I took a break from writing this week just to give my brain a break from trying to figure out where I am going with this story. I have ideas but I felt like I was trying too hard to push through the end and my brain was turning into mush. I know what the ending will be, I just don’t know how exactly to get there, yet.
Luckily, I already had this chapter and a couple of others written to share on the blog for the one or two people who follow along (and I thank you for that! I know keeping up with a serial can be time consuming and many just wait for it to come out in book form later on.).
As always, this is a continuing/serial story. I share a chapter a week and at the end of the story, and after I edit and rewrite, I self-publish it. To catch up with the story click HERE. To read the rest of the books in this series click HERE. Let me know in the comments what you think.
Ben woke the next morning to the smell of coffee brewing. For a moment he forgot where he was and rolled over to look at his alarm clock. There was no alarm clock, though, just a framed picture of Leona and Adam on their wedding day sitting on a small table next to the pullout bed and under a small lamp.
He groaned and rubbed his hands across his face. His head was throbbing. His foot, which had been better the week before was throbbing too. Not to be out done, his back had joined in the fun with a twinge pulling between his shoulder blades. He reached for the bottom of ibuprofen he’d grabbed from Judi’s car the night before and swallowed two pills dry. He was going to need some of the pain to subside before he headed upstairs to face the Phillipi family.
He was grateful the den included a half bathroom where he could splash his face with water to try to wake himself up. His reflection glared at the five o’clock shadow darkening his jawline and the crow’s feet that had seemed to etch themselves even deeper into the skin along the corner of his eyes overnight
After drying his face off, he looked down at his wrinkled clothes, wishing he had something clean to change into. Of course he hadn’t packed extra clothes, since he originally hadn’t planned on being here for more than a couple hours.
He couldn’t hear any voices or movement upstairs and hoped that meant everyone had already finished breakfast and gone somewhere else for the day. The idea of saying his goodbyes all over again wasn’t something he relished.
Feeling like a burglar, he looked left and right before coming all the way up the stairs into the living room and then made his way toward the kitchen.
A plate full of bacon, a loaf of bread, two empty plates, and two empty glasses and mugs were sitting on the island. He glanced out the window over the kitchen sink and saw the backyard was empty, then glanced at his watch. 9 a.m. It seemed too early for church, but he was glad for the brief break and hoped he could get Judi up and out the door before they came back. Turning around he spotted a handwritten note propped up against a bottle of maple syrup by the bacon.
Ben and Judi:
Gone to church. Left early to take Amelia to Sunday School. Help yourself to breakfast. There is coffee in the pot and some left over eggs in the oven. Hope to see you before you go, but if not, thank you for coming and please drive safe. So nice to meet you, Judi.
Ben poured himself a cup of coffee, poured some milk in and sat on one of the stools, scrolling through news sites while he sipped. He’d give Judi ten more minutes then it was time she got up so they could head out.
“Thought you’d be gone by now.”
His arm jerked in surprise, spilling some coffee on the island and choking on what had been about to swallow. Slamming the coffee mug on the counter, he coughed while Angie walked from the doorway and handed him a napkin.
“I thought I was alone,” he managed a few seconds later as he cleaned up the coffee he’d splattered out of the cup.
Angie leaned back against the counter on the other side of the room and folded her arms across her chest, her expression void of humor. “Sorry to disappoint you.”
“No problem.” His muscles tensed at her tone as he crumpled the napkin and tossed it in the trash can. He sat back on the stool and took another sip of coffee. “Just wasn’t expecting to hear another voice.”
Angie didn’t pause for any more niceties. Instead, she bulldozed her way into the conversation, making him regret not coming up earlier so he could have more coffee before she started.
“What are you really doing here Ben?”
He took a deep breath. “I told you. Your parents invited me, so I came down.”
“You’ve been invited to birthday parties before so why this year?”
