I shared a chapter from this story yesterday to make up for missing last week.
This is a continuing/serial story. I share a chapter a week and at the end of the story, and after I edit and rewrite, I self-publish it. To catch up with the story click HERE. To read the rest of the books in this series click HERE. Let me know in the comments what you think.
Ben felt like he was going to throw up and it wasn’t only because of the gas station hot dog he’d eaten a half an hour before.
Parked in front of a cozy stone farmhouse surrounded almost entirely by flat land and corn fields , he narrowed his eyes and chewed on his lower lip, tapping the side of his finger against his chin.
“Let’s forget it.”
Judi laughed at his words and finished applying her make up. “After driving four hours, which included sitting for almost two, eating garbage food and being used as your therapist? I think not.”
Evan had said he’d run into Angie’s brothers somewhere in Spencer, something Ben been able to avoid for the last couple of years since he’d moved back to the area. He wondered if they’d be there today and if they were, he wondered if he’d get out of this party alive. The pair owned and ran their own construction business and were about as big in the shoulders as Jason Tanner. Together they could have made up half of the defensive line of a NFL team. He was actually surprised they hadn’t killed him already.
“I’m not really well liked in there, Judi.” His palms were actually sweating. Nausea gripped him and he had a sudden urge to drop his head between his knees and gasp in a few mouthfuls of air. “This could really end badly.”
“Her parents wanted you here, right?”
Ben nodded slowly, his eyes on the front door, drifting across the yard lined with cars, two of them large, black pickups he knew were Dan and Mark Philippi’s. His gaze lingered on the back of the truck and he wondered if that’s where they’d throw his body before they drove somewhere remote to dispose of it.
“Yeah, they did want me here, but actually being here is another story.”
Judi laughed, a carefree laugh which grated on his nerves even more. “It’ll be fine and if it isn’t, then at least it will be entertaining for me.” She winked and slid on a pair of sunglasses. “Come on, big Mr. Attorney. You can handle this. It’s not like it’s any worse than a murder trial.”
Ben took a deep breath and opened the door. “My clients aren’t usually murders, but thanks.”
Each step he took up the sidewalk was like walking knee deep in mud. He’d only seen photographs of Amelia. For all he knew she might run away screaming from him. He looked at the stone underneath him and knew Adam had crafted this sidewalk like he had the one at their old house back in Spencer. The man was a craftsman through and through, whether it was with stone or wood.
He stopped at the door and Judi stepped next to him. The gold door hanger glinted in the sun as he shoved his hands in his pockets.
“That’s not how you knock on a door,” Judi said reaching up and slamming the knocker twice.
“I’m absolutely regretting agreeing to this,” he told her as footsteps broke through the muffled sounds of children’s giggles and squeals and adult laughter.
The person he’d hoped would be standing on the other side of the door when it opened was not who appeared and he visibly flinched, stepping back in anticipation of Mark Philippi’s fist hitting his face. The smile Mark had been wearing immediately slipped as dark brows furrowed and the rugged jawline clenched.
Ben expected the door to be slammed in his face and it might have if Judi hadn’t leaned into the doorway. “Hey! Is this the right place for a party? Also, do you have a little girls’ room because I could really use one.”
Judi’s appearance seemed to throw Mark off his game almost as much as seeing Ben standing at his parents’ door. “Uh. Yeah. Sure.”
Judi didn’t wait for Ben to make the first move. She stepped past him and m Mark, looking up at the latter on the way by. “Oh, you’re a tall one, aren’t you?” She lifted her sunglasses for a minute, looked Mark up and down and winked. “Do you work as a bouncer? You’ve got to with those shoulders.”
Mark’s expression faded to an unreadable mask, but one eyebrow lifted. “The bathroom is down this hall. First door on the left.”
Judi didn’t miss a beat. She placed the sunglasses on top of her head and kept smiling. “Awesome. Thank you so much.”
Her departure left Ben standing with a stone faced Mark still holding the front door open before the tension was finally cut by Adam appearing from behind Mark, almost as if by magic. “Ben!” He stuck his hand out. “You made it! What a great surprise!”
Ben accepted the handshake and Adam shook it firmly. “Come on in. You must be exhausted. That’s a long drive.”
