Welcome to a special Fiction Thursday.
If you want to catch up on the story you can HERE, but if you want to wait until it is all done, it will be out on Amazon in the Spring.
As always, let me know what you think in the comments. If you haven’t read the other books in this series, you can find information about them HERE. The first two books in the series are The Farmer’s Daughter and Harvesting Hope.
Liz flopped back on the bed in Jason’s spare room and groaned, pressing the heel of her palms against her eyes. “I don’t even want to be here today. I mean, not because I don’t want to be at the wedding. It’s just —” She shook her head. “I can’t believe Matt didn’t talk to that nurse. Everyone is going to be staring at us. It’s going to be so weird.”
She also couldn’t believe that Matt hadn’t stopped by or called in two days, giving her the opportunity to grill him about the birth announcement snafu.
Molly tossed a bottle of water onto the bed next to Liz. “Drink that.” She reached for her dress hanging on the back of the door. “And calm down. Jason and Ellie only invited about 50 people to the ceremony so not everyone will be staring at you. Maybe about 20 out of the 50 and even then, they will only stare at you after the wedding because they’ll be staring at Ellie during the wedding.” Molly stepped into the dress and pulled it up across her body, looping the straps over her shoulder. “Her gown is gorgeous. I can’t wait for you to see it.”
Liz propped herself up on her elbows and looked at her friend. She was wearing a peach-colored dress with spaghetti straps displayed in a fan pattern across the back. The skirt flowed out in a ruffled pattern that fell to her ankles and set off a pair of light-tan heels.
“That gown is gorgeous too. Did Liz pick them out or did you have a say?”
“Judi and I had a say and then each dress was fitted to each of our body types because Judi and I are obviously not the same size.”
Judi was Ellie’s younger sister who had moved home earlier in the summer.
Liz sat up and opened the water bottle, sipping from it.
Molly gestured at the bottle. “No sipping. Drink it. You need to stay hydrated. You’re nursing, it’s warm out, and you’re on the verge of a panic attack.”
Liz scowled and drank more from the bottle. On the verge of a panic attack? Oh no. She was already there. “Wouldn’t you be panicking if the guy you went on two dates with let the whole town think he was the father of your baby?”
Molly shrugged. “Better him than Gabe, that’s all I know.”
Outside the window, Liz heard laughter and greetings. More guests were arriving. She wondered if Matt was here yet, though she figured he was probably with Jason and Alex at the Tanner’s, getting dressed. Maybe she could find him before the ceremony started, warn him about the announcement, in case he hadn’t seen it. She stood and looked out the window. White chairs had been set up in the backyard and a trellis was placed where Ellie and Jason would stand to say their vows. The was under the drooping branches of a weeping willow and in the distance was a recently cut cornfield. Beyond the field were the green hills of Pennsylvania and beyond them hazy blue mountains even further away, hugging the expanse of farmland that made up most of Spencer Valley.
Liz tipped her head back and closed her eyes, willing her muscles to relax. The birth announcement wasn’t the only worry pressing in on her. Ginny had volunteered to watch Isabella today while she was at the wedding and even though she fully trusted Ginny, she felt like she was neglecting her duties as a mother. She should be the one taking care of Isabella, not someone else. Taking even a short break to help Molly get dressed as Ellie’s bridesmaid and staying for the ceremony and reception filled her with illogical guilt.
“Zip me up?” Molly lifted her hair and turned around.
As she zipped the back of the dress, Liz thought about how she’d once been confident, not filled with fear and anxiety over every little thing. It didn’t seem that long ago in some ways, but in others, it seemed like a lifetime ago. She needed to find her confidence again, stop worrying about what other people thought of her. Now just to figure out how to do that without burning every bridge like she currently felt like doing.
From there, her thoughts shifted abruptly to how long Molly’s hair had become, how the soft curls were falling past the middle of her back now, and how Molly was practically glowing. She looked over Molly’s shoulder, at her reflection in the mirror. Her friend was losing weight, something she’d been wanting to do for a long time. Liz only hoped Molly was doing it for the right reasons, not to try to fit in and make a man happy like she’d done herself for so many years.
Molly turned and clasped Liz’s hands in hers. “Hold your head high, Liz. All the thoughts that you think people are having about you are probably nowhere close to what they are thinking.”