“Something about your dad’s tone of voice made me think I needed to come.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
Ben did his best to keep his tone even as he looked up at her. “It means what I said. I thought something might be wrong with someone in the family. He seemed to want me here so when Judi offered to drive me, I agreed.”
Angie kept her position and didn’t take her gaze off him. His eye fell to the jumping muscle again. “You could have found that out on the phone.”
“Fine. You’re right. I shouldn’t have come. I regret it.” But he hadn’t regretted seeing Amelia, not that he was going to tell Angie. “Can we stop this interrogation now? What did you do, stay here just to confront me?”
Angie’s jaw tightened. “Yes, in fact I did and when we move back to Spencer, I don’t want to see you. Do you understand? I don’t know what my parents were thinking inviting you, but this isn’t permission for you to try to get back in our lives.”
Anger rumbled in Ben’s chest, and he closed his eyes, counting silently to ten. “That’s fine. I never thought this was an invitation to be involved in your life.” He opened his eyes again and leveled his gaze on her. “What about my parents though?”
Angie dropped her arms down, leaning her elbows back on the counter, and raised an eyebrow. “What about them?”
“I’m sure they’d like to get to know Amelia – in fact I know they would.”
The tension in her face faded and she dropped her gaze. “I don’t know.” His response seemed to have thrown her off. As much as she hated him, he knew cared for his parents, or at least she had at one time. “I’ll think about it.”
Ben sat the mug down and wrapped his hands around it, contemplating the swirl of creamer on its surface. “Don’t punish them for my mistakes, Ange. It isn’t fair.”
Glancing up, he thought she was going to lunge over the counter at him the way she stepped forward and leaned toward him. “Don’t talk to me about fair, Ben. You think raising my daughter on my own for four years has been fair? You think having to walk away from a good paying job to move with my parents back to the one place I never wanted to see again is fair?
“Then why are you moving back?” Ben gestured with his hands. “You’re an adult. Stay here.”
“Amelia needs her grandparents. I want her to be where they are.”
“That’s fine, but it would be nice if she could meet her other grandparents too.”
“Now you want to cry foul? Really, Ben? Really? Four years of barely any contact and now you want to try to act like my daughter is missing out?”
“She’s our daughter, Angie,” Ben snapped. “Not just yours.”
Angie scoffed, green eyes flashing. “Excuse me? Our daughter? Our daughter?!” She pointed at him aggressively. “No. She’s my daughter. You gave up the right to call her your daughter when you walked away from me while I was pregnant. Besides a few checks and gifts, you haven’t made any effort to be a dad and I don’t really see any effort from you now either. You don’t get to call yourself a dad just because you showed up to a birthday party.”
“I know that, Angie.”
“And you know what else? Why would you even care if there was something wrong with someone in my family? You’ve never cared before.”
“That’s not true. I have cared and I do care about you and your family.”
“Really?” Angie tossed her hands out to her sides. “Then where have you been all these years? Huh? Where have you been?”
“Keeping myself away so I don’t hurt any of you again!” Ben shouted, pounding a clenched fist on top of the island.
Angie clenched her hands at her sides. “Give me a break. Don’t try to act all noble now.”
Ben pressed the heels of his hands against his forehead. Searing pain shot from the back of his head through his eyes. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. This argument wasn’t helping his recovery at all.
“Have you seen Judi yet this morning?” he asked through clenched teeth, pressing his fingers against his temples as he tilted his face down and closed his eyes. He hoped Angie could see how much pain he was in and back off. “We need to get going.”
Angie let out a frustrated breath, clearly annoyed with him changing the subject. “No. The last I saw her was last night.”
At least she’d stopped yelling at him.
The pain subsided as he massaged his temples, his eyes still closed. “Did she seem okay?”
Angie sighed and he glanced up at her, noticing the flushed crimson that had spread across her cheeks a few minutes earlier slowly fading. “Yeah.” She shrugged a shoulder. “She was getting a snack.” She walked across the kitchen and took a glass out of the cupboard and set it next to the fridge, her back to Ben. “She said you two aren’t dating.”
