned toward the house, so she knew Brad and her dad couldn’t see her when she rolled her eyes.
Ellie’s mother followed her daughter toward the front porch, paused and turned back to face the men. “You’re probably headed home for lunch, Brad, but you’re welcome to join us when you’re done if you like. I’ve got plenty of roast and vegetables.”
“I wouldn’t want to intrude.”
Ellie scoffed softly. She was glad she was too far away for anyone to hear her.
Rena Lambert waved her hand dismissively. “No intrusion at all. We’d love to have you. I’m sure Ellie would love to catch up too.”
Standing on the front porch, Ellie scowled at the front door, her back still facing her parents and Brad.
She opened the front door, turned, and forced a smile. “Sure, that would be nice.”
The scowl returned when she walked into the house. Jason’s cousin, back in Spencer Valley for good.
“Wonderful.” She tossed her purse and sweater onto the couch and blew out a frustrated breath. “Just what I need. More complications.”
During dinner Ellie shot her mother looks, hoping she’d look up and catch a drift of how uncomfortable she was with Brad being there.
Unfortunately, Rena was clueless. She smiled at Brad like he was the prodigal son. In some ways, at least for the Tanner family, he was.
“So, Brad, what did you do during your time away?”
His smile was clearly captivating, like Jason’s, but it didn’t send a giddy ripple through Ellie like Jason’s. Still, she couldn’t help looking at him as he conversed with her parents, admiring the square jawline, the small, attractive lines at the corners of his eyes when he laughed.
“I had a job at a warehouse along the docks in the city.” Rena spooned more potatoes on his plate as he spoke, and Ellie wondered if she should remind her mother that he wasn’t a starving refugee. “We were in charge of sorting packages from overseas.”
Rena kept asking questions, oblivious to the evil eye Ellie was giving her. “Well, that sounds interesting. What made you decide to move back?”
Brad took a sip of his ice water. “Honestly, I just missed farm life. I missed the open air, the slower pace, the quiet nights.”
Ellie smirked. “And your family?”
Brad’s eyes shifted to hers, an amused grin tilted one side of his mouth up. “My family, yes. Them too.” He kept his eyes focused on hers as he spoke, which left her time to notice, once again, how his eyes were almost the same shade as Jason’s. “And other people back here in our little county.”
She pulled her gaze quickly from his, cheeks flushing warm.
“You came back at a rough time for us farmers, but a good time to help out your family,” Tom said, leaning back in his chair. “It’s been good to see Robert back in church. It’s good to see him anywhere, really. That accident could have easily killed him.”
Brad nodded, his previously joking manner fading. “Yes, it really is a miracle. When I heard the news, I didn’t think I’d ever see him again. That weighed in on my decision to come home too, thinking about how much I’ve missed out on with my family.”
A cow mooed out in the pasture. Tom stretched his arms up over his head and yawned. “There’s Marigold reminding me it’s almost milking time.”
Brad propped his arms on top of the table and leaned forward. “You milking all by yourself now?” He jerked his head toward Ellie. “Now that your help has moved away?”
Tom winked at his daughter. “I hired some help. Young Patrick Mooney comes over twice a day and Ellie helps when her job and Bible studies aren’t filling her time” He stretched his arms over the back of the chair as Rena cleared the plates from the table. “Ellie is missed, but she couldn’t be expected to live here forever. Of course, I worry about her in the big ole’ city of Spencer.”
Brad snorted a laugh. “Yeah, with all the hardened criminals roaming the streets there, loitering, littering and jaywalking.”
Rena returned from the kitchen with a pie that she set in the middle of the table. “I don’t know. Matt McGee says there is more crime in this little county than a lot of us realize.”
Brad tipped his head in agreement. “That’s true, of course. How is Matt anyhow? I haven’t seen him in years.”
Ellie followed her mom to the kitchen to retrieve the plates. The faster they ate dessert, the faster she could say ‘goodbye’ to Brad.
“He was accepted to the state police academy,” Rena called from the kitchen. She handed a stack of pie plates to Ellie. “He will be heading there in a few months.”
Brad looked impressed. “Wow. He’s moving up in the world. Good for him. I always thought he was destined for somewhere bigger than the Spencer Valley Police Department.”
Another twenty minutes of chit-chat dragged on, with Ellie saying very little, wishing this “catching up session” would end already.
When Brad finally announced he needed to help back and help his dad with milking, she was grateful and even volunteered to walk him to his truck.
“That was nice of your mom.” He paused on the front porch, leaned back against the porch railing, and folded his arms across his chest. Apparently, he didn’t understand he’d already overstayed his welcome. “She’s still one of the best cooks around.”
Ellie nodded, staring past him at his truck. “Yep. Well, you don’t want to keep your dad waiting.”
He laughed softly. “Are you trying to get rid of me, Ellie Lambert?”
“No, I just —”
“Afraid I’ll ask what’s going on with you and Jason?”
Her jaw tightened, and she hugged her arms across her chest, as if a cold chill had suddenly hit her instead of a rush of aggravation. “I don’t care if you ask or not. I’m not going to tell you.”
She hated the way he was grinning. “Okay. Okay.” He pressed his palms against the railing, still leaning against it, crossing one leg over another. “You know, I still remember those dates we had all those years ago with a hefty amount of fondness.”
His attempt at a cute Southern accent did nothing to calm the anger bubbling up inside her. “Do you? So fondly you had to talk to Jason about them?”
He shrugged, still smiling, clearly enjoying the bitterness in her tone. “Hey, is it my fault you never told him? How was I supposed to know you two keep secrets from each other?”
She scoffed and shook her head.
Wriggling her fingers at him, she worked to keep her tone calm and even. “Bye-bye, Brad. Tell your parents I said hello.”
She pivoted to go back into the house, pausing when she felt his hand on her wrist.
“Hey.” His tone softened. Her back was to him, and she stepped closer. His breath was warm on the back of her neck.“I’m sorry. I was just teasing, okay? Don’t be mad at me. I didn’t know Jason didn’t know. We were just chatting about some of our favorite times over the years and I joked with him about the time you and I went out. I figured he knew already, so he’d think it was funny.”
She yanked her wrist out of his grip, then immediately felt guilty for her reaction. She relaxed her shoulders, straightened them, and let out the breath she’d been holding. “It’s fine. Really. I know you didn’t mean to start anything.”
Brad slid his hands into his jean pockets. “I definitely didn’t mean to, but I could tell by the look on Jason’s face I did. He said he had a delivery to make and left. I hope that’s not what caused the issues between you two.”
Ellie shook her head. “There are other issues, but I’m not going to talk about them with you.”
Brad rolled his tongue along the inside of his cheek and nodded, smiling. “Okay. I understand. I hope you two can work things out.” He turned toward the steps, then paused, and turned back toward her. “If that’s what you want, I mean.”
He kept his gaze focused on hers, his eyes narrowed slightly, a small smile playing across his lips.
Ellie rolled her eyes, turned her back on him, and opened the door. “Have a good day, Brad.”
Closing the door behind her, she leaned against it and blew out a breath. Were all the younger males in the Tanner family trying to drive her insane? Because if they were, they were definitely succeeding.