Fiction Friday: The Secrets We Hold

I don’t have a new series to start for Fiction Friday, but I did write a very short beginning to the book in the series that will be about Liz and her journey dealing with an unexpected life change.

I won’t be sharing it here yet. I probably won’t start a new serial fiction story until the new year.

The working title for Liz’s story is The Secrets We Hold.



Guilt twisted in the center of Liz Cranmer’s chest. She’d lied to her best friend.

Not exactly lied.

Simply left some details unspoken.

Still, Molly had left the hospital thinking she knew everything about why Liz had swallowed half a bottle of painkillers.  

There was so much Molly didn’t know, so much Liz didn’t want her to know.

Part of Liz wished panic hadn’t led her to call for an ambulance.

Liz had let Gabe charm her again, the alcohol letting her believe him when he said he was sorry for how he’d hurt her.

“It was my fault,” she’d told Molly.

And it was. Everything that had happened that night and everything she was facing now was her fault. She’d screwed up. Again. Like she always did.

And now her life would never be the same.

Fiction Friday: The Farmer’s Daughter Chapter 36

We are winding down to the end of The Farmer’s Daughter. I’ve been sharing chapters here since April and I’m in the middle of edits, revisions, rewrites and all that jazz. I finished the book last week, but I am still reworking chapters and scenes and trying to decide what I need to add and remove.

As always, this is a work in progress and there could be typos, plot holes, etc. Please feel free to tell me about them in the comment section or by using the contact form. This is a chapter I will definitely be working on because I didn’t get the chance to read and edit again like I normally try to do before I post it.

You can catch up with the rest of the story HERE or at the link at the top of the page. If you are new here, you can read an excerpt of my novel A New Beginning here or an excerpt of Rekindle here.




Chapter 36

Annie ran her fingertips along the veins on the back of Robert’s hand. Up and down. Back down to his fingertips, sliding her hand under his and intertwining her fingers with his.

Lifting his hand, she pressed the back of it against her cheek, closed her eyes, and remembered their wedding night and so many nights afterwards when his hands had gently caressed her skin. She thought of the many times his hands had cradled her face, stroked her hair when she cried, clasped her hands as she prayed.

“I don’t know how to help her, Robert,” she’d whispered one night two weeks ago as they laid in bed. “She’s restless. I think she wants to see if there is a life for her off the farm, but this is all she’s ever known. Part of me wants to shove her out the door and say ‘go find what’s out there for you’ and part of me wants to hold on to her.”

He’d kissed her forehead and nodded. “I know. I feel the same way. I even hinted to her that it’s okay to leave if she wants to. I can’t imagine waking up and not seeing her at the breakfast table, but maybe she does need to explore a life away from here.”

Annie had sighed and intertwined her fingers with his, the same way she was now. “And then there is Jason and Ellie . . .”

Robert had laughed softly. “Annie, you can’t stay up all night worrying about our adult children. We can’t fix everything for them. They have to do some of it themselves.”

Annie had sighed and closed her eyes against the moonlight spilling in from the bedroom window. “I know,” she whispered. “I know. But what do you think happened between them that they’re not talking?”

Robert rubbed her arm gently and kissed her forehead one more time. “Go to bed, Annie.”

She wondered if these hands, laying here now, so still, would ever do those things again, touch her, comfort her. What would she do without him if he didn’t pull out of this? Never before had she so clearly understood the pain her mother-in-law had faced a year ago as she held her husband’s hand, begging God not to take him home.

“Not yet,” Franny had said, tears in her eyes. “Not yet, Lord.”

And now Annie was saying the same, praying for a man in the prime of his life, who had so many years ahead of him, who meant the world to her.

“Not yet, God, please. Not yet.”

She laid her head against Robert’s hand clutched in hers and closed her eyes, the tears falling freely. Her head jerked up fast seconds later at the garbled sound of choking.

At the sight of Robert’s body convulsing, his muscles tightening like a rope being yanked hard upwards, she cried out and stood from the bed, letting go of his hand. His body stiffened, then convulsed again.

“Oh God. No.”

 Two hands gripped her shoulders, pulled her back away from the bed, let her go. A nurse stepped around her swiftly; the nurse who a few moments ago had been on the other side of the room filling out paperwork. The young woman’s hand moved expertly, pushed a button then grabbed Robert by both arms, holding him down against the bed.

In minutes the room became a blur of blue and green, nurses and doctors, pushing past her, reaching, mashing buttons, leaning over her husband, calling out words and terms she didn’t understand.

She clutched her shirt at her chest, backed against the wall and stared in horror at it all. Wild beeps blistered her ears then a long beep that bore its way into her mind.

“Clear!”

Her heart raced at the word, bile rose in her throat, cold shivered through her.

“Oh God,” she whispered. She slammed her back against the wall, sliding down it, darkness drifting across her vision, her world falling apart around her.

“Oh God. God help him.”

***

They were in Alex’s truck for the drive to the hospital this time and Molly was looking at  a stack of country music CDs and a container of toothpicks in the console.  She flipped through the CDs and pulled out George Straight.

“Mind if I put this one in?”

He leaned back in the seat, draped one arm over the steering wheel, the other over the back of the seat as he settled into the groove of the 65 mph speed limit. “Not at all.”

It had been a month since Robert had fallen into the coma, a little less since Alex’s mom had visited. Molly hadn’t asked about their conversations and Alex hadn’t offered.

They had both spent their time working on the farm, at the country store, and discussing Walt and Hannah’s ideas with Jason when he’d come home from the hospital after spending almost a week staying at a nearby hospital with Annie. Jason had stayed home this time, promising Molly he would find time to work things out with Ellie, straighten out whatever he had broken.

Molly had made a promise of her own to Liz. When Robert came home, Molly would move into an apartment with Liz, to offer support and be there when the baby was born.

“If Dad comes home —” Molly had started.

“Not “if”, Molly,” Liz had said. “When.”

“Yes,” Molly said. “When.”

They were half an hour from the hospital now.

A smile tugged at the corner of Alex’s mouth as George’s smooth tone drifted from the speakers.

“What’s that smile for?”                                

He shook his head. “Just thinking about how this song makes me think of you.”

Warmth rushed through the center of her chest. “Really?”

He kept his eyes on the road, but he was smiling. “Sure. A goodbye kiss is all I need from you.” He glanced at her. “And a hello one for that matter.”

She looked out the front windshield, a shy smile crossing her face, unsure how to take him sharing with her that certain songs made him think of her.

“Did you listen to country before you came here?”

He shook his head, smiling. “No. Never. I used to go in my room and blast Metallica, Nine Inch Nails, or anything else that was loud and could block out my parents and later my thoughts.”

Molly stretched her legs out in front of her and settled back against the seat, enjoying learning more about him, the sound of his voice. “What made you start listening to country?”

“If you remember, I had to listen to it.” He grinned. “It’s all you guys every played in the barn. Eventually, though, it grew on me. The lyrics spoke to me about things I’d always wanted but never had and started wondering if I could have.”

Molly laughed. “Women in Daisy Dukes in the back of a pick-up with a keg of beer?”

Alex tipped his head back and laughed. “No. I’d had some of that before.” Red spread across his cheeks and he cleared his throat. “All that wasn’t what I really wanted or needed. It was the other kind of country songs that caught my attention. The ones about the land, small towns, good people, and,” he reached over and took her hand in his, brought it to his mouth and kissed the back of it. “A good woman.”

Molly’s heartrate increased, watching him as he watched the road, starting to believe that he truly meant what he was saying, which was both thrilling and terrifying.

Silence settled over them for a few moments, the sound of the tires on the highway the only sound. 

He broke the silence first. “You know something else?” He rubbed the top her hand with his thumb. “Your dad has been more of a father to me than my dad ever was.”

He looked in the side mirror, pulled into the other lane. His smile faded and a distant expression crossed his face. “When mom was here, she told me my dad has cancer.”

Molly’s eyebrow furrowed in concern, even though he didn’t exactly seem upset. His tone was neutral, more matter-of-fact than anything else.

“You okay?”

 “Oddly, yeah.” He pulled into the other lane, both hands on the wheel. “I mean I should be sad or worried, right? But I don’t feel anything. I’m not worried about him or sad or angry or . . .” He paused and looked at her again, frowning briefly, shrugging. “Well, anything. It’s normal for there to be some kind of drama with my dad. This is just another time I’m supposed to care, but don’t.”

Molly had never not cared about her dad, but in Alex’s case she could understand why he found it hard to care for the man who had essentially abandoned his wife and children. Still, finding out his father had cancer had to have been a shock.

 “I know.” Alex shook his head. “It’s not normal not to care when you find out your dad has cancer. I probably need some kind of therapy.”

Molly laid her hand against his upper arm. “Therapy may be in order someday, yes, but a brain can only process so much and you’ve had a lot happen in a short time. Cut yourself some slack.”

Looking up at the exit sign for the hospital, Alex blew out a breath. “Yeah. I’ll try. One good thing is that they caught it early from what Sam said. The doctors are optimistic that he’ll beat it.”

Molly moved closer as he pulled into a parking space, kissing his cheek as he pushed the truck into park. “I’ll be here if you need me, okay?”

He smiled and kissed her briefly on the mouth. “I know. Thank you.” He tilted his head toward the door. “Come on. Enough about my dad. Let’s head in and check on yours.”

Molly walked into the hospital, hopeful her mom would tell her good news but when she saw her mom sitting on the floor in the hallway, her legs hugged to her chest, her forehead on her knees, she knew that wasn’t going to happen.

Fiction Friday: The Farmer’s daughter chapter 31

I’m definitely in need of distractions these days and writing and reading is helping some of that. What are you all doing to distract yourself from stress? Let me know in the comments.

Want to catch up on The Farmer’s Daughter? Click HERE or find the link at the top of the page. Also, let me know about typos or your ideas for what you think should happen next in the comments.

***

Chapter 31

In the ambulance Robert had been too weak to talk, but Annie had held his hand and the steady beat of his heartbeat against her palm was reassuring for the duration of the drive to the hospital.

“Where is the blood coming from?” she’d asked Randy Dunham, one of the EMTs and a former classmate of Jason’s.

“Puncture wound to his back,” Randy said. “They’ll be able to see how bad it is when we get to the hospital. We stopped the bleeding as best as we can for now.”

Annie had thanked him, then turned her attention back to Robert, smoothing his hair back off his forehead, praying for him to pull through somehow. The idea of spending the rest of her life without him by her side terrified her.

“Mrs. Tanner?”

Annie was pulled from her thoughts by the voice of the doctor. She stood quickly, her knees weak. She thought she might not be able to stay upright at first. The room shifted slightly around her and she closed her eyes briefly.

“Yes?”

The doctor’s expression was compassionate and that terrified her. She braced her heart for the worst. As if sensing her unsteadiness, he sat on a small couch and patted the seat for her to sit next to him.

“Your husband is stable right now.” The doctor’s voice was soft. “He has a broken leg, a cracked pelvis, a puncture wound to his back that struck his lung and collapsed it. He’s going to need surgery and that leg is going to need more than what we can offer here, so we’re going to life-flight him to Mercy Hospital. Mercy has one of the best orthopedic surgeons in the country working there right now.”

Annie nodded. The doctor kept his eyes focused on her. She was impressed by the compassionate, measured way he spoke to her. She was also surprised by how young he looked, and she realized the older she got the younger doctors had started to look to her

“Unfortunately, he is also bleeding internally.” Annie drew in a sharp breath. “We need to try to find the source of that before we fly him. He’ll have exploratory surgery here tonight to find the bleeding and stop it, and then, if he’s stabilized, we’ll fly him to Mercy first thing in the morning.”

Jason stepped into the waiting room with two cups of coffee. His gaze moved between the doctor and his mom and he recognized the gravity of it all before either of them spoke a word. The doctor looked at Jason, nodded, and then turned his attention back to Annie

“Mrs. Tanner, I don’t want to ask this, but we need to know if Mr. Tanner has a DNR on file, in case we would need it.”

“A DNR?”

Jason sat the coffee cups on the little table next to his mom’s chair. He cleared his throat. “A DNR is a Do Not Resuscitate Order, Mom.”

Tears filled Annie’s eyes, she nodded, and her voice trembled when she spoke. “Oh. I don’t kn— I mean. No. He’s never filled one of those out.”

She clutched the arm of the chair, as if to steady her swirling thoughts.

The doctor nodded and covered her hand with his. “Let’s hope we won’t need it, okay? I don’t expect we will, but I needed to ask.”

Tears spilled down Annie’s cheeks. “Can I see him?”

The doctor squeezed her hand as Jason sat on the chair next to her and laid his hand on her back.

“You can,” the doctor said. “I just want you to be prepared. He’s in rough shape. We’re prepping him for surgery, and he’s already being sedated to help with the pain.”

Annie took a deep breath and let it out again slowly. “I understand.”

