Fiction Friday: Mercy’s Shore (The Shores of Mercy) Chapter 6

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 6

Judi turned the key in the ignition and pulled out of the parking space in front of her apartment abruptly, barely giving herself time to check the side mirrors.

She was late. As usual.

Her sister Ellie had invited her to supper at the farmhouse ten miles outside of town and that supper was set to start in ten minutes.

Judi glanced at the clock on her dashboard. Make that seven minutes.

Apparently, Judi was never going to become organized like Ellie, no matter how hard she tried. Was it her fault that her favorite Brad Pitt movie had come on while she was finishing straightening her hair? Or that her ice cream had melted on the coffee table, and she had rushed to clean it up before it dried?

Okay, yes. All those things were technically her fault, because if she’d been paying attention to the clock, she wouldn’t have been distracted by either of them. But Brad Pitt. Come on. She had such little excitement left in her life anymore. She had to have some enjoyment.

She appreciated her sister helping her work out a deal with the landlord for the apartment she now lived in, allowing Judi to take over the two-year lease Ellie had signed when she’d thought she and Jason weren’t getting married.

What a mess that engagement had been. Judi still couldn’t figure Ellie out sometimes. While she’d comforted Ellie before she and Jason worked things out, Judi still felt Ellie’s reason for being mad at Jason was dumb.

In high school Ellie and Jason had promised they’d be each other’s first. First as in first person they slept with. They’d taken a break in college, though, so Jason had been tempted and slept with a girl on campus. Yeah, so Jason waited almost nine years to tell Ellie about it and dragged his feet on proposing because he’d been dreading telling her, but still — Judi didn’t get it. It wasn’t like Jason slept with the girl when he and Ellie were a couple.

Judi shrugged at the memory of her sister’s dilemma as she watched the town setting fade into farmland and wide open spaces, trees slowly becoming green after a long winter and cornfields almost ready to be planted.

Ellie was much more old-fashioned than Judi. Way more old fashioned.

Okay, so it would be nice if she met a guy one day and they were both each other’s first but for Judi that ship had already sailed. There was no going back to redo that.

First there was that one time in high school and it almost set sail again that night with Jeff. The only difference with Jeff was it wouldn’t have been her choice. She winced at the memory of that night with Jeff and then at the memory of the high school interaction. The high school one had been seriously awkward, emotionally and physically uncomfortable, and definitely not what she thought it was going to be at all. It was something she had never told Ellie about, and she never wanted to.

There was a part of her that felt guilt about it all, but what good would it do to sit and feel guilt about something she couldn’t go back and change? It had happened, she had regretted it and wished she’d waited for someone more special, someone who hadn’t moved out of the area a month later, but such was life. Everyone had regrets but not everyone had to be like Ellie and let those regrets weigh them down for years on end.

There were a lot of people who were surprised when they found out she was related to Ellie and not only because they didn’t have the same hair color. Of course, Judi’s blond hair wasn’t natural. She’d started dying it in high school to be different from her sister. It had once been almost as dark brown as Ellie, but her hair had always featured a few more blond streaks.

People were surprised they were sisters because she and Ellie were so different in their personalities and how they looked at life. Judi didn’t dwell on past mistakes or worry about the future like Ellie, and she felt that was okay. Pushing back thoughts about her past helped her move toward the future and so far, that strategy was working well for her.

She pulled in front of Judi’s farmhouse fifteen minutes late and noticed there was already a black pickup parked next to Jason’s gray pickup and Ellie’s small blue sedan. That meant Alex Stone, Jason’s best friend, and Molly, Jason’s sister, had also been invited.  

Wonderful.

Always fun to be the fifth wheel.

Wherever Molly was, Alex wasn’t far behind, especially after the two had started dating more than a year ago.

The farmhouse was small, but attractive, especially after Jason and Alex had started fixing it up with new siding and shutters after the wedding. Winter had paused their renovations, but Judi was sure they’d be starting the improvements again as spring continued. Prior to Jason and Ellie moving in, the house had been a bachelor pad for Alex and Jason.

Glancing at her phone as she reached for it, she noticed Rachel had tried to reach her again. She knew it was to talk about the situation with Jerry the other night at the meeting, but she didn’t want to talk about it. Jerry was weird and that was all there was to it. She wasn’t going to drink herself into oblivion because some old guy who couldn’t get his life together didn’t like her.

“Nice ride!”

She looked up as she climbed out of the car and saw Alex sitting on the porch railing, jean clad legs hanging over it, a soda in one hand.

“Yep! It is.”

Alex pushed his familiar black cowboy hat back off his forehead and tipped his head up, revealing a rugged, unshaven jawline. Sunlight flickered across his blue eyes. “How much are the payments on it?”

Judi reached for her purse and shook her head, her back to Alex. Men and cars, so predictable.

“Too much,” she answered as shut the door of the small red compact sports car she’d purchased when she was still living in the city.

The payments were too much. She wasn’t just offering a smooth retort. If she didn’t find a more lucrative job soon the car was going to go the way of her fancy New York City apartment and designer clothes shopping habit — into the category of how life used to be.

