Fiction Friday: A New Chapter Chapter 27

I will be sharing the last chapters of this story tomorrow. This chapter has a bit too much cheese at the end so that may change before this book is final.

Chapter 27

She couldn’t get her hands to stop trembling.

Even now, standing at her apartment door, unlocking it, far away from the scene of the shooting. She’d called Ginny and Ginny had agreed with Matt. She was closing the library early anyhow because of all the police activity down the street. 

A conversation she’d had with Molly over a year ago resurfaced.

“I’m just friends with Matt. It’s not like that. He’s easy to talk to and I like hanging out with him, but — he’s Matt. I’ll always think of him as a brother more than a boyfriend. Maybe because he’s friends with Jason and I just remember him as that weird military obsessed guy from high school.”

Molly had tipped her head in a pitying way, more pity toward Matt than Liz. “He’s a nice guy, Liz.”

“Yeah, I know, but he’s also a cop. I don’t know if I can date a cop. I mean, what if I develop more feelings for him and then I’ll just worry about him out there on the streets . . .”

Molly had snickered. “On the streets of Spencer? Where what — he might get punched by a drunk guy down at Mooney’s or get kicked by a cow?”

Liz had turned from the list of coffee flavors behind the counter at the coffee shop they were at and tipped her head. “Molly, you really are naïve about what happens in this county, aren’t you?”

And Molly had been, but maybe she’d been a little naïve too. Sure, she knew there were issues with drugs and alcohol in this town, but someone being shot on the street? No, she hadn’t thought that would happen. Matt could have been killed. It was a thought that surfaced, but that she pushed back down again. If she thought about that too long, she’d trigger a panic attack and those had been better lately. She didn’t want them to come back again

She glanced at the sunlight streaming in through the windows in the living room as her phone rang and she shut the door behind her, locking it.

“Are you okay? Martha said there was a shooting on Main Street. Is that true? Do you know?”

She tossed her keys on the kitchen table. “I’m fine, Mom. Yes. Matt was there and he’s okay too. He told me to go back to my apartment so I’m there, with the door locked.” Sliding her shoes off she yawned. Since her mom and dad were watching Bella, maybe she could manage a nap.

“Where is Molly? Is she with you?”

“She’s at the store. We’ve talked and she’ll be home early tonight.”

They chatted a few seconds longer about Bella and the fact she was taking a nap so Marge would bring her to the apartment in the evening. Liz’s shoulders relaxed as she slid her finger over the end call button and dropped her phone into her purse, then hung the purse on the back of the kitchen chair. Her bed was definitely calling to her.

“Are you okay, Liz? Really?”

A scream ripped through her at the sound of the deep voice from behind her. She swung around to face the dark hallway. Gabe’s laughter boomed off the walls, sending a chill shivering through her. When he stepped forward, sunlight brightened one side of his face and the other remained in darkness. What the sun hit was bruised and swollen, dark purple mixing with light purple.

Liz took a step back toward the kitchen.  “What are you doing here?”

Gabe gestured outward with his arms, leaning against the wall, more of his face coming into the light. “Just thought I should see what the mother of my child is up to these days.” His leather jacket was open, revealing a white T-shirt, stained with red and brown. “What? Don’t you like visitors?”

Liz’s chest constricted as she bumped into one of the chairs pushed into the table. “Not those who aren’t invited, no.”

Gabe pushed himself off the wall, and walked into the living room, slumping into the chair next to the couch.

Liz could clearly see his black eye and a deep cut across his cheek now. He winced and lifted his foot, stretching out his leg, and propping it on the coffee table. “Don’t worry, drama queen. I’m not here to hurt you. I just got myself in some trouble. Needed a place to lay low for a bit.”

“How did you even get in here?”

He smirked. “You know, for having a boyfriend who’s a cop, your apartment isn’t very secure. I climbed in one of the bedroom windows. Must be Molly’s room with all those cow photos hanging all over.” He grimaced as he lifted the other leg and propped it next to the first. “That’s what McGee is, right? Your boyfriend?”

Liz kept moving backwards until she bumped into the kitchen counter. Two more steps to her left and she’d have her hand on the drawer with the knives.

“You need to leave, Gabe.”

“Oh, Liz. Liz. Calm down and have a seat. Let’s just chat a while. I already said I’m not going to hurt you.” He hugged his arm around his side and made a face. “I’m not in any shape to hurt anyone right now anyhow.”

Her fingertips touched the edge of the knife drawer. He wasn’t looking at her. His eyes were focused somewhere outside the window, his eyelids heavy. She wasn’t sure she cared, but she asked anyhow. “What happened to you?”

He scoffed. “Life happened to me, Lizzie dear.” He tipped his head back, closed his eyes. “It finally caught up to me. All the fun couldn’t last forever, right?”

She ran her finger along the edge of the drawer, ready to open it if he moved. He kept talking as her eyes drifted to her purse, now several feet away.

Gabe sighed. “I’m in trouble.” He coughed out a laugh, his eyes still closed. “When am I not in trouble, right? But, alas, I am in even bigger trouble than ever before.”

Her mind flitted between opening the drawer and lunging for the phone in her purse. “What’s going on?” She should probably keep him talking until she decided. “Who did this to you?

She took a step toward the purse at the same moment his eyes opened, and he tipped his head to look at her.

“Do you really care? Really, Lizzie?” He sneered. “You know you don’t.”

He was right. She just wanted him to leave. She knew she should care, though. She should see him the way God saw him – as a flawed human who deserved a second chance. That wasn’t how she saw him, though.

She saw him as a threat.

He tipped his head back again, but kept his eyes opened, focused on the ceiling. “I never thought I’d be where I am today. All I did was borrow some money to keep the business going. Then a little more for the pills to keep me going. Who knew my uncle would call in the loan by manipulating me into running his drug business?” He laughed again, the sound sending a mix of pity and anxiety skittering through Liz.

She stood frozen between the kitchen table and the counter, unsure which direction to go. Gabe’s lack of predictably always had been a problem.

“Are you on the pills now?”

He stood abruptly and turned toward her, but leaned forward quickly, hands on his knees, grimacing. He lifted his head without straightening. “You think I’d be in this much pain if I was?” He stood, his arm wrapped around his side, and moved toward the other side of the living room, near a display of photographs on the wall above the television. His eyes moved from photo to photo as she took two steps closer to the purse.

He glanced at her. “She looks like you. That’s a good thing.”

Liz drew in a breath slowly, glad Bella was with her grandparents.

He kept his eyes on the photo as he spoke. “I screwed up, Liz. I borrowed money from him, lost it gambling and fueling the pill addiction. When I couldn’t get it back to him, he told me I’d either help him with deliveries and production or he’d end me.” His smile was unnatural considering the topic he was discussing. “Fitting isn’t it? He did to me what I did to you. Manipulated me into getting what he wanted like I manipulated you.” He pushed a trembling hand through disheveled, dark brown hair, laughed sardonically. “What goes around comes around, right? Isn’t that in the Bible?

Liz folded her arms across her chest, keeping her gaze locked on him. “No, I don’t think it is.”

He turned to face her. “An eye for an eye, right? Same thing?”

She tilted her head to one side, her jaw tight. “Not exactly. No.”

He walked toward her slowly. “I’m not going to hurt you, Liz. I already told you that.” He stopped a couple of feet from her, hands at his side. “I came here because I can’t figure you out and I want to figure you out before I go to jail.

The muscles in her body tensed. Her gaze flitted to the purse again. Only a few more steps and she could have it, but could she get the phone out before he reached her? He took another stepped toward her and she had her answer. “What are you talking about?

He tipped his head back slightly looking at her through narrowed eyes. “Why didn’t you press charges against me?” He tipped his head back down and shrugged a shoulder, pulling the chair with her purse on it out and sitting in it. “I pretty much assaulted you that night in my apartment. We both know it.” He laid his hand on the table. “Are you still so afraid of mommy and daddy finding out about you that you never told anyone how that baby was really conceived?”

Liz folded her arms tighter across her chest. What was his game, really? Was he kidding right now? Did he feel guilt or pride over his actions? She couldn’t read him.

“You really need to leave, Gabe.”

“It was wrong, Liz.” He leaned forward on his knees, winced again, and touched a hand to his ribs. “What I did. You deserved better than that. You’re a good person. Better than me and almost anyone else and I stepped all over that.”

She pivoted quickly, ripped open the knife drawer and grabbed the first one she could reach. Swinging around she held it out in front of her. She knew him too well. He never apologized. There was another reason behind his words.

“Get out, Gabe.”

He raised his hands, still sitting, a smirk twitching one corner of his mouth upward. “What are you going to do, stab me?” He laughed, his hands still up. “It would serve me right at this point. You should just go ahead and get it over with.”

She gripped the knife handle tighter, stepping slowly around the table until she was in front of him. “Just leave, okay?”

“So, you can call Matty-boy to come arrest me?”

He laughed again, lowered his hands, and then tipped his head forward, closing his eyes. “Just do it.” He opened his eyes again as he lifted his head and looked at her. “Call McGee. Show’s over for me.” He reached behind him, reached into her purse and slid out the phone, laying it on the table. He pressed a finger on top of it and slid it across the table toward her. “Jail is the safest place for me right now, trust me.”

She kept the knife in front of her, glancing at the phone then back at him. He inclined his head toward the phone. “Take it. Call him.” He slid his finger over the screen, opening it. “Here, I’ll help you.” He looked at the phone and tipped his head, pushing his lower lip out. “Aw, look at that. McGee’s in your favorites. “How cute.” He tapped his finger on Matt’s name. “There, I dialed it for you. Tell him to come rescue you from your scary ex-boyfriend.”

Instinct told her not to reach for the phone. Gabe tapped the speaker button instead.

Matt’s voice came from the phone. “Liz? What’s going on? Are you okay?”

Gabe kept his eyes focused on hers, smiling as he leaned toward the phone. “Liz needs rescuing, McGee. At her apartment. Better drop your Bible and get on over here.” He leaned closer to the phone. “And feel free to bring the calvary.”

He slid his finger over the end button and leaned back in the chair. “Uncle Buck was running the overall operation. I agreed to take over the part in this area to keep him off my back about all the money I owed him. Bernie was just a scape goat. I tricked him into make deliveries. He needed the money for his family. When he caught on to what was going on he tried to break loose, and I tried to blackmail him. It didn’t work and he walked. The police already had him pegged as trouble, so it was easy to set him up.”

Why was he telling her all of this? She stepped back against the corner of the wall, pulling the knife closer to her. “You can tell the police this.”

“I will, but I wanted to tell you too.”

“Someone shot Bernie Denton.”

He quirked an eyebrow. “I didn’t know that. Is he going to be okay?”

Her knuckles whitened as she clutched the knife. “I don’t know. Matt was with him.”

Gabe tipped his head back and laughed. “Of course he was.” He looked at her again, the smile fading. “Ah, then Bernie will live. Having McGee around is like having your own personal Jesus, right?”

Liz ignored the snarky edge to the comment. “Were you using?”

He shook his head. “Never sampled the product. Alcohol and pills are my vice. You know that.” He kicked the chair next to him out and propped a leg on it. “So, you officially with McGee now?”

She had no idea why she was standing here. She could reach the door, but part of her worried what he was really up to, if he’d grab her when she tried to run, take the knife and turn the tables on her.

“If you’re asking if I am in love with Matt, then yes I am.” Sirens sounded in the distance. “I used to think I was in love with you, but I was in love with the idea of you. Sadly, you were never what or who I thought you were.”

He snorted a brief laugh. “I wasn’t who I thought I was either.” He tapped the top of the table with his hand. “Sounds like the calvary is almost here so listen Liz, good luck with your life. With the kid. McGee. All of it.” He glanced at the door, the sirens louder now. “I’ll be in there a long time, so I won’t be messing anything up for you.”

Footsteps pounded on the steps outside and Liz lowered the knife slowly. He wasn’t moving. He wasn’t running. He wasn’t reaching out for her.

He was a man beaten. He knew it and as his shoulders stooped, he even looked the part. She kept her eyes on him as she reached over and unlocked the door. It slammed open and back against the wall behind it seconds before Matt rushed into the room. Behind him were two uniformed Spencer officers, one she recognized as his former partner Tom Stapleton. The other must have been the rookie he’d mentioned to her.

Gabe brought his wrists together in front of him and held them up, his eyes still on Liz. “Cuff me, Officer McGee. I’m ready for my close up.”

Tom cuffed Gabe instead, one wrist first, while the rookie held a hand against Matt’s chest, as if to hold him back, remind him he was still on suspension.

Tom pulled Gabe to his feet, pushed him against the top of the kitchen table and pulled his arms behind him, hooking the other cuff in place.

Gabe pulled his gaze from Liz and looked up at Matt. “Look familiar, McGee? Bet you wish you had your knee in my back again, don’t you?”

Matt took a step back toward Liz as Tom pulled Gabe to a standing position and pushed him toward the front door.

Gabe tilted his head down, focused on the floor as he walked. “Take care of her, McGee. She deserves better than me.”

Liz swallowed hard, surprising herself when she told Gabe she’d pray for him.

He scoffed, head still down. “Pray all you want. I don’t believe in that crap and never will.” He swallowed hard and looked back up as Tom pushed him through the doorway. “But thanks for saying it anyhow.” He pushed back against Tom, pausing and looked at Matt, winking. “See what I mean? She deserves better.”

Matt stood in front of Liz and pulled her against him as the rookie followed Tom out the door, pulling it closed behind him. She buried her face against Matt’s chest and let out a shaky breath.

“You okay?”

She nodded, grateful for the numbness that was currently settled over her mind. “This day has been really, really weird.”

The vibrations of his laugh against her cheek made her smile. The warmth of his arms around her made her smile. Him being here when he could have been in a hospital right now fighting for his life like Bernie was made her smile. The fact she somehow wasn’t having a panic attack despite all that had happened also made her smile.

She closed her eyes as he held her and kissed the top of her head. For the first time in a long time, she felt safe and calm. Safe in Matt’s arms, safe in his love, and safe in the love of God.

Fiction Thursday: A New Chapter Chapter 26

For the next three days I’m going to share the last of the chapters of A New Chapter (renamed Beauty From Ashes). The complete book will be available in full on various sites on April 26. You can pre-order it HERE or HERE.


Chapter 26

Millie Baker stared at him through the glass door of her shop, her eyes widened in curious terror. He heard the lock on the other side of the door click and the door squeaked as it opened a few inches. “Matt, what should I do? Is that young man hurt? Should I call 911?”

“Yes, Mrs. Baker. Lock the door again and get to the back of the shop and call 911. Tell them we have an active shooter, okay?”

The elderly women lowered her head and he thought he saw a tear on her cheek. Poor Millie. Gunshots weren’t something the people of Spencer ever heard on their Main Street. The world was changing, and it wasn’t something anyone was comfortable with, not even Matt who’d known for years it would all spill into this picturesque scene one day, marring its quaintness.

He turned his attention back to Bernie. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Dan running toward him down the street in the direction of the coffee shop. 

“Active shooter! Everyone, get down!” Dan’s voice echoed through the street that had vacated within seconds after the gunshots sounded.

Dan kneeled next to Bernie in the doorway, looking at Matt. “Did you hear where the shots came from?”

Matt gripped the gun, looked down the street. “Somewhere low, I think. Not up from the buildings. There was an echo when it fired. Like off walls or a hallway.”

“Call it in. Tell them we need back up.” Dan’s jaw clenched as he gripped his service weapon and headed for the alley across the street. Matt used his cellphone to contact 911, pinning it between his shoulder and chin while he tried to get a better look at Bernie’s wound. Mille could report the incident, but he would need to give the police the information they needed before they came in to the scene.

Bernie groaned as Matt yanked his own jacket off while talking to the dispatcher, pressing it against Bernie’s stomach to try to stop the bleeding. “One man down, gunshot to the stomach, trooper on scene needs back up.”

“The ambulance is already on its way, Officer McGee.” The female dispatcher spoke in a calm tone. “I need to tell them if this is an active shooter situation. Is it? They won’t come in until the scene is cleared.”

Matt’s chest tightened. Bernie needed to get to the emergency room as fast as possible. “The scene is not cleared.” He hated saying it, but he couldn’t put the paramedics or anyone else at risk. “Active shooter situation. Have them set up at the end of the street.”

Stan stepped from the other side of him and kneeled next to Bernie. “What can I do?”

“Help me get his head propped up and him stretched out so I can keep pressure on the wound.”

Stan sat and slid Bernie’s head into his lap. “It’s going to be okay, kid. Hang in there.”

