Special Fiction … Wednesday? Mercy’s Shore Final Chapters

Umm…whoops! I completely forgot I had promised to post the final chapters of the book Sunday night so here they are now.

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

If you would prefer to read the book when it is all complete, you can pre-order a copy HERE on Amazon. It releases on January 31, 2023. There is also a link to the previous chapters HERE.

Chapter 36

Judi snatched the phone off her bedside table. So much for sleeping in this Saturday.

The caller ID said Evan, though, so she didn’t mind losing a couple hours of sleep.

“Hey, you.”

“Hey, you,” she said back, a broad smile tugging at her mouth at the sound of excitement in his voice.

“I’m back in town for a week, maybe more. I was wondering if you’d like to meet me out at the Tanner’s new pumpkin farm today. Maybe around noon?”

She rolled on her stomach, propping herself on her elbows. “That sounds very nice. I wasn’t sure you’d want to be around me again.”

Evan laughed. “You got all those flowers I sent, right? Of course I still want to be around you. I thought maybe I could buy you a donut and a cup of apple cider. Plus, it’d be somewhere  — um —neutral.”

She agreed to meet him at noon and spent the next two hours looking for the perfect autumn outfit. She spent another half an hour looking at herself in the mirror, adjusting her makeup, brushing her hair, then wiping some of the makeup off. Letting out a huff of breath she blew her bangs out of her eyes and shook her head in resignation.

“Don’t overthink it, Lambert. Just go.”

But she did overthink it. All the way to the pumpkin farm and in the parking lot, looking at herself in the rearview mirror. When a face appeared at her window out of the corner of her eye she screamed, then burst into laughter as she watched Evan lean back and laugh loudly.

“You jerk.” She laughed as she climbed out of the car and gently slapped his upper arm with the back of her hand.

“Sorry. That was just too funny.” His smile made her heart lurch. “You look beautiful, by the way. You don’t have to keep fixing your hair.”

Warmth spread up from her chest to her face. “Thank you.”

He tipped his head sideways to the entrance behind the store. “Care for a walk? I think the cider and donuts are back there.”

“Sure. That sounds nice.”

Leaves crunched under their feet as they walked. Judi slid her hands in her sweater pockets, her gaze drifting across a pumpkin field to her left, filled with pumpkins but also children swarming the pumpkins, loading them into carts, or carrying them to their parents. Beyond the pumpkin field were drying stalks of corn and a sign marking the entrance to the maze. Haybales were positioned at various places around the walkway, and she breathed in the scent of the drying hay, remembering her time growing up on the farm. During her teenage years, she avoided barn chores, using any excuse not to help with the milking, or shovel manure, or feed the calves. She was glad her dad had her sister and young men he’d hired to help him in the barn now, but a part of her did miss that time, a much more innocent time.  

“How’s work going?”

The question was one that used to cause her stomach to clench. In the last few weeks, though, she’d helped Ben draw up wills, help close sales for properties, and watched Ben calmly walk a woman through a divorce from an abusive husband.  Working for Ben gave her more of an opportunity to help others than any other job she’d ever had. She felt like she was actually contributing to society instead of floating through it.

“It’s going well, actually. I still don’t really know what I am doing, but Ben’s been patient with me.”

Evan ordered them apple cider and donuts at the small concession stand and motioned toward a wooden bench off to one side. “How are you doing otherwise?” he asked and she noticed he positioned himself a good distance from her as they sat, practically on the other end of the bench.

“I’m doing okay, really.” She sipped her cider. “I’m sure Ellie filled you in on some things.”

He shook his head once. “No. She said it wasn’t her place to and I respect that.”

She sipped more of the apple cider, enjoying the tartness on her tongue as she considered what to say next. “I’m sorry, Evan. I don’t know why I reacted that way. Well, I do, but I shouldn’t have with you.”

He laid an arm across the back of the bench, watching her as if waiting for her to continue. Concern etched his face.

She cleared her throat. “One night a year and a half ago, a little more, a guy tried to get further with me than I wanted. I was able to get away from him but another woman, a girl really, wasn’t as lucky.” Tears pricked at her eyes. “I don’t know why he let me go and not her and maybe other women, but he did.” She laughed softly, a tear slipping down her cheek. “Of course, my knee to his groin probably didn’t do much to make him want to try to keep me there.” She drew the back of a finger across the tear. “I guess I didn’t realize how much it had all affected me. I tried to laugh it off, drink it off, and run away but it seems like it all has been catching up with me lately and hit me full force that night with you.”

He winced and reached a hand toward her, but then pulled it back again, closing his fingers into a fist briefly before letting the hand drop to the back of the bench again. “Judi, I’m sorry. If I had known, I never would have been so forward.”

“You didn’t do anything wrong, Evan. It was me. I tried to move faster than I was ready that night. I wanted to forget everything, and I guess I thought I could erase all the memories of him by being with you. I’m the one that is sorry.” She pulled her lower lip between her teeth briefly. “And embarrassed.”

“There is nothing to be embarrassed about. You couldn’t control that reaction, as much as you wanted to. I understand.” A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. “Well, I don’t totally understand, because I’m not you and didn’t experience what you did, but I can see how that could have triggered some negative memories.”

Judi reached out and laid her hand on his. “I just don’t want you to think that you somehow triggered anything negative. You didn’t do anything wrong.”

Evan kept his arm over the back of the bench and sat the cup of cider on the seat next to him. “What happened to this guy? Did you report him or anything?”

She pushed a strand of hair back from her face and hooked it behind her ear. “No, I never did. He’s going to trial for the other woman he assaulted, though. He’s somehow out on bail and called me a few weeks ago.”

Evan’s eyebrows lifted. “He called you?”

“Yeah and he doesn’t want me to tell anyone what happened, but I’m going to. This girl’s lawyer called me a while ago. Ben and I talked to him yesterday.” She drew in a shaky breath, startled by the emotion gripping her. “I talked to the girl a few days ago. Her experience was so similar to mine, from everything he said to everything he did.” She closed her eyes briefly against the tears. “I knew she wasn’t lying.”

When she opened her eyes, Evan’s jaw had tightened, and he swallowed hard.

 “I’m scared,” she said, her voice dropping to a whisper. “But I’m going to be with her in the courtroom. I don’t want her to feel like it’s her against him. It will be us against him.”

Evan leaned toward her, then leaned back again. “I’ll be there for you if you want me to be. I really want to hold you right now, but I don’t want to touch you unless you want me to. I talked to a therapist friend of mine and she said I shouldn’t try to make the first move in any way. I should let you tell me when it is okay for me to physically be near you.”

A smile pulled at her mouth. “You talked to a therapist about me?”

Crimson colored his cheeks. “Yeah, but I mean, I didn’t tell her your name or anything. I just told her a little bit about the situation and asked how I should handle it because I care about you and — yeah —” He rubbed a hand across the back of his neck. “I just told her I want to pursue a relationship with you, so I want to know how to help you heal from all of this.” He cleared his throat. “That’s why I thought it might be good to meet here where it’s a little more neutral.”

He cared enough to talk to a therapist about how to talk to her? Was this for real?

A small laugh came from her throat. “Evan McGee, I think that you really are as sweet as I’ve heard your brother is.”

He made a face. “Ew. Don’t compare me to Saint Matt. I’m not that good.”

She moved closer to him on the bench, touching a hand to his cheek. “Well, you are very close and that’s not a bad thing.” Leaning closer she lightly touched her mouth to his. “Thank you.”

He grinned, tipping his head closer to hers. “You’re welcome. And listen, we can take this slow and just hang out. We can go out to public places, or have friends over when we watch movies, or —”

She slid her hand to the back of his neck and pulled his head down to hers, pressing her mouth to this.

“Thank you,” she whispered several seconds later, her lips grazing his. “All of that sounds really nice. I’m not used to men being so nice to me so it may take me a bit to get used to it.”

He smiled. “That’s fine by me. I’m a patient man.” He pressed his forehead against hers. “Is it okay if I kiss you again?”

She tilted her face toward his and they resumed their kiss, pulling apart a few minutes later when Judi heard a voice call out behind them.

“Oooh! Judi and Evan sitting on a bench, k-i-s-s-i-n-g.”

Judi glowered at Ben. “Bench doesn’t have the same ring to it, you know.”

Ben laughed. “Yeah, I know, but you’re not in a tree.”

Judi glanced at Angie beside Ben. “How about you two? Any k-i-s-s-i-n-ging between you two?”

Ben held up a hand. “That, ma’am, is privileged information.” He gestured toward a hay wagon to the right being pulled by a tractor being driven by Alex. “Anyone care for a hayride? I’m willing to ride with you two, as long as you can keep your hands off each other.”

Judi scoffed and folded her arms across her chest. “With Alex at the helm. I don’t know if I’d feel safe.”

Alex looked over his shoulder and scowled from under his hat. “I heard that, Lambert. Even over this tractor engine, which just shows everyone what a big mouth you have.”

Judi hooked her arm through Angie’s. “Come on, Angie, let’s go find the pumpkin cannons instead. We can pretend we’re shooting them at Ben and Alex.”

“Hey!” Ben cried. “What did I do?”

Evan laughed. “I don’t know, but I’m glad I wasn’t included in that list.”

Judi fell into step with Angie, glancing over her shoulder at Ben and Evan. “You think you two will be able to work things out?”

Angie smiled. “Yeah, I think so. I hope so anyhow. How about you? Will you be sticking around the area for a while?” She winked. “Maybe hanging out with Evan?”

The light feeling in her step and the way her muscles had lost their tension was a foreign, but welcome feeling to Judi.

“Yeah. I think so. I hope so anyhow.”

Epilogue

“Hey, you still coming to dinner tonight at mom’s?”

Judi paused at her car and looked up at Evan, smiling. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world. I can’t wait to taste her cooking again. I have to do something quick before then, though. Meet you there?”

 “How about I pick you up. Say 5:30?”

“Yeah. I’d like that.”

After years of being fiercely independent, she wasn’t lying when she said she would like to be picked up. She’d also been liking Evan being home more in the last two weeks as he started a job with a local construction company.

She turned the music up as she pulled away from her apartment building, wishing the cold temperatures didn’t preclude her from sliding the window down. Half an hour later she pulled into a parking space and checked her hair and make-up, then laughed at herself. She didn’t need to worry about her hair.

She had a feeling he wouldn’t care.

The sanitary smell and squeak of her soles on the newly mopped floor reminded her of where she was and where she was headed. Her chest tightened. Hospitals weren’t her favorite place, and she wasn’t sure what reaction she’d receive.

She asked for his room number and if visitors were allowed at the nurse’s station.

The shades were open. Sunlight poured across his bed. She took a deep breath and straightened her shoulders, trying to recapture the confidence she’d once possessed. She pulled a chair up to the side of the bed and sat quickly before she changed her mind.

“Hey, Jer. You’re not looking so great.”

Jerry blinked the one eye free of the bandages, grunted through bruised and scarred lips, and lifted one stitched-up hand. Judi was expecting a rude gesture, but instead, his thumb raised slowly. 

He pointed at the notepad on the small table by the bed. She handed it and a pen to him. After a few long minutes of scrawling, hampered by bandages and fingers that didn’t seem to want to bend, he pushed the pad toward her. The letters were shaky and a couple were missing, but she got the drift.

I owe you more than one. Not a beer. A soda. When I get out of here.

A smile pulled her mouth up and she looked up at him. “You definitely do. How about a root beer float down at that new ice cream place on Main? Be warned, though, I might look light a lightweight, but I can pack it away.”

A raspy laugh came from Jerry and to anyone else it might have been unnerving, but to Judi it was one of the best sounds in the world.

Fiction Friday: Mercy’s Shore Chapter 33

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

Let me know in the comments what you think. Or don’t. That’s okay too. *wink*

If you would prefer to read the book when it is all complete, you can pre-order a copy HERE on Amazon. It releases January 31, 2023.

Chapter 33

Ben greeted Leona and Adam inside, offering a quick ‘hello’ to Angie and William as Amelia dragged him into the kitchen to show him the paints and doll. After a brief conversation with Leona about his parents and work, he felt a hand on his shoulder.

“Hey, want to come out to the barn and see the blueprints for the shop?” Adam grinned. “My brother dropped them off this morning.”

“Sure. That would be great.”

It would also him get out of the house and away from Angie and William who were sitting next to each other on the couch, talking in hushed tones. Probably wedding planning, which made his stomach turn.

Out in the barn, Adam led him to a small office built to one side, toward the back.

Ben rubbed his chin. “Hmmm. This wasn’t here the last time I was here. When did you have this built?”

“Built it myself,” Adam said with a shrug, opening the door. “Didn’t take much.”

“I thought you were supposed to be taking it easy.”

“Ah, no big deal. Few boards and some nails. The boys carried my dad’s old desk and a couple filing cabinets out and we were ready to go.”

“And you’re doing okay?”

