Special Fiction Saturday: Mercy’s Shore Chapter 26

I’m continuing to work on this story to release it as a book in January. As always, this is a continuing/serial story. I share a chapter a week and at the end of the story, after I edit and rewrite it, I self-publish it. To catch up with the story click HERE. To read the rest of the books in this series click HERE.

Let me know in the comments what you think. Or don’t. That’s okay too. *wink*

Chapter 26

Moana Phillipi’s house didn’t look much different than it had when Ben was in high school, other than a new paint job and new shutters on the side. The barn out back was empty of cows and tractors, as it had been for a decade now, which made it the perfect place to store Adam’s furniture until he and his brother finished building their furniture store closer to town.

Ben had arrived two hours before, helping to move Adam’s homemade furniture from the back of the moving truck to the back of Moana’s old barn. Amelia had run from the house when he arrived, tossing her tiny arms around his legs, a move which startled him, made him laugh, thickened his throat with emotion, and made him want to run away all at the same time. Before he had the chance to say much at all to her, other than “hey, kid, what have you been up to?”, she’d been called back inside by Angie who’d shot him a look that wasn’t exactly angry but wasn’t exactly friendly either.

“We really appreciate this, Ben.” Adam clapped Ben on the back on his way by, walking toward the moving truck to pick up another piece of furniture.

Ben nodded and lifted his t-shirt over his head, overheated and grateful he’d remembered to wear a tank top under his shirt.

Two moving men were also helping to move the furniture into the barn, but Adam was watching them like a hawk, instructing them, and encouraging Ben to help lift some of the larger pieces. Ben was doing his best to place the items down gently, making sure not to damage any of Adam’s workmanship.

Angie’s brothers had shown up part way through the moving and were now helping too, knowing best of all how their Dad liked his furniture handled. They were on the last row when Adam took a break, leaning against the truck, sweat beading across his brow. His color didn’t look good to Ben.

“Hey, Adam, why don’t you head in and see if Leona needs anything.” He glanced over his shoulder at Dan and Mark, hoping they’d notice their dad’s condition too. “We can get the last load and head in as soon as it’s stacked.

The brothers paused and looked at their dad. Mark glanced at Ben. “Uh, yeah, Dad. We’ve got this. You head on in.”

Ben was grateful when Adam nodded instead of protesting and mopped his brow with a handkerchief. “Yeah, I could use a drink. Thanks, boys. I’ll head back out in a bit with some lemonade for you.”

Ben didn’t converse much with the brothers as they worked other than a polite, “You got that?” or “Need a hand?” At least they were all being civil to each other.

Half an hour later, he looked up as he prepared to grab the last chair and saw Angie standing in the doorway wearing a pair of blue cut off jean shorts and a red and white plaid shirt tied at her waist. Her blond curls were pulled into a braid draped across her shoulder.

“Dinner’s ready. Mom says to get in before it gets cold.” She propped her hands on her hips and looked at the two moving men. “You’re invited as well.”

The men thanked her, but declined, one of them carrying the last chair into the barn and placing it gently next to the others. The taller one said they’d better get back on the road. They had a long drive ahead of him.

Ben dragged the back of his hand across his damp forehead and nodded at Dan and Mark. “You guys head on in. I’ll straighten out this row and head out.”

The brothers nodded and walked past their sister toward the house.

He hoped Angie would follow them but instead she stood, folding her arms across her chest, watching him with silent reproach as he stacked chairs.

“I thought I told you I didn’t want to see you when we moved up here.”

“I’m just helping your dad.”

“I don’t want you pushing your way into our lives, Ben.”

“I’m not trying to push into anything, Angie, I just offered to help your dad move his furniture.” He pushed a chair back and stacked another one, careful not to scratch the varnish. “I know. I’m not the nice guy. I’m the jerk, but maybe I’m trying to change.”

Shadows played across her face, but he could still tell her eyes were narrowed and her lips had formed a thin line.

“I’ll believe that when I see it,” she mumbled.

He was never going to win with her. He needed to accept that. He wished he didn’t still find her insanely attractive despite the vitriol she aimed at him every time they saw each other.

“You know what, Angie, why don’t you back off me for like five seconds? I just want to finish straightening these chairs like I said I would and then I’ll get in my car and drive out of here and leave you alone.”

He winced and dropped the chair he’d been holding, looking at his hand. The chair hadn’t been sanded yet. He shook the hand then picked the chair up again and lifted it onto another chair.

“Did you cut your hand?”  Her question dripped more with annoyance than concern.

“It’s just a splinter, I’m fine.” His words were strained, said with a tight jaw. He walked over to pick up another chair.

When he turned around from stacking it, she was walking toward him. “Give me your hand.” The words snapped out of her as a demand. “I’ll get it out.”

“I said I’m fine.”

“It’s a huge splinter. I can see it from here. Don’t be stubborn.”

“Huge is a relative concept.”

“Shut up, Ben and give me your hand.” She grabbed him by the wrist and yanked his hand toward her, brandishing a pair of silver tweezers she must have snatched from the first aid box on the wall on her way over to him.

He flinched when the metal touched his skin.

“Stop moving,” she hissed. “Or I won’t be able to get it.”

“Well, excuse me. It hurts.”

“Don’t be such a baby.” She squinted. “I can’t see it. Come into the light.”

She turned so her back was to him, her fingers still wrapped around his wrist, and walked forward, pulling him with her until they were standing in a stream of light pouring from a window at the top of the barn.

When she stopped walking, she pulled his arm in front of her and he stumbled forward, his chest now almost touching her back.  The scent of apples overwhelmed his senses, her hair soft against his cheek. He closed his eyes, breathed in deep, and tried not to think of the inside of his arm brushing against the outside of hers.

Tipping his head down and opening his eyes again he noticed his mouth was close to the skin exposed at the top of her shirt, soft skin along the side of her neck, curving toward her shoulder. He longed to lower his lips to that skin and kiss it softly like he used to. Instead, he had to be content in feeling the warmth coming off her, letting it remind him of better times when he could have slid his other arm around her waist and pulled her back against him.

“Ow!” A sharp pain seared through his hand. He yanked the hand away and stepped back. “What was that?”

“I got your splinter out.” She walked away from him, tossing the tweezer into the open first aid kit.

“Yeah, but you didn’t need to yank that hard.”

“You were getting too close.”

“You’re the one who stood in front of me. What was I supposed to do?”

She swung to face him, eyes flashing, cheeks flushed. “Don’t try to flirt with me, Ben. Just don’t.” She took a step back but kept her gaze locked on his, holding up a finger. “Don’t try to turn me on. I’m not falling for that.”

He snorted a laugh. “I wasn’t trying to turn you on.” He grinned mischievously. “It’s not my fault if you got turned on.”

Crimson spread across her cheeks, down her throat. “I didn’t say I got turned on.”

“I didn’t say you did get turned on.”

She turned away from him again. “I’m going in the house. Put some ointment and a bandage on that. They’re in the first aid kit.”

She left him standing in the open door of the barn with a small, smug smile tugging at one corner of his mouth. He watched her walk to the back door of the house, enjoying the gentle sway of her hips, the briskness in her step enhancing the movement.

Leona stepped into the opening of the back door and waved. “Ben! Come on in and grab some lunch before you head out, okay?”

He didn’t want to disappoint the woman, but he also didn’t want to inflame Angie anymore than he already had. Then again, eating lunch would give him a chance to smell that shampoo again, which would both thrill and torture him. Maybe he could even find a way to make that crimson flush across her cheeks return.

