Fiction Friday: A New Chapter Chapter 16

Welcome to Fiction Friday where I post a chapter from my current work in progress. There are often typos, plot holes, etc. in these chapters that I will fix in the future before I self-publish the book.

To catch up with the story, click HERE.

Chapter 16

Keith slid his sunglasses back on as they stepped outside the community hall.  “Well, that was fun. I’ll have to try this again sometime.”

Ginny tossed her art bag into the passenger side of her car. “It was. I haven’t sketched a live model since college.”

Ginny looked across the parking lot for Liz as she closed the car door. She saw her driving out of the parking lot and raised her hand in a quick wave. Her brow furrowed when Liz kept driving, looking straight ahead.

“I hope everything is okay with Liz,” she said, watching the car turn out of the parking lot. She turned and watched Matt climb into his truck. Had something happened between them? She’d have to ask Liz later.

Keith straddled his motorcycle and zipped up the leather jacket. “Ginny, I’d love to get together with you and Stan for dinner sometime.”

Ginny turned away from watching Liz’s car to look at Keith, trying to picture him and Stan sitting next to each other at a table. The thought made her a little woozy. “Oh, that would be nice.”

Keith winked before he slid his helmet on. “I’ll give you a call and we can find a day that will work for all of us. Tell ole’ Stan I said, ‘hey’.”

Ginny nodded then watched him drive away before sliding behind the steering wheel and letting out the breath she realized she’d been holding. How would that go down? Telling Stan her ex-boyfriend sent his greetings? She hadn’t even told Stan that Keith was back in town. Then again, Stan didn’t seem to hear much she said these days so it probably wouldn’t matter.

It had been nice to see Keith and even nicer how he’d noticed her haircut and complimented her. She knew she shouldn’t have enjoyed the dimple in his cheek when he smiled at her or the jokes they’d shared during the class, but she had. It was the most — how could she explain it?

Noticed. That was the word.

It was the most noticed she’d felt in years.

Her phone rang as she pushed the key in the ignition.

“Sorry I didn’t say goodbye before I left.” Liz sounded tired. “I guess I was preoccupied.”

“I wondered what was going on. Everything okay?”

“Yeah, just — yeah. It’s fine really.”

“Well, I tried to catch you before you left. I was wondering if you have time to stop by the house before you head home. I wanted to talk to you about a job idea.”

“Sure.” Liz sounded a little more cheerful now. “I have time.”

Ginny’s phone rang again as she pulled out onto the road. She tapped the speaker button.

“Hey, hon’. Just letting you know I won’t be home for dinner. I’m meeting Matt out at that property the commercial company is interested in.”

Ginny bit her tongue. How was this any different than any other day lately? “Okay.” She clipped the word out. She didn’t feel like saying much else.

“Talk later. I’m running into a dead zo—”

Ginny scowled at the phone and tossed it on to the seat next to her. Pulling into her drive a few moments later, she took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She really needed to pray about her attitude toward Stan. Having this much anger for one’s spouse wasn’t healthy or what God would want.

“Lord, help me calm down,” she whispered as she shut off the engine. “Or I might just smack him.”

She noticed the inside screen door was open as she walked up the front sidewalk and she knew she hadn’t left it open. Maybe it had been Stan.

Walking inside she glanced around the living room for anything out of the ordinary and all appeared well until she spotted a suitcase on the floor by the doorway leading to the dining room.

She recognized the black and brown case as the one they’d given Olivia when she’d left for college the year before.

Before she could call her daughter’s name, she heard the clink of glass against a countertop. She found Olivia in the kitchen pouring lemonade over ice in a tall glass.

“Olivia! What are you doing here?”

Olivia raised an eyebrow as she listed the glass. “Well, thanks, Mom. What a nice way to greet your daughter.”

Ginny embraced her youngest and stepped back. “Oh, I’m sorry, sweetie.” She took in Olivia’s blond hair pulled back in a loose ponytail, her heavy eyelids and make up free face. “I just wasn’t expecting you for a few more weeks. Is something wrong?” She didn’t need to ask really. She knew the answer.

Olivia sighed, sipping the lemonade. She shrugged a shoulder. “I just don’t fit in in California anymore, Mom.”

Ginny tipped her head slightly and looked at her daughter quizzically. “But you love California.”

Olivia shrugged her shoulder again. “Maybe not as much as I thought.”

Ginny tossed her bag onto the kitchen island and slipped easily into mom-mode, without realizing what she was doing. “Livvie, have you dropped out of school?”

Olivia opened her mouth to speak at the same moment Liz called from the front of the house.

“Ginny, are you here?”

Ginny kept her gaze on Olivia as she answered. “In the kitchen, hon’”

She didn’t miss the quirk of her daughter’s brow when she called Liz hon’.

Liz stepped into the kitchen with the car seat looped over one arm. Ginny took it from her and set it on the island in front of her. “Hello, little Bella. Did you have a good nap at our art class?”

She began unhooking the safety harness, anxious to hold the little one she’d come to love. “We were just at an art class. Bella’s mama and I have been taking art classes and today we had to sketch a live model.” She cradled Bella in her arms and smiled, delighted to see Bella trying to smile back. “Olivia, you know Liz.”

Oliva nodded. “Yeah. Hey, Liz. Nice to see you. I heard you had a baby. She’s beautiful.”

Ginny thought she heard slight tension in her daughter’s words, but she didn’t have the mentally energy to deduce the reason.

“How has California been?” Liz asked sliding onto a stool. “Your mom says you love it.”

Oliva sighed and reached for a cracker from a box open on the counter. “I think love is in past tense now. Honestly, I think I made the wrong decision.”

Liz winced. “Oh. I’m sorry to hear that.”

A brief silence settled over the room as Ginny continued to talk to Bella. Olivia munched on a cracker and Liz pretended to straighten the books sitting on the edge of the island.

Olivia cleared her throat. “Well, I don’t want to interrupt you two. I’m bushed from the trip anyhow. I’m going to head up and crash for a bit.”

“You don’t have to leave.” Ginny turned her attention away from the baby to Olivia. “I just wanted to talk to Liz about a job opportunity at the library.” She stretched one arm out to hug her daughter. “I’m so glad you’re home, Olivia. We can talk about everything else later, okay?”

Olivia nodded and walked toward the stairs, carrying her glass of lemonade. “I’m sure we will. I’d better rest up for this one. Where’s Dad?”

The muscles in Ginny’s face and neck tightened at the question and she hoped neither of the women noticed. “He’s looking at a property and then I’m sure he’ll be home.”

Oliva snorted on her way up the stairs. “Some things never change. That man is a workaholic.”

Ginny let out a slow breath and sat on a stool next to Liz. “That was certainly a surprise. I had no idea she was coming home. I’m happy to see her, but . . . Well, anyhow, you don’t need to hear about all that.” She winked at Liz. “I wanted to talk to you about a possible job at the library. It would only be part time for now, but we need someone for the childrens’ story hour. You’d help create programs for the story hour and other special events during the month and then fill in on Sara’s day off. What do you think?”

Liz made a face. “Oh gosh. I don’t know. I’m not good with children.”

Ginny laughed. “You’d better start practicing. You have one, you know.”

“Yeah, but she’s mine.” Liz laughed. “I just don’t like other people’s children.”

Ginny sat Bella back in the seat and walked to the cupboard for some tea. “At least think about it. It probably won’t be enough to support you and Bella, but it could help until you can find a full-time position.”

“I’ll definitely think about it. I really appreciate the offer.”

Ginny pulled out a box of tea and two mugs. “It will have to be approved by the board, of course, but they had already asked me to start putting out my feelers for someone. They asked about a month ago, but I got distracted with planning the fundraiser. That’s next weekend, if you want to come. It’s an afternoon tea and silent auction. Not the most adventurous event I’ve ever planned but I am still resisting the wine tastings they want me to do.”

She dropped tea bags into the mugs and filled the kettle. “The board thinks a wine tasting is a hip and progressive fundraiser, but they haven’t thought ahead to what can happen when some of the members of the community decide to do a little too much tasting, if you know what I mean.”

Liz sighed. “I definitely know what you mean.”

Ginny bit her lower lip, mentally chiding herself for bringing up the topic of drinking. Liz had already mentioned to her that alcohol had been a vice for her when she’d been living with Gabe. Time to change the subject. “So, everything okay with you and Matt?”

Her back was to Liz, but she desperately wanted to turn around and gauge Liz’s expression when she asked that question.

“Yeah. It’s fine.”

Ginny knew that defensive tactic well.

It’s fine. Code words for, “Things are not fine.”

She turned and slid a plate of cookies toward Liz. “You seemed upset when you left today. Are you sure things are fine?”

Liz took a bite out of a cookie and chewed slowly, her gaze focused on the window over the kitchen sink. It took a few seconds for her to answer. “Matt’s as nice as can be and I guess that’s the problem right now. He seems nice but he lied to me about something, and it’s really been bothering me. I just haven’t had a lot of time to figure out how to address it since I started classes.”

