We are getting closer to the end of this story and I just wanted to let regular readers know that the book will not be called A New Chapter when I am done with it and publish it in book form. Last week it struck me that I already have A New Beginning and now I was going to call this book A New Chapter. It seemed a bit lazy on the naming side so I have changed A New Chapter to Beauty From Ashes and at this point it is scheduled to be released in full on April 26. I haven’t decided if I will keep the book in Kindle Unlimited or not yet.
For those who are new here, I share a chapter of a novel in progress on Fridays for Fiction Friday but sometimes I also share a part on a Thursday or Saturday. The version I share here often changes before I push publish on the final book down the line.
Chapter 21 Part 2
“Ooh, boy, Bella. That’s a stinky one.”
Liz sat back on her feet and made a face. “Okay. Let’s do this.”
She reached for the wipes and the new diaper while Bella kicked her feet on the blanket she was lying on on the floor.
She should call Matt after she was done. It had been a week since she’d witnessed him arrest Gabe and she hadn’t heard a word from him. She’d been wondering why she hadn’t been hearing his voice on the scanner at night and should have asked, but then she’d have to admit she listened to hear his voice on the scanner.
Instead of calling Matt last night, like she’d considered doing, she’d tried to call Ginny and make sure she wasn’t somewhere alone with Keith. Molly’s suggestion that hanging out with Keith could be a temptation for her had alarmed her. Ginny hadn’t picked up the phone, though, and she’d been about to drive to her house when Molly had walked in after milking at the barn.
Calling Matt would have been awkward though What was she going to say? “Hey, how’s it going since you kicked the crud out of my ex in front of half the town the other day?”
Molly took her coat off and hung it on the hanger next to the door. “Have you talked to Matt recently?”
Liz hooked Bella’s diaper and looked up. “No, I haven’t tried him yet. Why?”
Molly slid her shoes off, sniffed them and then placed them outside the door. “He might need a friend right now.”
“Yeah, why? And thanks for putting the shoes out there this time. This apartment stinks enough with all the diapers. We don’t need to smell like manure too.”
Molly’s eyes widened. “Why? Why would he need a friend? You were there, you saw why he would need a friend. Did that really look like normal Matt McGee behavior to you?” She turned and walked into the kitchen, opening the fridge. “Not only that, but Alex just told me he got suspended from the police force.”
Liz straightened and sat back on her heels. “Are you kidding me? Reggie suspended him?”
“He had no choice. The council made him because of the charges Gabe filed against him and the threat of a lawsuit.”
Liz’s chest tightened and her throat thickened with emotion. This wasn’t fair. Matt was a good cop. What was this going to do for his acceptance to the academy?
She nodded. “Yeah. I will be.”
“It’s not your fault, Liz. Matt made his own choice. It’s exactly what he told Alex.”
The old familiar tingling spread from Liz’s hands up her arms as she stood and sat on the couch. Yes, Matt had made a choice, but it was her choices that had landed him in the position to make that choice.
Molly sat next to her and slid an arm around her. “It’s all going to work out, okay? Listen, I wasn’t really supposed to say anything to you. Matt didn’t want you to know, but since I already knew you were there, I just figured you would want to know what happened.”
Liz leaned against her friend. “I did want to know. I just wish I didn’t know. You know?”
The women laughed and Molly leaned back to look at Liz. “Yeah. I know.”
They laughed again and then Liz leaned out of the embrace. “Don’t you need to get ready for your sleepover?”
Molly and her grandmother had a sleepover once a month and usually Liz was invited, but this month she’d opted to stay home and let the ladies have some together time without their third wheel.
Molly sighed. “I do, but I hate to leave you alone after I just dropped that on you.”
Liz shrugged a shoulder. “The only thing you could do is stop me from eating the entire pint of chocolate Haagendas in the freezer.” She winked. “But really, you couldn’t even do that, so go on. Have fun at Grandma Fran’s and tell her I’ll be back next month.”
Molly stood and stretched. “She’ll be happy about that. She says you make better hot chocolate than me. Plus she wants to see Bella again. You’ll have to bring her by before then.”