Liz snorted. “Yeah. It’s probably a lot worse.”
“Liz!” Molly laughed and rolled her eyes. “You’re starting to sound like me. Now come on. Go find your seat and I’ll talk to you after the ceremony.”
In the kitchen, on her way to the backyard, Liz found Annie, Molly’s mom, folding napkins and placing them in a wicker basket on the counter.
“Hey, Liz. You look beautiful today.”
Liz placed a hand on her hip and tipped her head down slightly. “Now, Annie, you know it’s a sin to lie.”
Annie’s laugh was rich and full, one of the many attributes Liz loved about her. She shook her head as she folded the last napkin.
“It’s true, my dear. I know you’re tired, but you do look lovely. Missy did a nice job on your hair.”
“Thank you.” Liz decided to push the protest of the compliment aside and instead accept it. She patted the hair Missy Fowler had piled on her head, leaving the rest of her dark strands hanging down her back and across her shoulders. Missy was the hairstylist who had a shop below Ellie’s apartment — or Judi’s apartment now. “I actually do feel a little more rested today. We actually had one two hours and one three-hour stretch last night. Isabella has been better since Ginny brought me that gripe water the other day. She also showed me some pointers she used on her babies to get the trapped gas out.”
“What do you think Isabella’s nickname will end up being? Bella or Izzy?”
Liz made a face. “I hope it’s Bella. Izzy is too close to Lizzie. The kids in school used to chant that Lizzie Borden rhyme at me and I hated it.” Liz’s rolled her eyes as she recited the rhyme “Lizzie Borden took an ax, and gave her mother forty whacks; when she saw what she had done, She gave her father forty-one.’ Ugh. How awful.” She knew no matter how upset her mother made her, she’d never be like Lizzie Borden. “I’m just glad I never told anyone my real name. The taunting would have been the same.”
Annie’s brow furrowed. “Real name?”
“Oh.” Annie looked surprised. “I always thought it was Elizabeth.”
“People assume it is and I just let them. I’m named after my great-grandmother, which was a fine name in the early 1900s, but not so great now.”
The sound of a truck engine brought Liz’s gaze to the kitchen doorway and out through the front window. Her heart rate sped up at the sight of Matt climbing out of his truck. She wished the palpitations were only because she found him attractive and not because she was terrified of talking to him about the birth announcement. Had he seen it? She couldn’t imagine he had or he would have answered her call earlier or called her before she’d tried to call him.
Her gaze took in a gray vest over a white shirt and a light-gray suit coat hanging from a bent finger and draped over his back. He’d had a haircut, making his dark brown hair even shorter on the sides and top. She imagined he’d have to cut it even shorter when he started at the academy in a couple of months.
“High and tight” is what she’d heard the state trooper hair cuts referred to as.
As she had a few times before, she found herself daydreaming about his hair looked like all ruffled up after a shower.
Or after she’d pushed her hands through it.
She drew in a sharp breath at the thought of messing up Matt’s hair, knocking some of that perfection out of him, and seeing what an unguarded Matt McGee was like.
She pulled her gaze away from him and slid her phone out of her purse, shooting a quick text to Ginny to check on Bella. She had left two bottles of pumped breast milk, hoping they’d be enough to keep Isabella satisfied until she came home.
Ginny texted back as Liz found a seat in the backyard.
All is well. She’s swinging in a little swing I’d kept here for the grandchildren. Happy as a clam.
When Matt appeared next to the arch standing next to Alex, who was standing next to Jason, she wished she could grab Matt and pull him aside, scold him for not blocking the announcement from going in. There were too many people filling the chairs, though, and soon the ceremony would start. She’d have to wait for later to interrogate him.
Molly was right. Ellie’s dress was simple and gorgeous. The veil hung across the back of her hair in a thin wisp of white. Finely sewn lace interlaced patterns down the back and along the train, which trailed a couple of feet behind her but clearly could be removed later, as evidenced by the bustle buttoned at Ellie’s waist.
Liz fought back emotions through the entire ceremony, partially because she was happy for Jason and Ellie and partially because she was sad for herself. Would she ever have a happy, beautiful ceremony like this? She mentally kicked herself, wishing for the hundredth time that she’d never gone to that party that night, that she’d never let herself be alone with Gabe and listened to his threats.
