I’ll post the last chapter of this story tomorrow.
As always, this is a continuing/serial story. I share a chapter a week and at the end of the story, after I edit and rewrite it, 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. Or don’t. That’s okay too. *wink*
If you would prefer to read the book when it is all complete, you can pre-order a copy HERE on Amazon. It releases on January 31, 2023.
“You’re not alone, okay?”
Talking via video chat to a young woman who had gone through something even worse than Judi had required the words to be said. The young woman nodded tearfully and a few minutes later goodbyes were exchanged and Judi disconnected. She leaned back against the couch and blew out a long breath, wiping tears from her eyes.
Ellie laid a hand on her arm. “You okay?”
Judi nodded slowly and accepted the tissue her sister handed her. “Yeah, I think so.”
She’d asked Ellie if she’d be there when she called the young woman — whose name she learned was Vickie — an unusual move for her. While she was normally independent, and determined she could do things on her own, a calm settled over her at the thought of her sister being there with her.
Judi had decided on her own to talk to the girl, assure her that she’d have support for her case, and tell her how brave she’d been to go to authorities, something Judi wished she had done.
Ellie handed her a tissue. “You were really great with her. You seemed to know just what to say.”
Judi sniffed and tried to smile. “That’s very unusual for me.”
Ellie tipped her head and laid her hand on Judi’s shoulder. “Judi, come on. Don’t run yourself down. You did great.” She smiled and bumped her knee against Judi’s. “Maybe it was God helping you.”
A small laugh came from Judi. “God doesn’t work through people like me, El. You can stop all that stuff.”
Ellie leaned back, brow knitted. “First, I don’t know what you mean by people like you, but second, God can work through anyone. Don’t forget that.”
Judi stood to walk to the kitchen, rubbing the back of her neck. “Yeah, I guess. Can I get you a soda?”
“Yeah, that would be great. Maybe we could watch a movie before I head home.”
Judi opened the fridge, smirking. “Don’t you need to get home to Jason?”
“Nah. He and Alex are hanging out with Matt tonight. Some kind of guys night where they watch football and eat junk.”
Pouring a glass of lemon-lime soda she knew Ellie liked, Judi glanced over her shoulder. “In that case we should find a good chick flick and call Molly to see if she wants to join us.”
Did she really just suggest a girls’ night? What was happening to her.
Ellie was clearly delighted at the idea, based on the tone of her voice. “Oh yes. After working mainly with the guys in the barn today I bet she’d love a girls night. She can bring Liz and the baby.”
Judi inwardly cringed. A baby? At her apartment? She wasn’t too sure about that, but, well, she was trying to change some of her past attitudes. She could try at least.”
Judi’s phone rang as she walked back to give Ellie her drink. She glanced at it then clicked the button on the side to send it to voicemail as she sat back down on the couch.
“It’s Rachel. I’ll call her later.”
Ellie sipped the soda. “What’s she doing? Checking up on you?”
“Yeah, well, I told her I fell off the wagon a couple weeks ago so she’s been keeping a closer eye on me.”
Ellie cleared her throat and looked down at her glass. “Oh. You did?”
Judi pushed a hand back through her hair and let it fall down her back. She wanted to work on being more open and honest so she might as well start now.
“Yes, briefly. I went to a bar with Jessie and drank part of a beer and four sips of whiskey and got very sick to my stomach. Apparently, I can’t handle alcohol any more.”
Ellie leaned forward slightly, crossing one leg over the other. “Judi, you know you can call me if you need to, right? I mean if you get tempted. You don’t have to do this alone, okay?”
“I’ve done things alone for a long time.” Judi winked and popped a chocolate candy from the dish next to her in her mouth. “Give me some time to get used to not doing that anymore.”
Ellie’s expression became serious. “What drove you to the bar that night?” She paused, chewing her lower lip for a brief moment. “I mean, if you don’t mind me asking.”
Judi pulled her feet under her and hugged a pillow. “I don’t know. I couldn’t get my mind to slow down for one. I kept going over and over everything I had done wrong all of my life, that night with Evan, then the night with Jeff and how I didn’t go to the police or really talk to anyone except Seline about it. Maybe I could have stopped him or kept him from hurting this girl and whoever else he’s hurt.” She shrugged. “I just keep wondering why he let me go but not this girl or the others. Why did I get away? I think I have some sort of survivor’s guilt.” She laughed softly. “I mean, I nailed him pretty good that night in his privates so maybe that is why I got away.”