Ginny sat back on the stool while she waited for the water to boil. “What did he lie about?”

Liz glanced at her then at the stack of books in front of her. She hesitated a few seconds before speaking. “He never told me he was the responding officer that night in my apartment.”

Ginny’s eyes widened as she realized she was the one who had spilled those beans. “Oh, Liz. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything.”

“I would have found out eventually. What bothers me is that Matt never told me. He let me believe another officer had responded. I mean, I should have guessed. Spencer only has six officers and Matt works the night shift a lot. The odds that he would be there were pretty good.”

She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, watching Bella kick her feet and smile. “I didn’t have just have a fall that night. I know it’s what a lot of people think, but it wasn’t a normal medical emergency.”

She bit her lower lip, her eyes glistening. Ginny’s chest constricted. She’d known there was more to Liz’s story, but she’d never wanted to ask. The pain etched on Liz’s face was evident and while Ginny felt honored that Liz wanted to share the truth with her, she also wanted to blurt out that Liz shouldn’t feel the need to confess anything, that whatever happened that night wasn’t as important as how Liz was trying to live her life now.

“I tried to kill myself.”

Even though Ginny had already started to fill in the blanks, it didn’t make hearing the words any easier. She decided to not be a mother and pepper Liz with questions or pull her into an embrace, instead letting her share as much or as little as she wanted.

“I took five pregnancy tests. I couldn’t believe it. I thought about all I had done in the last year and a half that had gone against who I was, how disgusted in me that my parents already were, how disgusted I was in myself. I panicked.” Tears slipped from the corners of Liz’s eyes, rolling down her cheeks. “I just wanted to make it all stop. The shame. The voices in my head telling me I was horrible, and I’d always be horrible. I knew I couldn’t have a baby. I wasn’t thinking clearly. I took a handful of the painkillers I’d had left over from my knee surgery and waited to fall asleep, but within seconds of swallowing them I was panicking again.”

She let out a shaky breath and looked at Ginny. “I didn’t want to die. I didn’t want the innocent life inside of me destroyed. I tried to throw the pills up while I called 911. I threw up some but not enough and I was already blacking out when I heard pounding on the door.”

She closed her eyes and gasped in a breath. “I’m so ashamed Ginny. I’ve never told anyone else what happened that night. I lied to my parents, to Molly and to Matt and after awhile I even started to believe the lie myself. I’ve tried to pretend that I didn’t do any of that, but I can’t pretend anymore. It’s all unraveling and what I don’t understand is why Matt keeps sticking around. I’m messed up. He knows that. Maybe he just pities me.”

Ginny shook her head. “No. I don’t believe that. He cares about you, Liz. We all do. I’m so sorry you’ve held on to this for so long.”

Liz wiped at the tears on her cheeks and then accepted the tissue Ginny handed her and blew her nose.

The whistle of the kettle brought Ginny back to her feet. She pulled the kettle from the burner and poured the water in the waiting mugs. “The way you need to think about it is that Matt knows all these things about you, yet he still cares for you. That’s a good thing, isn’t it? It’s kind of like how God cares about us despite our failings.”

Liz narrowed her eyes, a small smile pulling at the corners of her mouth. “Ginny Jefferies, did you just compare Matt McGee to God? Seriously?” She laughed through her tears. “I mean, I know half the town thinks he’s a saint, but come on. Let’s not push it.”

Ginny laughed loudly, her hand against her chest. “Oh no. I didn’t even realize how that sounded. No, of course I am not comparing Matt to God. Matt is a man. He’s not perfect and he was wrong to lie to you about that night, but Liz.” She leaned forward and covered Liz’s hand with hers. “You need to talk to him about it. I’m sure he had a good reason. He loves you. You may not believe it, but I can see it. He loves you and if he doesn’t tell you soon, I’m going to kick him in his behind as motivation.”

Liz mocked gasped. “Ginny! I thought you were a sweet Christian woman and here you are talking about kicking people in the butt.”

Ginny winked. “Well, sometimes even sweet Christian women reach their limits.”

Liz shook her head and laughed softly. “Matt and I are friends, Ginny. That’s all. He’s a good friend. He’s been there for me when I’ve needed him the most and that’s why it bothers me so much that he was there that night and didn’t say anything. It’s just yet another humiliating experience of mine he’s witnessed.”

Ginny smiled as she watched Liz blow her nose again and accept another tissue to wipe the tears from her cheeks. Someday this young lady was going to wake up and realize what she had right in front of her and Ginny hoped it didn’t take years for it to happen.

Dropping a spoonful of honey in her tea, Ginny stirred it slowly and thought about how she’d reached her limit with more than just Matt McGee not admitting his feelings for Liz. She knew she should practice what she’d preached to Liz and tell Stan how she was feeling. Unfortunately, Stan hadn’t been very open to conversations lately and telling him how she felt might have to be done during a full-on blow-out argument at this point.

Fiction Thursday: A New Chapter Chapter 14 Part One

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

I will not have a post for Christmas Eve, partially because I don’t have the second part of the chapter finished.

Chapter 14

The run had felt good. Had long had it been since she’d gone on a run?

Liz didn’t even know but now that she had this whole blood sugar and fluid intake while breastfeeding thing figured out, or mostly figured out, she felt like she could start exercising again. Thankfully she’d only run out of energy a small distance from the apartment and had been able to make it back without having to call Molly for a ride.

Now, standing in the shower, the water pouring down her, she tried to chase away of the chill autumn morning. She didn’t have long to do it, though. It was her first day back at work and her mom, unfortunately, was on her way over to watch Bella. Rubbing the shampoo into her hair, she thought about a show she’d watched the day before.

The woman being interviewed by a counselor was dealing with panic attacks, much like Liz still was from time to time.

“What’s one happy memory you’ve had in the last year or so?” the counselor had asked the woman. “A child being born? An event you attended maybe? I want you to focus on that memory when you start to panic. I want you to take yourself back to that moment, or one moment, and visually walk yourself through the moment that brings you joy, as if you are experiencing it again through your mind.”

Liz started to think about her own good memories, specifically those over the last year. Yes, Bella’s birth was one, but when she thought of one of the last times she could remember really laughing Liz had found herself mentally catapulted back to a night of bowling with Matt three months before her encounter with Gabe.

She’d only been bowling a couple of times before and it showed. Matt finally asked if she’d like the bumper rails up so the ball would stop going into the gutter.

“No! I’ll get it!”

She’d scolded him but she was laughing so hard tears were in her eyes.

On one try she almost flew with the ball across the slippery floor and Matt had had to catch her, holding her up against his side to keep her from going with the ball. They’d both been laughing so hard they’d almost fallen again and when she looked up at him, she’d been mesmerized by his smile and the sparkle in his eyes. She’d had a brief thought, which she’d pushed aside quickly. The thought that she wished she’d gotten to know Matt better, before she’d become involved with Gabe.

Gabe who she’d known wasn’t good for her but who paid her attention when others didn’t. A man who half the women in town thought was “hot, dangerous, and a total catch.” She’d thought the same at first and that’s probably why it had taken her so long to admit their relationship was on a fast track to nowhere. That and he was controlling, manipulative, and seemed to have only started dating her because he saw her as someone he could practice all those attributes on.

Worse than all of that was that she had let him control and manipulate her. He’d manipulated her through his words, his touch, the way he’d told her she turned him on the way no one else had before. If that was true then he shouldn’t have needed those other women, the ones who hung around him at parties and laughed at his jokes or the one she found him making out with in their friend’s bathroom during a party. He’d claimed she’d been kissing him, and he’d been trying to push her away.

Liz hadn’t believed him but, well, he’d been drinking. He’d messed up and he still cared about her so maybe he’d straighten up and stop drinking as much now. He’d promised he would and for a month he had. They’d spent their evenings at home watching movies, going to the gym together, and sometimes going for walks together.

Then she’d reached in the couch one night looking for the remote and there it had been. A pink bra with red flowers splattered all over it. A bra much less practical than what she usually wore, something he’d often commented on, in fact. She’d stared at it a few seconds before registering that one, it wasn’t her bra, and two, it had been shoved in her couch. The one she’d picked out at the local furniture store. She’d jumped up from the couch and stared at it in horror.

Could it had been left over from one of their parties? No. She’d never had enough to drink that she would have forgotten someone doing that on their couch.

She knew.

She’d known for a long time.

What was she doing? Living this way? After all the talks she’d given Molly about being good enough, about being worth more than she thought. Now she needed to give herself the talk.

She didn’t even wait for Gabe to come home. She’d called Molly, packed her bags, and finally walked away, into a new future.

Or so she thought.

She shut off the shower and reached for a towel, thinking about how Matt had been with her each step of her pregnancy. Telling him she was pregnant in the first place had been beyond awkward. She’d told him when he’d called to ask her to the movies.

