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

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

Chapter 6

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

She was late. As usual.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wonderful.

Always fun to be the fifth wheel.

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

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

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

“Nice ride!”

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

“Yep! It is.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Judi!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was not returning that phone call.

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

Saturday Fiction: Harvesting Hope Chapter 27 and 28 (final chapters)

Just a reminder to blog readers who either didn’t follow along or missed some chapters, you can either go back and read them here for the next two weeks or you can preorder an ebook copy for $.99 HERE. The price will go up the week after the release date of August 12.

This is the final two chapters of the story. Both have been rewritten a couple of times but are still in the editing process.

Chapter 27

Ellie rolled on to her side and winced. She’d been in bed all day, had taken the painkillers for her ankle, and yet her muscles still ached. It was ridiculous to imagine they wouldn’t hurt, of course. What did she expect after a car accident, a two-mile hike in the dark woods, and a fall into a mineshaft? That she would feel like dancing?

She reached for her phone on the bedside table and scrolled through the text messages.

Lucy. Molly. A couple of ladies from church. Emily, the pastor’s wife. Even Brad. She’d ignored Brad’s, of course. She didn’t have the energy to deal with what had happened the night of the accident. He was apologetic, asking how she was, but she wasn’t sure she could let him off the hook so easily. It was clear he needed help and she wasn’t going to be that source of help. Maybe she should give him Pastor Joe’s number.

Another one from Molly. Sent an hour ago.

Liz was on her way to the hospital with Matt McGee. Huh. What was Liz doing with Matt McGee? She’d have to question Molly about that later.

At the top of her messages was one from Jason.

Thinking of you. Your mom updated me earlier. Hope to see you soon when you’ve rested. I love you.

She smiled as she read it again. I love you.

She hoped he’d feel the same when she told him she was even more of a hypocrite than he thought. She’d spent the last seven, almost eight months, angry at him for not telling her what had happened in college. All the while, she’d also had secrets, something about her he didn’t know.

Really, though, she didn’t even know if it was true.

She only knew what the doctor had said at her appointment almost two years ago. How it would be harder for her to have children and maybe even impossible. Her symptoms had been worse the last several months. To her that wasn’t a good sign. Not at all.

A soft knock on her old bedroom door drew her from her thoughts.

Judi looked around the door. “Can I come in?”

Ellie shifted to a sitting position, making room for her sister on the bed. Circles darkened the skin under Judi’s eyes. “Dinner was great. Where did you learn to cook like that?”

Judi laughed, shrugging a shoulder. “My roommate in the city is in culinary school. She gave me some tips. I overcooked the fish a little, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be.”

Ellie rubbed her eyes and yawned. “I didn’t notice it was overcooked at all. It was seasoned perfectly too. If you stick around, I’ll have to have you make some dinners from now on.”

Judi visibly stiffened but still leaned back against the pillow beside Ellie. She’d pulled her hair into a pony tail and was wearing a pair of sweatpants and a T-shirt, far removed from the flashier and more revealing outfits she’d been wearing since she arrived.

“Remember when we used to do this during thunderstorms?” she asked. “I’d crawl into bed with you, and you’d tell me everything was going to be okay and sing me that song —”

I Will Cast All My Cares Upon Him. I remember.”

Judi leaned her head against Ellie’s shoulder. It had been a long time since she’d shown anything close to affection to her family, especially Ellie.

Her voice broke when she spoke again. “I thought you were dead, Ellie.”

“I know. I’m sorry. I never should have left the scene. It was so stupid.”

 “I shouldn’t have said all those horrible things to you. I know you don’t mean to be so perfect all the time.”

Ellie laughed softly. “Judi, I’m not perfect. You know that. I screw up all the time. I just don’t talk about it because — I guess because I don’t want anyone to know.”

Judi nodded against her shoulder, and they fell into a comfortable silence. The clinking of dishes downstairs from her parents washing and putting away dishes filled the break in their conversation. Soon her Dad would fall asleep in his recliner in front of whatever movie he’d picked out for them to watch.

