Fiction Friday: Mercy’s Shore (The Shores of Mercy) Chapter 7

This is a continuing/serial story. I share a chapter a week and at the end of the story, and after I edit and rewrite, I self-publish it. To catch up with the story click HERE. To read the rest of the books in this series click HERE.

Chapter 7

Ben flipped through the appointment book, grimacing as the paper sliced across his finger. He stuck the finger in his mouth, tasting blood.

“Yes, we have a meeting at 3:45, Mrs. Anderson. You were right. Glad you called to confirm.”

Since I just set up an appointment with Arthur Jenkins at the same time and now have to call back and reschedule.

“Oh, good and what paperwork did I need again?” the elderly woman on the other end of the phone asked.

Ben slid a pen behind his ear and reached for his now cold cup of coffee on the end of his desk. “Just the deed and any mineral rights paperwork you have.”

Mrs. Anderson thanked him, and they said goodbye just as the phone rang again and he switched lines to answer it.

“Staying busy at work, kid?”

“Dad, hey. Yeah. Very busy.”

“Not so easy without a secretary, is it?”

Ben sighed into the phone and sipped the coffee, wincing at the bitter flavor and the coldness of it. “No, but I’m managing.”

“You did the right thing, though. I know it meant so much to Cindy having these two weeks off before Bill‘s treatments start.” Ben heard the creak of the chair at his dad’s office at the courthouse. “Have you given any more thought to call Judi Lambert in on a temporary basis?”

Ben rubbed his hand across his face. “No, I haven’t honestly.” Pain throbbed through his head, and he squeezed his eyes shut. “Right now, I’m just trying not to overbook.” But failing at it. “It would help if this concussion would heal. I didn’t even think I hit my head that hard.”

“It doesn’t take much to rattle your brain in there,” Maxwell said. “I’ve got someone here who wants to talk to me, so I’ll be there around 6 to pick you up. That work for you?”

“Dad, yeah, but I’m going to have to do things on my own at some point. I can walk to my apartment.”

“I know and I agree but your mom is worried about you. She wants to keep an eye on you, and I think she might be right this time. Still having dizzy spells?”

Ben propped his elbow on his desk and leaned his cheek against his hand, wishing he hadn’t had that dizzy spell in front of his parents and sister the other night at dinner.

“Minor ones here and there, but they’re better. I know I can’t drive yet but I can —”

“Pass out in your apartment and not be able to call for help, so I’ll see you around 6. I’ll also keep asking around to see if we can find someone to help you out until Cindy gets back.”

Ben thanked his dad and hung up, leaning back in his chair, and thinking how, yet again, his dad was taking care of him, cleaning up his mistakes. He spun the chair toward his computer and grabbed the side of the desk as the room kept spinning.

The dizzy spells were getting better, but there were still times they threw him off balance. Occasional blurry vision was still plaguing him too, almost a month after the accident. His foot was healing but definitely still broken based on the pain that shot through it when he tried to walk on it without the protective boot. He had backed off the narcotic painkiller, though, worried he could become addicted to it as easily as he had alcohol.

The one good thing was that Judi’s insurance company was covering the repairs on the BMW and he should have it back in another couple of weeks.

He had three clients coming in later in the day and hadn’t yet found their files. Cindy had filed them perfectly; it was his fault they were missing. He’d placed them somewhere in the office, maybe a drawer in his desk? Or maybe his briefcase. Opening the case, the photograph he’d tucked there fell out and he glanced at the floor, at the bright blue eyes staring back at him.

Those eyes took him back to the night he learned of her existence and that she was growing fast in her mother’s womb.

“It wasn’t like I was the only one involved in this, Ben. You get that right?”

He’d poured himself a half a glass of bourbon and sat on the couch. “Yeah, I get that, Angie. I know how it works. I’m just saying I thought you were on birth control.”

Angie had been standing across from him, wavy dirty-blond curls draped across her shoulders and back, one hand resting on her slender hip, the other pressed against her forehead.

“I missed a couple of days, okay?” She’d tossed her hands out to her side in frustration. “I didn’t know I could get pregnant from just missing a couple of days. I tried to catch up, but I guess things got thrown off or something.”

He’d downed the alcohol and slammed the glass on the coffee table, cracking the glass. “We can’t afford a kid, Ange. I’ve still got classes to finish and the bar to finish studying for. I told you I didn’t want to get married right now and you think I’d want a kid?”

“No, I didn’t think you’d want a kid, but it’s happened, and we have to figure out what we’re going to do.”

He’d scoffed. “No. I don’t have to figure out what to do.” He’d pointed at her aggressively as he stood. “You have to figure out what to do. I don’t want to be a father and you’re definitely not qualified to be a mother.”

The memory of his words stabbed him in the center of his chest. He lifted the photo and noticed his hand was trembling.

Tasting bile at the back of his throat he jumped up, gagging on his way to the bathroom and vomiting the small breakfast he’d been able to manage that morning, his entire body trembling now, head pounding.

He’d been going to church more in the last year, praying for God to forgive him for his past words and actions. Maybe God had forgiven him, or would forgive him, but he knew he could never forgive himself for the things he had said and done that night and the days afterwards.

He knew Angie couldn’t offer him forgiveness either and he didn’t blame her or want her to. He didn’t deserve it. It was high time he stopped asking God for something he didn’t deserve, including a chance to get to know the daughter he’d told Angie she should kill so their lives wouldn’t, as he had put it back then, “be ruined.”

He heard the phone ringing and wiped his mouth and splashed his face with water before stumbling to answer it, grateful for the interruption to the memories.

“Oliver! Thought you were dead, man!”

Ben raked a hand through his hair and tried to gather his thoughts. “Mark, hey. Nope. Not yet anyhow.”

The lawyer on the other end of the phone laughed but Ben knew this wasn’t a wellness check. Not really.

“I thought you might be out longer based on what I heard in the grapevine. Totaled the BMW huh?”

“Yeah, but it looks like it can be fixed.”

“It’ll never be the same, though. You know that. Better off scrapping it and getting a new one.”

“We don’t all have the money you do, Mark.”

Mark scoffed. “Get yourself a couple of corporate clients and you will. I’ll hook you up sometime, but for now I’m sure you know why I’m calling.”

Ben stood and poured the rest of the coffee from his cup down the sink in the bathroom. “I do and I also know you won’t be very happy with my answer.”

“Oliver, now come on. It’s a fair offer.”

“It isn’t a fair offer for my client. Not at all. Mrs. Henderson is not entitled to more than half of what Mr. Henderson is worth, I don’t care what she thinks. She will accept what he has offered to her, or we will pull back our offer to let her have the house and property in full without her paying him for his half.”

“Ben, how hard did you hit your head in that accident? What your client is offering is completely out of line with standard practices and Mrs. Henderson is entitled to much more than what her husband is offering after the mental anguish he put her through.”

Ben’s jaw tightened. “With all due respect, Mark, she’s getting full custody of the kids in this matter. The fact she’s demanding even more money is making her look pretty greedy at this point.”

Mark laughed ruefully. “Don’t even give me that. They were married 25 years. He cheated on her. She has every right to demand more from him. And he is also being granted visitation rights. She’s never been against that.”

Ben leaned forward across the desk, tapping it with his finger as he talked, which might have been intimidating if Mark could see him. “Let’s be clear, she alleges he cheated on her. He denies that and there is no proof. She’s taking his children away from him. Isn’t that vengeance enough? No, Mark. I’m not going to let my client agree to these terms.”

Something thudded on Mark’s end of the phone and Ben wondered if he’d punched the desk. Or maybe a wall. “Then it looks like we’re going to be seeing you in court. I was hoping we could hammer this out amicably but apparently that’s not possible.”

“Apparently not. Thanks to your client.”

“See you in court, Oliver. Hope you’re ready to lose.”

“I won’t lose, Mark, but, yes, see you in court.”

Hanging up, Ben took a deep breath and leaned back in his chair, folding his hands behind his head. That had felt good.

He’d been worried the concussion had addled his brain to the point he wouldn’t be able to fight or his clients anymore, but that conversation had just shown him that it hadn’t. He might be horrible at personal relationships, but he was spot on when it came to being a lawyer.

Fiction Friday: Mercy’s Shore (The Shores of Mercy) Chapter 6

This is a continuing/serial story. I share a chapter a week and at the end of the story, and after I edit and rewrite, I self-publish it. To catch up with the story click HERE. To read the rest of the books in this series click HERE.

Chapter 6

Judi turned the key in the ignition and pulled out of the parking space in front of her apartment abruptly, barely giving herself time to check the side mirrors.

She was late. As usual.

Her sister Ellie had invited her to supper at the farmhouse ten miles outside of town and that supper was set to start in ten minutes.

Judi glanced at the clock on her dashboard. Make that seven minutes.

Apparently, Judi was never going to become organized like Ellie, no matter how hard she tried. Was it her fault that her favorite Brad Pitt movie had come on while she was finishing straightening her hair? Or that her ice cream had melted on the coffee table, and she had rushed to clean it up before it dried?

Okay, yes. All those things were technically her fault, because if she’d been paying attention to the clock, she wouldn’t have been distracted by either of them. But Brad Pitt. Come on. She had such little excitement left in her life anymore. She had to have some enjoyment.

She appreciated her sister helping her work out a deal with the landlord for the apartment she now lived in, allowing Judi to take over the two-year lease Ellie had signed when she’d thought she and Jason weren’t getting married.

What a mess that engagement had been. Judi still couldn’t figure Ellie out sometimes. While she’d comforted Ellie before she and Jason worked things out, Judi still felt Ellie’s reason for being mad at Jason was dumb.

In high school Ellie and Jason had promised they’d be each other’s first. First as in first person they slept with. They’d taken a break in college, though, so Jason had been tempted and slept with a girl on campus. Yeah, so Jason waited almost nine years to tell Ellie about it and dragged his feet on proposing because he’d been dreading telling her, but still — Judi didn’t get it. It wasn’t like Jason slept with the girl when he and Ellie were a couple.

Judi shrugged at the memory of her sister’s dilemma as she watched the town setting fade into farmland and wide open spaces, trees slowly becoming green after a long winter and cornfields almost ready to be planted.

Ellie was much more old-fashioned than Judi. Way more old fashioned.

Okay, so it would be nice if she met a guy one day and they were both each other’s first but for Judi that ship had already sailed. There was no going back to redo that.

First there was that one time in high school and it almost set sail again that night with Jeff. The only difference with Jeff was it wouldn’t have been her choice. She winced at the memory of that night with Jeff and then at the memory of the high school interaction. The high school one had been seriously awkward, emotionally and physically uncomfortable, and definitely not what she thought it was going to be at all. It was something she had never told Ellie about, and she never wanted to.

There was a part of her that felt guilt about it all, but what good would it do to sit and feel guilt about something she couldn’t go back and change? It had happened, she had regretted it and wished she’d waited for someone more special, someone who hadn’t moved out of the area a month later, but such was life. Everyone had regrets but not everyone had to be like Ellie and let those regrets weigh them down for years on end.

There were a lot of people who were surprised when they found out she was related to Ellie and not only because they didn’t have the same hair color. Of course, Judi’s blond hair wasn’t natural. She’d started dying it in high school to be different from her sister. It had once been almost as dark brown as Ellie, but her hair had always featured a few more blond streaks.

People were surprised they were sisters because she and Ellie were so different in their personalities and how they looked at life. Judi didn’t dwell on past mistakes or worry about the future like Ellie, and she felt that was okay. Pushing back thoughts about her past helped her move toward the future and so far, that strategy was working well for her.

She pulled in front of Judi’s farmhouse fifteen minutes late and noticed there was already a black pickup parked next to Jason’s gray pickup and Ellie’s small blue sedan. That meant Alex Stone, Jason’s best friend, and Molly, Jason’s sister, had also been invited.  

Wonderful.

Always fun to be the fifth wheel.

Wherever Molly was, Alex wasn’t far behind, especially after the two had started dating more than a year ago.