She couldn’t help but notice Alex’s well-toned arms as she walked up the steps toward the front door. A black t shirt with an image of country singer Clint Black emblazoned on the front was stretched against his chest and biceps, which were nowhere near as large as Jason’s, but much larger than they had been when he’d first moved to Spencer Valley almost seven years ago to work with Jason on the farm.

There weren’t many men in this small, rural area who had muscles as large, or a body as toned as Jason’s, much to Judi’s disappointment. Not that she ogled Jason, since he was her brother-in-law and, in some ways, almost like a brother to her since she’d known him practically her entire life.

Alex jerked his head toward the front door. “You’re just in time. Ellie’s about to put the food on the table.”

“Oh good, then hopefully I’ll avoid a scolding about being late.” Judi smiled to let Alex know she was teasing.

She and Ellie had been at each other’s throats for a number of years, always bickering or verbal poking at each other, but last year that had all changed when Judi thought her sister had died in a car accident driving a drunk Brad Tanner back to his house.

It wasn’t that there weren’t still days the two snipped at each other, but it definitely wasn’t at the intensity it had once been. Judi couldn’t seem to put her sarcastic and biting remarks completely behind her, though, a habit she knew was left over from the days when her jealousy of Ellie had consumed her. That jealousy still remained but it floated on calmer waters now, speckled with a healthy dose of admiration for her older sister.

Inside the house, Ellie was being the perfect housewife. She wasn’t technically a house wife since she worked as a preschool teacher four days a week and the rest of the time either helped Jason on the farm or at the farm store.

“Hey!” Ellie set a bowl down on the table and reached out her arms as soon as she saw Judi enter the dining room, enveloping her in a quick, but firm hug. Judi had pulled away from hugs from her sister for years and was trying her best to get used to them now. She did her best to return the hug and not be as awkward as she used to be.

Ellie had pulled her chestnut brown hair back in a tight ponytail and she was dressed more casual than normal, sporting a pair of black capris and a light blue crew neck blouse. Judi was used to seeing her wearing a button up shirt or a sweater, khaki pants, and dress shoes for work. Ellie didn’t dress down very often, though she had relaxed considerably since getting married.

Ellie gestured toward the table as she turned to go back into the kitchen. “So glad you had a night off and could join us. Go ahead and grab a seat.”

Molly walked in from the kitchen with a salad and set it on the table. Her long, curly, reddish-brown hair was hanging loose and she was wearing loose fitting shirt and a pair of blue jean shorts.

Second to Ellie, Molly was someone Judi wished she could be like. Molly had always been sweet and cheerful, no matter what life threw at her. She’d struggled with her weight for years and Judi didn’t envy that, however. Looking good in a designer shirt and pair of jeans was more important to Judi than being sweet.

The table was full of fried chicken, sweet potatoes, salad, green beans, and homemade biscuits. All of it was food Judi knew she shouldn’t be eating, but it looked good, and she knew, based on her sister’s cooking talent, that it would taste good too.

After a prayer from Jason, they began passing food and Alex and Jason began talking about the farm, the continuing expansion of the Tanner’s farm store, and an upcoming inspection of the Tanner’s bottling plant.

Judi was fine with them talking amongst themselves. It meant she didn’t have to share about her week.

“Judi. You’ve been quite tonight. How was your week?”

Well, it was nice while it lasted.  Why did Ellie feel she had to include her in everything? Including the conversation.

“It was okay.” She shoved a bite of sweet potato in her mouth, hoping this would satisfy her sister, but knowing it wouldn’t.

“So, is it true you pulled out in front of Ben Oliver last week before he hit a tree?”

She glared over her glass of water at Alex as she took a drink. His good looks didn’t make up for that big mouth of his. She would have asked how he even knew about the accident, but then she remembered he was currently staying with Matt McGee, who’d obviously blabbed her personal business one morning over coffee.

Ellie looked up from her plate, eyes wide. “Did you have an accident? Are you okay? Why didn’t you call?”

Judi focused her scowl on Alex. “Thank you, Alex. So appreciative you blabbed that.” Thanks to him Ellie was peppering her with concerned questions and soon her phone would be blowing up with the same questions from her parents.

Alex grinned as he reached for the plate of chicken. “No problem. Always here to help.”

She looked at Ellie, purposely tipping her head away from Alex and wishing she hadn’t given up flipping people off in an effort to be a kinder, gentler Judi. She made sure to speak in a matter of fact one to deflect any deeper questions.

“I’m fine. The car’s fine. He swerved to miss me and hit the tree.”

She reached across the table for the plate of chicken sitting next to Alex, being sure to shoot him another annoyed scowl. His return smirk and wink was infuriating.

“Was he okay?” Ellie asked, concerning etching her brow.

“Yeah, he’s fine,” Judi said around a mouthful of chicken. “He has a concussion and a broken ankle. He’s out of the hospital, though. I saw him at the AA meeting last night.”

When her phone rang, she reached for her purse and pulling it out she checked the caller ID.  She didn’t recognize the number so she sent it to voicemail and dropped the phone back into the purse.

Molly reached for the pitcher of tea and poured a glass. “That’s great to know he was at an AA meeting. I know he’s been sober for a couple of years but it’s good to stay connected somewhere.”

Judi raised an eyebrow. “Ben’s a recovering alcoholic?”