And she did understand, but when she stood next to Robert and saw how pale he was, and the tubes and IVs hooked up to him, she thought her legs might give way. She wasn’t about to let herself collapse, though. Not when her husband needed her. Jason’s hand on her elbow strengthened her resolve to stay strong. She swallowed the tears and took Robert’s hand.

“You know, Robert, if you wanted a vacation, all you needed to do was ask.”

His eyes were barely open, but he managed a faint smile.

“Cows,” he whispered. “Milking.”

Annie smoothed his hair back from his forehead. “Walt and Hannah are taking care of the farm. You don’t need to worry about that.”

Robert swallowed hard and coughed. His voice faded to a whisper. “Annie, you’ve been the best part of my life. You and our kids. I need you to know that.”

Annie kissed his forehead. “Just rest. We’ll be here when you get out of surgery.”

“Alex and Jason, they’ll  . . . take care of you . . .”

“Robert Charles, don’t you talk that way. You’re going to be fine.”

“But, if —”

Her voice broke as she slid her hand behind his head and clutched his hair, still damp with blood. “God can’t have you yet. Do you understand me? He can’t.”

A faint smile tugged at Robert’s mouth as his eyelids closed. “That’s up  . . . to God.”

Annie waited until Robert’s bed had been wheeled out of the room, turned, and let Jason hold her against her as the tears fell. She pulled away a few moments later, stared at her hand stained with Robert’s blood and staggered toward the bathroom across the hall. Jason followed close behind, steadying her with a hand under her elbow again as she scrubbed the blood from her skin, sobs shaking her shoulders.

“You can’t have him, yet, God,” she choked out between sobs. “Not yet.”

***

Alex was awake but only barely when Molly found him in the ER exam room. His eyes were glassy, and she wasn’t sure if that was from the blood loss or from whatever fluid was being pumped from the IV bag into his arm. His shirt had already been cut away and the wound was covered with blood-stained bandages loosely stuck in place. The bed was slightly reclined.

The nurse had asked her if she was family when she’d first arrived, and when she’d said he didn’t have any family who lived local, the nurse had nodded in understanding and motioned her back.

“The doctor has examined him, stopped the bleeding, and started an IV with painkillers and an antibiotic,” the nurse told her. “Once that kicks in we’ll start cleaning out the wound and stitching him up.” She leaned toward Molly. “Just a heads up, the meds can make some people a little loopy so don’t take anything he says too seriously.”

He flashed her a weak smile as she reached the side of his bed.

“They gave me the good stuff. Said I would need it when they start cleaning this out.”

A nurse loaded supplies onto a tray on the other side of the bed.

Molly decided their usual barn banter style of talking would keep her from feeling too many emotions. “You look like crap.”

A small smile pulled at the corner of his mouth. “I feel like crap.”

“You won’t be feeling much of anything when that painkiller kicks in,” the doctor said as he walked into the room. He held his hand out to Molly and she shook it. “Doctor Murphy. Feel free to keep talking. I’ve got some stuff to get ready over here so we can start fixing this guy up.”

He started opening drawers and cabinets, pulling out gauze, medical tape, and antibiotic cream.

Alex fought to keep his eyes open. “Robert. . . how is he?”

Molly shook her head. “I don’t know yet. Jason went to find Mom and I came to find you.”

“Go,” he whispered. “Be with your dad.”

Molly sighed. “I can’t leave you here alone with that hole in your side, you big loser. I’m the only family you’ve got around here.”

Alex laughed softly then winced. “Don’t make me laugh.”

She tried not to look too closely at the bandage, red seeping through it. “What happened anyhow?”

“I tried to get the tractor off your dad. He told me not to. Didn’t listen. The board broke.”

“Hmmm, yes. I’ve also learned my lesson the hard way when I don’t listen to my dad.”

Alex winced again, trying to push himself up on the bed.

“Molly —”

Molly pressed her hands against Alex’s shoulders. “Um, no. Lay back.”

He fell back against the bed, and exhaled a frustrated sigh, his eyelids heavy.

“We need to talk.”

“We’ll talk later. After you’re fixed up.”

He grabbed her wrist gently. “I didn’t sleep with her, Molly.”

The nurse paused in her journey out of the room and looked back over her shoulder with wide eyes. Molly wished the nurse would keep walking and Alex would stop talking.

“Rest Alex.”

She glanced at the nurse, shooting her a glare. The nurse nodded apologetically and stepped out of the room.

“I didn’t sleep with her,” he repeated softly, so softly she barely heard him. His eyes were closing again.

She squeezed his hand. “I know. We’ll talk more when you’re a little more with it. Okay?”

He nodded weakly. “I’m really glad I never did drugs. Getting drunk was bad enough. This stuff is seriously messing with my mind.”

She laughed softly and shook her head. His eyes drifted closed and she breathed a sigh of relief, glad the painkiller had finally kicked in. Her hand was still holding his and his fingers had tightened around it. She smiled and rubbed the top of his hand with her other hand.

There was something so different about seeing him this way, peaceful and vulnerable versus his joking and teasing in the barn. Sitting with him now reminded him more of that day at the overlook when he kissed her, how his obnoxious façade had fallen, and she had seen a seriousness and sincerity in him she’d never seen before.

Suddenly he mumbled something, and she jumped slightly. She leaned closer to try to understand him, her cheek grazing his as she tilted her head.

His breath was warm against her ear, his lips grazing it, as he spoke. “Molly, I’m scared.”

“To get stitches?”

He tried to shake his head. “No. Of you.”

She smiled, amused at how out of it he obviously was.

“I’m a very intimidating person, I know. I think the painkiller is sending you for a loop.”

He tried to open his eyes, but he was clearly losing the battle. They fluttered closed again. “I’ve never seen my future as clearly as I do when I’m with you.”

“Okay, bud. You really need to —”

“I see babies.”

She pulled her head back and looked at him, then laughed, wondering where this conversation was going. “Did you mean, ‘I see dead people?’”

If he’d been more alert, she knew he would have laughed at her reference to a movie they’d watched together a couple of years ago with Jason and Ellie. They joked about it often in the barn, making the line a running joke between them. Instead of laughing, he grew quiet and she thought he was asleep.

“I’m going to marry you someday, Molly Tanner,” he whispered a few seconds later, his eyes still closed. She leaned down again. “I know it. I’ve known if for a long time, even before I kissed you that day on the overlook. I didn’t want to admit it because it scares me. I never thought I’d get married.”

He took a deep breath, and she could tell he was fighting to keep his eyes open again. She wanted to make another joke, but the tone of his voice was serious. Too serious. She swallowed hard as he spoke again, his lips grazing her skin just below her ear.

“When I kissed you that night in the barn, I saw a baby on your hip and one hugging your leg and you were standing on the porch of Ned and Franny’s house. There was a dog in the yard and cats in the barn. I don’t like cats, but they were there. Do you like cats?”

He didn’t wait for her to answer. His voice was starting to slur. “My truck was there, and your mom and dad were in the backyard. Your mom was watching your dad push a kid on a tire swing. The fields were full of corn and Jason was riding a tractor in the distance. And Ellie was there too . . . She was . . . standing in the front yard with an apple pie and . . .” his eyes closed. “A big belly.”

When he didn’t speak again, she let out the breath she realized she’d been holding. His skin was warm against her lips as she kissed his forehead.

She looked up and saw the same nurse who had been eavesdropping earlier watching her with wide eyes. She guessed the nurse to be a few years younger than her. Her name tag read Mackenzie.

“Oh my gosh. That was, seriously, so romantic.” Mackenzie gushed like the schoolgirl she probably was. “I would just die to have a man say something like that to me.”

Molly scoffed even though nervous butterflies were buzzing in her stomach. “He was under the influence of drugs. I doubt he’ll remember any of this later.”

Dr. Murphy pulled a rubber glove on and smirked. “Honestly, I find a lot of people speak the truth when they’re under sedation.”

“Oh really?” Molly’s tone was doubtful.

“Sure. Didn’t you ever hear about spies being drugged so the government can find out the truth? Like a truth serum.”

“Yes, but he’s on painkillers, not a truth serum.”

Dr. Murphy shrugged. “If you say so.”

Molly looked at Alex, then back at the doctor. “Does anyone remember what they said when they wake up?”

The doctor smiled. “Sometimes.” He pulled antiseptic from the drawer under the tray next to the bed to clean the wound. “Even if he doesn’t, he seems to be a man who knows what he wants. Or at least his subconscious knows.”

He nodded toward the curtain. “Unless you’ve got a strong stomach, you might want to sit in that chair over there while I do this.”

Molly lifted a shoulder in a quick shrug. “I’m a farm girl. I can handle it.”

But when the bandages came off and she saw the deep gash in Alex’s side, she couldn’t handle it.

She took three steps back and steadied herself against the wall, sliding her hand along it slowly until she found the chair. She tipped her head back, closed her eyes and willed the room to stop spinning. Watching someone she loved being sewn back together was a lot different than watching the vet sew the belly of a mama pig closed after they’d delivered a litter of over-sized piglets.

If she couldn’t handle seeing Alex injured without becoming woozy, she knew she’d be a mess when she saw her dad.

Fiction Friday: The Farmer’s Daughter Chapter 28

I’m pushing through The Farmer’s Daughter, hoping to finish the first draft so I can gut it later. Ha. Seriously, I like the story, there are just some parts I want to change a bit. Sharing the chapters of my book on my blog helps motivate me to complete the books, knowing I can always change things later. If I had a bigger following than I do, I probably wouldn’t share a semi-first draft of my novels on my blog, but I like my small “following” and how you’re all supportive and give me ideas for future chapters, and even future books.

A reminder to my blog readers who read Quarantined, it is out on Kindle now. For this week only I am offering it for $.99 on Kindle to allow my blog readers time to download it at the lowest price. If you don’t have a Kindle but would like a copy, let me know, and we’ll figure out a format that works for you. If you miss the deal, don’t worry, the book will only be $1.99 in the Kindle store since it is less than 100 pages.

To catch up on the rest of The Farmer’s Daughter, find the link at the top of the page or click HERE. Or you can wait until February when I release it in Kindle on 2.21.21


Chapter 28

Alex stretched his legs in front of him under the table at Lenny’s Diner, leaned back in the chair and groaned softly.

Matt chuckled. “Doing okay over there, farm boy?”

Alex rubbed his shoulder. “I always forget how much work it is to get the farm ready for winter. My muscles have been screaming at me.”

Their friend Troy, sitting across from Alex, winked at him. “Sounds like you need a night out.”

Alex shrugged. “Nah. I’m good. I just need a hot shower and a good night of sleep.”

Matt was still in his police uniform and Alex couldn’t help but notice the appreciative glances cast in the officer’s direction from many of the women in the diner. As usual, Matt was oblivious. He had to return to work after this impromptu lunch Alex had invited him to.

Troy worked for the Tanner’s, helping with the additional farmland the company had added a few years ago and he’d rode to town with Alex to pick up a part for one of the tractors at the local hardware store.

“We haven’t seen you at the bars lately, Alex,” Troy said as the waitress brought the drinks. “What’s up with you?”

I’m growing up, Alex wanted to say.

“Just been enjoying some solitude,” he said instead, deciding not to add that he was actually enjoying that solitude with Molly when they could find time alone.

He found it uncanny that at the same moment he thought of Molly she appeared out front of the restaurant, talking to the librarian. What was the librarian’s name again? He thought Molly had said her name was Ginny. They’d been attending art classes together.

He started to smile as an idea struck him; a way to make his friends think he hadn’t lost his way with women, when he knew he had and didn’t mind at all.

“What do you boys think about Jason’s sister? She’s good looking, right?”

Matt raised an eyebrow. “Um. Yeah. She is, but you better not be noticing.”

Alex laughed, looking out the window at Molly. “Why?”

“Because Jason will kick your butt for checking out his little sister,” Matt answered with a tone that signaled he thought Alex had lost his mind.

Troy shrugged. “I don’t know, she’s a little too big for me. Nice girl though.”

Alex took a sip of his soda, still watching Molly talking with the librarian, and then smirked.

“She’s just right for me. I like a girl with some meat on her bones.” He winked at his friends. “More for me to hold on to.”

Matt rolled his eyes. “Dude. You’re so going to end up with a bloody nose if Jason ever hears you talking like this.”

Troy laughed and punched Alex in the arm.

“Yeah, seriously, Stone you better watch it. Jason will kick your butt to next week if he hears you talking like that about her.”

Alex looked at Troy and Matt and rubbed his thumb and index finger along his unshaven chin. “I bet I can get her to go out with me”

Matt shook his head. “You’re too old for her. She doesn’t want to go out with an old man like you.”

Alex’s grin widened. “Hey, she’s only a few years younger than me. I bet you she will.” He stood up from the table. “I’ll be right back.”

“Dude! Don’t make an idiot out of yourself!” Troy called after him.

“More than you already are anyhow,” Matt added with a laugh.

Alex stepped into the sunlight on the sidewalk as Ginny climbed into her car.

“Thanks for letting an old lady share with you, Molly,” she said.

