Fiction Friday: Mercy’s Shore Chapter 2

Here we are to chapter 2 of Mercy’s Shore, the fourth book in The Spencer Valley Chronicles. If you’ve been here before you know how it works. This is a somewhat first draft so there might be typos and plot holes etc., which will be fixed before I finally publish it in ebook form later on.

Book three in the series is currently out on Amazon and will be out on other sites next week.

As always, let me know what you think of the latest chapters and where you think the story should go next in the comments.

Chapter 2

The Spencer Valley Police Department wasn’t a rush of activity like police departments on television. It was three rooms, three desks, two chairs to each desk and one of the rooms was an office that Judi assumed must be Chief Reggie Stoddard’s office. At this time of day, before noon, there were only three people in the office — a secretary sitting at a small table in one corner, the chief leaning back in a creaky, black office chair with a cup of coffee resting on his belly, and Spencer Valley Police Officer Matt McGee.

Matt gestured to the chair across from his desk as he led Judi to his desk under a dim fluorescent light. “Sorry I was pulled away before I could get your statement last night. Unruly customer at the grill and they needed some backup.”

Judi pulled her straight blond hair off her shoulders and into a ponytail as she sat. “Not surprised. We get unruly customers there all the time.” She laid her purse on her lap and sat back in the chair, flinching as it creaked under her. “Is this thing going to break?”

Matt grinned. “Nah. It’s just old. You’ll be fine.” He pulled a notepad from the top desk drawer and laid it on the desk. “So, you started telling me about the accident last night. Let’s pick up from when you were at the stop sign.”

“I looked both ways and he came out of nowhere.” She raised her hands up in front of her. “It wasn’t my fault.”

“Did you stop at the stop sign?”

“Pretty much, yeah.”

Matt quirked an eyebrow. “You either did or didn’t, Judi. Did you come to a complete stop before pulling out?”

Judi sighed, tipping her head back and staring at the ceiling for a few seconds. “I stopped for like a few seconds, I guess.” She leaned forward toward the desk. “But I looked both ways. I didn’t see him so he must have really been flying.”

Matt scribbled a few notes. “So, he swerved to miss you and that’s when he hit the tree?”

“Yep. Then he got out, fell to the ground, got up again, and marched straight to my car and let me have it.”

“Mmhmm.”

“What does mmhmm mean?” Judi stretched her neck out to try to see the notepad on the desk in front of Matt. “Does that mean that you’re writing down it was my fault? It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t see him.”

Matt snapped the cover closed on the notepad and laid the pen on top of it, raising a hand. “Just calm down. If you didn’t come to a complete stop at the stop sign then technically it is your fault, but all that means is your insurance will cover the cost of repairs for Ben’s car.” He stood and walked across to the water cooler behind Judi,  pouring water into a paper cup and handing it to her. “Accidents happen. This could result in a couple of points coming off your license but if you’re careful and don’t let anything like this happen again, you’ll get those points back.”

Judi made a face, taking the cup. “Points? What points? Is driving like football? We score points for driving well?”

Matt paused before sitting down, his eyebrows dipping as he studied her. “No. Well, sort of. I mean, you have six points on your license and certain driving offenses can result in you losing those points. If you lose all six, then you lose your license.” He sat back down, folding his hands in front of him on the desk. “No one has ever explained this to you?”

Judi tapped her index finger against her chin and pushed her bottom lip out. “I think Dad said something about it to me one time, but I wasn’t really listening.”

Matt laughed, pushing his hands back through his hair and letting his arm come to rest across the back of his chair. “Well, now you know.”

Judi could see why everyone in town liked Matt so much He was a genuinely nice guy, even if he was probably going to write down that she caused the accident. He’d been a good guy in high school too, so it was nice to see he hadn’t changed.

She slid her gaze over his forearms and up to his biceps as he pushed the notepad to the side and reached for his coffee mug.

He wasn’t too hard on the eyes either. Liz Cranmer was lucky to have him as her boyfriend. Or was it fiancé? Judi wasn’t sure what their status was at this point, other than they were an item and some of the women in town didn’t like that.

“So, what did Ben say?” she asked, tapping her fingernails against the side of her purse.

Matt took a sip from the mug. “Haven’t talked to him yet. He was out by the time I got to the hospital, as you know, and when I called this morning, they said he still hadn’t woken up yet. Hope he’s going to be okay. He took a huge hit on the head out there.”

Judi slipped a small jar of strawberry flavored lip balm from her purse and began applying it. “Tell me about it. He was dripping blood all over and all that yelling wasn’t helping any either.” She popped the lip palm back in the center pocket and stood, looping the strap over her shoulder. “I’m good to go then?”

“Yep.” Matt stood too. “If I have any more questions, I’ll give you a call. You have a shift at the grill this afternoon?”

Judi gestured toward her white t-shirt and black jeans. “However could you tell?” She rolled her eyes. “I wish Lonny didn’t have a dress code. This outfit is so boring and depressing. I need some color in my life, you know?”

Matt smiled. “Yes, I know. You’ll have to make up for it on the days you’re not working.”

Matt told her to have a good day and she thanked him with a tinge of sarcasm before heading to her car. Inside she slid the key into the ignition and pulled out to head to Lonny’s Bar and Grill two miles outside of town.

Her phone rang and she tapped accept button and the speaker button with the phone still on the front seat.

“Judeeee! I can’t believe you finally answered.”

She immediately wished she had checked the caller ID before accepting the call.

“Selina, hey. How are you?”

“Good, except I’m missing you. Where have you been?! I’ve been trying to call you for days! I thought you were run over by a tractor or something.”

Run over by a tractor? Really?

“I’m fine. Just been busy at work.”

Selina giggled. “I still can’t believe you’re a waitress. You always said that was beneath you.”

“Beggars can’t be choosers, Selina. We have to do what we have to do to make a living.”

“Come on, Jude. You aren’t really going to stay in that little dinky town, are you? You always said you hated it there. Come back to me. I’ve got tickets for Hamilton this weekend and reservations at La Grenouille. Everyone is going to be there.”

A chill shivered through Judi. “Everyone?”

“Well, not Jeff of course. You know that. I haven’t spoken to him since you told me about what he tried.”

“I just need a little more time,” Judi said. “I don’t know what I’m doing yet, but I don’t feel like I can just go back to the way things were right now.”

“What do you even do down there in Nowhereville? Are there any clubs?”

“Not locally, no. But there is one about an hour from here.” Judi knew she should tell her friend there was a reason she wasn’t visiting that club, but she didn’t have the mental energy for it right now. Plus, she was pulling into the parking lot of the grill, and she was already late.

“Hey, Sel, I’ve to get into the grill. I’ll call you back later, okay?”

She hung up and hurried into the grill, sliding the phone into her purse, which she tossed over a hook in the kitchen. Reaching for her apron she hooked it quickly, hoping Lonny wouldn’t notice her coming in.

“Lambert!”

Wishful thinking.

“You’re late! Again!”

“Or I’m just early for tomorrow’s shift!” She called over her shoulder as she kept moving toward the dining room.

“Table four is waiting for you,” her co-worker Hannah Larkin said as Judi reached for a menu and an order pad.

Judi started for the table while looking down in her apron pocket for a pen. When she looked up her heart sank. She turned on her heel and walked back to Hannah. “You take him.”

Hannah shook her head. “Oh, no way. I’m not taking him. You’re the one he always asks for anyhow.”

Judi pushed the order pad toward Hannah. “You take him, and I’ll work two shifts for you next week.”

Hannah raised an eyebrow. “No chance. Way too handsy for me.”

Judi blew out a breath and turned back toward the table. “You can do this, Judi,” she mumbled under her breath as she walked. “It’s just a job.”

Just a job waiting on the table of the guy she’d made out with a few weeks before she hit rock bottom. The guy who later almost led to her sister’s death.

She stood next to the table, pen tip against the pad. “Okay, Brad. What is it today?”

Brad Tanner flashed her a toothy grin, one muscular arm draped over the back of the chair. “Hey. There’s my favorite girl. Fancy seeing you here.”

“Right.” Judi placed a hand on her hip and scowled. Her eyes flicked quickly over the black t-shirt pulled tight across his well-toned chest before settling back on his face. “Fancy seeing me here. Where I work. Every day. And where you come almost every day.” She tapped the pen on the pad. “Now what can I get you?”

Ben leaned forward, arms folded on the table. “The usual. With a root beer.”

She cocked an eyebrow. “What? No beer?”

“Nope.” He smirked. “I quit.”

Judi rolled her eyes. “And I’m Queen Elizabeth.”

Brad leaned back again in the chair, the smirk fading. “I did.” A somber expression softened his features. “I quit.”

Judi scribbled the words burger, fries, and root beer on the pad. “Okay. If you say so.”

Brad’s fingers encircled her wrist as she turned to leave, stopping her. “I did. Actually, that’s one reason I wanted you to wait on me today. You still going to those meetings?”

Judi pulled her hand away. Brad wasn’t known for being forthcoming. She wasn’t sure she was ready to believe him. Six months ago, she’d come back to the area to try to figure out her life. Brad had complicated her return first by taking her to clubs where she’d drowned her pain and memories in alcohol, and then almost killing her older sister.

“Who told you I was going to any meetings?” Judi asked, eying Brad suspiciously.

 He shrugged. “Troy told me you turned him down for a party a few weeks ago. You never turn down a party. I knew something was up and followed you out of here one night. I saw you go into the meeting.”

She placed a hand on her hip. “Why didn’t you come in? You could use it too you know.”

He folded his arms across his chest, “Yeah, I do. That’s why I’m asking you now.”

She still wasn’t sure she believed him, but . . . “If you’re serious, we meet every Thursday at 7.”

She turned toward the kitchen to place his order before he could respond.

Did she really want Brad at the meeting, listening to her talk about how far she’d fallen? A small laugh came from her as she keyed the order in. It wasn’t like Brad didn’t know how far she’d fallen. They’d fallen together part of that time.

Hannah bumped her hip against her as she walked by. “When you get a break tell me what happened with the lawyer. Is he going to sue you, or what?”

Judi shook her head. “No. I don’t think so. He says he isn’t anyhow.”

“How’s his head?”

“Not sure,” Judi answered. “Haven’t talked to anyone about him today and he was out of it when I left last night.”

Hannah scooped up a tray and headed toward the dining room. “Fill me in on the rest later.”

Judi headed toward the kitchen, thinking about the night before. When the morphine had finally knocked Ben out in that hospital bed Judi had been relieved. She already had his reassurance he wasn’t going to sue her for the accident so there was no reason for her to wait around any more.

If she’d been like her older, sweeter, and more caring sister, Ellie, she would have stuck around to make sure his injuries weren’t serious.

Judi wasn’t Ellie, though, so she’d shrugged her shoulders and taken off for her apartment where she’d fallen asleep on the couch with a carton of moose tracks ice cream. It was a scene far removed from how she used to spend her nights in the city. The fact she was back in her tiny hometown of Spencer instead of still living in the city surprised even her.

When she’d first left Spencer shortly after high school, she’d vowed never to return.

Spencer was way too slow and way too backward for her. At least that’s how she’d felt until the town she’d once despised became her safe haven from a life turned upside down.

Her sister had been right, much to her embarrassment. She couldn’t keep going at the speed she’d been going in the city without eventually hitting a brick wall.

That brick wall had been in the form of Jeff Brock who’d tried to ignore her “no” to his “yes” one night in his apartment.

“Judi, these two go to table six, this one to table eight.” The voice of the cook cut into her thoughts.

She carried the plates to the tables and headed back to the kitchen for Brad’s lunch, placing it on his table quickly and then turning to wait on another customer. The less time she spent with Brad, the better. She wished she hadn’t spent any time with him at all in her past.

“Judi, hello.” The older gentleman sitting at the table with two other men smiled as she handed him a menu.

Her day didn’t seem to be getting any better. First Brad and now Ben’s dad. Maxwell Oliver, Bedford County’s District Attorney. She had no idea who his lunch guests were, and she didn’t want to know. They were most likely all lawyers and lawyers put her on edge.

“I never got the chance to ask you if you were okay last night,” Maxwell said.

Judi shrugged. “Oh, I was fine. I hit my brakes hard but didn’t get hurt in any way.” She should ask about Ben. She really didn’t want to be any more involved than she already was though. Still, she was trying to be a better person so . . .

“How’s Ben doing?”

“The ankle is broken, he has a fairly severe concussion but he should be okay in a couple of days.”

“That’s good to hear.” She tapped her pen on the pad. That was as much as she wanted or needed to know at this point. “So, what can I get everyone?”

She took the men’s orders, turned, and hoped, yet again, that she’d make it out of this accident situation without being sued. Of all the people’s cars she could have almost slammed into in this county and it had to be the car of the District Attorney’s son. The district attorney’s son and a well-known jerk from her high school.

After her shift, she leaned against the side of her car next to Hannah, who was lighting a cigarette.

“So, the lawyer is the son of the county DA?”

Judi nodded and sipped from her water bottle. Hannah offered her the cigarette, and she shook her head. “That’s one vice I never picked up. The other ones were bad enough.”

Hannah blew a puff of smoke out and grinned. “What I really want to know is if the lawyer is cute.”

Judi made a face. “Cute, yes, but he’s also a total jerk. I went to the same high school as him. He dumped his really nice girlfriend before he left for college so he could go out with this stuck-up girl who everyone knew was easy.”

Hannah winced. “Ouch. Sounds like a real piece of work.” She tossed the cigarette onto the ground and pushed it into the dirt with the tip of her sneaker. “But what’s he like now? Is he single?”

Judi rolled her eyes and laughed. “I have no idea, Hannah. I’m not interested anyhow. If you are you can find out. All I care about is keeping him from suing me.” She opened the door and tossed the empty water bottle into the passenger seat. “I have to go. I’m supposed to meet my sponsor for a coffee before I head home.”

“Alright, have a good night.” Hannah pushed off of the car and pushed her cellphone into her back pocket. “Judi.” She touched Judi’s arm and Judi turned to face her. “I’m proud of you, you know. We haven’t known each other very long, but I think it’s great that you’re working hard to get your life together. If you ever need anyone to talk to if you — you know, get tempted? Just let me know, okay?”

Judi hugged Hannah briefly. “Thank you, Hannah. That means a lot.”

And it did mean a lot, but as Judi slid behind the steering wheel she also felt the pressure of Hannah’s comments heavy on her shoulders. What if she couldn’t do it? What if she fell back into the trap of using alcohol as a crutch again? What if she went back to her flippant, selfish ways and disappointed not only her family but herself?

None of those scenarios were something she wanted to entertain as a possibility.

Fiction Friday: Mercy’s Shore Chapter 1

As you can tell, I’ve decided to try blogging my next book.

I can’t guarantee I’ll have chapters every week, but we will see how it goes.