Liz folded one of Bella’s blankets and laid it on the back of the couch. “I will. What’s on the agenda tonight?”
Molly wiggled her body in a type of dance. “Spa night. Facial masks, manicures, pedicures, and I’m giving her a massage.”
Liz laughed at the picture of 76-year old Frannie wearing a facemask.
Molly left after a shower and change and Liz headed for the freezer, her phone in her hand. She would call Matt and check on him, but first — ice cream.
She was swallowing the first bite when her phone buzzed.
Matt: Hey, you home?
Good grief. It was like he could read her mind.
Liz: Where else would I be? I don’t have a life you know. *wink emoji*
Matt: Be over in ten?
Huh. Not even a joke back. This couldn’t be good.
Liz: Sure. I’ll be here.
She caught a glimpse of her reflection in the window on her way to the couch and winced. She should at least comb her hair, or put it in a bun, or something. She looked down at the baggy sweatpants she’d stolen from Molly and the stained Needtobreathe T-shirt. And change her clothes. Yeah. She should change her clothes. Sure, Matt was a friend, but she could at least look half way decent for him.
How should one dress when their friend was about to tell them they’d slammed their ex-boyfriend’s head off some concrete? She decided on casual, but not too casual, slipping on a white tank top, covered with a beige sweater and a pair of blue yoga pants. She was yanking a brush through her hair when the knock on the door came. Apparently her ten minutes was much different than his ten minutes because for her it had only been about six.
She’d needed that extra four to finish brushing.
She pushed her fingers through her hair instead and attempted to fluff it, as much as straight hair would fluff. Since it was shorter now, it didn’t look as crazy with just a quick brush as it had when it fell down her back, but still.
That whole saying about absence making the heart grow founder seemed to hold water when she opened the door and saw him standing on the landing, hands deep in his front pockets, looking out over the town. A cold breeze ruffled his hair and his normally smooth jawline was speckled with a few days growth, which gave him an entirely more rugged look. That rugged look sent her heart thudding fast against her ribcage and her bottom lip between her teeth as she took in the rest of him — his dark blue jeans, tan cardigan hugging his newly fit torso.
He turned his head toward her, and she ceased her pursual, hoping red wasn’t spreading across her skin as fast as the warm flush of appreciation was spreading under it.
The husky tone of his voice tipped her stomach upside down.
Just friends, Liz. You two are just friends. That is all. Stop staring at your gorgeous friend and let him in your apartment.
“Hey. You want to get out of the cold?”
Of course, he wants to get out of the cold, idiot. Just step out of the way and let him in.
She stepped back and opened the door fully. “Come in.”
He stepped past her, and she drew in a sharp breath. Wow. He smelled amazing. She needed to focus. He wasn’t here for a pleasure call.
He stepped into the kitchen area and turned to face her, hands still in his pockets, cheekbones flushed soft pink from the cold. “Sorry I haven’t called. You been okay?”
He was apologizing? She hadn’t spoke to him barely at all since the day in the parking lot at the art class and he was apologizing.
He really was something else and that something else was wonderful.
“Yeah, I’ve been good.”
“She’s great. Just taking a nap on the blanket right now.”
He nodded as he spoke, then looked at the tip of his boot.
She knew she should put him out of his misery but wasn’t sure how. Should she tell him she knew about what happened with Gabe? Should she admit she’d been upset because she found out he’d been in her apartment the night of her overdose? Debating it in her head wasn’t going to help move either of them forward in their lives so she’d better pull one trigger or the other.
They spoke at the same time, then laughed together.
In unison again. Really? Liz laughed softly, tugging gently on her earlobe. This was getting weird.
“Listen.” He spoke first this time. “I’m sure you’ve heard by now what happened the other night at Mooney’s.” He rubbed his hand along the back of his neck then held it there, pulling down. “I just wanted to apologize for my behavior and if I made anything worse for you. I should have controlled my anger. I didn’t and I’m sorry.”
He peered at her with what she could only describe as puppy dog eyes. His sincere contrition made her want to slide her arms around his neck and comfort him, tell him she wasn’t mad, not in the least, but there was still a part of her that was upset at him for this and for not telling her he was at her apartment that night
She bit her lower lip for a few seconds before speaking. “I know. I was there that day.” Matt winced and looked back down toward the floor as she continued. “I’m guessing that hadn’t gotten around yet.”