A small sob came from Judi and Ellie looked down, not sure if she was still upset about the accident or something else.

“I can’t go back to the city.” Judi’s voice was barely above a whisper.

Ellie leaned back, slid an arm around Judi. “Why? Jude, what happened? Please tell me. What’s going on?”

She wanted to ask what was going on with Jeff, but she wasn’t sure how Judi would take it that she’d seen the message.

“I was so stupid, El.” Judi choked back another sob. “I knew eventually it would all get out of control but if I stopped then I’d remember I wasn’t special like you. I’d remember I don’t have any talents or brains, so I just kept being the life of the party.”

“That’s not tr —”

“It is. I’ve always been the dumb one. The dumb blond who just likes to have fun because she can’t do anything else. You’ve always been the smart, good girl who Mom and Dad can brag about.”

Tears stung Ellie’s eyes. “I never meant to make you feel that way.”

Judi sat up and twisted herself to face Ellie, brushing the edge of her hand against her cheek. “It wasn’t you. It was me. It was how I saw it. I was so jealous of you. I felt like I could never measure up. That’s why I moved to the city. Well, that and I really have always thought Spencer is a boring little town.”

Ellie laughed softly.

Judi rolled her eyes. “I wanted to find adventure and excitement and that’s what I did.” More tears came and Ellie reached out and took Judi’s hands in hers.

“Judi, tell me what’s going on. I’m listening this time, okay?”

Judi nodded, pulling one hand away to snatch a tissue from the bedside stand. She wiped the corner of her eyes as she spoke. “I went out with the hot guy from work. The one I told you about that one time we were on the phone.”

Ellie remembered. The phone call where Judi hadn’t pointed out Jason’s proposal hadn’t really been a proposal.

“He was drop dead gorgeous and interested in me.” She rolled her eyes again. “I should have known then something was up. He wanted me to go back to his place after dinner so,” she shrugged and shook her head, looking at the ceiling. “I did. His hands were on me after the first drink. I tried to enjoy it at first, thought maybe we’d just end up making out, but he was pretty rough and getting rougher. I tried to push him away, but he didn’t like that. So . . .”

She started to cry harder, hugging her arms around her middle, looking at the wall.

Ellie’s heart raced, her skin chilled. “Judi.” She placed her hands on her sister’s slim shoulder, afraid to ask the next question. “Did he – did this man assault you? Please. Tell me the truth.”

Judi shook her head. “No. Almost, but no. He pulled my shirt up and my pants down, but I kicked him pretty hard in the nads. He fell off me and hit his head on the coffee table. He was furious and told me to get out, so I ran to the door and left. My shirt was torn, I had a bloody lip. My roommate knew something had happened. She wanted me to call the police, but I just wanted to forget about it. Forget about how stupid I’d been to go back to his place. Forget that I was such a failure and that I deserved it because I flirted crazy with him and gave him all these signs and —

“Judi, did you tell him you wanted to sleep with him?”

Judi shook her head, sobbing against her hand.

“Then you didn’t do anything wrong other than maybe going back with him to his place. Even if he assumed you wanted to sleep with him once you said ‘no’ then he needed to stop. What he did was wrong. You get that, right?”

Judi shrugged a shoulder as she wiped a tissue across her cheek. “Yes and no. I mean, he was wrong, but I never should have gone there and —”

“That doesn’t mean you deserved it. Do you understand?”

Judi nodded slowly, pressing her hand to her mouth.

Ellie shifted closer to her and pulled her against her with one arm. “So, what are you going to do? What about your job?”

“They fired me last week for not showing up. My roommate wants me to come back, but she understands if I don’t. She said Jeff keeps showing up and asking where I am.”

Time to be honest and confess to Judi about the message. “He’s been texting you too, hasn’t he?”

Judi nodded and pulled back. “How do you know?”

