Boondock Ramblings

Saturday Fiction: Harvesting Hope Chapter 27 and 28 (final chapters)

Just a reminder to blog readers who either didn’t follow along or missed some chapters, you can either go back and read them here for the next two weeks or you can preorder an ebook copy for $.99 HERE. The price will go up the week after the release date of August 12.

This is the final two chapters of the story. Both have been rewritten a couple of times but are still in the editing process.

Chapter 27

Ellie rolled on to her side and winced. She’d been in bed all day, had taken the painkillers for her ankle, and yet her muscles still ached. It was ridiculous to imagine they wouldn’t hurt, of course. What did she expect after a car accident, a two-mile hike in the dark woods, and a fall into a mineshaft? That she would feel like dancing?

She reached for her phone on the bedside table and scrolled through the text messages.

Lucy. Molly. A couple of ladies from church. Emily, the pastor’s wife. Even Brad. She’d ignored Brad’s, of course. She didn’t have the energy to deal with what had happened the night of the accident. He was apologetic, asking how she was, but she wasn’t sure she could let him off the hook so easily. It was clear he needed help and she wasn’t going to be that source of help. Maybe she should give him Pastor Joe’s number.

Another one from Molly. Sent an hour ago.

Liz was on her way to the hospital with Matt McGee. Huh. What was Liz doing with Matt McGee? She’d have to question Molly about that later.

At the top of her messages was one from Jason.

Thinking of you. Your mom updated me earlier. Hope to see you soon when you’ve rested. I love you.

She smiled as she read it again. I love you.

She hoped he’d feel the same when she told him she was even more of a hypocrite than he thought. She’d spent the last seven, almost eight months, angry at him for not telling her what had happened in college. All the while, she’d also had secrets, something about her he didn’t know.

Really, though, she didn’t even know if it was true.

She only knew what the doctor had said at her appointment almost two years ago. How it would be harder for her to have children and maybe even impossible. Her symptoms had been worse the last several months. To her that wasn’t a good sign. Not at all.

A soft knock on her old bedroom door drew her from her thoughts.

Judi looked around the door. “Can I come in?”

Ellie shifted to a sitting position, making room for her sister on the bed. Circles darkened the skin under Judi’s eyes. “Dinner was great. Where did you learn to cook like that?”

Judi laughed, shrugging a shoulder. “My roommate in the city is in culinary school. She gave me some tips. I overcooked the fish a little, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be.”

Ellie rubbed her eyes and yawned. “I didn’t notice it was overcooked at all. It was seasoned perfectly too. If you stick around, I’ll have to have you make some dinners from now on.”

Judi visibly stiffened but still leaned back against the pillow beside Ellie. She’d pulled her hair into a pony tail and was wearing a pair of sweatpants and a T-shirt, far removed from the flashier and more revealing outfits she’d been wearing since she arrived.

“Remember when we used to do this during thunderstorms?” she asked. “I’d crawl into bed with you, and you’d tell me everything was going to be okay and sing me that song —”

I Will Cast All My Cares Upon Him. I remember.”

Judi leaned her head against Ellie’s shoulder. It had been a long time since she’d shown anything close to affection to her family, especially Ellie.

Her voice broke when she spoke again. “I thought you were dead, Ellie.”

“I know. I’m sorry. I never should have left the scene. It was so stupid.”

 “I shouldn’t have said all those horrible things to you. I know you don’t mean to be so perfect all the time.”

Ellie laughed softly. “Judi, I’m not perfect. You know that. I screw up all the time. I just don’t talk about it because — I guess because I don’t want anyone to know.”

Judi nodded against her shoulder, and they fell into a comfortable silence. The clinking of dishes downstairs from her parents washing and putting away dishes filled the break in their conversation. Soon her Dad would fall asleep in his recliner in front of whatever movie he’d picked out for them to watch.

A small sob came from Judi and Ellie looked down, not sure if she was still upset about the accident or something else.

“I can’t go back to the city.” Judi’s voice was barely above a whisper.

Ellie leaned back, slid an arm around Judi. “Why? Jude, what happened? Please tell me. What’s going on?”

She wanted to ask what was going on with Jeff, but she wasn’t sure how Judi would take it that she’d seen the message.

“I was so stupid, El.” Judi choked back another sob. “I knew eventually it would all get out of control but if I stopped then I’d remember I wasn’t special like you. I’d remember I don’t have any talents or brains, so I just kept being the life of the party.”

“That’s not tr —”

“It is. I’ve always been the dumb one. The dumb blond who just likes to have fun because she can’t do anything else. You’ve always been the smart, good girl who Mom and Dad can brag about.”

Tears stung Ellie’s eyes. “I never meant to make you feel that way.”

Judi sat up and twisted herself to face Ellie, brushing the edge of her hand against her cheek. “It wasn’t you. It was me. It was how I saw it. I was so jealous of you. I felt like I could never measure up. That’s why I moved to the city. Well, that and I really have always thought Spencer is a boring little town.”

Ellie laughed softly.

Judi rolled her eyes. “I wanted to find adventure and excitement and that’s what I did.” More tears came and Ellie reached out and took Judi’s hands in hers.

“Judi, tell me what’s going on. I’m listening this time, okay?”

Judi nodded, pulling one hand away to snatch a tissue from the bedside stand. She wiped the corner of her eyes as she spoke. “I went out with the hot guy from work. The one I told you about that one time we were on the phone.”

Ellie remembered. The phone call where Judi hadn’t pointed out Jason’s proposal hadn’t really been a proposal.

“He was drop dead gorgeous and interested in me.” She rolled her eyes again. “I should have known then something was up. He wanted me to go back to his place after dinner so,” she shrugged and shook her head, looking at the ceiling. “I did. His hands were on me after the first drink. I tried to enjoy it at first, thought maybe we’d just end up making out, but he was pretty rough and getting rougher. I tried to push him away, but he didn’t like that. So . . .”

She started to cry harder, hugging her arms around her middle, looking at the wall.

Ellie’s heart raced, her skin chilled. “Judi.” She placed her hands on her sister’s slim shoulder, afraid to ask the next question. “Did he – did this man assault you? Please. Tell me the truth.”

Judi shook her head. “No. Almost, but no. He pulled my shirt up and my pants down, but I kicked him pretty hard in the nads. He fell off me and hit his head on the coffee table. He was furious and told me to get out, so I ran to the door and left. My shirt was torn, I had a bloody lip. My roommate knew something had happened. She wanted me to call the police, but I just wanted to forget about it. Forget about how stupid I’d been to go back to his place. Forget that I was such a failure and that I deserved it because I flirted crazy with him and gave him all these signs and —

“Judi, did you tell him you wanted to sleep with him?”

Judi shook her head, sobbing against her hand.

“Then you didn’t do anything wrong other than maybe going back with him to his place. Even if he assumed you wanted to sleep with him once you said ‘no’ then he needed to stop. What he did was wrong. You get that, right?”

Judi shrugged a shoulder as she wiped a tissue across her cheek. “Yes and no. I mean, he was wrong, but I never should have gone there and —”

“That doesn’t mean you deserved it. Do you understand?”

Judi nodded slowly, pressing her hand to her mouth.

Ellie shifted closer to her and pulled her against her with one arm. “So, what are you going to do? What about your job?”

“They fired me last week for not showing up. My roommate wants me to come back, but she understands if I don’t. She said Jeff keeps showing up and asking where I am.”

Time to be honest and confess to Judi about the message. “He’s been texting you too, hasn’t he?”

Judi nodded and pulled back. “How do you know?”

“I saw a message. By accident. I wanted to talk to you about it, but you were drunk and then, well, you know. ”

“I blocked his number last night. He’s afraid I’m going to the police because Selina told him I was.”

“Selina’s the roommate?”

Judi nodded. “She hates Jeff and wants him to be charged, but I can’t report him for something he never got the chance to do.”

“But he would have if you hadn’t kicked him, right? What if there are other girls who didn’t get away?”

Judi looked at Ellie with red and swollen eyes. “I don’t know. What if no one believes me?”

“It’s up to you, but even if they don’t, at least you tried.” Ellie hugged her again. “You don’t have to decide now. You don’t have to decide anything now.”

Judi sniffed. “I do soon. The rent is due in two weeks, and I only have so much in my savings. It’s either stay here or go back to New York and try to get another job and chance running into Jeff again.”

Ellie stroked her sister’s hair. “Whatever you decide, I’ll support you.”

They stayed that way for a few minutes, Judi with her head against Ellie’s shoulder, Ellie stroking her hair, before Judi spoke again.

“Dad said he saw Jason sleeping in his truck in the hospital parking lot this morning.”

Ellie looked out the window at the sun pushing through the thin laced curtains, casting patterns on the floor. She thought about all the afternoons she’d sat in this room, watching those same patterns, daydreaming or reading instead of doing her homework. Part of that time she’d daydreamed about Jason, about living on a farm with him and growing old together.

Judi sighed. “He was probably afraid to leave you alone again.” She tilted her head up to look at Ellie. “You’re going to marry him, right?”

Ellie played with the fringe on the bedspread, a small smile tilting one corner of her mouth upward. “I put him through a lot. Maybe he doesn’t even want to marry me anymore.”

Judi snorted a small laugh. “Yeah, right. That man is completely enamored by you. He worships the ground you walk on. There is no way he doesn’t want to marry you. Plus, I’m guessing he put you through some stuff too. It takes a lot to send you over the edge. I’d say he’s not innocent by any means.”

Innocent, no. Apologetic and contrite, yes.

“We’re both pretty messed up to be honest.”

“Yeah, but you’re messed up together. It’s kind of romantic.”

“It’s romantic to be messed up?”

“No. It’s romantic to be messed up with someone else so you can help each other not be messed up.”

Ellie lifted an eyebrow and frowned at her sister. “Who told you that?

Judi smiled. “I’m really not sure. I might have heard it on a CW show.”

Ellie snorted out a laugh. “I guess it’s an interesting thought. In theory at least.”

She listened to Judi breathing and for a minute she thought she’d fallen asleep. “Don’t tell Mom and Dad what I told you, okay?” Judi whispered. “Not yet. If we tell them then I have to tell them how messed up I’ve been and I’m not ready for that.”

Ellie smoothed her sister’s hair back from her face. “Okay. For now, but I want you to talk to them at some point. They love you. They’re going to want to help you however they can. But be warned, Dad may want to enact some redneck justice on this Jeff guy.”

Judi tipped her head back and laughed. “Redneck justice? Oh man! I can just see him up there in the city with a shotgun. Getting tackled in the subway by the NYPD.”

Ellie laughed at the visual. “I can see the NY Post headline now. ‘Farmer Father Brings Justice To Big Apple.”

The sisters giggled until their sides hurt. Ellie gasped in air in between laughter. “Judi, do you realize you said ‘nads’ when you were telling me what you did do that guy?”

Judi snorted. “I know. I’ve been in the city too long. A couple of my friends are from Brooklyn, and they use that term all the time.”

They caught their breath, wiping their eyes, and Ellie was glad that this time the tears were from laughter. She and Judi hadn’t laughed like this in years.

Judi curled up against her again and yawned. “We should take a nap before Jason gets here.”

“Before Jason gets here?”

Judi pulled the cover up over her shoulder. “Yeah. You know he won’t be able to stay away for long. He’ll be here shortly. Definitely before dark.”

Ellie looked out the window at the dirt road in the distance that cut a parallel path to their cornfield. If Jason really did come, what would she say to him? She wasn’t sure, but she knew she needed to tell him the truth, even though she wasn’t exactly sure what the truth was.

Her phone dinged. Another text message. She smiled as she read it.

Molly: It’s a girl. I didn’t even make it to the hospital before she was born. I’ll let you know the name when I know.

Chapter 28

Hope to see you soon. When you’ve rested.

That’s what he’d texted to her.

It was true, but not the full truth.

He had wanted her to rest, recover from all she’d been through.

But he also wanted to see her immediately. It had taken everything he had not to turn into her parents’ drive on the way back from the hospital, pull in front of the house, scoop her up and hold him in his arms; to prove to himself that she was alive and safe.

By evening he couldn’t wait any longer.

Alex laughed as Jason walked from the barn to his truck. “I can’t believe you’ve waited this long.”

“Who says I’m going to see Ellie?”

Molly stood in the barn doorway, arms folded across her chest. “Your face is flushed, you’ve been distracted all day, and a half an hour ago we saw you looking like a lovesick puppy while you stared at your phone. You’re going to see Ellie and it’s about time.”

Jason grinned, sliding behind the steering wheel. “You two are the new Sherlock and Watson. Congrats.”

“Don’t forget to bend the knee when you ask her,” Alex called after him.

This was one time Jason wished Alex and Molly were distracted by each other instead of his love life. “Don’t forget to take photos of Liz’s baby and send them to me.”

He jumped into the truck, slammed the door shut, and shifted it into gear.

Looking in his rearview mirror he saw a car pulling in behind him. He slid the gear shift back into park. Climbing out, he watched Alan Weatherly slide out of the driver’s seat of the small gray Lexus.

The small woman who exited the car on the passenger side, reached out to Jason immediately. “Jason, I was hoping to catch you before the funeral tomorrow. I’ve been trying to get here to see you for a week now , but everyone wanted me to rest.”

He took Ann’s hands, guilt clutching at his chest. Tears glistened in her eyes as she spoke. “I wanted to see you in person to thank you for saving me from the fire. I’m sorry it took me so long. They made me stay in the hospital for a few days after the fire and then Alan and the girls have been helping me get settled in at Twin Oaks. I’m a few doors down from your grandparents.”

“Ann, I —”

“Now, Jason.” She tipped her head and raised her eyebrows to silence him. “I’ve talked to Cody, and I know what you’ve been thinking. John’s death wasn’t your fault. He was gone before you ever got there. I was saying my goodbyes when the smoke overtook me. I should have gotten out before the smoke got so bad, but the idea of leaving him there even though I knew he was gone — well, it was too hard for me to bear, I suppose.”

Jason nodded, his throat thick with emotion. “I wish I’d been able to bring him out for you.”

Ann smiled and clutched his hands tighter. “He was already home, Jason. All that was left was a shell.” She took a step toward him, leaned up on her tip toes and kissed his cheek. When she stepped back her eyes were bright. “Because of you, I’m going to be able to see my grandchildren grow up. My oldest graduates next year and my youngest starts Kindergarten in another month. I would have missed all that if it wasn’t for you.”

She let go of his hands and touched his shoulder gently. “Now, I don’t want to keep you. You were on your way somewhere.” She winked. “I hope you were on your way to see that lovely Ellie Lambert. Cody told me about her ordeal when I stopped at the fire hall to see if you might be there. I wanted to thank all of them too. Brought them a pie. Of course.”

Jason laughed. Of course she’d brought them pie. “Yeah. I actually am on my way over there.”

“Good. But before I go . . . Al, grab Jason’s pie.”

The small white box had Jason’s name on it.

 “Ann, you didn’t have to do this.”

Alan handed Jason the box and grinned. “She made ten of them and we’ve been dropping them off all over.”

Ann smiled and laid a hand against Jason’s arm. “Baking helps me to keep my mind off things. My daughter-in-law helped me make a few more for the dinner tomorrow as well. You’ll be sure to come say ‘hello’ to me when you visit your grandparents, won’t you?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And I know Tanner’s Country Store delivers to Twin Oaks so I’m sure I’ll be putting in at least a few small orders.

“Anytime.”

“And!” She held up a finger, her eyes sparkling. “You be sure to come visit me with those beautiful babies you and Ellie have.”

His face flushed warm, and he tipped his head toward the ground, clearing his throat. “Yes, ma’am. We will be sure to do that.”

Ann craned her neck to look around his shoulder and waved toward Alex and Molly who had stepped up to the barn doorway. “Hello, kids. Alex, I hope you take Molly off the market officially soon. Neither of you are getting any younger.”

After the way Alex had harassed him earlier, Jason enjoyed the flush of pink that spread across his friends cheeks and ears.

“That’s right, Alex,” Jason called as he closed Ann’s door behind her. “You aren’t getting any younger. Better get a move on with all that proposal stuff.”

Alex waved at him dismissively. “You just worry about you, big boy.”

When Jason pulled into the Lambert drive ten minutes later, his chest was tight, and his palms were damp on the steering wheel. He pushed the truck into park and took a deep breath. Maybe he was having a heart attack. If he was, then he wouldn’t have to work up the nerve to talk to Ellie and find out how she really felt about him. Yes, she’d let him hold her and kiss her in that mine shaft, but that was a stressful situation. Maybe her mind had cleared, and she’d remembered how upset she’d been with him.

Tom met him on the front porch. “What took you so long?”

“You too?” Jason looked at him with an amused smile.  “That’s pretty much what Molly just said to me.”

Tom leaned against the porch railing, sipping from a mug. “I saw you in the hospital parking lot this morning. Sleep in your truck all night?”

Jason tipped his head toward the ground, hands at his waist. “Yeah.” He didn’t want to explain why he hadn’t come in, though he was sure Tom could figure it out. At least he was somewhat cleaner than he had been this morning, even if he had been working all day.

Tom tilted his head to the side, toward the front door. “You want to come in?”

Jason looked up, meeting the gaze of the man he hoped would be his future father-in-law. “Yes, sir.”