“I am. Taking the medicine they gave me, plus taking more breaks has helped the blood pressure and the heartburn. My new cardiologist says my heart is looking good too. I hate that I scared the girls, though.”

Adam unfurled the blueprints and spread them out on the desktop. “This is the preliminary blueprint, but I like it so far. We’re going to have a showroom right up here in the front and in the back a workshop area. We’ll have storage in a separate area over here and hopefully a parking lot right here, if we can get the permits, which shouldn’t be a problem since it’s going to be right next to the Tanner’s Farm Store.”

“Oh wow. That’s a great idea. Their customers could potentially be your customers.”

“That’s what we’re thinking and Rob’s going to sell us the land at a discount. He’s excited to help us out and we’re excited to let him.”

Ben nodded, still looking at the blueprints. “Looks great. What’s the timeline?”

“Probably three months to clear the land and start construction and maybe another six months to complete the construction. Rob’s opening up a pumpkin farm this year and next year we’ll be able to market together to bring in more customers for us both.”

Ben studied the blueprints as Adam gestured. “These look great, Adam. This is really great for you.”

“It’s great for the entire family. We’re certainly excited.” Adam looked up from the prints. “Hey, I didn’t even think to ask you why you stopped by. Did you have something you wanted to talk to me about?”

“No. Not really. Honestly, I just wanted to see for myself how you were doing.”

Adam sat in the chair behind the desk. “That’s nice of you. As you can see, I’m doing well.” He leaned back in the chair, propping his arm on the desk. “I’m sure getting a glimpse of my daughter was a plus too.”

Ben held up a hand. “Adam, for one, she’s engaged and for two, she hates me.”

Adam cleared his throat. “Ben —”

“Hey boys!” Leona called from outside the barn. “Amelia wants a ride in that fancy car so William is going to give us a lift into town. Angie’s got a headache and staying home. There’s room for one more. One of you want to ride with us?”

Adam jumped up from the chair, stepped around the side of the desk, and teasingly pushed Ben aside. “Me! Me! Shotgun!”

Ben laughed as the man good-naturedly patted him on the chest on the way by.

“Have a nice ride, I’m going to head out actually. I have a long day ahead of me tomorrow.”

“Listen, though, I think we should talk first,” Adam said as they walked across the yard toward the driveway.

“Hurry, Pop-Pop! The train is leaving the station!”

Ben was surprised at how far Amelia’s little voice carried.

Adam snorted a laugh. “That’s what I always say to her when she’s taking too long to get ready. It’s not as funny when she turns it around on me.”

“Have fun,” Ben said. “I’ll stop by another time for that talk.”

Adam opened his mouth to say something, but Leona spoke instead. “I’ve got your coat, hon’. We better get going before the stand closes for the night.”

“Better head out,” Ben told him. “We’ll talk later.”

William held out a hand before sliding into the driver’s side of what Ben guessed was a very expensive sports car. “Ben, take care.”

“You too,” Ben said, shaking his hand.

He stood and watched the car disappear down the driveway then headed for his own car, feeling like there was a rock in his gut.

“Ben.” He turned his hand on the car door. Angie was standing on the top step of the porch. He allowed himself a quick glance at her tan capris and white v-neck shirt under a beige sweater before focusing on her eyes as she spoke. “You need to know something.”

He turned to face her, sliding his hands in his front jean pockets. “Okay.”

She folded her arms across her chest and took a deep breath, her voice calm. “I’m not who I was in high school or college. I’ve changed. I’m not the girl who falls all over the star baseball player anymore or thinks she has to sleep with someone to be worth something. I’ve grown up and I have someone else to think about now.”

He waited for her to continue, but when she didn’t he gave a quick nod. “Okay. Thank you for letting me know. Anything else?”

A breeze caught her hair, pushed strands into her face. She pushed it aside, hooking it behind her ear. “I just wanted you to know where I stand if you’re going to keep showing up here. I don’t mind you coming to see Amelia or her seeing you or your parents, but you need to know that I am not going to fall in love with you again.”

He tipped his head down and kicked at the dirt with the toe of his shoe, then looked back up at her. “Okay. I understand. Thank you for letting me and my parents see Amelia.”

He did wonder, though, how much longer they’d have that chance with Angie eventually marrying William and them all moving back to Lancaster.

She hugged her arms tighter around her. “You’re welcome.”

They stood in awkward silence for a few minutes before he finally said, “If that’s all, I’ll be heading out now.”

“That’s all you’re going to say?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know what else you want me to say. I mean are you telling me you’re not going to fall in love with me for my benefit or yours?”

“Excuse me?”

“Well, do you want me to know, or are you reminding yourself?”

Her nose wrinkled and she scoffed, waving a hand at him. “Go home, Ben.”

She turned to walk back into the house, and he stepped toward her, hands clenching at his side. “I’m just asking because if you don’t want to fall in love with me again then why even have this discussion? Why put up the disclaimer? Why not just yell at me and tell me to get lost and never come back?”

She turned back to face him, arms out to her sides. “Because Amelia loves you, okay? Because she’s your daughter and she should have some sort of relationship with you even if you are a jerk.”

“Was a jerk. I’ve changed too Angie.” He relaxed his hands, and took a deep breath. “The only thing that hasn’t changed is that I still love you. I have a feeling that maybe, deep down, you still love me.”

Her eyes flashed as her jaw tightened. “Do you really think I could still love someone who has never even apologized for walking away from me and our daughter?”

He snorted a small laugh. “How was I supposed to apologize?”

“Like how any human being apologizes when they screw up. A phone call, a visit, a carrier pigeon. Anything but cutting off all contact.”

“I didn’t cut off all contact. I sent money and gifts —”

“That’s not apologizing, Ben. There were no words exchanged, no —”

“How was I supposed to apologize for what I did, Angie? How?” Tears stung his eyes. “How do I say I’m sorry for walking away from you during one of the scariest times of your life? How do I say I’m sorry for —” His voice broke “God forgive me. For telling you to murder that beautiful baby girl before she was even born?” He looked at her, voice trembling, tears escaping down his cheeks. “I buried myself in work for almost five years, so I didn’t have to think about what a monster I was. So I didn’t have to remember everything I did wrong and how there was no way I could go back and ask you to forgive me.” He shook his head, dragging a hand across his cheek, and looked away from her. “I can’t even ask it now. I have absolutely no right to.”

A silence fell between them that only the breeze playing with the dying leaves above them filled. He stepped back, wiping the tears away with the back of his hand.

“I don’t even know why we’re talking about this anyhow. You’re engaged to William.”

Her gaze drifted across the yard, toward the faded blue hills in the distance. Her voice was barely audible. “I’m not engaged to William.”

“What do you mean? You said that day here at lunch —”

“I know what I said.” She looked at him again. “I’d broken it off with William but didn’t tell anyone and I certainly wasn’t going to tell them in front of you.”

“Then why is he here?”

“He only came up here to check on dad and so we could talk to Amelia about us not being together anymore.” She pulled a strand of hair away from her face again. “I couldn’t marry him. I seem to have lost trust in men along the way. Who knows why. Ha. Ha.”

Ben swallowed hard and raked a hand through his hair. “Listen, I should go. We’re not getting anywhere here. Exchanging insults isn’t going to help anything.”

Angie took a step forward, arms still folded across her chest. “You asked God to forgive you just now. Was that real? And you said you’d pray for my dad. Did you mean that too? Are you really praying to God? If so, which God?”

He let out a quick breath. “The God of Abraham. Elohim. Jireh. The God you and I were raised to believe in but ran away from for so many years.”

“You want me to believe that you suddenly turned over a new leaf and to God?”

A faint smile tugged at his mouth. “No, not suddenly. Gradually.” He tossed his hands out to his side and then dropped them again. “You don’t have to believe me. I know where my heart is. I know that God has been guiding me to peace in my life. I don’t have to prove that to you, even though I wish I could somehow.” He placed his hands at his waist. “I wish I could show you what God has come to mean to me. I wish I could show you how much I still love you in one big gesture, but I can’t. There will never be a gesture big enough to show you how much I’ve loved you all these years.”

She lifted her chin slightly. “Even when you slept with Bridgett?”

He made a face. “I never slept with Bridgett.”

“Your friend Sam told me you did.”

“That I did what? Stayed over at her house?”

“He said you spent the night with her. I know what that means.”

He laughed softly. “Yeah, that I spent the night with her. Asleep. On her couch. While she slept in her room. I was drunk. I showed up at her place, thinking I could forget you if I slept with someone else. She sent me to the couch, woke me up the next morning and told me to get out and get my act together. She also told me to go find you and apologize for being the worst boyfriend in the world because it was clear I was still in love with you.”

“She thought that?”

“She knew that.” He focused his gaze on her eyes. “I was still in love with you and I still am. How many times do I have to say it?”

“You’ve had a funny way of showing it,” she said, hugging her arms tighter around her.

He walked slowly toward her, closing the gap between them. “You would never have believed me if I’d come to you back then and told you anything that I’m telling you now and I doubt you even believe me now.” Standing a couple of inches from her, he reached up and cupped his hand against her face, taking in a sharp breath at the softness of her skin against his hand, at touching her for the first time in almost five years other than that day in the barn. “Do you believe me, Angie? Do you believe I still love you?”

Her gaze dropped to his mouth, and he took that as a sign that she was comfortable with him standing so close, maybe even with him kissing her. He wanted desperately to kiss her.

He moved his head slowly toward hers, testing the water. When she didn’t pull away but instead closed her eyes, he lowered his mouth to hers, capturing it gently, seeking her permission with his action. He expected her to pull away, maybe even slap him, but she didn’t. She let him kiss her and when he pulled back slightly, she opened her eyes, looked at him for a few seconds, then leaned forward again and pressed her mouth to his, sliding her arms around his neck.

He moved his hand to the back of her head, buried his fingers in her hair, and slid his arm around her lower back, pulling her against him. The second the kiss deepened, though, she pulled back, dropped her hands to his chest and pushed him gently away from her.

“No. I can’t do this. Not right now. I mean —” She shook her head slowly, looking at the ground, as if trying to wake up from a dream. “I need some time to think.”

He nodded once, sliding his hands into his jeans pockets again. “Do you want me to stay away?”

“No. You can come to see Amelia and my parents. Just — Just give me some time, okay?”

“Yeah. I can do that. I’m sorry — I shouldn’t have —”

She held her hand up, taking a couple steps back. “No. It’s okay. I just need some time to process.”

He watched her walk back into the house, fingertips to her lips, and wondered if the kiss had affected her as much as it had him.

Special Fiction Saturday: Mercy’s Shore Chapter 28

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

Let me know in the comments what you think. Or don’t. That’s okay too. *wink*

If you would prefer to read the book when it is all complete, you can pre-order a copy HERE on Amazon. It releases January 31, 2023.


Chapter 28

He’d needed church that morning. He’d needed the music, the sermon, the smiles and greetings of the other members of the congregation.

It had soothed an aching soul.

Now Ben was at his parents’ house, sitting on the back deck with a glass of lemonade and a novel, looking out over the autumn foliage splashing brilliant reds, oranges and yellows across the Pennsylvania hills around him. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d actually sat down and read a book. He only wished he could focus on it better.

Memories of the visit to the Phillipi’s kept playing in his mind. Then there was Judi. Why wasn’t she answering his texts or calls? Maybe she’d fallen off the wagon and was sleeping it off. He hated to see her go down that path again. Plus, he needed her to be alert tomorrow at work.

She’d already been let go from one job. He didn’t want to have to let her go from this one. In fact, he’d like to offer her more hours at some point and maybe even split hours between her and Cindy when, or if, Cindy decided to come back to work.

“Gorgeous view, isn’t it?”

His dad’s voice came from behind him, pulling him from his thoughts.

“Yeah, it definitely is.”

Max sat on the chair next to him with his own glass of lemonade. He sipped from it for a few minutes, gaze focused on the hillside. “So, kid, there’s been a lot of pressure on you lately. You doing okay?”

Ben shrugged a shoulder. “Yeah. I’m hanging in there.”

“I saw Adam the other day. Everyone is back in the area he said. Including Angie and Amelia.”

Ben cleared his throat. “Yes, they are. I’ve talked to Angie about you and mom seeing Amelia actually. She’s thinking about it.” Or she had been. He wasn’t so sure now.

Max looked at him with a smile. “That would be great. I’m fine with leaving it up to Angie, though. I’m sure it’s awkward for her.”

“It shouldn’t be though. You and Mom weren’t the ones who hurt her. I was. You shouldn’t be punished for my mistakes.”

His dad drank some more of the lemonade before talking. “We’re guilty by association, I suppose. Listen, Ben. Really, are you doing okay?”

Ben laughed softly. “I guess you mean do I feel the need to cope with a glass of gin?” He shook his head once. “Nope. Not yet anyhow.” He winked. “I did have an extra dessert for dinner last night, though.”

Max lifted his glass in a mock toast. “Glad to hear it, kid. Not that extra sugar is good for us, but better than too much alcohol.”

Ben laughed. “Agreed.”

