Fiction Friday: The Farmer’s Daughter Chapter 26

I’ve been finishing up editing and final drafts of Quarantined this week, so I wasn’t sure if I’d share a chapter this week, but I guess this chapter is fairly finished enough to share. It will probably go through three more drafts before I’m completely finished with it. I’m looking for Advanced Readers for Quarantined who would be willing to read it and add a review for it on Amazon when it is released, so please let me know if you are interested.

To catch up with the rest of the story of The Farmer’s Daughter click HERE or the link at the top of the page.


The inside of the barn next to the birthing stall was warm, a shelter against the chilly night air, the sweet smell of hay filling Molly’s nostrils. She leaned against the top rail of the gate around the stall and smiled at the newborn calf walking on unsteady legs in the hay around her mother.

She reached through the gate and gently rubbed the head of the light brown Jersey cow named Dandelion. “Good job, Mama. Good job.”

Watching the calf be born had been what she needed to take her mind off her worries, at least for a little while. She’d been lucky enough to walk in the barn just as the calf’s hooves were starting to appear. While she’d wondered at first if she might have to help Dandelion deliver her first calf, in the end the mother cow had done it all on her own and Molly had only had to wipe the afterbirth from the calf’s nose.

It hadn’t been her first time seeing a calf being born but it had been one of the first times she’d paused and really watched the calf try to walk and interact with her mother. Propping her chin on her hand she realized that the last half hour, watching the calf being born, then the new mother and her baby, had been the only time in the last week her mind hadn’t been racing.

She had definitely been thinking about Alex during the last week, but she’d also been worried about Liz, the farm, her grandmother, and her own future. Once the calf was born, she did what she should have done all along. She’d closed her eyes and asked for God’s help.

“I’m leaving this all in your hands, Lord,” she’d whispered.

She knew she would steal her worries back again at another time, though. Like always, shed have to pray the prayer a few more times before she finally let it all go.

The sound of footsteps drew her eyes from the new family to the doorway, and she was surprised to see Alex walking toward her. He’d left hours ago, looking exhausted after a long day of work. Wearing a thick brown corduroy coat with a white wool collar and his brown cowboy hat, Molly thought he looked like he should be on the front of a romance novel.

He and Jason had been busy cutting down corn all week and she’d been busy with Hannah updating the farm stores inventory. Seeing him now, looking amazing, his eyes bright as they watched her, caught her emotions off guard and made her realize how much she’d missed him, or rather, how much she’d missed being held by him.   

He hadn’t shaved in a few days and though she’d once found that unappealing in a man, it somehow made him even more attractive.

He stepped next to her, sliding his hands in his front jean pockets.

“Hey, gorgeous,” he said with a grin. “What a nice surprise.”

She smiled and lightly touched the wool along the collar of his coat.

“You look cozy. What are you doing out here?”

He tipped his head and smiled sheepishly. “Well, I started wondering about Laurel too – if she’d had the calf yet.” He shrugged. “I’ve only been here a couple of times when it happened, and I guess I wanted to see it again. Were you here when it was born?”

Molly nodded and then smiled. “It was pretty cool. Watching a new life come into the world always is.”

Alex leaned on the fence and looked in at the calf as it walked on unsteady legs and looked for its mom’s udder.

The cow leaned down and started licking the calf, cleaning it with her long pink tongue.

“Heifer or a bull?”

“Heifer,” Molly answered.

“Ah, good, then this one gets to stay.”

 After a few moments Alex turned from the fence post and sat on the barn floor next to the support beam, leaning back against it. He patted the floor next to him. “Come. Sit with me. I’ve barely seen you all week.”

She accepted the offer, exhausted from a long day and tossing and turning part of the  night. He slid an arm around her, and she welcomed the warmth his body gave off as she leaned against him. She’d only worn a thin sweater when she’d left the house, not realizing how cold it was outside.

“I can’t believe how cold it is,” she said with a yawn.  “It’s only the beginning of September.”

He nuzzled her cheek. “I don’t mind. It means I have an excuse to cuddle you more.”

She smiled and looked up at him. “I’ve missed you this week.”

“I’ve missed you too.”

He slid his hand in hers and intertwined his fingers with hers. “How’s it going at the store?”

“Good.” She laid her other hand over his. “We’re expanding some of our products, offering some handmade furniture for sale, working with local artists to draw people into the store and also bring the artists some business. I think it’s really going to give the store the shot in the arm it needs. Aunt Hannah is talking to Dad and Uncle Walt about adding a small café with homemade baked goods and sandwiches and soups.”

He smiled. “And coffee?”

“Of course, we will offer coffee. If we decide to move forward with it. Right now we aren’t sure how we’ll pay for it and we know a loan isn’t an option since we still have the first one to pay off.”

He pulled her close again and kissed the top of her head.

“It will get paid off. There has to be a way.” Silence settled over them for a few moments and Molly yawned.