“She’s upstairs in her old room. Sore and tired still but doing okay.”

The creak of the front door brought Jason’s eyes up and he and Tom turned toward the front door.

“Actually, she’s down here. But still sore and tired.” She looked at Jason and he couldn’t look away. Her dark brown eyes captivated him, made him forget her dad was even there. She was wearing a pair of blue denim shorts and a white tank top covered by a patterned shirt tied at the waist. He rarely saw her so dressed down. It was breathtaking.

 “I needed some fresh air.” Her words reminded him he should take a breath of air before he passed out.

Tom held the door open for his daughter and walked inside after she stepped outside. He pushed the inside door closed firmly, which Jason took as a sign that he was giving them privacy.

She sat on the front porch swing. “I was going to sit on that top step, but I’m not sure I can get back up again with this ankle.”

He stepped up on the porch and leaned one side against the support beam, sliding his hands in his jean pockets. “How you feeling tonight?”

She shrugged a shoulder. “Sore. And pretty stupid. Walking away from that accident scene wasn’t very bright. Have you heard how Brad is?”

He shook his head. He hadn’t and he didn’t care how Brad was. “Probably sleeping it off somewhere. He’ll bounce back. Always does. How’s Judi?”

“She’s doing okay actually. She’s asleep upstairs in my old room.”

“Where you should be.”

Ellie leaned back and stretched her arms out in front of her. “I slept a lot earlier this afternoon. Too restless to sleep. Brain won’t shut down.” She leaned back against the porch swing. “How are you doing?”

“Fine. Hurts a little where the stitches are, but I’m starting to get used to stitches.”

She tilted her head, and a small smile tipped a corner of her mouth up. Seeing the compassion in her eyes verses the anger he’d been used to seeing in the last several months was soothing. “I don’t just mean physically. How is your heart?”

She always did have a way of getting to the point. “Still hurting. Ann stopped by just before I came here. She hugged me. Told me it wasn’t my fault. Clint told me the same thing. Said John had a heart attack and was dead before the flames hit him. I still feel guilty, though. Still feel like if I had pulled him out, maybe something could have been done.”

“You don’t know that though.”

“Yeah. I think the not knowing is the hardest. He was a good man. He didn’t deserve to die that way.”

“No, he didn’t, but we know where he is now, who is holding him.”

Jason nodded looking down. “Yeah. We do. It does provide some comfort.”

A few seconds of silence stretched between them. Chirping birds and the meow of a cat filled the silence before she spoke again. “So, Liz’s baby is a girl, huh?”

He grinned. “Molly messaged you too, huh? I think she’s texted the whole county. Yeah. She hasn’t picked a name yet. Molly and Alex are headed over in a few to see them.”

“Molly said Matt took her to the hospital. What was that about?”

Jason laughed softly. “I’m not totally sure, honestly. Something I plan to ask Matt about as soon as I get a chance.”

He kicked at the porch floor with the tip of his boot, watched the dirt from the barn fall off and join dirt that was probably from Tom’s barn. He knew they were dancing around why he was really here, like they’d been dancing around other issues for far too long now.

“El, listen I —”

“I’m a hypocrite, Jason.”

He jerked his head up, eyebrows knitted together. “What are you —”

“I was mad at you for hiding your past from me, but I’ve been lying to you for two years,.”

Her hands gripped the edge of the seat of the swing, her legs pushed out, feet against the porch floor, keeping it from swinging. She kept her gaze lowered, focused on her feet.

“You haven’t been lying. You’ve been scared.”

She looked up quickly, met his gaze.

He sat next to her on the swing. “I heard you tell that doctor what medicine you were on and about your procedure. I shouldn’t have been listening, but I was outside the door. I didn’t want to leave you. Finding you felt like a dream, and I was afraid if I left, I’d wake up and you’d actually be dead. I should have realized all these years how bad things were. I should have known how much pain you were in each month. I looked it up online as soon as I left the hospital. Why didn’t you ever tell me how bad it had gotten?”

Ellie looked at the floor again and tears dripped off her cheek and down her chin. She shook her head and looked out over the corn field next to the house. “I was in denial. If I told you what was really happening, then I’d have to admit what that doctor told me might be true.”

At the touch of his hand against her cheek she turned to look at him. “If we can’t have children, it will be hard on both of us, but all I’ve really ever wanted was you, Ellie. Just you. Children or not. Farming or not. None of it matters if I don’t have you.”

He kept his gaze on hers. He wanted her to know he was all in. All in on the conversation and on her. “I know you think I might be holding more back from you, but I’m not. I promise you. I want to be completely open from now on. My life is an open book and on the first page you’ll find a declaration of my love for you.”

He slid a hand to the back of her neck, watching her expression transform from worried, to relaxed. He’d dreaded the possibility of still seeing anger or hurt in her eyes, but he didn’t see either of those emotions. He saw tenderness that flowed across her entire face, that opened her mouth slightly as if she was about to say something. Instead, she leaned forward and touched her mouth softly to his. She moved her arms around his neck and slid her body against his side. He turned so he could pull her into the curve of his body, deepen the kiss.

He smiled as he pulled his mouth away a few moments later. “Was that a kiss goodbye or a kiss hello?”

She laughed. “Definitely a kiss hello.”

He stood, slid his hand in his front jean pocket and felt a tremble rush through his fingers as he pulled out the box. “I still want to marry you, Ellie. I don’t know if you want to marry me, but I want you to know that you’re the only woman for me. That’s always been true. This ring is yours, if you want it and if you don’t, I can understand that too.”

A wry smile pulled her mouth upward. “You just carry rings around in your pockets?”

He laughed. “Only when I know I want to ask my best friend to be my wife.”

The tears didn’t hide her smile, but they came, renewed and flowing freely as she looked at him. She laughed through the tears, holding a trembling hand toward him. He held her hand but looked into her eyes before he slid the ring on.

“Wait. I’m doing it wrong again.” He lowered himself to one knee, still holding her hand. “I’m supposed to be down here, and I’m supposed to say Elizabeth Alexandra Lambert, will you spend the rest of your life with me?”

She shook her head, choked out a sob and pressed a hand under his elbow. “No. Get up. The way you were doing it was fine.”

Sitting next to her he slid the ring on her finger, but it stopped part way, just above her knuckle. They both began to laugh.

“This is Grandma’s ring. She wanted you to have it so I —”

Ellie wiped tears along the corner of her eyes with the edge of her hand. “It’s perfect.”

“I have another ring. One I bought in high school. One I wished I’d given you back then. It’s at the house. I can go get it.”

“No.” She shook her head, smiling.  “We’ll resize Franny’s. This is the ring I want. I can wear the other one too, but this is the ring that will remind me that we can get through anything, as long as we’re together.”

He nodded as she curved her fingers around the ring, clutching it hard.

He pulled her against his side with one arm, leaning back on the swing. In front of them, the sun had dipped below the horizon. A soft orange and golden glow spread along the edges of the silhouetted hills. A cow mooed in the barn and one of the barn cats slipped up on the porch and rubbed against Jason’s leg.

“We still have a lot to talk about,” he said.

“Yeah. We do.”

He looked out toward the corn field, ready to be harvested in the next week for silage. Sunlight glinted off the silk peering out from some of the husks.

“Being the wife of a farmer isn’t easy.”

 “Being the daughter of one isn’t easy either.” She intertwined her fingers with his. “Plus, a very wise woman, one who gave birth to the man I’m going to marry, once told me that the wife of a farmer is a farmer as much as her husband is.”

“You think Pastor Joe will marry us? Even after our craziness in his office?”

She laughed. It was a beautiful sound. “Yeah. I think he will. He’s called me twice to check on me and ask about you.”

He looked at her mouth as he spoke, thinking about how he should have kissed her that day at the church instead of arguing with her. “Think he’ll marry us this weekend? Behind our house?”

She tilted her head back, narrowing her eyes. “Our house? What are you going to do with Alex?”

“Kick him out, of course.”

Her laughter continued to be a balm to his soul. “Shouldn’t we tell him that first?”

He shrugged, a small tugging at one side of his mouth. “He’ll adapt. He can sleep in the hayloft at mom and dad’s.”

She sighed, pressing her cheek against his shoulder. “Five days isn’t very long.”

He curled his fingers in the hair at the base of her neck as she looked up at him. “No. It’s not.”

“I won’t have enough time to buy a dress or prepare food and no time to send out invitations.”

“No. You won’t.”

She smiled, her gaze still locked on his.  “It sounds perfect.”

He kissed her mouth softly again, losing himself in the feel of her mouth under his, her body curved against his, the way she was exactly where he belonged — in his arms. When he pulled his mouth away a few minutes later, she curled her legs up next to her on the seat of the swing and pressed her cheek against his chest. He wrapped his arms around her and looked out over the cornfield again.

Tomorrow he had fields of alfalfa to plant, an architect to meet with about the construction of the new milking parlor for the A2 cows, a tractor to fix and a goat barn to finish. Tonight, though, he had a front porch swing to sit on, a sunset to watch, and the woman he loved to get to know again.

Her voice faded to a whisper. “We’re watching an old movie tonight.”

“Oh yeah? Which one?”

Shall We Dance, with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Want to stay?”

He leaned down, kissed the top of her head, and breathed in deep the smell of her shampoo. “Yeah. I want to stay.”

Fiction Friday: Harvesting Hope Chapter (I don’t know. I’ve lost count. Oh wait…I remember now) 26

I only have two chapters left to complete the story after this one so I will be posting the final two chapters tomorrow morning. Also, I just wanted to let my blog readers know that I will not be posting a lot of advertisements for purchasing my books anymore.

I have found I enjoy sharing on here and then giving you a link to the book on Amazon, if you so desire it, in full more than trying to become a “successful indie author”. I would actually offer it for free but some of my friends and family aren’t technically inclined (much like me at times!) so it’s easier for them to simply order it from a site and have it go to their Kindle and I can’t figure out how to offer it for free on there. I am sure there is a way and I’ll keep studying it.

I do want to remind blog readers again that you want a paperback, please let me know and I will order one for you at a better cost. I will eventually set up a way to do that on here.

Anyhow, enough of all the rambling (which probably isn’t making sense anyhow).

If you are a new reader here, I share a chapter from my WIP each Friday, and sometimes Saturday, on my blog. There are typos, grammatical issues and even plot holes at times because this is a first, second, or third draft that hasn’t gone to final editing yet. If you see a typo, feel free to kindly let me know in the comments. Sometimes the error has already been fixed on my copy, sometimes not.

Catch up with the rest of the story HERE. Don’t feel like reading the book in a series of chapters each Friday? Preorder the book HERE. Do you want to read the first book in the series? Download it HERE. 

Chapter 26

Jason had called Alex and informed him he wouldn’t be back at the house that night. The last time he’d left Ellie, she’d been hurt in an accident and lost overnight and half of a day.

Rena had ordered him home for some rest.

He’d told her he would do that.

He hadn’t lied.

He curled a jacket he’d found in the back seat under his head and stretched out across the front seat of his truck, propping his legs against the driver side door.

He was going to get some rest.

Just not at home. He’d made certain not to say he was going home for the rest, so he didn’t lie.

He winced, the muscles in his back screaming in pain. Sitting back up, he fumbled with the glove compartment door, pulling out a bottle of ibuprofen. The doctor had offered him something harder, but he declined, in case Ellie need him.

A knock on the driver’s side window startled him and when he turned his head, he met the gaze of Clint O’Malley.

He opened the door, grimacing as he stepped out. Every movement seemed to send pain shooting through him, even in places he didn’t think should be hurting. “Clint. Hey.”

“You okay?” Clint asked, his brow dipped in concern.

“Yeah, but I wouldn’t recommend falling down a mineshaft anytime soon.”

Clint chuckled. “I’ll take that recommendation to heart.” He thrust his hands into his front pants pocket. “So, listen, I don’t mean to bother you, but I got some news today I needed to pass on. John Weatherly didn’t die in that fire. He was dead before the flames ever hit him. Heart attack. We got the toxicology report today. The fire marshal’s interview with Ann corroborates what the report says. John dropped a pan of hot oil on the stove, probably when his heart seized up. The oil hit the gas flames and spread. Ann was in the living room watching Jeopardy and only noticed something was wrong when the fire alarm went off and the house started filling with smoke. By then the fire was spreading up the kitchen wall. She was trying to drag John out when you got there.”

Jason leaned back against the closed door of his truck and pushed his hand through his hair, holding it there for a few moments. “Wow. Okay. Thanks for letting me know, Clint.”

Clint patted his shoulder briefly. “You’re welcome. Now you can stop blaming yourself.”

Jason opened his mouth to answer, but Clint spoke over him. “You Tanners are good people. When Cody told me what happened, I knew it would weigh heavy on you.”

Jason let out a breath. “Yeah. Thank you again, Clint.”

Clint nodded. “I’m pleased I didn’t have to declare Ellie dead today. I worried about that all day, dreading the possibility of the phone ringing and Cody telling me they’d found her body.”

“I’m glad you didn’t either. It all seems like a dream at this point.”

Clint laughed, slapped his hand against Jason’s shoulder. “It is a dream, kid. A very wonderful, real dream.”

Stretching back in the truck a few minutes later, Jason closed his eyes, his muscles relaxing fully for the first time in months. Sleep was dragging at him, trying to pull him under, but he needed to make a call first.

Lucy answered on the second ring. “Jason, hey. How are you?”

“Sore, but okay.”

“Rena said you were pretty beat up. I still can’t believe all this craziness. I went from planning Ellie’s funeral to bawling from sheer shock and joy she was had found her alive. It’s like some crazy made-for-TV movie.”

Jason laughed in the midst of a yawn, not an easy feat. “It was surreal, that’s for sure. So, uh, listen, I need to ask you something. When they brought Ellie in, the doctor asked her if she was on any medications. They didn’t want anything she was taking to interact with whatever they gave her for the pain. She told them she was on something called Orilissa. She and I have barely talked in eight months, so I figured this must be something new. I looked it up online and it says it’s to treat endometriosis. Has her condition gotten worse? Because the only thing I thought she took for that was over-the-counter painkillers.”

Lucy didn’t answer for a few minutes. He heard a sharp intake of air and then it being let out farther, slowly. “I think this is something you should talk to her about.”

Jason rubbed the stubble on his chin. “I guess that means you’re not going to tell me about the procedure she said she’d had, either. She told the nurse about that too. Some kind of laparoscopic thing. My phone rang, and I wasn’t able to hear what else she said.”

“Yeah. That’s what that means. I’m still telling you to talk to Ellie. I hope you’re not mad at me, it’s just —” Lucy sighed. “Things have been weird with you two and I don’t want to get in the middle of anything. Make it worse, you know?”

Jason laughed. “I’m not mad. Don’t worry.”

And he wasn’t mad.

He was, however, worried.

Very worried that what Ellie had wanted to talk to him about in that mineshaft could mean his relief that she was healthy and whole would be short-lived.

***

“I can’t talk to him.”

Rena looked over the outfits she’d laid out for Ellie to choose from. “Honey, you have to. He deserves to be told the truth. Especially if you two are getting back together.” Rena looked up, holding a red shirt with frills around the collar. She raised an eyebrow, a small smile pulling her mouth upward. “You two are getting back together, right?”

Ellie touched her fingertips to her lips, remembering how Jason had kissed her after he’d found her and how she had kissed him back. “Yes.”

“Then you don’t have a choice. You need to be honest with him.” Rena handed her a skirt and a shirt. “Now go get dressed so we can get you home. I think it’s best if you stay with us a couple of days. You can’t be climbing stairs with the way your ankle is.”

Taking the shirt, Ellie slid off the bed slowly, wincing. “I’ll be fine. I can —”

“You’re coming home with us, El, don’t argue.” Her dad’s voice brought her gaze up.

He was smiling, but she could tell he meant business. He leaned his side against the door frame. “We thought we’d lost you, kid. Give us some time to remind ourselves we didn’t. I’ve already planned a movie night for us tonight at home. Your mom will make brownies and I’ll make the popcorn.”

Ellie laughed. “I think maybe I should make the popcorn. You burned it last time.”

Rena smirked. “Even though the bag clearly said only a minute and a half in the microwave.”

Tom shot a mocking hurt expression at his wife and daughter. “Me? Burn popcorn? No. I’m a popcorn master.”

Ellie walked toward the bathroom to change. “Where’s Judi?”

“At the house, waiting for you,” Tom said. “I know you girls have had a rough time of it lately, but she was really shook up yesterday. She’s cooking you some lunch.”

As she pulled a skirt up over her legs, careful to keep the weight off her ankle, Ellie thought about how upset Judi had been at the hospital the night before. She’d hugged Ellie repeatedly, tears streaming down her face, telling her she was sorry about how she’d acted. How long would that contrition last? Ellie wasn’t sure, but for now she’d accept it. If Judi slipped back into her old ways, at least Ellie knew her sister loved her, enough to be glad she wasn’t dead anyhow.

Slipping her shirt over her head, she winced at the stiffness in her muscles. She needed to talk to Judi about that message on her phone. Now wasn’t the time to bring it up, though. She hoped she could find the time before Judi went back to the city. If Judi went back to the city at this point. To Ellie, it seemed like her sister had no intention of going back to her life in New York and maybe this Jeff guy was the reason.