“You know I’m here if you ever need to talk, right?”

The smile faded. “Yeah, Dad, I do.”

Max leaned back in his chair and sat his glass on the small table between them. “Ben, maybe this isn’t the best time to bring this up but – did I do something over the years that led you down that path toward — well, toward —”

Ben laughed softly and winked. “Alcoholism, Dad. It’s called alcoholism. It’s okay to say it. It’s what it was. I was an alcoholic and now I’m a recovering one.”

Ben had never seen his dad look so — what was the right word? Uncertain? Hesitant? Clearly lacking confidence?

“What could you have done to push me down that path? You’re the best dad any kid could have. You’re hardworking, accomplished, well-respected in the community, beloved by your family, a good Christian man —”

Maxwell winced, hands in his pockets. “Ouch. All those things sound good but they also make me sound perfect. I’m not perfect.” He turned his head to look at Ben. “You know that, right? I mean,  you don’t actually think that I’m perfect, right? Because I know I’m not. I hope it doesn’t come across that way.”

“You don’t act that way at all dad.” He swallowed hard. How honest should he be with the man? Would it make him feel better or worse? “I’ve tried to live up to your reputation over the years, it’s true. I tried too hard for a long time, focusing only on your career accomplishments. When I couldn’t get there, I’ll admit, I fell apart a little.” He laughed softly and shook his head. “No. A lot. I fell apart a lot. I screwed up my life by trying to drink myself into oblivion and forget the fact I’d never be as accomplished or as good as you. The more I drank, the worse it got too. I got further and further away from who you were, knowing with each passing day I could never measure up to your standards or God’s.”

Max reached out and squeezed his shoulder. “You know now that you don’t have to live up to anything for my love or God’s, right?”

Ben nodded and covered his dad’s hand with his. “Yes. I do.” He may not feel it every day, but he understood it.

The ringing of his cellphone startled him. He’d forgotten he’d even brought it outside with him. The ringing was coming from his jacket. He searched for the phone and lifted it out of the inside pocket, hoping it was Judi letting him know she was okay.

He didn’t recognize the number, but answered it in case it was a client. “Hello, Ben Oliver here.”

There was an intake of a breath and a pause on the other end, then, “Hey, it’s Angie.”

He shifted in the chair, sitting up straighter, muscles tensing as he braced himself for the scolding, the demand that he not visit again.

“Hey, what’s up?”

She cleared her throat. “I need a favor.”

He half expected her favor to be for him to meet her brothers down at the boat launch outside of town so they could beat him up and throw him in the river.

“Yeah, sure.”

“My dad’s at the hospital and mom’s already there with grandma. My brothers are two hours away on a job and I don’t really know anyone else around here anymore. I can’t believe I’m asking this, but can you come sit with Amelia?”

His mouth went dry. “Definitely. Yeah. I mean, I’m at my parents so it will take a bit but —”

“I can bring her there. We’re downtown grabbing her some lunch from the diner.”

“Yeah, you can do that, if you want.”

“See you in fifteen?”

“Absolutely.”

She disconnected and he realized he hadn’t even asked why Adam was at the hospital.

“Everything okay?” His dad’s voice cut into his thoughts.

He shook his head. “No. Adam’s in the hospital. Angie wants to drop Amelia off here while she heads up.”

“You’ve gone pale, kid. You going to be okay?”

“What?” Ben looked at his dad, palms suddenly damp, mouth dry. “No. I’m fine. I’m not pale. Am I?”

Max laughed and stood, patting Ben on the shoulder. “It’s going to be fine, buddy. Your mom and I will be here for back up.”

Ben stood and followed his dad into the house. “I know, but Angie hates me, Dad. I mean, the other day I was pushing Amelia on the swing after I helped Adam and her brothers bring the furniture in and she fell off. Angie acted liked I did it on purpose. And what’s worse is I had no idea how to comfort Amelia or even check her for injuries.” He downed the rest of the lemonade and placed the glass in the sink. “This kid is my flesh and blood and when I’m around her I have no idea what to do. I feel like she’s someone else’s kid. I don’t know anything about her at all, but for some reason she attaches herself every time I come over.”

“It’s because something in her knows you’re dad,” his mom said sweeping into the dining room, setting a vase of flowers in the middle of the table.

She was still wearing her Sunday clothes — a flowered skirt and white, button-up blouse — her hair swept up on her head in a stylish bun, hiding much of the gray streaks in the brown nicely.

Sitting at the dining room table, Ben clasped his hand behind his head and yawned. “She’s four. That’s not possible.”

Sylvia paused in her adjustment of the flowers in the vase and raised an eyebrow. “Kids are smarter than we adults give them credit for, Benjamin. Now, what brought this topic up?”

 “I don’t want you to get flustered, but Angie’s bringing Amelia over for a while. Adam’s in the hospital for some reason and Angie’s going to wait with Leona.”

Sylvia’s hands hovered over the flowers. “Really? She’s bringing our granddaughter here?” Her eyes glistened as she pressed one hand to the base of her throat and the other to her mouth. “Oh my. Oh, that’s —” she sniffed. “That’s just so wonderful.” She spun quickly toward the kitchen. “I wonder if I even have any snacks she’d like. I haven’t had a young child in the house in years. I do have some peanut butter and cheerios and I can pour her a glass of milk. Unless she’s lactose intolerant. You were at that age, you know. Maybe I should find some paper and markers too, so she can color if she wants and —”

Ben laughed. “Mom. It’s okay. She’ll be fine with whatever you have.”

Syliva took a deep breath. “Right. Of course, she will. I just — it’s just — this is the first time I’m going to meet her in person and I —” She looked at Max. “I mean what if we scare her? She doesn’t even know us.”

Ben stood and kissed his mom on the cheek. “It will be fine, Mom. She’s going to love you.” He looked toward the direction of the stairs. “Is Maggie back yet? I know she wanted to meet her.”

“No,” Max said. “She called earlier and said she’s going to be at Jenny’s until this evening.”

Ben walked to the front window, petting Maggie’s longhaired cat Muffins, watching for Angie. The cat nuzzled his hand when he dropped it and he started petting it again absentmindedly , his thoughts racing, wondering what Angie’s demeanor would be when she arrived. He heard the buzz of the gate and Angie’s voice over the intercom in the kitchen.

“Hey, Angie.” Max’s voice was warm, welcoming. “Come on up.”

Her voice held the tension of the almost five-year estrangement. “Thank you, Max.”

As the small maroon Toyota wove its way up the driveway, he realized he didn’t know whether to walk outside or let her walk up to the house herself. As she parked the car and sat still for a few minutes, her hands clutching the steering wheel, he decided it might be better to meet her instead of forcing her to face his parents as well as him.

She looked up as he stepped outside, watching him for a few seconds, then opening the car door and stepping out. A breeze caught her hair, which hung loose down her back, pushing several loose strands into her face. A sudden urge to reach out and push the strands back coursed through him.

He watched her push the strands back herself instead as he walked, the move revealing the curve of her cheek, a face sans its usual make up but beautiful nonetheless.

She pulled her lower lip between her teeth, pulling the blue sweater she was wearing closer around her. “Hey, sorry to have to bother you.”

“It’s not a bother, really.”

She turned toward the back door without responding, but when he touched her shoulder, she paused and looked back at him with a questioning raise of her eyebrow.

“Who do I tell her my parents are?”

Angie shrugged her shoulder. “Tell her the truth. They’re your parents.”

“Then who do I tell her I am?”

An amused smile tipped her mouth up. “She already calls you ‘Ben, that fun guy’ she met at the old house. Just go with that.”

“Yeah, okay.” He nodded a couple of times, his mouth dry as he watched Angie opened the back door. “That should work.”

Amelia bounded out of the car as soon as her mom unhooked her seatbelt and ran to Ben, a piece of paper clutched in one hand, her other arm wrapped around a teddy bear. A small, pink backpack was strapped to her back and her bright blue eyes sparkled in the late day sunlight.

“Hi, Ben!” She thrust the piece of paper at him. “I made this picture for you.”

Hearing his name fly out of her mouth with such ease made his stomach flip, even as a twinge of regret twisted in his chest. All she knew him as was a man named Ben, when in reality he was so much more. Technically anyhow.

He looked down at the drawing on the paper — stick figures of a man and a woman standing next to a smaller stick figure and a crudely drawn tree with what he thought might be a swing hanging off a branch.

 “See?” Her little index finger directed his gaze. “That’s you and that’s mommy and that’s me on the swing, but this time I’m not falling off.”

Ben chuckled. “Ha, yeah, not falling off is a good thing.”

“Can you push me on a swing again?”

“Well, we don’t have a swing here, but I’m sure we can find other things to entertain you.”

Angie lifted a mini suitcase from the backseat and handed it to him, her smile from before fading into a slight frown. “She wanted to bring her favorite teddy bear and doll and all their clothes. I told her it was a bit much, but —”

Ben smiled. “I guess she takes after her mom in that way.”

“Ha. Ha.” Angie scowled but the small smile returned, which sent a shiver of warmth through his chest. “Very funny.”

She turned and slid back into the driver’s seat.

Ben felt Amelia’s fingers encircle his and he looked down and smiled at her, even as an anxious buzz sliding across his skin. He’d never been on his own with her before. The weight of responsibility pressed down on him fast. He looked up as Angie closed the door and slid the window down, then took a step toward the car.

“Angie, I am sorry about the swing thing. It was an —”

“I know, Ben. I do.” The faint smile couldn’t hide how tired — and worried — she looked. “I’ll call later with an update.”

“I’ll be praying.”

A puzzled expression furrowed her brow, dipped her mouth into a frown. “Um, yeah. Thank you. That would be nice.”

As she drove away, he thought about how him offering to pray was probably confusing to her, since when they’d dated he’d done his best to stay away from anything having to do with church, or the faith his parents had raised him in.

A soft tug brought his attention back to the present and he looked down at a small round face with big eyes. “Hey, let’s go inside. I have some people I want you to meet.”

She skipped as he walked and he admired her energy.

His phone rang before he reached the front door and he recognized the song as Maggie’s favorite, which was why he’d set as her identifying ringtone.

“Hey, squirt. You’re not going to believe who —” “Benny, I’m at a party and I’m scared. Can you come get me? ”

Fiction Friday: Mercy’s Shore Chapter 27

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

Let me know in the comments what you think. Or don’t. That’s okay too. *wink*

If you would prefer to read the book when it is all complete, you can pre-order a copy HERE on Amazon. It releases January 31, 2023.

Chapter 27

She’d finally convinced Ellie to go home.

“I had a panic attack, that’s all. It’s not like I’m suicidal.”

Her sister sighed. “I know, but I’d still feel better if you’d let me stay. I can sleep in the spare room and —”

Judi had rolled her eyes. “Go home to Jason. I’m sure he needs you to cook for him or give him a massage or whatever you married people do.”

She really didn’t want to think about what they did as married people.

Ellie had stayed another hour, but eventually she had gone home. That had been two days ago and now Judi was lying on her bed in the darkness, replaying that day’s events and wishing she could sink into a hole and disappear forever. There was no way Evan was ever going to talk to her again and she couldn’t blame him. Who wanted to be around a woman who had a complete breakdown during a make-out session? She pressed the heels of her palms against her eyes.

Seriously. She was such a loser.

Thankfully she’d recovered from the panic attack and had been able to go to work with Ben the next day. Thankfully he didn’t ask her how she was doing this time, which she knew was code for, “You don’t feel the need to jump off the wagon and get plastered right?”

She was grateful he hadn’t asked because honestly, she absolutely did want to go out and get plastered, numb herself, silence her racing thoughts and she planned to do just that tonight. Dragging her hands through her hair she snatched the phone from the bedside table and looked at Jessie Landry’s text message again.

Being sober is sooooo boring.  Go to Terrell’s with me for a drink?

Judi texted back an answer as she walked to her closet.

Absolutely. Meet you there in fifteen.

But when she reached the bar and stood outside wearing thigh-high black leather boots and a hot pink skirt and rainbow striped tank top she’d purchased at an upscale boutique in the city, she hesitated. She hadn’t been to a bar in almost a year, other than Lonny’s and she’d never stayed there to hang out. Did she really want to go back there again? The alcohol would definitely distract her from everything she didn’t want to think about, but it would also numb her feelings and maybe she needed to feel for once.

“Juuuuudeeeeee!!!”

Jessie’s squeal startled her, made her scrunch her shoulders and wince. She regretted agreeing to this trip, or at least with Jessie.

Jessie looped her arm through Judi’s and giggled. “Come on girl, let’s loosen you up!” She reached for the front door. “How long has it been since we just let loose?! Too long, that’s what I say!”

The door opened and the smell of cigarette smoke, beer, too much perfume, and something frying wafted out, overwhelming Judi’s senses.

Country music from the old-fashioned juke box filled her ears as Judi dragged her over the threshold. She squinted in the dim light and took a deep breath at the sight of mostly men sitting on bar stools and tall, small round tables, their hands around the handle of a beer mug or a bottle. The dark wood walls did nothing to brighten up the place either.