“McGee, listen. I don’t know if anyone told you, but,” she’d swallowed hard and taken a deep breath. She knew this would be the end of his phone calls. “I’m pregnant.”

“Oh. I didn’t think you and Gabe —”

“We aren’t together anymore. I —” she’d wanted to say she’d messed up, but she really didn’t want to hash all that out with the man she’d fallen for but knew was out of her league.

She’d thought that would be the end of it. He’d stop calling, stop coming over to hang out with her and Molly and Alex. He’d make himself scarce.

But he didn’t. Instead, he’d asked her if she needed a ride to the doctors the day her car had broken down. He had driven her to her next four appointments, but he wouldn’t have had to if Bert Tanner had worked a little quicker to fix her car.

After the doctor’s appointments, Matt had invited her to lunch, asked if she’d be at the apartment when they held movie nights, and asked if she would like to go to fishing with him.

They weren’t an actual couple, yet he’d been there for many important moments in the last year; a little too much there the day of Bella’s birth.

And now she knew he’d even been there at her apartment that night. Had he known then that she was pregnant?

She wrapped the towel around her hair and dressed in the t-shirt and shorts she’d worn to bed. Once again, she’d forgot to bring her new change of clothes with her.

 Heading toward her bedroom to find the clothes she planned to wear to her first day back at work, a knock at the door stopped her, but she hesitated.

She was wearing a towel around her head and no bra. She bit her bottom lip and took a chance. She didn’t have to open the door all the way.

“Hey.”

Matt smiled from the small space between the door and the door frame. Sunlight caught the glint of golden in his eyes

“Hey,” she said back.

“Can I come in?”

The man who had lied to her about knowing about her suicide attempt wanted to come in? The man she’d tried to call two days earlier but had been somewhere they couldn’t talk and then hadn’t even bothered to call her back? Not that a phone call was the best way to talk about it anyhow. “No. I just got out of the shower.”

He furrowed his eyebrows and folded his arms across his chest. He was in uniform, apparently on his way to the office. “Um, Liz. You do know that I delivered your baby so I —”

“Seriously, McGee?”

He grinned. “I’m just saying that there is no need to be modest at this point.”

She rolled her eyes as she flung the door open and walked into the living room area.

“I wish you wouldn’t bring that up. It’s really embarrassing for me.”

His tone had softened but she still didn’t turn to look at him as she tipped her head forward and tightened the towel on her head. “Liz, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t keep picking on you about that. Listen, for what it’s worth, I wasn’t actually focused on anything other than Bella that day. I really didn’t see anything. I mean, you know, I just caught her and didn’t —we covered you with my coat so I really only reached in and caught her.”

Liz sighed. “I know. You’ve said this before. It’s still just awkward for me.”

“I know. I’m sorry.” He paused as she dropped a couple pieces of bread in the toaster. “Anyhow, I brought you something.”

She turned and he was holding a small bottle toward her. “What’s this?”

“It’s for your anxiety.”

Her eyes narrowed. “My what?”

“Your postpartum anxiety. It might help some and it should be safe to take while nursing. It’s CBD oil.”

“What makes you think —”

“You get the same look my sister used to get when she was battling panic attacks after she had her second. They came out of nowhere, most of the time for no reason. It was a physical reaction too, not in her head. She tried to hide them, but she had one at church one day and couldn’t slow her breathing. She almost passed out. All the ladies at church meant well and kept reciting Philippians 4:7, telling her to be anxious for nothing. They didn’t seem to understand her hormones were trying to regulate and triggering the attacks. That might be what’s happening with you. I don’t know but it can’t hurt to try and see if it helps.”

How did he do it? How did he see through her so easily?

Could he see inside her now? Did he know how upset she was that he didn’t tell her he’d been there that night?

She took the bottle slowly. “Thank you.”

She set the bottle on the counter and buttered her toast, her back to him.  “Is something wrong?” he asked. “You seem tense this morning.”

“I’m fine. Just nervous about my first day back.”

“Your mom is watching Bella?”

“Sadly, yes.”

He stepped in front of her as she reached for the refrigerator door. “You’ll do fine, you know.”

She looked up at him and his green eyes met hers. They swam with concern and she knew she should tell him what she was really upset about, but she couldn’t. She had to get dressed and go to work. She didn’t have time to hash out what he’d witnessed that night in her apartment.

She swallowed hard. “Thank you for the CBD oil.”

He nodded, breaking his gaze with her. “You’re welcome. You can ask Linda more about it at the store. I’m sure she knows all about it.” Pink flushed across his cheeks as he stepped back to the other side of the table. “Or, well, you probably already know about it after working there for the last three years.”

She wanted to giggle at how shy he suddenly seemed, but she was also still angry at him. The waring emotions in her made her want to run away but luckily a knock on the door interrupted them and she stepped out of the kitchen to answer it.

Marge swept past her as soon as she opened the door. “Sorry I’m late. I had to stop at the church and pick up some books for the ladies group tonight. We’re starting a new series.” She pulled her jacket off and turned to hang it on one of the pegs next to the door, pausing when she saw Matt.

“Oh.” She smiled, looking over her shoulder at him as she hung her coat up. “Hello, Matt.”

He nodded. “Hello, Mrs. — I mean, Marge.”

Liz didn’t even want to know what her mother was thinking at that moment. This was the first time they’d all been in the same room since her mom and her had had their blow up about the birth announcement.

Marge and Matt looked at each other for a few moments and Liz silently prayed neither of them would broach the elephant in the room. Finally Matt broke the stand off by clearing his throat.

“Welp, have to get to work, so you ladies have a good day.”

“You too,” Liz said. Please hurry and leave.

Marge drew in a breath and Liz tensed. “Matt, wait, I—” She let out a slow breath and looked at the floor. “Matt, I think, I mean I’m wondering if you told the people at the hospital you were Bella’s father to protect Liz and Bella.”

Matt stood with his hand on the doorknob and nodded, looking directly at Marge as she raised her gaze again. “Yes, ma’am, that’s what I was doing. It wasn’t really well thought out, I realize that, but the nurse already thought I was the father, so it wasn’t much of a jump. I did ask her to keep it out of the paper, but she must have forgotten. I apologize if this has caused any difficulties for your family.”

Marge sighed. “It hasn’t caused anything difficult for us, it’s you I’m worried about Matt. What others might think of you. What the people at church are thinking.”

Matt laughed. “I’m not worried about that Marge.” His expression became serious again and his gaze drifted to Liz. “Liz and Bella are more important to me than all of that.”

Liz swallowed hard and she felt like instead of only being braless she was standing naked in her kitchen with Matt and her mom both looking at her, as if waiting for a response. She couldn’t respond, though. She didn’t know what to say. He’d never said anything so blunt to her before and she was having a hard time wrapping her mind around it.

“Anyhow,” he said before she had a chance to respond. “Off to work. You ladies have a good day.”

Liz turned toward her bedroom as soon as he closed the door behind him. She was not having a conversation with her mom about this right now. “I’m going to go get dressed.”

She filled her time before walking out the door filling her mom in on where the bottles of breastmilk were, how to warm them, and where the extra diapers were, not giving her a chance to broach the topic of Matt.

“Bye, Mom.” She rushed for the door. “Thanks again.”

“Good luck, honey!” her mom called after her.

In the car Liz gripped the steering wheel and took a deep breath. She needed to focus on her first day back at work, not on Matt McGee.

Why had he said it that way? That she and Bella were more important to him than what people thought of him? And in front of her mom.

She growled in frustration as she turned the car toward the health food store, anxious to get her first day out of the way.

Fiction Friday: The Next Chapter. Chapter 11

To catch up with other parts of this novel in progress, click HERE.

Chapter 11

Encounter Church wasn’t only the largest church in the area when it came to congregation size. Its building stretched much further than any other church structure in Spencer Valley and anywhere in a 60-mile radius.

The building housed a full-size gym with a basketball court, a moderately large sanctuary set up stadium-style, a state-of-the-art sound system, and separate rooms that stretched down long, well-lit hallways and served as a spacious nursery, two conference rooms, and six adult Sunday School rooms.

In the lower level, there were rooms for Sunday School from kindergarten to high school, as well as a kitchen stocked and furnished as if it was in a culinary school.
This wasn’t the church Matt had grown up in and it wasn’t the type of church he ever saw himself being a member of up until a couple of years ago.

Now, though, he couldn’t imagine attending anywhere else. The music was outstanding, the pastor’s sermons were electrifying, and the congregation had become like family to Matt, even more so after his dad passed away.

“Matt! Good morning!” Jake Landers stood from the table he’d been sitting at in the Sunday School room and held out a hand.

“Glad to have you with us tonight.”

Matt took the older man’s hand and shook it firmly. “Glad to be here. I finally got a Wednesday night off.”

Jake shook his head as he sat. “I don’t know how you do it, kid. You go 1,000 miles an hour all day every day and still look refreshed.”

Matt laughed as he sat his Bible down and reached for an empty mug by the Keurig machine. “I might look refreshed, but I don’t often feel it.”