***

Jason groaned as he sat up in the front seat and squinted in the sunlight streaming through the windshield.

Sleeping in his truck had been a bad idea. A terrible idea. He gritted his teeth in pain, lifted his arm, and sniffed. He made a face and shook his head.

 Sure, he could easily walk into the hospital and check on Ellie, but he felt awful and smelled worse. At this point, it would have been better if he’d gone home last night and taken a shower and then come back to the hospital this morning. He hadn’t wanted to risk it, though. The idea of going home while Ellie was in a hospital bed, even if it was only for observation, hadn’t been remotely appealing to him.

He pushed his hands back through his hair, tried to smooth it down and squinted at himself in the rearview mirror. It wasn’t working. He looked like he’d been on an all-night binger. He looked like Brad. Until the night before last, he’d had no idea how far Brad had fallen. Watching him drunk in the bar, staggering around like an alcoholic, had been eye-opening, to say the least. His behavior had to have been breaking his parents’ hearts. They hadn’t raised him that way and the way he was acting was a slap in their face.

After a quick check in with Alex, he searched his truck for breath mints, still trying to decide if he should go see Ellie. Maybe he could wash up in the hospital bathroom.

Looking up, he realized the decision had been made for him. Ellie was being wheeled to Tom’s waiting car at the curb. She was on her way home. Her ankle was in a soft cast that stretched part way up her calf, but otherwise she looked fine.

More than fine.

It was a miracle.

From here, he couldn’t see the mark he knew was on her head from where she’d hit the windshield when the car had flipped over, but he was certain it was taking on a purplish hue.

He wanted to kiss that bruise and any other part of her she’d let him kiss. He wanted to dart from the truck, run to her and tell her again how sorry he was, how he’d wished he’d never met Lauren Phillips, but more importantly, how he wished he’d been honest with her right after he came back from college. He never should have withheld his past from her. He never would again.

Ellie looked up and smiled at her dad as he slid his hand under her arm and helped her to her feet. Rena moved to the other side of Ellie, and Ellie laughed. He knew she was probably telling her parents what she’d told him as they loaded her into the ambulance the day before. “I’m fine. Really. It could have been so much worse.”

He’d leave the Lambert family to their reunion for now.

There would be plenty of time for him to talk to her later.

About them, but also about any of her past she hadn’t shared with him.

Special Fiction Saturday: Harvesting Hope Chapter 24

I am late posting today because I was hosting an author party on a Facebook group I am moderating. Regular readers here know I despise Facebook but a couple of months ago I joined again so I could be part of a readers’ group on there. I stumbled on to this other group as well and they needed a new administrator. I volunteered to help, but at the last minute the other person said they didn’t want to help, so there I was with a group to help run on my own. On a platform I despise. So I go on FB to post there and the other group and briefly on my author page and leave.

Anyhow, here is chapter 24. Regular readers know the drill, where the links are for past chapters, etc., etc.. I won’t bore you with all those links again. Let me know what you think the comments, as always. Also, sorry for another cliffhanger.

Chapter 24

Jason fell into the water on his hands and knees, trying to see the rest of the back seat and under the car. Maybe her body was trapped there, under the hood or roof or trunk. The car seemed to be smashed firmly into the muck and mud of the creek, though, not enough room for a body. Unless. . . he choked down the panic burning his throat, looked around behind him, searching the water and bank frantically.

Could she have been thrown from the car? He looked at the windshield under the water and it was cracked but not shattered.

He stood again, his clothes clinging to him, and shielded his eyes, looking downstream.

“Could she have —” He swallowed hard. “Been swept downstream?”

Denny shook his head. “I don’t see how. This creek’s not deep enough and there’s no current.

Jason pivoted in the water, facing them. “Then where is she?”

Denny raked a hand through his hair. “We’ll need to get a wrecker down here, something to flip this car over and be sure —”

“I don’t think she’s there,” Cody said abruptly.

Denny clutched his hair and blew out a breath. “I don’t want to think that way either, but she could be. We have to be realistic.”

Cody turned toward Denny, lowered his voice. “I’m not trying to be morbid, but I think we’d see some sign that she’s under there.”

Denny looked at the water, nodding. “Yeah. You’re probably right.”

“What about a bear? Could a bear have —”

“Kyle!” Cody’s voice was sharp as he jerked his head toward Jason who was still looking from one side of the bank to the other.

“Bears don’t usually eat cadavers.” The authoritative voice of the coroner silenced the group. Clint O’Malley tripped over a few stones on his way to the car but managed to stay upright. He stood calf deep in water next to Cody, frowning. “Are you boys telling me you called me out here without an actual person for me to declare dead?”

Cody placed his hands on his hips and cleared his throat, looking down at the water then glancing back up at Jason before he looked at Clint. “Ellie Lambert is missing.”

Clint looked at Jason standing a few feet away from him with a dazed expression on his face and blew out a quick breath, following it up with a curse word.

 He nodded at Cody. “Understand. What are our options here? Could she have survived and left the scene?”

Kyle, Denny, and Cody looked at each other and fell silent. Finally, Cody spoke. “Yeah, I think that’s a real possibility. We have to explore it at least.”

Clint looked at the car again. “You should also lift this car up and see what you find underneath it. Just to be sure.”

Jason’s chest constricted and his stomach burned. The idea of her pinned down by two tons of metal, her body mangled beyond recognition left him cold, even as the humidity was rising. Dark clouds hovered along the horizon, visible through the trees. If a storm wasn’t coming, there was at least going to be a shower. Rain would wash away any clues if Ellie had somehow walked away.

“Cody!” Tucker Everly’s voice echoed into the ravine. “We have a possible witness and survivor up here.”

Jason’s head jerked up, his brow furrowed as he looked up at Tucker, who’d been among the volunteers he’d trained with the most when he’d started with the department a few months ago.

“Luke found Brad Tanner along the road about a mile up. He has a gash on his head and his face is a mess. He can’t remember anything about last night but woke up along the bank by the creek this morning. He says he vaguely remembers being in the car with Ellie last night.”

All the men’s eyes were on Jason again.

“I drove him home last night,” Jason said, more to himself than anyone else. “I don’t understand. Why would he be in Ellie’s car?”

He stood and started climbing the bank toward the road, confusion and anger rising with each step. “Where is he?”

Tucker grabbed his hand and helped him the last few steps, then nodded toward a maroon pickup pulling in.

“Luke just pulled in with him.”

By the time Jason reached the passenger side of the truck at a full on jog, his mood had reached a dangerous level of rage. Brad opened the door, and he didn’t even wait for him to climb out. He grabbed the front of his cousin’s shirt and dragged him out, slamming him hard against the side of the truck. “Where is she?” the question hissed out of Jason between clenched teeth. “What happened?”

Brad held his hands up, palms out, shaking his head. “Jason, I don’t know. I can’t remem—”

Jason slammed his back hard against the truck again. “Tell me what happened or I swear I’ll  —”

“Jason!” Luke grabbed his arms, pulled him back. “He wreaks of booze and shows all the signs of a concussion. He’s not going to be any help in this shape. The EMTs need to look at him.”

Jason tightened his grip on Brad’s shirt, breathing hard, jaw tight, eyes focused on Brad’s scrunched up face, his eyes squeezed tight as if waiting for Jason to punch him. Jason slammed Brad back against the truck again “They can look at him after I finish with him.”

“Jason!” Alex’s voice behind Jason distracted him long enough for one of the EMTs to grab one of his arms while Alex grabbed the other.  “This isn’t helping.”

Alex and the EMT pulled until Jason let go of Brad’s shirt. Alex pressed a hand against Jason’s chest. “You need to calm down.”

Jason shook them both off with a jerk of his arms and walked to the side of the road, sitting on a stump next to a tree. He propped his arms on his knees and clenched his fists in front of him as Alex walked over and stood above him.

“When did you get here?” he asked Alex.

“Maybe ten minutes ago. Cody filled me in. I was on my way down the bank when I saw you coming up.” He knelt next to Jason, propped on his own knee. “Walt called your dad. He heard the chatter on the scanner.”

Jason’s head jerked up. “Did they say Ellie’s name on the scanner?”

Alex shook his head. “No. Just that there was a car in the water. Walt thought it might be Brad. He didn’t come home last night, but no one thought much of it. He’s been doing that a lot since he got back.” He placed a hand on Jason’s shoulder, his voice low. “They’re going to start a search, spread out and walk in a circle about a mile away to see if they can find any sign of her. They’ve also got a team coming in from Wyoming County to walk the creek with them and another water search and rescue crew.”

Jason looked at the ground, nodding. After a few seconds of silence, he stood abruptly. “Okay. I’m going to head out then. Can you call her parents, fill in Molly and Mom?”

Alex stood. “Yeah, but I’m going with you.”

Jason nodded. “That’s fine. I’m not waiting for the search teams, though. You’ve got five minutes to meet me on the other side of the creek.”

He pivoted and started down the embankment, not giving Alex any time to respond.

The way Clint squeezed his shoulder on his way back to his truck left a hard lump of dread in Jason’s gut.

“Call me if I’m needed,” he said softly.

God, please, don’t let us need him, Jason prayed as he collected gear from his truck and headed down the embankment toward the creek.

“Where are you going, Jase?”

He ignored Cody’s question, kept walking through the creek, past the wreckage of the car, and toward the embankment on the other side.

“Just keep your phone on you in case you need us, or we need you,” Cody called after him.

Alex fell in step with him when he reached the top of the bank on the other side of the wreckage and started toward a more wooded area.

“Where are we going?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you think she went looking for help? If so, why didn’t she just go on the road?”

“I don’t know.”

“She should have had a cell on her —”

“I don’t know.”

Alex fell silent and they continued to walk, sweat beading on their skin and soaking their backs.

“It just needs to rain already,” Alex mumbled.

“If it rains, I won’t be able to find her tracks.” He didn’t add, “If there are any,” because he didn’t want to think there wouldn’t be.

“Good point.”

The humidity sucked air from his lungs with each breath and a crack of thunder signaled they should seek shelter rather than keep walking, but he wasn’t about to stop. If Ellie was alive, he was going to find her. If she wasn’t alive, he still needed to find her. Her family needed closure. He’d hurt them so much already. He couldn’t hurt them again.

At the top of the hill the woods faded into a wide open field. Jason stopped walking and bent over, hands on knees, catching his breath, chest burning.

Alex did the same. “How can we both be in such good shape, yet that hill almost kill us?”

“The humidity isn’t helping.”

“How much further should we walk? If she was injured she —”

“I don’t know.”

There was a lot he didn’t know.

Fire still burned through his chest when he stood up and started walking again.

God, please. Help me find her.

In twenty minutes, they had walked the length of the field, down over a hill, and back up another one. Jason turned and looked behind him, estimating they had already walked a mile and a half from the accident scene. She couldn’t have walked this far, could she have? Maybe she hadn’t been able to walk. Dear God, maybe she was under that car. Maybe the wrecker had come, helped overturn the car and her body was lifeless in that creek bed. He clasped his hands behind his head, breathing hard. Pressing his arms against his head, he intertwined his fingers, and choked back a sob.

“God,” he hit his knees, pressed his hands into the dirt in front of him, bowing his head toward the ground. “Please, please don’t take Ellie from me. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for my stubbornness. For all my mistakes. Please, give me a second chance with her.”

In a few minutes, after sobbing until his chest and back ached, he became aware of Alex kneeling beside him, his hand on his back. They stayed that way for several minutes and when Jason sat back, he noticed Alex’s face was damp as well.

Alex shook his head, dragging a hand across his cheeks, and stood. “We’re not giving up. Come on. Maybe she tried to take a shortcut over this hill to get to the Bradley farm and call for help.”

Jason dragged his hand across his face and stood slowly. “That sounds like something she’d do. Go to get help for even a moron like Brad.” He brushed the dirt off his jeans and spit at the ground. “He better have some answers for me when I get back.”

“We can think about that later.” Alex started down the hill. Jason started to follow him when his phone rang. He didn’t recognize the caller ID, but answered it anyhow, hoping it was a member of the fire department, telling him they had found her. Alive.

“Jason?”

“Judi?”

“Jason, have you found her?”

“No. Not yet.”

Judi’s voice broke. “They flipped her car over and she’s not there. Where is she? Where is my sister?”

“I don’t know, Judi. I’ll keep looking. Are you with your parents?”

Judi’s sobs came through the phone. “Yes. I’m at their house. Jason, if you find her, however you find her, you have to tell her I’m sorry. We had a big fight the other night and I told her I hated her and that I hated being her sister —” Her voice faded to a tearful whisper. “Oh God. I don’t hate her. God, please don’t let her be dead.”

He wanted to offer her encouragement, but he wasn’t sure how, when his heart felt as hopeless as hers at the moment. “Judi.” His voice broke and he tried again. “Judi, I want you to pray. If you can’t pray, ask your parents to pray with you. As soon as I know anything I’ll call you. Keep your phone next to you, okay?”

He could almost see Judi in his mind nodding as he heard her crying. “Okay. I will.” She took a deep breath. “Jason?”

He looked out over the farmland in front of him, red barns, cows in fences, fields being planted with sileage to feed the cows in winter. “Yeah.”

“She loves you so much. I don’t know why she’s being so stubborn right now, but she’s always loved you and I know she still loves you.”

He swallowed hard, tears blurring his vision. The way she referred to Ellie in the present tense made his heart ache with a glimmer of hope that she still was in the present tense. “Thank you, Judi. Keep the phone next to you.”

“Jason!”

He’d lost sight of Alex, but now he could hear him shouting from somewhere on the other side of the hill.

He took off in the direction of the voice, almost catching his foot in a groundhog hole as he ran. Alex was running toward him, his face flushed. “I found her.”

Fiction Friday: Harvesting Hope Chapter 23

Just a note to regular readers: I will be putting this book up on Kindle on August 12. I’ve lowered the preorder price to $.99 so my blog readers can get it cheap and then once the book goes on sale I’ll be raising the price. I can also send a mobi or ePub version to you through Bookfunnel for free so if you are interested please let me know and either leave me your email here in the comments or send one to me at lisahoweler@gmail.com so I can send it along August 12.

Bookfunnel will have you upload the book yourself to your reading app so if you prefer not to do that, you can do the option on Amazon. If you want a paperback, please order through me and I will mail you one. It will be cheaper than what Amazon charges for books (I only make about a $4 profit from what they charge).

If you are a new reader here, I share a chapter from my WIP each Friday, and sometimes Saturday, on my blog. There are typos, grammatical issues and even plot holes at times because this is a first, second, or third draft that hasn’t gone to my editor (eh, husband) yet. If you see a typo, feel free to kindly let me know in the comments. Sometimes the error has already been fixed on my copy, sometimes not.

Catch up with the rest of the story HERE. Don’t feel like reading the book in a series of chapters each Friday? Preorder the book HERE. Do you want to read the first book in the series? Download it HERE. 

Chapter 23

Jason snatched up the scraper and walked toward the stalls, knowing without looking in a mirror his face was showcasing the happiness he felt inside. As soon as this job was finished, he was heading to town to see Ellie. His muscles tensed in anticipation at the thought of seeing her, holding her, kissing her. The fact she’d almost let him kiss her, despite everything, gave him a sense of hope he hadn’t had in months, and certainly hadn’t had at all earlier this week.

“Walt’s got the part we need for the skid steer.” His dad’s voice startled him out of his thoughts. “Can you head up and grab it when you’re done here?”

He smiled, not really thinking about the part at all. “Yeah. No problem.”

“Just be careful. Walt says the fire department is stopping cars at the bottom of the hill down from his place.”

“Okay.”

Robert narrowed his eyes. “You okay, kid? You’re acting a little off. You seem a little — well, distracted.”

Jason propped the scraper against the wall and laughed. “Yeah. I’m okay. Really okay. I’m more than okay.”

Robert raised an eyebrow. “You drunk?”

Jason shook his head, catching the sparkle in his dad’s eye. “Only in love.”

“With Ellie still, I hope.”

“Absolutely.”

Robert smiled as he walked toward the back of the barn. “Then carry on.”

A half an hour later Jason stretched his arms over his head and listened to the bones along his spine crack. He climbed in the truck, thinking about the night before, wishing he hadn’t had to deal with Brad. After he picked up the part for the skid steer, he was flooring it to the preschool and waiting for Ellie in the parking lot. He wasn’t about to let her out of his sight again.

He tapped her name on his phone before pulling out onto the road.

“Hey, this is Ellie. Leave me a message and I’ll be get back in touch with you as soon as I can.”

He smiled. Even her voicemail was sweet.

“Hey, El. It’s Jason. Thought maybe you’d like to grab lunch at Bonnie’s today? I’m heading to Walt’s for a part for the skid steer, have a couple more things to do at the farm, and then I can pick you up outside the school. I’ll try again in a bit and see what you think.”

He tossed the phone onto the passenger seat. Everything looked brighter today. The sun on the grass, its light filtering through the trees, leaving misshapen patterns on the road in front of him, the wild summer flowers blooming. The sky wasn’t totally blue, a few dark clouds were threatening rain, but even the clouds didn’t bring him down. His heart still ached over the loss of John but today his grief was buffered by hope. Hope for reconciliation with the woman he’d wanted to marry since he was 18-years old.

