I’m continuing to work on this story to release it as a book in January. As always, this is a continuing/serial story. I share a chapter a week and at the end of the story, after I edit and rewrite it, I self-publish it. To catch up with the story click HERE. To read the rest of the books in this series click HERE.
Let me know in the comments what you think. Or don’t. That’s okay too. *wink*
Moana Phillipi’s house didn’t look much different than it had when Ben was in high school, other than a new paint job and new shutters on the side. The barn out back was empty of cows and tractors, as it had been for a decade now, which made it the perfect place to store Adam’s furniture until he and his brother finished building their furniture store closer to town.
Ben had arrived two hours before, helping to move Adam’s homemade furniture from the back of the moving truck to the back of Moana’s old barn. Amelia had run from the house when he arrived, tossing her tiny arms around his legs, a move which startled him, made him laugh, thickened his throat with emotion, and made him want to run away all at the same time. Before he had the chance to say much at all to her, other than “hey, kid, what have you been up to?”, she’d been called back inside by Angie who’d shot him a look that wasn’t exactly angry but wasn’t exactly friendly either.
“We really appreciate this, Ben.” Adam clapped Ben on the back on his way by, walking toward the moving truck to pick up another piece of furniture.
Ben nodded and lifted his t-shirt over his head, overheated and grateful he’d remembered to wear a tank top under his shirt.
Two moving men were also helping to move the furniture into the barn, but Adam was watching them like a hawk, instructing them, and encouraging Ben to help lift some of the larger pieces. Ben was doing his best to place the items down gently, making sure not to damage any of Adam’s workmanship.
Angie’s brothers had shown up part way through the moving and were now helping too, knowing best of all how their Dad liked his furniture handled. They were on the last row when Adam took a break, leaning against the truck, sweat beading across his brow. His color didn’t look good to Ben.
“Hey, Adam, why don’t you head in and see if Leona needs anything.” He glanced over his shoulder at Dan and Mark, hoping they’d notice their dad’s condition too. “We can get the last load and head in as soon as it’s stacked.
The brothers paused and looked at their dad. Mark glanced at Ben. “Uh, yeah, Dad. We’ve got this. You head on in.”
Ben was grateful when Adam nodded instead of protesting and mopped his brow with a handkerchief. “Yeah, I could use a drink. Thanks, boys. I’ll head back out in a bit with some lemonade for you.”
Ben didn’t converse much with the brothers as they worked other than a polite, “You got that?” or “Need a hand?” At least they were all being civil to each other.
Half an hour later, he looked up as he prepared to grab the last chair and saw Angie standing in the doorway wearing a pair of blue cut off jean shorts and a red and white plaid shirt tied at her waist. Her blond curls were pulled into a braid draped across her shoulder.
“Dinner’s ready. Mom says to get in before it gets cold.” She propped her hands on her hips and looked at the two moving men. “You’re invited as well.”
The men thanked her, but declined, one of them carrying the last chair into the barn and placing it gently next to the others. The taller one said they’d better get back on the road. They had a long drive ahead of him.
Ben dragged the back of his hand across his damp forehead and nodded at Dan and Mark. “You guys head on in. I’ll straighten out this row and head out.”
The brothers nodded and walked past their sister toward the house.
He hoped Angie would follow them but instead she stood, folding her arms across her chest, watching him with silent reproach as he stacked chairs.
“I thought I told you I didn’t want to see you when we moved up here.”
“I’m just helping your dad.”
“I don’t want you pushing your way into our lives, Ben.”
“I’m not trying to push into anything, Angie, I just offered to help your dad move his furniture.” He pushed a chair back and stacked another one, careful not to scratch the varnish. “I know. I’m not the nice guy. I’m the jerk, but maybe I’m trying to change.”
Shadows played across her face, but he could still tell her eyes were narrowed and her lips had formed a thin line.
“I’ll believe that when I see it,” she mumbled.
He was never going to win with her. He needed to accept that. He wished he didn’t still find her insanely attractive despite the vitriol she aimed at him every time they saw each other.
“You know what, Angie, why don’t you back off me for like five seconds? I just want to finish straightening these chairs like I said I would and then I’ll get in my car and drive out of here and leave you alone.”
He winced and dropped the chair he’d been holding, looking at his hand. The chair hadn’t been sanded yet. He shook the hand then picked the chair up again and lifted it onto another chair.
“Did you cut your hand?” Her question dripped more with annoyance than concern.
“It’s just a splinter, I’m fine.” His words were strained, said with a tight jaw. He walked over to pick up another chair.
When he turned around from stacking it, she was walking toward him. “Give me your hand.” The words snapped out of her as a demand. “I’ll get it out.”
“I said I’m fine.”
“It’s a huge splinter. I can see it from here. Don’t be stubborn.”
“Huge is a relative concept.”
“Shut up, Ben and give me your hand.” She grabbed him by the wrist and yanked his hand toward her, brandishing a pair of silver tweezers she must have snatched from the first aid box on the wall on her way over to him.