As always, this will be a work in progress, chapters will not have been proofed and at the end, I’ll create a book that will be self-published.

The last book I presented this way comes out on Amazon/Kindle on Tuesday and I have set the price at 99 cents to allow my blog readers a chance to get it cheap. If you prefer to have a free copy in exchange for a review, leave me your email address or send it to me at lisahoweler@gmail.com and I’ll send you a Bookfunnel link with a copy of the book.

I hope you enjoy the first chapter of Ben Oliver and Judi Lambert’s story. As always, comments are welcome.

Chapter 1

If mentally unhinged and obnoxious had been Ben Oliver’s type Judi Lambert’s fluttering eyelashes and head tilt might have worked to calm him

But neither of those things interested him, which was why his heart was racing and a vein had popped out on the left side of his neck.

He gestured aggressively toward the tree his BMW was now wrapped around.  “You didn’t see the stop sign?”

Judi twisted a strand of straight, blonde hair around a finger and avoided eye contact. “Yeah, I saw it, I just —”

“You just what? Thought the stop sign was a suggestion?”

She blew her gum into a bubble, popped it between her lips, and sighed. “Calm down. I’m sure your car is —”

“Totaled, Judi. My car is totaled.” He tapped the screen of his cell phone. “My car is totaled because you thought you could beat me through the intersection.”

Holding the phone to his ear, he paced in place, waiting for someone to pick up.

“Hello, Attorney Ben Oliver’s office.”

“Cindi, hey, yeah. It’s me. I’ve been in an accident.”

“Oh my gosh, Ben. Are you okay?” The concerned voice of his middle-aged secretary sent a flurry of frustration rushing through him.

“I’m fine. I just need you to call Judge Stanton’s office and tell him I’m not going to be able to make court today.”

“No, problem. Should I call anyone else for you?”

There was no one else to call, other than his parents, and he could talk to them later.

“No. Thanks. See you later this afternoon.”

He slid his thumb across the screen of the phone and turned back to what was left of the car he’d purchased last year to congratulate himself on the opening of his own law office.

No, the office wasn’t in a big city, like he had thought it would be. It was located in a town thirty minutes from where he’d grown up in rural Pennsylvania. It was a law office, though, and it was his.

When he turned from inspecting the car, the lanky blond standing across from him slid her hands in the back pockets of her jeans and pushed out her chest at the same time she pushed out her bottom lip. Behind her was the red convertible she’d been driving, completely unharmed, of course.

She tipped her head to one side. “I’m sure we can work something out, right?”

No way. Was she seriously trying to seduce him?

She winked.

Yes, she was trying to seduce him. Luckily, he knew what a train wreck she’d turned into after high school. He wasn’t about to fall for her overplayed act.

“Work what out?” The more he yelled, the more his head throbbed. “My car is destroyed because of you.” He tossed his hands in the air. “There’s nothing to be worked out!” He pointed a finger at her. “You better hope your insurance covers this.”

She held her hands up in front of her. “Dude, calm down. You’re bleeding from the head. It can’t be good for you to be screaming like this.”

Ben practically growled as he took a step toward her, wincing as pain sliced through his ankle. “I know, I’m bleeding!” He spoke through gritted teeth. “You don’t think I know I’m bleeding?! My head bounced off the windshield when I swerved to miss your car!”

He pressed his handkerchief to his forehead as blood dripped into his eye with one hand, dialing 911 on his cellphone with the other.

“Yes, I need to report an accident,” he answered when the dispatcher asked what his emergency he was.

“Location?” the dispatcher asked.

He swiveled to look for the road signs at the intersection but when he stopped moving the rest of the world didn’t.

“Sir, can you give me a location?”

Black encroached at the edges of Ben’s sight, and he bent forward, propping his hands on his knees. The phone clattered to the dirt surface of the road.

“Sir? Are you okay? Sir?”

When he came to, Judi was leaning over him with his phone against her ear.

“Yes. He’s opening his eyes now. How far out are they?” She rolled her eyes. “Okay. I’ll try but he’s very stubborn.”

Judi held the phone to the base of her throat, slightly above her cleavage, still leaning over him.

“Ben, the dispatcher says you need to stay still until the ambulance gets here. It shouldn’t be long, ‘Kay?”

Kay? Yeah – kay. Where else was he going to go? His head was pounding, pain was shooting up through his ankle, and every time he tried to open his eyes the world — and Judi — spun into a whirl of colors. He clenched his eyes closed against the pulsating agony sliding back and forth from the front to the back of his head.

The next thirty minutes was a blur, voices fading in and out, images merging together, lights bright in his eyes. He didn’t know how much time had passed when the world came into focus again and the beeping of monitors drowned out his muddled thoughts.

“There he is. I think he’s coming to.”

What was Judi doing in his bedroom? This could not be a good sign. “Hey, buddy. How you feeling?”

Wait. He wasn’t in his bedroom. Thank God. That meant Judi wasn’t either.

A deep voice boomed across his thoughts. “I know it’s family only. I’m his father.”

Ben struggled to open his eyes, blinked in bright fluorescent, and squinted. He searched the room of hospital equipment, nurses, and Judi to find his father’s face etched with concern.

“Dad?”

“You’re awake. Thank God.”

His dad’s voice was thick with emotion. He stepped past the nurse and stood at Ben’s bedside, reaching out a large hand to clasp his son’s shoulder.

Ben closed his eyes briefly, trying to remember how he’d ended up here, IV needles sticking out of his arm, nodes glued to his forehead and chest. A vision of his car wrapped around a tree filled his mind and his eyes flew open, his gaze falling on Judi again.

It all came back to him, including the anger.

“What is she still doing here? She didn’t do enough by making me wreck my car?”

His dad looked at him through disappointed dark green eyes, lowering his voice. “Ben, she’s been waiting here for you to wake up. She easily could have left. I’ll cut you some slack since you’re injured, but I hope to see a little more kindness when your head is clearer.”

In his father’s words, Ben felt the sting of the reminder that he would never be as good, or as kind, as Maxwell Oliver.

How did his dad even know he was here? He certainly hadn’t called him. Then again, maybe he had. His brain was a little fuzzy on the last — how long had he been here?

“I need to call the office. I have a client coming in at 2.”

A smile tilted his dad’s mouth up. “It’s well after two, kid. Cindy already called and rescheduled. You need to lay back and relax. I’m going to find a doctor and see what the verdict is on that head injury of yours.”

With his father gone, Ben took the time to look around the room, his gaze settling once again on Judi, her blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, dark red lipstick freshly reapplied, finely manicured nails showcasing pink nail polish as she held her phone and texted furiously. She was sitting in a chair, one leg crossed over the other, her foot bouncing.

“Go home, Judi. I’m fine.”

She didn’t look up from her phone. “I have to stay. Matt McGee wants my statement about the accident. He said he’d meet me here.”

Ben shifted up on the hospital bed, looked down at his arm with the IV, his white button-up shirt stained with blood, and his khakis with the knees dark from when he’d fallen in the mud climbing out of the car.

Maybe it was the painkiller running into his bloodstream, maybe it was the exhaustion or the head injury, but a laugh came out of him.

“And what are you going to tell Officer McGee? The truth? That you completely ignored a stop sign and drove straight through the intersection and in front of me?”

Judi looked up, pursing her lips, and studying Ben for a few minutes before speaking. “Are you going to sue me?”

“Excuse me?”

“Just let me know if you’re going to sue me. I’ve got tons of bills already, okay? I need to know if I’m going to have even more to pay if you sue me.”

He sighed and pressed the heels of his palms against his eyes. “No, Judi. I am not going to sue you. The worse I’m going to do is have my insurance company send a claim to your insurance company.”

“Okay. Well, you’re a lawyer so, I wasn’t sure what you’d do.”

Ben made a face as he lowered his hands. “Lawyers don’t sue everyone just because we know how, Judi.”

Judi shrugged a shoulder and looked back at her phone, tapping her finger across the screen. “Just checking.”

“Mr. Oliver. How are we doing?”

He heard the voice before he saw the doctor who swept into the room. He tried to follow the imposing figure with his eyes, but they wouldn’t focus so he tipped his head back against the pillow instead.

The doctor flicked a light into his eyes quickly then held up a finger. “Can you follow my finger?”

Ben tried but his eyes kept going where he didn’t want them to.

The doctor dropped his hand and glanced over his shoulder at Maxwell, who Ben noticed had stepped back into the exam room. “That’s pretty consistent with what I suspected.”

“What’s the verdict then, Jim?” Maxwell asked, arms folded across his chest, expression serious.

“Pretty clear grade three concussion. I’d like to do an MRI to confirm.”

Ben tried to focus on his father and the doctor as they conversed but moving his gaze back and forth proved to be too much to handle and he eventually closed his eyes.

He listened to the conversation, not in the least surprised his father knew the doctor by his first name. It seemed like there wasn’t anyone in this smalltown Maxwell didn’t know.

“For now, I think we should keep him overnight for observation and if all the tests come back normal, he should be good to go in a couple of days.”

Ben opened his eyes, squinting in his father’s direction. “You two are aware that I’m right here and an adult with all my facilities?”

Maxwell laughed. “Sorry about that son. Jim and I went to high school together. I was already talking to him outside about your head injury, so we were simply continuing the conversation.”

Ben tried to nod, then winced. “Okay, well, listen, I’m sure I’ll be fine. I don’t want to stay here overnight. I have a court case in the morning and —“

“There’ll be no court for you for a while, kid.” His father’s stern voice overlapped his. “In addition to that head injury, Jim’s pretty sure your ankle is broken. You’re going to need some time to heal up.”

Maxwell pushed his hands into his front pant pockets and tipped his head down, looking over his gold-rimmed glasses. “Listen, I know it’s going to be hard for you not to be on the move, but I have a feeling you won’t be cleared to drive for at least a couple of weeks so I think you should stay with me and your mom while you recover.”

“Dad, come on, that’s —“

“Probably a good idea,” the doctor said. “We’ll see what the MRI shows but even if it doesn’t show anything worse, your head is going to need some time to heal. Driving could put you and others in danger. I’m going to call a nurse and have her finish cleaning out that gash and then we’ll sew it up for you.” He turned to Maxwell and held out his hand. “Max, good to see you.” He turned his head toward Ben while still holding Maxwell’s hand. “You’ve got a good dad here, Ben. I hope you know that.”

Ben leaned his head back again, eyelids drooping. “Yeah. I do. I certainly do.”

Sleep overcame him a few minutes later and when he woke up, he was in a hospital room, alone except for a nurse pressing buttons on a blood pressure machine next to the bed.

He patted his chest, then reached toward the bedstand next to the bed. “Is my phone around here?”

The nurse nodded toward the bedside table. “Over there charging. Your dad said you’d want it when you woke up.”

“How long have I been out?”

The nurse smiled as she turned to leave the room. “Sometime since yesterday. The morphine hit you hard.”

Ben winced as he pushed the button on the side of the bed, lifting the top so he could sit up. His head and ankle were throbbing. He glanced under the blanket and saw a temporary cast on the ankle, which probably meant it was broken after all.

“Great. Just what I need.”

He reached for the phone, wondering how many calls he’d missed while he was out.

Ten all together. Two were from clients, one was from his secretary. The last one was from the Spencer Valley Police Department, which was most likely regarding his statement about the accident.

His finger hovered over the last voice mail. He didn’t recognize the number, but the phone had already transcribed the first few lines of the message and it had done a horrible job. All he could make out that made sense was parents and birthday. Whose parents and whose birthday?

He pressed play on the message, groaning softly when the familiar voice started speaking.

“My parents sent you an invitation to Amelia’s party and I just want you to know that they sent it, not me. I don’t want you there. One call a year on her birthday doesn’t make you a father, Ben. So, just . . . just ignore the invitation.”

Muffled voices followed. Angie must have forgotten to hang up the phone. Ben heard what sounded like Angie’s mother in the background, then it was Angie again. “Yes, I did call him.  . . Because I didn’t ask you to contact him. . . . I understand he’s her father, but he’s never wanted to be in her life before, why would he now?”

The voicemail ended abruptly, and he sat staring at the screen for a few seconds, his thumb hovering over the delete button.

Taking a deep breath, he moved his thumb away from the button. He was under the influence of some heavy-duty painkillers. Maybe he’d better listen to the voicemail again when was more alert.

Then again —

His thumb moved back to the delete button and he tapped it.

Listening again wouldn’t make any of what Angie had said less true. He hadn’t even seen the invitation yet, but if he did, he knew what to do with it. Toss it in the trashcan like he had with all the other invitations he’d been sent for the last four years.

Special Fiction Saturday: A New Chapter Chapter 25

Here is a special extra chapter from Beauty From Ashes, or A New Chapter for the sake of the blog. We are almost to the end! I mentioned yesterday that the book releases April 26. If you want to pre-order it, you can do so HERE, or HERE but I am also going to be offering to send a copy to my blog readers for free once I have the final version.

If any of you are interested in being on the launch team for the book, you can sign-up HERE. Signing up doesn’t require a large commitment. I just ask that you share the information I will send you about the book on your social media sites leading up to the release of the book and afterwards. In exchange for your help, you will receive a free ebook copy of the book. If you have the opportunity to leave a review of the book on the various sites it will be on sale on, that would be nice too.

Feel free to let me know what you think about this latest chapter in the comments.

Chapter 25

The crisp morning air was helping to wake Matt up, but he knew a cup of coffee from the Community Cup coffee shop would help even more. Sure, he’d had coffee at home, but not with the fancy foam on top that made everything better. Maybe the barista, Wendy, would even swirl a heart into the whip cream for him like she normally did.

Liz’s comments about him being beloved by the town snuck into his mind as he walked. He’d never considered himself someone women flirted with and it had never occurred to him that maybe Wendy had been flirting all this time until now. Oh. He probably shouldn’t have winked all those times and told her she was his favorite barista ever. He’d have to be more careful about sending mixed signals from now on. The only one he wanted to send signals to was Liz.

“Matt!”

He turned at the sound of Stan’s voice from across the street and raised his hand in a greeting. Stan waved him over. Looked like the coffee would, unfortunately, have to wait.

“Hey.” Stan stepped aside to allow Matt into the real estate office, the other desks in the main office empty. “You got a minute?”

“Sure. I’m sure you’ve heard that I have more than a minute these days.”

Stan winced. “Yeah. When I first heard about it, I thought it was because we’d been sneaking around that building.” He gestured toward his office in the back. “Coffee?”

It wasn’t Community Cup coffee, but — “Sure. I could use another cup.”

Stan poured two mugs from a coffee pot that looked like it had seen better days. “Hate to say this, but in a way I’m glad you decked that Martin guy. No one deserved it more than him. I know it’s not the Christian thing to say, but sometimes I feel like if some of these kids had been paddled more as children they wouldn’t have turned out to be such awful adults.”