Blue and red lights blinked in front of him, and he pressed the brake, stopping when junior firefighter Nate Baker waved a white flag at him. Fire trucks, the vehicles of volunteer fire fighters, and an ambulance were parked in a line along the road.

He leaned his head toward his open window as Nate stepped toward him. “Hey, kid. What’s going on?”

Nate, 16-years old, jerked his head toward broken trees at the edge of the embankment. “Car over the bank. They’re down there checking it out now.”

“Any injuries?”

Nate shrugged a shoulder. “Don’t know yet. They just told me to slow the traffic down.”

Jason studied the broken trees and rubbed his chin, rough from stubble. He’d been too distracted with thoughts of Ellie to shave this morning. “I’ll see if they need any help.” He reached out the window and pounded Nate on the shoulder. “Keep up the good work, bud.”

Shifting the truck into park he watched Cody walk through the broken trees toward the road. The fire chief looked up as Jason exited his truck, the expression on his face when he caught sight of Jason indecipherable. Jason narrowed his eyes, trying to read the chief’s expression. Was the accident fatal?

Cody met him at the top of the embankment, immediately placing his hands on Jason’s shoulders. “Jason, hey, what are you doing here?” He was breathless, sweat beading his brow.

“I was on my way to pick up something from my uncles and saw you guys here.” Jason craned his neck, looking over Cody’s shoulder. “Do you need help?”

Cody squeezed his shoulders, shaking his head and pushing gently until Jason was forced to take a couple steps back. “No. We’re good. We’ll call you if you we need you.”

Jason cocked an eyebrow. “What’s going on with you? You’re acting weird. Did I do something to upset you? Did you find out something about the fire?

Cody swung an arm around his shoulder and started walking, pulling Jason with him. “I’d tell  you if I was upset with you. No worries there. And nothing about the fire. It’s just that we’ve just got this covered.”

Jason looked over Cody’s shoulder as they walked, looking through the leaves and tree limbs. He caught sight of the blue bumper of a car at the bottom of the embankment and stopped walking, pulling from Cody’s grip. “Whose car is that?”

“Jason, you need to go home, okay?”

Why had he even asked whose car it was? He knew whose car it was.

“Jason!”

He ran full force toward the wooded area and was met by Denny and Kyle Barton on their way up the hill.

Denny’s eyes met his, his mood somber. “Jason, you need to stay up there.”

Jason shook his head, kept walking. “That’s Ellie’s car.”

The two men put up their hands to block him. “Jason, stay here until we —”

Jason was practically shouting now. “Where’s Ellie?” The men had their hands on him now, trying to hold him back. “Where is she?”

He pushed back against them, panic clutching at his throat until he could barely breathe. He broke past the men, pushing them aside, barreling through the underbrush and trees, briars cutting into his skin as he ran. He stopped running when he hit the clearing, stopped, breathing hard, and looked down at the creek bed.

Ellie’s car was on its roof, upside down in the water. Other volunteer fire fighters were making their way to it, pushing brush aside to get there, but it didn’t look like any of them had reached it yet. Behind him branches and twigs broke under the weight of the men who’d tried to keep him back.

“We haven’t gotten down there yet, Jason.” Cody shouted from behind him. “We were on our way down when Jay radioed that you’d pulled in. Stay here until we know what we’re dealing with.”

Jason shook his head. “No. I have to —”

Denny clutched a hand around his forearm. “Listen, Jason. If she’s in there, you don’t want to remember her this way. Okay?”

Jason yanked his arm free, walking forward. “If she’s in there, I need to get her out. No matter what —” His voice broke and he drew in a ragged breath. He shook his head, leaning forward on his knees, the scene before him blurring. His chest ached, tightened like a vice against his lungs.

Dragging the back of his hand across his face he straightened and started making his way over the boulders along the creek bank. Another firefighter, Will Barton, Kyle’s father, was standing behind the car and put his hand up to stop him, but Cody’s voice echoed among the trees.

“Let him go, Will.”

Will shook his head. “Not alone, I won’t.”

He placed a hand on Jason’s back, following him deeper into the water.

Water Jason’s shoes and jeans, but he didn’t even notice. He was vaguely aware of Cody and Denny and the other men navigating their way down the bank and boulders to join him. Otherwise, he was entirely focused on the smashed driver’s side window submerged part way in the water.

“Oh God,” he whispered. “God, help me bring my Ellie home to her family.”

The only way to see what was inside was to lean over. From where he was now, the water now thigh deep, he could only make out what looked like a sweater moving in the water, hanging through the window. He lowered himself, water rushing up over his lower body, trying to brace himself for whatever awaited, but knowing nothing could prepare him if Ellie was in there dead.

A sob choked out as he looked inside the window, at water ripping over the steering wheel and Ellie’s purse floating in the water below the passenger seat. His gaze moved from the front to the back of the car, and he straightened, shaking his head and pressing the heel of his palms against his closed eyes.

“Jason, I’m coming.” Denny shouted to him as he made his way over the rocks and through the water. “Don’t try to get her out until I get there.”

Jason sobbed again, trying to shake himself awake from the nightmare. This couldn’t be happening.

“She’s not here.”

Denny balanced himself on the side of the car. “What? What do you mean?”

Jason opened his eyes and looked at Denny, breathing hard. “She’s not here. The car’s empty.”

Saturday Fiction: Harvesting Hope Chapter 22

Just a note to regular readers: I will be putting this book up on Kindle on August 12. I’ve lowered the preorder price to $.99 so my blog readers can get it cheap and then once the book goes on sale I’ll be raising the price. I can also send a mobi or ePub version to you through Bookfunnel for free so if you are interested please let me know and either leave me your email here in the comments or send one to me at lisahoweler@gmail.com so I can send it along August 12.

Bookfunnel will have you upload the book yourself to your reading app so if you prefer not to do that, you can do the option on Amazon. If you want a paperback, please order through me and I will mail you one. It will be cheaper than what Amazon charges for books (I only make about a $4 profit from what they charge).

If you are a new reader here, I share a chapter from my WIP each Friday, and sometimes Saturday, on my blog. There are typos, grammatical issues and even plot holes at times because this is a first, second, or third draft that hasn’t gone to my editor (eh, husband) yet. If you see a typo, feel free to kindly let me know in the comments. Sometimes the error has already been fixed on my copy, sometimes not.

Catch up with the rest of the story HERE. Don’t feel like reading the book in a series of chapters each Friday? Preorder the book HERE. Do you want to read the first book in the series? Download it HERE. 

Chapter 22


What was he even doing here? His head was pounding from a persistent headache that hadn’t let up since yesterday. The loud music coming from the band up front wasn’t helping. And he wanted to be back at home, talking to Ellie, telling her how sorry he was for how he’d acted in Pastor Joe’s office. No, he didn’t want to be talking to her on a phone. He wanted to be at her apartment, talking to her face-to-face. She was most likely dealing with a drunk Judi, though. She didn’t need even more to deal with.

Jason rubbed a knot at the back of his neck and grimaced, hoping to massage the tension away.

He knew the guys from the department wanted him to unwind but the bitter smell of alcohol, the cloud of cigarette smoke and the mass of people bumping against each other on the dance floor was only adding to his tension.

He stepped up to the bar to refill his glass of ginger ale. His friends from the fire department and Alex were sitting at a table across the bar, laughing and cutting jokes. He was glad that Alex had asked for a refill on his soda as well. Bars and Alex weren’t the best of friends and Jason hadn’t wanted to watch his friend slide backward into his old life. So far, that wasn’t happening thankfully.         

“’Nother ginger?” the bartender asked, taking his glass.

Jason nodded. “It’s hitting the spot tonight.”

The man slid the glass to him, grinning. “Fine by me. One less drunk person I have to deal with tonight. Enjoy.”

Jason decided a break from the conversations would also hit the spot. The guys meant well but he wasn’t ready to walk back into life again, act like everything was fine and John Weatherly wasn’t dead and Ann a widow because of his failure. He sat on a stool and leaned his arm on the bar, scanning the room, seeing who he recognized and who he didn’t.

He’d gone to high school with the new owners of the establishment, but didn’t know either one of the couple, Jake and Mallory Leonard, well. Back in one corner was the captain of his high school football team, chatting up a petite blond who was definitely not his wife. On the dance floor was Jimmy Hurley, owner of the local supermarket, his arms around his wife Nancy, her head leaning against his shoulder.

At a table near the door Lanny Jenkins was nursing a beer while Jessie Landry chattered away and touched his arm for the thousandth time, obviously desperate for attention. Jessie reminded him a lot of Lauren, both of them in and out of relationships, seeming to base their worth on if a man paid attention to them or not. Jessie had been in the middle of an almost-situation with Alex last year. Thank God Alex had walked away before it got out of hand. It had been the incident that had woken him up to how far he’d fallen. Not long after, he was confessing his feelings to Molly and Jason was agreeing to help him straighten his life out for his own sake and Molly’s.

Still wrapped up in his thoughts, he moved his gaze around the room, away from Jessie to the woman next to him. His heart rate increased.

No way.

What was she doing here? This wasn’t the kind of place he’d ever expected to see her.

A slender finger pushed a strand of dark hair behind a delicate ear as the woman stepped back between two bar stools four down from him. She hugged her arms around her middle like she was trying to protect herself from the rest of the world, or the rest of the room at least. Her eyes scanned the dance floor, looking for someone. She hadn’t noticed him yet and he took the time to study her, or, more accurately, enjoy the view of her.

Small, pert nose, perfectly shaped chin, full lips begging to be kissed. He’d kissed them so many times before he’d memorized the taste of them, and it was a taste he ached to experience again.

As if she felt him looking at her, she turned her head, caught his gaze. Surprise registered in Ellie’s eyes, quickly replaced by an emotion he couldn’t pin down. Was she upset at the sight of him? Happy? Or simply indifferent?

He pushed himself off the bar and moved toward her, stopping at the stool next to her and sitting before leaning back against the bar again. “You don’t usually come to places like this. How did you even —”

The previous stoicism she’d held morphed into annoyance, eyes tilting briefly toward the ceiling then back to him. “Judi.”

The name of her sister slipped out with a sad sigh.

“Ah.”

She rolled her eyes. “And Brad.”

Brad. Again. Great.

Had Brad invited Ellie, or had he invited Judi and Ellie had tagged along? Like before.

What was Brad’s game anyhow? To see if he could bed both Lambert girls?

Jason followed the path of her gaze to the other side of the bar, to Brad talking to Judi, his hand against Judi’s thigh. “Oh.”

She sighed. “Judi is furious at me, but she was drunk when she came back to the apartment to change, and I didn’t trust her when she said Brad hadn’t been drinking. Turns out he actually hadn’t but, after my last experience with him, I wasn’t taking any chances on what would happen by the end of the night. I’m their designated driver, I guess you would say.”

Her last experience with him? What did that mean? Should he ask?

He chuckled softly to drown out the worried thoughts racing through his mind. “That makes sense.” He tapped his fingers on the top of the bar and thought about how he should have stopped her that night after Franny’s party, told her not to go anywhere with Brad.

“The guys talked me into coming.” He cleared his throat. “Said I needed to unwind a little and get my mind off things.” He shook his head and sipped the ginger ale. “When have you ever known me to unwind?”

She tipped her chin up and smiled. “Plenty of times.” It looked like she was trying not to smile but couldn’t help it. “Plenty of times.”

He looked at her, a knowing smile turning his mouth upward. “Times you were part of, of course.”

Warmth flushed across his cheeks, and she bowed her head, her own cheeks flushing pink. She shifted herself onto the stool and crossed one leg over the other, resting her hands on top of her knee, watching the band while he watched her.

“Can I buy you a drink?”

She shook her head. “I’m fine.”

“You can get sodas here.”

“Thank you, but I’m good. Really.”

The band changed songs and her eyebrows raised at the same time his did. They looked at each other and he spoke first. “Mickey Gilley? Really? Who even knows his music anymore?”

She cocked an eyebrow questioningly. “Did you —”

“El, I didn’t even know you were here up until a few minutes ago.”

They listened to the song a few minutes, him leaning back on the bar, her sitting on the stool, before he heard her humming along and then softly singing the lyrics under her breath.

In seconds he was back eight years, standing in front of a pair of headlights in an empty wheat field, his hands on her waist, her hands on his shoulders. The only radio station that would come in on his truck was the oldies country station. This song had come on, and they’d stood to dance and sing along, though neither knew why since they’d never heard it before. They’d paused their swaying when he tilted her face toward his and kissed her softly. How was it possible it had been eight years ago, when it felt like it had only been yesterday?

His chest constricted at the memory, at the emotion stirring there now. He didn’t want to simply be standing near her, their arms a few inches from each other. He wanted her against him, his arms around her, holding her like he’d done so many times before. It was where she belonged. He knew it and he had a good feeling she did too.

He glanced at her, then looked away.

Get it together, Jason. The worst she can say is ‘no.’

He lifted his chin toward the dance floor. “We could — I mean — If you want to. For old times sake.”

His heart and breathing stopped while he waited for her answer. A small smile was playing at her mouth and his gaze traced the shape of it, drifted to the nape of her neck, then back to her eyes, which had focused on his. Her eyes had a way of changing shades with her mood, a phenomenon he’d admired many times before. In this moment, flecks of gold darted out from her light brown irises, and he wanted to bottle those flecks up and pull them out anytime he was down.

 She nodded and slid off the stool. He exhaled slowly and his heart came to life again. He took her hand and led her to the dance floor, among the other dancers swaying close together.

His arms slid around her easily. When her hands slid up to his shoulders his muscles relaxed and he was at ease for the first time in months, other than a few butterflies fluttering in the center of his chest. She pressed his cheek against his shoulder and curved an arm around his side and up his back.

This was as it should be. Her, here in his arms, right where she belonged. He hoped her willingness, maybe even eagerness, to be so close to him was a sign she felt the same way.

Swaying to the music he closed his eyes, thinking only of the feel of her against him, the smell of her shampoo, the softness of her hair against his cheek, the way the curve of her body fit perfectly to his.

His voice was almost a whisper as he tipped his head, spoke into her hair. “The irony is not lost on me that the name of this song is Talk to Me.”

She laughed softly, her breath rumbling against his chest. He felt her lift her head and opened his eyes.  His heart lurched up into his throat, forming a lump he couldn’t seem to swallow away. She was looking at him the way he remembered her looking at him so many times before, the way he’d wanted her to look at him for the past eight months.

Her lips parted and her gaze drifted to his mouth then back up to his eyes. Was she sending him silent signals? Did she want him to kiss her as much as he wanted to kiss her? He was hoping the answer was yes because he was taking the chance.

He cupped his hand behind her head, intertwined his fingers in her hair and she closed her eyes. He traced her lips with the palm of his thumb and took a deep breath.

They’d kiss thousands of times before. Why did this feel like the first time all over again?

As he lowered his head toward hers, he felt a sharp thump on his shoulder.

What now?

The quick thump turned into a tight grip on his shoulder, near his neck.

“Hey, buddy, you stealin’ my date?” Brad’s laughter grated like the jake brakes of an 18-wheeler. He clutched Jason’s shoulder in one hand, a beer bottle in the other. The smell wafting from him signaled he’d drank more than that one beer.

He shook Brad’s hand loose. “I don’t recall her saying she was here with anyone. I seem to remember her saying you were here with Judi.”

Brad’s laughter faded and his smile switched to a tight-lipped grimace. “You know what, Jason. You had your chance. You screwed it up.” He shoved his way between Jason and Ellie, breaking their hold on each other. “So why don’t you just move over and let a real man step in.”

In seconds Jason had the front of his cousin’s shirt clutched in his fists and his body shoved up against the bar. “Don’t you ever touch her again.”

The edge of the counter dug into Brad’s back, and he winced, but the smirk never left his face.

He laughed again, wrapped his hands around Jason’s and tried to pry them off his shirt. “Touchy. Touchy. Calm down, cuz, I’m just messin’ with you.”

Judi stepped next to the bar and clapped her hands together. “Is there going to be a real bar fight? Cool! I’ve always wanted to see one!”

Jason glanced at Ellie’s sister and decided she’d had more than a couple beers as well. The band was in between songs and an odd hush had settled over the bar as people turned to watch the drama.

“Everything okay over there or are we going to need some good ole bar fightin’ music?” The band’s lead singer called out the question with more than a twinge of amusement in his tone.

Jason shook his head, keeping his eyes locked on Brad’s. “Nah. We’re good.” He glared at Brad, not letting him go. “Right, Brad? We’re good.”

Laughter skittered across the bar from the onlookers, many of them returning to their drinks and conversations.

Jason was relieved when the band began another song. He figured enough people knew about his private life these days. He didn’t need to add more to that list.

Ellie reached out quickly, grasping her sister’s wrist. “Let’s go, Judi. Time to go home.”

Judi wrenched herself free. “Shut it, Ellie. I’m a big girl. I don’t need big sis to take care of me.”

Anger flashed in Ellie’s eyes, something Jason was glad to see directed at someone other than himself.

“You’re making an idiot out yourself,” she hissed at Judi. “It’s time to go.”

Jason let Brad’s shirt go and grabbed him by the upper arm instead, his hand wrapping around Brad’s bicep. “Both of them need to sleep this off. I’ll take Brad? You take Judi?”

