Fiction Friday: The Next Chapter Chapter 9

As always, this is a story in progress. There might be typos or errors that will be fixed later.

To catch up with the rest of the story click HERE.

Story description:

Liz Cranmer is a single mother struggling to figure out life after past mistakes. She can’t change the past but she can change her future and she’s determined to do so, first by going back to college and maybe later proving to her parents and the people in her small town she isn’t the train wreck they all think she is.

Ginny Jefferies, is Spencer Valley’s 53-year old librarian, retired teacher and she’s stuck in a rut. Her husband is too busy for her and the lives of her children are taking unexpected turns.

When Liz, the sister of Ginny’s daughter-in-law comes to the library looking for ideas to help her new motherhood journey, the two form a bond they hope will lead them both to a better, more fulfilling future.

Chapter 9

It was too late. Liz’s knees gave away and Matt’s arms tightened around her, catching her before she slid to the floor. Black spots were encroaching on the edges of her vision. She took a deep breath to try to chase them away.
“Hey.” His brow furrowed as he tipped back his head to look at her face. “What’s going on?”
“Just get me out of here,” she hissed. “Don’t let me ruin their reception.”
“What’s going on?”
“I’m weak. Like that day after I brought Bella home. Just get me out of here.”
“Can you walk?”
She let out a shaky breath, nodding slowly.
When he slid his arm around her waist and turned her away from the dance floor, though, she wasn’t as confident. Hypochondria-ridden thoughts roared through her mind, thoughts she had been able to push aside for most of the pregnancy and in the last few weeks. Something was wrong. What was going on with her body? Did she have a fatal disease?
Sweat beaded across her forehead as they walked slowly toward the back of the house.
Please, please don’t let Molly be watching me.
No one followed, though, and when they turned the corner, Matt scooped her into his arms, much to her annoyance and carried her to the front porch, cradling her like she was the baby.
“No.” She shook her head. “Take me to my car.”
“I’m not taking you to your car. You’re not driving anywhere.”
“I won’t until I’m feeling better. I just don’t want anyone to see me this way.”
“Okay.” He huffed out an aggravated sigh. “Fine.”
They changed directions, crossing the small driveway toward her car. He let her stand next to the car but kept an arm around her as he opened the passenger side of the door.
“Sit,” he ordered and when she did, her legs facing him, he squatted in front of her and looked up into her face. “What’s going on, Liz? This is the second time in the last three months I’ve had to keep you from hitting the floor.”
Liz sighed and raked her hand back through her hair. “I’m supposed to be drinking more water when I’m nursing.” She shrugged a shoulder. “I just didn’t drink like I should have today.”
Gosh she hoped that was all it was.
“Why?”
Because I kept thinking about everyone in town thinking you are the father of my baby instead of remembering to drink water.
“I don’t know. I just forget sometimes.”
Matt huffed out a breath and stood. “Stay here. I’ll be right back with a bottle of water.”
Where else was she going to go? She wanted to put the key in the ignition and take off, but her head still felt like it was full of helium and her arms fell limp next to her as if someone had sucked the muscles out of them.
When Matt returned, he opened the bottle and handed it to her. “Drink. Slowly.”
She sipped the water while he cracked open a sports drink bottle.
“Where did you find that?”
“Jase’s fridge. He has them to drink after his workouts. You’re drinking this next.”
She sipped more of the water, resigned to the fact she couldn’t leave until she’d consumed the liquids Matt had brought her. Matt set the sports drink on the roof the car, then turned leaning back against the back door with his arms across his chest, resembling a centurion she’d seen on the front of a fiction novel one time. He was definitely guarding her, and she wasn’t sure how she felt about that. She wasn’t a fan of people telling her what to do. In this case she had no choice.
Five minutes passed before he spoke. “You getting anymore rest these days?”
“Yeah. Some. Bella is sleeping through the night more.”
He chuckled. “Going with the nickname Bella instead of Izzy, huh?”
Liz made a face. “Yeah. Izzie is too close to Lizzie.”
“Lizzie Borden took an —”
“McGee! Knock it off!”
Matt chuckled, looking out toward the setting sun. “Heard that enough, huh?”
She scowled at the setting sun. “You know I have.”
The music from the reception drifted toward them, mixing with the sounds of birds chirping and a cow mooing up the road at the Tanners main barn. A breeze rustled the leaves of the maple trees lining one side of the driveway. Brighter colors were already starting to spread across the green, dull yellows, and oranges. Liz wondered if they would have a nice foliage this year or if the leaves would simply shrivel and die like the year before.
“I like Bella,” Matt said after a few minutes. “Sounds like a princess name. It fits her. She’s already beautiful enough to be a princess.”
He handed the sports drink to her without looking at her. “Drink.”
She obeyed and sipped the lemon-flavored liquid, calculating in her head if she could make it back to town without needing a bathroom with all these fluids in her.
The tenderness in his voice when he spoke about Isabella touched her somewhere deep in her chest, but she didn’t want to think about that right now. She just wanted to feel better, head home, and relieve Ginny so the woman could go home and spend some time with her husband. She also wanted to get out of the driveway before Molly or anyone else saw her in this ridiculously vulnerable state.
“Feeling any better?”
She nodded slowly. She wasn’t lying either. The sports drink was doing its job.
“Sit a little longer.”
She scowled at the man who obviously thought he held authority even out of uniform.
Sitting there begrudgingly she realized she’d left her purse at her table under the tent.
“I don’t have my keys,” she mumbled.
“Where are they?”
“In my purse.”
Matt stepped away from the car. “Stay here. I’ll get it.”
Aggravation bubbled up in her. Even more, than being in a weakened state, she hated being waited on or fawned over. She was feeling better. She could get her own purse.
He came back holding a small black purse like a football. He thrust it at her like he was making a pass. “Molly asked where you were.”
She shot a glare at him.
“Don’t worry. I didn’t rat you out. I told her you were getting some fresh air.”
She took the purse. “Thank you.”
She’d already made her way to the driver side door and was preparing to slide behind the steering wheel when he held out his hand. “No way. Give me your keys.”
Her jaw tightened, but she tried to keep her voice calm. “You are not taking me home, McGee. I feel fine now. Really. I can drive myself.”
Matt reached over her and plucked the keys from her hand. “Nope.” He folded his hand around the keys. “I can’t allow that. It’s in violation of code 38, section 75. Driving while impaired.”
Her eyes widened. “Impaired?! I am not impaired! Doesn’t that mean under the influence of alcohol? There isn’t even any alcohol here.”
“That’s the main purpose of the code, yes, but that’s not the only thing that can impair a person.”
Oh, wonderful. He’s gone into police officer mode again. She started to open her mouth to respond, but he talked over her.
“You are impaired because you are suffering from dehydration. I can’t possibly, in good conscience, let you drive yourself home.”
Liz’s eyes narrowed. She tried her best to steady her voice. “I am no longer dehydrated. I am fine. Give me my keys.”
“Slide over, Liz.” It was obvious his stubbornness was as strong as hers. “The only way you are getting home today is if you let me drive you.”
She slid over with a small huffed of breath and folded her arms tight across her chest, sliding in the seat like a teenager. Matt laughed as he slid behind the steering wheel.
Liquid sloshed in her stomach. “How are you even going to get home?”
“Alex and Molly are coming over to watch a movie later, remember? Alex will bring me back for my truck.”
“You just have an answer for everything, don’t you?”
“I do when you’re trying to get out of letting me help you.”
Liz rolled her eyes. She wished some of the ladies at her parents’ church could see Matt now — harassing a poor single mother. She sat back in the passenger seat and slid her shoes off, pulling her legs up next to her so she could rub her soles. Matt slid the seat back to accommodate his long legs and adjusted the steering wheel and rearview mirror. He wriggled in the seat and scrunched up his nose.
“This is weird.” He leaned back against the seat and stretched his arms out and made a face again.
“What is?”
“Being this close to the ground. How do you ride around like this? It’s awful.”
“I’m not exactly tall, McGee. Climbing up in a big pick-up really doesn’t appeal to me.”
He lifted an eyebrow. “You should want to be in a truck that much more. Then you can feel tall for once.”
“Ha. Ha. You’re so funny.” She gestured toward the front of the car. “If you’re going to drive me home then let’s just go already.”
She yawned and stretched her arms over her head as he pulled onto the dirt road in front of Jason’s. “You know my mother thinks I was sleeping with you and dating Gabe at the same time thanks to that birth announcement.”
Matt snorted a laugh. “She does not.” He glanced at Liz. She wasn’t laughing. “She really thinks you would do that? Or that I would?”
Liz shrugged. “Par for the course in my life. She always seems to think the worst of me. The fact she’s thinking the worst of you is definitely different. She’s always looked at you like you have a glowing halo above your head. ” She pushed her lower lip out and gave him a mock expression of pity. “Sorry, McGee. You’ve clearly fallen from the pedestal she had you on.”
He shifted one hand over the other, as he turned off the dirt road onto a paved one, his brow furrowed. “I don’t think she really thinks that. About you or me. You talked to her, right? Told her what happened?”
Well, not exactly.
He didn’t wait for her to answer. “Let me talk to her. I’ll clear it up.”
“I don’t want you to talk to her.” The way Liz snapped startled even herself. “Sorry. It’s just, she made up her mind without even asking me. Let her believe what she wants.”
I’m not a perfect person, but I’m not that bad, she wanted to add but decided not to in case he agreed with her mother about what kind of woman she was.
Matt reached over and squeezed her hand. “Why don’t you close your eyes and rest?”
She looked at his hand on hers for a few seconds before drawing it away. There he went again. Being the charming man everyone said he was.
She slid her sweater on and leaned against the door, reluctantly closing her eyes. Matt was right. She needed to rest. When she got home, she would be on baby duty and need to be alert.
She jerked awake when he pulled into the parking lot behind her apartment 15 minutes later. She blinked her eyes and rubbed them. It hadn’t been much, but hopefully, it would help. A cat nap was better than nothing these days.
Inside they found Isabella snuggled in the bassinet asleep and Ginny laying on the couch, a blanket pulled up over her shoulders and her eyes closed.
Standing in the living room doorway, Liz smiled. “I hate to wake her,” she whispered. “She looks so peaceful.”
Matt grinned, standing behind her, looking over her shoulder. “Bella or Mrs. Jefferies?”
Liz looked up at him, amused. “You can call her Ginny now Matt. She’s not your teacher anymore.”
Matt frowned and cocked an eyebrow. “I can’t do that. That would be weird.”
Their eyes met and she suddenly realized how he close he was standing. So close she could see a small scar under his bottom lip, in the crease of his chin. She was pondering where the scar might have come from when snickering from the couch brought both of their attention to Ginny. She tossed the blanket off her shoulders, laughing fully now.
“My name is Ginny, Matthew. Why would it be weird to call me by my name?”
Matt’s eyes widened. “The way you said Matthew just now gave me flashbacks to that time you made me write the spelling words I’d missed five times each. I’d missed ten that day. My hand ached for a week after that.”
Ginny stood and began folding the blanket. “I don’t even remember that, kid. The fact you do makes me think you might need a bit of therapy.” She looked over her shoulder and winked. “Anyhow, how was the wedding?”
Liz tossed her purse on a chair and flopped onto the couch as Ginny laid the blanket across the back. “Wonderful. Ellie was beautiful. The wedding beautiful. The reception was beautiful . . .”
Matt waved his hands and raised the tone of his voice to mimic Liz. “Oh my. There was just so much …” He placed his hands to his face and gasped. “Beauty.”
Liz playfully tossed a pillow at him. “Shut it, McGee.”
Matt ignored her admonishment and caught the pillow tossing it back at her. He jerked his thumb toward the door. “Hey, I’m going to pop down to Ned’s and grab us some snacks for the movie. Want anything.”
Liz’s feet ached and all the liquids Matt had made her drink were hitting her system now. “Nothing specific. Something crunchy. Just nothing spicy. It upsets Bella’s stomach.”
Matt saluted and headed toward the door as Liz rushed toward the bathroom. When she came out, Ginny was reaching for her purse.
“Thank you so much, Ginny. I really appreciate your help today.”
“No problem, my dear. I absolutely adore that baby of yours. It was a nice break from tearing down the garden for winter.”
Liz pondered the older woman as Ginny pulled a sweater over a light tan tank top. She was always so well put together; her long, dirty blond hair pulled back from her face in a ponytail or bun, her makeup on point, her outfits perfectly matched and always clean. Yet, there was something that seemed out of place somehow. There was a sadness in her eyes each time she left to go home. What was going on at home that made her shoulders droop slightly each time she said goodbye?
“So, are you and Stan going to have some quality time together tonight? Watch a movie maybe?”
Ginny shook her head as she buttoned the sweater, her eyes on the buttons. “No. Not tonight. He’s in Philadelphia for a real estate conference.”
Meetings last week. A conference today. Was this guy ever home?
“Oh. So, you’re going home to an empty house then?”
Ginny smiled. “Yep. A nice quiet night with a good book is in order, I think.”
Liz narrowed her eyes, studied the woman as she finished buttoning the sweater. Did she really want to be home alone with a book? “Sounds a little boring. You sure you don’t want to hang out with us tonight? We’re going to watch a movie and will probably order a pizza at some point. You’re more than welcome to stay.”
“That’s sweet of you, Liz, but this old lady would just cramp your style.” Ginny laughed. “Do they even say that anymore?”
Liz sat on the couch and rubbed the bottom of her foot. “Some people do, yes, but you wouldn’t cramp our style. We don’t have any style.”
Ginny hooked the strap of her purse over her shoulder. “Very funny, young lady. Seriously, though, I’m sure Matt would prefer to have a little alone time with you this evening.”
The liquids were definitely kicking in again and Liz wanted to rush back to the bathroom but needed to set the record straight first. “There’s nothing between me and Matt. We’re just friends.”
She didn’t like the way Ginny’s eyebrows raised as she looked at her. A small smile pulled at one corner of her mouth. “Oh. Does he know that you’re just friends?”
Liz’s eyelids drooped and she huffed out a sigh. “Yes. He does. Why do you ask?”
“It’s just — well, the way he looks at you makes me think maybe there’s a little more going on there.” Ginny cleared her throat, twisting her purse strap around her finger. “At least in his mind.”
Two could play at this game.
“Oh yeah? You mean the way that Keith guy was looking at you the other day?”
Ginny visibly flushed and she tilted her face toward the ground. “Now, Liz, Keith and I knew each other years ago. He was not looking at me the way Matthew McGee looks at you.” She smirked. “This conversation is over, young lady.”
The conversation wasn’t over, but Liz couldn’t argue. Not right now anyhow. Her bladder wouldn’t allow it.
“Ginny, you need to tell me more about Keith.” She stood and held her finger in front of her face. “As soon as I get out of the bathroom. I had a ton of water before I left Jason’s. Don’t go anywhere. I want the full story. There is definitely a history there. I could tell.” She started toward the bathroom. “Wait. I know you. You’re going to slip out on me before you fill me in. I know how you work. Follow me to the bathroom. You can tell me through the door.”
Ginny tipped her head back and laughed. “Liz, go use the bathroom. There’s really nothing more to tell about Keith. I knew him in high school and that’s all.” She turned toward the front door. “You young people have fun tonight.” She looked over her shoulder. “Are you still going to that art class with me Monday?”
“Yes!” Liz shut the bathroom door, shouting the rest of her words through the door. “I’ll meet you there! You still think it’s okay if I bring Bella with me?”
“Absolutely. She’ll probably nap in her seat during the class anyhow. You might as well enjoy it while you can. She’ll be demanding your undivided attention soon.”
When Liz came out of the bathroom, Ginny was gone as she had predicted, and Isabella was waking up. She’d need to be fed. Liz decided she’d better hide in the bedroom so Matt wouldn’t get too much of a shock when he got back from the store.
When Isabella seemed finished, Liz made sure nothing was exposed that shouldn’t be and returned to the living room where Matt had already made himself comfortable in the center of the couch, leaning back casually. Containers of food were unopened on the kitchen counter next to two grocery bags. Liz stifled a laugh. Even the way he sat was polite. He didn’t prop his feet on the coffee table or sprawl back with his legs taking up half the couch like Alex did when he came. He sat with one arm across the back of the couch, but still looking like a Bible study leader waiting for the rest of the attendees to arrive. All he needed was a Bible on his lap and a thoughtful expression as he flipped through the pages.
It wasn’t that Liz minded the idea of him waiting for a Bible study to start, or the way he looked sitting on her couch. It was — she didn’t even know what it was. Maybe it was that she didn’t feel like she could ever measure up to the grandeur of Matt McGee’s reputation.
“Hey.” His face lit up as she walked into the room, Isabella cradled against her shoulder. He tilted his head to get a better look as she sat next to him. “Hello, little girl. Get your fill of dinner?” His eyes were focused on Bella’s, his smile wide and, dare Liz say it, amazingly attractive. Soon Bella’s hand was encircling his index finger, bringing an even more delighted grin to his face.
Liz leaned toward him. “You want to hold her?”
He reached over. “Absolutely.”
His hands cradled Bella and then he laid her gently in his arms where she laid on her back, looking up at him, eyes wide, tiny mouth slightly open. “You’re beautiful, Bella-girl. Do you know that? Yes, you are.”
Liz couldn’t help smiling, watching Matt’s demeanor completely transform from friendly, sometimes goofy police officer to a man completely adoring a newborn. He was entranced, completely oblivious to the world around him. He laughed softly, his eyes still on Bella’s. “Is that a smile? Are you smiling at me? Is this your first little smile?”
Liz glanced at her daughter and saw that she did indeed look like she was smiling. Huh. She’d figured it was probably gas and maybe it still was, but the newborn’s little arms and feet were kicking too. She certainly seemed happy.
Liz’s chest constricted. Again, she felt the familiar pang of disappointment, of shame.
Why had she taken that drink from Jimmy Sykes hand? Why had she believed Gabe when he’d said he just wanted to talk?
She was such a fool. If she had simply walked away, then — She smiled at Bella’s little mouth as it curved into an o shape. If she had walked away maybe she wouldn’t have Bella right now. Or maybe she’d have had Bella, but later, in a future with someone like Matt. Or with Matt.
Thinking about it was futile, of course. She couldn’t turn back time, change what she’d done. She could only move forward even if her parents were still stuck on her past mistakes.
Moving forward wouldn’t include Matt either. She had to get used to him not being around because in only a couple of more weeks he’d been off to the state police academy and after that who knew where he’d be assigned. Besides Molly and Ginny, she was on her own and it was high time she remembered that.

Fiction Thursday: The Next Chapter Chapter 8

Welcome to a special Fiction Thursday.

If you want to catch up on the story you can HERE, but if you want to wait until it is all done, it will be out on Amazon in the Spring.

As always, let me know what you think in the comments. If you haven’t read the other books in this series, you can find information about them HERE. The first two books in the series are The Farmer’s Daughter and Harvesting Hope.