He waited for the mug to fill with the hazelnut cream flavored coffee he had chosen and then stirred in a dash of creamer and a packet of sugar. By the time he was done, the room was filling up with more men and they were seating themselves in the comfy chairs set up in a circle around the room.

He had been trying to attend this men’s group for a couple of months now. He needed this pick-me-up, the reminder that he wasn’t alone in his struggles and in sometimes feeling emotionally and spiritually drained.

The session turned out to be exactly what he needed and when it was over, he felt a renewed energy as he walked toward the gym to meet with a group of teenage boys he had agreed to mentor through a bi-monthly youth Bible study.

When it concluded, he challenged the seven boys to a pick-up game of basketball while they waited for their parents. The game reminded him he wasn’t young as he used to be and despite being a police officer, he also wasn’t as in shape as he should be.

“See you next week for a rematch, old man,” Trevor Banks called to him as he left the gym.
Matt grinned and waved back. “Challenge accepted, Stretch. I’ll be ready for you next time.”

He collected his Bible and notebook from the floor against the wall and as he looked up, he saw the head pastor Taylor Jenson strolling toward him, his charismatic smile firmly in place.

“Matt. Good evening.” He spoke in his familiar, smooth Southern accent that hadn’t faded in the least in the ten years since he’d lived in the north. He stuck out his hand and once again Matt was struck with how tall the man was and how the cowboy boots he wore with his crisp blue jeans and polo shirts made him even taller and even a more imposing figure.

“Pastor. How’s it going?”

“Good. The Bible study go well?”

Matt nodded and filled the pastor in on the young men and how each one was doing.

“That’s great, Matt.” Taylor slid his hands in his front pockets and propped his side against the gym wall. “Listen, I need to talk to you about something.”

Matt propped his Bible under his arm, hoping the pastor wasn’t asking him to take on another commitment. His schedule was completely booked.

Taylor looked at the floor and tugged at his earlobe, a move Matt had seen before, usually when Taylor was about to bring up a tough subject he really didn’t want to address. “I had a couple calls today from some members of the congregation. A couple of them were parents, a couple weren’t. They had some concerns about you leading the youth after what they read in the paper this week.”

“What they read in the paper?” Matt wasn’t following. What had been in the paper that might — “Oh. The birth announcement.”

Taylor winced and brought his gaze back up. “Yeah. That.”

Matt’s words about not caring what others thought about the announcement echoed back in his mind. Maybe he hadn’t thought this all the way through.

“They’re just a bit concerned about you leading the youth, being an example to them if you’ve had a child out of wedlock.”

Taylor was rubbing the back of his neck now, then held his hand there. “I didn’t know what to say to them. I didn’t even know you’d had a baby until someone showed me the announcement. I mean, I had seen you with Liz, taking her to some appointments, but I had no idea you were even dating.”

Matt blew out a breath and chewed on the inside of his bottom lip for a few minutes. “We’re not.”

“Oh.”

“No, I mean — it’s just. Liz and I are friends. I’m not her baby’s father. I told the nurse I was to keep Liz from having to connect her baby to the real father. I asked the nurse not to send the announcement to the paper, but I guess there was some kind of mix up.”

Taylor whistled, his hand still on the back of his neck as he tipped his head back. “Oh, man. That’s crazy.” He tipped his head back down and laughed softly. “I had a feeling there was a bigger story here. Sounds like you were trying to do the right thing.” He kicked at the gym floor with the tip of his boot. “It’s put us in a tough spot here at the church, though. I don’t want to reveal your private business but at the same time, I don’t know how to answer the parents without doing that very thing.”

Matt pushed his hands into his jean pockets and shook his head. “I don’t want to put the church in a difficult position. Why don’t I just step down for a bit, until I figure out how to handle this? I told Liz we should just ignore it, go on with our lives, and maybe I should explain it to some people, but I don’t know how to do it without making Liz look bad.”

Taylor sighed. “I really hate to do that to you, Matt. You’re an important part of this church, a leader to these boys.”

“But I’ll also be gone in a couple of weeks. You’ll have to find someone new to step in anyhow. I’ll just step down a little early.”

Taylor nodded. “That’s true. I guess that will save us both from the awkwardness.” He rubbed his hand across his chin. “I really am sorry about this. You’re a good guy, Matt. If there is anything I can do, please let me know. Can I pray for you at least?”
“Of course. Prayer is always welcome.”

Taylor took the time to pray for Matt left and then men shook hands. A few minutes later Matt was behind the steering wheel of his truck, laughing to himself. If he wasn’t leaving for the academy in a couple of weeks that conversation would have caused him more concern. He easily could have been offended that the church members who had a concern hadn’t approached him before they approached the pastor. At the same time, their concern made sense. Who would he be to tell a group of boys that waiting to have sex before marriage would protect their hearts and their bodies if he himself had been sleeping with a woman he wasn’t married to?

It did feel a bit like a betrayal that part of the congregation had made up their mind about him without even asking about the situation, but he wouldn’t have been able to ask someone about something so personal either.

He could just imagine approaching a person whose name had been listed as the father of someone’s baby when no one even knew they were in a relationship. “Hey, so . . .um . . . About this baby thing . . .”

Yeah. It would definitely be an awkward conversation to have.

He turned the radio on and tapped his hand against the steering wheel to a Christian song playing on his favorite radio station.

It was his decision to tell that nurse he was Bella’s father. No, he hadn’t thought it through, but he had to live with it and in the end, it would be worth it, as long as it meant Bella and Liz wouldn’t have any official ties to Gabe Martin.

***

“I can’t believe I did it.”

Ginny turned her head and tilted it to get a better look at her hair. While it had previously fallen across her shoulders when she let it down, it now stopped at ear level. She blew out a slow breath, tilting her head up again. What was Stan going to think about this impulsive move? She truly wasn’t sure.

Liz stood behind her, admiring her own shorter cut. “It looks fantastic, Ginny. Seriously. You’re drop-dead gorgeous. Just wait until Stan sees you. He won’t be able to keep his hands off you.”

Ginny’s chest tightened. Wouldn’t he, though? He was certainly able to keep his hands off her a lot these days. She couldn’t even remember the last time he’d hugged her, let alone held her in his arms.

“Well, I don’t know about that, but your cut certainly came out great. It will be a lot easier to manage for you, which will be great for when you start back next week.”

Liz pulled her lower lip between her teeth, still looking at her hair in the bathroom mirror, pulling the strands against her jawline. “I can’t believe my maternity leave is already over. It was nice of Linda to even give it to me. I don’t think it was easy for her to give me that much time off.”

She ruffled her hair and pouted. “Look, I look like a brunette Taylor Swift that time she chopped her hair. Well, the haircut does at least. Not the rest of me.”

Ginny cocked an eyebrow. “Who?”

Liz snorted. “A pop singer whose music I don’t even like.”

“Oh. Well, I’m old. That’s probably why I’ve never heard of her.”

“Be glad. You’re not missing much other than a lot of sappy songs about broken hearts.”

Ginny touched her finger to her chin. “Oh wait. Is she the one who breaks up with men and then writes songs about her breakups?”

Liz laughed as she picked up a brush and pulled it across her hair. “Yes. That’s her. Maybe I should have written a song after I left Gabe. I might could have made a few bucks.”

She turned and looked at Ginny, at the way Missy had angled her hair so it was short in the back and longer along the sides. Ginny looked ten years younger, if not more. Her entire persona seemed brighter now. Maybe this would help raise the heaviness the woman had around her some days. Maybe her husband would see her and whisk her out the door for a fancy dinner, bringing a bright spot to her day. She certainly deserved it.

“Is Stan going to be home tonight?”

Ginny shook her head. “No. We’re going to a real estate banquet together. He’s up for real estate agent of the year for the region.”

Liz’s eyebrows raised. This was a change from Ginny’s usual answers to questions about Stan. Most of the time he was away on business or not home at all. “That’s awesome. He’s finally taking a night away from work and taking you out to boot. Way to go Stan.”

Soft pink spread along Ginny’s cheekbones as she hooked an earring in. “Yeah, it should be a nice night out. We haven’t been out in —” The pink darkened to crimson. “Well, a while anyhow.”

Liz leaned back against the dresser behind her and gnawed at her thumbnail, pondering the color along Ginny’s cheeks. Was it brought on by anticipation or something else?

“Do you think he’ll win?”

“He has before and he’s been even busier this year so I’d be surprised if he doesn’t.”

Liz didn’t hear the excitement in Ginny’s voice she thought she should. She studied the woman for a moment then let her gaze drift across Ginny’s bedroom to the lightly -colored dresser and the mirror attached to it, the queen-sized bed set up high off the ground, covered in what looked like a handmade quilt of various colors, to the peach-colored walls and pillows that matched the walls. The headboard and armoire against the wall near the bed matched the dresser she was leaning against and a walk-in closet was open on the other side of the room.

“This is a beautiful house, Ginny.”