Ellie didn’t look exactly thrilled with the idea of taking her sister home, but she nodded. “That sounds like a good plan.”

Judi looped her arm in Brad’s. He was sitting on a stool now, leaning back, scowling. “I will take Bradley home,” Judi slurred. “I came with him. He’s my resp—responsible — teee.”

Jason had felt Ellie’s rage before, and he could feel it coming off her now.

“I drove you here, Judi.” Her words clipped out hard and fast. “How do you think you’re going to get him home?”

Judi tightened her grip on Brad’s arm and pushed her lower lip out. “I’m not going anywhere without Brad.”

Ellie tipped her head back and growled in frustration. “Fine. I’ll take both of you home then.”

Brad slid an arm around Judi’s shoulder and pulled her against him. “You can drop her off with me, I don’t mind.”

Jason tightened his grip on Brad’s arm and dragged him off the stool, out of Judi’s grasp. “You’re going with me. Let’s go.”

In the parking lot Jason shoved Brad hard toward the passenger side door of his truck. “Get in, idiot.”

Brad climbed slowly, head first, struggled to turn around for several seconds, then finally slumped back against the seat.

Judi leaned her head out of the passenger side window of Ellie’s sedan. “Call me later, Braaaaad!”

Jason caught Ellie’s wrist before she slid behind the steering wheel. “Hey, talk later?”

While the brief kiss on his cheek from her wasn’t the kiss he’d been hoping for earlier, it sent his heart rate slamming against his ribcage at least ten beats faster than normal.

“Yeah, I’d like that.”

He hated watching her drive away; wanted to call out, tell her to stay and leave Brad and Judi to fend for themselves. They couldn’t do that, though. If one of them decided to drive themselves home and killed someone while driving drunk, neither he nor Ellie would ever forgive themselves. He slid behind the steering wheel and didn’t look at Brad. If he did, he might grab him by his shirt and slam his head off the dashboard.

“You know what, Jase?” Brad pointed a finger at Jason’s chest and pressed it there. “You’re boring.” It was obvious Brad hadn’t hit the level of alcohol he needed to be unconscious. Unfortunately.

 Jason thought about going back for another beer to top him off, so he’d shut up, but instead he smacked Brad’s hand away, shifted the truck into gear and pulled out of the parking lot. Brad propped a boot-clad foot on the dashboard and snorted a laugh. “It’s sad that Ellie still loves you so much. I couldn’t ge-ge-get anywhere with her. Tried to get her to go to lunch with me and all she wanted was for me – for me –  to drive her to a Bible study.” He scoffed. “Maybe that’s why you broke up with her. She doesn’t give it up easy, right?” He smacked the back of his hand against Jason’s bicep and laughed derisively. “Not like her sister. I bet Judi would give it up in a second flat. That girl is ripe for the picking.”

Jason bit the inside of his cheek, tasted blood. He desperately wanted to yank the truck to the side of the road, drag Brad out and pummel him until his face was a bloody mess. More than beating the living daylights out of his cousin, though, he wanted to throw him out the door in front of his parent’s house, drive off and call Ellie. Let Walt and Marsha deal with their wayward son. He wanted to hear her voice again, remind himself of the look she’d give him that one that said she’d wanted him to kiss her; the one that said she still loved him.

Forget the call. He wanted to drive back to town, run up the stairs to her apartment and kiss her until both of them were gasping for breath. He wouldn’t, though. She’d have enough to deal with trying to wrangle Judi. The kiss would have to wait, but only until morning. After that, all bets were off, siblings and cousins or not. He would kiss her until she was weak in the knees, and he had to hold her against him to keep her from falling to the floor.

The sound of vomit hitting his truck floor pulled him from the daydream and his jaw tightened. If he got Brad home without killing him, it would be a miracle.

***

Judi slumped heavily against Ellie’s side, barely able to walk on her own, no longer giggling, but instead mumbling something Ellie couldn’t decipher.

Pulling her from the car had been an ordeal in itself. Dragging her up the stairs to the apartment had been even more of a challenge. Once inside the door Ellie shoved her hip into Judi’s and leveraged her toward the couch. Judi flopped onto her back, her eyes closed, her feet still on the floor. Ellie pulled off her shoes and flipped her legs up onto the couch. Stepping into the guest room she snatched the blanket off the bed and returned to the living room, covering a clearly unconscious Judi.

Her foot bumped against Judi’s hot pink purse as she stepped back, tipping it over and sending the contents skittering across the floor.

Lipstick, a brush, a makeup, case, a set of keys, a piece of paper with a number scrawled on it, and a cellphone. Ellie snatched each item off the floor and shoved them back in the purse.

Her finger bumped the screen of the phone as she slid it in the purse and a message popped up on the lock screen. Without thinking, Ellie read it.

Jeff: Are you serious, Judi? Go ahead and tell anyone you like what happened that night because no one is ever going to believe you. They’ll know you were asking for it. That’s who you are and who you will always be. A first-class slut.

A cold chill shot through Ellie as she straightened, holding the phone. Her hands trembled. Slut?

What had Judi been asking for? Who was Jeff? Wait. That was the name of the guy on that social media account. The one with his hand on Judi’s thigh and with the photo description that had made her blood run cold.

My God. What did he do to my sister?

Tears stung her eyes as she looked at Judi. The trembling spread from her hands to the rest of her body and tears gathered on her cheek and chin and dripped off. She wiped her hand across them and tried to hold in a sob, though she didn’t need to. Judi was so intoxicated she probably wouldn’t wake up for hours. Ellie sat on the metal chair next to the bed and cried for several minutes, holding the phone against her chest, praying it wasn’t true.

Please, God. Please don’t let him have hurt my sister the way I think he did.

She tipped the phone back, stared at it, considered calling this Jeff guy and giving him an earful, threatening him, but she couldn’t. Not until she talked to Judi and found out the truth. She couldn’t risk violating her sister’s privacy the way this man may have violated her in other ways.

A knock on the apartment door brought Ellie out of her thoughts. She shoved the phone back in Judi’s purse, turned out the light, and gently closed the door behind her. She needed to talk to someone about what she’d read, and she knew who that someone needed to be. She hoped to God he was the one standing on the other side of the door.

The smell when she opened the door burned her throat, made her eyes water.

“Heeeeey, sexxxxxxy, lady.”

She gagged.

“Brad.” She waved her hand and pinched her nose with her finger and thumb. “Go home. You reek.”

He swayed in the doorway like a tree branch in the wind. “But I want to see, Judi.”

Ellie leaned against the doorframe, arms folded across her chest. “Did you drive yourself here? I thought Jason dropped you off.”

He laughed. “You think I’m drunk.” He swayed backward then straightened himself. I’m not drunk, El. I’m just —” He tossed his arms out to the side — “happy.”

Taking the old adage to heart and literally biting her tongue was the only way she kept from screaming. She was glad she’d never acquired a taste for alcohol. The beverage was transforming her night into a complete disaster.

“Well, Judi’s dead to the world so you need to go home.”

Brad sighed and the stench of alcohol and vomit made Ellie gag again. “Ah man. Okay, then. Ho-ho-hommmmme it is then.”

She wanted him to leave, but the idea of him on the road in the condition he was in terrified her. How many people would he kill on the way back to the Tanner’s farm?

She held out her hand, palm up. “Give me your keys. I’ll drive you home.”

“Nah.” Brad turned and staggered down the first step. “I — I got it.”

Ellie tipped her head back and groaned softly. “You can’t drive, Brad. You’re going to kill someone. Give me the keys. Now.”

He dropped the keys in her palm and she grabbed her phone on the table next to the door. By the time she closed and locked the door behind her, he was sitting on the top step with his elbow on his knee, his chin in his hand and the wall supporting his weight. His eyes had drifted closed.

She hooked a hand under his arm and pulled upward. “Come on, let’s go.”

It had taken a great deal of self-control to not say, “Come on, idiot.” It was an applicable term for him right now.

Ten minutes down the road with a grinning, semi-conscious Brad next to her she regretted not telling him to sleep it off on her couch instead.

“How come you Lambert girls are so pretty?”

She rolled her eyes.

He lurched toward her side of the seat. “And so nice. Both of you so nice.” He patted her shoulder gently. “You didn’t have to do this, Ellie. It’s late. I shouldn’t have come to see Judi.” He hiccupped and followed it with a burp. “She just seems so sad, you know.”

Even though she could still hear Judi screaming at her earlier in the night, she knew he was right. There was definite sadness underneath Judi’s anger. And that sadness might have something to do with this Jeff guy, whoever he was.

Brad reached toward the steering wheel. “Let me drive, El. You shouldn’t be driving. You’re too nice to a drunk a drive idiot like me.” He paused, frowned, then grinned. “I mean you’re too drunk to drive an idiot like me. No. Wait. I’m drunk. You’re driving and nice.”

Ellie slapped his hand away. “Brad. Stop it. Just sit back and rest. We’ll be at your parents soon.”

And I’m going to kick that door open and roll you out into their front yard. God bless Walt and Marsha. They’d have their hands full tonight.

“No, no. I can’t let you do this.” Brad reached for the steering wheel again. “Move over. I’ll move over there, and I can drive you back home.”

Ellie pushed her arm against his chest. “Brad! Knock it off!”

Brad’s hand curled around the steering wheel. He started to fall back but he kept his hand tight on the wheel. The car jerked to one side and off the road then back again.

“Brad! Stop!”

Ellie slammed her elbow down hard onto his wrist and knocked his hand loose.

It was too late.

The car left the road and careened into the darkness.

The deafening cacophony of shattering glass and crunching metal was the last thing she heard before the darkness consumed her.

Fiction Friday: Harvesting Hope Chapter 21

If you are a new reader here, I share a chapter from my WIP each Friday, and sometimes Saturday, on my blog. There are typos, grammatical issues and even plot holes at times because this is a first, second, or third draft that hasn’t gone to my editor (eh, husband) yet. If you see a typo, feel free to kindly let me know in the comments. Sometimes the error has already been fixed on my copy, sometimes not.

Catch up with the rest of the story HERE. Don’t feel like reading the book in a series of chapters each Friday? Preorder the book HERE. Do you want to read the first book in the series? Download it HERE. 

Chapter 21



Jason closed his eyes and immediately opened them again. He stared into the darkness of his bedroom until colors swirled in front of him. Sleep was not coming. It had barely come in four days. Every time he closed his eyes, he heard the cries of Anne Weatherly asking for her husband, saw the flames devour their cozy home with John inside.

He draped his bare arm over his eyes, wished sleep would come.

How could he not have known John was inside? How could he not have understood what Ann was trying to tell him?

“John.”

Her voice had been so weak, and Jason had assumed she was calling for John, wanting him to come back from wherever he was to be with her during her time of fear. Instead, she’d been trying to tell Jason her husband was lying on the kitchen floor, unconscious or injured somehow.

Jason clenched his fist tight, gritted his teeth. He punched the surface of the mattress next to him.

He’d wanted to go back into the building, but it was too late. Flames had shot up through the structure, consuming it within seconds.

“You did all you could, Jason.” Cody’s words echoed in his mind, but he didn’t believe them.

He could have done more. He could have found John before the state police fire marshal did, or what was left of him under the ash and charred remains of the house.

God, why did you let this happen? They were good people. They didn’t deserve this.

After another hour without sleep, he tossed the sheets aside and walked downstairs, pouring himself a glass of milk, and turning on the TV.

What a week.

What a soul-sucking, demoralizing, atrocious week.

If he wasn’t hearing the panicked voice in his mind, he was hearing Ellie ask him in hurt voice how he could have told their pastor about their “personal failings.” She hadn’t used those words, but he knew what she meant. He had betrayed their privacy. Her privacy. He certainly didn’t feel good about that.

He guzzled more of the milk and scoffed.

“Personal failings.” He said the words mockingly.

That’s what he apparently had to refer to his desire for Ellie as. He was a failure for wanting to sleep with Ellie. He pressed his hand against his forehead.

He knew that’s not what he was a failure for. He wasn’t a failure for desiring Ellie or for letting his hands slide where they shouldn’t have more than once. He’d asked God to forgive him for anything he shouldn’t have done with Ellie.

What he was a failure for was not telling Ellie about Lauren, for apologizing but then demanding that she forgive him. He’d never really asked her how she really felt about it all. Mainly because he was selfish. Instead of coming along beside her and walking through the pain with her, he’d wanted to avoid having to hear again and again how he had hurt her, so he hadn’t pushed her to tell him how she really felt. Not until they were sitting in front of their pastor. The shame of that conversation weighed heavy on his heart, adding to the shame and guilt already there.

He set the empty glass on the coffee table, closed his eyes, and pressed his fingertips against his temples, massaging them. If only massaging would take the pain away, the pain in his head and his heart.

He’d told Ellie more than once in the last seven and a half months that he wasn’t going to apologize for his mistake for the rest of his life.

 He’d lied.

He would apologize for the rest of his life if it meant he could spend that life taking care of her like he’d wanted to since they were 18.

He flipped channels for another hour, then got dressed and headed to the farm. He might as well start his day. It wasn’t like he was going to get anymore sleep and he had the goat barn to finish before his dad picked up the livestock the next week.

A light from the barn window glowed a soft orange, casting a square pattern of brightness onto the dark grass outside.

Who else was up at this hour? It was too early to start the milking.

Robert met Jason in the barn doorway, wiping his hands on a rag.

“Something wrong?” Jason asked.

Robert shook his head as he turned to walk into the barn. “Not anymore. Marshmallow was having a hard time calving. Big bull. Breach. I got him turned.”

Jason followed him, yawning. Robert stopped at the sink, turned the water on full blast and soaped his arms up to his elbows, red smearing with white and leaving a pink tinged coating. “I was getting ready to wash up when I heard your truck. Stepped out to see who else was up this early.”

Jason rubbed at his dry eyes. “Just your crazy son.”

Robert laughed, drying off his arms and hands. “Crazy? Nah. A man with a propensity to work too hard. Yes.”

Jason laughed and shook his head, reaching for the tractor key by the door. “You have no room to talk, old man, and you know it. You work from sunup, or in most cases before the sun is up, to sundown or longer. You don’t even know the meaning of slowing down.” He tapped his dad’s arm with the back of his hand. “Not even a tractor landing on you was enough to slow you down.”

Robert rolled his shirtsleeves down, buttoning them at the wrist. “If only that was true. I tell you, kid, I’ve never felt as old as I have these last seven months. I’m only just feeling like my old self again.”

It was too early to feed the cows, but he could begin preparing the calf feed. Molly would be there in a couple of hours to feed them.

“I’m seeing that old spark returning, I can tell you that. Why don’t you head in and catch a couple more hours of rest, though? Alex and Molly will be here soon, and we can handle the morning chores.”

Robert dumped the dirty water bucket outside the barn door. “I might just take you up on that. But actually, I’m glad to catch you alone for once.” He leaned his side against the supporting beam next to the entrance of the milking parlor and folded his arms across his chest. “How are you doing, Jason?”

Jason shrugged a shoulder as he turned to look for the scraper. He could scrap the center aisle clean before the cows were led out of their stalls. “Fine.”

“You know that in women speak fine means not fine and I have a feeling it means the same thing in Jason speak.”

“You calling me a woman, Dad?”

A smile tugged at Robert’s mouth. “Very funny. No. I’m calling you a liar.”

“Ouch. I think I’d rather be called a woman.” Jason made a face. “Actually, this conversation is starting to sound very sexist. Sorry about that.”

He moved to the watering trough, dumped it onto the barn floor, and pressed the button to refill it. “This purchase was a good one.” Refilling the trough automatically was a lot more efficient than doing it manually.

“Don’t change the subject, kid. How are you?”

Jason rested his hands on his waist as he waited for the trough to refill, watching the water swirl from the spout and rise. He chewed on the edge of his lip and tried to decide how to answer.

“I’m struggling,” he said finally. “Between Ellie, the fire, trying to build the goat barn, hiring an architect for the new milking parlor, and keep this place running — it’s been hard.” He shrugged a shoulder. “I’ll get through it, though. Eventually.”

Robert crossed one leg over the other, propping the toe of his boot against the floor. “You don’t have to get through it alone, you know. Your family is here for you. Me and your mom. Molly and Alex. Even your aunts and uncles and cousins. More importantly though, God is for you.”

He thought to himself how he wasn’t so sure about at least one of his cousins being there for him. He thought about Brad’s car parked outside Ellie’s apartment the other day. I think he’d rather be there for my ex.

He pressed the button to turn the water off. “For me and not against me. Yeah. I know that verse, but it’s hard to see it right now.”

“There are seasons like that, certainly, but eventually, we see the places where God was still with us, even when we thought he wasn’t.” He tipped his head, trying to catch Jason’s eye. “You aren’t to blame for John’s death. You know that, right?”

Jason looked away from his dad, turning toward the back of the barn, staring at the stalls in silence. Emotion caught in his throat when he tried to speak.

“You’re not,” Robert said. “His death was an accident. There was no way you could have known he was in there.”

Jason nodded, but didn’t turn around. “Okay,” was all he could manage.

“Ann’s doing well. She’s been staying with her sister over in Brockwood. I ran into Mary at the store the other day and she said she might move into Twin Oaks.”