Molly laughed softly. “I’m so grateful you did and stop calling yourself old.”

When Ginny drove away Alex walked toward Molly, knowing he was in full view of Matt and Troy.

“Hey, beautiful,” he said softly, stepping behind her. “What was that all about?”

Molly turned and the smile she flashed him made his heart pound. He hadn’t expected his body to react so viscerally to being so close to her, not now, after he’d already told her how he felt, and she’d said she felt the same.

“Hey, yourself. You know Ginny, don’t you? She’s the librarian down at the Green Leaf Library. We were just chatting about – life, I guess you’d say.” She tipped her head slightly, still smiling “What are you doing in town?”

He jerked his head toward the diner front window. “Just having some lunch with the guys.”

Molly glanced throw the window and saw Troy and Matt watching and smiling, which made her wary.

“Uh huh. What are you boys up to?”

“I told them I was going to ask you out.” He stepped closer and laid a hand against her waist. “Want to help me have some fun with them?”

Molly’s cheeks flushed warm. She twisted her finger in her hair, as Alex stepped closer to her. He slid his other arm around her waist and pulled her closer.

“Out here? On the street? Where everyone can see?”

He moved his head closer to hers. “I doubt anyone will even notice the farm hand kissing the farmer’s daughter on a public street.”

Molly glanced around her at the cars and trucks on Main Street, people walking with their heads down, looking at their phones. She knew he was right. None of those people cared about two people they didn’t know sneaking a kiss on the sidewalk. She looked back at Alex, smiling as he leaned closer and caught her mouth with his.

She closed her eyes and the kiss lingered before he slowly pulled away.

“See you later,” he said softly, taking her hand in his.

Molly laughed softly, shaking her head. “I have no idea what is going on but, yes, I’ll see you later.”

Before she walked away, he pulled her back toward him and kissed her briefly again, then looped his thumbs through his belt loops and watched her walk to her truck across the street.

Matt and Troy were shaking their heads and laughing as he walked back to the table a few moments later.

Matt smirked, cocking an eyebrow as he sipped his soda.  “You’re already seeing her, aren’t you?”

Alex sat down, looking smug. “Maybe.”

“And Jason doesn’t know?” Troy asked.

“Not yet but her dad does,” Alex said. “He caught us a couple weeks ago. I figure he’s told Annie by now too.”

Both of Matt’s eyebrows were up now. “Caught you? Dude! Caught you doing what?!”

Alex raised his hands and shook his head. “Kissing. He caught us kissing in the barn. That’s all.”

“I don’t think Jason is going to like it,” Troy said shaking his head.

“Me neither,” Matt agreed. “He knows you too well.”

Alex shrugged. “He’ll be fine. I’m not who I used to be. He knows that.” He looked at the two men who were watching him with wide, unblinking eyes. “I’m changing. For Molly. She’s worth it.”

Matt grinned as he set his drink down on the table and looked over Alex’s shoulder. “Well, I hope you’re right about Jase, because here he comes now and he does not look happy.”

Alex turned in his seat to see Jason walking through the backdoor of the diner. He raised his hand to wave but paused mid-wave as he noticed Jason wasn’t actually walking. He was storming across the diner like a freight train. Combined with the fact he was as big as a freight train, Alex had a feeling this wasn’t going to end well.

He stood slowly. “Hey, Jase, you okay?”

“Am I okay?” Red flushed up into Jason’s face from his gigantic neck. “Why don’t you tell me what you’ve been doing behind my back with my little sister?”

Matt and Troy looked at each other.

Troy winced.

Matt grimaced.

“This is going to be better than the game,” Troy whispered nodding at the television screen behind the counter.

Matt nodded, his eyes fixated on the scene before him.

Alex’s eyebrows furrowed. “What do you mean what I’ve been doing with Molly?”

Jason towered over Alex, nostrils flared. “You know what I mean, Alex. Don’t play games. I was over at the gym just now and saw you kissing Molly.” He took another step toward Alex. “What are you doing messing around with my sister?”

Alex didn’t take his eyes off Jason’s, anger rising in him at the tone of Jason’s voice. “I’m not messing around with her, Jason. I’m in love with her.”

Troy raised his eyebrows at Matt and mouthed the words, “In love? Whoa!”

“She’s my baby sister,” Jason snapped. “You’re too old for her.”

Alex looked at Jason with an amused expression. “She’s a grown woman, bud, and I’m only four years older than her not ten or twenty.” He laughed and propped his hands on his hips. “It’s not exactly like I’m robbing the cradle.”

Jason’s jaw was so tight Alex expected his teeth to shatter at any moment. “She doesn’t need someone like you messing her head all up,” he hissed, practically nose to nose with Alex now.

“Someone like me?” Alex’s heart pounded in his ears. He wasn’t amused anymore. He folded his arms across his chest.  “What’s that supposed to mean? We hang out every night and you trust me to help run your family’s business but now I’m what? A piece of garbage? I’ve never done anything to hurt you or your family. Why would I start now? My past is in the past. You know that.”

Jason tipped his face toward the floor, opening and closing his hands, snorting through his nose like an angry bull before he moved his eyes back to Alex’s again. “This is my sister, Alex.” He riser his eyes again, pointing aggressively at his own chest. My sister. I don’t want you playing your games with my sister.”

Red spread from Alex’s cheeks to his ears. “You need to calm down, Jason. I’m not playing games with Molly. I already talked to your dad about this after he caught us in the barn the other night and he — ”

Jason grabbed Alex by the front of his shirt and yanked him forward, almost off his feet.

 More people had started watching. Matt and Troy stood up and stepped back from the table. This was indeed better than the game, but it was also getting dangerous. Matt wasn’t sure if he was going to be needed professionally or not.

“He caught you? Caught you doing what?” Jason growled at Alex.

Alex put his hands on Jason’s large fists, which were curled way too close to his throat, and tried to pull them away.

“He caught us kissing,” Alex growled. “That’s all I’ve done with Molly, Jason. That and fall in love with her.”

Jason let go of Alex’s shirt and shoved him back hard, sending him skidding across the hardwood floor on his back.  Alex winced and looked up to see Jason breathing hard, standing with his arms at his sides like a WWE wrestler about to grab his opponent and slam his head into the ground.

Even he looked surprised he’d pushed Alex. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I need some time to think,” he said softly before turning and walking toward the back door.

Pushing himself off the floor, Alex looked at everyone watching him, most of them smiling with amusement.

“Go watch your race,” he told them, smiling. “Nothing to see here.”

Matt patted him on the back as he sat down at the table.

“Well,” Matt said. “That went much better than I thought it was going to. You still have all your teeth.”

Troy nodded in agreement. “Yeah and your jaw isn’t broken. Yet. So, there’s that.”

 “Yet. Yeah.” Alex rubbed his jawline and laughed softly.  “Maybe I’ll sleep in my truck tonight instead of going home.”

The more Alex thought about it, though, the more Jason’s reaction ticked him off and by the time he’d finished his lunch and headed back to the farm with Troy his heart was racing in anticipation of the conversation he knew he was going to have to have with Jason.

He dropped Troy off back at the farm and head back to the house to try to cool down before he encountered Jason again.

When he saw Jason’s truck in the driveway he parked, but hesitated going in. He knew his blood was boiling and a conversation with his friend probably wouldn’t end well if he talked to him now. Then again, if he let the anger fester the conversation would be even worse.

He opened the front door and headed straight for Jason who was in the kitchen making a sandwich, knowing he might regret it in a few moments.

“What was that all about earlier?”

Jason kept making the sandwich, ignoring him. Alex knew he heard him though. Red was spreading up his neck to his face and he was working the muscles in his jaw as he clenched and unclenched it.

After a few moments he turned to face Alex, leaning back against the counter and crossing one leg over the other, and pressing his palm against the counter. “So, tell me, Alex, are you making Molly another one of your conquests?”

“No, Jason, I’m not. I don’t want to be like that anymore. You know that. I told you that after that night with that girl from the bar.”

“Jessie.”

“Yeah. Jessie.”

“She has a name, Alex. Her name is Jessie. She’s not just that girl from the bar and Molly isn’t just that girl in the barn. Get it? She’s my sister. She’s a real person with real feelings and I don’t want you toying with her and wandering off when something better comes along.”

Alex seethed with anger. “That’s not what this is about, Jason. Don’t you get it? Molly isn’t just some one-night stand for me. She’s different.”

Jason folded his arms across his chest and tipped his head slightly to one side. “Some one-night stand? What have you been doing with my little sister, Alex?”

“Jason, I already told you – nothing. I mean, something but not that. I’ve only kissed her, I swear to you. I wouldn’t do that. I don’t see Molly that way. Well, I mean, I see her that way but I —”

Jason took a step forward, unfolding his arms. “You better get your tongue untied, Alex and tell me what you mean.”

Alex slid his hands in the front pockets of his jeans. “I want something different with Molly. I feel something deeper for Molly. Deeper than a physical connection. I love her personality and talking to her and just being with her, as much as I like,” Alex dropped his gaze from Jason’s and kicked at the kitchen floor with the tip of his boot, his hands in his pockets. “As much as I like looking at her.” He looked up at Jason again. “Jason, I love Molly. I’ve loved her for a long time and I’ve never made a move on her, tried to seduce her, whatever you want to call it. Don’t you think if I thought of her as just some conquest I would have made a move before now? I cracked about three months ago. She was running herself down and . . .”

Alex tossed his arms out to his side and cursed. “Jason, I had to show her she was worth more than she thought, that she was worth something to me, that I love her the way she is and wanted her the way a man wants a woman no matter what she thinks of herself. I wanted her to know that what I see isn’t what she sees.”

A deep scowl clouded Jason’s expression as he took another step toward Alex, his arms still folded tight across his chest. “So, you showed her in what way?”

“I kissed her, Jason,” Alex snapped. “I already told you. For God sake, do I have to keep going into detail about this? Some things are allowed to be private between a man and a woman, even if the woman is your sister. All you need to know is that I did not ‘deflower’ your sister.”

Jason tipped his head down, a smile crossing his lips reducing the anger he’d been feeling. He looked up at Alex again, trying not to laugh. “Dude. Did you just use the word ‘deflower’?”

Alex laughed softly, glad for even a small break in the tension. “Yeah. So?”

Jason laughed out loud and playfully punched Alex in the arm. “I’m just about to believe you on all this. I think my sister has screwed you all up in your head. You’re definitely not the Alex I’m used to.”

Alex rubbed his arm, wishing Jason had pulled the punch a little more.

“Yeah, and maybe that’s a good thing,” he said, his smile fading into a more serious expression.

Jason nodded. “Yeah. Maybe it is.”

Alex rubbed the back of his neck, stepped back, and leaned against the door frame. “Give me a chance, okay, Jason? Give me a chance to prove I’m changing.”

Jason shook his head, turning back to his sandwich on the counter and taking a bite. “I want to, Alex. I do. It just makes me nervous knowing my sister is involved and that if you fall back into your old ways, she’s the one who is going to get hurt.”

“I understand,” Alex said. “But I can tell you, I’m doing all I can to make sure she doesn’t get hurt.” He shrugged and stepped forward from the doorway. “Help keep me in line, if you’re worried. Help me be a better man. For Molly.”

Jason remained quiet for a few moments, eating his sandwich without looking up. He wanted to be there for his friend, and he wanted to protect his sister at the same time. He only hoped he could do both. He shoved the last bite of sandwich in his mouth, wiped his hands on his pants, and then held out his hand toward Alex. When Alex took it he pulled him in close for a hug.

“I’ll do the best I can, buddy.”

Alex clapped Jason on the back. “Thanks, Jase.” He pulled out of the hug. “Listen, though, let’s get one thing clear. I like hugging your sister way more than I like hugging you.”

Jason laughed and shoved Alex gently back.

“Whatever, dork.” He leaned back against the counter. “Hey, you know I’m not perfect either. I made my share of mistakes in college. You’ve never ragged on me about them, or told anyone, and I want you to know I really appreciate that.”

Alex nodded. “No problem, bud. None of that was my story to tell. I’ve always known it was up to you to tell the people in your life about your life back then. And I’ve always known that even if you do tell them, they’ll still love you, just like I do.”

Jason drank the last of the water in his glass and set in in the sink. “Yeah, maybe. I don’t know about that.”

He turned back toward Alex. “Listen, just because I’m agreeing to try to help you become a better person,” He stepped toward his friend, pointed at him as he narrowed his eyes. “doesn’t mean I still won’t kick your butt if you hurt, Molly. Got it?”

Alex nodded. “Got it.” He let out a long breath. “I wouldn’t expect anything less.”

***

“So, this is exciting.” Molly slid in the seat across from Liz at Pam’s Diner, which wasn’t owned by, or even employed, a Pam. “Us. Out. Together. Alone. Without a tracker in your neck from your parents, I hope.”

Liz laughed. “Yeah. I know. Honestly, I think they were afraid to let me out of their sight, but when you actually showed up to pick me up, they knew I wasn’t lying about us going out together.”