Places like this had been her playing field for years but now she felt out of place. She felt out of place here, she felt out of place at a church or an AA meeting. At this point she didn’t feel like anywhere was her place.

“Come on, let’s find a table.” Jessie was already waving at men, flipping her hair over her shoulder and winking. Judi wondered which man Jessie would go home with tonight.

They chose a table at the far end of the main room. The bar, lined with people sitting on stools and drinking was on the other side of the room.

“So tell me, Jude, what’s been going on with you anyhow?” Jessie propped a cigarette between bright pink lipstick covered lips and lit it. She took a puff then blew a stream of smoke out of the corner of her mouth.

Judi made a face, glad smoking hadn’t become one of her vices. Filling Jessie in on her life wasn’t appealing to her at all. She’d really only come to get out of the house and see if alcohol could drown her feelings like it had in the past.

“Nothing much, honestly. I’ve been working at Lonny’s and now at Ben Oliver’s office and just trying to figure out what I’m going to do with my life.”

Jessie smirked. “Ben Oliver. Now there’s a hottie. Have you slept with him yet?”

Judi cocked an eyebrow. Jessie was even more blunt than she was. “Uh. No. Not interested in him that way. He’s just my boss.”

“Then I’m free to go after him?” Jessie propped the cigarette in the middle of her first and middle finger and leaned her arms across the top of the table, her eyes shadowed by heavy eyelids and long, dark, fake eyelashes.

Judi laughed softly. “Good luck trying. He’s all about work and nothing else.”

Of course, she wasn’t going to tell Jessie that Ben was one, severely uptight and two, absolutely still in love with Angie. Let her figure it out.

Jessie crossed one long leg over another and bounced her foot in a rhythm that matched the country music in the background. “I bet I could get him to think about something else.” She winked as a waitress approached the table.

Jessie ordered a Black Russian and Judi asked for a beer. Might as well start out a little lighter for her first drink in almost a year.

As Jessie relayed story after story about her various sexual escapades, Judi’s gaze drifted around the bar, scanning the customers, recognizing a few, especially the ones she went to school with. Once the drinks she and Jessie had ordered were delivered, her stomach tightened. She turned the bottle around a few times, keeping her hand around it for a few seconds before lifting it.

Ridiculous.

There was nothing wrong with having one drink. She needed this. She needed to feel the numbing comfort of the alcohol and maybe drink enough to give her a buzz, muddy her thoughts until the memory of her embarrassing night with Evan disappeared.

The liquid slid bitterly over her tongue, burned down her throat, and hit her stomach as if she’d drank fire.

 How she’d ever drank this stuff for so long she had no idea. Maybe a whiskey would be better. When the whiskey came, though, it wasn’t any better. In fact, her stomach was burning as much as her throat now.

She slid off the stool. “I’ll be back, Jessie.”

“Take your time.” Jessie’s blue eyes scanned the bar for her next prey. “I’ll keep myself busy until you get back.”

In the bathroom she splashed her face with cold water, patting it dry and trying her best to keep from taking all her makeup off. Foundation hid the dark circles. She’d been proud she’d been able to hide the effect of sleepless nights. She didn’t need anything else to make her look older than she was at this point. Pausing at the sink she leaned on it and stared at her reflection for several seconds.

“Judi, what are you doing?” she whispered to the exhausted woman looking back at her. “Do you want to end up like Jerry one day? Laying in your own blood in an empty field while your family cries over you?”

Did she want to be the girl bar hopping and having one-night stands all her life, with no commitment, no one special to go home to at night? Someone who had no goals in her life, no direction, no real career or hope for a future? Someone like Jessie?

She pulled her hair back tight into a ponytail, then let it down again, shaking it loose across her shoulders. Holding her hand across her stomach she swallowed hard, then stepped aside as the door opened and a woman rushed inside, stumbled into a stall, and vomited in the toilet without even closing the door.

She pressed her hand to her mouth and swallowed back the bile crawling up her throat, turned and rushed from the bathroom. Jessie was already at another table, leaning in front of a good looking man Judi didn’t recognize, laughing loudly and letting him get a good view of her cleavage.

She straightened when she saw Judi and waved her over.

“Judi!” she called. “Come meet Troy and Nate! They need some company tonight.”

Judi inwardly cringed at how loud and bold Jessie was. Had she been that obnoxious when she was still drinking? Good grief. She probably still was that obnoxious.

Maybe she’d become a boring prude, but all she wanted right now was go home, change into her pajamas, crawl under the covers, and drink some hot cocoa while watching a cheesy rom-com. Jessie hooked her arm in Judi’s and pulled her into the booth next to her.

The man across from Judi winked at her as he lifted his beer. “So, you’re Judi.” He took a swig from the bottle. “From around here, little lady?”

Little lady? Was this guy for real?

“Uh, yeah. Born and raised actually.”

Unfortunately, she wanted to add, her gaze drifting from the smirking figure in front of her across the bar, to the exit, wondering how fast she could run there in heels. As her gaze drifted back, she spotted Brad sitting at the far end of the bar, head in his hands, an empty shot glass in front of him. It looked like she wasn’t the only one throwing herself off the sobriety wagon tonight.

“Can I buy you a drink?” The voice of Mr. Blue Eyes pulled her attention from Brad.

“Um, sure.” Her stomach clenched. “A ginger ale would be great.”

The man grinned, his gaze drifting from her face down to her chest, lingering there, and then sliding back up again to her eyes. “I didn’t think you were just the soda type from the way Jessie here talked about you.”

Her stomach turned again. “Well, someone has to be the designated driver,” she said with a sideways glance at Jessie who was finishing off her Black Russian.

“Are you going to apologize to me or not, Tanner?”

A deep voice boomed across the small bar and Judi turned her head in time to see a blur of movement a second before Brad staggered back, fell over a stool and to the floor. Blood trickled from the corner of his mouth, but he didn’t move to wipe it. He simply sat looking up at the man towering over him, mouth forming a thin line, a muscle jumping in his jaw.

In the past, Judi would have grabbed a bowl of peanuts and her drink and sat back for the show. This time, though, something needled at her. Apparently, she’d developed a conscience during her time of sobriety because instead of sitting by she stood and walked quickly toward the impending bar brawl, stepping in front of the taller man towering over Brad.

“Boys, boys.” She held her hands up, palm out, one toward the man and one toward Brad. “No need to fight over me. I’m not interested in either of you.”

She winked at the taller man and then waved her fingers at him as he scowled down at her. “Seriously, though, let’s not ruin this lovely evening by trashing this fine establishment and leaving blood on the floor.” She turned to look at Brad, cocked an eyebrow, and jerked her head to the door. “Come on, dear. Walk me outside. I could use some fresh air.”

Brad’s expression registered confusion as he stood slowly, straightening his shirt and reaching for his ball cap on the bar. Judi looped her arm in his and tugged him toward the front door while the other man looked at them with his arms folded across his chest, eyes flashing. If nothing else, this little charade would at least get her away from the creepy guy back at the table.

Out in the cool air, Judi let go of Brad’s arm after they reached the side of the building and sat on the bench near the parking lot. “Sit down, Bradley and tell dear Judi what brings you to this fine establishment, breaking your AA promises to admit your wrong doings and the power alcohol has over you.”

Brad scowled as he sat next to her, stretching one leg out in front of him and propping his hat on his other knee. “Aren’t you here to do the same thing?”

Judi looked at her nail and noticed a chip in the polish. “I’m here to forget how dull my life is.” She pushed her lower lip out and sighed. “Anyhow, what was all that about back there? Who did you tick off this time?”

Brad shrugged his shoulder, laying an arm across the back of the bench. “I asked his girlfriend if I could buy her a drink. He objected, I guess.” He rubbed his fingers across his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “What are we doing here, Judi? That accident should have scared us straight, right?”

Judi looked out across the parking lot, at the pickup trucks and the sedans and the cars of people inside numbing their problems the same way she’d tried to. Music from the jukebox thrummed its way through the wall behind her, played a melody she’d heard many times before over words about living like you were dying.

“It should have, yeah, but instead it drove us right back to our poor coping skills.” She looked over at him, his eyes rimmed red, hair disheveled, jaw unshaven. “How drunk are you, Tanner?”

He frowned, shook his head, staring out into the parking lot. “Honestly, I only had one shot glass. I’m not drunk. I couldn’t go through with it. I was getting ready to leave when Billy Bob back there grabbed ahold of me.” He raked a hand through his hair and leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “I don’t want to be that guy I was before anymore. I don’t want to be all fuzzy headed and incoherent, but right now I am only because I haven’t slept in three days.” He looked over at her. “I could have killed Ellie that night, Judi. I don’t even remember half of it, but she said I grabbed for the wheel. I could have straight up killed us both. And for what? Because I just kept drinking away to try to forget all the failures in my life. I’m an idiot and everyone has had to put up with me all of these years.”

Judi laughed softly. “Sounds familiar.” She bumped her shoulder against his. “You’re not alone in that area, you know. I’m right there in that circle with you. I came here to get myself drunk off my butt tonight. I don’t want to think anymore about all the failures in my life, either. We both know that coming here to drink our problems away is just going to add to them.”

She crossed one leg over another and leaned back again, sliding her hands back through her hair.

“Look at Jerry. He could be in a wheelchair the rest of his life. He’s traumatized his wife and kids for years with his drinking and now even more. Dawn probably doesn’t know whether she wants him to live or die after all this. There is a part of her that will want him to live, hopes this was his wake up call and he’ll become the old Jerry again, the Jerry that didn’t drink his life way.”

Brad stood and slid his hands in his jean pockets, kicking at a rock with the tip of his boot. “I hope she gets the old Jerry again. He used to be a pretty good guy. Before he started drinking so much. After he lost his dad and his job.” He slid a pack of cigarettes out of his flannel shirt pocket, tapped one out and popped it in his mouth. The flame that flicked up from the lighter illuminated his face as he lit the cigarette and took a puff. He pinched the cigarette between his thumb and forefinger, then smirked. “I can only handle getting rid of one vice at a time. And since when did you start to sound so smart? That speech about Jerry actually made sense.”

Judi scowled at him playfully. “I have no idea. I guess I’ve been hanging around Ellie and Jason too much lately. I’ve even started to think about going to church with them. Crazy right? That scares me, though. That’s why I came here tonight. I’m afraid to try to be normal. What if I fail and become weird again?”

Brad scoffed. “What’s normal? I mean, Ellie and Jason are good people, but they aren’t perfect. You know that. You are normal. Even I’m normal. We’re our own normal. We mess up more than the other humans we know but everyone has something they struggle to overcome.” He looked up at the sky, blowing a plume of smoke through his nose. “Maybe other people don’t see it that way but I think God does. He created us, let us have a free will he knew we would abuse but still somehow, he loves us.”

Judi’s eyebrows raised. “Brad Tanner. Have you gone all religious on me?”

Brad laughed, tossing the cigarette to the ground and grinding it under his shoe. “Eh, it’s always been in there. I’ve just been running from it, from Him, for a long time.” He made a face. “Also, that cigarette was awful. Maybe I can get rid of another vice.” He shrugged. “Or maybe I need to buy another brand.”

Judi stood and folded her arms across her chest, rubbing her hands across her bare arms and wondering why she hadn’t brought a sweater. “I’ve been running from God for a long time too. Sometimes I don’t even know if he’s there.”

A brief silence fell over them.

“Maybe we both need to start running toward Him for a while,” Brad said softly. “See what happens. See if he’s even there.”

Judi hugged her arms tighter around herself. “Yeah. Maybe.”

Brad pushed his hands back in his front pockets. “Can I give you a lift home?”

She glanced at him. “Uh — no. I drove here, that’s fine.”

“You okay to drive?”

“I barely had anything to drink. Are you?”

“I barely did either. I think we’ll both be fine. Just don’t let good ole’ Officer McGee pull you over.”

A small smile tugged at her mouth. “See you later, Brad.”

He tipped his head in a quick nod. “See you later, Judi.”

Back at her apartment she pulled off her clothes and stepped in the shower, washing off the stench of cigarette smoke and the grime of poor decisions. Slipping under the covers a few minutes later, warm in a set of pajamas Ellie had given her for Christmas one year, she tipped her head back against the wall and closed her eyes. She had either gotten old or wise or maybe both. Either way she didn’t know how to handle this new place in her life where she wasn’t a partier anymore but also wasn’t exactly domesticated.

She groaned as her phone dinged. No. She refused to talk to anyone else. It was probably Jessie asking where she’d disappeared to anyhow. Then again, Jessie was probably already making out with one of those men and had completely forgotten about her.

She rolled to her side and opened one eye to look at the phone.

Ben: Hey, worried about you. I thought I’d go to the AA meeting this week in Spencer. Want to join me?

This guy was supposed to be her boss. What was he doing, trying to be her friend too?