He looked over at her again. “So, hey, I’ve been wanting to ask you, what’s going on with Liz?”

She tilted her head to look over at him. “What do you mean?”

“Well, I saw you two leaving the hospital last week when I was leaving the gym and I just wondered if Liz was okay. Or . . .” He looked at her with a raised eyebrow. “You’re okay, right?”

She shifted so he could see her amused grin. “First, yes, I’m okay, but second, you were at the gym?”

He laughed softly and she enjoyed watching pink spread across his cheeks.  “Yeah. Just thought I should try to get in shape a little more. Plus, it helps me get my mind off things. But, don’t change the subject. What’s up with Liz?”

You really don’t have to get in shape, You’re already in fine shape, she thought remembering how she’d noticed his toned bare arms earlier in the week when he’d been driving the tractor across the field to cut down the corn. She decided she wouldn’t bring that up at the moment. She was having too much fun watching him squirm.

“What do you have to get your mind off of?”

He shook his head, then smirked. “Next subject.”

“But —”

“Tell me about Liz first.”

Molly sighed, tipping her head back against the column.

 “This going to bring the mood down a bit. You sure you want to know?”

A look of concern furrowed Alex’s brow. “Is she sick?”

Molly shook her head. “Not exactly. No.” She grimaced softly. “She tried to kill herself.”

Alex’s eyebrows shot up. “She what? How?”

“She took a bunch of pills, but she panicked and called an ambulance.”

“Why would she do something like that?”

Molly bit her lower lip then released it. “She’s pregnant. With Gabe’s baby.”

Alex’s expression definitely showed his shock. “Gabe? That moron who cheated on her and —”

“Yes, but you can’t tell anyone,” Molly said quickly. “Especially, Matt. Liz told me it was okay to share with my family, and you, but she really doesn’t want other people to know. Especially Matt. She’s completely embarrassed and ashamed.”

Alex blew out a soft whistle. “Wow. That’s heavy. She’s keeping the baby, right?”

Molly nodded. “I don’t think she wanted to at first, but I said I’d help her. We’re talking about getting an apartment.”

Alex shook his head. “That’s crazy. Why didn’t you tell me about this before?”

“Liz promised me I wouldn’t tell anyone. It was so hard not having anyone to talk to about it, though. I was terrified, shocked, so afraid I might say the wrong thing to her. I really could have used some advice about how to handle it all.”

Alex lifted her hand and kissed the top of it. “You’d never say the wrong thing. You’re her best friend.” His expression was serious again . “How are you handling it all?”

Molly shrugged, lifting her head again. “I’m definitely worried about Liz. It totally freaks me out that I could have lost her, first, but second, I — well, let me clarify first. I don’t want to be in the situation Liz is in. I definitely am not ready for a baby and I definitely don’t want to be starting parenthood as a single mom, but,” Molly bit her lower lip and rolled her eyes up to the top of the barn. “it sounds so weird, but I feel like life is passing me by. Neither Ben nor Liz have started families the way I would, but they’re living life, real lives. They’re experiencing life and I’m just . . . floating along.”

Alex smiled and pushed her hair back from her face. “But now you’re floating along with me. That’s different, right?

“Yes.” She turned her body toward him more. “Yes it is. And it complicates things because sometimes I want to experience life with you in other ways.”

Oh my gosh. He’s going to think you’re talking about marriage. Molly, stop talking before he runs away screaming.

“At the same time, I don’t want to have the same regrets Liz has about the ways. . .” He was watching her with an ambiguous expression. Where was she even going with this? She needed to stop talking. Now. Or five minutes ago really. “. . . um. . . the ways she has experienced life.”

She bit her lower lip and closed her eyes. “Oh, my word. I’m so sorry. I’m not making sense.”

Alex laughed softly, turning his body more toward hers. “Actually, you are making sense. To prove that point, let me tell you about why I’ve been going to the gym.”

She opened her eyes slowly and his smile had faded. He sighed and tipped his head back. After a few moments he tipped his head back up and looked at her, deciding to be open with her.

“I work out to take my mind off you.”

Molly tilted her head and raised an eyebrow. “You don’t want to think about me?

“I do but I think about you too much and when I think about you, I think about how much I want to be with you.”

She smiled, rubbing the top of his hand. “You are with me. Every day in the barn.”

“No, I mean…be with you. In other ways. In . . . um . . . ah.” He laughed and looked out through the open barn door, rubbing his chin. “In other more intimate ways.” He looked at her, tipping his head like he was looking down his nose over a pair of glasses.  “Shall we say?”  

Heart pounding fast in her chest, she drew her breath in sharply and held it. She was catching his drift now.

“Oh.”

She’d never imagined anyone wanting to be with her in that way. The fact he’d said it and was now looking at her with such an intense expression made her feel slightly lightheaded.

“You seem surprised. Are you surprised that I think of you that way or that I’m fighting not to think of you that way?”

