Extra Fiction Thursday: Quarantined Chapter 11 and Epilogue

Welcome to the final chapter of Quarantined. To catch up with the story click HERE.


Chapter 11

John was laughing, holding one of the national newspapers that most people referred to as a “gossip rag.”

“Matt, have you seen this?”

John tossed the paper, front page up, onto Matt’s desk.

Normally Matt found himself seething with anger when he saw an inaccurate or misleading headline but this time he simply tipped his head back and laughed loudly.

“Ah, man, this press conference might be fun,” he said with a grin, tying his tie. “You think they’ll ask me about it?”

John tossed another gossip newspaper on the top of the desk and nodded. “I’d guess someone will. TMZ is covering it too.”

“TMZ? I’m not Jay-Z or Beyonce. Are you serious?”

Matt was laughing harder now as he snatched up the folder with his notes and walked briskly toward the office door. “Come on, let’s do this. Cassie, you want to watch this one? This one could be fun.”

Cassie glanced at the front page of the paper as she walked toward the door then stopped, took a few steps backward and looked at the paper again.

“Is that me? In a robe? Where was that photographer even at to get that photo?”

Her eyes were wide as she followed Matt down the hallway. “Matt, we need to install a fence and better security. That’s an invasion of privacy.”

A splattering of camera flashes and shutter clicks met Matt when he reached the end of the stairs of the capitol and stood in front of the members of the press, many of them shoving cellphones and microphones at him. Cassie and John stood behind him, listening to a variety of questions related to the current uncertain situation with a possible deadly virus moving across the country and what Matt intended to do about other pressing national security issues when the Senate was back in session.

Matt answered the questions and was preparing to wish the reporters a good day when a reporter called to him.

“Representative Grant, is it true that while you were supposed to be quarantined with your family you had another woman at your house, in your backyard? Neighbors say they saw you kissing her and leading her into your garage.”

Several cellphones and microphones were shoved back toward him.

Matt shot the reporter a surprised expression, one eyebrow raised. “I have no idea what you are referring to Patrick. Please enlighten me.”

Patrick O’Donnell held up the paper with the photograph of Cassie straddling Matt in their backyard on the lawn chair.

“That doesn’t look like a neighbor saw me. That looks like a photographer saw me.”

Patrick pressed him. “Then you don’t deny this is you in the photo?”

“No, I don’t.”

Smirks filtered across the press pool, pens moving feverishly across reporter notebooks.

“I also don’t deny that the woman in the photo is my wife, Cassie.”

A female reporter in the front of the group rolled her eyes and shoved her pen in her pocket, clearly uninterested in the story now that she knew he’d simply been with his wife.

“She dyed her hair to try something different with her appearance. And what you see there is the culmination of a wonderful at-home date night while I was in quarantine. It was a great make out session that we later moved to the privacy of our garage so we could have amazing married sex without waking our children. Yes. There really is such a thing as great married sex.”

Cassie gasped softly and clasped her hand over her mouth. John laughed and shook his head.

“Aw man…” he said.  “Looks like the old Matt has come back to us.”

Matt’s expression was a cross between angry and amused. “Any more questions?”

Laughter spread across the press pool. Patrick’s face flushed bright red as he joined in the laughter. “No, Senator. I think that answers my question.”

Matt cleared his throat, his eyes moving across them, his smile fading.­ “With that behind us, I have an announcement to make.”

The cameras that had been turning off clicked back on. Phones were shoved toward him to record his words. Pens will slid out of pockets again.

“This will be my last term as a senator from the great state of Ohio.”

Cassie gasped for the second time in only a few minutes. Her husband was apparently full of surprises today. He hadn’t told her he was going to tell a group of national reporters about their sex life and he hadn’t told her he had decided not to run for reelection. What had changed his mind? She looked at John and noticed he didn’t have the same surprised expression on his face that she did.

“Did you know?”

He nodded, a smile tugging at one side of his mouth. He looked slightly sheepish, rubbing his hand along the back of his neck. “You mean he didn’t talk to you yet? He said he was planning to. Um . . . Yeah.  Well, we’ve been talking about it, but I didn’t know he was going to announce it today.”

“What led to this decision?” a reporter asked.

“My heart,” Matt responded with a small smile, looking up and catching Cassie’s eye.

Matt answered a few more questions then stepped away from the podium and walked toward Cassie and John, reaching for Cassie’s hand. They didn’t speak until they were locked inside the elevator with John.

Matt spoke before Cassie could. “I know. I’m sorry. I should have told you I’d made this decision, but I can’t put our family through this anymore, Cassie. I can’t put you through this anymore.”

He slid his arms around her waist and pulled her gently against him. “I don’t know what our future holds, but I am thinking private practice again. John has agreed to be my paralegal and I’ll find something for Liam to do too, some way for him to use that PR degree of his.”

“Are we going back to Ohio?”

Matt nodded. “I really think that would be best at this point, yes.” He cupped her chin in his, searching her eyes. “What do you think? I know I should have asked you before I made the announcement, but what do you think?”

Cassie smiled. “I think Tyler is going to be upset leaving his friends, but I think you made the right decision. We will all adjust.”

Matt kissed her briefly as the doors to the elevator opened. Bright sunlight pouring in from the glass doors of the capitol building bounced light off the floor and chandeliers, prompting all three of them to reach for their sunglasses.

Matt paused and turned toward John. “I’m heading home for the afternoon, John. I’ll call later and we’ll discuss this more.”

John nodded. “Sounds good. Liam and I will get the releases together for you to look at.”

Matt slid his arm around Cassie’s waist as they walked nodding at a couple members of the press, a few senators and two congressmen as they walked toward the back parking lot toward their car.

Matt lifted his phone as it rang and smiled as he read the caller ID.

“Hey, Liam.”

“What was that? I thought we were going to draft a press release when I got in this afternoon.”

“I know. Sorry. The timing just felt right.”

Liam laughed. “Classic Matt response. Seriously, it was fine with me, I just didn’t expect you to announce it so quickly. I’ll work with John on a press release with more details this afternoon. And, hey, that whole thing with Cassie was hilarious.”

Matt laughed, his hand on the door to his car. “It was but at the same time it was concerning. I don’t like the idea of the press being able to access our property that way. I think stepping out of the limelight for the next few months should help alleviate some of that until we can get back to Ohio. Anyhow, things still getting better with you and Maddie?”

“We’ve barely left this bed all morning, does that answer your question?”

Matt winced and made a face. “Dude, as happy as I am that you and Maddie are getting things back on track, I did not need to know that.”

Liam burst into laughter. “I didn’t mean it that way.” Matt could hear Maddie laughing in the background. “We’re watching movies together. That’s all. For now, anyhow.”

“Ah man, I have to go. Too much information, Liam.”

Cassie slid into the passenger seat as Matt slid behind the steering wheel.

“So, what’s the verdict? Things still getting better over there?”

“I’d say so. They’ve been in bed all day.”

Cassie made the same face Matt had made a few moments earlier. “Oh, that’s what you meant by too much information. I mean I’m happy for them, but that’s more than I needed to know.”

“He said they’re watching movies.”

Cassie laughed, flipping back a strand of her now blond-streaked brown hair. “Yeah, sure that’s all they’re doing. But good. That means that both of the Grant brother’s marriages are on the right track then.”

Matt leaned toward his wife and cupped his hand against her face, sliding his thumb along her cheekbone. “Yes. That is exactly what that means.”

Epilogue

“Pregnant? Really?”

A smiled tugged at Matt’s mouth, even though he’d considered teasing his wife for a moment and pretending to be upset at whatever important news she said she had to tell him. This announcement, though, had genuinely brought a smile to his face. Yes, the children they had were exhausting. Yes, this news was definitely a shock and surprise. But also, yes, he loved his children, they were a blessing, and if God was giving them another blessing, he was more than ready to accept it.

Cassie caught her lower lip between her teeth then let it slide out again. “Are you upset?”

“Upset? Do I look upset?” He pulled Cassie gently against him and kissed her mouth gently. “This is wonderful news, Cassie.”

“Even now, with our future up in the air? With you getting ready to leave the Senate and rebuilding your law firm?”

“Even now, Cassie.” He looked at her with a furrowed brow. “I don’t know why you’re shaking. Were you that nervous to tell me?”

Cassie nodded, tears rimming her eyes even though a smile was pulling at her mouth. “I know it was silly, but yes, I was that nervous. Not just to tell you, but what it might mean for ”

Matt wiped at the tear that escaped the corner of her eye with the palm of his thumb. “We’ll make it work. I’m not worried about that.”

When his cellphone rang he let it go to voicemail, not even bothering to see who it was. Whoever it was could call back.

Cassie wiped at the tears on her cheeks. “I wonder what the kids will think.”

“Tyler might not be very happy, but I think the girls will love the idea of a baby to take care of.”

His cellphone rang again. Cassie nodded toward it. “Maybe you’d better take that. You’re not out of the Senate yet. It could be important.”

Matt shrugged. “Doubt it.” He reached for the phone anyhow, glancing at the caller ID.

It was coming out of Washington, that’s all he knew, and it was probably Senate business, but that business could wait.

He placed the phone down again and slid his arm back around Cassie, holding her close. “I don’t have time for spam right now. I’ll listen to it later. Right now my focus needs to be on this family and,” he smiled as he touched Cassie’s belly. “This new baby.”

***

Matt rubbed his hands across his eyes and yawned. He’d been ignoring his phone and emails all day. He and Cassie had talked about the new baby, told the children, had dinner, spent some time watching a movie and holding each other and now Cassie was asleep upstairs. He’d stumbled into his office to catch up on phone calls and see what he’d been missing. One voicemail was from John, asking him to call him back, another was a call from a member of the media, and the third was from Liam, asking him about his plans for Labor Day weekend.

He reached over to click off the desk lamp as the phone rang again. He lifted it, glancing at the caller ID and yawning again. 202 area code. Someone in Washington again. He rolled his eyes, ready for his day to be over, but he decided he had better take the call this time. This same number had called four times today already.

“Senator Grant?”

“Yes?”

“Hello. Glad I finally caught you. This is Alexander Marshall, Chief of Staff for the president. We noticed on the news that you’ve decided not to run for re-election this year.”

The White House? Really? Matt definitely new Alexander’s name but he needed to feel this conversation out; make sure it was actually him.

“Um, yeah. Hello, Mr. Marshall. Yes, I felt that I’d accomplished at least most of what I wanted to do here, for my constituents and that I should —”

“We understand, Matt, may I call you Matt? And I certainly would want you to call me Alexander.”

“Yes. Sure. Of course, you can call me Matt.”

He was beginning to think this really was Alexander Marshall. He certainly had the same New York accent as Alexander Marshall.

“We understand why you’re stepping down Matt, but to be blunt, we don’t think your job is done here in Washington yet. You’ve propelled a lot of the goals of our party forward in some very high-profile ways. Listen, Matt while we here at the White House, specifically the president, respect your decision to stay home with your family, we are willing to offer you a position on the president’s cabinet, which would keep you in Washington and close to your family while also still being able to serve your country, something we know is very important to you.”

Matt sat up straighter in his chair as Alexander continued speaking. His exhaustion was fading, adrenaline kicking in fast.

“As you know the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security has stepped down and this is the position the president has personally asked us to approach you about and have you consider taking on. Would you be willing to at least consider this offer and get back to us by the end of the week with your answer?”

Matt’s mouth had gone dry. He shook his head as if to wake himself from the dream he was sure he was having. The president wanted him on his cabinet? Was this really happening?

“Uh, yes. Yes, of course I will consider it Mr. Marshall – um, Alexander.”

“Great. That’s great. I hope to hear by this week that you’ll be joining our team.”

As he hung up Matt felt a twinge of guilt. Had he just said he’d consider a job on the president’s cabinet, on the same day he’d promised his wife he’d consult everything with her from now on, especially if it affected the entire family? Indeed, he had.

 He let out a long breath. He had to talk to Cassie about this sooner rather than later. He couldn’t keep the news from her. They’d have to discuss it and make a decision.

Whatever that decision was, though, he knew they’d make it together – as a family.

Fiction Friday: The Farmer’s Daughter Chapter 25

This week I’ve been busy trying to extract Jason’s storyline from the novel because if I don’t I’m going to have an opus on my hands and I’m not interested in writing one of those. I figure I’ll plop a novella about Jason in between The Farmer’s Daughter and The Librarian, which is already partially written. I’ll share the remainder of his story here on the blog on Fiction Friday, though.

The following chapter will definitely be rewritten. I hesitated even sharing it this week because I didn’t get to rewrite or rework it as often as I usually do before I post it to the blog. Luckily (I mean that sincerely) I don’t have a huge following so not too many people will be disappionted. Haha!