The farmhouse was small, but attractive, especially after Jason and Alex had started fixing it up with new siding and shutters after the wedding. Winter had paused their renovations, but Judi was sure they’d be starting the improvements again as spring continued. Prior to Jason and Ellie moving in, the house had been a bachelor pad for Alex and Jason.

Glancing at her phone as she reached for it, she noticed Rachel had tried to reach her again. She knew it was to talk about the situation with Jerry the other night at the meeting, but she didn’t want to talk about it. Jerry was weird and that was all there was to it. She wasn’t going to drink herself into oblivion because some old guy who couldn’t get his life together didn’t like her.

“Nice ride!”

She looked up as she climbed out of the car and saw Alex sitting on the porch railing, jean clad legs hanging over it, a soda in one hand.

“Yep! It is.”

Alex pushed his familiar black cowboy hat back off his forehead and tipped his head up, revealing a rugged, unshaven jawline. Sunlight flickered across his blue eyes. “How much are the payments on it?”

Judi reached for her purse and shook her head, her back to Alex. Men and cars, so predictable.

“Too much,” she answered as shut the door of the small red compact sports car she’d purchased when she was still living in the city.

The payments were too much. She wasn’t just offering a smooth retort. If she didn’t find a more lucrative job soon the car was going to go the way of her fancy New York City apartment and designer clothes shopping habit — into the category of how life used to be.

She couldn’t help but notice Alex’s well-toned arms as she walked up the steps toward the front door. A black t shirt with an image of country singer Clint Black emblazoned on the front was stretched against his chest and biceps, which were nowhere near as large as Jason’s, but much larger than they had been when he’d first moved to Spencer Valley almost seven years ago to work with Jason on the farm.

There weren’t many men in this small, rural area who had muscles as large, or a body as toned as Jason’s, much to Judi’s disappointment. Not that she ogled Jason, since he was her brother-in-law and, in some ways, almost like a brother to her since she’d known him practically her entire life.

Alex jerked his head toward the front door. “You’re just in time. Ellie’s about to put the food on the table.”

“Oh good, then hopefully I’ll avoid a scolding about being late.” Judi smiled to let Alex know she was teasing.

She and Ellie had been at each other’s throats for a number of years, always bickering or verbal poking at each other, but last year that had all changed when Judi thought her sister had died in a car accident driving a drunk Brad Tanner back to his house.

It wasn’t that there weren’t still days the two snipped at each other, but it definitely wasn’t at the intensity it had once been. Judi couldn’t seem to put her sarcastic and biting remarks completely behind her, though, a habit she knew was left over from the days when her jealousy of Ellie had consumed her. That jealousy still remained but it floated on calmer waters now, speckled with a healthy dose of admiration for her older sister.

Inside the house, Ellie was being the perfect housewife. She wasn’t technically a house wife since she worked as a preschool teacher four days a week and the rest of the time either helped Jason on the farm or at the farm store.

“Hey!” Ellie set a bowl down on the table and reached out her arms as soon as she saw Judi enter the dining room, enveloping her in a quick, but firm hug. Judi had pulled away from hugs from her sister for years and was trying her best to get used to them now. She did her best to return the hug and not be as awkward as she used to be.

Ellie had pulled her chestnut brown hair back in a tight ponytail and she was dressed more casual than normal, sporting a pair of black capris and a light blue crew neck blouse. Judi was used to seeing her wearing a button up shirt or a sweater, khaki pants, and dress shoes for work. Ellie didn’t dress down very often, though she had relaxed considerably since getting married.

Ellie gestured toward the table as she turned to go back into the kitchen. “So glad you had a night off and could join us. Go ahead and grab a seat.”

Molly walked in from the kitchen with a salad and set it on the table. Her long, curly, reddish-brown hair was hanging loose and she was wearing loose fitting shirt and a pair of blue jean shorts.

Second to Ellie, Molly was someone Judi wished she could be like. Molly had always been sweet and cheerful, no matter what life threw at her. She’d struggled with her weight for years and Judi didn’t envy that, however. Looking good in a designer shirt and pair of jeans was more important to Judi than being sweet.

The table was full of fried chicken, sweet potatoes, salad, green beans, and homemade biscuits. All of it was food Judi knew she shouldn’t be eating, but it looked good, and she knew, based on her sister’s cooking talent, that it would taste good too.

After a prayer from Jason, they began passing food and Alex and Jason began talking about the farm, the continuing expansion of the Tanner’s farm store, and an upcoming inspection of the Tanner’s bottling plant.

Judi was fine with them talking amongst themselves. It meant she didn’t have to share about her week.

“Judi. You’ve been quite tonight. How was your week?”

Well, it was nice while it lasted.  Why did Ellie feel she had to include her in everything? Including the conversation.

“It was okay.” She shoved a bite of sweet potato in her mouth, hoping this would satisfy her sister, but knowing it wouldn’t.

“So, is it true you pulled out in front of Ben Oliver last week before he hit a tree?”

She glared over her glass of water at Alex as she took a drink. His good looks didn’t make up for that big mouth of his. She would have asked how he even knew about the accident, but then she remembered he was currently staying with Matt McGee, who’d obviously blabbed her personal business one morning over coffee.

Ellie looked up from her plate, eyes wide. “Did you have an accident? Are you okay? Why didn’t you call?”

Judi focused her scowl on Alex. “Thank you, Alex. So appreciative you blabbed that.” Thanks to him Ellie was peppering her with concerned questions and soon her phone would be blowing up with the same questions from her parents.

Alex grinned as he reached for the plate of chicken. “No problem. Always here to help.”

She looked at Ellie, purposely tipping her head away from Alex and wishing she hadn’t given up flipping people off in an effort to be a kinder, gentler Judi. She made sure to speak in a matter of fact one to deflect any deeper questions.

“I’m fine. The car’s fine. He swerved to miss me and hit the tree.”

She reached across the table for the plate of chicken sitting next to Alex, being sure to shoot him another annoyed scowl. His return smirk and wink was infuriating.

“Was he okay?” Ellie asked, concerning etching her brow.

“Yeah, he’s fine,” Judi said around a mouthful of chicken. “He has a concussion and a broken ankle. He’s out of the hospital, though. I saw him at the AA meeting last night.”

When her phone rang, she reached for her purse and pulling it out she checked the caller ID.  She didn’t recognize the number so she sent it to voicemail and dropped the phone back into the purse.

Molly reached for the pitcher of tea and poured a glass. “That’s great to know he was at an AA meeting. I know he’s been sober for a couple of years but it’s good to stay connected somewhere.”

Judi raised an eyebrow. “Ben’s a recovering alcoholic?”

The color from Molly’s face visibly drained. “Oh. I thought that he — I mean, I thought he must have shared that at the meeting.”

Judi shook her head slowly. “No. He didn’t. He was there to support a client. The guy with him said he’d had experience with AA meetings though. I didn’t know what he meant.”

She also hadn’t stayed to find out since she’d wanted to get as far away from discussions about Jerry’s blow up on her as possible.

She was surprised that Molly knew so much about the guy who had dumped her in high school to date Easy Angie. Apparently, they had talked since Ben moved back to the area.

Molly swallowed hard. “I probably shouldn’t have shared that.”

Judi shrugged and stabbed at a piece of lettuce with her fork. “Doesn’t matter to me. I’m not going to tell him you said anything. We didn’t exactly hit it off after the accident, so I don’t plan on interacting with him on a regular basis.”

Molly cleared her throat and managed a faint smile. “Thanks. I don’t know if all of that is common knowledge or not and I hate him to think I violated his privacy somehow.”

Judi snorted a laugh. “It’s nice of you to worry about him because it’s not like he worried too much about you when he dumped you in high school for that Angie Phillipi.”

“Judi!”

Ah, there it was. Ellie’s familiar scolding tone.

Judi didn’t even bother to look up from her plate and see Ellie’s raised eyebrows. “What? It’s true. He was a total jerk to Molly. Everyone knows it.”

Alex leaned back in his chair and slid an arm around Molly’s shoulder. “Good thing he was too, or I might have had to steal Molly away from him.” He winked as Judi looked up. Judi rolled her eyes and resisted the urge to gag.

“Besides, Ben and I had a good talk about that, and he did apologize,” Molly added. “It was high school. We all do stupid things in high school.”

Judi knew Molly didn’t know about all the stupid things she’d done in high school, but the comment felt like a small kick in the gut or at least a pinch in the arm. She wasn’t about to sit and dwell on why the comment bothered her, though. Life was too short to look in the rearview mirror.

“That’s good to hear,” she said instead, looking at Molly. “Really. I always thought that was totally crappy of him. You were way better than Angie ever was.”

Molly tipped her head to one side and smiled. “Thank you, Judi. That’s sweet. It did hurt but his apology helped a lot.”

“Whatever happened to Angie anyhow?” Jason asked standing with his empty plate and heading toward the kitchen.

“Last I heard her parents moved down to Lancaster,” Ellie said. “I’m not sure where Angie ended up though.”

Judi picked up her plate and carried it into the kitchen as Jason walked back toward the dining room. “You know who else was at the meeting?” She didn’t wait for an answer to her inquiry. “Brad.”

Jason scoffed on his way by her. “That’s a shock. Doubt he’ll stick with it.”

Judi placed her plate in the open dishwasher, tempted to set it in backward to drive her Obsessive Compulsive  sister crazy, but finally deciding against it. “Me too, honestly,” she called over her shoulder. “But no one thought I’d stick with it this long either.”

“I thought he’d move back to the city after the accident, actually,” Jason said as Judi walked back into the dining room. “Instead, I have to see him every day at work.”

Judi laughed as she sat back down. “Same here.”

“Is he a big of an idiot there as he is everywhere else?” Jason asked as Ellie sat a stack of small plates on the table.

“Of course, he is,” Judi responded with an eye roll.

Ellie placed a pie in the center of the table, which Judi knew was made from scratch by her sister, from the crust to the filling.

 Ellie began to cut the pie.  “Hey, who knows. Maybe he’s finally growing up. This could be a good thing. Instead of mocking him, we should be praying for him.”

Judi felt a familiar sarcastic retort on the tip of her tongue, one that would ridicule Ellie’s tendency to turn everything into a Bible lesson. She held the comment in, though, knowing Ellie was being her genuinely sweet self by offering the suggestion.

The rest of the evening was spent chatting about topics other than the lives of all the alcoholics the Lamberts and Tanners knew.

Judi didn’t look at her phone again until she was in the car, ready to drive home. She clicked on the play button from the voicemail left by the unfamiliar number as she pulled out onto the dirt road in front of the house.

“Hello, Miss Lambert. My name is Brent Decker and I’m an attorney from New York City. I’m hoping you can get back to me at your earliest convenience on a matter involving a Jeffery Brock.”

Judi pushed the off button on the phone before the man left his phone number.

She was not returning that phone call.

Jeff Brock was one of those regrets she didn’t intend to let weigh her down and what had happened with him was another incident she intended to leave in her rearview.

Fiction Friday: Mercy’s Shore Chapter 5

To catch up on the other chapters, click HERE.

To read the other books in the series, click HERE.

Chapter 5

“How’d the meeting go?”

Maxwell eased his black sedan onto Main Street, heading toward his house two miles outside of town. He turned the music down on the radio, a song from the local Christian radio station fading into the background.

Ben winced as he tried to move his foot. “It went okay.

He hated the idea of his dad driving him to and from an AA meeting, or even knowing about his past. Having to tell his dad he’d lost his job at a high profile law firm three years ago had been beyond difficult, but telling him it was because he’d lost a case for the firm because he’d come into many times with a hangover had been like a kick to the gut.

“Okay, I guess, but it was weird. Judi was there, for one, and then Jerry Spencer verbally attacked her because she’s working at a bar and grill, which he seems to think is too much of a temptation for someone who is trying to kick alcohol.”

Maxwell shrugged a shoulder. “Well, it probably is, but what business is it of his?”