“Uh. . .both?”

His smile returned as he laid his other hand over hers. “I definitely think of you that way, but . . .” He pushed a strand of hair behind her ear. “I don’t want to rush things with you Molly.”

She nodded slowly, her eyes locked on his. “I understand.”

“I hope you do because I think that’s what you were trying to say about how Liz and Ben started their families. They rushed things. They took some steps out of order and you want to experience life, but you don’t want to experience it in the wrong order. Am I right?”

Molly nodded again as he reached up and cupped his hand along her jawline. “You’re different than any other woman I’ve ever met, Molly. You’re special. I’ve been really immature in the past when it comes to women and broke some hearts, including my own. I’d never forgive myself if I broke yours. You’re too important to me. I want to take things slow with you. Do this right.”

He laughed softly as she watched him, her dark green eyes wide and her gaze unwavering. He wished he knew what she was thinking. She look terrified and suddenly what was funny for one moment wasn’t in the next.  His smile faded. Maybe he’d made a mistake telling her how he felt.

What if he messed up everything with her? Including their friendship. What if he failed at taking things slow? Because right now, with her so close to him, her body warm, her lips amazingly kissable, her skin so soft against his hand, taking things slow didn’t seem very appealing.

“Maybe I shouldn’t have kissed you that day on the overlook.” The words came out of him before he even fully thought them through.

Hurt and confusion immediately registered in her eyes. “I’m sorry?”

He knew he needed to clear up the confusion he’d caused as quick as possible. “I wanted to kiss you. I’d wanted to for a long time. That’s not it.

She tipped her head slightly to one side. “Then what do you mean?”

“Maybe I shouldn’t have stirred up those feelings in you.” He looked away again, down at his fingers intertwined with hers. “I’m not good enough for you, okay? I’m sort of messed up. I don’t want to mess you up too.

When he looked up at her again a few seconds later, the hurt had faded, and softness replaced confusion as she reached up and laid her palm against his cheek. “How are you messed up?

Alex shook his head, looking away again. “I just am.”

“Look at me, Alex.”

He didn’t want to look at her. He couldn’t bear for her to see the vulnerability in his eyes. He was already feeling like a sappy fool. He moved his gaze to hers, though, curious about what she wanted to tell him.

“I’ve worked with you for five years,” she said softly. “I’ve gotten to know you pretty well. I feel like you and I have shared some pretty intense moments and also some really stupid ones. Besides Liz, I think of you as one of my closest friends. Yes, sometimes you drink too much, you flirt too much, and sometimes you seem a little closed off, but I still don’t see how you’re messed up.”

Alex raised his eyebrows. “You, uh… you know about the drinking?

“Yes, and the women. My grandma calls them ‘those blond floozies.’”

Alex laughed softly, shaking his head. “Then why are you even sitting here? You know I’m a mess. Apparently, Franny also knows I’m a mess and I’m going to try not to think about how she knows about my dating history.”

Molly moved closer, her hand still on his face.

Why did she have to move closer? He was having a hard enough time focusing on taking things slow as it was. His gaze dropped to her mouth briefly, then moved back to her eyes.

Focus, Alex. Focus.

“Yes, but you’re a beautiful mess,” she whispered. “and I don’t think those things you do are who you really are. I think you do those things to forget you’ve been hurt and pretend you never have been.”

Alex swallowed hard, staring at this beautiful woman he’d fallen for. It was as if she could see straight through him and he wasn’t sure how he felt about that. Tears stung his eyes for the first time in years and he turned his head quickly, taking her hand in his and sliding it away from his face, holding it against his chest instead.

For God sake he was not going to cry in front of Molly.

He swallowed hard, trying to hide the emotion in his voice. He couldn’t hide his feelings from her, though, and he knew it. He looked at her, captivated by the way she watched him, the tenderness in her eyes and voice when she spoke.

“You didn’t wake anything in me, Alex Stone. It was already there. I was just too afraid to believe you could ever feel the same.”

She leaned over and touched her lips to his briefly, then moved her head back slightly and smiled. He pushed her hair back from her face, cupping his hand against her cheek, caressing it. He wanted her to kiss him again and hoped he could control his emotions when she did, sticking to what he’d told her about taking things slow.

She moved her head closer again and his resolve to take things slow began to crumble. Her mouth against his felt amazingly right as he pulled her closer.

Caught up in the moment his hands slid down her back, across her side and along her hip, inching toward her thigh. Molly reached down and lifted his hand from her thigh and pressed it against her waist.

“If we are going to move slow, you’re going to have to be careful with those hands,” she whispered with a grin.

He laughed as he leaned in to kiss her again. “Yes, ma’am.”

Losing track of their surroundings as the kiss deepened neither of them heard the creaking of the barn door opening. It was the sound of someone clearing their throat loudly that startled them both. Alex pulled away quickly from Molly, turning his head toward the open barn door. Robert stood with his hands on his hips, his face flushed red.

