Special Fiction … Wednesday? Mercy’s Shore Final Chapters

Umm…whoops! I completely forgot I had promised to post the final chapters of the book Sunday night so here they are now.

As always, this is a continuing/serial story. I share a chapter a week and at the end of the story, after I edit and rewrite it, I self-publish it. To catch up with the story click HERE. To read the rest of the books in this series click HERE.

If you would prefer to read the book when it is all complete, you can pre-order a copy HERE on Amazon. It releases on January 31, 2023. There is also a link to the previous chapters HERE.

Chapter 36

Judi snatched the phone off her bedside table. So much for sleeping in this Saturday.

The caller ID said Evan, though, so she didn’t mind losing a couple hours of sleep.

“Hey, you.”

“Hey, you,” she said back, a broad smile tugging at her mouth at the sound of excitement in his voice.

“I’m back in town for a week, maybe more. I was wondering if you’d like to meet me out at the Tanner’s new pumpkin farm today. Maybe around noon?”

She rolled on her stomach, propping herself on her elbows. “That sounds very nice. I wasn’t sure you’d want to be around me again.”

Evan laughed. “You got all those flowers I sent, right? Of course I still want to be around you. I thought maybe I could buy you a donut and a cup of apple cider. Plus, it’d be somewhere  — um —neutral.”

She agreed to meet him at noon and spent the next two hours looking for the perfect autumn outfit. She spent another half an hour looking at herself in the mirror, adjusting her makeup, brushing her hair, then wiping some of the makeup off. Letting out a huff of breath she blew her bangs out of her eyes and shook her head in resignation.

“Don’t overthink it, Lambert. Just go.”

But she did overthink it. All the way to the pumpkin farm and in the parking lot, looking at herself in the rearview mirror. When a face appeared at her window out of the corner of her eye she screamed, then burst into laughter as she watched Evan lean back and laugh loudly.

“You jerk.” She laughed as she climbed out of the car and gently slapped his upper arm with the back of her hand.

“Sorry. That was just too funny.” His smile made her heart lurch. “You look beautiful, by the way. You don’t have to keep fixing your hair.”

Warmth spread up from her chest to her face. “Thank you.”

He tipped his head sideways to the entrance behind the store. “Care for a walk? I think the cider and donuts are back there.”

“Sure. That sounds nice.”

Leaves crunched under their feet as they walked. Judi slid her hands in her sweater pockets, her gaze drifting across a pumpkin field to her left, filled with pumpkins but also children swarming the pumpkins, loading them into carts, or carrying them to their parents. Beyond the pumpkin field were drying stalks of corn and a sign marking the entrance to the maze. Haybales were positioned at various places around the walkway, and she breathed in the scent of the drying hay, remembering her time growing up on the farm. During her teenage years, she avoided barn chores, using any excuse not to help with the milking, or shovel manure, or feed the calves. She was glad her dad had her sister and young men he’d hired to help him in the barn now, but a part of her did miss that time, a much more innocent time.  

“How’s work going?”

The question was one that used to cause her stomach to clench. In the last few weeks, though, she’d helped Ben draw up wills, help close sales for properties, and watched Ben calmly walk a woman through a divorce from an abusive husband.  Working for Ben gave her more of an opportunity to help others than any other job she’d ever had. She felt like she was actually contributing to society instead of floating through it.

“It’s going well, actually. I still don’t really know what I am doing, but Ben’s been patient with me.”

Evan ordered them apple cider and donuts at the small concession stand and motioned toward a wooden bench off to one side. “How are you doing otherwise?” he asked and she noticed he positioned himself a good distance from her as they sat, practically on the other end of the bench.

“I’m doing okay, really.” She sipped her cider. “I’m sure Ellie filled you in on some things.”

He shook his head once. “No. She said it wasn’t her place to and I respect that.”

She sipped more of the apple cider, enjoying the tartness on her tongue as she considered what to say next. “I’m sorry, Evan. I don’t know why I reacted that way. Well, I do, but I shouldn’t have with you.”

He laid an arm across the back of the bench, watching her as if waiting for her to continue. Concern etched his face.

She cleared her throat. “One night a year and a half ago, a little more, a guy tried to get further with me than I wanted. I was able to get away from him but another woman, a girl really, wasn’t as lucky.” Tears pricked at her eyes. “I don’t know why he let me go and not her and maybe other women, but he did.” She laughed softly, a tear slipping down her cheek. “Of course, my knee to his groin probably didn’t do much to make him want to try to keep me there.” She drew the back of a finger across the tear. “I guess I didn’t realize how much it had all affected me. I tried to laugh it off, drink it off, and run away but it seems like it all has been catching up with me lately and hit me full force that night with you.”

He winced and reached a hand toward her, but then pulled it back again, closing his fingers into a fist briefly before letting the hand drop to the back of the bench again. “Judi, I’m sorry. If I had known, I never would have been so forward.”

“You didn’t do anything wrong, Evan. It was me. I tried to move faster than I was ready that night. I wanted to forget everything, and I guess I thought I could erase all the memories of him by being with you. I’m the one that is sorry.” She pulled her lower lip between her teeth briefly. “And embarrassed.”

“There is nothing to be embarrassed about. You couldn’t control that reaction, as much as you wanted to. I understand.” A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. “Well, I don’t totally understand, because I’m not you and didn’t experience what you did, but I can see how that could have triggered some negative memories.”

Judi reached out and laid her hand on his. “I just don’t want you to think that you somehow triggered anything negative. You didn’t do anything wrong.”

Evan kept his arm over the back of the bench and sat the cup of cider on the seat next to him. “What happened to this guy? Did you report him or anything?”

She pushed a strand of hair back from her face and hooked it behind her ear. “No, I never did. He’s going to trial for the other woman he assaulted, though. He’s somehow out on bail and called me a few weeks ago.”

Evan’s eyebrows lifted. “He called you?”

“Yeah and he doesn’t want me to tell anyone what happened, but I’m going to. This girl’s lawyer called me a while ago. Ben and I talked to him yesterday.” She drew in a shaky breath, startled by the emotion gripping her. “I talked to the girl a few days ago. Her experience was so similar to mine, from everything he said to everything he did.” She closed her eyes briefly against the tears. “I knew she wasn’t lying.”

When she opened her eyes, Evan’s jaw had tightened, and he swallowed hard.

 “I’m scared,” she said, her voice dropping to a whisper. “But I’m going to be with her in the courtroom. I don’t want her to feel like it’s her against him. It will be us against him.”

Evan leaned toward her, then leaned back again. “I’ll be there for you if you want me to be. I really want to hold you right now, but I don’t want to touch you unless you want me to. I talked to a therapist friend of mine and she said I shouldn’t try to make the first move in any way. I should let you tell me when it is okay for me to physically be near you.”

A smile pulled at her mouth. “You talked to a therapist about me?”

Crimson colored his cheeks. “Yeah, but I mean, I didn’t tell her your name or anything. I just told her a little bit about the situation and asked how I should handle it because I care about you and — yeah —” He rubbed a hand across the back of his neck. “I just told her I want to pursue a relationship with you, so I want to know how to help you heal from all of this.” He cleared his throat. “That’s why I thought it might be good to meet here where it’s a little more neutral.”

He cared enough to talk to a therapist about how to talk to her? Was this for real?

A small laugh came from her throat. “Evan McGee, I think that you really are as sweet as I’ve heard your brother is.”

He made a face. “Ew. Don’t compare me to Saint Matt. I’m not that good.”

She moved closer to him on the bench, touching a hand to his cheek. “Well, you are very close and that’s not a bad thing.” Leaning closer she lightly touched her mouth to his. “Thank you.”

He grinned, tipping his head closer to hers. “You’re welcome. And listen, we can take this slow and just hang out. We can go out to public places, or have friends over when we watch movies, or —”

She slid her hand to the back of his neck and pulled his head down to hers, pressing her mouth to this.

“Thank you,” she whispered several seconds later, her lips grazing his. “All of that sounds really nice. I’m not used to men being so nice to me so it may take me a bit to get used to it.”

He smiled. “That’s fine by me. I’m a patient man.” He pressed his forehead against hers. “Is it okay if I kiss you again?”

She tilted her face toward his and they resumed their kiss, pulling apart a few minutes later when Judi heard a voice call out behind them.

“Oooh! Judi and Evan sitting on a bench, k-i-s-s-i-n-g.”

Judi glowered at Ben. “Bench doesn’t have the same ring to it, you know.”

Ben laughed. “Yeah, I know, but you’re not in a tree.”

Judi glanced at Angie beside Ben. “How about you two? Any k-i-s-s-i-n-ging between you two?”

Ben held up a hand. “That, ma’am, is privileged information.” He gestured toward a hay wagon to the right being pulled by a tractor being driven by Alex. “Anyone care for a hayride? I’m willing to ride with you two, as long as you can keep your hands off each other.”

Judi scoffed and folded her arms across her chest. “With Alex at the helm. I don’t know if I’d feel safe.”

Alex looked over his shoulder and scowled from under his hat. “I heard that, Lambert. Even over this tractor engine, which just shows everyone what a big mouth you have.”

Judi hooked her arm through Angie’s. “Come on, Angie, let’s go find the pumpkin cannons instead. We can pretend we’re shooting them at Ben and Alex.”

“Hey!” Ben cried. “What did I do?”

Evan laughed. “I don’t know, but I’m glad I wasn’t included in that list.”

Judi fell into step with Angie, glancing over her shoulder at Ben and Evan. “You think you two will be able to work things out?”

Angie smiled. “Yeah, I think so. I hope so anyhow. How about you? Will you be sticking around the area for a while?” She winked. “Maybe hanging out with Evan?”

The light feeling in her step and the way her muscles had lost their tension was a foreign, but welcome feeling to Judi.

“Yeah. I think so. I hope so anyhow.”

Epilogue

“Hey, you still coming to dinner tonight at mom’s?”

Judi paused at her car and looked up at Evan, smiling. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world. I can’t wait to taste her cooking again. I have to do something quick before then, though. Meet you there?”

 “How about I pick you up. Say 5:30?”

“Yeah. I’d like that.”

After years of being fiercely independent, she wasn’t lying when she said she would like to be picked up. She’d also been liking Evan being home more in the last two weeks as he started a job with a local construction company.

She turned the music up as she pulled away from her apartment building, wishing the cold temperatures didn’t preclude her from sliding the window down. Half an hour later she pulled into a parking space and checked her hair and make-up, then laughed at herself. She didn’t need to worry about her hair.

She had a feeling he wouldn’t care.

The sanitary smell and squeak of her soles on the newly mopped floor reminded her of where she was and where she was headed. Her chest tightened. Hospitals weren’t her favorite place, and she wasn’t sure what reaction she’d receive.

She asked for his room number and if visitors were allowed at the nurse’s station.

The shades were open. Sunlight poured across his bed. She took a deep breath and straightened her shoulders, trying to recapture the confidence she’d once possessed. She pulled a chair up to the side of the bed and sat quickly before she changed her mind.

“Hey, Jer. You’re not looking so great.”

Jerry blinked the one eye free of the bandages, grunted through bruised and scarred lips, and lifted one stitched-up hand. Judi was expecting a rude gesture, but instead, his thumb raised slowly. 

He pointed at the notepad on the small table by the bed. She handed it and a pen to him. After a few long minutes of scrawling, hampered by bandages and fingers that didn’t seem to want to bend, he pushed the pad toward her. The letters were shaky and a couple were missing, but she got the drift.

I owe you more than one. Not a beer. A soda. When I get out of here.

A smile pulled her mouth up and she looked up at him. “You definitely do. How about a root beer float down at that new ice cream place on Main? Be warned, though, I might look light a lightweight, but I can pack it away.”

A raspy laugh came from Jerry and to anyone else it might have been unnerving, but to Judi it was one of the best sounds in the world.

Special Fiction Saturday: Chapter 34 and 35

I’ll post the last chapter of this story tomorrow.

As always, this is a continuing/serial story. I share a chapter a week and at the end of the story, after I edit and rewrite it, I self-publish it. To catch up with the story click HERE. To read the rest of the books in this series click HERE.

Let me know in the comments what you think. Or don’t. That’s okay too. *wink*

If you would prefer to read the book when it is all complete, you can pre-order a copy HERE on Amazon. It releases on January 31, 2023.

Chapter 34

“You’re not alone, okay?”

Talking via video chat to a young woman who had gone through something even worse than Judi had required the words to be said. The young woman nodded tearfully and a few minutes later goodbyes were exchanged and Judi disconnected. She leaned back against the couch and blew out a long breath, wiping tears from her eyes.

Ellie laid a hand on her arm. “You okay?”

Judi nodded slowly and accepted the tissue her sister handed her. “Yeah, I think so.”

She’d asked Ellie if she’d be there when she called the young woman — whose name she learned was Vickie — an unusual move for her. While she was normally independent, and determined she could do things on her own, a calm settled over her at the thought of her sister being there with her.

Judi had decided on her own to talk to the girl, assure her that she’d have support for her case, and tell her how brave she’d been to go to authorities, something Judi wished she had done.

Ellie handed her a tissue. “You were really great with her. You seemed to know just what to say.”

Judi sniffed and tried to smile. “That’s very unusual for me.”

Ellie tipped her head and laid her hand on Judi’s shoulder. “Judi, come on. Don’t run yourself down. You did great.” She smiled and bumped her knee against Judi’s. “Maybe it was God helping you.”

A small laugh came from Judi. “God doesn’t work through people like me, El. You can stop all that stuff.”

Ellie leaned back, brow knitted. “First, I don’t know what you mean by people like you, but second, God can work through anyone. Don’t forget that.”

Judi stood to walk to the kitchen, rubbing the back of her neck. “Yeah, I guess. Can I get you a soda?”

“Yeah, that would be great. Maybe we could watch a movie before I head home.”

Judi opened the fridge, smirking. “Don’t you need to get home to Jason?”