The color from Molly’s face visibly drained. “Oh. I thought that he — I mean, I thought he must have shared that at the meeting.”

Judi shook her head slowly. “No. He didn’t. He was there to support a client. The guy with him said he’d had experience with AA meetings though. I didn’t know what he meant.”

She also hadn’t stayed to find out since she’d wanted to get as far away from discussions about Jerry’s blow up on her as possible.

She was surprised that Molly knew so much about the guy who had dumped her in high school to date Easy Angie. Apparently, they had talked since Ben moved back to the area.

Molly swallowed hard. “I probably shouldn’t have shared that.”

Judi shrugged and stabbed at a piece of lettuce with her fork. “Doesn’t matter to me. I’m not going to tell him you said anything. We didn’t exactly hit it off after the accident, so I don’t plan on interacting with him on a regular basis.”

Molly cleared her throat and managed a faint smile. “Thanks. I don’t know if all of that is common knowledge or not and I hate him to think I violated his privacy somehow.”

Judi snorted a laugh. “It’s nice of you to worry about him because it’s not like he worried too much about you when he dumped you in high school for that Angie Phillipi.”

“Judi!”

Ah, there it was. Ellie’s familiar scolding tone.

Judi didn’t even bother to look up from her plate and see Ellie’s raised eyebrows. “What? It’s true. He was a total jerk to Molly. Everyone knows it.”

Alex leaned back in his chair and slid an arm around Molly’s shoulder. “Good thing he was too, or I might have had to steal Molly away from him.” He winked as Judi looked up. Judi rolled her eyes and resisted the urge to gag.

“Besides, Ben and I had a good talk about that, and he did apologize,” Molly added. “It was high school. We all do stupid things in high school.”

Judi knew Molly didn’t know about all the stupid things she’d done in high school, but the comment felt like a small kick in the gut or at least a pinch in the arm. She wasn’t about to sit and dwell on why the comment bothered her, though. Life was too short to look in the rearview mirror.

“That’s good to hear,” she said instead, looking at Molly. “Really. I always thought that was totally crappy of him. You were way better than Angie ever was.”

Molly tipped her head to one side and smiled. “Thank you, Judi. That’s sweet. It did hurt but his apology helped a lot.”

“Whatever happened to Angie anyhow?” Jason asked standing with his empty plate and heading toward the kitchen.

“Last I heard her parents moved down to Lancaster,” Ellie said. “I’m not sure where Angie ended up though.”

Judi picked up her plate and carried it into the kitchen as Jason walked back toward the dining room. “You know who else was at the meeting?” She didn’t wait for an answer to her inquiry. “Brad.”

Jason scoffed on his way by her. “That’s a shock. Doubt he’ll stick with it.”

Judi placed her plate in the open dishwasher, tempted to set it in backward to drive her Obsessive Compulsive  sister crazy, but finally deciding against it. “Me too, honestly,” she called over her shoulder. “But no one thought I’d stick with it this long either.”

“I thought he’d move back to the city after the accident, actually,” Jason said as Judi walked back into the dining room. “Instead, I have to see him every day at work.”

Judi laughed as she sat back down. “Same here.”

“Is he a big of an idiot there as he is everywhere else?” Jason asked as Ellie sat a stack of small plates on the table.

“Of course, he is,” Judi responded with an eye roll.

Ellie placed a pie in the center of the table, which Judi knew was made from scratch by her sister, from the crust to the filling.

 Ellie began to cut the pie.  “Hey, who knows. Maybe he’s finally growing up. This could be a good thing. Instead of mocking him, we should be praying for him.”

Judi felt a familiar sarcastic retort on the tip of her tongue, one that would ridicule Ellie’s tendency to turn everything into a Bible lesson. She held the comment in, though, knowing Ellie was being her genuinely sweet self by offering the suggestion.

The rest of the evening was spent chatting about topics other than the lives of all the alcoholics the Lamberts and Tanners knew.

Judi didn’t look at her phone again until she was in the car, ready to drive home. She clicked on the play button from the voicemail left by the unfamiliar number as she pulled out onto the dirt road in front of the house.

“Hello, Miss Lambert. My name is Brent Decker and I’m an attorney from New York City. I’m hoping you can get back to me at your earliest convenience on a matter involving a Jeffery Brock.”

Judi pushed the off button on the phone before the man left his phone number.

She was not returning that phone call.

Jeff Brock was one of those regrets she didn’t intend to let weigh her down and what had happened with him was another incident she intended to leave in her rearview.

Fiction Friday: Harvesting Hope (formerly The Farmers’ Sons) Chapter 13

I almost didn’t post this chapter this week because it will probably be changed, maybe even gutted, before the final publication later this summer. I knew if I didn’t post today, though, I would lose my consecutive posting streak. Today makes eight days straight of posting. Amazing, right? No, it isn’t. I know. My life is sad. *wink*

Seriously, though, it is possible this chapter will change quite a bit before publication. If you would like to catch up and read the previous chapters I have posted here, you can click HERE.

For those who are new here, I post a chapter from a fiction story I am working on every Friday and somewhere down the road I publish the chapters as a full novel on Amazon and Barnes and Noble (and sometimes other digital services).