The other men were already at the kitchen table when he stepped inside. He asked where the bathroom was so he could wash up, his t-shirt now pulled back over the tank top.

Back in the kitchen a few minutes later, Adam, his color better than before, gestured to the empty chair next to him and across from Amelia. “There’s a seat right here. Pull up and grab some grub, kid.”

Angie set a bowl of mashed potatoes down in front of him  harder than he felt necessary. He looked up at her and wanted to laugh at the anger flashing in her eyes. She’d utterly convinced herself he’d tried to hit on her in that barn. Ridiculous woman.

If he’d really wanted to hit on her he’d had done more than breathed in the smell of her shampoo.

“Do you want to see the swing Pop-pop made for me after lunch?” Amelia asked, eager eyed focused on Ben, clearly oblivious to the tension between her parents.

“Um —“ he glanced at Angie briefly, then the brothers, then back at the bright blue eyes blinking at him from across the table. The blue eyes were the only ones that calmed his racing heart and solidified an answer he knew would be unpopular among the Phillipi siblings. “Yeah, that would be nice.”

Leona asked him about his parents and siblings during lunch, which filled up the time it took him to practically inhale the woman’s homemade roast, mashed potatoes and carrots. Through the doorway into the living room, he could see Moana dozing in a recliner, looking much older and frail than the last time he had seen her.

As soon as he laid his fork down on the empty plate tiny fingers pushed into his hand. “Come on, Ben! Push me on the swing.”

“Push you?” He grinned as he stood and wrapped his hand around hers. “I thought you just wanted me to look at the swing.”

Adam laughed softly. “Oldest trick in the book. Have fun, Ben.”

Amelia let go of his hand as they reached the backyard, her tiny legs carrying her fast across the yard, toward the barn where a tire swing hung from a tall maple tree.

The beauty of the view beyond the tree — rolling green hills starting to show even more fall color — hit him full in the chest as he continued to walk. He paused to take in the scene, but also to catch his breath, which reminded him how old he was compared to the child running ahead of him. By the time he reached the swing, Amelia was already sitting inside of it, waiting for him to push her. She tipped her body back on the swing to smile at him, partially upside down. The afternoon sun caught her hair, sparkling off it.

“Push me!” she said with a giggle.

He pushed the swing gently.

“Higher!” she squealed as the swing began to lift into the air.

He pushed a little harder, enjoying the sound of her laughter, the way it skipped across the air and curled into his heart and around it. So this is what he had been missing all these years. His chest ached, physically ached, and he rubbed it gently as he pushed with his other hand. He swallowed hard, thinking of all the firsts he’d missed with her. First steps, first words, first food, first booboos that needed to be kissed, that he wasn’t there to kiss.

“Higher!” she cried again.

He pushed a little higher then gasped when she tipped backward, falling out of the swing on her side, her arm under her. The squeals of laughter that had pierced the air before were replaced with a pain-filled wail that shot panic through him. He stooped quickly, lifting her in her arms, wincing at the sight of blood on her knee and elbow and a small cut on her cheek.

“It’s okay, honey. It’s okay.” He cradled her against him as he stood but the wailing continued, large tears rolling down her cheeks and into her mouth, onto his shirt. Turning he moved quickly down the hill and across the backyard toward the house, realizing with a sickening twist in his gut that he had no idea how to calm her down or even how to check her for serious injuries. Maybe she’d even broken a bone when she fell.

Angie burst out the back door before he reached the house, running down the brick steps toward them. Amelia reached out for her, mouth open, the wailing fading to a pitiful whimper.

Angie laid Amelia against her shoulder. “What happened?!”

“I was pushing her on the swing, and she fell off. She must have hit a rock on her way down.”

Angie carried Amelia into the house, sitting quickly in the kitchen floor and leaning back to inspect the scraps and cuts on the sniffling little girl in her arms.

Ben followed her. “I’m sorry. She wanted to go higher so —”

Angie glanced up at him, eyes flashing. “So you just did it? Because she wanted you to? Well, that’s great parenting. You’re seriously so clueless, Ben.”

He tightened his jaw and took a deep breath, but before he could even think he bit out a sharp response. “Of course, I’m clueless, Angie, I never had a chance to be a dad.”

“You had your chance! You didn’t take it!” Angie shouted back.

“Stop screaming at me and check on your daughter!” Ben didn’t even care how loud he was shouting, or that the shouts were bringing the rest of the family into the kitchen.

“That’s right, she’s her daughter and she’ll take care of her,” Mark snapped, stepping toward him. “What did you do?”

“Mark!” Leona laid her hand on her son’s chest. “That’s enough. I’m sure it was an accident.”

Ben took a deep breath, swallowed the retort he wanted to fling at Angie and Mark, and did his best to keep his tone even. “It was an accident. I was pushing her on the swing and she fell off.  That’s all.”

Mark aggressively pointed at him. “Leave, Ben.”

“I want to make sure she’s okay first.” He was having a harder time keeping his voice calm now.

“Get out!” Mark took a step forward, but Dan grabbed his arm, pulling him back.

“Calm down,” Dan said. “This isn’t the time for this.”

Adam had joined Angie on the floor, both of them inspecting Amelia’s arms and legs.

“You’re fine, honey,” Adam said. “You’ve just got a couple scrapes.” He looked up at Ben. “She’s fine. Accidents like this happen with kids all the time.”

He pulled Amelia against him and kissed the top of her head. “Come on, now, honey. Do you hurt anywhere?”

Amelia sniffed loudly and pointed to a scrap on her elbow and one on her knee. “Just here and here.”

“Okay, well, let’s take you into the bathroom, get you cleaned up, and get some Band-Aids,” Leona said cheerfully, reaching her hand out toward her granddaughter.

Amelia took it and stood slowly, still sniffing and wiping a hand under her nose. “Unicorn band-aids?”

Leona laughed. “Of course.”

Amelia started to walk with her grandmother, but then paused, pulling her hand away and running to Ben, and taking his hand. “You can push me on the swing again when I get back, okay?”

Ben shook his head slowly. “No, kid. I have to go. It was fun, though. Go get cleaned up and I’m sure one of your uncles will push you.”

Amelia pushed her lower lip out, looking up at him. “But I like when you push me. They won’t push me high.”

Ben laughed softly despite the heaviness in his stomach. “Going higher isn’t always a good thing, kid.” He lifted her hand and motioned toward Leona. “Go get a Band-aid.”

Amelia released his hand and took her grandmother’s again. He drew in a sharp breath and turned away, walking through the patio doors, chest tight. His throat and eyes burned as he started down the steps.

“Ben, it was an accident. Don’t rush off.”

He heard Adam’s voice, but he couldn’t be polite and assure the man that everything was fine. Not this time. He needed to get out of here. Emotion clawed its way from the inside out and he wanted to be in the car before it broke loose.

His hand shook a few minutes later as he shifted the car into gear and backed quickly out of the driveway, waving briefly at Adam, now standing in the side yard, concern etching his brow. It wasn’t until the car met with the intersection of the driveway and dirt road in front of the house that the tears came and he dragged the back of his hand across his eyes, willing the emotion away.

He was not going to get emotional, play the victim. Angie’s anger, Mark and Dan’s desire to smash him into a pulp, Adam and Leona’s angst. They were all natural consequences of his past actions and decisions.

His being around would only complicate matters.

At this point, it would be better for him to stay away and stop adding stress and pain to a family who he’d already victimized enough over the years.