“Nah. He and Alex are hanging out with Matt tonight. Some kind of guys night where they watch football and eat junk.”

Pouring a glass of lemon-lime soda she knew Ellie liked, Judi glanced over her shoulder. “In that case we should find a good chick flick and call Molly to see if she wants to join us.”

Did she really just suggest a girls’ night? What was happening to her.

Ellie was clearly delighted at the idea, based on the tone of her voice. “Oh yes. After working mainly with the guys in the barn today I bet she’d love a girls night. She can bring Liz and the baby.”

Judi inwardly cringed. A baby? At her apartment? She wasn’t too sure about that, but, well, she was trying to change some of her past attitudes. She could try at least.”

Judi’s phone rang as she walked back to give Ellie her drink. She glanced at it then clicked the button on the side to send it to voicemail as she sat back down on the couch.

“It’s Rachel. I’ll call her later.”

Ellie sipped the soda. “What’s she doing? Checking up on you?”

“Yeah, well, I told her I fell off the wagon a couple weeks ago so she’s been keeping a closer eye on me.”

Ellie cleared her throat and looked down at her glass. “Oh. You did?”

Judi pushed a hand back through her hair and let it fall down her back. She wanted to work on being more open and honest so she might as well start now.

“Yes, briefly. I went to a bar with Jessie and drank part of a beer and four sips of whiskey and got very sick to my stomach. Apparently, I can’t handle alcohol any more.”

Ellie leaned forward slightly, crossing one leg over the other. “Judi, you know you can call me if you need to, right? I mean if you get tempted. You don’t have to do this alone, okay?”

“I’ve done things alone for a long time.” Judi winked and popped a chocolate candy from the dish next to her in her mouth. “Give me some time to get used to not doing that anymore.”

Ellie’s expression became serious. “What drove you to the bar that night?” She paused, chewing her lower lip for a brief moment. “I mean, if you don’t mind me asking.”

Judi pulled her feet under her and hugged a pillow. “I don’t know. I couldn’t get my mind to slow down for one. I kept going over and over everything I had done wrong all of my life, that night with Evan, then the night with Jeff and how I didn’t go to the police or really talk to anyone except Seline about it. Maybe I could have stopped him or kept him from hurting this girl and whoever else he’s hurt.” She shrugged. “I just keep wondering why he let me go but not this girl or the others. Why did I get away? I think I have some sort of survivor’s guilt.” She laughed softly. “I mean, I nailed him pretty good that night in his privates so maybe that is why I got away.”

Ellie slid next to Judi on the couch and put an arm around her. “It wasn’t your fault. What he did to you or the other girls. You didn’t know he would do it again.”

Judi leaned into Ellie. “I should have known, but I don’t think I wanted to think about it. I was so focused on me I didn’t want to think about anyone else. It was too horrible to think he was trying to force himself on girls as young as Vickie.” She let out a quick breath. “I’m not sure what is scarier some days, my brain going too fast or the thoughts I have when it starts to slow down.”

Ellie leaned back a little to look down at Judi. “Let’s call Molly and get this movie going. We can give your brain a break for now. Just know I’m here for you. Mom and Dad are too. I know you aren’t big on church, but our pastor is great, and we have a ladies’ Bible study on Wednesdays and —”

Judi at up, laughing and holding up a hand, palm out. “El, calm down. I’m already planning to go to church with you, but please don’t try to get me to go sit with a bunch of women and talk about my feelings over vanilla-rose tea.”

Ellie clapped her hands together. “Oh, I am so excited!” She hugged Judi briefly then leaned back again. “Also, we don’t drink vanilla-rose tea. We usually have lemongrass or peach and occasionally blueberry.”

Judi rolled her eyes. “You’re not going to convert me into drinking herbal tea. Just call Molly and let’s move on from the tea conversation, kay?”

Ellie sighed. “Okay, okay. I’ll take my victories where I can.”

She reached for her phone, but Judi reached out and laid her hand on hers. Ellie looked up and Judi squeezed her hand. “Thank you, Ellie. I know I don’t say it a lot — or ever — but I love you.”

Ellie’s eyes glistened. “I love you too.”

Judi let go of Ellie’s hand and grimaced as she reached for a blanket. “Okay, this is getting too Hallmark-like for me. Call Molly and I’ll find a movie.”

She rolled her eyes again, but couldn’t help smiling back at Ellie who was tapping Molly’s name in her phone.


Chapter 35

Ben honored Angie’s wishes for two weeks, giving her time to think, visiting every other day, taking walks with Amelia and even taking her to visit his parents. Angie had been polite, helpful, and didn’t speak to him with the tension she had before, but she also kept her distance, excusing herself shortly after he arrived or declining to join them on walks or trips to his parents.

Now he was standing at the Tanner’s Pumpkin Farm behind their store, nervously rubbing damp palms on his jeans and sipping from a hot cup of coffee. Angie had called him this morning and asked if he’d like to meet her and her parents there for a day out. She’d actually called and invited him.

Maybe she was just being nice or maybe it was something more. He wasn’t sure and that’s why he couldn’t stop fidgeting while he waited for them. When Adam’s SUV pulled into the parking lot his heart rate picked up and he took a deep breath.

“Good grief, Ben,” he whispered to himself. “You’re a grown man. Get a grip.”

A chuckle came from behind him. “Knew you’d finally crack, Oliver.”

Jason Tanner walked around in front of him carrying two pumpkins he set on a display by a bench. He looked over his shoulder and grinned. “You okay?”

Ben nodded and smiled, glad to see that Molly’s brother didn’t hold anything against him from all those years ago. “Yeah. Just talking to myself.”

Jason drew the back of his hand across his forehead and then placed his hands at his waist. “I do that a lot too. Nothing unusual there.”

Ben nodded toward the corn maze behind the store. “The place looks great. This is going to be a real boon to the area.”

And also great for local farmers, which went without saying.

Jason adjusted his John Deere cap. “Thanks. I hope it will be. It’s been a lot of work, but it already seems to be paying off. We’ll be offering a lot more next year. For now we have the corn maze, pumpkin cannons, a couple bounce houses, the petting zoo, and of course the pumpkin field.”

Ben lifted the cup of coffee. “And great coffee.”

“Of course.” Jason winked. “We need it as much as the visitors, maybe even more.”

“Ben! Ben!”

Ben turned to see Amelia running toward him wearing a red and white dress and black shoes, blond curls flowing out behind her. He lifted her in his arms as she reached him and propped her on his hip. “Hey, kid. You look excited.”

“Mommy said I get to pet a goat!”

Jason laughed. “You sure do. The petting zoo is on the other side of the store. There are calves, rabbits, sheep, and a bunch of kittens too.” He nodded at Ben. “You guys have fun today. I’ll see you around.”

Angie and her parents came next, walking slower than the ball of energy in Ben’s arms. They walked to the petting zoo, bought donuts and cider and then Leona suggested she and Adam take Amelia on a hayride.

“Why don’t you two try the corn maze and let us know how complicated it is,” Adam said with smile. “We’ll take Amelia after the hayride.”

Pink flushed along Angie’s cheeks, but she didn’t respond.

Amelia gave Ben a quick hug then ran to her grandmother and clutched her hand. “Be back soon, Daddy!” she called over her shoulder.

A burst of shock slammed Ben and he audibly gasped, unable to speak for a few seconds. By the time he even attempted to speak, Amelia was on the other side of the yard, almost to the wagon.

He turned to Angie. “Wha — I mean — Did you say something to her?”

Angie lifted her shoulders and dropped them in a quick shrug. “I started to last night and she told me she already knew. I told her she was a smart kid.”

She turned to walk toward the corn maze, and he followed her. “What did she say exactly?”

“Well, I said, ‘honey, I need to talk to you about Ben and who he is,’ and she said, ‘You mean that he’s my daddy?’ I asked how she knew and she said Uncle Mark said it that day we were arguing after she fell off the swing.”

Ben let out a breath as they entered the maze. “Yeah, he did. I forgot about that.” He pushed the emotion in his throat down with a gulp of coffee. “What did she think about it?”

Angie laughed. “You saw how excited she was when she saw you, right?”

Ben rubbed a hand along the back of his neck, warmth spreading there. “Yeah. Yeah I did.” He smiled. “It was really nice.”

They walked in silence for a few minutes, dry leaves and corn husks crunching under their feet. A cool breeze brushed across them and Ben smelled the sweetness of apples in it.

Angie stopped, turning to face him. “Ben, I want to tell you something.”

Here they went again. He braced himself for another tongue lashing, even though her tone was much friendlier and calm this time.

“I appreciate you explaining to me a couple of weeks ago some of the reasons you never contacted us.” She took a deep breath, closing her eyes briefly. “But four years of no real contact is a long time. I can’t just get over that in a few months.” She opened her eyes again, hands clenching and unclenching at her sides for a few seconds, then relaxing and matching the softness her tone slipped in to. “I can’t deny I love you, Ben. I think there was a time I loved a version of you that wasn’t real and now that I know the real you it’s very confusing because as much as I don’t want to love you, I still do. I love the good parts of you, the parts that are broken and you’re trying to put back together. The parts that are trying to be a better father. I can’t fully trust you yet, though. That’s something you’re going to have to rebuild with me, but if you’re willing to do that then I’m willing to work with you and see where this goes.”

He nodded slowly. “I understand.”

She pulled her lower lip between her teeth and released it again. “Do you — I mean — do you want to see where this goes?”

He reached out and lightly touched her hair with his fingertips. “Yes, I do, but I need to tell you something. I hope this,” he gestured a hand toward himself, then her. “Leads us to where it should have led us years ago.” He stepped forward, cupping his hand against her cheek. “In a church, with me promising to have and to hold you, for better for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.” He leaned closer and kissed her mouth gently. “For as long as we both live.”

She reached up and laid her hand over his, wrapped her fingers around it, and pulled it back, kissing his palm. “One day at a time, Mr. Oliver, okay? One day at time.” A smile tilted her mouth upward. “But, yeah, I’d like that to happen too.”

He wanted to kiss her again, but he didn’t want to push his luck. “Can I get you a cup of coffee?” He looked around him. “If we ever find our way out of this maze?”

 She laughed and looked at his cup, sniffing. “Yours doesn’t smell like regular coffee. What are you drinking?”

“Coffee with pumpkin spice flavoring and a bit of farm fresh cream.”

Angie snorted a laugh. “You’re drinking flavored coffee? What brought this change on?”

He laughed softly. “Judi. She kept bringing in flavored creamers and adding them to my coffee. She said I needed to liven up some.” He took a sip. “Now I’m addicted.”

“Going to church, drinking flavored coffee.” She shook her head once. “You have changed, Ben. I’m not sure what to make of it. Are you still organizing your closet by color?”

Ben mocked gasped. “Now, that, I’ll never change.”

Angie laughed as they walked, looping her arm in his. “Come on, let’s get out of here. I’ll take you up on that cup of coffee.”

Fiction Friday: Mercy’s Shore Chapter 33

As always, this is a continuing/serial story. I share a chapter a week and at the end of the story, after I edit and rewrite it, I self-publish it. To catch up with the story click HERE. To read the rest of the books in this series click HERE.

Let me know in the comments what you think. Or don’t. That’s okay too. *wink*

If you would prefer to read the book when it is all complete, you can pre-order a copy HERE on Amazon. It releases January 31, 2023.

Chapter 33

Ben greeted Leona and Adam inside, offering a quick ‘hello’ to Angie and William as Amelia dragged him into the kitchen to show him the paints and doll. After a brief conversation with Leona about his parents and work, he felt a hand on his shoulder.

“Hey, want to come out to the barn and see the blueprints for the shop?” Adam grinned. “My brother dropped them off this morning.”

“Sure. That would be great.”

It would also him get out of the house and away from Angie and William who were sitting next to each other on the couch, talking in hushed tones. Probably wedding planning, which made his stomach turn.

Out in the barn, Adam led him to a small office built to one side, toward the back.

Ben rubbed his chin. “Hmmm. This wasn’t here the last time I was here. When did you have this built?”

“Built it myself,” Adam said with a shrug, opening the door. “Didn’t take much.”

“I thought you were supposed to be taking it easy.”

“Ah, no big deal. Few boards and some nails. The boys carried my dad’s old desk and a couple filing cabinets out and we were ready to go.”

“And you’re doing okay?”

“I am. Taking the medicine they gave me, plus taking more breaks has helped the blood pressure and the heartburn. My new cardiologist says my heart is looking good too. I hate that I scared the girls, though.”

Adam unfurled the blueprints and spread them out on the desktop. “This is the preliminary blueprint, but I like it so far. We’re going to have a showroom right up here in the front and in the back a workshop area. We’ll have storage in a separate area over here and hopefully a parking lot right here, if we can get the permits, which shouldn’t be a problem since it’s going to be right next to the Tanner’s Farm Store.”

“Oh wow. That’s a great idea. Their customers could potentially be your customers.”

“That’s what we’re thinking and Rob’s going to sell us the land at a discount. He’s excited to help us out and we’re excited to let him.”

Ben nodded, still looking at the blueprints. “Looks great. What’s the timeline?”

“Probably three months to clear the land and start construction and maybe another six months to complete the construction. Rob’s opening up a pumpkin farm this year and next year we’ll be able to market together to bring in more customers for us both.”

Ben studied the blueprints as Adam gestured. “These look great, Adam. This is really great for you.”

“It’s great for the entire family. We’re certainly excited.” Adam looked up from the prints. “Hey, I didn’t even think to ask you why you stopped by. Did you have something you wanted to talk to me about?”

“No. Not really. Honestly, I just wanted to see for myself how you were doing.”

Adam sat in the chair behind the desk. “That’s nice of you. As you can see, I’m doing well.” He leaned back in the chair, propping his arm on the desk. “I’m sure getting a glimpse of my daughter was a plus too.”

Ben held up a hand. “Adam, for one, she’s engaged and for two, she hates me.”

