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he slid his sunglasses on with one hand and looked up at the trees lining Main Street, admiring how greens had been replaced by crisp gold and orange almost overnight.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