Fiction Friday: Mercy’s Shore Chapter 25

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.

Chapter 25

“And for Mr. Oliver, the usual.”

Mr. Oliver. Yikes.

Ben cringed at the formality of the server at the coffee shop down the street from his office. He knew Patrick, the young man who had been waiting on him almost every morning for the last year, was affectionately poking fun at him, but the moniker still unnerved him. He wasn’t anywhere near the respect level of the real Mr. Oliver in his life — his dad.

He accepted the cup, the scent of vanilla cinnamon creamer wafting up toward him. What was even happening to him? He’d never used to drink coffee with creamer and now he was getting all fancy and had even asked for a sprinkle of nutmeg on top. Judi had rubbed off on him and he wasn’t sure if it was a good thing or not.

“Thanks, Pat. Have a good day and keep Betty over there in line.”

The sixty-something owner of the café winked at him over her shoulder from where she stood at the end of the counter pouring a cup of coffee into a customer’s mug. “Telling me to keep in line. That’s rich coming from a lawyer.”

He heard the affection in her tone but had to agree. Lawyers weren’t always great at keeping themselves out of trouble either.

Out on the sidewalk he slid his sunglasses on with one hand and looked up at the trees lining Main Street, admiring how greens had been replaced by crisp gold and orange almost overnight.

“Well, isn’t it a small world?”

He looked down at the sound of voice, surprised to see Adam walking toward him carrying a brown paper bag in one arm, hugged against his chest, and a bucket in the other hand.

“Hey, Adam. Officially back, huh?”

Adam set the bucket down and thrust his hand out toward Ben. “Yep. It’s official now. Just waiting for the moving company to deliver the furniture inventory from my shop. Everything else is in the house. It’s not all unpacked or in the right place just yet, but it’s in there.”

“Good to hear it. You guys need any help or has the company got it?”

Adam winced. “Well, to be honest, this company hasn’t been the greatest. I’m a little nervous about them unloading the furniture. I had to watch them like a hawk when they loaded it. I was glad the boys were there to help guide them, but they’ve got a big job three hours away and won’t be here when the truck arrives tomorrow.”

Angie probably wouldn’t like him offering, but —  “Want me to come and help supervise?”

Adam’s eyebrows raised. “Hey, would you? That’d be great and Leona would be glad to cook you some dinner.”

Ben reached for the bag in Adam’s arms, taking it from him. He didn’t like the dark circles under the man’s eyes and the way his shoulders stooped as if he were having trouble holding them up.

“No need for dinner. I’d be glad to help for nothing. What time are they supposed to stop by?”

“Around 3 but it could be later knowing the way they’ve been doing things.”

“Which way is your car?”

Adam gestured down the street. “Just a block down. You don’t need to carry that. I’m sure you’re on your way to work.”

Ben laughed as he turned to walk down the street Adam fell in step with him after picking up the empty bucket again. “I’m my own boss, remember? There’s no one there to scold me if I’m running a little late.”

“That’s a good point.” Adam waved at a man who walked by, then paused as the man reached out a hand and offered a “welcome back.”

He and Ben resumed walking once Adam filled the man in on his arrival, what still needed to be done, and the health of Adam’s mom.

 Adam nodded toward the bag Ben was carrying. “Leona asked for a few things to clean the kitchen. The nurses we hired did the best they could, but the floor needed an extra scrubbing.” He lifted the bucket as they walked. “I needed this for a plumbing project in the bathroom I’m going to need to tackle. That’s what happens when your mom still lives in an old farmhouse.”

They stopped at a blue sedan and Adam opened the back door for Ben to slide the bag in.

“I thank you for your help, Ben and we’ll look forward to seeing you tomorrow.”

Not all of them would look forward to seeing him, but, well, that couldn’t be helped right now. Ben turned to head back to his office “See you then.”

“Hey, Ben.”

He turned around again. “Yeah?”

“She asked about you after you left.”

He didn’t know how to respond to that. He knew who Adam was referring to. It certainly wasn’t Angie.  “Oh. She did?”

“Yeah. She wondered where you had gone and asked if you would come play with her again.”

Warmth prickled across Ben’s skin, his throat thickening. “That’s really nice.”

Those three words didn’t convey how hearing his daughter wanted to see him again really made him feel, but he couldn’t seem to think of anything else to say.

After he was in the office, he let out a shaky breath and pulled Amelia’s photo out of the drawer.

He thought back on the night Leona had called him to tell him she’d been born. He hadn’t actually picked up the phone. He’d let it go to voicemail when he saw the caller ID.

“It’s a girl, Ben. She’s beautiful. I hope you’ll be able to meet her one day.”

That’s all Leona had said. He’d never called back, even though he’d wanted to. He’d wanted to run to the hospital and hold Amelia in his arms and forget all the mistakes he’d made. If only it had been that easy.

How could he run into the hospital, ask to hold the little girl he’d rejected and face the woman he’d made go through a pregnancy on her own? He couldn’t. He’d sat in a pew and asked God to forgive him for his mistakes probably 50 times in the last year. And he knew God’s love was as endless as his failings.

That love wouldn’t come as easily from others, though. God would and had forgiven him, but he didn’t expect the same absolution from Angie. He’d never asked for her forgiveness, and he never would. He only hoped that someday she’d allow him to see their daughter, even without it.

***

“So, it was good?”

Evan looked at Judi across the small table Ellie and Jason had passed down to her a couple of months ago. He’d propped his hands under his chin, a small smile playing at the corners of his mouth.

She gestured to her empty plate as she picked it and her empty glass up and walked to the sink. “Do you see any more on my plate? It was obviously amazing. Where did you even learn to cook like that?”

He followed her, leaning around her to place his own plate and glass in the sink. “Did you forget who my mom is?”

She turned and noticed he hadn’t stepped back like she’d expected him to, leaving him standing dangerously close. “Oh right, of course. Your mom’s food is amazing, especially her desserts.”

A soft laugh came from him, but he still hadn’t stepped back. Instead, he’d propped an arm close to her on the edge of the counter. “Sadly, I didn’t bring any of her desserts.”

She leaned her hip against the counter and folded her arm across her chest. “I don’t need any more dessert after all that ice cream I had earlier.”

Boy, was he close. She could feel the heat coming off him. Or maybe the room had just gotten warmer. Either way she slid to her right, turned, and headed toward the living room. “Want to watch a movie?”

“Yeah. That’d be great. Have one in mind?”

She didn’t and maybe she shouldn’t even try to think of one and instead send him home. “Um . . . maybe a classic?”

He followed her to the living room and sat next to her as she sat on the couch. “How classic? Like black and white classic or 80s classic?”

“I’d prefer 80s. Ellie’s the old black and white movie buff.”

They picked a favorite of Evan’s — The Goonies — and Judi found herself thinking about how she had never sat next to a man and simply watched a movie with him. She shifted to pull her feet under her, then so they were off to one side, then under her again. She kept a foot or so between them at first but during the second adjustment she found herself closer, practically leaning into him, her arm brushing his.

As they laughed and joked about the hairstyles and how young Sean Astin and Josh Brolin looked she forgot about analyzing if she was sitting too close or far away or if she was holding her arms or legs awkwardly.

She didn’t know exactly how it happened, but it felt completely natural when he slid an arm across the back of the couch and absent-mindedly played with her hair. She closed her eyes briefly, enjoying the satisfying feel of his hands in her hair.

Soft lips on her neck opened her eyes and she smiled. “Hey, we’re supposed to be watching a movie.”