Adam cleared his throat. “Ben —”

“Hey boys!” Leona called from outside the barn. “Amelia wants a ride in that fancy car so William is going to give us a lift into town. Angie’s got a headache and staying home. There’s room for one more. One of you want to ride with us?”

Adam jumped up from the chair, stepped around the side of the desk, and teasingly pushed Ben aside. “Me! Me! Shotgun!”

Ben laughed as the man good-naturedly patted him on the chest on the way by.

“Have a nice ride, I’m going to head out actually. I have a long day ahead of me tomorrow.”

“Listen, though, I think we should talk first,” Adam said as they walked across the yard toward the driveway.

“Hurry, Pop-Pop! The train is leaving the station!”

Ben was surprised at how far Amelia’s little voice carried.

Adam snorted a laugh. “That’s what I always say to her when she’s taking too long to get ready. It’s not as funny when she turns it around on me.”

“Have fun,” Ben said. “I’ll stop by another time for that talk.”

Adam opened his mouth to say something, but Leona spoke instead. “I’ve got your coat, hon’. We better get going before the stand closes for the night.”

“Better head out,” Ben told him. “We’ll talk later.”

William held out a hand before sliding into the driver’s side of what Ben guessed was a very expensive sports car. “Ben, take care.”

“You too,” Ben said, shaking his hand.

He stood and watched the car disappear down the driveway then headed for his own car, feeling like there was a rock in his gut.

“Ben.” He turned his hand on the car door. Angie was standing on the top step of the porch. He allowed himself a quick glance at her tan capris and white v-neck shirt under a beige sweater before focusing on her eyes as she spoke. “You need to know something.”

He turned to face her, sliding his hands in his front jean pockets. “Okay.”

She folded her arms across her chest and took a deep breath, her voice calm. “I’m not who I was in high school or college. I’ve changed. I’m not the girl who falls all over the star baseball player anymore or thinks she has to sleep with someone to be worth something. I’ve grown up and I have someone else to think about now.”

He waited for her to continue, but when she didn’t he gave a quick nod. “Okay. Thank you for letting me know. Anything else?”

A breeze caught her hair, pushed strands into her face. She pushed it aside, hooking it behind her ear. “I just wanted you to know where I stand if you’re going to keep showing up here. I don’t mind you coming to see Amelia or her seeing you or your parents, but you need to know that I am not going to fall in love with you again.”

He tipped his head down and kicked at the dirt with the toe of his shoe, then looked back up at her. “Okay. I understand. Thank you for letting me and my parents see Amelia.”

He did wonder, though, how much longer they’d have that chance with Angie eventually marrying William and them all moving back to Lancaster.

She hugged her arms tighter around her. “You’re welcome.”

They stood in awkward silence for a few minutes before he finally said, “If that’s all, I’ll be heading out now.”

“That’s all you’re going to say?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know what else you want me to say. I mean are you telling me you’re not going to fall in love with me for my benefit or yours?”

“Excuse me?”

“Well, do you want me to know, or are you reminding yourself?”

Her nose wrinkled and she scoffed, waving a hand at him. “Go home, Ben.”

She turned to walk back into the house, and he stepped toward her, hands clenching at his side. “I’m just asking because if you don’t want to fall in love with me again then why even have this discussion? Why put up the disclaimer? Why not just yell at me and tell me to get lost and never come back?”

She turned back to face him, arms out to her sides. “Because Amelia loves you, okay? Because she’s your daughter and she should have some sort of relationship with you even if you are a jerk.”

“Was a jerk. I’ve changed too Angie.” He relaxed his hands, and took a deep breath. “The only thing that hasn’t changed is that I still love you. I have a feeling that maybe, deep down, you still love me.”

Her eyes flashed as her jaw tightened. “Do you really think I could still love someone who has never even apologized for walking away from me and our daughter?”

He snorted a small laugh. “How was I supposed to apologize?”

“Like how any human being apologizes when they screw up. A phone call, a visit, a carrier pigeon. Anything but cutting off all contact.”

“I didn’t cut off all contact. I sent money and gifts —”

“That’s not apologizing, Ben. There were no words exchanged, no —”

“How was I supposed to apologize for what I did, Angie? How?” Tears stung his eyes. “How do I say I’m sorry for walking away from you during one of the scariest times of your life? How do I say I’m sorry for —” His voice broke “God forgive me. For telling you to murder that beautiful baby girl before she was even born?” He looked at her, voice trembling, tears escaping down his cheeks. “I buried myself in work for almost five years, so I didn’t have to think about what a monster I was. So I didn’t have to remember everything I did wrong and how there was no way I could go back and ask you to forgive me.” He shook his head, dragging a hand across his cheek, and looked away from her. “I can’t even ask it now. I have absolutely no right to.”

A silence fell between them that only the breeze playing with the dying leaves above them filled. He stepped back, wiping the tears away with the back of his hand.

“I don’t even know why we’re talking about this anyhow. You’re engaged to William.”

Her gaze drifted across the yard, toward the faded blue hills in the distance. Her voice was barely audible. “I’m not engaged to William.”

“What do you mean? You said that day here at lunch —”

“I know what I said.” She looked at him again. “I’d broken it off with William but didn’t tell anyone and I certainly wasn’t going to tell them in front of you.”

“Then why is he here?”

“He only came up here to check on dad and so we could talk to Amelia about us not being together anymore.” She pulled a strand of hair away from her face again. “I couldn’t marry him. I seem to have lost trust in men along the way. Who knows why. Ha. Ha.”

Ben swallowed hard and raked a hand through his hair. “Listen, I should go. We’re not getting anywhere here. Exchanging insults isn’t going to help anything.”

Angie took a step forward, arms still folded across her chest. “You asked God to forgive you just now. Was that real? And you said you’d pray for my dad. Did you mean that too? Are you really praying to God? If so, which God?”

He let out a quick breath. “The God of Abraham. Elohim. Jireh. The God you and I were raised to believe in but ran away from for so many years.”

“You want me to believe that you suddenly turned over a new leaf and to God?”

A faint smile tugged at his mouth. “No, not suddenly. Gradually.” He tossed his hands out to his side and then dropped them again. “You don’t have to believe me. I know where my heart is. I know that God has been guiding me to peace in my life. I don’t have to prove that to you, even though I wish I could somehow.” He placed his hands at his waist. “I wish I could show you what God has come to mean to me. I wish I could show you how much I still love you in one big gesture, but I can’t. There will never be a gesture big enough to show you how much I’ve loved you all these years.”

She lifted her chin slightly. “Even when you slept with Bridgett?”

He made a face. “I never slept with Bridgett.”

“Your friend Sam told me you did.”

“That I did what? Stayed over at her house?”

“He said you spent the night with her. I know what that means.”

He laughed softly. “Yeah, that I spent the night with her. Asleep. On her couch. While she slept in her room. I was drunk. I showed up at her place, thinking I could forget you if I slept with someone else. She sent me to the couch, woke me up the next morning and told me to get out and get my act together. She also told me to go find you and apologize for being the worst boyfriend in the world because it was clear I was still in love with you.”

“She thought that?”

“She knew that.” He focused his gaze on her eyes. “I was still in love with you and I still am. How many times do I have to say it?”

“You’ve had a funny way of showing it,” she said, hugging her arms tighter around her.

He walked slowly toward her, closing the gap between them. “You would never have believed me if I’d come to you back then and told you anything that I’m telling you now and I doubt you even believe me now.” Standing a couple of inches from her, he reached up and cupped his hand against her face, taking in a sharp breath at the softness of her skin against his hand, at touching her for the first time in almost five years other than that day in the barn. “Do you believe me, Angie? Do you believe I still love you?”

Her gaze dropped to his mouth, and he took that as a sign that she was comfortable with him standing so close, maybe even with him kissing her. He wanted desperately to kiss her.

He moved his head slowly toward hers, testing the water. When she didn’t pull away but instead closed her eyes, he lowered his mouth to hers, capturing it gently, seeking her permission with his action. He expected her to pull away, maybe even slap him, but she didn’t. She let him kiss her and when he pulled back slightly, she opened her eyes, looked at him for a few seconds, then leaned forward again and pressed her mouth to his, sliding her arms around his neck.

He moved his hand to the back of her head, buried his fingers in her hair, and slid his arm around her lower back, pulling her against him. The second the kiss deepened, though, she pulled back, dropped her hands to his chest and pushed him gently away from her.

“No. I can’t do this. Not right now. I mean —” She shook her head slowly, looking at the ground, as if trying to wake up from a dream. “I need some time to think.”

He nodded once, sliding his hands into his jeans pockets again. “Do you want me to stay away?”

“No. You can come to see Amelia and my parents. Just — Just give me some time, okay?”

“Yeah. I can do that. I’m sorry — I shouldn’t have —”

She held her hand up, taking a couple steps back. “No. It’s okay. I just need some time to process.”

He watched her walk back into the house, fingertips to her lips, and wondered if the kiss had affected her as much as it had him.

Special Fiction Saturday: Mercy’s Shore Chapter 28

As always, this is a continuing/serial story. I share a chapter a week and at the end of the story, after I edit and rewrite it, I self-publish it. To catch up with the story click HERE. To read the rest of the books in this series click HERE.

Let me know in the comments what you think. Or don’t. That’s okay too. *wink*

If you would prefer to read the book when it is all complete, you can pre-order a copy HERE on Amazon. It releases January 31, 2023.


Chapter 28

He’d needed church that morning. He’d needed the music, the sermon, the smiles and greetings of the other members of the congregation.

It had soothed an aching soul.

Now Ben was at his parents’ house, sitting on the back deck with a glass of lemonade and a novel, looking out over the autumn foliage splashing brilliant reds, oranges and yellows across the Pennsylvania hills around him. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d actually sat down and read a book. He only wished he could focus on it better.

Memories of the visit to the Phillipi’s kept playing in his mind. Then there was Judi. Why wasn’t she answering his texts or calls? Maybe she’d fallen off the wagon and was sleeping it off. He hated to see her go down that path again. Plus, he needed her to be alert tomorrow at work.

She’d already been let go from one job. He didn’t want to have to let her go from this one. In fact, he’d like to offer her more hours at some point and maybe even split hours between her and Cindy when, or if, Cindy decided to come back to work.

“Gorgeous view, isn’t it?”

His dad’s voice came from behind him, pulling him from his thoughts.

“Yeah, it definitely is.”

Max sat on the chair next to him with his own glass of lemonade. He sipped from it for a few minutes, gaze focused on the hillside. “So, kid, there’s been a lot of pressure on you lately. You doing okay?”

Ben shrugged a shoulder. “Yeah. I’m hanging in there.”

“I saw Adam the other day. Everyone is back in the area he said. Including Angie and Amelia.”

Ben cleared his throat. “Yes, they are. I’ve talked to Angie about you and mom seeing Amelia actually. She’s thinking about it.” Or she had been. He wasn’t so sure now.

Max looked at him with a smile. “That would be great. I’m fine with leaving it up to Angie, though. I’m sure it’s awkward for her.”

“It shouldn’t be though. You and Mom weren’t the ones who hurt her. I was. You shouldn’t be punished for my mistakes.”

His dad drank some more of the lemonade before talking. “We’re guilty by association, I suppose. Listen, Ben. Really, are you doing okay?”

Ben laughed softly. “I guess you mean do I feel the need to cope with a glass of gin?” He shook his head once. “Nope. Not yet anyhow.” He winked. “I did have an extra dessert for dinner last night, though.”

Max lifted his glass in a mock toast. “Glad to hear it, kid. Not that extra sugar is good for us, but better than too much alcohol.”

Ben laughed. “Agreed.”

“You know I’m here if you ever need to talk, right?”

The smile faded. “Yeah, Dad, I do.”

Max leaned back in his chair and sat his glass on the small table between them. “Ben, maybe this isn’t the best time to bring this up but – did I do something over the years that led you down that path toward — well, toward —”

Ben laughed softly and winked. “Alcoholism, Dad. It’s called alcoholism. It’s okay to say it. It’s what it was. I was an alcoholic and now I’m a recovering one.”

Ben had never seen his dad look so — what was the right word? Uncertain? Hesitant? Clearly lacking confidence?

“What could you have done to push me down that path? You’re the best dad any kid could have. You’re hardworking, accomplished, well-respected in the community, beloved by your family, a good Christian man —”

Maxwell winced, hands in his pockets. “Ouch. All those things sound good but they also make me sound perfect. I’m not perfect.” He turned his head to look at Ben. “You know that, right? I mean,  you don’t actually think that I’m perfect, right? Because I know I’m not. I hope it doesn’t come across that way.”

“You don’t act that way at all dad.” He swallowed hard. How honest should he be with the man? Would it make him feel better or worse? “I’ve tried to live up to your reputation over the years, it’s true. I tried too hard for a long time, focusing only on your career accomplishments. When I couldn’t get there, I’ll admit, I fell apart a little.” He laughed softly and shook his head. “No. A lot. I fell apart a lot. I screwed up my life by trying to drink myself into oblivion and forget the fact I’d never be as accomplished or as good as you. The more I drank, the worse it got too. I got further and further away from who you were, knowing with each passing day I could never measure up to your standards or God’s.”

Max reached out and squeezed his shoulder. “You know now that you don’t have to live up to anything for my love or God’s, right?”

Ben nodded and covered his dad’s hand with his. “Yes. I do.” He may not feel it every day, but he understood it.

The ringing of his cellphone startled him. He’d forgotten he’d even brought it outside with him. The ringing was coming from his jacket. He searched for the phone and lifted it out of the inside pocket, hoping it was Judi letting him know she was okay.

He didn’t recognize the number, but answered it in case it was a client. “Hello, Ben Oliver here.”

There was an intake of a breath and a pause on the other end, then, “Hey, it’s Angie.”

He shifted in the chair, sitting up straighter, muscles tensing as he braced himself for the scolding, the demand that he not visit again.

