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 (eh, husband) 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.
I will be looking for people to provide advanced reviews of the book on Goodreads, so if you are interested in that, let me know. I could use a couple beta readers in mid Mid-July as well.
Bile rose in Jason’s throat as he drove out of the church parking lot, his foot pressed all the way down on the accelerator. He tasted bitterness and dragged a hand across his mouth, considering pulling over and vomiting on the side of the road. Had he really just snapped on Ellie in front of their pastor? He’d made her sound like she was the villain, and he was the victim. How could he have done that?
He loved Ellie. More than he could even express. He certainly hadn’t done a good job of showing it by yelling at her, though. Now he wondered if she had any love left for him at all. Not only had it sounded like he had been mocking her, and his firmly held Biblically-based beliefs, but he’d outed her as a hypocrite in front of Pastor Joe. Just as badly, he’d made it sound as if she’d done something worse than what she actually had.
He pounded the steering wheel as he drove toward her apartment. The conversation had careened completely out of control.
No. It hadn’t been the conversation.
He had lost complete control, and he hated it. He hated he had shared their private struggle without her permission; used her pain and embarrassment as a weapon.
He yanked the truck into a parking space in front of her apartment building but didn’t see her car. She’d probably gone to her parents.
He’d almost got her father killed and now he’d screamed at her in front of their pastor. He needed to find her and apologize.
He pulled onto the road, headed toward her parents, hoping he could find her before she reached her parents and either she or Tom met him at the door with a shotgun.
The scanner trilled out a series of tones as he drove. He ignored it, focused on the drive to Ellie’s, replaying what he’d said and how he’d said it.
He couldn’t let this conversation fester like the other one, drill holes of bitterness into their hearts. She was too important to him for him to let that happen. Like his grandmother had said, Ellie was worth fighting for.
The voice of the female dispatcher caught his attention. “Department 12, Tri-County EMS. Ellory Road, two miles past Tanner Enterprises. Kitchen fire. Two story family home. Call came from the homeowner.”
He mentally ticked off the houses on Ellory Road. There were only four houses, One was a ranch home, another a one-story modular. Dread set in like a brick, sinking to the bottom of a creek bed. What if it was the Weatherly’s? They had a two-story home. Then again, the Murphys, who were probably home with their six children having Sunday dinner, also had a two-story home.
His worst fears were realized with the next dispatch.
“Department 12, homeowner is still in the home. An elderly woman. Has been advised to leave but refuses. Coughing and choking. Difficult to understand. Possible smoke inhalation.”
He yanked the trunk into gear and took off, knowing immediately it was the Weatherly home. If Ann was the homeowner her lungs would fill up fast if she didn’t get out. She weighed less than a fifth grader at this point in her life and her lungs were probably even smaller.
By the time he ripped the truck into a space in front of their house, Denny was standing outside, pulling his gear on. Jason slammed his truck into park and reached for his suit, keeping his eyes on dark black smoke billowing from the window at the back, where the kitchen was, flames darting through the smoke and licking the siding.
“Where are Ann and John?” he asked.
Denny shook his head. “John’s car is gone. He may not be home. Dispatch says Ann’s still in there and she’s not answering me.”
Jason yanked his glove on and reached for the oxygen mask and tank he’d stashed behind his front seat. “I’m going in.”
Denny reached out and grabbed his arm. “We need to wait for the fire truck so they can fight back the flames.”
Jason jerked away. “If Ann is in there, she could be dead before they get here. I’m heading in. Spot me.”
The scanner squealed, and Cody’s voice informed dispatch the truck was on its way.
Jason smiled through the oxygen mask. “See? They’ll be here any minute.”
Shaking his head, Denny positioned his oxygen mask on his face and followed him. “You better know what you’re doing, Tanner.”
Jason knew it didn’t matter if he knew what he was doing or not. Someone had to go in that house and find Ann. He was nervous, knowing the ceiling could come down on them if the fire spread. He had to take the chance, though. Ann had lived a long, full life. She didn’t deserve to die this way, and he wasn’t about to tell her children she had.
Ellie had washed her face, reapplied makeup, and walked into the apartment to pick up the crockpot and Judi. She’d silently prayed Judi wouldn’t ask her where she’d been or why her eyes were red and swollen. Luckily Judi had been as self-focused as ever, dealing with a hangover. She perked up ten minutes into the drive and spent the rest of the short trip talking about new outfits she had purchased and the party she planned to wear them to later that night. She obviously didn’t remember how she’d acted the night before, when Ellie had tried to convince her to leave the club.