Stan’s eyes glistened and Matt knew it wasn’t the cold air causing it. The poor man was a real estate agent who had expected a quiet, calm day and here he was holding the head of a man who had just been shot in their usually quiet, calm town.

When Matt looked up, Reggie was running toward him, weapon drawn, the rookie and his former partner behind him.

In a few seconds it was clear their weapons weren’t needed, though, as Dan emerged from the alley with his hand gripping the back of a man’s shirt as he pushed him into the light and toward the bake shop.

 Disheveled hair fell across the man’s forehead and dark brown eyes. His mouth twisted into a snarl as Dan pushed him up against the hood of the cruiser and yanked his arms behind his back.

“You got what you deserve, Denton!” the man’s voice echoed off the buildings on Main Street. “You snitch! You can die!”

Dan pinned him to the cruiser as he hooked the cuffs. “Are you serious right now? Did you really think you’d get away with shooting a guy in broad daylight?”

The man spit toward the ground, much of it landing on the hood. “No and I don’t care. Bernie got what was coming to him for being a snitch.”

Dan yanked the man to a standing position and shoved him toward the back of the car. “And you’re going to get what’s coming to you too.”

The sound of Dan reading the man his rights were drowned out by the sound of the ambulance. Matt’s attention returned to Bernie whose head was now propped up by Stan’s winter jacket.

“They’re almost here, Bernie. Stay with me, okay?”

Bernie’s head nodded slowly, his eyes closing. “I’m still here. Hurts like hell but I’m still here.”

“You did the right thing, okay? We’re going to get Gabe and anyone else he was working with.”

“I —” Bernie winced. “I shouldn’t have taken that package. I should have known there was more going on than Gabe said.”

Barriers were being set up at the end of the street by Reggie and the state police, but they stepped back to let the ambulance through. Matt only hoped the paramedics could stop the bleeding long enough to get Bernie to a trauma unit, which was a 45-minute drive. It was a clear day. Maybe they could call in the medivac helicopter instead. Living in a rural area had clear benefits but on days like this it also had clear drawbacks.

He sat back only when the paramedics arrived and took over. Standing, he lifted his hands, his throat thickening with emotion at the sight of dark red blood staining his skin. For several seconds he couldn’t think of anything but the blood, Bernie groaning in pain, the overwhelming worry that this man who had started turning his life around wouldn’t get the chance to see his children again.

The voice of the paramedic calling for a landing point to rendezvous with the helicopter blurred with the voice of Stan asking if he was okay. The older man clapped a hand on his shoulder, shook him. “Hey, let’s get you cleaned up. Come back to my office.”

Matt moved his head back and forth slowly. “No. I’ll need to give a statement and —”

Stan’s voice deepened into a firm tone. “We’ll tell the troopers where you are going to be. Come on.”

Matt staggered back away from the scene of the paramedics gently loading Bernie onto a stretcher, turning slowly to follow Stan. He watched the blood mix with water and soap, spiral down the sink as he washed his hands a few minutes later. He lifted his hands and stared at the tremble before clenching them into a fist and reaching for the towel.

“Your trooper friend is looking for you.”

Stan’s voice sounded far away, somehow, like in a dream, but he followed him back out onto the sidewalk to look for Dan.

“Stan!”

Ginny’s voice stopped them both and they turned to see Ginny at the barrier, clutching her coat closed, anguish and worry distorting her usually calm features.

Stan waved at her dismissively. “I’m fine.”

“They said there was a shooting.” The tremble in Ginny’s voice made Matt want to hug her, but apparently Stan didn’t feel the same. “We heard the gunshots at the library.”

Stan’s tone was strained, abrupt. “I said I’m fine. I’ll fill you in later.”

The brusqueness startled Matt, but he tried not to show it. Ginny was clearly upset and worried, but Stan didn’t seem remotely interested in comforting her.

Maybe Stan was made of sterner stuff because seeing Liz walk toward the barrier with an expression on her face that told him she’d thought the ambulance had been for him broke something inside him.

The only people he’d ever had to worry about worrying about him were his parents and his siblings. It had always meant a lot that they didn’t want to see anything happen to him, but it was an entirely different situation watching the woman he’d fallen hard for almost go to pieces in front of him.

When he thought of her, he also thought of Bella and the idea that a future in law enforcement could leave them behind —Liz without a husband, Bella without a father.

Wait a minute. What am I talking about?

He wasn’t either of those things to either of them. Not yet anyhow. He couldn’t deny that he hoped to be both one day. He broke rank with Stan and stepped the barrier grabbing the front of Liz’s jacket with one hand and holding her a few inches back so Bernie’s blood that was on him wouldn’t get on her. His eyes locked with hers and realized that, yeah, he’d be proud to be Liz’s husband one day, and also honored to be Bella’s father.

He pressed his mouth against hers firmly then pulled back, keeping her at a physical distance. Her eyes trailed down his form.

“Is that your blood?” Her bottom limp trembled when she asked it. He’d only seen her that vulnerable one other time, in the front of his pickup truck with a baby covered in vernix on her chest.

He shook his head once. “Bernie’s.”

She looked up sharply, her eyes meeting his. “Wh-what happened? Did you shoot Bernie? Is he dead?”

“No.” He kissed her briefly again. “I’ll fill you in later, but right now I need to make a statement and head home to get cleaned up.”

The dealer who’d shot Bernie was in custody and Gabe would be too soon, but a sudden desire to protect Liz rushed over Matt. “Go home, okay? Can you do that? Go home and stay there until I tell you it’s okay?”

Liz’s brow dipped in confusion. “Yeah. I can do that. If Ginny says it’s okay.”

“She will. Where’s your car? Do you have your keys?”

She nodded and he could tell she was still confused.

He stepped around the barrier, placed a hand under her elbow, steered her away from the scene where more state troopers were now gathering. “Next to the library, right?”

“Matt?” She looked at him as they walked, eyes darkening with worry. “What’s going on? Are you in some kind of danger? Am I?”

He picked up the pace, knowing he needed to get back to the scene and talk to Dan. “I don’t think so, but I just want to be sure you’re somewhere safe. Where’s Bella?”

“With Mom and Dad.”

He scanned the sidewalks and buildings around them as he walked. “Good.”

She didn’t ask any more questions until they reached her car. “Does this have something to do with Gabe? Is he threatening you? Did he shoot Bernie? I can’t believe he’d shoot someone.”

“Don’t worry.” He took her keys from her trembling hands and unlocked the car, still looking around him, avoiding her gaze. “I’m sure everything is fine.”

But he wasn’t sure everything was fine. He’d never pegged Gabe for a drug dealer, but it sure looked like he was based on what Bernie had recorded. Not only that, but someone had ordered Bernie taken out, and that someone could have been Gabe. Of course, there was always the possibility the shooter had just been a little off his rocker, which was also possible, especially if he’d been sampling the product.

He kissed her quickly before she slid behind the steering wheel, closed the door behind her, and when she rolled the window down he told her he’d call her as soon as he was done. He watched her drive toward her apartment before turning to walk back toward the scene. He was glad she didn’t have far to go. Maybe he should have followed her.

He dragged a hand through his hair. No. She was fine. He was over reacting. Gabe had somehow gotten himself messed up in trafficking drugs but he wasn’t a psychopath. A jerk and a horrible boyfriend, yes. A crazed maniac, no. He’d clearly been reading too many Harry Bosch novels lately.

This was Spencer Valley, not Los Angeles, and yes, while there had just been a shooting in broad daylight on Main Street, there wasn’t a full-blown crime spree underway. Not yet anyhow.

***

He shouldn’t have walked away from Ginny, but he couldn’t talk to her. Not there, in front of everyone asking him if he was okay. Of course, he was okay. It was Bernie he was worried about. The man had just been shot and his color hadn’t been good at all when they loaded him in the ambulance to meet the helicopter.

He watched the aftermath of the chaos hundred feet from his office as if watching something in a movie. Was this real? It certainly didn’t feel like it.

A shooting outside his real estate office.

There was something he never thought he’d see. The world was certainly a mess and while he once thought that mess was confined to bigger cities, it wasn’t. It was spreading out, touching even little Spencer Valley.

When he was done talking to the trooper he went back to the office, filled Emily in on what had happened and told her to go home, he was closing up for the rest of the day, maybe longer. The young woman hugged him briefly, told him to go wash up and get some rest.

Wash up. Right. He looked down at his suit and dress shirt, at the red stained there. This certainly hadn’t been his week.

First, he’d found out his wife had kissed another man and now he’d somehow gotten himself mixed up in a drug deal gone wrong. It was surreal and even more surreal was that he wasn’t going back to his house to clean up and try to calm down, he was walking toward the Blueberry Inn where his clothes were, where he’d spend the last couple of nights because, apparently, his life was falling down around his ears.

Unlocking the door to his room — after assuring the young woman at the front desk he was fine and avoiding her questions about what had happened — a rush of emotion pressed down on him. He swallowed it, though, and reached for a towel and a change of clothes. Under the hot water of the shower the dam broke and the tears came. He pressed his hands against the wall, dropped his head under the water, trying to ignore how much he wanted Ginny here with him now, the old Ginny, the Ginny he used to know, not the Ginny who’d betrayed him by kissing Keith.

“He kissed me.”

He heard the words over and over in his mind, but he didn’t know whether to believe them.

Her pleading expression, the tears on her cheeks swam in his mind as the water pounded against him.

“I wanted you to kiss me. Not him.”

He shut the water off and toweled off slowly, remembering the many slow kisses he’d given his wife over the years, thinking about how long it had been since he had, though. Exhaustion seeped through his muscles to his bones and he collapsed on the bed after pulling on a pair of boxers and an undershirt.

Images of Ginny’s worried expression at the scene filled his mind seconds before sleep slammed him hard into darkness.

Fiction Thursday: A New Chapter Chapter 21 Part 1

We are getting closer to the end of this story and I just wanted to let regular readers know that the book will not be called A New Chapter when I am done with it and publish it in book form. Last week it struck me that I already have A New Beginning and now I was going to call this book A New Chapter. It seemed a bit lazy on the naming side so I have changed A New Chapter to Beauty From Ashes and at this point it is scheduled to be released in full on April 26. I haven’t decided if I will keep the book in Kindle Unlimited or not yet.

For those who are new here, I share a chapter of a novel in progress on Fridays for Fiction Friday but sometimes I also share a part on a Thursday or Saturday. The version I share here often changes before I push publish on the final book down the line.

If you want to read the other chapters click HERE and if you want to read the other books click HERE.

Chapter 21 Part I

A cool breeze brushed Ginny’s hair back as she stepped out onto the sidewalk. She rubbed her hands across her arms and breathed in the smell of winter on its way.

“I was going to suggest we go for a walk, but maybe it’s a little too chilly for that.” Keith tilted his head toward the riverwalk across the street as he zipped his coat. “What do you think?”

It was chilly and she needed to get home, yet part of her wasn’t ready to go home. She was still angry at Stan, disappointed that he’d stood her up once again.

She zipped her coat up under her chin. “I could go for a walk. I need to burn some calories after that desert.”

The river was high, the streetlights lining the riverwalk reflecting a bright, blue-tinted white off the surface. The town of Clarkston had installed the riverwalk ten years ago, but replaced the electric lights with LED a year ago to be more energy efficient. Ginny understood the need to care about the environment, but she missed the cozy orange glow of the old streetlights.

“It’s cold but it’s beautiful.” Keith paused at one of the observation areas and leaned on the metal railing, looking out across the river. “I remember kayaking in this river with my dad. We tipped one,” he pointed toward a bend island further down river. “right about there. I thought I was going to drown but the old man grabbed the front of my vest with one hand and yanked me all the way to the island. The kayak floated to the other shore. There were no cellphones back then, as you know, so we waited, not sure what we were going to do. I was pretty sure I could swim to the other side.” He winced. “But dad wasn’t so sure. The water was pretty deep and there was a current there. We were lucky a fisherman came by an hour later and rescued us.”

Ginny stood next to him and smiled. “You were a lot more adventurous than I was as a teen. I can’t remember ever climbing into a kayak. You couldn’t get me to climb into one now either.” She laughed. “Then again, maybe it would spice up my life a little bit.”

She regretted saying it as soon as it was out of her mouth. Why was she sharing the need to spice up her life with a man she barely knew? Sure, she’d known him years ago, in high school, but not now. He was practically a stranger, even if they did have some shared memories and had been talking to each other off and on the last few weeks.

Keith turned and leaned back on the railing. “It’s never too late to add some excitement to your life, you know. I could take you kayaking.”

Ginny laughed. “And you’d be dragging me out of the river, I’m pretty sure.”

Keith winked. “I wouldn’t mind that. Much more rewarding than that time I had to push a dead beaver out of the way.”

Ginny made a face. “Oh gross. I’m not sure that’s the adventure I’d like to have.”

 

Keith’s laugh was rich and sent a rush of energy through Ginny. It was nice to hear a man relaxed enough to let out an authentic laugh. He pushed off the railing and started walking again. She fell in step with him, her muscles relaxing as she began to enjoy the freedom and lightness of the night. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been able to simply talk with another adult — well, beside Liz — without feeling like what she said wasn’t important.

Keith sighed. “I feel like I’ve missed a lot of the good things of life, Gin. I worked a lot during my marriage. Missy and I weren’t compatible. Not at all. But it didn’t help I was at the office more than I was home. I don’t want to keep missing out on life. I don’t want it all to pass me by while I’m on a conference call or sitting in a boardroom somewhere.”

He slid his hands in his jean pockets as he walked. “Maybe this is just a getting old thing. Do you ever feel like you’ve missed out on life?”

Boy, did she. “In some ways, yes.” She bit her lower lip, not sure how much she felt comfortable sharing. “There are a lot of things I wished I had done. I wish I had traveled more, tried more new things. That’s why I was at the art class, actually. I wanted to try something new, or, well, a little old for me since I took some art classes in college. I wanted something just for me again. Reading used to be just for me but then I became a librarian, and we don’t have the time for reading people think we do. We’re shelving and checking books out, but we aren’t reading them very often.”

She pulled her hood up to block the breeze. “It’s weird but when you’re a mom you feel like you’re whole life revolves around your children when they are home and then when they move out, well, you wonder what the purpose of your life is.” She smiled faintly. “I know. It’s silly.”

“No.” Keith stopped walking and turned toward her and she stopped too. “It’s not silly. It’s real. Life is real and messy and yeah, sometimes we lose our way in it and forget that it’s not only about making money or raising kids or making our spouses happy. Life is also about being happy, experiencing every last drop of being alive there is until we aren’t alive anymore.” He threw his hands out to his side. “Don’t you miss feeling alive, Ginny? I do. I miss feeling like I did when I was a teenager – that my future was unmapped and it was ripe for excitement and adventure and all the things that make life worth living.”

Yes, she missed feeling alive. She sighed. She missed feeling alive with Stan.

“I want to feel alive again, Ginny and when I’m with you, that’s how I feel.”

His gaze focused on hers. “I kissed you on that water tower. Do you remember?”

Ginny’s cheeks flushed warm, panic bubbling up inside her fast, ready to explode through her body and send her running up the sidewalk along the river and back to her car. “Yes, I remember.”

“It was a nice kiss.” The step he took toward her was full of purpose and the shock of it left her frozen, unable to move away. “A kiss full of life.”

The sudden movement of his hand behind her head brought a gasp from her throat and she put her hands up, but his mouth was already on hers. She pressed her hands against her chest, planning to push him away, but the kiss was fierce, hot, sending flames skittering through her blood stream, awakening what had been asleep for too long. Her mind clouded, the pleasure of his mouth against her making her forget where she was and who she was for a few second. She let the kiss linger without even thinking how wrong it was.

His hand on her lower back pulled her against him and the kiss deepened, but as it did, she saw Stan in her mind, his smile, his laughter, the flash of passion in his eyes when he lowered his mouth to hers so many times over the years  — the Stan she used to know so well.

She pulled back quickly, gasping for a breath, yanking herself from Keith’s embrace, her hands still out in front of her. “Keith. I’m a married woman.”

“Ginny, I’m sorry.” He stepped toward her, but she pushed her hands toward him again and he stopped moving his arms still out as if he was holding her. “You’re a beautiful woman and it drives me crazy that Stan doesn’t seem to notice that. You’re smart, bright, funny, engaging. . .You deserve better than some man who is married to his job.”

Ginny hugged her arms around her and shook her head, closing her eyes. “I shouldn’t have let you do that, Keith.”