For those who do read each week, stay tuned for updates or you can download the book when it is done. I’m still trying to figure out a way to offer it for free for my blog readers. I know there is a way. I just need to research it more. The final book will be much shorter than what I post here after editing and removing Jason’s story, of course.

Anyhow, to catch up on the rest of the story click HERE.


Chapter 25

 I miss you, he texted.

Her: You just saw me in the barn a couple hours ago.

Him: Two days without kissing you is too long.

Her: It is. Drive me to my grandma’s in the morning? Dad’s working on my truck.

Him: Can I kiss you before I drop you off?

Her: Maybe.

Him: I’ll meet you after milking.

Her: I can’t wait.

***

The leather of the Bible cover was smooth under Franny’s hand as she brushed the dust from it.

She could see better now since her surgery. She really had no excuse not to read it.

Except that whole being mad at God thing.

She sighed and slid her fingers down the spine of it and then across the front again, across her name embossed in gold on the front. The Bible had been a birthday gift from Ned 20 years ago.

“New King James,” he’d announced proudly as she unwrapped it. “Just like you asked. Not too modern. Not too old fashioned. The perfect translation.”

The perfect translation yet it still couldn’t help her translate her pain into joy or her ashes into beauty.

She held the Bible against her as she walked toward the back porch. She usually sat on the front porch, but she needed a change of scenery today and she only had a little time before her friend Betty, Annie’s mother and Molly and Jason’s other grandmother, came to help her finish a quilt they’d been working on.

The sun poured yellow and white across the paint-chipped floor, stretching shadows of trees toward her brown slippers as she walked.

“Should have brought a quilt out here with me. It’s getting chilly.”

Sitting in the chair closest to the railing she lowered herself slowly onto the soft pillow she’d sown several years ago at the sewing club and looked out toward the dirt road and the field.

Someone had parked a truck in that patch of field behind the maple tree where Ned used to hang the tire swing for the kids and just beyond the chicken coop. The area where Robert had made a makeshift entrance for the field when he drove in there to plant the corn.

“Now who would have done that? It gets muddy out there. Don’t they know that? They’ll get their truck stuck.” She lifted herself slightly and squinted toward the truck. “Is that that Stone boy who works for Robert? What’s he doing parking in the field like that? I hope he’s not out there with one of those little blond floozies again.”

She shook her head, her Bible on her lap, knowing she should open it, but her eye was drawn to movement at the truck as the passenger side door opened. Was that her granddaughter climbing out of that truck?

Franny’s eyes narrowed further down and her mouth pressed into a thin line as she watched Alex slide out of the truck, walk around the front of it, and approach Molly.

“Now, what do you think you’re doing there, young ma—ooooh my.”

The sight of Alex pulling her granddaughter close and cupping her young face in his hands before he kissed her expanded Franny’s eyes from narrowed slits to round circles.

She shook her head. “Well, now I’m not sure if I’m glad I got that surgery on my eyes or not.”

She stood when she saw Molly turn toward the house, deciding she wouldn’t let her granddaughter catch her watching her romantic visit with the farm hand.

She was sitting on the couch in the living room with the Bible on her lap trying to act innocent when Molly slipped through the back door, the screen door bouncing closed behind her.

“Hey, Grandma.”

“Hey, girl. Didn’t know I was going to see you today. What brings you over?”

Molly stayed in the kitchen, reaching for a glass in the cabinet next to the stove. “I just wanted to come and say ‘hello’. I haven’t stopped by for a while.”

“Mmmmm. I see. Well, if you stay a bit you’ll get to see both of your grandmothers. Betty is on her way over to help me finish a quilt.”

“Great! Hey, I’m going to grab myself a glass of water. You want one?”

Franny leaned back against the couch and made herself comfortable. “Yes, actually, that would be nice. It is a bit warm today.” She coughed softly. “I guess you’ve worked up a sweat before you got here.”

Molly sat a glass of ice water on the table next the couch for her grandmother and held hers as she sat next on the couch. Franny studied her second oldest granddaughter’s flushed cheeks and knew it wasn’t only the warm day bringing that light pink to her skin.

“I didn’t see your truck. Did you walk here today?”

She raised an eyebrow, waiting for Molly to answer. I’ve got you now, Molly-girl.

Molly’s uneasy expression and the quick way she adverted her eyes to study something obviously more interesting on the cushion of the couch amused Franny.

“Oh. Um. No.” Molly waved toward the window behind her. “Alex dropped me off on his way into town. He’s going to swing by later and pick me up.

Franny propped her elbow on the arm of the couch and leaned her face against her hand.

“Mmhmm…. I see.” She turned slightly toward her granddaughter, stretching an arm across the back of the couch. “So, tell me, Molly, do you love Alex Stone or was that kiss I just saw him giving you part of a summer romance?”

Molly choked on the water she was drinking, droplets sputtering from her lips. She set the glass down and wiped her mouth before looking at her grandmother with wide eyes. “I’m sorry?”

“Are you now? Well, should you be? Sorry, that is?”

Molly watched her grandmother with wide eyes and a partially opened mouth, unsure of how to respond.

“I was on the back porch and saw you two having a nice moment, you might say. Outside his truck. Just now.”

“Oh.”

“I hope these little rendezvous of yours have only involved kissing. Or was this the first rendezvous?”

Molly looked at the ceiling and sighed. Lord, have mercy. You sent my grandmother to keep an eye on me?

“No. I mean, yes, it was only kissing, but no it wasn’t the first time.” Quieter, under her breath she added: “And I guess that eye surgery did wonders for you. Sadly.”

Franny smirked. “It was my eyes that were the issue, sweetie, not my ears. I heard that.”

Molly was glad to see some of her grandmother’s spunk had returned, though she wished it had been used on another family member instead of her.

“Does your daddy know about this?”

“No. Not yet.”

Franny sipped her water, glancing out the front window. “It should be interesting when he finds out.”

Molly swallowed water in large gulps. “Mmm, yeah. It should be.”

Franny smiled, sipping her water again. “He’s a good looking young man. That Alex.”

“Yes.”

“Polite.”

“Yes.”

“Bit of a drinker, though.”

“He’s not drinking like he used to, Grandma.”

“Used to watch him drive up this road with some pretty young ladies in his truck.”

“Yes.”

“You better not be another notch on his bed post, or I’ll have his hide.”

Molly gasped. What else had the doctors done to her grandmother at that hospital? Apparently, they had turned the dial on her sass factor all the way to ten. “Grandma!”

“I’m serious, Molly.”

“Grandma, I wouldn’t  . . . I mean, I don’t think he’s . . . he’s different now, Grandma. He’s . . . changing.”

“Some men will say whatever you want to hear. They’ll say they’ve changed when they haven’t. But I hope he really has so he’s worthy of my granddaughter.”

Molly sat her glass of water on the coffee table, pulled her legs up under her and turned so she was facing her grandmother. She casually propped her arm along the back of the couch to match her grandmother’s pose.

“You’re really enjoying yourself teasing me, aren’t you, Grandma?”

“I am but I’m also serious. I want you to be careful, Molly.”

“I am.”

Franny raised an eyebrow over her glass as she drank from it.

“Really, Grandma. I am.”

Franny sighed and lowered the eyebrow as she sat her glass back down. “Well, he’s a hard worker. That’s one good thing he’s got going for him. That and those pretty blue eyes. I’m sure you’ve noticed them.”

Molly smiled, red spreading along her cheeks again. “Yes. I have noticed those.”

“Your grandpa was a hard-worker too, you know that.”

“I do.”

Molly leaned back, hopeful the interrogation was over. She decided she needed to try to change the subject. “Grandma, how did you and grandpa meet?”

Franny knew her granddaughter was changing the subject but decided to let it go. She motioned toward the bookcase across on the other side of the room, from the couch. “On that bottom shelf over there is a photo album. Go get it for me, will you?”

Molly heard the front door open as she lifted the album from the shelf and sat back on the couch.

Hannah carried a basket into the house, walking toward the kitchen. “Ladies. What are we up to today?”

 “Your niece is just over here changing the subject.”

Molly shot her grandmother a warning scowl with a hint of a smile. Franny winked.

“What’s that?” Hannah asked from the kitchen.

“We’re just looking at photos of grandma and grandpa,” Molly said quickly.

The last thing she needed was Hannah chiming in on her relationship with Alex.

Staring back at Molly from her grandmother’s photo album was a couple Molly knew were her grandparents, despite how young they were. She could see them in their eyes, in their broad smiles, standing outside the farmhouse she was now sitting in, his arms around her. The photo was black and white. Franny was wearing a flowered dress, her hair pulled back in a 40s hairstyle. Her grandfather was handsome, square jawline, bright eyes, dark hair swept off his forehead, wearing a uniform.

“That was the day before he left for Vietnam.” Franny tapped the photo with the tip of her finger. “He’d proposed to me a month earlier.”

“What color was the dress?”

“Blue with red flowers. Your great grandmother made it for me as a graduation gift.”

Cupboard doors opened and closed in the kitchen. “I picked up some of that soup you like, Mom,” Hannah called from the kitchen. “And a couple boxes of crackers.”

Franny tapped her finger against another photo. “Here we are on our wedding day, after he came home. He was over there about a year before he was shot in the leg. Doctors didn’t think he’d walk again so he was discharged.”

Another page was turned. “Oh, and here a year and a half after our wedding, with your uncle Walt. He was such a fat baby.”

Molly and Franny laughed.

Hannah walked from the kitchen, drying her hands on a dish towel. “I put some lasagna in a container in the fridge for dinner tonight and some pork chops for lunch tomorrow.”

“Thank you much,” Franny said still looking at the album.

Hannah sat on the arm of the couch, craning her neck to look at the album on her mother’s lap. “Is that me with Robert?”

Franny smiled. “Oh, yes. You loved to have him give you piggyback rides around the yard.”

Molly looked at a photo of her grandfather standing outside the barn, a little girl about five, with reddish-brown curls cascading down her back. “Is that me?”

Hannah sat on the couch next to Molly. “Oh, you were so funny. You’d follow Dad around with that little metal bucket we used to use for the chicken feed. ‘I milk da cows now’d, Grandpa,’ you’d say, you rlittle pants falling off your diaper clad bottom.”

The three women laughed at the memory.

“And who knew that a few years later Sarah and Max would be doing the same,” Molly said, talking about her much younger cousins, now 14 and 16.

Franny traced her fingertip along a photo of Ned, mentally transported to a day 10 years earlier when he’d talked about retiring, letting the boys take over more of the operation of the farm.

“We’re going to have more time for ourselves, Franny,” he’d told her. “More time for long walks around the farm, watching fireflies in the field, maybe we can even take a trip or two.”

They had had a few years of those nights to watch fireflies and they’d even taken a couple of trips to a couple of lighthouses a few hours away before Ned became sicker, but Franny had expected many more years and in so many ways she felt robbed.

She bit her lower lip as Hannah and Molly laughed about other photographs on the page; Robert in bellbottoms, Annie’s hair when she was pregnant with Molly, Hannah’s high heeled shoes she almost fell out of on her prom night.

Molly glanced at her grandmother and noticed the tears glimmering, hovering on the edge, ready to spill over. Her laughter faded and she reached over to cover Franny’s hand with her own.

“You okay?”

Franny nodded, but closed her eyes, a tear escaping down her cheek. When she opened her mouth to speak, she found she couldn’t. An ache squeezed at her chest as more tears pooled in her eyes.

“I miss him, girls,” she whispered a few moments later. “I miss him.”

Hannah moved to kneel in front of her mother, sliding the photo album from her lap and laying it on the coffee table.

“We do too, Mom. We do too.”

Sobs shook Franny’s small body as she bowed her head. “I’ve — I’ve been mad at God.” She opened her eyes and looked at the ceiling, so she didn’t have to look at Molly and Hannah, see their looks of surprise, maybe even shock or disappointment. “It’s wrong, but I’ve been mad at him for taking Ned away from me.”

Hannah clutched Franny’s hands in hers.

“Mom. Look at me.”

Franny shook her head and closed her eyes again.

“Mom.”

She looked at Hannah, her eyes red from crying.

“Remember what you told me after my miscarriage? You told me that it’s okay to be mad at God. You told me, ‘He’s big enough to handle it.’ Remember?”

Franny continued to cry, nodding.

She mouthed “thank you,” her voice stolen by emotion.

Molly swallowed hard as Hannah, still kneeling, laid her head in her mother’s lap and began to cry. Franny touched the top of Hannah’s head, sank her hands into her daughter’s dark hair and bent over her in a protective move, continuing to cry softly.

 Molly felt like she was interrupting a tender, private moment somehow until Franny looked over, slid her arm around Molly and pulled her close.

The front screen door squeaked open a few moments later and footsteps followed.