You can catch the first book in this series on Amazon.


Chapter 13

“Come on, Ells Bells.” Judi’s tone was mocking “You can’t be angry at me forever.”

Ellie’s hands tightened on the steering wheel and her jaw tightened. Why did her sister have to be such an immature jerk all the time?

Judi pulled her hair into a ponytail. “I’m going with you to help Dad milk cows. At 4 a.m. This makes up for me not being at the hospital, right? You can lighten up now.”

And you can be quiet now, Judi.

She chose not to respond out loud, instead pushing her foot down on the accelerator to make the trip go faster. She was too tired to deal with Judi.

Fortunately, Judi popped her earbuds in for the rest of the trip. Unfortunately, she sang along to her music loudly and off-key.

There wasn’t any time to talk to Judi once they arrived at the farm and Ellie was grateful for that. Their dad was already in the barn and Jason’s truck was in the driveway. She sent Judi to prepare the feed for the calves. That should keep her busy. And quiet even longer.

Jason had been coming every morning and afternoon since the accident, even though her dad had told him he and Patrick could handle it. As far as she understood from her dad, he was helping with the milking at their farm and then heading back to his farm to help Molly and Alex, putting in a full day on both Tanner’s farms and the farm store, and also going on some calls with the fire department.

Watching him lift a back of feed supplement, his biceps bulging like a body builder’s, she wondered when he found time to sleep. Uttering the words, “we need a break” had been easy on the surface but now, at the sight of his back muscles rippling his T-shirt, she couldn’t deny how hard it was to ignore the physical attraction she’d always had for him. That attraction wasn’t easily severed, no matter the status of their relationship. She turned away quickly, focusing on cleaning the udders of the cows. Her dad followed her, hooking up the milking machines.

She spent the rest of the morning doing her best to avoid Jason. When he brushed past her on his way to the back of the barn to retrieve the scraper for clearing out the stalls, she felt that familiar surge of butterflies in her stomach. Trying her best to ignore it, she kept working and didn’t look up. She couldn’t risk her attraction to him making her forget what he’d done.

A trip to the birthing stalls in the back of the barn should distract her until the milking and stall cleaning was done.

The tiny calf next to its’ mother was still wet in the first stall when she turned the corner.

“Well, hey there Sunflower. Looks like Dad was right. You dropped today, huh?”

She stepped into the stall and the cow rose from her laying position. A quick look at the space between its legs confirmed it was a heifer calf.

“Hey, there, little girl. Guess you’ll be staying with us. Hope you’re a good milker like your mama.”

When Ellie turned, she noticed a tremble in the mother’s legs. She touched the cow’s side, sliding her hand across her stomach and neck. The tremble was spreading. When she touched the cow’s ears and felt how cold they were, she knew the cow was in trouble.

 “Hey, girl. It’s okay. We’ll get you some help.”

She stepped out of the stall and called across to the other section of the barn. “Dad, do you still keep the CMPK in the back room?”

Tom leaned over a stall. “Yeah. Whose got milk fever?”

“Sunflower.”

She heard a quiet sigh. “I’ll be back to help.”

Jason’s voice came from somewhere behind her. “I got it, Tom.” She flinched and turned to see him walking toward her, rubbing dirt off his hands onto his jeans. She’d always wondered how he looked so amazing even covered in dirt and cow manure. Today was no different.

She didn’t really want his help, but this was a two-person job. As she ran the bottle of calcium under warm water, she thought about how hard it would have been for her dad to help her get the IV into the cow with his ribs wrapped up. While she would have preferred Jason wasn’t there, she was glad he was now that Sunflower needed treatment.

Jason was waiting with Sunflower, rubbing her neck, when Ellie came back with the bottle of calcium and mineral mixture.

“You want to hold her head or put the IV in?” he asked.

Bumping her hip against Sunflower’s rump to encourage her to enter the recovery stall, she handed Jason the bottle and tubing at the same time. “I’ve got her head.”

“Sure you can hold her?”

Her scowl was his answer.

He shrugged. “Okay then.”

Ellie climbed over the metal fencing, stroked Sunflower’s head for a few seconds. Then she threaded the rope attached to the cow’s harness through the fence slats, winding the rope around the top bar and pulling tight until Sunflower’s head was pulled up and to the side, exposing her neck.

“Got it?” Jason had already knelt down, the needle in his hand, ready to insert it.

She nodded and he tapped along the cow’s neck with a finger, searching for the main vein.

Sunflower jerked her head when he tried to put it in. The needle grazed her neck. Blood hit the floor and Jason’s shoes.

“She didn’t like that.” He grimaced. “Tighten that rope so she stays still.”

Ellie’s jaw tightened. “It is tight.”

“Not tight enough.” Jason’s voice was about as tight as her jaw. “She’s going to jerk that head back and I’m going to hit the wrong vein. If you can’t handle it then you can put the needle in, and I’ll hold her head.”

“I can handle it, Jason,” she snapped. “I’ve done it plenty times before, you know that.”

Jason held a hand up. “Okay. Sorry.” His words had softened, but his tone hadn’t. “Calm down. Let’s just get this taken care of. She’s looking more unsteady by the moment. I don’t want to risk her dropping down.”

