Hold on to your seats, regular readers. Today’s chapter is going to send you on a bumpy ride. In fact, the next several chapters are going to.
If you are a new reader here, I share a chapter from my WIP each Friday, and sometimes Saturday, on my blog. There are typos, grammatical issues and even plot holes at times because this is a first, second, or third draft that hasn’t gone to my editor yet. If you see a typo, feel free to kindly let me know in the comments. Sometimes the error has already been fixed on my copy, sometimes not.
Catch up with the rest of the story HERE. Don’t feel like reading the book in a series of chapters each Friday? Preorder the book HERE. Do you want to read the first book in the series? Download it HERE.
Sunday morning Ellie watched a bottleneck effect unfold in the sanctuary doorway and wished she had slipped out of the service early. At this rate, standing all the way at the back of the crowd, she’d never get out of the sanctuary. It was her turn to provide lunch at her parents, and she still had to go back to her apartment and pick up the crock pot with the shredded chicken. And Judi. If Judi was even awake. Ellie had driven a drunk Brad and Judi home the night before, sometime around midnight, dropping Brad off first and then parking his truck at her parents. He could walk to her parents this morning, or whenever he regained consciousness, and pick it up.
She’d done everything she could to keep Judi quiet while she helped her from Brad’s truck and practically shoved her in the passenger side of the sedan, hoping their parents didn’t wake up and find out the truth about Judi at 1 a.m. on a Saturday night. Her absence in church wouldn’t have been a sign to them that anything was amiss, since Judi hadn’t attended a service since she’d arrived. Their mom had mentioned it once, in private, to Ellie, expressing concern about Judi’s spiritual health, but hadn’t pursued it further as far as Ellie knew.
This morning Ellie’s eyes were heavy, and she’d yawned more than once during the sermon, hoping Pastor Joe hadn’t seen her and thought it was a silent review of his message.
She looked to her left and flinched involuntarily at the sight of Jason standing directly next to her. She had no way to get away from him. People were crushed against them on all sides. Their shoulders touched, and heat rose from her chest to her face. There it was again. The physical attraction she wanted to deny but couldn’t. Without warning, an image of him shirtless by the woodpile the afternoon before popped into her mind.
She let out a slow breath and willed the image away, but only managed to transform the image into one of him swinging the ax, his biceps contracting with each hit. His biceps. The ones she used to run her hands up as they kissed. The ones pressed against her shoulder at this very moment.
He glanced at her at the same moment she glanced at him, then they both looked away quickly. Like a pair of love struck teenagers, she thought, withholding an eye roll, so he didn’t think she was rolling her eyes at him.
“Good morning,” he said at last.
“Good morning.” Where had her voice gone? It came out as a squeaking rasp.
Finally, the crowd broke through and they were stepping into the more spacious lobby area. Sunlight taunted her through the floor to ceiling windows lining the front walls. A few more steps and she would be free. She started to step away from him, toward the hallway that led to the back door, when she heard a voice behind her.
“Ellie. Jason. Hey.” Pastor Joe stepped between them and placed a hand lightly on each of their elbows like a teacher who’d caught two students misbehaving in the hallway. His voice was gentle, though not in the least bit scolding. “Glad to grab you two together.”
They caught each other’s gaze. They weren’t exactly together. They’d simply walked out at the same time.
“I was hoping I could talk a few minutes with you,” Joe continued. “In my office?”
He gestured down the opposite hallway that Ellie had been trying to escape down.
She looked up and Jason was looking at her, as if he was trying to decide how he should answer the pastor.
“Um. Yeah,” Jason said slowly, his gaze still locked with her’s. “Sure.”
Sure? No. It wasn’t supposed to be sure. Where was his usual excuse of “I’ve got work to do at the farm”? She could have really used that line from him today.
“Hey, Don.” Pastor Joe called to the assistant pastor, who was saying goodbye to parishioners. “Can you make sure we’re not interrupted?”