Adam gently pulled Ben forward, forcing him to step around Mark who was now scowling down at him like a Sumo wrestler who’d just been told he wasn’t getting any dinner.
“How was your drive?” Adam asked as he released Ben’s hand outside the living room entrance.
“Okay, but we did break down about an hour from here. I apologize that it made us late.”
“No worries at all.” Adam smiled and motioned toward the hallway Judi had walked down. “Things are just getting started. Everyone is in the backyard with the piñata and bouncy house.” He laughed and held his hand up toward his mouth like he was letting Ben in on a secret. “Yes, we went a little over board and splurged for the bouncy house, but she only turns four once. And it was a good deal.”
Ben took Adam’s appearance in. Short cropped brown hair with flecks of gray in it now, maybe thinner than before but good-colored complexion. His brown eyes sparkled with excitement and he seemed well. Maybe he wasn’t sick. Maybe it was Leona. Or maybe it was Angie. Or —
“Ben!” Leona’s voice from behind him turned him from Angie’s father to a petite woman in her mid-50s with graying honey blond hair cropped along her jaw line.
Leona held her arms out to him and embraced him before he could respond. The parents of the woman he’d abandoned four years ago were certainly being very welcoming and he wasn’t sure how to take it.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” Leona said with a warm smile. “We didn’t think you were going to be able to make it. I thought you weren’t allowed to drive yet.”
“Oh, I’m not yet, but —”
Once again Judi had horrible timing. She came down the hall with a broad smile and stood next to him. He gestured briefly at Judi. “But my secretary nicely offered to drive me.”
“Hello.” Judi smiled and waved at Adam and Leona whose smiles faded briefly then returned. She waved again at Mark who managed a faint smile. “So nice to meet you.”
“Well, it’s nice to meet you too,” Adam said. “Thank you for driving Ben down.”
Leona’s smile was as warm as before as she motioned toward the hall. “You both must be starving. We have plenty of food in the backyard.” She looked at her son. “Mark, why don’t you and your dad walk Judi out and grab her something to drink.”
Mark kept his gaze on Ben for a few seconds then looked at his mother and smiled a smile Ben knew was forced. “Sure. I’d be glad to.”
When Adam and Mark led Judi to the backyard, Leona turned toward Ben and he felt the knot in his stomach return. “Leona, listen, it was really nice of you and Adam to invite me and to want me here, but Angie —”
Leona held up her hand. “Didn’t want you here. I know. We are going against her wishes but we felt it was time for you to get to know your daughter more.” She laid her hand against Ben’s shoulder. “Will you come into the living room with me for a moment?”
Ben followed the woman who had once been like a mother-in-law to him into a cozy room with white walls, blue flowers on white couches and chairs, and a high-backed recliner that he imagined was Adam’s. Along one wall was a floor to ceiling bookcase which he immediately envied. A television sat inside a cubby in the wall of the bookcase, which in addition to being filled with books was also lined with various frames full of photographs of a bright-eyed, blond haired little girl, some with Adam and Leona, one with a laughing Angie. He couldn’t remember the last time he saw her laugh. She probably laughed a lot now that she didn’t have to deal with his various issues.
He also couldn’t remember when he’d last seen Angie in person. Probably when Amelia was a year old and he’d run into them when he was home for a visit around Christmas and her family was preparing to sell and move to Lancaster. It had been in a small farm store the Tanner’s ran and he’d been picking up milk his mom had asked for. Amelia and Leona had been picking up sweet potatoes and various baked goods.
He’d ducked behind tall rows of canned vegetables and fruits like a coward while they passed by. His gaze had fallen to Angie first, his chest aching at how beautiful she was, then had drifted to the baby propped against her hip, full and pouting lips, wide eyes that looked so much like his own, and Angie’s blond hair. In that moment he’d felt like the scum of the earth and left the store without the milk, lying to his mom and telling her they were out.
He looked at the photos again. Amelia on a swing at a playground, on the back of a pony, in a pool, in Angie’s arms. His chest ached like that day in the store. What was he even doing here? He kept thinking of a song from the early 90s where the singer called himself a creep and lamented he didn’t belong here —wherever here was. Ben felt the same way. He was a creep who didn’t belong in this house.