“Yeah, I don’t know.” Ben stretched back in the seat and rubbed his forehead, wishing the ache would go away. “I got the impression he’s got something against Judi, but I don’t know what. Or maybe it has nothing to do with her at all. Maybe she was just an innocent bystander to his explosion. He seemed pretty ticked off that he had to be there at all.”

Max grimaced. “He probably is. Remember you weren’t too happy about those meetings either. He’s probably sick of being in court for DUIs too but it’s his own fault. How did Judi take it?”

“She snapped back at him. They exchanged words and then the woman leading the group told Jerry to leave.”

Maxwell blew out a breath. “Whoo boy. Think he’d hurt Judi in any way?”

Ben’s brow furrowed. “I don’t know. I don’t think so. I tried to stop her after the meeting and ask her if she was okay, but she jumped into her car and took off.” He shrugged then spoke through a yawn. “Anyhow, I’ve got other things to think about right now. Cindy called me right before I left for the meeting. She’s going to need some time off work, and she isn’t sure how long. Rick’s been diagnosed with cancer. The prognosis is good but he’s going to need some radiation treatments and she wants to be home to take care of him.”

“Can’t blame her. What are you going to do?”

“Not sure yet. Thankfully she said his first treatment isn’t for another couple of weeks. I may just have to push through until she can come back. That’s not enough time to train someone and it would be hard to find a temp around here.”

“What about Judi?”

Ben made a face. “What about Judi?”

“Maybe she could fill in,” Maxwell responded. “You said that job at Lonny’s might not be right for her.”

“Dad, first of all I didn’t say that. Jerry did. Second of all no. Just no. Judi’s — well, she’s not qualified. She’s Judi and Judi’s always been, to put it bluntly, a mess. I mean, yeah, I feel kind of bad for Judi, but there is no way I want her filling in as my secretary.”

Maxwell glanced at his son. “Even people who are considered a mess deserve a chance, Ben.”

Ben wasn’t sure if his dad was taking a jab at him or not, but he chose to believe he wasn’t aware of how his comment had come off.  

“I know that Dad, and I believe that too, you know that. That’s why I was there with Floyd tonight, but Judi doesn’t know how to be a secretary at a law office.”

“How do you know?”

“Dad —”

“All she has to do is answer phones, file some paperwork, and take some notes. Anyone could handle at least that much. She couldn’t replace Cindy and all her law background, no, but she could do the basics.

Ben shook his head. “No. Just — No. I’ll ask around. I’m sure some other lawyers will have suggestions.”

Maxwell shrugged and nodded. “I understand, but it’s an option at least. Maybe the last option, but also maybe one worth considering.”

Ben focused his attention on the scene outside his window — the town of Spencer fading into trees and fields which he could have seen better if it hadn’t been so dark. His dad had purchased property about a mile outside of town when Ben was five or six. The two story home, set back off the road in the midst of grove of birch trees was considered a mansion by some in the area but for Maxwell and Emily it has simply been a home that was able to fit their family of six. Maxwell’s job as a small town attorney representing anyone and everyone who needed his help had proven to be more lucrative than the couple had imagined, but it was the inheritance from Maxwell’s father that had helped them build the home.

After Maxwell was elected district attorney the first time, when Ben was 16, a wall with a gate was erected around the property to provide privacy and protection. It was the same style gate Maxwell’s father, Maxwell Sr. had had installed at his home after serving as county judge for 40-years.

“No telling when some loony I sentenced might come to make me pay for the lengthy sentence they received due to their own incompetence,” Maxwell Sr. had said about the installation of a fence and gate around his house in town.

He’d died while Ben was away at law school and there wasn’t a day that went by that Ben didn’t miss him. At the same time, he was glad his grandfather hadn’t witnessed his spectacular personal and professional face plant right before and even after passing the bar.

Sure, Ben had his own law firm, something he’d always wanted, and his grandfather had wanted for him, but it wasn’t in a large city like Ben had hoped it would be. Still, it was something instead of the nothing he’d thought he’d be left with when he lost that job as a paralegal three years ago. He’d planned for that job to be temporary anyhow.

As soon as he passed the bar, he was going to be out of there and working on his own in the center of Philadelphia or New York City. Somewhere with big, rich clients. It was a shame an addiction he’d acquired to try to silence all the doubting voices in his head had ended his career at the firm before he’d had a chance to quit.

He wanted to say losing that paralegal job wasn’t a big loss, but really, on a career level, it had been. He’d been the assistant to one of the most sought-after defense lawyers in Philadelphia. The fact he’d blown it within the first nine months after so much promise only solidified for him the fact he would never be as successful as his dad, in career or in life overall.

“Your mom says you got a card from the Phillipis. Anything important?”

His dad’s question broke into his thoughts and once again he found himself wishing his father didn’t sometimes use his courtroom tone in every conversation. Being direct and to the point was something Maxwell Oliver was a master at in the courtroom and, sadly, that direct manner often spilled over into interactions with his family.

No sugar coating or easing into a conversation for him.

“Nope.”

“Anything unimportant then?”

Ben sighed and pushed a hand through his hair. Exhaustion tugged at his eyelids, pain shooting from the front to the back of his head. He’d wanted to argue when the doctor had said over the phone it could be another three weeks before the concussion was better, but now he was beginning to believe the man.

“It was a card.” Ben remained silent for a few moments but knew his dad wouldn’t stop asking questions. “An invitation to a party that Angie already told me she doesn’t want me to attend.”

His dad turned the car into the driveway and reached up to the visor, pushing a button there to open the front gate. “Angie called you?”

“She left me a voicemail. I got it the day of the accident.”

The gate clanked closed behind them after Maxwell drove through the opening. Pulling toward the four car garage, Maxwell pushed another button on the visor and the garage door rose slowly.

“She’s what, four this year?”

Ben’s chest tightened. This conversation needed to end. “Yeah.”

Maxwell turned the car off, but kept his hands on the steering wheel as the garage door closed behind them. “You know I haven’t wanted to get into your and Angie’s business, but it would be nice to meet my granddaughter someday.”

Ben reached for the car door, desperate to get inside and lay down. The pain in the ankle and head had given up battling for first place and had settled on a tie. “Not my decision, Dad. Angie doesn’t want me to be a part of her life.”

“Can you blame her?”

Ben climbed out of the car and slammed the door behind him. Metal against metal reverberated throughout the garage.

I’m not a hostile witness, Dad, back off.  It was what he wanted to say, but he was too tired, too dizzy, and in way too much pain to push this conversation into a full-blown argument.

“My head is killing me,” he said instead as Maxwell stepped out of the passenger side. “Can we talk about this more tomorrow? I don’t mean to be rude, but I didn’t take the painkiller before I left for the meeting and I’m regretting it now.”

Maxwell closed the door and walked around to Ben’s side. “Of course, we can. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have brought this up while you’re still recovering.” He placed a hand on Ben’s shoulder and squeezed gently. “I hope you can forgive me.”

Good grief, his dad even apologized better than he ever could.

“If you help me up to Luke’s room and put a glass of water on the bedside table for me, I definitely can.”

Maxwell’s laugh was deep and sincere. “I can absolutely do that. Come on, kid, let’s get you some rest. You’ve had a rough week.”

Once he was in bed with the lights off twenty minutes later, Ben squeezed his eyes shut against the pain, waiting for the pills to kick in. Once they did, images of a blond-haired little girl swam in and out of images of a beautiful blond woman who’d once looked at him with love but now looked at him with disgust and disappointment. By the time darkness overtook him he’d broken out in a sweat and thrashed enough to wrap the sheets around him like a straight jacket. In the morning he woke up trying to untangle himself from the covers while his mind tried to untangle the nightmares that had plagued him all night.

Fiction Friday: Mercy’s Shore Chapter 4

Welcome to Chapter 4 of Mercy’s Shore, which will probably be called Shores of Mercy by the time it is published due to possible copyright issues. To catch up on the store read HERE.

Chapter 4

Judi turned and looked over her shoulder at her reflection in the mirror of the church bathroom.

Black, calf-high, leather boots, a faded denim skirt that fell to her knees, and a red v neck, loose-fitting shirt.

Not too revealing, not too matronly. Hopefully, the people in the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting thought so too, not that she was there to impress them. She was there to try to get her life back, even if she wasn’t sure what her life really was right now or what it was meant to be.

She always felt in between these days. In every way.

She’d known who she was in the city. In the city, she was the girl who wore designer clothes, usually slightly revealing to attract attention and make her feel important. From high school until a year ago, she’d been the laid back, everything goes, fly by-the-seat of her pants type girl.

Now she was the girl who wasn’t sure how to act, dress, or think most of the time. Being footloose and fancy free hadn’t yielded the results she’d once hoped it would, but she didn’t want to be strait-laced and uptight like her older sister either.

She pushed a hand back through her hair, shaking it loose from the ponytail she’d had it in, smoothed her lipstick with an index finger, and took a deep breath.

So far, she’d been able to avoid sharing much of her story with the rest of the group. She hoped to do the same tonight. Especially if Brad actually showed up.

When she stepped into the hallway she gasped as she slammed into someone and stumbled backward into the bathroom again.

“Oh, excuse me, I —”

She looked up and met the amused grin of Ben Oliver. “Look at you. Can’t even handle looking both ways when you come out of the bathroom.”

Judi rolled her eyes. Could this week get any worse? Too bad Ben hadn’t hit the tree a little harder, then maybe he’d still be in the hospital and not here to harass her on a night she was already nervous.

“Ha. You’re so funny.”

Ben folded his arms across his chest and leaned back against the hallway wall. “Here to ask Pastor John for forgiveness for lying to Officer McGee?”

Judi couldn’t read Ben’s expression now, but he raised an eyebrow, apparently waiting for an answer.

“I didn’t lie,” she responded sharply. “I looked both ways and didn’t see you.” She looked at his foot with the cast and the bandage on his forehead. “Shouldn’t you still be recovering?”

He shrugged a shoulder. “I should be, yes, but I’m here to support a friend who’s attending the AA meeting here tonight. What are you here for?”

Judi took a deep breath and held it for a few seconds. No use trying to pretend. “I’m here for the AA meeting too.”

He raised both eyebrows. “Supporting a friend as well?”

“No.” She raised her chin, surprised he hadn’t heard any of the gossip about her yet. “I’m here for myself.”

He pushed himself off the wall and slid his hands into the front pockets of his khakis. “Oh.” He tipped back on his heels and nodded. The smile had faded. “Well, that’s good. Really good.” Judi imagined he must be thinking how pathetic she was and maybe even wondering if she’d been drinking the day of the accident. He gestured toward the open doorway down the hall. “Shall we head in?”

Inside the white-walled large room that was usually used for Sunday School classes, there was a circle of chairs set up. Along the walls, posters featured views of sunrises overlayed with well-known Bible verses. Blue hardcover Bibles were stacked in a bookcase on the other side of the room and next to it was a small table with a sign-in sheet, a coffee pot, cups, and a box of donuts.

Judi headed for the coffee, leaving Ben to find his friend. As she poured the coffee, she thought about darting out again. She’d promised Ellie and herself she’d stick with this AA stuff, though. Waking up with a hangover and not remembering what she’d done the night before wasn’t how she wanted to spend her whole life, even if cutting out drinking had made her life incredibly dull. It had also left her with the ability to feel emotions again, something she wasn’t enjoying in the least when it came to emotions like guilt, embarrassment, and sadness.

She hadn’t promised her parents she’d go to the AA meetings because she hadn’t even told them how addicted she’d become to alcohol. Ellie had been nice enough not to tell them either. She knew her parents would still love her, but she’d always been somewhat of a black sheep in the family. No reason to let her parents know she was even further out there than they thought.