“You’ve never been in here?” Ginny turned her while adjusting her other earring. “I thought you were here for the engagement party.”

Liz shook her head. “Just the backyard. I was so focused on feeling out of place and left out I barely noticed even that.” She walked toward the walk-in closet. “I would say I’ve matured since then but it’s a work in progress, as you know. Hey.” She reached for a black gown hanging in the closet. “This is lovely. You should wear this tonight.” A white blouse with a silver sheen caught her eye and she reached for it too. “Oh, and you could put this over it. It would set off your eyes.”

She turned to see Ginny blushing again. “You think so? I don’t know. Maddie bought that for me two years ago and I just — well, I never — I didn’t have anywhere to wear it. I thought about wearing it to last year’s banquet but it seemed a little too . . .” Her voice trailed off and she shrugged. “Revealing? Sexy? I don’t know.”

Liz laid the dress and blouse on the bed. “It’s hot is what it is and you will look hot in it. Stan isn’t even going to want to go to the banquet when he sees you in it. He’s going to want to get you right back out of it again.”

The blush had spread to Ginny’s neck and chest now and she laid a hand at the nape of her neck as if to stop it.
“Oh — well, I don’t know about that but I — I mean, I could wear it, I guess.”

Liz walked to the dresser and flipped open the jewelry box. “I bet you have a necklace that would go great with this.” She shut the box abruptly and turned away from it. “Oh, my word. What am I doing? I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be getting into your things like that.”

Ginny laughed and opened the box again. “Actually, I would appreciate your advice and opinion. I haven’t really dressed up in a while. I do have a couple necklaces that might work.”

The women looked through the necklaces for a few moments. Liz pulled her gaze away when her phone dinged. She reached for it and checked the message.

She sighed. “It’s McGee. Asking what to bring for dinner.”

Ginny swung around with a gold necklace in her hand and placed a hand on her hip. “Dinner, eh?”

Liz scowled playfully. “Calm down. It’s like a potluck dinner. Molly, Alex, Ellie, and Jason are all going to be there too. Then we’re going to watch Ellie and Jason’s wedding video.”

She texted a response and tossed the phone onto the bed. “Matt and I are just friends. Like I told you.”

Ginny held the necklace up in front of her while she looked in the mirror. “A friend who is clearly in love with you. I get it.”

Liz scoffed. “He is not in love with me. He’s just a good friend. I mean, don’t get me wrong, he’s a very good friend. He’s been there for me in the worst moments of my life and in the best. He brought me food when I was too big and sick to get around when I was pregnant. He drove me to a few appointments when my car broke down. He, well, obviously delivered Bella. He’s also stopped by plenty of times and held her while I cleaned the apartment or took a nap. He’s just a good guy. You know that. He’s good to everyone.”

Ginny held up another necklace, narrowing her eyes as she studied her reflection in the mirror. “He’s not as good to everyone as he is to you, and I can’t say I’ve ever heard him say he was in love with you, but I do know that he was very upset when you had that fall at your apartment last year.”

Liz’s chest constricted and a lump pushed up into her throat. Her hand trembled as she straightened the dress she’d lain on the bed, averting her eyes from Ginny. “What do you mean?”

“Stan said Matt asked for prayer for you during the men’s Bible study a couple nights after you were taken to the hospital. He didn’t give any details, but said there had been an accident and he’d arrived before the ambulance.”

The room suddenly seemed small and tight as Liz sat on the edge of the bed and took a deep breath. Matt was at her apartment that night? She’d known there was an officer there, but she’d been told it was Tom Landry, Matt’s older partner. If

Matt had been there, why had he never told her?

The idea of him seeing her, barely conscious, at the worst moment of her life. Bile clutched at her throat and she gagged.
Ginny whirled to look at her. “Uh-oh. Are those tacos we stopped for causing an issue?”
She shook her head against Ginny’s concern then changed her mind and nodded. “Actually, yes, they are a little. Will you excuse me?”


She found the bathroom down the hall, doubled over the toilet as she shut the door, and gagged again. She closed her eyes tight, desperate to remember the voices that night. Had Matt’s been one of them? She couldn’t remember. She needed to remember.

Dear God . . . Please no.

So when she’d first lied to him, said she’d accidentally taken too many pills from a prescription for painkillers for her knee, he’d known all along. He’d most likely even known she was pregnant. She wretched into the toilet bowl, grasping the seat as colors played across her vision.

Reaching for a piece of toilet paper, she wiped it across her mouth and shook her head. He’d never said a thing. He hadn’t told her he already knew. That had been almost a year ago. And he’d never said a thing. She couldn’t believe it.
He had now twice seen her at her most vulnerable. If the earth opened up right now and swallowed her whole she wouldn’t have been totally fine with it.

“Really God? How much more do you need to punish and humiliate me for what I did?”

She stood and turned the sink on, cupping a handful of water to wash her mouth out with. She pictured herself in the bathroom floor of her apartment that night, desperately trying to get the pills to come back up again. She hadn’t wanted to die. Not really. She’d simply panicked. She hadn’t wanted the baby to die either. She hadn’t even really accepted there was a baby yet.

In those moments when she shoved those pills in her mouth, she had told herself it was the best way to keep her parents from finding out how she’d been living, from Molly being disappointed in her, from feeling the same day after day. But at the moment she stuck her finger back against her tonsils a different kind of panic had set in. A panic that she might actually die, that she’d never had a chance to say goodbye to Molly or her sister.

There was a baby to think about. The baby hadn’t done anything to deserve a death sentence. She had to stop the pills from taking effect and there was no way they wouldn’t. She’d downed half a bottle of opioid painkillers.

Praying to God, she had begged while vomit trickled down her chin. It obviously wasn’t enough vomit to bring the pills back up because blackness had encroached across her vision quickly. She had chased the darkness away with a deep breath that was more like a gasping scream.

“Jesus! Save me!”

She couldn’t even feel the phone in her hand when she’d hit the 9 and collapsed against the cool linoleum.

A knock on the bathroom door ripped her from the memory and back to the present. She tried to gather herself, remind herself she wasn’t in her old apartment, begging to live. She was at Ginny’s and she needed to get it together already. She splashed her face with water and snatched the hand towel to dry herself off.

“Liz? Honey? You okay in there.”

“Yes, I’m fine. I’ll be right out.”

There she went again, lying. How many times in her life was she going to tell everyone she was fine when she clearly wasn’t?

No matter.

She smoothed her newly cropped hair back, took a deep breath, and forced what she hoped was a natural-looking smile on her face.

Faking happiness had become like breathing to her.

This time would be no different.

Fiction Thursday: The Next Chapter. Chapter 10

I’m posting a chapter on Thursday because Bettie asked me to. That is all.

To catch up with the story click HERE or see the link at the top of the page.

Chapter 10

She glared at her reflection, at the boring, straight strands falling around her shoulders, and wished she was young again.
When she was younger, she could cut her hair and feel like a different person. Not now. Nothing she did made Ginny feel like a different person. She was the same, boring, never-does-anything-exciting woman she always was, whether her hair was pulled back in a ponytail or hanging across her shoulders.

Still, maybe a change would help her feel less stuck somehow. She pulled the hair up on her head and held it in place with her hands, turning her head and looking at the effect in the mirror.
Maybe she should have it styled differently. Or cut it short.
What would Stan think, though?

She snorted.

He’d never even notice.
His nose was buried too far into real estate paperwork.
She picked up her phone as it rang. She heard her thoughts in Liz’s voice. “I want to make a change and I’m starting with my hair. Is that stupid?”
Ginny huffed out a breath blowing at a strand of hair that had fallen across her forehead. A strand of hair that had once been blond but now featured streaks of gray. “No. Not at all because it’s the same thought I had.”
“I’ll get us an appointment with Missy.”

Missy Fowler? Ginny had always gone to Betty Richardson. Missy was for young women. Her styles were more modern, bolder, and — exactly what she needed.

“See if she has anything Friday afternoon. I’m free then.”

***

Most of the time she didn’t think about the night with the pill bottle clutched in her hand, the way she’d swallowed all those pills and wanted it all to end but then all of the sudden, when her chest had gotten tighter and her breathing was shallow, she suddenly didn’t want it all to end.

She’d tried to throw it all up but it didn’t work, no matter how many times she shoved her finger into the back of her throat.

Her hand had trembled when she reached for the phone, her vision blurring as she hit the number 9, as far as she got but luckily enough for her cellphone to tap into the local emergency center.

She’d tasted bile and choked out the words around a rush of vomit. “Help me.”

When she woke up bright lights blazed into her eyes, deep into her brain. Voices swirled in her mind, running together, overlapping, making no sense.

“Pills . . . floor . . . bottle . . . Hold her down we need to get an IV in . . . pregnancy test. Check that, Tom.”