Matt took the mug of coffee and sat in a chair across from Stan’s desk. “You might be right.”

“Speaking of Martin, I have some news about who owns the abandoned building.” Stan slid a sheet of paper across his desk as he sat down. “Terry ‘Buck’ Simms.”

Matt made a face. “Who?”

“Buck Simms was a business owner who used to live here.” Stan sipped from his coffee and winced, then stood and poured creamer into the sludge. “Owned several buildings, warehouses, a few stores and essentially became a small-town slum lord. All those houses they tore down on the other side of the tracks last year were once his. He never took care of them, didn’t help the tenants, charged them crazy rent. He moved away from here about ten years ago. The deed is still in his name.”

Matt nodded. “Okay. That’s great. Once the property is released from the police, maybe you can track him down and he’ll sell the land.”

Stan leaned forward on the desk, shoulders stooped. The sunlight streaking in through the window hit his face and Matt noticed the puffy skin under his eyes, and the pale pallor to his skin for the first time.

“That could be a problem. No one has been able to find Buck in ten years. The council tried to track him down years ago to get those buildings either fixed up or torn down. They finally seized them through a court order after Buck never responded to all the messages sent to his last known address somewhere in Montana.” He took the paper again, pondered it and sat back in his chair. “Here’s the other thing. Some of Buck’s family still lives here in Spencer.”

Matt took a longer sip of the coffee. He didn’t know what brand Stan was brewing but it was certainly waking him up. “So maybe we can track them down, find Buck, and get the property signed over.”

“Again, might be a problem. It took me a bit, but I finally remembered who Buck was related to. Gabe. On his mom’s side. He’s Gabe’s great uncle.”

Matt set the mug down on the desk. “Oh. Okay, well that does change things.”

“Yeah, it does.”

It also makes Bernie’s story a lot more believable, Matt thought as he stared into the coffee mug.

The opening of the front door startled both men.

“Must be Emily. I gave her the morning off. Her mom’s been sick, and she’s been taking care of her.” He looked at his watch and quirked an eyebrow. “She’s a little early, though.”

It wasn’t Stan’s secretary who stood in the doorway of Stan’s office a few seconds later, though. Mud streaked across Bernie’s cheek and dark circles marked the skin under his eyes. A hole was ripped in the knee of his jeans, and he was breathing hard.

“Matt, I need to talk to you.”

Matt set his coffee mug down. “Yeah, I need to talk to you too.” He stood and gestured toward the door. “Let’s talk outside.”

Bernie shook his head, stepped into the office, and shut the door. “No way. The cops are looking for me, but I’m guessing you know that by now.”

Matt glanced at Stan whose coffee mug was half to his mouth, his eyes focused on Bernie.

“Why don’t we let Stan head out then?”

Bernie shook his head. “No. I don’t want him calling the cops. Not until I talk to you.”

Bernie sat in the chair across from Stan’s desk. Matt remained standing, leaning back against a bookcase on the far wall. “Why did you run, Bern? Were those drugs yours?”

Bernie shook his head vigorously. “No. No. They were planted. I’m telling you the truth, Matt, just like I was telling you the truth about Gabe. I’ve got proof now too.”

Matt folded his arms across his chest. He wasn’t sure he was buying this story. “Where?”

“On my phone.” Bernie thrust the phone toward him. “I also emailed it to myself and uploaded it to the cloud for safe keeping. I ran because there was a meet up with Gabe and another dealer and I knew if I told the cops they wouldn’t believe me. I heard the other guy talking about it when I was leaving after I dropped that package off. I didn’t know if it was still going down but I needed to try. I had to get the proof, get myself off the hook. Gabe saw me, though, and now they’re all after me — the cops, Gabe and the other guy he was with. At this point it’s just a matter of who gets to me first.”

Stan set his mug down. Matt could tell he was bewildered, maybe even a bit anxious, but he was hanging in there. He looked less freaked out than when they’d found the drugs at least.

Matt took the phone and pushed play on the video.

Great. That was definitely Gabe with another guy at a building that looked similar to the abandoned one. He couldn’t make out every word they were saying but Gabe was gesturing toward packages that looked a lot like heroin and the man across from him was shouting back, something about “It’s not my fault if your mules are incompetent!”

He kept his eyes on the screen as Gabe took a stack of cash from the man. “We need to get this to the state police.”

Gabe turned toward the camera seconds before it went black. “How did you get away?”

Bernie ran his hands along his jeans, letting out a breath. “I had a head start. It was dark where I was, I didn’t think he saw me, just heard the twig break under me when I stepped back. I was in my car and part way down the road when I heard him yelling. There was a couple of gunshots, but I kept driving. I hid out at Lover’s Valley until about 3 a.m. and then I walked to your place and waited behind your woodshed but fell asleep.” He laughed softly, dragging a hand through his hair. “Some criminal I am, huh? Anyhow, when I woke up you were pulling out, so I took the risk and followed you to town. I knew you’d listen.”

Matt glanced out the window. “You think anyone followed you?”

Bernie leaned back in the chair, shrugged a shoulder. “I don’t know. Like I said, I’m not really very good at this criminal stuff. You should know that better than anyone.”

Matt huffed out a small laugh. He was right. Professional criminal Bernie was not. Nailing him for the burglary and all the other petty crimes he’d committed had been fairly easy all those years ago.

Stan stood and separated the blinds with his fingers. “I don’t know if Bernie was followed by Gabe or the other guy, but there’s a trooper pulling up across the street.”

Matt stood behind him, looked over his shoulder. “That’s Dan. He’s probably looking for me to see if we found out any more about who owns the building.”

Behind them Bernie stood, shifting his weight anxiously from one foot to the other. “Is he coming here? He can’t come here. I can’t get caught.”

Matt turned to face him. “Bern, you’ve got proof.”

“Not that those drugs aren’t mine.” He slid his hands behind his back and when he pulled them in front of him one was holding a 9 mm. “I’m also not supposed to have this. I’m on probation.”

Stan scowled, his hands still on the blinds. “Then why do you?”

“For protection.” He tipped his head up toward the ceiling, sucking in a breath. “It was my dad’s. I know it was stupid, but I didn’t know what I was going to face when I got to that meet up.”

Matt watched Dan climb out of the police vehicle and head across the street toward the office. “We don’t have much time here. We need to make a decision. Pretty sure Dan knows I’m in here. Not sure about you.”

Bernie paced in the small office space between the chair and the bookcase, the gun in his hand. “He’s not going to listen. I know he’s not. If I keep you guys in here, maybe then he’ll stop long enough to listen.”

This situation was going to bad to very bad in a very short amount of time. “Bernie, you’re not thinking clearly. It’s just Dan looking for me to discuss the case. You’ve already run from the state police and now you’re going to hold me and Stan hostage? If we have any chance of getting you out of all this and keeping you out of jail, then I’d advise you not to even think of that scenario.”

Bernie stopped pacing and looked at Matt. “Yeah, I know. It’s stupid. I don’t want to do that. I just need some time.”

Matt walked toward the door. “I’m going to stop him in the front of the office. We just need to talk to him, show him the video. We’ll figure the rest out later. If he can get to Gabe, then maybe he can get him to fess up to trying to set you up for the fall.”

Bernie clutched at the hair at the top of his head, chewing on the inside of his cheek. “I don’t know, man. I don’t think this is going to work.”

Matt held his hand up. “Stay calm, Bern, and put that gun away. You’re not helping your case right now.”

Bernie’s eyes flicked toward the gun, and he nodded, stashing it in the back of his jeans again.

Matt stepped out of Stan’s office, pulling the door closed behind him, at the same moment Dan stepped in.

“McGee.” Dan nodded in the curt way the way state troopers do, which always made Matt wonder if the hat made their heads too heavy to nod normally.

“Trooper McCallister.”

“I thought I saw your truck down the street and took a hunch you might be meeting with Jefferies. Has he got anything on the building owner?” He propped one hand on his duty belt and leaned his hip against Emily’s desk with the other.

“He does, but I’m finishing up another meeting in here. Can we meet at the coffee shop in a few minutes?”

Matt caught a flash of suspicion in Dan’s eyes as he glanced at the closed door over Matt’s shoulder, but he nodded that curt node again. “Sure. Ten minutes?”

Matt tried the curt nod and had to admit it was a bit more efficient and easier on the neck in some ways. “Yep. Perfect.”

Dan turned toward the front door, hesitated and turned back toward Matt again. “Everything okay in here?”

Matt smiled. “Yeah. Totally fine. Just some private real estate business.”

He hated lying but he needed a couple more minutes to convince Bernie it was in his best interest to talk to Dan.

Dan narrowed his eyes but he reached for the handle of the front door. “Okay, then, see you in a bit.”

He walked out but Matt could tell he didn’t believe him. A good cop wouldn’t, and Dan was a good cop. His instinct had kicked in, which meant Matt didn’t have long to talk Bernie into turning himself in and working out a deal with the staties.

When he entered the office Bernie was pacing again, rubbing his fingernails across his front teeth, looking at the floor. Stan was sitting at his desk watching him, his arms folded across his chest, his brow furrowed. Matt was sure this wasn’t how he’d expected to spend his morning. He’d already looked exhausted before Bernie walked in. He was looking completely beat down now.

Matt sat on the edge of the desk. “Okay, Bern, here is the deal. I’m meeting with Dan down at the coffee shop down the street in ten minutes. I want you to come with me and talk to him. It might mean you being taken into custody for a short time but —”

Bernie looked up sharply and shook his head. “No. I can’t go back to jail.”

Matt held up his hand. “Calm down. They’ll just need to question you. I’m going to vouch for you, show Dan the video and convince him that you’re not involved other than delivering that one package.” He leaned forward slightly, returning his hand to a position in the crook of his arm. “That’s all you did, correct.”

“Yes!” Bernie’s tone denoted his frustration and he tossed up his hands. “That’s it. I swear to you.”

Matt crossed one ankle over the other, doing his best to appear relaxed, even if he didn’t feel it. “Then you’ll be fine. We’re going to walk down there together and work this out. I’m going to have your back, okay?”

Bernie had been lied to a lot in the past. Matt was sure of that. He also knew that trust was a hard thing to have when so many had broken that trust before. “I know it is going to take a huge leap of faith for you to trust the guy who arrested you in the past.” He tipped his chin up to keep his eyes focused on Bernie’s. “But I need you to trust me that want to help keep you on the right track and bring you home to your kids. Let me help you, okay?”

Bernie let go of the hair he’d been clutching on the top of his head and stopped packing. He looked up at Matt, locked eyes with him, and inclined his head in agreement. “Okay.” His Adam’s apple bounced as he swallowed hard. “I trust you. Let’s go do this.”

Matt gestured toward the door, tipped his head toward Stan. “Wish us luck. I’ll be in touch about what I find out about the property.”

Stan nodded back, concern clouding his eyes. “I’d appreciate it.”

Matt set his shoulders back, hoped he looked more confident than he felt at the moment. Would Dan accept Bernie’s explanation? Or would he slap the cuffs on him before Bernie could even speak? He held the door for Bernie and then followed him out onto the sidewalk.

He slid his sunglasses on as the sun came out from behind a cloud and then zipped his jacket up to his chin when a cool breeze brushed across his skin. The coffee shop was only a block away and Bernie wasn’t enough of a wanted man they couldn’t walk that far in broad daylight.

The round of gunshots that exploded beside and around him in the next second sent a bolt of shock through him and left his ears ringing. He grabbed Bernie’s shoulder and shoved him to the sidewalk, reaching for the handgun gun strapped to his ankle. The revolver was his personal gun and the only one he had since he was on suspension. He clutched the back of Bernie’s shirt and dragged him backward into the doorway of Millie’s bakeshop, frantically scanning the parked cars and the second story windows in the buildings across the street.

Two people walking out of the diner down the street, ducked back inside and he watched the front window fill with curious, and frightened, onlookers. A groan next to him pulled him from his surveillance and he looked down to see Bernie crouched over, clutching his stomach, red dripping through his fingers and staining the concrete doorway of the bakery.

Fiction Friday: A New Chapter Chapter 21 Part 2

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

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

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

Chapter 21 Part 2

“Ooh, boy, Bella. That’s a stinky one.”

Liz sat back on her feet and made a face. “Okay. Let’s do this.”

She reached for the wipes and the new diaper while Bella kicked her feet on the blanket she was lying on on the floor.

She should call Matt after she was done. It had been a week since she’d witnessed him arrest Gabe and she hadn’t heard a word from him. She’d been wondering why she hadn’t been hearing his voice on the scanner at night and should have asked, but then she’d have to admit she listened to hear his voice on the scanner.

Awkward.

Instead of calling Matt last night, like she’d considered doing, she’d tried to call Ginny and make sure she wasn’t somewhere alone with Keith. Molly’s suggestion that hanging out with Keith could be a temptation for her had alarmed her. Ginny hadn’t picked up the phone, though, and she’d been about to drive to her house when Molly had walked in after milking at the barn.

Calling Matt would have been awkward though What was she going to say? “Hey, how’s it going since you kicked the crud out of my ex in front of half the town the other day?”

Molly took her coat off and hung it on the hanger next to the door. “Have you talked to Matt recently?”

Liz hooked Bella’s diaper and looked up. “No, I haven’t tried him yet. Why?”

Molly slid her shoes off, sniffed them and then placed them outside the door. “He might need a friend right now.”

“Yeah, why? And thanks for putting the shoes out there this time. This apartment stinks enough with all the diapers. We don’t need to smell like manure too.”

Molly’s eyes widened. “Why? Why would he need a friend? You were there, you saw why he would need a friend. Did that really look like normal Matt McGee behavior to you?” She turned and walked into the kitchen, opening the fridge. “Not only that, but Alex just told me he got suspended from the police force.”

Liz straightened and sat back on her heels. “Are you kidding me? Reggie suspended him?”

“He had no choice. The council made him because of the charges Gabe filed against him and the threat of a lawsuit.”

Liz’s chest tightened and her throat thickened with emotion. This wasn’t fair. Matt was a good cop. What was this going to do for his acceptance to the academy?

“You okay?”

She nodded. “Yeah. I will be.”

“It’s not your fault, Liz. Matt made his own choice. It’s exactly what he told Alex.”

The old familiar tingling spread from Liz’s hands up her arms as she stood and sat on the couch. Yes, Matt had made a choice, but it was her choices that had landed him in the position to make that choice.

Molly sat next to her and slid an arm around her. “It’s all going to work out, okay? Listen, I wasn’t really supposed to say anything to you. Matt didn’t want you to know, but since I already knew you were there, I just figured you would want to know what happened.”

Liz leaned against her friend. “I did want to know. I just wish I didn’t know. You know?”

The women laughed and Molly leaned back to look at Liz. “Yeah. I know.”

