A Christmas in Spencer: Beyond the Season Chapter 10

Welcome to the ninth chapter of a twelve-chapter story I am sharing on the blog. This is being shared with minimal editing, just for fun, but it will be fully edited once it is complete.

You can catch up on chapters HERE.

If you would like to read more about the characters in this story, you can find full-length novels on Amazon for purchase or on Kindle Unlimited HERE,

The first three chapters of the first book, The Farmer’s Daughter, can be found HERE.

Once all the chapters have been shared here, I’ll be providing a free Book Funnel link to blog readers and placing the story on Amazon for 99 cents.



Chapter 10

Molly unhooked the ponytail she’d had her hair pulled up in and let her curls fall down across her back and shoulders. “Alex, I’m perfectly capable of making the drive to Burdett and back on my own.” She folded her arms across her chest and tipped her head slightly, narrowing her eyes. “Wait a minute. It’s not me you’re worried about, is it? It’s your truck.”

Alex laughed. “No! I am not worried about my truck. You’re a perfectly capable driver. There are snow squalls expected though and I –”

“You thought what? Think you can stop the snow squalls from happening?” She let out a small laugh. “Alex, I’ve been driving these roads in the winter a lot longer than you have. I’ll be fine. Promise. You really need to rest your back.” She pulled her lower lip between her teeth briefly and let it go again. “But if you really want to go then I wouldn’t mind the company. I’ll drive though so you can push the seat back and relax.”

Now that the freezers at the store were fixed, more inventory could be added to them and there was a delivery of fresh goat milk and cheese a half an hour away. Molly had volunteered to go, but Alex had overheard and didn’t like the idea of her out on her own in possibly bad weather.

Worrying about her was foolish, and he knew it. Like he’d told many people over the years, including Molly herself, she could handle any situation that rural life threw her. She didn’t need him to protect her. Truthfully, though, he did want to try to protect her. He also wanted her company after a busy few weeks of barely seeing her due to work on the farm, recovering from his injury, and painting the truck.

Once inside his truck, she flicked on the radio, pushing buttons until she found a station playing Christmas music. She pulled her hair back up into the ponytail again and he found his gaze focusing on the skin exposed at the back of her neck. He resisted the urge to trail his fingertips along it.

She made a face as she clicked the seatbelt in, then wiggled back and forth a little in the seat.

He quirked an eyebrow. “What’s the matter with you? You have an itch on your rear or something?”

She laughed, a small dimple dotting the skin next to her mouth. “No. It’s just your truck feels so — I don’t know – clunky.”

He scowled. “Clunky?”

“Yeah, like too big or something.”

“It’s a four-wheel drive. Heated memory seats. Maximum horsepower. Back-up camera. GPS integrated into the dashboard. State of the art paint job. What’s not to love?”

She sighed, shifting the truck into gear. “It’s lovely. It’s just not my truck.”

Oh. Right. That.

He reached over and laid his hand over hers. “Hey, I know. It will be back soon. Have you got ahold of Bert?” Hopefully not. “What did he say?”

“I did actually.”

Uh-oh.

“He said the engine was in pretty bad shape so he’s working on it. He had some other jobs to finish up first.” Not a lie. Good job, Bert. She lifted her shoulders briefly then dropped them again. “I don’t mind, really. I’m just glad to hear it might be able to be saved.”

If Brad was able to pick up that part tomorrow then the verdict should be that it would definitely be able to be repaired, not maybe.

Houses decorated with Christmas lights, a few with Christmas-themed inflatables in the front yard, slid by as they drove toward Spencer. They drove around the town via the by-pass when they reached town limits and headed on to Burkett, another 25-minute drive beyond.

Alex closed his eyes and enjoyed Molly’s singing as she crooned out carol after carol, mixed in with a few country hits and a couple of worship songs.

“Did I ever tell you about the time Grandpa picked me up in this truck from elementary school?”

Her question came out of the blue, halting her singing.

He’d started to doze and jerked awake to listen to her. “No, actually. I don’t believe you have.”

“He pulled up in front of the school and honked the horn. We were letting out early because of weather and he’d volunteered to get me so I’d get home faster than I would have on the bus. About a mile from home, we hit that bridge over Shaver’s Creek and the snow started falling faster. Right after the bridge there was a left turn and Grandpa hit the accelerator and did a donut right at the end of the road. The truck turned all the way around, 360, and ended up facing back the way we were supposed to be going.”

Alex chuckled. “That totally sounds like something Ned would do. Or did he do it on purpose?”

She looked at him, meeting his smile with hers. “Of course he did it on purpose. He thought it was the funniest thing ever to see my eyes almost bug out of my head, he said. Later he said it might not have been the smartest move because we could have flown over the embankment into the creek by the road, but in the moment it sure was fun. For him anyhow. For me, I almost wet myself. I thought we were going to die.”

The story reminded Alex of his own grandfather. “My grandfather did something similar when he took me flying one time. He had a private pilots license. He took the plane into a nosedive and just when I thought we were going to crash into a mountainside he ripped it back up again. I was ten and I’m not going to lie, I did pee myself just a little bit.”

They laughed together as Molly turned into Brookings Family Goat Farm’s driveway. Josiah Brookings met them outside the barn and within fifteen minutes they had the inventory loaded in Alex’s truck.

“You two be safe out there,” Josiah said as he shook Alex’s hand. “The weather says we’re supposed to get snow squalls.”

“We should be fine. Molly’s driving and she’s a lot safer than I am. Take care and see you next month.”

Josiah waved as he walked back up the long drive to the house, leaving Alex and Molly standing in an orange ring of light under the light pole.

Alex paused, reaching down and scooping up a handful of snow, smirking as he packed it. Molly was already starting to climb into the truck when he tossed the ball, striking her in the shoulder.

She turned quickly, mouth dropping open. “Alexander Stone, what do you think you’re doing?”

He grinned, reaching down for more snow. “Just some minor physical therapy for my back. It’s good to do some light stretches for it.”

She pointed at him. “You drop that snowball.” She took a step back, now waggling the finger at him. “Don’t you dare start something that I’m going to finish.”

He tossed the snowball at her, snow shattering down the front of her winter coat as the ball hit her chest. “Molly Tanner, you know I’m the snowball fight champion five years running. Don’t let your mouth write a check your bottom can’t cash.”

Molly snickered as she stooped to gather snow in her hands. He grunted a few seconds later when a snowball hit him in the thigh. After that the snowballs flew fast and furious. He kept his distance and then decided the one way to win was to get close and get as much snow down the back of her winter coat as possible. She anticipated his move though and put her hands up to block him, which resulted in a brief wrestling match, during which she slipped and started to fall. He caught her under her arms and helped her regain her balance, laughing hard. She stepped back away from him in a fit of laughter and leaned her against the truck, breathing hard. Placing one hand on either side of her he leaned close, catching his breath.

“Looks like I win.”

She smiled, a sparkle in her eyes. “You didn’t win, you cheated. You clearly pushed me onto that patch of ice.”

“I clearly did not push you. You were just overcome by my snowball throwing power.” He moved his head closer to hers. “Besides, anytime I get to be this close to you, I win.”

Her voice was a whisper, her mouth a mere inch from his. “I remember another time we were pushed up against your truck like this.”

“I remember it too. Fondly.”  His lips grazed her cheek, then her mouth.  “Very fondly.”

She smiled as he lowered his head toward hers. They stood there for several moments, her arms around his waist as they kissed, snowflakes falling around them, before she pulled her mouth away slowly.

“We’d probably better get on the road in case it starts getting slick out.”

He reluctantly agreed and they climbed back into the truck cab, him wincing as a light pain shot through his back.

While Christmas songs weren’t what he’d normally listen to alone in the truck, he pushed the seek button until he found one, simply so he could hear Molly sing. He seemed to be catching her love for the season.

Ten minutes into their drive the road in front of them disappeared in a blur of white. He noticed Molly’s knuckles turning white. “You okay?”

She nodded quickly. “Yes. I’m fine.”

“Nervous?”

“A little bit.”

“You want to pull over?”

“Yep.”

He laughed as she maneuvered the truck gently off the road. “I thought you could handle driving in this weather.”

“I can and one way of handling it is knowing when to pull over and when not to.”

She shifted the truck into park. “The squall should pass soon. This will give us time to chat because I realized today that I have never asked you if you have any favorite Christmas movies.” She held up her hand as he started to answer. “Die Hard is not a Christmas movie. I’m not debating that again.”

He smiled as he propped his hands behind his head. “It is a Christmas movie, but I’ll let you believe what you want. As for other Christmas movies, I haven’t really watched a ton, but I guess It’s A Wonderful Life is good. Miracle on 34th Street. White Christmas.”

She flipped her hair over her shoulder and laughed. “Jason made you watch those with him, didn’t he?”

“Of course, but I liked them. What’s the one we watched together last year?”

“Christmas in Connecticut.”

“Yeah, that one wasn’t too bad.” He grinned and lowered his arms, leaning toward her. “Of course, anything is good as long as I’m with you.”

She placed a finger on his lips and tipped her head toward the windshield. “Looks like the snow squall has let up. We’d better keep going if we want to get back to Spencer.”

He smiled against her finger. “If you say, so, but there’s nothing wrong with stealing some kisses while we’re here.”

She kissed him briefly. “I’d like that, but I need to get back to pick Liz up from the library. The heat is broken in her car. Mom and Dad said I can borrow their car tonight.” She turned back to the steering wheel and placed her hand on the shift lever but didn’t move it. Her gaze drifted out in front of them, at the road now visible. “You know, this is the first Christmas since we lost grandpa that I really feel happy about Christmas again. This time of year used to give me such a warm feeling but so much about it seemed dull and lifeless since losing Grandpa. This year feels different. I don’t know why.” She sighed, eyes glistening. “There is something wildly beautiful about the spirit of Christmas, the way it reminds us all to take time to pause and tell those we love how much they mean to us.” She pulled her hand briefly from his and wiped at her damp cheek. “Sorry. I don’t know why I’m so sappy tonight.”

He leaned across the seat and kissed her cheek. “I don’t mind sappy if it’s coming from you.”

She squeezed his hand then looked out the windshield. “Looks like that snow squall has cleared up. Let’s see how much closer we can get to home.” He gazed out the window at the now clear sky that moments before had been swirling with white. Stars sparkled against a dark blue sky. She was right. There was something wildly beautiful about Christmas, especially when he saw it through her eyes.  

A Christmas in Spencer Valley: Beyond the Season Chapter 9

Welcome to the ninth chapter of a twelve-chapter story I am sharing on the blog. This is being shared with minimal editing, just for fun, but it will be fully edited once it is complete.

You can catch up on chapters HERE.

If you would like to read more about the characters in this story, you can find full-length novels on Amazon for purchase or on Kindle Unlimited HERE,

The first three chapters of the first book, The Farmer’s Daughter, can be found HERE.

Once all the chapters have been shared here, I’ll be providing a free Book Funnel link to blog readers and placing the story on Amazon for 99 cents.

Chapter 9

“I wish I could tell you I have good news.”

Terry Harper’s expression already let Robert know the parts hadn’t arrived, even before he’d spoken.

“Couldn’t get them here in time?”

“Holiday shipping delays. It will be here the week after Christmas instead.”

Robert chewed on his bottom lip. “Where did you say the store is again?”

“Between Harrisburg and Lancaster. Maybe a three-hour drive.”

Robert nodded, rubbing his chin. “Give me the address. Maybe I’ll take a drive down.”

“I’d be glad to do it but there’s a storm coming in. You sure you can’t just show Annie what you’ve got so far and give it to her after Christmas?”

Robert shrugged a shoulder. “I could, but it wouldn’t be the same.”