Ellie jerked the rope against the top rail of the fence, pulling the cows head even higher. Reaching around she patted the cow’s head. She didn’t want to take her frustration with Jason out on the cow, who already wasn’t feeling well.

The needle punctured the neck and Jason straightened. “Got it.” He lifted the bottle and tubing up to let the liquid drip down. “She should be feeling better soon. Keep the rope tight.”

“Yes, sir, bossman,” Ellie hissed through clench teeth.

Jason raised an eyebrow. “Excuse me?”

“Nothing.”

Jason looked at her over the extended arm as he held the bottle. “I’m just trying to help here, El. I’m here for your dad, not you, so you can check the attitude.”

His words clipped out at her fast and tight. Not even her anger at him could distract her from the flecks of brown in his green irises. She  clenched her jaw again, her lips pressed in a thin line as she held the rope tight and turned her head away, keeping her eyes focused on the sun rising above the horizon.

Five minutes later the bottle was empty, and Jason slid the IV out. “Done.” He glared at Ellie, wrapping the IV hose around the empty bottle. “You’re free to go, my lady.”

She glared back but when he lifted his shirt to wipe the sweat off his brow, she saw the skin just above the edge of his jeans and an involuntary rush of delight coursed through her. Goosebumps slid across her skin and her heartrate increased.

When he walked past her, she smelled the musky scent of his aftershave and her stomach flip-flopped. Why couldn’t her brain remind the rest of her body she was angry at him?

 “Tom, if you don’t need anything else from me, I’m going to head out.”

Tom leaned back against the wall by the barn door, one arm wrapped around his middle. Ellie wondered when he’d last taken his painkillers.

“No problem, Jason. You’ve been a great help. The girls can finish up.”

Jason nodded, glancing at Ellie. “I’m sure they can. I can head over this afternoon for the milking if you like.”

Didn’t he have an entire farming enterprise to help run? Why did he keep volunteering to help her dad?

“I’ll be here,” she said. “We should be fine.”

Jason tipped his head and kept walking. “Alright then.” His tone was cold.

Ellie walked to the doorway and watched him pull away, emotions jockeying for position. In the end, sadness won over and clutched at her throat, squeezing tight. It’s not like she could blame Jason for being angry. Even she knew she wasn’t exactly being fair about all this. He’d apologized repeatedly, asked to sit down and talk to her, and when she’d repelled all his efforts, he’d given her space. Was it his fault that now she was interpreting his accommodating her as indifference to what he’d done and how it had affected her?

A high-pitched whistle sounded in the barn behind her. “Daaaang, El. You could have cut the tension in here with a knife.” Judi’s laugh grated on her nerves like fingernails on a chalkboard. “The only question is if it was angry tension or,” Judi lowered her eyelids and voice seductively. “Sexual tension.”

Tom cleared his throat. “That’s enough, Judi. Did you finishing feeding the calves?”

Judi folded her arms across her chest and rolled her eyes. “Almost but I have eight more. Come on, El. Help your little sister out. Melanie’s taking me to a restaurant in Kirkwood for lunch and I need to hurry up and get this done so I can get a shower.”

Help her out? Sure, why not? It wasn’t like Ellie hadn’t already done most of the work anyhow while Judi complained about the feed not mixing and the mud oozing around her boots. Anyone who didn’t know Judi would have thought she hadn’t grown up on a farm.

“Fine.” Ellie stomped through the barn door and turned toward the calf enclosures. “Let’s add another thing to my list of chores since you’re morning has been full of such arduous effort.”

Judi made a face as she followed her sister. “There you go with the big words again. Making sure you let us all know you’re the smartest one in the room. Or should I say the barn.”

Ellie ignored her sister’s jab. She didn’t have the mental energy for it after her verbal sparing with Jason. Judi followed her, though, and wouldn’t let up. She was like a dog with a bone now, or like that vindictive swan who had followed Ellie around the pond, screeching and flapping its wings after Ellie accidentally disturbed it while it was nesting.

“Seriously, El. What’s with you and Jason anyhow? If looks could kill he’d be six feet under by now.”

Ellie picked up a feeding bottle and tuned Judi out. As if she was going to tell her sister what had actually happened, how she felt betrayed because Jason had given to someone else what Ellie had always wanted for herself — his first sexual experience. Even saying it to herself sounded ridiculous. What kind of never-ending mocking would she endure from Judi if she admitted it out loud?

 Judi didn’t subscribe to the same values Ellie did. She marched to the beat of her own drummer and though they’d never discussed it, Ellie guessed by comments Judi had made in the past that saving herself for marriage wasn’t on Judi’s list of priorities.

“Okay.” Judi tightened the band holding her ponytail in place. “Don’t tell me. If you want to be a childless spinster for the rest of your life, what do I care?”

Ellie’s stomach tightened, a wave of nausea overtaking her. Why couldn’t Judi leave well enough alone? Why did she have to bring children into it? She had a knack for finding Ellie’s vulnerable spot and thrusting comments at her like daggers, clearly thirsty for the fatal blow.

Ellie looked up from the calf she was feeding, eyes flashing. “What are you doing here, Judi?”