He flinched when the metal touched his skin.
“Stop moving,” she hissed. “Or I won’t be able to get it.”
“Well, excuse me. It hurts.”
“Don’t be such a baby.” She squinted. “I can’t see it. Come into the light.”
She turned so her back was to him, her fingers still wrapped around his wrist, and walked forward, pulling him with her until they were standing in a stream of light pouring from a window at the top of the barn.
When she stopped walking, she pulled his arm in front of her and he stumbled forward, his chest now almost touching her back. The scent of apples overwhelmed his senses, her hair soft against his cheek. He closed his eyes, breathed in deep, and tried not to think of the inside of his arm brushing against the outside of hers.
Tipping his head down and opening his eyes again he noticed his mouth was close to the skin exposed at the top of her shirt, soft skin along the side of her neck, curving toward her shoulder. He longed to lower his lips to that skin and kiss it softly like he used to. Instead, he had to be content in feeling the warmth coming off her, letting it remind him of better times when he could have slid his other arm around her waist and pulled her back against him.
“Ow!” A sharp pain seared through his hand. He yanked the hand away and stepped back. “What was that?”
“I got your splinter out.” She walked away from him, tossing the tweezer into the open first aid kit.
“Yeah, but you didn’t need to yank that hard.”
“You were getting too close.”
“You’re the one who stood in front of me. What was I supposed to do?”
She swung to face him, eyes flashing, cheeks flushed. “Don’t try to flirt with me, Ben. Just don’t.” She took a step back but kept her gaze locked on his, holding up a finger. “Don’t try to turn me on. I’m not falling for that.”
He snorted a laugh. “I wasn’t trying to turn you on.” He grinned mischievously. “It’s not my fault if you got turned on.”
Crimson spread across her cheeks, down her throat. “I didn’t say I got turned on.”
“I didn’t say you did get turned on.”
She turned away from him again. “I’m going in the house. Put some ointment and a bandage on that. They’re in the first aid kit.”
She left him standing in the open door of the barn with a small, smug smile tugging at one corner of his mouth. He watched her walk to the back door of the house, enjoying the gentle sway of her hips, the briskness in her step enhancing the movement.
Leona stepped into the opening of the back door and waved. “Ben! Come on in and grab some lunch before you head out, okay?”
He didn’t want to disappoint the woman, but he also didn’t want to inflame Angie anymore than he already had. Then again, eating lunch would give him a chance to smell that shampoo again, which would both thrill and torture him. Maybe he could even find a way to make that crimson flush across her cheeks return.
The other men were already at the kitchen table when he stepped inside. He asked where the bathroom was so he could wash up, his t-shirt now pulled back over the tank top.
Back in the kitchen a few minutes later, Adam, his color better than before, gestured to the empty chair next to him and across from Amelia. “There’s a seat right here. Pull up and grab some grub, kid.”
Angie set a bowl of mashed potatoes down in front of him harder than he felt necessary. He looked up at her and wanted to laugh at the anger flashing in her eyes. She’d utterly convinced herself he’d tried to hit on her in that barn. Ridiculous woman.
If he’d really wanted to hit on her he’d had done more than breathed in the smell of her shampoo.
“Do you want to see the swing Pop-pop made for me after lunch?” Amelia asked, eager eyed focused on Ben, clearly oblivious to the tension between her parents.
“Um —“ he glanced at Angie briefly, then the brothers, then back at the bright blue eyes blinking at him from across the table. The blue eyes were the only ones that calmed his racing heart and solidified an answer he knew would be unpopular among the Phillipi siblings. “Yeah, that would be nice.”
Leona asked him about his parents and siblings during lunch, which filled up the time it took him to practically inhale the woman’s homemade roast, mashed potatoes and carrots. Through the doorway into the living room, he could see Moana dozing in a recliner, looking much older and frail than the last time he had seen her.
As soon as he laid his fork down on the empty plate tiny fingers pushed into his hand. “Come on, Ben! Push me on the swing.”
“Push you?” He grinned as he stood and wrapped his hand around hers. “I thought you just wanted me to look at the swing.”
Adam laughed softly. “Oldest trick in the book. Have fun, Ben.”
Amelia let go of his hand as they reached the backyard, her tiny legs carrying her fast across the yard, toward the barn where a tire swing hung from a tall maple tree.
The beauty of the view beyond the tree — rolling green hills starting to show even more fall color — hit him full in the chest as he continued to walk. He paused to take in the scene, but also to catch his breath, which reminded him how old he was compared to the child running ahead of him. By the time he reached the swing, Amelia was already sitting inside of it, waiting for him to push her. She tipped her body back on the swing to smile at him, partially upside down. The afternoon sun caught her hair, sparkling off it.
“Push me!” she said with a giggle.
He pushed the swing gently.
“Higher!” she squealed as the swing began to lift into the air.