He shook his head. “No. Not yet. And if Alex knew he didn’t tell me.”
“Yeah. He knew. He was sworn to secrecy until I could figure out how to tell you.”
Matt looked back up at her again and his green eyes locked on hers. “I guess we both had secrets we didn’t want to talk about.”
A chill shivered through her and not just from the cold blast that had come in when he’d stepped inside. That statement held a meaning beyond what had happened at Mooney’s. She knew it, but did he?
“I wasn’t honest with you about the night you overdosed, Liz.”
Her breath caught. She hadn’t expected a confession, yet she should have. It was Matt she was talking to. Of course, he was going to be open with her. Time for her to be honest too.
“Ginny accidentally told me.”
“How did Ginny — Oh right. Stan. I asked the guys at church for prayer for you. He didn’t know the full story, but I’m guessing he put two and two together.”
A faint smile pulled at Liz’s mouth. “Yeah, he’s a horrible husband but he’s still got some brains left up there.” She played with the necklace around her neck. “I lied to you too. More than once, which, of course, you know.” The sting of the tears surprised her, and she swallowed to try to keep them at bay. “I’m sorry, Matt. I’m sorry I wasn’t honest with you.” She looked toward the living room, struggling to make eye contact. “You’ve been a good friend and I haven’t.”
He leaned back against the kitchen counter, bending his hands over the edges. “We both screwed up by not being open with each other.” He pushed himself off, stepped toward her. “I don’t want to do that anymore. Be dishonest with you.”
Her breath quickened at the heat coming off him. He needed to step back. She was having trouble thinking clearly and this time she knew it wasn’t alcohol causing issues.
“I don’t want to keep holding my feelings back or keep them hidden.” He took another step and now he was definitely too close. She started to step back but he placed a hand at the small of her back, stopping her and pulling her gently toward him. He slid the other hand on the back of her neck, leaning his head close to hers.
“And I don’t want to be just friends anymore.”
The words sent her heart slamming inside her ribcage, forcing her to take a deep breath and hold it for a few seconds. She glanced at his mouth, then moved her gaze back to his eyes. She’d imagined him kissing her a few hundred times over the last few years, but now that he was this close, she was suddenly terrified. What if changed their friendship and not for the better?
“You know, seeing you do that to Gabe? It showed a whole different side to you.” She was stalling, she knew it.
He laughed softly, his breath tickling her cheek. “Yeah. Not a good one.”
“It showed me you’re not as perfect as everyone — as I — thought you were. It showed me you have a lot more passion in you than you let on.”
He moved his hand from the back of her neck to the back of her head, sinking his fingers into her hair. “Liz, you and are I a lot similar than you think. You’re not who people think you are, and neither am I.”
His gaze dropped to her mouth, and she smiled. “Is this confession time? Are you going to tell me you’re actually a bad guy, secretly running an underground drug ring?”
Matt laughed softly. “Yeah. Right. That’s me. A secret drug lord.” He grinned. “No. What I mean is, I’m not perfect.”
“What do you do that makes you not perfect, McGee?”
A playful grin turned his mouth upward. “I rip those tags off pillows that say ‘do not remove’. One time I left my cart in the middle of the parking lot. I actually like pineapple on pizza.”
He pressed his hand more firmly against the small of her back and pulled her against him. “And I think about kissing you way more than I should.”
Her gaze dropped to his mouth, her voice fading to a whisper as she pressed her hands against his chest. “You can’t think of kissing me.”
“Because we’re just friends. Remember?”
“Then let me give you a friendly kiss.”
She closed her eyes as his lips brushed against her forehead, her cheek, and then found her mouth, capturing her upper lip.
Heat shot through her as he slipped his mouth to her lower lip next. She moved her hands to his face and leaned into the kiss as he found her whole mouth, savoring the feel of him.
If this was what it felt like to kiss a friend, then she wanted him to be her friend for the rest of her life.
He smiled as he pulled his mouth away several seconds later. “That went better than I thought it was going to.”
