For regular readers here, I have finished the first draft of this book and am in the editing stage. I may do something different and post the remaining chapters a few days in a row, but I still have to decide if I am keeping those chapters the way they are, so I will let you know.
If any of you are interested in being on my launch team, please let me know. That involves helping to tell others about the book and receiving a free ebook copy of the complete book to read.
Also, if there are aspects of the story you think should be flushed out or changed, please let me know. I am also looking for beta readers, who also can help me with those details.
Thank you to my bloggy friends who have stuck around and read along with all my stories or who have read them when they are done. Trust me, I do not blame you if you haven’t followed along every week. I get behind on serial stories as well!
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 January 31, 2023.
Judi hadn’t checked her voicemail all weekend. She knew she needed to but there were messages from Ben, Selina, a number she didn’t recognize, and a number she thought might belong to the lawyer for that girl. It was all a bit overwhelming, and she wasn’t sure which one to listen to first.
Sipping the coffee she’d picked up from the local coffee shop, she scrolled through the voicemails and clicked on Selina’s message.
“Hey, Judi, I just want to apologize. I think — yeah, well, I know I was pressuring you way too much about talking to that lawyer. I should have backed off. I just want Jeff to pay for what he’s done to you and Laura and whoever else he attacked. I got carried away. Call me later, okay? I just want to know you’re okay.”
Ben’s message was something about work, but ended asking her if she was okay, and reminding her if she needed to talk, she could call him any time.
There was also a text message from Rachel. She’d answer that one later and maybe even confess her trip to the bar. She knew Rachel wouldn’t scold her. Since she’d become Judi’s sponsor, she’d been nothing but supportive.
She clicked on the message from the number she didn’t recognize at all next.
“Judi, it’s Hannah. Don’t delete this. Here me out. I messed up, okay? I took that money for Rick. He lied to get you fired and I wanted to tell Lonny, but I need this job. Don’t be mad, okay? I mean you have that job with that lawyer, so you’ll be fine, right? Call me. Okay? I want to make it up to you somehow.”
She rolled her eyes and deleted the message.
The last voicemail was from the number she didn’t recognize, but the transcription, as bad as a translation as it was, let her know it was from the lawyer.
“Miss Lambert, hello. This is Brent Decker and I wanted to call and clarify some things about what would be expected of you if you testified in this case. If you get a chance, give me a call. I understand how difficult something like this would be for you and if you decide you simply can’t do it, both my client and I will understand.”
Laying the phone down on the counter in the kitchen, she carried her coffee with her to the living room. A large bouquet of bright red roses sat in the middle of the coffee table. They’d been delivered that morning with a card.
Out on the road again but thinking of you. Love, Evan.
She leaned over the roses and drew in their aroma with a deep inhale. Fingering the petals, she thought back on that day with Evan, how she’d completely panicked as if he would have, or could have, hurt her like Jeff tried to. Each time she remembered how concerned he’d looked, how he’d waited outside her apartment until Ellie got there, she smiled and wondered what she’d done to deserve someone like him.
Nothing. That’s what.
She’d done nothing to deserve him, and she didn’t deserve him.
But boy did she want him.
She wanted him without the heaviness of memories of that night with Jeff taunting her, though, encroaching on her joy, and trying to take it away.
A sudden anger seized her, twisted in her stomach. She stood, fists clenched. Jeff Burke had no right to have that power over her. He had no right to be able to walk around free while she and other women sat in the shadow of shame, shutting themselves up in a prison of fear.
Jeff had tried to control her, force on her what he’d wanted, which had set loose a series of emotions she didn’t know how to control. She’d tried so hard in the months afterward to drown the rage and fear with as much alcohol as she could find. She’d flirted with Brad, acted like everything was fine, picked fights with her sister, rejected any suggestion she reach out to her family or God, and told herself over and over it was all her fault.
“This isn’t your fault. You know that right?”
The words of Ellie the year before rushed back to her. There was a large part of her that still felt what had happened was her fault. Even more so she felt like what had happened to this girl was her fault. If she had gone to the police about Jeff maybe he would have been stopped before he hurt her, or the other women he’d probably forced himself on.
She walked back to the kitchen and snatched up her phone, then grabbed an apple from the basket Ellie had dropped off the other day. Fruit had never really been her thing, but she probably should eat healthier.
She dialed Ben’s number as she sat on the couch.
“Judi!” Did he actually sound excited to hear her voice. “I’ve been trying to reach you for three days. You okay?”