Terry scribbled an address on a piece of paper. “Well, if you decide to go just be safe. I’ve heard another storm is coming in and PennDOT isn’t great about taking care of that lower stretch of the highway. There was a ten-car pile-up down that way three winters ago.”

Back in the truck, Robert dialed Bert’s number.

“Where did you say that part was for the engine?”

“York, Pa. Down below Harrisburg. Why?”

“I’m heading that way to pick up some bolts for the swing, why don’t I just grab it while I’m in the area. I’ll need some help making up an excuse for my absence, though.”

“That’ll be hard to do. How about I call Brad instead? He can run down, and everyone will think he’s picking up a delivery for the store.”

Brad Tanner was Robert and Bert’s sometimes-reliable-sometimes-not nephew.

“I don’t know. I need it back here as quick as possible and it would mean pulling another person into the secret. Brad’s not known for keeping secrets well.”

He wasn’t known for staying sober well, either, he thought but didn’t say out loud.

Still, Bert was right, Brad could slip away from the farm easier than him.

“Okay, I’ll give him a call and see if he can head down for me. Give me the address of your place.”

Luckily Brad seemed delighted at the prospect when he was asked. Standing in the upper barn at Walt’s farm, he nodded enthusiastically and promised he wouldn’t let the secret for either project slip.

“No problem, Uncle Rob.” He took the pieces of paper with the address. “It will be nice to get out of the area for a bit too.”

Robert hesitated before turning away. Last year Brad had been in a car accident with Jason’s wife Ellie. For several hours the family had feared the worst when her car was found, but Ellie wasn’t in it. Brad had been in the car with her but somehow he’d ended up back at Walt’s house without Ellie.

It turned out Ellie had decided to hike over the hill for help and had fallen into an abandoned well. It was like something out of a movie, but Jason and Alex had found her and were able to call for help to pull her out. Brad had been drunk at the time. Since then he had apologized more than once, but Jason was still struggling with forgiving him. Brad also seemed to be trying his best to be a better person by working hard for the family at the farms and the family farm store.

“Thanks, Brad. I appreciate you being willing to help out. If the roads get dicey, though, head back. This isn’t life or death. It’s just something nice we’re doing for Annie and Molly.”

Brad laughed and pushed a hand back through his red-blond hair, reminding Robert again how much he looked like his mom, Marcia. “No worries. I’m stupid, but not that stupid.” He winked and walked toward the house. “I’m going to give Dad a heads up on what I’ll be doing. I’ll just tell him it’s for a pickup and leave it at that. You know how bad he is at keeping secrets.”

Robert snorted a laugh. “Yeah, Brad, I know.”

On the way back to the farm, Robert took a detour, turning onto the road that led to an overlook on the hill where he could look down on most of Spencer Valley. His breath sparkled the air as he stepped out of the truck. Snow and branches crunched under his boots as he walked to an opening of tree branches that allowed him to look down on his farm and the rest of the snow covered Valley below him.

From there he could see his farm, his mom’s house where the original farm had been, his brother’s farm, which had once belonged to a neighbor of his great-grandfather’s, the Lambert’s farm, and other houses dotted in between.

When he’d been young, the Valley had been mainly open fields of farmland and while much of the area was still farmland, there were also spaces now being filled in with houses or other structures as farmers were forced to sell their land to try to make ends meet. Farming had never been easy but in recent years it had become even more of a struggle with rising costs and falling income.

Robert was grateful his family had been able to diversify with the farm storm and by bottling and selling A2 milk. He was grateful they were still able to do what they love. It was hard work, no doubt about it, but it was worth it to be able to put food on their tables and the tables of people all around the area and the country.

As the setting sun sent a splash of pink and orange along the horizon, his gaze fell on a star on the hill across from him. It was probably a three mile drive to reach it. He was amazed he could see it so well from where he was. He knew it was Jerry Franklin’s star, the one he’d built and put up every year on the hill behind his house to remind those who saw it of the real reason for the season, of a gift and a hope that was for any time of year – that stretched beyond the season of Christmas.

He swept snow off a log that had fallen and sat on it, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and focused on the star.

“Thank you, Father, for the gifts you have given, for my family, my livelihood, my faith and for most of all your son.”

He closed his eyes against the tears, feeling the loss of his earthly father again this year but also the hope of a future in heaven when he would see him again, embrace him and thank him for all he’d done for his family here on this side of his everlasting home.

After several moments of praying and thanking God, he stood and drew in a ragged breath. It had felt good to take a few moments in the rush of finishing Annie’s gift and trying to stay on top of all the issues at the farm to just pause and be thankful; to remember that what really matters in life is not the gifts, not the busyness, not feeling like you have it altogether, but the presence of family and the ultimate offering of redemption from a creator to his creation.

As he walked back to the truck he spotted a section of Princess Pine and stooped to gather some as his father had used to do when they’d walked in these woods together. He’d use it to decorate the Bible, opened each year to Luke 2: 8-12 and the nativity scene, which is father had carved 40 years ago.

Inside the truck he flipped on the local Christian radio station and smiled as O Come, O Come Emmanuel played. It fit his mood perfectly and he hummed along as he drove home.

A Christmas in Spencer: Beyond the Season Chapter 8

Welcome to the eighth chapter of a twelve-chapter story I am sharing on the blog. This is being shared with minimal editing, just for fun, but will be fully edited once it is complete.

You can catch up on chapters HERE.

If you would like to read more about the characters in this story, you can find full-length novels on Amazon for purchase or on Kindle Unlimited HERE,

The first three chapters of the first book, The Farmer’s Daughter, can be found HERE.

Once all the chapters have been shared here, I’ll be providing a free Book Funnel link to blog readers and placing the story on Amazon for 99 cents.

Chapter 8

Robert stood back and inspected his work.

His hands ached from the cold. Holding a paint brush wearing gloves had proved too difficult.

The swing itself was ready to go but there were still bolts to be added to attach the chain the swing would hang from. He planned to swing by the hardware store later in the day and see if they were in yet. For now, he had to swing by the house and grab the lunch that Annie had made for his mother and drive it down to her.

When the lunch was retrieved, along with a quick hug from Annie who was on her way to church to finish decorating for the Christmas Eve service, he drove up the hill to his mother’s house, shooing away chickens as he walked down her sidewalk. While the rest of the farm operation had gone to Robert and Walt, Franny had opted to keep a flock of chickens and dutifully fed them and collected their eggs each morning. She said it would give her something to do and a reason for the family to still come visit her if they knew she had all the fresh eggs.

Robert shook his head and laughed. As if they wouldn’t visit her if the chickens weren’t there.

He knocked gently on the front door before opening it. “Mom? I’ve got some lunch for you.”

“I know you do. Get on in here.”

The house was warm, cozy, and smelled of fresh bread – just like when he’d been growing up. A fire was roaring in the woodstove and Robert smiled, knowing she’d loaded it herself this morning from wood Alex and Jason had cut up for her. She was getting older, but she could still outwork most people half her age.

Across from the woodstove in the other corner was a small fake tree that he knew Molly and Alex had helped her decorate the week before. It was sitting in a stand his father had made for a real tree. Franny had said she didn’t have the energy or patience to clean up pine needles any more so she’d purchased the fake tree.

Family photos dotted the wall next to the tree and Robert let his gaze slide over them as he took off his coat and muddy boots. The photo of him, his dad, his brother Walt and his sister Hannah caught his attention as he pulled off his second boot. They were standing in front of the cow barn. He had been about 16, his brother 14 and Hannah 11.

The three of them had never known a life without hard work and determination, with a little bit of heartache thrown in. They’d never known a life without the joy of seeing the good results of all those aspects of life either. Farming wasn’t easy, but it was rewarding in more ways than providing a living.

The lessons Robert had learned and passed down to his children were more valuable than any check from the milking company or from the bottom line at the store. There were some days, however, he had to remind himself of that.

“You coming in or did you fall asleep standing up?”

His mother had stepped into the doorway between the kitchen and the living room, a small smile tugging at her mouth.

He closed the door behind him and headed toward the kitchen. “I’m guessing Annie called to let you know I was bringing you lunch.”

Franny set two plates on the table. “She did, and I made some biscuits to go with it. You’re eating with me, aren’t you?”

He laid the containers of food on the table. “I had planned on it, yes, and I’m even more willing now that I know you made biscuits. I hope you didn’t go to the trouble of homemade.”

Franny huffed out a breath. “Robert Theodore when have you ever known me to make biscuits out of a box or can?”

He laughed and held up a hand as if to defend her verbal blow. “Never.”

“Exactly. Now sit yourself down. I’m sure you’re more than ready to eat after the long days Annie says you’ve been pulling lately.”

He sat as she instructed, taking her hand as she sat to his right and said a quick blessing.

The interrogation began as he served her mashed potatoes and stew fried chicken.

“So what’s been keeping you out so late these days?”

He knew she was fishing for information on how the farm was doing. “This and that. Odds and ends. Like always.”

“Did you get the heat fixed in the barn?”

“We did. It took a bit but got it working before the temps dropped down this week.”

“Walt said it was the second time this month. Did you call the people who put it in and tell them?”

Robert smiled. “I did, yes. They’re coming out Friday to take a look.”

Franny gave a satisfied nod. “Good. They should fix it at no cost. It’s been nothing but trouble since they put it in.” She paused long enough to butter her biscuit and take a bite. “Now, I have something I want to talk to you about. I’d preferred if Annie was here too, but I think I’ll go ahead and take the opportunity since I actually have you in front of me.”

He nodded. “Go ahead.”

“I don’t know if Molly mentioned to you what I talked to her and Alex about last week.”

He shook his head and took another bite of chicken. “She didn’t.”

“I’m thinking of moving into Shady Pines next year.”

He raised an eyebrow. “You are? Why?”

“I think it’s time to pass this house on to someone else.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Molly and Alex.”

He coughed gently. “Excuse me?”

“Robert, don’t be naïve. You know that boy is going to eventually get up the courage and propose to your daughter and when he does and they finally get married, they’re going to need a place to stay. This house is perfect as a starter house. Somewhere for them to raise some children.”

He set his fork down on his plate. “But do you really want to move off the farm into town? The houses down there are pretty close together.”

“Well, yes, they are, but at my age it might be good to have people close by.”

“Mom, if you’re really determined to give this house to Molly, you know you’re welcome to come live with me and Annie.”

Franny made a face. “Oh, Robert, you know we’d never survive living together again. Plus, you and Annie are finally alone again. You don’t need your mother breaking in on kissing sessions.”

Robert laughed. “We’d adapt. We can make sure our kissing sessions only happen after you’ve gone to bed. Like when we were teenagers.”

Franny laughed with him. “Listen, it’s something to think about anyhow. I’ll think about your offer, but I really believe that moving into town will be good for me. It will be a change and I’ll be closer to Leon and Eleanor and we can play cards together without them having to worry about driving home from here late at night. Leon’s eyesight isn’t what it used to be.”

Robert knew his father-in-law’s eyesight wasn’t as good as it had once been. He’d started saying so himself.

“Okay, let’s think on it, then. It’s not like we have to make a decision right away. We don’t even know if Alex is planning on proposing any time soon.”

Franny sipped from her glass of water. “I hope sooner.” She looked around the kitchen, letting her gaze drift into the living room. “The place will need some fixing up, but I think you’ve trained Alex enough over these last six years for him to be able to handle it.”

The idea of his mom no longer living up the road from him left a funny feeling in Robert’s chest – a feeling that was a mixture of sadness and fear. What if his mom needed him? It would take him 20 extra minutes to get to her instead of the five it took now. What if she developed health problems and what if –.  

He took a deep breath, held it a few seconds and let it out quietly. There would always be what ifs and they could address each of them as they each came up. Plus, moving her in with him and Annie was something he and Annie had already discussed in the last year or so. He knew Franny could be a challenge, but taking care of her in her later years would be something he’d be glad to do after all she’d done for him over the years.