They laughed again and then Liz leaned out of the embrace. “Don’t you need to get ready for your sleepover?”

Molly and her grandmother had a sleepover once a month and usually Liz was invited, but this month she’d opted to stay home and let the ladies have some together time without their third wheel.

Molly sighed. “I do, but I hate to leave you alone after I just dropped that on you.”

Liz shrugged a shoulder. “The only thing you could do is stop me from eating the entire pint of chocolate Haagendas in the freezer.” She winked. “But really, you couldn’t even do that, so go on. Have fun at Grandma Fran’s and tell her I’ll be back next month.”

Molly stood and stretched. “She’ll be happy about that. She says you make better hot chocolate than me. Plus she wants to see Bella again. You’ll have to bring her by before then.”

Liz folded one of Bella’s blankets and laid it on the back of the couch. “I will. What’s on the agenda tonight?”

Molly wiggled her body in a type of dance. “Spa night. Facial masks, manicures, pedicures, and I’m giving her a massage.”

Liz laughed at the picture of 76-year old Frannie wearing a facemask.

Molly left after a shower and change and Liz headed for the freezer, her phone in her hand. She would call Matt and check on him, but first — ice cream.

She was swallowing the first bite when her phone buzzed.

Matt: Hey, you home?

Good grief. It was like he could read her mind.

Liz: Where else would I be? I don’t have a life you know. *wink emoji*

Matt: Be over in ten?

Huh. Not even a joke back. This couldn’t be good.

Liz: Sure. I’ll be here.

She caught a glimpse of her reflection in the window on her way to the couch and winced. She should at least comb her hair, or put it in a bun, or something. She looked down at the baggy sweatpants she’d stolen from Molly and the stained Needtobreathe T-shirt. And change her clothes. Yeah. She should change her clothes. Sure, Matt was a friend, but she could at least look half way decent for him.

How should one dress when their friend was about to tell them they’d slammed their ex-boyfriend’s head off some concrete? She decided on casual, but not too casual, slipping on a white tank top, covered with a beige sweater and a pair of blue yoga pants. She was yanking a brush through her hair when the knock on the door came. Apparently her ten minutes was much different than his ten minutes because for her it had only been about six.

She’d needed that extra four to finish brushing.

She pushed her fingers through her hair instead and attempted to fluff it, as much as straight hair would fluff. Since it was shorter now, it didn’t look as crazy with just a quick brush as it had when it fell down her back, but still.

That whole saying about absence making the heart grow founder seemed to hold water when she opened the door and saw him standing on the landing, hands deep in his front pockets, looking out over the town. A cold breeze ruffled his hair and his normally smooth jawline was speckled with a few days growth, which gave him an entirely more rugged look. That rugged look sent her heart thudding fast against her ribcage and her bottom lip between her teeth as she took in the rest of him — his dark blue jeans, tan cardigan hugging his newly fit torso.

He turned his head toward her, and she ceased her pursual, hoping red wasn’t spreading across her skin as fast as the warm flush of appreciation was spreading under it.

“Hey.”

The husky tone of his voice tipped her stomach upside down.

Just friends, Liz. You two are just friends. That is all. Stop staring at your gorgeous friend and let him in your apartment.

“Hey. You want to get out of the cold?”

Of course, he wants to get out of the cold, idiot. Just step out of the way and let him in.

She stepped back and opened the door fully. “Come in.”

He stepped past her, and she drew in a sharp breath. Wow. He smelled amazing. She needed to focus. He wasn’t here for a pleasure call.

He stepped into the kitchen area and turned to face her, hands still in his pockets, cheekbones flushed soft pink from the cold. “Sorry I haven’t called. You been okay?”

He was apologizing? She hadn’t spoke to him barely at all since the day in the parking lot at the art class and he was apologizing.

He really was something else and that something else was wonderful.

“Yeah, I’ve been good.”

“Bella?”

“She’s great. Just taking a nap on the blanket right now.”

“Good. Good.”

He nodded as he spoke, then looked at the tip of his boot.

She knew she should put him out of his misery but wasn’t sure how. Should she tell him she knew about what happened with Gabe? Should she admit she’d been upset because she found out he’d been in her apartment the night of her overdose? Debating it in her head wasn’t going to help move either of them forward in their lives so she’d better pull one trigger or the other.

“Listen —”

They spoke at the same time, then laughed together.

“Sorry.”

In unison again. Really? Liz laughed softly, tugging gently on her earlobe. This was getting weird.

“Listen.” He spoke first this time. “I’m sure you’ve heard by now what happened the other night at Mooney’s.” He rubbed his hand along the back of his neck then held it there, pulling down. “I just wanted to apologize for my behavior and if I made anything worse for you. I should have controlled my anger. I didn’t and I’m sorry.”

He peered at her with what she could only describe as puppy dog eyes. His sincere contrition made her want to slide her arms around his neck and comfort him, tell him she wasn’t mad, not in the least, but there was still a part of her that was upset at him for this and for not telling her he was at her apartment that night

She bit her lower lip for a few seconds before speaking. “I know. I was there that day.” Matt winced and looked back down toward the floor as she continued. “I’m guessing that hadn’t gotten around yet.”

He shook his head. “No. Not yet. And if Alex knew he didn’t tell me.”

“Yeah. He knew. He was sworn to secrecy until I could figure out how to tell you.”

Matt looked back up at her again and his green eyes locked on hers. “I guess we both had secrets we didn’t want to talk about.”

A chill shivered through her and not just from the cold blast that had come in when he’d stepped inside. That statement held a meaning beyond what had happened at Mooney’s. She knew it, but did he?

“I wasn’t honest with you about the night you overdosed, Liz.”

Her breath caught. She hadn’t expected a confession, yet she should have. It was Matt she was talking to. Of course, he was going to be open with her. Time for her to be honest too.

“I know.”

“You know?”

“Ginny accidentally told me.”

“How did Ginny — Oh right. Stan. I asked the guys at church for prayer for you. He didn’t know the full story, but I’m guessing he put two and two together.”

A faint smile pulled at Liz’s mouth. “Yeah, he’s a horrible husband but he’s still got some brains left up there.” She played with the necklace around her neck. “I lied to you too. More than once, which, of course, you know.” The sting of the tears surprised her, and she swallowed to try to keep them at bay. “I’m sorry, Matt. I’m sorry I wasn’t honest with you.” She looked toward the living room, struggling to make eye contact. “You’ve been a good friend and I haven’t.”

He leaned back against the kitchen counter, bending his hands over the edges. “We both screwed up by not being open with each other.” He pushed himself off, stepped toward her. “I don’t want to do that anymore. Be dishonest with you.”

Her breath quickened at the heat coming off him. He needed to step back. She was having trouble thinking clearly and this time she knew it wasn’t alcohol causing issues.

“I don’t want to keep holding my feelings back or keep them hidden.” He took another step and now he was definitely too close. She started to step back but he placed a hand at the small of her back, stopping her and pulling her gently toward him. He slid the other hand on the back of her neck, leaning his head close to hers.

“And I don’t want to be just friends anymore.”

The words sent her heart slamming inside her ribcage, forcing her to take a deep breath and hold it for a few seconds. She glanced at his mouth, then moved her gaze back to his eyes. She’d imagined him kissing her a few hundred times over the last few years, but now that he was this close, she was suddenly terrified. What if changed their friendship and not for the better?

 “You know, seeing you do that to Gabe? It showed a whole different side to you.” She was stalling, she knew it.

He laughed softly, his breath tickling her cheek. “Yeah. Not a good one.”

“It showed me you’re not as perfect as everyone — as I — thought you were. It showed me you have a lot more passion in you than you let on.”

He moved his hand from the back of her neck to the back of her head, sinking his fingers into her hair. “Liz, you and are I a lot similar than you think. You’re not who people think you are, and neither am I.”

His gaze dropped to her mouth, and she smiled. “Is this confession time? Are you going to tell me you’re actually a bad guy, secretly running an underground drug ring?”

Matt laughed softly. “Yeah. Right. That’s me. A secret drug lord.” He grinned. “No. What I mean is, I’m not perfect.”

“You’re not?”

“No.”

“What do you do that makes you not perfect, McGee?”

A playful grin turned his mouth upward. “I rip those tags off pillows that say ‘do not remove’. One time I left my cart in the middle of the parking lot. I actually like pineapple on pizza.”

He pressed his hand more firmly against the small of her back and pulled her against him. “And I think about kissing you way more than I should.”

Her gaze dropped to his mouth, her voice fading to a whisper as she pressed her hands against his chest. “You can’t think of kissing me.”

“Why?”

“Because we’re just friends. Remember?”

“Then let me give you a friendly kiss.”

She closed her eyes as his lips brushed against her forehead, her cheek, and then found her mouth, capturing her upper lip.

Heat shot through her as he slipped his mouth to her lower lip next. She moved her hands to his face and leaned into the kiss as he found her whole mouth, savoring the feel of him.

If this was what it felt like to kiss a friend, then she wanted him to be her friend for the rest of her life.

He smiled as he pulled his mouth away several seconds later. “That went better than I thought it was going to.”

“Kissing me?”

He shrugged a shoulder. “That and talking to you about all the things I should have talked to you about already.”

“Did you plan to kiss me?”

“Not necessarily, but I thought it would be nice if it finally happened since I’ve been thinking about it so long. I needed to take the chance and let the chips fall where they may.”

She smiled and slid her arms behind his neck as his arms slid behind her back.

Her hand moved automatically to the back of his head, up into his hair, like she’d imagined doing many times before. She finally felt comfortable enough to mess up that perfect Officer McGee hair. She smirked. “Does this mean we’re more than friends now?”

The huskiness of his tone slid over her senses like a warm blanket on a cold winter night, transforming her smirk into a smile. “I certainly hope so.”

He kissed her again, as soft and sweet as before, no urgency, just a  comforting sense of leisure. She slid her hands down the back of his head, resting them on the back of his neck to hold him close, almost afraid he’d pull away and disappear and this would all be a dream.

A few minutes later, a small cry from the living room interrupted them and Liz pulled her mouth from his, her eyes on the living room. She slipped from his arms, and he followed her as she walked toward the blanket in the center of the floor. They found Bella looking up at them with a firm pout in place and fresh tears on her cheeks.

He stooped down before she could and lifted Bella into his arms. “Hey, little girl, jealous of all the attention your mom is getting tonight?” He winked at Liz. “Can’t be helped.”

He sat on the couch with the baby cradled in his arms, her small form practically dwarfed against his much larger arms.

Liz couldn’t believe how natural it all seemed, him with a baby, relaxed, smiling. It stopped her in her tracks, left her holding her breath without even realizing it.

She finally let herself breathe again and walked to the kitchen, lifting a bag of breast milk from the freezer and setting it to warm in a bowl of warm water. “Maybe I shouldn’t ask this,” she said as she returned a few minutes later with a bottle. She braced herself mentally, sitting next to him and handing him the bottle. “What happened with the academy?”

He took the bottle and kept his eyes on Bella. “They rescinded my application because of the charges filed against me.” He shrugged a shoulder. “Guess God has different plans for me.”

Liz’s chest felt tight, and she rubbed the top of it under her throat. Her voice fell to a whisper. “I’m sorry.”

He looked up at her. “It will work out. No big deal.”

“It is a big deal. This was your dream and it’s my fault you’re not going to be able to realize it.”

Matt kept his eyes on hers. “Not everything is your fault Liz, and this definitely isn’t. I made the choice to react the way I did to Gabe. It was my decision to slam him against my patrol car, not yours. Actions have consequences and losing that spot at the academy was mine.”

Liz dropped her gaze, watching Bella drink from the bottle. “Liz, I want you to listen to me.” She nodded but kept her eyes on Bella. “Look at me.” She lifted her eyes and once again, the green of his eyes startled her, pulled her in. “This is not your fault. I’m serious. We all make poor decisions at some point in our lives. What happened with Gabe? It was a poor decision. That’s all. That night in your apartment? The same thing. Those mistakes do not define you, though. You get that right? You are what God says you are, and He says you are his child, mistakes and all.”

It was a message Liz had resisted over and over. That God loved her, no matter her poor choices and that she could learn from those poor choices and make better ones in the future. She’d usually roll her eyes and move away or make a joke or change the subject, but something about the way Matt said it, the way she could tell he meant it, truly believed it, and wanted to her to believe it too, broke her.

She didn’t stop the tears this time, didn’t look away from him when they came. She nodded as they flowed, trying her best not to ugly cry as she let the words sink in.

“Thank you.” She finally managed the words, leaning forward and brushing her lips against his cheek. “You know it too, right?”

He looked at her with a questioning rise in his eyebrows.

“That your bad decision to react the way you did to Gabe does not define you.”

He smiled sheepishly, tilted his face down toward Bella again. “Touché, Miss Cranmer. Touché.”

She slid next to him, her feet under her, one arm across the back of the couch, watching him feed Bella, and wishing she’d let her walls down before, let herself believe she could be happy and that she deserved it. Like him holding Bella, this — her leaning into him — felt natural and right, like how her life should be and hopefully would be in the future.

Fiction Friday: A New Chapter Chapter 19

For those who are new here, this is a novel in progress. I post a chapter each week and there may be typos, plot holes, inconsistencies, etc.

I have been busy working to finish this story and hope to start working on the second draft the week after next, to get this book ready for an April 26 release to Amazon.

To catch up with the story click HERE.

If you would like to read the first books in this series, you can find them HERE.

Chapter 19

“Liz? You here?”

She heard her mom calling from the front of the apartment and groaned, covering her head with the pillow.

Molly had taken Bella to her parents today, telling Liz to sleep in and try not to think about what had happened the day before at the restaurant. She didn’t have a class until the afternoon today, so she’d agreed to it. She’d already answered a call from Ginny, checking on her, asking if she needed anything. Texting back that she was fine hadn’t been a lie, not really. She was fine, in some ways. At least she hadn’t had a full-blown panic attack. Yet. Somehow.

The entire town probably knew what had happened by now. People who had been closer to Gabe and Matt by the bar, like she had been, heard exactly what Gabe said that set Matt off, but she hoped most of the restaurant didn’t.

“Liz?”

She tossed the covers off her and stepped out of her room, squinting in the sunlight blasting in through the apartment’s floor to ceiling front window.

Marge set her purse on the couch and stepped toward her. “Oh, hon’.” Liz bristled at the pity in her mother’s voice. She was not in the mood for pity. How had she even heard about it? And how much did she know?

Liz folded her arms across her chest, avoiding eye contact with Marge who was standing with arms outstretched, and headed for the bathroom, locking the door behind her. She splashed her face with cold water, choked down bile and willed her stomach to calm down.

Had that really happened yesterday? Maybe she was dreaming, and her ex-boyfriend hadn’t told an entire restaurant, or at least the bar section, that he’d practically forced her into sleeping with him the night she conceived her child.