Don nodded and smiled as if he knew something Ellie and Jason didn’t.
Ellie’s eyebrows dipped down, and she frowned. Is this some kind of intervention?
Inside his office, Pastor Joe sat in a chair in front of his desk and gestured to two chairs across from him. “Sit down, guys.” He gently pushed the door closed. “I don’t like to sit behind my desk when I talk to people, if you’re wondering why I’m sitting here instead. I feel the desk puts up metaphorical walls between us and we don’t need walls up today.”
Ellie’s muscles tensed at his words. Walls? What walls? Had Pastor Joe heard about her conversation with Jason in the parking lot? The service has been in the middle of worship. Could the congregation have heard them between the songs? Maybe the walls weren’t as thick as they looked. If someone other than Molly had heard them, though, then why had Pastor Joe waited so long to talk to them about it?
“So.” The pastor clapped his hands together and leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees. “This is an awkward conversation for me to initiate but, well, I care about you two and I’m just going to go for it.” He cleared his throat and sat back in the chair, propping his elbow on the arm. “Normally I don’t get involved in the private lives of my parishioners, unless they ask, but in this case, I hope you’ll take this as me simply being concerned about your well-being and not me being nosey. Frankly, I’m worried about you two.” He paused for effect and held each of their gazes for a few seconds. “Let’s not beat around the bush. I’m aware you two are not a couple at the moment and, well, I just want to be sure that this is what you both want.”
Ellie and Jason had both pulled their gazes from their pastor. Jason had found something very interesting on the front of his shirt and was picking at it. Ellie was examining the carpet like it was a science experiment that needed to be figured out. Ellie chewed lightly on her bottom lip and Jason rubbed two fingers against his chin, as if suddenly deep in thought.
After about thirty seconds of silence, Pastor Joe cleared his throat. “So, it is what you both want then.”
It was a statement, not a question.
Jason glanced at Ellie, then looked back at the desk. “It’s what she wants.”
She stiffened at his comment, and her jaw tightened. Oh really? She’d wanted him to keep his past from her?
“Okay.” Pastor Joe leaned back in his chair and looked at each of them. One at a time. “Is there a reason for that? I mean, would you two like to talk more about it sometime? Maybe during a type of counseling session?”
Ellie laughed softly. “What, like marriage counseling? We’re not even married.”
And probably never will be at this point.
Pastor Joe smiled. “I know, but you’ve been together so long it’s almost like you are.”
So long. Yes. Twelve long years. Maybe twelve long, waisted years.
“But we aren’t,” she said stiffly.
She felt rather than saw Jason roll his eyes. “Just keep rubbing that in why don’t you?”
She didn’t respond, crossing one leg over the other and leaning back in the chair instead, now studying Pastor Joe’s collection of books.
Oswald Chambers, C.S. Lewis, Derek Prince, Billy Graham, and several theological texts.
All out of alphabetical order too. She should volunteer to organize it for him sometime. The disorganization was making her head spin.
Pastor Joe nodded. “Okay, so I’m guessing one of you wants me be married and the other doesn’t?”
Her muscles tightened at the question, waiting to hear what Jason would say.
He didn’t say anything for several minutes. Then, finally, he cleared his throat. “You could say that, I guess.” He was looking at the arm of the chair as he spoke. “I wanted to marry her but she —”
“He wasn’t even really going to propose.”
Had she just said that out loud? Apparently she had, and apparently, she wasn’t done. “I thought he proposed, but really he was going to tell me about something he did in college. Something he’d never told me about.”
Pastor Joe nodded, encouraging her to continue.
“Well, I mean —” She swallowed hard. Her mouth was dry. What had she been going to say? To their pastor? She certainly wasn’t going to say what Jason had done and why it bothered her.
“You mean what?”
Jason’s tone was as sharp as the look he was giving her.
Her heart rate had increased, her palms were damp. She clutched the sides of her skirt, hoping to calm her breathing. For a brief time Pastor Joe disappeared from her view, or at least she forgot he was there.