“Hello? Franny? You here?”

There was pause in the footsteps and then a soft gasp. “Oh…my. What have I walked into?”

Molly sniffed and looked up at her other grandmother Betty, smiling slightly through the tears. “A good cry.”

She held her hand out to Betty whose eyes softened with compassionate realization, not needing to be told what the tears were for.

She took Molly’s hand.

“Well, then, let me get in on that good cry, ladies.”

Molly held Betty’s right hand and leaned against Franny and Hannah reached up and clutched Betty’s left hand. The four women cried together, letting go of the emotions they’d been holding in for far too long.

Extra Fiction Thursday: Quarantined, a novella, Chapter 5

As always, this is a work of fiction in progress. What I share on the blog is not the final draft of the novel or novella I’m working on. I reread, rewrite, and rework the stories a few times before I finally publish them on Kindle or Barnes and Noble. I also try to fix typos, plot holes, and punctuation issues in the final draft and have it proofed and edited. If you see errors in the chapters I post on the blog, feel free to send me a note on my contact form (link at the top of the page) so I can make the corrections, if I haven’t caught them aready.

Following along with the story and missed a week or want to follow along? Find the other chapters HERE.

Have some thoughts on the story itself? Let me know in the comments.

Chapter 5

Cassie climbed under the covers and flopped on her back to stare at the ceiling, moonlight cutting a square across it from the window.

What was with all of Matt’s weird questions tonight? The situation with Liam and Maddie must be rattling him even more than she realized. She rolled to her side, fluffed up her pillow, hugged it and tried to get more comfortable.

It wasn’t working.

Her mind was racing too much.

Maybe Liam and Maddie’s situation was rattling her too.

She was thinking about them and their marriage, and viruses and if her family was safe and how to get groceries if they had to shelter in place for even longer and the media and what they’d be saying for the rest of the week with Matt and his staff having still worked for a week after they knew they’d been exposed to a contagious virus and  . . . .

She squeezed her eyes shut, sucked in a deep breath, and held it for several seconds before letting it out again. She had to calm down. What was that one relaxation technique she’d heard about again? Breathe in six seconds, hold five? Or was it, breathe in seven and hold six and then let it out for the count of four or was it letting it out for the count of seven? Oh, forget it. Trying to remember the technique was making her even more anxious.

She closed her eyes and tried to focus on one worry at a time instead.

She couldn’t deny that there were days she regretted agreeing with Matt that he should run for the senate in the first place. They both had such high hopes six years ago; hopes that they could make changes for the voters who had put their faith in Matt, while not being changed themselves. But it was impossible not to be changed by the influences of Washington, D.C. Nothing in this city was like the small upstate New York town Cassie had grown up in and it was also nothing like Stevensville, Ohio where she and Matt had lived before he had been elected.

Stevensville, Ohio was small. Very small. Like everyone knows your name and your business small. It was also still her and Matt’s home in the summers when they left the city behind for much needed breaks. Only that break wouldn’t be coming this year. Not with all the craziness about viruses and quarantines and freezes on travel. Cassie wanted to cry but she was afraid to because once she started, she might not stop. She was homesick for New York and Ohio, for her own family, for Matt’s family, for the familiar she’d left behind when Matt was elected six years ago.

She sighed and opened her eyes, looking at the other side of the bed where Matt slept most nights of the week, unless he was working late and then he stayed at John’s apartment, closer to his office. She touched cool sheets, thinking of how many nights they’d laid here next to each other, back to back, rarely speaking because she knew he needed his sleep, because she knew he needed to get up early in the morning, because she didn’t want to burden him anymore than he was already burdened.

But she missed him. She missed him holding her and them talking about their future, instead of him telling her about the stress he’d been under that day and then falling into a fitful sleep. She missed his hand on her cheek as he moved closer late at night, a small, mischievous smile that signaled he wasn’t ready for sleep yet.

She missed long, slow kisses, roaming hands, but as much as the physical, she missed the emotional connection they’d once had. The connection when Matt wanted to talk with her before anyone else, when he didn’t want to make a decision unless he’d asked her, and when she’d known so much about his day, his job and his life that it was as if they were thinking like one person.

“Cassie, are you sure you’re okay with this?” he’d asked eight and a half years ago when he’d considered running for Senate.

“Yeah. I am.”

That’s what she’d said, but she really hadn’t been sure she was okay with it. She was okay with Matt wanting to help the people of his small hometown and the surrounding counties by becoming a senator from Ohio, but she wasn’t really sure she was okay with the lives of their entire family being upended. She’d given up her social worker career four years before, deciding to spend more time at home with the children. Matt’s career as a lawyer had exploded and from there he’d become involved in county politics and then state politics. When the state’s Republican party came to him and asked him to run for the senate, he’d turned them down at first. But after several meetings, a few months of consideration, and talking to Cassie, his parents, his sister and brother, and his pastor, he’d decided to step into an already contentious race for the seat.

From the moment he’d announced to the day he won the seat the lives of the Grant family had been a whirlwind. After the election, the moving began. Tyler had been 7 at the time, Gracie 3 and Lauren was born in Washington. Every effort was made to ensure that the children and Cassie would see Matt as much as possible, despite his job, but there were weeks they still barely saw him at all.

The idea of having the family living close had been a good one, but the execution of it had started to fail within six months. Meetings, conferences, sessions that ran late into the night, and media-made emergencies were constant, taking over every aspect of Matt and Cassie’s life. Matt still made every effort to attend baseball games, dance recitals, and Saturday mornings at the park, in addition to balancing his responsibilities as a senator, but that left little to almost no time for him and Cassie.

For the most part, Cassie was okay with being the last in line for his attention. She preferred he spend as much time as he could with the children during their formative years. This was a season of life, not a new normal. Time for them, as a couple, would come later, when things slowed down.

If things slow down, Cassie thought, panic suddenly gripping her, like a heavy weight in the center of her chest. If Matt gets reelected we could have another six years of this and maybe even another six after that. . .It’s already been six, I don’t know if I can take another six.

She shuddered, pulling the covers up around her, even though it wasn’t that cold in their bedroom. She tried to imagine six more years, or even more, of accusations against her husband, and sometimes even her, in the press. She tried to imagine six more years of barely seeing her husband; of feeling like her husband’s nanny, even though she loved her children desperately; and of constituents confronting her husband when they were out in public, complaining about this or that change he’d promised he’d make if elected but still hadn’t been able to.

Tyler would be graduating high school at the end of six years. So much of his life had already been consumed by Matt’s position. Would he have to endure it during his high school years as well?

Cassie knew it wasn’t only the quiet life she and Matt had led before he’d entered politics that she was homesick for.  She was homesick for time alone with Matt. She was tired of sharing him with his staff, his fellow congressmen, his constituents, and the press. She was tired of feeling like she was second in line for his attention, even though she knew he didn’t mean to make her feel that way.

Who knows, she thought, feeling sleep finally settling on her. Maybe this quarantine will be good for not only Liam and Maddie but for Matt and me. Maybe I’ll actually get him to myself for once.

***

The election had been brutal. There was no denying it. Worse than the campaigning, the traveling, the long days, had been the media coverage. Non-stop negative stories aimed at destroying Matthew Eben Grant before he could even open his mouth. The media machine was out of control. There was no denying it, especially after that first month of campaigning when one of the state’s biggest newspapers had questioned his staff’s lack of diversity. Those questions had led to him refusing to answer questions of his campaign staff’s ethnic backgrounds and horrified when a newspaper had called the head of his campaign his “one token person of color,” as if she hadn’t been qualified for her job simply on the merits of her professional experience.

From that story it was a quick jump to combing through Matt and Liam’s social media accounts, searching for anything that would sink them in the political arena. One rogue satirical Tweet from his college days, labeled as sexist by feminists, dominated headlines for a few days, but as it always was with the current 24-hour/7-day a week news cycle, the press had turned it’s hungry eyes to another candidate, another subject to devour. the following week.

The polls showed Matt losing and big, right up until election day, but the night of the election the numbers had come in fast and furious late in the evening. Matt had won by a landslide. Apparently the silent voters, the one who didn’t want to be yelled at or condemned for their opinions, had come out in droves and sent a hard message home to the incumbent and his political party: “We’ve had enough of the status quo and of corrupt politicians with empty promises and even emptier apologies.”

Matt knew, though ,that in less than a year he could be in the same boat and it could be his rear end with the boot of the voter against it as they shoved him out the door. Voters preferences were fickle and ever changing and some days nothing a senator did could make anyone happy. Matt had only been a senator for six years, but it felt like it had been 100. Now he had a small idea why so many presidents went gray while in office, though thankfully he didn’t have the same pressure as a president.

He yawned, stretching his arms out as if he intended to stand up and head up to bed, but he didn’t stand up. Instead he fell back on the couch, remote in hand. He surfed streaming services, suggested shows and movies scrolling by, but he wasn’t really seeing any of it. His mind had slipped back to five and a half years ago, to near the end of the election when the news stories were at their worst. He was being called a racist, anti-woman, anti-this, anti-that. He had lost count of all the names they had called him.

“Is this even worth it?” he asked Cassie one night in bed, snuggled close against her.

“If you can get in there and really help facilitate some change, then, yes, it’s worth it,” she assured him.

But then the win came and with it came more news stories, personal attacks against him and his family. The worst came when one of his staff members brought him an article about Cassie, accusing her of being fired from her previous job.

He was furious. “Where did they even get that story? Cassie was never fired from her job. She left to support me and be with the children.”

Scanning the story, he saw a former co-worker of Cassie’s was quoted and offered only summations, not facts. Still, the headline suggested the accusations were true. It wouldn’t have upset Matt as much if it had been about him instead of Cassie. He’d grown accustomed to being accused of inappropriate acts or offensive words, or anything else the press could come up with, but Cassie?

Cassie was off limits.

Only she wasn’t off limits.

She wasn’t off limits because he had made her fair game when he’d decided to accept the party’s urging to run.

He’d dragged her out into the open and essentially thrown her to the wolves.  

The story had been pushed to the side quickly in a few days with another news story, about another politician, overshadowing it. One of the only good aspects of the 24/7 news cycle was how fast paced it was. It meant a story that was in the forefront one day was gone by the next and even though the story on Cassie had faded fast, he still felt incredible guilt about how much he’d exposed his family during this process.

He’d always wanted to protect Cassie. Now he didn’t know how to. In a hyper-political atmosphere that was beginning to suffocate him, the negativity was coming from every side.

His phone rang and he glanced at the ID before answering it. He let out a sigh of relief when he saw it wasn’t John, a member of the Senate or the press trying to reach him.

“Hey, bro,” he said to Liam. “You hanging in there?”

“Yeah. Locked myself in my office. You?”

“Yeah. Feels weird just to be sitting at home.”

“A good weird or a bad weird?”

“Both.”

“Things okay with Cassie? The kids?”

“Kids are doing great. They don’t know much about what’s going on. Cassie’s . . . okay, I guess. She seems tired.”

“Is she mad at you for all this?”

Matt laughed. “She doesn’t seem mad, really. She just seems like Cassie. She’s cooking for the kids and me, cleaning, checking on her parents.”

“Did you ask her if she was okay?”

“Yeah, she said she’s fine.”

Matt heard a small laugh on the other end of the phone.

“What?” he asked. “No. Don’t even say it. You think ‘I’m fine’ is code for something else.”

“You know I’m no expert on women,” Liam started.

“Uh, obviously.”

“But I am learning during this that apparently when a woman says she’s okay, she’s really not,” Liam continued. “I didn’t know that Maddie was struggling, Matt. I just thought she hated me, that I was doing everything wrong, but I think she feels — I don’t know. Abandoned? She pretty much told me she feels like I abandoned her.”

Matt sighed, laying on his back, staring at the ceiling. He slid his arm behind his head. “In what way did you abandon her?”

“Staying at work too much, for one. She says I worked more so I didn’t have to face us losing the babies.”

“Did you?”

“No, I . . .”

Liam’s voice trailed off and then there was a brief silence. “Yeah,” he said finally. “Yeah, I did. When you asked me to be your press secretary I jumped at it because I knew I would be so busy I wouldn’t have to think about losing the babies, about that empty hole in the center of my chest.”

Matt grimaced as he sat up, propping his elbow against his knee. “Liam, I’m sorry I was so focused on the election, on me really, that I didn’t notice all you were going through.”

“Dude, I’m not trying to make you feel guilty. I didn’t even admit to myself how much it was bothering me.”

“I know, it’s just — I’m really starting to realize how out of touch I’ve been with what really matters in the last few years; you and Maddie, the kids. Cassie. When I decided to run, I pulled all of you —”

“Matt. No. You were doing what you felt was right. And it wasn’t just you who decided to run. We all decided. As a family. We knew this could be rough. Yeah, it’s a little worse than we expected with all the extra political drama going on these days, but we are still in this together. It’s okay. We’re all okay. Well, we will be okay, one way or another anyhow. None of this is your fault.”