He stopped massaging and tossed a piece of bacon on a plate. He wasn’t really hungry but he needed to do something with his hands because right now all he wanted to do was punch a wall. “We’re not. She’s my secretary. I told you that already. She was working at this questionable diner and my secretary is taking some time off to be with her husband while he undergoes chemo, so I asked her to come help me out.”
“I don’t really remember much about her from high school,” Angie said as she poured a glass of juice. “But from what I do remember she was kind of a mess and nothing like her older sister.”
Ben shrugged a shoulder, taking a bite of the bacon. “Yeah, well, she hit a rough patch and she’s trying to get back on her feet again. I appreciated her driving me even though she does drive me a little crazy and she did cause me to wreck my car.”
“She told me about that.”
“Did she finally admit it was her fault?”
“No, but she did tell me your vein was working overtime.”
Despite the frustration still seething from the verbal sparring match, Ben managed a smile. “Yeah, I’m sure it was. She wrecked my new car and left my foot in a cast and with a concussion that is taking forever to heal.”
Angie sipped the juice and stepped around the island toward the bottom of the stairs. “I’ll think about your suggestion about your parents.” The softening in her words surprised him, but the hardness returned when she added, “But they’re the only ones from your family that I’ll consider having contact with when we get back to Spencer.”
He watched her head toward the stairs, found his gaze drifting over her curves as she walked up them and then looked away quickly. The woman had made it clear just now that she hated him. He had no idea how a thrill still coursed through him at the sight of her hips swaying.
Five minutes later there were footsteps on the stairs, and he looked up expectedly, but instead of seeing Angie it was Judi with her hair pulled up on top of her head in a stylish bun, her make up neatly applied, wearing a different outfit from the day before — a pink tank top with a denim jacket and a black skirt that at least hit her knees this time. He wondered where she’d found fresh clothes, then remembered the luggage he’d seen in her trunk when they’d put the stuffed bear in. Apparently, she traveled with an entire wardrobe.
“Alright, lawyer-boy, ready to hit the road?”
Someone was certainly back to her old self.
She snatched a piece of bacon off the plate. “Yep. My new nickname for you.” She twirled around and headed toward the front door. “I’m ready to head out if you are.”
He followed her. “I definitely am, but shouldn’t you eat some breakfast?”
“We are swinging by one of those Amish stores on our way out of town.” She tossed the keys up and caught them. “I bet they’ve got something good to munch on and hopefully a really awesome cup of coffee.”
Ben felt instant relief when the car started. They were finally getting out of there and he could finally get back to work, take his mind off of everything that had happened this weekend. Speaking of work — he lifted his phone and logged into his email.
Yep. Tomorrow was definitely going to be busy. He had another offer from Mark for the Henderson divorce case and it was still way less than what his client wanted. There was the paperwork for the sale of the old school in Burkett to that shopping mall and then three meetings with clients who needed to draw up wills.
At this point he didn’t care what work threw at him. It had to be easier than the past 24 hours.
Judi turned up the music, slid on her sunglasses and smiled as she leaned back in her seat. “Let’s blow this popsicle stand, Oliver!”
He needed to talk to her about that phone call, but he hated to dampen her mood. She seemed happy. There was no reason to take that happiness from her. At least not until she had some coffee in her.
Judi sipped the coffee slowly, letting the vanilla flavor saturate her tastebuds, while leaning against the outside of the driver side door of the car. She couldn’t wait to get back to Spencer Valley, something she never thought she’d feel or think. First, though, she’d needed something to wake her up. She also needed to delay the inevitable moment when Ben asked her about that phone call. She didn’t want to talk about it; not even with her family, let alone Ben.
She snatched her phone from the pocket of her jacket as it rang and rolled her eyes at the caller ID.
Probably calling to ask her to come in for work when she got back.
“Yeah, Lonny. What’s up?”
“Judi, we need to talk.”