She turned the light off by her bed and rolled back to the other side without answering him. With her eyes closed, though, her mind replayed that night with Evan, then with Jeff, then back to Evan. She rolled back to her back and pressed the heel of her hands against her closed eyes. The alcohol she’d had earlier still churned in her stomach. Now in her mind Lonny was telling her she’d stolen money from her mind. She sat up, gagging, wishing she’d never agreed to go to that bar.

A few minutes later she was doubled over the toilet, emptying the meager contents of her stomach while her phone rang.

Stumbling back to her bed, she reached for the phone. The call was from a number she didn’t recognize. She turned the phone off, laid down and fell into a fitful sleep plagued by blurred images of past mistakes.

Special Fiction Saturday: Mercy’s Shore Chapter 24

Welcome to an extra chapter this week of my continuing story.

As always, this is a continuing/serial story. I share a chapter a week and at the end of the story, 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. Let me know in the comments what you think.

Chapter 24

Hey, I’ve been missing you. Have to get back on the road soon. Can we meet up?

Judi stared at the text message through half-opened eyes then slid further under her covers and yawned.

For two weeks, she’d buried herself in work at Ben’s office, looked for another part time job, pondered how to convince Angie she should give Ben another chance when she moved back, ate her way through several pints of mint chocolate ice cream, avoided phone calls, and watched way too many romance movies.

She had agreed to dinner at her parents one night, let Ellie come over and watch a movie with her another, and had talked to Seline another day — thankfully not about Jeff’s upcoming trial or the possibility of her testifying. Today was Saturday and she didn’t have work to distract her.

She didn’t feel right thinking of Evan as a distraction but seeing him would be a more pleasant experience than thinking about Jerry Spencer, wondering if he’d pull through and remembering what he’d looked like that day in that empty field. She’d talked to Evan once since she’d had to call him to tell him she wouldn’t be at dinner because of the accident.

He’d called the following day to ask her how she was and she’d lied and said she was fine. He’d said he hoped they could get together soon, and she said they would.

The fact she hadn’t called him back had pulled at her every day since. Talking to him, flirting with him, making out with him might have helped take her focus of fighting thoughts of wanting a drink but she didn’t just want a distraction anymore. She wanted something deeper because Evan deserved something better. He was a nice guy who came from a nice family. She didn’t want him to be a quick one night stand or a brief escape for her overloaded mind.

Her phone dinged again.

Evan: I’m not waiting for an answer this time. I’m outside your door. I want to see for myself that you’re okay.

She gasped and jumped up from the bed.

He’d better be joking.

She dashed to the front of the apartment and peeked through the lacy curtain across the window — a curtain left over from when Ellie had lived here. He wasn’t kidding. He was out on the landing and she was wearing a pair of sweatpants, an old t-shirt, no make up, and her hair was all over the place.

She looked around the apartment frantically. Empty ice cream cartons, classified sections from the newspapers, and other various papers and clothes were scattered around on the furniture and floor.

“Judi?” He knocked on the door. “You in there?”

“Um. Hold on a minute. I’m not — uh — presentable right now.”

She thought she heard a chuckle, but didn’t have time to analyze the sound. She rushed to her room, changed clothes, yanked a brush through her hair and returned to the living room for a quick clean up. She shoved as much as she could in her trash can, straightened a couple of the cushions Ellie had left when she moved out and took a deep breath before opening the door.

She took in a sharp intake of breath. Good grief did he look amazing. Blue jeans, gray shirt, clean shaven, fresh and shorter haircut and — Wow. That smile.

A breathless “hey” was all she could manage.

He laughed. “Hey.”

After a few seconds of mutual staring at each other she realized she should be inviting him in.

She stepped back from the doorway and gestured toward the living room. “Come on in.”

“I’ve been worried about you,” he said after he stepped inside and closed the door.  “How are you?”

He turned to face her, waiting for an answer. She didn’t want to look crazy, so she lied. “Pretty good actually. Just putting some long hours in at Ben’s office lately.”

He didn’t need to know how much of those days she’d spent questioning much of her life, wondering how she was almost 30 and had nothing to show for it. He didn’t need to know about the regrets she swallowed like a bitter pill with glasses of iced tea that she wished were whiskey instead. He didn’t need to know she looked in the mirror almost every morning and wondered if she’d ever feel like she was worth more to a man than a one-night stand or a quick make out session on the dance floor of a club.

He made himself comfortable on the couch and pointed to the blue plush chair across from him. “Have a seat and tell me the truth.”

Judi took a deep breath and sat, crossing one leg over the other and leveling a mischievous gaze at Evan. “And what truth do you think I’m not telling you, Mr. Evans?.”

He smiled back but his tone held a more serious weight to it. “You were pretty shook up when you called me that night, Judi. How are you processing all that you saw and experienced? Jason said Jerry was in pretty bad shape when he got on scene.”

Jason had also seen her shaking and trying not to cry when he arrived. He’d draped a blanket around her shoulders and pulled her to feet so the EMTs who had pulled in behind him could check on Jerry. She imagined he might have mentioned all that to Evan too and she wanted to be mad at Jason for telling anyone about what shape she’d been in, but she also knew he was a good guy.

 If he’d said anything to Evan she knew it was only out of concern. Ellie had known Judi was on her way to Evan’s that night. Jason had probably hoped Evan would help keep an eye on her – make sure she didn’t drown her stresses in a case of bourbon — not that she’d ever gone that crazy before. She supposed there was a first time for everything, though, something else Jason probably also knew.

She draped an arm over the armrest of the chair, shrugging a shoulder as she let her gaze drift across the living room toward the kitchen. She’d shoved her dirty dishes inside the oven she rarely used and hoped Evan didn’t open it for any reason.

“I haven’t thought about it a lot really.” Lie.

 “I’ve been pretty busy with other things.” Another lie.

She stood quickly, walking toward the kitchen, and hoped he’d change the subject. “Can I get you a soda?”

“Yeah. I’d love one.”

She didn’t have to see him to know he was watching her. She could feel it.

 When she handed him his soda a few minutes later, she tried hard not to look into his eyes, but she couldn’t seem not to. Their gazes remained locked for a  few moments, a chill shivering through her as she searched the deep green eyes. She didn’t like the way he seemed to look straight through her as if pulling aside the veil she’d long ago dropped across her innermost thoughts long ago.

“I’m here if you need to talk, Judi. Okay?”

The softness in his voice startled her and she took a step back. She tipped her head in a quick nod and then sat back in the chair and cracked open her own soda, keeping her eyes focused on it instead of him.

“Thank you. Really.” She sipped the soda and looked up at him. “I — it’s just —” She shook her head and sipped from the can again. “It’s been a long couple of weeks, that’s all. I’m sorry I didn’t call.”

She’d wanted to call. More than once. She’d hated missing that dinner at the McGees that night, even if she was glad she didn’t have to hang out around Liz’s baby. She’d thought about Evan’s kiss every day and had even considered shooting him a text, asking him to come over for a more serious make out session to try to take her mind off repeatedly picturing Jerry laying in his own blood.

“Jason said Jerry’s still in a medically induced coma, according to his wife. And you were right. He’d definitely been drinking. A lot.” Evan propped his elbows on his knees and leaned forward, placing the can on the coffee table.

She didn’t want to talk about Jerry anymore. Seeing him like that had reminded her that Ellie could have ended up in the same shape in that accident with Brad. “When do you head back on the road?”

Evan laughed. “Ready to get rid of me already?”

She flipped a strand of hair over her shoulder, laughing softly. “Not at all. I was hoping we could find some time to hang out before you go back.”

“I’ve got a couple more weeks. What have you got in mind?”

She tried not to let her mind wander to what she really had in mind. She didn’t want to be that Judi anymore. “A movie night?”

“At the theater or here?”

She should say the theater. Less chance of the old Judi making an appearance.

“Here would be cozier and I could make us some dinner.” She snorted a laugh. “Actually, I could order us some dinner. You don’t want me to cook it.”

“Ah, come on. It can’t be that bad.”

That smile again. Ugh. She hated the way it made her chest ache and stomach flutter at the same time. She felt silly, like an infatuated teenager. She wasn’t really infatuated, though. She was simply captivated by sincerity and the kindness in his eyes.

“My neighbor across the hall called the fire department when I first moved in and tried to cook some chicken for myself. The smoke was so thick and black he was sure I’d set the whole kitchen on fire. Somehow, I hadn’t, but it was close.” She pulled her legs up under her, getting more comfortable. “I’m just not all homey and domestic like Ellie and my mom.”

He raised an eyebrow, grinning. “Is that a bad thing? Not everyone has the same talents, right?”

“Yeah, but it would still be nice to be able to dig into one of my dinners without needing to pull out a chainsaw to cut into it.”

Evan laughed again. “I’ve learned a little about cooking if you ever want some lessons.”

“Cooking lessons with a good-looking man?” She raised the can toward him in a mock toast. “Sign me up.”

“How about tonight? I can go pick up some supplies and head back over. About 6?”

A man was asking her if she wanted him to make her dinner. That wasn’t something which normally happened to her. Was it possible she’d woke up in a parallel universe?

“Yeah. That’d be really nice.”

He stood and pushed a hand through his hair, ruffling it in a way she imagined doing herself one day. “I’m meeting Matt for lunch then I’ll head over to the store and see if I can find the ingredients.”

She stood to face him. “What are you making?”

He took a step closer, grinning. “You’ll just have to wait and see, Lambert.”

He was so close she could smell his musky cologne, mixed with a whiff of orange. Biting her lower lip, she tried not to let her gaze drift to his mouth, but it was too late and based on the lopsided smile crossing it, he had noticed. He touched her under her chin and lifted her face toward his. His kiss was soft, lingering, and she leaned into it, laying her hands against his chest. He stepped even closer and touched a hand against her lower back.

When he pulled his mouth away a few minutes later he smiled down at her. “I hate to leave, but if I don’t —”

His cellphone rang and his smile broadened. “If I don’t, my brother is just going to keep calling and asking where I am.”

He kept his hand on her back a few seconds as the phone rang, gently pressed his mouth to hers then stepped back and answered the phone he slid from his back pocket.

“Yeah, Matt, I’m on my way.” He winked at her. “Just had to stop off and check on someone.”

He ended his call with Matt and told her he’d see her at six. She watched him walk down the metal stairs on the side of the building to his truck, then stepped back inside the apartment and closed the door, leaning back against it and closing her eyes briefly.

She’d never been treated as gently as Evan treated her, and it was throwing her off. She liked the off kilter feeling it gave her though, like flying in the air with no parachute or safety net, unsure where she’d land but somehow knowing it was going to be safe and good.

Fiction Friday: Mercy’s Shore Chapter 23

As always, this is a continuing/serial story. I share a chapter a week and at the end of the story, 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. Let me know in the comments what you think.

Chapter 23

“I thought I told you to take the day off.” Ben stirred creamer in his coffee as he watched Judi walk in the front door wearing a pair of dark sunglasses and a cozy blue sweatshirt. “You don’t seem to listen very well.”

She tossed her purse on top of the reception desk. “I’d rather be working right now, actually.”

Ben blew on the coffee as Judi sat down and immediately opened the filing cabinet.  

He’d heard about the accident with Jerry from his parents and when he found out Judi had been on scene, he’d called her immediately. She hadn’t answered, but called him back later, explaining her phone had been left at Tanner’s Farm Store and she’d had to wait to get it until after she made a statement to the state police about the accident. He’d told her then to take the day off, rest, try to relax and not to worry about work for now.

She had agreed then but had obviously changed her mind overnight. He knew why without asking. He’d been there more than once in the last three years.

 Stay idle too long and thoughts would race.

Have racing thoughts for too long and the need to calm them with something to make the mind and body numb would become overwhelming.

“Did you get any sleep?”

She shrugged a shoulder and started typing. “Some.”

Yeah, “some” was most likely code for “in between the nightmares.”

She’d been through a lot last night from what his dad had said. She’d waited with Jerry Spencer until the ambulance had arrived and Jason Tanner, a member the volunteer fire department, had given her a lift to the store for her phone and then back home. His dad heard about it through the church prayer chain when Rena asked for prayer for both Jerry and Judi. Max had passed it on to Ben for prayer and information so he’d be aware Judi might need some time off.

Now all everyone could do was pray and wait and see if Jerry would pull through. He’d been alive when they’d taken him to the hospital, but he’d lost a lot of blood and his pulse had been week. A quick call that morning to Matt McGee gave Ben some details of the accident, mainly that there was alcohol involved. Matt hadn’t been the primary investigator on scene, since the accident happened in state police jurisdiction, but he’d driven by the accident scene on the way to his parents. The information was all unofficial and off the record, Matt reiterated, adding that it was also off the record that Judi had barely spoken while she waited for police, even when her parents arrived to sit with her.

Ben knew her family was an excellent support system but it took another recovering alcoholic to know how bad that urge to reach for a drink to numb the pain would be. He’d asked Judi about it before they hung up. She’d denied having any urge to drink, told him she was tired and quickly hung up. He hoped she’d been telling the truth.