Ellie wondered if she was ever going back to the city. She’d said she had a job. Didn’t she have to get back to it? If Ellie hadn’t had so much on her mind already, she might have asked her. At this point, though, she couldn’t handle anymore drama. It was bad enough Judi had taken over her spare room, her mess spilling over into the rest of the apartment. Ellie had no idea why she had a spare room, anyhow.
It’s not like she had visitors, or at least rarely did, which is probably why she’d only placed a used daybed in the room after she moved in. Lucy liked to joke she would crash in it some night when she needed a break from Denny and the kids. Her cousin Randi had used it once to stay in when she’d come for a family reunion.
Ellie did her best to sound chipper during lunch, grateful when it was over, and she could use the headache she’d developed since leaving the church as an excuse to leave early.
“Want to go to a party with me at Lana’s?” Judi asked on the drive home.
“I still have a headache from last night.”
“Take an Advil. It’ll be gone in time for the party.”
“I’m not interested, Judi.”
“I’m not interested, Judi.” Judi’s tone was mocking. “You’re not interested in much, are you? What do you even do all the time now that you don’t have a boyfriend?”
Ellie pressed her foot down harder on the accelerator. “Maybe you’d know if you were ever around.”
Judi snorted a laugh. “As if you’d want me around. You never have and you know it.”
Ellie didn’t have the energy for this. Not now. She turned the music up on the radio.
“Isn’t there anything to listen to besides Family Life?”
Judi reached for the radio knob, but Ellie slapped her hand.
“Oooh. Someone’s hormones are raging.”
She wasn’t in the mood for Judi’s snarky retorts. Family Life offered uplifting Christian music and that was what she needed at the moment.
“I like Family Life. Leave it.”
Judi groaned. “But the music is so boring.”
“It’s my car and we’ll listen to what I want. You can listen to whatever you want while you clean the mess you’ve made in my apartment.”
Judi sighed and propped her feet on the dashboard, sliding her finger across the screen of her phone. “You’re such a cranky old lady, I swear.”
Back at the apartment Ellie walked to her room immediately, not even caring if Judi had followed her inside. She flopped on the bed and pulled her knees up to her chest, closing her eyes, hoping in vain that when she opened them Judi would be gone, and everything that had happened earlier in the day with Jason had never happened at all.
When sleep didn’t come, she rolled over and picked up her phone. She tapped the FaceTime button, hoping Lucy was home and not at her or Denny’s parents.
Lucy’s cute, round, and very perky face greeted her. Maybe this had been a bad idea. Lucy looked so happy and relaxed. Ellie didn’t want to ruin her day.
“Hey, pretty lady. I lost you after church. Where’d you go? You okay?”
Ellie sighed. “Yeah. No. I don’t know. Pastor Joe asked if Jason and I would come talk to him.”
The image on the phone blurred, jerked and straightened again, Lucy’s background now the family photo on the wall behind her couch.
“Oh boy. How did that go?”
“I don’t want to dump on you. It sounds quiet there, like maybe you’re finally getting some alone time?”
Lucy waved her hand dismissively. “Don’t worry about it. Now we can talk without the kids interrupting. They’re at my parents. Denny and I were going to watch a movie, but the tones dropped so he’s out on a call.” She popped a grape in her mouth. “Tell me what happened. Did Pastor Joe getting the boxing gloves out for you?”
Ellie scoffed. “He should have. That’s how bad it got.”
Lucy’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh. Am I going to need chocolate for this story? Or should I hop in my car and come over?”
Ellie shook her head. “No. Don’t do that. I’ll be fine. Maybe get the chocolate for yourself, though.”
“Fill me in, kid. Come on. I can tell you need to talk about this.”
Ellie filled her in, blow by blow, even telling her the part where he accused her of trying to act like she was a perfect, virtuous woman. Lucy knew about her struggles with trying to be authentic, yet still trying to keep her private life private. She also knew about her struggles with desiring more of a physical relationship with Jason, even as she desired waiting until marriage.
Ellie didn’t think she actually pretended to be virtuous or have only pure thoughts. It’s just that Bible study wasn’t the place she was going to admit she’d imagined Jason naked more than she cared to admit. Maybe it should have been the place, and maybe the ladies would have appreciated her honesty, but it wasn’t something she felt comfortable with. She supposed she’d have to analyze why later. Maybe Jason was right and she wanted people from the church to think she was someone she wasn’t.