Judi smirked, picking up a bottle. “Whatever do you mean, dear sister? I’m feeding calves. Helping our father. Being responsible. Making you happy.”

Her snarky responses weren’t soothing Ellie’s already bristling attitude.

“No.” Ellie snapped the word out, looking over her shoulder. “Why are you here? Back in Spencer again? Shouldn’t you be in the city eating at fancy restaurants, club hopping, and pretending your life is better than everyone else’s?”

Judi averted her gaze but kept the smirk in place. “What? You don’t like having your baby sister here in person for you to look down on? Would you prefer I leave so you can have all the attention like normal and abhor me from a distance instead?”

The bottle made a loud sucking noise as Ellie yanked the nipple from the calf’s mouth, preparing to face Judi and offer her a retort. Milk dripped down the calf’s chin, though, and she bawled out a pathetic cry until Ellie popped the nipple back in.

“Yeah, like I’m the one always craving for attention.” Ellie kept her back to Judi. “I don’t know why I even bother talking to you. All you ever do is blame me for your inability to function as an actual adult. Grab that other bottle and start feeding the calves on the other side or we’ll never get done.”

Judi snatched up the other bottle and snorted a derisive laugh. “You know all about blaming, don’t you, El-bell? Like how you’re blaming Jason for your breakup when it’s probably something you did — like refusing to put out unless he proposed.”

Ellie dropped the bottle. The sting of the slap startled her as much as it did Judi.  Judi gasped in a sharp breath, her expression emanating shock for a split second before it morphed into amusement.

Ellie looked at her hand as if it was a part of someone else’s body. The mark on Judi’s cheek blazed bright red. The tears that streaked her face didn’t come from pain but laughter.

“Wow.” She looked proud of herself. She could barely speak between the laughter. “Pushed the right button that time, didn’t I? Looks like Elizabeth Alexandria isn’t so perfect after all.”

Ellie clenched her burning hand tight at her side and pivoted quickly, stomping back toward the house, heart pounding. Judi’s mocking laugh haunted her the entire way.

“Are you girls done?” her mom called from the kitchen. “I made you pancakes and bacon and those muffins you —”

Ellie slammed the bathroom door closed, drowning out her mother’s perky greeting. She slid down the door, and dropped her head in her hands, her body shaking with sobs.

Stupid Judi. Why had she let her get to her like that? She’d been trying to pick a fight with Ellie since she’d arrived two weeks ago, and she had just given her what she wanted.

Confrontation and fights thrilled Judi, made her feel alive, sent adrenaline rushing through her veins like a skydiver every time they opened the door of the plane and jumped into open air. Judi was addicted to drama the same way she was addicted to avoiding being an adult. Ellie had just given her the drug. There was no way it was going to satiate her, either. She’d be back for more, at Ellie’s expense, there was no doubt about that.

Fiction Friday: The Farmer’s Daughter Chapter 18

Chapter 18 of The Farmer’s Daughter? Really? It seems so strange to be this far already in some ways, but in other ways it isn’t because I actually started this story sometime last year and have been slowly working on it since I even wrote my other books.

I can already see some changes and additions I want to make, but so far I’m liking the direction of the story. I have a feeling I’ll be tweaking a lot before all is said and done, but for now – brace yourselves, one of our characters may get themselves in some trouble in the next couple of chapters.

Catch up on the story HERE.




Molly slid a pile of books across the library desk at Ginny, unsure of when she’d have time to read the books but knowing she needed to do something to distract her from life, or her lack of one, these days.

Ginny glanced at the title of the book on the top of the pile.

How To Get Out of A Rut in Your Life.

She cleared her throat, sliding it into the library bag and reaching for another book.

How To Spice Up Your Life.

And then, Does He Like You? Ten Ways to Tell If He’s Totally Into You.

Ginny raised one eyebrow and looked up at Molly who was chewing on her fingernails.

“So, Molly, have you figured out how you were feeling a few weeks ago about sort of being stuck in life?”

Molly shrugged. “Not really. Still not sure about things and still feel like my life is somewhat. . . Hmmmm..I’m not sure what to call it.”

Ginny knew what to call it.

“Stagnant,” she said bluntly.

“Yes. That’s it. Stagnant. Like dirty water.”

Ginny laughed softly, tapping the top of her pencil on top of the desk, leaning against her hand. “Trust me. I get it.”

Molly studied Ginny’s expression, the sadness there, and wondered what was making Ginny feel stagnant. She had a good job, was popular in the community, had three lovely, now grown children, and was married to the most successful real estate agent in the region.

“You?” Molly asked.

Ginny looked up at Molly, a faint smile tugging at her mouth. “Yes, Molly. Even old people feel stagnant in life sometimes.”

Molly laughed, flipping a strand of her hair off her shoulder. “Ginny. You are not old. Stop.”

Ginny shrugged. “I feel old. Much older than I actually am. Maybe we need to cheer both of us up. I’m not an expert on how to do that, unfortunately.”

“Maybe an art class?” Molly suggested, gesturing toward the flyer taped on the top of the counter. “There is one in two weeks that is entitled ‘Lessons in realistic sketching.’ The description says we will be drawing a life model.”