“I’m totally watching it,” he whispered against her ear. “But your neck is distracting me.”

“Oh, is it?”

That smell. What was it? It smelled good yet there was something also foreboding about it, an ominous memory connected to it that she couldn’t yet draw to the forefront of her mind. His mouth moved from her neck to her earlobe.  Flashbacks of that night with Jeff fired off in her mind as his mouth slipped to her neck again. In Jeff’s apartment the light from billboards and red neon signs outside had lit up the room. Here it was the light from the TV. She could still remember the smell of Jeff’s cologne, the feel of his hands pushing down.

Her breath quickened and she swallowed hard, trying to bring herself back to the present.

This was stupid. Evan wasn’t Jeff. Evan was good and kind, gentle, caring.

She closed her eyes, turned her head into his kiss. The kiss was soft and welcoming, like before. When his hand slipped to her waist, though, alarms went off again, exploding against the inside of her like mini bombs which hurt as much physically as they did mentally.

Evan was not Jeff but all she could feel were Jeff’s hands on her, his mouth roughly pressed against her hers as he pushed her down on the couch, grabbed at her skirt.

She willed the thoughts away, grabbed the front of Evan’s shirt and kissed him harder, pulling him toward her as she leaned back toward the arm of the couch until he was almost on top of her. She needed to move on. She needed to get what happened with Jeff and Jerry and everything else out of her mind.

You know you’ll give it to me.

Jeff’s voice, dark, cold, and full of arrogance. Why were those words playing over and over in her head? No! She wouldn’t let that memory ruin her time with Evan. She focused on the kiss and on his hand that he’d pushed into her hair.

You’ve been asking for it since we met.

She pulled away from Evan, gasped in a mouthful of air and shoved at his chest as his cologne overwhelmed her. She couldn’t deny it now. The cologne was triggering memories she didn’t want, suffocating her senses, clouding her mind.

“Get off!” She gasped in another mouthful of air, her chest tight. “Get off!”

She pushed hard against Evan’s chest, and he leaned up fast, sitting back on the couch.

“What’s going on? Are you okay?” He reached out, took her hands in his. “You’re trembling, Judi. And pale. Super pale. Talk to me.”

She wrenched her hands out of his and stood. “Just stop!” She stumbled backward, holding a hand to her throat, which felt like it was closing. “Please, leave.”

Evan stood and took a step back toward the door, hands raised, palms out as if in defense. “No problem. I can totally leave, but, Judi — Did I do something wrong?”

She shook her head, pins and needles sliding up her arms now. “No. No. I’m just — can you leave?”

If she was going to pass out, she wanted to do it without an audience.

Evan was clearly bewildered but still nodded and stepped sideways toward the door. “Yeah, sure. If you want me to absolutely, but you’re still really pale and you’re breathing funny. Can I just stand over here until you’re feeling better because I really don’t feel right leaving when —”

Her words were coming out in short gasps now. “I just need you to go.”

“Okay, again, no problem, but please sit on the couch and put your head back, okay?”

She sat on the couch, hunching forward and hugged her arms around herself, trembling to the point her teeth chattered.

“I’m going to get you a blanket, okay? Where is your bedroom?”

“No. Leave.”

“Okay, but can I call someone for you?”

She shook her head and pulled her knees up against her chest. Everything needed to stop spinning.

“Take slower breaths, okay? I’m going to step outside but please, try to make those breaths further apart or you’re going to hyperventilate.”

The door clicked closed behind him as a sob choked out of her. What was going on? Why did she feel this way? Fear surged through her, taking her thoughts hostage, warning her that she was in danger, even though logic told her Evan was someone she didn’t need to be afraid of.

His voice, faint, but audible, came through the partially opened front window. He was still on the landing, and he was talking, but not to her. “Hey. Do you have a number for Ellie Tanner? I’m at Judi’s and I think she’s having a panic attack.” A brief pause and then, “Yeah. Great. Have her come over here as soon as she can.” Another pause, during which Judi sucked in a breath and tried to stop sobbing. “No, I’m outside. She told me to get out. Yeah, I’m staying here until Ellie gets here.” She pressed a hand against her mouth as he continued to talk. “Sure, prayer is always a good thing.”

Her thoughts needed to stop racing. The images needed to stop playing. Her heart needed to stop pounding, her hands to stop shaking.

She couldn’t take it anymore.

One drink wouldn’t hurt. She just needed to take the edge off. Where could she even get a drink right now?

“Judi, I’m right outside if you need me, okay? I’m trying to get a hold of Ellie. I hope that’s okay.”

She didn’t answer him, just squeezed her eyes shut even tighter and tried to focus on the breeze blowing in from the window, on the sounds outside in the street, anything to keep her from focusing on the images in her mind, the smell of Jeff, the feel of his hands on her.

She didn’t even know how much time had passed when the front door to the apartment swung open and hurried footsteps pounded across the floor toward her. Warm hands encircled her wrists. “Judi? I’m here.”

Ellie didn’t ask if she was okay. She didn’t ask what was wrong. She didn’t suggest a prayer.

She just knelt in front of her sister, held Judi’s wrists for a few seconds, and then slowly slid her arms around her, holding her tight as the tears came fast and furious.

Fiction Friday: Mercy’s Shore Chapter 15

This is a continuing/serial story. I share a chapter a week and at the end of the story, and after I edit and rewrite, I self-publish it. To catch up with the story click HERE. To read the rest of the books in this series click HERE. Let me know in the comments what you think.

Chapter 15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure you should. You’re her dad.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeff spat a curse word and the line went dead.

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

“You okay?”

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

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

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

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

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

“How much did you hear?”

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

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

Fiction Friday: Mercy’s Shore Chapter 14

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

This is a continuing/serial story. I share a chapter a week and at the end of the story, and after I edit and rewrite, I self-publish it. To catch up with the story click HERE. To read the rest of the books in this series click HERE. Let me know in the comments what you think.

Chapter 14

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

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

“Let’s forget it.”

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

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

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

“Her parents wanted you here, right?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, I’m not yet, but —”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is it what you want?”

“What do you mean?”

“To be a part of Amelia’s life.”

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

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

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

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

“We invited him again and —”

“Decided not to tell me he was coming.”

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

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

She still wasn’t looking at Ben.

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

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

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

“Oh,” Ben said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Angie, please —”

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

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

“Of mine?”

“Fine, of your father’s and mine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her eyebrows dipped. “And who are you?”

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

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

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

“Uh. Yeah. I am.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben swallowed hard. “Um…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I like them okay.”

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

“Do you like cake?”

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

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

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

“I love it,” he choked out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened?” the man asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiction Thursday: Mercy’s Shore Chapter 13

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

This is a continuing/serial story. I share a chapter a week and at the end of the story, and after I edit and rewrite, I self-publish it. To catch up with the story click HERE. To read the rest of the books in this series click HERE. Let me know in the comments what you think.

Chapter 13

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

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

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

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

Her confusion was clearly evident on her face.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evan filled in the blank. “Angie.”

Ben transferred his attention from Judi to Evan.

“Yeah,” Judi said. “How’d you know?”

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

Ben cleared his throat. “We’re not.”

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

Ben nodded curtly. “It’s fine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It keeps the car cool,” Ben quipped.

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

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

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

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

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

Ben cleared his throat. “Excuse me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiction Friday: Mercy’s Shore Chapter 12

This is a continuing/serial story. I share a chapter a week and at the end of the story, and after I edit and rewrite, I self-publish it. To catch up with the story click HERE. To read the rest of the books in this series click HERE. Let me know in the comments what you think.