“You want me to make you a cup of coffee?”

She shook her head and turned the computer on.

“Okay, I’ve got a lunch appointment at noon. I’ll be in my office until then. Let me know if you need anything.” He paused in his open doorway. “Like to talk or . . . anything.”

She didn’t respond and that worried him. Where were her quick comebacks? Her smart mouthed retorts? The fact she’d been so quiet lately wasn’t a good thing and he knew it.

When it came time for his lunch appointment he hesitated leaving, but Judi insisted she would be fine. The meeting was in Spencer and he flipped the radio on to drown out his racing thoughts on the 30-minute drive there.

Choosing booth in the back of the diner, he popped his brief case open after the waitress brought him the glass of tea he’d ordered. He’d suggested the location for this meeting because he felt like it might make the client, an octogenarian farmer he knew lived close to the Tanner’s, feel more relaxed. It was a simple finalization of the man’s will and a sale of part of his farmland. It shouldn’t take long.

Glancing up from the paperwork he watched Molly walk in and find a table close to the front window. He laid the paperwork down and found him studying the woman who he’d dated in high school when she’d been a girl. Like the last few times he’d seen her, including in church, she carried herself with much more confidence than she had in high school.

Her reddish-brown curls hung loose down her back and her green eyes focused out the window as she propped her chin on her hand, her elbow on top of the table. When he’d known her, she’d worn her hair pulled back or up on her head to keep it out of the way while she worked in the barn.

She’d never really been interested in dressing up or putting on make-up or even wearing clothes most females would. That was until a couple years ago when she started dating —

The front door opened again. There he was.

Alex Stone.

The man who had stolen Molly’s heart and was now walking into the diner with a confident swagger, wearing a pair of faded blue jeans, a white t-shirt with the name of Molly’s favorite band, Needtobreathe, on the front, and a black cowboy hat pulled low to his brow. He was sporting a five o’clock shadow along his rugged jawline and a smile crossed his lips as soon as he spotted Molly.

Sitting in the chair next to her, he looped an arm over her shoulder, pulling her against him. She looked up at him expectedly and within seconds he’d lowered his head to kiss her mouth. Ben knew he should look away, but somehow, he couldn’t.

He was happy for Molly, even happy for Alex, though the guy did seem to be a bit of a show off with those well-toned arms and all that swagger. Mixed in with the genuine happiness was a fair amount of jealousy, though.

For the last four years he’d pushed aside his desire to be loved by a woman, to hold her in his arms and have her look at him the way Molly was looking at Alex. He’d focused on his career and opening the law office, getting himself back on his feet and crawling out of the bottle.

He’d walked away from friendships he knew would only lead him back to the bar and he’d focused on rebuilding his relationship with his parents and siblings. Focusing on not wondering how Angie and Amelia were doing had been hard these past four years, but he’d distracted himself with court cases, paperwork, an occasional game of pickup basketball downtown with a couple of other lawyers and a few guys he’d met at church.

At night, though, the memories crept in; memories of soft lips trailing a path from his ear lobe to his neck, then back up again to find his mouth. He remembered his arms around a shapely, slender figure, pulling a warm body against him until he couldn’t tell where he ended, and she began.

During the last four years, he’d had a lot of time to think. Too much time really. He’d thought a lot about how his relationship with Angie had started all those years ago, how it had been about sex and physical attraction more than anything else. Over time it had become much more, but he hadn’t realized how connected he was with Angie on more than a sexual level until it was too late — until she was gone, and he was left alone with empty arms and an even emptier heart.

Alex and Molly had pulled apart from their kiss as the waitress walked over to take their order. Ben realized he hadn’t even been seeing them, his mind clouded with memories of a past life.

The diner door opened again, and an elderly man limped his way around a row of tables, toward Ben, who moved his attention to his approaching client. He stood to greet the man, offering his handshake. “Mr. Bradly. Hello.”

The handshake was firm, even if the hand was thin and frail. “Young Mr. Oliver. Good to see you again.” Jacob Bradly sat in the booth across from Ben. “Sorry for being late. Cow went into labor and it got stuck half way down. Had to take care of that first.”

Ben glanced at the man’s stooped form and long, thin, frail looking arms. “By yourself, Mr. Bradley?”

Jacob laughed. “Been doing it for 75 years, boy. Why would I stop now? Delivered my first calf at ten years old.”

Ben shook his head. There were no retirement years in Jacob Bradley’s future, apparently. Even with his son Mark almost completely running the farm now, Jacob hadn’t slowed down or backed off much at all. Sometimes Ben worried he’d hear the man had been trapped under a tractor like Robert Tanner had been a couple years ago. Robert had been lucky and had made it out alive with a limp. With his small frame, Jacob wouldn’t have the same luck.

Driving back to Burkett an hour later, Ben thought about how he could have clients with city backgrounds, city worries, and city money on his roster if he’d stayed in Philadelphia or New York City to practice. It might have lined his pockets faster, but it wouldn’t have kept him from comparing himself to his father any less. Max Oliver had worked his way up from paralegal in his uncle’s office to his own law office and eventually to county district attorney. More important than what accomplishments he’d reached were how he reached them, which had been with more dignity and respect than Ben had ever had as a young lawyer.

He was trying now, though. Trying to be a better lawyer, but also a better man. If he worked hard maybe he could earn the respect Maxwell Oliver had earned over the years. And maybe he could make up for all the damage he’d done to himself and his family on his way here.

Fiction Friday: Mercy’s Shore Chapter 17

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. Let me know in the comments what you think.

Chapter 17

Judi was back in Angie’s room, feeling as awkward as she had before. Maybe she should have helped Ben tell the Phillipis that they needed to leave, but, honestly, she wasn’t ready for the drive yet. She was still struggling to process Jeff’s phone call and she didn’t want to process it while Ben demanded answers from her.

Plus, Angie’s dad had had an odd look on his face when he’d urged Ben to stay. Judi didn’t know Mr. Phillipi at all, but he seemed like a nice man, and he was giving her a vibe that he needed to talk to Ben. Maybe staying over would give them a chance to clear the air, if it didn’t give him and Angie time.

She answered a text from Ellie, telling her the full story of why she was in Lancaster and about the car, the accident on the highway, and that they were staying over. She didn’t tell her, obviously, about the call from Jeff.

After she hung up, she laid back on the bed with a pillow hugged to her chest. The call had certainly thrown her off her game. If she hadn’t received it, she wouldn’t have thought twice about getting in that car, rejecting the Phillipi’s pleading requests to stay, and instead driving her and Ben home so she could reconnect with Evan and forget about the calls from the lawyer and now Jeff.

She rolled onto her stomach and sent another text.

Hey, you okay? Just heard about a tractor-trailer accident and hoped it wasn’t you. This is Judi by the way.

She didn’t know why she told Evan who was texting. He’d put her number in his phone, but who knew how many girls he was receiving texts from on any given day? There was no way someone that good looking didn’t have a girl in every town.

She yawned and stretched then winced as her stomach grumbled in protest. She’d declined Mrs. Phillipi’s offer for dinner, instead wanting to hide away and not have to put on a fake smile. Ben had declined as well, hiding away in the den in the finished basement of the house.

She guessed they both were fighting battles with their thoughts. Better now than tomorrow on the road.

She glanced at the gold-framed clock on the wall. Nine o’clock. She’d heard Angie take Amelia to bed an hour ago. Hopefully, Angie’s parents were also early-to-bed people and hopefully, they also didn’t mind if she snuck down to the kitchen to find a snack.

She walked slowly down the dark hallway and staircase, turning left toward the kitchen, feeling along the wall for a light switch. Somewhere outside an animal howled or screamed or made some noise that reminded her that they might be four hours from Spencer but they were still in a rural area. She slid her hand along the wall with a little more purpose.

The kitchen flooded with light before she found the switch. She looked up to see Angie on the other side of the room by the refrigerator with her hand on a square light switch. Her dirty-blond hair was up in a messy bun, the makeup that had been meticulous and flawlessly applied earlier was gone, but she was still a natural beauty, which sent a swatch of jealousy through Judi, who felt like she had to work for her beauty.

“Guess I wasn’t the only one who needed a snack,” Judi said with a quick smile, shrugging a shoulder.

Angie didn’t smile as she folded her arms across her chest and leaned her right shoulder against the doorway. “I needed a drink.”

“Oh.” Judi gestured toward the fridge. “Please don’t let me stop you.”

“No. Go ahead.” Angie’s words were said through a tight jaw. “Grab your snack.”

Judi pushed a hand back through her hair and sighed. “I didn’t think your parents would mind but if it is an issue. . .”

Angie’s expression softened and she unfolded her arms, letting them drop to her side. “No, of course, they wouldn’t.” She walked toward a cupboard next to the stove, opened it, and took out a glass. “Sorry I’m so grumpy.” She turned around, a glass in her hand. “Please, help yourself. There is some pizza left over from the party if you’d like any of that.”

She took a paper plate off a pile by the toaster and slid it onto the island. “Here is a plate if you need one. The bread is in the breadbox if you’d like a sandwich. We have turkey and ham, salami, and some lettuce.”

Judi pulled out a couple of slices of pizza from the refrigerator and laid them on the plate while Angie filled her glass with water from the sink.

She leaned back against the counter as Judi placed the plate in the microwave.

“So, how long have you and Ben been seeing each other?”

Judi raised an eyebrow and looked over her shoulder. “Seeing each other? As in dating?” She shook her head. “We’re not seeing each other. I thought you knew I was his secretary.”

Angie shrugged a shoulder. “Well, that’s what he said, but . . .”

She let the implication hang in the air.

“And it’s what he meant. I’m filling in for his secretary. Her husband is going through chemo treatments, so she needed some time off. I drove Ben down here because his doctor advised him not to drive until he stops having headaches and dizzy spells from his concussion.”

Judi took the plate out of the microwave, set it on the island, and sat on a stool. “I’m also the reason he has a concussion and a broken food but no, we are not seeing each other.” She snorted a small laugh. “Ben is good looking, don’t get me wrong, but he’s way too uptight and strait-laced for me.” She grimaced. “And boring. So boring. I don’t know how you ever dated him.”

A small smile tugged at Angie’s mouth. She sat on a stool on the other side of an island, across from Judi.  “Well, he wasn’t always boring.”

“Yeah, probably not since he was still drinking then,” Judi said.

Angie made a face. “Actually, he wasn’t a fun drunk. He was an angry and depressed drunk most of the time.”

Judi swallowed a bite of pizza and bit her lower lip. Sometimes she really needed to think before she spoke. “Sorry. That was a bad joke.” She focused her gaze on Angie’s. “Really. I know firsthand how not fun it can be when a person drinks too much.”

Angie cupped the glass in her hands, her arms propped on the island. “Were you in a relationship with an alcoholic too?”

 “No. I was the alcoholic.”

Angie dropped her gaze. “Oh.” She cleared her throat and lifted the glass. “I didn’t know that.”

Judi smirked. “Guess you haven’t talked to anyone from high school in a while. I figured you’d already heard all about my stupid behavior over the years.”

“I don’t really talk to anyone from high school,” Angie said softly. “I don’t like remembering who I was back then.” She twirled the glass in her hand. “I had heard you moved to the city, though. What brought you back?”

Judi shrugged. “Needed a break from the hustle and bustle I guess.”

“I can understand that. The city was a bit too crazy for me, honestly. It made me realize I’m more of a country girl than I realized.”

Judi folded the pizza in half and shoved into her mouth, speaking around it. “I love the city. I’m not a country girl at all. Too dull around Spencer Valley.” She wiped her mouth with a napkin and swallowed. “Sorry to be so blunt, but it’s the truth. If you don’t want to go to a bar then you’re pretty much stuck reading a book or joining the quilt club.” She rolled her eyes. “Or join my sister’s Bible study.”

Angie smiled and propped her chin in her hand. “So how did you give Ben a concussion?”

Judi took another bite of the pizza. “I accidentally pulled out in front of him on Drew Road. He swerved to miss me and slammed into a tree.”

Angie winced. “Ouch.”

“In his new BMW too. Then he got out, bleeding from the head, yelling, pointing and gesturing while this vein in his head popped out. I thought it was going to explode.”

“The one right above his right eye?

Judi laughed. “Yes. It was popping to the rhythm of his words.”

“How about the neck one? Right below his left ear?”

“Working overtime.”

“How red were his ears?”

“Like a lobster. I can tell you know Angry Ben too well.”

Angie’s smile faded briefly. “Yeah.” The smile slowly returned. “Sometimes it was funny though. It wasn’t all bad anger. Sometimes he was upset about a class or because he couldn’t get the garbage bag open. It wasn’t always directed at me.”

Judi took another bite of pizza and a comfortable silence settled over the kitchen for a few minutes.

“People can change,” she said after a few moments, even though she wasn’t sure she believed it herself.