Alex jumped to his feet and yanked his hat off, holding it to his chest, but wasn’t sure why. He wasn’t in church and the national anthem wasn’t being played but somehow Alex felt like he needed to show respect to the man who had been more like a father to him than his own.

 Of course, kissing the man’s daughter in a dark barn in the middle of the night probably wasn’t the best way to show that respect.

“Umm. . . .Hey, Mr. Tan—”

Robert looked at Alex with raised eyebrows.

“Hey, Mr. Tanner? Hey, Mr. Tanner?” Robert’s tone definitely revealed a level of anger Alex hadn’t yet seen in the man in the five years he’d known him. “You just had your hands all over my daughter and now it’s ‘Hey, Mr. Tanner?’”

Alex held his hat in front of him, rolling the rim tight against his palm.

“Uh…. Yes?”

Robert thought the vessels in his neck might burst. Molly brushed hay from her jeans as she stood. Her cheeks flushed warm under her father’s fiery gaze and her legs wobbled like wet dishrags.

“What the – how long has this – when did you even – “

Robert slapped his hand against his thigh. He was so shocked and angry he couldn’t even talk.

“Mr. Tan-”

“How far has this gone?!” Robert suddenly bellowed. “I mean what have you been doing with my daughter and for how long, Alex?”

“Oh, sir, I haven’t – I mean we haven’t – I mean it’s only been —”

Alex couldn’t believe he was having this conversation with the father of the woman he’d just been kissing. He struggled for words, feeling more like a teenager than a 30-year old man.

Robert’s gaze only seemed to intensify. “It’s only been what, Alex?”

Alex looked at the barn floor, rubbing his hand across his chin.

Robert didn’t like the small smile playing across his mouth.

“It’s just been hugging and . . . um . . .” He shrugged. “Some kissing.”

Robert’s heart pounded fast and hard in his chest. He briefly imagined himself having a heart attack right here in his own barn with his daughter and hired hand watching him. Would they call an ambulance, or simply leave him there while they continued their make out session?

“And?” Robert urged Alex to elaborate while also not wanting him to elaborate.

Alex looked up and the mischievous smile was gone.

“There is no ‘and’, sir,” he said firmly. “It’s just been kissing. I swear to you. I never took advantage of Molly that way, sir.”

Robert looked at Molly, whose head was tipped down toward the barn floor, red spreading across her cheeks.

“Molly?”

She looked at him and he saw a mix of fear and sadness in her eyes.

“It’s only been kissing ,” she said softly, her eyes rimmed with tears.

Robert tossed the gloves he had been holding at the barn wall, not sure if he believed them and not sure if his daughter was crying because she’d been caught, because she was lying, or because she wished there had been more than kissing.

Good, Lord, he couldn’t even believe he was thinking such a thing about his baby girl. Hadn’t he just been teaching her how to ride her bike yesterday? But she was almost 27 — next week in fact. She wasn’t a baby anymore. He had to accept that she was a — he could barely think the words, let alone say them —  a grown woman.

He wanted to curse, but hadn’t cursed since he’d started going to church more regularly ten years ago.

“Mr. Tanner, I —”

“Stop, calling me Mr. Tanner, Alex.” Robert’s jaw tightened as he spoke, his words clipped. “Call me Robert already. You’ve always called me Robert before.”

Alex took a deep breath and cleared his throat. “Robert, I know this doesn’t look good, but I promise you we were only kissing, and we were kissing because I kissed Molly and I didn’t kiss Molly just for fun. I kissed – have been kissing Molly —”

“Been kissing Molly?” Robert’s eyebrows shot up again. “And how long have you been kissing my daughter?”

Alex cleared his throat again.

“Off and on for a few weeks,” he said talking quickly, nervously scratching the back of his head. “But that’s not really the point. The point is —”

“Yes? What is the point?” Roberts eyes narrowed.

“The point is I care about Molly very much. I care about her and . . .” Alex looked at Molly, who was looking at the barn floor. “I love Molly.”

Molly raised her eyes and met Alex’s gaze.

“I love Molly,” he said again as their eyes locked, the corners of his mouth tilting upward.

Robert looked between his daughter and his hired hand and shook his head. He didn’t know how he felt about all of this, but he knew he couldn’t leave them alone in the barn with the way they were looking at each other. He felt too young for grandchildren.

“Alex, I think you need to go – uh – cool down a little and get a couple hours of sleep.” He said. “It will be milking time soon soon.”

He turned toward his daughter. “Molly, go to the house and we’ll discuss this more tomorrow, or later this morning as it stands now.”

Alex started toward Molly but caught Robert’s warning expression out of the corner of his eye.

“Go, Alex.”

“Yes, sir.”

Alex winked at Molly and walked into the darkness toward his truck.

She walked around her dad, clutching a flashlight. “Molly?”