Chapter 8

Liz flopped back on the bed in Jason’s spare room and groaned, pressing the heel of her palms against her eyes. “I don’t even want to be here today. I mean, not because I don’t want to be at the wedding. It’s just —” She shook her head. “I can’t believe Matt didn’t talk to that nurse. Everyone is going to be staring at us. It’s going to be so weird.”
She also couldn’t believe that Matt hadn’t stopped by or called in two days, giving her the opportunity to grill him about the birth announcement snafu.
Molly tossed a bottle of water onto the bed next to Liz. “Drink that.” She reached for her dress hanging on the back of the door. “And calm down. Jason and Ellie only invited about 50 people to the ceremony so not everyone will be staring at you. Maybe about 20 out of the 50 and even then, they will only stare at you after the wedding because they’ll be staring at Ellie during the wedding.” Molly stepped into the dress and pulled it up across her body, looping the straps over her shoulder. “Her gown is gorgeous. I can’t wait for you to see it.”
Liz propped herself up on her elbows and looked at her friend. She was wearing a peach-colored dress with spaghetti straps displayed in a fan pattern across the back. The skirt flowed out in a ruffled pattern that fell to her ankles and set off a pair of light-tan heels.
“That gown is gorgeous too. Did Liz pick them out or did you have a say?”
“Judi and I had a say and then each dress was fitted to each of our body types because Judi and I are obviously not the same size.”
Judi was Ellie’s younger sister who had moved home earlier in the summer.
Liz sat up and opened the water bottle, sipping from it.
Molly gestured at the bottle. “No sipping. Drink it. You need to stay hydrated. You’re nursing, it’s warm out, and you’re on the verge of a panic attack.”
Liz scowled and drank more from the bottle. On the verge of a panic attack? Oh no. She was already there. “Wouldn’t you be panicking if the guy you went on two dates with let the whole town think he was the father of your baby?”
Molly shrugged. “Better him than Gabe, that’s all I know.”
Outside the window, Liz heard laughter and greetings. More guests were arriving. She wondered if Matt was here yet, though she figured he was probably with Jason and Alex at the Tanner’s, getting dressed. Maybe she could find him before the ceremony started, warn him about the announcement, in case he hadn’t seen it. She stood and looked out the window. White chairs had been set up in the backyard and a trellis was placed where Ellie and Jason would stand to say their vows. The was under the drooping branches of a weeping willow and in the distance was a recently cut cornfield. Beyond the field were the green hills of Pennsylvania and beyond them hazy blue mountains even further away, hugging the expanse of farmland that made up most of Spencer Valley.
Liz tipped her head back and closed her eyes, willing her muscles to relax. The birth announcement wasn’t the only worry pressing in on her. Ginny had volunteered to watch Isabella today while she was at the wedding and even though she fully trusted Ginny, she felt like she was neglecting her duties as a mother. She should be the one taking care of Isabella, not someone else. Taking even a short break to help Molly get dressed as Ellie’s bridesmaid and staying for the ceremony and reception filled her with illogical guilt.
“Zip me up?” Molly lifted her hair and turned around.
As she zipped the back of the dress, Liz thought about how she’d once been confident, not filled with fear and anxiety over every little thing. It didn’t seem that long ago in some ways, but in others, it seemed like a lifetime ago. She needed to find her confidence again, stop worrying about what other people thought of her. Now just to figure out how to do that without burning every bridge like she currently felt like doing.
From there, her thoughts shifted abruptly to how long Molly’s hair had become, how the soft curls were falling past the middle of her back now, and how Molly was practically glowing. She looked over Molly’s shoulder, at her reflection in the mirror. Her friend was losing weight, something she’d been wanting to do for a long time. Liz only hoped Molly was doing it for the right reasons, not to try to fit in and make a man happy like she’d done herself for so many years.
Molly turned and clasped Liz’s hands in hers. “Hold your head high, Liz. All the thoughts that you think people are having about you are probably nowhere close to what they are thinking.”
Liz snorted. “Yeah. It’s probably a lot worse.”
“Liz!” Molly laughed and rolled her eyes. “You’re starting to sound like me. Now come on. Go find your seat and I’ll talk to you after the ceremony.”
In the kitchen, on her way to the backyard, Liz found Annie, Molly’s mom, folding napkins and placing them in a wicker basket on the counter.
“Hey, Liz. You look beautiful today.”
Liz placed a hand on her hip and tipped her head down slightly. “Now, Annie, you know it’s a sin to lie.”
Annie’s laugh was rich and full, one of the many attributes Liz loved about her. She shook her head as she folded the last napkin.
“It’s true, my dear. I know you’re tired, but you do look lovely. Missy did a nice job on your hair.”
“Thank you.” Liz decided to push the protest of the compliment aside and instead accept it. She patted the hair Missy Fowler had piled on her head, leaving the rest of her dark strands hanging down her back and across her shoulders. Missy was the hairstylist who had a shop below Ellie’s apartment — or Judi’s apartment now. “I actually do feel a little more rested today. We actually had one two hours and one three-hour stretch last night. Isabella has been better since Ginny brought me that gripe water the other day. She also showed me some pointers she used on her babies to get the trapped gas out.”
“What do you think Isabella’s nickname will end up being? Bella or Izzy?”
Liz made a face. “I hope it’s Bella. Izzy is too close to Lizzie. The kids in school used to chant that Lizzie Borden rhyme at me and I hated it.” Liz’s rolled her eyes as she recited the rhyme “Lizzie Borden took an ax, and gave her mother forty whacks; when she saw what she had done, She gave her father forty-one.’ Ugh. How awful.” She knew no matter how upset her mother made her, she’d never be like Lizzie Borden. “I’m just glad I never told anyone my real name. The taunting would have been the same.”
Annie’s brow furrowed. “Real name?”
“Lizanne.”
“Oh.” Annie looked surprised. “I always thought it was Elizabeth.”
“People assume it is and I just let them. I’m named after my great-grandmother, which was a fine name in the early 1900s, but not so great now.”
The sound of a truck engine brought Liz’s gaze to the kitchen doorway and out through the front window. Her heart rate sped up at the sight of Matt climbing out of his truck. She wished the palpitations were only because she found him attractive and not because she was terrified of talking to him about the birth announcement. Had he seen it? She couldn’t imagine he had or he would have answered her call earlier or called her before she’d tried to call him.
Her gaze took in a gray vest over a white shirt and a light-gray suit coat hanging from a bent finger and draped over his back. He’d had a haircut, making his dark brown hair even shorter on the sides and top. She imagined he’d have to cut it even shorter when he started at the academy in a couple of months.
“High and tight” is what she’d heard the state trooper hair cuts referred to as.
As she had a few times before, she found herself daydreaming about his hair looked like all ruffled up after a shower.
Or after she’d pushed her hands through it.
She drew in a sharp breath at the thought of messing up Matt’s hair, knocking some of that perfection out of him, and seeing what an unguarded Matt McGee was like.
She pulled her gaze away from him and slid her phone out of her purse, shooting a quick text to Ginny to check on Bella. She had left two bottles of pumped breast milk, hoping they’d be enough to keep Isabella satisfied until she came home.
Ginny texted back as Liz found a seat in the backyard.
All is well. She’s swinging in a little swing I’d kept here for the grandchildren. Happy as a clam.
When Matt appeared next to the arch standing next to Alex, who was standing next to Jason, she wished she could grab Matt and pull him aside, scold him for not blocking the announcement from going in. There were too many people filling the chairs, though, and soon the ceremony would start. She’d have to wait for later to interrogate him.
Molly was right. Ellie’s dress was simple and gorgeous. The veil hung across the back of her hair in a thin wisp of white. Finely sewn lace interlaced patterns down the back and along the train, which trailed a couple of feet behind her but clearly could be removed later, as evidenced by the bustle buttoned at Ellie’s waist.
Liz fought back emotions through the entire ceremony, partially because she was happy for Jason and Ellie and partially because she was sad for herself. Would she ever have a happy, beautiful ceremony like this? She mentally kicked herself, wishing for the hundredth time that she’d never gone to that party that night, that she’d never let herself be alone with Gabe and listened to his threats.
If she’d been stronger, hadn’t had that last glass of wine, then maybe she would have been like Ellie, standing hand in hand with a handsome man looking at her like he’d lasso the moon for her if she wanted it. Taking a deep breath, she reminded herself of what she’d thought the night she brought Bella home. Since she couldn’t have what her sister had, children with a husband, or what Jason and Ellie had — a love so deep their connection would survive whether they had children or not — she’d find a way to make it up to Bella. She’d find a way to make sure Bella wouldn’t be embarrassed to have her as a mother.
Tears stung her eyes as she watched tears glistening in Jason’s eyes when he said his vows. She wiped a fingertip under her eye, careful not to smudge the makeup she’d actually taken time to put on that afternoon after not wearing any for the last two months. Soon there were tears on Ellie’s cheeks as well and a quick glance around her showed that others had pulled out tissues and handkerchiefs, including Molly who kept nibbling on her bottom lip, obviously trying to hold the emotion in.
When the ceremony was over, and Jason and Ellie had walked down the aisle, beaming at each other the whole way, the guests dispersed to a pair of large tents set up to the left of the chairs. Liz sat herself at a table close to the head table, seriously considering leaving and heading back to the apartment for a quiet night with a sleeping baby and a movie. She couldn’t leave, though.
She still needed to talk to Matt. So far, she hadn’t been even able to catch his eye and she was beginning to wonder if he was avoiding her on purpose. After a meal of pulled pork, roasted potatoes, and homemade coleslaw, she gave up on pulling him away from talking with Jason and Alex and decided a walk might help her relax more. She’d better enjoy it while she could. She’d be back on newborn duty as soon as she arrived home.
A cool breeze swept over the yard at the front of the house as she rounded the corner of the house and walked toward the front porch. The porch was open, the white railing freshly painted and reminding her of a picture on an issue of Country Living magazine. She stepped up the steps and found a wooden slatted chair painted to match the railing and front of the house. Sitting in it she smiled, thinking how this house would soon look like a real home thanks to Ellie’s touch, instead of a bachelor pad, which is what it had been for the last five years.
She leaned back in the chair and closed her eyes, letting her mind wander and focus on the sound of a cicada or katydid somewhere across the driveway instead of her racing thoughts. After a few seconds of counting chirps, the world faded around her.
“Need a blanket?”
The words snapped her out of her brief nap, leaving her in a world of disorientation for a few seconds. She couldn’t even seem to register if she’d dreamed the words, or someone had actually spoken them.
Blinking her eyes to clear the sleep away she saw Matt standing on the top step, leaning his hip into the stair railing.
She shook her head. “I can’t believe I fell asleep like that.”
“You must have needed it.”
She pushed her hand back through her hair and let it fall slowly down her back. “I’ve been trying to catch you all day. We need to talk.”
He cocked an eyebrow, grinning. “About?”
Why was he grinning? Did he really think she was flirting right now?
“You haven’t seen the paper?”
He pushed off the railing and stepped up off the top step onto the porch, shoving his hands in his front jean pockets.
“Yeah, I saw it.”
She tightened her jaw. He was so aggravating. Seriously. “Saw what?”
“The baseball scores.” He rolled his eyes. “The birth announcement, Liz. I saw the announcement.”
“You saw it and didn’t call me?”
“I saw it an hour ago. When Jase showed me. I didn’t have time to call you. When did you see it? Why didn’t you call me?”
Liz glanced away, focusing on her hands clenched in her lap. “I —” She couldn’t say she thought he’d stop by, and she could talk to him then. How would that sound?
Desperate.
That’s how it would sound. “I don’t know. I was in shock, I guess. I can’t believe you didn’t stop that nurse.”
Matt sighed and propped the right side of his body against the column, his hands still in his front jean pockets. He tipped his face down toward the porch floor. “I did stop her, Liz. I asked her not to put it in the paper. She said she wouldn’t.”
Liz stood pressing her hands against her hips. “Well, then we need to call that hospital and give them a piece of our mind. They violated our privacy.”
Matt looked at her with an amused smirk. “We need to call?”
Liz threw her hands in the air, tipping her face toward the porch ceiling. “Okay. I need to call. And I will. First thing Monday morning.”
“And what good is that going to do?”
Her head snapped down and she leveled a burning gaze on him. “Excuse me?”
He shrugged a shoulder. “What’s been done is done. It’s not like they can take it out of the newspaper. It’s already been printed so calling them up and yelling won’t help anything. The proverbial cat is out of the bag.”
Was he serious right now? Why was he so calm?
“McGee, the whole town thinks you were sleeping with me. The people at your church think you were sleeping with me.” She paused for effect. “Having sex. Out of wedlock. Do you get that? They think you fathered a child with the screwed-up daughter of Frank and Marge Cranmer, the most revered members of Encounter Church. Do you not get that?” She huffed out a frustrated growl. “What are we going to do?”
Matt tipped his head and the smile faded into a more thoughtful expression, but she still couldn’t read him. His response sent anger seething through her.
“Nothing.”
She tossed her hands out to her side. “What do you mean nothing?”
He frowned. “What I said. Nothing. It’s no one’s business. Let people make up their own minds about what the truth is.”
Liz slapped her hands down against her side. “Oh, that’s just great. Let people make up their own minds? In this little town? That’s fine for you but everyone is looking at me like I corrupted the town saint.”
Matt’s amused laugh grated on her nerves. “The town saint? What does that even mean?”
She took a step toward him, incredulous. “You can’t be that clueless. You’re the town golden child. You’re a police officer, you lead Bible studies, help old ladies cross the street, take cats out of trees, and I’m pretty sure a woman was healed last week when she touched the hem of your uniform.”
His laugh deepened and she briefly imagined smacking him in the head. “Liz stop it. That’s ridiculous. No one thinks that stuff about me. I’m just — well, me. Small town cop. Spencer Valley’s Barney Fife.”
“Uh, yeah.” Liz raised her eyebrows. “If Barney Fife had groupies.”
Matt tipped his head back and laughed loudly. “I do not have groupies.”
He wiped the bag of his hand across his eyes as he stepped toward her. His eyes were still moist from the tears of laughter as touched his hand under her chin, cupping it gently. “And you’re not screwed up.” The smile faded and the intensity of his gaze on her sent her heart flapping wildly against her ribcage. She wanted to look away, but she couldn’t. His intensity pinned her down, stopped her racing thoughts. “You need to stop claiming that title. I’ve never given it to you, and I don’t know anyone else who has either. It’s something you call yourself.”
Her mouth lost its moisture as she tried to speak. “My parents —”
He dropped his hand from her chin. “Have they ever said you’re screwed up?”
“No, but they —”
“You think they think that, but they’ve never said those exact words, right?”
Liz put her hands up in front of her. “Okay. Enough about my parents. That’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about how to handle this birth announcement thing.”
“I already told you I’m not going to do anything other than going on with my life and you should do the same.” He held out his hand. “Now come on. There’s a party going on in the backyard. Let’s go celebrate Jason and Ellie.”
“McGee. Seriously. We can not just —”
“Yeah. We can. Now come on.”
Liz’s jaw tightened and her eyes narrowed. She was not just going to go back to the reception like nothing was going on, like this birth announcement wasn’t going to create even more issues for her and for him.
He kept his hand held out to her, his eyes on hers. After a few seconds, she took his hand reluctantly but let it go as she hit the bottom step. She tightened her hand into a fist against her side. How could he be so calm and confident about it all? Wasn’t he worried about his reputation? No, he obviously wasn’t, so why was she?
She was used to feeling like the black sheep in her family and her community. She didn’t want him subjected to the same judgment.
They walked together toward the backyard in silence. Jason and Ellie were dancing in the middle of the second tent, the rest of the guests watching.
Jason’s mom touched a tissue to the skin under her eye and Molly had slid into a chair next to Alex, her head against his shoulder as she watched.
Liz’s chest tightened. How long would it be before Molly and Alex were standing there, having their first dance? Then she’d be alone for real. Molly would be building a life for herself and Alex. Yes, Liz would have Isabella, but she would essentially be on her own.
Her palms grew cold, and she closed her eyes. No. She would not do this here. What was with her anyhow? She’d never dealt with a panic attack a day in her life before the night she’d found out she was pregnant. She’d had a small break from them during pregnancy and now? Well, now she felt like she should be in a mental hospital.
The voice of the DJ startled her out of her racing thoughts. “The bride and groom would love for their guests to join them.”
And that was her cue to step back and head —
Her back slammed into something solid. Glancing over her shoulder her gaze met Matt’s grin.
Oh.
She hadn’t backed into something. She’d backed into someone.
“Where are you going?”
“Home.”
“You’re not leaving before you dance with me, are you?”
“Uh. No.” She raised her hand and took a step away from him. “I don’t dance.”
“So?” He shrugged a shoulder. “I don’t either. We’ll just fake it. Plus, you owe me.”
“I owe you?” She turned toward him, raised an eyebrow. “For what?”
His smile widened. “I delivered your daughter.”
She rolled her eyes and turned her back on him. “Wipe that grin off your face, McGee.”
He stepped toward her, and his breath tickled the back of her neck. “Come on, Liz. This is your first time out since Bella’s been born. Have a little fun.”
Liz brushed her hand across the back of her neck, then held it there, warmth spreading across her skin. She closed her eyes. “McGee, come on. I don’t dance, okay?”
His breath was warm against her ear. “Just one, then you can go. I promise.”
He stepped in front of her and held his hand out. She pulled her lower lip between her teeth, studying him for a few seconds before laying her hand in his and letting him tug her a few steps forward to the edge of the makeshift dance floor. She really didn’t dance. Never had, never had wanted to. What was she doing agreeing to this?
Where did she even put her hands?
She tried to remember all those romantic Hallmark movies she’d watched over the years and laid one hand on his shoulder while he held the other. He slid his other arm around her side and laid his hand against her lower back.
She couldn’t lie.
It felt awkward.
The way she was standing.
How he was holding her.
She felt like she was dancing with her brother if she’d had one.
But then the dynamics shifted as his hand slid to the curve of her lower back and he gently pulled her toward him. It was a different kind of awkward now. She and Matt had known each other on an acquaintance level in high school. They’d been on a couple of dates in the last two years, had sat next to each other on movie nights when Molly, Alex, Jason, and Ellie all piled into her and Molly’s tiny apartment, and for goodness sake, he’d delivered her baby. She didn’t know how to feel about how close they were standing to each other now, but she knew her body was firing off warnings all over the place. Her cheeks were warm, her hands were clammy, her breath had quickened and she could barely hear the music over the thumping rhythm of her heartbeat.
He smiled and her chest tightened.
How had she never noticed the tiny freckle right above his left eye? Or how long and dark his eyelashes were? Or how amazing his aftershave smelled? Or was it cologne? She wasn’t even sure. Maybe he only wore cologne on special occasions, so that’s why she’d never noticed. Maybe she’d simply been too self-focused in the past to notice all these things.
No, not maybe. She had been.
Now, though, here she was looking right at him after he’d pulled her closer and she was finding it hard to look away.
No wonder all the women in town swooned when he walked into the diner or held a door open for them at church. She’d even heard stories of one for two women needing to fan themselves with their speeding tickets after he pulled them over.
“Doing okay?”
She nodded slowly, pulling her gaze from his, glancing over his shoulder where she caught Molly watching her with a smile. Or was it a smirk? Liz scowled at her, and Molly laughed, her arms around Alex’s neck as they swayed to the music too.
“Okay, we should stop.” She tried to pull away, but Matt pulled her back in. “Matt. Come on. I’m not a dancer.”
He shrugged a shoulder. “Neither am I, or most of the people here. Let’s fake it.”
The music from the DJ’s sound system switched to a new song. The singer was singing, “I’m going to love you forever and ever, amen.”
Liz’s gaze flicked around the tent, even more, self-conscious as she thought she saw Ellie’s sister Judi whisper something to one of Jason’s cousins.
She leaned her forehead against Matt’s shoulder, lowering her voice. “This should get the tongues wagging.”
“Let them wag. We’ve got more important things to focus on in our worlds. I’ve got the academy to think about and you’ve got a little girl to focus on. What others think of us, doesn’t matter.”
There he went again. Being practical. Logical. Totally right.
As the dance continued Liz felt her knees weakening and she knew it wasn’t because Matt’s other hand had moved to her waist.
Not now. Not here. Please.

Fiction Friday: The Next Chapter Chapter 7 Part II

This is a story in progress. There may be typos, plot holes, etc. They are corrected (if my computer saves them in the right place unlike my last book. Grrr!) before publication in the future.

To catch up on the rest of the story click HERE.

Chapter 7 Part II

The house was set back off a dirt road, under the canopy of a pair of towering maple trees that Matt had been trying to convince his mom to cut down for five years now. The paint had faded some so that it wasn’t white anymore, but an off-white, closer to tan. The black shutters showed some neglect, even though Matt had painted them a few years ago, shortly after his dad had passed away. His chest constricted at the memory, how he’d painted them out of guilt more than vanity.