“I know this is awkward for you.” Leona’s voice brought him back to the present and turned him around. “It’s awkward for us too. We didn’t even know if you wanted anything to do with Amelia, but we had to take a chance. We really felt like —I mean, I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but we felt like God was leading us to reach out to you. Adam and I truly feel Amelia’s father should be a part of her life.”
He kept his hands in his pockets and nodded his head slowly, looking at the photos again briefly before he moved his gaze to Leona’s. “I don’t mind you saying that, Leona, but this isn’t what Angie wants.”
“Is it what you want?”
“What do you mean?”
“To be a part of Amelia’s life.”
Ben scratched rubbed a hand against the back of his head, scratched there. “Listen, I —”
“Mom, we’re getting ready to open presents, where are —” Angie’s expression as she came around the corner and saw Ben standing there switched quickly from shocked to annoyed within five seconds flat. Her smooth jawline tightened and her lips pressed into a thin line. One hand flew to her hip as she gestured toward him with the other hand. “What’s he doing here?”
Leona cleared her throat. “Your father and I invited him.”
“I know, but I told him I didn’t want him here.” Angie was mainly looking at her mother, occasionally casting looks Ben’s way, as if he could see them but couldn’t hear them.
“We invited him again and —”
“Decided not to tell me he was coming.”
“No, that’s not it, he had a concussion and couldn’t drive so we didn’t think he was coming. His secretary drove him here.”
Angie rolled her eyes. “I knew that girl looked familiar. Judi Lambert.” She scoffed. “Secretary. Yeah right. Nice try.”
She still wasn’t looking at Ben.
“Angie, honey, we’re not trying to cause any issues, we just felt Ben should see his daughter before the move.”
Ben cocked an eyebrow and looked between the two women. “The move?”
Leona turned her head to face him. “We’re moving back to Spencer Valley. Adam’s mother is very ill and we’re going back to take care of her. Adam also wants to move his furniture business there to run it with his brother.”
“Oh,” Ben said.
“He doesn’t need to know about the move because he’s not involved in it,” Angie snapped.
Leona left out a heavy sigh. “We didn’t want him to be shocked if he saw us, or you, around.”
Pink flushed along Angie’s cheekbones. “So call and tell him. He didn’t need to be told in person.”
Ben rubbed his chin with his thumb and forefinger, the muscles along his neck and shoulder tensing. “Yeah, okay, well thanks for talking about me like I’m not in the room. That’s been fun, but I’m more than willing to —”
“Maybe I’m talking about you like you’re not in the room because you aren’t supposed to be in the room.” Angie’s words snapped his sentence off and left him with a sick feeling in his stomach. Her voice dripped with absolute vitriol.
Leona stepped forward between them and held up her hands, palms out. “Okay. Truce. There was some miscommunication. Your father and I invited him again and we didn’t tell you because we thought he wasn’t coming. Now he is here, and I think he should be allowed to meet Amelia. With your permission.”
Angie folded her arms across her chest. “No. I’m not giving you my permission. I don’t want him here.” She looked at Ben. “Oh, sorry. I don’t want you to feel left out so I’ll tell you.” She pointed toward the front door. “I don’t want you here. You and your so-called secretary need to leave.”
“Angie, please —”
“Mom! She doesn’t even know him. What do you think I’m going to do walk out there and tell her I got her a daddy for her birthday?”
“No, I don’t think that, Angela. We don’t have to tell her who he is right now. Just that he’s a friend of yours —”
“Fine, of your father’s and mine.”
“Hi.” Ben waved slowly, wishing he had taken painkillers before he walked in. “Can I have a say in any of this?”
Angie’s eyes flashed with anger. “You haven’t for the last four years so why should you now?”
Leona tipped her head back and let out an exasperated sigh. “Angela…”
“It’s true, Mom. Where has he been? He sends money. That’s it.”
“At least I do that,” Ben mumbled. “Not to mention, you made it very clear more than once that you didn’t want me around.”
The muscle in Angie’s neck that always jumped when she was angry was bouncing over time. Ben knew he should be focused on what she was saying, but instead he was remembering when he used to kiss that neck, smoothing the muscle, and her, into submission.