“You gave to her what you were supposed to give to me.” She blurted the accusation out before her brain had fully engaged. “‘Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother and shall cleave unto his wife and they shall become one flesh.’ That’s what we were supposed to be on our wedding night but you became one flesh with another woman instead.”
She’d expected Jason to apologize again, to recognize she was trying to tell him how she really felt. She expected him to soften, to understand the vulnerability she was showing.
Instead, he snorted.
Like Old Bart before he charged.
His green eyes darkened.
“I know the verse, Ellie.” His tone was even and low, but she could hear the slight tremble in it, like a rope straining under a great weight, just about to break. “That’s what I wanted with you but then you dropped me in college.”
“I did not drop you in college. We agreed to take a break.”
“No. You wanted the break. I agreed because I thought it was what you wanted.”
“What I wanted? I thought it was what you wanted. You kept talking about hard long-distance relationships were. I thought you were saying you thought we should break things off while you were in college.”
“You thought? Why didn’t you just ask?”
“What, like you asked me? You didn’t ask either. You assumed. You assumed I didn’t want you and I guess that was the excuse you needed to go get what you’d probably always wanted to do anyhow.”
A muscle in Jason’s jaw jumped, like the pump of a shotgun being pulled back. “Excuse me? What’s that supposed to mean? What I always wanted to do?” There was the snort again. “Is that all you think I ever wanted from you? I mean, it’s how you acted part of the time over the years. Always apologizing when you told me we had to slow down like I was some sex-craved maniac who only wanted to ravage you. Then me, going home, feeling guilty because I wanted to ravage you, but it wasn’t all I wanted to do. There’s more to a relationship than sex, Ellie and I thought that was obvious by how I’ve respected your wishes all these years.”
Now it was her turn to snort. “My wishes? Weren’t they your wishes, too? You act like it wasn’t hard for me either.”
“Well, was it? I don’t know. You always acted like it wasn’t difficult for you. As far as I know you’ve never even wanted our relationship to progress beyond making out and holding hands.” He gripped the arms of the chair, his knuckles white. “You know what, that’s not true.” He leaned forward. “I know you did. Let’s stop pretending for our pastor’s sake. You never said it, but your body showed it more than once. Don’t sit here and lie. Why don’t you tell Pastor Joe the truth? That you aren’t the innocent little virgin everyone thinks you are. That you have sexual desires just like anyone else. You’re not some virtuous, pure of thought woman, sitting on a bed of lily-white. You wanted me as much as I wanted you or your hands wouldn’t have been —”
She stood quickly. “That’s enough Jason.”
“What’s enough?” Jason leaned forward, and she could feel the anger radiating off him. “Pulling back the curtain you hide behind? Calling you out for your hypocrisy? Who knows, El. Maybe I’m not the only one who has secrets. What happened between you and Brad while I was gone?”
Her mouth opened slightly and stayed there a few seconds before she closed it again.
“Nothing happened between me and Brad.”
“Really? Because he’s been sniffing around you like a bloodhound since he got back. Seems like he wants to rekindle a fire he started at some point. Maybe on those dates you two went on while I was in college.”
“You’re comparing three dates with your cousin to you sleeping with a girl in college while drunk and never telling me?”
Jason was standing now. He took a step closer, his eyes never leaving hers, practically boring holes straight through her. “I screwed up. I told you that. I forgot who I was. I was drinking and made a huge mistake.” He pointed a finger at her chest, like he had that day in the parking lot. “Real life isn’t like one of your Christian romance novels, Elizabeth Lambert. Those novels where everyone is pure and perfect and never fall. In the real world, people go against everything they stood for and wanted in life to make all the pain stop and then they regret it.” Her gaze fell on a vein popping up on the side of his neck as his voice rose.” I messed up. I know that. I went against God’s word and my morals. I shattered my idea of what my first time would be like, and I get I shattered your perfect dream of that moment, but real life is messy.”