“Yeah, I am.” She bit into the apple, juice dripping down her chin. She swiped at the juice with the back of her hand. “I wasn’t, but I am right now. I think anyhow. Listen, I — uh —I want to know if you’ll advise me on how to testify against that guy I told you about.”
“You want me to represent you?”
“Do I need a lawyer to represent me?”
“It would be good to have one, yes.”
She winced. “Can we exchange work time for payment?”
Ben’s laugh was warm and friendly, a departure from the tone he usually spoke to her in at work. “I’m not going to charge you for this Judi. You’re a friend.”
“I’m a friend?” She pulled the phone back from her ear for a moment and looked at it with a raised eyebrow. “I thought I was your employee.”
“You’re both.” She heard a click and then the sound of tires on pavement. He’d apparently switched to hands-free. “Hey, listen, things are a little crazy here right now. Can I call you back later? Angie’s dad is in the hospital, she dropped of Amelia at my parents, and I’m on my way to pick up my sister from some party.”
“Wow. That’s a lot. When it rains it pours, right?”
“I think you know that as well as I do.”
She took another bite of the apple, wondering why she hadn’t tried this healthy eating thing earlier. “Good luck. No rush on the call back.”
“Thanks.” There was a brief pause, filled only by the sound of Ben’s driving. “Hey, Judi?”
“Yes, Mr. Oliver, sir?”
Ben groaned. “Don’t call me that. Ever. But hey, I’m proud of you, for whatever that’s worth. You’re doing the right thing and I’ll be there with you every step of the way.”
She swallowed hard, letting out a shaky breath. “Thanks, Ben. I really appreciate that.” Now, though, she’d have to tell him everything about that night — and her past life. The bravery she’d had a few moments before shrunk back at the thought.
Maggie was waiting in front of an out of the way farmhouse, arms hugged around her middle. He could hear the bass from inside the house, pounding out what must be an ear-splitting rhythm of rock music inside.
Maggie flung the passenger side door open, slid inside and scrunched down in the seat as she pulled the hood of her sweatshirt down over her head. The bottom of her face, featuring a deep frown, was all Ben could see at this point.
He cleared his throat and clicked his tongue, hands on the steering wheel. “So, um, yeah. I guess this wasn’t just a study session after all. I’m also guessing this isn’t Jenny’s house.”
“Can we just go now? I don’t want anyone to see me out here.”
Ben shifted the car into gear, keeping his eyes on the road ahead of him until they had moved off a dirt road onto a paved one.
“You going to tell me what happened or —?”
“It was a party. I didn’t want to go but Jenny talked me into it and there were a bunch of older kids there and they were drinking. That’s all. Okay?”
He clenched his jaw, trying his best to stay calm and not react the way he wanted to, the way the old Ben would have. He’d stay quiet and let her talk. He wasn’t an actual parent, at least in experience, but that’s how their dad had often handled situations with him.
“Okay,” he said finally when she didn’t offer any other explanation.
“Is that all you have to say? Okay? I mean aren’t you going to yell at me or something?”
“Do I have a reason to yell at you?”
Maggie scoffed. “Well, yeah. I was at a party with alcohol and older boys when I was supposed to be studying.”
He glanced at her as he pressed his foot on the brake at a stop sign. “I’m not your parent, Maggie. I’m your brother.” He tipped his neck, pressing a hand to the back of it and cracking it. “But if I was your parent, I would ask you if you were drinking.”
He saw her make a face out of the corner of his eye. “Ugh. No. Beer is gross. It even smells gross. Plus, people who drink act stupid and are losers who ruin their lives.”
An uncomfortable silence settled over the car. She straightened, pushed the hood off her head and looked at him with wide eyes. “I mean some people are. Not everyone. Some people just mess up and get better.”
She averted her gaze quickly and slid down in the seat again. “Sorry. I didn’t mean you.”
His chest tightened and he kept his eyes forward. “No. It’s fine. It’s true. I am a loser, and I did ruin a lot of lives.”
“You’re not a loser, Ben.” Maggie chewed on the finger nail on her thumb. “You were one but you’re not anymore.”
A laugh rumbled from his chest. “Very accurate.”
A sudden thought struck him, and his blood ran cold. “Hey, no one — uh — I mean some guy didn’t —“
She snorted a huff of air through her nose. “Oh my gosh, Ben, no. Guys don’t pay attention to me. I’m a geek.”
She sounded disappointed that guys didn’t pay attention to her but Ben was a bit relieved under the circumstances. “This time that’s a good thing.”