Matt flopped back on the couch again. “I know it isn’t. But I still feel . . . guilty. I don’t know. What I do know is that all of this, this forced slow down, has opened my eyes up to what I’ve been missing lately. I don’t like that our family, or our country, is going through this, but it’s putting some things in perspective for me.”

Liam sighed on the other end of the phone. “Yeah. It’s doing the same for me.”

Fiction Friday: The Farmer’s Daughter Chapter 21

I started to post Chapter 21 last night to schedule for this morning and then realized I hadn’t actually finished Chapter 21. Oops. So I finished it this morning. I’d written most of it in my head already anyhow, which is probably why I thought I had finished it.

Anyhow, as regular readers know, my fiction Thursday and Fridays are usually novellas or novels in progress, which means there will be changes before I publish it in the future as an ebook or paperback. One change I have a feeling is going to come when I rework The Farmer’s Daughter is moving Jason and Ellie’s story into a separate novella in between The Farmer’s Daughter, book one of the Spencer Chronicles, and The Librarian, book two of the Spence Chronicles. That novella will most likely be called . . . The Farmer’s Son because I am oh so original. *wink*

With that being said, I don’t want to leave my blog readers hanging so I’ll still try to keep Jason and Ellie’s story in the chapters I share here. My thought is that if I break this off into a novella in the future, I can flush out Jason and Ellie’s characters more without bogging down Alex and Molly and Franny’s story in this book.

Sometimes I think it’s silly I share these books as I write them, but then I think “well, life is short. Just have fun with it.” Plus I like the feedback from my few readers because it helps me decide and craft the remainder of the story (and sometimes it helps me decide to chop off chapters all together).

Thanks for sticking around this long (if you did). I’ll be quiet now and get on with the story.


Chapter 21

“How much trouble is the farm in, Robert?”

Franny’s question sent Robert’s eyes up to the ceiling in frustration. He was grateful his back was to his mother the same way it had been when his sister had cornered him a few weeks ago. How did the Tanner women have such a sixth sense about the bad news of life? He poured himself a cup of coffee and carried it with his mother’s tea to her kitchen table.

“Hannah been talking to you?”

Franny sipped the tea, reached across the table and spooned a heaping spoonful into her cup. “She’s been hinting, but not exactly talking. You know how she is.”

Robert definitely knew how she was. He sat on the chair across from his mother and sipped his coffee once, twice, three times before he spoke. He sat the cup down, cupping his hands around it, looking at it instead of his mother.

“We’re in a tough spot, Mom.”

“We’ve been in tough spots before.”

“This may be the toughest. I don’t know how much longer we can hang on, to be honest.”

Franny stirred a spoonful of honey into her tea and sipped it, waiting for her son to continue. She knew he would. He always did. Like Ned, he was thoughtful, contemplating the words before he said them.

“What I don’t get is why I can’t keep this farm running the same way Dad did.” Robert looked up at his Mom. “I took out a loan. Dad would never have done that. He only spent what he had or what he saved up for.”

When Robert fell into silence again, looking out the kitchen window into the field across the road, the same field his father had farmed for years and his father before him, Franny decided she needed to offer her son the encouragement she’d been unable to offer since she’d lost Ned. She had been a wife, yes, but she was still a mother and she needed to start acting like one, even if her children were fully grown.

“This isn’t the same farm your dad had, Robert. You’ve added more property, other farmers and farmland. You and your dad and brother did the right thing trying to diversify the business. How were you to know that milk prices would fall even further than they did in 1985? None of this is your fault. It’s circumstances out of your control.”


“No, your dad never took loans out. But milk prices were better back then. Other expenses were lower. He could manage to save up. You don’t have that luxury anymore.” Franny leaned over and laid her hand on Robert’s. “You’re doing the best you can, son. I know that. Farming runs in your blood. You’ll figure this out.”

Robert’s eyes stung with tears and he looked away quickly.

His voice broke when he spoke. “Thank you, Mom.”

“Don’t be afraid to cry, Robert. There’s nothing wrong with crying.”

Robert nodded but he still couldn’t look at her. If he saw her eyes, the compassionate eyes of the woman who raised him and his sister and  brother, who held the family and the farm together for his while life and who had suffered so much over the last few years, he might completely break down and he wasn’t about to do that. Instead he laid his hand over hers, swallowed hard, focused his attention on the field and nodded again.

“You’re a good boy, Robert.”

“Thank you, Mama,” he managed finally through the tears.

***

Alex’s head was pounding. His mouth was dry. He felt like his eyes had been glued shut.

Squinting against the sunlight pouring in from his bedroom window he recognized the feeling, which he hadn’t had in years.

He definitely had a hangover.

“Alex! You ever getting up?”

Jason’s voice outside his bedroom door was loud.

Too loud.

“I’ve already been to the barn and back.”

“Yeah. Comin’. Just . . .” Alex rubbed his hands across his face and forced himself to sit up. The pain in his head throbbed now, a steady pulse of pain that felt as if his brain would push out through his forehead. “Yeah. Be right down.”

Jason banged cupboard doors and loudly clanked spoons into bowls when he reached the kitchen. Alex winced against the noise, each clank another pain shooting through his head.

“Cereal?”

“Yeah. Sure.”

Jason leaned back against the counter and watched his friend sleepily pour cereal from the box to the bowl. Alex’s hair was pushed up in several different directions, dark circles creased the skin under his eyes, and he was moving slower than a zombie in a cheap b-movie.

“You go out last night?”

Alex poured milk on  his cereal without looking up. “Yeah.”

“Daniel Stanton said you left the bar last night with Jessie Landry hanging all over you.”

“If Daniel Stanton already told you I was at the bar, then why did you ask if I went out?”

Jason shrugged, folding his massive arms across his massive chest. Alex wasn’t always pleased at how massive his friend was, especially when he wasn’t sure where a conversation was going and how his massive friend might choose to end it.

“So, you ended up back up here?”

Alex kept his eyes on the cereal. “Yeah.”

“I didn’t see her this morning when I got up.”

“Yeah. I mean, no. I – sent her home. Or rather, she left. In a bit of a huff really.”

“So, you didn’t sleep with her?”

Alex shook his head, shoving a spoonful of cereal into his mouth.

Jason leaned back, reaching for his coffee cup on the counter and sipping from it. “Really? Well, that’s new. What happened?”

Alex glared, milk dripping down his chin.

“What does that mean, Jase? You act like I’m some man-whore or something. It’s not like I’m bedding girls every night.”

Jason laughed and shook his head. “Not every night, no.”

“Actually, if you’ll remember, I haven’t brought a girl back here in almost two years. Maybe even longer.”

“So, you’re not taking them back to our place, maybe you’re —”

“I’m not,” Alex snapped, shoving the last of the cereal into his mouth and gulping the remaining milk down.

“Okay. Okay.” Jason looked quizzically at Alex, folding his arms across his chest again. One leg was casually crossed of the other one. “What’s up with you anyhow? You’re touchy this morning.”

Alex wiped the milk off his chin with the back of his hand.

“I’m just not the jerk you act like I am,” he grumbled, walking toward the backstairs that led to the upstairs bathroom. “I’m going to get a shower and head up to the farm to help your dad.”

Standing in the shower, the hot water kicking up steam around him and pouring over his bare skin, Alex cursed under his breath, knowing his best friend knew better than anyone what a pig he’d been much of his life; how he’d distracted himself from the hard moments in his life with the company of a cold beer or a warm, sexually aroused woman more times than he cared to admit.

He leaned his hands against the wall of the shower and let the water pour over his head and back, wishing the hot streams making paths across his body could wash away the shame the same way it was washing away the sweat from the night before.

After drying off and pulling on his usual faded blue jeans and a t-shirt he felt more alert and moved quickly downstairs, guzzling a glass of orange juice before reaching for his keys.

Jason was still in the driveway when he walked outside, checking under the hood of his truck.

Alex stood by the truck, sliding his hands in the front pockets of his jeans. He cleared his throat. “Hey, sorry I was so sharp earlier.”

Jason looked up from where he had leaned over the truck with a wrench and shook his head slightly. “Actually, I’m sorry I harassed you about your night out. It’s none of my business.”

The sun was brighter than Alex had realized when he first stepped outside. He winched and reached in his front shirt pocket for his sunglasses, sliding them on. “Everything go okay with Ellie last night?”

Jason sighed, which was a weird sound coming from such a masculine figure. “Yeah. Sort of.” He glanced at Alex while he loosened a bolt on the engine. “She thinks I proposed.”

Alex lifted an eyebrow. “Thinks you proposed? Um, I might need a little more of an explanation on this one. Usually a guy proposes or he doens’t.”

 “Well, I was going to propose but I needed to talk to her about something first and then she brought it up and then she just thought . . . you know what? It’s too confusing to explain.”

“So, you’re engaged. That’s great. Why don’t you look happier? Don’t men usually look happier when they get engaged?”

Jason used a rag to wipe grease off his hands as talked. “It is. I guess. It’s just . . .”

“You’re nervous about getting married?”

“A little but it’s not that. It’s just, I’ve never told Ellie about what happened in college.”

Alex spoke through a yawn, his expression clueless. “What happened in college?”

Jason starred at him for a few moments with first furrowed eyebrows then raised ones. Alex continued to look blank for a full minute then his eyes widened in realization. “Wait. You mean what happened with Emily Barker? You never told Ellie about that?”

Jason shook his head and tossed the dirty rag into the front seat of his truck. “I was really embarrassed, man. That experience was a low point for me and it wasn’t even —ugh, just never mind. The point is that I never told Ellie because I was embarrassed and because I didn’t know how she would feel about it.”

“But you guys weren’t even dating then.”

“I know but it still was wrong, Alex. That’s not how I wanted my first time to be. I wanted it to be with someone I loved. Someone I planned to spend my whole life with. And yeah, I know it sounds lame, but I wanted it to be with someone I was married to.”

Alex shrugged one shoulder and smiled. “Yeah, it sounds a little lame, but it also sounds really sweet and romantic.” He made a face and shuddered. “Yuck. Dude, I think you’re rubbing off on me with all your sentimental crud. Next Thing I know we’ll be watching chick flicks together.”

“Sleepless in Seattle isn’t bad.”

Alex held up his hands. “Jase, I am not watching chick flicks with you. Calm down.”

He grinned and then realized even grinning made his head hurt. He let the grin fade, partially because of the headache and partially because Jason was leaning back against the front of the truck now, one arm propped up on the metal frame, looking at the ground, thinking.

“Jason, you know Ellie loves you. She’s going to understand, okay? Just talk to her.”

Jason nodded, but didn’t look up from the dirt. “Yeah, I hope she does.” He lifted his gaze to look at Alex, his eyes glistening. “Because if she doesn’t . . .” He shook his head, swallowed hard and looked out at the fields across from the house. “I don’t know if I’m going to make it without her.”

Fiction . . . uh . . . Saturday: The Farmer’s Daughter, Chapter 19 Part 2

Yes, I wrote another long chapter so this is part two of Chapter 19 and you can find part 1 HERE. To catch up with the rest of the story, which I feature every Friday, click HERE or find the link at the top of the page. This is a “novel in progress” and when it is finished I usually toss it up on Kindle for friends, family, and blog readers to read in full (after I fix plot holes, edit, rewrite and hopefully fix typos).


Sitting at the bar with his third bottle of beer in front of him, Alex dragged his hands through his hair and wished he could drink until he couldn’t think anymore. He knew he couldn’t, though. He’d finished the days chores, but Robert could need him at any time of the day. He hated the idea of Robert seeing him with glazed over eyes or a hangover. That had happened only once before and Alex had felt the stinging rush of humiliation when Robert sent him out of the barn and ordered him to sleep it off. Thankfully Robert had accepted his apology.

It wasn’t the first time in his life Alex had felt the sting of humiliation. In fact, he’d felt it many times in his life and often when a man much better than him had to correct him on one of his many mistakes.

“You need to make a decision on what kind of man you want to be, Alexander Timothy Stone,” his grandfather had said to him as they drove away from the jail one night in his grandfather’s old pick up.

Col. Paul Madigan. Career Marine. Retired by the time Alex was in high school; just in time to whip his own grandson into shape. Or at least try to.

Even at 67 he had still been an imposing man. Six feet tall, broad shoulders and chest, square jawline

“What do you think you’re proving pulling all this stuff, boy?” his grandfather had asked him. “You’re not proving that you’re a real man. You’re not proving you’re better than your father. Is that what you’re trying to do? Get his attention? It’s not going to work. You know that. Your father doesn’t care about anyone other than himself, boy. You better think about what you want for your future, who you want to be. You want to be someone your future children can be proud of.”