He needed to get down here and paint them again, as well as the whole house. Living in the middle of nowhere, five miles away, in a cabin that he and his dad had built when he was a teenager and working full time as a police officer, as well as studying for the state police academy, shouldn’t be an excuse. Then again, add in volunteering for the local pregnancy care center, his work with the Boys and Girls Club, filling in for Dan Trenton as a Boy Scout leader once a month, and helping with the youth at the church, and he didn’t have much time for painting or help his mom keep up the property the way he wanted to.

Hopefully, when his young brother, Evan, came from college for winter break he would help more. His older sister, Melanie, helped when she was able, but she had her own life — along with the lives of three children — to balance.

Pulling his truck up in front of the house, he shut off the engine and looked up at the front door, set back inside a wide front porch. Inside his mother was most likely busy creating in one way or another — either with food or her sewing machine. The house would be warm and inviting, the atmosphere one where he could easily relax and maybe even take a nap if he had time. He didn’t have that luxury, though. Not today. Today one of his best friends was getting married, while the other one would be moving into his cabin with him, staying there on his own during the week when Matt went away to the state police academy in two months.

He still couldn’t believe he’d been accepted to the academy at his age. He would be older than most of the other recruits, but he didn’t intend to let that slow him down. He’d had a dream of being a member of the state police since he was ten years old, and a trooper had let him sound the siren at a local safety fair. In two months that dream would be a reality and he was excited, yet also on edge. He’d be leaving his mom, unable to come to visit her every other day like he did now. For six months he’d live three hours away during the week and be able to return only on the weekends, helping her with the upkeep of the property. After that, he wasn’t sure where his first assignment would be. That would be up to the state police.

Leaving his mom wasn’t the only aspect of all of this that had him on edge, of course. There was the worry that he would flunk out of training, yes, but also the ache in the center of his chest at the thought of not being able to see Liz and Isabella.

He smiled at the thought of holding the tiny newborn that day in the hospital, how it filled his chest with more delight than he’d ever expected. He’d never thought he wanted children of his own up until the day his sister had given birth and let him hold her firstborn. Holding his niece had triggered something in him, a feeling which had lain mostly dormant until he’d held Isabella and laid her on Liz’s chest. Liz had been exhausted, hair matted with sweat, but she’d also been beautiful; the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen in fact.

How was it that pregnancy and labor had made her even more beautiful to him? He had no idea, but he needed to stop thinking about all the things that weren’t in the cards for him — if he believed in cards instead of God — including Liz.

He needed to stop thinking, period. He had a lot to do today, starting with getting dressed for Jason’s wedding.

The sweet smell of apples and cinnamon hit him as he walked inside the house, the screen door squeaking, making a stealthy arrival impossible. Stepping through the parlor into the kitchen he found the source of the smell. His mother was standing next to the stove with her back to the doorway, stirring a long wooden spoon in a pot of applesauce she was preparing for canning.

Looking over her shoulder, his mom smiled. “There you are. It’s about time. You’re cutting it close, aren’t you?”

“All this for me?” He gestured toward the empty jars on the table.

 “Some of it for you, of course, but not all.” You’re not the only one who likes my applesauce on your pantry shelves all winter.”

He leaned over his mom and kissed her cheek as he dipped a finger in the applesauce. He stuck the finger in his mouth, chuckling as his mom gently slapped him in the shoulder.

She gestured toward the hallway. “Go on and head upstairs. Those cufflinks you were looking for are upstairs on the dresser. The shirt is in the walk-in closet in the spare room.”

It had been six years since his dad had died but his mom still kept a jewelry box full of various items of his on top of her dresser. Inside the small brown wooden box, he found the small gold cufflinks, engraved with the initial M, his dad’s old watch, still somehow ticking, a handful of change, and his dad’s class ring. He’d had the change in his pocket the day he died and somehow his mom couldn’t seem to let go of it.

She’d managed to move some of his clothes to the spare room two years ago, giving the rest of it away to goodwill or Matt and his brothers. The white dress shirt was the one Alan McGee had worn to his daughter’s wedding, held the year before he’d passed away. Matt considered himself lucky he and his dad were the same sizes. He’d needed a dress shirt for the wedding and his was at the dry cleaners after he’d bled on it while apprehending a drunk outside of Mooney’s a couple of weeks ago. It’d been quite a left hook but hadn’t caused much damage other than blood from his nose, luckily.

He snatched up the cufflinks and the shirt, pushing back the memories. He’d have to focus on that later. He didn’t have time to dwell on sentimental emotions. Heading back down the stairs he breathed in deep the smell of cooking apples.

His mom switched off the burner and reached for another full pot on the back of the stove. “Found them?”

He nodded and reached for a chocolate chip cookie sitting on a tray on the counter. He scanned the kitchen as he shoved the cookie in his mouth, taking in the canning jars filling the table and sitting along the counters, three trays of freshly baked cookies, two loaves of banana bread cooling, and two pies sitting next to an empty pie carrier near the fridge.

“Whoa. Mom. What’s going on? You opening a bakery?”

Rebecca McGee set the pot on the table next to a row of empty canning jars and smiled. Her 5-foot 3-inch frame looked even smaller when she was barefoot like she was now. Her cheeks were flushed from the heat of the stove and the rushing around. Matt knew she called herself plump and maybe she was compared to some, but he preferred to call her “fluffy” because that’s how she felt when he hugged her. Her blond hair, growing lighter by the day, was swooped upon her head in a fluffy bun, wispy strands fluttering around her forehead and face as she moved between the stove and kitchen table.

She slapped her son gently on the arm. “Very funny. No. I overextended myself. I agreed to bake something for three different community organizations.” She gestured toward the tray of cookies behind him. “That reminds me, I need you to take those cookies and pies to the Tanners for the reception. I’d take them myself, but I told Millie Baker I’d bring her the other two trays of cookies for the Friends of the Library bake sale fundraiser and I need to seal these jars up before I leave. If I time it right, I should be able to get the cookies to Millie, the banana bread to the pregnancy care center for their dinner tonight, and then make it back before Ellie walks down the aisle. If you take the cookies, then I won’t have to try to balance them while rushing to find my seat before the ceremony starts.”

Matt stole another cookie. “First, it isn’t really an aisle. It’s just a path between the chairs in Jason’s backyard. Second, you could have asked me to help you with the other deliveries too. I would have had plenty of time if I’d known.”

Rebecca placed a funnel in the mouth of a jar then paused, hands on her hip as she took a deep breath. “Oh, it’s fine. You have enough on you today.” She sized her son up for a few seconds, which made him stop mid-bite.

“What? Do I have crumbs on my chin?”

“How’s Liz and that beautiful baby?”

His chest constricted. Alert. Awkward conversation ahead.

“Um. . .” He commenced chewing. “She’s tired but good. Isabella is even more beautiful than when I first met her.”

Rebecca’s hands were still on her hips. “Mmhmm. Right. About that day. When you first met her. The moment she exited Liz’s womb. In the front seat of your truck. We haven’t had a chance to talk about that.”

Matt snorted a laugh. His mom was nothing if not blunt. “Nothing to talk about. We went for a ride to the pond, and she went into labor. That’s all.”

“And you two are . . .what? Friends? More than friends?”

Matt walked to the fridge. “Got any milk?”

He could feel his mom’s eyes boring into his back as he opened the door and reached for the carton. “You know the Tanners are going to be making a special milk sometime next year. They’re building a bottling plant and have already tested a good portion of their jersey cows.”

He reached for a glass in the cabinet next to the fridge, keeping his back to the woman who gave birth to him, the woman who could read him better than anyone, the woman who was not going to back down from this conversation without divine intervention.

“Annie told me. She also told me about the corn maze and the pumpkin farm they’re planning for next year.” He didn’t have to turn around to know she’d folded her arms across her chest. “Matthew, you know I like Liz. I like her a lot, but I don’t want to see you hurt. What’s her relationship with Isabella’s dad? If it’s who I’ve guessed it is, I hope she isn’t in any relationship with him. I don’t often say this, but he’s a waste of space at this point in his life.”

Matt guzzled half the glass of milk and dragged his hand across his upper lip as he turned around and leaned back against the counter. “Liz and I are friends, Mom.” He shrugged a shoulder and drank the rest of the milk, turning quickly to put the glass in the sink. He filled it with water like he knew his mom would ask him to. “I’m just helping her out. Gabe’s not in the picture right now and I don’t think he ever will be.”

Rebecca sighed, a long deep sigh, with a tinge of sadness. “Okay then. If you want to stick with that story, then —”

He laughed. “Stick with what story?” He slid an arm around her and hugged her against his side. “You worry too much, Mom. Listen, we’ll talk more about this later, but right now I have to get over to Jase’s before his head explodes.” His phone dinged as he released her. “See? I bet that’s him, telling me to hurry up. I bet Alex is falling down on the job, and he wants me to replace him as his best man.”

Rebecca shook her head and kissed his cheek. “Well, whatever is going on between you and Liz, feel free to bring her out here soon for some lunch. I’d love to finally get a look at that beautiful baby, and the woman who has my son so flustered these days.”

Flustered? He was not flustered.

He snatched the shirt from over the back of the chair, pushed the cufflinks into his front jean pocket, and waved over his shoulder. “See you at the Tanner’s later, Mom. Don’t work yourself too hard. Wouldn’t want to be too tired to interrogate me more later.”

“And don’t think I won’t, my boy.”

Matt smiled and shook his head as the screen door slammed behind him. At least when his brother came home from college, she’d have someone else to focus her attention on.

She was a persistent woman. The only problem with her planning to interrogate him was that he didn’t know what to tell her. He didn’t know what he and Liz were.

Friends? He hoped so.

More? No. They weren’t but he certainly wouldn’t protest if she wanted to be.

He glanced at his phone’s lock screen as it rang. Looked like the topic of conversation was trying to reach him. He didn’t have time, though.

He tapped the decline button and shoved the phone in his pocket. He’d see her soon enough at the wedding. They could talk then.

Fiction Friday: The Next Chapter Chapter 5

After posting last week’s chapter, I noticed a bunch of errors and things I need to fill in, but I know that my readers know this is a book in progress and there will be changes before the final version comes out. Anyhow, this next chapter will be changed in the final version, I am sure, but it is a start. I do like the direction this story is going with Ginny and Liz so far. I have so many ideas of this book I am afraid it might get overwhelming, so I am sure I will have to cut many of those ideas back.

As usual, leave your ideas or thoughts about what you read or hope to read in the comments.

To catch up with the story go HERE. This book will be released in full sometime in the spring of 2022, if you prefer to wait. *wink*.

Chapter 5

Sitting at her desk at the library Ginny looked at the bright greenish, yellow substance in her bowl suspiciously. It looked like the slime she’d in the bottom of her kitchen sink a couple of months ago.

She dipped a baby carrot into the green goo and stared at it for a few moments before taking a bite. She gagged as it hit the back of her throat.

Good grief. The texture on her tongue was as slimy as it looked, and the taste was shockingly bland.

She looked at the green mush, scrunched up her face, and shook her head, bewildered with the idea that avocado was such a health food craze these days.

“It’s better when you make it into guacamole,” Sarah said, looking over Ginny’s shoulder. “You add onion, garlic, and other spices to it.”

“Oh, well, that makes sense. I just thought you mashed it up and ate it plain.”

“You can, but I wouldn’t recommend it,” Nancy Connelly said as she approached the desk with a stack of mysteries in her arms. “I’ve seen people eat it on their salads. but I don’t understand it. I mean, why can’t a salad just be normal? Lettuce, some tomatoes and a cucumber or two and some dressing. Everything is so complicated these days. Now it has to be a salad with avocado, green leaf lettuce, arugula, baby spinach, shredded cheese, cucumbers, red peppers, sunflower seeds, sprouts and humus and all of it has to be organic. It’s gotten completely out of hand.”

Ginny smiled and nodded, glad she hadn’t yet pulled out the salad she’d packed for lunch, a salad that included much of what Nancy had mentioned.

Nancy was apparently stocking up on books again, preparing for what forecasters were saying would be a rainy, gloomy week.

“Did you hear that Les and Alice Spencer’s cat got hit by a car?”

Ginny shook her head. Not only hadn’t she heard the news about the cat, but she didn’t even know who Les and Alice were.

“Well, I know everyone else will say it was an accident, but I’ve started to wonder if it was really an accident.”

After three years of signing out books mainly from the mystery section, Ginny had noticed Nancy was starting to see a mystery or foul play around every corner.

Nancy continued. “The Bradley’s across the street always hated that cat. Said he kept digging up her geraniums. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mrs. Bradley lured that poor kitty across the street with some salmon right when Jerry Kipp was driving down the street to work yesterday morning. Fluffypants just loved salmon. You should have seen poor Jerry’s face when he realized he’d hit that cat. What an awful thing for Mrs. Bradley to do, pulling him into her scheme to murder poor Fluffypants.”

Ginny paused scanning the books into the computer and raised an eyebrow. “Fluffypants?”

Nancy nodded affirmatively. “He had fluffy legs and paws, especially the back ones. It made him look like he was wearing fluffy pants.”

“Ah.”  Ginny tried not to giggle as she pictured the fluffy backend of a cat. It was important to respect the dead, after all.

“Ready for the rain?” she asked to chase away the giggle threatening to burst forth.

Nancy nodded. “I’m not planning on going anywhere until it’s all over. Do you know the weatherman said we could get up to an inch an hour tomorrow, then more heavy rain every day this week.” She took the bag Ginny handed her and smiled. “These should keep me occupied until the weather lets up. Keep dry!”

Nancy scooped her pile of books into her knitted bag and swung it onto her shoulder. Ginny watched her leave and wondered, like she always did, how sore Nancy’s shoulder would be that night from carrying all those books. Also, like she did each time she had that thought, she reminded herself it could be worse. Nancy could be carrying home a bag full of drugs or alcohol. There were worse addictions than reading mysteries.

Nancy was different than most of the patrons who stopped in. She mainly kept the conversation surface level. She rarely offered up personal details of her life, unlike the majority of other patrons who seemed to look at Ginny as someone to either share their entire life stories with or confess their darkest secrets to. They usually did so by sharing why they had chosen a particular book.

There were days Ginny felt like a cross between a social worker and a priest.

Connie Lawson limped to the counter with two books on knitting and another one entitled “Natural Remedies For Common (And Not-so Common) Ailments.”

“I figured I needed this one,” Connie said, even though Ginny hadn’t asked. “Ever since I had my knee replaced last year, I feel like I’m falling apart all over. I’ve got a constant ache in my right shoulder and a shooting pain in my lower back when I stand. Then this rash popped up on my – “

“Do you have the latest in the Jack Reacher series?” Harry Becker asked, abruptly appearing next to Marge.

Ginny had never been happier to have someone interrupt a conversation

“Yes, but it was checked out this morning,” Ginny said.

“Of course it was,” Harry said grumpily. “Just my luck. If I could figure out that blasted ebook device my kids gave me, I wouldn’t even have to use the library.”

Ginny forced a smile, no longer surprised by someone reminding her that her job was practically obsolete thanks to the increased popularity of digital books.

“Well, thanks anyhow,” Harry sighed. “I’ll check back later in the week and see if it’s here yet.”

Ginny finished checking out Connie’s book, told her to ‘have a nice day’ and turned back to her lunch, opening her salad, wishing it was a bucket of fried chicken instead.

Out of the corner of her eye she noticed a hooded figure enter the front door and slunk toward the first row of bookshelves. She turned and followed the figure as they stopped at a bookshelf and began to scan the titles.

On closer examination, Ginny noticed the figure was a young woman, hair tucked under the hood, hands shoved firmly in the pockets.

The way she was standing was familiar, reminded her of someone, but . . . who?

Ginny’s eyes narrowed as she took a bite of her salad and watched the young woman who tipped her head to look at titles.

She was beginning to feel like a spy.

And a creeper.

She should stop starring.

She started to turn away when the woman pushed back a strand of hair, bumping the hood back a few inches and revealing her face.

Oh.

It was Liz.

Her daughter-in-law’s sister.

Ginny narrowed her eyes. Liz looked exhausted and flustered. No surprise considering she’d given birth only two weeks ago.

She set her salad down and walked from behind the desk to the row of shelves.

“Liz?” The girl practically jumped out her hooded jacket. Ginny winced. “Oh gosh. I’m so sorry, hon’. I didn’t mean to frighten you. I just wanted to see if I could help you.”

Liz yawned and shook her head. “Sorry, Ginny. I just — I’m tired. I didn’t hear you walk up.”

Ginny smiled. “I can tell you’re tired and I don’t know how you wouldn’t be. How old is the baby now?”

The sigh that came from Liz sounded both wistful and draining. “Two weeks tomorrow.”

“Oh my. That means, of course, she is not sleeping through the night.”

Liz scoffed. “Of course not. I am just trying to snatch cat naps whenever I can. I should be sleeping now but Molly said she’d watch her on her lunch break so I could come down here.”

Being a single mom couldn’t be easy. Ginny couldn’t imagine raising a baby alone. Stan had been a wonderful support when she’d had the kids, each and every time, though maybe a little less with Olivia since the real estate business had started picking up then.

“Is there a particular book you’re looking for?” she asked Liz. “A fiction book to distract yourself from the exhaustion maybe?”

Liz laughed. “No, but that would be nice. I’m looking for some baby book my mom said Tiffany used for everything when Wyatt was born. Something written by a Dr. Stars or something. The Baby Book.”

“Ah, yes.” Ginny turned and gestured to the second floor. “Dr. Sears. Tiffany did love that book. I remember her gushing about it. We have a copy in our baby section.” Liz’s shoulders slumped and Ginny had a feeling the idea of climbing that flight of stairs to find the book was sending another wave of exhaustion washing over the new mother. “I’d be glad to go pull it out for you and anything else I find up there that might help. Anything specific you need help with?”

Liz’s eyes glistened as she looked at Ginny. “Everything really but right now how to stop her crying. She’s been crying almost constantly for about six hours each day for the last week. I’ve tried everything. Feeding, changing, burping, swaddling, not swaddled. She screams every time I lay her down in the crib and Molly has to get up early for work so I can’t leave her there screaming. And all those other books I read when I was pregnant said I can’t lay her down next to me because I’ll roll on her and kill her, but I’ve had to because it’s the only way she’ll sleep at all and therefore the only way I’ll get any sleep. I’m just out of options.” Liz’s lower lip quivered, but she managed to hold the tears back.

Ginny certainly remembered those days. She also remembered talking to Clint when Tiffany was at her wits end with her first baby and at a loss how to handle the inconsolable crying.

Ginny gestured to a plush green chair a few steps to her right. “Why don’t you sit here in this lovely plush chair the money from the local women’s business association helped us buy while I go get them?”

Liz looked relieved and flopped into the chair, shoving her hands deep in her jacket pockets again. Her head slumped forward, and Ginny wondered if she would even be awake when she came back with the books. She didn’t have to wonder long. Ten minutes later a soft snore was coming from the hood and Ginny opted not to wake her. It was clear she needed the sleep.

Sarah peered over the book she was reading.

“That woman is asleep.”

Ah, the youth of today. So perceptive.

“Yes, Sarah. She is.”

“Shouldn’t we wake her?”

Ginny shook her head as she placed the three books she’d found on the counter. “That’s my daughter-in-law’s sister. She just had a baby. Poor thing is exhausted. I’ll give her a little bit before I wake her.” She laughed softly as she sat back down to finish her salad. “Well, unless she starts snoring like a chainsaw.”

Sarah shrugged. “Okay. Well, I’m going to go start putting books back then. I’ll let you handle that. You have more experience in that area anyhow.”