One of the many awkward aspects of attending an AA meeting in your hometown was that you ended up knowing some of the other attendees. Turning with a coffee cup in hand, she scanned the room and counted two people she’d gone to high school with, other than Ben — Jessie Landry and Steve Jakes. The 60-something-year-old owner of the local supermarket had already taken a seat and was looking as uncomfortable and out of place as he had in the previous two meetings she’d attended with him.

Her gaze moved back to Jessie who was clearly hitting on Steve. Wearing a black leather mini-skirt and a hot pink tank top under a blue denim jacket, Jessie obviously hadn’t been concerned about looking too trashy.

Judi had partied with Jessie more than once on her visits back home over the years. She’d also had run into her once or twice at a bar before making the decision to drop alcohol altogether. Jessie might be serious about cutting out alcohol, but Judi was certain it would take a lot more to break Jessie of her addiction to dating a new man every few months.

Glancing around the room again, Judi’s gaze fell on Ben standing next to an unshaven elderly man in a pair of faded stained jeans and a flannel shirt. She hadn’t really paid much attention to how he looked when he’d been harassing her in the hallway.

Now she noticed his light brown hair was swept back off his forehead and he was wearing a blue, button-up dress shirt, the collar firmly buttoned at the top, and a pair of tan khakis. She wondered if he ever dressed in anything more casual. She’d be shocked if he ever kicked back in a pair of sweatpants and a sweatshirt.

The hand of the man standing next to him shook as he lifted a cup to his mouth. Ben laid a hand on his shoulder and said something to him Judi couldn’t hear. Whatever it was the man seemed to appreciate it and nodded slowly as he swallowed the liquid from the cup.

The group facilitator and Judi’s sponsor, Rachel Martin, clapped her hands twice to get everyone’s attention.

“Okay, everyone. Let’s get seated.”

Judi noticed as she sat in a metal chair with a blue cushion that Brad wasn’t in the room. She hadn’t actually expected to see him to show up, so his absence wasn’t a surprise. It was, however, a relief.

Rachel sat and smiled as she looked around the circle. “Good evening, everyone, my name is Rachel and I’ve been sober ten years now and I’m your group leader tonight.” She stopped her gaze briefly at each person and smiled. “I see a couple of new faces with us tonight. How was everyone’s week? Anyone do anything exciting?”

The adjusting and readjusting of bottoms on metal seats filled the silence but no one offered any tales of their past week.

Judi didn’t have anything exciting to share unless a near collision with a lawyer’s fancy car was exciting. Had Ben not been there, she might have shared the story to make sure her side was heard. She scanned the circle and counted twelve recovering alcoholics and Ben.

It was sad to think such a small town had so many people struggling with alcohol and addiction.

Rachel sat back in the chair, the smile still in place, dark curls falling away from her face as she pushed her hair back. “Okay, well, that’s fine. We all must have had a pretty routine week.”

A smattering of stiff laughter trickled around the circle. Judi knew that most of the group members’ routine week had most likely involved fighting back the overwhelming desire to open a bottle and pour alcohol down their throat to chase away the demons.

Demons whispered in Judi’s ear every day.

“You’re such a screwup.”

“Go ahead. Take just one drink to take the edge off. It won’t hurt.”

“You’ll never be as good as Ellie is.”

“You will never have a life like Ellie with a husband and a real job.”

“Your parents will always look at you with shame.”

“You deserved what Jeff did that night. You were dressed like a whore anyhow.”

Despite their whispers, she had, so far, been able to resist the temptation to silence them with booze.

The scrape of a chair pulled Judi from her thoughts, and she looked up to see Brad pulling a chair out and sitting in it. For the first time since she’d known him — which was since elementary school — he looked terrified.

Rachel waited for Brad to sit down completely and then suggested the usual moment of silence, which she said could be used for prayer or an introspective moment. After that minute, the group recited the serenity prayer with more than one member looking less than thrilled at having to say a prayer.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,” they recited. “Courage to change the things I can, and Wisdom to know the difference.”

Rachel then asked the new members to introduce themselves.

A man with broad shoulders and a long beard, wearing a biker jacket with dark blue jeans and heavy, black biker boots stood and hooked his thumbs in his belt loops. Judi looked up at him and inwardly shivered. The man was easily 6 foot 5 inches and maybe 250 pounds. She’d hate to see him drunk, especially if he was an angry drunk.

“My name’s Jake and I’m here because I’m tired of waking up next to my smashed-up bike and not remembering what happened.”

“Welcome, Jake,” Rachel said as the rest of the group chuckled at Jake’s blunt introduction.

“Am I supposed to announce I’m an alcoholic like on TV?” Jake asked in his deep voice, his beard trembling with each word.

Rachel laughed softly. “Well, yes, the first step to helping yourself is admitting you have a problem.” 

Jake straightened his shoulders and pushed out his broad chest. “My name is Jake and I’m an alcoholic.”

He nodded his head definitively as if his statement explained everything and sat back down with an equally definitive thud.

“Thank you, Jake,” Rachel said. “Would the other new members please introduce themselves?”

Brad stood reluctantly, shoving his hands in the front pockets of his jeans and looking at his mud and manure-stained work boots. Judi took in the dirt on the jeans and shirt and guessed he must have come right from the barn. She’d wondered if he would keep working with the Tanners after the accident, but it looked like he either still was or was working on another farm instead.

Last Judi had known Jason Tanner, who had become her brother-in-law six months ago, had sworn he’d never work with his cousin again. Jason was a lot like Ellie, though – a good Christian who offered forgiveness to those who didn’t deserve it.  That willingness to forgive was the main reason he and Ellie still talked to Judi, a fact she knew and appreciated even if she struggled to be the same way.

 “I’m Brad Tanner and I’ve been drinking too much for a few years and need to get back on my feet so,” he shrugged a shoulder. “I’m here.”

He sat back down, his hands still in his pockets.

“He didn’t say he was an alcoholic,” Judi mumbled, picking at a string on the hem of her skirt.

She didn’t have to look up to know Brad was scowling when he said, “Shut up, Judi.”

Judi opened her mouth to respond but Rachel cleared her throat.  “Let’s try to be polite, everyone, okay? Brad, we’re glad you’re here. Anyone else?”

The man sitting next to Ben stood slowly, trembling slightly.

“Hey, uh, my name’s Floyd Miller and I’m an alcoholic.” He tipped his head toward Rachel as if for approval. She nodded back in encouragement. “I’m grateful for my lawyer offering to come here with me tonight.” He glanced at Ben who was still sitting. “I was pulled over for my second DUI recently and Ben here got me a lighter sentence if I agreed to come to these meetings. I didn’t want to come at first but Ben told me he’d been to a few himself and it was the first step to getting my life back on track so …” Floyd held hands out to his side and shrugged his shoulders. “Here I am. I’m not sure I can do this but I’ve got to try if I want to make my kids proud of me instead of ashamed.”

Rachel thanked Floyd for coming and then started to lay out the goals of the group to the new members. Judi’s mind, though, was focused on what Floyd had said about Ben being to one of these meetings himself. Had he meant he’d supported other people at the meetings or had he actually been to an AA meeting for himself?  Judi was beginning to wonder if she’d read him all wrong all these years. He’d come here to support this man who had been his client, and he was familiar with AA meetings. There was a lot more to Ben than she’d thought.

She studied Ben for a few minutes across the circle. His focus was on Rachel, and he winced when he tried to cross his leg with the cumbersome cast. As he rubbed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, Judi could tell his head was bothering him. She wondered why he’d even tried to come out tonight, only a few days after the accident. He didn’t seem the type to put his own comfort at risk to support someone, but that might actually be the case this time.

“Anyone else want to share this week?” Rachel asked, clasping her hands together in front of her.

She’d already gone over the steps of the program and the idea behind sponsors, as well as providing a contact source for anyone who felt like they might fall back to drinking during a stressful time.

Judi studied her fingernails as she pondered the real reason for Ben’s appearance at the meeting, and noticed a chip in the red polish she applied yesterday. She decided she should really get a stronger fingernail polish.

“I want to know how Judi’s doing working at a bar and grill.”

Judi’s head jerked up at the comment and her gaze met the eyes of Jerry Spencer who owned a computer repair shop a few miles outside of town. She immediately recognized his tone as mocking.

Bristling, she folded her arms across her chest, leveling her gaze at Jerry, who seemed to have had it in for her from the first meeting she’d attended five months ago. “It’s going fine, Jerry.” Her jaw tightened. “Thanks for asking.”

Jerry scoffed. “Yeah right. You can’t tell me there aren’t nights you don’t want to kick back one of those drinks you’re delivering. I know I would.”

“Well, that’s you. I can separate myself from that world any time I want.”

“Famous last words,” Jerry bit back.

Rachel held her hands up, “Jerry, let’s be a little more encouraging, okay?

Jerry tossed his hands out to his side. “This whole thing is stupid. What are we even doing here? We all know we’d rather be out at the bar.”

Rachel leaned forward, propping her elbows on her knees and propping her hands under her chin. “Why are you here, Jerry? There has to be a reason you walk in those doors every week.”

Jerry shrugged her shoulder as he leaned back and relaxed one arm over the back of the chair. “Yeah. My wife said I had to come, or it was over.”

Rachel raised a questioning eyebrow. “And you don’t want it to be over right?”

Jerry rolled his eyes and tipped his head back against the back of the chair, legs stretched out, one ankle propped over the other. “No. I don’t, but that doesn’t mean I want to be sitting here flapping my jaw about all my problems with a bunch of strangers either.”

“What do you have against me anyhow?”

Hearing what she had been thinking said out loud, startled Judi and she couldn’t believe she’d actually asked it.

“You’re naïve, Judi,” Jerry snapped. “That’s my problem with you. You’re a little girl who needs to grow up. You think you can be around alcohol and alcoholics and still stay clean. One day it’s going to get to you, get it? One day it’s all going to come crashing down and you’re going to have a weak moment and boom! It’s over. All that hard work you put in and all that progress you made will be gone.” He snapped his fingers, his gaze focused on hers. “In a blink of an eye.”

He stood, hands clenched into fists at his side. “And you’ll have no one to blame but your stupid, airhead, blond ditz self.”

“Jerry, that’s enough!” Rachel stood and pointed toward the door. “You need to leave. Now!”

Ben and Brad stood as well, eyes on Jerry who didn’t need to be told again to leave. He’d already shoved his chair aside roughly and was on his way through the doorway.

Judi gritted her teeth and reached down for the coffee cup she’d placed next to her chair. She sipped from it and kept her eyes down, too angry and shocked to look up and see the expressions of others in the room.

Ellie had told her she shouldn’t be working at a bar and grill too, but Lonny had been the only one who had called her back when she sent out resumes. Waiting on tables was all she knew how to do other than retail and there wasn’t exactly a lot of retail places in Spencer Valley looking for employees. Maybe in some ways, Jerry was right, but he didn’t need to be so mean. And the air headed comments? Seriously rude.

Rachel sat back down and reached over to squeeze Judi’s shoulder. “You okay?”

Judi nodded but didn’t look at her. “Yep.”

“We’ll talk after the meeting,” Rachel whispered.

Judi didn’t want to talk after the meeting or any time. At least not about Jerry. Warmth spread across her cheeks and down her chest as she kept her eyes on the coffee in her cup. Jerry had some nerve attacking her when he was obviously an even worse mess. She’d hurt herself and sometimes her family with her actions, but he had a wife and small children. He definitely had a lot more on the line than Judi did. What a loser.

Two more group members shared some struggles they had been having in the past week and then Rachel drew the meeting to a close with a brief prayer.

Judi snatched up her purse and the cup and briskly walked toward the doorway, dropping the cup into the trashcan. There was no way she was staying to talk to Rachel about Jerry, her week, or anything else. She wasn’t in the mood.

“Hey!” She ignored the shout of a male voice behind her as she opened the driver’s side door and slid inside.

The only thing she was in the mood for was a drink, but since that couldn’t happen, she was heading to her apartment, where she knew a pint of Rocky Road ice cream was waiting for her in her freezer.