Ellie slid next to Judi on the couch and put an arm around her. “It wasn’t your fault. What he did to you or the other girls. You didn’t know he would do it again.”
Judi leaned into Ellie. “I should have known, but I don’t think I wanted to think about it. I was so focused on me I didn’t want to think about anyone else. It was too horrible to think he was trying to force himself on girls as young as Vickie.” She let out a quick breath. “I’m not sure what is scarier some days, my brain going too fast or the thoughts I have when it starts to slow down.”
Ellie leaned back a little to look down at Judi. “Let’s call Molly and get this movie going. We can give your brain a break for now. Just know I’m here for you. Mom and Dad are too. I know you aren’t big on church, but our pastor is great, and we have a ladies’ Bible study on Wednesdays and —”
Judi at up, laughing and holding up a hand, palm out. “El, calm down. I’m already planning to go to church with you, but please don’t try to get me to go sit with a bunch of women and talk about my feelings over vanilla-rose tea.”
Ellie clapped her hands together. “Oh, I am so excited!” She hugged Judi briefly then leaned back again. “Also, we don’t drink vanilla-rose tea. We usually have lemongrass or peach and occasionally blueberry.”
Judi rolled her eyes. “You’re not going to convert me into drinking herbal tea. Just call Molly and let’s move on from the tea conversation, kay?”
Ellie sighed. “Okay, okay. I’ll take my victories where I can.”
She reached for her phone, but Judi reached out and laid her hand on hers. Ellie looked up and Judi squeezed her hand. “Thank you, Ellie. I know I don’t say it a lot — or ever — but I love you.”
Ellie’s eyes glistened. “I love you too.”
Judi let go of Ellie’s hand and grimaced as she reached for a blanket. “Okay, this is getting too Hallmark-like for me. Call Molly and I’ll find a movie.”
She rolled her eyes again, but couldn’t help smiling back at Ellie who was tapping Molly’s name in her phone.
Ben honored Angie’s wishes for two weeks, giving her time to think, visiting every other day, taking walks with Amelia and even taking her to visit his parents. Angie had been polite, helpful, and didn’t speak to him with the tension she had before, but she also kept her distance, excusing herself shortly after he arrived or declining to join them on walks or trips to his parents.
Now he was standing at the Tanner’s Pumpkin Farm behind their store, nervously rubbing damp palms on his jeans and sipping from a hot cup of coffee. Angie had called him this morning and asked if he’d like to meet her and her parents there for a day out. She’d actually called and invited him.
Maybe she was just being nice or maybe it was something more. He wasn’t sure and that’s why he couldn’t stop fidgeting while he waited for them. When Adam’s SUV pulled into the parking lot his heart rate picked up and he took a deep breath.
“Good grief, Ben,” he whispered to himself. “You’re a grown man. Get a grip.”
A chuckle came from behind him. “Knew you’d finally crack, Oliver.”
Jason Tanner walked around in front of him carrying two pumpkins he set on a display by a bench. He looked over his shoulder and grinned. “You okay?”
Ben nodded and smiled, glad to see that Molly’s brother didn’t hold anything against him from all those years ago. “Yeah. Just talking to myself.”
Jason drew the back of his hand across his forehead and then placed his hands at his waist. “I do that a lot too. Nothing unusual there.”
Ben nodded toward the corn maze behind the store. “The place looks great. This is going to be a real boon to the area.”
And also great for local farmers, which went without saying.
Jason adjusted his John Deere cap. “Thanks. I hope it will be. It’s been a lot of work, but it already seems to be paying off. We’ll be offering a lot more next year. For now we have the corn maze, pumpkin cannons, a couple bounce houses, the petting zoo, and of course the pumpkin field.”
Ben lifted the cup of coffee. “And great coffee.”
“Of course.” Jason winked. “We need it as much as the visitors, maybe even more.”
Ben turned to see Amelia running toward him wearing a red and white dress and black shoes, blond curls flowing out behind her. He lifted her in his arms as she reached him and propped her on his hip. “Hey, kid. You look excited.”
“Mommy said I get to pet a goat!”
Jason laughed. “You sure do. The petting zoo is on the other side of the store. There are calves, rabbits, sheep, and a bunch of kittens too.” He nodded at Ben. “You guys have fun today. I’ll see you around.”