Jason’s chest tightened at the mention of Ann. How much did she blame him for the loss of her husband? How angry was she that he wouldn’t listen to her when she tried to tell him where John was? Twin Oaks was a retirement community featuring a collection of condominiums.

“That will be a big change for her.”

“It will be, but she’ll be with friends who can comfort her, including your grandparents.”

Jason nodded. His maternal grandparents had moved into Twin Oaks seven years ago, leaving their house to Annie. Jason had moved into the house shortly after they moved. Alex had come to live with him a year later.

“Jason.” His dad’s hand on his shoulder was firm. “Don’t hold all of this inside. If you can’t talk to me, talk to Alex or Pastor Joe. Someone. I’ve been there. A few times. You know that and holding it in did nothing but make me angry and bitter. I don’t know the specifics of what happened with you and Ellie, but I know you have a lot of guilt about whatever it is and ­­—”

“I slept with a girl in college after Ellie and I broke up.”

Robert slid his hands in his front pockets and tipped his face toward the barn floor. “I see.”

Jason faced his dad and pulled his hand against the back of his neck. “It was a dark time for me. I was lonely, questioning a lot of things. . .” He shook his head and slid a hand across his face, wishing he hadn’t even started telling his dad about his past. “There was a girl who came on strong, invited me to a couple of parties, I was drunk one night, and I messed up. I regretted it immediately. I never did anything like it again.”

Robert let out a long breath. “And Ellie overheard you talking to Alex about it.”

“Yeah. She overheard us talking about it one afternoon. A few days after she thought I’d proposed to her.”

“She thought you proposed to her?”

Jason laughed softly, rubbing the side of his index finger under his bottom lip, against the stubble there. “Long story, but I was getting ready to tell her about the other thing, she thought I was going to propose, and I didn’t have the heart to tell her I hadn’t been planning on proposing. Not that night anyhow. I needed to talk to her first.”

“Oh. I see. That’s why we didn’t know about the proposal.”

“We were going to tell everyone around the time of the firemen’s banquet but then she found out, your accident happened, and I didn’t know if we were still engaged or not.” Jason scratched at the back of his head. “And obviously, we weren’t and aren’t.”

Robert’s eyebrows dipped, and Jason braced himself for more questions. He didn’t want to answer more questions. This conversation was awkward enough. “So, this situation in college happened once and not while you two were dating?”

Jason shook his head again. “No, but Ellie worries that since I didn’t tell her about this, maybe there are other things I didn’t tell her.”

“Are there?”

“Other than the fact I like Mom’s apple pie better than hers, no.”

Robert laughed. “Your mom’s pie is hard to beat.” He shifted and looped his thumbs in his belt loops. “Kid, you know your mistake doesn’t define you, right? Or your relationship with Ellie. From what I’ve seen of you, all these years since, it already hasn’t defined you. You’re a good man who took a wrong turn. You made a terrible decision. Good works isn’t how you dig yourself out of the shame, though. Only God can do that.”

A smile tugged at the corner of Jason’s mouth. “I know, Dad. I do. I just have to keep reminding myself of everything you and Mom have taught me about God and everything I’ve learned in church. Sometimes it’s hard to apply to real life. But while I’m reminding myself, you should probably listen to your own lessons. The accident and your injury doesn’t define you either.”

Robert shook his head and whistled, sliding his hands in his front pant pockets. “Ouch. It’s been that obvious, huh?”

“That you blame yourself for riding out there that day when the hill was wet from the rain? That you think you should be healing faster? That you feel like you aren’t helping enough because your leg has slowed you down some? That you work and work and work to try to prove you’re still the man mom married? Yeah. It’s pretty obvious.”

Robert winced, pinching his nose between his index finger and thumb as he closed his eyes. “Wow. I didn’t know I was that transparent.”

He stepped away from the beam and turned his back for a few moments, breathing deep. When he turned, he walked to Jason, reached up and placed his hand behind Jason’s head, his eyes glistening.

“Beyond my wildest dreams. That’s what you are. A son comforting his father with the reminder of God’s truth.” He pulled Jason against him and hugged him tight. “I am blessed.”

Jason hugged his dad for a few seconds, then pulled back and let out a deep breath. “Enough of that, old man. You’ll have us both crying like a bunch of women.”

Robert slapped him on the back. “That might not be a bad thing considering what a gift women are to us. We could learn a thing or two from them.”

Jason turned to walk back toward the feed room. “Yes, we could. We definitely could.”

Like how to listen to them and not only in words.

Every time Ellie told him how his decision in college made her feel, he’d apologized, but then he’d also mentally dismissed what she’d said. He’d wanted nothing more than to avoid feeling the guilt and the shame. He’d excused it away time after time by saying it was a mistake, that he’d made a mistake and he knew it.

It was true.

What happened with Lauren was a mistake, but it was also a decision, albeit a drunken one. There was part of him that had never really accepted his own part in that night. He had blamed Lauren, Ellie, and alcohol instead of accepting that it was wrong thinking that had led him down that path. He’d felt God had abandoned him in college right along with Ellie, but he’d been wrong. God had never abandoned him and never would, even if Ellie never wanted anything to do with him again.

***

Ellie looked at her phone, picked it up, stared at it, and laid it back on the counter, face down.

She should call him. She knew she should. She had called Molly and asked about Jason, but hadn’t worked up the courage to call him yet. Not after what she’d seen in the hallway at the hospital.

It wasn’t like it was a full-on make-out session, so why was she worried? Maybe because if he’d fallen into the arms of another woman, she’d understand why.

What would she even say if she called him?

“Hey, there, Jase, I know we just had a screaming match a few days ago and you’re grieving but — how are you?”

No. She couldn’t call.

Maybe a text.

A text was so impersonal. But they were broken up, so how personal should she be?

Still, they’d known each other most of their lives and he’d been her best friend for the past 12 years.

She huffed a breath out, blowing her hair out of her eyes.

She hadn’t even bothered to brush it tonight. Wearing a pair of Judi’s sweatpants and an old sweatshirt from her college, she didn’t feel like herself, but after she’d left the hospital that day she hadn’t been able to focus on anything and had completely forgot to do her laundry.

Her only bright spot had been Timmy Murray. He’d kept her laughing when she wanted to cry.

“Miss Ellie, my brother says if I pick my nose, I’ll hit my brain. Is that true?”

“No, hon’. You will not hit your brain. However, you might make it sore in there so you might want to back off for a while. Maybe you can try blowing your nose.”

“I did once but Billy said the stuff in the tissue was brain.”

“Oh gosh. Well, no, Billy’s just trying to scare you. It’s mucous, not brain.”

Ellie shook her head at the memory of the conversation. She had a feeling his parents must have a lot of moments when they had to stifle their laughs around him. If she ever could have children, she hoped they were as entertaining as Timmy.

She snatched up the phone and typed out a message, erased it, typed it again.

Hey, I heard about the fire. I just wanted to let you know I’m praying for you.

There. She did it. Now he wouldn’t feel like he had to talk to her or even respond to her.

Painless.

She pulled a pot out from under the stove and filled it with water. Time for a pasta night. Something simple, with little fuss and little muss.

Muss. What did that even mean? Why did people say that when the word was mess?

She shook her head and waited for the water to boil, glancing at her phone. No reply.

Muss. Muss. Now it was bothering her. She picked up the phone and conducted an internet search.

“Muss. A game in which players scramble for small objects thrown at the ground.”

Huh? She scanned further down the page.

“Muss. A state of disorder.”

Ah, yes. That sounded exactly like her life right now. Definitely a muss.

A half an hour later she was sitting on the couch, pasta in a bowl, watching an old movie, trying not to look at her phone. Maybe he didn’t care if she cared. Maybe this other woman was filling the void she’d left.

Speaking of not caring, she was trying not to care where Judi was — again. Out at another friend’s house, most likely. Or maybe a new friend. Maybe someone like that man on her social media account.

Had Judi really done all those things with him he’d listed in the caption?

A sick feeling settled in Ellie’s stomach, and she slid the bowl onto the coffee table. The idea of that man treating Judi like she was simply someone to bed for a night and move on from made her heart ache. It also chased away her appetite.

The ding of the phone startled her. She reached for it but laid her hand on it instead of picking it up, afraid to turn it over. What if he was yelling at her again?

Maybe his response would be something along the lines of, “Why are you even bothering to check on me? I know you don’t care.”

He probably thought she didn’t care about him. She certainly hadn’t acted like she did for half a year.

Slowly, she lifted it and swiped it open.

Jason: Hey, sorry for not answering right way. Contractor messed up the foundation on the goat enclosure. Trying to figure out how to fix it. Had dad on the other line. The feed mixer also broke down again. Had to call Walt because he’s the expert there.

She let out a breath, took a sip of water, and typed a response, mentally chiding herself for feeling nervous. This was the man she’d planned to spend the rest of her life with at one point. Why did it feel like they were in high school again, with her wondering if he’d ever ask her out?

Ellie: The fun never stops for us farmers does it?

Jason: Us farmers? Thought you were a city girl now. J/k I know you’ll always be a farm girl at heart.

Ellie: You take the girl off the farm, but you can’t take the love of farming out of the girl.

She paused her movie, stared for a few moments at Ginger Rogers frozen in place, mid-dance step. That’s how she felt, holding this phone, trying to figure out how to communicate with the other half of her heart. The other half who had been so angry at her a few days ago, he’d walked away, leaving her alone and crying.

The man who hadn’t apologized to her, but who had been through something terrible and who she cared about.

Jason: Thanks for checking on me. I’m okay. Cody said you were looking for me.

Ellie: I was. I stopped at the hospital to check on you, but I must have missed you.

Jason: Yeah, it was just a couple of quick stitches. I was out of there pretty fast.

Should she be open with him? Even though there were times he hadn’t been open with her. Yes, she should be. Closing themselves off to each other hadn’t helped in the past and it wouldn’t now.

Ellie: Actually, I need to be honest. I didn’t miss you at the hospital. I saw you there with some woman and I didn’t know if I should interrupt.

She chewed a fingernail and propped her feet on the coffee table, then remembered how she hated scuff marks on the coffee table. She scrubbed at the marks while she waited.

Two minutes passed. Three. Now four.

He wasn’t answering.

She rubbed her hands across her face and took a deep breath, blowing it out as she fell back against the couch, clutching the phone against her chest. She practically dropped the phone when it dinged ten minutes later.

Jason: Sorry dropped my phone in a cow stall. Had to wipe it off. Then had to punch Alex for laughing at me. Anyhow . . . Some woman?

Ellie: Blonde.

Jason: Oh, Brittany.

She read the text out loud. “Oh, Brittany?”

Jason: Hold on. Can I call?

Ellie: Sure.

Oh, Brittany. What did that mean? She stared at his name on the caller ID when the phone rang and took a deep breath. Time to find out who “Oh Brittany” was. She tapped the accept button.

“Hey.” Hearing his voice on the other end made her stomach tighten — in a good way. There was her heart, trying to override her brain again. “I didn’t want any more misunderstandings and we both know how easily that can happen in a text. Brittany works on the ambulance. She’s, well, . . . she’s Brittany. Flirts a lot. She was on a transport when she heard about the fire. She stopped by to check on me and yeah, she’s a little too hands on at times if you know what I mean.

Was he telling the truth? She wanted to believe he was. She laughed before she answered, trying to relieve the tension. “Yeah. I do know what you mean. She’s probably a lot like Judi.”

Jason winced through the phone. “Maybe not that bad. How’s she doing anyhow?”

“Wouldn’t know. I rarely see her.”

“Denny said you don’t even know why she’s here?”

“No. No idea.”

She thought about the photos of Judi and the man. Maybe her extended visit had something to do with him.

A period of silence followed before Jason spoke again.

“El, about Sunday  . . . I’m —”

The banging of the front door against the apartment wall coaxed a muffled scream from Ellie, and she stood, bracing herself for an intruder.

“Eeeeellllllleeeeeee. I’m hooooooooome.”

Ellie pressed her hand to her forehead, fear fading quickly into frustration.

“Ellie, you okay?” Jason’s voice was full of alarm. “Is that Judi?”

“Yeah. Um. I’d better go deal with her. She and I need to talk.” She held her hand over the mouthpiece of the phone. “And I think she’s drunk.”

“Sounds like I better offer up a few prayers for you too.”

“More than a few at this point.”

Her smile disappeared once she slid the end call button. She stared at her sister’s disheveled hair, untucked shirt, and dirt smudged knee-high boots.

“Oh, Ellie, you look upset.” Judi pushed her lower lip out, slamming the door behind her. “Was your Bible study canceled? Was your favorite worship song pulled out of rotation on Family Life?”

Judi must have thought her joke was super funny because she doubled over, hands on her knees, and let out a manical laugh that sent chills up Ellie’s spine.

“Enough is enough, Judi. What is going on with you? What are you even doing back in Spencer? And what is with all this going out every night and drinking?”

In an instant Judi’s laughter disappeared and she glared, her face squished in disgust. She stumbled toward the kitchen. “You’re not my mother, Ellie.”

“No, I’’m not our mother. Our mother would be heartbroken to see you this way.”

Judi opened the carton of orange juice and took a swing. “Our mother wouldn’t care because all she’s ever cared about is you, Ellie.”

Ellie shook her head, confused. “That’s not true, Judi. When did you start believing these lies you’ve been telling yourself? Mom and Dad love you. They’ve been worried about you up in the city but they wanted you to be where you were happy.” Judi scoffed as Ellie stepped toward the kitchen. “Are you?” Ellie asked. “Happy? Because you’ve seemed pretty miserable since you’ve been here.”

Judi attempted another drink of juice, but it poured from the edges, down her chin.

“I’m having fun,” she snarled. “Something you should try sometime.”

Ellie stepped quickly toward the counter and wrenched the carton from Judi’s hands. “Stop it. You’re drunk and making a mess. Go sleep it off.”

“Go sleep it off. Go sleep it off. Blah. Blah. Blah.” Judi mocked her sister, holding her hands up and making them talk like a puppet. “Don’t you ever stop trying to boss people around? Is that what happened with Jason? You bossed him around too much?”

Ellie grabbed her sister under the arm, propelling her around the island and down the hallway. “That’s enough, Judi. It’s none of your business what happened with Jason. You need to go lay down.”

Judi wrenched away, knocking Ellie backward against the wall. “I don’t need to do anything you tell me! Miss Perfect. That’s what you are.” She pointed an accusatory finger in Ellie’s direction. “Perfect daughter, perfect girlfriend, perfect Bible girl, S-s-Sunday school student, w-wh-whatever you call it. Who cares? You know? Who cares about you and you’re-you’re perfect life, Elizabeth Miss Perfect Pants. That’s been my whole life. Always trying to be like my perfect older sister. I never could be because I wasn’t as smart as her, as pretty as her, and the only thing boys ever wanted me for was to sleep with and leave me. That’s all I was ever good for.”

Ellie’s chest tightened, her rate increased. How long had her sister felt this way? That she wasn’t enough? That she was inferior?

“Judi, I’m not perfect. You never had to try to measure up to me. Mom and Dad —”

“Mom and Dad always talked about how good you were. How sweet you were. How quiet and demure you were. D-d-mmuuure. Yes, even stupid Judi knows big words.”

Emotion clutched at Ellie’s throat. The anger she’d been battling for weeks fell away, replaced by sorrow. How had she not realized how much Judi was hurting?

She’d let her own problems overshadow everything else, distract her from seeing that Judi’s biting sarcasm and attempts to start fights with her were because she was feeling rejected, maybe even abandoned.

“Judi, I’m sorry you felt that way. I never knew. Why didn’t you —”

“What? Say something? Yeah, right. You would have said none of it was true and I was listening to lies from the devil. The Devil. You blame everything on him instead of taking some of the blame yourself.” She shook her head, waving her hand back and forth in the air. “No. No. I don’t want to talk about any of this right now.” She pushed past Ellie, almost tripping. “Don’t try to apologize. I’m not going to bother you anymore. I’m going out with Brad.”

“Judi, you’re drunk. You can’t drive. How did you even get here?”

“Brad drove me here. He’s waiting for me outside. He’s sober. Not that it’s any of your business. I came in to change my outfit.”

Judi staggered into the room she was staying in and slammed the door.

Ellie raked her hand through her hair and noticed it was trembling. What if Judi was lying about Brad? She’d seen him that night at the club and she’d driven them home then, too. There was a very good chance either he or Judi were lying about how much he’d already had to drink.

Judi swung the door open and breezed past her wearing a too-tight black mini-skirt and a low cut red tank top. Knee-high boots completed the outfit.

Ellie followed her into the living room. “I’ll drive you and Brad.”

Judi swung around and stuck her tongue out like a toddler. “No.” She spoke like a toddler too, grating on Ellie’s nerves. “We don’t want you. You’re a total downer and a prude.”

Ellie took another deep breath and tried to calm the anger boiling inside her. Judi was lost and hurting. She needed compassion, not scolding. For now, anyhow.

She did her best to speak calmly and confidently, even though she didn’t feel either of those attributes at the moment. “Judi, I’ll be the designated driver, okay?” She snatched her purse off the chair. “Where are you two going? I’m sure it will be fun. I could use a night out too.”