Fiction Friday: Mercy’s Shore Chapter 3

Here we are to chapter 3 of Mercy’s Shore, the fourth book in The Spencer Valley Chronicles. If you’ve been here before you know how it works. This is a somewhat first draft so there might be typos and plot holes etc., which will be fixed before I finally publish it in ebook form later on.

Book three is now for sale on Amazon and other sites.

To read the previous two chapters in this current story click HERE.

Chapter 3

Ben opened one eye and squinted in the sunlight, expecting to see the bedroom at his apartment — clean, matching furniture and set up to fit his organized personality.

Instead, his gaze fell on a poster of Cal Ripkin Jr., golden trophies lining shelves above a small desk, and a collection of CDs in a bookcase where books should have been.

Oh right. His brother Luke’s room. He squeezed his eyes shut again and pulled the covers up over his head. It hadn’t been a bad dream after all. He really was staying at his parents while he recuperated from a concussion and a broken ankle.

He’d been placed in his younger brother’s room because his room had been transformed into his father’s office long ago and because Luke was away at college. His other brother, Travis, had moved out a year ago and was working for a construction company in the western part of the state. Travis’ room had become a library for his dad’s law books. The only sibling who wasn’t out of the house yet was —

“Hey, Binkie! Mom says breakfast is ready.”

He glared through the blanket at his younger sister Maggie. He was an adult, nearly 30. Why in the world was she still using his childhood nickname?

“Go away,” he mumbled.

Maggie giggled and something soft, which he figured was a pillow, slammed into him. “Just like the old days. You’re still not a morning person. Come on or I’m eating all the pancakes.”

The door slammed and he winced. Did she forget he had a concussion?

He flung the covers back and squinted at the Pittsburgh Steelers clock on the bedside stand. Any other day and he’d already be in the office, preparing for his day in court or for a meeting with a client. He still planned to go over a few briefs and hold a couple of video conference calls with clients, but Cindy had purposely set those meetings up for later in the morning, urging him to take his time and heal up.

He adored the woman, but it was a challenge working with a woman his mother’s age who sometimes acted like she was his mother.

Cindy was great at her job, though, and he couldn’t imagine anyone else working for him or with him. She’d been employed as a secretary for the lawyer who’d had the office before him for 25 years. He counted himself lucky that she’d agreed to stay on when he took over. Her experience was irreplaceable even if her maternal tone grated on his nerves at times.

He grimaced as he swung his legs over the bed. The air cast on his ankle was cumbersome but necessary if he wanted the break to heal. The doctor had told him if he’d hit the ankle any harder, he’d be in surgery receiving a pin in it. That would have put him out of work even longer. He took the stairs one at a time, gritting his teeth against the pain.

His mom set a plate filled with pancakes, eggs, bacon, and two pieces of toast on the table as he reached for the back of the chair to steady himself.

“Those painkillers still doing a number on you?” His mom asked.

He waited for the room to stop tilting before he tried to sit down. “Yeah. I’d like to stop taking them but when I do the pounding in my head is almost unbearable.”

He pressed his forehead into his hands and wished the food looked more appetizing to him at the moment. He knew his mom already made breakfast for his dad and sister every morning but adding an extra plate to her day didn’t seem fair to him, especially if he couldn’t eat it.

“Going stir crazy yet?” Maggie stuffed a bite of pancake in her mouth and quirked an eyebrow at him. She smirked as she chewed.

Ben watched her through half open eyes. “Shouldn’t you be at school already?”

Maggie giggled and took a sip of chocolate milk through a bright red straw. “You’re still a big grump in the mornings, huh?” She wiped the milk from her upper lip with a napkin. Don’t worry. I’ll be out of your hair soon. Jenny’s on her way over.”

He reached for the glass of milk his mom sat in front of him. “Whose Jenny?”

“Jenny Fitzgerald. You know her.”

“You don’t mean she’s driving over here, do you? She’s like 12.”

Maggie rolled her eyes. “She was 12 five years ago, Benny. She’s 17 and got her license two months ago.”

Emily Oliver placed a hand on her hip as she stood by the table. “And if Maggie wants her license, she needs to start studying that book I brought home.”

Maggie rolled her eyes while Ben rubbed a hand over the stubble along his jawline. How was his little sister old enough to be getting her license? He could have sworn she was eleven just yesterday.

Maggie was the surprise baby for the Olivers. After three sons they thought they were done, but six years after their youngest son was born, Maggie made her appearance.

“I thought you were menopause,” Emily was fond of telling her daughter jokingly.

Ben took a sip of the milk, the only thing which tasted good to him at the moment. “Where’d you get the milk? It’s good.”

“The Tanner’s. Their bottling their own milk and expanded the store.”

Oh right.

The Tanners.

Molly Tanner.

His girlfriend in high school. The sweet girl he’d dumped to go out with Angie because Angie was skinny, blond, and – well, more willing to do things Molly wasn’t.

His stomach clenched at the memory.

He’d apologized to Molly about a year ago, told her how stupid he’d been, how sorry for what he’d done to her. In true Molly fashion she had forgiven him, and it has eased some of his guilt, but not all of it.

In reality he’d been stupid in and after college too, only with Angie instead of Molly this time. Apparently messing up the lives of women was a talent of his.

His mom gestured at his plate as she sat across from him with a cup of tea. “Aren’t you going to eat? You need to keep your energy up.” She dropped two cubes of sugar into her cup. “
It will help your healing.”

Ben smiled. “Once a mom, always a mom, huh?”

“You know that.” Emily winked. “You’ll always be my baby.”

Maggie snorted a laugh as she shoved her last bite of bacon in her mouth. “Probably because he still acts like a baby half the time.”

Ben reached out and gently pinched his sister’s arm as she walked by to put her plate in the sink. A horn honked from outside. “Your book bag is over there. Get going, smart mouth.”

Maggie leaned over as she reached for her book bag and kissed his cheek. “I’m glad you’re okay, Benny.”

He leaned back in the chair and reached up to ruffle her hair. “Thanks, kid.”

“My hair!”

He chuckled at Maggie’s cry of despair as she walked toward the back door.

Emily stood and reached for a pile of envelops and folders on the island. “I hesitated giving all this to you now, but Cindy dropped your mail off this morning. I want you to rest your brain but maybe this will tide you over a little bit until you can get back into the office.”

Ben poked at a piece of pancake as he rifled through the mail. “Junk mail, a couple of signed documents I actually asked to be dropped off in person and not mailed, and a couple of bills. Looks like I haven’t missed much.”

A stack of the envelopes slipped off the table onto the floor and Emily stooped to grab them. Ben saw the envelope before she reached for it, but he couldn’t move fast enough. He hoped she wouldn’t see the return address.

 She held the envelope in front of her.  Too late.

“Oh. It’s from Adam and Leona.” She smiled and handed it to him. “I wonder what they sent you.”

He took the envelope, avoiding her gaze, and shoved it under the pile.

“Wouldn’t know,” he mumbled, drinking more milk.

Emily sat down and smoothed her hands across the red and white tablecloth. She cleared her throat and reached for her tea, holding the cup in both hands as she raised it to her mouth. “Don’t you want to know what they sent?” She sipped the tea, keeping her eyes on the tea in her cup.

He finished off the milk and started in on the pancakes. “I already know what it is.”

“Oh?”

He kept his eyes on the pancakes. “Angie left me a voicemail. She doesn’t want me there.”

The cup hit the table with a soft clink. “Oh.” It wasn’t a question anymore. He wasn’t sure what he heard in her voice. Disappointment? Resignation? Definitely not surprise.

He pushed his plate back and picked up the mail. “Anyhow, thanks for breakfast. I’m going to head up and see if I can get a few online meetings scheduled for this week and some briefs written.”

“Don’t you want to get to know her, Ben?”

The question stopped him as he started to shuffle back toward the stairs. He tipped his head back and let out a breath. He answered without turning around, the mail under his arm. “Angie doesn’t want me around, Mom.”

“That isn’t what I asked.”

Ben dropped his head and raked his free hand through his hair as he continued to walk toward the stairs. “My head is pounding, and I’ve got work to do. Maybe we can talk about this another time.”

Climbing the stairs, he was grateful his mom didn’t push the issue. He heard her placing dishes in the sink instead. It didn’t matter if he wanted to see his daughter or not. Angie didn’t want to see him or for him to see their daughter and he couldn’t blame her.

Most days he couldn’t even stand to see himself in the mirror.

He tossed the mail on the bed, picking up the envelope from Angie’s parents as it fell on the floor.

He held it in his hands few moments before finally ripping it open. A handwritten note and a small photo fell out with the card, an invitation with colorful writing and the number four on the front, surrounded by a bunch of red balloons. The party was the next weekend, four hours away where Angie and her parents now lived.

He reached down for the note, leaving the photo of a blond-haired little girl on the floor by the bedside table.

Ben:

We didn’t know if we should send this, but you are Amelia’s father, and we feel you should be a part of her life.

We hope you will at least consider attending her birthday party.

We know there has been hurt between you and Angie and that you have struggled to move past some personal issues, but you are welcome in our home anytime.

Below are the directions to our house.

Sincerely,

Leona and Adam

 

He had no idea how Angie’s parents could still be willing to extend an olive branch to him after what he’d done.

He crumbled the note and the invitation and tossed it in the trash can then reached for the photo. Tiny, bright blue eyes looked back at him above a cute nose that was definitely her mother’s. Her blond curls fell to her shoulder and her smile was also Angie’s — a mixture of sweet and sass.

Her eyes, though, except for the color, were his. They were shaped the same and held a stubbornness he clearly recognized. He hoped that stubbornness worked out better for her than it had for him and that she’d learn to use it for good versus the evil he’d used it for too many times.

He opened his brief case next to the bed and shoved the photo in the inside pocket. Pulling out a stack of manilla folders full of case information, he shut the briefcase again, and with it closed his thoughts about the woman and the little girl he’d walked away from four and a half years ago.

Fiction Friday: Mercy’s Shore Chapter 2

Here we are to chapter 2 of Mercy’s Shore, the fourth book in The Spencer Valley Chronicles. If you’ve been here before you know how it works. This is a somewhat first draft so there might be typos and plot holes etc., which will be fixed before I finally publish it in ebook form later on.

Book three in the series is currently out on Amazon and will be out on other sites next week.

As always, let me know what you think of the latest chapters and where you think the story should go next in the comments.

Chapter 2

The Spencer Valley Police Department wasn’t a rush of activity like police departments on television. It was three rooms, three desks, two chairs to each desk and one of the rooms was an office that Judi assumed must be Chief Reggie Stoddard’s office. At this time of day, before noon, there were only three people in the office — a secretary sitting at a small table in one corner, the chief leaning back in a creaky, black office chair with a cup of coffee resting on his belly, and Spencer Valley Police Officer Matt McGee.

Matt gestured to the chair across from his desk as he led Judi to his desk under a dim fluorescent light. “Sorry I was pulled away before I could get your statement last night. Unruly customer at the grill and they needed some backup.”

Judi pulled her straight blond hair off her shoulders and into a ponytail as she sat. “Not surprised. We get unruly customers there all the time.” She laid her purse on her lap and sat back in the chair, flinching as it creaked under her. “Is this thing going to break?”

Matt grinned. “Nah. It’s just old. You’ll be fine.” He pulled a notepad from the top desk drawer and laid it on the desk. “So, you started telling me about the accident last night. Let’s pick up from when you were at the stop sign.”

“I looked both ways and he came out of nowhere.” She raised her hands up in front of her. “It wasn’t my fault.”

“Did you stop at the stop sign?”

“Pretty much, yeah.”

Matt quirked an eyebrow. “You either did or didn’t, Judi. Did you come to a complete stop before pulling out?”

Judi sighed, tipping her head back and staring at the ceiling for a few seconds. “I stopped for like a few seconds, I guess.” She leaned forward toward the desk. “But I looked both ways. I didn’t see him so he must have really been flying.”