“Why? I felt you come alive in my arms, Ginny.” Keith set his hands on his waist and gestured toward her. “You clearly needed to be reminded you’re still a vibrant, passionate woman. Admit it. That kiss made you feel alive again.”

For a few seconds, it had. He was right. But it had also made her feel weak with guilt and horror at betraying her wedding promise to Stan. She’d promised to have and to hold, for better or for worse, not to let an ex-boyfriend kiss her when she felt neglected and lonely.

“I’ve had a wonderful night, Keith, but I need to go home.”

She turned, walking briskly toward the top of the riverwalk, her arms still hugged tight around her.

“Ginny! Wait!”

Keith’s footsteps behind her only quickened her steps. His hand on her wrist stopped her and she turned to look at him.

The confidence was gone, replaced with an expression she read as contrition. “I’m sorry.” He swallowed hard. “I got caught up in the moment, in my own desires to feel alive again.” He closed his eyes briefly as he shook his head. “It was wrong. You’re married and —” He looked at her again. “I’m just sorry. Can you forgive me?”

She folded her hands in front of her face, blew on them to try to chase the chill away. “I do forgive you, if you forgive me for leading you on.”

Keith laughed. “You didn’t lead me on. You were just being your normal sweet, amazing self and I took advantage of it. I didn’t plan on doing that, just so you know. It was the atmosphere, the good conversation, how beautiful you looked in the moonlight. It was like we were in high school again. I suddenly regretted walking away from you and letting Stan have you.”

Ginny stepped back again. “You didn’t let Stan have me, Keith. I chose him.” She gestured toward the direction of her car. “I need to go. It’s late.”

“Can we still talk sometimes?”

She shook her head, turning away from him. “No, I don’t think that would be a good idea.” She looked over her shoulder. “I hope things work out with your business and you enjoy your time back in Spencer.”

She saw him standing in the middle of the sidewalk, watching her, as she turned the corner to head toward her car. The tears came when he was out of sight, flowing freely, cooling on her cheek as soon as they fell. Her body trembled as she walked, horror slicing through her. How had she let herself lose track of reality back there?

What[lh1]  was she even thinking walking along the river after a dinner alone with a man who wasn’t her husband? What had happened to her? Stan wasn’t perfect but it wasn’t as if he was abusing her, beating her, screaming at her. He was inattentive, yes, but he didn’t deserve this – for her to be going behind his back, kissing another man.

She quickly unlocked the door of her car and slid behind the steering wheel, slamming the door closed and locking the door. Clutching the steering wheel, she pressed her forehead against the middle of it and sobbed.

“You are so, so stupid, Ginny Jefferies. So stupid.” The sobs came fast and hard, causing her to gasp for breath as an ache spread from her chest up her throat.

“God, what has happened to me? Who have I become? Forgive me, Father. Forgive me for being swept away by Keith’s charm, for losing sight of the commitment I made to Stan on our wedding day. Can you forgive me?”

She turned the ignition, checked her side mirror, and yanked the car out of the parking space, pressing her foot on the accelerator.

“Forgive me, Father.” The words choked out of her as she drove, fighting past the tears. “Forgive me for what I did. And please, please let Stan forgive me too.”


Fiction Thursday: A New Chapter Chapter 14 Part One

To catch up with the rest of this fiction story click HERE.

I will not have a post for Christmas Eve, partially because I don’t have the second part of the chapter finished.

Chapter 14

The run had felt good. Had long had it been since she’d gone on a run?

Liz didn’t even know but now that she had this whole blood sugar and fluid intake while breastfeeding thing figured out, or mostly figured out, she felt like she could start exercising again. Thankfully she’d only run out of energy a small distance from the apartment and had been able to make it back without having to call Molly for a ride.

Now, standing in the shower, the water pouring down her, she tried to chase away of the chill autumn morning. She didn’t have long to do it, though. It was her first day back at work and her mom, unfortunately, was on her way over to watch Bella. Rubbing the shampoo into her hair, she thought about a show she’d watched the day before.

The woman being interviewed by a counselor was dealing with panic attacks, much like Liz still was from time to time.

“What’s one happy memory you’ve had in the last year or so?” the counselor had asked the woman. “A child being born? An event you attended maybe? I want you to focus on that memory when you start to panic. I want you to take yourself back to that moment, or one moment, and visually walk yourself through the moment that brings you joy, as if you are experiencing it again through your mind.”

Liz started to think about her own good memories, specifically those over the last year. Yes, Bella’s birth was one, but when she thought of one of the last times she could remember really laughing Liz had found herself mentally catapulted back to a night of bowling with Matt three months before her encounter with Gabe.

She’d only been bowling a couple of times before and it showed. Matt finally asked if she’d like the bumper rails up so the ball would stop going into the gutter.

“No! I’ll get it!”

She’d scolded him but she was laughing so hard tears were in her eyes.

On one try she almost flew with the ball across the slippery floor and Matt had had to catch her, holding her up against his side to keep her from going with the ball. They’d both been laughing so hard they’d almost fallen again and when she looked up at him, she’d been mesmerized by his smile and the sparkle in his eyes. She’d had a brief thought, which she’d pushed aside quickly. The thought that she wished she’d gotten to know Matt better, before she’d become involved with Gabe.

Gabe who she’d known wasn’t good for her but who paid her attention when others didn’t. A man who half the women in town thought was “hot, dangerous, and a total catch.” She’d thought the same at first and that’s probably why it had taken her so long to admit their relationship was on a fast track to nowhere. That and he was controlling, manipulative, and seemed to have only started dating her because he saw her as someone he could practice all those attributes on.

Worse than all of that was that she had let him control and manipulate her. He’d manipulated her through his words, his touch, the way he’d told her she turned him on the way no one else had before. If that was true then he shouldn’t have needed those other women, the ones who hung around him at parties and laughed at his jokes or the one she found him making out with in their friend’s bathroom during a party. He’d claimed she’d been kissing him, and he’d been trying to push her away.

Liz hadn’t believed him but, well, he’d been drinking. He’d messed up and he still cared about her so maybe he’d straighten up and stop drinking as much now. He’d promised he would and for a month he had. They’d spent their evenings at home watching movies, going to the gym together, and sometimes going for walks together.

Then she’d reached in the couch one night looking for the remote and there it had been. A pink bra with red flowers splattered all over it. A bra much less practical than what she usually wore, something he’d often commented on, in fact. She’d stared at it a few seconds before registering that one, it wasn’t her bra, and two, it had been shoved in her couch. The one she’d picked out at the local furniture store. She’d jumped up from the couch and stared at it in horror.

Could it had been left over from one of their parties? No. She’d never had enough to drink that she would have forgotten someone doing that on their couch.

She knew.

She’d known for a long time.

What was she doing? Living this way? After all the talks she’d given Molly about being good enough, about being worth more than she thought. Now she needed to give herself the talk.

She didn’t even wait for Gabe to come home. She’d called Molly, packed her bags, and finally walked away, into a new future.

Or so she thought.

She shut off the shower and reached for a towel, thinking about how Matt had been with her each step of her pregnancy. Telling him she was pregnant in the first place had been beyond awkward. She’d told him when he’d called to ask her to the movies.

“McGee, listen. I don’t know if anyone told you, but,” she’d swallowed hard and taken a deep breath. She knew this would be the end of his phone calls. “I’m pregnant.”

“Oh. I didn’t think you and Gabe —”

“We aren’t together anymore. I —” she’d wanted to say she’d messed up, but she really didn’t want to hash all that out with the man she’d fallen for but knew was out of her league.

She’d thought that would be the end of it. He’d stop calling, stop coming over to hang out with her and Molly and Alex. He’d make himself scarce.

But he didn’t. Instead, he’d asked her if she needed a ride to the doctors the day her car had broken down. He had driven her to her next four appointments, but he wouldn’t have had to if Bert Tanner had worked a little quicker to fix her car.

After the doctor’s appointments, Matt had invited her to lunch, asked if she’d be at the apartment when they held movie nights, and asked if she would like to go to fishing with him.

They weren’t an actual couple, yet he’d been there for many important moments in the last year; a little too much there the day of Bella’s birth.

And now she knew he’d even been there at her apartment that night. Had he known then that she was pregnant?

She wrapped the towel around her hair and dressed in the t-shirt and shorts she’d worn to bed. Once again, she’d forgot to bring her new change of clothes with her.

 Heading toward her bedroom to find the clothes she planned to wear to her first day back at work, a knock at the door stopped her, but she hesitated.

She was wearing a towel around her head and no bra. She bit her bottom lip and took a chance. She didn’t have to open the door all the way.

“Hey.”

Matt smiled from the small space between the door and the door frame. Sunlight caught the glint of golden in his eyes

“Hey,” she said back.

“Can I come in?”

The man who had lied to her about knowing about her suicide attempt wanted to come in? The man she’d tried to call two days earlier but had been somewhere they couldn’t talk and then hadn’t even bothered to call her back? Not that a phone call was the best way to talk about it anyhow. “No. I just got out of the shower.”

He furrowed his eyebrows and folded his arms across his chest. He was in uniform, apparently on his way to the office. “Um, Liz. You do know that I delivered your baby so I —”

“Seriously, McGee?”

He grinned. “I’m just saying that there is no need to be modest at this point.”

She rolled her eyes as she flung the door open and walked into the living room area.

“I wish you wouldn’t bring that up. It’s really embarrassing for me.”

His tone had softened but she still didn’t turn to look at him as she tipped her head forward and tightened the towel on her head. “Liz, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t keep picking on you about that. Listen, for what it’s worth, I wasn’t actually focused on anything other than Bella that day. I really didn’t see anything. I mean, you know, I just caught her and didn’t —we covered you with my coat so I really only reached in and caught her.”

Liz sighed. “I know. You’ve said this before. It’s still just awkward for me.”

“I know. I’m sorry.” He paused as she dropped a couple pieces of bread in the toaster. “Anyhow, I brought you something.”

She turned and he was holding a small bottle toward her. “What’s this?”

“It’s for your anxiety.”

Her eyes narrowed. “My what?”

“Your postpartum anxiety. It might help some and it should be safe to take while nursing. It’s CBD oil.”

“What makes you think —”

“You get the same look my sister used to get when she was battling panic attacks after she had her second. They came out of nowhere, most of the time for no reason. It was a physical reaction too, not in her head. She tried to hide them, but she had one at church one day and couldn’t slow her breathing. She almost passed out. All the ladies at church meant well and kept reciting Philippians 4:7, telling her to be anxious for nothing. They didn’t seem to understand her hormones were trying to regulate and triggering the attacks. That might be what’s happening with you. I don’t know but it can’t hurt to try and see if it helps.”

How did he do it? How did he see through her so easily?

Could he see inside her now? Did he know how upset she was that he didn’t tell her he’d been there that night?

She took the bottle slowly. “Thank you.”

She set the bottle on the counter and buttered her toast, her back to him.  “Is something wrong?” he asked. “You seem tense this morning.”

“I’m fine. Just nervous about my first day back.”

“Your mom is watching Bella?”

“Sadly, yes.”

He stepped in front of her as she reached for the refrigerator door. “You’ll do fine, you know.”

She looked up at him and his green eyes met hers. They swam with concern and she knew she should tell him what she was really upset about, but she couldn’t. She had to get dressed and go to work. She didn’t have time to hash out what he’d witnessed that night in her apartment.

She swallowed hard. “Thank you for the CBD oil.”

He nodded, breaking his gaze with her. “You’re welcome. You can ask Linda more about it at the store. I’m sure she knows all about it.” Pink flushed across his cheeks as he stepped back to the other side of the table. “Or, well, you probably already know about it after working there for the last three years.”

She wanted to giggle at how shy he suddenly seemed, but she was also still angry at him. The waring emotions in her made her want to run away but luckily a knock on the door interrupted them and she stepped out of the kitchen to answer it.

Marge swept past her as soon as she opened the door. “Sorry I’m late. I had to stop at the church and pick up some books for the ladies group tonight. We’re starting a new series.” She pulled her jacket off and turned to hang it on one of the pegs next to the door, pausing when she saw Matt.

“Oh.” She smiled, looking over her shoulder at him as she hung her coat up. “Hello, Matt.”

He nodded. “Hello, Mrs. — I mean, Marge.”

Liz didn’t even want to know what her mother was thinking at that moment. This was the first time they’d all been in the same room since her mom and her had had their blow up about the birth announcement.

Marge and Matt looked at each other for a few moments and Liz silently prayed neither of them would broach the elephant in the room. Finally Matt broke the stand off by clearing his throat.

“Welp, have to get to work, so you ladies have a good day.”

“You too,” Liz said. Please hurry and leave.

Marge drew in a breath and Liz tensed. “Matt, wait, I—” She let out a slow breath and looked at the floor. “Matt, I think, I mean I’m wondering if you told the people at the hospital you were Bella’s father to protect Liz and Bella.”

Matt stood with his hand on the doorknob and nodded, looking directly at Marge as she raised her gaze again. “Yes, ma’am, that’s what I was doing. It wasn’t really well thought out, I realize that, but the nurse already thought I was the father, so it wasn’t much of a jump. I did ask her to keep it out of the paper, but she must have forgotten. I apologize if this has caused any difficulties for your family.”

Marge sighed. “It hasn’t caused anything difficult for us, it’s you I’m worried about Matt. What others might think of you. What the people at church are thinking.”

Matt laughed. “I’m not worried about that Marge.” His expression became serious again and his gaze drifted to Liz. “Liz and Bella are more important to me than all of that.”

Liz swallowed hard and she felt like instead of only being braless she was standing naked in her kitchen with Matt and her mom both looking at her, as if waiting for a response. She couldn’t respond, though. She didn’t know what to say. He’d never said anything so blunt to her before and she was having a hard time wrapping her mind around it.

“Anyhow,” he said before she had a chance to respond. “Off to work. You ladies have a good day.”

Liz turned toward her bedroom as soon as he closed the door behind him. She was not having a conversation with her mom about this right now. “I’m going to go get dressed.”

She filled her time before walking out the door filling her mom in on where the bottles of breastmilk were, how to warm them, and where the extra diapers were, not giving her a chance to broach the topic of Matt.

“Bye, Mom.” She rushed for the door. “Thanks again.”

“Good luck, honey!” her mom called after her.

In the car Liz gripped the steering wheel and took a deep breath. She needed to focus on her first day back at work, not on Matt McGee.

Why had he said it that way? That she and Bella were more important to him than what people thought of him? And in front of her mom.

She growled in frustration as she turned the car toward the health food store, anxious to get her first day out of the way.

Fiction Thursday: A New Chapter Chapter 12

Just a couple of notes: I wrote this chapter and several others after it before I got sick with Covid so if it doesn’t make sense, it was simply my normal brain fog. I also tentatively changed the name of the book from The Next Chapter to A New Chapter. We will see if I stick with that. What do all of you think? Don’t care? I wouldn’t blame you. Let me know in the comments.

For anyone new, these chapters are part of a book in progress so there are typos and errors and plot holes that I fix before I self-publish the book later down the road. Or hopefully, I fix them and don’t upload the wrong file like I did for a couple previous books. Argh! Anyhow, moving right along to chapter 12.

To catch up with the rest of the story click HERE.

Chapter 12

Ginny looked at the dress and blouse Liz had lain on the bed and pondered it for a few moments. She turned to her closet and pulled out a blue dress and then a maroon one. The blue dress was sleeveless, like the black one. The maroon one featured short, puffed sleeves, which had never looked good on her. She eliminated it from her selection and looked between the black and blue dress.

Liz was probably right about the black dress. It would look nice with the white blouse pulled over it.

The problem was, Stan had seen her in all of these dresses. She worn the black one for last year’s banquet. She shouldn’t wear it two years in a row, should she? She could wear the white blouse with that blue skirt with all those funky swirling patterns on it. It had been a gift from Olivia. She hadn’t been brave enough to wear it yet.

She bit her lower lip and studied the skirt then slipped it on. It fell down to her shins, perfect to wear with those brown suede boots she’d picked up at the consignment shop at the beginning of summer.

She tried the boots on and pulled on the blouse then stood in front of the full length mirror on the back of the door.

Huh. Not too shabby.

She turned to the side and her gaze fell on her belly. It was slightly less pronounced than the last time she looked, but she would still need another few bike sessions before it went all the way away.

She thought about what Liz had said earlier. “Just wait until Stan sees you. He won’t be able to keep his hands off you.”

Ginny’s chest tightened. Wouldn’t he, though? He was certainly able to keep his hands off her a lot these days. She couldn’t even remember the last time he’d hugged her, let alone held her in his arms.