She stopped the doorway and looked at her dad. “Do you feel the same way about Alex that he does about you?”

She lowered her eyes and nodded, terrified at how much she did feel the same about Alex.

“Go to bed,” Robert said softly.

He leaned against the stall and let out a heavy sigh. He had a lot more things to think about now than a pregnant cow.

***

Alex snatched his phone from the seat next to him as he drove. His mind was racing as he thought about how he’d just told Molly he loved her, in the most unconventional way – in front of her father while her father glared at him from across the barn.

“You love me?”

The sound of her voice on the other end of the phone sent a rush of energy through him. He had a feeling he wouldn’t be getting any sleep tonight. Pulling his truck into the driveway of his and Jason’s house he laughed softly. “Yes, I love you, Molly Tanner.”

“Were you just saying that to get out of trouble?”

“I don’t think telling your dad I love his little girl after he caught me making out with her in his barn is a way to get out of trouble. I think it actually dug me in further.”

She laughed softly and he could tell she was trying to be quiet. Was her dad standing behind her with his arms folded across his chest, a shot gun hanging on the wall behind him like in one of those old movies? The thought of it made him want to laugh because he knew that wasn’t the Robert he knew. Then again, he’d never been caught kissing Robert’s daughter before.

“I love you, Alex.”

“I love you, Molly. Get some sleep.”

“I don’t think I’ll be able to.”

He laughed. “Me either.”

Fiction Friday: The Farmer’s Daughter Chapter 17

I have to admit that sometimes my stomach tightens when I write certain scenes I know will be uncomfortable for my characters.

I know. That’s weird.

“They’re fictional characters, Lisa.”

That’s what you’re thinking, but to me they are real. At least in my head so when I have to write —wait. I know what you are thinking again: “When you have to write something? You don’t have to write anything. You’re the writer. You can write whatever you want.” Oh, how I wish that was true. See, I write by the seat of my pants. My characters tell me their stories and I transcribe what they tell me, but sometimes they tell me to transcribe something I don’t like. This week’s chapter won’t be too rough but a couple upcoming chapters are causing me some stress and to yell: “No. No! Don’t do that! You idiot!”

Maybe that’s why I had been putting off writing them until this week. This week it had to be written though because the scenes were playing over and over in my mind. When that happens I have to write them down before my creative brain will stop bugging me. Anyhow, I hope you enjoy this week’s chapter and brace yourself for the next few chapters. We might all be going on an emotional roller coaster.

If you want to catch up on the story you can find the link at the top of the page or HERE. And you can find the link to my books on Kindle on Amazon.

Molly’s stomach tightened at the sight of Ben Oliver standing with his parents in one corner of the church lobby before the service.

What was he doing here? She hadn’t realized he even attended any church anymore.

They had attended youth group together as teens but in their senior year Ben had started attending church less and less until he didn’t attend at all. The way he had talked about Angie that day at the store had told her all she needed to know about his Christian walk and where he was in it. She had no idea what his relationship with God was now and there were times she didn’t feel like she cared.

People can change, she reminded herself as she watched him laugh with the pastor, shaking Pastor Joe’s hand. Ben had the same charming smile, the same bright green eyes, the same dark hair swept back off his forehead, and the same chiseled jaw she remembered from high school. He looked older, yes, but no less handsome.

She lowered her gaze as she walked past him, hoping he wouldn’t see her. She followed parents into the sanctuary, joining them next to Jason and Ellie in the pew they had occupied for most of her life. She inwardly cringed when Ben sat with his family four rows in front of theirs, realizing she’d have to stare at the back of his head for the entire service and smell his familiar cologne even from four rows back.

She closed her eyes, willing away the memories of his lips on hers so many times when they were teenagers, his arms around her, his palm pressed gently against the side of her face. All of that tenderness seemed a lifetime ago. She didn’t know Ben now and in many ways, she hadn’t really known him then either, not the real Ben. The real Ben had shown himself in the way he’d broken up with her, in the way he’d spoken about her that day with his friends.

She did her best to focus on the hymns  being sung, her friend Mary’s singing at the front of the church, and Pastor Joe’s sermon, relieved when the last hymn was song and she could head toward the back of the church and toward the exit.

“Meet you at home,” she told her Mom. “These shoes are killing my feet.”

It wasn’t a lie; the straps of the black dress shoes she’d picked out that morning were digging into the tops and backs of her feet. She was much more comfortable in a pair of work boots or sneakers. It wasn’t only the shoes she wanted to leave behind, however. She also wanted to travel as far as she could from Ben and the painful memories he brought with him.

 A hand touched her elbow as she reached for the door and her heartrate quickened at the sound of the voice close to her ear.

“Hey, Molly.”

More than anything she wanted to keep walking through those doors, but instead she paused and turned to face him.

“Oh, Ben. Hey there. I didn’t know you were here today.”