Chapter 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She glanced at him again. “Headache back?”

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

“To seeing your daughter?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.” Ben’s voice was tight. “I do.”

“But you don’t see her?”

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Which one?”

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

“What number?”

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing.

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

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

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

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

“So you drove into the middle of nowhere?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

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

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

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

“Do you have triple a?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 “Got a road name?” the man responded.

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

“Why don’t you do that?”

Ben didn’t appreciate the man’s sarcasm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, Billy, my name’s Ben and —”

“I’m not Billy.”

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

“Billy’s my dad.”

“Oh. Okay. Is your dad there?”

“He’s been dead ten years.”

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

“I don’t have a tow truck.”

“Your website says you do.”

“Mine’s in the shop.”

“But you are a shop.”

“It’s in my shop.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, Ben?”

Oh boy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The text message popped up on the lock screen.

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

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

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

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

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

Fiction Friday: Mercy’s Shore Chapter 11

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.

Chapter 11

Judi had vowed not to ask Ben any more about his daughter. Her brutal curiosity about the personal lives of others was a flaw she’d told herself she would work on when she left the city.

After their conversation, she’d managed to get the letter typed, despite almost forgetting how to, since she hadn’t typed more than a text since her high school business class. He’d thanked her for her help and then told her she could go home early. He had a headache, he’d said.

While she previously would have simply skipped out of the office, excited to head off to a club or a party, she found herself fighting mixed emotions. One of those emotions was depression over the fact she really had nowhere to go except back to her apartment. The other emotion was guilt. If it wasn’t for her, he wouldn’t be dealing with these reoccurring headaches, and he’d probably be able to drive to his daughter’s birthday party.

She really hadn’t seen him coming that day on the road, but, well, she had sort of glided through the stop sign. She wouldn’t have glided if she had seen him buzzing down the road toward her, however. It wasn’t like he was completely innocent either. He had been driving much faster than he should have been.

Standing by her car, her thumb on the unlock button on the key fob, she sighed and hesitated. Ben had been nice enough to give her a job, which though part time, had helped her not have to be at Lonny’s as often. He seemed to be going through a rough patch, and like her was trying to keep himself clean and sober.

She didn’t want to go back to drinking and she had a feeling he didn’t either. Maybe she should make sure he was okay, lift some pressure from his shoulders a little.

He visibly jumped from where he was standing at the filing cabinets behind her desk when she walked back in. “I thought you were heading out.”

“I was, but I thought I should check on you.”

Ben eyed her with what she felt was suspicion, though she couldn’t be sure since he often looked suspicious, which she imagined was because he was a lawyer.

“Uh. Okay. Well, I’m fine.”

“You say you’re fine, but you’ve had a lot going on. I mean, you’ve got brain damage and —”

“Brain swelling, Judi. A concussion. Would you stop saying I have brain damage?”

“Right. Anyhow, you’ve got that and now you can’t go to your daughter’s birthday party. and I feel like that’s my fault even though I totally didn’t see you coming that day.”

“I’ve told you already that I’m not upset about the accident any — wait.” Ben’s brows dipped and he placed his hands on his hips. Judi wasn’t sure what that pose meant but she didn’t think it could be good. “Were you listening in to my conversation?”

Oh. Right. She wasn’t supposed to know about the party.

She grimaced, closing her eyes. “Well, not exactly.” She slowly opened one eye to spy on the angry expression his face was now featuring. “Okay, so here is the thing — when I transferred Mr. Phillipi, I accidentally hit the speaker button. Then I was afraid to push it back off in case it beeped, and you thought I was listening in, but then I realized I was actually listening in so I shut it off, but before I did I heard something about a party.”

His expression relaxed slightly, but the suspicion had returned. “And you assumed it was a party for Amelia?”

“Yeah, if Amelia is your daughter’s name.” She waited for him to respond, but he didn’t. He simply stood there looking at her as if he was waiting for her to continue. “Soooo…is it a party for her?”

Ben folded his arms across his chest and leaned back against her desk. “It is. But as you heard, I can’t attend it because of the concussion.”

“Right.” Judi took a deep breath and stepped toward him. “That’s why I was thinking that maybe I could drive you to the party.”

Ben held a hand up. “Judi, no. Thank you, but no.”

“Why not? I promise I’ll be careful and drive better than usual.”

“It’s a four-hour drive for one thing.”

“So? I drove all the way here from the city. I know how to drive long distances.”

Ben sighed and shook his head as he turned toward his office. “Listen, I appreciate the offer, but I already told Adam I couldn’t make it, so it’s fine.” He shut his briefcase, picked it up, and shut the light off on his way out. “I sent him a check for her gift, so she’ll have something from me.”

“But don’t you want to see her?”

She knew as soon as she asked it, she shouldn’t have. Ben’s expression darkened as he walked toward the front door. “It isn’t that I don’t want to see her. It’s that Angie doesn’t want me to see her. Angie doesn’t want anything to do with me.” He pushed the door open and waited for her to walk through, then turned and locked it after she stepped out onto the sidewalk. “In fact, Angie specifically asked me not to be there.”

“Oh.”

She didn’t know what else to say, other than, “I’m sorry. Again. I seem to have this compulsion to ask too many questions and stick my nose way too far into other people’s business.” She shrugged her shoulders in a quick motion.

Ben pushed a hand back through his hair and held it there for a few seconds. “I really do appreciate you wanting to help. I know you mean well.”

Judi nodded and told him she’d see him tomorrow. In her car, she sat for a few minutes before pulling out to start the 20-minute drive home. Ben had said he didn’t want her help and maybe he didn’t, but she felt like he needed it. He needed someone to light a fire under him and get his life back in order.

He was going to regret not getting to know his daughter. Judi wasn’t even sure she wanted a family someday, but Ben? He seemed like the kind of guy who would fit into that kind of life. What he needed was a push in the right direction and if there was anything she liked, it was pushing people around.

***

Ben woke with a start. What time was it? The sun told him it was way past when he normally woke up. He fumbled for his alarm clock, squinted at it and groaned. 8:45. He should have been up an hour and a half ago. It was Judi’s day off and he should have been in to answer phones and — Wait. No. He rubbed a hand through his hair.

It wasn’t Friday. He’d already worked through Judi’s day off.

He fell back on the bed and squeezed his eyes shut against the sunlight. It was Saturday. He didn’t have to answer any phones, meet any clients, or even go anywhere. He pulled his feet up onto the bed and slid them under the covers, ready to go back to bed and ignore the buzz in his head from the sleep still lingering there.

Ten minutes later, though, he was woken up again with a crisp knock on his front door. He peeked an eye open and closed it again. Whoever it was would get the message and go away when he didn’t respond.

Two minutes later, there was another knock.

No way. He was not climbing out of his bed. The headache he’d had the night before had faded to a dull ache, but he still felt like he could sleep for another eight hours.

Four solid, louder knocks later, he finally crawled out of the bed and stumbled through the doorway of his bedroom, through the living room and to the front door. He propped his head against the wall next to the door and took a deep breath to try wake himself up before he opened the door.

When he opened it he wanted to close it again, but Judi was too quick. She breezed past him with two cups of coffee in a holder and a brown paper bag.

“Good morning!” she chirped cheerfully while he stood watching her with half open eyes.

“Yes. It’s morning. Good? Well, it was good before you woke me up.”

She sat the coffees and bag on the table and turned toward him. “Ooh. I thought you were a morning person. I guess not.”