***

It had been three days since the doctor had told him to rest and Alex couldn’t stay at the house any longer. For one, Matt had invited Liz over and Bella was with her grandparents. The couple probably wanted some time alone to watch a movie and snuggle together on the couch. More importantly, though, he had to finish the paint job on the truck.

Bert had already installed the engine and was finishing it up today – if a part he needed arrived that was.  

“It’s about time you got here,” Bert said as soon as he walked in the door. “I just had to have Troy chase off Molly by telling her that Hannah needed to talk to her about how they’re going to handle the situation at the store without the freezers for another week. It wasn’t a lie, but still – it was a close call. She almost walked back here.”

Alex worked to take off his coat, grimacing with each movement.  “Thanks for keeping her away. I appreciate it.”

Bert frowned. “What’s up with you? You look like you’ve been hit by a truck.”

“A concrete floor actually. I fell through the roof of the calving barn last week.”

“Oh man. So that was the accident you were talking about. I’m surprised you’re walking. How did the calves fare?”

“They’re completely fine. Little buggers just wanted to know what I was doing in their sleeping area.” He tossed his coat over a chair and reached for the spray paint can. “Now let’s get these doors painted so I can finish the rest of the truck in the next few days. How is it going with the engine?”

Bert winced. “Still need one part. A supplier about three hours away has it but doesn’t have a truck coming until the end of the week.”

Alex didn’t like the sound of that. “Maybe we’re not going to make it.”

Bert  slapped a hand hard on Alex’s back. “Now, now, my boy let’s not be negative.”

Alex groaned. “I could be more positive if you stop slamming your hand on my sore back.”

“Oh, yeah. Sorry about that.” Bert wiped some grease off a car part and laid down to slide under the truck. “So, have you thought anymore about that whole proposal thing?”

Alex placed a painting mask and respirator over his face. “You know, I’d like to talk about it but I don’t think you’ll be able to hear me well under this mask so I’m going to get to work.”

“What?” Bert called from under the truck.

“Exactly,” Alex mumbled glad to have avoided the topic again.

A Christmas in Spencer: Beyond the Season Chapter 7

Welcome to the seventh chapter of a twelve-chapter story I am sharing on the blog. This is being shared with minimal editing, just for fun, but will be fully edited once it is complete.

You can catch up on chapters HERE.

If you would like to read more about the characters in this story, you can find full-length novels on Amazon for purchase or on Kindle Unlimited HERE,

The first three chapters of the first book, The Farmer’s Daughter, can be found HERE.

Once all the chapters have been shared here, I’ll be providing a free Book Funnel link to blog readers and placing the story on Amazon for 99 cents.

Chapter 7

There had been more than one Christmas over the years when Annie and Robert had questioned if they’d be able to provide gifts for the children. Farming didn’t always provide a consistent income. Some years weather made bringing in a profit a challenge. Other years it might be sick cows, falling down buildings, or broken equipment.

That inconsistency had certainly taken its toll on the family’s emotions over the years, but Robert felt like it had also brought them closer. Annie had certainly been his one constant during all the turmoil, besides God.

Christ had been the ultimate anchor for both of them. Without him and his provision, they never would have made it through the trials, the heartbreaks, and the day-to-day uncertainty of life as a farmer.

The seats at Grace Community Church were soft now, unlike when Robert had first started attending twenty years ago. Hard pews had filled the sanctuary back then. They had been pews his own father had helped build, along with the rest of the church, sometime in the early 1960s. Robert couldn’t remember the exact date the church was built but he could remember that for years he had no interest in attending church. He’d been too busy and too independent to think about God in high school and afterward. During those difficult first years with Annie, he’d relied on his own strength to make it through, rarely asking for help from God or thanking him.

That change came slowly, so slowly he thought Annie might give up and walk away, taking the children with him, when he refused to go to church with her. She never gave up hope, though. She prayed for him, loved him, and kept inviting him. It wasn’t a rock bottom moment that sent him back to the hard pews at Grace Community.  It was love and a realization that there was more to life than getting up and milking cows, working on the farm all day, milking cows again, and falling asleep early in the evening just to start it all over again. It was the beauty of the sunrise and the sunsets.

The days he thought he wasn’t going to make it and the farm wasn’t going to make it but they did. It was the smile of his daughter, the laughter of his son, and the feel of his wife’s arms around him. He knew all those blessings couldn’t be something he’d earned or something he deserved. Someone greater than him had given him it all as a gift and he needed to start thanking that someone. It was the same God his parents had raised him to believe in, but he had rejected not out of anger but simple apathy.

Standing outside the church, Robert leaned leaning back against his truck and waited for Annie to stop chatting with town librarian Ginny Jefferies and her husband, Stan. He took a deep breath and took in the view of the church, decorated inside and out to celebrate the birth of Christ. It reminded him that no matter what happened with his gift for Annie, Christ was the ultimate gift of Christmas. The joy and peace He brought to his and Annie’s life could never be matched with physical, earthly gifts.

A small smile tugged at the corners of his mouth as Annie walked toward him, her Bible tucked in her arm, against her chest.

“What’s so funny?”

“Funny?”

“You look like you’re going to laugh.”

He shook his head. “Nothing’s funny. Our life is just beautiful. As beautiful and wonderful as you are.”

Annie’s eyebrows raised. “Wow. That’s sweet of you. What did I do to deserve such praise?”

He leaned forward and pressed his lips to her forehead. “Just by being yourself.”

She leaned back and looked up at him, eyes glistening. Reaching up, she laid a gloved hand against his cheek, and then, without a word, she kissed him, where anyone walking out of the church and to their cars could see them. Robert was sure no one would be offended by the public display of affection. Couples their age would be glad to see an older couple who wasn’t embarrassed to show their love for each other. The younger couples would probably smile and say –

“I hope we’re still in love like that when we’re their age.”

Jason snorted a laugh and Robert pulled back from the kiss and made a face at him. Ellie’s arm was looped through Jason’s and she tapped her husband’s arm with a gentle admonishment.

Robert motioned his son away. “Go on, ya’ whippersnapper. Get on out of here and let an old couple have a kiss.”

Annie playfully tapped his shoulder. “Old? Speak for yourself.”

She winked and pulled out of his embrace to head to the car, sliding her hand down to his. “Come on, old man. We can pick up our kissing session when we get home.” She looked over her shoulder at Jason and Ellie and winked. “Now that all our children are out of the house and living their own lives, we have more private time for such things.”

Inside the car, she pulled her gloves off, laid them on her lap, and intertwined her fingers with his. He raised her hand and kissed it before shifting the car into gear and heading out of the parking lot and down the road toward home.

***

Another searing pain shot from Alex’s lower back to his upper. He gritted his teeth and clutched the side of the bed. The painkillers he’d taken two hours ago weren’t even touching the pain and he was beginning to reluctantly agree with Molly that he might need to visit a doctor. The pain was coming in spasms now. No surprise since he’d fallen from a height of maybe ten feet. He was lucky he hadn’t broken any bones.

Robert and Annie had urged him to go to a doctor, but he’d declined. He had, however, accepted a couple of ice packs after a hot shower and a warm cup of tea made by Molly. The attention she’d given him, checking on him every hour before he fell asleep, then checking again first thing in the morning, had been nice too.

What wasn’t as nice was the fact he’d missed the tree lighting and then the church – which he’d finally started attending with the family about six months ago – and three days of working on the truck. Molly had connected by video with him for the tree lighting, which also included caroling. She also filled him in on the sermon. Caroling had never been his thing in the past, but for some reason, hearing the hundred or so people gathered around the tree sing Silent Night had caused his throat to tighten with emotion. He’d desperately wanted to be there with Molly in that moment, though he wasn’t sure if he’d been able to hold back the tears. He must be getting old with all these sentimental emotions rearing their ugly heads.

He hadn’t necessarily understood everything Molly shared with him about the sermon, but living in the hopeful spirit of Christmas beyond the actual season had made sense to him.

“Pastor Joe said Christmas is something we can always carry with us in our heart because Christ’s love is something that will be with us no matter the time of year,” Molly told him. “Being a Christian is an all-year-round celebration. Not simply a once or twice a year event.”

All of that made sense to Alex, even as he was still trying to figure out what being a follower of Christ meant.

Bert had found almost all the parts they needed for the engine, pulled off the bumpers to be replaced with new ones, and even found a new pair of headlights. He was leaving the rest of the paint job for Alex. That was if Alex could figure out how to move off the bed without pain spasming through his back.

The door to his bedroom opened as the latest spasm eased up. He raised his eyes slowly and squinted at Jason and his roommate, Matt McGee, standing in the hallway looking in.

“Yep.” Jason nodded. “You’re right, Matt. He looks like garbage.”

Matt folded his arms across his chest and leaned against the doorframe. “I told you. Now we’re going to have to do something about it.”

Alex glared. “Both of you go away.” The last thing he needed right now was their harassment.

Matt stepped into the room and stood over him, hands on his hips. If Alex didn’t know him so well he might have looked intimidating standing there in full uniform for his job as a police officer with the Spencer Police Department.

“Come on, Stone. We’re taking you to the doctor.”

“No. You are not.”

Jason stepped behind Matt and looked over his shoulder. “I’m going to take one arm and Matt is going to take the other and we’re going to hoist you into Ellie’s car, so you don’t have to climb up into my truck, and I’m driving you to town.” He stepped around Matt and wrapped a large hand around Alex’s bicep. “Now come on, we’re not taking no for an answer.”

Alex groaned as he sat up and then let them both swing his arms around their shoulders. “I need shoes and my wallet.” He winced. “And maybe a tranquilizer like we used on the bull last year.”

“One step at a time, bud,” Matt said with a smile. “You can do this.”

“Yeah,” Jason added. “We need you to get better, so I don’t have to keep doing all your work.”

Half an hour later Alex tightened his jaw against the pain as the doctor helped him from the exam table.

Dr. Cartagenese handed him a prescription. “Like I said the best medicine for this, besides these muscle relaxants is bed rest. At least five days worth. I know you work at the Tanners and they aren’t good about resting when they’re injured or sick.” He winked. “Don’t be like them, okay?”

No way. He didn’t have five days to lay in bed.

“Thanks, Doc. I’ll take that into consideration.”  

Outside in the passenger seat of Liz’s car, though, he’d already considered it, and he was going to give himself two days to rest, and then it was back to working on the truck or he’d never get it completed by Christmas.

Jason closed the car door for him and walked back to the driver’s seat.

“What’d he say?” he asked as he started the car.

Alex sat back in the seat slowly. “He gave me muscle relaxants and if it doesn’t get better he wants me to have x-rays.”

“Anything else?”

“Yeah. Bedrest, but I’m not going to do that.”

“If bed rest will help you heal faster, you probably should.”

“Don’t have time.”

“I can pick up your work at the farm. It’s no problem. I can’t remember you taking more than a couple sick days in the entire time you’ve worked with us.”

Alex gritted his teeth against the pain again, closing his eyes. He let out a breath a few minutes later as the pain lessened again. “It’s not that. I’m working on a gift for Molly. I need to get it done.” He glanced at Jason. “You can’t tell Molly, okay? It’s a surprise.”

Jason’s eyebrows raised and he tipped his head down a bit to encourage Alex to continue.

“A surprise for Christmas.”

A small smile started to play across Jason’s lips. “Oh yeah?”

Not Jason too. “It’s not what you might think. I’m fixing up your grandpa’s truck for her.”

Jason turned onto Main Street to head out of town. “Oh. Hey. That’s great.” He genuinely looked pleased. “What all are you doing to it?

“New paint job, new engine. The works. Almost all of my savings is going into it.”