“Hey, what’s up?”

She cleared her throat. “I need a favor.”

He half expected her favor to be for him to meet her brothers down at the boat launch outside of town so they could beat him up and throw him in the river.

“Yeah, sure.”

“My dad’s at the hospital and mom’s already there with grandma. My brothers are two hours away on a job and I don’t really know anyone else around here anymore. I can’t believe I’m asking this, but can you come sit with Amelia?”

His mouth went dry. “Definitely. Yeah. I mean, I’m at my parents so it will take a bit but —”

“I can bring her there. We’re downtown grabbing her some lunch from the diner.”

“Yeah, you can do that, if you want.”

“See you in fifteen?”

“Absolutely.”

She disconnected and he realized he hadn’t even asked why Adam was at the hospital.

“Everything okay?” His dad’s voice cut into his thoughts.

He shook his head. “No. Adam’s in the hospital. Angie wants to drop Amelia off here while she heads up.”

“You’ve gone pale, kid. You going to be okay?”

“What?” Ben looked at his dad, palms suddenly damp, mouth dry. “No. I’m fine. I’m not pale. Am I?”

Max laughed and stood, patting Ben on the shoulder. “It’s going to be fine, buddy. Your mom and I will be here for back up.”

Ben stood and followed his dad into the house. “I know, but Angie hates me, Dad. I mean, the other day I was pushing Amelia on the swing after I helped Adam and her brothers bring the furniture in and she fell off. Angie acted liked I did it on purpose. And what’s worse is I had no idea how to comfort Amelia or even check her for injuries.” He downed the rest of the lemonade and placed the glass in the sink. “This kid is my flesh and blood and when I’m around her I have no idea what to do. I feel like she’s someone else’s kid. I don’t know anything about her at all, but for some reason she attaches herself every time I come over.”

“It’s because something in her knows you’re dad,” his mom said sweeping into the dining room, setting a vase of flowers in the middle of the table.

She was still wearing her Sunday clothes — a flowered skirt and white, button-up blouse — her hair swept up on her head in a stylish bun, hiding much of the gray streaks in the brown nicely.

Sitting at the dining room table, Ben clasped his hand behind his head and yawned. “She’s four. That’s not possible.”

Sylvia paused in her adjustment of the flowers in the vase and raised an eyebrow. “Kids are smarter than we adults give them credit for, Benjamin. Now, what brought this topic up?”

 “I don’t want you to get flustered, but Angie’s bringing Amelia over for a while. Adam’s in the hospital for some reason and Angie’s going to wait with Leona.”

Sylvia’s hands hovered over the flowers. “Really? She’s bringing our granddaughter here?” Her eyes glistened as she pressed one hand to the base of her throat and the other to her mouth. “Oh my. Oh, that’s —” she sniffed. “That’s just so wonderful.” She spun quickly toward the kitchen. “I wonder if I even have any snacks she’d like. I haven’t had a young child in the house in years. I do have some peanut butter and cheerios and I can pour her a glass of milk. Unless she’s lactose intolerant. You were at that age, you know. Maybe I should find some paper and markers too, so she can color if she wants and —”

Ben laughed. “Mom. It’s okay. She’ll be fine with whatever you have.”

Syliva took a deep breath. “Right. Of course, she will. I just — it’s just — this is the first time I’m going to meet her in person and I —” She looked at Max. “I mean what if we scare her? She doesn’t even know us.”

Ben stood and kissed his mom on the cheek. “It will be fine, Mom. She’s going to love you.” He looked toward the direction of the stairs. “Is Maggie back yet? I know she wanted to meet her.”

“No,” Max said. “She called earlier and said she’s going to be at Jenny’s until this evening.”

Ben walked to the front window, petting Maggie’s longhaired cat Muffins, watching for Angie. The cat nuzzled his hand when he dropped it and he started petting it again absentmindedly , his thoughts racing, wondering what Angie’s demeanor would be when she arrived. He heard the buzz of the gate and Angie’s voice over the intercom in the kitchen.

“Hey, Angie.” Max’s voice was warm, welcoming. “Come on up.”

Her voice held the tension of the almost five-year estrangement. “Thank you, Max.”

As the small maroon Toyota wove its way up the driveway, he realized he didn’t know whether to walk outside or let her walk up to the house herself. As she parked the car and sat still for a few minutes, her hands clutching the steering wheel, he decided it might be better to meet her instead of forcing her to face his parents as well as him.

She looked up as he stepped outside, watching him for a few seconds, then opening the car door and stepping out. A breeze caught her hair, which hung loose down her back, pushing several loose strands into her face. A sudden urge to reach out and push the strands back coursed through him.

He watched her push the strands back herself instead as he walked, the move revealing the curve of her cheek, a face sans its usual make up but beautiful nonetheless.

She pulled her lower lip between her teeth, pulling the blue sweater she was wearing closer around her. “Hey, sorry to have to bother you.”

“It’s not a bother, really.”

She turned toward the back door without responding, but when he touched her shoulder, she paused and looked back at him with a questioning raise of her eyebrow.

“Who do I tell her my parents are?”

Angie shrugged her shoulder. “Tell her the truth. They’re your parents.”

“Then who do I tell her I am?”

An amused smile tipped her mouth up. “She already calls you ‘Ben, that fun guy’ she met at the old house. Just go with that.”

“Yeah, okay.” He nodded a couple of times, his mouth dry as he watched Angie opened the back door. “That should work.”

Amelia bounded out of the car as soon as her mom unhooked her seatbelt and ran to Ben, a piece of paper clutched in one hand, her other arm wrapped around a teddy bear. A small, pink backpack was strapped to her back and her bright blue eyes sparkled in the late day sunlight.

“Hi, Ben!” She thrust the piece of paper at him. “I made this picture for you.”

Hearing his name fly out of her mouth with such ease made his stomach flip, even as a twinge of regret twisted in his chest. All she knew him as was a man named Ben, when in reality he was so much more. Technically anyhow.

He looked down at the drawing on the paper — stick figures of a man and a woman standing next to a smaller stick figure and a crudely drawn tree with what he thought might be a swing hanging off a branch.

 “See?” Her little index finger directed his gaze. “That’s you and that’s mommy and that’s me on the swing, but this time I’m not falling off.”

Ben chuckled. “Ha, yeah, not falling off is a good thing.”

“Can you push me on a swing again?”

“Well, we don’t have a swing here, but I’m sure we can find other things to entertain you.”

Angie lifted a mini suitcase from the backseat and handed it to him, her smile from before fading into a slight frown. “She wanted to bring her favorite teddy bear and doll and all their clothes. I told her it was a bit much, but —”

Ben smiled. “I guess she takes after her mom in that way.”

“Ha. Ha.” Angie scowled but the small smile returned, which sent a shiver of warmth through his chest. “Very funny.”

She turned and slid back into the driver’s seat.

Ben felt Amelia’s fingers encircle his and he looked down and smiled at her, even as an anxious buzz sliding across his skin. He’d never been on his own with her before. The weight of responsibility pressed down on him fast. He looked up as Angie closed the door and slid the window down, then took a step toward the car.

“Angie, I am sorry about the swing thing. It was an —”

“I know, Ben. I do.” The faint smile couldn’t hide how tired — and worried — she looked. “I’ll call later with an update.”

“I’ll be praying.”

A puzzled expression furrowed her brow, dipped her mouth into a frown. “Um, yeah. Thank you. That would be nice.”

As she drove away, he thought about how him offering to pray was probably confusing to her, since when they’d dated he’d done his best to stay away from anything having to do with church, or the faith his parents had raised him in.

A soft tug brought his attention back to the present and he looked down at a small round face with big eyes. “Hey, let’s go inside. I have some people I want you to meet.”

She skipped as he walked and he admired her energy.

His phone rang before he reached the front door and he recognized the song as Maggie’s favorite, which was why he’d set as her identifying ringtone.

“Hey, squirt. You’re not going to believe who —” “Benny, I’m at a party and I’m scared. Can you come get me? ”

Fiction Friday: Mercy’s Shore Chapter 27

As always, this is a continuing/serial story. I share a chapter a week and at the end of the story, after I edit and rewrite it, I self-publish it. To catch up with the story click HERE. To read the rest of the books in this series click HERE.

Let me know in the comments what you think. Or don’t. That’s okay too. *wink*

If you would prefer to read the book when it is all complete, you can pre-order a copy HERE on Amazon. It releases January 31, 2023.

Chapter 27

She’d finally convinced Ellie to go home.

“I had a panic attack, that’s all. It’s not like I’m suicidal.”

Her sister sighed. “I know, but I’d still feel better if you’d let me stay. I can sleep in the spare room and —”

Judi had rolled her eyes. “Go home to Jason. I’m sure he needs you to cook for him or give him a massage or whatever you married people do.”

She really didn’t want to think about what they did as married people.

Ellie had stayed another hour, but eventually she had gone home. That had been two days ago and now Judi was lying on her bed in the darkness, replaying that day’s events and wishing she could sink into a hole and disappear forever. There was no way Evan was ever going to talk to her again and she couldn’t blame him. Who wanted to be around a woman who had a complete breakdown during a make-out session? She pressed the heels of her palms against her eyes.

Seriously. She was such a loser.

Thankfully she’d recovered from the panic attack and had been able to go to work with Ben the next day. Thankfully he didn’t ask her how she was doing this time, which she knew was code for, “You don’t feel the need to jump off the wagon and get plastered right?”

She was grateful he hadn’t asked because honestly, she absolutely did want to go out and get plastered, numb herself, silence her racing thoughts and she planned to do just that tonight. Dragging her hands through her hair she snatched the phone from the bedside table and looked at Jessie Landry’s text message again.

Being sober is sooooo boring.  Go to Terrell’s with me for a drink?

Judi texted back an answer as she walked to her closet.

Absolutely. Meet you there in fifteen.

But when she reached the bar and stood outside wearing thigh-high black leather boots and a hot pink skirt and rainbow striped tank top she’d purchased at an upscale boutique in the city, she hesitated. She hadn’t been to a bar in almost a year, other than Lonny’s and she’d never stayed there to hang out. Did she really want to go back there again? The alcohol would definitely distract her from everything she didn’t want to think about, but it would also numb her feelings and maybe she needed to feel for once.

“Juuuuudeeeeee!!!”

Jessie’s squeal startled her, made her scrunch her shoulders and wince. She regretted agreeing to this trip, or at least with Jessie.

Jessie looped her arm through Judi’s and giggled. “Come on girl, let’s loosen you up!” She reached for the front door. “How long has it been since we just let loose?! Too long, that’s what I say!”

The door opened and the smell of cigarette smoke, beer, too much perfume, and something frying wafted out, overwhelming Judi’s senses.

Country music from the old-fashioned juke box filled her ears as Judi dragged her over the threshold. She squinted in the dim light and took a deep breath at the sight of mostly men sitting on bar stools and tall, small round tables, their hands around the handle of a beer mug or a bottle. The dark wood walls did nothing to brighten up the place either.

Places like this had been her playing field for years but now she felt out of place. She felt out of place here, she felt out of place at a church or an AA meeting. At this point she didn’t feel like anywhere was her place.

“Come on, let’s find a table.” Jessie was already waving at men, flipping her hair over her shoulder and winking. Judi wondered which man Jessie would go home with tonight.

They chose a table at the far end of the main room. The bar, lined with people sitting on stools and drinking was on the other side of the room.

“So tell me, Jude, what’s been going on with you anyhow?” Jessie propped a cigarette between bright pink lipstick covered lips and lit it. She took a puff then blew a stream of smoke out of the corner of her mouth.

Judi made a face, glad smoking hadn’t become one of her vices. Filling Jessie in on her life wasn’t appealing to her at all. She’d really only come to get out of the house and see if alcohol could drown her feelings like it had in the past.

“Nothing much, honestly. I’ve been working at Lonny’s and now at Ben Oliver’s office and just trying to figure out what I’m going to do with my life.”

Jessie smirked. “Ben Oliver. Now there’s a hottie. Have you slept with him yet?”

Judi cocked an eyebrow. Jessie was even more blunt than she was. “Uh. No. Not interested in him that way. He’s just my boss.”

“Then I’m free to go after him?” Jessie propped the cigarette in the middle of her first and middle finger and leaned her arms across the top of the table, her eyes shadowed by heavy eyelids and long, dark, fake eyelashes.

Judi laughed softly. “Good luck trying. He’s all about work and nothing else.”

Of course, she wasn’t going to tell Jessie that Ben was one, severely uptight and two, absolutely still in love with Angie. Let her figure it out.

Jessie crossed one long leg over another and bounced her foot in a rhythm that matched the country music in the background. “I bet I could get him to think about something else.” She winked as a waitress approached the table.

Jessie ordered a Black Russian and Judi asked for a beer. Might as well start out a little lighter for her first drink in almost a year.

As Jessie relayed story after story about her various sexual escapades, Judi’s gaze drifted around the bar, scanning the customers, recognizing a few, especially the ones she went to school with. Once the drinks she and Jessie had ordered were delivered, her stomach tightened. She turned the bottle around a few times, keeping her hand around it for a few seconds before lifting it.

Ridiculous.

There was nothing wrong with having one drink. She needed this. She needed to feel the numbing comfort of the alcohol and maybe drink enough to give her a buzz, muddy her thoughts until the memory of her embarrassing night with Evan disappeared.

The liquid slid bitterly over her tongue, burned down her throat, and hit her stomach as if she’d drank fire.

 How she’d ever drank this stuff for so long she had no idea. Maybe a whiskey would be better. When the whiskey came, though, it wasn’t any better. In fact, her stomach was burning as much as her throat now.

She slid off the stool. “I’ll be back, Jessie.”

“Take your time.” Jessie’s blue eyes scanned the bar for her next prey. “I’ll keep myself busy until you get back.”