Angie nodded and picked up an apple from the fruit basket in the center of the island. “Yeah. They can.”

“I think I am seeing a different Ben than you did.”

An orange cat rubbed against Angie’s leg and she reached down and stroked its head. “Yeah. I think you are.”

 “Maybe you’ll see that version of Ben someday too.” Judi stood and tossed the empty plate in the trash can.  “Anyhow – I’m going to head to bed. It’s been a long and crazy day.”

Angie’s voice stopped her in her tracks, and she turned back around. “Did Ben ask you to drive him down here?”

Judi knew she should lie and said he had. It would probably make Angie feel better and make Ben look better. There was that whole private promise she’d made herself to be honest, though.

“No. Not exactly. I offered. He didn’t want to come.”

Angie drank the last of the water and placed the empty glass in the sink. “I see.” She turned to face Judi. “Why did you offer?”

Judi didn’t want to get into it, try to sound like a good person. She just wanted to go to bed and try to forget about the earlier phone call. Angie was looking at her with an expression Judi couldn’t read. Either she was hoping that Ben had shown some sort of interest in doing the right thing or she was afraid Judi had forced him to come.

“I figure he’d eventually regret it if he didn’t see his daughter.” She smiled and laughed softly. “And I really needed to get out of Spencer for a few hours. Like I said, the place is seriously dull.”

Angie responded with a laugh of her own. “I know and I’m going back there in a few weeks. What am I thinking?”

Judi placed her hand on the bottom of the banister. “Look me up when you get there. Maybe we can find something fun to do there together.” She raised her hands in a defense motion. “Something that won’t involve alcohol. I promise.”

Angie tossed the apple up and caught it again. “I may take you up on that. Hey, would you like a pair of pajamas? I’ve got an extra one in the second drawer of my dresser. We look about the same size. I’m sure it would fit.”

The two walked upstairs together, Judi thanked Angie for the offer of the pajamas, and they said goodnight.

She changed into the nightshirt and pajama pants Angie had offered her, turned the lights off, pulled the covers around her, and started to set her phone down when Evan texted back.

Evan: Hey, Judi Lambert. How sweet of you to be worried about me. Yeah, I’m good. Dropping my truck off and then heading back out on the road to Spencer. Hope to catch up with you when I get there. You back in town yet?

Judi: No. Car problems again. Still in Lancaster.

Evan: Ah, man. I should have looked a little longer. Sorry about that.

Judi: No problem. Really. Angie’s brother found some dirt on the connection to the battery.

Evan: Dang. Didn’t think to check that. Guess I was too busy checking you out.

Warmth spread across Judi’s cheeks and she immediately felt ridiculous. Plenty of guys had flirted with her over the years. She was used to it. Evan was no different so why was she reacting this way?

Judi: Very funny, McGee. Glad you are safe. We’re headed out tomorrow. Angie’s mom was worried about the fog and had us stay over.

 Evan: Good idea. The fog was rough. Took me an extra hour to get back to my garage and I’ll be taking my time back to Spencer. Call me as soon as you’re back in town, k? I’d love to see you again.

Judi smiled at his words.

Judi: Same here. I’ll be sure to let you know.

Evan: Night, Judi. I’ll be remembering that cute skirt you were wearing tonight in my dreams.

Judi clicked the screen off and laid the phone by the bed. She’d met a lot of guys over the years, most of them after one thing. Evan McGee probably wasn’t any different but right now she wasn’t sure she cared.

Flirting with him was a nice distraction from the situation with Jeff. She’d have to face it all at some point, call that lawyer and tell him she didn’t want anything to do with the case, but for now, she was going to pretend the only worry she had was how soon she could get together with Evan once she got back in Spencer.

Fiction Friday: Mercy’s Shore, Chapter 16

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. Let me know in the comments what you think.

Chapter 16

Ben’s mind was spinning when he reached Amelia’s room. His thoughts had already been jumbled before he’d heard the angry voice coming from Angie’s room.

First, Amelia had invited him up to her room about fifteen minutes after she got back from the hospital, something he was still struggling to process. Now he had to juggle that conundrum — and Angie’s furious expression when he’d taken Amelia’s offered hand — along with whatever was going on with Judi. Whoever had been talking to her had definitely been threatening her. He wondered if that was why she’d come back to Spencer Valley.

Angie had stayed downstairs with her parents. Her boyfriend, or whatever he was, had stayed outside with Angie’s brothers so Ben hadn’t been introduced to him. Not that Angie would have introduced them. She hadn’t even looked at Ben when she’d come back to the house with Amelia. She’d looked at the floor when Amelia had asked Ben to come up and see her room.

Now here Ben sat cross legged in the middle of a hot pink rug while his daughter – who didn’t even know she was his daughter – showed him her dollhouse. Ben knew Adam had built it, along with the bed frame and headboard and canopy scaffolding. He didn’t have to ask. It’s what Adam did after all and why he had a successful furniture making business. A furniture making business he was apparently moving back to Spencer. He’d probably been about to talk to Ben about that when Angie had come back with Amelia.

“Pop-pop says this dolly is like mommy.”

Amelia’s little voice made Ben love her even more and regret even more how much of her life he had missed out on. The doll in her hand was petite and blond and she placed it on a bed in the upstairs.

“And this is William,” the little girl said, sitting a male doll on the couch in the living room.

Ben didn’t even want to ask, but he finally did.

“And who is William?”

“William loves mommy. He told me so.”

Ah. William. So that was Tall-Ginger-And-Handsome’s name.

Ben simply nodded and reached for the stuffed bear he’d given Amelia downstairs. She’d laid it on the bed when they came in and for some reason, he felt like he needed something to squeeze at the moment. Did he really care if Angie had a boyfriend?

He squeezed the bears head with both hands.

Had he expected her to never date again after he’d abandoned her?

He squeezed the bear a little harder.

The answer to both of those questions was yes and he hated it.

He’d tried dating after he’d left Angie, or she’d left him, or — well, it was a mutual decision in some ways. None of the relationships had worked out after the third or fourth date and he’d been fine with that. He wasn’t interested in getting involved with someone again. He’d hurt Angie enough. No need to add more shattered women to the world when he inevitably screwed up again.

“William is a doctor.” Amelia was still talking, but not looking at him. Her attention was consumed with placing little figures into the house. She whirled suddenly and looked him in the eye with such intensity he was mesmerized. “What do you do when you aren’t home, Ben?”

She blinked a few times, her expression much too serious for someone so young.

He cleared his throat nervously, touching a hand to his throat and rubbing there. He’d hoped to loosen his tie, then remembered he wasn’t wearing one. “Uh, I’m a lawyer.”

Her nose wrinkled. “What’s a loyer?”

He laughed softly. “It’s someone who — well, we help people.”

Her face brightened. “You and William both help people.”

 “Yes. That’s right.” He nodded slowly. “We help people.”

Though William probably saved lives and there were days all Ben could seem to do was ruin them.

“Amelia?”

Angie’s voice called from the bottom of the stairs. He was surprised she’d let him up here alone with Amelia this long.

“Yes, mommy?”

“Why don’t you come down and say goodbye to William and your other guests. They’re going to be leaving.”

Amelia ran to the doorway. “Goodbye!” she yelled then ran back to Ben and sat next to him, her little legs folded under her.

Ben grinned. “I don’t think that’s what she meant, kid.” He stood and held out his hand. “Come on. Let’s head downstairs.”

She didn’t take his hand. “But I don’t want to. I want to play dolls.”

Ben heard his father’s voice in his next words. “I know it’s more fun to play dolls, but your mom is calling you. You need to listen to her, okay?”

He kept his hand out to her and she pushed her lower lip out, looked up at him, and shrugged.

“Okay,” she said, standing.

She took his hand, and he held it for a few seconds before turning to leave the room. Who knew when he’d hold this little hand again. He rubbed his thumb across the top of it, over the smooth skin. A hard knot formed in the center of his stomach and he swallowed hard. He’d missed out on so much. He had no right to even be here.

Angie’s words filtered up the stairs from the living room as he started down the stairs, confirming his own belief.

“No, Mom. I am not staying down here any longer. She’s my daughter.”

He paused on the steps but couldn’t hear Leona’s response. He kept walking, slowly, Amelia’s hands in his.

“She’s his daughter biologically only,” Angie snapped as his foot hit the floor off the bottom step.

She turned at the sound of his footstep, her face flushed. Their gazes met for a few seconds and then he turned his attention to Amelia, her hand still in his. “Thank you for showing me your room and dollhouse.”

Amelia smiled, pulled her hand from his and ran toward the patio doors, apparently on her way to bid her guests a farewell.

He kept his gaze off Angie and focused on Leona who was wrapping up food and place it into the fridge. “Judi’s up. We are going to head out shortly.”

“Are you sure? You both look so tired and there’s supposed to be fog tonight.” Leona’s brow crinkled in concern. “We’ve got plenty of room if you two want to stay. The boys got a hotel room.”

“No.” Ben glanced at Angie, felt the heat coming off her even though she was looking at the floor, her arms across her chest as she leaned back against the kitchen island. “Thank you, but we really need to head out tonight. I’ve got court Monday morning and I need to prepare some briefs.”

Angie smirked but didn’t say anything. He wondered what she was thinking, yet really didn’t want to know.

“Well, okay, I understand,” Leona said, disappointment tinging her words. She turned and lifted a container from the fridge. “I thought you might say that, so I packed up some extra food for your trip home. I hope you’ll take it with you.”

Leona and his mom were so similar. “Of course. I’d be glad to.”

The patio door slid open as he started to excuse himself to see if Judi was ready to go. Doctor Handsome stepped into the kitchen, his eyes focusing first on Angie, then on Ben. An awkward silence fell over the room until Leona nudged Angie gently in the side with her elbow.

Angie tilted her eyes upward and sighed. “William this is Ben. Ben this is William.” She lowered her eyes, her gaze drilling into Ben her complete disgust with his presence. “He was just leaving.”

“Ben, hey.” William didn’t seem bothered by Angie’s tone. His smile was still wide, maybe even warm. He held a hand out toward Ben. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”

Ben took the hand and laughed softly. “Yeah. I’m sure you have.” He shook William’s hand briefly and firmly then let it go, taking a step back toward the staircase. Time to get out of here. “Nice to meet you.” He gestured up the stairs. “I’m just going to make sure Judi’s ready.”

“I am!”

He watched Judi already coming down the stairs, hair combed straight and hanging down across her shoulders and back, makeup freshly applied, bright pink lipstick, smiling as if she hadn’t been shaking twenty-minutes earlier.

Ben stepped out of her way and watched as Leona introduced her to William as his secretary while Angie smirked again. They then filed toward the front door and out it as Ben thanked Leona and Adam for the invitation. Ben was grateful when Angie and William stayed in the kitchen and Matt and Dan stayed in the backyard with Amelia and a few of the stragglers. He was uncomfortable enough and more than anything wanted to get out of there and never look back.

Leona and Adam were still on the porch waving, and the sun was setting, when Judi turned the key in the ignition and the car didn’t start.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Ben growled.

This could not be happening. Could this day get any worse?

“Don’t even ask, Ben.”

“What?” Judi asked.

“Nothing. Just start the car.”

“I’m trying.”

“Try harder. Her brothers are coming out and I don’t want to die today.”

“It’s not going to start.”

Ben growled again. “Apparently good ole’ Evan wasn’t so smart after all. Maybe he was too focused on flirting with you to properly diagnose the issue.”

 Judi sighed instead of fighting back with a smart comment like she usually did, which reminded Ben of what she’d gone through earlier. He cleared his throat. “Sorry. It’s not your fault. I just want to get out of here.”

Judi pushed a hand back through her hair, staring ahead, her demeanor definitely more subdued than usual. “I understand. It’s been a stressful day all around.” She pushed a button under the steering wheel and opened the door. “Let’s see if we can figure this out and get on the road.”

Guilt and frustration were his main emotions as he climbed out of the car, but when he saw Mark and Danny standing on the porch dread overshadowed them both.

“Car troubles again?” Adam called.

Ben nodded. “Yep. Looks like. A guy looked at it on the way down but I guess he didn’t diagnose it right.”

“A mechanic?” Mark asked as he stepped off the porch and walked toward the car.

“A truck driver,” Judi said with a shrug. “You probably know him. Evan McGee. Matt’s younger brother.”

“Yeah, I know Evan,” Mark said. “Good guy. I’m sure he just missed something. Nobody’s perfect.” He smirked and turned to look at Ben. “I’m sure you would agree, right Oliver?”

The two men locked gazes for a few seconds before Ben answered. “Yes, Mark. I would agree. Would you?”

Judi cleared her throat. “Well, anyhow, Evan clearly was wrong and something else is going on.”

Mark leaned over the engine, propping a hand on the edge of the open hood. “I worked part time with Bert Tanner for a few years before we opened the business. Why don’t I take a quick look for you?”

“Thank you,” Judi said.

“Yes,” Ben said with a forced smile. “Thank you.”