“What else needs to be done?”

“I have the body sanded and two doors painted. I need to get the body finished. Bert is going to help some but he’s also finishing up the engine and he’s got a full shop of cars that need to be worked on for actual customers.”

Jason shrugged. “I can help.”

Alex closed his eyes, suddenly exhausted. “You’ve got enough work to do.”

“I can take some time away from the farm to help with the truck.” He gently tapped Alex’s shoulder with his fist. “Don’t worry. I’ll make sure my sister knows it was your idea and you did most of the work.”

“Me and Bert actually.”

“You and Bert. Okay.” A sly smirk pulled at the corners of Jason’s mouth. “Sooooo. You’re not planning any other surprises for Molly, are you?”

Alex narrowed his eyes. “Like what?

Jason held up his left hand and pointed to his ring finger. “You know.”

Alex groaned. “Put your hands back on the wheel and no! Not you too! First Bert then Franny and now you. What is it with you Tanners?”

Jason laughed. “Well, what can I say? Great minds think alike, buddy.”

Alex looked out the window at the houses flying by, many of them decorated with bright lights for Christmas. He hated the idea of being laid up at the house, unable to work on the farm or the truck. He hadn’t always been a hard worker, but for the last six years since moving to Pennsylvania, all he’d known was hard work. Silence settled over the truck as his mind drifted to a mental list of all the work he still had to do before Christmas.

“So, are you?”

Jason’s question pulled him from his thoughts. “Am I what?”

Jason cleared his throat. “Proposing to Molly.”

Alex rolled his eyes up to the ceiling of the truck. “That wasn’t part of the plan, no.”

Jason nodded. “Okay, well if it does become part of the plan, I want you to know —” He reached over and gripped Alex’s shoulder with one hand and squeezed gently. “You have my blessing. I know I harass you and Molly about your relationship but you’re my best friend, and there’s no one else I’d like to have as my brother-in-law.”

Alex nodded. “Thank you, Jase. I appreciate that. I do.”

Jason turned the heat up and the radio on. “Listen, I’m going to head down to Bert’s in the morning after I go to the gym. I’ll see what I can help with. At least take it easy a couple of days. No man is an island, Stone. Don’t be like us Tanners. Take the help when it’s offered.”

Alex grimaced against the pain. “At this point, I really don’t have a choice.”

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.

Fiction Friday: Mercy’s Shore Chapter 15

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 15

“So, the dude with Angie is her boyfriend.” Judi pushed a bite of cake into her mouth. “He’s a doctor.”

The cake was amazing. Judi hadn’t eaten cake in — well, she didn’t know how long. She’d always stayed away from cake to try to keep her figure. She couldn’t believe what she’d been missing. This had been her third piece since they’d gotten there.

She stared at the half-eaten piece for a few seconds, then laid the fork back down. Whoa. She was about trade one addiction for another. The sugar addiction wouldn’t kill her as fast as the alcohol might, but still. She pushed the plate away.

“Anyhow, that’s what Mark says. He’s a nice guy when you get to know him.” She wiped frosting off her upper lip with a napkin. “He hates you, though. We should probably duck out before Angie and the kid gets back before they give you another concussion.”

Ben pushed a hand back through his hair and sipped from the cup of coffee Leona had brought him earlier. A handful of guests were still lingering, helping Leona and Adam clean up. Judi had heard them agree they’d stay around until Amelia came back and opened her gifts. The mention of gifts reminded her of the stuffed bear Ben had shoved in the trunk a few miles back. They’d stopped at a toy store in town. He’d had no idea what to buy but Judi had grabbed the bear, shoved it at is his chest and declared bluntly, “Kids like stuffed things. Let’s go.”

“Should I go get that bear out of the trunk?”

Ben stared into the coffee cup for several moments then jerked his head up suddenly. “Huh? Oh. Yeah. That would be a good idea, I guess.” He sat back in the lounge chair he was sitting in and rubbed the back of his neck. “You know what? Let’s go get that and then let’s head out.” He looked at his watch. “It’s getting late and we’ve got a long drive back.”

Judi wanted to go back. Evan’s suggestion they get together when she got back to Spencer was at the forefront of her mind. Still, something tugged at her conscience and she decided not to agree as quickly as she usually would have.

“Shouldn’t we stay?” She shrugged a shoulder. “Just to see how Amelia is?”

Ben shook his head and sipped the coffee again. “No. I think we should go. I shouldn’t be here.”

“Sure you should. You’re her dad.”

“Yeah, but she doesn’t know that, and I’ve never acted like a dad, so, no I shouldn’t be here. Plus, it looks like she’s got someone to be her dad anyhow.”

He had a point. Should she tell him he had a point? She pulled her lower lip between her teeth and watched him drinking the coffee and staring blankly at the back of the house.

Actually, both Jesus and Ellie would probably not point out to Ben that he was right about Amelia having a replacement dad. That definitely wouldn’t help his mood.

“Well, still, it would look bad if you just left and didn’t see how she was.”

Ben finished off the coffee. “I’m sure she’s going to be fine. It was just a bloody nose. I got them a ton when I was a kid.”

He said the words but his dipped brow, far-off stare, and hunched shoulders told Judi he didn’t believe it.

“Well, this party has been a bit of a bust, huh?” Adam laughed as he walked over to the table and sat next to Ben. “Angie just called, though, and Amelia seems to be doing fine. No broken bones. They’re heading home soon.”

Ben’s muscles visibly tensed at the word “they’re.”

Ben placed the cup on the table and rubbed a hand across his eyes. “We should be heading out too. We’ve got a long drive back.”

 “You’re welcome to stay the night,” Adam said, folding his hands in front of him as he leaned on the tabletop.  “We’ve got a pullout couch in the den and Angie can sleep in Amelia’s room tonight.”

Ben shook his head quickly. “No. Thank you, but I need to get back and rest up. I’ve got court Monday morning.”

Judi cleared her throat. “Actually, I could use a rest before we head out.”

Adam’s expression brightened as if he was glad he could help somehow. “Sure. You can crash in Angie’s room. It will be a little more private than the den and I’m sure she won’t mind.”

Ben’s expression darkened and he shot Judi a glance she knew meant he was not happy with her. It was true, though. She could use a nap before the drive back.

Manipulating situations was a talent of her’s and she was glad to be able to use it for good this time instead of bad. Stalling their departure would give Ben another chance to see Amelia and say goodbye and maybe give her the gift they’d brought. Leaving now would only leave him on a lower note than he’d been on when he’d arrived. Maybe they could redeem the trip if he and Amelia had another chance to bond. It might make him less grumpy at work on Monday too. Judi wasn’t completely without an ulterior — and self-serving — motive.

She followed Adam into the house. He paused in the kitchen to let Leona know Judi be laying down in Angie’s room and then led Judi up a flight of stairs leading from the dining room and down a narrow hallway with a large window at the end of it.

Adam pushed the door open to a room on the right and as Judi looked to her left, across the hall, she noticed a closed door with a unicorn picture taped to the outside. Turning her attention to Angie’s room, she took in the sunlight pouring in streams across a queen-sized bed with a cherry wood headboard and a comforter featuring pink roses against a white background spread across it. The room even smelled of roses. Clean, tidy, and picturesque. The whole scene made Judi want to roll her eyes. She might have if Adam hadn’t been there and also hadn’t interrupted her thoughts by letting her know where the upstairs bathroom was if she needed it and asking if she’d like an extra blanket from the hall closet.

She thanked him, declining the blanket, and when he’d left and shut the door, she tossed her purse on a chair next to an armoire, stretched her arms over her head while yawning, and looked around the room before flopping back onto the pile of pillows at the top of the bed.

“My-my, Angie Phillipi, you sure know how to live in style.”

She yawned again and rolled onto her side, intending to take the nap she’d said she needed. An open drawer in a desk across from the bed caught her attention briefly but she closed her eyes so she wouldn’t get up and go to look in it. She was turning over a new leaf, changing her ways. She wasn’t about to snoop in the drawers of a desk owned by a woman she barely knew.

When she reached over and laid her phone on a book by the bed the book and the phone fell. The book must have been closer to the edge than she realized. She leaned over and picked the book up and when she did a photograph fluttered to the floor.

“Great. Just trash Angie’s stuff, Judi,” she said to herself as she flipped the photograph over to slide it bask into the book.

Ben and Angie’s smiling faces looked up at her from the photograph and she paused, studying it. Ben’s arm was around Angie who had her body pressed into his side. They were definitely a couple whenever the photo was taken, not only because of Angie’s intimate posture but because of Ben’s hand resting on her thigh. Judi studied the photo for a moment then opened the book to lay the photo inside. Handwritten dates and journal entries made her realize the book was actually a journal. As much as she wanted to know what, if anything, Angie had written about Ben. She was going to stick to her personal promise to not pry into the private lives of others.

She pulled herself back into a comfortable position and closed her eyes, drifting off to sleep quicker than she normally did.

The sound of her phone ringing woke her. She answered it without thinking and without looking at the caller ID, her eyes still closed.

“Hey, gorgeous. I didn’t expect you to pick up when you saw my name.”

The voice sliced a chill through her and she sat up, her eyes popping open. She swallowed hard, wanting to slide her finger over the end call button but feeling as if she were in a daze. Her arms wouldn’t move, her mouth had gone dry, and an odd roar filled her ears.

“Speechless huh?” A sardonic laugh filtered loudly through the phone, causing her to flinch as she realized she’d bumped the speaker button.  “Yeah, well too bad you weren’t speechless when you lied to Seline about that night in my apartment.” Jeff’s cheerful timbre slid into a more mocking tone. “Funny how you didn’t mention to her how you were all over me all night in the bar and all those highballs you kicked back before you asked me to take you back to my place.”

Judi pulled the phone back and started to hit the end call button, noticing the tremor in her hand.

“You wanted it, Judi. You know it. I was only giving you what you wanted before you decided you weren’t going to let me have it. That’s how girls like you are. You beg for it all night long and when we finally give in, then you cry rape. That’s what sluts do, Judi. You know that right? You don’t want your family to know what a slut you are, do you?”

She gasped as the phone was snatched from her hand. She looked up to see Ben standing above her with her phone in his hand, anger flashing in his eyes. She couldn’t figure out where he’d come from or how she hadn’t heard the bedroom door open.

“Who is this?” he hissed at the phone.

“Who is this?” Jeff shot back. “Judi’s new boyfriend?”

“No. This is Judi’s lawyer, and it sounds to me like you’re trying to blackmail my client and I don’t appreciate that and neither will a judge when we — “

Jeff spat a curse word and the line went dead.

Judi hugged her arms around herself, suddenly aware her entire body had grown cold and she was trembling.

“You okay?”

She started to shake her head but changed her mind and nodded.

He lowered his voice and she noticed out of the corner of her eye that the bedroom door was open and she could see into the room across the hall. Amelia was sitting on a pink canopy bed with a doll, brushing its hair.

“Amelia is showing me her room but when I’m done, we need to talk about what just happened. Don’t tell me it was nothing. I don’t know who that guy was but he was threatening you. Is this related to that text you got from some Seline earlier?”

Judi’s head jerked up and her mouth dropped open. “Wha —”

Ben held his hand up and turned toward the doorway. “No. Don’t tell me now. Take a deep breath, calm down and we’ll talk when we get in the car.”

“How much did you hear?”

“Enough to know whoever that guy is he’s a piece of garbage.” He paused, his hand on the doorknob. His tone had softened. “Are you going to be okay for a few minutes?”

Judi nodded but didn’t speak. Ben studied her for a few moments, eyes narrowing, then stepped into the hallway and closed the door. She’d been afraid to speak. If she had, the wall might have fallen, the emotion might have spilled over, and she wouldn’t have been able to put the lid back on again.