The engine of Stan’s car rumbled in the driveway and she took a deep breath and reached for the necklace she’d laid out on the dresser. She needed to hurry. Stan loved to be early to these banquets.

She had already pulled out the suit he like to wear, along with the white shirt, blue tie and matching cuff links.

She looked at her earrings in the mirror, leaned back and took a deep breath. The outfit wasn’t perfect, but it would have to do. She was out of time.

She descended the stairs and found Stan loosening his tie in the living room, looking down at an opened newspaper on the coffee table. “Hey, hon. I’ve only got a few minutes. I’ve got to head up and get dressed.”

“I set everything out for you,” she said, stepping off the bottom step.

He slid the tie he’d been wearing all the way off and unbuttoned the top two buttons of his dress shirt. “Thanks.” He turned and started to walk toward the stairs then stopped. His brow furrowed and he frowned. “What are you all dressed up for? You have another night out with Liz? It isn’t time for the fundraiser yet is it? I thought that was in a couple of weeks.”

Her chest constricted. Was he joking? If so then that would be a departure from his recent demeanor. “What do you mean why am I dressed up. Your banquet is tonight, right.”

Stan was still frowning. He shrugged a shoulder. “Well, yeah, but you told me a few weeks ago you hate these things. I gave your ticket to Frank. He had a date he wanted to bring.”

She tossed the small black purse she’d planned to take on the recliner next to the couch and turned away from him, her hands on her hips. Her lower lip quivered, and tears stung her eyes but she wasn’t going to let him see she was upset. It wouldn’t matter anyhow. He’d probably call her too sensitive or remind her she was “going through the change and that makes everything seem worse than it is.”

“You don’t mind, right?” He walked toward the stairs.

She drew in a shaky breath and tried to keep her tone calm. “No. I guess not. It’s just that I go with you every year and —.”

He was half way up the stairs. “Yeah, but you’ve been so busy this year with the library and the fall fund raiser and now helping Liz. I talked about it with you the other day, remember?

“No,” she mumbled as the bedroom door closed upstairs. “No. I do not remember.”

She sat on the couch, smoothing the skirt down over her knees. Maybe he had talked to her about it. Maybe she’d been texting Sarah about the fund raiser at the same time. Maybe Olivia had called with another California Crisis while he was talking or maybe it was the day Clint had called to say they’d be moving back out in about a month now instead of the two months he’d thought it would be.

She bit her bottom lip and swiped at a tear that escaped the corner of her eye. It was just a banquet and she did hate them. They went on for every with every real estate agent who every walked and breathed in a three-county area taking the podium to update the attendees about every single accomplishment they’d had that year. Then there was Stan, accepting his award, thanking her and while he’d once meant it and they’d once been like a team, that wasn’t true anymore.

His appreciation of her wouldn’t be sincere this time. They barely knew each other these days. He’d be putting on an act at that podium, just like she was putting on an act now. She pulled her shoulders back, straightened her back as she heard the bedroom door open. Time to pretend she was fine with this. Time to pretend she didn’t care. Time to be a grown up and realize her life was changing.

She and Stan weren’t the people they used to be. Not every marriage was like Robert and Annie Tanner’s, close and romantic even 30-years later.

Some people just slowly grew apart and that’s what was happening with her and Stan. She’d never consider divorce, of course, but it was time to accept that their future years would most likely be lived mainly apart.y apart.

Their romantic moments had happened, and been wonderful, but that part of their life was over.

She barely noticed as he leaned down and kissed her cheek. “Hey. You’re okay, right?”

She nodded and stood quickly, heading toward the kitchen, and tightening her jaw with resolve. “Of course I am.”

“Good and listen don’t worry about me. I know you support me. I appreciate that.” He pulled on his suit coat and reached for his keys. “Plus, don’t you have stuff you wanted to do before Tiffany and Clint come back? And what about Olivia, did she ever make up her mind about coming home?”

Ginny pulled a mug for her tea out of the cupboard by the fridge. “Hmm? Oh yes. She said she’s going to stay out there until Christmas break.”

He reached for his jacket and slid the keys into his pocket, walking toward the front door. “Good. That’s settled then. Okay, I’ve got to head out. There’s an abandoned warehouse out on highway 10 that Jake Landsdale wants me to look and I’m going to check it out before the banquet. We’re trying to track down the owners because there’s a huge commercial firm that is interested in the property. I’ve heard they might build a distribution center there. It would mean a lot of jobs for the area. I’ll call you on my way home and let you know how I did, okay?”

“Yeah,” she said at the already closed door. “Okay.”

She sat at the table and swallowed her emotion with a sip of tea. He hadn’t even noticed her hair, she realized as she propped her chin in her hand and her elbow on the table. She laughed softly, her eyes burning with unshed tears. Her prediction had come true. She had told herself he wouldn’t even notice, and he didn’t.

***

Stan turned his car toward Paskey Road at the bidding of his GPS, Ginny’s expression when he’d left the house still in his mind.

Well, that was weird.

Ginny hated these real estate banquets. Why had she seemed so annoyed that he had given her ticket away? He thought she’d be happy. Now she could stay home and read a book or bake or whatever else she did when he wasn’t home.

“Turn left onto Anderson Road.” The woman’s voice on the GPS was warm, soothing.

Ginny’s voice had once been warm and soothing. Now she just rambled about night sweats, the library, art classes, every single crisis their kids had going on, and most recently about Liz Cranmer. He scoffed, shook his head as he turned the car left. There was a development he hadn’t expected — her forming some kind of connection with their daughter-in-law’s younger, somewhat troubled sister.

He felt guilty calling Liz troubled. Just because she’d tried to kill herself last year didn’t mean he should be placing a label on her. Still, she was a bit, well, troubled. She’d lived a full year with that physical therapist who had made a scene a couple of years ago at a restaurant he and Ginny had been at. Obviously the man couldn’t hold his liquor very well.

“In half a mile, turn left on Henderson Road.”

A twinge of guilt tugged at him. He wasn’t supposed to even know about Liz’s suicide attempt, and he wouldn’t have if Matt hadn’t asked for prayer for her during the men’s meeting last year. Matt hadn’t said at the meeting what had happened or even named Liz. Stan had overheard him talking to Jason Tanner when he’d gone to get his coat. Matt had sworn Jason to secrecy but was deeply worried about Liz, not only her physical health but her spiritual health. Jason had promised to pray and to assuage his guilt, Stan had promised himself to pray for Liz too. He had prayed that night but knew he should have prayed for her more over the last year.

He couldn’t figure out what had drawn Ginny to the woman.

Maybe his wife felt like she needed some kind of project to occupy her time when she wasn’t at work.

He squinted into the setting sun, then reached for his sunglasses hooked in the sun visor.

Where was this building anyhow? He needed to check it out before he brought the representatives of that firm from the city here to show them the land. He also needed to find the owner to see if they would sell. This could be a big deal for the area. More jobs would be a definite boon to this area hard hit by recessions and crashing milk prices.

“Three-twenty-eight Henderson Road. There it is.”

The two-story brick structure was barely visible behind a veil of vines and overgrown trees and bushes. Sliding the car into park, Stan reflected again on his wife’s demeanor when he’d told her she didn’t have to go with him to the banquet. The way she’d flopped onto the couch, kicked off her boots. Brown boots he’d never seen her wear before.

There was something different about her too. He couldn’t put his finger on it. Maybe her make-up. Was her lipstick a different color?

He shrugged a shoulder as he stepped into the chilly autumn air and headed toward the building. He didn’t see any signs posted, nothing to indicate who the building belonged to or when it had been built. It was clear, though, it wasn’t in use and hadn’t been for a long time. The windows were broken out, the shingled roof was breaking apart, large metal doors rusted at the top of a flight of stone stairs.

The metal doors were slightly open, and Stan wondered if he should investigate, but decided against it and walked around to the back of the building instead. Maybe he could find a clue to who owned the building there. From what he could remember, this building had once been a factory warehouse of some kind. Despite living in this area his entire life, other than the four years he’d spent away at college, he’d never heard definitively what the building had been.  

When he reached the back parking lot, overgrown with grass poking up through the cement and asphalt, he noticed there was another door around the back. It was cracked open like the front, a chain and bolt hanging down from the metal door handle as if it had been cut open.

It was probably someone living in the building, squatting as it was called when the person hadn’t been given permission to live there. Stan would report it to the building owner, if he knew who it was. He walked up the steps toward the door and reached for the handle, then hesitated. This was probably a job for the police, not a real estate agent used to sitting at a desk and on his way to a banquet in one of his best suits.

This building was in the state police’s jurisdiction and Stan doubted they’d come out and investigate a possible squatter. Matt might come with him on his day off, though, if the kid ever had a day off. It seemed like he was always working or volunteering somewhere, which is why it had surprised Stan when he’d read in the paper he’d had a baby with Liz.

When had he had any time for a dating life? Stan turned to walk back toward his car and laughed softly. Not like a man had to have a dating life to father a baby. Still, Matt didn’t seem the type to simply sleep with a woman and walk away. There had to be more to that story. Unlike Ginny, though, he didn’t have any interest or time to take on a personal project. Not too mention Matt’s personal life was none of his business.

He rubbed his hands together to brush off the dirt and slid behind the steering wheel. Turning the car on he realized he didn’t feel the anticipation he should be feeling at the prospect of earning another Real Estate Agent of the Year Award. These banquets really were boring. Having Ginny with him had always broken up the monotony, given him someone to chat with while the other agents droned on and on about their triumphs over the last year. She’d never been too hard on the eyes those nights either.

Oh well. Couldn’t be helped now. She’d probably changed into a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt by now. He’d have to make it up to her next year, if he was nominated again. If he wasn’t, then maybe he’d stay home too. There were only so many speeches about real estate he could listen to and give.

He turned the car back onto the main highway toward the sportsmen’s club, the annual site for the banquet. No more feeling guilty about giving Ginny’s ticket away.

She hadn’t wanted to go anyhow.

This would be a good night. He could go talk shop with his fellow agents without feeling like he needed to rush her home.  Besides, she liked quiet nights at home with a cup of tea and a book. She was always saying how much she looked forward to nights like that.

Why was he even thinking about all this? There was nothing to think about.

He flipped the radio station to the oldies channel and leaned back. Singing along to Fat Domino he tapped his hand on the steering wheel.

Yep. It was going to be a good night.

Fiction Thursday: The Next Chapter. Chapter 10

I’m posting a chapter on Thursday because Bettie asked me to. That is all.

To catch up with the story click HERE or see the link at the top of the page.

Chapter 10

She glared at her reflection, at the boring, straight strands falling around her shoulders, and wished she was young again.
When she was younger, she could cut her hair and feel like a different person. Not now. Nothing she did made Ginny feel like a different person. She was the same, boring, never-does-anything-exciting woman she always was, whether her hair was pulled back in a ponytail or hanging across her shoulders.

Still, maybe a change would help her feel less stuck somehow. She pulled the hair up on her head and held it in place with her hands, turning her head and looking at the effect in the mirror.
Maybe she should have it styled differently. Or cut it short.
What would Stan think, though?

She snorted.

He’d never even notice.
His nose was buried too far into real estate paperwork.
She picked up her phone as it rang. She heard her thoughts in Liz’s voice. “I want to make a change and I’m starting with my hair. Is that stupid?”
Ginny huffed out a breath blowing at a strand of hair that had fallen across her forehead. A strand of hair that had once been blond but now featured streaks of gray. “No. Not at all because it’s the same thought I had.”
“I’ll get us an appointment with Missy.”

Missy Fowler? Ginny had always gone to Betty Richardson. Missy was for young women. Her styles were more modern, bolder, and — exactly what she needed.

“See if she has anything Friday afternoon. I’m free then.”

***

Most of the time she didn’t think about the night with the pill bottle clutched in her hand, the way she’d swallowed all those pills and wanted it all to end but then all of the sudden, when her chest had gotten tighter and her breathing was shallow, she suddenly didn’t want it all to end.

She’d tried to throw it all up but it didn’t work, no matter how many times she shoved her finger into the back of her throat.

Her hand had trembled when she reached for the phone, her vision blurring as she hit the number 9, as far as she got but luckily enough for her cellphone to tap into the local emergency center.

She’d tasted bile and choked out the words around a rush of vomit. “Help me.”

When she woke up bright lights blazed into her eyes, deep into her brain. Voices swirled in her mind, running together, overlapping, making no sense.

“Pills . . . floor . . . bottle . . . Hold her down we need to get an IV in . . . pregnancy test. Check that, Tom.”

She hadn’t known who Tom was at the time. Maybe that good-looking emergency room doctor she later found out Jessie Landry was dating, which means he obviously had no taste anyhow. Later she learned Tom Stapleton was Matt’s partner, a veteran police officer, on the force some 20-years. He must have been the responding officer, the first to arrive before the ambulance. She wished she could remember but by then her world had begun to fade around her and she’d started imagining her friends and family crowded around her casket in Homer’s Funeral Home.

Matt’s partner was how he had found out about her being in the hospital. Tom had thought the two were dating and asked Matt if she was okay. The day Matt came into the hospital room to check on her she had wished her bed would transform into a venus fly trap so she could disappear inside.

She’d smoothed a hand back through her hair but she knew it wasn’t going to help. She was a mess. There was no getting around it.

Matt’s expression had been hard to read. He seemed to be trying to be cheerful but there was something else lingering behind his eyes. Was it concern? Disgust? Liz seized on the disgust interpretation in that moment because it was the emotion she held toward herself. Absolute and total disgust. How had she sunk so low that first she was pregnant with the baby of a man she despised and second she’d actually tried to kill herself? Kill herself. My God. She’d fallen so far. It wasn’t something she’d ever considered before, even when she’d battled depression while living with Gabe. What had snapped in her brain to make her think that was the logical way to handle the news of her pregnancy?

And now here she was in a hospital room with the handsome police officer she’d gone out on two dates with looking at her like she was a complete crazy person, most likely wondering what he’d been thinking asking her out in the first place. Until the moment she saw those two lines on that pregnancy test she had seen the possibility of a new future with Matt, one full of tenderness and friendship and maybe even love. A future very much unlike the bleak one she’d been looking at when she’d been living with Gabe, before she woke up and gathered her courage to walk away.

“I took too many pills from a prescription I had for painkillers. It was an accident.” The lie spilled out of her before she even thought. There was no way she could tell Matt the truth. Not now. Not ever. She laughed a little pathetic laugh that she hoped sounded real. “It was for a knee injury I had a few months ago. It had flared up again but I guess I forgot how many pills I was supposed to take. When I realized I had taken four instead of two I tried to throw them up. It didn’t work so I called 911.”
It wasn’t all a lie. The pills had been painkillers and she had been prescribed them for a knee injury. The pain from that injury had been long gone before that night, though, and she’d definitely taken more than four pills. It was clearly not an accident.

Matt seemed to buy it, hook line and sinker.
“Yeah. Those directions can be confusing sometimes.” He’d reached over from the chair he was sitting in, leaning toward her, and covered her hand with his. “All that matters is you are still with us. It all could have ended a lot differently.”
The words haunted her for weeks afterward and even now she thought about them often.
“It all could have ended a lot differently.”

She looked at the baby asleep in the crib next to her and took a deep breath, grateful she had a breath to take, grateful she had a baby to look at.

She tossed the covers off of her and walked gingerly toward the desk on the other side of the room. Opening her laptop she blinked in the light, waited for her eyes to adjust, and read the email she’d received a couple hours earlier.

Dear Liz Cranmer:
Thank you for taking the time to apply to Travers Community College. We are pleased to let you know that you have been accepted for the fall semester for online classes and may begin scheduling your classes upon receipt of this letter.

There it was. Her green light to improve herself. Her green light to forget the past, change her future. Her green light to reject who she’d been before. Her green light to at least pretend she was a fully functioning adult and not an abject failure at everything she tried.


Maybe she’d fail at this too.


Maybe she’d be unable to understand the coursework.


Maybe her thoughts about being stupid were true.


Maybe. Lots of maybes.


But maybe she’d succeed and maybe she’d make a better life, not only for herself but for her daughter.


Fiction Thursday: The Next Chapter Chapter 8

Welcome to a special Fiction Thursday.

If you want to catch up on the story you can HERE, but if you want to wait until it is all done, it will be out on Amazon in the Spring.

As always, let me know what you think in the comments. If you haven’t read the other books in this series, you can find information about them HERE. The first two books in the series are The Farmer’s Daughter and Harvesting Hope.