He closed the door and staggered toward the kitchen table, flopping down into a chair and resting his head on the top of the table. “What are you doing here?” He lifted his head quickly. “Not only what are you doing here, but how did you find me?”

Judi popped the lid off her coffee and poured in creamer she pulled from the bag. She stirred it with a small stir stick. “Seriously? Burkett isn’t much bigger than Spencer. I asked around.” She sipped the coffee. “So what day is that birthday party?”

Ben rubbed a hand across his face. “Today. Why?”

“What time?”

“3 p.m. Why?”

Judi pulled a donut from the bag and bit into it. “Because deep down you want to be there and you want me to drive you.” She spoke around a mouthful of donut.

“No. Deep down I want for you to get out of my apartment so I can go back to sleep.”

Judi pulled the coffee from the carrier and set it down in front of him. “I’m going to drive you down to your daughter’s party.”

“I already told you I’m not going.”

“It’s 9:30. If you hurry up and get dressed, we can totally make it.”

Ben took the lid off the coffee and stood. He walked to the refrigerator and reached in for a bottle of creamer. “No way. I am not going anywhere with you. You’re a horrible driver.”

“Excuse me?” Judi scoffed, brushing donut crumbs off her hands. “I am not a horrible driver. That was a total accident, you know that.”

“Judi.” Ben poured the creamer in the coffee and sat back down at the table. “Go home.”

“Aren’t you going to stir that?”

Ben propped his chin on his hand and sipped the coffee. “I’m too tired to stir.”

Judi placed her hands on her hips. “You could have died in that accident you know.”

He quirked an eyebrow as he looked up at her. “I don’t know about that, but the doctor did say I could be learning to walk and talk again right now.” He sat back in the chair and folded his arms across his chest. “Thanks to you.”

“Didn’t you also say something about that doctor saying this was your second chance at life?”

Ben reached for the donut and broke it in half. “It’s strange you can remember all the things the doctor told me when you can’t remember to bring me files that I ask for or to finish typing up letters I need to send out.”

Judi sat at the table across from him. “Ben, you’re going to regret not getting to know your daughter.”

Ben shoved the half of donut in his mouth and stood, walking back toward the counter. “Go home, Judi.” He reached for a cup in a cupboard by the fridge and poured himself a glass of milk. “Thanks for the coffee and donuts, but, seriously, go home.”

“You need to go see your little girl. Don’t throw this opportunity away.”

“Judi!” Ben turned with the glass of milk in his hand. “This isn’t any of your business. I am asking you to —

“I want to help you, Ben. When I stopped drinking, I said I wanted to be a better person and this is one way I can be a better person. I can help you get your life back on track. My life is a disaster. I don’t have any friends left. My sister treats me like a lost puppy or one of her preschool students. My parents call me several times a day to make sure I haven’t fallen off the wagon. I’m pretty sure my sponsor thinks I’m already back on the bottle.”

Ben held a hand up. “I’m sorry your life is so messed up, but my life is fine, and I want to leave it that way.”

Judi huffed out an exasperated sigh. “But your life isn’t fine! You don’t have anything to do with the little girl you helped bring into the world and one day you’re going to regret it. I don’t want to live with regrets anymore. Do you?” She stood and stepped toward him. “You have a second chance to make things right, even if it is just —”

“Angie doesn’t want me involved in her life or our daughter’s life.” Ben hated how sharp his voice came out. He knew Judi was only trying to help and she was right, he didn’t want to have anymore regrets, but still  — He softened his voice. “I can’t just force myself into a situation she’s told me she doesn’t want me involved in.” He stepped back to the table and sat down and drank the rest of the milk. “Thank you for trying to help. Really. But I need to respect Angie’s wishes.”

Judi sat down with a heavy sigh and picked up the cup of coffee. “I thought you had some fight in you Ben Oliver.” She shrugged her shoulders. “Apparently, that’s not the case.”

Ben wasn’t about to tell Judi that he’d already had another phone call from Adam, asking him if he would reconsider coming to the party. Luckily the call had gone to his voicemail, and he hadn’t had to tell the man, again, he wasn’t going to come.

There had been something in Adam’s voice though. Something that made Ben think maybe he should take Judi up on her offer. A sudden thought made Ben’s stomach tighten. What if that “something” was related to Amelia. What if she was sick? Maybe Adam and Leona wanted to talk to him about that. Or what if it was Angie? Could something be wrong with Angie?

He raked a hand through his hair and growled softly. “Fine. I’ll go.”

Judi looked up from her coffee, startled. “Really?”

Ben shook his head as he walked toward his bedroom. “Yes, really. I’ll take a shower, get dressed and we’ll go.”

He couldn’t believe he was doing this and Judi’s squeal from his kitchen sent an annoyed shiver crawling up his spine. He had no idea how Angie was going to react to this visit, but he had a feeling it wasn’t going to be positive.

Fiction Friday: Mercy’s Shore Chapter 9

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.

Chapter 9


Judi smoothed a finger across her lower lip, smoothing in the dark red lipstick she’d applied a few minutes earlier. She studied herself in the mirror on the visor and took a deep breath. Glancing down at her white button-up shirt and gray pencil skirt and a pair of sensible black flats, she grimaced. What had she become? She pushed a strand of hair that had fallen from the messy bun she’d pulled her hair into behind her ear and slid a pair of sunglasses on then made a face at her reflection.

“I’ve become Ellie. That’s who I’ve become.” She sighed and rolled her eyes before she opened and reached for the door handle. “Good grief. I’m my sister.”

 Fine, she was dressed like her sister and acting way more strait-laced than she had in the past, but she’d wanted a change, so this was a change. She’d wanted to leave her old life behind and working for a well-known local lawyer was one way to do that. It was time for her to grow up and if she had to look like a spinster librarian to do it, so be it.

She smoothed her hands down her skirt and squinted at her reflection in the large front window between the stenciled words, Benjamin A. Oliver, Attorney at Law.

She’d called Ben a couple of days after he’d offered the job to her and accepted it, even though she couldn’t imagine what he had been thinking when he’d offered it to her. She also wasn’t sure what she’d been thinking accepting it, considering she’d now have to wake up super early on the days she worked here.

She squinted at her reflection in the front window, wishing she had grabbed that suit coat Ellie had offered her. It would have made her at least look professional. She smoothed her hands down the front of the skirt again. At least it was cute.

Walking inside, she was surprised at how well-decorated Ben’s office was. She’d been expecting something much drabber and a lot less eye-catching.

Instead of boring, dull-colored paintings of landscapes on the wall, though, he’d hung colorful paintings of life in the city in the 1950s, including what looked like a scene at a jazz club. Three dark brown, leather-bound, chairs with top-grain, soft cushions lined the walls in the lobby. She could easily curl up one of those and take a nap. Also in the lobby area was a tall gray desk with a high wall at the front of it and a counter on top of the wall. She wondered if that was where the secretary — er she — would be sitting.

A few feet behind the desk a door opened to a white-walled office with a large window and mahogany-colored desk. A black, leather-plush chair sat behind the desk, and behind the chair a wall full of what were probably law books lined built-in bookshelves. Ben peered from around the open door and the clink of a filing cabinet door shutting made Judi flinch.

 He stepped fully into the doorway wearing a light blue button-up dress shirt and a red tie, dark dress pants, and dress shoes. “You made it. Great.”

Apparently, he’d thought she wasn’t going to show up. His instincts had been right. She almost hadn’t.