His grandfather’s jaw clenched, his hands gripping the steering wheel tight. He’d let out a long breath and then shook his head.

“I know one thing, though, boy, no matter what you do, I won’t top loving you. I know there’s a man inside that body of a boy. I know there is a man who wants to be better, who wants to be what a man should be – responsible, trustworthy, and able to provide for his family. A man people will want to look up to one day, not shake their heads at.”

Alex had wanted to be a better man, to be what his grandfather had wanted him to be and somedays he thought he was on the way to being that better man, but today he really didn’t care anymore.

He needed a break from trying to be better. It was exhausting.

Country music blared from the speakers and cigarette smoke filtered across the bar like the haze filtering across his mind. The bar was sparsely crowded with only two other people sitting on actual bar stools near him, the rest scattered around the dimly lit inside of the bar, sitting at tables or leaning against the pool tables.

Blond hair spilled over his shoulder, interrupting his thoughts. Someone leaned against his back, a clearly feminine arm draping over his shoulder, a strong smell of alcohol and perfume hitting him.

“Hey, farm boy. You look like you need a friend.”

He glanced over his shoulder, his face now inches away from the face of a woman he’d met in the same bar a few months before. What was her name again?

 He struggled to remember.

 Jenny?

Jackie?

Julie?

The woman’s smile was broad, her eyelids heavy under dark blue eyeshadow. Her bright red lipstick matched her blouse which featured a low cut v-neck that clearly revealed her cleavage. “Remember me?”

“Uh. . .yeah. . . hey … Jackie.”

She rolled her eyes and giggled.

“Jessie, silly.”

Jessie. Right. Jessie Landry.

“Right. Jessie. Hey. How’s it going?”

Jessie slid onto the stool next to him and leaned an elbow on the bar. “Good, but you look like you’ve seen better days.”

Alex shrugged, taking another swig of beer. “Yeah. I guess.”

Jessie smiled slyly and tipped her head. “Fight with your girlfriend?”

A slight smile tugged at Alex’s lips at he looked at her.

“No girlfriend to have a fight with.”

“No wife either?” Her tone was playful now as she slide her hand along the bar toward is arm.

“No woman to speak of,” he said, looking back toward the stack of bottles behind the bar.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Jessie push her lower lip out and tip her head to the other side. She crossed one long leg over another, her high heels clicking on the bottom rung of the stool.

“Aw. That’s so sad. Someone so good looking shouldn’t be so alone.”

Alex laughed softly and shook his head. He knew a flirt when he saw one, even with all the alcohol in his system, and this Jessie Landry was definitely one of those.

Music thudded from the jukebox on the other side of the bar. Bodies pushed into the center of the room, moving and swaying to the rhythm. Jessie slid off the bar stool and began to dance next to him. That’s when he noticed her too short mini skirt and her too tight bright red shirt. She tugged at his arm as she danced, hips moving from side to side.  

“Come on. Dance with me. It will make you feel better.”

“I don’t dance,” he said with a smirk, sipping the beer.

She leaned close to him and winked. “Then just stand out here with me and I’ll dance around you, silly.

His senses dulled by the beer, Alex staggered from the stool as she grabbed his hand, letting her lead him to the center of the floor. She gyrated slowly in front of him, her straight blond hair bouncing back and forth across her back and shoulders as she moved down to the floor and back up again, sliding her hands up his legs seductively.

He watched her through bleary eyes, drowsy from the beer, admiring her slender form and the way her body curved in all the right places.

When a slow song came on, she slid her arms around his neck and stepped close to him, pressing her body into his. He questioned himself briefly about why she was being so forward — they’d only met once or twice before, yet here she was dancing with him liked they’d been dating for months. He dismissed the thought almost as quickly as he’d thought it as she tipped her head back, revealing a long bare neck, the top of her shirt pulling down and drawing his eyes to where he knew he shouldn’t be looking.

Her voice was whiny as she flipped her head back up and pressed her forehead against his. “It’s so boring here tonight. We should think of something else we could do…” She trailed her finger down the front of his shirt, letting her eyes drift down and then up again, then leaned close and seductively whispered the last word. “Together.”

Alex watched her for a moment, lowered his eyes to her full lips and shrugged. Why not? It wasn’t as if someone Molly would ever be interested in someone like him. An alcoholic loser like him. A heathen someone like Ben Oliver might say. Why not take his mind of Molly and how he wouldn’t ever be good enough for her?

He grinned at Jessie and laid his hand against her thigh. A familiar need pulsated within him.

Her jerked his head toward the door. “You want to get out of here? I know somewhere we can have a lot more fun.”

Jessie giggled and nodded. She took his hand as he broke their embrace, and followed him out into the parking lot. When she climbed up into his truck and closed the door behind her, she slid next to him and laid her hand on his upper thigh, rubbing it gently as he shifted the truck into gear.

He drove toward the house, glad to know he’d soon have a way to take his mind off Molly, his failures, and his confusion about life in general.

Fiction Thursday: Fully Alive Chapter 7 part 2

Find more of this novella in progress HERE. This chapter really isn’t complete but I hope to complete it in the next week or so — if my brain would ever slow down.




Atticus tightened the leather of his sandal, wincing as it laced into the blister on his ankle, bursting it open and sending blood trickling. He knew he should stop and rest, but he still had a day’s travel before he reached Capernaum and the commune he’d been directed to work with by the Apostle.

He sat back against the rock and slid the sandal off, ripping a piece of cloth off his robe and wrapping it tight around the blister. He was used to blisters and pain. He was used to caring for them by himself. He may no longer be a Roman soldier but he had carried what he learned from those days with him into this new chapter of his life, a chapter with even more uncertainty than his days as a soldier had been.

With the ankle bandaged he leaned back and reached for his wineskin, drinking cool water from it, water he had filled it with from a stream a few miles back. He thought as he drank, remembering what had brought him here at this point in his life, to a place he’d never expected to be.

The day the sky had gone dark in Jerusalem it hadn’t only been the foundation of the earth that had been shaken, but his personal foundation. Everything he had thought was real, was true, was important in life was shaken out and shown to be lacking.

***

“Atticus, you’re on crucifixion duty today.”

Marcus didn’t even look up from his scrolls as he spoke.

“Have I vexed you somehow, Centurion?”

Marcus scratched the tip of the feather across the a scroll, shaking his head, still not looking up. “No. We are short on men. They’re handling an issue in the red quarter and Pilate has ordered some Jewish teacher who thinks he is the son of God and two robbers crucified today. We need a replacement and you are who I’ve chosen.” He looked up at Atticus, jaw tight. “Don’t go soft on me, Atticus. All we need is crowd control. I won’t make you take the bodies off the crosses. This time anyhow. Go and report to Albus immediately.”

Atticus bowed his head in a curt nod, turned and walked from the garrison’s office, into blinding sunlight. He squinted, noticing the streets were more crowded than normal. He’d almost forgotten it was Passover. Jews were in Jerusalem full force, preparing to celebrate the day their ancient leader Moses had led them out of Egypt. Men, women, and children crowded the streets, pulling donkeys carrying food and supplies or simply walking and carrying their supplies with them on their backs.

Atticus wiped the back of his hand across his forehead, smearing sweat and dirt as he paused to watch the people walking. He pondered the devotion they possessed for this one God they followed, this Yahweh. He’d never understood it. He was raised to believe there were many gods and it took offering them sacrifices and performing well in life to appease them.

Perform well, live well. Make a mistake and suffer for it. It was all he’d ever known. But these Jews — they had been defeated time and time again, taken over by Rome, killed by the thousands, their bodies rotting in the desert, yet they still held on to the belief they were this god’s chosen people.

A few of the Jews were wealthy, yes. The priests, their religious leaders, and tax collectors or anyone who tied their allegiance to Rome. But for the most part most Jews were poor, living in squalor, many begging for food. Year after year, though, they journeyed here, feasting, gathering, worshipping their “one true God.”

Atticus scoffed as a beggar held up his hand, asking for money.

Ah, yes, of course, the one “true God” cared so much for them he but couldn’t even pull them from the depths of depravity and starvation. Atticus walked past the man, barely looking at him, sick of the beggars and the crowds and the long days and even longer nights. Dreams, nightmares really, had been waking him from sleep for weeks. Visions of his time in battle, of the men he had killed filled his mind nightly and he woken more than once in a cold sweat. Long soaks in the baths hadn’t helped. Prayers to Mars, the god of war, hadn’t helped. His past mocked him and it made him angry, sickness gnawing at his gut every day.

Now this. A change in his duties at the last minute. What mistake had he made to make the gods so angry at him? He knew it wasn’t having lain with too many women. It had been too long for that. So long he’d almost forgotten what the soft flesh of a woman felt like beneath his body. Walking through the crowd his eyes fell on a young Jewish woman, her body covered fully by her robes, as was their custom. She looked up at him, eyes bright and deep brown, like pools of a deep well. He walked slowly by her, his gaze roaming from her face down her throat, imagining his mouth there, kissing a trail as his hands explored where no man had probably ever explored before.

She dropped her gaze quickly, clutching her robe to her and he laughed scornfully at her innocence, at the innocence Jewish women held so closely to them, like a child clutching to a toy they thought would protect them. Innocence would not protect her. In the same way her god would not protect her. In the same way her god had not protected his so-called chosen people.

Voices grew louder as Atticus moved toward the edge of the city, toward where the crucifixions took place outside the city walls. A crowd had gathered along the streets, people pushing against each other, soldiers holding back the crowds.

“What’s all this?” Atticus asked Lucius, one of Albus’ men.

“Pilate ordered the death of a man some Jews are calling The Messiah and apparently everyone is here to watch him die,” Lucius answered, dragging a dirt covered hand across his face. “Our job is to keep the roadway cleared. The tribune in charged ordered this teacher, this so called King of the Jews, to carry his cross to Golgotha.

“Atticus!” Albus’ voice was sharp and booming as he pushed through the crowd. “You’re late. I want you along the street further up where it narrows. Keep it open. Take these men with you. Lucius included. They’re in your command.”

Albus was shorter and rounder than most Roman centurions but what he lacked in physical prowess he more than made up for in mental clarity and brutal rule. “Take whatever action you feel you must to keep the crowds back, short of killing. We have enough issues here without causing more of an uprising.”

Albus suggesting he not kill someone was new. Normally inflicting pain or death was Albus’ first suggestion to qwell a possible uprising.

“What is the name of this man being crucified?” he asked Lucius as they walked, the other men behind them.

“I know very little other than they call him their king,” Lucius told him. “Not all of the Jews, though. The priests are the one who called for his death. They said he was causing disruptions among their people.”

Atticus scowled as he walked, people pushing against him, some crying, some yelling, some looking confused and lost. He pushed to the front of the crowd, looked down the path and saw a man barely walking under the weight of a cross gouging a path in the dirt as he shuffled forward. Blood dripped from gouges on his back almost as deep as the one in the dirt made by the end of the cross.

 Atticus grimaced, throwing his arms out to the side to hold back the crowd. He couldn’t remember ever seeing such deep wounds from the flagellum. What had this man done to deserve such a beating? A crown made of thorns was pressed onto his head, sending droplets of blood into his face, smearing down it and dripping into the dirt.  

“Yeshua! Yeshua!” Atticus turned at the sound of a voice filled with despair to the right of him.

A young girl broke from the crowd, staggered forward and fell in the dirt near the man under the cross. Her fingers grazed the edge of the man’s bloody garment as she cried. The flash of sunlight off metal caught Atticus’ eye and he watched a soldier unsheathe his sword and step toward the girl.

Atticus stepped forward quickly and encircled the girl’s waist with one arm, pulling her back through the crowd, away from the punishment I’d the sword, sitting her on the ground hard.

“You can’t be here,” he growled. “It isn’t safe for a young girl.”

She looked up, dark brown eyes, similar to the eyes of the girl he’d seen before but younger, softer, brimming with tears. She gasped in a sob as he let her go, his rough hands slipping across her soft skin.

“Josefa!”

And older man rushed forward, pulled the girl to her feet, his eyes focused on Atticus as he backed away, taking the girl with them.

Atticus saw anger in the man’s eyes. Hatred even. Hatred of Rome, but also of him.

He watched the man pull the young girl back toward a woman and child near an olive tree. The family cowered together, watching him and the crowd with fear in their eyes.

There was a time when he enjoyed the fear in eyes looking back at him but for some reason it didn’t please him to see the fear in their eyes, especially the young girl’s.