Chapter 8

Liz flopped back on the bed in Jason’s spare room and groaned, pressing the heel of her palms against her eyes. “I don’t even want to be here today. I mean, not because I don’t want to be at the wedding. It’s just —” She shook her head. “I can’t believe Matt didn’t talk to that nurse. Everyone is going to be staring at us. It’s going to be so weird.”
She also couldn’t believe that Matt hadn’t stopped by or called in two days, giving her the opportunity to grill him about the birth announcement snafu.
Molly tossed a bottle of water onto the bed next to Liz. “Drink that.” She reached for her dress hanging on the back of the door. “And calm down. Jason and Ellie only invited about 50 people to the ceremony so not everyone will be staring at you. Maybe about 20 out of the 50 and even then, they will only stare at you after the wedding because they’ll be staring at Ellie during the wedding.” Molly stepped into the dress and pulled it up across her body, looping the straps over her shoulder. “Her gown is gorgeous. I can’t wait for you to see it.”
Liz propped herself up on her elbows and looked at her friend. She was wearing a peach-colored dress with spaghetti straps displayed in a fan pattern across the back. The skirt flowed out in a ruffled pattern that fell to her ankles and set off a pair of light-tan heels.
“That gown is gorgeous too. Did Liz pick them out or did you have a say?”
“Judi and I had a say and then each dress was fitted to each of our body types because Judi and I are obviously not the same size.”
Judi was Ellie’s younger sister who had moved home earlier in the summer.
Liz sat up and opened the water bottle, sipping from it.
Molly gestured at the bottle. “No sipping. Drink it. You need to stay hydrated. You’re nursing, it’s warm out, and you’re on the verge of a panic attack.”
Liz scowled and drank more from the bottle. On the verge of a panic attack? Oh no. She was already there. “Wouldn’t you be panicking if the guy you went on two dates with let the whole town think he was the father of your baby?”
Molly shrugged. “Better him than Gabe, that’s all I know.”
Outside the window, Liz heard laughter and greetings. More guests were arriving. She wondered if Matt was here yet, though she figured he was probably with Jason and Alex at the Tanner’s, getting dressed. Maybe she could find him before the ceremony started, warn him about the announcement, in case he hadn’t seen it. She stood and looked out the window. White chairs had been set up in the backyard and a trellis was placed where Ellie and Jason would stand to say their vows. The was under the drooping branches of a weeping willow and in the distance was a recently cut cornfield. Beyond the field were the green hills of Pennsylvania and beyond them hazy blue mountains even further away, hugging the expanse of farmland that made up most of Spencer Valley.
Liz tipped her head back and closed her eyes, willing her muscles to relax. The birth announcement wasn’t the only worry pressing in on her. Ginny had volunteered to watch Isabella today while she was at the wedding and even though she fully trusted Ginny, she felt like she was neglecting her duties as a mother. She should be the one taking care of Isabella, not someone else. Taking even a short break to help Molly get dressed as Ellie’s bridesmaid and staying for the ceremony and reception filled her with illogical guilt.
“Zip me up?” Molly lifted her hair and turned around.
As she zipped the back of the dress, Liz thought about how she’d once been confident, not filled with fear and anxiety over every little thing. It didn’t seem that long ago in some ways, but in others, it seemed like a lifetime ago. She needed to find her confidence again, stop worrying about what other people thought of her. Now just to figure out how to do that without burning every bridge like she currently felt like doing.
From there, her thoughts shifted abruptly to how long Molly’s hair had become, how the soft curls were falling past the middle of her back now, and how Molly was practically glowing. She looked over Molly’s shoulder, at her reflection in the mirror. Her friend was losing weight, something she’d been wanting to do for a long time. Liz only hoped Molly was doing it for the right reasons, not to try to fit in and make a man happy like she’d done herself for so many years.
Molly turned and clasped Liz’s hands in hers. “Hold your head high, Liz. All the thoughts that you think people are having about you are probably nowhere close to what they are thinking.”
Liz snorted. “Yeah. It’s probably a lot worse.”
“Liz!” Molly laughed and rolled her eyes. “You’re starting to sound like me. Now come on. Go find your seat and I’ll talk to you after the ceremony.”
In the kitchen, on her way to the backyard, Liz found Annie, Molly’s mom, folding napkins and placing them in a wicker basket on the counter.
“Hey, Liz. You look beautiful today.”
Liz placed a hand on her hip and tipped her head down slightly. “Now, Annie, you know it’s a sin to lie.”
Annie’s laugh was rich and full, one of the many attributes Liz loved about her. She shook her head as she folded the last napkin.
“It’s true, my dear. I know you’re tired, but you do look lovely. Missy did a nice job on your hair.”
“Thank you.” Liz decided to push the protest of the compliment aside and instead accept it. She patted the hair Missy Fowler had piled on her head, leaving the rest of her dark strands hanging down her back and across her shoulders. Missy was the hairstylist who had a shop below Ellie’s apartment — or Judi’s apartment now. “I actually do feel a little more rested today. We actually had one two hours and one three-hour stretch last night. Isabella has been better since Ginny brought me that gripe water the other day. She also showed me some pointers she used on her babies to get the trapped gas out.”
“What do you think Isabella’s nickname will end up being? Bella or Izzy?”
Liz made a face. “I hope it’s Bella. Izzy is too close to Lizzie. The kids in school used to chant that Lizzie Borden rhyme at me and I hated it.” Liz’s rolled her eyes as she recited the rhyme “Lizzie Borden took an ax, and gave her mother forty whacks; when she saw what she had done, She gave her father forty-one.’ Ugh. How awful.” She knew no matter how upset her mother made her, she’d never be like Lizzie Borden. “I’m just glad I never told anyone my real name. The taunting would have been the same.”
Annie’s brow furrowed. “Real name?”
“Lizanne.”
“Oh.” Annie looked surprised. “I always thought it was Elizabeth.”
“People assume it is and I just let them. I’m named after my great-grandmother, which was a fine name in the early 1900s, but not so great now.”
The sound of a truck engine brought Liz’s gaze to the kitchen doorway and out through the front window. Her heart rate sped up at the sight of Matt climbing out of his truck. She wished the palpitations were only because she found him attractive and not because she was terrified of talking to him about the birth announcement. Had he seen it? She couldn’t imagine he had or he would have answered her call earlier or called her before she’d tried to call him.
Her gaze took in a gray vest over a white shirt and a light-gray suit coat hanging from a bent finger and draped over his back. He’d had a haircut, making his dark brown hair even shorter on the sides and top. She imagined he’d have to cut it even shorter when he started at the academy in a couple of months.
“High and tight” is what she’d heard the state trooper hair cuts referred to as.
As she had a few times before, she found herself daydreaming about his hair looked like all ruffled up after a shower.
Or after she’d pushed her hands through it.
She drew in a sharp breath at the thought of messing up Matt’s hair, knocking some of that perfection out of him, and seeing what an unguarded Matt McGee was like.
She pulled her gaze away from him and slid her phone out of her purse, shooting a quick text to Ginny to check on Bella. She had left two bottles of pumped breast milk, hoping they’d be enough to keep Isabella satisfied until she came home.
Ginny texted back as Liz found a seat in the backyard.
All is well. She’s swinging in a little swing I’d kept here for the grandchildren. Happy as a clam.
When Matt appeared next to the arch standing next to Alex, who was standing next to Jason, she wished she could grab Matt and pull him aside, scold him for not blocking the announcement from going in. There were too many people filling the chairs, though, and soon the ceremony would start. She’d have to wait for later to interrogate him.
Molly was right. Ellie’s dress was simple and gorgeous. The veil hung across the back of her hair in a thin wisp of white. Finely sewn lace interlaced patterns down the back and along the train, which trailed a couple of feet behind her but clearly could be removed later, as evidenced by the bustle buttoned at Ellie’s waist.
Liz fought back emotions through the entire ceremony, partially because she was happy for Jason and Ellie and partially because she was sad for herself. Would she ever have a happy, beautiful ceremony like this? She mentally kicked herself, wishing for the hundredth time that she’d never gone to that party that night, that she’d never let herself be alone with Gabe and listened to his threats.
If she’d been stronger, hadn’t had that last glass of wine, then maybe she would have been like Ellie, standing hand in hand with a handsome man looking at her like he’d lasso the moon for her if she wanted it. Taking a deep breath, she reminded herself of what she’d thought the night she brought Bella home. Since she couldn’t have what her sister had, children with a husband, or what Jason and Ellie had — a love so deep their connection would survive whether they had children or not — she’d find a way to make it up to Bella. She’d find a way to make sure Bella wouldn’t be embarrassed to have her as a mother.
Tears stung her eyes as she watched tears glistening in Jason’s eyes when he said his vows. She wiped a fingertip under her eye, careful not to smudge the makeup she’d actually taken time to put on that afternoon after not wearing any for the last two months. Soon there were tears on Ellie’s cheeks as well and a quick glance around her showed that others had pulled out tissues and handkerchiefs, including Molly who kept nibbling on her bottom lip, obviously trying to hold the emotion in.
When the ceremony was over, and Jason and Ellie had walked down the aisle, beaming at each other the whole way, the guests dispersed to a pair of large tents set up to the left of the chairs. Liz sat herself at a table close to the head table, seriously considering leaving and heading back to the apartment for a quiet night with a sleeping baby and a movie. She couldn’t leave, though.
She still needed to talk to Matt. So far, she hadn’t been even able to catch his eye and she was beginning to wonder if he was avoiding her on purpose. After a meal of pulled pork, roasted potatoes, and homemade coleslaw, she gave up on pulling him away from talking with Jason and Alex and decided a walk might help her relax more. She’d better enjoy it while she could. She’d be back on newborn duty as soon as she arrived home.
A cool breeze swept over the yard at the front of the house as she rounded the corner of the house and walked toward the front porch. The porch was open, the white railing freshly painted and reminding her of a picture on an issue of Country Living magazine. She stepped up the steps and found a wooden slatted chair painted to match the railing and front of the house. Sitting in it she smiled, thinking how this house would soon look like a real home thanks to Ellie’s touch, instead of a bachelor pad, which is what it had been for the last five years.
She leaned back in the chair and closed her eyes, letting her mind wander and focus on the sound of a cicada or katydid somewhere across the driveway instead of her racing thoughts. After a few seconds of counting chirps, the world faded around her.
“Need a blanket?”
The words snapped her out of her brief nap, leaving her in a world of disorientation for a few seconds. She couldn’t even seem to register if she’d dreamed the words, or someone had actually spoken them.
Blinking her eyes to clear the sleep away she saw Matt standing on the top step, leaning his hip into the stair railing.
She shook her head. “I can’t believe I fell asleep like that.”
“You must have needed it.”
She pushed her hand back through her hair and let it fall slowly down her back. “I’ve been trying to catch you all day. We need to talk.”
He cocked an eyebrow, grinning. “About?”
Why was he grinning? Did he really think she was flirting right now?
“You haven’t seen the paper?”
He pushed off the railing and stepped up off the top step onto the porch, shoving his hands in his front jean pockets.
“Yeah, I saw it.”
She tightened her jaw. He was so aggravating. Seriously. “Saw what?”
“The baseball scores.” He rolled his eyes. “The birth announcement, Liz. I saw the announcement.”
“You saw it and didn’t call me?”
“I saw it an hour ago. When Jase showed me. I didn’t have time to call you. When did you see it? Why didn’t you call me?”
Liz glanced away, focusing on her hands clenched in her lap. “I —” She couldn’t say she thought he’d stop by, and she could talk to him then. How would that sound?
Desperate.
That’s how it would sound. “I don’t know. I was in shock, I guess. I can’t believe you didn’t stop that nurse.”
Matt sighed and propped the right side of his body against the column, his hands still in his front jean pockets. He tipped his face down toward the porch floor. “I did stop her, Liz. I asked her not to put it in the paper. She said she wouldn’t.”
Liz stood pressing her hands against her hips. “Well, then we need to call that hospital and give them a piece of our mind. They violated our privacy.”
Matt looked at her with an amused smirk. “We need to call?”
Liz threw her hands in the air, tipping her face toward the porch ceiling. “Okay. I need to call. And I will. First thing Monday morning.”
“And what good is that going to do?”
Her head snapped down and she leveled a burning gaze on him. “Excuse me?”
He shrugged a shoulder. “What’s been done is done. It’s not like they can take it out of the newspaper. It’s already been printed so calling them up and yelling won’t help anything. The proverbial cat is out of the bag.”
Was he serious right now? Why was he so calm?
“McGee, the whole town thinks you were sleeping with me. The people at your church think you were sleeping with me.” She paused for effect. “Having sex. Out of wedlock. Do you get that? They think you fathered a child with the screwed-up daughter of Frank and Marge Cranmer, the most revered members of Encounter Church. Do you not get that?” She huffed out a frustrated growl. “What are we going to do?”
Matt tipped his head and the smile faded into a more thoughtful expression, but she still couldn’t read him. His response sent anger seething through her.
“Nothing.”
She tossed her hands out to her side. “What do you mean nothing?”
He frowned. “What I said. Nothing. It’s no one’s business. Let people make up their own minds about what the truth is.”
Liz slapped her hands down against her side. “Oh, that’s just great. Let people make up their own minds? In this little town? That’s fine for you but everyone is looking at me like I corrupted the town saint.”
Matt’s amused laugh grated on her nerves. “The town saint? What does that even mean?”
She took a step toward him, incredulous. “You can’t be that clueless. You’re the town golden child. You’re a police officer, you lead Bible studies, help old ladies cross the street, take cats out of trees, and I’m pretty sure a woman was healed last week when she touched the hem of your uniform.”
His laugh deepened and she briefly imagined smacking him in the head. “Liz stop it. That’s ridiculous. No one thinks that stuff about me. I’m just — well, me. Small town cop. Spencer Valley’s Barney Fife.”
“Uh, yeah.” Liz raised her eyebrows. “If Barney Fife had groupies.”
Matt tipped his head back and laughed loudly. “I do not have groupies.”
He wiped the bag of his hand across his eyes as he stepped toward her. His eyes were still moist from the tears of laughter as touched his hand under her chin, cupping it gently. “And you’re not screwed up.” The smile faded and the intensity of his gaze on her sent her heart flapping wildly against her ribcage. She wanted to look away, but she couldn’t. His intensity pinned her down, stopped her racing thoughts. “You need to stop claiming that title. I’ve never given it to you, and I don’t know anyone else who has either. It’s something you call yourself.”
Her mouth lost its moisture as she tried to speak. “My parents —”
He dropped his hand from her chin. “Have they ever said you’re screwed up?”
“No, but they —”
“You think they think that, but they’ve never said those exact words, right?”
Liz put her hands up in front of her. “Okay. Enough about my parents. That’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about how to handle this birth announcement thing.”
“I already told you I’m not going to do anything other than going on with my life and you should do the same.” He held out his hand. “Now come on. There’s a party going on in the backyard. Let’s go celebrate Jason and Ellie.”
“McGee. Seriously. We can not just —”
“Yeah. We can. Now come on.”
Liz’s jaw tightened and her eyes narrowed. She was not just going to go back to the reception like nothing was going on, like this birth announcement wasn’t going to create even more issues for her and for him.
He kept his hand held out to her, his eyes on hers. After a few seconds, she took his hand reluctantly but let it go as she hit the bottom step. She tightened her hand into a fist against her side. How could he be so calm and confident about it all? Wasn’t he worried about his reputation? No, he obviously wasn’t, so why was she?
She was used to feeling like the black sheep in her family and her community. She didn’t want him subjected to the same judgment.
They walked together toward the backyard in silence. Jason and Ellie were dancing in the middle of the second tent, the rest of the guests watching.
Jason’s mom touched a tissue to the skin under her eye and Molly had slid into a chair next to Alex, her head against his shoulder as she watched.
Liz’s chest tightened. How long would it be before Molly and Alex were standing there, having their first dance? Then she’d be alone for real. Molly would be building a life for herself and Alex. Yes, Liz would have Isabella, but she would essentially be on her own.
Her palms grew cold, and she closed her eyes. No. She would not do this here. What was with her anyhow? She’d never dealt with a panic attack a day in her life before the night she’d found out she was pregnant. She’d had a small break from them during pregnancy and now? Well, now she felt like she should be in a mental hospital.
The voice of the DJ startled her out of her racing thoughts. “The bride and groom would love for their guests to join them.”
And that was her cue to step back and head —
Her back slammed into something solid. Glancing over her shoulder her gaze met Matt’s grin.
Oh.
She hadn’t backed into something. She’d backed into someone.
“Where are you going?”
“Home.”
“You’re not leaving before you dance with me, are you?”
“Uh. No.” She raised her hand and took a step away from him. “I don’t dance.”
“So?” He shrugged a shoulder. “I don’t either. We’ll just fake it. Plus, you owe me.”
“I owe you?” She turned toward him, raised an eyebrow. “For what?”
His smile widened. “I delivered your daughter.”
She rolled her eyes and turned her back on him. “Wipe that grin off your face, McGee.”
He stepped toward her, and his breath tickled the back of her neck. “Come on, Liz. This is your first time out since Bella’s been born. Have a little fun.”
Liz brushed her hand across the back of her neck, then held it there, warmth spreading across her skin. She closed her eyes. “McGee, come on. I don’t dance, okay?”
His breath was warm against her ear. “Just one, then you can go. I promise.”
He stepped in front of her and held his hand out. She pulled her lower lip between her teeth, studying him for a few seconds before laying her hand in his and letting him tug her a few steps forward to the edge of the makeshift dance floor. She really didn’t dance. Never had, never had wanted to. What was she doing agreeing to this?
Where did she even put her hands?
She tried to remember all those romantic Hallmark movies she’d watched over the years and laid one hand on his shoulder while he held the other. He slid his other arm around her side and laid his hand against her lower back.
She couldn’t lie.
It felt awkward.
The way she was standing.
How he was holding her.
She felt like she was dancing with her brother if she’d had one.
But then the dynamics shifted as his hand slid to the curve of her lower back and he gently pulled her toward him. It was a different kind of awkward now. She and Matt had known each other on an acquaintance level in high school. They’d been on a couple of dates in the last two years, had sat next to each other on movie nights when Molly, Alex, Jason, and Ellie all piled into her and Molly’s tiny apartment, and for goodness sake, he’d delivered her baby. She didn’t know how to feel about how close they were standing to each other now, but she knew her body was firing off warnings all over the place. Her cheeks were warm, her hands were clammy, her breath had quickened and she could barely hear the music over the thumping rhythm of her heartbeat.
He smiled and her chest tightened.
How had she never noticed the tiny freckle right above his left eye? Or how long and dark his eyelashes were? Or how amazing his aftershave smelled? Or was it cologne? She wasn’t even sure. Maybe he only wore cologne on special occasions, so that’s why she’d never noticed. Maybe she’d simply been too self-focused in the past to notice all these things.
No, not maybe. She had been.
Now, though, here she was looking right at him after he’d pulled her closer and she was finding it hard to look away.
No wonder all the women in town swooned when he walked into the diner or held a door open for them at church. She’d even heard stories of one for two women needing to fan themselves with their speeding tickets after he pulled them over.
“Doing okay?”
She nodded slowly, pulling her gaze from his, glancing over his shoulder where she caught Molly watching her with a smile. Or was it a smirk? Liz scowled at her, and Molly laughed, her arms around Alex’s neck as they swayed to the music too.
“Okay, we should stop.” She tried to pull away, but Matt pulled her back in. “Matt. Come on. I’m not a dancer.”
He shrugged a shoulder. “Neither am I, or most of the people here. Let’s fake it.”
The music from the DJ’s sound system switched to a new song. The singer was singing, “I’m going to love you forever and ever, amen.”
Liz’s gaze flicked around the tent, even more, self-conscious as she thought she saw Ellie’s sister Judi whisper something to one of Jason’s cousins.
She leaned her forehead against Matt’s shoulder, lowering her voice. “This should get the tongues wagging.”
“Let them wag. We’ve got more important things to focus on in our worlds. I’ve got the academy to think about and you’ve got a little girl to focus on. What others think of us, doesn’t matter.”
There he went again. Being practical. Logical. Totally right.
As the dance continued Liz felt her knees weakening and she knew it wasn’t because Matt’s other hand had moved to her waist.
Not now. Not here. Please.