Molly was glad Liz and her parents had finally talked and that Liz was staying with them while she decided her next step.

“So, you guys talked?”

Liz nodded.

“What did they say?”

Liz sighed. “That they love me. That they’re sorry they had no idea what was going on. They’re blaming themselves. I honestly didn’t expect that.” She twirled her straw in her ice water. “I don’t know, maybe I’ve been too hard on my parents all these years. My mom literally sobbed and said she felt like the worst mother ever. She hugged me and promised to pay more attention, begged me to never try that again.”

“What did they say about the baby?”

“Surprisingly, they didn’t lecture me. They didn’t point out my mistakes.” Liz turned her head toward the window, tears glistening in her eyes. She swallowed hard and shook her head slightly. “They told me they loved me and that that my mistakes don’t define me.”

She looked back at Molly and swiped at a tear that escaped the corner of her eye. “They’re really happy about becoming grandparents and told me they will help however they can.”

Molly smiled and squeezed her friend’s hand. “That’s awesome news. How are you feeling about it all, though?”

Liz let out a shaky breath. “I’m terrified. Most women would be excited, but I don’t feel excited at all. I just feel absolute terror at the idea of being a mother.”

 The waitress set down their drinks and Liz took a long drink from hers.

“I’m not ready for this, Molly. Not at all. I’m not mature enough. I mean, I know I’m closing in on 30 but my head is in the clouds half the time and I obviously don’t  know how to cope with my toxic thoughts or feelings. How can I raise a child? I’m going to give birth to an irresponsible, insecure, emotionally unstable hypochondriac.”

Molly laughed softly, but then shook her head. “Liz, you may be jumping the gun a bit on deciding who your child is going to be. You’re also selling yourself short. That’s not who you are. You’re strong. You’re smart. You’re loving. But the truth is, you can’t do it alone. You’re going to need to ask God to help you.”

More tears filled Liz’s eyes and she nodded. “I know. I’m just too embarrassed to talk to God right now.”

Their conversation paused as their food was placed in front of them.

“Do you think God doesn’t know your heart?” Molly asked as the waitress left. “He knows your shame and he’s already covered that with the sacrifice of his son. Remember?”

Liz looked out the window, wiping her eyes again. “I’m trying to remember that, yes. I’m just going to need a little longer, I think.”

She sniffed and blew her nose on a napkin. “Matt showed up at the hospital. A couple days after I was admitted.”

“I’m sorry? What?” Molly’s eyes widened. “That’s a huge development. What happened?

“He heard about my overdose from his co-worker who showed up with the ambulance. I was so out of it I don’t even remember a cop being there. Matt said the guy knew we’d gone out a couple times and thought Matt already knew. He had asked Matt if I was okay.”

“Oh. Wow.”

“Yeah. So, that was awkward.”

“So, what did you say to him?”

Liz took a bite of her burger. “I thanked him for checking on me and just told him my life was pretty messed up right now so I didn’t think I could keep going out with him.”

“And he said?”

Liz laughed. “Molly, now you sound like me with you and Alex, which reminds me — how is all that going?”

Molly held up a hand. “Tell me about Matt first and then I’ll tell you.”

Sighing, Liz wrinkled her nose at the memory of her conversation with Matt. “He told me if I ever needed anything to call him but that he understood. And, no, I did not tell him I am pregnant.” She sipped from her soda. “Now, tell me about you and Alex. How are things going? Still exchanging kisses behind the hay bales?”

Molly swirled a fry around her plate. “Um.. . yeah, you could say that. Dad walked in on us one night last week.”

Liz raised an eyebrow, her burger part way to her mouth. “He walked in on you? One night?” She set the burger down on the plate. “Explain. Now.”

“We were kissing,” Molly said with a laugh. “That’s all. It was a truly amazing kiss, though.”

Liz stared with wide eyes, her chin propped on her hands. “What did your dad say?”

“Honestly? He acted like I was 15 instead of an adult.” She scoffed as she picked at the bun on her chicken sandwich. “He was all flustered and saying things like ‘how long has this been going on?’ It was like I was caught kissing a Capulet.”

Liz blinked in confusion. Molly rolled her eyes. She tried to think of a more modern example that Liz might understand.

“It was like I was dating someone from a rival clique on a CW show.”

Liz nodded. “Oh. I see.” She started eating again. “Yeah. Your dad really does need to realize you’re an adult now. You know what would help drive that home for him?”

Molly smirked. “Eloping with an older man?”

Liz leaned slightly over the table toward Molly. “Are you planning to do that?”

“No!”

Liz held her hands up in front of her. “Okay, okay. So instead, I think you should move in with me like we talked about. You know I can use the support and well, you can use it as a way to push yourself out of the nest already.”

As Molly opened her mouth to answer Jessie Landry and Maggie Baker appeared as if out of nowhere at the end of the table. Molly had Liz had graduated from high school with Hannah. Jessie was a couple of years older, but Molly knew of her and, more importantly, her dating habits.

 “Hey, girls,” Maggie said with a friendly head tilt. “Do you mind if we join you? All the other tables are full.”

Maggie had always been polite enough, Molly thought, but she was a horrible judge of character, hence her hanging out with Jessie.

The pair shoved their way into the booth — Maggie next to Molly, Jessie next to Liz — without waiting for an answer.

Molly and Liz shot each other surprised looks.

“Thanks, girls, we appreciate it,” Jessie said reaching over to Liz’s plate and snatching a French fry. She turned her attention to Molly, plastering a broad, fake smile on her face. “Oh my gosh, Molly, I haven’t seen you in forever. How are you?”

Molly’s muscles tensed. “Good.”

Jessie’s eyes slid down from Molly’s eyes to her chest and back. “You look . . . well, great. Have you lost weight?”

Maggie smiled apologetically and spoke before Molly could answer. “Sorry we busted in on your private conversation, ladies. We were just starving. We’ve been at the gym.”

Molly shrugged. “It’s fine.”

 She slid her gaze over to Jessie busy eating Liz’s fries.

Jessie and Maggie placed their orders when the waitress came back to refill Liz and Molly’s drinks. When the waitress left Jessie turned her attention to Liz.

“Liz, where have you been? I haven’t seen you at Woody’s in weeks.”

Liz shifted uncomfortably and sipped her soda. “Been busy at work.”

Jessie smirked. “Oh. Is that what they’re calling it these days?”

Liz scowled. “Excuse me?”

“Never mind,” Jessie said with a small laugh, looking at Molly. “Hey, Molly, doesn’t that sexy Alex Stone work at your family’s farm?”

Liz raised an eyebrow at Molly who cleared her throat. “Yes. He does.”

Jessie’s smirk seemed permanently plastered to her face and Maggie was shaking her head and smiling.

Jessie leaned back, stretching an arm along the back of the booth behind Liz. “It must be fun looking at him all day. He’s hot.”

Molly eyed Jessie suspiciously. “Yeah. I guess so.”

Liz caught Molly’s eye and jerked her head toward the front door. “Let’s go,” she mouthed.

“Wasn’t he the guy you went home with a few weeks ago?” Maggie asked Jessie.

Jessie pushed the tip of finger in her mouth to suck off the salt from the fries. Light bounced off her calve-high silver boots as she crossed one long leg over the other. “Uh-huh.”

“So?” Maggie watched her expectedly. “Is he a good kisser or what?”

The smile on Jessie’s face was what Molly could only describe as a smug leer. “Well, I don’t like to kiss and tell, but…” The giggle that escaped Jessie grated on Molly’s nerves. “Let’s just say that lifting hay bales isn’t the only thing Alex Stone is good for.”

The waitress set Maggie and Jessie’s food down in front of them.

“Come on, Jess, spill the beans,” Maggie said. “It was more than kissing, wasn’t it?”

Jessie winked, stabbing a fork into her salad. “It was definitely a night to remember.”

Liz shot Molly a look that spoke volumes. She knew that Liz was sending her a warning message to stay calm.

“Stay calm,” was almost exactly what Liz said when they were outside, walking toward Molly’s car after Liz had skillfully changed the subject from Alex, telling Maggie and Jessie she had to get back to work.

“Promise me you’ll talk to him, Molly.”

Molly let out a long breath and tilted her head back to look at the sky, blinking back tears.

“Molly, look at me.”

She looked at Liz. The tears were threatening to spill over.

“Talk to him,” Liz urged. “Don’t take Jessie’s word for it. You know what kind of person she is. You know she’s a liar and she’s, well, I hate to say it, but she’s a . . . ahem . . .very loose woman.”

Jessie’s “loose” reputation is what worried Molly the most, considering Alex had once had a somewhat similar reputation when Jason had first brought him to the farm.

She rubbed a finger across a tear that had escaped from the corner of her eye. “That’s the nice way to say it, I guess.”

“Molly.” Liz placed a hand on Molly’s shoulders. “Promise me. Talk to Alex.”

Molly nodded slowly, taking a deep breath. She closed her eyes and willed the tears away. “I will. Later. For now, let’s go grab some ice cream before I drive you back to jail. I mean, your parents.”

Liz looped her arm through Molly’s. “Actually, you’re going to drop me off at the store. Linda wants to talk to me about what shifts I can work. I’ll walk back to my parents.”

“Liz —”

“Molly, I’ll be fine. Really. I’ve got to get back on my feet sometime and you can’t babysit me forever, okay? I want you to go back to the farm and talk to Alex. Straighten this out before it gets out of hand.”

Molly nodded, but as she walked back to her car, the idea of ice cream abandoned, her stomach ached and emotion clutched at her throat. Alex had told her only a week ago that he loved her and wanted to take things slow. Was he lying? Was she another notch in his bedpost like her grandmother had said? Or was there another reason he had said he wanted to take things slow? Maybe she wasn’t as attractive to him as Jessie Landry was to him.

Then there was that whole thing outside of the diner. Maybe kissing her had been a bet he’d wanted to win. She remembered the kiss on the overlook and shook her head. That kiss had been too amazing to be faked. And the way he’d looked at her? The words he said? She’d gotten to known Alex really well in five years and she knew when was lying. There was no way he had been lying.

“Molly, this is stupid,” she said out loud, pounding the steering wheel. “Jessie Landry is a liar. You know that.” She rubbed her fingers across her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. “You are not in the middle of a romance novel where the man finally tells the woman he loves her and then the woman finds out a secret and they break up. This is real life. I’m sure there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for all of this.” She sighed and turned the key in the ignition. “Now, stop talking to yourself like a crazy person and go talk to Alex.”

By the time she reached the farm, though, her internal dialogue had swung back and forth between trusting Alex and believing Jessie so many times she couldn’t even think straight.

She pushed the truck into park and turned the engine off, staring at the open barn door, chewing on her lower lip, her stomach still aching. She was grateful she had work to do in the barn for the rest of the day and could use it as an excuse to not talk to Alex. She knew she couldn’t avoid him forever, but she needed to for now because she didn’t want to confront him with her emotions as raw as they were at this moment.

Fiction Friday: The Farmer’s Daughter Chapter 23 Part One

For those who have been following this story each week, this is THE chapter. THE chapter were Alex finally confesses his feelings. Will his confession thrill Molly? Won’t it. Will there be a kiss? Won’t there? Hmmmm…. you’ll have to read on and see. This week I’m adding a little bit I decided to tack on the end of Chapter 22, along with the first part of Chapter 23. I cut the chapter in two for the blog because it is a bit long. I’ll share the second half on Saturday. I think readers who have been rooting for Alex to make a move will like this chapter and excuse it’s length. You may not, however, excuse the cliff hanger of either part.

This, of course, is an installment of a novella in progress. It may have typos, plot holes, missing words, etc. It has yet to be edited and some weeks I haven’t even gone through to rewrite it (but usually it’s been edited a couple of times before I post it here). To catch up with the rest of the story click HERE.




Sit . Ups. Are. From. The. Devil.

Alex grunted with each sit up, glaring at the wall each time he brought his head toward his knees.

How was it possible his aggravation and adrenaline still hadn’t faded after working all day in the barn in the heat? The sun had already set, and his mind was still racing, remembering Molly and Ben sitting together on the front porch, laughing, smiling. What were they smiling about anyhow? What was so funny? Why did Ben keep showing up? What, did he think he could just take advantage of Molly again? Hurt her again?

One hundred. One hundred one. One hundred . . .

Jason exercised to keep in shape.

Alex was exercising to exhaust himself so he couldn’t think anymore. He let his arms fall to his side as he laid on the floor, breathing hard. He heard the cows from the neighbors farm greeting each other in the barn, then silence, except the crickets and the peepers along the stream behind the house.

This is ridiculous, Alex. You either need to give up on Molly or tell her how you feel. You’ve never had an issue going after what you want.

His issue with Molly was that she was different. Molly was special, important, and more than a conquest. She knew more about him than almost anyone else, besides Jason. He felt cheesy saying it, but unlike other woman he wasn’t only attracted to her outside beauty. He was attracted to her inside as well. He rolled his eyes. What in the world was happening to him? He had become so soft since moving here with the Tanners. Or maybe this is who he actually was and that hard, cynical, flippant Alex was the fake one who covered himself up to keep from getting hurt.