She hadn’t known who Tom was at the time. Maybe that good-looking emergency room doctor she later found out Jessie Landry was dating, which means he obviously had no taste anyhow. Later she learned Tom Stapleton was Matt’s partner, a veteran police officer, on the force some 20-years. He must have been the responding officer, the first to arrive before the ambulance. She wished she could remember but by then her world had begun to fade around her and she’d started imagining her friends and family crowded around her casket in Homer’s Funeral Home.

Matt’s partner was how he had found out about her being in the hospital. Tom had thought the two were dating and asked Matt if she was okay. The day Matt came into the hospital room to check on her she had wished her bed would transform into a venus fly trap so she could disappear inside.

She’d smoothed a hand back through her hair but she knew it wasn’t going to help. She was a mess. There was no getting around it.

Matt’s expression had been hard to read. He seemed to be trying to be cheerful but there was something else lingering behind his eyes. Was it concern? Disgust? Liz seized on the disgust interpretation in that moment because it was the emotion she held toward herself. Absolute and total disgust. How had she sunk so low that first she was pregnant with the baby of a man she despised and second she’d actually tried to kill herself? Kill herself. My God. She’d fallen so far. It wasn’t something she’d ever considered before, even when she’d battled depression while living with Gabe. What had snapped in her brain to make her think that was the logical way to handle the news of her pregnancy?

And now here she was in a hospital room with the handsome police officer she’d gone out on two dates with looking at her like she was a complete crazy person, most likely wondering what he’d been thinking asking her out in the first place. Until the moment she saw those two lines on that pregnancy test she had seen the possibility of a new future with Matt, one full of tenderness and friendship and maybe even love. A future very much unlike the bleak one she’d been looking at when she’d been living with Gabe, before she woke up and gathered her courage to walk away.

“I took too many pills from a prescription I had for painkillers. It was an accident.” The lie spilled out of her before she even thought. There was no way she could tell Matt the truth. Not now. Not ever. She laughed a little pathetic laugh that she hoped sounded real. “It was for a knee injury I had a few months ago. It had flared up again but I guess I forgot how many pills I was supposed to take. When I realized I had taken four instead of two I tried to throw them up. It didn’t work so I called 911.”
It wasn’t all a lie. The pills had been painkillers and she had been prescribed them for a knee injury. The pain from that injury had been long gone before that night, though, and she’d definitely taken more than four pills. It was clearly not an accident.

Matt seemed to buy it, hook line and sinker.
“Yeah. Those directions can be confusing sometimes.” He’d reached over from the chair he was sitting in, leaning toward her, and covered her hand with his. “All that matters is you are still with us. It all could have ended a lot differently.”
The words haunted her for weeks afterward and even now she thought about them often.
“It all could have ended a lot differently.”

She looked at the baby asleep in the crib next to her and took a deep breath, grateful she had a breath to take, grateful she had a baby to look at.

She tossed the covers off of her and walked gingerly toward the desk on the other side of the room. Opening her laptop she blinked in the light, waited for her eyes to adjust, and read the email she’d received a couple hours earlier.

Dear Liz Cranmer:
Thank you for taking the time to apply to Travers Community College. We are pleased to let you know that you have been accepted for the fall semester for online classes and may begin scheduling your classes upon receipt of this letter.

There it was. Her green light to improve herself. Her green light to forget the past, change her future. Her green light to reject who she’d been before. Her green light to at least pretend she was a fully functioning adult and not an abject failure at everything she tried.


Maybe she’d fail at this too.


Maybe she’d be unable to understand the coursework.


Maybe her thoughts about being stupid were true.


Maybe. Lots of maybes.


But maybe she’d succeed and maybe she’d make a better life, not only for herself but for her daughter.


Fiction Friday: The Next Chapter Chapter 9

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

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

Story description:

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

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

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

Chapter 9

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

Fiction Thursday: The Next Chapter Chapter 8

Welcome to a special Fiction Thursday.

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

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

Chapter 8

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

Fiction Friday: The Next Chapter Chapter 7 Part II

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

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

Chapter 7 Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What? Do I have crumbs on my chin?”

“How’s Liz and that beautiful baby?”

His chest constricted. Alert. Awkward conversation ahead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flustered? He was not flustered.

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

“And don’t think I won’t, my boy.”

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

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

Friends? He hoped so.

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

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

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

Fiction Friday: The Next Chapter Chapter 6

As regular readers continue to read you might remember than when I started this story, I had it beginning in the winter. That was an error because Harvesting Hope ended when it was still summer and this book will be picking up right after Harvesting Hope ended. In other words, I will be fixing the timeline errors in the final edition of the book, but for now, just pretend I did not suggest Olivia was coming home from college for her winter break in the second chapter I posted here. I will fix that in future chapters and the final book.

Also, here was another horrible discovery this week — my laptop is saving my stories in two different places when I hit save. I have no idea why it is doing this but now I know why the corrections I thought I had made on final versions of the books that I uploaded to Kindle weren’t showing up when the book printed. So I had very nice people letting me know about typos and erros and I was baffled. I had gone over the book a number of times, my family and other readers and an editor went over it and then I went back and made all the changes. Where were the changes? Apparently the changes were being saved in one place on my one drive but that wasn’t the version I was using when I uploaded it to the Kindle create software. AAARGH!

Now that I have noticed this, I will be much more careful in the future and hopefully will not have to deal with these typos and huge errors in the final book copies again. For those who had to weed through the errors, I sincerely apologize, but hopefully you know the corrections were made, they just apparently weren’t saved. Again…. AAARGH!

Now, I’m done rambling. Here is Chapter 6 of The Next Chapter, which has not gone through an editor so I am sure there are errors. Want to catch up on the rest of the story? Click HERE.

Chapter 6

Holding Liz’s baby against her chest sent joy and peace surging through Ginny within seconds. She’d breathed in deep the smell of lavender baby wash and closed her eyes, a song she used to sing her children coming to mind as Isabella began to whimper. A tiny hand curled into her shirt, gripping tight and Ginny had kissed it and rubbed her cheek against the soft head.

She hadn’t expected the singing to work. Her singing voice wasn’t something she’d call award winning, but it was apparently enough to calm the untrained ears of a newborn. That newborn was now swaddled tightly, fast asleep in the basinet. A little belly rub trick Ginny had picked up from late nights with Olivia hadn’t hurt either.

That reminded her; she should call Olivia and see if she’d changed her mind about staying in California again. First, she was coming home, now two weeks later, she was staying in California until the semester starting, and planning to get a job at a local juice bar. Ginny didn’t even know what a juice bar was. Did they serve juice instead of alcohol and did people really spend money to have someone make them juice when they could just buy a juicer and make it themselves at home?

Who even knew anymore. The world seemed to have gone mad and sometimes Ginny felt like she was the Mat Hatter, trailing along behind.

She checked her messages and noticed there was one from Stan. She wasn’t sure how she’d missed his call.

“Hey, hon’ I’ve got another late meeting today. I’m just going to grab some dinner from the diner and eat it here. Don’t wait up for me. This is with that developer from Jersey. It could take a while.”

She rolled her eyes. At least he’d called this time. That was something she guessed.

Half the time she sat at the dinner table alone, trying to decide if she should start eating or wait for him to come. Lately she’d begun eating without him and setting his food in the fridge for him to heat up later.

A sigh huffed out of her as she remembered the early days, when she’d been a teacher and how she’d have dinner on the table for him when he came home, and they’d sit down as a family and talk about their days. Eventually the children became involved in activities and those days of sitting down as a family became further and further between. Then the kids began moving out, one by one, until it was just her, Stan and Olivia. Two years ago, Olivia had left, and Ginny had been excited at the idea of her and Stan having more time alone. That was around the same time the real estate business had taken off, though, and Stan had added a partner and two more agents to the office. Those dinners happened occasionally for about a year and then rarely for the next six months and practically never now.

There were days Ginny wondered what the purpose of her was. The kids didn’t need her and neither did Stan. She supposed the library needed her, but they could get anyone do to her job if she finally decided to leave. She liked to joke that a trained monkey could do her job, but really? It was probably true.

She should make the most of the time she had and start that grocery list she would need at the end of the week. She’d been trying to eat healthier so she should write down healthy food. She made a face, remembering the avocado she’d tried earlier. There had to be healthy food that tasted good, right?

There had been a whole list of suggested healthy food for “women of a certain age” in that Good Housekeeping magazine she’d picked up at the doctor’s office. She’d have to look for it when she got home. She stood and stretched, the idea of making a list abandoned until she found the magazine.

The apartment was on the second floor of a former home. It was bigger than most in town, with two bedrooms and a spare room, a large living room and a small hallway that led to a small kitchen. The bathroom was at the end of the hallway with a bathtub and plenty of floor space. This was Ginny’s first official visit to the apartment, but she’d seen the photos on Stan’s website when he’d sold the building, which included space for a business below. That space was now vacant but had previously housed a clothing boutique. And before the boutique it had housed several rooms, including two parlors, a magnificent dining room and a kitchen. Ginny had admired old photos of the home in a history book the county historical society had published several years ago.