If she’d been stronger, hadn’t had that last glass of wine, then maybe she would have been like Ellie, standing hand in hand with a handsome man looking at her like he’d lasso the moon for her if she wanted it. Taking a deep breath, she reminded herself of what she’d thought the night she brought Bella home. Since she couldn’t have what her sister had, children with a husband, or what Jason and Ellie had — a love so deep their connection would survive whether they had children or not — she’d find a way to make it up to Bella. She’d find a way to make sure Bella wouldn’t be embarrassed to have her as a mother.
Tears stung her eyes as she watched tears glistening in Jason’s eyes when he said his vows. She wiped a fingertip under her eye, careful not to smudge the makeup she’d actually taken time to put on that afternoon after not wearing any for the last two months. Soon there were tears on Ellie’s cheeks as well and a quick glance around her showed that others had pulled out tissues and handkerchiefs, including Molly who kept nibbling on her bottom lip, obviously trying to hold the emotion in.
When the ceremony was over, and Jason and Ellie had walked down the aisle, beaming at each other the whole way, the guests dispersed to a pair of large tents set up to the left of the chairs. Liz sat herself at a table close to the head table, seriously considering leaving and heading back to the apartment for a quiet night with a sleeping baby and a movie. She couldn’t leave, though.
She still needed to talk to Matt. So far, she hadn’t been even able to catch his eye and she was beginning to wonder if he was avoiding her on purpose. After a meal of pulled pork, roasted potatoes, and homemade coleslaw, she gave up on pulling him away from talking with Jason and Alex and decided a walk might help her relax more. She’d better enjoy it while she could. She’d be back on newborn duty as soon as she arrived home.
A cool breeze swept over the yard at the front of the house as she rounded the corner of the house and walked toward the front porch. The porch was open, the white railing freshly painted and reminding her of a picture on an issue of Country Living magazine. She stepped up the steps and found a wooden slatted chair painted to match the railing and front of the house. Sitting in it she smiled, thinking how this house would soon look like a real home thanks to Ellie’s touch, instead of a bachelor pad, which is what it had been for the last five years.
She leaned back in the chair and closed her eyes, letting her mind wander and focus on the sound of a cicada or katydid somewhere across the driveway instead of her racing thoughts. After a few seconds of counting chirps, the world faded around her.
“Need a blanket?”
The words snapped her out of her brief nap, leaving her in a world of disorientation for a few seconds. She couldn’t even seem to register if she’d dreamed the words, or someone had actually spoken them.
Blinking her eyes to clear the sleep away she saw Matt standing on the top step, leaning his hip into the stair railing.
She shook her head. “I can’t believe I fell asleep like that.”
“You must have needed it.”
She pushed her hand back through her hair and let it fall slowly down her back. “I’ve been trying to catch you all day. We need to talk.”
He cocked an eyebrow, grinning. “About?”
Why was he grinning? Did he really think she was flirting right now?
“You haven’t seen the paper?”
He pushed off the railing and stepped up off the top step onto the porch, shoving his hands in his front jean pockets.
“Yeah, I saw it.”
She tightened her jaw. He was so aggravating. Seriously. “Saw what?”
“The baseball scores.” He rolled his eyes. “The birth announcement, Liz. I saw the announcement.”
“You saw it and didn’t call me?”
“I saw it an hour ago. When Jase showed me. I didn’t have time to call you. When did you see it? Why didn’t you call me?”
Liz glanced away, focusing on her hands clenched in her lap. “I —” She couldn’t say she thought he’d stop by, and she could talk to him then. How would that sound?
That’s how it would sound. “I don’t know. I was in shock, I guess. I can’t believe you didn’t stop that nurse.”
Matt sighed and propped the right side of his body against the column, his hands still in his front jean pockets. He tipped his face down toward the porch floor. “I did stop her, Liz. I asked her not to put it in the paper. She said she wouldn’t.”
Liz stood pressing her hands against her hips. “Well, then we need to call that hospital and give them a piece of our mind. They violated our privacy.”
Matt looked at her with an amused smirk. “We need to call?”