Fiction Friday : The Farmer’s Daughter Chapter 14 Part 1

This story is starting to consume my brain, folks. I have so many ideas, so many stories I want to tell and I know I’m writing a series so I can tell them later but oh man — this is my first series so it’s hard to know when to introduce certain characters and how much of their stories to share because I plan to share more of their stories in the next couple of books.

I like when a story consumes my brain in some ways, especially with the craziness of the world these days. When a story pushes its way into my mind, there isn’t room for too much else and that’s a nice break for my brain (well, except late at night when I’m mulling over a plot point and a scene idea comes into my head at 1 a.m., when I need to be asleep. Then my brain doesn’t get a break at all.)

To catch up with the rest of the story find the link at the top of the page or click here.



Sit-ups. Alex was actually doing sit-ups in his room. What was he even thinking? The problem was he’d been thinking too much since earlier that afternoon.

About Molly. About Molly at the gym and her skin glowing and her top pulled tight against her and ­– he lifted his upper body again, bending his torso to touch his knees.

“Fifty-five,” he gasped, the counting pushing away the images rolling around in his mind of Molly.

He hated working out. He didn’t feel the need to workout, just like he had told Liz, because he worked out enough doing his work on the barn. But Jason had mentioned once that working out helped get out frustrations and Alex was definitely frustrated. He was frustrated at himself for not telling Molly how he felt and he was frustrated with the images that played over and over in his head of grabbing Molly in that gym, yanking her to him and kissing her hard, his hands in her hair, showing her how he really felt about her. He’d imagined doing it so many times it was almost real to him.

He laid back on the floor, breathing hard, hands behind his head and closed his eyes, willing the images to go away. Under normal circumstances he would have shared his thoughts of romantic angst with Jason, but this wasn’t normal circumstances. He couldn’t tell Jason he was struggling with an incredibly strong attraction to his younger sister. Not if he wanted to live for more than five minutes.

His phone beeped and he reached for it, grateful for something to distract him from thoughts of Molly.

Hey, big bro. Still working at that farm?

It was his brother, Tyler.

Alex: Hey, little bro. Yeah. Still working at that office?

Tyler: Yeah. For now. Dad is making it hard though.

Alex: A real jerk, huh?

Tyler: You know he is.

Alex: Why do you stay there? It’s not going to make him care about you, you know.

Tyler: You’re not my therapist, Alex. Chill. Anyhow, I like the work here. Been on any good dates lately?

Alex: No. You?

Tyler: A couple. Actually, one really nice one. She’s a lawyer.

Alex made a face.

Alex: “Lawyer? Run away, dude. They’re black widows.

Tyler: Lol. Not this one, she’s a good one.

Alex: OK. If you say so.

Tyler: When you coming down for a visit?

Alex chewed on his bottom lip, thinking how to answer, knowing “when hell freezes over” was too harsh and would make it sound like it was his brother he was trying to avoid instead of his dad.

Alex: Don’t know. Busy season for the farm. Planting, cutting down hay and bailing it. You should come down and help bail. Be a good learning experience for you to get your hands dirty.

Laugh emojis filled the screen.

Tyler: You were the one who always liked to get his hands dirty, remember? Not me. Have fun, bro. I’ll text you when dad finally fires me.

Alex laid back on the floor and laughed at his brother and the fact he was still chasing after their dad after all these years. It seemed like Tyler would never understand that their dad would never care about anything except his business and the money and maybe an occasional mistress or two. Tyler had told Alex a month ago that their dad was dating someone new again, a blond younger than both his sons. It didn’t surprise Alex. He’d been dating women younger than him even before he had divorced Tyler and Alex’s mom.

There were few things Alex could count on in life but one of them was that his dad would always be in a new relationship. The other was that his dad would never care what was going on in his life. He’d heard from his dad four times since he’d moved in with Jason five years ago. Twice to ask him if working on a farm was really what he wanted to do. The last conversation hadn’t gone well at all.

“You have a degree in computer programing, Alex,” his dad had said over the phone in his familiar depreciating tone. “We could use you here in the IT department. And from there, maybe we can move you up into —”

“Thanks, Dad. I’m good here.”

“Farming, Alex? Really? This isn’t what I had in mind for you when —”

“When you what? Abandoned Tyler and I all those years ago?”

“That’s not what happened, Alex. When you get older, you’ll understand that life isn’t always easy.”

“Yeah, hey, have to go dad. Mr. Tanner needs me to clean some cow poop out of the stalls and I’d rather do that then talk to you.”

Most of Alex’s conversations with his dad ended in similar ways and many times he didn’t bother to pick up the phone at all, on the rare occasion his dad did call. He’d guessed the calls came when his mom nagged his dad to call and act like “a real father.” It was a conversation he’d heard over and over throughout his life.

“Act like a real father for once, Michael,” his mother would say on the phone, when she dropped the boys off for weekends with their dad, or when Alex got in trouble in high school or college.

But Michael Stone had rarely acted like a father and Alex never expected him to. What he’d missed out on in Michael Stone as his father, he’d gained in Robert Tanner.

Robert had shown Alex how to be a husband, a father, and a provider in the five years he’d known him. His tenderness with Annie, his fatherly love for Molly and Jason, the way he treated his livestock and his staff with respect. It was hard for Alex not to compare Robert’s successes in fatherhood and adulthood to the failures of his father. What wasn’t hard was knowing that he wanted to model his life after Robert’s instead of Michael’s.

It had taken Alex a couple of years to realize he wanted to be more like Robert, though, and until then he’d drank too much, flirted with too many women, and lived a life far from Robert’s. There were days he felt like he’d never live up to Robert’s life, though, and days he wondered if he was being stupid thinking he could change, be better and be worthy of the Tanners, especially Molly.

Jason’s voice outside the door startled him from his thoughts. “Alex? You in there? Ellie brought over some supper. You want some?”

Alex wasn’t about to turn down one of Ellie’s meals.

“Hey,” he said, opening the door. “Let me get a shower and I’ll be right down.”

Five minutes later he was sitting at the table with wet hair but more than ready for Ellie’s food.

“Hey, Alex.”

As usual Ellie was smiling and chipper, her long black hair pulled back in a braid down her back. She rushed around the kitchen, setting plates full of food and three plates around the table.

Not only was Ellie perky, pretty, and friendly, but she was an amazing cook. Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, biscuits, peas, and even gravy filled the dishes in front of Alex and Jason. He thought about leaning across the table and asking Jason to remind him again why he hadn’t proposed to Ellie yet, but he thought better of it. He wouldn’t be able to eat with a broken jaw.

Once the food was on the table, Ellie sat down with them and smiled her captivating smile.

“So, how was everyone’s day?” she asked.

Alex shoved a piece of chicken in his mouth, not interested in answering. He knew the question was really meant for Jason anyhow. He was the third wheel.

“Busy,” Jason said. “Still a lot of work to do before we start the haying next week, we have another delivery of the vegetables we have been able to harvest for the farm store, and we’re hoping the rain finally lets up so the corn will grow some more.”

“It really has been a tough year, hasn’t it?” Ellie asked. She reached over and laid her hand on Jason’s, compassion in her eyes. Her small, slender fingers looked almost comical against Jason’s massive, roughed hand.

“It has, but we’ll figure it out somehow,” Jason said, smiling back at her, his fingers encircling her hand, swallowing it.

Looking between the two love birds, Alex felt slightly sick to his stomach but also a pang of jealousy at their obvious devotion to each other. He hoped to have a relationship like theirs someday. Jason and Ellie had dated on and off since high school but exclusively since Jason came back from college. Both of them had grown up on farms, their parents knew each other, and Alex always imagined they’d met at a square dance. Or maybe it was on corn picking day. Either way, they were one of the most perfect couple’s he’d ever seen, which again, made him both sick and jealous.

Unlike the girlfriends of his other friends Ellie didn’t care when Jason hung out with Matt and Alex and didn’t try to push her way into their guys’ nights. She didn’t make fart jokes or participate in burping contests like Molly, but she was still a farm girl, not afraid to get her hands dirty and put in the hard work.   

Alex grinned as he watched them the rest of the dinner, both of them pretty much oblivious to his presence. He looked forward to harassing Jason about them making googly eyes at each other later when Ellie had left.

***

Pulling up to the farm store, Molly sat outside in her truck, bleary-eyed and unmotivated. She’d barely been able to sleep last night, thinking about Alex and his . . . well, weirdness and about how much she did not want to come to the farm store this morning. She propped her forehead against the steering wheel and groaned. She was in no mood to be perky and she needed to be perky by the time the customers arrived. Some days she took on the motto “fake it until you make it.” Some days, face perkiness was the only way to make it through their day.

“Is this the only milk you have?” a woman had asked last week, looking at her over a pair of sunglasses, one eyebrow raised.

“Yes, ma’am. That’s the company the local farmer’s supply to.”

“Okay, because I’m a vegan and I need something that doesn’t come from a cow.”

“Oh. Well, then . . .”

Molly had had to pause because what she wanted to say was “If you’re vegan, why are you in a store that clearly sells cow milk?” but she glanced at the woman’s cart, full of vegetables and flowers, and decided to cut her some slack. At least she was supporting farmers in her own way.

“Then, I’m sorry,” Molly said. “We don’t carry non-diary options at this time. Maybe you can try the local Weis?”

“You know this little store needs to move with the times,” the woman said unloading the items from her cart to the counter. “Milk from mammals is a thing of the past. The only ones who should be drinking cows milk are baby cows.”

“Mmmm,” Molly responded adding up the items on the cash register. “That will be $75.50.”

If the woman hadn’t been spending so much Molly might would have told her to shove off, but the money was welcome and needed in a time when local farmers were struggling. The money from the Tanner’s store didn’t only benefit the Tanners. It also benefited several families who supplied inventory – from locally raised and butchered pork, beef, and chicken to eggs, homemade furniture and hand-sewn blankets and quilts. Losing customers could mean losing income for these families as well.

Thankfully the woman left without anymore comments, though a ‘thank you’ would have been nice.

Some days Molly wondered if this would be her entire life; sitting in her family’s story, being lectured by people who called themselves “woke” about what to eat and how to live. She wondered if she’d always be just the farmer’s daughter.

Walking into the store through the backdoor she heard her Aunt Hannah talking in the office.

“I am nervous about the meeting, yes. And I’m nervous because I don’t know how we are going to come up with the money to pay off this loan.”

Molly paused outside the closed door.

What loan?

“Let’s talk to Bill and see what can be worked out,” her Uncle Walt said softly.

“I would have talked to Bill a long time ago if I had known what was going on,” Hannah said curtly.

“Hannah, Robert told me he explained why —”

“I know,” Hannah interrupted, her voice less tense than before. “I’m sorry. I’m just anxious. I’ve been looking at the numbers this morning. They aren’t great. I’m worried we won’t be able to do this, Walt.”

Numbers? What numbers? Molly’s mind was racing. Was the farm in trouble? And if so, why hadn’t her parents told her?

Her hand hovered over the door handle and she thought about walking in and asking Hannah what was going on, but thought better of it. If her family wanted her to know what was going on, they’d tell her, and, to be honest, she felt too drained to add anymore to her mental que to think about.


A bit of fiction for your Thursday: Rekindle Part 1 and Part 2

I wrote Quarantined as a short story back in April. I’ve decided to combine it with a follow-up story called Rekindle and release it at some point on Kindle Unlimited as a novella under the title Quarantined. I shared the first part of Rekindle about a month ago, but instead of linking to it, I thought I’d just share part one and two here today.

I’ll be sharing another chapter of The Farmer’s Daughter tomorrow.


Matt Grant tapped the end button on the screen of his phone and laid the phone on the coffee table next to his laptop and paperwork. He rubbed his hand across his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, feeling a tension headache pulsating in his temples.

He’d just got off the phone with his assistant press secretary, John Chambers. They’d drafted another statement for the media, answering accusations that Matt was still at work in his office in the House of Representatives.

“Just make sure they know I’m at home, self-quarantining, just like my doctor told me to,” Matt had told John, more than a touch of annoyance in his voice.

“I’m making sure,” John said. “I’m assuring them all of us are safely locked away now. Just like the critics seem to think we should be, even though our preliminary tests are inconclusive. I doubt this will satisfy them, but we can try.”

With the statement to the press out of the way, Matt’s mind wandered back to his brother Liam, who he needed to call and check on. Liam’s preliminary test had been positive, which was what had triggered this latest scandal in the first place. Matt was sure Liam would be fine but there was a small part of him that worried about his little brother catching the virus that was sending others to ICUs across the country. Matt wasn’t only worried about Liam’s physical help though. He was also worried about his mental and emotional health.

Liam had told Matt months ago that his marriage was in shambles. Matt had barely listened, sure his brother and sister-in-law would work things out. Matthew knew Liam still loved his wife Maddie, and Maddie still loved Liam. If they didn’t still love each other they wouldn’t be struggling so much with the idea of divorce.