While Mark looked retrieved tools from his truck and looked at the engine, Judi and Ben chatted with Adam and Leona as they waited. Mark straightened about fifteen minutes into his inspection and wiped his hand on a rag. He nodded toward the driver’s side. “Looks like you had a corroded connection to the battery. See if it starts. If it does you should be good to go but I’d recommend that you get your engine serviced when you get back to Spencer.”

Judi smiled over her shoulder as she opened the driver side door. “I’ll be sure to look into that as soon as I figure out what serviced means.”

When the car started Judi rolled the window down. “Thank you. Hopefully it holds out until we get back.”

Dan stepped out onto the porch. “You might need to find a different route, though, they’ve shut down part of the highway. Major accident. Tractor trailer overturned. Just saw it online.”

Ben thought about how it was generous of Dan to offer that information to a guy he’d probably rather beat up. The brothers were being polite in front of their parents, but he had a feeling if they were alone with him again the politeness would be gone.

Leona looked concerned as she rubbed her hands across her arms. The move reminded him of his mom when she was stressed or wanted to say something she didn’t think anyone else would want to hear.

Leona bit her lower lip briefly then said quickly, “I think you two should stay until the highway is clear. There is supposed to be even foggier conditions tonight. You two can head out first thing in the morning.”

The woman was nothing if not persistent, but Ben had to resist her. Mark’s previous congenial behavior was fading fast based on the crease in his brow. Next to him, Dan had his hands on his hips, staring Ben down as if challenging Ben to accept the offer. Or maybe he was challenging him to reject the offer and reject yet another female member of the Phillipi family. Right here, in front of everyone. Either way, it wasn’t going to end well for Ben.

Before he could decline the latest offer, though, tiny fingers encircled his.

“Are you going to have a sleepover, Ben?” Amelia asked in a tiny, curious voice.

 Ben glanced up at Angie and William who had stepped out onto the porch to stand next to Dan. It was as if the whole family had come out to watch him make a complete fool out of himself no matter how he answered.

“Um. No. I don’t think that would be a good idea, kid.”

“Why not? You can sleep in my room in my sleeping bag.”

Ben laughed softly. “That’s sweet, kid, but, again, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“We really don’t mind,” Adam said in a sincere tone, laying his hand on Ben’s shoulder. “It would be nice to have a chance to chat since we were interrupted earlier.”

Leona touched her hand to her throat and rubbed the dip there, looking more concerned than before.

“I just hate to think of anything happening to you two out there on the roads tonight. I know I would feel better if you were driving home in the daylight instead of this fog. I’m sure your mother would too.”

Ben took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Leona knew how to twist the knife in deeper, go in for the kill. Invoke the thought of his mother at home, pacing the floor, wringing her hands, waiting for him to call and tell her they’d it made home through the fog. Only his parents didn’t even know he was here. Of course, Leona didn’t know they didn’t know, and he wasn’t about to get into that right now.  

And there was something about the way Adam was looking at him that sent a twinge of dread sliding through him. Why was it so important for Adam to talk to him? He already knew about the move. Was something else going on? Maybe someone in the family actually was sick.

He couldn’t stay, though. The entire situation was incredibly uncomfortable and growing more uncomfortable by the minute. Plus there was Judi. She had to feel out of place. He wasn’t sure how upset she still was by that phone call she’d had earlier either.

He turned slightly to look at her. She shrugged a shoulder, as if to say the decision was his. He’d always been bad at making decisions though so when he agreed to stay, he felt deep in his chest that he’d done it again – made another bad decision he was going to regret.

Fiction Friday: Mercy’s Shore Chapter 15

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. Let me know in the comments what you think.

Chapter 15

“So, the dude with Angie is her boyfriend.” Judi pushed a bite of cake into her mouth. “He’s a doctor.”

The cake was amazing. Judi hadn’t eaten cake in — well, she didn’t know how long. She’d always stayed away from cake to try to keep her figure. She couldn’t believe what she’d been missing. This had been her third piece since they’d gotten there.

She stared at the half-eaten piece for a few seconds, then laid the fork back down. Whoa. She was about trade one addiction for another. The sugar addiction wouldn’t kill her as fast as the alcohol might, but still. She pushed the plate away.

“Anyhow, that’s what Mark says. He’s a nice guy when you get to know him.” She wiped frosting off her upper lip with a napkin. “He hates you, though. We should probably duck out before Angie and the kid gets back before they give you another concussion.”

Ben pushed a hand back through his hair and sipped from the cup of coffee Leona had brought him earlier. A handful of guests were still lingering, helping Leona and Adam clean up. Judi had heard them agree they’d stay around until Amelia came back and opened her gifts. The mention of gifts reminded her of the stuffed bear Ben had shoved in the trunk a few miles back. They’d stopped at a toy store in town. He’d had no idea what to buy but Judi had grabbed the bear, shoved it at is his chest and declared bluntly, “Kids like stuffed things. Let’s go.”

“Should I go get that bear out of the trunk?”

Ben stared into the coffee cup for several moments then jerked his head up suddenly. “Huh? Oh. Yeah. That would be a good idea, I guess.” He sat back in the lounge chair he was sitting in and rubbed the back of his neck. “You know what? Let’s go get that and then let’s head out.” He looked at his watch. “It’s getting late and we’ve got a long drive back.”

Judi wanted to go back. Evan’s suggestion they get together when she got back to Spencer was at the forefront of her mind. Still, something tugged at her conscience and she decided not to agree as quickly as she usually would have.

“Shouldn’t we stay?” She shrugged a shoulder. “Just to see how Amelia is?”

Ben shook his head and sipped the coffee again. “No. I think we should go. I shouldn’t be here.”

“Sure you should. You’re her dad.”

“Yeah, but she doesn’t know that, and I’ve never acted like a dad, so, no I shouldn’t be here. Plus, it looks like she’s got someone to be her dad anyhow.”

He had a point. Should she tell him he had a point? She pulled her lower lip between her teeth and watched him drinking the coffee and staring blankly at the back of the house.

Actually, both Jesus and Ellie would probably not point out to Ben that he was right about Amelia having a replacement dad. That definitely wouldn’t help his mood.

“Well, still, it would look bad if you just left and didn’t see how she was.”

Ben finished off the coffee. “I’m sure she’s going to be fine. It was just a bloody nose. I got them a ton when I was a kid.”

He said the words but his dipped brow, far-off stare, and hunched shoulders told Judi he didn’t believe it.

“Well, this party has been a bit of a bust, huh?” Adam laughed as he walked over to the table and sat next to Ben. “Angie just called, though, and Amelia seems to be doing fine. No broken bones. They’re heading home soon.”

Ben’s muscles visibly tensed at the word “they’re.”

Ben placed the cup on the table and rubbed a hand across his eyes. “We should be heading out too. We’ve got a long drive back.”

 “You’re welcome to stay the night,” Adam said, folding his hands in front of him as he leaned on the tabletop.  “We’ve got a pullout couch in the den and Angie can sleep in Amelia’s room tonight.”

Ben shook his head quickly. “No. Thank you, but I need to get back and rest up. I’ve got court Monday morning.”

Judi cleared her throat. “Actually, I could use a rest before we head out.”

Adam’s expression brightened as if he was glad he could help somehow. “Sure. You can crash in Angie’s room. It will be a little more private than the den and I’m sure she won’t mind.”

Ben’s expression darkened and he shot Judi a glance she knew meant he was not happy with her. It was true, though. She could use a nap before the drive back.

Manipulating situations was a talent of her’s and she was glad to be able to use it for good this time instead of bad. Stalling their departure would give Ben another chance to see Amelia and say goodbye and maybe give her the gift they’d brought. Leaving now would only leave him on a lower note than he’d been on when he’d arrived. Maybe they could redeem the trip if he and Amelia had another chance to bond. It might make him less grumpy at work on Monday too. Judi wasn’t completely without an ulterior — and self-serving — motive.

She followed Adam into the house. He paused in the kitchen to let Leona know Judi be laying down in Angie’s room and then led Judi up a flight of stairs leading from the dining room and down a narrow hallway with a large window at the end of it.

Adam pushed the door open to a room on the right and as Judi looked to her left, across the hall, she noticed a closed door with a unicorn picture taped to the outside. Turning her attention to Angie’s room, she took in the sunlight pouring in streams across a queen-sized bed with a cherry wood headboard and a comforter featuring pink roses against a white background spread across it. The room even smelled of roses. Clean, tidy, and picturesque. The whole scene made Judi want to roll her eyes. She might have if Adam hadn’t been there and also hadn’t interrupted her thoughts by letting her know where the upstairs bathroom was if she needed it and asking if she’d like an extra blanket from the hall closet.

She thanked him, declining the blanket, and when he’d left and shut the door, she tossed her purse on a chair next to an armoire, stretched her arms over her head while yawning, and looked around the room before flopping back onto the pile of pillows at the top of the bed.

“My-my, Angie Phillipi, you sure know how to live in style.”

She yawned again and rolled onto her side, intending to take the nap she’d said she needed. An open drawer in a desk across from the bed caught her attention briefly but she closed her eyes so she wouldn’t get up and go to look in it. She was turning over a new leaf, changing her ways. She wasn’t about to snoop in the drawers of a desk owned by a woman she barely knew.

When she reached over and laid her phone on a book by the bed the book and the phone fell. The book must have been closer to the edge than she realized. She leaned over and picked the book up and when she did a photograph fluttered to the floor.

“Great. Just trash Angie’s stuff, Judi,” she said to herself as she flipped the photograph over to slide it bask into the book.

Ben and Angie’s smiling faces looked up at her from the photograph and she paused, studying it. Ben’s arm was around Angie who had her body pressed into his side. They were definitely a couple whenever the photo was taken, not only because of Angie’s intimate posture but because of Ben’s hand resting on her thigh. Judi studied the photo for a moment then opened the book to lay the photo inside. Handwritten dates and journal entries made her realize the book was actually a journal. As much as she wanted to know what, if anything, Angie had written about Ben. She was going to stick to her personal promise to not pry into the private lives of others.

She pulled herself back into a comfortable position and closed her eyes, drifting off to sleep quicker than she normally did.

The sound of her phone ringing woke her. She answered it without thinking and without looking at the caller ID, her eyes still closed.

“Hey, gorgeous. I didn’t expect you to pick up when you saw my name.”

The voice sliced a chill through her and she sat up, her eyes popping open. She swallowed hard, wanting to slide her finger over the end call button but feeling as if she were in a daze. Her arms wouldn’t move, her mouth had gone dry, and an odd roar filled her ears.

“Speechless huh?” A sardonic laugh filtered loudly through the phone, causing her to flinch as she realized she’d bumped the speaker button.  “Yeah, well too bad you weren’t speechless when you lied to Seline about that night in my apartment.” Jeff’s cheerful timbre slid into a more mocking tone. “Funny how you didn’t mention to her how you were all over me all night in the bar and all those highballs you kicked back before you asked me to take you back to my place.”

Judi pulled the phone back and started to hit the end call button, noticing the tremor in her hand.

“You wanted it, Judi. You know it. I was only giving you what you wanted before you decided you weren’t going to let me have it. That’s how girls like you are. You beg for it all night long and when we finally give in, then you cry rape. That’s what sluts do, Judi. You know that right? You don’t want your family to know what a slut you are, do you?”

She gasped as the phone was snatched from her hand. She looked up to see Ben standing above her with her phone in his hand, anger flashing in his eyes. She couldn’t figure out where he’d come from or how she hadn’t heard the bedroom door open.

“Who is this?” he hissed at the phone.

“Who is this?” Jeff shot back. “Judi’s new boyfriend?”

“No. This is Judi’s lawyer, and it sounds to me like you’re trying to blackmail my client and I don’t appreciate that and neither will a judge when we — “

Jeff spat a curse word and the line went dead.

Judi hugged her arms around herself, suddenly aware her entire body had grown cold and she was trembling.

“You okay?”

She started to shake her head but changed her mind and nodded.

He lowered his voice and she noticed out of the corner of her eye that the bedroom door was open and she could see into the room across the hall. Amelia was sitting on a pink canopy bed with a doll, brushing its hair.

“Amelia is showing me her room but when I’m done, we need to talk about what just happened. Don’t tell me it was nothing. I don’t know who that guy was but he was threatening you. Is this related to that text you got from some Seline earlier?”

Judi’s head jerked up and her mouth dropped open. “Wha —”

Ben held his hand up and turned toward the doorway. “No. Don’t tell me now. Take a deep breath, calm down and we’ll talk when we get in the car.”

“How much did you hear?”

“Enough to know whoever that guy is he’s a piece of garbage.” He paused, his hand on the doorknob. His tone had softened. “Are you going to be okay for a few minutes?”

Judi nodded but didn’t speak. Ben studied her for a few moments, eyes narrowing, then stepped into the hallway and closed the door. She’d been afraid to speak. If she had, the wall might have fallen, the emotion might have spilled over, and she wouldn’t have been able to put the lid back on again.