He covered his face with his hands, growling softly. Then

“Aarrrgh!”

He had never over analyzed his life as much as he had in the last few months and he was over it. Standing up he yanked his shirt off and tossed it toward a pile of dirty laundry and flopped on his back on his bed, finally exhausted, barely able to keep his eyes open.

Time’s up, Alex. No more thinking. Tell Molly how you feel and if she doesn’t feel the same way you can finally move on with your life.

He moaned softly, staring at the ceiling. His life really had hit a strange patch. Now he was giving himself pep talks in the third person. Rolling onto his side he looked out the bedroom window, toward the Tanner’s farm a mile away. He closed his eyes as sleep overtook him, images of Molly laughing with Ben pushing their way into his dreams.

Chapter 23

Molly lifted the laundry basket, carrying it into the hallway outside her bedroom. She was determined not to let her mom wash her laundry anymore. She’d wash it while her mom was out grocery shopping so her mom couldn’t say, “Let me get that. We can just throw it in with your dad’s laundry.”

Good grief, I’m 26 years old. I can wash my own laundry.

Molly’s thoughts had been consumed with Liz all day. Liz had seemed more alert when she visited her that morning in the hospital, but still exhausted, and still determined not to tell her parents what had happened. When they had called Liz’s cell, she had told them she’d been busy at work, that she had spent the night with Molly, and that her cell service had been spotty. Molly cringed to hear her friend lying to her parents.

Liz had even asked Molly not to tell her own family. Not yet anyhow. Molly had always been close to her parents, her mom especially, so not being able so share Liz’s situation with them was definitely difficult. In some ways she felt like she was deceiving her parents by not sharing with them what was going on, but she also wanted to respect Liz’s wishes.

When her mom had asked her this morning where she had gone the night before she told her she had gone to see Liz, avoiding questions about why or where by quickly announcing she needed to get to the barn to check on one of the pregnant cows.

Molly struggled to carry the basket down the stairs, bumping it against the wall and railing, wincing as she pinched her fingers in a crack in handle. She really needed to buy herself a new laundry basket. She could barely see over the pile of clothes and mentally scolded herself for waiting so long to wash it.

A few seconds later a scream ripped out of her at the sight of a man walking through doorway between the kitchen and the living room. She dropped the clothes basket, reaching for the bannister as she almost lost her balance.

Alex stumbled back against the wall next to the doorway, almost dropping the glass of water in his hand.

“Holy — what are you screaming for?!” he shouted.

“What are you doing here?!” Molly shouted back. “No one was in here when I went upstairs!”

Alex tipped his head back and laughed loudly, the glass of water in one hand and a granola bar in the other.

“Sorry. I came in to grab a glass of water. I didn’t even know you were up there.” He wiped tears of laughter from his eyes with the back of his hand. “That was entertaining though. Thanks.”

Molly’s heart pounded fast in her ears, adrenaline still rushing through her as she laughed and bent down to pick up the clothing that had fallen out of the basket. “Shut up. It’s not like I expected to find a man in my living room.”

Alex grinned. “Is there another room you expected to find a man in?”

Molly rolled her eyes and tossed the clothes back into the basket.

“Ha. Ha. Very funny.”

“Do you want me to help you with that?”

Alex walked toward her, but she raised her hand.

“This is my dirty laundry. No. Just no. That’s gross.”

She walked past him into the kitchen toward the laundry room and he turned slightly to watch her. She was wearing a pair of light blue capris and a loose-fitting gray Needtobreathe tshirt. Her reddish-brown curls were hanging lose down her back, slightly damp. He closed his eyes briefly and smelled coconuts and mango. It must have been her shampoo. Seeing her in her natural element, relaxed, laid back and without her work clothes did something to his insides he wouldn’t have been able to explain if someone had asked him to.

He hadn’t planned on talking to her about his feelings now, but since the opportunity had presented itself — and in an entertaining way at that — he knew he had to take the chance. They were alone, Robert wouldn’t be looking for him yet, and Jason was up in the upper field starting haying.  Annie had pulled pull out of the driveway an hour ago, probably on her way to pick up groceries at the little supermarket in town.

Setting the water and granola bar down on the kitchen counter he followed her, leaning against the laundry room door frame.

“So, we haven’t talked much since that day at the overlook,” he started.

Molly loaded her clothes into the washer, her back to him. Warmth rushed from her chest to her cheeks. She hated thinking of that day, how she’d declared she’d always be fat, pointing out her weight in front of Alex. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t noticed, but still, there was no need for her to draw attention to it.

She poured laundry detergent into the washer, unable to look at him. “Yeah. Sorry about that. I guess I had some kind of breakdown or something. I really appreciate you talking me off the ledge, though.”

He tipped his head, studying the curls that fell across her back, the way they shimmered in the sunlight seeping in through the small window above the washer and dryer. He lovedt when those curls were out of the ponytail she usually kept them in, which wasn’t often.

“You’re too hard on yourself, Molly.”

She pushed start on the washer, her heartrate increasing at the tone of his voice. It was different than when they were simply joking around in the barn. It was more serious today; more sincere, like the day at the overlook.

Molly turned to see what expression was complimenting the voice. Her breath caught at the way he was looking at her, the intensity in his eyes.

He dropped his gaze, shoving his hands in his front jean pockets as he looked at the floor. He focused on a dent in the blue and white linoleum that made up the laundry room floor and kicked at it with the tip of his boot.

“So, hey, I was thinking . . . maybe we could hang out some time.”

A smile pulled at her mouth. What was this change of conversation direction about?

“Hang out?”

“Yeah. Like,” he shrugged one shoulder, looked briefly at the ceiling then back at her. “go out sometime.”

Molly’s eyebrows furrowed. Was he trying to boost her self-esteem by inviting her to go out with him and Jason and their friends? She wasn’t sure she would enjoy hanging out with sweaty men at some sports bar in the middle of nowhere.

“Um . . . I’m not sure I’d fit in with you and Jason and your friends.”

Alex laughed softly. “I wasn’t talking about with Jason or our friends.” He brought his gaze back to hers, rubbing his hand across the back of his neck. “I was talking about just you and me.”

Molly swallowed hard. Her head felt light and her hands had gone numb.

Or had they? Were they still there? She wasn’t sure so she slid them into the back pockets of her jeans to see if she could still feel the denim against her skin. She could, but only barely.

Was he trying to make fun of her? She wasn’t sure she could handle it if he was.

He folded his arms across this chest, and crossed one leg over the other casually. She fought hard to keep her eyes from wandering across his masculine forearms and biceps, the edges of the short sleeves of his plaid, blue checkered button-up shirt pulled tight across his upper arms.

“Okay. Listen, Alex, I appreciate you trying to make me feel better about myself by offering to take me out but —”

“I’m not trying to make you feel better about yourself. I really want to take you out. Like,” he cleared his throat. “on a date.”

Molly laughed nervously. “Let’s be serious here. I’m not exactly your type.”

“What do you mean you’re not my type?”

The question startled her. “Well. . . Uh… because all the women you’ve dated since you’ve been here have been cute, skinny blondes and, I mean, look at me.”

She gestured at her wide hips and full chest.

His eyes traveled the length of her and back to her face. “Yeah? I’m looking.”

Her face flushed at the grin tilting his mouth upward and the way his gaze slid over her. She struggled with how to respond.

“Well, I’m. . .  I’m . .  you know what I am.”

He tipped his head slightly, his eyebrows furrowed.

“No. I don’t know what you are, Molly.”

She scoffed. “I’m fat, Alex.” She slapped the side of her thigh with her hand and laughed. “F-A-T. Fat.”

He bit his lower lip, amused by her thigh slapping. He unfolded his arms, hooking his thumbs in his belt loops. His eyes were moving over her again and heat rushed through her.

“You’re not fat, Molly.”

“Alex, I’m fat. It’s okay. I know I am. It’s not that I’m proud of it, but it’s just the way it is right now. I – I’ve been working on it so maybe someday I won’t be as —”

Alex shook his head and tightened his jaw, his smile fading into a more serious expression. “Fine, if you want to say you’re fat go ahead, but you’re not fat to me and you can’t tell me who I’m interested in.”

He pushed himself off the door frame and moved toward Molly. “I know who I’m interested in.”

He knew it was now or never to show her what she meant to him and he was tired of not taking risks.

Molly’s muscles tensed as she stepped back and stumbled against the washer. What was Alex doing? He wasn’t stopping and the expression on his face was serious and determined. His eyes were on her mouth and she felt a rush of butterflies move from her stomach throughout the rest of her body. He was so close now she could see those familiar flecks of green in his deep blue eyes.

“Alex.” Her voice faded to a whisper as she tried to make sense of his movements, of his hand cupping her cheek now. “What are you doing?”

Alex knew what he was doing but he was terrified. His eyes focused on her mouth and he closed the gap between them more, moving his body even closer to hers. He knew kissing her was the only way to really show her how he felt.

“Molly. . .” His voice was deeper and huskier than she’d ever heard it before.

He swallowed hard and said her name again. How good it felt to say her name, let it slide off his tongue so easily, each syllable like a sweet melody.

Molly had been telling herself for more than a year that she’d think about how she felt about Alex later, but later was here.

Right here.

Right now.

Alex was standing less than two inches from her now and the heat coming off of him was intoxicating. She closed her eyes briefly, trying to calm herself. She opened them again as she felt his hand against her cheek. The palm of his thumb traced her mouth, first her upper lip, then her lower. She watched as his gaze followed the path his thumb was making. He drew in a slow breath and let it out again just as slow. Her heart pounded loud in her ears, a soft repeated thud that was increasing its rhythm second by second.

Was this really happening? Was Alex Stone about to kiss her and make it absolutely clear that he wanted to be more than friends?

The crunch of gravel under car tires startled her and she could tell by the look on Alex’s face it had startled him too. It took a moment for Molly to connect her brain to her mouth.

“M-my mom.”

Alex stepped back from her quickly and glanced at the back door.

 The car door slammed, and he began to wish Annie Tanner wasn’t such an efficient grocery shopper. 

“I’ll find you later,” he whispered before he closed the door behind him. “We need to talk.”

She nodded slowly, stunned, and unsure what to think about what had almost happened.

She was still looking at the door, dumfounded, when her mom opened the front door carrying three bags of groceries.

“Hey, sweetie. What are you doing? Your laundry? Oh, you didn’t have to do that. I could have done that later today when I wash your dad’s.” Annie placed the bags on the kitchen counter and sat her purse next to them. “I found that yogurt you like. And that cereal your dad likes.” Annie paused by the counter and looked at her daughter who was now standing in the kitchen by the table, dazed.

“Are you okay honey?”

Molly looked at her mother, doing her best not to look as panicked as she felt. “Yeah. Why?”

Annie’s eyebrows furrowed in concern. “You look flushed.”

Molly shrugged. “I guess I just got overheated doing the laundry.”

“Maybe you need a cool shower.”

“You know what? I think you might be right. I’m going to head up and do that now.”

Molly rushed toward the stairs before her mom could ask her anymore questions.

Annie stared after her daughter, one hand on her hip, her eyebrows once again furrowed. “Well, I meant after you helped me with the groceries.”

Extra Fiction Thursday: Quarantined, a novella, Chapter 5

As always, this is a work of fiction in progress. What I share on the blog is not the final draft of the novel or novella I’m working on. I reread, rewrite, and rework the stories a few times before I finally publish them on Kindle or Barnes and Noble. I also try to fix typos, plot holes, and punctuation issues in the final draft and have it proofed and edited. If you see errors in the chapters I post on the blog, feel free to send me a note on my contact form (link at the top of the page) so I can make the corrections, if I haven’t caught them aready.

Following along with the story and missed a week or want to follow along? Find the other chapters HERE.

Have some thoughts on the story itself? Let me know in the comments.

Chapter 5

Cassie climbed under the covers and flopped on her back to stare at the ceiling, moonlight cutting a square across it from the window.

What was with all of Matt’s weird questions tonight? The situation with Liam and Maddie must be rattling him even more than she realized. She rolled to her side, fluffed up her pillow, hugged it and tried to get more comfortable.

It wasn’t working.

Her mind was racing too much.

Maybe Liam and Maddie’s situation was rattling her too.

She was thinking about them and their marriage, and viruses and if her family was safe and how to get groceries if they had to shelter in place for even longer and the media and what they’d be saying for the rest of the week with Matt and his staff having still worked for a week after they knew they’d been exposed to a contagious virus and  . . . .

She squeezed her eyes shut, sucked in a deep breath, and held it for several seconds before letting it out again. She had to calm down. What was that one relaxation technique she’d heard about again? Breathe in six seconds, hold five? Or was it, breathe in seven and hold six and then let it out for the count of four or was it letting it out for the count of seven? Oh, forget it. Trying to remember the technique was making her even more anxious.