It couldn’t be easy being quarantined together during a pandemic with all the issues they had with each other but Matthew was glad they were. Maybe they’d work out some of those issues and save what had been a great union at one time. As it was, their divorce proceedings had been delayed because of the pandemic. As Matthew saw it, this was a way for them to buy more time and truly be sure the divorce was what they wanted and he told his brother as much on the phone just now.

What made Matthew uncomfortable wasn’t only that he could hear pain mixed with longing in his brother’s voice when they had talked on the video call. It was also that he wondered, worried even, that maybe his marriage was bleeding out in the same way his younger brother’s had and he had been too wrapped up in himself to realize it.

Matthew and Cassie hadn’t had a lot of time alone lately. They actually had barely had time to even speak lately.

Their life had been a runaway train since the election two years ago and now it was picking up speed again as Matthew’s re-election campaign was underway. In Washington he faced daily drama and conflict whether he wanted it or not. Becoming the youngest head of the Intel Committee four months ago hadn’t helped slow things down any either.

Then there was this crazy never-before-seen virus that seemed to come out of nowhere a few weeks ago and now had him at home with his family, waiting to see if he developed any symptoms after being exposed to it more than a week ago and maybe again a few days ago. He was convinced if he had the virus, he would have developed symptoms by now, but he stayed home to make sure things looked good to the press and his constituents. Making sure things “looked good and right” to others seemed to be 90 percent of his job anymore, leaving little room for him to actually do good and right and accomplish the things he’d been elected to do.

All the drama in the House of Representatives left him little time to focus on Cassie or the kids and he regretted that. He regretted it even more when his brother’s march toward divorce had become a growing reality. He’d never pictured Liam and Maddie divorced. They were the perfect couple. They’d weathered some hard storms, but Matthew had been sure the challenges would bring them closer together. In fact, he thought it had but now he realized he’d been too wrapped up in the campaign and job to notice how much they’d actually drifted apart.

Sure, Liam, as his press secretary, spent many late nights working with him, but he imagined when he went home he and Maddie made up for lost time. Instead Matt had just learned that Liam had been working at home as well, passing out in his office, leaving Maddie alone most of the time, writing her romance novels and reaching for companionship on social media.

Matthew and Liam’s parents had been the perfect example of a stable, loving marriage. Married 54 years, Tom and Phyllis Grant made it clear each day how much they loved each other. Sure, they had argued, even in front of their children, but those arguments had been resolved usually before the sun had gone down and with a fair amount of ‘making up’. Matthew and Liam, and his sister Lana had been grateful the majority of that making up had gone on behind closed doors.

Standing from the couch to stretch, Matthew looked out the window at his own three children playing ball in the backyard and felt a twinge of guilt. Getting pregnant and carrying three babies to term had been easy for him and Cassie. They’d never had to face the heartbreak of not being able to get pregnant or of a miscarriage. Matthew felt like he’d taken being able to become a father so easily for granted.

He looked around his living room, well decorated with expensive furniture and commissioned paintings, and thought about how much of his life he had taken for granted, especially lately. He’d taken for granted the newer model car he drove, the highly-rated bed he slept on, the full refrigerator, and even fuller bank account.

He rubbed his hand along his chin and turned toward the kitchen where Cassie was making a late lunch for him and the kids. Her dark brown hair fell to her waist in a tight braid, the bottom of it grazing the top of the waistband of a pair of red workout shorts. Her favorite T-shirt, featuring Johnny Cash wearing a cowboy hat, fit her medium build well, hugging all the areas it should, especially for the benefit of her husband admiring the view that he hadn’t admired for a long time.

He watched her stirring the taco meat in the skillet and his gaze traveled down her legs and back up again, thinking about the first time they’d met in an English lecture at college.

“Pst.”

He’d leaned over the desk to try to get her attention, but she was intently focused on the professor. He had tried again.

“Pst.”

She glared over her shoulder at him.

“Do you have an extra pen?” he whispered.

She rolled her eyes, ignored him, tapping the end of her own pen against her cheek gently as she kept her eyes focused forward.

“It’s just,” he leaned a little closer so he didn’t interrupt the other students. “I left my pen back in my dorm room and I want to make sure I’m taking notes.”

He was glad he had leaned a little closer. She smelled amazing. What was that perfume? He had no idea but it was intoxicating. Maybe it was her shampoo. The fluorescent light from the lecture hall was reflecting off her luxurious black strands of hair and he pondered what it would feel like to reach out and touch it. But he didn’t reach out and touch it. That would be weird. Even a 19-year old college freshman like himself knew that.

A year later, though, he was touching that soft dark hair while he kissed Cassie for the first time outside her dorm after their third date. And over the years he’d sank his hands in that hair in moments of tenderness and moments of passion. A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth as he watched his wife and thought about a few of those moments, including that time in the back of his new car after he’d landed that job at the law firm in Detroit.

He could deny it. It wasn’t only the material things of his life that he had taken for granted. He had also been taking Cassie for granted. For far too long.

***

Cassie Grant turned from where she was cooking lunch for her husband and children and watched her husband pace back and forth in the living room.

She knew he was worried about the situation with the virus, the way his office had been thrown into the middle of an unexpected scandal. She was sure he was also worried about whether he’d develop symptoms of the virus, pass it on to the children, and if his other staff members would be infected, now that it looked like Liam’s test for it was  positive. Too little was known about how the virus affected the majority of people, although early reports stated that most cases were mild.

And then there was Liam and Maddie’s marriage, which was about to end. Matt and his brother had been raised by parents who had been married 54 years. The brothers and their sister weren’t a product of divorce and Cassie wondered if the prospect of Liam’s marriage ending was weighing on Matt’s mind along with the virus.

Cassie wasn’t sure what her husband was thinking anymore, though, because Matt hadn’t been talking to her much lately. He’d been busy at the office, putting out fires, which seemed to pop up several times throughout the day, thanks to a 24/7 news cycle that never let up.

She couldn’t deny that she missed seeing her husband. She missed their date nights and family movie nights and him just being around the house when she needed him. But she knew that he was doing what he thought was right to try to make a difference for the people who elected him.

Turning the burner down she leaned back against the counter and watched Matt turn and look out the window where their children were playing. Her gaze fell on the back of his head, on his soft brown hair and she remembered with a soft laugh that day in college when they’d been studying in a private room on the first floor of the university library. The love seat they were sitting on was soft, plush, light maroon.

Papers and books were spread out in front of them and Matt was debating the importance of some moment in history to the future of something or other. Cassie didn’t know. She’d tuned him out long ago. She’d been watching him, though, amazed at how impassioned he was about the topic at hand, at the muscles in his jaw, at his long, strong fingers, at a strand of hair that had fallen across his forehead that she desperately wanted to push to the side. And she’d definitely been watching his mouth, his lips looking amazingly kissable.

Cassie was sick of listening to him quite frankly.

“Cassie, don’t you see that —”

Matt’s words were cut short as Cassie leaned forward and pressed her mouth to his, touching the side of his face gently. She pulled back and looked at him, her mouth still inches from his.

“Oh. Um. Okay. Was I talking too —”

“Just shut up, Matt.”

He laughed softly and she caught his mouth with hers again, sinking her hands into his hair, moving closer to him at the same time he moved closer to her.

He slid his arm around her and held her to him gently as the kiss continued.

“So, I guess you weren’t only interested in me as a study partner,” he said breathlessly a few moments later.

“Is that the only way you were interested in me?” she asked, her fingers still in his hair, playing with it.

A grin tugged at one corner of his mouth. “What do you think Cassie Henderson?”

She answered with another kiss, and they leaned back against the seat as they kissed, forgetting they were in a study room in the library.

Three years later they were married, a year later their first, a boy, was born. That had been 15 years ago and now they had three children, an expensive home in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and Matt was a U.S. Congressman while she stayed home with the children, her career as a social worker long behind her.

Sure, some of that initial passion was gone, replaced with the everyday and the mundane, but Cassie recognized this as a season – a season during which marriage became more about comfortable moments and less about desire. It wasn’t that she didn’t have desire for Matt; it was just that they never seemed to have time for it anymore.

She startled out of her thoughts, smelling something burning.

“Oh no!”

She rushed to the stove and turned it down, smoke billowing from the skillet where she’d been browning meat for tacos. She moved the skillet to another burner and groaned. It looked like they’d be having peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch today.

The blaring of the smoke alarm only made the humiliation that much worse.

Matt rushed into the kitchen, waving a newspaper at the smoke. “Whoa there! Let’s not add burned down house to our list of bizarre occurrences for the month.”

“Sorry. I guess I got distracted.”

Matt pulled the battery from the fire alarm. “No big deal, right? It might can be salvaged.”

He grimaced at the charged edges of the meat in the pan. “Or maybe the dog would like a treat.”

Cassie sighed. “I’m not sure even Barney should eat that. Anyhow, I’ll make the kids some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. You want one?”

“You know what? Yeah. I haven’t one of those in years. Crustless?”

Cassie shook her head. “What are you, 6?”

“Just for sentimental reasons,” Matt said with a wink. “My mom used to make them that way for me.”

Cassie pulled the bread out of the bread box and Matt slid the peanut butter and jelly across the counter.

“So, being quarantined with me has to be pretty boring for you, huh?” he asked.

“Not really,” she said with a smile, spreading peanut butter on slices of bread. “But it is weird seeing you here this time of day or, well, much at all.”

Matt winced softly. “Ouch.”

“Well, it’s not your fault. You’re busy.” He couldn’t read her tone of voice but sadly it seemed more apathetic, more along the line of “that’s just the way it is” than anything else.

Matt leaned back against the counter, sliding his hands in his dress pants pockets. He looked at his dress shoes, chewing on his bottom lip, thinking. First, he thought about how absent he’d been in his family’s life. Then he thought about how he was quarantined at home but for some reason he was still wearing dress shoes, a dress shirt and tie, as if he was on his way to a meeting or a congressional hearing.  He had apparently forgotten how to relax, unwind, and kick back.

He cleared his throat. “I guess I can go to change into something more comfortable. It doesn’t look like I’ll be doing anything business related for a few days anyhow.”

When he returned wearing a pair of sweatpants and a Garth Brooks t-shirt the children were already around the table, munching on sandwiches and drinking chocolate milk.

“Daddy! Sit next to me!” his youngest, Lauren, called, tapping the back of the chair next to her.

“Okay. I can do that.”

His son Tyler eyed him over his glass of chocolate milk as he drank from it. At the age of 13 he waffled between being interested and detached most of the time Matt interacted with him.

“It’s weird seeing you here,” Tyler said bluntly as Matt sat down.

Matt looked into his son’s bright blue eyes, noticing the acne starting to form along the top of his forehead near his closely cropped hairline.

Matt wasn’t sure how to take the comment. Did Tyler mean “good weird” or “bad weird”? Should he ask? Did he even want to know?

Luckily, he didn’t have to decipher his son’s meaning for long.

“But it’s a good weird, right?” Cassie asked, as if she could read Matt’s mind, and after 15-years of marriage, she probably could.

Tyler grinned. “Yeah. It’s a good weird. Just weird.”

Gracie, the middle daughter, smiled sweetly at Matt and then giggled around a mouthful of sandwich.

“I like you being here, Daddy.”

Matt smiled back at her, reaching across the table to cover her hand with his. “I like it too, sweetie. Maybe something good will come out of all of this, huh? At least you will all see me a little more often.”

His gaze focused on Cassie and he saw she was watching him, but again he was having a hard time reading her feelings. Was she happy they’d all be spending more time together? Or was the extra time with him simply a reminder for her how much she didn’t need him around anymore?

Fiction Thursday: A New Beginning Chapter 29

Ya’ll ended up with an extra chapter last week. Don’t expect another extra chapter this week. *wink*

As always, this is a first draft of the story and also as always, you can catch the first part of Blanche’s story, A Story to Tell, on Kindle. You do not need to read A Story to Tell to follow A New Beginning.

Also, this is a work in progress so there are bound to be words missing or other typos. Maybe even plot holes. Feel free to tell me about them in the comments. To follow the story from the beginning, find the link HERE or at the top of the page. This book will be published in full later this spring on Kindle and other sites.

Let me know what you think should happen next and what you think of the story so far in the comments.


Chapter 29

I knocked softly on Judson’s door the next morning and waited nervously on the porch. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t asked him how his father was recovering from the surgery and if they’d been able to work through any of their issues. It seemed like I would be forever self-focused. I’d had an entire 20-minute car ride the night before to focus on someone other than myself and I hadn’t even bothered.