Extra Thursday Fiction: Quarantined Chapters 8 & 9

A little update on Extra Fiction Thursday: after I finish this particular series, I will probably be retiring the extra fiction Thursday and returning to fiction only on Fridays. About today’s chapters: one of these chapters will feature some marital romance. For some readers of clean fiction this “romance” may seem a bit too suggestive, but I feel it’s important to this story to show that passion does and can exist within the bonds of marriage, even in a marriage where the couple has been married a long time. The scene will not include graphic sex, of course (sorry to disappoint those who like reading that. Ha!) but there will definitely be some suggestive sections that won’t be vague about what’sgoing to happen next.

The synopsis of the story: Liam and Maddie Grant are set to sign divorce papers when Liam comes home to tell Maddie he’s been exposed to a new virus that is shutting down the country and part of the world. Now the couple is quarantined in their home and have to face the issues that split them apart and decide if they want to sign the divorce papers or stay together. Across the city, Liam’s brother United States Senator Matthew Grant is quarantined with his wife and children, as well, wondering if his marriage could end up on the same path as his brothers. Matthew also finds himself spending his time in quarantine reflecting on his time as senator and his upcoming re-election campaign.

To catch up on the rest of this story click HERE.


Chapter 8

When the sounds of cartoons filtered through his dreams, Matt knew he had fallen asleep on the living room couch again. He’d been up late, thinking, praying, writing down thoughts he wanted to share with John and Liam when they got back into the office. He’d leaned his head back to think about some projects he knew needed tackling when the Senate was back in session again and then — well, he’d woken up here, in the corner of the sectional with children strewn around him eating cereal out of bowls, toys and comic books spread out on the carpet.

“Hey, Dad,” Tyler mumbled around a mouthful of corn flakes. “Sleep well?”

Matt squinted into the sunlight pouring through the window behind the TV, holding his hand up to block it as he struggled to sit up.

“Um, yeah,” he said hoarsely. “I think so. I don’t know. I don’t even remember falling asleep actually.”

He stood slowly, the pull in his upper back bringing a grimace.

“Where’s your mom?”

“She’s in the bathroom crying,” Lauren said cheerfully. “And her hair looks all funny.”

Matt rubbed his eyes with both hands, willing the heaviness of sleep to leave them. “What? Why is she crying?”

Tyler shrugged, his eyes glued to the cartoon on the TV. “Probably because her hair looks funny.”

“How does it look funny?”

Tyler shrugged, looking at the TV. “I don’t know. Lauren said it looked funny. I don’t want to know so I’m not going to look.”

Matt sighed and stepped over the toys and comic books on his way toward the stairs. “Guys, pick up this mess, okay? If your mom is already crying, she’s going to be crying more when she sees all this.”

Lauren was right. He could see Cassie through a small opening in the bathroom door, sitting on the floor by the tub, crying. Her hair was slicked down across her head, orange colored strands hanging down in front of her face.

“Cassie? What’s going on?”

“Oh! I thought you were still asleep.”

“I woke up and asked where you were. You okay? And what happened to your hair?”

Cassie held up an empty plastic bottle and box of hair dye. “This is what happened.”

“You’re dying your hair? Why?”

Fresh tears poured down Cassie’s cheeks. Her words flowed out of her fast, furious, mixed in between sobs. “I don’t know. Why not? I can’t leave the house to get my hair done and there are all these gray hairs sprouting up in the middle of my head and I wanted to do something to hide them because I don’t want to be old, Matt. But I am old. I’m old and I don’t know how I got here. I’m old and I have stretch marks and you deserve better than this old, run down, fat woman with gray hair who now has orange hair because she was trying to transform from brunette to auburn.”

Matt stared at his crying wife, bleary-eyed, wishing he’d grabbed a cup of coffee before he’d made the journey up the stairs. Liam had been right. It was obvious that even though Cassie had appeared “fine” she was absolutely “not fine.”

Guilt settled in his chest like a heavy stone at the bottom of a lake. Why hadn’t he asked before this if she was okay? If she was really okay?

He drew a deep breath to try to clear the cobwebs of sleep from his mind before he spoke. There were a few times a man shouldn’t speak. One was when they were drunk. Two was when their wife was drunk. Three was when either of them were half asleep. He knew there were many other times but right now he was half asleep and he was afraid to talk and say something wrong. He had to say something, though. He couldn’t simply leave his wife in the middle of the bathroom floor believing she was old, fat and — what else had she called herself? Oh right. Run down.

His knee groaned in protest as he kneeled next to her. To take the weight off of it he slid down on his butt and said cross legged. He didn’t think his wife was old but at that moment, with his aching knees and sore back, he certainly felt old.

“Cassie, hon’ where did you get the idea that you are old or run down?”

“It’s not an idea, it’s a fact.” She choked back a sob. “I don’t know why I was so stupid. I just thought if I could change my hair a little, maybe it would help me feel better, make me feel less…blah. I don’t know.”

He slid his arm around her shoulders, hugged her sideways against him.

“Oh, Cas. I love you. You feel blah because you’re stuck in this house with your preoccupied, self-centered husband with no outlet for your creativity and extrovert personality. There is nothing wrong with you. All this being forced to stay at home has been hard on all of us. I know it’s hard on me too, but we’ve needed this slow down, this wake-up call to what we’ve been missing out on while we were working so hard to . . . I don’t know. Work so hard.”

She sniffed, reaching for the toilet paper roll, ripping a piece off and blowing her nose.

“I just wanted to look nice for you,” she whispered.

He looked down at her, pushing the wet strands of hair from her face. “Cassie, you always look nice for me. I’m sorry it’s been so long since I told you that.”

“It’s okay.” She wiped her eyes. “You’ve been —”

“Being busy is no excuse,” Matt interrupted. “I should have been just as busy showing you and the kids how much I love you.”

He lifted a strand of her hair and studied it. “You know, I think I’ll like having a wife with red hair.”

She rolled her eyes. “It’s orange. My hair is going to be orange.”

Picking up the almost empty bottle of hair dye, Matt smiled. “Come on. Let’s finish squirting this in your hair, do whatever we’re supposed to do to let the color get in there, wash it out and see what happens. This could be a lot of fun and what we need right now is some fun. Okay?”

Shelaughed through the tears. “Okay. I guess.”

“I’ll help you finish this up and then why don’t I convince Tyler to watch the girls tonight in the downstairs den. They can have one of those frozen pizzas that came in the grocery delivery. I’ll whip up a delicious dinner for us and we can eat out on the patio, underneath the stars. What do you say? Let me pamper you tonight.”

“I say, ‘let’s hurry up and get this hair done so you can make me dinner and rub my feet tonight,’” Cassie said with a laugh.

Matt narrowed his eyes. “Wait a minute. When did I say I would rub your —”

“Well, you said pampering. I just thought I’d give you a suggestion on how.”

Matt smirked and shook his head. “Okay, lady, you win. I’ll rub your feet, but don’t expect me to feed you grapes.”

Cassie leaned over to kiss his cheek. “Oh, no, never grapes. But you can feed me chocolate covered strawberries.”

Matt laughed. “Yes, ma’am.”

***

It was yet another morning since the quarantine had started that Liam woke up disoriented, but this time there was a woman in his bed, and he was relieved to see that the woman was his wife.

After gently sliding himself away from Maddie, making sure her head shifted softly onto the pillow, he sat up, rubbing his hands over his face. Glancing behind him he looked at Maddie still asleep, her hair splayed out around her head on the pillow. He couldn’t stop the smile that tugged at his lips as he watched her sleep. They may not have been in love like they used to be, but she was still beautiful.

His eyes made a path from her closed eyes, down her nose, across her soft lips (slightly parted) her throat (exposed by how her head was tipped back slightly) continuing across her chest and stomach, hips and legs. He hadn’t taken the time to look at his wife in this way for a long time. He realized now that he’d certainly been missing out. He also now realized how much he wished his hands could take the same journey his eyes were taking; how he wished he could gather her close like he had so many times in their marriage and make all the bad years, all the hurts they’d inflicted on each other go away.

Liam forced himself to look away, walking toward the kitchen in search of a cup of coffee. He needed to clear his head. They were as good as divorced. Why was he thinking about her this way now? There was no turning back. They’d fallen apart. They weren’t seeing eye-to-eye, they’d hurt each other too many times and besides, the divorce was what she had wanted, what she still wanted.

Something Pastor Josh had said at their wedding popped into his mind as he filled a filter with coffee beans he had ground the night before.

“A cord of three strands is not easily broken.”

It was from the Bible. Leviticus? No, maybe it was Ecclesiastes. Liam couldn’t remember. What he could remember was that Pastor Josh had said it while laying his hand over his and Maddie’s hands, which were intertwined as they stood at the front of the church, their friends and family looking on.

Pastor Josh looped the rope around their wrist and hands, binding them together. “These three strands of rope signify that today Liam and Maddie don’t only need each other in their marriage. They need to be unified with God to help them on the tough days and even on the easy days. Today Maddie and Liam make a covenant before all of you to face the trials marriage may bring with the help of God, the other person in their marriage; the only person who can truly bring them through.”

The Keurig breathed out a hushed whoosh, a comforting sound as he waited for the coffee to begin dripping into his cup. He leaned on the counter top, propping his chin on his elbow.

When had he and Maddie let go of that third strand? When had they let go of God and pushed him from their marriage? Maybe it wasn’t so much that they’d pushed God away but that they’d forgotten he was even there. After the last miscarriage Liam’s anger toward God had consumed him to the point he didn’t want to talk about God or to God.

He hadn’t spoken to God since they’d lowered that tiny box in the ground after the last miscarriage. He’d always been afraid what God might say back.

Why bother? he had often thought since the baby’s loss. God’s not there. If he was your little girl and all those other babies would be here today in your arms and not in a grave in the ground.

Lately, though, Liam had been aching for the days he had trusted God, no matter what, no matter how hard life had become. He had trusted God when his dad had been diagnosed with cancer, when his mom had been in that car accident and they thought she’d never wake up again. Each time, though, those outcomes had been good. His dad’s cancer had been cured by surgery and radiation. He’d been in remission for ten years now. His mom woke up and while it was a long road to recovery, she was doing well and most days it was as if the accident never happened.

It was when the outcomes had been bad that Liam had really struggled. He had believed then that God had abandoned him, had walked away from him during the trials. Maybe, though, during those trials God had actually been closer to him than any other time.

He let out a long breath. He hadn’t prayed — really prayed — in years. Almost all of his prayers in recent years had been quick utterances like “God, please let me get to this meeting on time” or “God, be with so-and-so in their difficult time.” He wasn’t even sure if he knew how to pray anymore.

“God,” he whispered, his hands on the counter, his eyes closed. “How do I trust you even when the outcome isn’t what I wanted? Show me. Please. And show me how to accept that Maddie doesn’t want this anymore, doesn’t want me,” his voice cracked with emotion. “anymore. Help me through this. I know I don’t deserve your help, but I’m asking for it anyhow.”

Liam swiped the back of his hand across his cheek to wipe away tears he hadn’t expected.

The isolation must be really getting to me. I’m a grown man standing in my kitchen crying.

He had to admit though, the tears, and the prayer, had been therapeutic.

Yes, he’d just prayed for the first time in maybe four years and yes, he might still not find the answers he was seeking, but he felt different, liberated somehow. Somehow, he felt that no matter what happened between him and Maddie, he was going to be okay and so was she.

He walked back toward the bedroom as the coffee brewed and leaned against the door frame. Maddie had curled up on her side, pulled the covers up around her shoulders.

Reddish blond strands were draped across her face and her mouth was about the only part of her visible. He laughed softly at the sight of her, looking almost like a child refusing to get out of bed and greet the day. She never was a morning person, unlike him.

He remembered well that first week they’d been married, after the honeymoon, and how he’d jumped out of bed, made her breakfast and carried it into the bedroom, proud of his efforts. She was buried under the covers, her head completely covered. He had lifted a corner of the comforter and saw her in a fetal position, her hair a mess, but her face beautiful and peaceful. That peaceful look changed when he asked her if she was ready for breakfast. Her beautiful face scrunched up and she somehow curled her body tighter into a fetal position and mumbled something about “sleep” “morning” and “five more minutes.”

She’d eventually woken up and eaten her breakfast half asleep but as the years passed the grumpy mornings and been a bit less romantic and a little more confrontational.

“I know I have to get up for work, Liam!” she shouted more than once, tossing a pillow across the room at him.

But he’d laughed at most of the confrontations, ducking the pillow and sometimes even tossing it back. There were some mornings he returned the pillow by walking it across the room, sitting on the edge of the bed, and trailing his finger tip from the bottom edge of her nightgown, down her leg, hoping she’d wake up and start both of their mornings off right.