“Knowing my luck it will be some skinny model with a perky chest and perfect skin,” Ginny sighed, rolling her eyes.

Molly snorted a laugh. “It will be both our luck, but let’s try it anyhow.”

Ginny handed Molly her bag of books. “And maybe by getting out a little more you won’t need all these books. Except that one about finding out if he really likes you or not.”

Light pink spread along Molly’s cheeks.

“Um..just pretend you didn’t see that one.”

“You don’t need to read the book. He likes you. I already told you he was flirting.”

“Ginny . . .”

“I’m just saying.”

“I know you’re just saying, but I’m just saying hush.”

Ginny laughed as Molly walked toward the door. “Okay,” she said softly. “But he does.”

“See you Wednesday night, Ginny.”

During the drive to the farm Molly thought about the conversation she’d had with her parents, Jason and Alex earlier in the day.

“We didn’t want to tell you anything until we knew for sure what was going on,” her father had said after he told her about the financial trouble the farm was facing.

“I understand,” she said, deciding not to mention she’d already been tipped off about the situation when she’d eavesdropped on her aunt and uncle at the farm store.

Her parents had assured her and Jason that every effort was being made to keep the farm and the rest of the enterprise afloat  but she still couldn’t help feel a twinge of panic and alarm at the idea her family could be standing with so many others watching their lives being auctioned away.

Sure she felt stuck in some ways, but that didn’t mean she wanted her family’s farm to go under or the families who worked with them to be left without an income. The thought that it could happen terrified her. She’d called Liz shortly after talking to her parents. Liz had seemed concerned, but distant somehow.

“Are you okay?” Molly had asked.

“Yeah, fine,” Liz said. “I was just thinking about work, but that can wait until later. What are your parents going to do?”

Molly didn’t think Liz was fine at all. She could hear the tension in her voice, but she decided she wouldn’t push for an answer for now.

“We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing but add some different items for sale at the farm store, expand what we offer and hope we have a good crop this year. We are looking at opening a café. I don’t think we have time to pull it off, though, Liz. We had a lot of rain this spring, the crops aren’t growing as fast as they should and it will take time to expand what we offer at the store. This might be it. We might lose our farm.”

“It’s not going to happen, Molly,” Liz’s tone was firm. “Something is going to work out. It has to. I can’t imagine your family without their farm.”

Molly couldn’t either and as she pulled into the driveway toward it she felt tears choking her. She pulled the truck off next to the top field, shifted it into park and gulped back a sob. She’d spent her whole life here, took her first steps outside the barn, learned to ride her bike in this driveway with her grandfather’s hand on the back of the bike until she took off. She’d even had her first kiss ever on the front porch of her house. That kiss had been with Ben, of course, and even though her feelings for him weren’t as strong as they were back then, it was still her first kiss.

Her grandfather had taught her about cows and calving and how to store grain on this farm. She had shucked corn and snapped green beans with her mother and grandmothers on this porch before her mom’s mom had moved away. She didn’t even have to close her eyes to imagine her grandfather walking out of that barn wearing a pair of dirty overalls and a pair of manure and mud caked work boots, reaching into his front shirt pocket for a piece of hard candy to hand her before he headed back to his house for the evening. Somedays it was if she could still see him there, out of the corner of her eye, but when she turned it was her dad or the wind or nothing at all.

“God, what are we going to do?” Molly asked softly. “Please, please don’t take this farm from our family. Help us, somehow. Help us figure out how to save it.”

She wiped the back of her hand across her cheeks and couldn’t help laughing slightly. Only a few weeks before she’d been lamenting her life here on the farm and now she was asking for God to save this farm, save her family’s livelihood, save the very life she thought she hadn’t wanted.

***

Alex’s phone blinked a warning of awkwardness ahead.

He held it in his hands for a few moments, staring at the ID blinking at him, his thumb hovering over the decline button. He rolled his eyes and hit the accept button instead, bracing himself.

“Well, well, look who finally answered his phone.”

“Hey, mom.”

“Hey, yourself. I guess you’ve been busy. I’ve been getting kicked to voice mail for a month or more now.”

“Service isn’t always great out in the fields.”

“Hmmm..right. The fields.”

He heard the mocking tone and chose to ignore it.

“Have you heard from your father lately?”

“Nope.”

“Me either. Thank God. How about your brother?”

“Last week.”

“Is he doing okay? He never calls me anymore and I have to chase him down too. I guess I’m not as important to him as his father is.”

Alex ignored the passive aggressiveness. “Yeah. He’s fine. Got a promotion at the office.”

He heard an exhale, knew his mom was blowing a plume of cigarette smoke out. “Well, good for him.” She inhaled and exhaled again. “So, you’re happy? On that farm in the middle of nowhere?”

He laughed softly. “Yeah, mom. I’m happy here. On this farm, in the middle of nowhere.”

“And Jason is good?”

“Yes, Mom. He’s good.”

Jason grinned and pointed his thumbs toward his chest. “Is she talking about me?” he whispered.

Alex nodded and rolled his eyes.

“Did he ever ask that nice girl he’s been dating forever to marry him?”

Alex laughed out loud, looking at Jason.

“No, Mom, he hasn’t asked Ellie to marry him yet.”