She closed her eyes and tried to focus on one worry at a time instead.

She couldn’t deny that there were days she regretted agreeing with Matt that he should run for the senate in the first place. They both had such high hopes six years ago; hopes that they could make changes for the voters who had put their faith in Matt, while not being changed themselves. But it was impossible not to be changed by the influences of Washington, D.C. Nothing in this city was like the small upstate New York town Cassie had grown up in and it was also nothing like Stevensville, Ohio where she and Matt had lived before he had been elected.

Stevensville, Ohio was small. Very small. Like everyone knows your name and your business small. It was also still her and Matt’s home in the summers when they left the city behind for much needed breaks. Only that break wouldn’t be coming this year. Not with all the craziness about viruses and quarantines and freezes on travel. Cassie wanted to cry but she was afraid to because once she started, she might not stop. She was homesick for New York and Ohio, for her own family, for Matt’s family, for the familiar she’d left behind when Matt was elected six years ago.

She sighed and opened her eyes, looking at the other side of the bed where Matt slept most nights of the week, unless he was working late and then he stayed at John’s apartment, closer to his office. She touched cool sheets, thinking of how many nights they’d laid here next to each other, back to back, rarely speaking because she knew he needed his sleep, because she knew he needed to get up early in the morning, because she didn’t want to burden him anymore than he was already burdened.

But she missed him. She missed him holding her and them talking about their future, instead of him telling her about the stress he’d been under that day and then falling into a fitful sleep. She missed his hand on her cheek as he moved closer late at night, a small, mischievous smile that signaled he wasn’t ready for sleep yet.

She missed long, slow kisses, roaming hands, but as much as the physical, she missed the emotional connection they’d once had. The connection when Matt wanted to talk with her before anyone else, when he didn’t want to make a decision unless he’d asked her, and when she’d known so much about his day, his job and his life that it was as if they were thinking like one person.

“Cassie, are you sure you’re okay with this?” he’d asked eight and a half years ago when he’d considered running for Senate.

“Yeah. I am.”

That’s what she’d said, but she really hadn’t been sure she was okay with it. She was okay with Matt wanting to help the people of his small hometown and the surrounding counties by becoming a senator from Ohio, but she wasn’t really sure she was okay with the lives of their entire family being upended. She’d given up her social worker career four years before, deciding to spend more time at home with the children. Matt’s career as a lawyer had exploded and from there he’d become involved in county politics and then state politics. When the state’s Republican party came to him and asked him to run for the senate, he’d turned them down at first. But after several meetings, a few months of consideration, and talking to Cassie, his parents, his sister and brother, and his pastor, he’d decided to step into an already contentious race for the seat.

From the moment he’d announced to the day he won the seat the lives of the Grant family had been a whirlwind. After the election, the moving began. Tyler had been 7 at the time, Gracie 3 and Lauren was born in Washington. Every effort was made to ensure that the children and Cassie would see Matt as much as possible, despite his job, but there were weeks they still barely saw him at all.

The idea of having the family living close had been a good one, but the execution of it had started to fail within six months. Meetings, conferences, sessions that ran late into the night, and media-made emergencies were constant, taking over every aspect of Matt and Cassie’s life. Matt still made every effort to attend baseball games, dance recitals, and Saturday mornings at the park, in addition to balancing his responsibilities as a senator, but that left little to almost no time for him and Cassie.

For the most part, Cassie was okay with being the last in line for his attention. She preferred he spend as much time as he could with the children during their formative years. This was a season of life, not a new normal. Time for them, as a couple, would come later, when things slowed down.

If things slow down, Cassie thought, panic suddenly gripping her, like a heavy weight in the center of her chest. If Matt gets reelected we could have another six years of this and maybe even another six after that. . .It’s already been six, I don’t know if I can take another six.

She shuddered, pulling the covers up around her, even though it wasn’t that cold in their bedroom. She tried to imagine six more years, or even more, of accusations against her husband, and sometimes even her, in the press. She tried to imagine six more years of barely seeing her husband; of feeling like her husband’s nanny, even though she loved her children desperately; and of constituents confronting her husband when they were out in public, complaining about this or that change he’d promised he’d make if elected but still hadn’t been able to.

Tyler would be graduating high school at the end of six years. So much of his life had already been consumed by Matt’s position. Would he have to endure it during his high school years as well?

Cassie knew it wasn’t only the quiet life she and Matt had led before he’d entered politics that she was homesick for.  She was homesick for time alone with Matt. She was tired of sharing him with his staff, his fellow congressmen, his constituents, and the press. She was tired of feeling like she was second in line for his attention, even though she knew he didn’t mean to make her feel that way.

Who knows, she thought, feeling sleep finally settling on her. Maybe this quarantine will be good for not only Liam and Maddie but for Matt and me. Maybe I’ll actually get him to myself for once.

***

The election had been brutal. There was no denying it. Worse than the campaigning, the traveling, the long days, had been the media coverage. Non-stop negative stories aimed at destroying Matthew Eben Grant before he could even open his mouth. The media machine was out of control. There was no denying it, especially after that first month of campaigning when one of the state’s biggest newspapers had questioned his staff’s lack of diversity. Those questions had led to him refusing to answer questions of his campaign staff’s ethnic backgrounds and horrified when a newspaper had called the head of his campaign his “one token person of color,” as if she hadn’t been qualified for her job simply on the merits of her professional experience.

From that story it was a quick jump to combing through Matt and Liam’s social media accounts, searching for anything that would sink them in the political arena. One rogue satirical Tweet from his college days, labeled as sexist by feminists, dominated headlines for a few days, but as it always was with the current 24-hour/7-day a week news cycle, the press had turned it’s hungry eyes to another candidate, another subject to devour. the following week.

The polls showed Matt losing and big, right up until election day, but the night of the election the numbers had come in fast and furious late in the evening. Matt had won by a landslide. Apparently the silent voters, the one who didn’t want to be yelled at or condemned for their opinions, had come out in droves and sent a hard message home to the incumbent and his political party: “We’ve had enough of the status quo and of corrupt politicians with empty promises and even emptier apologies.”

Matt knew, though ,that in less than a year he could be in the same boat and it could be his rear end with the boot of the voter against it as they shoved him out the door. Voters preferences were fickle and ever changing and some days nothing a senator did could make anyone happy. Matt had only been a senator for six years, but it felt like it had been 100. Now he had a small idea why so many presidents went gray while in office, though thankfully he didn’t have the same pressure as a president.

He yawned, stretching his arms out as if he intended to stand up and head up to bed, but he didn’t stand up. Instead he fell back on the couch, remote in hand. He surfed streaming services, suggested shows and movies scrolling by, but he wasn’t really seeing any of it. His mind had slipped back to five and a half years ago, to near the end of the election when the news stories were at their worst. He was being called a racist, anti-woman, anti-this, anti-that. He had lost count of all the names they had called him.

“Is this even worth it?” he asked Cassie one night in bed, snuggled close against her.

“If you can get in there and really help facilitate some change, then, yes, it’s worth it,” she assured him.

But then the win came and with it came more news stories, personal attacks against him and his family. The worst came when one of his staff members brought him an article about Cassie, accusing her of being fired from her previous job.

He was furious. “Where did they even get that story? Cassie was never fired from her job. She left to support me and be with the children.”

Scanning the story, he saw a former co-worker of Cassie’s was quoted and offered only summations, not facts. Still, the headline suggested the accusations were true. It wouldn’t have upset Matt as much if it had been about him instead of Cassie. He’d grown accustomed to being accused of inappropriate acts or offensive words, or anything else the press could come up with, but Cassie?

Cassie was off limits.

Only she wasn’t off limits.

She wasn’t off limits because he had made her fair game when he’d decided to accept the party’s urging to run.

He’d dragged her out into the open and essentially thrown her to the wolves.  

The story had been pushed to the side quickly in a few days with another news story, about another politician, overshadowing it. One of the only good aspects of the 24/7 news cycle was how fast paced it was. It meant a story that was in the forefront one day was gone by the next and even though the story on Cassie had faded fast, he still felt incredible guilt about how much he’d exposed his family during this process.

He’d always wanted to protect Cassie. Now he didn’t know how to. In a hyper-political atmosphere that was beginning to suffocate him, the negativity was coming from every side.

His phone rang and he glanced at the ID before answering it. He let out a sigh of relief when he saw it wasn’t John, a member of the Senate or the press trying to reach him.

“Hey, bro,” he said to Liam. “You hanging in there?”

“Yeah. Locked myself in my office. You?”

“Yeah. Feels weird just to be sitting at home.”

“A good weird or a bad weird?”

“Both.”

“Things okay with Cassie? The kids?”

“Kids are doing great. They don’t know much about what’s going on. Cassie’s . . . okay, I guess. She seems tired.”

“Is she mad at you for all this?”

Matt laughed. “She doesn’t seem mad, really. She just seems like Cassie. She’s cooking for the kids and me, cleaning, checking on her parents.”

“Did you ask her if she was okay?”

“Yeah, she said she’s fine.”

Matt heard a small laugh on the other end of the phone.

“What?” he asked. “No. Don’t even say it. You think ‘I’m fine’ is code for something else.”

“You know I’m no expert on women,” Liam started.

“Uh, obviously.”

“But I am learning during this that apparently when a woman says she’s okay, she’s really not,” Liam continued. “I didn’t know that Maddie was struggling, Matt. I just thought she hated me, that I was doing everything wrong, but I think she feels — I don’t know. Abandoned? She pretty much told me she feels like I abandoned her.”

Matt sighed, laying on his back, staring at the ceiling. He slid his arm behind his head. “In what way did you abandon her?”

“Staying at work too much, for one. She says I worked more so I didn’t have to face us losing the babies.”

“Did you?”

“No, I . . .”

Liam’s voice trailed off and then there was a brief silence. “Yeah,” he said finally. “Yeah, I did. When you asked me to be your press secretary I jumped at it because I knew I would be so busy I wouldn’t have to think about losing the babies, about that empty hole in the center of my chest.”

Matt grimaced as he sat up, propping his elbow against his knee. “Liam, I’m sorry I was so focused on the election, on me really, that I didn’t notice all you were going through.”

“Dude, I’m not trying to make you feel guilty. I didn’t even admit to myself how much it was bothering me.”

“I know, it’s just — I’m really starting to realize how out of touch I’ve been with what really matters in the last few years; you and Maddie, the kids. Cassie. When I decided to run, I pulled all of you —”

“Matt. No. You were doing what you felt was right. And it wasn’t just you who decided to run. We all decided. As a family. We knew this could be rough. Yeah, it’s a little worse than we expected with all the extra political drama going on these days, but we are still in this together. It’s okay. We’re all okay. Well, we will be okay, one way or another anyhow. None of this is your fault.”

Matt flopped back on the couch again. “I know it isn’t. But I still feel . . . guilty. I don’t know. What I do know is that all of this, this forced slow down, has opened my eyes up to what I’ve been missing lately. I don’t like that our family, or our country, is going through this, but it’s putting some things in perspective for me.”

Liam sighed on the other end of the phone. “Yeah. It’s doing the same for me.”

Fiction . . . uh . . . Saturday: The Farmer’s Daughter, Chapter 19 Part 2

Yes, I wrote another long chapter so this is part two of Chapter 19 and you can find part 1 HERE. To catch up with the rest of the story, which I feature every Friday, click HERE or find the link at the top of the page. This is a “novel in progress” and when it is finished I usually toss it up on Kindle for friends, family, and blog readers to read in full (after I fix plot holes, edit, rewrite and hopefully fix typos).


Sitting at the bar with his third bottle of beer in front of him, Alex dragged his hands through his hair and wished he could drink until he couldn’t think anymore. He knew he couldn’t, though. He’d finished the days chores, but Robert could need him at any time of the day. He hated the idea of Robert seeing him with glazed over eyes or a hangover. That had happened only once before and Alex had felt the stinging rush of humiliation when Robert sent him out of the barn and ordered him to sleep it off. Thankfully Robert had accepted his apology.

It wasn’t the first time in his life Alex had felt the sting of humiliation. In fact, he’d felt it many times in his life and often when a man much better than him had to correct him on one of his many mistakes.

“You need to make a decision on what kind of man you want to be, Alexander Timothy Stone,” his grandfather had said to him as they drove away from the jail one night in his grandfather’s old pick up.

Col. Paul Madigan. Career Marine. Retired by the time Alex was in high school; just in time to whip his own grandson into shape. Or at least try to.

Even at 67 he had still been an imposing man. Six feet tall, broad shoulders and chest, square jawline

“What do you think you’re proving pulling all this stuff, boy?” his grandfather had asked him. “You’re not proving that you’re a real man. You’re not proving you’re better than your father. Is that what you’re trying to do? Get his attention? It’s not going to work. You know that. Your father doesn’t care about anyone other than himself, boy. You better think about what you want for your future, who you want to be. You want to be someone your future children can be proud of.”