Even now she felt sick to her stomach. What had she been thinking? She didn’t have a clue how to be a secretary at a law office.

He didn’t pause in the doorway but kept moving toward the desk at the front with a smile she was sure charmed the pants off more than a few women he’d met over the years — maybe even literally.

 He gestured toward the chair behind the desk. “This is where you’ll be sitting most of the time unless I need you to come into the office to take some notes for me.” He propped his hands on the back of the chair and leaned on it. “You do know how to take notes, right?”

With a quick smile, she did her best to be truthful. “Not exactly, but it can’t be that hard, right?”

Ben’s smile flickered for a brief moment before it returned. “Right. It’s not that hard to learn.”

Her gaze moved across the neat desk with a computer and photos of an older woman with what Judi guessed was the woman’s husband and adult children. To the left of the desk, behind the tall partition, stood a row of filing cabinets. Ben explained how to use the phone, what the filing cabinets were for, and how to use the electronic appointment book before telling her that he’d show her how to file cases in the cabinets later.

“Did you want to take any notes?” he asked after he’d reached what she hoped was his last lesson for the day.

“Notes?” Her brow dipped in confusion. “Do you need me to take notes for you now?”

“No.” He shook his head briefly. “I mean for yourself. So you’ll remember what I just told you.”

“Why?” She was genuinely confused. “Aren’t you going to be here? I can just ask you if I have a question, can’t I?”

Ben sighed. “Yes, you can, but if I am on the phone or can’t help you for some other reason then . . .” His voice trailed off as he looked at her. “Never mind. That’s fine. You’re right. I’ll be back in the office if you need me.”

He walked to a coffee pot set up on a small counter next to the soft chairs. “I’ve been making the coffee when I come in, but if you’d make that each morning it would help me out. I haven’t booked a ton of clients today because I’ve got court in the morning, and I need to prepare for that. From ten to eleven I have a video conference with a client downstate who is in the middle of a divorce, so I don’t want to be interrupted. Lunch is from noon to one, but I’ll need you back five minutes early today because I have an appointment at one with a new client who has filed a defamation complaint against the newspaper in the next county.” He shrugged a shoulder. “He’s going to lose the case, but he’s persistent so I said I’d take it on. He’s got a lot of money.”

He took a long drink of the coffee then stood with the mug in one hand and the other hand propped on his hip. “Any questions for me?”

“Just if you always talk this fast.”

Ben laughed. “Most of the time, yes. I’m one guy and I have a lot of clients, so I can’t afford to take my time.”

He walked into his office and closed the door, leaving Judi alone with a quiet lobby area and a phone that should have been simple but was severely intimidating her at the moment. What button had he said to push again when she needed to transfer a call? She hoped it would come to her when she needed to actually do it. He’d probably been right to suggest she take notes.

Her phone rang while she was making herself a cup of coffee. Walking back to the desk to retrieve it from her purse, she decided she’d better leave a reminder in her notes app to pick up some flavored creamer. Ben’s coffee was as boring and plain as he was.

She looked at the lock screen. The number was the one from New York again. She needed to tell this guy she was not interested in anything to do with Jeff.

“Miss Lambert?” a man’s voice asked as she answered.

“Listen, if this is that lawyer, I’m not interested in talking about anything that has to do with Jeff Burke, so please stop calling me. Thank you.”

“Miss Lambert, wait. Please. Just hear me out.”

“I’m not inter—”

The lawyer spoke quickly. “I think Jeff Burke tried to do to you what he actually succeeded in doing to my client and I am asking if you would be willing to testify at her trial to prove that this is a pattern with him.”

Judi’s mouth went dry, and she sat hard in the chair as if the wind had been knocked out of her. Her throat tightened and her heart fluttered inside her chest.

“Miss Lambert? Are you still there?”

A chill shivered across her skin as she swallowed hard. “Yeah.”

“I know it would be hard to talk about what happened or almost happened, but we know, or at least we feel, that there are other victims. The more women we have who can say Jeff did this to them, the more chance we have at convincing a jury he needs to be put away for a long time so he can’t do it to anyone else.”

Judi rubbed her hand along her arm. “How did you even find me?”

“Your former roommate. Seline.”

Judi’s throat tightened more. “Did he —”

“No,” the attorney said. “But she knows the other woman. She’s a co-worker of Seline’s. Seline said you didn’t want to press charges because nothing happened that night and I understand, but Miss Lambert this is a chance to stop Jeff from doing this to other women. Will you at least think about it?”

Judi cleared her throat and took a sip of her coffee. “Yeah, I’ll think about it.”

She slid her finger over the end button and dropped the phone back into her purse. When the office phone rang a few minutes later she literally jumped in her chair, the ringing pulling her from her thoughts.

“Hello?”

“Um, hello.” The male voice on the other end of the phone was hesitant. “Is this Ben Oliver’s office?”

Oh great. She forgot the greeting already.

“Oh yes. Sorry. Hello. Attorney Ben Oliver’s Office.”

“Oh. Okay, well, may I speak to him?”

“May I ask who is calling?”

“Yes. This is Adam Phillipi.”

Judi pursed her lips. Ooh boy. Phillipi. This was someone connected with Angie. This should be interesting. She wished she could listen in.

“Just a minute, please.”

She bit her lower lip and searched for the hold button. After pushing it she tried to remember what buttons she needed to push to transfer the call. Was it 22 star or star 22? Or was it — She pushed the buttons she thought were the right ones and set the phone back in the cradle, bumping the speaker button as she moved her hand away.

“Adam, hey, did you get the check I sent?” Ben asked through the speaker.

Her finger hovered over the speaker button. If she pushed it, would there be a click and if there was a click, would Ben think she’d been listening in on purpose, instead of by accident?

“Yeah, Ben, I did,” Adam responded. “That was very nice. Thank you. The thing is though, Leona and I were hoping you’d also be able to make the birthday party.”

Ben winced. “Oh, I’d love to, Adam, but, unfortunately, I was in a car accident a month ago and I’m still recovering from a concussion. The doctor hasn’t cleared me to drive yet.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” Adam said. “Then, I understand why you can’t make it. That’s a shame, though. Leona and I had hoped to see you in person and discuss a couple of things with you.”

“Well, I’m here now, if you’d like to discuss anything.” Judi heard the strain in Ben’s voice as a twinge of guilt pulled at her.

She shouldn’t be listening to this conversation. But if she pushed the speaker button — Forget it. She had to take a chance that it would beep because explaining that she had listened into his entire personal conversation would be even harder than explaining she wasn’t sure if pushing the button again would be disruptive to the conversation.

She tapped the button and let out a long breath, bracing herself for him storming out of his office to ask if she had been listening in. After a few seconds, with no shouting coming from his office, she decided she must be in the clear. Her eyes slid over the desk in front of her again. Now what? Ben hadn’t told her what else to do yet. She shrugged her shoulder and pulled out her nail file. It was as good of a time as any to shape her nails before her pedicure in a couple of days. It would at least give her something to think about other than the call from that lawyer.

Fiction Friday: Mercy’s Shore (The Shores of Mercy) Chapter 7

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.

Chapter 7

Ben flipped through the appointment book, grimacing as the paper sliced across his finger. He stuck the finger in his mouth, tasting blood.

“Yes, we have a meeting at 3:45, Mrs. Anderson. You were right. Glad you called to confirm.”

Since I just set up an appointment with Arthur Jenkins at the same time and now have to call back and reschedule.

“Oh, good and what paperwork did I need again?” the elderly woman on the other end of the phone asked.