The 20-something-year-old giggled and skipped toward the stairs for the bottom floor. Ginny sighed.

 Yes, she did have more experience than Sarah. In motherhood and just about everything else. Because Sarah was young and she was — she sighed again — old.

She was part way through categorizing a pile of new books when Liz woke with a start and looked around, obviously confused.

“Oh my gosh. Where — what time is it? I’ve got to get out of here. Molly has to get back to the store.”

She stood quickly then sat back down again, gripping the arms of the chair.

“Slow down,” Ginny said standing and holding her hand out. “Take your time getting up.”

Liz nodded slowly and let out a breath before slowly standing and walking toward the desk.

Ginny started to scan the books she’d picked out for her. “Liz, you are clearly exhausted. Do you want me to come over after work and take the baby for a bit so you can rest?”

Liz shook her head. “No, it’s okay. I’ll be fine. Molly will be home later tonight, and Mom said her ladies meeting for the women’s business association should be over by 8. I’m sure she will swing by before she heads home.”

Ginny slid the books into a bag. “It’s noon, Liz. That’s a long time to wait to get a nap. Listen, I  really don’t mind. One of the volunteers is coming in at 1 and I was going to slip out around then anyhow. I can come by and watch Isabella so you can take a nap. It’s no big deal, really.”

It’s not like I’ll have anyone waiting for me when I go home anyhow, Ginny thought with a heavy ache in her chest.

Liz pulled her lower lip between her teeth and focused on the surface of the desk. Ginny knew the battle going on in her mind. Say ‘yes’ and look like she couldn’t handle being a mom. Say ‘no’ and risk offending.

Ginny decided to put her out of her misery. “I’m sorry. I’m being pushy.” She reached over and laid her hand against Liz’s arm. “Just know I’m here if you need some extra help.”

Liz took the bag of books and hugged it to her chest. A small smile tugged at her mouth. “Thank you, Ginny. Actually, I think I will take you up on that offer. I really could use a nap.”

The tension slid out of Ginny’s muscles. “See you in about an hour?”

Liz’s shoulders visibly relaxed as well. “Sure. That would be great. Thank you.”

Watching Liz walk through the front door, Ginny propped her hands together in a triangle shape and pressed the tips of her index fingers against her bottom lip. Had she ever been that young? She closed her eyes, picturing a sunny day on her back porch, holding a sleeping baby while she swayed in place. Yes, she had been that young, that scared and overwhelmed.

Her own mom hadn’t been around then. It had only been her and Stan. She’d been 21, Stan 23.

She didn’t have friends who could help either back then. They were all taking care of children of their own.

She was very much alone at the time, until an elderly neighbor woman stepped over one afternoon, knocked on the door, and offered a helping hand. It was different back then. Everyone helped everyone else. Of course, why did it have to be different now? They were still living a small town and reaching out to help others was still a part of human nature.

Plus, Liz wasn’t a stranger. She was practically family. Liz’s sister became like another daughter to Ginny when she’d married Clint. The least she could do was lend a helping hand.

Halfway through her salad and a new book she was considering for next month’s book discussion she felt eyes on her and looked up to see no one at the front desk. She started to look back at her salad when she caught a pair of brown eyes watching her intently over the edge of her desk.

“Oh. Um. May I help you?”

“Do you have books about boogers?” a small voice asked.

“Boogers?”

“Yes. The things you pull out of your nose. Boogers.”

“Well, I don’t know,” Ginny said with a perplexed look on her face. “Let me look. I don’t think anyone has ever asked for a book on boogers.”

She swiveled her chair toward she computer and typed “boogers” into the search bar. It was a weird request, yes, but she’d searched for weirder things over the years. She tried not to think about the other topics.

“Huh. There is a book on boogers. Go figure. I guess I forgot about that one.”

The book on boogers retrieved, Ginny sat back at her desk to finish her lunch. As she shoved a bite of lettuce in mouth, Mary Ellis shuffled forward with a child wrapped around her leg and a stack of books in her hands. Children’s books and romances rounded out her pile.

“First, I owe you money for ‘Cooking with Pooh,’” she said, thumping her purse down next to the pile of books and digging through it. “Mason spilled pudding on it and then painted it with the pudding.”

“Oh, well, maybe he’ll be a future artist,” Ginny said.

Mary made a face. “I hope not. Artists are poor, and I need him to get a job that pays so he can put me and his father in a nice home to make up for the hell he’s put us through these last five years.”

Oh my. Ginny looked at her with wide eyes.

Mary handed a crumpled pile of bills to Ginny. A small blond-haired child’s appeared above the counter and then disappeared again as 3-year old Brynn Ellis jumped up and down.

“Count that, I think it’s right,” Mary said. “Brynn! Stop jumping! Mason! Put down that book. We are not getting it. No. Don’t argue with me. You do not need to learn how to make a bomb.”

Ginny smiled wearily as she checked out the books. Watching Mary with her five children was one of the few times she found herself happy her children were now grown and living outside the home.

As she placed the books in a bag for Mary, Ginny looked up to see 7-year-old Justine looking at her with wide eyes.

“Those are a lot of wrinkles,” Justine informed her. “My mommy doesn’t have that many wrinkles.”

Ginny forced her smile to stay in place as she lifted the bag across to Mary.

“Well, that’s nice,” she told Justine.

“She says we are giving her gray hair, though” Justine said. “And she prays a lot. She asks God to give her strength.” Justine pressed her hand against her own forehead and dragged it slowly across the skin. “She holds her head just like this and clenches her teeth like this when she says it.” Justine hissed out the words, “Lord, give me strength-th-th.”

Ginny glanced at the haggard looking Mary who was trying to pry 2-year-old Ethan off her leg.

“And I hope he will continue to do so,” Ginny said, truly hoping Mary could find a break soon. “Enjoy your books.”

Mary lifted a crying Ethan on to her hip, clutched the bag to her chest and blew a strand of hair away from her face. “Thank you. Kids, come on. Let’s get home and make some lunch.”

Ginny watched as Mary shuffled toward the door and then paused and leaned over the counter, lowering her voice.

“Oh. I almost forgot. Little Tony puked in the heating grate in the children’s section. You might want to clean that up soon because he had hot dogs for lunch.”

***

Ginny had stopped by at 1 and now Liz was in her room, under her covers, starring at the ceiling instead of sleeping.

Why am I not sleeping?! Liz clenched her jaw and growled under her breath.

Isabella had cried for about fifteen minutes then mysteriously grew quiet shortly after Liz heard a soft voice singing. Somehow Ginny had been able to figure out how to soothe Isabella when Liz couldn’t. Maybe it was because she was likely tone deaf and Ginny wasn’t. Maybe it was because Isabella sensed Ginny knew what she was doing and Liz didn’t.

 She should be happy about Ginny had found the magic combination to calm her newborn, but instead jealousy pricked at her. Hadn’t she’d read enough books, researched enough articles, and taken enough notes in her Lamaze class — the class she barely needed in the end — to know how to handle the crying jags? Apparently not.

Obviously, she also hadn’t retained any of the information she’d read before giving birth, or at least not enough to be a good enough mother.

She’d hoped good ole’ Marge would have ideas would have ideas she might share with Liz, since she’d raised two children and taken care of Tiffany’s brood on and off over the years. Marge had had a couple ideas, but just when Liz would think they’d found a solution, Isabella would start wailing again and Marge would rush off to her ladies group, or to prepare the house for Tiffany and Clint’s homecoming. Liz wondered if Marge and Frank were going to rent out the social hall for a full-on welcome home event for the couple. Maybe Ginny and Dan would chip in too. Or was his name Stan? She never could remember Ginny’s husband’s name. They’d only met twice, once at Clint and Tiffany’s wedding and once at Tiffany’s first baby shower.

Honestly, she didn’t know much about Ginny at all, other than she used to be a teacher and she was now the director of the library. She’d attended a few art classes with Molly that Ginny had also been at and of course they’d also been at the gym the same time a few times.

 She seemed nice enough and had a great sense of humor. Liz remembered her telling Molly last year that Alex had a crush on her when Molly was clueless the man was flirting with her. They’d been working out at the gym and Alex had told Molly how good she looked even without working out, and Molly had brushed it off.

“He’s totally flirting with you, Molly,” Ginny had informed Molly as she walked away from the bike she’d been exercising on.

Liz remembered Molly trying to change the subject about her and Alex by asking Liz what she knew about Ginny.

“She looks sad,” Molly had said.

Liz hadn’t remembered her looking sad, necessarily, but she had noticed how determined and fierce she looked pumping away on that stationary bike. Like the faster she pedaled, the faster she could forget about something.

Or someone.

Liz rolled over and squeezed her eyes shut.

She was exhausted. Why couldn’t she just fall asleep?

She needed her mind to stop racing.

She reached for her phone and scrolled through her messages.

Marge: Hey, honey. I’ll be by later to see how you girls are doing. I’ve almost got all the rooms ready for Tiffany and Clint’s arrival next week. So excited! Aren’t you?!

Liz rolled her eyes and kept scrolling.

Yeah. So excited. As excited as getting a root canal.

 She winced. That wasn’t fair. She was excited, in a way. She wanted to see her sister and brother-in-law and her nieces and nephews. She simply wasn’t looking forward to watching her parents fawn all over Tiffany like she was special simply because she was super fertile. Well, that and she’d done everything the right order. Marriage, then children. Unlike Liz who was single with a baby.

She scrolled to the next message. It had been sent that morning. 8 a.m. After she’d had three hours of sleep, so she hadn’t yet responded.

Matt: Just thought I’d say good morning. Hope you and Isabella are doing well. Hope to stop by with a gift later today.

A small smile titled her mouth upward but then she frowned. She really hoped Matt didn’t stop by. She looked awful.

Wait. Why did she care if she looked awful when Matt stopped by? It wasn’t like they were dating.

They were just friends.

As far as she knew.

And as far as she knew, he only wanted to be friends.

Yes, they’d gone out on a couple of dates, three if she counted the one where her water had broken while he showed her how to fish, but she didn’t count that day as a date. She also didn’t count the day when he’d driven her an hour to pick out a crib so he could slide it in the back of his truck as a date. Or the four times he’d taken her to her doctor’s appointments as dates.

Or the time he had brought her food after work when she was eight months pregnant because he’d seen her at work and thought she’d be too tired to cook when she got home.

The dates had happened before she’d gotten pregnant.

When she’d been broken up with Gabe.

Before she’d made one of the worst mistakes of her life. You know, other than the whole dating and moving in with Gabe in the first place mistake.

She had been frustrated and tired the day Matt had taken her to his favorite fishing spot on Cullen Pond. He’d known that. It’s why he had taken her, he said. To try to cheer her up.

Neither of them had known that her water would break on his boots while he stood behind her and brought her arm back to throw the fishing line out. Her face flushed warm at the memory of how she’d had to scream for him to pull over, how she’d told him, “This baby is coming now!” and how he’d positioned himself where her midwife was supposed to be.

Ugh. The absolute humiliation of it all.

He’d gone into police officer mode, though, clearly trained for such an emergency. He’d never spoken a word about all that he’d seen that he shouldn’t have and neither had she. It was all too embarrassing to think about, let alone talk about.

She huffed out a breath and rolled to her other side, yanking the covers up over her shoulder. She needed to stop thinking and instead be trying to sleep. Ginny had offered to watch Isabella to give her time to nap, so she needed to nap already.

She closed her eyes and did what she always did when she couldn’t sleep. Counted sheep. When that didn’t work, she started using the alphabet to list old 80s bands, starting with the letter A and working her way down, drifting to sleep when she hit the letter M.

Fiction Friday: The Next Chapter Chapter 4

Welcome to Chapter 4 of The Next Chapter. If you want to catch up with other chapters, you can go HERE, or you can wait until all the chapters are together in one book in the Spring of 2022.

To read my other books, visit my Amazon Author Page.

Chapter 4

“I still think you should have come to stay with us a few days, Liz. Climbing up and down these stairs while you are recovering really isn’t a good idea.”

Marge Cranmer was a blur of activity, placing food on Molly and Liz’s small kitchen table, pouring drinks, pausing every few minutes to smile and coo at her sixth grandchild.

Liz shrugged. “It’s really not a big deal. I won’t have anywhere to go for a few days. My follow-up appointment isn’t until next week and Molly’s been nice enough to offer to get me supplies and groceries while she’s out.”

Marge scooped rice onto her daughter’s plate. “Well, that’s nice, but the offer still stands if you change your mind. Of course, I will be over here to help watch Isabella while you rest. Isabella. I love that you chose that name. Your grandmother would have been tickled pink. Really. It was sweet of you.” Marge reached over and pushed a strand of hair back from Liz’s face. “You look so tired. Did you rest at all in the hospital? I bet you didn’t. Hospitals are so hard to sleep in, plus I’m sure you were watching the baby. Did the nurses take the baby? They should have so you could sleep.”

Liz took a deep breath, waiting to see if her mother was done talking yet. She wasn’t.

“This is the rice recipe I got from Ginny at Tiffany’s last baby shower and the chicken you said you liked that time you came over for dinner a couple of months ago. Oh, and so sorry your dad couldn’t stay after he set the crib up. He had a meeting at the church with the building committee. I told you they’re building on right?” She sat abruptly and reached one hand toward Molly and the other toward Liz. “Let’s say a quick prayer of thanks.”

Liz glanced at Molly, trying to catch her attention, but her eyes were glued to Marge, her brow furrowed and her mouth slightly open. She was probably thinking what Liz was. How much sugar has Marge consumed today?

“Lord, bless us this food to our bodies and thank you for this wonderful day and for my little granddaughter. In your name, amen.”

“Amen,” Liz and Molly chorused.

Liz picked up her fork. “This looks great, Mom. Thank you for making lunch of us. You really didn’t have to.”

Marge set a glass of lemonade on the table. “Of course, I did. It isn’t every day your youngest brings home her first little bundle of joy.” She smiled down at the baby asleep in the car seat next to the table.

Looking at her mother, cheeks flushed from rushing, Liz couldn’t decide if she liked this new version of Marge — the one who seemed delighted Liz had given birth to a baby instead of the one whose eyes had filled with tears the night Liz told her she was pregnant, or the one who had barely spoke to her the entire two years she’d lived with Gabe.

“Is Gabe the father?” she’d asked the night Liz had told her. “Does he know he’s going to be a father even?”

And now she was back to Gabe as she sat down across from Liz. “So, did you let Gabe know that —”

“That what? That I gave birth to the baby he told me he wanted nothing to do with?”

Marge raised an eyebrow. “Well, I thought maybe his mind might change if he knew — or if he saw the baby.”

Liz swallowed the retort she wanted to give. Her mom had been trying so hard to be kind and understanding the last few months, something she’d once been fairly poor at. She didn’t want her mom to think the retort was aimed at her. She decided a softened tone was in order instead.

“I don’t think his mind would change, no. I’m sorry. I know you don’t like the idea of your granddaughter not having a father, but Gabe isn’t father material. He wasn’t even boyfriend material.”

Marge set her glass down on the table and nodded. “Okay, hon’ . We don’t have to talk about it right now.”

She reached her hand out and covered Liz’s briefly, a move that startled Liz since her mother hadn’t necessarily been affectionate in the last few years. Not that Liz could necessarily blame her. She hadn’t been the best daughter, or really a daughter at all.

She’d been selfish, self-centered and a first-class know-it-all, which is why she was now a single mother of a child fathered by a emotionally and physically abusive man. Her mom didn’t know about Gabe’s abuse though. She knew he hadn’t always been kind or attentive but there was only so much Liz could handle her parents knowing about how far she’d fallen. They already knew she’d moved in with a man she wasn’t married to, drank too much while with him and, obviously, gotten pregnant from him. How could she also tell them that she’d been stupid enough to stay with him even when he yelled at her, pushed her against a wall once, slapped her another time, and cheated on her at least once, if not more? She was humiliated enough.

A knock on the door broke the tension.

Liz stood quickly. “I’ll get it.”

When the room blurred into a mesh of colors, she clutched the edge of the table and gasped.

Molly was at her side immediately, her hand under her elbow. “Sit down. You just had a baby. You can’t rush around like your used to.”

Liz nodded, the dizziness fading as she slowly sat. “Thanks for the reminder.”

“I’ll get the door,” Molly said. “You going to be okay?”

Liz nodded slowly, trying to shake the left over weakness in her legs.

“Sip your lemonade,” her mother instructed. “It’s probably low blood pressure. Maybe you should go lay down.”

Liz shook her head. “No. I’m fine now. Really. I think I probably need food more than anything.”

“You’re eating for two for real now by breastfeeding.” Marge sighed. “Really I don’t think you should be breastfeeding at all. That’s a huge time commitment. You have a job you’ll be going back to and that won’t leave much time for nursing sessions.”

Ah, here was the old Marge Cranmer, creeping back in.

“Linda is completely supportive of my decision to breastfeed. She’s already told me I can pump in the back office anytime I need to.”

“It’s not the logistics that concerns me but the exhaustion it’s bound to bring,” Marge said, spearing a piece of chicken with her fork. “You’ve never been as hearty as Tiffany.”

Liz laid her fork down and groaned. “Really, Mom?”

“It’s not an insult, honey. It’s just the truth. You’ve always been a little more . . . sensitive I guess I’d say. That’s just how you are made.”

Liz folded her arms across her chest. Here we go again, she thought, a burning in her chest spreading up into her throat. “Yes. I get it. I am made of less sturdy stock than perfect Tiffany.”

Marge tipped her head and pursed her lips. “Liz, hon’, you have got to get over this whole competition thing with your sister. I’ve told you that before. And that is not what I said. Don’t place your insecurities in my words.”

Liz pushed her plate back and stood abruptly. “You know what? I’m not hungry anymore. I think you were right. I should lie down for a while.”

Marge stood as well. “I wasn’t trying to start an argument.” Her tone denoted the annoyance she felt but Liz could also see by the jumping muscle in her jaw that Marge was trying to keep her temper in check. “I was simply expressing concern for you.”

“Right.” Liz tossed the napkin she’d been clutching onto her plate of half-eaten food. “Because I can’t handle it. I got it, Mom.”

Turning on her heel, she winced as the room tilted again. She closed her eyes against her swirling surroundings, a static buzz filling her ears. She felt herself falling and reached out into the darkness, her hand colliding with something firm, yet soft before darkness overtook her.

When she came to, Matt was standing over her, brow furrowed, his face etched with concern.

She was on the couch and Molly was kneeling next to her, pressing a cold cloth to her forehead. A coldness touched her lips as Molly lifted her head. “Drink this. I haven’t seen you drink anything all day.”

Matt set his hands on his hips. “Maybe it’s low iron. Did they test her iron before they sent her home?”

Her mom was over her next, smoothing her hair back from her forehead. “Maybe we should take her back over. They could have missed something.”

Liz sipped the water and after pushing the glass away propped herself up on her elbows. “I think I’ve just pushed myself too much today, guys. How about I rest a little and if I’m still not feeling better, we can discuss me going back to the hospital.”

Molly stood and sat back on the chair across from the couch. “I think that sounds like a plan. I’m going to call the store and let them know I won’t be in for the afternoon shift.”

A small cry came from the kitchen and Marge turned and started walking toward the car seat. “No need, Molly. I’ll stay here with her.”

“Don’t you have your ladies group?” Molly asked.

Marge kneeled by the car seat and uncovered her squirming granddaughter. She lifted Isabella out gently and placed her against her shoulder. “Nope. I told them I needed to postpone it until Monday because Liz was coming home today.” She patted the baby’s back, the small whimper now becoming a full-on wail.

Liz laid her head back against the couch pillow. She hated the idea of her mother seeing her in such a weak state, having another excuse to call her weaker than her older sister.

At the same time, her entire body was actually weak not to mention aching and her head was still spinning. Maybe her mom was right. Maybe Tiffany really was made of sturdier stuff.