He pushed a little harder, enjoying the sound of her laughter, the way it skipped across the air and curled into his heart and around it. So this is what he had been missing all these years. His chest ached, physically ached, and he rubbed it gently as he pushed with his other hand. He swallowed hard, thinking of all the firsts he’d missed with her. First steps, first words, first food, first booboos that needed to be kissed, that he wasn’t there to kiss.
“Higher!” she cried again.
He pushed a little higher then gasped when she tipped backward, falling out of the swing on her side, her arm under her. The squeals of laughter that had pierced the air before were replaced with a pain-filled wail that shot panic through him. He stooped quickly, lifting her in her arms, wincing at the sight of blood on her knee and elbow and a small cut on her cheek.
“It’s okay, honey. It’s okay.” He cradled her against him as he stood but the wailing continued, large tears rolling down her cheeks and into her mouth, onto his shirt. Turning he moved quickly down the hill and across the backyard toward the house, realizing with a sickening twist in his gut that he had no idea how to calm her down or even how to check her for serious injuries. Maybe she’d even broken a bone when she fell.
Angie burst out the back door before he reached the house, running down the brick steps toward them. Amelia reached out for her, mouth open, the wailing fading to a pitiful whimper.
Angie laid Amelia against her shoulder. “What happened?!”
“I was pushing her on the swing, and she fell off. She must have hit a rock on her way down.”
Angie carried Amelia into the house, sitting quickly in the kitchen floor and leaning back to inspect the scraps and cuts on the sniffling little girl in her arms.
Ben followed her. “I’m sorry. She wanted to go higher so —”
Angie glanced up at him, eyes flashing. “So you just did it? Because she wanted you to? Well, that’s great parenting. You’re seriously so clueless, Ben.”
He tightened his jaw and took a deep breath, but before he could even think he bit out a sharp response. “Of course, I’m clueless, Angie, I never had a chance to be a dad.”
“You had your chance! You didn’t take it!” Angie shouted back.
“Stop screaming at me and check on your daughter!” Ben didn’t even care how loud he was shouting, or that the shouts were bringing the rest of the family into the kitchen.
“That’s right, she’s her daughter and she’ll take care of her,” Mark snapped, stepping toward him. “What did you do?”
“Mark!” Leona laid her hand on her son’s chest. “That’s enough. I’m sure it was an accident.”
Ben took a deep breath, swallowed the retort he wanted to fling at Angie and Mark, and did his best to keep his tone even. “It was an accident. I was pushing her on the swing and she fell off. That’s all.”
Mark aggressively pointed at him. “Leave, Ben.”
“I want to make sure she’s okay first.” He was having a harder time keeping his voice calm now.
“Get out!” Mark took a step forward, but Dan grabbed his arm, pulling him back.
“Calm down,” Dan said. “This isn’t the time for this.”
Adam had joined Angie on the floor, both of them inspecting Amelia’s arms and legs.
“You’re fine, honey,” Adam said. “You’ve just got a couple scrapes.” He looked up at Ben. “She’s fine. Accidents like this happen with kids all the time.”
He pulled Amelia against him and kissed the top of her head. “Come on, now, honey. Do you hurt anywhere?”
Amelia sniffed loudly and pointed to a scrap on her elbow and one on her knee. “Just here and here.”
“Okay, well, let’s take you into the bathroom, get you cleaned up, and get some Band-Aids,” Leona said cheerfully, reaching her hand out toward her granddaughter.
Amelia took it and stood slowly, still sniffing and wiping a hand under her nose. “Unicorn band-aids?”
Leona laughed. “Of course.”
Amelia started to walk with her grandmother, but then paused, pulling her hand away and running to Ben, and taking his hand. “You can push me on the swing again when I get back, okay?”
Ben shook his head slowly. “No, kid. I have to go. It was fun, though. Go get cleaned up and I’m sure one of your uncles will push you.”
Amelia pushed her lower lip out, looking up at him. “But I like when you push me. They won’t push me high.”
Ben laughed softly despite the heaviness in his stomach. “Going higher isn’t always a good thing, kid.” He lifted her hand and motioned toward Leona. “Go get a Band-aid.”
Amelia released his hand and took her grandmother’s again. He drew in a sharp breath and turned away, walking through the patio doors, chest tight. His throat and eyes burned as he started down the steps.
“Ben, it was an accident. Don’t rush off.”
He heard Adam’s voice, but he couldn’t be polite and assure the man that everything was fine. Not this time. He needed to get out of here. Emotion clawed its way from the inside out and he wanted to be in the car before it broke loose.
His hand shook a few minutes later as he shifted the car into gear and backed quickly out of the driveway, waving briefly at Adam, now standing in the side yard, concern etching his brow. It wasn’t until the car met with the intersection of the driveway and dirt road in front of the house that the tears came and he dragged the back of his hand across his eyes, willing the emotion away.
He was not going to get emotional, play the victim. Angie’s anger, Mark and Dan’s desire to smash him into a pulp, Adam and Leona’s angst. They were all natural consequences of his past actions and decisions.
His being around would only complicate matters.
At this point, it would be better for him to stay away and stop adding stress and pain to a family who he’d already victimized enough over the years.