Judi folded her arms across her chest, cocking one leg to the side, her eyes narrowing, “Oh you could, could you? Well, we’re going The Rusty Nail in Brickwood. They’re having a grand reopening. New owners. There will be alcohol. And dancing. And men. All the things you don’t like.”

Ellie tightened her grip on her purse and brushed past Judi to grab her keys off the keyholder by the door. “Come on. I’ll talk to Brad about taking my car. I’m sure he’ll agree when he knows it means he can drink as much as he wants.”

Judi smirked. “Okay, then. Fine. You can be our chauffeur. I don’t have any problem with sitting in the back with Brad.”

Ellie tightened her jaw and forced the edges of her mouth upward as she opened the front door. She tried not to think about what the pair could get up to in the backseat during the 40-minute drive to The Rusty Nail.

Special Saturday Fiction: Harvesting Hope Chapter 20

If you are a new reader here, I share a chapter from my WIP each Friday, and sometimes Saturday, on my blog. There are typos, grammatical issues and even plot holes at times because this is a first, second, or third draft that hasn’t gone to my editor (eh, husband) yet. If you see a typo, feel free to kindly let me know in the comments. Sometimes the error has already been fixed on my copy, sometimes not.

Catch up with the rest of the story HERE. Don’t feel like reading the book in a series of chapters each Friday? Preorder the book HERE. Do you want to read the first book in the series? Download it HERE. (It is free on Kindle through today.)

Chapter 20

“Hey, Trooper. How you holding up?”

Jason looked up and watched Brittany walk into the emergency room exam room, her usual jovial and flirty behavior greatly subdued.

“You here to sew me up?” he asked with a grin, his hand still holding the gauze the nurse had pressed there before she left to consult the doctor.

Brittany laughed. “No. Sadly, that is not one of my specialties. I just came to see how you were doing. Emotionally more than physical.”

He shrugged a shoulder, frowning. “Eh. I’m . . . well, hanging in there, I guess.”

She sat back on the exam table next to him and leaned her shoulder into his. “We win some, we lose some, okay? It’s not a reflection of how good we are at our job. Sometimes crap just happens.”

Only she didn’t say crap, because that Brittany didn’t tone her language down for anyone.

Jason stared at the pattern of the linoleum on the floor, Anne’s voice echoing in his memory. He knew Brittany was trying to comfort and encourage, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that if he had been more careful, he would have understood what Anne was saying and could have saved John too.

“Okay, Mr. Tanner.” The nurse stepped back in the exam room, bringing the tangy citrus smell of her perfume with her. “The doctor is on his way in. He’s going to do the sutures instead of the glue. He says that cut is too deep for the glue, so I had to grab more threat. Sorry for the wait.”

Brittany winked and slid her hand over Jason’s, intertwining her fingers with his. “That’s okay. I was keeping him company. I’ll hold his hand while the doctor stitches him up.”

She punched Jason playfully on the upper arm. At least he thought it was playful. Maybe Brittany was trying to be more than playful. Her fingers were tightly wound around his. If she was trying to be more than playful, he didn’t have the mental capacity to worry about it at the moment. The only subject on his mind, other than his need to apologize to Ellie, was hearing from Cody, finding out for sure that John was in the house and if Anne was okay.

The doctor came in next and after a greeting, wiped more blood away, cleaned the wound while Jason grimaced, and started the stitches. Jason’s phone rang on the third stitch.

“I’ll get it,” Brittany announced, snatching it from his hand.

Jason didn’t like her assertiveness in this case, but at least she wasn’t holding his hand anymore.

“Yeah, Cody, it’s me, Brittany. The doctor is sewing him up, so I thought I’d answer for him. I was on a transport to the hospital when I heard about the fire and that Jason was here. I thought I’d check on him.” She paused. “Yeah. Okay.” Her playful tone morphed into a more serious one as she nodded and listened to Cody talking. “I’ll tell him. No, I will. You know that. I’ll make sure he knows. Okay.”

She slid her finger over the screen and laid the phone on the top of the exam table between them.

He already knew what she was going to say before she said it. Her blue eyes glistened under the fluorescent glow.

“The fire marshal found John. In the kitchen. Near the stove. Preliminary investigation shows the fire was an accident, but she’ll know more later.” Brittany slid her hand over his again, squeezing gently. “Cody wants me to tell you that this isn’t your fault. You didn’t know John was in there. You’re a good man and a good firefighter. And he wants to make sure you call him if you need to talk. He’s also going to call later today and check on you and would appreciate a text when you get out of here for an update on the cut.”

Jason nodded, tight-lipped, jaw tight. He tried to speak, to thank her for the information, but no sound came out. He swallowed hard, finally got the words out. “Thanks, Brit. I appreciate it.”

She kept her hand tight on his and laid her other hand on his arm, leaning her head against his shoulder while the doctor continued sewing. “Anytime, bud. Anytime.”

***

Cody had told her Jason was at the hospital being stitched up. He’d also told her what the fire marshal had found, and that Anne Weatherly was being examined at the hospital. They’d know more about her condition later that evening.

As Ellie walked through the emergency room entrance, she felt a case of deja vu, only this time she knew Jason was okay and had only needed a few stitches for a cut on his forehead.

The situation could have been very different. One wrong step, a few more minutes of delay in the house, and she could have been here to identify a body. Of course, that task usually fell to family members, not ex-girlfriends.

Glancing at the front desk, she stifled a laugh. No way. It couldn’t be. What kind of crazy schedule did this woman have? Or maybe she was the only receptionist the hospital employed. Maybe this woman simply lived somewhere down the hall. Or pulled her bed out from under the desk in between visitors.

Whatever.

She didn’t have time to worry about the work schedule of a purple-haired stranger. She simply needed to find out where Jason was.

Wait. Purple hair? Didn’t she have blue hair last time? No. It was purple then, too. Wasn’t it?

Not that it actually mattered.

“Excuse me.”

The woman didn’t look up from the computer, per her usual customer service performance.

“May I help you?”

Fingernails clipped across the keyboard.

“I’m looking for Jason Tanner. He was brought here a couple of hours ago.”

“You family?”

“No, I’m —”

The woman pointed past Ellie’s shoulder, her gaze still on the computer. “Waiting room. Across the hall.”

“I understand, but —”

The receptionist pointed again.

Ellie rolled her eyes toward the ceiling and sighed.

In the waiting room, she pulled out her phone and saw a message from Molly.

Molly: I didn’t know whether to message you or not, but did Lucy tell you about the fire at Weatherly’s?

Ellie: Yes, I’m at the ER, waiting to check on Jason.

Molly: He texted and said it was just stitches, so we’re back at his place waiting for him.

Ellie: I’ll update you when I know more.

Molly: Thanks. Love you, El.

Ellie: Love you too, Molly.

She spent the rest of her wait scrolling through social media posts, crinkling her nose at the outfit of some 20-something-year-old celebrity she’d never heard of.

She had no idea why she’d ever signed up for Instagram anyhow. Probably because Judi had told her to so she could follow Judi and all her city-based adventures.

Speaking of Judi . . . What had she been posting on her account lately?

She searched Judi’s name and found a photo of her with an attractive-looking man at the top of her feed. A click on the photo showed the picture had been posted more than a month ago, a few days before Judi had arrived on Ellie’s doorstep.

Ellie read the caption.

“Life is better when you’re out on the town with your seriously hooooot co-worker. Kiss-kiss-hug-hug, peeps.”

Someone with the username lifeisahighway was tagged.

Ellie clicked the name and a series of photos of the man with his arms around barely stressed women or posing sans shirt popped up. The latest photo had been posted yesterday and was him being straddled on a couch by a woman with long red hair, his hands grasping her waist, his face buried in her cleavage.

“Nothing like a sex-filled weekend in the Hamptons,” read the caption.

Ellie cringed. “Gross.”

She scrolled further down his feed and stopped at a photo of him with Judi. They were standing on the patio of some restaurant. He was one step behind her, his hands resting on her thighs.

The caption drew a gasp from Ellie. To say it was crude and beyond inappropriate was an understatement. His description of what he planned to do with her sister clearly crossed the line of pornographic.

She scrolled further down the feed, but didn’t see any other photos of him with Judi, only other women, most of them cuddled up against him, a few even in his bed, sheets draped over them, yet making it clear they weren’t wearing clothes under those sheets.

At the sound of voices in the hall, she looked up, the phone still in her hand, her mouth still slightly open, denoting her shock over what she’d seen. Through the doorway, she watched Jason stop in the hallway next to the receptionist’s desk and turn to a blond woman next to him.

Ellie couldn’t hear what they were saying from where she was sitting, but the woman’s expression exuded compassion and her mannerisms were those of someone who was familiar, very familiar with him.

The woman patted his shoulder in one move and in the next her arms were around his neck, her lips against his cheek. The embrace and kiss were brief. In less than 30 seconds she was gone, and Jason stood in the hallway alone, watching her leave.

Ellie glanced to her left, wondering how smoothly she could move out of Jason’s eyesight if he turned toward the waiting room. He didn’t, though. Instead, he pulled his ducked his head down, pulled on his John Deere cap, and walked through the exit doors. Craning her neck, she looked through the wide windows in the waiting room, her gaze following him, curious if he’d follow the blond woman to her car.

She stood and walked to the window, almost afraid to look.

A truck was idling in the hospital driveway and for a moment she thought it might be the woman, picking him up. She watched Jason climb inside and then realized, as if a fog had lifted from her, the person driving the truck wasn’t blond and it wasn’t a woman. It was their friend, Matt McGee and obviously off duty as a Spencer Valley Police Officer.

Relief swept over her, but only briefly, because then she remembered how the woman had hugged Jason and pressed her mouth to his cheek. Who was she? Was she someone Jason had been seeing? It’s not as if Ellie could say anything. She was the one who had broken it off, the one who had pushed him away no matter how many times he had tried to apologize.

She slid her purse strap over her shoulder and walked into the hallway.

“That guy you were looking for just left.”

The receptionist’s voice mixed in with the sound of her nails clicking across the keyboard. As usual, she didn’t look up from the computer while she spoke.

“Thank you,” Ellie said with an amused smile. “You’ve been very helpful.”

Fiction Friday: Harvesting Hope, Chapter 19 Part 2

If you are a new reader here, I share a chapter from my WIP each Friday, and sometimes Saturday, on my blog. There are typos, grammatical issues and even plot holes at times because this is a first, second, or third draft that hasn’t gone to my editor (eh, husband) yet. If you see a typo, feel free to kindly let me know in the comments. Sometimes the error has already been fixed on my copy, sometimes not.

Catch up with the rest of the story HERE. Don’t feel like reading the book in a series of chapters each Friday? Preorder the book HERE. Do you want to read the first book in the series? Download it HERE. It is free through tomorrow on Kindle.

I will be looking for people to provide advanced reviews of the book on Goodreads, so if you are interested in that, let me know. I will send you a free copy of the book to read in full for that.

To explain why there is a part two to last week’s chapter: originally this section was going to be a prologue to the book (I posted it on here originally a few month ago), but I’ve decided to drop the prologue and move it down here (right with the scene where Jason arrives at the fire scene and before Ellie talks to Lucy) to help the story flow better. Tomorrow I will share Chapter 20, which will focus on what happens after the fire.



Chapter 19 Part 2

A few minutes later, smoke curled down Jason’s throat, choked him, burned his eyes, reminded him he didn’t have a clue what he was doing, and he should have waited for back up.

He couldn’t stop, though. He had to keep walking, one boot-clad foot in front of the other, gloved hands feeling the wall.

A life depended on it.

 “Help . . .” Ann’s voice quivered with panic, barely audible.

“Don’t move, Ann. I’m coming. Keep talking to me, okay?”

She was in the kitchen. He knew that, could tell where her voice was coming from, but he couldn’t see beyond the thick black smoke to reach her. Was he in the living room or the dining room at this point? It should be the dining room, but where were the tables and chairs?

 A series of coughs to his right changed his direction. He kept walking, slammed his arm off a door frame, glad the fire suit was padded. Air puffed into his mask from his oxygen tank, but the smoke still stifled, making him gag. Maybe it would overtake him before he could get to her. The coughing had stopped. He needed her to cough, to make some sort of sound.

“Ann?”

He heard nothing but the crackling of the flames licking up the wall, across the ceiling of the kitchen.

“Ann?”

His foot hit something solid, almost sent him sprawling. He regained his balance, crouched, moving along the floor, his line of sight demolished by the smoke. He yanked the gloves off, felt the floor, cool to the touch. His hand bumped against warm, soft flesh.

A hand.

Now an arm and a shoulder. He shook the shoulder gently.

 “Ann, it’s me, Jason Tanner. Can you hear me? I’ve got to get you out of here. Are you hurt?”

A soft cough from the direction of the body told him she was at least alive.

 “I’m going to lift you and we’re going to get out of here, okay?”

He couldn’t fling her over his shoulder. She was too fragile at her age to be carried like a sack of potatoes. Instead, he slid one arm under her legs, the other behind her back, carrying her like he might a small child. Her head fell against his shoulder as he lifted her.

“John.”                                                   

“No, ma’am. It’s Jason. You’re going to be okay.”

“John . . .”

She was lighter than a sack of potatoes, that was for sure. There was almost nothing to her.

Standing he looked through the smoke to where he knew the back door was. He couldn’t carry her through there. It was already engulfed in flames. He pressed his back against the wall and slid along it, slamming into the Hoosier cabinet. He knew that meant he was only a few steps from the kitchen doorway.

If he hadn’t visited this home so many times over the last year, he wouldn’t have known that the kitchen led to a small hallway, the dining room into the living room and then a foyer to the front door

He winced when his hip slammed into the dining room table. Ann moaned and he pulled her tighter against him, breathing hard. Above him flames crackled, wood snapped, the fire ripping across the ceiling, shredding the wooden beams between the floors.

 “John  . . .”

“We’ll be out soon, Mrs. Weatherly.”

But he wasn’t really sure of that. He had thought the living room was right in front of him, but now he was bumping against walls he didn’t remember being there. Had he turned wrong and ended up in the laundry room instead? Or maybe even a bathroom. He felt out with a gloved hand, touched a wall, then something hard, metal. The washer. He was in the laundry room. The laundry room that didn’t have a door or window.

He turned around slowly, making sure Ann’s head stead safe against his shoulder. Smoke poured from below and above him now. With the fire spreading across the top floor, he wondered how long it would be before it fell down on him.

“Jason!” Cody’s voice boomed from somewhere to his right. He felt for the wall, moved forward a few steps and stopped when his foot kicked into a doorframe.

“Jason! Are you in there?!”

“I’m coming!” His breath fogged up the shield of his helmet as he spoke.

At least had the sound of Cody’s voice to follow because he was even more blind that he had been before. “Move, Tanner! The roof is coming down!”

 Shuffling he tried to ignore the crackling and snapping above him. In front of him red and orange roared along the wall, blocking his exit. He took a deep breath, curled his upper body around Ann and kept moving. After a few steps, he felt a hard pull on the front of the turnout gear, hands yanking him forward into bright light and cool air.

“Guys!” Cody shouted next to his ear. “We got a patient!”

Ann was lifted from his arms, and he stumbled forward off the front porch, pulling at the mask, falling to the ground on his hands and knees as he gulped fresh air into his lungs. Behind him he heard the snapping of wood and the shattering of glass. The top floor had caved in. Hands snatched him under his arms, dragged him forward across the grass, further away from the burning house, as he continued to gag and gasp for air.

“Did Denny get out?!” he yelled as soon as he could breathe again.

He looked up, his vision blurred by sweat and smoke.

Denny was guzzling water a few feet away by the fire truck, pouring it over his head and then drinking again. Two other firefighters, James Lantz and Duane Trenton, stood above Jason, breathing hard, wiping sweat and soot from their faces. Jason realized they were the ones who had dragged him across the yard. Cody hooked an arm under Jason’s, helping him to his feet.

“No one is sure where John is. Denny was in looking for him, but the flames pushed him back. See any sign of him?”

Jason shook his head, taking the fresh bottle of water Denny offered him. “I could barely see anything in there. Ann was in the kitchen. If anyone else was in there I couldn’t see them.”

He couldn’t have seen anything. What if John had been in there? Somewhere on the floor near his wife?

He sucked the water from the bottle down in one gulp, then quickly looked up at the firefighters still battling the flames, trying to save the house even though they all knew it would be a total loss.

“Breathe in.” Brittany pressed an oxygen mask against his face and hooked the band behind his head. “Sit.”

Brittany wasn’t afraid to order the first responders around if it was for their own good and sometimes even when it wasn’t. Jason sat on the ground, legs bent, popping his arm on his knees as he breathed deep, coughed, and breathed deep again.

Ann’s pleading voice inside the house replayed in his mind as he sucked fresh oxygen into his lungs.  “John.”

Horror shivered through him. Oh God. No.

“Cody!” He pulled the oxygen mask off his nose. “John’s still inside!”

He leapt to his feet, but Cody pivoted fast, pressed his hands against Jason’s chest. “Slow down, big guy. You aren’t going anywhere. The second floor’s collapsed. There’s nothing we can do.”

“She tried to tell me. Mrs. Weatherly. Ann. She — she couldn’t breathe, must have passed out, but she was calling for John. I didn’t understand. I should have —”

Cody shook his head. “Let’s not jump to conclusions. Maybe John is at the store or somewhere else. You couldn’t have carried them both out, anyhow.” He placed both hands on Jason’s shoulder. “Look at me, Tanner. If John’s gone, it isn’t your fault. You did all you could. We’ll know more when the fire is out and the fire marshal gets here.”