“I’m going to head out and let you rest.”

Matt’s voice startled her. She’d briefly forgotten he was there and now that she remembered, the familiar flush of humiliation spread from her chest to her cheeks. Yet again he was seeing her in a vulnerable position.

“Did you need something?” She flinched when her voice squeaked out the last word like a boy going through puberty.

Matt shook his head, his eyes still clouded with concern. “Just stopped by to see if you and Molly needed anything before I headed to work.” His gaze slid to Marge. “Luckily Mrs. Cranmer is here.”

Marge waved a hand. “Matthew McGee, there is no need to call me Mrs. Cranmer. It makes me feel so old. Please. Call me Marge.”

Matt nodded, grinning. “Old habits die hard.”

“You haven’t been in my Sunday School class in over 20-years.” Marge laughed and winked. “Kill the habit, young man.”

Liz’s eyes narrowed. Since when did her mom wink? Maybe she had an eyelash in her eye. Of course, this was Matt McGee, Encounter Church and Spencer Valley’s golden boy, she was talking to. The man who felled criminals all day as an officer with the Spencer Tri-Township Police Department and led Bible studies when he was done. He was also a Little League coach, a volunteer with the county boys and girls club, volunteered with the soup kitchen and the local pregnancy care center, and last year the town council had tried to convince him to run for mayor. At this point she couldn’t decide if she should be jealous of him or submit his name for sainthood.

If any of the women in town were turned off by the fact Matt wasn’t as built or muscular as one might expect of a police officer, they didn’t show it. His bright hazel eyes and charming smile and personality more than made up for what he might be lacking in physique.  Liz’s eyes drifted across broad shoulders and down the length of this arms. Then again . . . had he been working out?

“No problem, Marge.” Matt said the words, but Liz heard the strain when he said her mom’s first name. “Looks like Liz is in good hands so I’m going to head out. Reggie doesn’t like it if we’re late for  staff meetings.”

Liz knew she shouldn’t laugh but she couldn’t help it. “Reggie Stoddard holds actual staff meetings?”

Matt mocked gasped. “Now, Liz, don’t pick on Reggie.” He teasingly wagged his finger at her. “Yes, he is one of the laziest people I have ever worked for, but he’s also a good man and he loves the people in this community. We’re lucky to have him.”

Lazy was an understatement, but she supposed Matt was right. Reggie, the department’s chief, did care about the community, even if he did make his officers and everyone else do most of his work for him.

“I’ll check on you tomorrow, okay?” Matt smiled and she swallowed hard. It wasn’t fair he had such a nice smile when he was totally out of her league. “Get some rest.”

Molly was the next to leave, on her way to the farm store. After nursing Isabella, Liz pulled the covers up over her shoulder and decided she’d take a nap on the couch instead of finding her way to the bedroom.

Her mother began swaddling Isabella in the bassinet she’d brought over the week before. “That was nice of Matt to stop by. I didn’t realize you two were friends.”

Liz closed her eyes. If she laid here long enough maybe her mom would think she’d fallen asleep. In fact, she was almost there so  —

“Not that it is a bad thing you are friends. Matt is a wonderful man. He leads the singles Bible study at church, coaches the local Little League and everyone in town just adores him. I just didn’t realize you two knew each other that well. I mean, well enough for you to give birth in the front of his pickup truck that is.” Marge cleared her throat. “Which is something I’ve been meaning to ask you about. How did that all come about anyhow?”

Liz attempted a realistic sounding snore.

Marge sighed. “I know that tactic, Liz. You’ve been doing that since you were three, but okay. If you don’t want to talk about it right now, that’s fine. I know you’re exhausted. Get some sleep while you can. Isabella will need to be fed again soon and you still have to establish that milk supply.”

Yes, mother. I know. Despite what you think, I do know something about taking care of a newborn.

Liz thought the retort, instead of saying it, glad she was too tired to open her mouth and speak the words out loud.

“You know, I should get you a copy of that book Tiffany got when she had Evan.”

Why was her mother still talking?

“The Baby Book by some doctor. It was like her own personal baby bible for the first 18 months of Evan’s life. I’ll ask Elaina at the bookstore if she has it or can order me a copy, but in the meantime, I bet you could find a copy at the library. Just ask Ginny to look it up for you. I’m sure she’d be happy to.”

Oh, yes. Of course. How wonderful.

Now not only would her entire family, her best friend, and Matt McGee know how inept she was at motherhood, but now her sister’s mother-in-law would know too.

She was grateful when sleep washed over her, so she didn’t have to think about how bad she was going to be at this whole motherhood.

***

Matt shook his head as he drove toward the police station.

What had he even been thinking stopping to see Liz like that?

They weren’t dating. They were barely friends.

For goodness’ sake she’d just given birth to another man’s baby in his truck three days ago. If that wasn’t a sign there wasn’t anything between them, he didn’t know what was.

Of course, that man wasn’t in the picture anymore and never should have been in it in the first place.

Liz had plenty of people to take care of her, though. What did he think he was going to do? The only good thing about him stopping was that he’d been there to catch her when she’d blacked out. His mind had been racing as he carried her to the couch.

He’d been ready to call an ambulance until her mom assured him she was probably just weak from needing to eat. Still, he’d kneeled next to her, taken her pulse, checked her breathing and even laid a hand against her forehead to see if she was feverish. He’d heard of women having infections after giving birth.

Ridiculous.

That’s what this was.

Thinking and worrying about a woman he wasn’t in a relationship with. It wasn’t that Liz was rude to him, but the walls she flung up whenever they were alone should be sign enough of a sign she didn’t want him around.

Inviting her to go fishing with him at his favorite spot on the lake had probably been one of the stupidest ideas he’d had, especially she was nine months pregnant at the time.

He’d been tired of her talking about how fat and unattractive she was when they were hanging out with Alex and Molly. No matter how many times he told her she was beautiful and glowing, how pregnancy made her even more beautiful, she wouldn’t listen. Plus, she was stressed that the baby hadn’t been born yet, so he thought a trip to the lake would take her mind off things.

They’d been standing on the edge of the pond when her water broke.

He’d just brought her arm back to show her how to cast when she screamed. He looked over at her saw her looking down in horror and followed her gaze to the puddle on and around his favorite pair of hiking boots. He missed those boots. They were in the trash out back, waiting for his next trip to the landfill.

Basing his experience on his sister and sister-in-law’s labors he’d thought they had plenty of time to get to the hospital. That assumption had turned out to be completely wrong halfway to the hospital, making him wish he had even more experience of women in labor.

“I’m not going to make it,” Liz had told him with wide eyes.

Thinking she’d meant she wasn’t going to make it through labor, he tried to encourage her. “You’ve got this, Liz. You can totally get through this. Millions of women do every —”

“I’m not going to make it to the hospital, McGee! This baby is coming NOW!”

McGee. What was with that anyhow? She’d been calling him McGee since high school, but he thought by now, a decade later, she could manage to say his first name.

She hadn’t made it to the hospital either. He’d pulled the truck over, silently rehearsing what he’d learned in his first aid classes about delivering a baby as he walked around to her side of the truck.

Thankfully his brain had switched to police offer mode during the delivery. He’d focused on the task at hand, acting as if Liz wasn’t the woman he’d wanted to kiss at the lake an hour earlier, and instead pretending she was a stranger he’d come upon during his shift.

He realized with a start he’d been sitting in his truck outside the police station for ten minutes while he remembered Isabella’s birth. He looked at the clock on the dashboard. That meant he was now 15 minutes late to work instead of five.

“McGee!” Reggie’s voice from the back of the building was sharp, but Matt knew there was little bite behind it. “Get in here!”

Matt tossed his jacket on to the back of his chair and headed toward Reggie’s office. The portly police chief was standing, pushing a drawer of a green metal filing cabinet closed

“Sorry, I’m late chief, I —”

Reggie scowled as he walked back to his desk, but Matt could already see the smile trying to tug at the corners of his mouth. “I have you for two more months McGee, don’t start checking out now. I’m not going to have you acting like a space cadet until you leave for the academy.”

 Reggie reminded Matt of a roly-poly toy he’d seen last year at an antique store while he was on a hunting trip with his uncle. The buttons of his uniform trained against a round belly, short, stumpy legs stuck out from the bottom and wild tufts of graying brown hair stuck out from the top of his head. He was rarely clean shaven and today was no exception.

“Sorry, chief. Really.” Time to be open. “I stopped by to check on Liz and she passed out. I stayed until I was sure she was okay.”

Reggie huffed into a ripped black desk chair and slapped a file onto his desk. “Passed out, huh? She low on iron?”

Matt shrugged a shoulder. “Thought the same thing. She’s not sure, but her mom was with her so I’m sure she’ll be fine.”

Reggie leaned toward the desk and tipped his head down to look over a pair of cheater glasses he’d picked up last week at Bert’s Drugstore. “What’s the deal with you two anyhow? Somethin’ you ain’t tellin’ me, McGee? You the father of that baby of hers or what?”

Anyone else might have taken offense to Reggie’s straight forward questions, but Matt never did. He knew Reggie meant well. He simply lacked tact.

“No sir. We’re just good friends. I’ve known her since high school.”

After a couple of seconds of watching Matt with narrowed eyes, Reggie seemed to accept that answer and leaned back in his chair, flipping the folder open. “Alright then. That topic is closed. Now. I’ve got a case here I’d like your help with since you’re the brains in this outfit.” He pushed the file across the desk. “Bernie Denton. Know him?”

Matt nodded as he looked at the mug shut attached to the file. “Yes, sir. He was in my class at school. We didn’t graduate together. He dropped out in tenth grade. Been in trouble ever since. I picked him up for drug possession my first year here. He moved to Clarkson a few years back, so he’s been someone else’s problem, but I’ve seen his name in the paper more than once for several different offenses.”

Reggie folded his fingers against his palms and tapped the top of the desk. “Yep. That’s him. Well, guess what? He’s our problem again. Not directly our problem, exactly. He’s living somewhere in the area. As far as I know, he’s not in our jurisdiction, but the state police are looking for him and they’ve asked for our help. He’s up on some bigger charges this time. Meth manufacturing and trafficking.”

Matt sat in the chair across from Reggie’s desk, flipping through the file. “And here we thought the heroine epidemic would push meth out the door. Guess not.” He laid the file down and leaned back in the chair. “What help are the state police looking for?”

The sigh that came out of Reggie triggered a brief coughing spell. He sipped his coffee and cleared his throat. “Dang allergies. Ragweed must be blooming out back the house again.” He took another sip of coffee. Matt knew it was mostly black with a drop of creamer. He’d poured it enough for him. “Anyhow, they want us to keep an eye out and let them know if we see Bernie. If we do, they want us to contact them, but they also might want one of our guys to make first contact, break the ice, so to speak, and help them get their foot in the door with him. They don’t think he knows they know about the meth factory he’s got up at his junkyard, if you know what I mean.”

Matt laughed. “Yeah. I get your drift, but if you think I’m the guy for this job, you’re wrong. Bernie and I never hit it off in school and he knows I’m a cop. He’s not going to open up to me.”

“Probably not, but you’re a familiar face. He might trust you more than a statie from out of the area. Maybe we can bring him in without too much fanfare.” Reggie dragged the folder back across the desk and slapped it closed. “Of course, all of this will be moot if we don’t happen upon him in the next couple of months. After that you’ll be lost to me. Down state being brainwashed by them gray gods.”

Matt snorted a laugh. “Now come on, Chief. Not all state police are like that.”

Reggie looked at Matt over his mug of coffee and rolled his eyes. “Just the majority of them.” He gulped the last of the coffee and set the mug down hard on the top of the desk. “Promise me you won’t let them change you, make you one of the elite who look down their noses at us small towners.”

“I promise,” Matt said, raising a hand and plastering a solemn expression on his face.

Reggie scowled at him, but a faint smile tugged at the corner of his mouth.

“Get out of here, McGee. I’m tired of looking at your handsome face. Go do some actual work for once. Start with training that rookie out there. He’s driving me nuts, following me around and reciting what he learned in the academy like he’s some big shot.”

Special Fiction Saturday: Harvesting Hope Chapter 24

I am late posting today because I was hosting an author party on a Facebook group I am moderating. Regular readers here know I despise Facebook but a couple of months ago I joined again so I could be part of a readers’ group on there. I stumbled on to this other group as well and they needed a new administrator. I volunteered to help, but at the last minute the other person said they didn’t want to help, so there I was with a group to help run on my own. On a platform I despise. So I go on FB to post there and the other group and briefly on my author page and leave.

Anyhow, here is chapter 24. Regular readers know the drill, where the links are for past chapters, etc., etc.. I won’t bore you with all those links again. Let me know what you think the comments, as always. Also, sorry for another cliffhanger.

Chapter 24

Jason fell into the water on his hands and knees, trying to see the rest of the back seat and under the car. Maybe her body was trapped there, under the hood or roof or trunk. The car seemed to be smashed firmly into the muck and mud of the creek, though, not enough room for a body. Unless. . . he choked down the panic burning his throat, looked around behind him, searching the water and bank frantically.

Could she have been thrown from the car? He looked at the windshield under the water and it was cracked but not shattered.

He stood again, his clothes clinging to him, and shielded his eyes, looking downstream.

“Could she have —” He swallowed hard. “Been swept downstream?”

Denny shook his head. “I don’t see how. This creek’s not deep enough and there’s no current.

Jason pivoted in the water, facing them. “Then where is she?”

Denny raked a hand through his hair. “We’ll need to get a wrecker down here, something to flip this car over and be sure —”

“I don’t think she’s there,” Cody said abruptly.

Denny clutched his hair and blew out a breath. “I don’t want to think that way either, but she could be. We have to be realistic.”

Cody turned toward Denny, lowered his voice. “I’m not trying to be morbid, but I think we’d see some sign that she’s under there.”

Denny looked at the water, nodding. “Yeah. You’re probably right.”

“What about a bear? Could a bear have —”

“Kyle!” Cody’s voice was sharp as he jerked his head toward Jason who was still looking from one side of the bank to the other.

“Bears don’t usually eat cadavers.” The authoritative voice of the coroner silenced the group. Clint O’Malley tripped over a few stones on his way to the car but managed to stay upright. He stood calf deep in water next to Cody, frowning. “Are you boys telling me you called me out here without an actual person for me to declare dead?”

Cody placed his hands on his hips and cleared his throat, looking down at the water then glancing back up at Jason before he looked at Clint. “Ellie Lambert is missing.”

Clint looked at Jason standing a few feet away from him with a dazed expression on his face and blew out a quick breath, following it up with a curse word.

 He nodded at Cody. “Understand. What are our options here? Could she have survived and left the scene?”

Kyle, Denny, and Cody looked at each other and fell silent. Finally, Cody spoke. “Yeah, I think that’s a real possibility. We have to explore it at least.”

Clint looked at the car again. “You should also lift this car up and see what you find underneath it. Just to be sure.”

Jason’s chest constricted and his stomach burned. The idea of her pinned down by two tons of metal, her body mangled beyond recognition left him cold, even as the humidity was rising. Dark clouds hovered along the horizon, visible through the trees. If a storm wasn’t coming, there was at least going to be a shower. Rain would wash away any clues if Ellie had somehow walked away.

“Cody!” Tucker Everly’s voice echoed into the ravine. “We have a possible witness and survivor up here.”

Jason’s head jerked up, his brow furrowed as he looked up at Tucker, who’d been among the volunteers he’d trained with the most when he’d started with the department a few months ago.

“Luke found Brad Tanner along the road about a mile up. He has a gash on his head and his face is a mess. He can’t remember anything about last night but woke up along the bank by the creek this morning. He says he vaguely remembers being in the car with Ellie last night.”

All the men’s eyes were on Jason again.

“I drove him home last night,” Jason said, more to himself than anyone else. “I don’t understand. Why would he be in Ellie’s car?”

He stood and started climbing the bank toward the road, confusion and anger rising with each step. “Where is he?”

Tucker grabbed his hand and helped him the last few steps, then nodded toward a maroon pickup pulling in.

“Luke just pulled in with him.”

By the time Jason reached the passenger side of the truck at a full on jog, his mood had reached a dangerous level of rage. Brad opened the door, and he didn’t even wait for him to climb out. He grabbed the front of his cousin’s shirt and dragged him out, slamming him hard against the side of the truck. “Where is she?” the question hissed out of Jason between clenched teeth. “What happened?”

Brad held his hands up, palms out, shaking his head. “Jason, I don’t know. I can’t remem—”

Jason slammed his back hard against the truck again. “Tell me what happened or I swear I’ll  —”

“Jason!” Luke grabbed his arms, pulled him back. “He wreaks of booze and shows all the signs of a concussion. He’s not going to be any help in this shape. The EMTs need to look at him.”

Jason tightened his grip on Brad’s shirt, breathing hard, jaw tight, eyes focused on Brad’s scrunched up face, his eyes squeezed tight as if waiting for Jason to punch him. Jason slammed Brad back against the truck again “They can look at him after I finish with him.”

“Jason!” Alex’s voice behind Jason distracted him long enough for one of the EMTs to grab one of his arms while Alex grabbed the other.  “This isn’t helping.”

Alex and the EMT pulled until Jason let go of Brad’s shirt. Alex pressed a hand against Jason’s chest. “You need to calm down.”

Jason shook them both off with a jerk of his arms and walked to the side of the road, sitting on a stump next to a tree. He propped his arms on his knees and clenched his fists in front of him as Alex walked over and stood above him.

“When did you get here?” he asked Alex.

“Maybe ten minutes ago. Cody filled me in. I was on my way down the bank when I saw you coming up.” He knelt next to Jason, propped on his own knee. “Walt called your dad. He heard the chatter on the scanner.”

Jason’s head jerked up. “Did they say Ellie’s name on the scanner?”

Alex shook his head. “No. Just that there was a car in the water. Walt thought it might be Brad. He didn’t come home last night, but no one thought much of it. He’s been doing that a lot since he got back.” He placed a hand on Jason’s shoulder, his voice low. “They’re going to start a search, spread out and walk in a circle about a mile away to see if they can find any sign of her. They’ve also got a team coming in from Wyoming County to walk the creek with them and another water search and rescue crew.”

Jason looked at the ground, nodding. After a few seconds of silence, he stood abruptly. “Okay. I’m going to head out then. Can you call her parents, fill in Molly and Mom?”

Alex stood. “Yeah, but I’m going with you.”

Jason nodded. “That’s fine. I’m not waiting for the search teams, though. You’ve got five minutes to meet me on the other side of the creek.”

He pivoted and started down the embankment, not giving Alex any time to respond.

The way Clint squeezed his shoulder on his way back to his truck left a hard lump of dread in Jason’s gut.

“Call me if I’m needed,” he said softly.

God, please, don’t let us need him, Jason prayed as he collected gear from his truck and headed down the embankment toward the creek.

“Where are you going, Jase?”

He ignored Cody’s question, kept walking through the creek, past the wreckage of the car, and toward the embankment on the other side.

“Just keep your phone on you in case you need us, or we need you,” Cody called after him.

Alex fell in step with him when he reached the top of the bank on the other side of the wreckage and started toward a more wooded area.

“Where are we going?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you think she went looking for help? If so, why didn’t she just go on the road?”

“I don’t know.”

“She should have had a cell on her —”

“I don’t know.”

Alex fell silent and they continued to walk, sweat beading on their skin and soaking their backs.

“It just needs to rain already,” Alex mumbled.

“If it rains, I won’t be able to find her tracks.” He didn’t add, “If there are any,” because he didn’t want to think there wouldn’t be.

“Good point.”

The humidity sucked air from his lungs with each breath and a crack of thunder signaled they should seek shelter rather than keep walking, but he wasn’t about to stop. If Ellie was alive, he was going to find her. If she wasn’t alive, he still needed to find her. Her family needed closure. He’d hurt them so much already. He couldn’t hurt them again.