He stepped back, tossing his arms up and then down again. “And I’ve apologized. More than once. To God and to you. I will not spend my whole life apologizing for something I can’t go back and change.”
Pastor Joe stood and took a step forward until he was practically between them. “Okay, guys, listen. I can tell there are some real issues here. I have no problem talking through them with you now, but if you want to take a break, calm things down some, we can agree on a time to meet again and —”
Jason propped his hands at his waist, shook his head. “What’s the point? She’s never going to forgive me.”
Ellie huffed out a sigh. “It’s not just about forgiving, Jason. It’s also about forgetting. I have to forget that you weren’t open with me, that you felt like you couldn’t tell me about your past. I have to forget about you sleeping with this other woman. That’s not an easy thing to do.”
Even as the words came out of her mouth, she knew it was a mistake. First, she had her own issues she hadn’t been open with him about and second . . .
“And this is why I didn’t feel like I could tell you about my past. Because I didn’t know how you would react, if you would stop loving me, stop looking at me like I’m someone you want to spend the rest of your life with. My nightmare became a reality the moment you broke down when I told you, the moment you told me you needed a break. Be honest with me, Ellie. You don’t just want a break, you want to end this. You want to turn around and walk away and find the perfect man who fits your perfect idea of what a Christian man should be — pure and righteous and never makes a mistake.”
He took a step back, shaking his head again, jaw tight again, eyes flashing again. “Well, I can’t be that. I’m real. I’m not the figment of some novelist’s imagination. This is real life. Right here. With me loving you despite it all, with me wishing you could see that I’m not perfect, but all I’ve ever wanted is to spend my life loving you and our future children. If you can’t see past my imperfections, then I don’t know what to tell you.”
He turned quickly and ripped the door open, walking through it and maybe, Ellie realized with sickening dread, out of her life.
Pastor Joe placed a hand on her shoulder. “You okay?”
She nodded slowly, knowing she was lying, again, to her pastor. Emotions swirled in her like a tornado across the Kansas prairie. Hurt, desolation, and anger dominated, ready to alight on her soul and take it over. Humiliation was fighting for its rightful place, too. Her face flushed warm at the memory of Jason’s words. How he’d almost told Pastor Joe about the many times they’d pushed the envelope, set a foot over the line of temptation and almost been unable to turn back.
“I need to go.”
“Ellie, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have pushed you two to talk. I had no idea things would get that heavy that fast.”
She waved away his guilt. “It’s not your fault. It’s been building up to that for months. Sadly, you were just here to witness the final explosion.”
He squeezed her shoulder gently. “If you need to talk, you know how to reach me. Call me anytime. Truly. And if you’d feel more comfortable talking to a woman, I know Emily would be more than willing to talk with you as well.”
She thanked him, suddenly numb. Out in the parking lot, she didn’t even feel the sun warm on her face or hear the birds chirping in the oak tree next to the church playground.
The next ten minutes were a blur. The dam she’d built over the last several months broke as she drove out of town. Her vision blurred behind a veil of tears. She barely noticed the buildings and cars rushing by her, the town fading into farmland and forests, green and brown rushing by her car window until she reached a pull off along a wooded area next to the river, five miles out of town.
She slid the car into park, shut it off and pressed her hands against her face, images of Jason’s angry face swirling in her mind as sobs shook her body. Rung out, beat down, drained of any strength, physical or mental. That’s how she felt.
How could he have said all of that in front of Pastor Joe? About the times they’d almost slept with each other? About the times they’d gone further than either of them had planned? About how she was a liar and a hypocrite?
She was glad she saw the dark side of him before she’d made the mistake of marrying him. Now she was sure that the Jason she had thought she had known all those years wasn’t the real Jason.
The real Jason was the shouting man in Pastor Joe’s office.
The real Jason kept secrets from her and humiliated her.
The real Jason wasn’t who she wanted to spend the rest of her life with.