Fiction Friday: Mercy’s Shore Chapter 14

I shared a chapter from this story yesterday to make up for missing last week.

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 14

Ben felt like he was going to throw up and it wasn’t only because of the gas station hot dog he’d eaten a half an hour before.

Parked in front of a cozy stone farmhouse surrounded almost entirely by flat land and corn fields , he narrowed his eyes and chewed on his lower lip, tapping the side of his finger against his chin.

“Let’s forget it.”

Judi laughed at his words and finished applying her make up. “After driving four hours, which included sitting for almost two, eating garbage food and being used as your therapist? I think not.”

Evan had said he’d run into Angie’s brothers somewhere in Spencer, something Ben been able to avoid for the last couple of years since he’d moved back to the area. He wondered if they’d be there today and if they were, he wondered if he’d get out of this party alive. The pair owned and ran their own construction business and were about as big in the shoulders as Jason Tanner. Together they could have made up half of the defensive line of a NFL team. He was actually surprised they hadn’t killed him already.

“I’m not really well liked in there, Judi.” His palms were actually sweating. Nausea gripped him and he had a sudden urge to drop his head between his knees and gasp in a few mouthfuls of air. “This could really end badly.”

“Her parents wanted you here, right?”

Ben nodded slowly, his eyes on the front door, drifting across the yard lined with cars, two of them large, black pickups he knew were Dan and Mark Philippi’s. His gaze lingered on the back of the truck and he wondered if that’s where they’d throw his body before they drove somewhere remote to dispose of it.

“Yeah, they did want me here, but actually being here is another story.”

Judi laughed, a carefree laugh which grated on his nerves even more. “It’ll be fine and if it isn’t, then at least it will be entertaining for me.” She winked and slid on a pair of sunglasses. “Come on, big Mr. Attorney. You can handle this. It’s not like it’s any worse than a murder trial.”

Ben took a deep breath and opened the door. “My clients aren’t usually murders, but thanks.”

Each step he took up the sidewalk was like walking knee deep in mud. He’d only seen photographs of Amelia. For all he knew she might run away screaming from him. He looked at the stone underneath him and knew Adam had crafted this sidewalk like he had the one at their old house back in Spencer. The man was a craftsman through and through, whether it was with stone or wood.

He stopped at the door and Judi stepped next to him. The gold door hanger glinted in the sun as he shoved his hands in his pockets.

“That’s not how you knock on a door,” Judi said reaching up and slamming the knocker twice.

“I’m absolutely regretting agreeing to this,” he told her as footsteps broke through the muffled sounds of children’s giggles and squeals and adult laughter.

The person he’d hoped would be standing on the other side of the door when it opened was not who appeared and he visibly flinched, stepping back in anticipation of Mark Philippi’s fist hitting his face. The smile Mark had been wearing immediately slipped as dark brows furrowed and the rugged jawline clenched.

Ben expected the door to be slammed in his face and it might have if Judi hadn’t leaned into the doorway. “Hey! Is this the right place for a party? Also, do you have a little girls’ room because I could really use one.”

Judi’s appearance seemed to throw Mark off his game almost as much as seeing Ben standing at his parents’ door. “Uh. Yeah. Sure.”

Judi didn’t wait for Ben to make the first move. She stepped past him and m Mark, looking up at the latter  on the way by. “Oh, you’re a tall one, aren’t you?” She lifted her sunglasses for a minute, looked Mark up and down and winked. “Do you work as a bouncer? You’ve got to with those shoulders.”

Mark’s expression faded to an unreadable mask, but one eyebrow lifted. “The bathroom is down this hall. First door on the left.”

Judi didn’t miss a beat. She placed the sunglasses on top of her head and kept smiling. “Awesome. Thank you so much.”

Her departure left Ben standing with a stone faced Mark still holding the front door open before the tension was finally cut by Adam appearing from behind Mark, almost as if by magic. “Ben!” He stuck his hand out. “You made it! What a great surprise!”

Ben accepted the handshake and Adam shook it firmly. “Come on in. You must be exhausted. That’s a long drive.”

Adam gently pulled Ben forward, forcing him to step around Mark who was now scowling down at him like a Sumo wrestler who’d just been told he wasn’t getting any dinner.

“How was your drive?” Adam asked as he released Ben’s hand outside the living room entrance.

“Okay, but we did break down about an hour from here. I apologize that it made us late.”

“No worries at all.” Adam smiled and motioned toward the hallway Judi had walked down. “Things are just getting started. Everyone is in the backyard with the piñata and bouncy house.” He laughed and held his hand up toward his mouth like he was letting Ben in on a secret. “Yes, we went a little over board and splurged for the bouncy house, but she only turns four once. And it was a good deal.”

Ben took Adam’s appearance in. Short cropped brown hair with flecks of gray in it now, maybe thinner than before but good-colored complexion. His brown eyes sparkled with excitement and he seemed well. Maybe he wasn’t sick. Maybe it was Leona. Or maybe it was Angie. Or —

“Ben!” Leona’s voice from behind him turned him from Angie’s father to a petite woman in her mid-50s with graying honey blond hair cropped along her jaw line.

Leona held her arms out to him and embraced him before he could respond. The parents of the woman he’d abandoned four years ago were certainly being very welcoming and he wasn’t sure how to take it.

“I’m so glad you’re here,” Leona said with a warm smile. “We didn’t think you were going to be able to make it. I thought you weren’t allowed to drive yet.”

“Oh, I’m not yet, but —”

Once again Judi had horrible timing. She came down the hall with a broad smile and stood next to him. He gestured briefly at Judi. “But my secretary nicely offered to drive me.”

“Hello.” Judi smiled and waved at Adam and Leona whose smiles faded briefly then returned. She waved again at Mark who managed a faint smile. “So nice to meet you.”

“Well, it’s nice to meet you too,” Adam said. “Thank you for driving Ben down.”

 Leona’s smile was as warm as before as she motioned toward the hall. “You both must be starving. We have plenty of food in the backyard.” She looked at her son. “Mark, why don’t you and your dad walk Judi out and grab her something to drink.”

Mark kept his gaze on Ben for a few seconds then looked at his mother and smiled a smile Ben knew was forced. “Sure. I’d be glad to.”

When Adam and Mark led Judi to the backyard, Leona turned toward Ben and he felt the knot in his stomach return. “Leona, listen, it was really nice of you and Adam to invite me and to want me here, but Angie —”

Leona held up her hand. “Didn’t want you here. I know. We are going against her wishes but we felt it was time for you to get to know your daughter more.” She laid her hand against Ben’s shoulder. “Will you come into the living room with me for a moment?”

Ben followed the woman who had once been like a mother-in-law to him into a cozy room with white walls, blue flowers on white couches and chairs, and a high-backed recliner that he imagined was Adam’s. Along one wall was a floor to ceiling bookcase which he immediately envied. A television sat inside a cubby in the wall of the bookcase, which in addition to being filled with books was also lined with various frames full of photographs of a bright-eyed, blond haired little girl, some with Adam and Leona, one with a laughing Angie. He couldn’t remember the last time he saw her laugh. She probably laughed a lot now that she didn’t have to deal with his various issues.

He also couldn’t remember when he’d last seen Angie in person. Probably when Amelia was a year old and he’d run into them when he was home for a visit around Christmas and her family was preparing to sell and move to Lancaster. It had been in a small farm store the Tanner’s ran and he’d been picking up milk his mom had asked for. Amelia and Leona had been picking up sweet potatoes and various baked goods.

He’d ducked behind tall rows of canned vegetables and fruits like a coward while they passed by. His gaze had fallen to Angie first, his chest aching at how beautiful she was, then had drifted to the baby propped against her hip, full and pouting lips, wide eyes that looked so much like his own, and Angie’s blond hair. In that moment he’d felt like the scum of the earth and left the store without the milk, lying to his mom and telling her they were out.

He looked at the photos again. Amelia on a swing at a playground, on the back of a pony, in a pool, in Angie’s arms. His chest ached like that day in the store. What was he even doing here? He kept thinking of a song from the early 90s where the singer called himself a creep and lamented he didn’t belong here —wherever here was. Ben felt the same way. He was a creep who didn’t belong in this house.

“I know this is awkward for you.” Leona’s voice brought him back to the present and turned him around. “It’s awkward for us too. We didn’t even know if you wanted anything to do with Amelia, but we had to take a chance. We really felt like —I mean, I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but we felt like God was leading us to reach out to you. Adam and I truly feel Amelia’s father should be a part of her life.”

He kept his hands in his pockets and nodded his head slowly, looking at the photos again briefly before he moved his gaze to Leona’s. “I don’t mind you saying that, Leona, but this isn’t what Angie wants.”

“Is it what you want?”

“What do you mean?”

“To be a part of Amelia’s life.”

Ben scratched rubbed a hand against the back of his head, scratched there. “Listen, I —”

“Mom, we’re getting ready to open presents, where are —” Angie’s expression as she came around the corner and saw Ben standing there switched quickly from shocked to annoyed within five seconds flat. Her smooth jawline tightened and her lips pressed into a thin line. One hand flew to her hip as she gestured toward him with the other hand. “What’s he doing here?”

Leona cleared her throat. “Your father and I invited him.”

“I know, but I told him I didn’t want him here.” Angie was mainly looking at her mother, occasionally casting looks Ben’s way, as if he could see them but couldn’t hear them.

“We invited him again and —”

“Decided not to tell me he was coming.”

“No, that’s not it, he had a concussion and couldn’t drive so we didn’t think he was coming. His secretary drove him here.”

Angie rolled her eyes. “I knew that girl looked familiar. Judi Lambert.” She scoffed. “Secretary. Yeah right. Nice try.”

She still wasn’t looking at Ben.

“Angie, honey, we’re not trying to cause any issues, we just felt Ben should see his daughter before the move.”

Ben cocked an eyebrow and looked between the two women. “The move?”

Leona turned her head to face him. “We’re moving back to Spencer Valley. Adam’s mother is very ill and we’re going back to take care of her. Adam also wants to move his furniture business there to run it with his brother.”

“Oh,” Ben said.

“He doesn’t need to know about the move because he’s not involved in it,” Angie snapped.

Leona left out a heavy sigh. “We didn’t want him to be shocked if he saw us, or you, around.”

Pink flushed along Angie’s cheekbones. “So call and tell him. He didn’t need to be told in person.”

Ben rubbed his chin with his thumb and forefinger, the muscles along his neck and shoulder tensing. “Yeah, okay, well thanks for talking about me like I’m not in the room. That’s been fun, but I’m more than willing to —”

“Maybe I’m talking about you like you’re not in the room because you aren’t supposed to be in the room.” Angie’s words snapped his sentence off and left him with a sick feeling in his stomach. Her voice dripped with absolute vitriol.

Leona stepped forward between them and held up her hands, palms out. “Okay. Truce. There was some miscommunication. Your father and I invited him again and we didn’t tell you because we thought he wasn’t coming. Now he is here, and I think he should be allowed to meet Amelia. With your permission.”

Angie folded her arms across her chest. “No. I’m not giving you my permission. I don’t want him here.” She looked at Ben. “Oh, sorry. I don’t want you to feel left out so I’ll tell you.” She pointed toward the front door. “I don’t want you here. You and your so-called secretary need to leave.”

“Angie, please —”

“Mom! She doesn’t even know him. What do you think I’m going to do walk out there and tell her I got her a daddy for her birthday?”

“No, I don’t think that, Angela. We don’t have to tell her who he is right now. Just that he’s a friend of yours —”

“Of mine?”

“Fine, of your father’s and mine.”

“Hi.” Ben waved slowly, wishing he had taken painkillers before he walked in. “Can I have a say in any of this?”

Angie’s eyes flashed with anger. “You haven’t for the last four years so why should you now?”