Jason nodded, pressed the mask back to his face and breathed in deep, glancing to his right and watching the paramedics attending to Ann as she laid prostrate on her backon the stretcher.

Part of him knew Cody was right.

He couldn’t have carried both Mr. and Mrs. Weatherly out of that house, but if he had only stopped to listen, to understand what Ann had been saying, he could have tried. He could have pushed forward a few more feet, found John if he was in there.

He raked a hand through his damp hair, clutched at it, and let out a long breath into the oxygen mask. His mind raced.

 Maybe John Weatherly hadn’t even been home when the fire broke out. Maybe he’d pull into that driveway any minute in his old blue 1970 Lincoln Continental and be perfectly healthy and alive. Jason slumped back against the side of the fire truck, fought the emotion grasping at his throat. Something deep in his gut told him John wasn’t going to pull into that driveway.

Not today.

Not ever again.

He was inside that house, now almost down to the ground, flames shooting up from what was left of the first floor.

Ann hadn’t mistaken Jason for her husband.

 She’d been trying to tell Jason her husband was still in the house.

His jaw tightened as he heard the ambulance siren wail, saw the red lights swirling. It took him back to nine months before, to that rainy day in the lower field, when it had been his dad being loaded into an ambulance. He had felt emotion stuck in his throat that day in the lower field too and he had swallowed it down hard, shoving the fear of losing his father tight inside the same hollow spot in his chest where he’d shoved his heartache over Ellie walking away.

He hadn’t had time for emotion then, and he didn’t now. He shoved his guilt over John right against his shame from that night with Lauren Phillips, right against the grief he still felt over the loss of his grandfather, right against the hurt he’d caused Ellie.

Fiction Friday: Harvesting Hope (formerly The Farmer’s Sons) Chapter 18

Hold on to your seats, regular readers. Today’s chapter is going to send you on a bumpy ride. In fact, the next several chapters are going to.

If you are a new reader here, I share a chapter from my WIP each Friday, and sometimes Saturday, on my blog. There are typos, grammatical issues and even plot holes at times because this is a first, second, or third draft that hasn’t gone to my editor yet. If you see a typo, feel free to kindly let me know in the comments. Sometimes the error has already been fixed on my copy, sometimes not.

Catch up with the rest of the story HERE. Don’t feel like reading the book in a series of chapters each Friday? Preorder the book HERE. Do you want to read the first book in the series? Download it HERE.


Chapter 18


Sunday morning Ellie watched a bottleneck effect unfold in the sanctuary doorway and wished she had slipped out of the service early. At this rate, standing all the way at the back of the crowd, she’d never get out of the sanctuary. It was her turn to provide lunch at her parents, and she still had to go back to her apartment and pick up the crock pot with the shredded chicken. And Judi. If Judi was even awake. Ellie had driven a drunk Brad and Judi home the night before, sometime around midnight, dropping Brad off first and then parking his truck at her parents. He could walk to her parents this morning, or whenever he regained consciousness, and pick it up.

She’d done everything she could to keep Judi quiet while she helped her from Brad’s truck and practically shoved her in the passenger side of the sedan, hoping their parents didn’t wake up and find out the truth about Judi at 1 a.m. on a Saturday night. Her absence in church wouldn’t have been a sign to them that anything was amiss, since Judi hadn’t attended a service since she’d arrived. Their mom had mentioned it once, in private, to Ellie, expressing concern about Judi’s spiritual health, but hadn’t pursued it further as far as Ellie knew.

This morning Ellie’s eyes were heavy, and she’d yawned more than once during the sermon, hoping Pastor Joe hadn’t seen her and thought it was a silent review of his message.

She looked to her left and flinched involuntarily at the sight of Jason standing directly next to her. She had no way to get away from him. People were crushed against them on all sides.  Their shoulders touched, and heat rose from her chest to her face. There it was again. The physical attraction she wanted to deny but couldn’t. Without warning, an image of him shirtless by the woodpile the afternoon before popped into her mind.

She let out a slow breath and willed the image away, but only managed to transform the image into one of him swinging the ax, his biceps contracting with each hit. His biceps. The ones she used to run her hands up as they kissed. The ones pressed against her shoulder at this very moment.

 He glanced at her at the same moment she glanced at him, then they both looked away quickly. Like a pair of love struck teenagers, she thought, withholding an eye roll, so he didn’t think she was rolling her eyes at him.

“Good morning,” he said at last.

“Good morning.” Where had her voice gone? It came out as a squeaking rasp.

Finally, the crowd broke through and they were stepping into the more spacious lobby area. Sunlight taunted her through the floor to ceiling windows lining the front walls. A few more steps and she would be free. She started to step away from him, toward the hallway that led to the back door, when she heard a voice behind her.

“Ellie. Jason. Hey.” Pastor Joe stepped between them and placed a hand lightly on each of their elbows like a teacher who’d caught two students misbehaving in the hallway. His voice was gentle, though not in the least bit scolding. “Glad to grab you two together.”

They caught each other’s gaze. They weren’t exactly together. They’d simply walked out at the same time.

“I was hoping I could talk a few minutes with you,” Joe continued. “In my office?”

He gestured down the opposite hallway that Ellie had been trying to escape down.

She looked up and Jason was looking at her, as if he was trying to decide how he should answer the pastor.

“Um. Yeah,” Jason said slowly, his gaze still locked with her’s. “Sure.”

Sure? No. It wasn’t supposed to be sure. Where was his usual excuse of “I’ve got work to do at the farm”? She could have really used that line from him today.

“Hey, Don.” Pastor Joe called to the assistant pastor, who was saying goodbye to parishioners. “Can you make sure we’re not interrupted?”

Don nodded and smiled as if he knew something Ellie and Jason didn’t.

Ellie’s eyebrows dipped down, and she frowned. Is this some kind of intervention?

Inside his office, Pastor Joe sat in a chair in front of his desk and gestured to two chairs across from him. “Sit down, guys.” He gently pushed the door closed. “I don’t like to sit behind my desk when I talk to people, if you’re wondering why I’m sitting here instead. I feel the desk puts up metaphorical walls between us and we don’t need walls up today.”

Ellie’s muscles tensed at his words. Walls? What walls? Had Pastor Joe heard about her conversation with Jason in the parking lot? The service has been in the middle of worship. Could the congregation have heard them between the songs? Maybe the walls weren’t as thick as they looked. If someone other than Molly had heard them, though, then why had Pastor Joe waited so long to talk to them about it?

“So.” The pastor clapped his hands together and leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees. “This is an awkward conversation for me to initiate but, well, I care about you two and I’m just going to go for it.” He cleared his throat and sat back in the chair, propping his elbow on the arm. “Normally I don’t get involved in the private lives of my parishioners, unless they ask, but in this case, I hope you’ll take this as me simply being concerned about your well-being and not me being nosey. Frankly, I’m worried about you two.” He paused for effect and held each of their gazes for a few seconds. “Let’s not beat around the bush. I’m aware you two are not a couple at the moment and, well, I just want to be sure that this is what you both want.”

Ellie and Jason had both pulled their gazes from their pastor. Jason had found something very interesting on the front of his shirt and was picking at it. Ellie was examining the carpet like it was a science experiment that needed to be figured out. Ellie chewed lightly on her bottom lip and Jason rubbed two fingers against his chin, as if suddenly deep in thought.

After about thirty seconds of silence, Pastor Joe cleared his throat. “So, it is what you both want then.”

It was a statement, not a question.

Jason glanced at Ellie, then looked back at the desk. “It’s what she wants.”

She stiffened at his comment, and her jaw tightened. Oh really? She’d wanted him to keep his past from her?

“Okay.” Pastor Joe leaned back in his chair and looked at each of them. One at a time. “Is there a reason for that? I mean, would you two like to talk more about it sometime? Maybe during a type of counseling session?”

Ellie laughed softly. “What, like marriage counseling? We’re not even married.”

And probably never will be at this point.

Pastor Joe smiled. “I know, but you’ve been together so long it’s almost like you are.”

So long. Yes. Twelve long years. Maybe twelve long, waisted years.

“But we aren’t,” she said stiffly.

She felt rather than saw Jason roll his eyes. “Just keep rubbing that in why don’t you?”

She didn’t respond, crossing one leg over the other and leaning back in the chair instead, now studying Pastor Joe’s collection of books.

Oswald Chambers, C.S. Lewis, Derek Prince, Billy Graham, and several theological texts.

All out of alphabetical order too. She should volunteer to organize it for him sometime. The disorganization was making her head spin.

Pastor Joe nodded. “Okay, so I’m guessing one of you wants me be married and the other doesn’t?”

Her muscles tightened at the question, waiting to hear what Jason would say.

He didn’t say anything for several minutes. Then, finally, he cleared his throat. “You could say that, I guess.” He was looking at the arm of the chair as he spoke. “I wanted to marry her but she —”

“He wasn’t even really going to propose.”

Had she just said that out loud? Apparently she had, and apparently, she wasn’t done. “I thought he proposed, but really he was going to tell me about something he did in college. Something he’d never told me about.”

Pastor Joe nodded, encouraging her to continue.

“Well, I mean —” She swallowed hard. Her mouth was dry. What had she been going to say? To their pastor? She certainly wasn’t going to say what Jason had done and why it bothered her.

“You mean what?”

Jason’s tone was as sharp as the look he was giving her.

Her heart rate had increased, her palms were damp. She clutched the sides of her skirt, hoping to calm her breathing. For a brief time Pastor Joe disappeared from her view, or at least she forgot he was there.

“You gave to her what you were supposed to give to me.” She blurted the accusation out before her brain had fully engaged. “‘Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother and shall cleave unto his wife and they shall become one flesh.’ That’s what we were supposed to be on our wedding night but you became one flesh with another woman instead.”

She’d expected Jason to apologize again, to recognize she was trying to tell him how she really felt. She expected him to soften, to understand the vulnerability she was showing.

Instead, he snorted.

Literally snorted.

Like Old Bart before he charged.

His green eyes darkened.

“I know the verse, Ellie.” His tone was even and low, but she could hear the slight tremble in it, like a rope straining under a great weight, just about to break. “That’s what I wanted with you but then you dropped me in college.”

“I did not drop you in college. We agreed to take a break.”

“No. You wanted the break. I agreed because I thought it was what you wanted.”

“What I wanted? I thought it was what you wanted. You kept talking about hard long-distance relationships were. I thought you were saying you thought we should break things off while you were in college.”

“You thought? Why didn’t you just ask?”

“What, like you asked me? You didn’t ask either. You assumed. You assumed I didn’t want you and I guess that was the excuse you needed to go get what you’d probably always wanted to do anyhow.”

A muscle in Jason’s jaw jumped, like the pump of a shotgun being pulled back. “Excuse me? What’s that supposed to mean? What I always wanted to do?” There was the snort again. “Is that all you think I ever wanted from you? I mean, it’s how you acted part of the time over the years. Always apologizing when you told me we had to slow down like I was some sex-craved maniac who only wanted to ravage you. Then me, going home, feeling guilty because I wanted to ravage you, but it wasn’t all I wanted to do. There’s more to a relationship than sex, Ellie and I thought that was obvious by how I’ve respected your wishes all these years.”

Now it was her turn to snort. “My wishes? Weren’t they your wishes, too? You act like it wasn’t hard for me either.”

“Well, was it? I don’t know. You always acted like it wasn’t difficult for you. As far as I know you’ve never even wanted our relationship to progress beyond making out and holding hands.” He gripped the arms of the chair, his knuckles white. “You know what, that’s not true.” He leaned forward. “I know you did. Let’s stop pretending for our pastor’s sake. You never said it, but your body showed it more than once. Don’t sit here and lie. Why don’t you tell Pastor Joe the truth? That you aren’t the innocent little virgin everyone thinks you are. That you have sexual desires just like anyone else. You’re not some virtuous, pure of thought woman, sitting on a bed of lily-white. You wanted me as much as I wanted you or your hands wouldn’t have been —”

She stood quickly. “That’s enough Jason.”

“What’s enough?” Jason leaned forward, and she could feel the anger radiating off him. “Pulling back the curtain you hide behind? Calling you out for your hypocrisy? Who knows, El. Maybe I’m not the only one who has secrets. What happened between you and Brad while I was gone?”

Her mouth opened slightly and stayed there a few seconds before she closed it again.

“Nothing happened between me and Brad.”

“Really? Because he’s been sniffing around you like a bloodhound since he got back. Seems like he wants to rekindle a fire he started at some point. Maybe on those dates you two went on while I was in college.”

“You’re comparing three dates with your cousin to you sleeping with a girl in college while drunk and never telling me?”

Jason was standing now. He took a step closer, his eyes never leaving hers, practically boring holes straight through her.  “I screwed up. I told you that. I forgot who I was. I was drinking and made a huge mistake.” He pointed a finger at her chest, like he had that day in the parking lot. “Real life isn’t like one of your Christian romance novels, Elizabeth Lambert. Those novels where everyone is pure and perfect and never fall. In the real world, people go against everything they stood for and wanted in life to make all the pain stop and then they regret it.” Her gaze fell on a vein popping up on the side of his neck as his voice rose.” I messed up. I know that. I went against God’s word and my morals. I shattered my idea of what my first time would be like, and I get I shattered your perfect dream of that moment, but real life is messy.”

He stepped back, tossing his arms up and then down again. “And I’ve apologized. More than once. To God and to you. I will not spend my whole life apologizing for something I can’t go back and change.”

Pastor Joe stood and took a step forward until he was practically between them. “Okay, guys, listen. I can tell there are some real issues here. I have no problem talking through them with you now, but if you want to take a break, calm things down some, we can agree on a time to meet again and —”

Jason propped his hands at his waist, shook his head. “What’s the point? She’s never going to forgive me.”

Ellie huffed out a sigh. “It’s not just about forgiving, Jason. It’s also about forgetting. I have to forget that you weren’t open with me, that you felt like you couldn’t tell me about your past. I have to forget about you sleeping with this other woman. That’s not an easy thing to do.”

Even as the words came out of her mouth, she knew it was a mistake. First, she had her own issues she hadn’t been open with him about and second  . . .

“And this is why I didn’t feel like I could tell you about my past. Because I didn’t know how you would react, if you would stop loving me, stop looking at me like I’m someone you want to spend the rest of your life with. My nightmare became a reality the moment you broke down when I told you, the moment you told me you needed a break. Be honest with me, Ellie. You don’t just want a break, you want to end this. You want to turn around and walk away and find the perfect man who fits your perfect idea of what a Christian man should be — pure and righteous and never makes a mistake.”

He took a step back, shaking his head again, jaw tight again, eyes flashing again. “Well, I can’t be that. I’m real. I’m not the figment of some novelist’s imagination. This is real life. Right here. With me loving you despite it all, with me wishing you could see that I’m not perfect, but all I’ve ever wanted is to spend my life loving you and our future children. If you can’t see past my imperfections, then I don’t know what to tell you.”

He turned quickly and ripped the door open, walking through it and maybe, Ellie realized with sickening dread, out of her life.

Pastor Joe placed a hand on her shoulder. “You okay?”

She nodded slowly, knowing she was lying, again, to her pastor. Emotions swirled in her like a tornado across the Kansas prairie. Hurt, desolation, and anger dominated, ready to alight on her soul and take it over. Humiliation was fighting for its rightful place, too. Her face flushed warm at the memory of Jason’s words. How he’d almost told Pastor Joe about the many times they’d pushed the envelope, set a foot over the line of temptation and almost been unable to turn back.

“I need to go.”

“Ellie, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have pushed you two to talk. I had no idea things would get that heavy that fast.”

She waved away his guilt. “It’s not your fault. It’s been building up to that for months. Sadly, you were just here to witness the final explosion.”

He squeezed her shoulder gently. “If you need to talk, you know how to reach me. Call me anytime. Truly. And if you’d feel more comfortable talking to a woman, I know Emily would be more than willing to talk with you as well.”

She thanked him, suddenly numb. Out in the parking lot, she didn’t even feel the sun warm on her face or hear the birds chirping in the oak tree next to the church playground.

The next ten minutes were a blur. The dam she’d built over the last several months broke as she drove out of town. Her vision blurred behind a veil of tears. She barely noticed the buildings and cars rushing by her, the town fading into farmland and forests, green and brown rushing by her car window until she reached a pull off along a wooded area next to the river, five miles out of town.

She slid the car into park, shut it off and pressed her hands against her face, images of Jason’s angry face swirling in her mind as sobs shook her body. Rung out, beat down, drained of any strength, physical or mental. That’s how she felt.

How could he have said all of that in front of Pastor Joe? About the times they’d almost slept with each other? About the times they’d gone further than either of them had planned? About how she was a liar and a hypocrite?

She was glad she saw the dark side of him before she’d made the mistake of marrying him. Now she was sure that the Jason she had thought she had known all those years wasn’t the real Jason.

The real Jason was the shouting man in Pastor Joe’s office.

The real Jason kept secrets from her and humiliated her.

The real Jason wasn’t who she wanted to spend the rest of her life with.