His grandfather’s jaw clenched, his hands gripping the steering wheel tight. He’d let out a long breath and then shook his head.

“I know one thing, though, boy, no matter what you do, I won’t top loving you. I know there’s a man inside that body of a boy. I know there is a man who wants to be better, who wants to be what a man should be – responsible, trustworthy, and able to provide for his family. A man people will want to look up to one day, not shake their heads at.”

Alex had wanted to be a better man, to be what his grandfather had wanted him to be and somedays he thought he was on the way to being that better man, but today he really didn’t care anymore.

He needed a break from trying to be better. It was exhausting.

Country music blared from the speakers and cigarette smoke filtered across the bar like the haze filtering across his mind. The bar was sparsely crowded with only two other people sitting on actual bar stools near him, the rest scattered around the dimly lit inside of the bar, sitting at tables or leaning against the pool tables.

Blond hair spilled over his shoulder, interrupting his thoughts. Someone leaned against his back, a clearly feminine arm draping over his shoulder, a strong smell of alcohol and perfume hitting him.

“Hey, farm boy. You look like you need a friend.”

He glanced over his shoulder, his face now inches away from the face of a woman he’d met in the same bar a few months before. What was her name again?

 He struggled to remember.

 Jenny?

Jackie?

Julie?

The woman’s smile was broad, her eyelids heavy under dark blue eyeshadow. Her bright red lipstick matched her blouse which featured a low cut v-neck that clearly revealed her cleavage. “Remember me?”

“Uh. . .yeah. . . hey … Jackie.”

She rolled her eyes and giggled.

“Jessie, silly.”

Jessie. Right. Jessie Landry.

“Right. Jessie. Hey. How’s it going?”

Jessie slid onto the stool next to him and leaned an elbow on the bar. “Good, but you look like you’ve seen better days.”

Alex shrugged, taking another swig of beer. “Yeah. I guess.”

Jessie smiled slyly and tipped her head. “Fight with your girlfriend?”

A slight smile tugged at Alex’s lips at he looked at her.

“No girlfriend to have a fight with.”

“No wife either?” Her tone was playful now as she slide her hand along the bar toward is arm.

“No woman to speak of,” he said, looking back toward the stack of bottles behind the bar.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Jessie push her lower lip out and tip her head to the other side. She crossed one long leg over another, her high heels clicking on the bottom rung of the stool.

“Aw. That’s so sad. Someone so good looking shouldn’t be so alone.”

Alex laughed softly and shook his head. He knew a flirt when he saw one, even with all the alcohol in his system, and this Jessie Landry was definitely one of those.

Music thudded from the jukebox on the other side of the bar. Bodies pushed into the center of the room, moving and swaying to the rhythm. Jessie slid off the bar stool and began to dance next to him. That’s when he noticed her too short mini skirt and her too tight bright red shirt. She tugged at his arm as she danced, hips moving from side to side.  

“Come on. Dance with me. It will make you feel better.”

“I don’t dance,” he said with a smirk, sipping the beer.

She leaned close to him and winked. “Then just stand out here with me and I’ll dance around you, silly.

His senses dulled by the beer, Alex staggered from the stool as she grabbed his hand, letting her lead him to the center of the floor. She gyrated slowly in front of him, her straight blond hair bouncing back and forth across her back and shoulders as she moved down to the floor and back up again, sliding her hands up his legs seductively.

He watched her through bleary eyes, drowsy from the beer, admiring her slender form and the way her body curved in all the right places.

When a slow song came on, she slid her arms around his neck and stepped close to him, pressing her body into his. He questioned himself briefly about why she was being so forward — they’d only met once or twice before, yet here she was dancing with him liked they’d been dating for months. He dismissed the thought almost as quickly as he’d thought it as she tipped her head back, revealing a long bare neck, the top of her shirt pulling down and drawing his eyes to where he knew he shouldn’t be looking.

Her voice was whiny as she flipped her head back up and pressed her forehead against his. “It’s so boring here tonight. We should think of something else we could do…” She trailed her finger down the front of his shirt, letting her eyes drift down and then up again, then leaned close and seductively whispered the last word. “Together.”

Alex watched her for a moment, lowered his eyes to her full lips and shrugged. Why not? It wasn’t as if someone Molly would ever be interested in someone like him. An alcoholic loser like him. A heathen someone like Ben Oliver might say. Why not take his mind of Molly and how he wouldn’t ever be good enough for her?

He grinned at Jessie and laid his hand against her thigh. A familiar need pulsated within him.

Her jerked his head toward the door. “You want to get out of here? I know somewhere we can have a lot more fun.”

Jessie giggled and nodded. She took his hand as he broke their embrace, and followed him out into the parking lot. When she climbed up into his truck and closed the door behind her, she slid next to him and laid her hand on his upper thigh, rubbing it gently as he shifted the truck into gear.

He drove toward the house, glad to know he’d soon have a way to take his mind off Molly, his failures, and his confusion about life in general.

Extra Fiction Thursday: Quarantined Chapter 2

I’ve been off Facebook for a few days and haven’t looked at the news but based on some of the blog posts I’m reading, the events going on in today’s world are hitting people hard and spiraling them into depression. Take a break from it all today – either reading this chapter from this novella I’m working on or simply walking away from media all together and pick up a book, take a walk, or start a hobby that gave you comfort before. We have to choose to walk away from the stress so I’m encourage you (and me) to choose to do that.




Matt Grant tapped the end button on the screen of his phone and laid the phone on the coffee table next to his laptop and paperwork. He rubbed his hand across his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, feeling a tension headache pulsating in his temples.

He’d just got off the phone with his assistant press secretary, John Chambers. They’d drafted another statement for the media, answering accusations that Matt was still at work in his office in the capitol.

“Just make sure they know I’m at home, self-quarantining, just like my doctor told me to,” Matt had told John, more than a touch of annoyance in his voice.

“I’m making sure,” John said. “I’m assuring them all of us are safely locked away now. Just like the critics seem to think we should be, even though our preliminary tests are inconclusive. I doubt this will satisfy them, but we can try.”

With the statement to the press out of the way, Matt’s mind wandered back to his brother Liam, who he needed to call and check on. The doctor who had examined Liam had listed his diagnosis as “probable” for the virus, which was what had triggered this latest scandal in the first place. Matt was sure Liam would be fine but there was a small part of him that worried about his little brother developing symptoms of the virus that was sending others to ICUs across the country. Matt wasn’t only worried about Liam’s physical health though. He was also worried about his mental and emotional health.

Liam had told Matt months ago that his marriage was in shambles. Matt had barely listened, sure his brother and sister-in-law would work things out. He knew Liam still loved his Maddie, and Maddie still loved Liam.  He was sure of it. If they didn’t they wouldn’t be struggling so much with the idea of divorce and it would have been finalized months ago.

It couldn’t be easy being quarantined together during a pandemic with all the issues they had with each other, but Matt was glad they were. Maybe it would give them a chance to work out their issues and save what had been a great union at one time. As it was, their divorce proceedings had been delayed because of the pandemic, which Matt saw as a way for them to buy more time and truly be sure the divorce was what they wanted.

What made Matt uncomfortable wasn’t only that he could hear pain mixed with longing in his brother’s voice when they had talked about the divorce a couple of weeks ago. It was also that he wondered, worried even, that maybe his marriage was bleeding out in the same way his younger brother’s had and he had been too wrapped up in himself to realize it.

Matt and Cassie hadn’t had a lot of time alone lately. They actually had barely even had time to talk.

Their life had been a runaway train since the election six years ago and now it was picking up speed again as their re-election campaign was underway. Really, though, the train had never actually slowed down.

 In Washington he faced daily drama and conflict whether he wanted it or not. Becoming the head of the Committee of Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs last year hadn’t helped slow things down any either.

Then there was this crazy never-before-seen virus that seemed to come out of nowhere a few weeks ago and now had him at home with his family, waiting to see if he developed any symptoms after being exposed to it more than a week ago. He was convinced if he had the virus he would have developed symptoms by now, but he had stayed home to make sure things looked good to the press and his constituents. Making sure things “looked good and right” to others seemed to be 90 percent of his job anymore, leaving little room for him to actually do good and right and accomplish the things he’d been elected to do.

All the drama in Congress left him little time to focus on Cassie or the kids and he regretted that. He regretted it even more when his brother’s march toward divorce had become a growing reality. He’d never pictured Liam and Maddie divorced. They were the perfect couple. They’d weathered some hard storms, but Matt had been sure the challenges would bring them closer together. In fact, he thought it had but now he realized he’d been too wrapped up in the campaign and job to notice how much they’d actually drifted apart.

Sure, Liam, as his press secretary, spent many late nights working with him, but he imagined when he went home, he and Maddie made up for lost time. Instead Matt had recently learned that Liam had been working at home as well, sleeping in his office, leaving Maddie alone most of the time, writing her romance novels and reaching for companionship on social media.

Matt and Liam’s parents had been the perfect example of a stable, loving marriage. Married 54 years, Tom and Phyllis Grant made it clear each day how much they loved each other. Sure, they had argued, even in front of their children, but those arguments had been resolved usually before the sun had gone down and with a fair amount of ‘making up’. Matt and Liam, and his sister Lana had been grateful the majority of that making up had gone on behind closed doors.

Standing from the couch to stretch, Matt looked out the window at his own three children playing ball in the backyard and felt a twinge of guilt. Getting pregnant and carrying three babies to term had been easy for him and Cassie. They’d never had to face the heartbreak of not being able to get pregnant or of a miscarriage. Matt felt like he’d taken being able to become a father so easily for granted.

He looked around his living room, well-decorated with expensive furniture and commissioned paintings, and thought about how much of his life he had taken for granted, especially lately. He’d taken for granted the newer model car he drove, the highly-rated bed he slept on, the full refrigerator, and even fuller bank account.

He rubbed his hand along his chin and turned toward the kitchen where Cassie was making a late lunch for him and the kids. Her dark brown hair fell to her waist in a tight braid, the bottom of it grazing the top of the waistband of a pair of red workout shorts. Her favorite T-shirt, featuring Johnny Cash wearing a cowboy hat, fit her medium build well, hugging all the areas it should, especially for the benefit of her husband admiring the view that he hadn’t admired for a long time.

He watched her stirring the taco meat in the skillet and his gaze traveled down her legs and back up again, thinking about the first time they’d met in an English lecture at college.

“Pst.”

He’d leaned over the desk to try to get her attention, but she was intently focused on the professor. He had tried again.

“Pst.”

She glared over her shoulder at him.

“Do you have an extra pen?” he whispered.

She rolled her eyes, ignored him, tapping the end of her own pen against her cheek gently as she kept her eyes focused forward.

“It’s just,” he leaned a little closer so he didn’t interrupt the other students. “I left my pen back in my dorm room and I want to make sure I’m taking notes.”

He was glad he had leaned a little closer. She smelled amazing. What was that perfume? He had no idea but it was intoxicating. Maybe it was her shampoo. The fluorescent light from the lecture hall was reflecting off her luxurious black strands of hair and he pondered what it would feel like to reach out and touch it. But he didn’t reach out and touch it. That would be weird. Even a 19-year old college freshman like himself knew that.

A year later, though, he was touching that soft dark hair while he kissed Cassie for the first time outside her dorm after their third date. And over the years he’d sank his hands in that hair in moments of tenderness and moments of passion. A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth as he watched his wife and thought about a few of those moments, including that time in the back of his new car after he’d landed that job at the law firm in Detroit.

He could deny it. It wasn’t only the material things of his life that he had taken for granted. He had also been taking Cassie for granted. For far too long.

***

Cassie Grant turned from where she was cooking lunch for her husband and children and watched her husband pace back and forth in the living room.

She knew he was worried about the situation with the virus, the way his office had been thrown into the middle of an unexpected scandal. She was sure he was also worried about whether he’d develop symptoms of the virus, pass it on to the children, and if his other staff members would be infected, now that it looked like Liam’s test for it would be positive. Too little was known about how the virus affected the majority of people, although early reports showed that most cases were mild.

And then there was Liam and Maddie’s marriage which was about to end. Matt and his brother had been raised by parents who had been married 54 years. The brothers and their sister weren’t a product of divorce and Cassie wondered if the prospect of Liam’s marriage ending was weighing on Matt’s mind along with the virus.

Cassie wasn’t sure what her husband was thinking anymore, though, because Matt hadn’t been talking to her much lately. He’d been busy at the office, putting out fires, which seemed to pop up several times throughout the day, thanks to a 24/7 news cycle that never let up.

She couldn’t deny that she missed seeing her husband. She missed their date nights and family movie nights and him just being around the house when she needed him. But she knew that he was doing what he thought was right to try to make a difference for the people who elected him.

Turning the burner down she leaned back against the counter and watched Matt turn and look out the window where their children were playing. Her gaze fell on the back of his head, on his soft brown hair and she remembered with a soft laugh that day in college when they’d been studying in a private room on the first floor of the university library. The love seat they were sitting on was soft, plush, light maroon.