Matt scribbled a few notes. “So, he swerved to miss you and that’s when he hit the tree?”

“Yep. Then he got out, fell to the ground, got up again, and marched straight to my car and let me have it.”

“Mmhmm.”

“What does mmhmm mean?” Judi stretched her neck out to try to see the notepad on the desk in front of Matt. “Does that mean that you’re writing down it was my fault? It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t see him.”

Matt snapped the cover closed on the notepad and laid the pen on top of it, raising a hand. “Just calm down. If you didn’t come to a complete stop at the stop sign then technically it is your fault, but all that means is your insurance will cover the cost of repairs for Ben’s car.” He stood and walked across to the water cooler behind Judi,  pouring water into a paper cup and handing it to her. “Accidents happen. This could result in a couple of points coming off your license but if you’re careful and don’t let anything like this happen again, you’ll get those points back.”

Judi made a face, taking the cup. “Points? What points? Is driving like football? We score points for driving well?”

Matt paused before sitting down, his eyebrows dipping as he studied her. “No. Well, sort of. I mean, you have six points on your license and certain driving offenses can result in you losing those points. If you lose all six, then you lose your license.” He sat back down, folding his hands in front of him on the desk. “No one has ever explained this to you?”

Judi tapped her index finger against her chin and pushed her bottom lip out. “I think Dad said something about it to me one time, but I wasn’t really listening.”

Matt laughed, pushing his hands back through his hair and letting his arm come to rest across the back of his chair. “Well, now you know.”

Judi could see why everyone in town liked Matt so much He was a genuinely nice guy, even if he was probably going to write down that she caused the accident. He’d been a good guy in high school too, so it was nice to see he hadn’t changed.

She slid her gaze over his forearms and up to his biceps as he pushed the notepad to the side and reached for his coffee mug.

He wasn’t too hard on the eyes either. Liz Cranmer was lucky to have him as her boyfriend. Or was it fiancé? Judi wasn’t sure what their status was at this point, other than they were an item and some of the women in town didn’t like that.

“So, what did Ben say?” she asked, tapping her fingernails against the side of her purse.

Matt took a sip from the mug. “Haven’t talked to him yet. He was out by the time I got to the hospital, as you know, and when I called this morning, they said he still hadn’t woken up yet. Hope he’s going to be okay. He took a huge hit on the head out there.”

Judi slipped a small jar of strawberry flavored lip balm from her purse and began applying it. “Tell me about it. He was dripping blood all over and all that yelling wasn’t helping any either.” She popped the lip palm back in the center pocket and stood, looping the strap over her shoulder. “I’m good to go then?”

“Yep.” Matt stood too. “If I have any more questions, I’ll give you a call. You have a shift at the grill this afternoon?”

Judi gestured toward her white t-shirt and black jeans. “However could you tell?” She rolled her eyes. “I wish Lonny didn’t have a dress code. This outfit is so boring and depressing. I need some color in my life, you know?”

Matt smiled. “Yes, I know. You’ll have to make up for it on the days you’re not working.”

Matt told her to have a good day and she thanked him with a tinge of sarcasm before heading to her car. Inside she slid the key into the ignition and pulled out to head to Lonny’s Bar and Grill two miles outside of town.

Her phone rang and she tapped accept button and the speaker button with the phone still on the front seat.

“Judeeee! I can’t believe you finally answered.”

She immediately wished she had checked the caller ID before accepting the call.

“Selina, hey. How are you?”

“Good, except I’m missing you. Where have you been?! I’ve been trying to call you for days! I thought you were run over by a tractor or something.”

Run over by a tractor? Really?

“I’m fine. Just been busy at work.”

Selina giggled. “I still can’t believe you’re a waitress. You always said that was beneath you.”

“Beggars can’t be choosers, Selina. We have to do what we have to do to make a living.”

“Come on, Jude. You aren’t really going to stay in that little dinky town, are you? You always said you hated it there. Come back to me. I’ve got tickets for Hamilton this weekend and reservations at La Grenouille. Everyone is going to be there.”

A chill shivered through Judi. “Everyone?”

“Well, not Jeff of course. You know that. I haven’t spoken to him since you told me about what he tried.”

“I just need a little more time,” Judi said. “I don’t know what I’m doing yet, but I don’t feel like I can just go back to the way things were right now.”

“What do you even do down there in Nowhereville? Are there any clubs?”

“Not locally, no. But there is one about an hour from here.” Judi knew she should tell her friend there was a reason she wasn’t visiting that club, but she didn’t have the mental energy for it right now. Plus, she was pulling into the parking lot of the grill, and she was already late.

“Hey, Sel, I’ve to get into the grill. I’ll call you back later, okay?”

She hung up and hurried into the grill, sliding the phone into her purse, which she tossed over a hook in the kitchen. Reaching for her apron she hooked it quickly, hoping Lonny wouldn’t notice her coming in.

“Lambert!”

Wishful thinking.

“You’re late! Again!”

“Or I’m just early for tomorrow’s shift!” She called over her shoulder as she kept moving toward the dining room.

“Table four is waiting for you,” her co-worker Hannah Larkin said as Judi reached for a menu and an order pad.

Judi started for the table while looking down in her apron pocket for a pen. When she looked up her heart sank. She turned on her heel and walked back to Hannah. “You take him.”

Hannah shook her head. “Oh, no way. I’m not taking him. You’re the one he always asks for anyhow.”

Judi pushed the order pad toward Hannah. “You take him, and I’ll work two shifts for you next week.”

Hannah raised an eyebrow. “No chance. Way too handsy for me.”

Judi blew out a breath and turned back toward the table. “You can do this, Judi,” she mumbled under her breath as she walked. “It’s just a job.”

Just a job waiting on the table of the guy she’d made out with a few weeks before she hit rock bottom. The guy who later almost led to her sister’s death.

She stood next to the table, pen tip against the pad. “Okay, Brad. What is it today?”

Brad Tanner flashed her a toothy grin, one muscular arm draped over the back of the chair. “Hey. There’s my favorite girl. Fancy seeing you here.”

“Right.” Judi placed a hand on her hip and scowled. Her eyes flicked quickly over the black t-shirt pulled tight across his well-toned chest before settling back on his face. “Fancy seeing me here. Where I work. Every day. And where you come almost every day.” She tapped the pen on the pad. “Now what can I get you?”

Ben leaned forward, arms folded on the table. “The usual. With a root beer.”

She cocked an eyebrow. “What? No beer?”

“Nope.” He smirked. “I quit.”

Judi rolled her eyes. “And I’m Queen Elizabeth.”

Brad leaned back again in the chair, the smirk fading. “I did.” A somber expression softened his features. “I quit.”

Judi scribbled the words burger, fries, and root beer on the pad. “Okay. If you say so.”

Brad’s fingers encircled her wrist as she turned to leave, stopping her. “I did. Actually, that’s one reason I wanted you to wait on me today. You still going to those meetings?”

Judi pulled her hand away. Brad wasn’t known for being forthcoming. She wasn’t sure she was ready to believe him. Six months ago, she’d come back to the area to try to figure out her life. Brad had complicated her return first by taking her to clubs where she’d drowned her pain and memories in alcohol, and then almost killing her older sister.

“Who told you I was going to any meetings?” Judi asked, eying Brad suspiciously.

 He shrugged. “Troy told me you turned him down for a party a few weeks ago. You never turn down a party. I knew something was up and followed you out of here one night. I saw you go into the meeting.”

She placed a hand on her hip. “Why didn’t you come in? You could use it too you know.”

He folded his arms across his chest, “Yeah, I do. That’s why I’m asking you now.”

She still wasn’t sure she believed him, but . . . “If you’re serious, we meet every Thursday at 7.”

She turned toward the kitchen to place his order before he could respond.

Did she really want Brad at the meeting, listening to her talk about how far she’d fallen? A small laugh came from her as she keyed the order in. It wasn’t like Brad didn’t know how far she’d fallen. They’d fallen together part of that time.

Hannah bumped her hip against her as she walked by. “When you get a break tell me what happened with the lawyer. Is he going to sue you, or what?”

Judi shook her head. “No. I don’t think so. He says he isn’t anyhow.”

“How’s his head?”

“Not sure,” Judi answered. “Haven’t talked to anyone about him today and he was out of it when I left last night.”

Hannah scooped up a tray and headed toward the dining room. “Fill me in on the rest later.”

Judi headed toward the kitchen, thinking about the night before. When the morphine had finally knocked Ben out in that hospital bed Judi had been relieved. She already had his reassurance he wasn’t going to sue her for the accident so there was no reason for her to wait around any more.

If she’d been like her older, sweeter, and more caring sister, Ellie, she would have stuck around to make sure his injuries weren’t serious.

Judi wasn’t Ellie, though, so she’d shrugged her shoulders and taken off for her apartment where she’d fallen asleep on the couch with a carton of moose tracks ice cream. It was a scene far removed from how she used to spend her nights in the city. The fact she was back in her tiny hometown of Spencer instead of still living in the city surprised even her.

When she’d first left Spencer shortly after high school, she’d vowed never to return.

Spencer was way too slow and way too backward for her. At least that’s how she’d felt until the town she’d once despised became her safe haven from a life turned upside down.

Her sister had been right, much to her embarrassment. She couldn’t keep going at the speed she’d been going in the city without eventually hitting a brick wall.

That brick wall had been in the form of Jeff Brock who’d tried to ignore her “no” to his “yes” one night in his apartment.

“Judi, these two go to table six, this one to table eight.” The voice of the cook cut into her thoughts.

She carried the plates to the tables and headed back to the kitchen for Brad’s lunch, placing it on his table quickly and then turning to wait on another customer. The less time she spent with Brad, the better. She wished she hadn’t spent any time with him at all in her past.

“Judi, hello.” The older gentleman sitting at the table with two other men smiled as she handed him a menu.

Her day didn’t seem to be getting any better. First Brad and now Ben’s dad. Maxwell Oliver, Bedford County’s District Attorney. She had no idea who his lunch guests were, and she didn’t want to know. They were most likely all lawyers and lawyers put her on edge.

“I never got the chance to ask you if you were okay last night,” Maxwell said.

Judi shrugged. “Oh, I was fine. I hit my brakes hard but didn’t get hurt in any way.” She should ask about Ben. She really didn’t want to be any more involved than she already was though. Still, she was trying to be a better person so . . .

“How’s Ben doing?”

“The ankle is broken, he has a fairly severe concussion but he should be okay in a couple of days.”

“That’s good to hear.” She tapped her pen on the pad. That was as much as she wanted or needed to know at this point. “So, what can I get everyone?”

She took the men’s orders, turned, and hoped, yet again, that she’d make it out of this accident situation without being sued. Of all the people’s cars she could have almost slammed into in this county and it had to be the car of the District Attorney’s son. The district attorney’s son and a well-known jerk from her high school.

After her shift, she leaned against the side of her car next to Hannah, who was lighting a cigarette.

“So, the lawyer is the son of the county DA?”

Judi nodded and sipped from her water bottle. Hannah offered her the cigarette, and she shook her head. “That’s one vice I never picked up. The other ones were bad enough.”

Hannah blew a puff of smoke out and grinned. “What I really want to know is if the lawyer is cute.”

Judi made a face. “Cute, yes, but he’s also a total jerk. I went to the same high school as him. He dumped his really nice girlfriend before he left for college so he could go out with this stuck-up girl who everyone knew was easy.”

Hannah winced. “Ouch. Sounds like a real piece of work.” She tossed the cigarette onto the ground and pushed it into the dirt with the tip of her sneaker. “But what’s he like now? Is he single?”

Judi rolled her eyes and laughed. “I have no idea, Hannah. I’m not interested anyhow. If you are you can find out. All I care about is keeping him from suing me.” She opened the door and tossed the empty water bottle into the passenger seat. “I have to go. I’m supposed to meet my sponsor for a coffee before I head home.”