Leona tipped her head back and let out an exasperated sigh. “Angela…”

“It’s true, Mom. Where has he been? He sends money. That’s it.”

“At least I do that,” Ben mumbled. “Not to mention, you made it very clear more than once that you didn’t want me around.”

The muscle in Angie’s neck that always jumped when she was angry was bouncing over time. Ben knew he should be focused on what she was saying, but instead he was remembering when he used to kiss that neck, smoothing the muscle, and her, into submission.

Before Angie could respond — and Ben did wonder what she had been about to say — a small figure bounced into the living room wearing a purple tutu and a hot pink shirt with a white kitten on it. She turned her body toward Ben and placed her hands on her hips, striking a pose right out of her mother’s playbook.

Her eyebrows dipped. “And who are you?”

Her little voice demanded an answer.  She had his blue eyes and his nose and the way she was scowling at him right now he had a feeling she had a bit of his temper in her too. He only hoped she learned how to manage it better than he had.

“Uh, I’m Ben,” he said hesitantly, unable to look away from her even as he felt Angie’s eyes boring into the side of his head.

The brow relaxed. “Hey, Ben, I’m Amelia. Are you here for my party?”

“Uh. Yeah. I am.”

Her eyes dropped to his foot, still wrapped in a boot, though smaller than it had been three months ago. She poked a finger in her mouth and slid it out again then pointed down. “What happened to your foot? Do you have a booboo?”

He nodded slowly. “Yes actually. It’s broken.”

“Did you fall?” She looked up at him and blinked a few times. For a moment  he almost lost himself in those eyes, spiraling down into racing thoughts of all the years of her life he’d missed, all the firsts and milestones — first words, first steps, books read before bed . . .

Her little hand reached out and in seconds her tiny fingers had curled around two of his. She tugged him forward. “Come see the backyard. It’s pink for my birthday.”

“Amelia, honey. You don’t even know —”

Angie left the final word hanging in the air. Ben looked over his shoulder and saw her lips parted, her eyes focused on his, and then the quick intake of breath as she dropped her gaze to the floor. She was right, though. Amelia didn’t even know him.

He dutifully followed his daughter, though, with Angie and Leona close behind. How could he say no to this little girl whose fingers were so soft against his, whose eyes had met his and still decided he should come see her birthday party.

They passed through a cozy, bright kitchen that smelled of fresh lemons and something else sweet that made his stomach growl. Squinting in the bright sunlight as they stepped through the patio doors made his head pound. He reached for his sunglasses, to cut down on the glare.

When his eyes adjusted behind the darkened lenses, he wished he’d still been blinded by the light. Mark’s hard stare had been joined by an equally hard stare from his brother Dan, both of them standing like two burly security guards by a table full of food, their arms folded across their broad chests. Judi was sitting at a small table with a group of young children, sipping from a pink paper cup with a unicorn on the side.

Amelia was right. The backyard had indeed been decorated in pink, with pink streamers hanging down from the ceiling on an erected white tent, pink tablecloths on the tables, pink balloons tacked to a back fence and along the streamers. Even the bouncy house was a pink unicorn castle with pink flags on top.

“Come on.” She tugged him toward the small table where Judi was sitting. “You can sit with me. I’m the birthday girl.”

Ben looked over his shoulder at Angie standing on the patio, watching him closely. Sitting down with his little girl might make her eyes flash even more with anger but refusing to do so might also break a little heart. He made himself comfortable on a preschool sized chair next to Judi show smirked at him as she lifted her cup and took a sip.

“Fruit punch with sherbert,” Judi told him with a grin.

Amelia sat on her chair and lifted a silver plastic tiara off the table, placing it on her head.  “So, Ben, are you friends with my mommy?”

Ben swallowed hard. “Um…”

He glanced at Angie who had stepped into the backyard, sitting a few feet away at an adult sized table with her parents and some other people he didn’t recognize. They must have been the parents of the other children running around. Angie was watching him but everyone else had gone back to eating and chatting.

He had no idea if she could hear him or not. “I know your mommy. Knew. I mean I knew your mommy.”

Beads of sweat dotted his forehead. Knew her mother was a definite understatement.

Amelia studied him in a way that made him feel like she could see right through him for several seconds. Then she abruptly pulled her gaze away and scooped her finger in a glob of icing, sticking the finger in her mouth.

“I like ponies,” she said when she pulled the finger out with a pop. “Do you like ponies?”

What was the rule about lying to children? It wasn’t that he didn’t like ponies, but he also didn’t exactly like them. Still, her bright blue eyes were boring into him the same way his bored into a witness on the stand.

“I like them okay.”

There. It wasn’t a lie. A very lawyer-like answer and totally acceptable.

“Do you like cake?”

Actually, he liked pie more but she clearly liked cake and he didn’t hate cake so, “Sure do.”

She lightly touched her fingers to her tiara. “Do you like my tiara? My grampy gave it to me.”

His throat thickened with emotion. He wondered what she’d been told about her other grandparents, or if they ever mentioned them. His father would love to give Amelia gifts like tiaras and purple tutus. He hated he was the reason his parents didn’t have that opportunity.

“I love it,” he choked out.

Her smile sent his senses spinning. Wow. He’d missed out on so much by staying away.

She sighed, propped her chin in her hand for a few seconds, then stood up quickly. “Imma gonna get you cake. It’s a party. You need cake at a party.”

She headed toward the table with the cake. He watched as a little girl ran to her with a ball. Amelia was quickly distracted and ran to a clear space in the yard to toss the ball with the girl and a few other children.

“She’s adorable,” Judi whispered. “And she’s way too friendly to take after you.” She winked at him. “I’m going to get some more of that amazing potato salad Leona made. Want anything?”

He shook his head. “No. I feel like I’m going to throw up.”

She patted his shoulder as she stood. “Suit yourself. Just don’t puke in my purse while I’m gone.”

Her seat wasn’t empty long. This time it was Dan Phillipi’s turn to glare at him. Mark must have tagged him in.

Dan sat backwards on the little chair and leaned toward Ben across the table. “What are you doing here, Oliver.”

Ben folded his arms on the top of the table and leaned forward even though he really wanted to lean backward. Very backward. “Your parents asked me to come.”

Dan’s voice was hard. “You’ve been asked to be involved in your child’s life before and you never have. What was different about this time?”

Ben kept his eyes on Dan’s, trying to act like he wasn’t intimidated by the man, but also realizing he had no idea how to answer that question. If he told him he’d been worried about someone in the family being sick, Dan would call it a garbage. If he told him his doctor had said he’d been very lucky not to die in that car accident, then Dan would probably laugh and say he wish Ben had died.

Luckily he didn’t have to answer because everyone’s attention was drawn to a cry of pain from the gaggle of children and then a wail that sliced into Ben’s headache. Angie flew up from her chair, knocking it over as she turned around and darted across the yard, her parents close behind. Ben’s heartrate increased as other parents stood and looked on anxiously. Dan stood and followed his sister, briefly forgetting about his interrogation of Ben.

Ben stood and walked slowly toward the chaos, his knees trembling when he saw Angie holding a crying Amelia, blood pouring from the little girl’s nose and running into her mouth. He wanted to lunge forward, take her in his arms, wipe the blood off and find out what happened, but it wasn’t his place. It was Angie’s place and she was already doing what needed to be done.

Someone bumped his arm, pushing past him and rushed toward Amelia and Angie. Ben watched a man with short, wavy reddish blond hair kneel beside Angie, who was now on her knees with Amelia in her arms.

“What happened?” the man asked.

“The ball hit her face,” a little boy said as the parents looked on.

The man touched Amelia under the chin and tipped her face upward. He studied her as tears streamed down her face. “It’s coming from her nose and it doesn’t look broken but there’s a lot of swelling.”

“Should we take her to the hospital?” Angie asked, her worried gaze focused on the man’s face, clearly looking to him for guidance.

The man pondered Amelia’s blood-stained face for a few moments before answering. “It might be good to get it x-rayed. Yeah. Just as a precaution. I’ll drive us.”

Drive us? Ben studied the scene before him with a stern expression. Who was this guy who straightened from his stooped position, holding his daughter?

“Hey, kid, don’t worry. We’ll have you fixed up in no time,” the man said, smiling at Amelia. He glanced over at Angie as she stood. “Let’s get a wet cloth and clean some of this blood off so I can see how bad it actually is.”

Angie nodded and Ben saw the tears in her eyes. The man laid a hand on Angie’s back, leaned down and kissed her mouth. “Don’t worry, okay? She’s going to be fine.”

Angie nodded again but a tear rolled down her cheek and dripped off her chin. She followed the man closely as he headed toward the patio and into the house. Watching them, Ben felt even more like an outsider than he had in the living room. Apparently, those three were a family. A family he wasn’t a part of.

Fiction Thursday: Mercy’s Shore Chapter 13

Because I missed posting a chapter last Friday for Fiction Friday, I am posting an extra chapter today.

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 13

Judi leaned back on her hands as she watched the man climb down from the cab of the truck. Pulling her lower lip between her front teeth, she was torn between checking him out and letting worry clutch at her as he turned and slid his sunglasses off. Scenes from movies she’d watched late at night when she couldn’t sleep flashed through her mind, but were quickly replaced by the striking figure in front of her.

The tall, dark-haired, and rugged man strolled toward her with confidence, wearing a pair of faded blue jeans and a gray t-shirt that fit nicely across his broad shoulders and clearly well-toned torso.

“It really is you,” he said as he came close, a broad smile flicking a spark of energy across her skin. “Judi Lambert. What in the world are you doing out here?”

He knew her, that was clear. Studying the dimple on one cheek, bright green eyes framed by fairly long dark eyelashes, she was having a hard time placing him, though. As much as she wanted to.

Her confusion was clearly evident on her face.

He laughed. “You have no idea who I am, do you?”

By now Ben had stepped out of the car and was standing next to her with a dipped brow and a tight jaw, watching the man walk toward them.

Judi shook her head and slid off the hood. “Um, no. Should I?”

The man stopped, placed his hands at his waist, and flashed a smile that made Judi involuntarily giggle. “Yeah. You should. You were one of the best make-out sessions I ever had in high school.”

Judi bit her lower lip again. She hadn’t had many make-out sessions in high school, and she knew this wasn’t the person she’d gone even further with. If she made out with this guy she’d definitely —

No way. It couldn’t be. “Oh wow. Evan? Evan McGee?”

Evan winked and shaped his thumb and index finger like a gun and pointed it at her as another rich laugh escaped. “The one and only.” He pulled the trigger on the finger gun, grinning.

“What in the world are you doing in the middle of nowhere?” she asked, immediately self-conscious of her hair, which she was sure was a mess. She dragged a hand through it and then across it, hoping to smooth away any stray strands.

“I could easily ask you two the same thing,” Evan said, glancing at Ben. “Oh, sorry. Are you Judi’s boyfriend?”

Ben shook his head and folded his arms across his chest. He wasn’t smiling. “No. I’m Ben Oliver. We went to school together.”

Evan’s face registered recognition. “Ben! Oh wow! Of course! It’s been years.” He stuck his hand out toward Ben and the two men shook hands briefly. “Sorry I didn’t recognize you.”

Judi smoothed her hands down her skirt, hoping it looked less disheveled than it felt. She smirked and tilted her head toward Ben. “He’s my boss now.”

Evan’s eyebrows raised. “Oh yeah? You went to law school, right?”

Ben nodded and slid his hands into the front pockets of his jeans, looking a little more relaxed than he had a few minutes earlier. “Yeah. Opened an office in Burkett a year ago.” In fact, Judi had never seen him look so casual. Almost as if he’d finally unclenched a little.

Ben glanced at her and back and Evan. “So, not to break up this reunion or anything but what in the world are you doing out here?”