He shrugged a shoulder. “That and talking to you about all the things I should have talked to you about already.”
“Did you plan to kiss me?”
“Not necessarily, but I thought it would be nice if it finally happened since I’ve been thinking about it so long. I needed to take the chance and let the chips fall where they may.”
She smiled and slid her arms behind his neck as his arms slid behind her back.
Her hand moved automatically to the back of his head, up into his hair, like she’d imagined doing many times before. She finally felt comfortable enough to mess up that perfect Officer McGee hair. She smirked. “Does this mean we’re more than friends now?”
The huskiness of his tone slid over her senses like a warm blanket on a cold winter night, transforming her smirk into a smile. “I certainly hope so.”
He kissed her again, as soft and sweet as before, no urgency, just a comforting sense of leisure. She slid her hands down the back of his head, resting them on the back of his neck to hold him close, almost afraid he’d pull away and disappear and this would all be a dream.
A few minutes later, a small cry from the living room interrupted them and Liz pulled her mouth from his, her eyes on the living room. She slipped from his arms, and he followed her as she walked toward the blanket in the center of the floor. They found Bella looking up at them with a firm pout in place and fresh tears on her cheeks.
He stooped down before she could and lifted Bella into his arms. “Hey, little girl, jealous of all the attention your mom is getting tonight?” He winked at Liz. “Can’t be helped.”
He sat on the couch with the baby cradled in his arms, her small form practically dwarfed against his much larger arms.
Liz couldn’t believe how natural it all seemed, him with a baby, relaxed, smiling. It stopped her in her tracks, left her holding her breath without even realizing it.
She finally let herself breathe again and walked to the kitchen, lifting a bag of breast milk from the freezer and setting it to warm in a bowl of warm water. “Maybe I shouldn’t ask this,” she said as she returned a few minutes later with a bottle. She braced herself mentally, sitting next to him and handing him the bottle. “What happened with the academy?”
He took the bottle and kept his eyes on Bella. “They rescinded my application because of the charges filed against me.” He shrugged a shoulder. “Guess God has different plans for me.”
Liz’s chest felt tight, and she rubbed the top of it under her throat. Her voice fell to a whisper. “I’m sorry.”
He looked up at her. “It will work out. No big deal.”
“It is a big deal. This was your dream and it’s my fault you’re not going to be able to realize it.”
Matt kept his eyes on hers. “Not everything is your fault Liz, and this definitely isn’t. I made the choice to react the way I did to Gabe. It was my decision to slam him against my patrol car, not yours. Actions have consequences and losing that spot at the academy was mine.”
Liz dropped her gaze, watching Bella drink from the bottle. “Liz, I want you to listen to me.” She nodded but kept her eyes on Bella. “Look at me.” She lifted her eyes and once again, the green of his eyes startled her, pulled her in. “This is not your fault. I’m serious. We all make poor decisions at some point in our lives. What happened with Gabe? It was a poor decision. That’s all. That night in your apartment? The same thing. Those mistakes do not define you, though. You get that right? You are what God says you are, and He says you are his child, mistakes and all.”
It was a message Liz had resisted over and over. That God loved her, no matter her poor choices and that she could learn from those poor choices and make better ones in the future. She’d usually roll her eyes and move away or make a joke or change the subject, but something about the way Matt said it, the way she could tell he meant it, truly believed it, and wanted to her to believe it too, broke her.
She didn’t stop the tears this time, didn’t look away from him when they came. She nodded as they flowed, trying her best not to ugly cry as she let the words sink in.
“Thank you.” She finally managed the words, leaning forward and brushing her lips against his cheek. “You know it too, right?”
He looked at her with a questioning rise in his eyebrows.
“That your bad decision to react the way you did to Gabe does not define you.”
He smiled sheepishly, tilted his face down toward Bella again. “Touché, Miss Cranmer. Touché.”
She slid next to him, her feet under her, one arm across the back of the couch, watching him feed Bella, and wishing she’d let her walls down before, let herself believe she could be happy and that she deserved it. Like him holding Bella, this — her leaning into him — felt natural and right, like how her life should be and hopefully would be in the future.