The ringtone from his phone startled him from his thoughts and he lunged across the room and snatched it quickly from the bedside table so it wouldn’t wake Maddie. He walked into the living room before answering it.

“Liam”

“Yeah, Tony. Hey.”

He hadn’t expected to hear from his lawyer after being told signing the paperwork would have to wait for two weeks at the earliest.

“You guys hanging in there?”

“As best as can be expected under the circumstances.”

“I know that not being able to sign the paperwork has probably been weighing on you, so I wanted to let you know that we’ve decided that as long as everyone agrees to wear masks, we can sign the papers at the end of this week. Would that work?”

Liam swallowed hard and looked down the hallway. “Um..yeah. Let me ask Maddie if that works for her.”

Tony chuckled. “How’s that been working out?”

Liam winced then laughed softly. “It’s been interesting to say the least.”

“Well, not much longer, buddy. We’ll get these papers signed and get you into your own place as soon as your quarantine is over. Any word on your test yet?”

“No. Not yet. I’m going to be calling the doctor later today to find out what the delay is.”

“Okay, well, keep me updated. If Maddie agrees I’ll clear it with her attorney this afternoon.”

After thanking Tony and saying goodbye, Liam reached for the coffee mug, stirring in cream and sugar. Walking quietly down the hall he peaked into the spare room. The bed was empty and he could hear the shower in the bathroom at the end of the hall. He looked at the empty bed again, an ache spreading across chest as he remembered the feel of her against him the night before.

Back in the kitchen he started breakfast and sipped the coffee. He was plating eggs and bacon and putting another slice of toast in the toaster when he heard the bathroom door open and bare feet against the floor in the hallway.

He would miss the sound of Maddie’s feet in the hallway when the divorce was final.

He noticed a tremble in his hand as he set the mug on the counter. His heart was pounding faster, his breath quickening as he pictured himself signing the papers. He closed his eyes tight against the image, rubbing his hand through his hair as if he could rub it from his mind.

Dear God.

A cold chill slithered through his arms and legs at the same time a piercing ring squealed in his ears. Pain clutched at his chest and gnawing nausea swelled in the pit of his stomach. Touching a hand to his forehead he felt sweat beading there. He tried to draw in a deep breath but it caught there.  

What was going on?

Could it be the virus?

He straightened himself and held his hand out in front of him, his breaths quick, yet shallow. His hand shook violently. Clenching it into a fist he willed the shaking to stop.

His mind raced to make sense of what was happening as he stumbled back against the refrigerator, sliding down it to the cool, gray linoleum. He struggled to drag air into his lungs and blackness encroached across his vision. Even before his head hit the floor, he had completely lost consciousness.

Chapter 9

The children had been ushered upstairs into their parent’s bedroom with pizza, cookies, juice and child-appropriate movies. Matt was in the kitchen cooking dinner and Cassie didn’t have anything to do other than wait. She rubbed her hands together and then ran her hands down her arms, bouncing her foot as she sat in the recliner in the living room. She was too restless to sit and wait. She stepped into the dining room and pulled two candles out of a drawer in the bottom of the china cabinet, placing them in the center of the table.

 A rush of butterflies slid up from her toes and throughout her limbs as she lit the candles, but she couldn’t figure out why. She was simply having dinner with her husband. Her husband of 15-years. The one person, except her mother, who knew her better than anyone.

She had no reason to be nervous. She looked at her hands, saw they were trembling and closed them tight into a fist. Good grief, why was she so nervous? Maybe because this was the first date, so to speak, that she and Matt had had in probably three years. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, holding her hands against her chest.

And maybe because she needed to tell Matt something she’d wanted to tell him for a month now and she wasn’t sure how he’d respond when she did.

“Dinner is served,” Matt announced, entering the dining room with two plates full of food in his hands.

He laid the plates on the table at empty places next to wine glasses full of ginger ale and gestured for her to sit down.

“Nice touch on the candles,” he said with a smile as they sat.

Good grief, she was still shaking. “Well, I thought it would give us a romantic touch.”

Romance. Something they’d had here and there over the last few years, but not very often. And now here they were, able to be romantic and instead her stomach was in knots and her mind was racing.

Her anxiety faded slowly as she noticed Matt had pulled on a well-fitting blue polo shirt, a pair of snug blue jeans and had even shaven off his four-day stubble. She studied his masculine jawline as he sipped the ginger ale and her heart raced faster as she remembered how many times she’d kissed that jawline on her way to his mouth.

“You okay?” he asked after they’d discussed what movies the kids were watching, what snacks they’d given them, and were halfway through their meal.

“Yes, but I’m nervous,” she confessed. “And I don’t know why.”

She did know why. She simply couldn’t say why. Not yet anyhow.

“Maybe because we’ve barely been alone in months,” Matt said with a laugh.

Cassie winked. “More like years.”

Matt bit his lower lip, watching her as she cut her seasoned chicken into smaller pieces.

“Yeah. It has been years, hasn’t it?”

The warmth of his hand over hers brought her gaze to his. “Cassie, I’m sorry.”

His voice was soft.

Her eyebrows furrowed in confusion. “Why? Dinner is wonderful. I wish I had known you could cook this well or I would have had you cooking more often.”

He shook his head. “No, not that. I’m sorry for everything. For dragging you into this crazy world of politics. For neglecting you and the kids. For focusing on my job so much I lost sight of your needs.”

“Matt, I’m okay, really I —”

“Are you really? Because you always say you’re fine, but I’m worried that you aren’t actually fine.”

Cassie let out a deep breath and smiled. “Well, no, I’m not totally fine. I’m nervous about all of this stuff going on on. I’m nervous about one of us getting sick. I’m nervous about . . .” She rubbed her fingers along the top of the table. “the election and what it will mean for our family if you win again.”

Matt laid his fork down and leaned back in his chair. “I’m worried about it too, to be honest. I’ve been trying to decide if I am doing the right thing running for re-election.” He propped his elbows on the table and pressed his fingers together, tapping the tips of them against his mouth.

“But,” he said finally. “I think, in the end, it’s the right thing to do. We’ve accomplished a lot in our six years here and I know there is more we can accomplish, even if we can’t pass laws. There are other initiatives my influence in the senate can help support and push forward.”

Cassie swallowed a piece of chicken and nodded. “Right. Those are good points.”

“You don’t feel the same, do you?”

“Oh, no, I do. It’s just . . . Well, all of this has put a lot of strain on our family.”

Matt nodded thoughtfully and took a bite of roasted potato. “It has, I know, but there have been good times too. I’m not traveling across the country when sessions are over. We are all here together in the city. That’s at least a couple good things.”

Cassie hadn’t expected to feel such crushing disappointment that Matt wanted to continue his re-election campaign. She knew he was excited about the chance to serve another term; they’d discussed it before. Somehow, though, she had hoped these last two weeks at home had shown him what he’d been missing out on for the sake of his job. She remembered what she had decided a couple of days ago, though. Matt needed more of her and that included more of her support. She’d support him, no matter what, knowing that they would be in it together.

Their conversation moved to less serious topics. The weather, the latest book by their favorite Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias, and what movie they could watch later.

Cassie finished her last bite of chicken and stood. “I should wash up before the kids start running down here asking for snacks.”

He followed her to the kitchen. “Cassie, I’m sorry about the whole election conversation. Did I dismiss you too quickly? We can talk about this more. I didn’t mean to —”

“Matt, it’s fine. I’m not upset. I knew you wanted to run for re-election and I’m here to support you no matter what.”

He stood next to her and handed her his plate. “You don’t have to say you are okay with this if you’re not.”

“But I am okay with this. If you feel what this is right then —”

Matt placed his hands on her shoulders, still behind her. “Cassie, this isn’t just about what I think is right. This has to be what we both want.”

Cassie turned the water on in the sink and added dish soap. “It isn’t that I don’t want it, Matt. I’m just nervous. That’s all. With everything going on in the world, it’s just making me more nervous right now. When things settle down, I’ll feel calmer.”

She turned toward him, forcing a smile. “We’re in this together. It’s all going to be fine.”

He kissed her mouth quickly. “Let’s not talk about this right now, okay? This is a night to relax, not stress. We can talk about this some more tomorrow. I’ll help you wash the dishes and then we can pick out a movie.”

Cassie nodded and turned back to face the sink. “Now, that sounds like a plan. Just no Die Hard.”

“No Die Hard? But that’s a totally relaxing movie. And there’s even romance.”

Cassie rolled her eyes.

Matt laughed and stepped behind her, reaching over her shoulder and picking up the pre-rinse sprayer next to the faucet. He pulled it out, examining it. “Do we ever use this thing?”

“I do sometimes, but no, not a lot really.”

“How does it even wo —”

Matt pushed the small button on the back and a spray of water shot from it, striking Cassie in the face.

“Oh my gosh! Cassie! I’m so sorry!”

He snatched a dishtowel from the counter, patting her face dry as she sputtered.

She laughed as she took the towel and finished wiping her face. “Usually you point it toward the dirty dishes, Matt.”

He bit his lower lip, trying not to laugh. “I’m sorry,” he said, laughing. “I didn’t know that button worked so well.”

Cassie snatched the sprayer from him, pointed it toward him and pushed the button, soaking the front of his shirt. “You mean like that?”

Matt’s eyebrows raised, a grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. “Um..yeah. Like that.”

He reached for the sprayer, but Cassie leaned away from him. “Oh, no you don’t.”

“What?” he asked, feigning innocence. “I just thought I’d put it back for you.”

“Oh really? I think I can handle that.”

Matt wrapped his hand around Cassie’s as she attempted to lean over the counter and slide the sprayer back into its place.

“Matt. . .”

“Yes?”

They both began laughing as a small struggle ensued and more water sprayed up, covering them both.

“Ah, man, looks like you’re a little wet, Mrs. Grant,” Matt said, his eyes traveling down the shirt clinging to his wife’s chest. “Maybe you need to get out of those clothes and dry off.”

Cassie smirked, letting go of the sprayer. “Very sly, Mr. Grant. Very sly.”

Matt’s smile was broad as he cupped his hand against his wife’s face, tracing her bottom lip with the palm of his thumb. Cassie’s eyes drifted to her husband’s mouth and she hoped he was about to kiss her the way he used to kiss her, before the stress of life made their romantic moments rushed and infrequent.

The ringing of Matt’s cellphone startled them both, but Matt didn’t move away. “It can go to voicemail,” he said softly.

“That’s Liam’s ringtone isn’t it?”

Matt laughed softly as the theme song from Iron Man blared from across the kitchen. “Yeah, but he can’t wait.”

Cassie glanced at the phone as the ringing stopped but then started again almost immediately. “I don’t know. Maybe you’d better check on him, see if he and Maddie are okay? I can go get changed into something more comfortable, check on the kids, and then we can pick up where we left off when I get back.”

Matt sighed, his hand slipping from her face, down her arm and grazing her hip as he lowered it. “Yeah. Okay. But don’t take too long, okay? And bring me a dry shirt, will you?”

Cassie kissed his cheek softly. “No problem. Talk fast.”

“Liam, you have horrible timing,” Matt told his brother when he picked up the phone.

He walked onto the back patio and sat on a fold out lawn chair, leaning back.

Liam wasn’t laughing, though.

His voice was strained.

“Matt. I need to talk.”

“What’s going on? You don’t sound right.”

“I’m in the ER.”

Matt sat up on the edge of the lawn chair, his heart pounding.

“Are you having trouble breathing?”

“Yes, or I was. But it isn’t the virus.

“Then what —”

“Maddie found me on the floor in the kitchen this morning. I had blacked out and was bleeding from my head. She called an ambulance, but they wouldn’t let her ride with me. Something about new protocols with the virus.”

Matt’s eyebrows raised. “What in the world happened? You’re there alone?”

“Yeah and the doctor just left the exam room. All the tests are clear. And I’m negative for the virus. He said I had a panic attack. I’m just waiting to be discharged.”

“A panic attack? Why? What’s going on? Did something trigger it?”

Did Maddie try to kill you? No, Matt, don’t ask him that.

“I was thinking of signing divorce papers right before I hit the floor. Tony called this morning and said we could come in Friday to finalize the paperwork.”

Matt’s concern faded to amusement, though he didn’t want his brother to know that. Even though Liam couldn’t see him he hid a grin behind his hand instinctively.

 He cleared his throat, doing his best to sound sober and concerned. “Oh. Okay. Well, what do you think that means?”

Liam groaned into the phone. “Shut up, Matt. You know what it means.”

Matt smothered a laugh behind his hand. “Do I? Maybe you should tell me what it means.”

“Stop gloating. I know you’re enjoying my misery.”

“Enjoying your misery? I’m just glad that you’re taking time to think through this and work through your feelings, little bro.” He laughed softly. “But I would say that if you can’t handle thinking of signing divorce papers without hyperventilating, it might mean you don’t want this divorce.”

“Yeah, I got that, Matt.” Liam sighed. “But now what do I do? Maddie wants this divorce.”

“Does she?”

“Yeah. She’s the one who asked for it, so I know she wants it.”

Matt shrugged. “Maybe she thought you wanted it.”

During the silence from the other end of the phone Matt heard Cassie’s footsteps in the kitchen.

“I have to go,” Liam said finally. “I’ll call you back later, okay?”

Matt turned to watch Cassie open the patio door and walk toward him. “Okay, but a lot later.”

“Huh?”

“I said call back a lot later. The kids are upstairs watching movies. Cassie and I are downstairs. Alone.”

“Wha — Oh. I see. Well, good luck, big bro.”

“Thanks.” Cassie tied her dark blue robe closed at the front. “The same to you. How are you getting home? Maddie coming to get you?”

“No. I’m calling a taxi. Maddie managed to get my wallet to me before the ambulance pulled out. I can’t believe I’ve been here all day being tested. Anyhow, Maddie’s been texting me. I’m going to let her know I’m on my way home.”

The brothers said their goodbyes and Matt slide his finger over the end button and then flicking the silent mode before he laid it face down on the floor of the patio.

Cassie tossed Matt a white T-shirt and he caught it with one hand. “Is he okay? What did you mean about how he was getting home?”

“He’s in the ER.”

“Oh my gosh! What happened? Did the doctor confirm his diagnosis?”

“He’s negative. It’s not the virus. It’s the divorce. The doctor said he was having a panic attack”

Cassie sat on the edge of the lawn chair, next to him. “Oh wow. It’s finally hit him, hasn’t it?”

Matt nodded. “He doesn’t want this divorce.”

Cassie tipped her head back and sighed. “Yes! I’ve been hoping one of them would come to their senses.”

“Me too. I’ll give him a call later and see how it’s going. How are the kids?”

“They’re asleep.”

Matt laughed and shook his head. “Really? This early? You mean all it takes to get them to sleep is putting a movie on and tossing them into our bed? I wish we’d known that before.”

Matt pushed Cassie’s hair back from her neck, leaned forward and kissed the skin he exposed. He pulled back and looked at her with a smile. “Well, then, I guess we can pick up where we left off before my brother interrupted us.”

She focused on the warmth of his mouth against her skin, a contented smile pulling her mouth upward. Moving herself until she was sitting across his lap, one leg on each side of him, she slid her hands in his hair as he continued to kiss her neck, closing her eyes.

Both of his hands slid up her legs slowly, tenderly, toward her back as his mouth trailed along the nape of her neck. A rush of intoxicating desire exploded in his chest when his hands met bare skin where he thought he’d find cotton. He pulled back and looked at her with wide eyes.

“I do believe you’re not wearing anything underneath this robe, Mrs. Grant.”

“Oh, Mr. Grant how astute of you to notice. I see you haven’t lost all of your observational skills after all these years.”

A small smile tugged at the corners of his mouth as his hands continued the journey across her skin, up her back, across her front, pulling open the robe a little more as he pressed his lips to hers.

“Should we retire to the boudoir, my lady?” he asked hoarsely a few moments later, his body pulsating with a mounting need to feel her – all of her – against him.

His heart raced at her breath hot against his ear, her two-word answer sending him over the edge. “Yes, please.”

His heart sank at his next thought. “The kids are in our room. Asleep.”

“Oh.” She pushed her lower lip out.

He pulled her robe closed and jerked his head to one side. “Come on, follow me. I’ve got an idea.”

She stood slowly. “Matt. . .”

“Trust me.”

He tightened his hand around hers and tugged at her arm. When he opened the door to the garage she pulled back. “Matt. What in the wo—”

He turned toward her before she could say anything else, pulling her into the garage and covering her mouth with his. Sliding his hands down her back, he placed them on either side of her waist, lifting her onto the hood of the black BMW he’d bought when he’d landed that first big job as an attorney all those years ago.