She dried her hands and face quickly and pinched her arm. That hurt, so clearly she wasn’t dreaming. Unfortunately.

The anger she’d seen flashing in Matt’s eyes when he dragged Gabe through the front doors of the restaurant and tossed him onto the sidewalk had been real, even though it felt like a nightmare as it was happening. The moment he’d slammed Gabe onto the hood and cuffed him hadn’t been a figment of her imagination, but she wished it had.

Her face had burned with embarrassment as Gabe hissed his confession at Matt. She’d kept her eyes downcast at the floor, dreading looking up and seeing expressions of pity or disgust being cast her way. She knew it was stupid, but she felt like they were all judging her for being weak and pathetic.

In reality, most of the people in the restaurant didn’t know her and those who did probably didn’t care as much as she thought they did. The world didn’t revolve around Liz Cranmer and her many failings. People had much more important issues in their lives to deal with. She probably wasn’t even a dot on their radar. There had been a few whispers, though. A few looks cast her way. She’d caught them after she’d grabbed her purse, gave Ginny a curt, “I need to go,” and walked swiftly to her car.

Luckily the fundraising meeting had been almost over anyhow. The shouting had drawn the gazes of her and the rest of those in attendance toward the noise. It was only when she saw the face-off between Gabe and Matt that she’d stood and walked to the doorway to get a closer look. Ginny had stood behind her, a hand on her shoulder, asking in silence if she was okay.

She wasn’t, but she’d nodded her head once.

Now, here she was with her mother outside her bathroom door, pacing, ready to pounce and ask her about what Gabe had said. Mary Landers was on the library board. She was also in Marge’s Bible study. Ah. That’s how her mother knew.

Liz groaned and wiped a hand across her mouth, regretting her decision to stay in a small town where everyone knew everything about you and if they didn’t, someone would tell them.

“Liz, are you okay?”

Liz had to give her mom credit, she at least sounded concerned. When Liz opened the door, Marge looked concerned too. Kudos for effort.

“Mary Landers called this morning to ask if you were okay. I had no idea what she was talking about.”

Liz brushed past her mom without answering and headed for the kitchen.

Marge followed. “What in the world did Gabe say to Matt to cause him to act like that? Do you have any idea?”

So, Marge didn’t know the full details. Yet anyhow. Liz reached for the carton of milk and the bottle of chocolate syrup in the fridge. It was a heavy on the chocolate syrup kind of morning.

“I’m not totally sure, no.” It wasn’t a lie. She hadn’t heard everything Gabe said. She’d heard enough to know he’d spared few details about how she’d ended up pregnant.

“I would have never expected that out of Matt. Have you talked to him? Is he okay? Did he say anything to you?”

Liz stirred the syrup into the milk, the spoon clanging against the glass. “No, I haven’t talked to him and hasn’t said anything to me because he didn’t even know I was there.”

Marge sat at the kitchen table and shook her head. “It is just so out of character for him.” She chewed at her bottom lip. “Gabe must have said something awful about you. Why else would he do that?”

Liz sat down across from her mom and took a swig of the milk. “I don’t know, Mom.” She stared at the glass. “I don’t really want to talk about it. Is that the only reason you stopped by?”

Marge looked up sharply. “There’s no reason to be snippy, Liz. I came here to check on you.”

Liz’s eyes narrowed, her jaw tightened. “I’m fine. You don’t need to check on me.”

“Liz, if you have something to say to me then just say it.” Marge’s sharp tone brought Liz’s gaze up to meet her mother’s. “I’m tired of the way you talk to me, the way you treat me like I’m some evil ogre. I even wonder what you’ve told Ginny Jefferies about me.”

Liz quirked an eyebrow. “The way I treat you? Really? That’s rich.”

Marge’s eyebrows dipped into an angry scowl. “I told you I was sorry for what I said about you sleeping with Gabe and Matt at the same time. I should never have said that.”

“You also shouldn’t have even thought it.”

Marge took a deep breath. “Fine. I shouldn’t have even thought it. You were in a dark place back then. Did I really think you would do that? No, but I didn’t know. People do awful things when they aren’t in their right mind and for a while there I don’t think you were in your right mind.”

Liz emptied the glass in one long gulp, then stood and set the glass in the sink. “Which time? When I was living with Gabe or all the years before that when I still couldn’t do what was right in your eyes.”

Marge stood, setting her hands at her waist. “I never said you were doing anything wrong when you were young, Liz. I don’t know where you get the idea that I was always criticizing you. I was not. You were always criticizing me. It didn’t matter what I said, I was always wrong, and you were always right. I can’t even remember how many times I expressed concern for you, and you somehow decided I was being critical or controlling.”

Liz held up her hand. “I’m not in the mood for an argument, Mom.”

Marge’s voice lowered into a strained tone. “You’re never in the mood for a discussion and that’s what this is. I’m not trying to argue, I’m just trying to find out what Ginny has that I don’t.”

Confusion furrowed Liz’s eyebrows. “What? What does Ginny have to do with this?”

Marge folded her arms across her chest, lifting her chin slightly, focusing her gaze somewhere across the kitchen. “You talk to Ginny like I always wanted you to talk to me. I just want to know, why is she the person you can talk to? Why don’t you come to me when you are upset or down? I’m your mother.”

Liz scoffed. “Maybe because she doesn’t judge me. She doesn’t suggest I try to act more like my sister or tell me I’m not living the way the Lord would want me to.” She stood and flung a cupboard door open, reaching for a mug. “She listens to me, she tells me it’s going to be okay. She offers to pray for me, not tells me to pray about it. She doesn’t look at me like I’m the biggest disappointment in the world to her.” She slammed the mug on the counter and reached for the package of hazelnut coffee.

Marge’s expression fell, fading from angry to clear hurt. “I don’t — I —” Her lower lip quivered, her eyes glistening. “I pray for you, Liz. I’ve always wanted the best for you. I —” She closed her eyes, shaking her head slowly. “I’ve never thought of you as being a disappointment. I’m the disappointment. I’m the mother who did such a horrible job that you would have rather died than tell your father and me you were pregnant.”

Liz drew in a ragged breath. She turned around, stepped back against the counter. “What — how — you knew? All this time?”

Marge laid a hand against her chest, nodding as tears streaked her cheeks. “Of course, I knew.”

“Did someone tell you?”

Marge shook her head. “No. No one told me anything. I just felt something was off when you said you accidentally took too many pills. I don’t think you’d do that. You’re too bright to make that mistake.” Marge swiped her index finger under her eye, across the moistness there. “I just kept thinking I was such a bad mother that you couldn’t even come to me in your darkest moment. I could never bring myself to ask you to the truth, though. It was too hard for me to face that it was my fault you’d tried to kill yourself.”

Liz reached for the tissue box on the counter, took one and held the box out to her mom. “Mom, it wasn’t your fault.” She let out a shaky sigh. “It was my messed up thinking that took me there. It was my fault. You can’t take responsibility for my decisions.”

Marge took a tissue and dabbed the corners of her eyes. “But if I had been less critical when you were growing up, more warm, more open, more — more, well, like Ginny.” She pressed the tissue against her eyes as she spoke. “I wanted the best for you and instead of encouraging you, I criticized. I don’t know why I did that. I wish I could go back and change how I acted, how I projected my fears on to you through my critical spirit.”

Liz let out a breath and sat at the table again. She pushed a hand back through her hair, pushing it back from her face. “I know, Mom. I do. I wish I could go back and change how I acted too.” She shrugged a shoulder. “But can’t go back.” She rested a hand on the table, looked at her mom still crying into the tissue. She thought about Matt’s words all those weeks ago, about not letting a root of bitterness take hold. Watching her mother cry, she saw her in a different light. She saw a brokenness from a woman who’d done what she thought she should do and failed. In that moment she saw herself in her mother.

She stretched her arm across the table, laid a hand over Marge’s. “But we can move forward.”

Marge looked up, eyes red and swollen. “I want to do that. I really do.” She squeezed Liz’s hand. “I’m sorry. I really am. I can’t promise I’ll be completely different, but I’ll try. Old habits are hard to break, but the Bible says they can be broken.”

Liz looked at her hand in her mom’s and thought about all the years she’d pushed her parents away, especially her mom. The rebellious teenage years had stretched into the early 20s and now here she was nearing 30 and she still had the same rebellious spirt rattling inside her. “I’m sorry too, Mom. I’ll try too.”

The women smiled at each other and then Liz sat back and finished wiping her face with a tissue. “I never wanted my life to go this way, you know. I didn’t. I wanted to do it the right way. Find a man to marry, date him, get engaged and then get married and have children. I just don’t know how I ended up where I am now.”

Marge snatched a tissue from the box and leaned over, dabbing it against Liz’s cheeks. “Life happens, honey. What’s done is done. Isaiah 61:3 . . .to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of despair.” Marge smiled. “You still being here, and our Bella are our beauty from the ashes.”

Fresh tears burned Liz’s eyes. She cleared her throat and pulled her gaze from her mom’s, not used to so much tenderness between them. She stood and took a couple of steps to the counter. “Have you had breakfast yet? I could make us some pancakes and bacon. Molly brought some of that bacon from Murphy’s Farm home from the store last night.”

Marge blew her nose. “Oh my, yes. That sounds wonderful.” She laughed softly, a foreign sound for Liz, at least for the last few years. “Having a breakdown really works up an appetite.”

Liz laughed as she opened the fridge. “Yeah, it does. Trust me. I should know. I’ve had enough of them.”

Marge stood and opened the cupboard next to the stove. “Where are your pans? I can help.”

Liz gestured to the cupboard next to the sink. “The griddle is in there and the frying pan is in the drawer under the stove. Not a lot of room in this little place.”

Marge retrieved the griddle and set it on the counter. “No, but if there was more room you’d just collect a bunch of things you don’t need like I have over the years.” She smiled, nudging Liz in the arm with her elbow. “You know what I mean. All those dutch ovens and baking pans I’ve collected.”

A small laugh came from Liz. “Or all those rolling pins.”

“Well, two of them were passed down from your great-grandmother.” Marge opened a drawer and then another before retrieving a spatula. Liz poured the pancake mix in a bowl as her mom found a frying pan for the bacon. It had been years since they’d worked together like this, without Marge ordering Liz to do so, and Liz had to admit it felt nice. It was how a mother and daughter should be, working together, laughing together. Well, they weren’t quite to laughing, but close enough.

Marge layered the bacon in the skillet. “Listen, I know it’s really none of my business and maybe I shouldn’t bring it up right now, but —”

 “Matt and I are friends, Mom. Really. That’s all.” She stirred the water and pancake mix together, smiling. “He’s been good to me, and I care about him, but we’re just friends.” She looked over at her mom, the smile. “And, Mom, I promise you, I have never slept with anyone other than Gabe. I wish I hadn’t even done that.”

Marge turned the burner on, nodding. “I believe you, honey. I do.”

A few moments of silence followed, filled only with Liz pouring and flipping pancakes and bacon sizzling.

“But, about Matt, you don’t have any romantic feelings for him at all?”

Liz bit the inside of her lip as she flipped a pancake. Seriously, Marge? Come on! She’d just told her mom she’d try to be better, and one way to do that was to stop being dishonest. Still, she didn’t really know how to answer that question without opening up several other cans of worms. While she was debating, though, her mother spoke.

“Because he loves you, Liz.”

“Mom, come on. We’re just —”

The seriousness of her mom’s expression made Liz swallow the familiar response.

“He does. I can see it in his eyes when he looks at you.” She moved her hand across an imaginary sky. “Like you hung the moon. That love doesn’t come along very often, you know.”

Liz returned to mixing the batter. “I’ll keep that in mind. Thank you. Really. It’s just —” She shook her head, not sure how much of herself she wanted to share with her mom right now. “I’m not good enough for him. Matt’s amazing and everyone loves him, rightly so. He’s like fine wine and I’m a cheap beer.” She winced. “Sorry. I know I shouldn’t have made an alcohol reference considering my past issues. It was just the first analogy that popped into my head.”

Marge flipped the pieces of bacon. “Oh, Liz, that’s not true. You are worthy of happiness, and you are worthy of him. Let him love you.” She leaned over and kissed Liz’s forehead. “Let down some walls and just let us all love you.” Liz’s smile was faint. She knew her mom was right, but how did she let her walls down with a man who hadn’t even told her the truth about where he’d been the night she’d tried to kill herself?

Fiction Friday: The Next Chapter. Chapter 11

To catch up with other parts of this novel in progress, click HERE.

Chapter 11

Encounter Church wasn’t only the largest church in the area when it came to congregation size. Its building stretched much further than any other church structure in Spencer Valley and anywhere in a 60-mile radius.

The building housed a full-size gym with a basketball court, a moderately large sanctuary set up stadium-style, a state-of-the-art sound system, and separate rooms that stretched down long, well-lit hallways and served as a spacious nursery, two conference rooms, and six adult Sunday School rooms.

In the lower level, there were rooms for Sunday School from kindergarten to high school, as well as a kitchen stocked and furnished as if it was in a culinary school.
This wasn’t the church Matt had grown up in and it wasn’t the type of church he ever saw himself being a member of up until a couple of years ago.

Now, though, he couldn’t imagine attending anywhere else. The music was outstanding, the pastor’s sermons were electrifying, and the congregation had become like family to Matt, even more so after his dad passed away.

“Matt! Good morning!” Jake Landers stood from the table he’d been sitting at in the Sunday School room and held out a hand.

“Glad to have you with us tonight.”

Matt took the older man’s hand and shook it firmly. “Glad to be here. I finally got a Wednesday night off.”

Jake shook his head as he sat. “I don’t know how you do it, kid. You go 1,000 miles an hour all day every day and still look refreshed.”

Matt laughed as he sat his Bible down and reached for an empty mug by the Keurig machine. “I might look refreshed, but I don’t often feel it.”

He waited for the mug to fill with the hazelnut cream flavored coffee he had chosen and then stirred in a dash of creamer and a packet of sugar. By the time he was done, the room was filling up with more men and they were seating themselves in the comfy chairs set up in a circle around the room.

He had been trying to attend this men’s group for a couple of months now. He needed this pick-me-up, the reminder that he wasn’t alone in his struggles and in sometimes feeling emotionally and spiritually drained.

The session turned out to be exactly what he needed and when it was over, he felt a renewed energy as he walked toward the gym to meet with a group of teenage boys he had agreed to mentor through a bi-monthly youth Bible study.

When it concluded, he challenged the seven boys to a pick-up game of basketball while they waited for their parents. The game reminded him he wasn’t young as he used to be and despite being a police officer, he also wasn’t as in shape as he should be.

“See you next week for a rematch, old man,” Trevor Banks called to him as he left the gym.
Matt grinned and waved back. “Challenge accepted, Stretch. I’ll be ready for you next time.”