Liz threw her hands in the air, tipping her face toward the porch ceiling. “Okay. I need to call. And I will. First thing Monday morning.”
“And what good is that going to do?”
Her head snapped down and she leveled a burning gaze on him. “Excuse me?”
He shrugged a shoulder. “What’s been done is done. It’s not like they can take it out of the newspaper. It’s already been printed so calling them up and yelling won’t help anything. The proverbial cat is out of the bag.”
Was he serious right now? Why was he so calm?
“McGee, the whole town thinks you were sleeping with me. The people at your church think you were sleeping with me.” She paused for effect. “Having sex. Out of wedlock. Do you get that? They think you fathered a child with the screwed-up daughter of Frank and Marge Cranmer, the most revered members of Encounter Church. Do you not get that?” She huffed out a frustrated growl. “What are we going to do?”
Matt tipped his head and the smile faded into a more thoughtful expression, but she still couldn’t read him. His response sent anger seething through her.
She tossed her hands out to her side. “What do you mean nothing?”
He frowned. “What I said. Nothing. It’s no one’s business. Let people make up their own minds about what the truth is.”
Liz slapped her hands down against her side. “Oh, that’s just great. Let people make up their own minds? In this little town? That’s fine for you but everyone is looking at me like I corrupted the town saint.”
Matt’s amused laugh grated on her nerves. “The town saint? What does that even mean?”
She took a step toward him, incredulous. “You can’t be that clueless. You’re the town golden child. You’re a police officer, you lead Bible studies, help old ladies cross the street, take cats out of trees, and I’m pretty sure a woman was healed last week when she touched the hem of your uniform.”
His laugh deepened and she briefly imagined smacking him in the head. “Liz stop it. That’s ridiculous. No one thinks that stuff about me. I’m just — well, me. Small town cop. Spencer Valley’s Barney Fife.”
“Uh, yeah.” Liz raised her eyebrows. “If Barney Fife had groupies.”
Matt tipped his head back and laughed loudly. “I do not have groupies.”
He wiped the bag of his hand across his eyes as he stepped toward her. His eyes were still moist from the tears of laughter as touched his hand under her chin, cupping it gently. “And you’re not screwed up.” The smile faded and the intensity of his gaze on her sent her heart flapping wildly against her ribcage. She wanted to look away, but she couldn’t. His intensity pinned her down, stopped her racing thoughts. “You need to stop claiming that title. I’ve never given it to you, and I don’t know anyone else who has either. It’s something you call yourself.”
Her mouth lost its moisture as she tried to speak. “My parents —”
He dropped his hand from her chin. “Have they ever said you’re screwed up?”
“No, but they —”
“You think they think that, but they’ve never said those exact words, right?”
Liz put her hands up in front of her. “Okay. Enough about my parents. That’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about how to handle this birth announcement thing.”
“I already told you I’m not going to do anything other than going on with my life and you should do the same.” He held out his hand. “Now come on. There’s a party going on in the backyard. Let’s go celebrate Jason and Ellie.”
“McGee. Seriously. We can not just —”
“Yeah. We can. Now come on.”
Liz’s jaw tightened and her eyes narrowed. She was not just going to go back to the reception like nothing was going on, like this birth announcement wasn’t going to create even more issues for her and for him.
He kept his hand held out to her, his eyes on hers. After a few seconds, she took his hand reluctantly but let it go as she hit the bottom step. She tightened her hand into a fist against her side. How could he be so calm and confident about it all? Wasn’t he worried about his reputation? No, he obviously wasn’t, so why was she?
She was used to feeling like the black sheep in her family and her community. She didn’t want him subjected to the same judgment.
They walked together toward the backyard in silence. Jason and Ellie were dancing in the middle of the second tent, the rest of the guests watching.
Jason’s mom touched a tissue to the skin under her eye and Molly had slid into a chair next to Alex, her head against his shoulder as she watched.
Liz’s chest tightened. How long would it be before Molly and Alex were standing there, having their first dance? Then she’d be alone for real. Molly would be building a life for herself and Alex. Yes, Liz would have Isabella, but she would essentially be on her own.
Her palms grew cold, and she closed her eyes. No. She would not do this here. What was with her anyhow? She’d never dealt with a panic attack a day in her life before the night she’d found out she was pregnant. She’d had a small break from them during pregnancy and now? Well, now she felt like she should be in a mental hospital.