“Okay, El.” Lucy clapped her hands together and shifted closer to the camera. “I think it’s time for some tough love, but I’m really not sure if you are in a place you can handle it. Are you in a place where you can handle it?”
Ellie sighed, her chin propped on her hand, her elbow propped up on the bed. “Might as well let it loose. Soft love isn’t getting me anywhere these days.”
Lucy shifted her bottom on the couch, wiggling like she was trying to get more comfortable. Ellie braced herself.
“Okay. So. You said Jason showed you his true colors today. Let me ask you something.” She leaned closer to the camera, narrowing her eyes. “Do you really think that? Do you really think that what you saw from Jason today is who he is? Ellie, you’ve known this man for over a decade. Besides this one secret and him blowing up today, have you ever witnessed him be anything other than good, kind, and loving to you? He’s never going to be perfect, but Jason is always going to strive to be a good man and he’s always going to strive to be the best man for you and in the sight of God. You know that. Deep down I believe you know he’d never intentionally hurt you. I’ve told you before that one day your stubbornness is going to be your downfall. I hate to say it, but that day might be here.”
Ellie’s whistle sounded similar to Judi’s from the other day. “Ouch. That was some tough love.”
“Yeah, well, I think you needed it. No matter what, though, you know I love you, right? You know I’m always here for you no matter what you decide when it comes to Jason.”
Ellie propped the phone against a pillow and moved her other hand under her chin, folding it over the one she’d been leaning on before. “Yes, I do.”
“El, we’ve known each other almost our whole lives. I know you planned your life out long ago. Who you would marry, when you would marry, when you would have kids and a career. You have these ideas in your head of how it is all supposed to go, but life doesn’t always work out the way we expect it to.”
Ellie knew that.
There were just times, like now, that she didn’t want to accept it.
Lucy squinted at the phone screen. “Hold on. Denny’s calling. I’d better take this. I’ll switch back over in a minute.”
The screen went blank, and Ellie waited, thinking about what Lucy had said. How Jason had always strived to be a good man. How the angry Jason at the church wasn’t all there was to Jason. She knew that, of course. It was hurt and anger giving her tunnel vision. She needed to pull back and look at the bigger picture.
Like her, he had many emotions, many feelings and even though this was the first time she’d witnessed anger directed at her with such animosity, it didn’t mean it had taken him over completely.
“Hey, El?” Lucy’s face popped back on the screen, but her smile had faded, replaced by a somber expression. “You still there? The fire was at the Weatherlys.”
“Yeah, total loss but worse than that, they think John didn’t make it out.”
Ellie gasped, tears filling her eyes again. She and Jason had both delivered groceries to Ann and John over the years. She also remembered Ann well from when her mother used to host a sewing circle at their house.
“Denny said he and Jason were first on the scene. Jason went in and carried Ann out. He didn’t see John though and he’s taking it pretty hard that John might have been inside. Cody wants a cut on Jason’s head checked at the ER, but Denny said he won’t go. He just keeps pacing back and forth, waiting for the state police fire marshal to come so they can get confirm if John was inside.”
Ellie sat up on the bed and drew in a shaky breath.
For the last seven months she’d been questioning who Jason really was, asking herself how much of his life and their relationship had been an act. She still had lingering concerns about what else he’d hid from her, but what she did know was that Jason hadn’t been faking it when he showed love for the Weatherly’s. He hadn’t been faking the glint in his eye over the years when he announced he’d “take one for the team” by delivering their groceries, knowing they’d lavish him with praise and, most likely Ann would slide him a desert for his effort.
This would hit him hard.
“You okay?” Lucy asked.
Ellie wiped a finger under her eye. “Actually, in a renewed effort to be authentic, I will tell you that no, I am currently not okay.” She laughed through the tears and rubbed the palm of her thumb along the corner of her eye. “I’m going to go sign off and have a good cry. Can you call me if you hear anything else?”
Lucy nodded. “I will. For now, though, let’s pray before you hang up.”
Lucy prayed for the Weatherlys, the firefighters, and Jason, asking for God’s comfort in all the ways that were needed.
After they hung up, Ellie knew she couldn’t sit in her room crying. She needed to drive to the scene as hard as it would be.
She needed to make sure that Jason was okay, even if he pushed her away.