At the top of the hill the woods faded into a wide open field. Jason stopped walking and bent over, hands on knees, catching his breath, chest burning.

Alex did the same. “How can we both be in such good shape, yet that hill almost kill us?”

“The humidity isn’t helping.”

“How much further should we walk? If she was injured she —”

“I don’t know.”

There was a lot he didn’t know.

Fire still burned through his chest when he stood up and started walking again.

God, please. Help me find her.

In twenty minutes, they had walked the length of the field, down over a hill, and back up another one. Jason turned and looked behind him, estimating they had already walked a mile and a half from the accident scene. She couldn’t have walked this far, could she have? Maybe she hadn’t been able to walk. Dear God, maybe she was under that car. Maybe the wrecker had come, helped overturn the car and her body was lifeless in that creek bed. He clasped his hands behind his head, breathing hard. Pressing his arms against his head, he intertwined his fingers, and choked back a sob.

“God,” he hit his knees, pressed his hands into the dirt in front of him, bowing his head toward the ground. “Please, please don’t take Ellie from me. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for my stubbornness. For all my mistakes. Please, give me a second chance with her.”

In a few minutes, after sobbing until his chest and back ached, he became aware of Alex kneeling beside him, his hand on his back. They stayed that way for several minutes and when Jason sat back, he noticed Alex’s face was damp as well.

Alex shook his head, dragging a hand across his cheeks, and stood. “We’re not giving up. Come on. Maybe she tried to take a shortcut over this hill to get to the Bradley farm and call for help.”

Jason dragged his hand across his face and stood slowly. “That sounds like something she’d do. Go to get help for even a moron like Brad.” He brushed the dirt off his jeans and spit at the ground. “He better have some answers for me when I get back.”

“We can think about that later.” Alex started down the hill. Jason started to follow him when his phone rang. He didn’t recognize the caller ID, but answered it anyhow, hoping it was a member of the fire department, telling him they had found her. Alive.

“Jason?”

“Judi?”

“Jason, have you found her?”

“No. Not yet.”

Judi’s voice broke. “They flipped her car over and she’s not there. Where is she? Where is my sister?”

“I don’t know, Judi. I’ll keep looking. Are you with your parents?”

Judi’s sobs came through the phone. “Yes. I’m at their house. Jason, if you find her, however you find her, you have to tell her I’m sorry. We had a big fight the other night and I told her I hated her and that I hated being her sister —” Her voice faded to a tearful whisper. “Oh God. I don’t hate her. God, please don’t let her be dead.”

He wanted to offer her encouragement, but he wasn’t sure how, when his heart felt as hopeless as hers at the moment. “Judi.” His voice broke and he tried again. “Judi, I want you to pray. If you can’t pray, ask your parents to pray with you. As soon as I know anything I’ll call you. Keep your phone next to you, okay?”

He could almost see Judi in his mind nodding as he heard her crying. “Okay. I will.” She took a deep breath. “Jason?”

He looked out over the farmland in front of him, red barns, cows in fences, fields being planted with sileage to feed the cows in winter. “Yeah.”

“She loves you so much. I don’t know why she’s being so stubborn right now, but she’s always loved you and I know she still loves you.”

He swallowed hard, tears blurring his vision. The way she referred to Ellie in the present tense made his heart ache with a glimmer of hope that she still was in the present tense. “Thank you, Judi. Keep the phone next to you.”

“Jason!”

He’d lost sight of Alex, but now he could hear him shouting from somewhere on the other side of the hill.

He took off in the direction of the voice, almost catching his foot in a groundhog hole as he ran. Alex was running toward him, his face flushed. “I found her.”

Fiction Friday: Harvesting Hope Chapter 23

Just a note to regular readers: I will be putting this book up on Kindle on August 12. I’ve lowered the preorder price to $.99 so my blog readers can get it cheap and then once the book goes on sale I’ll be raising the price. I can also send a mobi or ePub version to you through Bookfunnel for free so if you are interested please let me know and either leave me your email here in the comments or send one to me at lisahoweler@gmail.com so I can send it along August 12.

Bookfunnel will have you upload the book yourself to your reading app so if you prefer not to do that, you can do the option on Amazon. If you want a paperback, please order through me and I will mail you one. It will be cheaper than what Amazon charges for books (I only make about a $4 profit from what they charge).

If you are a new reader here, I share a chapter from my WIP each Friday, and sometimes Saturday, on my blog. There are typos, grammatical issues and even plot holes at times because this is a first, second, or third draft that hasn’t gone to my editor (eh, husband) yet. If you see a typo, feel free to kindly let me know in the comments. Sometimes the error has already been fixed on my copy, sometimes not.

Catch up with the rest of the story HERE. Don’t feel like reading the book in a series of chapters each Friday? Preorder the book HERE. Do you want to read the first book in the series? Download it HERE. 

Chapter 23

Jason snatched up the scraper and walked toward the stalls, knowing without looking in a mirror his face was showcasing the happiness he felt inside. As soon as this job was finished, he was heading to town to see Ellie. His muscles tensed in anticipation at the thought of seeing her, holding her, kissing her. The fact she’d almost let him kiss her, despite everything, gave him a sense of hope he hadn’t had in months, and certainly hadn’t had at all earlier this week.

“Walt’s got the part we need for the skid steer.” His dad’s voice startled him out of his thoughts. “Can you head up and grab it when you’re done here?”

He smiled, not really thinking about the part at all. “Yeah. No problem.”

“Just be careful. Walt says the fire department is stopping cars at the bottom of the hill down from his place.”

“Okay.”

Robert narrowed his eyes. “You okay, kid? You’re acting a little off. You seem a little — well, distracted.”

Jason propped the scraper against the wall and laughed. “Yeah. I’m okay. Really okay. I’m more than okay.”

Robert raised an eyebrow. “You drunk?”

Jason shook his head, catching the sparkle in his dad’s eye. “Only in love.”

“With Ellie still, I hope.”

“Absolutely.”

Robert smiled as he walked toward the back of the barn. “Then carry on.”

A half an hour later Jason stretched his arms over his head and listened to the bones along his spine crack. He climbed in the truck, thinking about the night before, wishing he hadn’t had to deal with Brad. After he picked up the part for the skid steer, he was flooring it to the preschool and waiting for Ellie in the parking lot. He wasn’t about to let her out of his sight again.

He tapped her name on his phone before pulling out onto the road.

“Hey, this is Ellie. Leave me a message and I’ll be get back in touch with you as soon as I can.”

He smiled. Even her voicemail was sweet.

“Hey, El. It’s Jason. Thought maybe you’d like to grab lunch at Bonnie’s today? I’m heading to Walt’s for a part for the skid steer, have a couple more things to do at the farm, and then I can pick you up outside the school. I’ll try again in a bit and see what you think.”

He tossed the phone onto the passenger seat. Everything looked brighter today. The sun on the grass, its light filtering through the trees, leaving misshapen patterns on the road in front of him, the wild summer flowers blooming. The sky wasn’t totally blue, a few dark clouds were threatening rain, but even the clouds didn’t bring him down. His heart still ached over the loss of John but today his grief was buffered by hope. Hope for reconciliation with the woman he’d wanted to marry since he was 18-years old.

Blue and red lights blinked in front of him, and he pressed the brake, stopping when junior firefighter Nate Baker waved a white flag at him. Fire trucks, the vehicles of volunteer fire fighters, and an ambulance were parked in a line along the road.

He leaned his head toward his open window as Nate stepped toward him. “Hey, kid. What’s going on?”

Nate, 16-years old, jerked his head toward broken trees at the edge of the embankment. “Car over the bank. They’re down there checking it out now.”

“Any injuries?”

Nate shrugged a shoulder. “Don’t know yet. They just told me to slow the traffic down.”

Jason studied the broken trees and rubbed his chin, rough from stubble. He’d been too distracted with thoughts of Ellie to shave this morning. “I’ll see if they need any help.” He reached out the window and pounded Nate on the shoulder. “Keep up the good work, bud.”

Shifting the truck into park he watched Cody walk through the broken trees toward the road. The fire chief looked up as Jason exited his truck, the expression on his face when he caught sight of Jason indecipherable. Jason narrowed his eyes, trying to read the chief’s expression. Was the accident fatal?

Cody met him at the top of the embankment, immediately placing his hands on Jason’s shoulders. “Jason, hey, what are you doing here?” He was breathless, sweat beading his brow.

“I was on my way to pick up something from my uncles and saw you guys here.” Jason craned his neck, looking over Cody’s shoulder. “Do you need help?”

Cody squeezed his shoulders, shaking his head and pushing gently until Jason was forced to take a couple steps back. “No. We’re good. We’ll call you if you we need you.”

Jason cocked an eyebrow. “What’s going on with you? You’re acting weird. Did I do something to upset you? Did you find out something about the fire?

Cody swung an arm around his shoulder and started walking, pulling Jason with him. “I’d tell  you if I was upset with you. No worries there. And nothing about the fire. It’s just that we’ve just got this covered.”

Jason looked over Cody’s shoulder as they walked, looking through the leaves and tree limbs. He caught sight of the blue bumper of a car at the bottom of the embankment and stopped walking, pulling from Cody’s grip. “Whose car is that?”

“Jason, you need to go home, okay?”

Why had he even asked whose car it was? He knew whose car it was.

“Jason!”

He ran full force toward the wooded area and was met by Denny and Kyle Barton on their way up the hill.

Denny’s eyes met his, his mood somber. “Jason, you need to stay up there.”

Jason shook his head, kept walking. “That’s Ellie’s car.”

The two men put up their hands to block him. “Jason, stay here until we —”

Jason was practically shouting now. “Where’s Ellie?” The men had their hands on him now, trying to hold him back. “Where is she?”

He pushed back against them, panic clutching at his throat until he could barely breathe. He broke past the men, pushing them aside, barreling through the underbrush and trees, briars cutting into his skin as he ran. He stopped running when he hit the clearing, stopped, breathing hard, and looked down at the creek bed.

Ellie’s car was on its roof, upside down in the water. Other volunteer fire fighters were making their way to it, pushing brush aside to get there, but it didn’t look like any of them had reached it yet. Behind him branches and twigs broke under the weight of the men who’d tried to keep him back.

“We haven’t gotten down there yet, Jason.” Cody shouted from behind him. “We were on our way down when Jay radioed that you’d pulled in. Stay here until we know what we’re dealing with.”

Jason shook his head. “No. I have to —”

Denny clutched a hand around his forearm. “Listen, Jason. If she’s in there, you don’t want to remember her this way. Okay?”

Jason yanked his arm free, walking forward. “If she’s in there, I need to get her out. No matter what —” His voice broke and he drew in a ragged breath. He shook his head, leaning forward on his knees, the scene before him blurring. His chest ached, tightened like a vice against his lungs.

Dragging the back of his hand across his face he straightened and started making his way over the boulders along the creek bank. Another firefighter, Will Barton, Kyle’s father, was standing behind the car and put his hand up to stop him, but Cody’s voice echoed among the trees.

“Let him go, Will.”

Will shook his head. “Not alone, I won’t.”

He placed a hand on Jason’s back, following him deeper into the water.

Water Jason’s shoes and jeans, but he didn’t even notice. He was vaguely aware of Cody and Denny and the other men navigating their way down the bank and boulders to join him. Otherwise, he was entirely focused on the smashed driver’s side window submerged part way in the water.

“Oh God,” he whispered. “God, help me bring my Ellie home to her family.”

The only way to see what was inside was to lean over. From where he was now, the water now thigh deep, he could only make out what looked like a sweater moving in the water, hanging through the window. He lowered himself, water rushing up over his lower body, trying to brace himself for whatever awaited, but knowing nothing could prepare him if Ellie was in there dead.

A sob choked out as he looked inside the window, at water ripping over the steering wheel and Ellie’s purse floating in the water below the passenger seat. His gaze moved from the front to the back of the car, and he straightened, shaking his head and pressing the heel of his palms against his closed eyes.

“Jason, I’m coming.” Denny shouted to him as he made his way over the rocks and through the water. “Don’t try to get her out until I get there.”

Jason sobbed again, trying to shake himself awake from the nightmare. This couldn’t be happening.

“She’s not here.”

Denny balanced himself on the side of the car. “What? What do you mean?”

Jason opened his eyes and looked at Denny, breathing hard. “She’s not here. The car’s empty.”

Saturday Fiction: Harvesting Hope Chapter 22

Just a note to regular readers: I will be putting this book up on Kindle on August 12. I’ve lowered the preorder price to $.99 so my blog readers can get it cheap and then once the book goes on sale I’ll be raising the price. I can also send a mobi or ePub version to you through Bookfunnel for free so if you are interested please let me know and either leave me your email here in the comments or send one to me at lisahoweler@gmail.com so I can send it along August 12.

Bookfunnel will have you upload the book yourself to your reading app so if you prefer not to do that, you can do the option on Amazon. If you want a paperback, please order through me and I will mail you one. It will be cheaper than what Amazon charges for books (I only make about a $4 profit from what they charge).

If you are a new reader here, I share a chapter from my WIP each Friday, and sometimes Saturday, on my blog. There are typos, grammatical issues and even plot holes at times because this is a first, second, or third draft that hasn’t gone to my editor (eh, husband) yet. If you see a typo, feel free to kindly let me know in the comments. Sometimes the error has already been fixed on my copy, sometimes not.

Catch up with the rest of the story HERE. Don’t feel like reading the book in a series of chapters each Friday? Preorder the book HERE. Do you want to read the first book in the series? Download it HERE. 

Chapter 22


What was he even doing here? His head was pounding from a persistent headache that hadn’t let up since yesterday. The loud music coming from the band up front wasn’t helping. And he wanted to be back at home, talking to Ellie, telling her how sorry he was for how he’d acted in Pastor Joe’s office. No, he didn’t want to be talking to her on a phone. He wanted to be at her apartment, talking to her face-to-face. She was most likely dealing with a drunk Judi, though. She didn’t need even more to deal with.

Jason rubbed a knot at the back of his neck and grimaced, hoping to massage the tension away.

He knew the guys from the department wanted him to unwind but the bitter smell of alcohol, the cloud of cigarette smoke and the mass of people bumping against each other on the dance floor was only adding to his tension.

He stepped up to the bar to refill his glass of ginger ale. His friends from the fire department and Alex were sitting at a table across the bar, laughing and cutting jokes. He was glad that Alex had asked for a refill on his soda as well. Bars and Alex weren’t the best of friends and Jason hadn’t wanted to watch his friend slide backward into his old life. So far, that wasn’t happening thankfully.         

“’Nother ginger?” the bartender asked, taking his glass.

Jason nodded. “It’s hitting the spot tonight.”

The man slid the glass to him, grinning. “Fine by me. One less drunk person I have to deal with tonight. Enjoy.”

Jason decided a break from the conversations would also hit the spot. The guys meant well but he wasn’t ready to walk back into life again, act like everything was fine and John Weatherly wasn’t dead and Ann a widow because of his failure. He sat on a stool and leaned his arm on the bar, scanning the room, seeing who he recognized and who he didn’t.

He’d gone to high school with the new owners of the establishment, but didn’t know either one of the couple, Jake and Mallory Leonard, well. Back in one corner was the captain of his high school football team, chatting up a petite blond who was definitely not his wife. On the dance floor was Jimmy Hurley, owner of the local supermarket, his arms around his wife Nancy, her head leaning against his shoulder.

At a table near the door Lanny Jenkins was nursing a beer while Jessie Landry chattered away and touched his arm for the thousandth time, obviously desperate for attention. Jessie reminded him a lot of Lauren, both of them in and out of relationships, seeming to base their worth on if a man paid attention to them or not. Jessie had been in the middle of an almost-situation with Alex last year. Thank God Alex had walked away before it got out of hand. It had been the incident that had woken him up to how far he’d fallen. Not long after, he was confessing his feelings to Molly and Jason was agreeing to help him straighten his life out for his own sake and Molly’s.

Still wrapped up in his thoughts, he moved his gaze around the room, away from Jessie to the woman next to him. His heart rate increased.

No way.

What was she doing here? This wasn’t the kind of place he’d ever expected to see her.

A slender finger pushed a strand of dark hair behind a delicate ear as the woman stepped back between two bar stools four down from him. She hugged her arms around her middle like she was trying to protect herself from the rest of the world, or the rest of the room at least. Her eyes scanned the dance floor, looking for someone. She hadn’t noticed him yet and he took the time to study her, or, more accurately, enjoy the view of her.

Small, pert nose, perfectly shaped chin, full lips begging to be kissed. He’d kissed them so many times before he’d memorized the taste of them, and it was a taste he ached to experience again.

As if she felt him looking at her, she turned her head, caught his gaze. Surprise registered in Ellie’s eyes, quickly replaced by an emotion he couldn’t pin down. Was she upset at the sight of him? Happy? Or simply indifferent?

He pushed himself off the bar and moved toward her, stopping at the stool next to her and sitting before leaning back against the bar again. “You don’t usually come to places like this. How did you even —”

The previous stoicism she’d held morphed into annoyance, eyes tilting briefly toward the ceiling then back to him. “Judi.”

The name of her sister slipped out with a sad sigh.

“Ah.”

She rolled her eyes. “And Brad.”

Brad. Again. Great.

Had Brad invited Ellie, or had he invited Judi and Ellie had tagged along? Like before.

What was Brad’s game anyhow? To see if he could bed both Lambert girls?

Jason followed the path of her gaze to the other side of the bar, to Brad talking to Judi, his hand against Judi’s thigh. “Oh.”

She sighed. “Judi is furious at me, but she was drunk when she came back to the apartment to change, and I didn’t trust her when she said Brad hadn’t been drinking. Turns out he actually hadn’t but, after my last experience with him, I wasn’t taking any chances on what would happen by the end of the night. I’m their designated driver, I guess you would say.”

Her last experience with him? What did that mean? Should he ask?

He chuckled softly to drown out the worried thoughts racing through his mind. “That makes sense.” He tapped his fingers on the top of the bar and thought about how he should have stopped her that night after Franny’s party, told her not to go anywhere with Brad.

“The guys talked me into coming.” He cleared his throat. “Said I needed to unwind a little and get my mind off things.” He shook his head and sipped the ginger ale. “When have you ever known me to unwind?”

She tipped her chin up and smiled. “Plenty of times.” It looked like she was trying not to smile but couldn’t help it. “Plenty of times.”

He looked at her, a knowing smile turning his mouth upward. “Times you were part of, of course.”

Warmth flushed across his cheeks, and she bowed her head, her own cheeks flushing pink. She shifted herself onto the stool and crossed one leg over the other, resting her hands on top of her knee, watching the band while he watched her.

“Can I buy you a drink?”

She shook her head. “I’m fine.”

“You can get sodas here.”

“Thank you, but I’m good. Really.”

The band changed songs and her eyebrows raised at the same time his did. They looked at each other and he spoke first. “Mickey Gilley? Really? Who even knows his music anymore?”

She cocked an eyebrow questioningly. “Did you —”

“El, I didn’t even know you were here up until a few minutes ago.”

They listened to the song a few minutes, him leaning back on the bar, her sitting on the stool, before he heard her humming along and then softly singing the lyrics under her breath.

In seconds he was back eight years, standing in front of a pair of headlights in an empty wheat field, his hands on her waist, her hands on his shoulders. The only radio station that would come in on his truck was the oldies country station. This song had come on, and they’d stood to dance and sing along, though neither knew why since they’d never heard it before. They’d paused their swaying when he tilted her face toward his and kissed her softly. How was it possible it had been eight years ago, when it felt like it had only been yesterday?

His chest constricted at the memory, at the emotion stirring there now. He didn’t want to simply be standing near her, their arms a few inches from each other. He wanted her against him, his arms around her, holding her like he’d done so many times before. It was where she belonged. He knew it and he had a good feeling she did too.