Daddy had taken Jackson to school that morning on his way to work and I had taken the day off after Edith called late the night before to tell me Lily’s baby had been born. It was a boy and Edith asked me to travel with her and Jimmy to pick him up that afternoon. It was a nice morning for a walk from our house to the Worley’s and I needed it. It had given me time to think about everything that had happened the night before, though my mind was still spinning from it all.

I knocked again but when there was no sound inside, I decided he must have gone to work. As I started back down the steps to walk home, I heard the door open behind me.

A groggy voice greeted me. “Hey.”

I turned to see Judson standing in the doorway in a white undershirt and his jeans from the night before, blood dried near the knee. Part of his cheek was swollen and dark blue, almost purple, the eye barely open. I could see the edge of the cut above his eye on the other side under the bandage Mama had placed there. His hair was disheveled and he was unshaven and for some reason the combination made my stomach feel funny in the middle – funny in a good way. I had the same sudden urge I’d had the night before to kiss away all the pain.

“I’m so sorry to wake you.” I felt my knees tremble as I spoke. Why were my knees trembling? I’d spoke to Judson many times before. Today wasn’t any different. Was it?

“I just realized that I’d forgotten last night to ask you how your dad was,” I continued, hoping I didn’t sound as awkward as I felt.

Judson laughed softly and leaned against the door frame, blinking in the bright sunlight. “It’s okay. You were a little preoccupied.” He jerked his head toward the kitchen. “Come on in and we can talk while I make myself some coffee.”

He looked down at himself and rubbed his hand across his chin as I stepped inside. “And after I wash up and shave. I have to head into the job site later. Uncle James gave me the morning off when he heard what happened.”

You don’t need to shave, I thought to myself. You look fine the way you are. Boy do you look fine.

“Did he hear what happened from you?” I asked out loud as I walked past him inside.

Judson grinned. “Not me. Thomas. You know how newspaper men are. They like to spread the news.” He gestured toward the chair across from the couch. “Sit if you like. Excuse the mess. I fell asleep on the couch last night.”

I moved a book aside and sat in the chair, looking at the tangled mess of blankets on the couch, as Judson disappeared down the hallway toward the bathroom. I looked at the book, laying on the floor where I had placed it, John Steinbeck emblazoned on the front. I picked it up, flipping pages as the sound of running water filtered through the bathroom door down the hallway. I had to do something to distract myself from the thought that Judson was just beyond that door, not wearing a stitch of clothing.

We have only one story,” I read to myself. “All novels, all poetry, are built on the never ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.”

Standing, I carried the book to the bookcases along the wall in the dining room, sitting where other people placed china cabinets. I trailed my fingers along the binding of the books, reading the names of the authors, Orwell, Tolkien, Shakespeare, Golding, Fleming, Lewis — as in C.S. Lewis. Good grief, no wonder Judson got along so well with my father.

I touched the edge of the bookcase in front of me, rubbing my hand down the smooth side, knowing Judson had most likely built it and much of the rest of the furniture in the house. My eyes focused on a picture over the mantle above the fireplace. A woman stood in black and white against a backdrop of ivy, her dark hair and dark eyes captivating against pale skin, her head tipped back in an obvious laugh. I guessed by her clothes that the photo was taken some time in the 1930s.

A couple stared out at me from another photo, the woman looking similar to the woman in the larger photo, but older, the man looking almost exactly like Judson but older, his hair thinning slightly, his arms wrapped tightly around the woman. I wondered if they were Judson’s parents. Two small boys were posed against a tobacco barn in another photo. Both boys were wearing denim overalls, shirtless, the youngest missing his front teeth, his hair standing in several directions on top of his head. Looking closer I realized the oldest was the Judson I remembered from our childhood, freckles spread across his nose. Judson walked out of the bathroom, rubbing a towel across his wet hair, as I studied the photograph with a small smile, remembering how obnoxious he’d been back then.

“That’s me and my brother,” he said, standing behind me. A sweet smell of aftershave and shampoo washed over me. “I’m sure you can see I’m the better looking one.”

I winked and walked over to the couch, starting to fold the blankets. “Uh-huh. I see that.”

“You don’t have to clean up after me, you know,” Judson laughed from the kitchen, pouring water into the coffee pot. “Like Hank said last night, I’m a big boy.”

He sat down on the couch a few moments later and patted the cushion next to him as I laid the folded blanket across the back. “Come sit down while the coffee brews and I’ll tell you about my visit down South.”

I winced as I saw the bruises and cuts up closer. “You look worse today than last night.”

He laughed. “Well, gee thanks and I was just going to say you look much better this morning.” He reached over and pushed a strand of hair that had fallen out of my bun behind my ear like he had the day in the barn. “No problems last night?”

I leaned back against the arm of the couch. “None. Now tell me how your dad is.”

Judson propped his arm across the back of the couch. “He’s recovering but it’s going to take a bit. His heart might be weak for a long time, maybe forever but he’s better than he was.”

“Did you two work anything out?”

“No big make up scene, no, but we were at least able to be civil to each other.”

“Well, that’s a start at least.” I pointed toward the photograph on the wall. “Is that him in that photograph?”

Judson nodded. “Yep. That’s him and my mom a few years ago. And that’s my mom in high school in the other photograph. My dad took the photo. It’s one of my favorites so I asked if I could have a copy of it. Dad had it by his hospital bed after the surgery too, but told Mom it paled in comparison to having her there in person. Dad wasn’t always the best with me, but he is definitely much better at being a husband.”

He stood and walked into the kitchen toward the coffee pot. “Hey,” he said over his shoulder. “What did Thomas mean when he said he hoped things would be less complicated with me now?”

Ugh. Thomas. I had hoped Judson would forget about that.

“Oh, who knows,” I said with a wave of my hand, hoping to change the subject. “It’s Thomas.”

“Yeah. Thomas. The guy you went out with while I was gone.”

I laughed. “Yeah. I wasn’t exactly the person he had on his mind that night. I told you he’s dating Midge Flannery, right?”

“Isn’t her dad the pastor at the Methodist Church?”

“Yes.”

“And she’s dating Thomas? Seriously?”

“Yeah. I know, but Thomas said maybe she’ll help him turn over a new leaf. Let’s just hope it’s not the other way around.”

Judson laughed from the kitchen. I could see him through the doorway, adding creamer and sugar to his coffee. I tried not to stare at him as he moved between the refrigerator and the counter, but I was like a deer caught in headlights, my gaze drifting over his broad shoulders and finely toned arms.

“Did you want a cup of coffee?”

“What?” I looked away as he glanced at me “Oh. No. Um… actually, you know what? I’m not really a coffee fan.”

“Oh. How about a glass of juice instead?”

“I’d much more prefer that. Yes.”

My gaze fell on the bruises on Judson’s cheek as he leaned over to place the juice on the coffee table in front of me a few moments later, my heart aching. He was in pain because of me and I didn’t like it. He sat next to me, sipping the coffee.

“It doesn’t hurt as bad as it looks,” he said, as if reading my mind.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered.

“What are you sorry for?”

“For Hank. For causing you to be in pain, for —”

Judson laughed, interrupting me. “You didn’t cause me any pain. I’m the one who inserted myself into that situation. I could have handled it a lot better than I did. I didn’t have to keep letting him egg me on. All I had to do was take you by the arm and lead you to my truck, but like I said last night – I wanted him to pay.”

He rubbed his chin, wincing slightly. “I’m not proud of myself but I guess I wanted him to feel what it’s like to be on the other end of a beating. The only problem is that verse in the Bible: ‘Vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord.’ I guess I didn’t trust the Lord to bestow vengeance on Hank in the way I wanted and took it upon myself. I shouldn’t have done that. Of course, it didn’t help that Emmy she filled me in on what else Hank had done to you.”

He looked at me and I saw regret in his eyes. I felt warmth rush into my face. I knew Emmy had told him about Hank cheating on me and I couldn’t decide if it made me angry or not that she had. I had realized long ago that Hank’s choosing another woman over me had made me feel unworthy and incapable of being truly loved by another man. It had made my insides ache with embarrassment.

Telling Emmy and Edith, and then much later Mama and Daddy, had been humiliating, even though they all insisted the issue was his, not mine. Knowing that Judson now knew I hadn’t been  — dare I even think it — woman enough for my husband, was like having a deep secret exposed to the light. It was a secret I somehow felt would make Judson look at me like Hank once had, not only as someone who wasn’t pretty enough, but also someone who couldn’t fulfill her husband’s physical or emotional needs.

I lowered my eyes, picking at a thread on the bottom of my shirt.

“She told you that?”

“Yeah, I hope it doesn’t upset you, but it sort of slipped out when she was in one of her ranting modes a couple weeks ago.” He rubbed his hand across his chin and winced. “You know how she gets.”

I laughed softly, my eyes still on my shirt. “Oh, I do.”

Judson took a sip of his coffee. “I called to update her on my dad and she told me Hank had been in town. She said after all he’d done to you, he had better not try to see you. After cheating on you and smacking you around, he was worthless, she said, and she didn’t want him near you or Jackson. I think if she’d had a gun in her hand she would have gone after him like your dad did all those years ago.”

I tipped my head at Judson, narrowing my eyes. “So, you already knew Hank had been in town when you acted indignant last night that I didn’t tell you.”

Judson placed the coffee mug on the corner of the coffee table, laying his arm over the back of the couch and grinned.

“Yeah. Just trying to make you feel like a heel for not telling me.”

His grin faded into a more serious expression and his voice lowered to a soothing, comforting tone. “Listen, I’m sorry he did that to you. I can’t imagine any man tossing you aside for someone else. You’re worth much more than that.”

I bit my lower lip, tears stinging my eyes. I shook my head to shake them away and push down the emotion. “It’s fine. That was a long time ago.”

I cleared my throat and blinked the tears away, looking up at him. “For what it’s worth, I appreciate what you did for me last night.”

I reached over and laid my hand over his, but immediately felt awkward being so intimate and pulled my hand back, laying it in my lap.

He looked at me and his smile sent my heart pounding hard in my chest. Looking into his blue eyes, I was transported back to that night at the lake, his lips against mine, his arms around me when I’d started to run away.

He reached down and enclosed his hand around mine. He rubbed the top of it with his thumb, then lifted it, his mouth grazing the palm. His voice was barely a whisper. “For what it’s worth, I would do it again.”

The way he was speaking, his gaze never wavering from mine, made me consider jumping away before he moved any closer, but I didn’t need to worry about it. A knock on the front door startled us both and I pulled my hand quickly from his, not sure if I was relieved or disappointed.

“I guess I should get that,” he said with a sigh.

I recognized Marion’s voice as he opened the door. “Oh Judson! You look awful!”

“Well, Mrs. Hakes, thank you,” Judson laughed. “This is the second time today someone has told me that. You, however, look lovely.”

Stepping inside Marion laid her hand against the side of Judson’s face, tears in her eyes. “I’m so sorry for what Hank did to you. I just stopped at Alan and Janie’s to check on Blanche this morning and they told me what had happened. I’m so sorry for what he did to you. If I had known he was back in town, I would have warned Blanche.”

Judson took Marion’s hands in his and looked her in the eye. “Mrs. Hakes, you have nothing to apologize for.”

“He’s my son . . .”

“He’s not your responsibility anymore, ma’am,” Judson said firmly. “He’s a grown man.”

Marion nodded, a tear slipping down her cheek as Judson hugged her gently. “And besides. I’m fine. I’m sore but I’m in better shape than I could be.”

Marion walked over to me and sat down, taking my hand. “Hank called me this morning and said he’s leaving for bootcamp. I don’t think we’ll have to worry about him again anytime soon.”

Edith and Jimmy appeared in the doorway as Marion spoke, concern etched on both their faces. It was like a full-on family reunion at this point and I realized my family had some of the worst timing of anyone I’d ever met.

“Judson!” Edith cried, rushing toward Judson. “Oh, you look just awful! Are you okay? We stopped to pick up Blanche and Mama said she had come to check on you and filled us in.”

“I’m fine,” Judson said again. “Really. All of your concern is certainly appreciated. Although, can you all stop saying how awful I look? I’m starting to get depressed.”

Jimmy stepped inside the door, standing behind Edith. “Please tell me you nailed him good,” he said, then catching Marion’s eye he cleared his throat. “Excuse me, Mrs. Hakes. I mean —”

Marion laughed as she wiped her eyes with her handkerchief. “It’s perfectly fine, Jimmy. A good beating is what Hank needed.”

After a few more moments of conversation, Marion said she would leave Judson alone to get ready for work and I followed Edith and Jimmy to their car, hugging Judson quickly before I left. He stood on the porch, leaning against the porch column as he watched us drive away. I looked back at him, knowing we would eventually need to talk about all the tender moments between us, the kisses and the gentle touches that were waking my soul to the possibility of love. And I knew I would eventually have to decide what all those moments meant for the walls I had built around me.