He collected his Bible and notebook from the floor against the wall and as he looked up, he saw the head pastor Taylor Jenson strolling toward him, his charismatic smile firmly in place.

“Matt. Good evening.” He spoke in his familiar, smooth Southern accent that hadn’t faded in the least in the ten years since he’d lived in the north. He stuck out his hand and once again Matt was struck with how tall the man was and how the cowboy boots he wore with his crisp blue jeans and polo shirts made him even taller and even a more imposing figure.

“Pastor. How’s it going?”

“Good. The Bible study go well?”

Matt nodded and filled the pastor in on the young men and how each one was doing.

“That’s great, Matt.” Taylor slid his hands in his front pockets and propped his side against the gym wall. “Listen, I need to talk to you about something.”

Matt propped his Bible under his arm, hoping the pastor wasn’t asking him to take on another commitment. His schedule was completely booked.

Taylor looked at the floor and tugged at his earlobe, a move Matt had seen before, usually when Taylor was about to bring up a tough subject he really didn’t want to address. “I had a couple calls today from some members of the congregation. A couple of them were parents, a couple weren’t. They had some concerns about you leading the youth after what they read in the paper this week.”

“What they read in the paper?” Matt wasn’t following. What had been in the paper that might — “Oh. The birth announcement.”

Taylor winced and brought his gaze back up. “Yeah. That.”

Matt’s words about not caring what others thought about the announcement echoed back in his mind. Maybe he hadn’t thought this all the way through.

“They’re just a bit concerned about you leading the youth, being an example to them if you’ve had a child out of wedlock.”

Taylor was rubbing the back of his neck now, then held his hand there. “I didn’t know what to say to them. I didn’t even know you’d had a baby until someone showed me the announcement. I mean, I had seen you with Liz, taking her to some appointments, but I had no idea you were even dating.”

Matt blew out a breath and chewed on the inside of his bottom lip for a few minutes. “We’re not.”

“Oh.”

“No, I mean — it’s just. Liz and I are friends. I’m not her baby’s father. I told the nurse I was to keep Liz from having to connect her baby to the real father. I asked the nurse not to send the announcement to the paper, but I guess there was some kind of mix up.”

Taylor whistled, his hand still on the back of his neck as he tipped his head back. “Oh, man. That’s crazy.” He tipped his head back down and laughed softly. “I had a feeling there was a bigger story here. Sounds like you were trying to do the right thing.” He kicked at the gym floor with the tip of his boot. “It’s put us in a tough spot here at the church, though. I don’t want to reveal your private business but at the same time, I don’t know how to answer the parents without doing that very thing.”

Matt pushed his hands into his jean pockets and shook his head. “I don’t want to put the church in a difficult position. Why don’t I just step down for a bit, until I figure out how to handle this? I told Liz we should just ignore it, go on with our lives, and maybe I should explain it to some people, but I don’t know how to do it without making Liz look bad.”

Taylor sighed. “I really hate to do that to you, Matt. You’re an important part of this church, a leader to these boys.”

“But I’ll also be gone in a couple of weeks. You’ll have to find someone new to step in anyhow. I’ll just step down a little early.”

Taylor nodded. “That’s true. I guess that will save us both from the awkwardness.” He rubbed his hand across his chin. “I really am sorry about this. You’re a good guy, Matt. If there is anything I can do, please let me know. Can I pray for you at least?”
“Of course. Prayer is always welcome.”

Taylor took the time to pray for Matt left and then men shook hands. A few minutes later Matt was behind the steering wheel of his truck, laughing to himself. If he wasn’t leaving for the academy in a couple of weeks that conversation would have caused him more concern. He easily could have been offended that the church members who had a concern hadn’t approached him before they approached the pastor. At the same time, their concern made sense. Who would he be to tell a group of boys that waiting to have sex before marriage would protect their hearts and their bodies if he himself had been sleeping with a woman he wasn’t married to?

It did feel a bit like a betrayal that part of the congregation had made up their mind about him without even asking about the situation, but he wouldn’t have been able to ask someone about something so personal either.

He could just imagine approaching a person whose name had been listed as the father of someone’s baby when no one even knew they were in a relationship. “Hey, so . . .um . . . About this baby thing . . .”

Yeah. It would definitely be an awkward conversation to have.

He turned the radio on and tapped his hand against the steering wheel to a Christian song playing on his favorite radio station.

It was his decision to tell that nurse he was Bella’s father. No, he hadn’t thought it through, but he had to live with it and in the end, it would be worth it, as long as it meant Bella and Liz wouldn’t have any official ties to Gabe Martin.

***

“I can’t believe I did it.”

Ginny turned her head and tilted it to get a better look at her hair. While it had previously fallen across her shoulders when she let it down, it now stopped at ear level. She blew out a slow breath, tilting her head up again. What was Stan going to think about this impulsive move? She truly wasn’t sure.

Liz stood behind her, admiring her own shorter cut. “It looks fantastic, Ginny. Seriously. You’re drop-dead gorgeous. Just wait until Stan sees you. He won’t be able to keep his hands off you.”

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

“Well, I don’t know about that, but your cut certainly came out great. It will be a lot easier to manage for you, which will be great for when you start back next week.”

Liz pulled her lower lip between her teeth, still looking at her hair in the bathroom mirror, pulling the strands against her jawline. “I can’t believe my maternity leave is already over. It was nice of Linda to even give it to me. I don’t think it was easy for her to give me that much time off.”

She ruffled her hair and pouted. “Look, I look like a brunette Taylor Swift that time she chopped her hair. Well, the haircut does at least. Not the rest of me.”

Ginny cocked an eyebrow. “Who?”

Liz snorted. “A pop singer whose music I don’t even like.”

“Oh. Well, I’m old. That’s probably why I’ve never heard of her.”

“Be glad. You’re not missing much other than a lot of sappy songs about broken hearts.”

Ginny touched her finger to her chin. “Oh wait. Is she the one who breaks up with men and then writes songs about her breakups?”

Liz laughed as she picked up a brush and pulled it across her hair. “Yes. That’s her. Maybe I should have written a song after I left Gabe. I might could have made a few bucks.”

She turned and looked at Ginny, at the way Missy had angled her hair so it was short in the back and longer along the sides. Ginny looked ten years younger, if not more. Her entire persona seemed brighter now. Maybe this would help raise the heaviness the woman had around her some days. Maybe her husband would see her and whisk her out the door for a fancy dinner, bringing a bright spot to her day. She certainly deserved it.

“Is Stan going to be home tonight?”

Ginny shook her head. “No. We’re going to a real estate banquet together. He’s up for real estate agent of the year for the region.”

Liz’s eyebrows raised. This was a change from Ginny’s usual answers to questions about Stan. Most of the time he was away on business or not home at all. “That’s awesome. He’s finally taking a night away from work and taking you out to boot. Way to go Stan.”

Soft pink spread along Ginny’s cheekbones as she hooked an earring in. “Yeah, it should be a nice night out. We haven’t been out in —” The pink darkened to crimson. “Well, a while anyhow.”

Liz leaned back against the dresser behind her and gnawed at her thumbnail, pondering the color along Ginny’s cheeks. Was it brought on by anticipation or something else?

“Do you think he’ll win?”

“He has before and he’s been even busier this year so I’d be surprised if he doesn’t.”

Liz didn’t hear the excitement in Ginny’s voice she thought she should. She studied the woman for a moment then let her gaze drift across Ginny’s bedroom to the lightly -colored dresser and the mirror attached to it, the queen-sized bed set up high off the ground, covered in what looked like a handmade quilt of various colors, to the peach-colored walls and pillows that matched the walls. The headboard and armoire against the wall near the bed matched the dresser she was leaning against and a walk-in closet was open on the other side of the room.

“This is a beautiful house, Ginny.”

“You’ve never been in here?” Ginny turned her while adjusting her other earring. “I thought you were here for the engagement party.”

Liz shook her head. “Just the backyard. I was so focused on feeling out of place and left out I barely noticed even that.” She walked toward the walk-in closet. “I would say I’ve matured since then but it’s a work in progress, as you know. Hey.” She reached for a black gown hanging in the closet. “This is lovely. You should wear this tonight.” A white blouse with a silver sheen caught her eye and she reached for it too. “Oh, and you could put this over it. It would set off your eyes.”

She turned to see Ginny blushing again. “You think so? I don’t know. Maddie bought that for me two years ago and I just — well, I never — I didn’t have anywhere to wear it. I thought about wearing it to last year’s banquet but it seemed a little too . . .” Her voice trailed off and she shrugged. “Revealing? Sexy? I don’t know.”

Liz laid the dress and blouse on the bed. “It’s hot is what it is and you will look hot in it. Stan isn’t even going to want to go to the banquet when he sees you in it. He’s going to want to get you right back out of it again.”

The blush had spread to Ginny’s neck and chest now and she laid a hand at the nape of her neck as if to stop it.
“Oh — well, I don’t know about that but I — I mean, I could wear it, I guess.”

Liz walked to the dresser and flipped open the jewelry box. “I bet you have a necklace that would go great with this.” She shut the box abruptly and turned away from it. “Oh, my word. What am I doing? I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be getting into your things like that.”

Ginny laughed and opened the box again. “Actually, I would appreciate your advice and opinion. I haven’t really dressed up in a while. I do have a couple necklaces that might work.”

The women looked through the necklaces for a few moments. Liz pulled her gaze away when her phone dinged. She reached for it and checked the message.

She sighed. “It’s McGee. Asking what to bring for dinner.”

Ginny swung around with a gold necklace in her hand and placed a hand on her hip. “Dinner, eh?”

Liz scowled playfully. “Calm down. It’s like a potluck dinner. Molly, Alex, Ellie, and Jason are all going to be there too. Then we’re going to watch Ellie and Jason’s wedding video.”

She texted a response and tossed the phone onto the bed. “Matt and I are just friends. Like I told you.”

Ginny held the necklace up in front of her while she looked in the mirror. “A friend who is clearly in love with you. I get it.”

Liz scoffed. “He is not in love with me. He’s just a good friend. I mean, don’t get me wrong, he’s a very good friend. He’s been there for me in the worst moments of my life and in the best. He brought me food when I was too big and sick to get around when I was pregnant. He drove me to a few appointments when my car broke down. He, well, obviously delivered Bella. He’s also stopped by plenty of times and held her while I cleaned the apartment or took a nap. He’s just a good guy. You know that. He’s good to everyone.”

Ginny held up another necklace, narrowing her eyes as she studied her reflection in the mirror. “He’s not as good to everyone as he is to you, and I can’t say I’ve ever heard him say he was in love with you, but I do know that he was very upset when you had that fall at your apartment last year.”

Liz’s chest constricted and a lump pushed up into her throat. Her hand trembled as she straightened the dress she’d lain on the bed, averting her eyes from Ginny. “What do you mean?”

“Stan said Matt asked for prayer for you during the men’s Bible study a couple nights after you were taken to the hospital. He didn’t give any details, but said there had been an accident and he’d arrived before the ambulance.”

The room suddenly seemed small and tight as Liz sat on the edge of the bed and took a deep breath. Matt was at her apartment that night? She’d known there was an officer there, but she’d been told it was Tom Landry, Matt’s older partner. If

Matt had been there, why had he never told her?

The idea of him seeing her, barely conscious, at the worst moment of her life. Bile clutched at her throat and she gagged.
Ginny whirled to look at her. “Uh-oh. Are those tacos we stopped for causing an issue?”
She shook her head against Ginny’s concern then changed her mind and nodded. “Actually, yes, they are a little. Will you excuse me?”


She found the bathroom down the hall, doubled over the toilet as she shut the door, and gagged again. She closed her eyes tight, desperate to remember the voices that night. Had Matt’s been one of them? She couldn’t remember. She needed to remember.

Dear God . . . Please no.

So when she’d first lied to him, said she’d accidentally taken too many pills from a prescription for painkillers for her knee, he’d known all along. He’d most likely even known she was pregnant. She wretched into the toilet bowl, grasping the seat as colors played across her vision.

Reaching for a piece of toilet paper, she wiped it across her mouth and shook her head. He’d never said a thing. He hadn’t told her he already knew. That had been almost a year ago. And he’d never said a thing. She couldn’t believe it.
He had now twice seen her at her most vulnerable. If the earth opened up right now and swallowed her whole she wouldn’t have been totally fine with it.

“Really God? How much more do you need to punish and humiliate me for what I did?”

She stood and turned the sink on, cupping a handful of water to wash her mouth out with. She pictured herself in the bathroom floor of her apartment that night, desperately trying to get the pills to come back up again. She hadn’t wanted to die. Not really. She’d simply panicked. She hadn’t wanted the baby to die either. She hadn’t even really accepted there was a baby yet.

In those moments when she shoved those pills in her mouth, she had told herself it was the best way to keep her parents from finding out how she’d been living, from Molly being disappointed in her, from feeling the same day after day. But at the moment she stuck her finger back against her tonsils a different kind of panic had set in. A panic that she might actually die, that she’d never had a chance to say goodbye to Molly or her sister.

There was a baby to think about. The baby hadn’t done anything to deserve a death sentence. She had to stop the pills from taking effect and there was no way they wouldn’t. She’d downed half a bottle of opioid painkillers.

Praying to God, she had begged while vomit trickled down her chin. It obviously wasn’t enough vomit to bring the pills back up because blackness had encroached across her vision quickly. She had chased the darkness away with a deep breath that was more like a gasping scream.

“Jesus! Save me!”

She couldn’t even feel the phone in her hand when she’d hit the 9 and collapsed against the cool linoleum.

A knock on the bathroom door ripped her from the memory and back to the present. She tried to gather herself, remind herself she wasn’t in her old apartment, begging to live. She was at Ginny’s and she needed to get it together already. She splashed her face with water and snatched the hand towel to dry herself off.

“Liz? Honey? You okay in there.”

“Yes, I’m fine. I’ll be right out.”

There she went again, lying. How many times in her life was she going to tell everyone she was fine when she clearly wasn’t?

No matter.

She smoothed her newly cropped hair back, took a deep breath, and forced what she hoped was a natural-looking smile on her face.

Faking happiness had become like breathing to her.

This time would be no different.

Fiction Friday: The Next Chapter. Chapter 3

I almost forgot to put this up today. I haven’t had a chance to go over this chapter well, so bear with me. It will definitely change before I finish the final version of the story.

To read the first two installments of this story go HERE.

Chapter 3

“Blanket, car seat, paperwork, duffle bag . . .” Molly Tanner twisted and scanned the hospital room with narrowed eyes, turned again at looked at the infant car seat on the floor at her feet. “Newborn in car seat. Check. Okay. Looks like we have everything.”