He glanced at her, then looked away.

Get it together, Jason. The worst she can say is ‘no.’

He lifted his chin toward the dance floor. “We could — I mean — If you want to. For old times sake.”

His heart and breathing stopped while he waited for her answer. A small smile was playing at her mouth and his gaze traced the shape of it, drifted to the nape of her neck, then back to her eyes, which had focused on his. Her eyes had a way of changing shades with her mood, a phenomenon he’d admired many times before. In this moment, flecks of gold darted out from her light brown irises, and he wanted to bottle those flecks up and pull them out anytime he was down.

 She nodded and slid off the stool. He exhaled slowly and his heart came to life again. He took her hand and led her to the dance floor, among the other dancers swaying close together.

His arms slid around her easily. When her hands slid up to his shoulders his muscles relaxed and he was at ease for the first time in months, other than a few butterflies fluttering in the center of his chest. She pressed his cheek against his shoulder and curved an arm around his side and up his back.

This was as it should be. Her, here in his arms, right where she belonged. He hoped her willingness, maybe even eagerness, to be so close to him was a sign she felt the same way.

Swaying to the music he closed his eyes, thinking only of the feel of her against him, the smell of her shampoo, the softness of her hair against his cheek, the way the curve of her body fit perfectly to his.

His voice was almost a whisper as he tipped his head, spoke into her hair. “The irony is not lost on me that the name of this song is Talk to Me.”

She laughed softly, her breath rumbling against his chest. He felt her lift her head and opened his eyes.  His heart lurched up into his throat, forming a lump he couldn’t seem to swallow away. She was looking at him the way he remembered her looking at him so many times before, the way he’d wanted her to look at him for the past eight months.

Her lips parted and her gaze drifted to his mouth then back up to his eyes. Was she sending him silent signals? Did she want him to kiss her as much as he wanted to kiss her? He was hoping the answer was yes because he was taking the chance.

He cupped his hand behind her head, intertwined his fingers in her hair and she closed her eyes. He traced her lips with the palm of his thumb and took a deep breath.

They’d kiss thousands of times before. Why did this feel like the first time all over again?

As he lowered his head toward hers, he felt a sharp thump on his shoulder.

What now?

The quick thump turned into a tight grip on his shoulder, near his neck.

“Hey, buddy, you stealin’ my date?” Brad’s laughter grated like the jake brakes of an 18-wheeler. He clutched Jason’s shoulder in one hand, a beer bottle in the other. The smell wafting from him signaled he’d drank more than that one beer.

He shook Brad’s hand loose. “I don’t recall her saying she was here with anyone. I seem to remember her saying you were here with Judi.”

Brad’s laughter faded and his smile switched to a tight-lipped grimace. “You know what, Jason. You had your chance. You screwed it up.” He shoved his way between Jason and Ellie, breaking their hold on each other. “So why don’t you just move over and let a real man step in.”

In seconds Jason had the front of his cousin’s shirt clutched in his fists and his body shoved up against the bar. “Don’t you ever touch her again.”

The edge of the counter dug into Brad’s back, and he winced, but the smirk never left his face.

He laughed again, wrapped his hands around Jason’s and tried to pry them off his shirt. “Touchy. Touchy. Calm down, cuz, I’m just messin’ with you.”

Judi stepped next to the bar and clapped her hands together. “Is there going to be a real bar fight? Cool! I’ve always wanted to see one!”

Jason glanced at Ellie’s sister and decided she’d had more than a couple beers as well. The band was in between songs and an odd hush had settled over the bar as people turned to watch the drama.

“Everything okay over there or are we going to need some good ole bar fightin’ music?” The band’s lead singer called out the question with more than a twinge of amusement in his tone.

Jason shook his head, keeping his eyes locked on Brad’s. “Nah. We’re good.” He glared at Brad, not letting him go. “Right, Brad? We’re good.”

Laughter skittered across the bar from the onlookers, many of them returning to their drinks and conversations.

Jason was relieved when the band began another song. He figured enough people knew about his private life these days. He didn’t need to add more to that list.

Ellie reached out quickly, grasping her sister’s wrist. “Let’s go, Judi. Time to go home.”

Judi wrenched herself free. “Shut it, Ellie. I’m a big girl. I don’t need big sis to take care of me.”

Anger flashed in Ellie’s eyes, something Jason was glad to see directed at someone other than himself.

“You’re making an idiot out yourself,” she hissed at Judi. “It’s time to go.”

Jason let Brad’s shirt go and grabbed him by the upper arm instead, his hand wrapping around Brad’s bicep. “Both of them need to sleep this off. I’ll take Brad? You take Judi?”

Ellie didn’t look exactly thrilled with the idea of taking her sister home, but she nodded. “That sounds like a good plan.”

Judi looped her arm in Brad’s. He was sitting on a stool now, leaning back, scowling. “I will take Bradley home,” Judi slurred. “I came with him. He’s my resp—responsible — teee.”

Jason had felt Ellie’s rage before, and he could feel it coming off her now.

“I drove you here, Judi.” Her words clipped out hard and fast. “How do you think you’re going to get him home?”

Judi tightened her grip on Brad’s arm and pushed her lower lip out. “I’m not going anywhere without Brad.”

Ellie tipped her head back and growled in frustration. “Fine. I’ll take both of you home then.”

Brad slid an arm around Judi’s shoulder and pulled her against him. “You can drop her off with me, I don’t mind.”

Jason tightened his grip on Brad’s arm and dragged him off the stool, out of Judi’s grasp. “You’re going with me. Let’s go.”

In the parking lot Jason shoved Brad hard toward the passenger side door of his truck. “Get in, idiot.”

Brad climbed slowly, head first, struggled to turn around for several seconds, then finally slumped back against the seat.

Judi leaned her head out of the passenger side window of Ellie’s sedan. “Call me later, Braaaaad!”

Jason caught Ellie’s wrist before she slid behind the steering wheel. “Hey, talk later?”

While the brief kiss on his cheek from her wasn’t the kiss he’d been hoping for earlier, it sent his heart rate slamming against his ribcage at least ten beats faster than normal.

“Yeah, I’d like that.”

He hated watching her drive away; wanted to call out, tell her to stay and leave Brad and Judi to fend for themselves. They couldn’t do that, though. If one of them decided to drive themselves home and killed someone while driving drunk, neither he nor Ellie would ever forgive themselves. He slid behind the steering wheel and didn’t look at Brad. If he did, he might grab him by his shirt and slam his head off the dashboard.

“You know what, Jase?” Brad pointed a finger at Jason’s chest and pressed it there. “You’re boring.” It was obvious Brad hadn’t hit the level of alcohol he needed to be unconscious. Unfortunately.

 Jason thought about going back for another beer to top him off, so he’d shut up, but instead he smacked Brad’s hand away, shifted the truck into gear and pulled out of the parking lot. Brad propped a boot-clad foot on the dashboard and snorted a laugh. “It’s sad that Ellie still loves you so much. I couldn’t ge-ge-get anywhere with her. Tried to get her to go to lunch with me and all she wanted was for me – for me –  to drive her to a Bible study.” He scoffed. “Maybe that’s why you broke up with her. She doesn’t give it up easy, right?” He smacked the back of his hand against Jason’s bicep and laughed derisively. “Not like her sister. I bet Judi would give it up in a second flat. That girl is ripe for the picking.”

Jason bit the inside of his cheek, tasted blood. He desperately wanted to yank the truck to the side of the road, drag Brad out and pummel him until his face was a bloody mess. More than beating the living daylights out of his cousin, though, he wanted to throw him out the door in front of his parent’s house, drive off and call Ellie. Let Walt and Marsha deal with their wayward son. He wanted to hear her voice again, remind himself of the look she’d give him that one that said she’d wanted him to kiss her; the one that said she still loved him.

Forget the call. He wanted to drive back to town, run up the stairs to her apartment and kiss her until both of them were gasping for breath. He wouldn’t, though. She’d have enough to deal with trying to wrangle Judi. The kiss would have to wait, but only until morning. After that, all bets were off, siblings and cousins or not. He would kiss her until she was weak in the knees, and he had to hold her against him to keep her from falling to the floor.

The sound of vomit hitting his truck floor pulled him from the daydream and his jaw tightened. If he got Brad home without killing him, it would be a miracle.

***

Judi slumped heavily against Ellie’s side, barely able to walk on her own, no longer giggling, but instead mumbling something Ellie couldn’t decipher.

Pulling her from the car had been an ordeal in itself. Dragging her up the stairs to the apartment had been even more of a challenge. Once inside the door Ellie shoved her hip into Judi’s and leveraged her toward the couch. Judi flopped onto her back, her eyes closed, her feet still on the floor. Ellie pulled off her shoes and flipped her legs up onto the couch. Stepping into the guest room she snatched the blanket off the bed and returned to the living room, covering a clearly unconscious Judi.

Her foot bumped against Judi’s hot pink purse as she stepped back, tipping it over and sending the contents skittering across the floor.

Lipstick, a brush, a makeup, case, a set of keys, a piece of paper with a number scrawled on it, and a cellphone. Ellie snatched each item off the floor and shoved them back in the purse.

Her finger bumped the screen of the phone as she slid it in the purse and a message popped up on the lock screen. Without thinking, Ellie read it.

Jeff: Are you serious, Judi? Go ahead and tell anyone you like what happened that night because no one is ever going to believe you. They’ll know you were asking for it. That’s who you are and who you will always be. A first-class slut.

A cold chill shot through Ellie as she straightened, holding the phone. Her hands trembled. Slut?

What had Judi been asking for? Who was Jeff? Wait. That was the name of the guy on that social media account. The one with his hand on Judi’s thigh and with the photo description that had made her blood run cold.

My God. What did he do to my sister?

Tears stung her eyes as she looked at Judi. The trembling spread from her hands to the rest of her body and tears gathered on her cheek and chin and dripped off. She wiped her hand across them and tried to hold in a sob, though she didn’t need to. Judi was so intoxicated she probably wouldn’t wake up for hours. Ellie sat on the metal chair next to the bed and cried for several minutes, holding the phone against her chest, praying it wasn’t true.

Please, God. Please don’t let him have hurt my sister the way I think he did.

She tipped the phone back, stared at it, considered calling this Jeff guy and giving him an earful, threatening him, but she couldn’t. Not until she talked to Judi and found out the truth. She couldn’t risk violating her sister’s privacy the way this man may have violated her in other ways.

A knock on the apartment door brought Ellie out of her thoughts. She shoved the phone back in Judi’s purse, turned out the light, and gently closed the door behind her. She needed to talk to someone about what she’d read, and she knew who that someone needed to be. She hoped to God he was the one standing on the other side of the door.

The smell when she opened the door burned her throat, made her eyes water.

“Heeeeey, sexxxxxxy, lady.”

She gagged.

“Brad.” She waved her hand and pinched her nose with her finger and thumb. “Go home. You reek.”

He swayed in the doorway like a tree branch in the wind. “But I want to see, Judi.”

Ellie leaned against the doorframe, arms folded across her chest. “Did you drive yourself here? I thought Jason dropped you off.”

He laughed. “You think I’m drunk.” He swayed backward then straightened himself. I’m not drunk, El. I’m just —” He tossed his arms out to the side — “happy.”

Taking the old adage to heart and literally biting her tongue was the only way she kept from screaming. She was glad she’d never acquired a taste for alcohol. The beverage was transforming her night into a complete disaster.

“Well, Judi’s dead to the world so you need to go home.”

Brad sighed and the stench of alcohol and vomit made Ellie gag again. “Ah man. Okay, then. Ho-ho-hommmmme it is then.”

She wanted him to leave, but the idea of him on the road in the condition he was in terrified her. How many people would he kill on the way back to the Tanner’s farm?

She held out her hand, palm up. “Give me your keys. I’ll drive you home.”

“Nah.” Brad turned and staggered down the first step. “I — I got it.”

Ellie tipped her head back and groaned softly. “You can’t drive, Brad. You’re going to kill someone. Give me the keys. Now.”

He dropped the keys in her palm and she grabbed her phone on the table next to the door. By the time she closed and locked the door behind her, he was sitting on the top step with his elbow on his knee, his chin in his hand and the wall supporting his weight. His eyes had drifted closed.

She hooked a hand under his arm and pulled upward. “Come on, let’s go.”

It had taken a great deal of self-control to not say, “Come on, idiot.” It was an applicable term for him right now.

Ten minutes down the road with a grinning, semi-conscious Brad next to her she regretted not telling him to sleep it off on her couch instead.

“How come you Lambert girls are so pretty?”

She rolled her eyes.

He lurched toward her side of the seat. “And so nice. Both of you so nice.” He patted her shoulder gently. “You didn’t have to do this, Ellie. It’s late. I shouldn’t have come to see Judi.” He hiccupped and followed it with a burp. “She just seems so sad, you know.”

Even though she could still hear Judi screaming at her earlier in the night, she knew he was right. There was definite sadness underneath Judi’s anger. And that sadness might have something to do with this Jeff guy, whoever he was.

Brad reached toward the steering wheel. “Let me drive, El. You shouldn’t be driving. You’re too nice to a drunk a drive idiot like me.” He paused, frowned, then grinned. “I mean you’re too drunk to drive an idiot like me. No. Wait. I’m drunk. You’re driving and nice.”

Ellie slapped his hand away. “Brad. Stop it. Just sit back and rest. We’ll be at your parents soon.”

And I’m going to kick that door open and roll you out into their front yard. God bless Walt and Marsha. They’d have their hands full tonight.

“No, no. I can’t let you do this.” Brad reached for the steering wheel again. “Move over. I’ll move over there, and I can drive you back home.”

Ellie pushed her arm against his chest. “Brad! Knock it off!”

Brad’s hand curled around the steering wheel. He started to fall back but he kept his hand tight on the wheel. The car jerked to one side and off the road then back again.

“Brad! Stop!”

Ellie slammed her elbow down hard onto his wrist and knocked his hand loose.

It was too late.

The car left the road and careened into the darkness.

The deafening cacophony of shattering glass and crunching metal was the last thing she heard before the darkness consumed her.

Fiction Friday: Harvesting Hope Chapter 21

If you are a new reader here, I share a chapter from my WIP each Friday, and sometimes Saturday, on my blog. There are typos, grammatical issues and even plot holes at times because this is a first, second, or third draft that hasn’t gone to my editor (eh, husband) yet. If you see a typo, feel free to kindly let me know in the comments. Sometimes the error has already been fixed on my copy, sometimes not.

Catch up with the rest of the story HERE. Don’t feel like reading the book in a series of chapters each Friday? Preorder the book HERE. Do you want to read the first book in the series? Download it HERE. 

Chapter 21



Jason closed his eyes and immediately opened them again. He stared into the darkness of his bedroom until colors swirled in front of him. Sleep was not coming. It had barely come in four days. Every time he closed his eyes, he heard the cries of Anne Weatherly asking for her husband, saw the flames devour their cozy home with John inside.

He draped his bare arm over his eyes, wished sleep would come.

How could he not have known John was inside? How could he not have understood what Ann was trying to tell him?

“John.”

Her voice had been so weak, and Jason had assumed she was calling for John, wanting him to come back from wherever he was to be with her during her time of fear. Instead, she’d been trying to tell Jason her husband was lying on the kitchen floor, unconscious or injured somehow.

Jason clenched his fist tight, gritted his teeth. He punched the surface of the mattress next to him.

He’d wanted to go back into the building, but it was too late. Flames had shot up through the structure, consuming it within seconds.

“You did all you could, Jason.” Cody’s words echoed in his mind, but he didn’t believe them.

He could have done more. He could have found John before the state police fire marshal did, or what was left of him under the ash and charred remains of the house.

God, why did you let this happen? They were good people. They didn’t deserve this.

After another hour without sleep, he tossed the sheets aside and walked downstairs, pouring himself a glass of milk, and turning on the TV.

What a week.

What a soul-sucking, demoralizing, atrocious week.

If he wasn’t hearing the panicked voice in his mind, he was hearing Ellie ask him in hurt voice how he could have told their pastor about their “personal failings.” She hadn’t used those words, but he knew what she meant. He had betrayed their privacy. Her privacy. He certainly didn’t feel good about that.

He guzzled more of the milk and scoffed.

“Personal failings.” He said the words mockingly.

That’s what he apparently had to refer to his desire for Ellie as. He was a failure for wanting to sleep with Ellie. He pressed his hand against his forehead.

He knew that’s not what he was a failure for. He wasn’t a failure for desiring Ellie or for letting his hands slide where they shouldn’t have more than once. He’d asked God to forgive him for anything he shouldn’t have done with Ellie.

What he was a failure for was not telling Ellie about Lauren, for apologizing but then demanding that she forgive him. He’d never really asked her how she really felt about it all. Mainly because he was selfish. Instead of coming along beside her and walking through the pain with her, he’d wanted to avoid having to hear again and again how he had hurt her, so he hadn’t pushed her to tell him how she really felt. Not until they were sitting in front of their pastor. The shame of that conversation weighed heavy on his heart, adding to the shame and guilt already there.

He set the empty glass on the coffee table, closed his eyes, and pressed his fingertips against his temples, massaging them. If only massaging would take the pain away, the pain in his head and his heart.

He’d told Ellie more than once in the last seven and a half months that he wasn’t going to apologize for his mistake for the rest of his life.

 He’d lied.

He would apologize for the rest of his life if it meant he could spend that life taking care of her like he’d wanted to since they were 18.

He flipped channels for another hour, then got dressed and headed to the farm. He might as well start his day. It wasn’t like he was going to get anymore sleep and he had the goat barn to finish before his dad picked up the livestock the next week.

A light from the barn window glowed a soft orange, casting a square pattern of brightness onto the dark grass outside.

Who else was up at this hour? It was too early to start the milking.

Robert met Jason in the barn doorway, wiping his hands on a rag.

“Something wrong?” Jason asked.

Robert shook his head as he turned to walk into the barn. “Not anymore. Marshmallow was having a hard time calving. Big bull. Breach. I got him turned.”

Jason followed him, yawning. Robert stopped at the sink, turned the water on full blast and soaped his arms up to his elbows, red smearing with white and leaving a pink tinged coating. “I was getting ready to wash up when I heard your truck. Stepped out to see who else was up this early.”

Jason rubbed at his dry eyes. “Just your crazy son.”

Robert laughed, drying off his arms and hands. “Crazy? Nah. A man with a propensity to work too hard. Yes.”

Jason laughed and shook his head, reaching for the tractor key by the door. “You have no room to talk, old man, and you know it. You work from sunup, or in most cases before the sun is up, to sundown or longer. You don’t even know the meaning of slowing down.” He tapped his dad’s arm with the back of his hand. “Not even a tractor landing on you was enough to slow you down.”

Robert rolled his shirtsleeves down, buttoning them at the wrist. “If only that was true. I tell you, kid, I’ve never felt as old as I have these last seven months. I’m only just feeling like my old self again.”

It was too early to feed the cows, but he could begin preparing the calf feed. Molly would be there in a couple of hours to feed them.

“I’m seeing that old spark returning, I can tell you that. Why don’t you head in and catch a couple more hours of rest, though? Alex and Molly will be here soon, and we can handle the morning chores.”

Robert dumped the dirty water bucket outside the barn door. “I might just take you up on that. But actually, I’m glad to catch you alone for once.” He leaned his side against the supporting beam next to the entrance of the milking parlor and folded his arms across his chest. “How are you doing, Jason?”

Jason shrugged a shoulder as he turned to look for the scraper. He could scrap the center aisle clean before the cows were led out of their stalls. “Fine.”

“You know that in women speak fine means not fine and I have a feeling it means the same thing in Jason speak.”

“You calling me a woman, Dad?”

A smile tugged at Robert’s mouth. “Very funny. No. I’m calling you a liar.”