In the bathroom she splashed her face with cold water, patting it dry and trying her best to keep from taking all her makeup off. Foundation hid the dark circles. She’d been proud she’d been able to hide the effect of sleepless nights. She didn’t need anything else to make her look older than she was at this point. Pausing at the sink she leaned on it and stared at her reflection for several seconds.

“Judi, what are you doing?” she whispered to the exhausted woman looking back at her. “Do you want to end up like Jerry one day? Laying in your own blood in an empty field while your family cries over you?”

Did she want to be the girl bar hopping and having one-night stands all her life, with no commitment, no one special to go home to at night? Someone who had no goals in her life, no direction, no real career or hope for a future? Someone like Jessie?

She pulled her hair back tight into a ponytail, then let it down again, shaking it loose across her shoulders. Holding her hand across her stomach she swallowed hard, then stepped aside as the door opened and a woman rushed inside, stumbled into a stall, and vomited in the toilet without even closing the door.

She pressed her hand to her mouth and swallowed back the bile crawling up her throat, turned and rushed from the bathroom. Jessie was already at another table, leaning in front of a good looking man Judi didn’t recognize, laughing loudly and letting him get a good view of her cleavage.

She straightened when she saw Judi and waved her over.

“Judi!” she called. “Come meet Troy and Nate! They need some company tonight.”

Judi inwardly cringed at how loud and bold Jessie was. Had she been that obnoxious when she was still drinking? Good grief. She probably still was that obnoxious.

Maybe she’d become a boring prude, but all she wanted right now was go home, change into her pajamas, crawl under the covers, and drink some hot cocoa while watching a cheesy rom-com. Jessie hooked her arm in Judi’s and pulled her into the booth next to her.

The man across from Judi winked at her as he lifted his beer. “So, you’re Judi.” He took a swig from the bottle. “From around here, little lady?”

Little lady? Was this guy for real?

“Uh, yeah. Born and raised actually.”

Unfortunately, she wanted to add, her gaze drifting from the smirking figure in front of her across the bar, to the exit, wondering how fast she could run there in heels. As her gaze drifted back, she spotted Brad sitting at the far end of the bar, head in his hands, an empty shot glass in front of him. It looked like she wasn’t the only one throwing herself off the sobriety wagon tonight.

“Can I buy you a drink?” The voice of Mr. Blue Eyes pulled her attention from Brad.

“Um, sure.” Her stomach clenched. “A ginger ale would be great.”

The man grinned, his gaze drifting from her face down to her chest, lingering there, and then sliding back up again to her eyes. “I didn’t think you were just the soda type from the way Jessie here talked about you.”

Her stomach turned again. “Well, someone has to be the designated driver,” she said with a sideways glance at Jessie who was finishing off her Black Russian.

“Are you going to apologize to me or not, Tanner?”

A deep voice boomed across the small bar and Judi turned her head in time to see a blur of movement a second before Brad staggered back, fell over a stool and to the floor. Blood trickled from the corner of his mouth, but he didn’t move to wipe it. He simply sat looking up at the man towering over him, mouth forming a thin line, a muscle jumping in his jaw.

In the past, Judi would have grabbed a bowl of peanuts and her drink and sat back for the show. This time, though, something needled at her. Apparently, she’d developed a conscience during her time of sobriety because instead of sitting by she stood and walked quickly toward the impending bar brawl, stepping in front of the taller man towering over Brad.

“Boys, boys.” She held her hands up, palm out, one toward the man and one toward Brad. “No need to fight over me. I’m not interested in either of you.”

She winked at the taller man and then waved her fingers at him as he scowled down at her. “Seriously, though, let’s not ruin this lovely evening by trashing this fine establishment and leaving blood on the floor.” She turned to look at Brad, cocked an eyebrow, and jerked her head to the door. “Come on, dear. Walk me outside. I could use some fresh air.”

Brad’s expression registered confusion as he stood slowly, straightening his shirt and reaching for his ball cap on the bar. Judi looped her arm in his and tugged him toward the front door while the other man looked at them with his arms folded across his chest, eyes flashing. If nothing else, this little charade would at least get her away from the creepy guy back at the table.

Out in the cool air, Judi let go of Brad’s arm after they reached the side of the building and sat on the bench near the parking lot. “Sit down, Bradley and tell dear Judi what brings you to this fine establishment, breaking your AA promises to admit your wrong doings and the power alcohol has over you.”

Brad scowled as he sat next to her, stretching one leg out in front of him and propping his hat on his other knee. “Aren’t you here to do the same thing?”

Judi looked at her nail and noticed a chip in the polish. “I’m here to forget how dull my life is.” She pushed her lower lip out and sighed. “Anyhow, what was all that about back there? Who did you tick off this time?”

Brad shrugged his shoulder, laying an arm across the back of the bench. “I asked his girlfriend if I could buy her a drink. He objected, I guess.” He rubbed his fingers across his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “What are we doing here, Judi? That accident should have scared us straight, right?”

Judi looked out across the parking lot, at the pickup trucks and the sedans and the cars of people inside numbing their problems the same way she’d tried to. Music from the jukebox thrummed its way through the wall behind her, played a melody she’d heard many times before over words about living like you were dying.

“It should have, yeah, but instead it drove us right back to our poor coping skills.” She looked over at him, his eyes rimmed red, hair disheveled, jaw unshaven. “How drunk are you, Tanner?”

He frowned, shook his head, staring out into the parking lot. “Honestly, I only had one shot glass. I’m not drunk. I couldn’t go through with it. I was getting ready to leave when Billy Bob back there grabbed ahold of me.” He raked a hand through his hair and leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “I don’t want to be that guy I was before anymore. I don’t want to be all fuzzy headed and incoherent, but right now I am only because I haven’t slept in three days.” He looked over at her. “I could have killed Ellie that night, Judi. I don’t even remember half of it, but she said I grabbed for the wheel. I could have straight up killed us both. And for what? Because I just kept drinking away to try to forget all the failures in my life. I’m an idiot and everyone has had to put up with me all of these years.”

Judi laughed softly. “Sounds familiar.” She bumped her shoulder against his. “You’re not alone in that area, you know. I’m right there in that circle with you. I came here to get myself drunk off my butt tonight. I don’t want to think anymore about all the failures in my life, either. We both know that coming here to drink our problems away is just going to add to them.”

She crossed one leg over another and leaned back again, sliding her hands back through her hair.

“Look at Jerry. He could be in a wheelchair the rest of his life. He’s traumatized his wife and kids for years with his drinking and now even more. Dawn probably doesn’t know whether she wants him to live or die after all this. There is a part of her that will want him to live, hopes this was his wake up call and he’ll become the old Jerry again, the Jerry that didn’t drink his life way.”

Brad stood and slid his hands in his jean pockets, kicking at a rock with the tip of his boot. “I hope she gets the old Jerry again. He used to be a pretty good guy. Before he started drinking so much. After he lost his dad and his job.” He slid a pack of cigarettes out of his flannel shirt pocket, tapped one out and popped it in his mouth. The flame that flicked up from the lighter illuminated his face as he lit the cigarette and took a puff. He pinched the cigarette between his thumb and forefinger, then smirked. “I can only handle getting rid of one vice at a time. And since when did you start to sound so smart? That speech about Jerry actually made sense.”

Judi scowled at him playfully. “I have no idea. I guess I’ve been hanging around Ellie and Jason too much lately. I’ve even started to think about going to church with them. Crazy right? That scares me, though. That’s why I came here tonight. I’m afraid to try to be normal. What if I fail and become weird again?”

Brad scoffed. “What’s normal? I mean, Ellie and Jason are good people, but they aren’t perfect. You know that. You are normal. Even I’m normal. We’re our own normal. We mess up more than the other humans we know but everyone has something they struggle to overcome.” He looked up at the sky, blowing a plume of smoke through his nose. “Maybe other people don’t see it that way but I think God does. He created us, let us have a free will he knew we would abuse but still somehow, he loves us.”

Judi’s eyebrows raised. “Brad Tanner. Have you gone all religious on me?”

Brad laughed, tossing the cigarette to the ground and grinding it under his shoe. “Eh, it’s always been in there. I’ve just been running from it, from Him, for a long time.” He made a face. “Also, that cigarette was awful. Maybe I can get rid of another vice.” He shrugged. “Or maybe I need to buy another brand.”

Judi stood and folded her arms across her chest, rubbing her hands across her bare arms and wondering why she hadn’t brought a sweater. “I’ve been running from God for a long time too. Sometimes I don’t even know if he’s there.”

A brief silence fell over them.

“Maybe we both need to start running toward Him for a while,” Brad said softly. “See what happens. See if he’s even there.”

Judi hugged her arms tighter around herself. “Yeah. Maybe.”

Brad pushed his hands back in his front pockets. “Can I give you a lift home?”

She glanced at him. “Uh — no. I drove here, that’s fine.”

“You okay to drive?”

“I barely had anything to drink. Are you?”

“I barely did either. I think we’ll both be fine. Just don’t let good ole’ Officer McGee pull you over.”

A small smile tugged at her mouth. “See you later, Brad.”

He tipped his head in a quick nod. “See you later, Judi.”

Back at her apartment she pulled off her clothes and stepped in the shower, washing off the stench of cigarette smoke and the grime of poor decisions. Slipping under the covers a few minutes later, warm in a set of pajamas Ellie had given her for Christmas one year, she tipped her head back against the wall and closed her eyes. She had either gotten old or wise or maybe both. Either way she didn’t know how to handle this new place in her life where she wasn’t a partier anymore but also wasn’t exactly domesticated.

She groaned as her phone dinged. No. She refused to talk to anyone else. It was probably Jessie asking where she’d disappeared to anyhow. Then again, Jessie was probably already making out with one of those men and had completely forgotten about her.

She rolled to her side and opened one eye to look at the phone.

Ben: Hey, worried about you. I thought I’d go to the AA meeting this week in Spencer. Want to join me?

This guy was supposed to be her boss. What was he doing, trying to be her friend too?

She turned the light off by her bed and rolled back to the other side without answering him. With her eyes closed, though, her mind replayed that night with Evan, then with Jeff, then back to Evan. She rolled back to her back and pressed the heel of her hands against her closed eyes. The alcohol she’d had earlier still churned in her stomach. Now in her mind Lonny was telling her she’d stolen money from her mind. She sat up, gagging, wishing she’d never agreed to go to that bar.

A few minutes later she was doubled over the toilet, emptying the meager contents of her stomach while her phone rang.

Stumbling back to her bed, she reached for the phone. The call was from a number she didn’t recognize. She turned the phone off, laid down and fell into a fitful sleep plagued by blurred images of past mistakes.

Special Fiction Saturday: Mercy’s Shore Chapter 26

I’m continuing to work on this story to release it as a book in January. As always, this is a continuing/serial story. I share a chapter a week and at the end of the story, after I edit and rewrite it, I self-publish it. To catch up with the story click HERE. To read the rest of the books in this series click HERE.

Let me know in the comments what you think. Or don’t. That’s okay too. *wink*

Chapter 26

Moana Phillipi’s house didn’t look much different than it had when Ben was in high school, other than a new paint job and new shutters on the side. The barn out back was empty of cows and tractors, as it had been for a decade now, which made it the perfect place to store Adam’s furniture until he and his brother finished building their furniture store closer to town.

Ben had arrived two hours before, helping to move Adam’s homemade furniture from the back of the moving truck to the back of Moana’s old barn. Amelia had run from the house when he arrived, tossing her tiny arms around his legs, a move which startled him, made him laugh, thickened his throat with emotion, and made him want to run away all at the same time. Before he had the chance to say much at all to her, other than “hey, kid, what have you been up to?”, she’d been called back inside by Angie who’d shot him a look that wasn’t exactly angry but wasn’t exactly friendly either.

“We really appreciate this, Ben.” Adam clapped Ben on the back on his way by, walking toward the moving truck to pick up another piece of furniture.

Ben nodded and lifted his t-shirt over his head, overheated and grateful he’d remembered to wear a tank top under his shirt.

Two moving men were also helping to move the furniture into the barn, but Adam was watching them like a hawk, instructing them, and encouraging Ben to help lift some of the larger pieces. Ben was doing his best to place the items down gently, making sure not to damage any of Adam’s workmanship.

Angie’s brothers had shown up part way through the moving and were now helping too, knowing best of all how their Dad liked his furniture handled. They were on the last row when Adam took a break, leaning against the truck, sweat beading across his brow. His color didn’t look good to Ben.

“Hey, Adam, why don’t you head in and see if Leona needs anything.” He glanced over his shoulder at Dan and Mark, hoping they’d notice their dad’s condition too. “We can get the last load and head in as soon as it’s stacked.

The brothers paused and looked at their dad. Mark glanced at Ben. “Uh, yeah, Dad. We’ve got this. You head on in.”

Ben was grateful when Adam nodded instead of protesting and mopped his brow with a handkerchief. “Yeah, I could use a drink. Thanks, boys. I’ll head back out in a bit with some lemonade for you.”

Ben didn’t converse much with the brothers as they worked other than a polite, “You got that?” or “Need a hand?” At least they were all being civil to each other.

Half an hour later, he looked up as he prepared to grab the last chair and saw Angie standing in the doorway wearing a pair of blue cut off jean shorts and a red and white plaid shirt tied at her waist. Her blond curls were pulled into a braid draped across her shoulder.

“Dinner’s ready. Mom says to get in before it gets cold.” She propped her hands on her hips and looked at the two moving men. “You’re invited as well.”

The men thanked her, but declined, one of them carrying the last chair into the barn and placing it gently next to the others. The taller one said they’d better get back on the road. They had a long drive ahead of him.

Ben dragged the back of his hand across his damp forehead and nodded at Dan and Mark. “You guys head on in. I’ll straighten out this row and head out.”

The brothers nodded and walked past their sister toward the house.

He hoped Angie would follow them but instead she stood, folding her arms across her chest, watching him with silent reproach as he stacked chairs.

“I thought I told you I didn’t want to see you when we moved up here.”