Jason smirked, shaking his head. He stood and leaned close to the phone. “You too, Cecily? Thanks a lot.”

Alex wasn’t used to hearing his mom laugh, especially now that her laugh was hoarse from her years of smoking. The sound was slightly jarring to him. “You just tell that boy to do the right thing and propose,” she said.

“She says just propose already,” Alex told Jason as Jason walked toward the door.

He waved his hand at Alex. “Yeah, yeah. See you at the barn later.”

Alex turned his attention back to his mom. “So, what’s up, Mom?”

“Nothing is up. Can’t a mother just call her son?”

“Sure, she can, but you don’t usually do it unless something is going on.”

“It’s just — well,” his mother let out a heavy sigh, an exhale that probably include more smoke. “It’s your father.”

Alex rolled his eyes. “What about him?”

“I don’t think he’s doing well, health wise.”

“Why do you think that?”

“It’s just that your brother hinted that something was going on awhile back. He said he’d had some appointments with a doctor. He said it wasn’t anything to worry about, but I don’t know. I felt like he wasn’t being honest about what’s really going on.”

Alex shrugged. “Like I said before, I just talked to him and he didn’t say anything to me about Dad’s health. I’m sure it’s nothing.”

“You know I don’t care much about your father’s health for my own sake, Alex, but maybe you should call him, talk to him.”

Cecily Madigan Burke wasn’t sounding like herself and now Alex was wondering is something was wrong with her health.

“Mom, compassion toward Dad really isn’t like you. Are you okay?”

Cecily sighed again. “Alex, I just said I’m not worried about him for my own sake. I’m not even worried about him for his own sake, but I don’t want something to happen to him before you’ve talked to him and worked some things out. I don’t want you to carry that anger for him for the rest of your life. It’s not healthy. I’ve had to let a lot of it go or I’d have even more wrinkles than I do now. My Yoga instructor led me through this amazing meditation of forgiveness last week. Maybe you could do something like —”

“I think we’re rushing things a bit here,” Alex interrupted. “We don’t even know there is anything wrong with his health, okay? And you’re already acting like he is dying. Besides, Dad is the one who should be contacting me and, as you have always said, act like a real father for once. I’m not going to chase someone who obviously doesn’t care whether I live or die.”

“Alex, I don’t think it’s true that he doesn’t care, he’s just too selfish to show it.”

“He’s focused on himself, Mom. Always has been and always has. Listen, I’ll ask Sam about his health, but I think you’re reading too much into it. He’s probably just getting a vasectomy to make sure he doesn’t father anymore children in his old age.”

His mom laughed softly at the suggestion and then they said their goodbyes, with Alex agreeing he’d try to keep in touch more and insisting he was still happy on the farm. When he slid his finger over the end call button his phone, though, he knew he was only half telling the truth. He did love working on the farm, but right now he was struggling because of what he’d witnessed between Molly and Ben.  

He pulled a soda out of the fridge and cracked it open, pushing the refrigerator door closed hard behind him. He hadn’t been able to get the image of Molly and Ben together out of his mind for a week now. He’d been quiet in the barn, talking when talked to but not offering comments or jokes like he usually did. He’d been inside his head too much to feel relaxed enough to act like nothing had changed since he’d seen Molly laughing and lightly touching Ben’s arm outside the church that day.

He sat on the porch railing, his legs hanging down, the soda can cupped between his hands, glad Jason was still down at the farm bringing the cows into the barn for the night.

Sleep had been hard to come by for the last week. When he closed his eyes, he pictured Molly and Ben together, Ben’s arms around Molly, leaning down to kiss her, her leaning up to kiss him back. No, he hadn’t seen that actually happen, but in his mind it had or was going to.

He was tired of thinking about it, tired of knowing he wasn’t good enough for Molly. He needed to get out of his head, and he needed to get out of this house.

He crunched the empty soda can in his hand, jumped off the railing, and stood on the porch as he stared down the road that would lead him toward town. He had no chance with Molly. He was wasting his time imagining he did.

 She was a hundred times better than him. She believed in God; he didn’t know what to believe. She was sweet and gentle; he was hard and often cynical and bitter. She’d been talking to Ben outside a church.

A church.

They’d smiled, looked happy together. Because they were, like Jason had said, “meant to be together.” A good fit.

He and Molly weren’t a good fit and it was time he accepted that.

When it came down to it, she was good, and he wasn’t. 

He was restless, anxious to get away from his own rambling thoughts. He’d been avoiding the bars lately, avoiding the temptations they brought but he needed the distraction tonight, temptations or not. He reached inside the front door and snatched keys off the hanger then turned on his heel, walked briskly down the front steps and to his truck. 

He ripped out of the driveway, driving fast in the direction of town and away from the thoughts that tortured him at home.

Fiction Thursday: A New Beginning Chapter 29

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

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

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

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


Chapter 29

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

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

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

A groggy voice greeted me. “Hey.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you two work anything out?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

“And she’s dating Thomas? Seriously?”

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

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

“Did you want a cup of coffee?”

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

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

“I’d much more prefer that. Yes.”

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

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

“I’m sorry,” I whispered.

“What are you sorry for?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She told you that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s my son . . .”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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