The apartment was sparsely decorated, yet cozy. The faded yellow walls coupled with the restored hardwood floors made Ginny feel like she’d walked into a modern coffee shop. A light gray couch sat against the back wall, a recliner next to it at an angle, and a blue papasan chair across from the recliner next to a floor to ceiling window — all of them facing a small TV and DVD player.

Ginny imagined herself curled up in that papasan chair with a good book and without a care in the world other than what to make for dinner that night and which friend to go out to a movie with. How lovely would it be to be young with a special group of friends again. She didn’t have that anymore. In fact, she didn’t even have one close friend these days. Her friends had drifted away over the years, wrapped up in their own families and lives. She couldn’t remember the last time a friend had actually messaged or called to ask how she was.

She supposed that how life was when you hit your 50s. Rather lonely and confusing, like a person lost at sea in some ways.  

There was part of her that envied Molly and Liz’s friendship, how they were able to live here together and experience life together. She was sure it wasn’t easy for Liz raising her daughter on her own, but at least she had her family and Molly to help her.

Sliding in to the papasan chair she curled her legs up under her and slid the hair tye out of her hair, releasing her usually ponytail and raking a hand through her dirty blond hair, grateful for the change of scenery. Normally on a day like this, when she left work early, she’d sit at home, reading a book in the on the enclosed back porch she’d thought would be lovely for afternoon teas with friends or Stan. Then the friends had faded away and Stan’s job had taken priority, so most of the time she sat alone on the porch, listening to the birds chirp until it was time to start dinner.

Sitting here, out of her normal, rather stale, environment, made her remember simpler days, when she and Stan were young and actually spoke to each other.

Her gaze roamed the room, flicking across Native American pottery, Vanilla scented candles, two cat figurines and a picture frame with the words “into the field I go to lose my mind and find my soul” and the image of a field of corn engraved on it.

Next she found a wall of photos, a mix of images of Liz with her family and Molly with hers.

She smiled, looking at a photo of Alex and Molly together, embracing each other next to a haybale on the Tanner’s farm. There was also one of Ellie and Jason, who would be officially married in two more days. They’d planned to hold the wedding two weeks ago, but heavy rains had made the pasture they’d wanted to hold it in unusable. Ginny hadn’t been invited to the wedding, but she didn’t mind. She didn’t know Ellie and Jason well. She only knew about their arrangements from chatting with Molly at the gym last week.

Yes, it was true. She and Stan were young once. Very young. He was a senior and she was a junior in high school when they’d started dating.

Ginny touched her fingers to her lips, thinking of secret kisses under the bleachers during football games. The kisses happened there to make sure her daddy didn’t catch them when Stan took her home at the end of the night. Her daddy had never liked Stan, at least not until Stan came back from college and proved what a hard worker he was. He was even more of a hard worker now than he had been then.

Her throat thickened with emotion, surprising her. She couldn’t even remember the last time Stan had kissed her other than a quick peck on the cheek.

The opening of the apartment door startled her out of her memories. The sight of Marge rushing in with a newspaper in her hand jerked her abruptly back to the present. Marge stopped short when she caught sight of Ginny.

“Oh. Ginny. Hello.” Marge’s cheeks flushed and her eyebrows shot up.  “I didn’t expect to see you here. What brings you by?”

Ginny stood and smoothed her hands down her slacks, feeling suddenly intimidated, a familiar feeling when she was around Marge, though she wasn’t sure why. Marge had never been rude to her. It was just that Marge was — what was the best way to say it? Bold. Marge was more bold, confident, and to-the-point than Ginny and for some reason that was intimidating.

“Liz was by the library today and looked exhausted, so I offered to watch the baby while she slept.” Her voice had sped up and she knew she was rambling, but the nerves had gripped her and wouldn’t let go. “She said you had a meeting with the business association and would probably be by later, but I really thought she needed some rest now so I popped by early. I didn’t mind at all.” Her smile felt tight and probably looked even tighter. “Hopefully you don’t mind.”

Why would she mind? Why did I even say that? Ginny thought, as her brain began firing thoughts wildly back and forth.

Marge frowned, looking puzzled, but luckily not angry. “Of course I don’t mind. I’m glad you were able to help out. It’s just — well, I did have the business association meeting, but it was postponed because Millie Baker has a cold.” She sighed. “I don’t know why she doesn’t think to ask her dad. I mean, he has a men’s meeting this evening, but he’s free this afternoon. ”

Ginny shrugged, trying to ignore the tension in Marge’s voice. “It was no problem, Marge. I know how busy you and Frank are. I really didn’t mind. I don’t get to hold my grandchildren very often, so I enjoyed holding yours.”

Marge smiled, her previously furrowed brow relaxing. “Well, thank you, that was really sweet of you. Of course, we will both get to hold our other grandchildren soon. Isn’t it exciting?”

 Ginny agreed and the women chatted a few minutes about when Clint and Tiffany might be arriving and how long they’d be staying with Marge and Frank.

“Well, anyhow —” Marge glanced at the closed bedroom door and bit her bottom lip. “I guess I’ll let Liz sleep. I can always come back later.”

Ginny wasn’t sure how to answer. Liz had been asleep for a couple of hours now, but Marge was her mother and seemed uneasy. Maybe something was wrong. She pulled her shirt down and smoothed it across her waistline nervously. “She’ll probably be awake soon.”

It wasn’t any of her business why Marge had barged into her daughter’s apartment looking panicked and she really didn’t want to be in the middle of their business. But, still, she heard herself ask, “Is something wrong?”

Marge let out a quick breath, looked at the paper in her hand for a brief second, and then held it out toward Ginny, who noticed it was folded to the birth announcements section.

Marge wrung her hands. “It’s just — well, Isabella’s birth announcement is wrong.”

Ginny’s brow furrowed as she looked at the paper, scanning the last names until she came to Liz’s.

Cranmer/McGee

Baby girl, Isabella Molly Cranmer, 7 pound 8 oz, 21 inches long, born August 26, to Liz Bailey Cranmer and Matthew Grant McGee.

Her eyebrows raised.

Oh. Well, this was certainly news to her. She’d never officially asked anyone who the father of Liz’s baby was, not even Tiffany. She didn’t feel it was her business, but as far as she’d gathered, Gabe Martin was the father.

“Do you see?” Marge pointed at the page. “It has Matt listed as the father of her baby.”

“Yes,” Ginny answered. “I see. But, I mean — are they even dating? Or were they?”

Marge shook her head. “Not that I know of. I’m sure you heard she gave birth in his truck and we never got the full story there, but  — I mean she told us Gabe is the father. Why would she —”

The door to the bedroom creaked open and both women watched a sleepy Liz shuffle her way out of the darkness wearing a faded blue T-shirt and pair of striped shorts.

She blinked in the bright sunlight, a hand sunk deep in the dark brown hair on the top of her head as she scratched her head and yawned. Her gaze drifted between the two women as the yawn widened. Ginny’s chest constricted. She kept her eyes on Liz, afraid to make eye contact with Marge. She knew she should excuse herself, let mom and daughter talk things out, yet she was afraid her departure might make the situation even more awkward.

Liz’s gaze darted to the basinet, scanned a sleeping Isabella then moved back to the women.

She found Ginny’s eyes first. “Is everything okay?”

Ginny nodded, glancing at Marge, wishing she could snap her fingers and disappear. “Isabella is fine. She’s been asleep almost the whole time you were napping.”

Liz smiled sleepily as she looked into the basinet. “You got her to sleep in the basinet? You must be some kind of baby whisperer.”

“Not at all.” Ginny laughed. “I haven’t a clue how I did that. Maybe she just finally gave out of energy.”

Liz stretched her arms over her head and spoke through a yawn. “I just wish I could figure out what is making her so uncomfortable.”

Ginny briefly forgot about Marge standing behind them, holding a newspaper with a scowl furrowing her eyebrows. “Are you exclusively breastfeeding?” Liz nodded and tugged at her hair tie, shaking loose her messy ponytail and letting her dark brown hair fall loose around her shoulders. Ginny rubbed the palm of her thumb along her bottom lip. “Maybe something you’re eating is giving her gas. Have you talked to her doctor?”

“More than once. He thinks it’s definitely gas and gave me some drops, but they don’t seem to be helping.”

Ginny nodded, looking thoughtfully at the sleeping baby. “Then maybe it is something you’re eating. You could try eliminating a few foods that are known to cause issues. Your sister had to cut dairy out when she nursed Wyatt. He was miserable until she did.”

Liz sat on the couch. “Yeah. That’s right and he’s lactose intolerant now so that could explain some things.” She shrugged a shoulder. “Who knows. Maybe it runs in the family.” Her eyes drifted away from Ginny toward her mother. “Well, if she’s fine then why do you two have such odd looks on your faces? Did someone die?”

Marge pursed her lips, tipped her head back, and looked down at her daughter, thrusting the newspaper toward her.

Ginny inwardly cringed. Oh boy. Here we go.