“I’m just helping your dad.”

“I don’t want you pushing your way into our lives, Ben.”

“I’m not trying to push into anything, Angie, I just offered to help your dad move his furniture.” He pushed a chair back and stacked another one, careful not to scratch the varnish. “I know. I’m not the nice guy. I’m the jerk, but maybe I’m trying to change.”

Shadows played across her face, but he could still tell her eyes were narrowed and her lips had formed a thin line.

“I’ll believe that when I see it,” she mumbled.

He was never going to win with her. He needed to accept that. He wished he didn’t still find her insanely attractive despite the vitriol she aimed at him every time they saw each other.

“You know what, Angie, why don’t you back off me for like five seconds? I just want to finish straightening these chairs like I said I would and then I’ll get in my car and drive out of here and leave you alone.”

He winced and dropped the chair he’d been holding, looking at his hand. The chair hadn’t been sanded yet. He shook the hand then picked the chair up again and lifted it onto another chair.

“Did you cut your hand?”  Her question dripped more with annoyance than concern.

“It’s just a splinter, I’m fine.” His words were strained, said with a tight jaw. He walked over to pick up another chair.

When he turned around from stacking it, she was walking toward him. “Give me your hand.” The words snapped out of her as a demand. “I’ll get it out.”

“I said I’m fine.”

“It’s a huge splinter. I can see it from here. Don’t be stubborn.”

“Huge is a relative concept.”

“Shut up, Ben and give me your hand.” She grabbed him by the wrist and yanked his hand toward her, brandishing a pair of silver tweezers she must have snatched from the first aid box on the wall on her way over to him.

He flinched when the metal touched his skin.

“Stop moving,” she hissed. “Or I won’t be able to get it.”

“Well, excuse me. It hurts.”

“Don’t be such a baby.” She squinted. “I can’t see it. Come into the light.”

She turned so her back was to him, her fingers still wrapped around his wrist, and walked forward, pulling him with her until they were standing in a stream of light pouring from a window at the top of the barn.

When she stopped walking, she pulled his arm in front of her and he stumbled forward, his chest now almost touching her back.  The scent of apples overwhelmed his senses, her hair soft against his cheek. He closed his eyes, breathed in deep, and tried not to think of the inside of his arm brushing against the outside of hers.

Tipping his head down and opening his eyes again he noticed his mouth was close to the skin exposed at the top of her shirt, soft skin along the side of her neck, curving toward her shoulder. He longed to lower his lips to that skin and kiss it softly like he used to. Instead, he had to be content in feeling the warmth coming off her, letting it remind him of better times when he could have slid his other arm around her waist and pulled her back against him.

“Ow!” A sharp pain seared through his hand. He yanked the hand away and stepped back. “What was that?”

“I got your splinter out.” She walked away from him, tossing the tweezer into the open first aid kit.

“Yeah, but you didn’t need to yank that hard.”

“You were getting too close.”

“You’re the one who stood in front of me. What was I supposed to do?”

She swung to face him, eyes flashing, cheeks flushed. “Don’t try to flirt with me, Ben. Just don’t.” She took a step back but kept her gaze locked on his, holding up a finger. “Don’t try to turn me on. I’m not falling for that.”

He snorted a laugh. “I wasn’t trying to turn you on.” He grinned mischievously. “It’s not my fault if you got turned on.”

Crimson spread across her cheeks, down her throat. “I didn’t say I got turned on.”

“I didn’t say you did get turned on.”

She turned away from him again. “I’m going in the house. Put some ointment and a bandage on that. They’re in the first aid kit.”

She left him standing in the open door of the barn with a small, smug smile tugging at one corner of his mouth. He watched her walk to the back door of the house, enjoying the gentle sway of her hips, the briskness in her step enhancing the movement.

Leona stepped into the opening of the back door and waved. “Ben! Come on in and grab some lunch before you head out, okay?”

He didn’t want to disappoint the woman, but he also didn’t want to inflame Angie anymore than he already had. Then again, eating lunch would give him a chance to smell that shampoo again, which would both thrill and torture him. Maybe he could even find a way to make that crimson flush across her cheeks return.

The other men were already at the kitchen table when he stepped inside. He asked where the bathroom was so he could wash up, his t-shirt now pulled back over the tank top.

Back in the kitchen a few minutes later, Adam, his color better than before, gestured to the empty chair next to him and across from Amelia. “There’s a seat right here. Pull up and grab some grub, kid.”

Angie set a bowl of mashed potatoes down in front of him  harder than he felt necessary. He looked up at her and wanted to laugh at the anger flashing in her eyes. She’d utterly convinced herself he’d tried to hit on her in that barn. Ridiculous woman.

If he’d really wanted to hit on her he’d had done more than breathed in the smell of her shampoo.

“Do you want to see the swing Pop-pop made for me after lunch?” Amelia asked, eager eyed focused on Ben, clearly oblivious to the tension between her parents.

“Um —“ he glanced at Angie briefly, then the brothers, then back at the bright blue eyes blinking at him from across the table. The blue eyes were the only ones that calmed his racing heart and solidified an answer he knew would be unpopular among the Phillipi siblings. “Yeah, that would be nice.”

Leona asked him about his parents and siblings during lunch, which filled up the time it took him to practically inhale the woman’s homemade roast, mashed potatoes and carrots. Through the doorway into the living room, he could see Moana dozing in a recliner, looking much older and frail than the last time he had seen her.

As soon as he laid his fork down on the empty plate tiny fingers pushed into his hand. “Come on, Ben! Push me on the swing.”

“Push you?” He grinned as he stood and wrapped his hand around hers. “I thought you just wanted me to look at the swing.”

Adam laughed softly. “Oldest trick in the book. Have fun, Ben.”

Amelia let go of his hand as they reached the backyard, her tiny legs carrying her fast across the yard, toward the barn where a tire swing hung from a tall maple tree.

The beauty of the view beyond the tree — rolling green hills starting to show even more fall color — hit him full in the chest as he continued to walk. He paused to take in the scene, but also to catch his breath, which reminded him how old he was compared to the child running ahead of him. By the time he reached the swing, Amelia was already sitting inside of it, waiting for him to push her. She tipped her body back on the swing to smile at him, partially upside down. The afternoon sun caught her hair, sparkling off it.

“Push me!” she said with a giggle.

He pushed the swing gently.

“Higher!” she squealed as the swing began to lift into the air.

He pushed a little harder, enjoying the sound of her laughter, the way it skipped across the air and curled into his heart and around it. So this is what he had been missing all these years. His chest ached, physically ached, and he rubbed it gently as he pushed with his other hand. He swallowed hard, thinking of all the firsts he’d missed with her. First steps, first words, first food, first booboos that needed to be kissed, that he wasn’t there to kiss.

“Higher!” she cried again.

He pushed a little higher then gasped when she tipped backward, falling out of the swing on her side, her arm under her. The squeals of laughter that had pierced the air before were replaced with a pain-filled wail that shot panic through him. He stooped quickly, lifting her in her arms, wincing at the sight of blood on her knee and elbow and a small cut on her cheek.

“It’s okay, honey. It’s okay.” He cradled her against him as he stood but the wailing continued, large tears rolling down her cheeks and into her mouth, onto his shirt. Turning he moved quickly down the hill and across the backyard toward the house, realizing with a sickening twist in his gut that he had no idea how to calm her down or even how to check her for serious injuries. Maybe she’d even broken a bone when she fell.

Angie burst out the back door before he reached the house, running down the brick steps toward them. Amelia reached out for her, mouth open, the wailing fading to a pitiful whimper.

Angie laid Amelia against her shoulder. “What happened?!”

“I was pushing her on the swing, and she fell off. She must have hit a rock on her way down.”

Angie carried Amelia into the house, sitting quickly in the kitchen floor and leaning back to inspect the scraps and cuts on the sniffling little girl in her arms.

Ben followed her. “I’m sorry. She wanted to go higher so —”

Angie glanced up at him, eyes flashing. “So you just did it? Because she wanted you to? Well, that’s great parenting. You’re seriously so clueless, Ben.”

He tightened his jaw and took a deep breath, but before he could even think he bit out a sharp response. “Of course, I’m clueless, Angie, I never had a chance to be a dad.”

“You had your chance! You didn’t take it!” Angie shouted back.

“Stop screaming at me and check on your daughter!” Ben didn’t even care how loud he was shouting, or that the shouts were bringing the rest of the family into the kitchen.

“That’s right, she’s her daughter and she’ll take care of her,” Mark snapped, stepping toward him. “What did you do?”

“Mark!” Leona laid her hand on her son’s chest. “That’s enough. I’m sure it was an accident.”

Ben took a deep breath, swallowed the retort he wanted to fling at Angie and Mark, and did his best to keep his tone even. “It was an accident. I was pushing her on the swing and she fell off.  That’s all.”

Mark aggressively pointed at him. “Leave, Ben.”

“I want to make sure she’s okay first.” He was having a harder time keeping his voice calm now.

“Get out!” Mark took a step forward, but Dan grabbed his arm, pulling him back.

“Calm down,” Dan said. “This isn’t the time for this.”

Adam had joined Angie on the floor, both of them inspecting Amelia’s arms and legs.

“You’re fine, honey,” Adam said. “You’ve just got a couple scrapes.” He looked up at Ben. “She’s fine. Accidents like this happen with kids all the time.”

He pulled Amelia against him and kissed the top of her head. “Come on, now, honey. Do you hurt anywhere?”

Amelia sniffed loudly and pointed to a scrap on her elbow and one on her knee. “Just here and here.”

“Okay, well, let’s take you into the bathroom, get you cleaned up, and get some Band-Aids,” Leona said cheerfully, reaching her hand out toward her granddaughter.

Amelia took it and stood slowly, still sniffing and wiping a hand under her nose. “Unicorn band-aids?”

Leona laughed. “Of course.”

Amelia started to walk with her grandmother, but then paused, pulling her hand away and running to Ben, and taking his hand. “You can push me on the swing again when I get back, okay?”

Ben shook his head slowly. “No, kid. I have to go. It was fun, though. Go get cleaned up and I’m sure one of your uncles will push you.”

Amelia pushed her lower lip out, looking up at him. “But I like when you push me. They won’t push me high.”

Ben laughed softly despite the heaviness in his stomach. “Going higher isn’t always a good thing, kid.” He lifted her hand and motioned toward Leona. “Go get a Band-aid.”

Amelia released his hand and took her grandmother’s again. He drew in a sharp breath and turned away, walking through the patio doors, chest tight. His throat and eyes burned as he started down the steps.

“Ben, it was an accident. Don’t rush off.”

He heard Adam’s voice, but he couldn’t be polite and assure the man that everything was fine. Not this time. He needed to get out of here. Emotion clawed its way from the inside out and he wanted to be in the car before it broke loose.

His hand shook a few minutes later as he shifted the car into gear and backed quickly out of the driveway, waving briefly at Adam, now standing in the side yard, concern etching his brow. It wasn’t until the car met with the intersection of the driveway and dirt road in front of the house that the tears came and he dragged the back of his hand across his eyes, willing the emotion away.

He was not going to get emotional, play the victim. Angie’s anger, Mark and Dan’s desire to smash him into a pulp, Adam and Leona’s angst. They were all natural consequences of his past actions and decisions.

His being around would only complicate matters.

At this point, it would be better for him to stay away and stop adding stress and pain to a family who he’d already victimized enough over the years.

Special Fiction Saturday: Mercy’s Shore Chapter 24

Welcome to an extra chapter this week of my continuing story.

As always, this is a continuing/serial story. I share a chapter a week and at the end of the story, after I edit and rewrite, I self-publish it. To catch up with the story click HERE. To read the rest of the books in this series click HERE. Let me know in the comments what you think.

Chapter 24

Hey, I’ve been missing you. Have to get back on the road soon. Can we meet up?

Judi stared at the text message through half-opened eyes then slid further under her covers and yawned.

For two weeks, she’d buried herself in work at Ben’s office, looked for another part time job, pondered how to convince Angie she should give Ben another chance when she moved back, ate her way through several pints of mint chocolate ice cream, avoided phone calls, and watched way too many romance movies.

She had agreed to dinner at her parents one night, let Ellie come over and watch a movie with her another, and had talked to Seline another day — thankfully not about Jeff’s upcoming trial or the possibility of her testifying. Today was Saturday and she didn’t have work to distract her.

She didn’t feel right thinking of Evan as a distraction but seeing him would be a more pleasant experience than thinking about Jerry Spencer, wondering if he’d pull through and remembering what he’d looked like that day in that empty field. She’d talked to Evan once since she’d had to call him to tell him she wouldn’t be at dinner because of the accident.

He’d called the following day to ask her how she was and she’d lied and said she was fine. He’d said he hoped they could get together soon, and she said they would.

The fact she hadn’t called him back had pulled at her every day since. Talking to him, flirting with him, making out with him might have helped take her focus of fighting thoughts of wanting a drink but she didn’t just want a distraction anymore. She wanted something deeper because Evan deserved something better. He was a nice guy who came from a nice family. She didn’t want him to be a quick one night stand or a brief escape for her overloaded mind.

Her phone dinged again.

Evan: I’m not waiting for an answer this time. I’m outside your door. I want to see for myself that you’re okay.

She gasped and jumped up from the bed.

He’d better be joking.

She dashed to the front of the apartment and peeked through the lacy curtain across the window — a curtain left over from when Ellie had lived here. He wasn’t kidding. He was out on the landing and she was wearing a pair of sweatpants, an old t-shirt, no make up, and her hair was all over the place.

She looked around the apartment frantically. Empty ice cream cartons, classified sections from the newspapers, and other various papers and clothes were scattered around on the furniture and floor.

“Judi?” He knocked on the door. “You in there?”

“Um. Hold on a minute. I’m not — uh — presentable right now.”