“I called and left you a message. My car broke down outside of Lancaster so I couldn’t get back for —”
“It’s not that. It’s about your drawer count from Friday night.”
“What about it?”
“It was off by about $100 and Rick says this isn’t the first time.”
“It wasn’t off by even a dime when I turned it in, Lonny. And what is Rick talking about? Not the first time?”
“He says he covered for you last time but that he can’t do it again.”
“Covered for me how?”
“He slipped in money for you so I wouldn’t find out. He felt sorry for you, but I don’t. I’m going to have to let you go. I can’t have people I can’t trust on my team.”
“Lonny! I have never taken money from you. None of this is true. You have got to be kidding me.”
“If you can prove you didn’t take the —”
“Prove it how? I know I didn’t take it. I don’t have it. Don’t you have security cameras?”
“It was disabled so it was someone who knew about the camera. Hannah says you’ve been showing up with new outfits, busy running around town shopping and eating out.”
“First of all, I don’t know how to disable the camera. Second, I always eat out. I can’t cook. Third, I have a second job. You know that.”
“I haven’t seen you at this second job, you’ve just been turning down shifts and when you are here, money is disappearing.”
“You said it happened twice and now you’re trying to say it happened every time I was there. Which is it?”
“Your final check is in the mail, Judi.”
She held her phone back in disbelief as the call disconnected then immediately dialed Hannah’s number.
“What’s going on? Is that that guy again?”
She turned at the sound of Ben’s voice and watched him walk toward her holding a cup of coffee and taking a bite of a homemade pastry. His hair was disheveled, and he needed a shave. Looking so unkempt must be driving him crazy.
She pulled her phone back from her ear and glared at it. No surprise, Hannah didn’t answer.
She shook her head. “No. It was Lonny.” She flung the driver side door open and flopped into the seat tossing her phone onto the center console. “The jerk just accused me of stealing.”
“Stealing what?” Ben asked around a mouthful of pastry as he slide into the passenger side. He sipped the coffee and placed it in the cupholder.
“Money from the drawer. He says they were $100 short after I left Friday and that it happened another time and Rick, the bartender, covered for me.” Judi pressed her hand against her forehead for a brief moment, then slid her sunglasses on and turned the key in the ignition. “Whatever. This is just stupid. I’m going to go talk to him tomorrow. He can’t really believe I stole money from him.”
“Does he have proof?”
“It didn’t sound like it to me. He’s firing me. He says he can’t trust me.”
“Whoa. That sounds like a pretty knee jerk reaction to me. He should at least give you a chance to explain.”
Judi slammed the car into gear and hit the accelerator. “He’d better. He owes me that much. I took shifts when no one else would, worked until closing, put up with all those old,” she slammed her hand off the steering wheel. “Perverts.”
“Hey, calm down. You already gave me one concussion. Let’s slow it down a little, okay? Did he say if he was pressing charges?”
Judi ripped out onto the road and whispered a curse. “I didn’t even think of that.” She glanced at Ben. “Do you think he will?”
“I don’t know, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
“We?” She snorted a laugh. “What are you going to do, represent me?”
He shrugged a shoulder and finished off the pastry, wiping his hand on a napkin. “Yeah, if you want me to. I mean — you didn’t take it, right?” He didn’t have to see through the sunglasses to know she was glaring at him. “What? Sorry. I mean, I don’t think you’d do it, but that other guy sounded like he was threatening you so maybe you got scared and took some money to pay him off.”
“I did not take that money, Ben!”
“Okay. Okay.” Ben held his hands up defensively. “You didn’t take that money. I believe you. Do you know else might have done it?”
“Anyone in that group could have done it. For all I know Rick did it and told Lonny I did it.”
“Has Rick done anything like that before?”
“Rick has three kids with three different women, so he probably needs the cash.”
“What about that other waitress? The one you were with that night?”