His hand was still on her elbow. “I’m hoping to get back into regular church attendance now that I’m back in town.”

Time for me to find a new church then.

“Oh. Okay,” Molly said out loud. “Well, that’s nice. Will you excuse me? These shoes are killing my feet.”

Ben laughed softly, dropping his hand from her elbow – finally. “Yeah, those shoes don’t exactly look like something I remember you wearing when we were younger.”

What is that supposed to mean?

Molly forced a smile. “Well, people change and so do their taste in shoes. These straps just happen to be a bit tight.”

Ben laughed softly. “Of course, people change. I didn’t mean to offend you.” He followed her through the large wood doors into the bright sunlight. “Molly, can we talk for a minute?”

The softened tone of Ben’s voice caught her attention and she looked at him as they walked, noting his serious expression. She really didn’t want to talk to him but the sincerity in his voice had changed her mind.

“Yeah. Okay.”

Ben paused by the bench in the courtyard and gestured toward it. Molly sat next to him with apprehension, remembering a similar moment eight years before, her chest constricting as she looked at Ben and her mind transported her back to that night on her parents’ porch. The memories were less painful than they’d once been, but they were still painful.

“So, this is awkward for me, and I’m sure it is for you,” Ben started, one elbow propped on the back of the bench, his body twisted slightly toward her. He dropped his gaze, looking at the ground as he continued. “I should have had this talk with you years ago, Molly. I know that. I was ashamed, though. Ashamed of how I treated you, how I acted, who I was back then. To be honest, there were years I didn’t even think about how I had treated you or the things I did at the time. I was completely self-focused, completely arrogant.”

He looked back at her and Molly’s breath caught at the genuine soft expression, at his green eyes shimmering slightly in the sunlight. “But when I hit rock bottom and woke up, there you were, at the forefront of my mind. Molly Tanner. The one person who loved me even when I was unlovable and I threw it – and her – away for a cheap fling with a girl who had eyes for every boy in the county. I’m sorry, Molly. I’m sorry for how I treated you and how I broke it off with you. I’m sorry if I hurt you. I’m sorry it took me so long to say I’m sorry.”

Molly sat for a few moments, unsure how to respond. She didn’t want to say, “Hey, no hard feelings. No problem,” because there were hard feelings. She’d held on to that hurt for years and only recently had started to let it go, if even a little. Still, she saw an earnest effort in Ben to apologize, to make amends to ask for forgiveness for how he’d hurt her.

The cynical side of her wondered if his request for forgiveness was for her benefit or his own, though. Had he really changed?

Ben didn’t want for her to respond, reaching out to lay his hand gently on her arm. “I understand if you can’t forgive me right now but maybe in the future you’ll be able to and know that I am truly sorry for who I was back then.”

Molly let out the breath she realized she’d been holding. She nodded slowly, the words he’d said to his friends all those years ago still in her mind, even as she tried to ignore them.

“We were young, Ben,” she said finally. “Kids make mistakes. People grow and mature. And, yes, people do change.” She laid her hand over his. “Thank you for apologizing to me. I’m sure it was hard to do.”

Ben smiled, that familiar beautiful smile that used to make Molly’s heart race but today only made her smile back and feel a sense of peace.

“It was hard,” Ben said. “But it’s been the one thing on my mind since I got back to town. The one thing I knew I needed to do even if you had moved on because I knew I hadn’t. I was still holding on to the guilt over how I had treated you, the girl who used to be my best friend.”

He rubbed the palm of his thumb against the top of her hand has he held it. “We had some good times, didn’t we? Before I became the worst boyfriend on the planet.”

Molly laughed softly. “Well, not the worst . . .”

Ben grinned. “But pretty darn close.”

Molly bit her lower lip and lowered her gaze, still smiling. “I plead the fifth.”

“Remember that time we were on that haunted hayride?” he asked. “That guy jumped out at us from the dark with a chainsaw and you almost ended up on my lap.”

Molly laughed and shook her head. “I think it was you who almost ended up on my lap.”

“Um, no. That does not sound manly at all. It had to be the other way around.”

Molly was very aware that his hand was still on hers, his thumb still making circular motions on her skin.

“Maybe we both were afraid and jumped at each other then,” she laughed.

She gently pulled her hand away, pushing her hair back from her face.

“I miss those days,” he said softly, moving his hand to his knee and tilting his head slightly as he looked at her. “They were innocent times in so many ways.”

Molly watched her parents and brother and Ellie leave the church, get into their cars, drive away and wave at her and Ben on the way by. She knew lunch would be ready soon.

“One thing I always wondered,” she started as they stood from the bench. “Why did you even bother to take me out that night you broke up with me? You could have just broken it off before the date.”

Ben winced, rubbing his hand across the back of his neck. “Ugh. That night. I hate remembering that night. I almost chickened out. I think deep down I knew what I was doing was wrong. Part of me wanted one more night together and part of me wanted to get it over with. I thought I loved Angie, you know I didn’t even know what love really was. What I had for Angie was lust. That lust caused her and me, and you, a lot of pain.”