Before Angie could respond — and Ben did wonder what she had been about to say — a small figure bounced into the living room wearing a purple tutu and a hot pink shirt with a white kitten on it. She turned her body toward Ben and placed her hands on her hips, striking a pose right out of her mother’s playbook.
Her eyebrows dipped. “And who are you?”
Her little voice demanded an answer. She had his blue eyes and his nose and the way she was scowling at him right now he had a feeling she had a bit of his temper in her too. He only hoped she learned how to manage it better than he had.
“Uh, I’m Ben,” he said hesitantly, unable to look away from her even as he felt Angie’s eyes boring into the side of his head.
The brow relaxed. “Hey, Ben, I’m Amelia. Are you here for my party?”
“Uh. Yeah. I am.”
Her eyes dropped to his foot, still wrapped in a boot, though smaller than it had been three months ago. She poked a finger in her mouth and slid it out again then pointed down. “What happened to your foot? Do you have a booboo?”
He nodded slowly. “Yes actually. It’s broken.”
“Did you fall?” She looked up at him and blinked a few times. For a moment he almost lost himself in those eyes, spiraling down into racing thoughts of all the years of her life he’d missed, all the firsts and milestones — first words, first steps, books read before bed . . .
Her little hand reached out and in seconds her tiny fingers had curled around two of his. She tugged him forward. “Come see the backyard. It’s pink for my birthday.”
“Amelia, honey. You don’t even know —”
Angie left the final word hanging in the air. Ben looked over his shoulder and saw her lips parted, her eyes focused on his, and then the quick intake of breath as she dropped her gaze to the floor. She was right, though. Amelia didn’t even know him.
He dutifully followed his daughter, though, with Angie and Leona close behind. How could he say no to this little girl whose fingers were so soft against his, whose eyes had met his and still decided he should come see her birthday party.
They passed through a cozy, bright kitchen that smelled of fresh lemons and something else sweet that made his stomach growl. Squinting in the bright sunlight as they stepped through the patio doors made his head pound. He reached for his sunglasses, to cut down on the glare.
When his eyes adjusted behind the darkened lenses, he wished he’d still been blinded by the light. Mark’s hard stare had been joined by an equally hard stare from his brother Dan, both of them standing like two burly security guards by a table full of food, their arms folded across their broad chests. Judi was sitting at a small table with a group of young children, sipping from a pink paper cup with a unicorn on the side.
Amelia was right. The backyard had indeed been decorated in pink, with pink streamers hanging down from the ceiling on an erected white tent, pink tablecloths on the tables, pink balloons tacked to a back fence and along the streamers. Even the bouncy house was a pink unicorn castle with pink flags on top.
“Come on.” She tugged him toward the small table where Judi was sitting. “You can sit with me. I’m the birthday girl.”
Ben looked over his shoulder at Angie standing on the patio, watching him closely. Sitting down with his little girl might make her eyes flash even more with anger but refusing to do so might also break a little heart. He made himself comfortable on a preschool sized chair next to Judi show smirked at him as she lifted her cup and took a sip.
“Fruit punch with sherbert,” Judi told him with a grin.
Amelia sat on her chair and lifted a silver plastic tiara off the table, placing it on her head. “So, Ben, are you friends with my mommy?”
Ben swallowed hard. “Um…”
He glanced at Angie who had stepped into the backyard, sitting a few feet away at an adult sized table with her parents and some other people he didn’t recognize. They must have been the parents of the other children running around. Angie was watching him but everyone else had gone back to eating and chatting.
He had no idea if she could hear him or not. “I know your mommy. Knew. I mean I knew your mommy.”
Beads of sweat dotted his forehead. Knew her mother was a definite understatement.
Amelia studied him in a way that made him feel like she could see right through him for several seconds. Then she abruptly pulled her gaze away and scooped her finger in a glob of icing, sticking the finger in her mouth.
“I like ponies,” she said when she pulled the finger out with a pop. “Do you like ponies?”
What was the rule about lying to children? It wasn’t that he didn’t like ponies, but he also didn’t exactly like them. Still, her bright blue eyes were boring into him the same way his bored into a witness on the stand.
“I like them okay.”
There. It wasn’t a lie. A very lawyer-like answer and totally acceptable.