“I drive long distance for a trucking company now and have a delivery in a town a couple miles from here,” Evan said. “I saw Judi when I drove by. I didn’t think there was any way it was actually her, though.” He grinned again and let his eyes slide down Judi’s legs. “I mean, she had the same legs, but I still wasn’t sure.” He shrugged a shoulder and looked back at Ben. “It takes a lot to turn one of these rigs around but I found a place so I could see if she — well, both of you needed some help.”

Judi twisted a strand of hair around her finger and bent her ankle back and forth. “It’s such a small world, isn’t it? And we do need help. My car croaked and the only mechanic around said it would take him 45 minutes to get here.”

Evan nodded toward the car. “Let me take a look before you spend a bunch of money. Maybe it’s an easy fix.” He glanced over his shoulder as he leaned down to pop the hood. “What are you guys doing this far south anyhow?”

“We’re headed to Lancaster to see —” Judi paused, not sure how much of Ben’s personal life she should share. She slid her gaze quickly to Ben who was watching her with an unreadable expression.

Evan filled in the blank. “Angie.”

Ben transferred his attention from Judi to Evan.

“Yeah,” Judi said. “How’d you know?”

Evan had opened the hood and propped it open and was looking at the engine. “I just took a guess. I heard she’d moved to Lancaster with her parents. I bumped into her brothers a few months ago on a visit back to Spencer.” He leaned over the engine and unscrewed a cap. “I didn’t think you two were together anymore.”

Ben cleared his throat. “We’re not.”

Evan turned and winced. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to assume.” He held his hands up, palms out. “None of my business.”

Ben nodded curtly. “It’s fine.”

It was time to change the conversation. Judi stepped closer to Evan. “So where are you headed after this delivery?”

Evan unscrewed another cap and pulled out a stick Judi figured she should know the purpose of but didn’t. “Back to Spencer for a visit actually.”

Judi could smell a musky cologne or aftershave coming off Evan. “How long will you be staying?”

“About a month. I’ve been working non-stop for about two years straight, so my boss said I needed to take some of my vacation time.” He leaned back and wiped his hands on a rag. “Mom’s been asking me to come home for a visit for a while now, so I figured I’d finally grant her wish.” He nodded toward the car. “I’m going to slide underneath to double check but I think this might be a simple fix.”

Judi watched him lay on his back under the front of the car, biting her lower lip as his shirt pulled up and revealed a hint of toned skin.

“Looks like you’re out of coolant,” he said after a few minutes.

Judi pursed her lips. “Oh. What’s coolant?”

“It keeps the car cool,” Ben quipped.

Judi rolled her eyes. “Thanks.” She turned her attention back to Evan. “So how do we get coolant?”

“Actually, I have some. It’s in the back of my cab.” He jerked his head toward his truck and smiled at Judi. “I’ll be right back.”

Judi folded her arms behind her and shot a smile right back at him. “I’ll be right here.”

“Of course he has some in his truck,” Ben mumbled, loud enough so only Judi heard it as Evan walked away.

 She elbowed him in the side as she walked past him to stand on the other side of the car and watch Evan. She ignored the gagging noise that came from Ben.

Ben cleared his throat. “Excuse me.”

“You are excused to wherever would like to be excused to.”

“Uh no – I mean you’re obviously ogling Evan. So —”

“Uh. Yeah, I am.” She turned and fanned herself with her hand. “Because he’s hot. Like seriously hot.” A soft growl came from her throat. “I don’t remember him being this hot when I knew him in high school.”

Ben rolled his eyes again. “Good grief. I don’t care if he’s hot or cold as long as he can get us moving again.”

Twenty minutes later, Evan had the car started and Ben shook his hand as he asked for directions back to the highway. Evan reached his hand out to Judi next and held it longer than he had Ben’s. Much longer, rubbing the top of it with his thumb. “Well, Judi Lambert, promise me you’ll look me up when you get back to Spencer, okay?”

The way his green eyes sparkled should have been a crime. “I’ll definitely be sure to do that.”

He let her hand go and held up his hand. “Hold on.” When he came back from the truck he was holding his phone. “Let me get your number so I can call you sometime.”

After she’d given him her number, she thanked him and slid in behind the steering wheel. Evan looked over his shoulder as he walked back to his truck and waved one more time at her, then climbed inside. She smiled at him, waving back as he started the truck and she started the car. When she looked away from Evan, she met Ben’s amused expression.

“Are you two done with your cute meet or whatever they call it in romance novels?”

Judi rolled her eyes and shifted the car into gear. “I don’t know what it’s called in romance novels, but yes, I guess we are done saying goodbye as people tend to do when they are parting ways.” She adjusted her rearview and side mirrors. “How would you know about what is in a romance novel anyhow? I doubt you have a romantic bone in your body.”

Ben scoffed. “I know about those novels. My little sister reads them all the time. Angie did too. They’re ridiculous. About as ridiculous as you fawning all over Evan. Now come on. Let’s get going before you break us down again somewhere.”

Judi gave him a mock salute as she pulled out onto the road. “Yes, sir, Captain Oliver.”

“You’re not as funny as you think, you know.”

Judi winked. “Luckily I don’t think I’m that funny.”

She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye as he scrolled through his phone. Maybe Ben would be doing some ogling of his own soon. Ogling his old flame Angie, who Judi was going to try her best to make his current and future flame. She needed a challenge, something to distract herself from the past that seemed to be trying to catch up to her.

Fiction Friday: Mercy’s Shore Chapter 12

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 12

Sitting in the car, adjusting her side and rear-view mirrors, Judi couldn’t believe Ben had agreed to let her drive him to the party. Finally, someone was going to give her a chance to correct her errors, improve herself, and best of all she was going to be able to get a small break from Spencer Valley, and all the boredom it had to offer. She connected her phone to the Bluetooth and looked over her playlist while she waited.

All the music on her list might be too wild for Ben. He seemed more reserved. Then again, he needed a little waking up. She picked a favorite band of Molly’s that Ellie had told her about and pushed play. A growling voice and a Southern-rock rhythm filled the car. Not necessarily what she usually listened to, but it would work.

Hopefully Ben wouldn’t mind the music if he ever finished getting ready. He’d told her he’d be grabbing a few things and then he’d be down. He’d already showered and surprised Judi by emerging from his bedroom with wet hair and wearing a pair of jeans and a Chicago Cubs t-shirt. The fact he owned casual clothes was a shock to her, let alone the fac he was actually going to wear them out in public.

She’d texted Ellie and told her what she was doing, leaving out who she was taking Ben to see, only that she needed to take him to see someone in his family. She’d also texted Lonny and told him she wouldn’t be available for her shifts this weekend. Not being at the bar and grill on a weekend would be a relief, since that’s when men seemed to be at their wildest and most grabbing moods.

Most of the men at Lonny’s were good, respectful, and kind. The old saying of it only takes one rotten apple to spoil the bunch didn’t necessarily hold true here, but it did make her less willing to work evenings and weekends.

Ben slid into the passenger seat a few minutes later wearing an unzipped brown leather jacket, a pair of sunglasses, and a frown. He tossed a light-brown messenger bag into the back seat and set a laptop back on the floor in front of him. Judi smirked. She didn’t think he could look any more casual than he had in the apartment, but this leather jacket — wow. It had him looking downright normal.

“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” he mumbled.

Judi snorted a laugh. “You know what I like about you, Oliver? You’re so optimistic and cheerful.” She shifted the car into drive and hit the accelerator before he could change his mind. “Come on. This is going to be fun.”

Ben placed his hands against the dashboard and winced.  “Hey! Slow down! I haven’t even buckled in yet.”

Judi turned up the music and cranked up the air conditioner. “You’ll be fine, Boy Scout. Just hook yourself in now.”

She caught Ben’s tightlipped expression out of the corner of her eye. He clicked the seatbelt in and tipped his head back against the headrest.

“Okay, I looked up how to get to Lancaster, and put the directions in my phone,” she said as she turned the car out of town. “I don’t have Angie’s address though.”

“It’s in my phone.” He closed his eyes. “I can look it up when we get closer.”

She glanced at him again. “Headache back?”

“No.” He opened his eyes briefly and closed them again. “Just tired and not looking forward to this.”

“To seeing your daughter?”

He opened his eyes and looked out the front window. “To seeing Angie, actually, but yeah, seeing Amelia worries me too. She doesn’t even know who I am.”

Judi turned the music down. “So, what happened anyhow? Did you bolt as soon as you knew she was pregnant or before?”

Ben took a deep breath. “You don’t really have tact, do you?”

Judi laughed and flipped a strand of hair over her shoulder. “Nope. Ellie got all the tact. It was all gone by the time Mom had me.”

Ben couldn’t help but huff out a small laugh. “Yeah. I can tell.”

Judi glanced in the rearview mirror. “Dude, get off my bumper,” she told the driver behind her. “I’m already going ten miles over the speed limit.” She pushed her foot on the accelerator. “So did Angie go through that pregnancy on her own?”

Ben pushed back against the seat. “Hey, you want to slow down?”

“Oh.” Judi lifted her foot off the accelerator slightly. “Yeah. Sorry.” She flicked the air conditioner on. “So, do you pay child support?”

“Yes.” Ben’s voice was tight. “I do.”

“But you don’t see her?”

“No.”

Judi winced. “Well, at least you’re paying something, I guess.” The car that had been following them passed them and she made a rude gesture as it slid back into the lane in front of her. “Hope you don’t cause an accident, jerk!” She bit her lower lip and glanced at Ben. “Sorry.”

She sighed, placing both hands at the top of the wheel and leaning back. “Anyhow, I thought my drinking caused problems. Okay, it did, but at least I didn’t abandon a kid.”

Ben slid the sunglasses to the top of his head and scowled. “I’m glad this conversation is helping you realize how much better you are than me.” He narrowed his eyes as he turned to look at her. “Wait a minute. What do you know about my drinking anyhow? I’ve never said anything to you about my past.”

Judi clutched the steering wheel tighter and mentally scrolled through the various ways she could change the subject. There was no way she was going to betray Molly. “I see they’re finally tearing that old building down outside of Spencer. I overheard Liz tell Molly it’s going to be a warehouse of some kind and bring a bunch of jobs to the area.”

Ben slid the sunglasses back down over his eyes again and leaned back. “Yeah, yeah. Nice try. I’m guessing you pieced some things together when I attended the AA meeting.”

 Judi rolled the window down and propped her arm on the open window. “So, did you love Angie?”

Ben’s scowl was a full-on glare now. “Not that it’s any of your business but yes, I did love Angie.” He looked back at the road, a muscle working in his jaw as he clinched it briefly. “I still do. Now let’s change the subject. Take that exit up there, it will get us there quicker.”

“Which one?”

“The one to the right. It’s right there. Coming up.”

“What number?”

“Judi, there is only one exit in front of — Great. We missed it. Now we’re going to have to take the exit ten miles ahead and that’s going to take us a half an hour out of our way.”

“Well, you didn’t give me directions, so what was I supposed to do?”

Ben groaned in frustration. “Just keep driving. We’ll figure it out at the next exit, but when I say to turn next time, do it.”

Judi stifled a laugh behind her hand. This trip was definitely going to be a lot more fun than sitting at home on the couch eating ice cream and watching reruns of shows she watched in high school.

***

All Ben had wanted to do was take a brief nap. He had no idea when he woke up, he’d be in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by trees, in a car that wasn’t running and without a driver.

He blinked his eyes and lifted his sunglasses, looking in the backseat and then out his window for Judi. Where in the world was she?

This hadn’t all been a dream, right? His secretary coming to his apartment and insisting he let her drive him to the home of his ex-girlfriend and their daughter? He opened the car door and stepped out onto a dirt covered pull off next to a paved road. They were definitely not on the highway anymore.