Angie and her parents came next, walking slower than the ball of energy in Ben’s arms. They walked to the petting zoo, bought donuts and cider and then Leona suggested she and Adam take Amelia on a hayride.
“Why don’t you two try the corn maze and let us know how complicated it is,” Adam said with smile. “We’ll take Amelia after the hayride.”
Pink flushed along Angie’s cheeks, but she didn’t respond.
Amelia gave Ben a quick hug then ran to her grandmother and clutched her hand. “Be back soon, Daddy!” she called over her shoulder.
A burst of shock slammed Ben and he audibly gasped, unable to speak for a few seconds. By the time he even attempted to speak, Amelia was on the other side of the yard, almost to the wagon.
He turned to Angie. “Wha — I mean — Did you say something to her?”
Angie lifted her shoulders and dropped them in a quick shrug. “I started to last night and she told me she already knew. I told her she was a smart kid.”
She turned to walk toward the corn maze, and he followed her. “What did she say exactly?”
“Well, I said, ‘honey, I need to talk to you about Ben and who he is,’ and she said, ‘You mean that he’s my daddy?’ I asked how she knew and she said Uncle Mark said it that day we were arguing after she fell off the swing.”
Ben let out a breath as they entered the maze. “Yeah, he did. I forgot about that.” He pushed the emotion in his throat down with a gulp of coffee. “What did she think about it?”
Angie laughed. “You saw how excited she was when she saw you, right?”
Ben rubbed a hand along the back of his neck, warmth spreading there. “Yeah. Yeah I did.” He smiled. “It was really nice.”
They walked in silence for a few minutes, dry leaves and corn husks crunching under their feet. A cool breeze brushed across them and Ben smelled the sweetness of apples in it.
Angie stopped, turning to face him. “Ben, I want to tell you something.”
Here they went again. He braced himself for another tongue lashing, even though her tone was much friendlier and calm this time.
“I appreciate you explaining to me a couple of weeks ago some of the reasons you never contacted us.” She took a deep breath, closing her eyes briefly. “But four years of no real contact is a long time. I can’t just get over that in a few months.” She opened her eyes again, hands clenching and unclenching at her sides for a few seconds, then relaxing and matching the softness her tone slipped in to. “I can’t deny I love you, Ben. I think there was a time I loved a version of you that wasn’t real and now that I know the real you it’s very confusing because as much as I don’t want to love you, I still do. I love the good parts of you, the parts that are broken and you’re trying to put back together. The parts that are trying to be a better father. I can’t fully trust you yet, though. That’s something you’re going to have to rebuild with me, but if you’re willing to do that then I’m willing to work with you and see where this goes.”
He nodded slowly. “I understand.”
She pulled her lower lip between her teeth and released it again. “Do you — I mean — do you want to see where this goes?”
He reached out and lightly touched her hair with his fingertips. “Yes, I do, but I need to tell you something. I hope this,” he gestured a hand toward himself, then her. “Leads us to where it should have led us years ago.” He stepped forward, cupping his hand against her cheek. “In a church, with me promising to have and to hold you, for better for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.” He leaned closer and kissed her mouth gently. “For as long as we both live.”
She reached up and laid her hand over his, wrapped her fingers around it, and pulled it back, kissing his palm. “One day at a time, Mr. Oliver, okay? One day at time.” A smile tilted her mouth upward. “But, yeah, I’d like that to happen too.”
He wanted to kiss her again, but he didn’t want to push his luck. “Can I get you a cup of coffee?” He looked around him. “If we ever find our way out of this maze?”
She laughed and looked at his cup, sniffing. “Yours doesn’t smell like regular coffee. What are you drinking?”
“Coffee with pumpkin spice flavoring and a bit of farm fresh cream.”
Angie snorted a laugh. “You’re drinking flavored coffee? What brought this change on?”
He laughed softly. “Judi. She kept bringing in flavored creamers and adding them to my coffee. She said I needed to liven up some.” He took a sip. “Now I’m addicted.”
“Going to church, drinking flavored coffee.” She shook her head once. “You have changed, Ben. I’m not sure what to make of it. Are you still organizing your closet by color?”
Ben mocked gasped. “Now, that, I’ll never change.”
Angie laughed as they walked, looping her arm in his. “Come on, let’s get out of here. I’ll take you up on that cup of coffee.”