Liz’s gaze followed her mother’s pointing finger. Her eyes widened and her mouth dropped open as she read under the birth announcements column. “What?!”

Marge frowned. “I’m guessing this is some kind of mistake? A misunderstanding? Because I thought you told me that Gabe was Isabella’s father.”

Ginny took that as her cue to exit, awkwardness or not. She took a step back from where she’d been standing in between the two women. “Listen, I really —”

Isabella’s cry drowned out her words. The three women looked at the baby but Ginny was closer, so she reached down, unwrapped Isabella from her swaddle and lifted the tiny baby against her shoulder.

Turning to look at the women she realized she was stuck. Her road to escape blocked by a crying child. Maybe she should hand the baby off to Liz. It was probably time for a nursing session anyhow.

At that moment, though, Liz closed her eyes and her jaw tightened, signaling she wasn’t ready to hold her baby. If anything, she looked ready to have a full-blown breakdown.

***

Liz closed her eyes and clenched her jaw against the urge to scream. McGee, what have you done? I told you to stop that nurse.

When she opened her eyes, Marge’s expression had darkened even more.

“Liz.” She pointed at the paper again. “What is this about?”

Liz drew in a deep breath, tipped back her head and let it out slowly. “Listen, Matt’s a good guy and I —” She swallowed hard. She could tell her the mom the truth, about how Gabe had been abusive, about the night she’d gotten pregnant, about how stupid she’d been, or she could let her mom believe the town’s golden child was the actual father of her child.

No. She closed her eyes, her head still tipped back. She was way too tired for this conversation, for one, but she was also not about to throw McGee under the bus simply to get herself out of being interrogated by Marge.

Marge huffed a breath out of her nose. “You what?” She hugged her arms across her chest, pursed her lips, and narrowed her eyes, making Liz feel like she was in high school again. “You didn’t want people to know you were living with one guy and sleeping with another?”

The words hit Liz full force in the chest.

Was her mother serious?

Her ears roared from what she could only imagine was her rising blood pressure. She stood, hands clenched at her side.

“What are you even trying to say, Mom? Do you really think I am the kind of person who would be dating one guy and sleeping with another? Really, Mom? That is what you think of your daughter?”

Marge held up her hand, “Now, Liz, that is not —”

“No.” Liz’s face flushed warm as she flung the folded paper on top of the coffee table. “Not ‘now Liz.’ That’s seriously who you think I am. You just accused me of being a slut.” Liz’s face crumpled as she sat back down on the couch. “I can’t even believe this.” She dragged in a ragged breath, a sob working its way into her throat. Clutching the edge of the couch, she looked at the floor and tried to stop the room from spinning. She started to speak, but no sound came.

“Liz, I didn’t say you were a slut. I shouldn’t have said it that way. All I wanted to know was —”

“I want you to leave.”

Marge scoffed. “Excuse me?”

Liz looked up slowly, her head feeling like it was stuffed with lead. “I said leave. Get out of my apartment. I don’t want you here.”

Marge tossed her hands up and slapped them down again. “Liz, you are completely overreacting. I misspoke.”

“You did not. You spoke exactly what you were thinking.” Liz pointed at the door, her jaw tight. “What you’ve thought of me for a very long time. I want you to leave. Get out.”

Marge’s mouth formed a thin line as she stepped back. “Fine. I’ll leave. But I’ll call later so we can talk this out.” She looked over her shoulder, clipping out her next words. “You put words in my mouth, Liz, and I don’t appreciate that one little bit.”

The door slammed with a reverberating echo. Out of the corner of her eye, Liz see Ginny visibly flinch.

Liz’s chest constricted with guilt. She should have let Ginny leave before the explosion.

Ginny’s hand rubbed across Isabella’s back in a circular motion as she smiled weakly at Liz. “You okay?”

Liz cleared her throat. “Yeah — not really. Sorry you had to see that. You came here to be nice and then I stuck you in the middle of our family drama.”

Ginny sat on the couch. “You think my family has never had drama? I raised two young girls remember?” Ginny paused for effect and winked. “And one of them was Olivia, so you know what I mean.”

Liz knew she shouldn’t laugh. She’d certainly heard about Olivia’s reputation for having a flare for the dramatic, but she hadn’t expected Ginny to admit it. She wiped her finger under her eye and apologized again as she reached out for Isabella and then leaned back to let the fussy newborn nurse.

Ginny laid her hand against Liz’s shoulder and squeezed gently. “Oh, Liz. I’m sure your mom didn’t mean —”

“You don’t know my mom.” Liz choked back a sob. “Not really. You only see the good side of her. She and dad have been angry at me since I moved in with Gabe. I know it was a mistake. I told them it was when I moved out, but now I know for sure what they think of me.”

Ginny shook her head. “I can’t imagine that, Liz. Your parents love —”

“Isabella.” Liz’s eyes filled with tears. “They love Isabella. And Tiffany. And Clint and my nieces and nephews. They see me as a disappointment.”

Ginny squeezed Liz’s hand in hers and drew in a breath. Liz braced herself for a gentle defense of her parents. Instead, Ginny simply shook her head and said, “I don’t think that’s true, but even if it is, you know in your heart that you did the right thing having Isabella, even if you feel how you got her was a mistake. God plans our days out Liz. None of what happened surprised Him and he meant for you to be this baby’s mother.”

The woman meant well, she did, and Liz understood what she was saying, but if God wasn’t surprised about Isabella’s conception, was he surprised about what happened with Gabe that night at his apartment. Why couldn’t God have intervened somehow? Stopped it all from happening the way it had? It was a question she wasn’t sure she’d ever have an answer to and one she didn’t want anyone in her life, including Ginny, to know she was even asking.

“Thank you, Ginny. Listen, you should really head home. I’ve taken up way too much of your time this afternoon. Won’t your husband be waiting for you?”

Ginny smiled but Liz sensed a sadness in her as she shook her head. “He has a late meeting tonight actually.” Her eyes drifted toward the window, the late afternoon sun casting shadows across the apartment floor. Her smile faded for a brief moment before it returned again when she looked at Liz, who recognized the attempt Ginny was making to create the illusion that all was well. “But that will give me time to read a book and maybe even watch a movie before bed.”

Liz tilted her head, narrowing her eyes. She couldn’t ignore the nagging feeling Ginny’s smile was all an act. Was there trouble in Jefferies paradise?

Maybe Liz wasn’t the only one who needed a break from family tonight.

“Eating alone doesn’t sound like fun to me.” She spoke the words before she changed her mind. “I was thinking of ordering a pizza to drown my sorrows. Want to stick around?” She winked. “I promise not to use you for your baby soothing skills. Or at least not only for your baby soothing skills.”

Ginny laughed and pushed a strand of hair that had fallen from her ponytail back from her face. She pulled her lower lip between her teeth for a few seconds, then nodded. “Yeah. Sure. That would be nice. How about I call and order the pizza while you finish nursing?”

Liz was grateful for a moment along to try to gather her emotions as Ginny stepped into the kitchen to dial Vinnie’s Pizza, the closest pizza place to the apartment.

She’d been so angry at her mother, she’d almost forgotten she needed to call Matt, warn him about the birth announcement. The birth announcement he was supposed to keep out of the paper.

 Of course, maybe he already knew. Maybe his family, friends, co-workers and church groupies were already peppering him with questions, or even worse, giving him the side-eye, thinking about how little they really knew about the perfect Boy Scout of Spencer Valley. Maybe they were silently, or not-so-silently judging him. The thought made her sick to her stomach.

She picked up her phone to text him, then stopped herself, her finger hovering over the screen. She couldn’t tell him about the announcement in a text. A phone call would be better. A soft sigh escaped her lips as she adjusted Isabella on her lap. He’d been stopping by or calling almost every day since she’d come home. Today most likely wouldn’t be any different. She could talk to him then, ask him why in the world he hadn’t stopped that nurse from sending the birth announcement to the paper. Had he forgotten to speak to her or was there something more going on?



Fiction Friday: The Next Chapter Chapter 5

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

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

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

Chapter 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ginny had never been happier to have someone interrupt a conversation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was beginning to feel like a spy.

And a creeper.

She should stop starring.

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

Oh.

It was Liz.

Her daughter-in-law’s sister.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah peered over the book she was reading.

“That woman is asleep.”

Ah, the youth of today. So perceptive.

“Yes, Sarah. She is.”

“Shouldn’t we wake her?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh. Um. May I help you?”

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

“Boogers?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh my. Ginny looked at her with wide eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She looks sad,” Molly had said.

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

Or someone.

Liz rolled over and squeezed her eyes shut.

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

She needed her mind to stop racing.

She reached for her phone and scrolled through her messages.

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

Liz rolled her eyes and kept scrolling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

They were just friends.

As far as she knew.

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

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

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

The dates had happened before she’d gotten pregnant.

When she’d been broken up with Gabe.

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

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

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

Ugh. The absolute humiliation of it all.

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

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

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