Liz smiled at the flush of red spreading along her friend’s naturally pale complexion, a sign that she was flustered, yet trying to act like she wasn’t. Molly had been a literal Godsend from the beginning, there for Liz every step of the way, from bringing her ginger tea and lemon water at work when the morning sickness kicked in, to helping her out of bed in the morning when Liz had become too round to roll out of it herself. 

Molly had even moved in with her six months ago, which hadn’t been a huge sacrifice considering she should have been out of her parent’s house and on her own long ago. It had at least been a small sacrifice, however. One, because Molly was still working on her family’s farm and in their farm store. Living in an apartment with Liz in town meant Molly had to drive twenty minutes around 5 a.m. each morning to help milk the cows. She also had to drive fifteen minutes from the farm store on the days she worked there. More of a sacrifice than any of that, though, was that Molly was now delayed an entire 20 minutes from seeing her boyfriend, Alex Stone, in the barn each morning.

“I can handle not seeing him as often as I used to,” Molly had said one day when Liz had teased her. “Don’t be so dramatic.”

Luckily, she wouldn’t be delayed in seeing him today. Alex had come with Molly to help carry Liz’s gifts and belongings to the car. He’d carried one load of gifts, flowers, and balloons to the car already.

Liz stood and winced, every muscle in her body screaming in protest. Her labor hadn’t been as long as some, but she still felt as if she’d run a marathon two days before. “I hope you didn’t bring that truck of yours to drive us home.”

Molly looped the duffle bag over her shoulder. “Give me a little credit. I borrowed Ellie’s car. I can’t have you trying to climb in a truck in your condition.”

Liz sighed. “In my condition? Do I look that bad?”

“You don’t look bad. You look tired. Rightly so. You just pushed a human being out of you.”

Alex reached for the duffle bag as he appeared in the doorway. “I’ll take that.”

“Liz is the one that had the baby.” Molly leaned away from him. “Not me. I can handle it.”

“No, I’ll carry the duffle bag and that last vase of flowers and you’re going to carry the baby.”

Liz smirked. “Shouldn’t the man carry the baby? That seat is probably the heaviest thing here.”

She enjoyed the way Alex glanced at the sleeping newborn like she was a rabid dog. He swallowed hard. “Well, I think a woman should carry a baby. I mean, women are more gentle and . . .” He glanced at the baby seat again and shrugged a shoulder. “Maternal. 

You know.”

Liz laughed. “You’d be carrying her in a baby seat, not cradling her.” She folded her arms across her chest and leaned toward Alex, lowering her voice. “You do realize that birth isn’t catching, right?”

Alex scowled, sliding the duffle bag off Molly’s shoulder and reaching for the vase. “Yes, Liz. I’m aware of that.”

He ducked out of the room before she could harass him even more.

Molly gently nudged her elbow into Liz’s side. “Leave him alone. I think he’s nervous he’ll hurt her somehow. He’s never been around a newborn before.”

Liz’s chest constricted. “Neither have I, for very long anyhow.”

Liz’s sister Tiffany had five children, but she lived several states away, so when Liz did see her nieces and nephews it was only for a few days or a few hours. Even then she barely held them. Tiffany or one of the children’s grandparents whisked them out of her arms within minutes, either wanting quality time with the children or, Liz wondered, were they afraid her recent black sheep behavior would rub off on them?

Today, looking at the tiny bundle in the baby seat, she battled second thoughts. Maybe she should have placed this baby for adoption like she’d considered when she’d first seen the two lines on the pregnancy test. Molly’s brother, Jason, and his fiance, Ellie, couldn’t have children — or at least that’s what it was looking like. They might have adopted Isabella. They’d most likely be better parents. Ellie was more organized and definitely more maternal. Her entire career was built on educating and supporting young children. She was a teacher at the local preschool. 

It seemed cruel to Liz that she might not be able to have children because of endometriosis. If anyone should be a mother, it was Ellie Tanner.

“Hey. You okay?”

She looked at Molly, wishing her best friend wasn’t as perceptive as Matt was. It was as if Molly could read her mind most days.

“Yeah, it’s just —”

“You’re going to be a great mom, Liz. God chose you to be Isabella’s mom. Okay?”

Liz nodded and took a deep breath.

Molly looped her arm under the handle of the car seat and the other under Liz’s arm. “Now come on. Your Mom and Dad are waiting at the apartment for us. They’re cooking you some lunch and your mom has ‘spruced up’ as she likes to call it.”

Liz’s chest constricted. Her parents. They hadn’t brought her up to live the way she had been living for the last couple of years. Moving in with an emotionally abusive boyfriend, starting to drink and take pills, and then, the coup de grâce — having a baby out of wedlock.

She grabbed Molly’s wrist. “Wait, Mol, I need to talk to you, before Alex comes back.” She looked at the doorway. “Matt was here yesterday when the nurse wanted to fill out Isabella’s birth certificate. He gave her his name as the father.”

Molly’s eyebrows shot up and she set the seat down gently. “Why would he do that?”

Liz pulled her bottom lip between her teeth and shook her head. “I don’t know. He said he wanted to protect us from Gabe.”

Molly sat on the edge of the bed. “But he’s leaving for the state police academy in two months. Does he think — I mean, does he want to be her father?”

Liz shrugged a shoulder. “I don’t know what he was thinking. When I asked him, he said not to worry about it and that it was just to keep Gabe’s name from being connected to Isabella’s. Then I had to nurse Isabella, he had to get to work, and I haven’t seen him since to talk to him more about it.”

Molly chewed on the back of her thumb, a usual move for her when she was thinking, her eyebrow furrowed. “But are you and Matt —”

“We’re not dating.”

“You should be.”

Liz jerked her head up. “Excuse me?”

Molly smirked. “Matt has been there for you almost from day one since he found out you were pregnant. Most guys would have taken off when they found out the woman they’d gone on a few dates with was pregnant by another man. They wouldn’t have picked up your groceries for you, booked you a day at the spa, or been with you when you went into labor. Which reminds me. You need to fill me in on that story sooner rather than later.”

Alex leaned into the room. “Okay, ladies. We ready?”

A nurse stepped past him. “No. They are not. Not until we fill out these discharge papers and Liz sits in the wheelchair outside the room so she can be pushed to the car.”

Liz scoffed. “I’m not sitting in a wheelchair.”

The nurse smiled and winked. “You sure are. Hospital policy.”

Alex chuckled. “I’d be glad to push you, Liz.”

Liz narrowed her eyes. “I’m sure you would. I think I’ll ask the nurse to push me instead to keep you from pushing me into the street.”

Alex laughed. “What would give you that idea? Just because you interrupt me and Molly every time we have a minute alone doesn’t mean I want to get rid of you.” He looked at the car seat with a grin. “Besides, who would take care of the baby if you weren’t around?”

Liz’s smile faded and her gaze drifted to the sleeping baby. Right. Taking care of a baby.

How did she do that again?

***

Ginny flung open the freezer door and stood in front of it, lifting her shirt, glad she was alone in the house since Stan had a late afternoon showing. As if gaining weight wasn’t enough, she had to deal with hot flashes and a hundred other aggravating side effects of perimenopause. Whatever that was. She wouldn’t even have known about perimenopause if Rena Lambert hadn’t asked her if she thought she might be in the middle of it — six years ago. 

 Good grief, she didn’t understand why menstruation didn’t just end abruptly instead of dragging women through up to ten years of hormonal upheaval like a lion leisurely dragging a pray through the Serengetti to devour. Not all women suffered the way she was, she knew that, and she despised those women for it.

“Oh gosh, I never even had those,” Jan Ellory said with a small laugh and a wave of her hand one day at ladies’ group. “One day my period just stopped. Snap.” Jan snapped her fingers with finely manicured fingernails. “I never felt happier or lighter than I did that day. My 50s have been amazing! Weight has fallen off like butter falling of an ear of corn on a hot summer day and I have so much energy.” She emphasized the word energy with a little shake of her head and a smile. “And —” She smiled and winked. “Things have been amazing in the bedroom. It’s like David and I are newlyweds again.”

At that moment Ginny had considered how bad it would look if she throat punched Jan during ladies group. Bad. It would look very bad. Especially right after they had discussed how to look at each season of their lives “as an opportunity to reveal God as the anchor of their souls.” 

Yes, it would have been bad, but yet . . . it might have also felt good. 

Ginny wasn’t sure how this season of sweat, crankiness, anxiety-induced trembling, and out-of-control emotions was an opportunity for much of anything other than to hopefully have a valid excuse when she actually did deck someone.

She tipped her head back and let the rush of cold air spread across her chest and then sighed. She snatched a pint of chocolate ice cream from the freezer door, jerked open the silverware drawer, grabbed a spoon, and headed toward the living room to watch a Hallmark movie. Passing the mirror on the wall between the dining room and the living room she caught sight of her uncombed hair and paused. She’d fallen asleep after work, thankful the library closed early on Saturday afternoons. Her hair was sticking out in various directions, long and unkempt. Dark circles painted the skin under her eyes, and she was sure more wrinkles had etched their way into the skin along the edge of her eyes overnight.

Dragging her hand through her hair, she sat the ice cream carton on the table under the mirror, and lifted her hair off her shoulder, propping it on top of her head. 

She needed a haircut. Maybe she’d dye it too. She needed something — anything — different at this point. Pressing two fingers against each side of her face she lifted her cheeks and pulled them back. She tried to eliminate the pooch of skin under her chin with the movement. It wasn’t working. Maybe she should consider a facelift. She stuck her tongue out at the face in the mirror – a face she was starting not to recognize each time she looked at it — and spun herself around and toward the living room.

“We’ve got to get rid of this stupid mirror,” she grumbled, snatching the ice cream carton up again.

Her cellphone buzzed as she sat on the couch. She glared at it, uninterested in a conversation with anyone, but then noticed the caller ID.

Wisconsin. She’d better answer this one.

“Hey, Mom. How’s it going?”

She fanned her chest with the folded-up newspaper she’d snatched from the coffee table. “Oh, just fine, hon’. How are things there? Are we having another grandbaby yet?”

Her son Clint chuckled. “Ah, no. I think five is enough, don’t you?”

“I don’t know. I have room in my heart for a few more.”

“Well, maybe you can have one of your daughters provide those down the road because Tiff and I are done at this point. No, what I called about was to let you and dad know some other news. Some news I hope you will all be excited about.”

Ginny set the ice cream carton on the coffee table and leaned forward slightly in anticipation.

“We’re moving back to Pennsylvania.”

Her mother senses alerted. This was either for a good or a bad reason. Why did her intuition tell her it was bad?

“Are you? Why? What’s going on?”

Clint hesitated. She heard it. He could deny it, but she heard the pause, the clearing of his throat, if ever so softly on the other end of the phone. 

“Everything’s fine, Mom, but I got laid off from work last week. I didn’t want to tell you until I had something else.”

“Laid off?”

“Well, not exactly laid off. My job was eliminated. The industry is changing, and the economy isn’t doing great, so they had to cut back. I was the low man on the totem pole, so . . .”

Ginny’s heart thudded with alarm. He had five children and a wife to support. “What are you going to do? Do you have a job out here?”

“Yes, actually. A colleague put me in touch with a finance company about an hour from you actually. They offered me the job on the spot. It’s a step-down, a cut in pay, but we’ll be closer to our family, and I really think that’s something we could use right now.”

Ginny tried not to read between the lines. Something they could use right now. Why? What did he mean? Was something else going on? She resisted the urge to pepper him with more questions.

“Do you have somewhere to live?”

“No. Not yet, but Tiffany’s parents have offered us a place to stay.”

Ginny felt a tinge of jealousy that they had talked to Frank and Marge Cranmer before her, but, then again, it wasn’t like her house would hold seven more people. Two or three maybe, but not two adults and five children between the ages of a year and 10-years of age. The Cramner’s had a large two-story, five-bedroom, two-and-a-half bathroom home, despite having raised only two daughters.

She’d often wondered why they needed all that space, but it wasn’t her business.

“Oh. Well, okay. When does all this happen?”

“We’ve already started packing and hired a moving company,” Clint said, screaming and giggling in the background almost drowning his voice out. “Max, Twyla. Please. That’s enough. I’m on the phone. No. Because you’ve had enough ice cream today.”

Ginny eyed her own ice cream and hoped it wouldn’t melt before she could get back to it.

“Sorry about that, Mom. Anyhow, I’ll give you more of a timeline when I have more information.”

When they’d said their goodbyes and Ginny leaned back against the couch again, she tried to decide how she felt about her son’s news. She scooped a heavy helping of chocolate ice cream onto her spoon and swished it around on her tongue, staring at the turned off TV.

She was happy her family would be living closer. 

Yet, also nervous. She and Stan saw so little of each other already. Would more visits from the grandchildren mean even less time together?

She scoffed. “Not like we spend any time together now.”

Her frown tilted upward as her gaze drifted to the photographs of her grandchildren on the mantel over the fireplace. 

It would be nice to see the children grow up in person instead of through photographs. She’d envied her friends all these years. They’d been able to hold their grandchildren, take them to the park, spoil them with sweets and send them back home to mom and dad.

 She and Stan visited Clint and Tiffany a couple of times during the year but mostly communicated with them over the phone and through video chat.

It was time to perk up. This was good news. Having the grandchildren closer would mean she’d have something to think about other than the mundane — work and feeling like a third wheel to Stan and his job. 

She took another bite of the chocolate ice cream, savoring it. 

Yes, this was good news. Very good.

Fiction Friday: The Next Chapter Chapter 2

Welcome to chapter 2 of The Next Chapter, book three of the Spencer Valley Chronicles. I honestly, am at a bid of a mental standstill with this book so I’m not sure when I’ll share the next chapter. We will see. Maybe I’ll get some more ideas this next week.

If you would like to read the first chapter, you can find it HERE.

Chapter 2

Spencer Valley Library Director Ginny Jefferies unlocked the back door of the library early Monday morning, quickly slipped inside, and slammed the door behind her.

She patted down the strands of her dirty blond, shoulder length hair that had blown out of place during her dash, breathing hard. Getting to her job was like an undercover assignment these days.  She was seriously getting too old for this.

There were hours posted on the front door of the library, but people rarely read them.

Why should they?

It was a public library after all.

Wasn’t it always open?

That’s what a few of the patrons seemed to think, but no, the library wasn’t always open. Ginny needed at least a few minutes each morning to get ready before she opened the doors, but lately she wasn’t getting those few minutes and it was taking a toll on her nerves.

At least she’d been smart enough not to use the front door this time. That still might not guarantee her safety, however. The back door wasn’t exactly hidden from the public eye since it was located directly next to the back parking lot of the local supermarket.

 Ginny just wanted time to open the library calmly, without everyone and their grandmother pushing inside to start her day before she was ready.

“Can I just slip inside and grab that new Jan Karon book?” Clarice Farley had asked one morning a month ago, clutching her bright pink rain hat down on her head with both hands.