“Do you like cake?”
Actually, he liked pie more but she clearly liked cake and he didn’t hate cake so, “Sure do.”
She lightly touched her fingers to her tiara. “Do you like my tiara? My grampy gave it to me.”
His throat thickened with emotion. He wondered what she’d been told about her other grandparents, or if they ever mentioned them. His father would love to give Amelia gifts like tiaras and purple tutus. He hated he was the reason his parents didn’t have that opportunity.
“I love it,” he choked out.
Her smile sent his senses spinning. Wow. He’d missed out on so much by staying away.
She sighed, propped her chin in her hand for a few seconds, then stood up quickly. “Imma gonna get you cake. It’s a party. You need cake at a party.”
She headed toward the table with the cake. He watched as a little girl ran to her with a ball. Amelia was quickly distracted and ran to a clear space in the yard to toss the ball with the girl and a few other children.
“She’s adorable,” Judi whispered. “And she’s way too friendly to take after you.” She winked at him. “I’m going to get some more of that amazing potato salad Leona made. Want anything?”
He shook his head. “No. I feel like I’m going to throw up.”
She patted his shoulder as she stood. “Suit yourself. Just don’t puke in my purse while I’m gone.”
Her seat wasn’t empty long. This time it was Dan Phillipi’s turn to glare at him. Mark must have tagged him in.
Dan sat backwards on the little chair and leaned toward Ben across the table. “What are you doing here, Oliver.”
Ben folded his arms on the top of the table and leaned forward even though he really wanted to lean backward. Very backward. “Your parents asked me to come.”
Dan’s voice was hard. “You’ve been asked to be involved in your child’s life before and you never have. What was different about this time?”
Ben kept his eyes on Dan’s, trying to act like he wasn’t intimidated by the man, but also realizing he had no idea how to answer that question. If he told him he’d been worried about someone in the family being sick, Dan would call it a garbage. If he told him his doctor had said he’d been very lucky not to die in that car accident, then Dan would probably laugh and say he wish Ben had died.
Luckily he didn’t have to answer because everyone’s attention was drawn to a cry of pain from the gaggle of children and then a wail that sliced into Ben’s headache. Angie flew up from her chair, knocking it over as she turned around and darted across the yard, her parents close behind. Ben’s heartrate increased as other parents stood and looked on anxiously. Dan stood and followed his sister, briefly forgetting about his interrogation of Ben.
Ben stood and walked slowly toward the chaos, his knees trembling when he saw Angie holding a crying Amelia, blood pouring from the little girl’s nose and running into her mouth. He wanted to lunge forward, take her in his arms, wipe the blood off and find out what happened, but it wasn’t his place. It was Angie’s place and she was already doing what needed to be done.
Someone bumped his arm, pushing past him and rushed toward Amelia and Angie. Ben watched a man with short, wavy reddish blond hair kneel beside Angie, who was now on her knees with Amelia in her arms.
“What happened?” the man asked.
“The ball hit her face,” a little boy said as the parents looked on.
The man touched Amelia under the chin and tipped her face upward. He studied her as tears streamed down her face. “It’s coming from her nose and it doesn’t look broken but there’s a lot of swelling.”
“Should we take her to the hospital?” Angie asked, her worried gaze focused on the man’s face, clearly looking to him for guidance.
The man pondered Amelia’s blood-stained face for a few moments before answering. “It might be good to get it x-rayed. Yeah. Just as a precaution. I’ll drive us.”
Drive us? Ben studied the scene before him with a stern expression. Who was this guy who straightened from his stooped position, holding his daughter?
“Hey, kid, don’t worry. We’ll have you fixed up in no time,” the man said, smiling at Amelia. He glanced over at Angie as she stood. “Let’s get a wet cloth and clean some of this blood off so I can see how bad it actually is.”
Angie nodded and Ben saw the tears in her eyes. The man laid a hand on Angie’s back, leaned down and kissed her mouth. “Don’t worry, okay? She’s going to be fine.”
Angie nodded again but a tear rolled down her cheek and dripped off her chin. She followed the man closely as he headed toward the patio and into the house. Watching them, Ben felt even more like an outsider than he had in the living room. Apparently, those three were a family. A family he wasn’t a part of.