He unhooked her robe, letting it fall open. She gasped as kissed her throat, her neck and then gently nibbled on her earlobe, his hands sliding down her bare back.

“We’re going to dent the hood of this car,” Cassie whispered against his ear.

“It’s just a car, Cassie,” Matt answered, sliding his arms behind her and pulling her against him. “Being with you is much more important than a car.”

Closing her eyes, lost in the caresses of her husband’s mouth and hands Cassie forgot about what she’d been nervous about before. She knew she’d have to talk to him eventually, but it could wait. She slid her hands up his now bare back. Oh, yes. It could wait.

Extra Fiction Thursday: Quarantined, a novella, Chapter 6 and 7

*Warning: This week’s chapter deals with the topic of miscarriage.

Normal disclaimer: The fiction I share here is not usually the final draft. It also isn’t normally the first draft. Either way, it is edited and rewritten before the final “publication” as an ebook on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

If you’d like to catch up on the story you can do so HERE.

I welcome feedback, suggestions and corrections.


Chapter 6

The bundle in Maddie’s arms, swaddled in a blue and white hospital blanket, had been so tiny, motionless. Liam wanted to run out of the room and never look back, but he knew he couldn’t. That was his baby in there, in  his wife’s arms; his baby who hadn’t lived. His legs felt like lead weights as he stepped across the room, nodding at the nurse who looked at him with concern and compassion, tears in her eyes.

The nurse’s hand on his shoulder was warm as he moved to stand next to the bed, looking down at Maddie. Eyes still on the small, lifeless face peeking out from the blanket, Liam sat next to his wife, sliding his arm around her as she cried. Maddie’s hair was soft against his face as he buried it there to try to hold the tears in.

“I thought it would be different this time,” she said through the tears. “I thought this time we’d make it.”

The three other miscarriages had been early in the pregnancies and one of them had been what the doctor’s called a blighted ovum – an empty sac, or a baby that never grew enough to be picked up by the ultrasound.

Liam kissed the top of Maddie’s head and closed his eyes. “I know, Maddie. I know. Me too.”

And he had thought they’d be bringing a baby home. The nursery had been ready, the baby clothes purchased, the crib set up. When the doctor told them that the placenta had ruptured and the baby wasn’t going to survive Liam’s ears had started ringing. When he learned Maddie might be lost too, colorful lights mixed with blackness faded across his vision.

A deep breath and a head shake had kept him from hitting the ground, but the doctor still took three long steps toward him and grabbed his arm to steady him.

“Please, Mr. Grant. Sit. We’re going to do everything we can to save your wife.”

In the midst of grief was joy that Maddie had survived; that even if he couldn’t carry a baby home with him, he still had Maddie. Sitting in the dimly lit den in the back of the house, he chewed at the nail on his thumb as he remembered that horrible day and the days that followed.

There was no denying those first few months had been beyond difficult. Maddie was stoic most days, angry others. Then there were the days she spent sobbing almost uncontrollably behind the closed bedroom door, unable to get out of bed and face life, or even face him. He comforted Maddie as best as he could, tried to be gentle, tried to understand her grief and most of all he tried not to burden her with his own grief.

He had to be strong for her. She wasn’t capable of helping him heal when she couldn’t heal herself; he knew that. He also knew he should have relied more on God to heal them both, but he was angry at God; furious that God had not only let him down, but most of all that he had let Maddie down.

All Maddie had ever wanted was to be a mother. Blow after crushing blow eviscerated that dream.

Liam blamed God.

He had been raised to believe God wanted his people to prosper not suffer, that he loved them. If that was true, then why had this so-called compassionate God let Maddie suffer so much and so often?

After the loss of the baby, who he and Maddie named Abrielle, Liam buried himself in work at the public relations firm he’d been employed by during that time. When he wasn’t working, he did his best to make Maddie happy — making her dinners, making sure she had quiet time, and not pressuring her to go back to work at the small magazine she’d been working at.

She was never happy, though. She didn’t want to take the medicine the therapist had suggested. She didn’t want to talk about it. She didn’t answer phone calls from her parents or come out of her room for visits by Cassie or her friends. She didn’t want him to hold her and tell her it was going to be okay.

 Many days it seemed like it was him she wasn’t happy with. He finally  gave up trying to make her happy. Maybe he should haven’t have given up. Maybe if he hadn’t, she wouldn’t have wanted the divorce.

He stood from the loveseat in the den and paused at the window, looking out at the side yard, barely lit by the half moon. He rubbed his chin, biting the inside of his lip.

“I want a divorce.”

Those had been her exact words and she’d said it without even flinching, other than a small muscle jumping in her right eye, right above the small scar she’d gotten when she fell off her bike at 8-years old. Liam had used to kiss that scar, then her cheek, on his way to her mouth.

He hadn’t really wanted a divorce, but he had known in that moment it was what Maddie wanted.

She felt he’d never been there for her, that he had abandoned her.

If she felt that way, there was no changing her mind, no matter how many times he reminded her of how often he had been there.

He shook his head and drank the last of his soda down.

Maybe after the divorce, they would find the healing and peace neither of them could find when they were together.

***

Maddie poured herself a glass of milk and squeezed in a large helping of chocolate syrup. She knew it wasn’t right, but during stressful times she reached for comfort food and that comfort food was usually full of fat and sugar.

Walking to the back deck she flopped in a lawn chair and guzzled the milk, looking out at an empty backyard, a backyard she had once thought would house a swing set, a tiny kiddie pool, and a sandbox.

She could still remember the conversation she’d had with Cassie after the loss of Abrielle.

“What is wrong with my body? Women’s bodies are supposed to grow babies! It’s natural! That’s what all the books say! I guess I’m just not natural.”

Cassie — beautiful, sweet and fertile Cassie, pregnant with baby number three — shook her head and reached out to take her hand.

“Maddie, that isn’t true. There isn’t anything wrong with you. If there is a medical reason you can’t carry a baby to term the doctors will find it. Having a medical reason for the miscarriages doesn’t mean you’re not a real woman.”

Maddie had known Cassie was right, but she still struggled with toxic thoughts, thoughts that told her that her body had failed her, but more importantly, Liam. She’d seen Liam with his nieces and nephews. She knew he’d be a wonderful father and she’d wanted to make him that father. It had never happened, though, and no matter how many times someone told her it wasn’t her fault, she knew it was.

She leaned back in the lawn chair and closed her eyes against hot tears.

It was her fault Liam wasn’t a dad.

It was her fault their marriage had fallen apart.

What had happened to her? When had she become so miserable? When had she become someone that even she wouldn’t want to be around? No wonder Liam had jumped at the opportunity to divorce her.

He needed someone who had as much passion for life as he did, who wasn’t miserable and depressed and cold.

“God,” she whispered, her eyes still closed. “How did I get here, at this miserable, lonely place? Why did you abandon me here?”

A tear slipped down her cheek and she brushed it away quickly with the back of her hand, choking out a small laugh. Maybe you’re asking why I abandoned you, huh? She shook her head. I don’t know anymore, Lord.  I don’t know where I’ve been or even who I am.

She pulled her knees up to her chest, bowing her head against them, letting the tears flow.

Father, help me let Liam go, so he can be happy again.

Chapter 7

Tiny fingers and toes, pudgy arms and pudgy legs. Cassie kissed Tyler’s newborn nose, tears streaming down her face part from exhaustion but also joy.

“I can’t believe he’s here,” Matt whispered near her ear and when she turned her head, she saw that her husband’s face was streaked with tears too.

There were days it felt like Tyler had been born yesterday, not the 13-years it actually was. Thirteen years. So much had happened during that time. Two more pregnancies and two more children, her retirement from social work, Matt’s campaign. . . . How had it all gone by so fast?

There were times Cassie thought she should have done more with her life by now, but there were other times she was happy with where she was. She’d decided to send the children to a small, private Christian school the year before last when Matt’s national profile had increased. She began volunteering there regularly, helping the children at the school sign out library books or teaching them art. Best of all, she was able to see her own children throughout the day, keep an ey on them and make sure they weren’t approached by anyone from Matt’s political world. So far, the media had left the children alone, even when they hadn’t left her alone.

The story on the opinion page of the Post last year had questioned her involvement with the school. If Senator Matt Grant’s children attended a Christian school where his wife also volunteered, could he be trusted to treat all of his constituents fairly? What about the Muslim children? Or the Buddhists? Or even the Jewish?

“How will Grant’s faith influence his oath of office to represent all of his constituents?” the columnist asked.

“It won’t,” Matt told a reporter who posed the same question at a press conference a few days later. “My faith is what inspires me to care about all of my constituents. I believe God created them and called for me to love them as he has loved me and them.” He told her later he had smiled easily, winking at the reporter good-naturedly, even though inside he had felt unsettled by the question. “And you, Jim. He has called for me to love even you.”

The critics continued to squawk, though, and after that Cassie decided to no longer read or listen to the news. She tried instead to focus all her attention on her children and family. She had buried herself in volunteering, in reading, in her Bible study, in anything to try to drown the critical voices of the world out.

She was beginning to realize now, though, that she’d also drowned out Matt and her marriage, subconsciously pushing aside anything she thought might threaten her family’s safety. Pouring herself a glass of milk she leaned back against the counter and winced. Did she really think being close to Matt was a risk to their safety? If anything, being closer to him should have been a comfort in a sea of chaos.

If she had been feeling like she had been in a sea of chaos, alone on a storm-tossed ship in the middle it, then how had Matt been feeling? He’d been the one at the brunt of it, the one taking the hits and, in almost every way, the one shielding the rest of the family from the blows.

Walking into the living room, sipping the milk, she watched Matt in the backyard with the children, tossing a rubber ball between each of them. He tipped his head back and laughed when it bounced off Gracie’s forehead and she tumbled backwards, giggling. Tyler picked it up and tossed it to Lauren, who quickly dropped it, giggling too much to hold on to it.

 Lauren bent to pick it up and Matt lunged for it at the same time, snatching it from her then gently bouncing it off her forehead, sending her into another fit of giggles. Cassie couldn’t hear what they all were saying, but she knew the children were finding whatever Matt was saying funny by their laughter and wide grins.

Cassie hadn’t seen Matt this relaxed and joyful in at least two years, probably longer. She watched him as he tossed the ball, his muscles still well defined and toned after all these years, visible underneath the t-shirt pulling against his stomach as he lifted his arms to catch the ball, stop it from sailing over the fence into the neighbor’s pool.

An ache filled her chest, moved up her throat, threatened to spill tears down her face. She bit her lip, trying to hold back the emotion but it didn’t work. Tears pooled in her eyes, streaked her cheeks and she let them roll, knowing they were as full of joy as they were sadness. She was so grateful for this time with her family, with Matt, but she was also sad that she hadn’t tried to have more of it in the last couple of years.

Matt deserved so much more from her. More of her attention, more of her comfort; simply more of her. She needed to stop holding back and lower her walls. She needed to be sure she was supporting him in every facet of life.

Running for re-election may not have been something she wanted, but it was something he wanted. He was running because he felt it was not right for the people who had voted for him, but his family.

“Lord, help me to be what Matt needs me to be for him,” she whispered, wiping another tear away. “Help us to both lay down what we want for what you want. For what you need us to do in this time.”

***

On the tenth night of quarantine, still with no sign of illness, Liam headed to bed early, shutting off his phone and laptop around 10 p.m. He slid under the covers, emotionally and physically drained. He was glad, though, that he hadn’t yet experienced any coughing, muscle aches, or sore throat. His mind was racing, filled with thoughts of work, thoughts of what this virus might mean to his parents, his older aunt and uncles, and anyone else whose health might be more vulnerable.

 His thoughts were also filled with Maddie.

She was sitting in the room down the hall, but she might as well have been thousands of miles away with all the interaction they’d had this past week.

Matt was right.

Liam still loved Maddie.

Sadly, it was growing more obvious that Maddie didn’t feel the same way about him. The anger she had for him radiated off her each time they passed each other in the house. He didn’t even try talking to her. She’d spoke her piece. Her mind was made up about their marriage.

To her it was over, and he needed to accept that.

Sleep had finally begun to slip over him when he heard a soft knock on his door. He rolled over and closed his eyes tighter, ignoring it. Ignoring her. Another knock. He pulled the blanket up around his shoulders.

The door squeaked open and then footsteps, soft across the floor.

What did she want? He was too tired for another fight.

“Liam?”

Maddie’s voice was barely audible. He ignored her again.

She spoke a little louder. “Liam?”

Silence.

She sighed in the darkness and he felt, rather than saw, her turn back toward the open doorway.

He rolled his eyes. “What?”

Silence fell over the room and he heard a breath drawn in sharply and slowly let out again.

“Will you hold me?”

He rolled over, squinting in the darkness, trying to make out her face to decide if she was serious or not.

“What?”

“Just hold me. Nothing else.”

Was this some kind of trick to lull him into a false-sense of security? He squinted again, trying to see if she was holding a weapon of some kind.

“Please?”

She seemed serious.

Very.

He heard a vulnerability in her tone he hadn’t heard in a long time.

“Um . . . yeah. Okay.”

She lifted the sheet and comforter, sliding next to him, her body warm, her feet cold. Her feet had always been cold, and she’d always slid them up his legs to warm them, making him squirm but laugh at the same time. There was a time he’d asked if she needed the rest of her body warmed up too and there was a time she’d say ‘yes’ and he’d snuggled close and nibbled at her earlobes.

He wasn’t going to ask if she needed warming up this time.

Surprise opened his eyes wide as she laid her head on his shoulder, a hand on his chest over his heart and closed her eyes.

They laid in the dark listening to each other breathe until she whispered: “I tried to stay away from the news but it’s like watching a train wreck. I can’t seem to look away.”

His voice as soft. “I know.”

“People are scared.”

“Yeah.”

“They’re convinced they’re all going to die.”

“They’re not. Fear does crazy things to your mind.”

Silence settled over them again.

She laughed softly again. “Yeah. Like that time you had that spider on your arm when we were driving to my parents and you almost drove us into a river.”

Liam snorted a laugh. “Well, spiders are scary, what can I say? All those legs. . .” He shuddered. “It’s just creepy.”

Silence stretched between them again.

“Liam?”

He stared into the darkness, at the light of the streetlight bleeding in under the blinds. “Yeah?”

“If this kills one of us —”

“Maddie, this isn’t going to kill either one of us. I already told you we don’t even know if my test is positive. And most of the cases are mild, especially in our age group. We’re not in the highest risk age group. Okay?”

“But if it does . . . ” Maddie took a deep breath and spoke fast as she exhaled. “I want you to know . . . I’ve always loved you. Even when I didn’t like you.”

Liam laughed softly.

“Thanks. I guess.”

“And, Liam?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m sorry you thought you had to fix me. Only God can fix me.”

Crickets chirped outside. A dog barked somewhere down the street. Liam closed his eyes and let out the breath he’d been holding.

 “Yeah. I know.”

He laid his hand over hers, the one laying on his chest.

“Maddie?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m sorry you thought I didn’t care. I did care. I’ve always cared.”

He had been trying not to be aware of her body warm against his, of the smell of her shampoo, of how soft the skin on her arm as he trailed his fingertips down it, of how her closeness made his heart rate increase.

But he was aware of it.

All of it.

Much more than he wanted to be.

He slid his other arm under her and she slumped into him as he moved his hand slowly up her arm, resting it just below her shoulder. He squeezed it gently then lightly touched his lips against the top of her head, her closeness suddenly intoxicating. “I love you, Maddie. Despite it all. I love you.”

He listened to her breathe and for a moment he thought she had fallen asleep.

 “I’m so tired. . .” she whispered against his neck, her breath warm. He could tell she was fading fast.

“Sleep. We can talk more in the morning.” He looked at the ceiling, barely visible in the darkness from the orange glow of the streetlight outside. “It’s not like we’re going anywhere.”

She slept but he couldn’t. Not now with her tucked against him soft and warm, kicking his thoughts into high gear. He hadn’t expected her to come to him for comfort. He hadn’t expected it, but he welcomed it and loved having her so close, even if that closeness was only physically.

 Had she meant what she said? That she still loved him?

Maybe it had been the stress and worry talking. The exhaustion even.

The only thing he was sure of was that those words had sparked a warm, comforting fire in the center of his chest. He closed his eyes, savoring the feel of her hand over his heart, trying to switch his brain off, knowing he’d meant it when he’d told her he still loved her.