Ben nodded his head toward the parking lot. “Let me walk you to your car. I’m sure your mom still cooks those amazing Sunday dinners.”

“Yes, she does.”

Ben cleared his throat as they walked. “Maybe this is oversharing, or maybe I’m confessing too much, but I came back here to try to get my life back on track after I was fired from my last job. I’d started drinking to drown out all my guilt, not just over you, but over a lot of things. Angie got pregnant a couple of years ago. I wanted her to get an abortion, she wanted to keep the baby. I didn’t want to be a father. I was too young. I left her to raise the baby on her own.”

Molly wasn’t sure what to say. Should she congratulate him on being a father or comfort him for his mistake in walking away? Part of her also wanted to punch him for suggesting the abortion.

“I’m sorry,” she said softly as they approached her truck. “That must have been very hard for you.”

He shrugged. “Not at the time. It was a relief. I was glad to be set free from the burden of raising a child. I was finishing my law degree while working at the firm in Boston and now with Angie gone, I was free to date other women, find a new kind of excitement. My whole life was in front of me. Or so I thought. Depression hit me hard after she left. The realization of who I had become hit me like a freight train, but I kept trying to ignore it, tell myself I wasn’t really as bad as I thought I was.”

They paused at the truck and Ben laughed, patting the rusting hood. “I can’t believe you’re still driving this old thing.”

Molly scowled. “I thought men liked classic cars, but you’re the second man to make fun of me for still driving this truck.”

Ben grinned. “Well, classic is one thing, but a piece of junk is another.”

“You know this was my grandfather’s truck, Ben.”

Ben nodded and laid his hand on her shoulder. “I know. I’m sorry for teasing. I was sorry to hear he’d passed away. My mom told me. I wish I had snapped out of my selfish behavior long enough to come back for the funeral.”

He closed the door behind Molly after she slid behind the steering wheel.

“So where is Angie now?” she asked. “Did she keep the baby?”

Red flushed along Ben’s cheekbones. He shoved his hands in the pockets of his dress pants and nodded. “Yeah. She kept the baby. It was a girl. Amelia. Angie wrote me a letter about a year ago, sent me a photo. They, uh,” he kicked at the asphalt with the tip of his dress shoe. “Live about four hours from here, close to where Angie’s parents moved about two years ago.”

“Do you think you’ll go see them?”

“I don’t know, really. I don’t know if Angie would even want me to. I wasn’t even paying child support, but she didn’t ask for it either. I never answered the letter. I’m pretty much a deadbeat dad.” He shook his head, tears rimming his eyes. “I never imagined myself that way, you know? My parents were amazing parents. I always wanted to be a good dad, like my dad has always been. Then — I became who I never thought I would be — selfish, arrogant, and a complete idiot.”

Compassion overwhelmed Molly, pushing back her awkward feelings toward Ben. She reached through the window and held her hand out and Ben took it, looking at her.

“As long as you’re still breathing there is still a chance to change things, Ben,” she said softly.

He nodded and swallowed emotion. “Thanks, Molly. I appreciate that.” He squeezed her hand briefly before letting it go.

“Hey, how about you?” he asked. “I know we were joking a bit at the rummage sale that day, but are you really dating that guy who works for your dad?”

 “No, Ben,” Molly sighed. “I’m really not.”

Ben smirked. “But you have feelings for him?”

Molly started the truck and smiled. She was not about to talk about her love life with her old high school boyfriend, especially her old boyfriend who dumped her for someone he had called “hotter” at the time.

 “He’s a good friend,” she said. “That’s all. It was good to talk to you, Ben.”

“You too. I hope we can do it again soon, but without the awkward conversation about what a jerk I was.”

“Sounds good.”

Molly smiled as she pulled out of the parking lot and turned toward Main Street to head out of town and back to the farm.

She let out a long breath as she drove, shaking her head as if to shake off the surreal. Had Ben Oliver really just apologized to her, ending years of overthinking and over analyzing the event she had once seen as life-changing and romance ending? It was something she’d never thought would happen and now that it had she laughed to herself realizing she would probably end up analyzing what the apology meant to how she had perceived herself all these years. No analyzing today, though. Today she only wanted to live in the moment, a moment of peace and kindness that had soothed once raw wounds.

***

“Yeah, I’ll let you know when we get home, but so far she seems fine. Okay, Mom, talk to you later.”

Jason tapped end call on his cellphone and turned to see the nurse wheeling his grandmother toward him through the opstistrics door to the main lobby.

“I told her I could walk on my own,” Franny informed him. “I’m not an invalid yet but she said it’s hospital policy.”

“Just to your car, Mrs. Tanner,” the nurse said with a smile. She looked at Jason. “You can take it from here if you want and just bring the chair back to the valets at the front.”