She thought she heard a chuckle, but didn’t have time to analyze the sound. She rushed to her room, changed clothes, yanked a brush through her hair and returned to the living room for a quick clean up. She shoved as much as she could in her trash can, straightened a couple of the cushions Ellie had left when she moved out and took a deep breath before opening the door.

She took in a sharp intake of breath. Good grief did he look amazing. Blue jeans, gray shirt, clean shaven, fresh and shorter haircut and — Wow. That smile.

A breathless “hey” was all she could manage.

He laughed. “Hey.”

After a few seconds of mutual staring at each other she realized she should be inviting him in.

She stepped back from the doorway and gestured toward the living room. “Come on in.”

“I’ve been worried about you,” he said after he stepped inside and closed the door.  “How are you?”

He turned to face her, waiting for an answer. She didn’t want to look crazy, so she lied. “Pretty good actually. Just putting some long hours in at Ben’s office lately.”

He didn’t need to know how much of those days she’d spent questioning much of her life, wondering how she was almost 30 and had nothing to show for it. He didn’t need to know about the regrets she swallowed like a bitter pill with glasses of iced tea that she wished were whiskey instead. He didn’t need to know she looked in the mirror almost every morning and wondered if she’d ever feel like she was worth more to a man than a one-night stand or a quick make out session on the dance floor of a club.

He made himself comfortable on the couch and pointed to the blue plush chair across from him. “Have a seat and tell me the truth.”

Judi took a deep breath and sat, crossing one leg over the other and leveling a mischievous gaze at Evan. “And what truth do you think I’m not telling you, Mr. Evans?.”

He smiled back but his tone held a more serious weight to it. “You were pretty shook up when you called me that night, Judi. How are you processing all that you saw and experienced? Jason said Jerry was in pretty bad shape when he got on scene.”

Jason had also seen her shaking and trying not to cry when he arrived. He’d draped a blanket around her shoulders and pulled her to feet so the EMTs who had pulled in behind him could check on Jerry. She imagined he might have mentioned all that to Evan too and she wanted to be mad at Jason for telling anyone about what shape she’d been in, but she also knew he was a good guy.

 If he’d said anything to Evan she knew it was only out of concern. Ellie had known Judi was on her way to Evan’s that night. Jason had probably hoped Evan would help keep an eye on her – make sure she didn’t drown her stresses in a case of bourbon — not that she’d ever gone that crazy before. She supposed there was a first time for everything, though, something else Jason probably also knew.

She draped an arm over the armrest of the chair, shrugging a shoulder as she let her gaze drift across the living room toward the kitchen. She’d shoved her dirty dishes inside the oven she rarely used and hoped Evan didn’t open it for any reason.

“I haven’t thought about it a lot really.” Lie.

 “I’ve been pretty busy with other things.” Another lie.

She stood quickly, walking toward the kitchen, and hoped he’d change the subject. “Can I get you a soda?”

“Yeah. I’d love one.”

She didn’t have to see him to know he was watching her. She could feel it.

 When she handed him his soda a few minutes later, she tried hard not to look into his eyes, but she couldn’t seem not to. Their gazes remained locked for a  few moments, a chill shivering through her as she searched the deep green eyes. She didn’t like the way he seemed to look straight through her as if pulling aside the veil she’d long ago dropped across her innermost thoughts long ago.

“I’m here if you need to talk, Judi. Okay?”

The softness in his voice startled her and she took a step back. She tipped her head in a quick nod and then sat back in the chair and cracked open her own soda, keeping her eyes focused on it instead of him.

“Thank you. Really.” She sipped the soda and looked up at him. “I — it’s just —” She shook her head and sipped from the can again. “It’s been a long couple of weeks, that’s all. I’m sorry I didn’t call.”

She’d wanted to call. More than once. She’d hated missing that dinner at the McGees that night, even if she was glad she didn’t have to hang out around Liz’s baby. She’d thought about Evan’s kiss every day and had even considered shooting him a text, asking him to come over for a more serious make out session to try to take her mind off repeatedly picturing Jerry laying in his own blood.

“Jason said Jerry’s still in a medically induced coma, according to his wife. And you were right. He’d definitely been drinking. A lot.” Evan propped his elbows on his knees and leaned forward, placing the can on the coffee table.

She didn’t want to talk about Jerry anymore. Seeing him like that had reminded her that Ellie could have ended up in the same shape in that accident with Brad. “When do you head back on the road?”

Evan laughed. “Ready to get rid of me already?”

She flipped a strand of hair over her shoulder, laughing softly. “Not at all. I was hoping we could find some time to hang out before you go back.”

“I’ve got a couple more weeks. What have you got in mind?”

She tried not to let her mind wander to what she really had in mind. She didn’t want to be that Judi anymore. “A movie night?”

“At the theater or here?”

She should say the theater. Less chance of the old Judi making an appearance.

“Here would be cozier and I could make us some dinner.” She snorted a laugh. “Actually, I could order us some dinner. You don’t want me to cook it.”

“Ah, come on. It can’t be that bad.”

That smile again. Ugh. She hated the way it made her chest ache and stomach flutter at the same time. She felt silly, like an infatuated teenager. She wasn’t really infatuated, though. She was simply captivated by sincerity and the kindness in his eyes.

“My neighbor across the hall called the fire department when I first moved in and tried to cook some chicken for myself. The smoke was so thick and black he was sure I’d set the whole kitchen on fire. Somehow, I hadn’t, but it was close.” She pulled her legs up under her, getting more comfortable. “I’m just not all homey and domestic like Ellie and my mom.”

He raised an eyebrow, grinning. “Is that a bad thing? Not everyone has the same talents, right?”

“Yeah, but it would still be nice to be able to dig into one of my dinners without needing to pull out a chainsaw to cut into it.”

Evan laughed again. “I’ve learned a little about cooking if you ever want some lessons.”

“Cooking lessons with a good-looking man?” She raised the can toward him in a mock toast. “Sign me up.”

“How about tonight? I can go pick up some supplies and head back over. About 6?”

A man was asking her if she wanted him to make her dinner. That wasn’t something which normally happened to her. Was it possible she’d woke up in a parallel universe?

“Yeah. That’d be really nice.”

He stood and pushed a hand through his hair, ruffling it in a way she imagined doing herself one day. “I’m meeting Matt for lunch then I’ll head over to the store and see if I can find the ingredients.”

She stood to face him. “What are you making?”

He took a step closer, grinning. “You’ll just have to wait and see, Lambert.”

He was so close she could smell his musky cologne, mixed with a whiff of orange. Biting her lower lip, she tried not to let her gaze drift to his mouth, but it was too late and based on the lopsided smile crossing it, he had noticed. He touched her under her chin and lifted her face toward his. His kiss was soft, lingering, and she leaned into it, laying her hands against his chest. He stepped even closer and touched a hand against her lower back.

When he pulled his mouth away a few minutes later he smiled down at her. “I hate to leave, but if I don’t —”

His cellphone rang and his smile broadened. “If I don’t, my brother is just going to keep calling and asking where I am.”

He kept his hand on her back a few seconds as the phone rang, gently pressed his mouth to hers then stepped back and answered the phone he slid from his back pocket.

“Yeah, Matt, I’m on my way.” He winked at her. “Just had to stop off and check on someone.”

He ended his call with Matt and told her he’d see her at six. She watched him walk down the metal stairs on the side of the building to his truck, then stepped back inside the apartment and closed the door, leaning back against it and closing her eyes briefly.

She’d never been treated as gently as Evan treated her, and it was throwing her off. She liked the off kilter feeling it gave her though, like flying in the air with no parachute or safety net, unsure where she’d land but somehow knowing it was going to be safe and good.

Fiction Friday: Mercy’s shore Chapter 20

As always, this is a continuing/serial story. I share a chapter a week and at the end of the story, after I edit and rewrite, I self-publish it. To catch up with the story click HERE. To read the rest of the books in this series click HERE. Let me know in the comments what you think.

Chapter 20

Bill Henderson slammed the palm of his hand down on Ben’s desk as he stood. He turned his back to Ben and spat out a curse word. “That woman is absolutely ridiculous.”

Ben had been back at work for half a day and already he felt like he was back in his element, far away from a world where he’d had to face his past, his failings, and situations he couldn’t fix. At least here, in his office, he had the law and the law stayed steady, no matter how much a client flailed in anger or cried in despair.

Bill placed his hands on his waist and let out a long breath, then turned to face Ben again, pointing at him. “You tell her lawyer that it’s not going to happen. I’m not giving her full custody of those kids now. She can forget it. I’m fighting for full custody because she has clearly lost her mind.”

Ben winced and leaned his arms on the top of his desk. “Bill, I don’t think that’s a good idea. Tit for tat isn’t really the best path to take in a divorce proceeding. I would really like to encourage you to think of the kids here. They are stuck in the middle of a situation they didn’t ask for.”

Bill’s eyes flashed with anger. “Did she think of the kids when she filed for divorce? No. As usual, she only thought of herself and her own selfish wants. She accused me of cheating, Ben! Cheating. I never cheated on her. Could I have cheated? Oh yeah. Plenty of times. The opportunity and the desire were there and she certainly didn’t make it easy for me to come home some nights, but I did. I should get some credit for that. But will she give me credit for anything? No. I worked my tail off for her and those kids for twelve years and what thanks did I get? None! All I got were complaints and demands to do more.”

There were times with all the negatives he heard about marriage in his office, Ben was glad he’d never asked Angie to marry him. Then again, they had plenty of negative moments without the ceremony and piece of paper.

“I understand Bill, but let’s slow down a bit here. I think we really need to get you two in a room to work this out.”

Bill scoffed. “The last time we were in the same room she threw her shoe at me.” He pointed at his right eye. “She almost took my eye out.”

Ben slid a hand over his mouth, and tried not to laugh. “Well, it could have been something heavier and more deadly, I suppose. I can make you both take your shoes off at the door.”

Bill flopped back in the chair and slumped down with his arms hanging over the edges of the chair, his chin on his chest. He was silent for a few seconds and Ben started to worry he’d passed out.  “You ever been married, Ben?”

Things were going to get awkward fast here, and he really needed to steer the conversation back to the divorce agreement, but Bill seemed to need to talk.

“No.” He cleared his throat. “Never have.”

“Got kids?”

More awkwardness.  “One, yes. I – uh, don’t have a lot of contact with her or her mother.”

“What happened?”

Ben shrugged and rubbed a hand across his jawline. “I – uh – Well, it’s a long story, but I  screwed up and walked away.”

Bill shook his head and looked at the painting on the wall next to Ben’s desk. “How did I even get here? I never pictured myself getting a divorce. I knew things weren’t great, but – this just threw me.” He looked back at Ben again. “How could she have been this unhappy and I not know it?” He shook his head again. “You know she used to pick fights with me? She started complaining about the dumbest things. She said I wasn’t home enough or doing enough with the kids. She said I treated her like a nanny. A nanny. Can you believe that? I was at work, providing for her and the kids, but I still wasn’t doing enough. What was I supposed to do?”

Ben fiddled with his pen, lowering his gaze to the paperwork on the desk. “I really don’t know, Bill. I’m not the best person to ask. I blew it with the mother of my child four years ago. I’m not exactly an expert in relationships.” He and Bill chuckled together, and Ben leaned back in his chair and hooked his hands behind his head. “I guess I could ask you something that my ex’s father asked me. Do you still love her? I mean, when you think about who you want to grow old with, is she the person you think of?”

Bill looked away, pressed the back of his thumb against his closed mouth, and swallowed hard. Ben could see him fighting emotion as he slowly began to nod. “Yeah.” He said finally, his voice thick. “She’s the person I’ve always pictured myself growing old with.” He looked back at Ben, eyes glistening. “But I don’t know if she still wants to grow old with me.” He laughed swiping at his eyes with the back of his hand. “Obviously not or we wouldn’t be sitting here, right?”

Ben dropped his hands and folded his arms across the top of the desk again, leaning forward slightly. “Not necessarily. Maybe she’s just too angry to know what she wants. Maybe she’s afraid. I don’t know and it’s not my job to know. I guess you have to ask yourself if she’s worth fighting for. If your marriage is.”

Ben wiped the back of his hand across his eyes, then laughed. “Dude, did you forget you’re supposed to be my divorce lawyer and not my marriage counselor?”

Ben laughed with him. “I know. Maybe I need to switch careers, right?”

“Maybe.” Bill tapped the top of the desk with a knuckle. “But what about you?”

Ben tossed the pen on top of the paperwork and leaned back in the chair, yawning. “What about me?”

A small smile tugged at the corner of Bill’s mouth. “Do you still love her? Your ex? You daughter’s mom?”

Ben looked at his watch. “Oh wow. Look at the time, Bill. Looks like times up or I am going to have to charge you for another hour.”

 Bill laughed as he stood. “Yeah, yeah.” He lifted his jacket off the back of the chair, slid it on and looked at Ben. “You’re still young, Ben. Save it if you can, okay? At least get to know your daughter.” He slid his hands into the front pockets of his khakis. “And let’s set up that sit down with Veronica and her lawyer. Maybe we can try to work all this out in a more rational way. You’re right. I have to think about the kids and how this is affecting them.”

Ben agreed to call Bill’s lawyer and told Bill goodbye, sitting back in his chair as the office door closed.  Bill’s situation was difficult, no doubt about it. Rebuilding his marriage might not be possible, but Ben knew rebuilding a relationship with Angie was even more impossible. Not only did she hate him, she was also in a new relationship. Maybe it would be possible for them to be civil, though, enough for him to get to know his daughter if Angie would let him.

He reached for his phone as it rang, looking at the time on the lock screen above Maggie’s name. It was only lunchtime. Really?

He needed a good long nap, but somehow, he had to push through the rest of the day.

“Hey, Benny, coming to my softball game later?”

Oh man. He’d forgot about the softball game.

“Yeah. Of course. Wouldn’t miss it.”

“Good, because I’m pitching again.”

“Looking forward to it, Slugger.”