Papers and books were spread out in front of them and Matt was debating the importance of some moment in history to the future of something or other. Cassie couldn’t remember now and hadn’t cared then. She’d tuned him out long ago. Instead she had been watching him amazed at how impassioned he was about the topic at hand. She had been staring at the muscles in his jaw and how they moved as he spoke, at his long fingers connected to that manly hand, at a strand of hair that had fallen across his forehead that she desperately wanted to push to the side. And she’d definitely been watching his mouth. His lips looked amazingly kissable.

Cassie was sick of listening to him quite frankly.

“Cassie, don’t you see that —”

Cassie leaned forward and pressed her mouth to Matt’s, cutting his sentence short, touching the side of his face gently. She pulled back and looked at him, her mouth still inches from his. He had finally fallen silent. At least for a few seconds.

“Oh. Um. Okay. Was I talking too —”

“Just shut up, Matt.”

She caught his mouth with hers again, sinking her hands into his hair, moving closer to him at the same time he moved closer to her.

He slid his arm around her and held her to him gently as the kiss continued.

“So, I guess you weren’t only interested in me as a study partner,” he said breathlessly a few moments later.

“Is that the only way you were interested in me?” she asked, her fingers still in his hair, playing with it.

A grin tugged at one corner of his mouth. “What do you think Cassie Henderson?”

She answered with another kiss, and they leaned back against the seat as they kissed, forgetting they were in a study room in the library.

Three years later they were married, a year later their first, a boy, was born. That had been 15 years ago and now they had three children, an expensive home in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and Matt was a U.S. Senator while she stayed home with the children, her career as a social worker long behind her and his career as an attorney behind him, for the time being at least.

Sure, some of that initial passion of their relationship was gone, replaced with the everyday and the mundane, but Cassie recognized this as a season – a season during which marriage became more about comfortable moments and less about desire. It wasn’t that she didn’t have desire for Matt; it was just that they never seemed to have time for it anymore.

She startled out of her thoughts, smelling something burning.

“Oh no!”

She rushed to the stove and turned it down, smoke billowing from the skillet where she’d been browning meat for tacos. She moved the skillet to another burner and groaned. It looked like they’d be having peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch today.

The blaring of the smoke alarm only made the humiliation that much worse.

Matt rushed into the kitchen, waving a newspaper at the smoke. “Whoa there! Let’s not add burned down house to our list of bizarre occurrences for the month.”

“Sorry. I guess I got distracted.”

Matt pulled the battery from the fire alarm. “No big deal, right? It might can be salvaged.”

He grimaced at the charged edges of the meat in the pan. “Or maybe the dog would like a treat.”

Cassie sighed. “I’m not sure even Barney should eat that.  I’ll just make the kids some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. You want one?”

“You know what, yeah. I haven’t one of those in years. Crustless?”

Cassie shook her head. “What are you, six?”

“Sentimental reasons,” Matt said with a wink. “My mom used to make them that way for me.”

Cassie pulled the bread out of the bread box and Matt slid the peanut butter and jelly across the counter.

“So, being quarantined with me has to be pretty boring for you, huh?” he asked.

“Not really,” she said with a smile, spreading peanut butter on slices of bread. “But it is weird seeing you here this time of day or, well, much at all.”

Matt winced softly. “Ouch.”

“Well, it’s not your fault. You’re busy.”

He couldn’t read her tone of voice but sadly it seemed more apathetic, more along the line of “that’s just the way it is” than anything else.

Matt leaned back against the counter, sliding his hands in his dress pants pockets. He looked at his dress shoes, chewing on his bottom lip, thinking. First, he thought about how absent he’d been in his family’s life. Then he thought about how he was quarantined at home but for some reason he was still wearing dress shoes, a dress shirt and tie, as if he was on his way to a meeting or a senate hearing.  He had apparently forgotten how to relax, unwind, and kick back.

He cleared his throat. “I guess I can go to change into something more comfortable. It doesn’t look like I’ll be doing anything business related for a few days anyhow.”

When he returned wearing a pair of sweatpants and a Garth Brooks t-shirt the children were already around the table, munching on sandwiches and drinking chocolate milk.

“Daddy! Sit next to me!” his youngest, Lauren, called, tapping the back of the chair next to her.

“Okay. I can do that.”

His son Tyler eyed him over his glass of chocolate milk as he drank from it. At the age of 13 he waffled between being bored and annoyed most of the time.

“It’s weird seeing you here,” Tyler said bluntly as Matt sat down.

Matt looked into his son’s bright blue eyes, noticing the acne starting to form along the top of his forehead near his closely cropped hairline. He wasn’t sure how to take the comment. Did Tyler mean “good weird” or “bad weird”? Should he ask? Did he even want to know?

Luckily, he didn’t have to decipher his son’s meaning for long.

“But it’s a good weird, right?” Cassie asked, as if she could read Matt’s mind, and after 15-years of marriage, she probably could.

Tyler grinned. “Yeah. It’s a good weird. Just weird.”

Gracie, his middle daughter, smiled sweetly at Matt and then giggled around a mouthful of sandwich.

“I like you being here, Daddy.”

Matt smiled back at her, reaching across the table to cover her hand with his. “I like it too, sweetie. Maybe something good will come out of all of this, huh? At least you will all see me a little more often.”

His gaze focused on Cassie and he saw she was watching him, but again he was having a hard time reading her expression. Was she happy they’d all be spending more time together? Or was the extra time with him simply a reminder for her how much she didn’t need him around anymore?

Fiction Thursday: Fully Alive Chapter 7 part 2

Find more of this novella in progress HERE. This chapter really isn’t complete but I hope to complete it in the next week or so — if my brain would ever slow down.




Atticus tightened the leather of his sandal, wincing as it laced into the blister on his ankle, bursting it open and sending blood trickling. He knew he should stop and rest, but he still had a day’s travel before he reached Capernaum and the commune he’d been directed to work with by the Apostle.

He sat back against the rock and slid the sandal off, ripping a piece of cloth off his robe and wrapping it tight around the blister. He was used to blisters and pain. He was used to caring for them by himself. He may no longer be a Roman soldier but he had carried what he learned from those days with him into this new chapter of his life, a chapter with even more uncertainty than his days as a soldier had been.

With the ankle bandaged he leaned back and reached for his wineskin, drinking cool water from it, water he had filled it with from a stream a few miles back. He thought as he drank, remembering what had brought him here at this point in his life, to a place he’d never expected to be.

The day the sky had gone dark in Jerusalem it hadn’t only been the foundation of the earth that had been shaken, but his personal foundation. Everything he had thought was real, was true, was important in life was shaken out and shown to be lacking.

***

“Atticus, you’re on crucifixion duty today.”

Marcus didn’t even look up from his scrolls as he spoke.

“Have I vexed you somehow, Centurion?”

Marcus scratched the tip of the feather across the a scroll, shaking his head, still not looking up. “No. We are short on men. They’re handling an issue in the red quarter and Pilate has ordered some Jewish teacher who thinks he is the son of God and two robbers crucified today. We need a replacement and you are who I’ve chosen.” He looked up at Atticus, jaw tight. “Don’t go soft on me, Atticus. All we need is crowd control. I won’t make you take the bodies off the crosses. This time anyhow. Go and report to Albus immediately.”

Atticus bowed his head in a curt nod, turned and walked from the garrison’s office, into blinding sunlight. He squinted, noticing the streets were more crowded than normal. He’d almost forgotten it was Passover. Jews were in Jerusalem full force, preparing to celebrate the day their ancient leader Moses had led them out of Egypt. Men, women, and children crowded the streets, pulling donkeys carrying food and supplies or simply walking and carrying their supplies with them on their backs.

Atticus wiped the back of his hand across his forehead, smearing sweat and dirt as he paused to watch the people walking. He pondered the devotion they possessed for this one God they followed, this Yahweh. He’d never understood it. He was raised to believe there were many gods and it took offering them sacrifices and performing well in life to appease them.

Perform well, live well. Make a mistake and suffer for it. It was all he’d ever known. But these Jews — they had been defeated time and time again, taken over by Rome, killed by the thousands, their bodies rotting in the desert, yet they still held on to the belief they were this god’s chosen people.

A few of the Jews were wealthy, yes. The priests, their religious leaders, and tax collectors or anyone who tied their allegiance to Rome. But for the most part most Jews were poor, living in squalor, many begging for food. Year after year, though, they journeyed here, feasting, gathering, worshipping their “one true God.”

Atticus scoffed as a beggar held up his hand, asking for money.

Ah, yes, of course, the one “true God” cared so much for them he but couldn’t even pull them from the depths of depravity and starvation. Atticus walked past the man, barely looking at him, sick of the beggars and the crowds and the long days and even longer nights. Dreams, nightmares really, had been waking him from sleep for weeks. Visions of his time in battle, of the men he had killed filled his mind nightly and he woken more than once in a cold sweat. Long soaks in the baths hadn’t helped. Prayers to Mars, the god of war, hadn’t helped. His past mocked him and it made him angry, sickness gnawing at his gut every day.

Now this. A change in his duties at the last minute. What mistake had he made to make the gods so angry at him? He knew it wasn’t having lain with too many women. It had been too long for that. So long he’d almost forgotten what the soft flesh of a woman felt like beneath his body. Walking through the crowd his eyes fell on a young Jewish woman, her body covered fully by her robes, as was their custom. She looked up at him, eyes bright and deep brown, like pools of a deep well. He walked slowly by her, his gaze roaming from her face down her throat, imagining his mouth there, kissing a trail as his hands explored where no man had probably ever explored before.

She dropped her gaze quickly, clutching her robe to her and he laughed scornfully at her innocence, at the innocence Jewish women held so closely to them, like a child clutching to a toy they thought would protect them. Innocence would not protect her. In the same way her god would not protect her. In the same way her god had not protected his so-called chosen people.

Voices grew louder as Atticus moved toward the edge of the city, toward where the crucifixions took place outside the city walls. A crowd had gathered along the streets, people pushing against each other, soldiers holding back the crowds.

“What’s all this?” Atticus asked Lucius, one of Albus’ men.

“Pilate ordered the death of a man some Jews are calling The Messiah and apparently everyone is here to watch him die,” Lucius answered, dragging a dirt covered hand across his face. “Our job is to keep the roadway cleared. The tribune in charged ordered this teacher, this so called King of the Jews, to carry his cross to Golgotha.

“Atticus!” Albus’ voice was sharp and booming as he pushed through the crowd. “You’re late. I want you along the street further up where it narrows. Keep it open. Take these men with you. Lucius included. They’re in your command.”

Albus was shorter and rounder than most Roman centurions but what he lacked in physical prowess he more than made up for in mental clarity and brutal rule. “Take whatever action you feel you must to keep the crowds back, short of killing. We have enough issues here without causing more of an uprising.”

Albus suggesting he not kill someone was new. Normally inflicting pain or death was Albus’ first suggestion to qwell a possible uprising.

“What is the name of this man being crucified?” he asked Lucius as they walked, the other men behind them.

“I know very little other than they call him their king,” Lucius told him. “Not all of the Jews, though. The priests are the one who called for his death. They said he was causing disruptions among their people.”

Atticus scowled as he walked, people pushing against him, some crying, some yelling, some looking confused and lost. He pushed to the front of the crowd, looked down the path and saw a man barely walking under the weight of a cross gouging a path in the dirt as he shuffled forward. Blood dripped from gouges on his back almost as deep as the one in the dirt made by the end of the cross.

 Atticus grimaced, throwing his arms out to the side to hold back the crowd. He couldn’t remember ever seeing such deep wounds from the flagellum. What had this man done to deserve such a beating? A crown made of thorns was pressed onto his head, sending droplets of blood into his face, smearing down it and dripping into the dirt.  

“Yeshua! Yeshua!” Atticus turned at the sound of a voice filled with despair to the right of him.

A young girl broke from the crowd, staggered forward and fell in the dirt near the man under the cross. Her fingers grazed the edge of the man’s bloody garment as she cried. The flash of sunlight off metal caught Atticus’ eye and he watched a soldier unsheathe his sword and step toward the girl.

Atticus stepped forward quickly and encircled the girl’s waist with one arm, pulling her back through the crowd, away from the punishment I’d the sword, sitting her on the ground hard.

“You can’t be here,” he growled. “It isn’t safe for a young girl.”

She looked up, dark brown eyes, similar to the eyes of the girl he’d seen before but younger, softer, brimming with tears. She gasped in a sob as he let her go, his rough hands slipping across her soft skin.

“Josefa!”

And older man rushed forward, pulled the girl to her feet, his eyes focused on Atticus as he backed away, taking the girl with them.

Atticus saw anger in the man’s eyes. Hatred even. Hatred of Rome, but also of him.

He watched the man pull the young girl back toward a woman and child near an olive tree. The family cowered together, watching him and the crowd with fear in their eyes.

There was a time when he enjoyed the fear in eyes looking back at him but for some reason it didn’t please him to see the fear in their eyes, especially the young girl’s.