“Hannah?” Judi shook her head. “No. She wouldn’t do that.” She clenched her jaw and slapped the steering wheel again. “But she did tell Lonny I’d been spending more money recently. But $100 in this economy? What would I even do with that? My rent is $800, this car payment is — well, way too much.”
Ben leaned his arm on the window and turned his head to look at her. A quick glance at his serious expression told her that he had put his lawyer hat on, and she wasn’t ready for that.
“So you’ll talk to Lonny tomorrow and find out if he is pressing charges. In the meantime, fill me in on this Jeff guy. What’s the deal with him?”
If Ben was going to have one of his headaches, this was the time for it. She glanced at the exit to the main highway that would lead them home and wondered if she could drive off the road and hit another tree. Anything to avoid telling him anything about Jeff, but especially about that night.
She reached for the lemonade she’d set in the cupholder earlier and took a long drink. he couldn’t stall forever, though. There was only so much liquid in the cup.
“Jeff is a guy I met in the city. One night he invited me to his apartment he made a pass at me. I told him no, he got mad, I kicked him in the crotch, and he finally let me go. That’s all.”
Out of the corner of her eye she could see Ben watching her. “It sounded like it was more than a pass, especially if you had to kick him in the crotch for him to let you go.”
Judi looked the rearview mirror, then the side mirrors and pulled into the other lane to pass a slow driver. “New York guys are pushier, that’s all.”
Ben rubbed the side of his hand against his chin, then held it there a few seconds. “Yeah. Okay.” He cleared his throat and looked out the windshield. “Listen, you don’t have to talk to me about what happened, but is there anyone else you can talk to? Like Ellie?”
Judi kept her gaze on the road in front of her. “There’s really nothing to talk about.”
Plus ,she’d already talked to Ellie about it.
“So what was all this talk about a lawyer calling you? That text from someone named Seline?”
Time to deflect. “What are you doing looking at my texts?”
Ben yawned. He apparently got as little sleep as she had the night before. “It was an accident, I thought it was my phone.”
“My phone has a pink cover. Your phone has a black cover. You know, black like your soul.” She smirked.
“Ha. Ha. I have a head injury, remember? I just looked at the phone without thinking.”
“Yeah, well, anyhow, Seline told some lawyer for some girl about what happened with Jeff and now the lawyer wants me to testify on behalf of the girl. Say that Jeff has done stuff like that to other women.” She swallowed hard, surprised by the emotion thick in her throat. “I guess she wasn’t as lucky as I was.”
“Are you going to testify?”
“She was stupid enough to get mixed up with him. It’s her problem. Not mine.”
“Judi, if you want to help this girl, I’ll help you. I can represent you.”
“I’m not testifying in some trial. No way.”
“Drop it, Ben. I’m not doing it. It’s not my fault that girl was too stupid to ask around about Jeff before she got involved with him.”
Ben cleared his throat and raised the coffee cup to his lips. “Okay.” His voice was soft, void of anger, just matter of fact. “I’ll drop it then.”
Judi wanted to apologize, to tell him she knew he meant well, but she didn’t want to talk about it anymore. That girl had been too stupid? Actually, she’d been just like Judi, who had already heard about Jeff but had gone home with him anyhow. Maybe this girl had been like her, her judgement clouded by alcohol.
It was obviou she hadn’t been as strong as Judi, though — unable to get her knee up into Jeff’s groin and send him to the ground in a fit of rage Sure, he’d grabbed a handful of Judi’s hair and yanked as she’d reached for her skirt that he’d tossed to the floor, but she’d still escaped, with her life, most of her dignity, if not her pride. If she testified, though? That dignity would be completely gone.
Ellie already knew what an idiot she’d been, but Judi didn’t need her parents and everyone else in Spencer knowing too. She wasn’t sure how they’d find out if she testified in a court case in NY, but somehow they would, she was sure of it.
She had enough to be judged on with her past public drunken displays and this accusation by Lonny.
She didn’t need yet another failure out on display.