Ginny had stared at her, mouth  agape. “I don’t even have the system up to check you out, but we’re open in —”

“Oh please?” Clarice clasped her hands under her chin. “I’ve been waiting months for this book. It’s the last in the series.”

“I know, but —”                                  

Clarice winked. “It will just take a minute.” And then she pushed her way past, through the door Ginny had just opened.

Ginny had shaken the umbrella off, peeling her wet sweater off as she stepped inside and watched Clarice rush to the new book section.

“You open?” Dan Bennett’s head had appeared inside the door Ginny had forgot to lock behind her. He hadn’t wait for her to answer. “Good because I need to print an important paper off for my insurance man. Wouldn’t you know it, the printer ran out of ink just last night.”

“I haven’t actually turned the computers on yet —”

“No problem at all.” Dan stepped inside with a wave of his hand. “I’ll get them for you. One less thing for you to do this morning.”

“Ah, okay, but I —”

The door opened again.                        

“Is it time for story time yet?” Mary Ellis was holding the hand of two toddlers with a third young child standing behind her, all three of them dripping water on the carpet inside the door.

“Storytime isn’t for another two hours,” Ginny said, hoping to usher them back outside.

“That’s okay.” Mary bumped her arm against Ginny’s on her way by. “We’ll just spend some time in the children’s room. You still have those blocks and toys here, right? The kids will love them and it’s better than trying to entertain them at home.”

“I – uh – but —”

Ginny decided then and there to make her entrance into the library as incognito as possible from then on.

She’d been arriving like a ninja for a month now and had even considered borrowing Brent Phillips’ camouflage hunting clothes, so she’d blend into the hedges out front. That was if she and Brent had been on talking terms, but they weren’t, or weren’t supposed to be, since her daughter had broken up with him the year before.

She leaned back against the door and sighed. So far so good. No one was pounding on the door. Not yet anyhow. She seemed to have made it in unseen.

Looking around the three-story library, lit only by the curved windows above the shelves on one side of the main room, she relaxed into the silence. Sunlight streamed in through a high window on the main floor, pouring light across the Women’s Literature section.

The building was the former Spencer Family mansion, built in 1901 and deeded to the town in 1967 to be used as a community library. Walls had been knocked down, floors removed, ceilings lifted, to create a larger open space that provided room for six-foot high bookshelves on two levels, ten rows on each floor. The Spencer family patriarch, J.P. Spencer, had left the building to the library association in his will, much to the fury of his remaining family members, a son who already lived in a mansion on the other end of town and a daughter from a previous marriage who had never even lived in the town. J.P.’s family had founded the Spencer Valley Railroad Company in the mid-1800s, making the company the second largest employer in the county at one time, next to farming. These days railroad and farming were dying out, fading away like an actual physical newspaper.

Ginny refrained from turning the main lights on, still hoping to remain in silence until her first cup of coffee was finished. She plopped down in the plush chair at the front desk and stared blankly at the row of computers, urging her brain to turn on before she turned the technology on. The computers were a fairly new edition, especially the ones in the gaming stations in the library basement.

The introduction of gaming computers was not something Ginny had been in favor of. The library board had overruled her, however, insisting they were needed to stay with the times and appeal to the younger generation. For Ginny, the library was a place to read, a place to fill a child’s head with knowledge, not somewhere for them to destroy brain cells playing ridiculous games on a computer.

“Well, who knows, maybe when they are done playing their games, they’ll wander up the stairs and find books!” Frank Rouse had said during the meeting, talking with his hands, as usual, long arms flapping around like a chimpanzee on speed as he talked. “We’ve got to move into the future, Ginny or become a relic of the past. It isn’t me driving the demand, it’s society. We need to meet that demand or simply watch libraries be boxed up with the rest of the artifacts.”

Artifacts and relics. It was all Frank seemed to be able to talk about since he’d hit the age of 65 and Ginny wondered if it was because he felt like he was becoming both. There were days she knew she felt like it and she was 12 years younger than him.

With a deep sigh, Ginny walked back to the office in the back of the building, flipped the light switch to on, and walked to the coffee pot she’d brought in herself to keep her and her assistant, Sarah, awake for the day. As the smell of Columbian Dark Roast hit her nostrils, she glanced at the photo of her husband Stanley on the shelf above her desk. She’d bucked the stereotypical trend of being a spinster librarian, but maybe that was because she’d been an English teacher at the local high school for 15 years first.

The picture of Stanley was from his third win as regional real estate agent, or was it his fourth? She couldn’t remember. He was up for the award again this year. Would he win number six? They’d know in a few more months. She wondered if he’d even ask her to attend. He hadn’t been asking her much of anything lately, or even talking to her for that matter.

 Sipping hot coffee 15 minutes later, Ginny flicked her fingers across the row of light switches in the main room. Fluorescent highlighted the bookcases and tables, the children’s room, and the doorway of the conference room. The rectangle over the mysteries and thrillers section was still flickering, making her feel slightly off balance. She’d have to ask the volunteer maintenance man, George Farley, who was also the town’s funeral home director, self-proclaimed town historian, and director of the local community theater, to help her change it this week.

She picked up a book from the return pile and did what she always did to start her day – opened the book and deeply inhaled the smell of ink and paper. She loved the smell and feel of books. She wasn’t a fan of those so-called e-books, which she felt was a misnomer. A book was something you held in your hand, not looked at on a screen. She didn’t want to hold some cold, hard, unfeeling device in her hand. She wanted to touch an actual physical copy of a book and lose herself inside another world with each turn of the page.

She turned on the computer on the front desk with a scowl.

The switch from paper filing to computers was another update she had fought against before admitting typing information into a computer was easier than pulling open drawers and flipping through rows of index cards. Using the computer system had been easier. Or it had been up until six months ago when the board voted to implement a new, supposedly more advanced and efficient, software. Sadly, the board hadn’t voted to upgrade the computers which meant the fancy-dancy software overloaded and crashed the system several times a week, sometimes several times a day.

The back door squeaked open and Ginny’s assistant Sarah Shultz slipped in quickly and slammed the door behind her, leaning against it as if to hold back some kind of nefarious onslaught.

“I think Ed Pickett just saw me from the diner’s front window,” she panted, looking over her shoulder like an escaped criminal. “He could be here any minute.”

“Oh, good grief. It’s way too early and way too Monday for Ed,” Ginny said sipping her coffee and closing her eyes. “I hope he finally reads the hours on the front door.”

Ed, the incessantly question asking Ed.

“Do you think I’d like the new John Grisham book or the new Tom Clancy?”

“Should I try out this new book by this woman author? I don’t usually read women authors. Too much estrogen for me.”

“I’ll just sit over here with these books, read the first chapter of each and decide which one I’ll check out. Okay?”

Then there was that time he had read the same book she was reading.

“Ah, that’s a good one,” he said, leaning one elbow against the front desk. “Too bad he killed the love interest off in the last chapter. I really liked her.”

Sarah lifted the strap of her messenger bag over her head and laid it behind the front desk.

“Rough weekend?”

Ginny shrugged. “Boring one.”

“We need to get you a new hobby.”

Ginny bit her tongue. Literally.

Sarah was well-meaning but 24, bubbly, and clueless about getting old. Ginny adored her but wanted to slide a book about menopause across the counter and introduce her to her future.

“I can’t imagine what I’d do,” Ginny smirked. “The library is my life.”

“Or so the library board thinks,” Sarah quipped.

Ginny snorted.

“God forbid I am not here at all times.” She rolled her eyes, walking toward the drop off box.

“Or be thinking about anything other than new programs,” Sarah called after her.

“And keep up the perfect appearance in the community,” Ginny called back, practicing her royal wave.

Ginny gathered the books in her arms and carried them back to the desk and stacked them on top of the returns from the previous day.

“You start entering them in,” Sarah said. “And I’ll start putting them back in their rightful places.”

“Get them done as quick as you can and make sure you get yourself some coffee. Ed will be here at the strike of 9, I’m sure.”

Ginny’s phone rang as she started to type. Her daughter Olivia’s photo popped up on the screen. Ginny took a deep breath before sliding her finger over the accept button.

“Hey, hon’.”

“Hey.” Olivia’s tone denoted the same air of melancholy that had been present in her voice for months now.

Ginny bit her lower lip, wondering what the heavy sigh mixed in with that one word meant. “Are your bags packed yet?”

“Not yet.”

“What time are you leaving for the airport?”

“Don’t know yet. Probably seven. My flight’s at nine.”

The click of the computer keys under Ginny’s finger filled the long silence that followed while Ginny waited for her daughter to offer a reason for her call.

After thirty long seconds, Ginny coughed softly. “So, will Victor be coming along?”

“His name’s Vernon, mom.”

“Oh, right. Sorry. I knew it started with a ‘V’ at least.”

“Yeah, anyhow, he won’t be coming. I broke it off with him last night.”

Ah. The reason for the heavy sighs.

Ginny was glad her daughter couldn’t see the smile tugging at her mouth. She forced the happiness from her voice. “I’m sorry, Liv. Do you need to talk about it?”

Olivia huffed out a breath. “No. Whatever. He’s just a jerk.”

Ginny typed Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis into the computer and clicked the box next to returned.

“He said we were too different.” Oliva scoffed. “Whatever. More like he was too different. And a weirdo. All that constant pontificating about Tennyson and Hardy.”

Ginny smirked, recalling the awkward family dinner at Thanksgiving when Oliva had brought Vic — er — Vernon home from California with her for the holiday break. The way his complexion had paled at the sight of Tiffany changing a diaper in the middle of the living room floor while she shared her birth story with Ginny’s second oldest, Maddie. Really, though, Tiffany could have excused herself to the bedroom. Of course, Olivia’s announcement over dinner that she was now a vegan and couldn’t imagine “something dead that had once been alive and free” touching her lips hadn’t helped the day either.

“Well, who knows what will happen over the winter break,” Ginny said propping the phone between her cheek and shoulder as she typed. “Maybe absence will make the heart grow fonder.”

“He’s transferring to Cornell for the spring semester. Says they have a better architecture program.”

“You know —”

“I know, Mom.” Ginny heard a door or drawer slam on the other end of the line. “I could have gone to Cornell, two hours from the tiny, boring town I grew up in.” Another slam. “And I could have married the brother of a senator like Maddie or popped out babies like Tiffany and joined the Spencer Valley PTA and become like all the other closed-minded, uptight smalltown women.”

Ginny pressed her lips into a thin line. “There’s no reason to be snotty, Olivia. I’m not making you come home. You’re welcome to spend spring break out there if Spencer Valley is so detestable to you.”

Her youngest daughter sighed. “I’m sorry, Mom. It’s not that I don’t want to come home. It’s just, I don’t know — Classes were tough this semester and now all this with Vernon.” Ginny listened to fingernails drumming on wood. “But a visit home is probably what I need to clear my mind and help me decide if this is where I want to finish my degree.”

Ginny had a hard time imagining her daughter finishing her social work degree anywhere other than California after she’d begged to attend Stanford University two years ago. She couldn’t count the number of times Olivia had declared her love for the state of California, especially its all-year-around warm weather. Still, having Olivia closer to home, where Ginny could figure out where her daughter’s joy had disappeared to, would be nice too.

“I’ll call you when I have my flight details.”

Ginny clicked return next to a Tom Clancy book. “I’m looking forward to seeing you, Liv. Your father is too.”

“Yeah.” Olivia sighed again. “I’m looking forward to seeing you guys too.”

Her tone didn’t convey excitement, but at least she’d made the effort to say the words. Ginny finished entering returns after she hung up. She slid her finger over her phone screen when she was done, tapping on her husband’s name as she walked to the front door to unlock it.

“Shouldn’t you be opening the library?”

Couldn’t anyone just say, ‘hello’ anymore? “A good morning would have been nice.”

“Good morning. Shouldn’t you be opening the library?”

“I’m doing that now. I was delayed by a call from our daughter.”

“Ah. I see.” She heard the click of the computer keys on his end. “She’s on her way home for spring break?”

“Yes. Not very happily, but yes.”

“What’s His Face coming with her?”

“Vernon and no. They broke up.”

Stan snorted. “Wonderful. Maybe she’ll start eating normally again.”

Ginny shrugged. “Not sure that had anything to do with Vernon.” She took a deep breath as she heard the rustle of papers. Her stomach tightened. She shouldn’t ask. He’d probably say no but, “Want to grab lunch at the diner later?”

“Hmmm?” The crinkle of rustling papers muffled his voice. “What’s that?

She clicked the lock open on the towering wooden front door and tilted her head to one side, sighing softly. “I asked if you want to grab lunch at the diner later.”

More papers rustling. “Oh. Yeah. No. Can’t. I have a showing at lunch time and another one at 2. Rain check?”

If she had a dollar for every rain check they’d agreed on in the last year she’d be a millionaire. Not one of those rainchecks had ever been called in.

“Yeah. Sure. No problem.”

She cleared her throat, rubbing her fingertip along the edge of a bookshelf and making a face on the dirt staining her skin. She’d better move dusting to the top spot on her to-do list.

A drawer slammed shut on his end. “Great. See you later.”

She drew a deep breath, rushed ahead before she could chicken out. “I could make us those steaks I picked up at Clark’s.”

“I’ve got a meeting in Danby at 5 so I won’t be home until late. I thought I told you this morning.”

He hadn’t. “Oh. Right. Well. See you later then and love —”

The trill of a ringer cut her out off. “Gotta go, hon’. Probably George about that commercial property in Laporte.”

“Of course, go take —”

Click.

Ginny stared at the black screen for a few moments before setting her phone face down on the desk. She could only hope the rest of her day went better that those two phone calls had gone.

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

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

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

Chapter 27

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

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

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

Another one from Molly. Sent an hour ago.

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

At the top of her messages was one from Jason.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s not tr —”

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

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

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

Ellie laughed softly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judi shook her head, sobbing against her hand.

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

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

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

Judi nodded slowly, pressing her hand to her mouth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Selina’s the roommate?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Innocent, no. Apologetic and contrite, yes.

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

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

“It’s romantic to be messed up?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Before Jason gets here?”

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

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

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

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

Chapter 28

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

That’s what he’d texted to her.

It was true, but not the full truth.

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

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

By evening he couldn’t wait any longer.

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

“Who says I’m going to see Ellie?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ann, I —”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 “Ann, you didn’t have to do this.”

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

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

“Yes, ma’am.”

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

“Anytime.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where you should be.”

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

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

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

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

“You don’t know that though.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“El, listen I —”

“I’m a hypocrite, Jason.”

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

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

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

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

She looked up quickly, met his gaze.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She laughed. “Definitely a kiss hello.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah. We do.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Kick him out, of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

“No. You won’t.”

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

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

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

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

“Oh yeah? Which one?”

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

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