Ben slid a pen behind his ear and reached for his now cold cup of coffee on the end of his desk. “Just the deed and any mineral rights paperwork you have.”

Mrs. Anderson thanked him, and they said goodbye just as the phone rang again and he switched lines to answer it.

“Staying busy at work, kid?”

“Dad, hey. Yeah. Very busy.”

“Not so easy without a secretary, is it?”

Ben sighed into the phone and sipped the coffee, wincing at the bitter flavor and the coldness of it. “No, but I’m managing.”

“You did the right thing, though. I know it meant so much to Cindy having these two weeks off before Bill‘s treatments start.” Ben heard the creak of the chair at his dad’s office at the courthouse. “Have you given any more thought to call Judi Lambert in on a temporary basis?”

Ben rubbed his hand across his face. “No, I haven’t honestly.” Pain throbbed through his head, and he squeezed his eyes shut. “Right now, I’m just trying not to overbook.” But failing at it. “It would help if this concussion would heal. I didn’t even think I hit my head that hard.”

“It doesn’t take much to rattle your brain in there,” Maxwell said. “I’ve got someone here who wants to talk to me, so I’ll be there around 6 to pick you up. That work for you?”

“Dad, yeah, but I’m going to have to do things on my own at some point. I can walk to my apartment.”

“I know and I agree but your mom is worried about you. She wants to keep an eye on you, and I think she might be right this time. Still having dizzy spells?”

Ben propped his elbow on his desk and leaned his cheek against his hand, wishing he hadn’t had that dizzy spell in front of his parents and sister the other night at dinner.

“Minor ones here and there, but they’re better. I know I can’t drive yet but I can —”

“Pass out in your apartment and not be able to call for help, so I’ll see you around 6. I’ll also keep asking around to see if we can find someone to help you out until Cindy gets back.”

Ben thanked his dad and hung up, leaning back in his chair, and thinking how, yet again, his dad was taking care of him, cleaning up his mistakes. He spun the chair toward his computer and grabbed the side of the desk as the room kept spinning.

The dizzy spells were getting better, but there were still times they threw him off balance. Occasional blurry vision was still plaguing him too, almost a month after the accident. His foot was healing but definitely still broken based on the pain that shot through it when he tried to walk on it without the protective boot. He had backed off the narcotic painkiller, though, worried he could become addicted to it as easily as he had alcohol.

The one good thing was that Judi’s insurance company was covering the repairs on the BMW and he should have it back in another couple of weeks.

He had three clients coming in later in the day and hadn’t yet found their files. Cindy had filed them perfectly; it was his fault they were missing. He’d placed them somewhere in the office, maybe a drawer in his desk? Or maybe his briefcase. Opening the case, the photograph he’d tucked there fell out and he glanced at the floor, at the bright blue eyes staring back at him.

Those eyes took him back to the night he learned of her existence and that she was growing fast in her mother’s womb.

“It wasn’t like I was the only one involved in this, Ben. You get that right?”

He’d poured himself a half a glass of bourbon and sat on the couch. “Yeah, I get that, Angie. I know how it works. I’m just saying I thought you were on birth control.”

Angie had been standing across from him, wavy dirty-blond curls draped across her shoulders and back, one hand resting on her slender hip, the other pressed against her forehead.

“I missed a couple of days, okay?” She’d tossed her hands out to her side in frustration. “I didn’t know I could get pregnant from just missing a couple of days. I tried to catch up, but I guess things got thrown off or something.”

He’d downed the alcohol and slammed the glass on the coffee table, cracking the glass. “We can’t afford a kid, Ange. I’ve still got classes to finish and the bar to finish studying for. I told you I didn’t want to get married right now and you think I’d want a kid?”

“No, I didn’t think you’d want a kid, but it’s happened, and we have to figure out what we’re going to do.”

He’d scoffed. “No. I don’t have to figure out what to do.” He’d pointed at her aggressively as he stood. “You have to figure out what to do. I don’t want to be a father and you’re definitely not qualified to be a mother.”

The memory of his words stabbed him in the center of his chest. He lifted the photo and noticed his hand was trembling.

Tasting bile at the back of his throat he jumped up, gagging on his way to the bathroom and vomiting the small breakfast he’d been able to manage that morning, his entire body trembling now, head pounding.

He’d been going to church more in the last year, praying for God to forgive him for his past words and actions. Maybe God had forgiven him, or would forgive him, but he knew he could never forgive himself for the things he had said and done that night and the days afterwards.

He knew Angie couldn’t offer him forgiveness either and he didn’t blame her or want her to. He didn’t deserve it. It was high time he stopped asking God for something he didn’t deserve, including a chance to get to know the daughter he’d told Angie she should kill so their lives wouldn’t, as he had put it back then, “be ruined.”

He heard the phone ringing and wiped his mouth and splashed his face with water before stumbling to answer it, grateful for the interruption to the memories.

“Oliver! Thought you were dead, man!”

Ben raked a hand through his hair and tried to gather his thoughts. “Mark, hey. Nope. Not yet anyhow.”

The lawyer on the other end of the phone laughed but Ben knew this wasn’t a wellness check. Not really.

“I thought you might be out longer based on what I heard in the grapevine. Totaled the BMW huh?”

“Yeah, but it looks like it can be fixed.”

“It’ll never be the same, though. You know that. Better off scrapping it and getting a new one.”

“We don’t all have the money you do, Mark.”

Mark scoffed. “Get yourself a couple of corporate clients and you will. I’ll hook you up sometime, but for now I’m sure you know why I’m calling.”

Ben stood and poured the rest of the coffee from his cup down the sink in the bathroom. “I do and I also know you won’t be very happy with my answer.”

“Oliver, now come on. It’s a fair offer.”

“It isn’t a fair offer for my client. Not at all. Mrs. Henderson is not entitled to more than half of what Mr. Henderson is worth, I don’t care what she thinks. She will accept what he has offered to her, or we will pull back our offer to let her have the house and property in full without her paying him for his half.”

“Ben, how hard did you hit your head in that accident? What your client is offering is completely out of line with standard practices and Mrs. Henderson is entitled to much more than what her husband is offering after the mental anguish he put her through.”

Ben’s jaw tightened. “With all due respect, Mark, she’s getting full custody of the kids in this matter. The fact she’s demanding even more money is making her look pretty greedy at this point.”

Mark laughed ruefully. “Don’t even give me that. They were married 25 years. He cheated on her. She has every right to demand more from him. And he is also being granted visitation rights. She’s never been against that.”

Ben leaned forward across the desk, tapping it with his finger as he talked, which might have been intimidating if Mark could see him. “Let’s be clear, she alleges he cheated on her. He denies that and there is no proof. She’s taking his children away from him. Isn’t that vengeance enough? No, Mark. I’m not going to let my client agree to these terms.”

Something thudded on Mark’s end of the phone and Ben wondered if he’d punched the desk. Or maybe a wall. “Then it looks like we’re going to be seeing you in court. I was hoping we could hammer this out amicably but apparently that’s not possible.”

“Apparently not. Thanks to your client.”

“See you in court, Oliver. Hope you’re ready to lose.”

“I won’t lose, Mark, but, yes, see you in court.”

Hanging up, Ben took a deep breath and leaned back in his chair, folding his hands behind his head. That had felt good.

He’d been worried the concussion had addled his brain to the point he wouldn’t be able to fight or his clients anymore, but that conversation had just shown him that it hadn’t. He might be horrible at personal relationships, but he was spot on when it came to being a lawyer.