The voice of the DJ startled her out of her racing thoughts. “The bride and groom would love for their guests to join them.”
And that was her cue to step back and head —
Her back slammed into something solid. Glancing over her shoulder her gaze met Matt’s grin.
She hadn’t backed into something. She’d backed into someone.
“Where are you going?”
“You’re not leaving before you dance with me, are you?”
“Uh. No.” She raised her hand and took a step away from him. “I don’t dance.”
“So?” He shrugged a shoulder. “I don’t either. We’ll just fake it. Plus, you owe me.”
“I owe you?” She turned toward him, raised an eyebrow. “For what?”
His smile widened. “I delivered your daughter.”
She rolled her eyes and turned her back on him. “Wipe that grin off your face, McGee.”
He stepped toward her, and his breath tickled the back of her neck. “Come on, Liz. This is your first time out since Bella’s been born. Have a little fun.”
Liz brushed her hand across the back of her neck, then held it there, warmth spreading across her skin. She closed her eyes. “McGee, come on. I don’t dance, okay?”
His breath was warm against her ear. “Just one, then you can go. I promise.”
He stepped in front of her and held his hand out. She pulled her lower lip between her teeth, studying him for a few seconds before laying her hand in his and letting him tug her a few steps forward to the edge of the makeshift dance floor. She really didn’t dance. Never had, never had wanted to. What was she doing agreeing to this?
Where did she even put her hands?
She tried to remember all those romantic Hallmark movies she’d watched over the years and laid one hand on his shoulder while he held the other. He slid his other arm around her side and laid his hand against her lower back.
She couldn’t lie.
It felt awkward.
The way she was standing.
How he was holding her.
She felt like she was dancing with her brother if she’d had one.
But then the dynamics shifted as his hand slid to the curve of her lower back and he gently pulled her toward him. It was a different kind of awkward now. She and Matt had known each other on an acquaintance level in high school. They’d been on a couple of dates in the last two years, had sat next to each other on movie nights when Molly, Alex, Jason, and Ellie all piled into her and Molly’s tiny apartment, and for goodness sake, he’d delivered her baby. She didn’t know how to feel about how close they were standing to each other now, but she knew her body was firing off warnings all over the place. Her cheeks were warm, her hands were clammy, her breath had quickened and she could barely hear the music over the thumping rhythm of her heartbeat.
He smiled and her chest tightened.
How had she never noticed the tiny freckle right above his left eye? Or how long and dark his eyelashes were? Or how amazing his aftershave smelled? Or was it cologne? She wasn’t even sure. Maybe he only wore cologne on special occasions, so that’s why she’d never noticed. Maybe she’d simply been too self-focused in the past to notice all these things.
No, not maybe. She had been.
Now, though, here she was looking right at him after he’d pulled her closer and she was finding it hard to look away.
No wonder all the women in town swooned when he walked into the diner or held a door open for them at church. She’d even heard stories of one for two women needing to fan themselves with their speeding tickets after he pulled them over.
She nodded slowly, pulling her gaze from his, glancing over his shoulder where she caught Molly watching her with a smile. Or was it a smirk? Liz scowled at her, and Molly laughed, her arms around Alex’s neck as they swayed to the music too.
“Okay, we should stop.” She tried to pull away, but Matt pulled her back in. “Matt. Come on. I’m not a dancer.”
He shrugged a shoulder. “Neither am I, or most of the people here. Let’s fake it.”
The music from the DJ’s sound system switched to a new song. The singer was singing, “I’m going to love you forever and ever, amen.”
Liz’s gaze flicked around the tent, even more, self-conscious as she thought she saw Ellie’s sister Judi whisper something to one of Jason’s cousins.
She leaned her forehead against Matt’s shoulder, lowering her voice. “This should get the tongues wagging.”
“Let them wag. We’ve got more important things to focus on in our worlds. I’ve got the academy to think about and you’ve got a little girl to focus on. What others think of us, doesn’t matter.”
There he went again. Being practical. Logical. Totally right.
As the dance continued Liz felt her knees weakening and she knew it wasn’t because Matt’s other hand had moved to her waist.
Not now. Not here. Please.