“Alright, have a good night.” Hannah pushed off of the car and pushed her cellphone into her back pocket. “Judi.” She touched Judi’s arm and Judi turned to face her. “I’m proud of you, you know. We haven’t known each other very long, but I think it’s great that you’re working hard to get your life together. If you ever need anyone to talk to if you — you know, get tempted? Just let me know, okay?”

Judi hugged Hannah briefly. “Thank you, Hannah. That means a lot.”

And it did mean a lot, but as Judi slid behind the steering wheel she also felt the pressure of Hannah’s comments heavy on her shoulders. What if she couldn’t do it? What if she fell back into the trap of using alcohol as a crutch again? What if she went back to her flippant, selfish ways and disappointed not only her family but herself?

None of those scenarios were something she wanted to entertain as a possibility.

Fiction Friday: Mercy’s Shore Chapter 1

As you can tell, I’ve decided to try blogging my next book.

I can’t guarantee I’ll have chapters every week, but we will see how it goes.

As always, this will be a work in progress, chapters will not have been proofed and at the end, I’ll create a book that will be self-published.

The last book I presented this way comes out on Amazon/Kindle on Tuesday and I have set the price at 99 cents to allow my blog readers a chance to get it cheap. If you prefer to have a free copy in exchange for a review, leave me your email address or send it to me at lisahoweler@gmail.com and I’ll send you a Bookfunnel link with a copy of the book.

I hope you enjoy the first chapter of Ben Oliver and Judi Lambert’s story. As always, comments are welcome.

Chapter 1

If mentally unhinged and obnoxious had been Ben Oliver’s type Judi Lambert’s fluttering eyelashes and head tilt might have worked to calm him

But neither of those things interested him, which was why his heart was racing and a vein had popped out on the left side of his neck.

He gestured aggressively toward the tree his BMW was now wrapped around.  “You didn’t see the stop sign?”

Judi twisted a strand of straight, blonde hair around a finger and avoided eye contact. “Yeah, I saw it, I just —”

“You just what? Thought the stop sign was a suggestion?”

She blew her gum into a bubble, popped it between her lips, and sighed. “Calm down. I’m sure your car is —”

“Totaled, Judi. My car is totaled.” He tapped the screen of his cell phone. “My car is totaled because you thought you could beat me through the intersection.”

Holding the phone to his ear, he paced in place, waiting for someone to pick up.

“Hello, Attorney Ben Oliver’s office.”

“Cindi, hey, yeah. It’s me. I’ve been in an accident.”

“Oh my gosh, Ben. Are you okay?” The concerned voice of his middle-aged secretary sent a flurry of frustration rushing through him.

“I’m fine. I just need you to call Judge Stanton’s office and tell him I’m not going to be able to make court today.”

“No, problem. Should I call anyone else for you?”

There was no one else to call, other than his parents, and he could talk to them later.

“No. Thanks. See you later this afternoon.”

He slid his thumb across the screen of the phone and turned back to what was left of the car he’d purchased last year to congratulate himself on the opening of his own law office.

No, the office wasn’t in a big city, like he had thought it would be. It was located in a town thirty minutes from where he’d grown up in rural Pennsylvania. It was a law office, though, and it was his.

When he turned from inspecting the car, the lanky blond standing across from him slid her hands in the back pockets of her jeans and pushed out her chest at the same time she pushed out her bottom lip. Behind her was the red convertible she’d been driving, completely unharmed, of course.

She tipped her head to one side. “I’m sure we can work something out, right?”

No way. Was she seriously trying to seduce him?

She winked.

Yes, she was trying to seduce him. Luckily, he knew what a train wreck she’d turned into after high school. He wasn’t about to fall for her overplayed act.

“Work what out?” The more he yelled, the more his head throbbed. “My car is destroyed because of you.” He tossed his hands in the air. “There’s nothing to be worked out!” He pointed a finger at her. “You better hope your insurance covers this.”

She held her hands up in front of her. “Dude, calm down. You’re bleeding from the head. It can’t be good for you to be screaming like this.”

Ben practically growled as he took a step toward her, wincing as pain sliced through his ankle. “I know, I’m bleeding!” He spoke through gritted teeth. “You don’t think I know I’m bleeding?! My head bounced off the windshield when I swerved to miss your car!”

He pressed his handkerchief to his forehead as blood dripped into his eye with one hand, dialing 911 on his cellphone with the other.

“Yes, I need to report an accident,” he answered when the dispatcher asked what his emergency he was.

“Location?” the dispatcher asked.

He swiveled to look for the road signs at the intersection but when he stopped moving the rest of the world didn’t.

“Sir, can you give me a location?”

Black encroached at the edges of Ben’s sight, and he bent forward, propping his hands on his knees. The phone clattered to the dirt surface of the road.

“Sir? Are you okay? Sir?”

When he came to, Judi was leaning over him with his phone against her ear.

“Yes. He’s opening his eyes now. How far out are they?” She rolled her eyes. “Okay. I’ll try but he’s very stubborn.”

Judi held the phone to the base of her throat, slightly above her cleavage, still leaning over him.

“Ben, the dispatcher says you need to stay still until the ambulance gets here. It shouldn’t be long, ‘Kay?”

Kay? Yeah – kay. Where else was he going to go? His head was pounding, pain was shooting up through his ankle, and every time he tried to open his eyes the world — and Judi — spun into a whirl of colors. He clenched his eyes closed against the pulsating agony sliding back and forth from the front to the back of his head.

The next thirty minutes was a blur, voices fading in and out, images merging together, lights bright in his eyes. He didn’t know how much time had passed when the world came into focus again and the beeping of monitors drowned out his muddled thoughts.

“There he is. I think he’s coming to.”

What was Judi doing in his bedroom? This could not be a good sign. “Hey, buddy. How you feeling?”

Wait. He wasn’t in his bedroom. Thank God. That meant Judi wasn’t either.

A deep voice boomed across his thoughts. “I know it’s family only. I’m his father.”

Ben struggled to open his eyes, blinked in bright fluorescent, and squinted. He searched the room of hospital equipment, nurses, and Judi to find his father’s face etched with concern.

“Dad?”

“You’re awake. Thank God.”

His dad’s voice was thick with emotion. He stepped past the nurse and stood at Ben’s bedside, reaching out a large hand to clasp his son’s shoulder.

Ben closed his eyes briefly, trying to remember how he’d ended up here, IV needles sticking out of his arm, nodes glued to his forehead and chest. A vision of his car wrapped around a tree filled his mind and his eyes flew open, his gaze falling on Judi again.

It all came back to him, including the anger.

“What is she still doing here? She didn’t do enough by making me wreck my car?”

His dad looked at him through disappointed dark green eyes, lowering his voice. “Ben, she’s been waiting here for you to wake up. She easily could have left. I’ll cut you some slack since you’re injured, but I hope to see a little more kindness when your head is clearer.”

In his father’s words, Ben felt the sting of the reminder that he would never be as good, or as kind, as Maxwell Oliver.

How did his dad even know he was here? He certainly hadn’t called him. Then again, maybe he had. His brain was a little fuzzy on the last — how long had he been here?

“I need to call the office. I have a client coming in at 2.”

A smile tilted his dad’s mouth up. “It’s well after two, kid. Cindy already called and rescheduled. You need to lay back and relax. I’m going to find a doctor and see what the verdict is on that head injury of yours.”

With his father gone, Ben took the time to look around the room, his gaze settling once again on Judi, her blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, dark red lipstick freshly reapplied, finely manicured nails showcasing pink nail polish as she held her phone and texted furiously. She was sitting in a chair, one leg crossed over the other, her foot bouncing.

“Go home, Judi. I’m fine.”

She didn’t look up from her phone. “I have to stay. Matt McGee wants my statement about the accident. He said he’d meet me here.”

Ben shifted up on the hospital bed, looked down at his arm with the IV, his white button-up shirt stained with blood, and his khakis with the knees dark from when he’d fallen in the mud climbing out of the car.

Maybe it was the painkiller running into his bloodstream, maybe it was the exhaustion or the head injury, but a laugh came out of him.

“And what are you going to tell Officer McGee? The truth? That you completely ignored a stop sign and drove straight through the intersection and in front of me?”

Judi looked up, pursing her lips, and studying Ben for a few minutes before speaking. “Are you going to sue me?”

“Excuse me?”

“Just let me know if you’re going to sue me. I’ve got tons of bills already, okay? I need to know if I’m going to have even more to pay if you sue me.”

He sighed and pressed the heels of his palms against his eyes. “No, Judi. I am not going to sue you. The worse I’m going to do is have my insurance company send a claim to your insurance company.”

“Okay. Well, you’re a lawyer so, I wasn’t sure what you’d do.”

Ben made a face as he lowered his hands. “Lawyers don’t sue everyone just because we know how, Judi.”

Judi shrugged a shoulder and looked back at her phone, tapping her finger across the screen. “Just checking.”

“Mr. Oliver. How are we doing?”

He heard the voice before he saw the doctor who swept into the room. He tried to follow the imposing figure with his eyes, but they wouldn’t focus so he tipped his head back against the pillow instead.

The doctor flicked a light into his eyes quickly then held up a finger. “Can you follow my finger?”

Ben tried but his eyes kept going where he didn’t want them to.

The doctor dropped his hand and glanced over his shoulder at Maxwell, who Ben noticed had stepped back into the exam room. “That’s pretty consistent with what I suspected.”

“What’s the verdict then, Jim?” Maxwell asked, arms folded across his chest, expression serious.

“Pretty clear grade three concussion. I’d like to do an MRI to confirm.”

Ben tried to focus on his father and the doctor as they conversed but moving his gaze back and forth proved to be too much to handle and he eventually closed his eyes.

He listened to the conversation, not in the least surprised his father knew the doctor by his first name. It seemed like there wasn’t anyone in this smalltown Maxwell didn’t know.

“For now, I think we should keep him overnight for observation and if all the tests come back normal, he should be good to go in a couple of days.”

Ben opened his eyes, squinting in his father’s direction. “You two are aware that I’m right here and an adult with all my facilities?”

Maxwell laughed. “Sorry about that son. Jim and I went to high school together. I was already talking to him outside about your head injury, so we were simply continuing the conversation.”

Ben tried to nod, then winced. “Okay, well, listen, I’m sure I’ll be fine. I don’t want to stay here overnight. I have a court case in the morning and —“

“There’ll be no court for you for a while, kid.” His father’s stern voice overlapped his. “In addition to that head injury, Jim’s pretty sure your ankle is broken. You’re going to need some time to heal up.”

Maxwell pushed his hands into his front pant pockets and tipped his head down, looking over his gold-rimmed glasses. “Listen, I know it’s going to be hard for you not to be on the move, but I have a feeling you won’t be cleared to drive for at least a couple of weeks so I think you should stay with me and your mom while you recover.”

“Dad, come on, that’s —“

“Probably a good idea,” the doctor said. “We’ll see what the MRI shows but even if it doesn’t show anything worse, your head is going to need some time to heal. Driving could put you and others in danger. I’m going to call a nurse and have her finish cleaning out that gash and then we’ll sew it up for you.” He turned to Maxwell and held out his hand. “Max, good to see you.” He turned his head toward Ben while still holding Maxwell’s hand. “You’ve got a good dad here, Ben. I hope you know that.”

Ben leaned his head back again, eyelids drooping. “Yeah. I do. I certainly do.”

Sleep overcame him a few minutes later and when he woke up, he was in a hospital room, alone except for a nurse pressing buttons on a blood pressure machine next to the bed.

He patted his chest, then reached toward the bedstand next to the bed. “Is my phone around here?”

The nurse nodded toward the bedside table. “Over there charging. Your dad said you’d want it when you woke up.”

“How long have I been out?”

The nurse smiled as she turned to leave the room. “Sometime since yesterday. The morphine hit you hard.”

Ben winced as he pushed the button on the side of the bed, lifting the top so he could sit up. His head and ankle were throbbing. He glanced under the blanket and saw a temporary cast on the ankle, which probably meant it was broken after all.