“I’m sure you’ll be glad to  have her off your hands,” Jason said with a  wink.

The nurse laughed and shook her head. “Not at all. Your grandmother is a breath of fresh air. I love her spunk.”

Franny snorted. “Spunk. Is that what they’re calling cantankerous these days?”

Jason rolled his eyes. “I think someone needs some lunch. Maybe that will put her in a better mood.”

He leaned down next to Franny’s chair, one knee down, the other up. “Seriously, Grandma. You okay? I don’t want us to go until you’re sure you’re okay.”

“I’m feeling fine,” Franny sighed. She smiled and touched Jason’s arm gently. “My vision is still a little blurry, but I’m already seeing better than before. Thank you for your concern though. We’re not that far away from the hospital that if there is an issue we can’t come back.”

Jason nodded and stood. “Okay. Then we will head on home. Molly is going to hang out with you this afternoon to make sure you’re doing okay.”

“This is Bridget by the way, Jason,” Franny said tilting her head to look up at the nurse. “I already told her about you. My strong, smart, very handsome grandson who is helping his family run the farm. But don’t worry, I also told her that you are taken since you are going to be proposing to that lovely girlfriend of yours soon.”

Jason’s cheeks flushed red and he shook his head. “Grandma. . . .”

Franny smiled at Bridget. “Look at how he embarrassed he is that his old grandma is bragging about him.”

Bridget, with a pretty round face and bright green eyes, and probably about ten years younger than Jason watched him admiringly, smiling. “Good luck with the proposal,” she said with a wink.

Jason’s face and ears flushed even redder as he laughed and then cleared his throat. “Thanks. Okay, Grandma, it really is time to get you out of here.”

 Back in his parents’ car, which he borrowed so his grandmother could get in and out of it, Jason started it and braced himself for his grandmother continuing the conversation she’d been having in the lobby with the nurse.

“Well, Jason…”

Here it was.

“I went to my appointment, I got my answers and I’ve even had my surgery, so now —”

“I know, Grandma and I’m excited. I’m hoping the surgery was a success.”

“I believe it will be. Now, with that settled, it’s time for you to hold up your end of the bargain.”

Jason laughed softly, shaking his head. “Grandma . . .”

“Jason . . .”

“I know, Grandma. It’s time to propose to Ellie, but listen, I’m working on a plan for how to do it, okay? It needs to be big, right? I mean, it’s been this many years I really need to do something special.”

Franny rolled her eyes. “Oh, Jason, good Lord. Just jump.”

“What?”

“Just get on the stick. Whatever the saying is these days that means – get your caboose in gear and propose to that girl before you’re both old and gray.”

Jason slid the car back into park and bit his lower lip. He looked at his grandmother, short dark, curly hair with gray streaks, her sweet round race and eyes full of anticipation and sighed.

“Grandma, I . . .listen, it’s just —”

A frown creased Franny’s forehead. “Oh my. Did you and Ellie break up?”

“What? No. No. That’s not it.”

“You don’t love her like you thought you did?”

“No. That’s not it either, Grandma.”

“Then what’s wrong?”

Jason stared at his grandmother, the woman who had helped raise him, taught him what it meant to work hard, push through tough times, and more than any of that, taught him what it meant to be a good Christian. He could not share with her what was keeping him from proposing to Ellie.

“Nothing,” he lied. “Nothing’s wrong.”

Franny wasn’t buying it. “Something is wrong, Jason. Something has happened. What is it?”

Jason shifted the car into gear again. “Nothing, Grandma. Never mind.”

Franny laid her hand over his. “Park this car, Jason and tell me what’s on your mind. You know I won’t love you any less.”

Jason shifted the gear into park again and pressed his forehead against the top of the steering wheel.

“I screwed up in college, Grandma. I wasn’t someone who would have made you proud.”

“Drinking?” Franny asked. “Parties?”

Jason raised his head to look at his grandmother. She was way too much like his mom; some kind of Jedi mind reader.

He nodded, determined not to tell her the rest, though. “Yeah.”

“I had a feeling,” she said with a sigh.

“You did?”

“You were different when you came back from college. Something seemed off. You seemed sadder somehow. I never knew how to talk about it with you. Then your grandpa got sick and, well, I guess I was sadder too. I’m sorry I never asked you if you were okay.”

Jason swallowed hard. “I would have told you I was okay even if you’d asked. You know that. I was embarrassed. And I’ve never told Ellie about what an idiot I was back then.”

Franny squeezed his hand. “Tell her, honey. She loves you. She will understand. I know I do. You were young. You made some mistakes but you’re still my sweet grandson.”

Jason knew his grandmother meant well but she didn’t know everything and he wondered if she would understand or think he was still her sweet grandson if she did. He also wasn’t so sure Ellie would understand. Not about the one-night stand for one, but especially not about why he hadn’t told her about it after all these years.