“Ouch. I think I’d rather be called a woman.” Jason made a face. “Actually, this conversation is starting to sound very sexist. Sorry about that.”

He moved to the watering trough, dumped it onto the barn floor, and pressed the button to refill it. “This purchase was a good one.” Refilling the trough automatically was a lot more efficient than doing it manually.

“Don’t change the subject, kid. How are you?”

Jason rested his hands on his waist as he waited for the trough to refill, watching the water swirl from the spout and rise. He chewed on the edge of his lip and tried to decide how to answer.

“I’m struggling,” he said finally. “Between Ellie, the fire, trying to build the goat barn, hiring an architect for the new milking parlor, and keep this place running — it’s been hard.” He shrugged a shoulder. “I’ll get through it, though. Eventually.”

Robert crossed one leg over the other, propping the toe of his boot against the floor. “You don’t have to get through it alone, you know. Your family is here for you. Me and your mom. Molly and Alex. Even your aunts and uncles and cousins. More importantly though, God is for you.”

He thought to himself how he wasn’t so sure about at least one of his cousins being there for him. He thought about Brad’s car parked outside Ellie’s apartment the other day. I think he’d rather be there for my ex.

He pressed the button to turn the water off. “For me and not against me. Yeah. I know that verse, but it’s hard to see it right now.”

“There are seasons like that, certainly, but eventually, we see the places where God was still with us, even when we thought he wasn’t.” He tipped his head, trying to catch Jason’s eye. “You aren’t to blame for John’s death. You know that, right?”

Jason looked away from his dad, turning toward the back of the barn, staring at the stalls in silence. Emotion caught in his throat when he tried to speak.

“You’re not,” Robert said. “His death was an accident. There was no way you could have known he was in there.”

Jason nodded, but didn’t turn around. “Okay,” was all he could manage.

“Ann’s doing well. She’s been staying with her sister over in Brockwood. I ran into Mary at the store the other day and she said she might move into Twin Oaks.”

Jason’s chest tightened at the mention of Ann. How much did she blame him for the loss of her husband? How angry was she that he wouldn’t listen to her when she tried to tell him where John was? Twin Oaks was a retirement community featuring a collection of condominiums.

“That will be a big change for her.”

“It will be, but she’ll be with friends who can comfort her, including your grandparents.”

Jason nodded. His maternal grandparents had moved into Twin Oaks seven years ago, leaving their house to Annie. Jason had moved into the house shortly after they moved. Alex had come to live with him a year later.

“Jason.” His dad’s hand on his shoulder was firm. “Don’t hold all of this inside. If you can’t talk to me, talk to Alex or Pastor Joe. Someone. I’ve been there. A few times. You know that and holding it in did nothing but make me angry and bitter. I don’t know the specifics of what happened with you and Ellie, but I know you have a lot of guilt about whatever it is and ­­—”

“I slept with a girl in college after Ellie and I broke up.”

Robert slid his hands in his front pockets and tipped his face toward the barn floor. “I see.”

Jason faced his dad and pulled his hand against the back of his neck. “It was a dark time for me. I was lonely, questioning a lot of things. . .” He shook his head and slid a hand across his face, wishing he hadn’t even started telling his dad about his past. “There was a girl who came on strong, invited me to a couple of parties, I was drunk one night, and I messed up. I regretted it immediately. I never did anything like it again.”

Robert let out a long breath. “And Ellie overheard you talking to Alex about it.”

“Yeah. She overheard us talking about it one afternoon. A few days after she thought I’d proposed to her.”

“She thought you proposed to her?”

Jason laughed softly, rubbing the side of his index finger under his bottom lip, against the stubble there. “Long story, but I was getting ready to tell her about the other thing, she thought I was going to propose, and I didn’t have the heart to tell her I hadn’t been planning on proposing. Not that night anyhow. I needed to talk to her first.”

“Oh. I see. That’s why we didn’t know about the proposal.”

“We were going to tell everyone around the time of the firemen’s banquet but then she found out, your accident happened, and I didn’t know if we were still engaged or not.” Jason scratched at the back of his head. “And obviously, we weren’t and aren’t.”

Robert’s eyebrows dipped, and Jason braced himself for more questions. He didn’t want to answer more questions. This conversation was awkward enough. “So, this situation in college happened once and not while you two were dating?”

Jason shook his head again. “No, but Ellie worries that since I didn’t tell her about this, maybe there are other things I didn’t tell her.”

“Are there?”

“Other than the fact I like Mom’s apple pie better than hers, no.”

Robert laughed. “Your mom’s pie is hard to beat.” He shifted and looped his thumbs in his belt loops. “Kid, you know your mistake doesn’t define you, right? Or your relationship with Ellie. From what I’ve seen of you, all these years since, it already hasn’t defined you. You’re a good man who took a wrong turn. You made a terrible decision. Good works isn’t how you dig yourself out of the shame, though. Only God can do that.”

A smile tugged at the corner of Jason’s mouth. “I know, Dad. I do. I just have to keep reminding myself of everything you and Mom have taught me about God and everything I’ve learned in church. Sometimes it’s hard to apply to real life. But while I’m reminding myself, you should probably listen to your own lessons. The accident and your injury doesn’t define you either.”

Robert shook his head and whistled, sliding his hands in his front pant pockets. “Ouch. It’s been that obvious, huh?”

“That you blame yourself for riding out there that day when the hill was wet from the rain? That you think you should be healing faster? That you feel like you aren’t helping enough because your leg has slowed you down some? That you work and work and work to try to prove you’re still the man mom married? Yeah. It’s pretty obvious.”

Robert winced, pinching his nose between his index finger and thumb as he closed his eyes. “Wow. I didn’t know I was that transparent.”

He stepped away from the beam and turned his back for a few moments, breathing deep. When he turned, he walked to Jason, reached up and placed his hand behind Jason’s head, his eyes glistening.

“Beyond my wildest dreams. That’s what you are. A son comforting his father with the reminder of God’s truth.” He pulled Jason against him and hugged him tight. “I am blessed.”

Jason hugged his dad for a few seconds, then pulled back and let out a deep breath. “Enough of that, old man. You’ll have us both crying like a bunch of women.”

Robert slapped him on the back. “That might not be a bad thing considering what a gift women are to us. We could learn a thing or two from them.”

Jason turned to walk back toward the feed room. “Yes, we could. We definitely could.”

Like how to listen to them and not only in words.

Every time Ellie told him how his decision in college made her feel, he’d apologized, but then he’d also mentally dismissed what she’d said. He’d wanted nothing more than to avoid feeling the guilt and the shame. He’d excused it away time after time by saying it was a mistake, that he’d made a mistake and he knew it.

It was true.

What happened with Lauren was a mistake, but it was also a decision, albeit a drunken one. There was part of him that had never really accepted his own part in that night. He had blamed Lauren, Ellie, and alcohol instead of accepting that it was wrong thinking that had led him down that path. He’d felt God had abandoned him in college right along with Ellie, but he’d been wrong. God had never abandoned him and never would, even if Ellie never wanted anything to do with him again.

***

Ellie looked at her phone, picked it up, stared at it, and laid it back on the counter, face down.

She should call him. She knew she should. She had called Molly and asked about Jason, but hadn’t worked up the courage to call him yet. Not after what she’d seen in the hallway at the hospital.

It wasn’t like it was a full-on make-out session, so why was she worried? Maybe because if he’d fallen into the arms of another woman, she’d understand why.

What would she even say if she called him?

“Hey, there, Jase, I know we just had a screaming match a few days ago and you’re grieving but — how are you?”

No. She couldn’t call.

Maybe a text.

A text was so impersonal. But they were broken up, so how personal should she be?

Still, they’d known each other most of their lives and he’d been her best friend for the past 12 years.

She huffed a breath out, blowing her hair out of her eyes.

She hadn’t even bothered to brush it tonight. Wearing a pair of Judi’s sweatpants and an old sweatshirt from her college, she didn’t feel like herself, but after she’d left the hospital that day she hadn’t been able to focus on anything and had completely forgot to do her laundry.

Her only bright spot had been Timmy Murray. He’d kept her laughing when she wanted to cry.

“Miss Ellie, my brother says if I pick my nose, I’ll hit my brain. Is that true?”

“No, hon’. You will not hit your brain. However, you might make it sore in there so you might want to back off for a while. Maybe you can try blowing your nose.”

“I did once but Billy said the stuff in the tissue was brain.”

“Oh gosh. Well, no, Billy’s just trying to scare you. It’s mucous, not brain.”

Ellie shook her head at the memory of the conversation. She had a feeling his parents must have a lot of moments when they had to stifle their laughs around him. If she ever could have children, she hoped they were as entertaining as Timmy.

She snatched up the phone and typed out a message, erased it, typed it again.

Hey, I heard about the fire. I just wanted to let you know I’m praying for you.

There. She did it. Now he wouldn’t feel like he had to talk to her or even respond to her.

Painless.

She pulled a pot out from under the stove and filled it with water. Time for a pasta night. Something simple, with little fuss and little muss.

Muss. What did that even mean? Why did people say that when the word was mess?

She shook her head and waited for the water to boil, glancing at her phone. No reply.

Muss. Muss. Now it was bothering her. She picked up the phone and conducted an internet search.

“Muss. A game in which players scramble for small objects thrown at the ground.”

Huh? She scanned further down the page.

“Muss. A state of disorder.”

Ah, yes. That sounded exactly like her life right now. Definitely a muss.

A half an hour later she was sitting on the couch, pasta in a bowl, watching an old movie, trying not to look at her phone. Maybe he didn’t care if she cared. Maybe this other woman was filling the void she’d left.

Speaking of not caring, she was trying not to care where Judi was — again. Out at another friend’s house, most likely. Or maybe a new friend. Maybe someone like that man on her social media account.

Had Judi really done all those things with him he’d listed in the caption?

A sick feeling settled in Ellie’s stomach, and she slid the bowl onto the coffee table. The idea of that man treating Judi like she was simply someone to bed for a night and move on from made her heart ache. It also chased away her appetite.

The ding of the phone startled her. She reached for it but laid her hand on it instead of picking it up, afraid to turn it over. What if he was yelling at her again?

Maybe his response would be something along the lines of, “Why are you even bothering to check on me? I know you don’t care.”

He probably thought she didn’t care about him. She certainly hadn’t acted like she did for half a year.

Slowly, she lifted it and swiped it open.

Jason: Hey, sorry for not answering right way. Contractor messed up the foundation on the goat enclosure. Trying to figure out how to fix it. Had dad on the other line. The feed mixer also broke down again. Had to call Walt because he’s the expert there.

She let out a breath, took a sip of water, and typed a response, mentally chiding herself for feeling nervous. This was the man she’d planned to spend the rest of her life with at one point. Why did it feel like they were in high school again, with her wondering if he’d ever ask her out?

Ellie: The fun never stops for us farmers does it?

Jason: Us farmers? Thought you were a city girl now. J/k I know you’ll always be a farm girl at heart.

Ellie: You take the girl off the farm, but you can’t take the love of farming out of the girl.

She paused her movie, stared for a few moments at Ginger Rogers frozen in place, mid-dance step. That’s how she felt, holding this phone, trying to figure out how to communicate with the other half of her heart. The other half who had been so angry at her a few days ago, he’d walked away, leaving her alone and crying.

The man who hadn’t apologized to her, but who had been through something terrible and who she cared about.

Jason: Thanks for checking on me. I’m okay. Cody said you were looking for me.

Ellie: I was. I stopped at the hospital to check on you, but I must have missed you.

Jason: Yeah, it was just a couple of quick stitches. I was out of there pretty fast.

Should she be open with him? Even though there were times he hadn’t been open with her. Yes, she should be. Closing themselves off to each other hadn’t helped in the past and it wouldn’t now.

Ellie: Actually, I need to be honest. I didn’t miss you at the hospital. I saw you there with some woman and I didn’t know if I should interrupt.

She chewed a fingernail and propped her feet on the coffee table, then remembered how she hated scuff marks on the coffee table. She scrubbed at the marks while she waited.

Two minutes passed. Three. Now four.

He wasn’t answering.

She rubbed her hands across her face and took a deep breath, blowing it out as she fell back against the couch, clutching the phone against her chest. She practically dropped the phone when it dinged ten minutes later.

Jason: Sorry dropped my phone in a cow stall. Had to wipe it off. Then had to punch Alex for laughing at me. Anyhow . . . Some woman?

Ellie: Blonde.

Jason: Oh, Brittany.

She read the text out loud. “Oh, Brittany?”

Jason: Hold on. Can I call?

Ellie: Sure.

Oh, Brittany. What did that mean? She stared at his name on the caller ID when the phone rang and took a deep breath. Time to find out who “Oh Brittany” was. She tapped the accept button.

“Hey.” Hearing his voice on the other end made her stomach tighten — in a good way. There was her heart, trying to override her brain again. “I didn’t want any more misunderstandings and we both know how easily that can happen in a text. Brittany works on the ambulance. She’s, well, . . . she’s Brittany. Flirts a lot. She was on a transport when she heard about the fire. She stopped by to check on me and yeah, she’s a little too hands on at times if you know what I mean.

Was he telling the truth? She wanted to believe he was. She laughed before she answered, trying to relieve the tension. “Yeah. I do know what you mean. She’s probably a lot like Judi.”

Jason winced through the phone. “Maybe not that bad. How’s she doing anyhow?”

“Wouldn’t know. I rarely see her.”

“Denny said you don’t even know why she’s here?”

“No. No idea.”

She thought about the photos of Judi and the man. Maybe her extended visit had something to do with him.

A period of silence followed before Jason spoke again.

“El, about Sunday  . . . I’m —”

The banging of the front door against the apartment wall coaxed a muffled scream from Ellie, and she stood, bracing herself for an intruder.

“Eeeeellllllleeeeeee. I’m hooooooooome.”

Ellie pressed her hand to her forehead, fear fading quickly into frustration.

“Ellie, you okay?” Jason’s voice was full of alarm. “Is that Judi?”

“Yeah. Um. I’d better go deal with her. She and I need to talk.” She held her hand over the mouthpiece of the phone. “And I think she’s drunk.”

“Sounds like I better offer up a few prayers for you too.”

“More than a few at this point.”

Her smile disappeared once she slid the end call button. She stared at her sister’s disheveled hair, untucked shirt, and dirt smudged knee-high boots.

“Oh, Ellie, you look upset.” Judi pushed her lower lip out, slamming the door behind her. “Was your Bible study canceled? Was your favorite worship song pulled out of rotation on Family Life?”

Judi must have thought her joke was super funny because she doubled over, hands on her knees, and let out a manical laugh that sent chills up Ellie’s spine.

“Enough is enough, Judi. What is going on with you? What are you even doing back in Spencer? And what is with all this going out every night and drinking?”

In an instant Judi’s laughter disappeared and she glared, her face squished in disgust. She stumbled toward the kitchen. “You’re not my mother, Ellie.”

“No, I’’m not our mother. Our mother would be heartbroken to see you this way.”

Judi opened the carton of orange juice and took a swing. “Our mother wouldn’t care because all she’s ever cared about is you, Ellie.”

Ellie shook her head, confused. “That’s not true, Judi. When did you start believing these lies you’ve been telling yourself? Mom and Dad love you. They’ve been worried about you up in the city but they wanted you to be where you were happy.” Judi scoffed as Ellie stepped toward the kitchen. “Are you?” Ellie asked. “Happy? Because you’ve seemed pretty miserable since you’ve been here.”

Judi attempted another drink of juice, but it poured from the edges, down her chin.

“I’m having fun,” she snarled. “Something you should try sometime.”

Ellie stepped quickly toward the counter and wrenched the carton from Judi’s hands. “Stop it. You’re drunk and making a mess. Go sleep it off.”

“Go sleep it off. Go sleep it off. Blah. Blah. Blah.” Judi mocked her sister, holding her hands up and making them talk like a puppet. “Don’t you ever stop trying to boss people around? Is that what happened with Jason? You bossed him around too much?”

Ellie grabbed her sister under the arm, propelling her around the island and down the hallway. “That’s enough, Judi. It’s none of your business what happened with Jason. You need to go lay down.”

Judi wrenched away, knocking Ellie backward against the wall. “I don’t need to do anything you tell me! Miss Perfect. That’s what you are.” She pointed an accusatory finger in Ellie’s direction. “Perfect daughter, perfect girlfriend, perfect Bible girl, S-s-Sunday school student, w-wh-whatever you call it. Who cares? You know? Who cares about you and you’re-you’re perfect life, Elizabeth Miss Perfect Pants. That’s been my whole life. Always trying to be like my perfect older sister. I never could be because I wasn’t as smart as her, as pretty as her, and the only thing boys ever wanted me for was to sleep with and leave me. That’s all I was ever good for.”

Ellie’s chest tightened, her rate increased. How long had her sister felt this way? That she wasn’t enough? That she was inferior?

“Judi, I’m not perfect. You never had to try to measure up to me. Mom and Dad —”

“Mom and Dad always talked about how good you were. How sweet you were. How quiet and demure you were. D-d-mmuuure. Yes, even stupid Judi knows big words.”

Emotion clutched at Ellie’s throat. The anger she’d been battling for weeks fell away, replaced by sorrow. How had she not realized how much Judi was hurting?

She’d let her own problems overshadow everything else, distract her from seeing that Judi’s biting sarcasm and attempts to start fights with her were because she was feeling rejected, maybe even abandoned.

“Judi, I’m sorry you felt that way. I never knew. Why didn’t you —”

“What? Say something? Yeah, right. You would have said none of it was true and I was listening to lies from the devil. The Devil. You blame everything on him instead of taking some of the blame yourself.” She shook her head, waving her hand back and forth in the air. “No. No. I don’t want to talk about any of this right now.” She pushed past Ellie, almost tripping. “Don’t try to apologize. I’m not going to bother you anymore. I’m going out with Brad.”

“Judi, you’re drunk. You can’t drive. How did you even get here?”

“Brad drove me here. He’s waiting for me outside. He’s sober. Not that it’s any of your business. I came in to change my outfit.”

Judi staggered into the room she was staying in and slammed the door.

Ellie raked her hand through her hair and noticed it was trembling. What if Judi was lying about Brad? She’d seen him that night at the club and she’d driven them home then, too. There was a very good chance either he or Judi were lying about how much he’d already had to drink.

Judi swung the door open and breezed past her wearing a too-tight black mini-skirt and a low cut red tank top. Knee-high boots completed the outfit.

Ellie followed her into the living room. “I’ll drive you and Brad.”

Judi swung around and stuck her tongue out like a toddler. “No.” She spoke like a toddler too, grating on Ellie’s nerves. “We don’t want you. You’re a total downer and a prude.”

Ellie took another deep breath and tried to calm the anger boiling inside her. Judi was lost and hurting. She needed compassion, not scolding. For now, anyhow.

She did her best to speak calmly and confidently, even though she didn’t feel either of those attributes at the moment. “Judi, I’ll be the designated driver, okay?” She snatched her purse off the chair. “Where are you two going? I’m sure it will be fun. I could use a night out too.”

Judi folded her arms across her chest, cocking one leg to the side, her eyes narrowing, “Oh you could, could you? Well, we’re going The Rusty Nail in Brickwood. They’re having a grand reopening. New owners. There will be alcohol. And dancing. And men. All the things you don’t like.”

Ellie tightened her grip on her purse and brushed past Judi to grab her keys off the keyholder by the door. “Come on. I’ll talk to Brad about taking my car. I’m sure he’ll agree when he knows it means he can drink as much as he wants.”

Judi smirked. “Okay, then. Fine. You can be our chauffeur. I don’t have any problem with sitting in the back with Brad.”

Ellie tightened her jaw and forced the edges of her mouth upward as she opened the front door. She tried not to think about what the pair could get up to in the backseat during the 40-minute drive to The Rusty Nail.