“Great. Just what I need.”

He reached for the phone, wondering how many calls he’d missed while he was out.

Ten all together. Two were from clients, one was from his secretary. The last one was from the Spencer Valley Police Department, which was most likely regarding his statement about the accident.

His finger hovered over the last voice mail. He didn’t recognize the number, but the phone had already transcribed the first few lines of the message and it had done a horrible job. All he could make out that made sense was parents and birthday. Whose parents and whose birthday?

He pressed play on the message, groaning softly when the familiar voice started speaking.

“My parents sent you an invitation to Amelia’s party and I just want you to know that they sent it, not me. I don’t want you there. One call a year on her birthday doesn’t make you a father, Ben. So, just . . . just ignore the invitation.”

Muffled voices followed. Angie must have forgotten to hang up the phone. Ben heard what sounded like Angie’s mother in the background, then it was Angie again. “Yes, I did call him.  . . Because I didn’t ask you to contact him. . . . I understand he’s her father, but he’s never wanted to be in her life before, why would he now?”

The voicemail ended abruptly, and he sat staring at the screen for a few seconds, his thumb hovering over the delete button.

Taking a deep breath, he moved his thumb away from the button. He was under the influence of some heavy-duty painkillers. Maybe he’d better listen to the voicemail again when was more alert.

Then again —

His thumb moved back to the delete button and he tapped it.

Listening again wouldn’t make any of what Angie had said less true. He hadn’t even seen the invitation yet, but if he did, he knew what to do with it. Toss it in the trashcan like he had with all the other invitations he’d been sent for the last four years.

Fiction Friday: Some thoughts about when I know a story is starting to click

The best part of writing a fiction story is when the characters start to come to life in my mind. When that happens, I start to daydream about them— including their interactions, personalities, and conversations they might have with other characters. The magic really happens later on the page as I start to write it all down and the character starts to tell me their story from their point of view.

The daydreaming phase has started with Mercy’s Shore, book four in the Spencer Valley series, when I thought it might never come. This week I started to get to know Ben Oliver, the main character, better Now that we are getting a feel for each other, I’ll be able to tell his story.

It will take me a few more chapters before I really know Ben, obviously, but he’s starting to give me a peek at who he is, which he also did when I started to write a character biography for him a month or so ago.

Only through his actions, conversations, and interactions with those around him will I really find out who he is, though, and that will require me to just write.

As I write scenes begin to piece themselves together, other characters begin to show themselves, and conversations evolve from one piece of dialogue to the next as I imagine what one person would say and what the logical, or more interestingly, the more illogical response will be.

Before I know it, I’ll have Ben’s full story down on the page.

Now I just have to get to know Judi even better than I did in Harvesting Hope and add her story to the mix. Or maybe I’ll just stick with Ben telling the story. I plan to make that decision this weekend, but I have a feeling that Judi is the kind of person who isn’t going to let someone else tell her story. Not again that is. Ellie told it for the most part in Harvesting Hope. Now it’s Judi’s turn to speak out.

Now a little update for my blog readers on future plans for the Spencer Valley Chronicles:

As it stands now, I have (possible) plans for at least one more full-length novel and three novellas.

One novella will focus on the story of Molly’s grandparents Ned and Franny Tanner and will be historical in nature as we go back to when they first met.

Another novella will focus on the origin story of Robert and Annie, Molly’s parents.

A third novella will focus on Ginny and Stan Jefferies’ (you will learn more about them in Beauty From Ashes if you didn’t read the chapters on here) daughter Olivia and . . .well, you’ll have to wait to find out.

The full-length novel will feature Alex from The Farmer’s Daughter as the main character as he works through issues with his father, who, if you remember from The Farmer’s Daughter (spoiler if you have not read that) had been diagnosed with cancer.

I won’t give a time frame for when all these books and novellas will come out since I do have a couple of stand-alone books I am interested in writing in between.

I had considered writing a book about Spencer’s newspaper editor, Liam Finley, and I may still do that but I don’t know if I will include that book as part of the Spencer Valley Chronicles, or make it a separate, stand-alone novel. That story is starting to capture my attention more and more, probably because of my own background in newspapers and my current connection to them as well.

If you’ve been following along with these stories, what storyline most intrigues you? And are there stories of other characters you would like to see expanded on as well?

Fiction Friday: Book update and a glimpse at the next book in the Spencer Valley Chronicles series.

This week I thought I’d give an update on where the manuscript for Beauty From Ashes is. It’s now in the hands of a couple of editors but one of those editors has been piled under work and the other is sick with Covid. For those reasons and a couple of others, I’ve pushed back the release date of the book from April 26 to May 10. This will hopefully give me time to implement some suggestions from early readers and make any changes my editor wants me to make before the book is released, without my head exploding.

The book will have some extra scenes from what I shared on the blog and it will also be missing a couple of others. There have been several changes from the first draft, which is mainly what was shared on the blog, but none so huge they change the entire plot of the book.

The biggest thing I have had to remind myself during the process this time is my author tagline of “just have fun.” I wasn’t having fun with writing recently, was taking myself a bit too seriously, and trying to be something I am not.  I didn’t start writing these stories to be a traditionally published author so focused on career that they lose site of who they really are. This isn’t to say that traditionally published authors don’t know who they are but I know that I would lose that if I was traditionally published and being told what I have to write, how to write it, and when to write it. It would stress me out to no end but that is because I am stressed out by a lot. There are other writers are not stressed out by every little thing and while I’m working on not being stressed out by things (I swear I’ve come a long way, even though I have a long way to go), right now in my life I need to take the easiest road possible to tell my stories.

So, anyhow, while I wait for more rewrite suggestions for Beauty From Ashes, I am starting to write a couple of other books, including Mercy’s Shore, which will be the next book in the Spencer Valley Chronicles series.

Because I often share everything first with my blog readers, this is the tentative cover of the book.

It could definitely change before the final publication sometime next year (or maybe late this year if I really get some inspiration and push forward fast on this book).

Mercy’s Shore will focus on Molly Tanner’s ex-boyfriend Ben Oliver and possibly on Ellie’s obnoxious, recovering-alcoholic sister, Judi Lambert. I haven’t definitively decided if Judi will be in the story or not. Similar to Beauty From Ashes, the book will not be a strict romance. I won’t give too much away, but it is possible Judi and Ben will not be romantically linked throughout the book.

After all, Ben has some amends to make to his ex-girlfriend Angie and to their daughter, Amelia, who he abandoned while trying to earn his law degree and pass the bar. In Mercy’s Shore, we will learn more about why that happened and what led Ben to be so focused on career over family.

I’m still plotting this one out, but thought I would share with you what I’ve written so far, which is literally a few paragraphs that may or may not end up being in the final book.

When the world stopped spinning, Ben Oliver was upside down, his seatbelt digging into his chest. Underneath him were shards of glass and something warm and slippery dripped into his eyes.

For a moment he thought it was oil from the engine. Even when red splattered the shattered windshield beneath him he couldn’t comprehend it was him that was bleeding. Of course it was him bleeding. He’d been the only one in the car when he’d jerked the wheel to the right to miss the deer and had sent his silver BMW careening over the embankment.

So, this is it, he thought. This is how it all ends. Not with a whimper but a bang after all.

A lot of bangs actually. He was sure that his BMW was totaled but worse than that was the pain searing through his sternum, back, and head, not to mention the blood now pooling in the shards of broken glass. He was beginning to wonder if he was totaled as well.

His hand slipped up to the seatbelt buckle, searching for the button to release it, but then he hesitated. If he released it there was a bed of glass waiting for him. He had to think this through, brace his legs and arms somehow before he released himself from his upside down prison.

In the end it didn’t matter anyhow. The seatbelt buckle wouldn’t release, no matter how many times he hit it and he was left to listen to the metal of the car creaking and groaning as it settled into its new position on its roof in the middle of the woods.

I’m not sure if I will share this one on the blog or not.

I’m also not sure if I will be sharing any of Lily on the blog, which is a different type of book for me and the other book I am working on. Lily will be based on the character Lily from A New Beginning, the book about Blanche Robins and Judson T. Wainwright.

Spoiler alert if you haven’t read the book — If you remember, Lily became pregnant at 15 after she slept with a man who had drugs she wanted. Blanche’s sister, Edith, and brother-in-law, Jimmy, were going to adopt Lily’s baby and in the end, decided to take Lily in as well.

Lily will be written in the first person and though the topic matter will be dark, I’m going to try to not make the entire book dark and depressing. There will be hope, especially as the book progresses and marches to the end. I am in the plotting stages of this book as well. When I write “plotting” I should mention that I have considered myself a “panster” writer in the past. A panster in writing is a person who writes by the seat of their pants and simply sees where the story will go.

For future books, I’ll be considering myself a hybrid pantser-plotter fiction writer. I will be plotting some of the book while also writing away and seeing where it goes. I want to plot more of the stories out from now on but also not plot so much that the book feels stale and cookie-cutter or formulaic. All books are formulaic in a way, I recognize that, but some genres make a book feel even more formulaic and predictable than others and Christian fiction is one of the worse for that. I don’t know if I will continue writing under the strict Christian fiction genre, but I do know my books will remain “clean.”

I’ve shared a little of Lily on here before, but will share a few paragraphs here to give you an idea of why it will be a different book for me.

That lady social worker said it didn’t hurt to push out a baby.

She lied.

It hurt like that place Mama said I was gonna go for getting pregnant in the first place. I never felt so much pain in my life. I thought I was going to die.

They wanted me to hold the baby, but I didn’t want to. She wasn’t mine anyhow. She belonged to those people I’d met at the agency.

That baby was squawking and hollering; all red and squishy and ugly. I told that nurse to take it away and let those people who were going to be her parents deal with it.

I don’t remember much after that. I slept for hours and hours. Everything in my body hurt and I was so weak I could barely stand. When I opened my eyes, it was dark, and I knew I had to get out of there.

Having something growing in you for nine months is weird.

Pushing it out through your private area while you scream is weird.

Giving that baby to people you only met once is weird too.

It’s all as weird as what that man did to me that left that baby in my belly in the first place.

The nurses didn’t hear me leave.

That social worker wasn’t even there.

My clothes were in a drawer by the bed at the hospital and I changed into them quickly. I cried because it hurt so bad all over. The area where that baby came from hurt the worse. Blood ran down my leg and I wiped it away.

I walked a long way to get to Mama. Wind whipped my hair across my face, cold bit at my bare skin. My stomach ached from hunger and my body screamed for sleep. I didn’t think I’d makeit.

I could barely lift my hand to pound on the door to her apartment when I finally got there. She didn’t open it for a long time and when she did, she was angry.

“How did you even find your way back here?”

She spat the words out like chew in a bucket.

“Mama, I’m tired.” I clutched at my stomach. “Hungry.”

“What do you want me to do about it? Didn’t those social workers feed you anything?”

“Mama —“

“Don’t call me Mama. You know I don’t like that.” She scowled in disgust. “You’re bleeding all over the hallway. You have that baby yet?”

I nodded weakly, wincing when she grabbed my upper arm, ripping me forward into the darkness of the apartment, bouncing my side off a wall.

“Get in here and stop bleeding on my rug.”

She shoved me down the hallway toward the living room. I collapsed on the couch, grasping at the musty smelling cushions as the room began to spin.

Maybe it was days. Maybe it was hours. Maybe it was weeks  before there were voices at the door and strong arms lifting me. I don’t really remember. It was all a blur of sweat and pain and Mama’s pinched and angry face, her screams cutting through my nightmares.

That day was the last time I saw Mama.

Now I’m living here in this place with a bunch of trees and open fields and a stream like I saw a picture of once in a book.

I don’t know what life will be like now, but anything has got to be better than where I came from.

So that is my Fiction Friday update. Hopefully in future weeks, I will have some original fiction to share with you, especially if I decide to blog Mercy’s Shore, which I hope to be able to write a little bit faster than other books.