“Nothing like that was going on anyhow. Other than Rocky Westerfield making out with Penny Sanderson on the couch at one point. Otherwise they were all just acting stupid and laughing at the dumbest things. I mean alcohol really does change people. Billy Jenkins is one of the smartest guys in school but by the time we got there he’d had two beers and was laughing at fart jokes.”
Ben tried not to laugh. Most teenage boys could manage to act stupid even without alcohol.
He felt her gaze on him again. “Is that what you acted like when you were drunk? Did you do and say stupid things?”
He tightened his grip on the steering wheel. He really didn’t want to talk to his sister about this.
“Sometimes, yeah.” He hunched his shoulders in a brief shrug. “Most is the time I was a depressed drunk, though. Depressed and angry.”
“Is that why Angie left you?”
“I left her actually, but she should have left me long before that.”
“You left her when she was pregnant, didn’t you?”
He wanted to pull over and throw up. “Yeah. I did.”
“Didn’t you want to be a dad?”
His throat thickened with emotion, and he cleared his throat. “I was too stupid, selfish and arrogant to want anything other than my career, kid. I didn’t feel qualified to be a dad. I didn’t even know how to be a man, let alone a dad. I was afraid, but instead I acted angry. You’re going to learn that about men as you grow up. Sometimes they act angry when all they are is scared. That was me. Afraid I’d fail, that I’d never be as good of a dad as our dad has been, that I’d never be able to stop relying on the alcohol to get me through the tough days. I walked away from Angie and I’ve regretted it ever since.”
Maggie reached over and laid her hand on his arm. “Have you ever told her that? How much you regret walking away?”
He glanced at her again, grateful for her tenderness, but then realizing — “Hey, wait a minute. You changed the subject. This isn’t about me, right now. You need to tell me what you were doing at a drinking party when you were supposed to be studying.”
She dropped her hand and scowled. “I thought you said you weren’t my parent.”
“Yeah, I’m not, but I’m your older brother. Spit it out.”
She folded her arms across her chest and stared at her feet. “Jenny wanted to go see Phil Tanner —”
“Yeah, he’s Brad’s little brother. He’s the youngest of like four or whatever.”
“Anyhow, Jenny wanted to see Phil because he texted her to come over so we went over —”
“When you shouldn’t have gone anywhere else without telling Mom and Dad.”
“Do you want me to finish this story or not?”
“So, we got over there, and they’d already been drinking. I told Jenny I wanted to leave but she’s all lovestruck, so she didn’t want to leave, but then they started acting stupider and Jenny even took a sip of a beer. I just wanted to get out of there.”
Ben turned into the driveway, pausing at the gate, and punching the code in. “You did the right thing, kid. I’m proud of you. People in movies and music videos make drinking look like fun, but it can be really dangerous. It’s not all fun and games.”
Maggie sighed and he didn’t see it but he was sure she rolled her eyes too. “Yeah, I know.” They drove slowly up the drive and as he parked, she turned toward him. “Why did you drink?”
Ben turned the car off and laid an arm across the back of her seat, tilting his head to one side. “Well, you really are inquisitive today.” He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. “I drank so I couldn’t remember what a failure I felt like. Then I felt more like a failure so I drank more and it was just a vicious cycle.”
“But you weren’t a failure. You were in law school and had a great girlfriend and wonderful family.”
The sun had set now, sending a streak of purple and pink across the horizon. Ben wondered how his parents and Amelia were getting along inside.
“I felt like a failure in other ways like in being a good person and in being respected and as successful as dad and grandpa and Uncle Larry. I did stuff in high school I wasn’t proud of. The shame just kept building up.”
Maggie pulled her lower lip between her teeth for a few seconds, as if in thought. “The other day Pastor Rick said that Jesus forgives our sins and covers our shame with his grace and mercy. Doesn’t that mean He did that for you too?”
A smile tugged at the corners of Ben’s mouth. “Yeah. It does. I just need to keep reminding myself of that.” He dropped his arm down around her shoulder and pulled her in for a hug. “Thanks, Maggie. I appreciate that.” He pulled back to look down at her. “And I’m sorry I wasn’t the big brother you could look up to.”
She opened the passenger side door and winked over her shoulder, “I’ll always look up to you, Binkie. You’re doing your best to make up for your mistakes. That’s something worth admiring. Plus, you’re still a few inches taller than me.”
He tapped her shoulder. “Hey, before you go in — We have a special visitor.”
Her eyebrow quirked questioningly. “Who?”
“Someone you’ve been wanting to meet.” Her brow dipped for a moment then rose again as her eyes widened. “Really? She’s in the house?! Come on, slow poke! Let’s get in there so I can meet my niece!”