“Slugger? What are we in? A movie from the 80s?” Maggie giggled. “Anyhow, I have a question.”

Ben cradled the phone between his shoulder and ear and turned to the computer, starting a search for a file for his next client. “Fire away.”

“What’s my niece like?”

The phone slid off his shoulder and clattered to the top of the desk. He fumbled for it and picked it up again, returning it to his shoulder and leaning his ear to it. “What?”

“Threw you off a bit, huh?”

“Yeah, a little. What — I mean how —”

“I heard mom and dad talking the other night after they talked to you.” She was quiet for a minute. “I know you told me that Angie doesn’t want you around, but do you think she’ll let me meet her when they move back?”

Ben rubbed a hand through his hair and closed his eyes, gritting his teeth. He wished he’d thought of all the heartache he was going to cause when he’d walked away from Angie almost five years ago. It was more than just him and Angie who were going to be affected but he’d been so selfish and, well, quite frankly, too drunk and career-driven to care.

He let out a breath. “I don’t know, Maggie, but probably. Angie always loved you. Give her some time, though, okay? I really messed things up with her and there is a lot of hurt there.”

“You’ve changed, though. Does she know that?”

He shook his head even though Maggie couldn’t see him. “I don’t think she really cares. I can be as best of a person as I can be but that will never wipe out what I did to her or Amelia. I abandoned her at a really difficult time for her and I never really made contact again other than a couple birthday cards and child support.”

He clutched at the top of his hair, wishing he was not having this conversation with his little sister.

“Did you want to see her, though?”

Why did everyone keep asking him this question? He’d always wanted to see Amelia and yes, he still loved Angie, but how could he explain why he’d stayed away for so long?

“Yes, Maggie. I did. It’s just — It’s hard to explain. I just felt they’d be better off without me, okay? Angie and Amelia are happy with their life right now and I’d just mess things up.”

Maggie snorted a small laugh. “That’s such a cop out, big brother, but I love you anyhow. Bring me a soda when you come today. Mom says I shouldn’t be drinking it, but she won’t say no if you bring it.”

Ben laughed at how easily his sister could slam him and move on. After they said their goodbyes and he hung up, though, he thought about what she’d said. Maybe it was a cop out to say he’d mess things up for Angie and Amelia if he tried to be a part of their lives, but it was true. They had their own life now. Angie had moved on and Amelia would probably have a real dad soon. That was a good thing.

His chest constricted at the thought of Angie in another man’s arms, as it always did when he thought about that over the years, but at the same time, he felt a strange peace. She deserved happiness after how he’d treated her. If William was her happiness then he was okay with that. William had seemed like a good guy. He simply hoped that maybe she’d let his family get to know Amelia, even if she didn’t want him around.

Fiction Friday: Mercy’s Shore Chapter 17

This is a continuing/serial story. I share a chapter a week and at the end of the story, and after I edit and rewrite, I self-publish it. To catch up with the story click HERE. To read the rest of the books in this series click HERE. Let me know in the comments what you think.

Chapter 17

Judi was back in Angie’s room, feeling as awkward as she had before. Maybe she should have helped Ben tell the Phillipis that they needed to leave, but, honestly, she wasn’t ready for the drive yet. She was still struggling to process Jeff’s phone call and she didn’t want to process it while Ben demanded answers from her.

Plus, Angie’s dad had had an odd look on his face when he’d urged Ben to stay. Judi didn’t know Mr. Phillipi at all, but he seemed like a nice man, and he was giving her a vibe that he needed to talk to Ben. Maybe staying over would give them a chance to clear the air, if it didn’t give him and Angie time.

She answered a text from Ellie, telling her the full story of why she was in Lancaster and about the car, the accident on the highway, and that they were staying over. She didn’t tell her, obviously, about the call from Jeff.

After she hung up, she laid back on the bed with a pillow hugged to her chest. The call had certainly thrown her off her game. If she hadn’t received it, she wouldn’t have thought twice about getting in that car, rejecting the Phillipi’s pleading requests to stay, and instead driving her and Ben home so she could reconnect with Evan and forget about the calls from the lawyer and now Jeff.

She rolled onto her stomach and sent another text.

Hey, you okay? Just heard about a tractor-trailer accident and hoped it wasn’t you. This is Judi by the way.

She didn’t know why she told Evan who was texting. He’d put her number in his phone, but who knew how many girls he was receiving texts from on any given day? There was no way someone that good looking didn’t have a girl in every town.

She yawned and stretched then winced as her stomach grumbled in protest. She’d declined Mrs. Phillipi’s offer for dinner, instead wanting to hide away and not have to put on a fake smile. Ben had declined as well, hiding away in the den in the finished basement of the house.

She guessed they both were fighting battles with their thoughts. Better now than tomorrow on the road.

She glanced at the gold-framed clock on the wall. Nine o’clock. She’d heard Angie take Amelia to bed an hour ago. Hopefully, Angie’s parents were also early-to-bed people and hopefully, they also didn’t mind if she snuck down to the kitchen to find a snack.

She walked slowly down the dark hallway and staircase, turning left toward the kitchen, feeling along the wall for a light switch. Somewhere outside an animal howled or screamed or made some noise that reminded her that they might be four hours from Spencer but they were still in a rural area. She slid her hand along the wall with a little more purpose.

The kitchen flooded with light before she found the switch. She looked up to see Angie on the other side of the room by the refrigerator with her hand on a square light switch. Her dirty-blond hair was up in a messy bun, the makeup that had been meticulous and flawlessly applied earlier was gone, but she was still a natural beauty, which sent a swatch of jealousy through Judi, who felt like she had to work for her beauty.

“Guess I wasn’t the only one who needed a snack,” Judi said with a quick smile, shrugging a shoulder.

Angie didn’t smile as she folded her arms across her chest and leaned her right shoulder against the doorway. “I needed a drink.”

“Oh.” Judi gestured toward the fridge. “Please don’t let me stop you.”

“No. Go ahead.” Angie’s words were said through a tight jaw. “Grab your snack.”

Judi pushed a hand back through her hair and sighed. “I didn’t think your parents would mind but if it is an issue. . .”

Angie’s expression softened and she unfolded her arms, letting them drop to her side. “No, of course, they wouldn’t.” She walked toward a cupboard next to the stove, opened it, and took out a glass. “Sorry I’m so grumpy.” She turned around, a glass in her hand. “Please, help yourself. There is some pizza left over from the party if you’d like any of that.”

She took a paper plate off a pile by the toaster and slid it onto the island. “Here is a plate if you need one. The bread is in the breadbox if you’d like a sandwich. We have turkey and ham, salami, and some lettuce.”

Judi pulled out a couple of slices of pizza from the refrigerator and laid them on the plate while Angie filled her glass with water from the sink.

She leaned back against the counter as Judi placed the plate in the microwave.

“So, how long have you and Ben been seeing each other?”

Judi raised an eyebrow and looked over her shoulder. “Seeing each other? As in dating?” She shook her head. “We’re not seeing each other. I thought you knew I was his secretary.”

Angie shrugged a shoulder. “Well, that’s what he said, but . . .”

She let the implication hang in the air.

“And it’s what he meant. I’m filling in for his secretary. Her husband is going through chemo treatments, so she needed some time off. I drove Ben down here because his doctor advised him not to drive until he stops having headaches and dizzy spells from his concussion.”

Judi took the plate out of the microwave, set it on the island, and sat on a stool. “I’m also the reason he has a concussion and a broken food but no, we are not seeing each other.” She snorted a small laugh. “Ben is good looking, don’t get me wrong, but he’s way too uptight and strait-laced for me.” She grimaced. “And boring. So boring. I don’t know how you ever dated him.”

A small smile tugged at Angie’s mouth. She sat on a stool on the other side of an island, across from Judi.  “Well, he wasn’t always boring.”

“Yeah, probably not since he was still drinking then,” Judi said.

Angie made a face. “Actually, he wasn’t a fun drunk. He was an angry and depressed drunk most of the time.”

Judi swallowed a bite of pizza and bit her lower lip. Sometimes she really needed to think before she spoke. “Sorry. That was a bad joke.” She focused her gaze on Angie’s. “Really. I know firsthand how not fun it can be when a person drinks too much.”

Angie cupped the glass in her hands, her arms propped on the island. “Were you in a relationship with an alcoholic too?”

 “No. I was the alcoholic.”

Angie dropped her gaze. “Oh.” She cleared her throat and lifted the glass. “I didn’t know that.”

Judi smirked. “Guess you haven’t talked to anyone from high school in a while. I figured you’d already heard all about my stupid behavior over the years.”

“I don’t really talk to anyone from high school,” Angie said softly. “I don’t like remembering who I was back then.” She twirled the glass in her hand. “I had heard you moved to the city, though. What brought you back?”

Judi shrugged. “Needed a break from the hustle and bustle I guess.”

“I can understand that. The city was a bit too crazy for me, honestly. It made me realize I’m more of a country girl than I realized.”

Judi folded the pizza in half and shoved into her mouth, speaking around it. “I love the city. I’m not a country girl at all. Too dull around Spencer Valley.” She wiped her mouth with a napkin and swallowed. “Sorry to be so blunt, but it’s the truth. If you don’t want to go to a bar then you’re pretty much stuck reading a book or joining the quilt club.” She rolled her eyes. “Or join my sister’s Bible study.”

Angie smiled and propped her chin in her hand. “So how did you give Ben a concussion?”

Judi took another bite of the pizza. “I accidentally pulled out in front of him on Drew Road. He swerved to miss me and slammed into a tree.”

Angie winced. “Ouch.”

“In his new BMW too. Then he got out, bleeding from the head, yelling, pointing and gesturing while this vein in his head popped out. I thought it was going to explode.”

“The one right above his right eye?

Judi laughed. “Yes. It was popping to the rhythm of his words.”

“How about the neck one? Right below his left ear?”

“Working overtime.”

“How red were his ears?”

“Like a lobster. I can tell you know Angry Ben too well.”

Angie’s smile faded briefly. “Yeah.” The smile slowly returned. “Sometimes it was funny though. It wasn’t all bad anger. Sometimes he was upset about a class or because he couldn’t get the garbage bag open. It wasn’t always directed at me.”

Judi took another bite of pizza and a comfortable silence settled over the kitchen for a few minutes.

“People can change,” she said after a few moments, even though she wasn’t sure she believed it herself.

Angie nodded and picked up an apple from the fruit basket in the center of the island. “Yeah. They can.”

“I think I am seeing a different Ben than you did.”

An orange cat rubbed against Angie’s leg and she reached down and stroked its head. “Yeah. I think you are.”

 “Maybe you’ll see that version of Ben someday too.” Judi stood and tossed the empty plate in the trash can.  “Anyhow – I’m going to head to bed. It’s been a long and crazy day.”

Angie’s voice stopped her in her tracks, and she turned back around. “Did Ben ask you to drive him down here?”

Judi knew she should lie and said he had. It would probably make Angie feel better and make Ben look better. There was that whole private promise she’d made herself to be honest, though.

“No. Not exactly. I offered. He didn’t want to come.”

Angie drank the last of the water and placed the empty glass in the sink. “I see.” She turned to face Judi. “Why did you offer?”

Judi didn’t want to get into it, try to sound like a good person. She just wanted to go to bed and try to forget about the earlier phone call. Angie was looking at her with an expression Judi couldn’t read. Either she was hoping that Ben had shown some sort of interest in doing the right thing or she was afraid Judi had forced him to come.

“I figure he’d eventually regret it if he didn’t see his daughter.” She smiled and laughed softly. “And I really needed to get out of Spencer for a few hours. Like I said, the place is seriously dull.”

Angie responded with a laugh of her own. “I know and I’m going back there in a few weeks. What am I thinking?”

Judi placed her hand on the bottom of the banister. “Look me up when you get there. Maybe we can find something fun to do there together.” She raised her hands in a defense motion. “Something that won’t involve alcohol. I promise.”

Angie tossed the apple up and caught it again. “I may take you up on that. Hey, would you like a pair of pajamas? I’ve got an extra one in the second drawer of my dresser. We look about the same size. I’m sure it would fit.”

The two walked upstairs together, Judi thanked Angie for the offer of the pajamas, and they said goodnight.

She changed into the nightshirt and pajama pants Angie had offered her, turned the lights off, pulled the covers around her, and started to set her phone down when Evan texted back.

Evan: Hey, Judi Lambert. How sweet of you to be worried about me. Yeah, I’m good. Dropping my truck off and then heading back out on the road to Spencer. Hope to catch up with you when I get there. You back in town yet?

Judi: No. Car problems again. Still in Lancaster.

Evan: Ah, man. I should have looked a little longer. Sorry about that.

Judi: No problem. Really. Angie’s brother found some dirt on the connection to the battery.

Evan: Dang. Didn’t think to check that. Guess I was too busy checking you out.

Warmth spread across Judi’s cheeks and she immediately felt ridiculous. Plenty of guys had flirted with her over the years. She was used to it. Evan was no different so why was she reacting this way?

Judi: Very funny, McGee. Glad you are safe. We’re headed out tomorrow. Angie’s mom was worried about the fog and had us stay over.

 Evan: Good idea. The fog was rough. Took me an extra hour to get back to my garage and I’ll be taking my time back to Spencer. Call me as soon as you’re back in town, k? I’d love to see you again.

Judi smiled at his words.

Judi: Same here. I’ll be sure to let you know.

Evan: Night, Judi. I’ll be remembering that cute skirt you were wearing tonight in my dreams.

Judi clicked the screen off and laid the phone by the bed. She’d met a lot of guys over the years, most of them after one thing. Evan McGee probably wasn’t any different but right now she wasn’t sure she cared.

Flirting with him was a nice distraction from the situation with Jeff. She’d have to face it all at some point, call that lawyer and tell him she didn’t want anything to do with the case, but for now, she was going to pretend the only worry she had was how soon she could get together with Evan once she got back in Spencer.