Was he losing his mind? Maybe he’d woke up in an episode of the Twilight Zone.

Had they somehow teleported back to Spencer Valley while he was asleep?

He rubbed his hands over his face and took a deep breath as he scanned the brush and woods around him. “Judi?” He cupped his hands around his mouth. “Judi! Where are you?”

Nothing.

A few birds chirping. A breeze rustling some leaves, but otherwise silence.

A chill shuddered up his spine. He’d read a book like this one time. It hadn’t had a pleasant ending. Maybe he’d actually slipped into a coma and this was his dream. If so, the dream was very boring.

“Judi!” He spun to his right at the sound of twigs breaking and bushes moving. When Judi stumbled out with a leaf in her hair and looking disheveled he blinked in the sunlight and dropped his sunglasses back down over his eyes again. “What is going on?! Where are we?!”

Judi pulled a twig out of her hair. “I was looking for a bathroom.”

“So you drove into the middle of nowhere?”

“No, I drove into the middle of nowhere because my car was making weird noises and steam was pouring out of the hood. I pulled off the first exit I could find and saw a sign for a gas station, so I was trying to get to it.” She brushed the back of her skirt off. “The car stopped and while I was sitting there trying to figure out what to do, I had to tinkle.”

Ben raised an eyebrow. “You had to what?”

Judi tossed her hands out to her side like she should understand what she was saying. “I had to tinkle!” She gestured toward the bushes. “In the bushes!”

“Tinkle? Did you really just say tinkle? What are you, three?”

Judi stuck her tongue out briefly. “I’m trying to be polite, okay? But yes, I had to use the bathroom in the bushes, and I might have poison ivy on my bottom and my car is billowing smoke. I’m not exactly having fun either.”

Ben turned to follow her as she walked toward the car. “Why didn’t you wake me?”

She opened the driver’s side door, reaching inside for her phone. “Because you’re grumpy when you first wake up. Also, I realized how bad I had to go when I was about to wake you.” She tapped the screen on her phone. “If I can figure out where we are maybe I can find a mechanic to come figure out what’s wrong with my car.”

Ben scoffed. “I can check out the car.”

Judi laughed without even looking up from the phone. “Okay, Mr. Attorney.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I’ve seen those hands. You’ve definitely never worked on cars before.”

Ben shoved his hands in the front pockets of his jeans and sighed. “Yeah, but I still might be able to figure something out.” Five minutes later, after looking under the hood, he turned toward her again while she looked at her phone. “What did the exit say when you pulled off?”

She shrugged. “I don’t remember. The car started smoking then and I thought it was going to blow up.”

“Do you have triple a?”

Her finger hovered over the phone screen as she looked up with a confused expression. “Is that like a battery?”

Ben was never sure when Judi was serious or seriously being an airhead. “It’s a roadside service for cars. Your insurance information should say whether you have it or not. Where is your insurance paperwork?”

Judi bit her lower lip. “Um….in the glove compartment? I think?”

Ben slid back into the passenger seat and popped open the glove compartment. Hair scrunchies, a makeup case, and a few pieces of crumpled up paper tumbled toward him. He caught the scrunchies and makeup case and shoved them back in and reached for the papers that had fallen to his feet.

“It’s not here.” He stepped out of the car and walked toward her with the papers in his hands. “These look like your past insurance information and your current registration.”

She snatched the papers from him. “That can’t be right. I always keep my insurance information in —” Her expression morphed from confusion to resignation and then a frown as she tipped her head back with closed eyes. “Oh right. I left my insurance information on my kitchen table after the accident. I never put it back in the car.”

Ben propped a hand on his hip and pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and index finger. “Okay.” He took a deep breath. “Let’s just do a search online for mechanics in this area. The GPS on my phone should pinpoint where we are so I knew which mechanic is closest to us.”

He leaned back into the car and picked up his phone. The screen was black. There was no way the battery was dead. He’d charged it before he left.

He shook his head slowly. No, actually, he hadn’t had time to charge his phone fully.

He turned toward Judi. “Do you have a car charger?”

She motioned toward the middle console. “Yeah. In there.”

He pushed aside empty gum wrappers, two chocolate bar wrappers, a receipt from a theater, and pulled out the charger. Without the car running, the phone wasn’t going to charge much, but it would some at least.

“Okay, let me use your phone to find out where we are,” he said after he’d plugged his phone in.

Ben scrolled through pages of apps on Judi’s phone as he walked to the front of the car, looking for her GPS feature. “I’m sure we can find a mechanic to come pick us up and fix the car. Where is your GPS app?”

Judi shrugged a shoulder and began inspecting her fingernails. “Dunno. Never use it.”

No surprise there. Ben slid his thumb across her screen and finally found what he needed. “Okay. We’re ninety minutes out of Lancaster. Near Mechanicsburg.” He found the internet browser, thankful that they at least had data service where they were. “Looks like the closest mechanic is thirty minutes away.”

Judi hopped up on the hood and laid across it on her back. “Maybe someone will come by.”

Ben squinted into the sunlight, looking down the cracked paved road at rows of green bushes mixed among pine trees and maples and a group of dead Ash trees. “I haven’t seen a car the entire time we’ve been talking. Did any come by before I woke up?” He dialed the number of the mechanic, not waiting for Judi’s response.

No one answered from the first mechanic shop, so he tried another. It was a Saturday. All the shops were probably closed. It wasn’t until the fourth call that someone picked up.

“You’re where?” the man on the other end of the phone asked. His voice was deep, gruffy, like he’d been up all night.

“We’re on a small back road off Route 81, somewhere near Mechanicsburg.”

 “Got a road name?” the man responded.

Ben scanned the road. “No. Not from where I’m standing. I can try to find one.”

“Why don’t you do that?”

Ben didn’t appreciate the man’s sarcasm.

“Where are you going?!” Judi shouted after him as he started down the road. “Don’t leave me alone! I could be kidnapped, killed — eaten by a bear!”

“All of your yelling will scare a bear off, don’t worry,” he called over his shoulder.

The man chuckled through the phone. “Little lady naggin’ you, huh?”

Ben ignored him and looked for a road sign. He’d walked several hundred feet when he found it. “It’s Dempsy Hill Road.”

The man winced. “Never heard of it. I don’t think you’re as close to me as you think. You’re sure you’re near Mechanicsburg?”

Ben started back toward Judi, wishing he’d been awake when all of this had happened so he could have seen what the exit had said. “Let me call you back when I find out for sure where we are.”

“Yep, it’s a good thing to know where you’re at,” the man said with a laugh. Obviously, he thought he was funny, but Ben had lost his sense of humor. He hung up without saying goodbye.

“Are you sure you didn’t see a road sign when you pulled off the exit?” he asked when he reached Judi. “How far did you drive after the exit?”

Judi yawned, still sprawled on the hood, now with her eyes closed and an arm draped over her forehead. “Maybe five miles or so? I kept seeing signs for a gas station.”

He looked at the GPS again, then zoomed in. “Good grief. We’re an hour east of Mechanicsburg. No wonder that guy hadn’t heard of this road. We’re also going in the wrong direction to get to Lancaster.”

He searched for another mechanic while Judi continued to lounge. As the phone rang, he kept his eye on a pickup driving down the road toward them, wondering if the driver was someone who could help them or someone who might kill them. He wasn’t sure if it was good or bad when the truck zoomed past, a man with a cigar in one corner of his mouth watching with narrowed eyes through the open window as he drove by.

“Billy’s Auto.” A deep male voice answered the phone, bringing his attention away from the truck.

“Hey, Billy, my name’s Ben and —”

“I’m not Billy.”

“Oh. I’m sorry. You just said Billy’s Auto so —”

“Billy’s my dad.”

“Oh. Okay. Is your dad there?”

“He’s been dead ten years.”

Ben cleared his throat and resisted the urge to scream. “I’m sorry to hear that, sir. Listen, I’m broke down on Dempsy Hill Road and I’m wondering —”

“I don’t have a tow truck.”

“Your website says you do.”

“Mine’s in the shop.”

“But you are a shop.”

“It’s in my shop.”

Ben’s jaw tightened and he shook his head. “Okay. I’ll just call someone else.”

“I didn’t say I couldn’t help you. I just can’t tow you.” Ben heard the man spit. “I can be there in about 45 minutes. I’ve got a car on the lift for an oil change and tire rotation, then I’ll be down.”

Ben pushed a hand through his hair and clutched it. “How far away are you?”

The man huffed a breath out. “I don’t know. About fifteen minutes?” He spit again. “Give or take.”

“Okay, well, I’m actually on a schedule and —”

The man chuckled in Ben’s ear. “Aren’t we all. See you in 45.”

The loud click that slammed through Ben’s eardrum told him the man answered calls on an old-fashioned rotary phone. He looked at the time on the phone and winced. They definitely weren’t going to make it to the party on time at this rate.

Judi’s voice was drowsy, and she was still in the same position. “Did you find someone?”

Ben rolled his eyes. Nice that she was able to get some rest while he tried to figure out how to get her car fixed. “Yes, but he said it would take him 45 minutes, I’m going to try someone else.”

He sat in the passenger seat while he looked for another mechanic. When the sound of an engine grew louder, he looked up briefly at a large Bic Mack coming up over the hill then kept scrolling. The truck, complete with a trailer, barreled past them, which didn’t surprise him. A truck that big was usually on a schedule of their own and couldn’t easily pull over to help anyone, even if they knew anything about how to fix cars.

The other mechanic shop he called was closed. Apparently, they were going to have to wait for the 45-minute guy. He tossed Judi’s phone onto the driver’s seat and pushed the passenger seat back. His head was starting to throb again, and he was sure the stress hadn’t helped. He reached for the ibuprofen he’d tossed in his bag, popped two, and washed it down with the rest of the water in a bottle he’d brought with him.

“Hey, Ben?”

Oh boy.

Judi had already been more than blunt during this trip. What would come out of her mouth this time?

He closed his eyes and tipped his head back, bracing himself. “Yeah?”

“I used to not like you because you broke up with Molly to go out with Angie.”

He winced without opening his eyes. Oh yeah. Here she went again. “Can’t say I blame you.”

“But maybe you’re not so bad. Everyone makes mistakes. Maybe you went about it the wrong way but maybe you and Angie were meant to be together.” There was a pause, “And maybe you still are.”

He didn’t want to open his eyes when he heard her move, but he opened one and saw her leaning back on her elbows, smiling out into empty space as if a lightbulb had gone off in her head. Oh, that could not be a good thing.

The beep of a text message startled him, and he looked down at his phone.

The text message popped up on the lock screen.

Seline: Hey, did that lawyer call you? I should have given you a heads up. Call me back, okay? I know you don’t want anything to do with anything involving Jeff, but if he did the same thing to this other girl then this might be a chance to make him pay for what he tried to do to you? You know?

Seline? Who was Seline? He didn’t know anyone named — Oh wow. He really must be tired. That wasn’t his phone. It was Judi’s. He looked away from the phone and yawned, closing his eyes again.

He tried to let his thoughts drift away from the frustration of the day, but the idea he should try another mechanic nudged at him. Or maybe he should start walking and find a gas station himself. Or maybe — Wait. His mind drifted back to the text message. Who was Jeff and what had he tried to do to Judi?

The loud roar of an engine opened both of his eyes and when the big truck he’d seen earlier pulled off into the space behind him his heart rate picked up. He had a bad feeling about a large transportation truck, complete with a trailer, pulling up behind their broken-down car in the middle of nowhere.

He pulled the passenger seat up into an upright position and kept his eyes on the driver, sitting up high, behind a darkened window and wearing a pair of sunglasses. This could either end up being good or very, very bad and Ben’s muscles tensed as he waited to see what the outcome would be.