“I saw a message. By accident. I wanted to talk to you about it, but you were drunk and then, well, you know. ”

“I blocked his number last night. He’s afraid I’m going to the police because Selina told him I was.”

“Selina’s the roommate?”

Judi nodded. “She hates Jeff and wants him to be charged, but I can’t report him for something he never got the chance to do.”

“But he would have if you hadn’t kicked him, right? What if there are other girls who didn’t get away?”

Judi looked at Ellie with red and swollen eyes. “I don’t know. What if no one believes me?”

“It’s up to you, but even if they don’t, at least you tried.” Ellie hugged her again. “You don’t have to decide now. You don’t have to decide anything now.”

Judi sniffed. “I do soon. The rent is due in two weeks, and I only have so much in my savings. It’s either stay here or go back to New York and try to get another job and chance running into Jeff again.”

Ellie stroked her sister’s hair. “Whatever you decide, I’ll support you.”

They stayed that way for a few minutes, Judi with her head against Ellie’s shoulder, Ellie stroking her hair, before Judi spoke again.

“Dad said he saw Jason sleeping in his truck in the hospital parking lot this morning.”

Ellie looked out the window at the sun pushing through the thin laced curtains, casting patterns on the floor. She thought about all the afternoons she’d sat in this room, watching those same patterns, daydreaming or reading instead of doing her homework. Part of that time she’d daydreamed about Jason, about living on a farm with him and growing old together.

Judi sighed. “He was probably afraid to leave you alone again.” She tilted her head up to look at Ellie. “You’re going to marry him, right?”

Ellie played with the fringe on the bedspread, a small smile tilting one corner of her mouth upward. “I put him through a lot. Maybe he doesn’t even want to marry me anymore.”

Judi snorted a small laugh. “Yeah, right. That man is completely enamored by you. He worships the ground you walk on. There is no way he doesn’t want to marry you. Plus, I’m guessing he put you through some stuff too. It takes a lot to send you over the edge. I’d say he’s not innocent by any means.”

Innocent, no. Apologetic and contrite, yes.

“We’re both pretty messed up to be honest.”

“Yeah, but you’re messed up together. It’s kind of romantic.”

“It’s romantic to be messed up?”

“No. It’s romantic to be messed up with someone else so you can help each other not be messed up.”

Ellie lifted an eyebrow and frowned at her sister. “Who told you that?

Judi smiled. “I’m really not sure. I might have heard it on a CW show.”

Ellie snorted out a laugh. “I guess it’s an interesting thought. In theory at least.”

She listened to Judi breathing and for a minute she thought she’d fallen asleep. “Don’t tell Mom and Dad what I told you, okay?” Judi whispered. “Not yet. If we tell them then I have to tell them how messed up I’ve been and I’m not ready for that.”

Ellie smoothed her sister’s hair back from her face. “Okay. For now, but I want you to talk to them at some point. They love you. They’re going to want to help you however they can. But be warned, Dad may want to enact some redneck justice on this Jeff guy.”

Judi tipped her head back and laughed. “Redneck justice? Oh man! I can just see him up there in the city with a shotgun. Getting tackled in the subway by the NYPD.”

Ellie laughed at the visual. “I can see the NY Post headline now. ‘Farmer Father Brings Justice To Big Apple.”

The sisters giggled until their sides hurt. Ellie gasped in air in between laughter. “Judi, do you realize you said ‘nads’ when you were telling me what you did do that guy?”

Judi snorted. “I know. I’ve been in the city too long. A couple of my friends are from Brooklyn, and they use that term all the time.”

They caught their breath, wiping their eyes, and Ellie was glad that this time the tears were from laughter. She and Judi hadn’t laughed like this in years.

Judi curled up against her again and yawned. “We should take a nap before Jason gets here.”

“Before Jason gets here?”

Judi pulled the cover up over her shoulder. “Yeah. You know he won’t be able to stay away for long. He’ll be here shortly. Definitely before dark.”

Ellie looked out the window at the dirt road in the distance that cut a parallel path to their cornfield. If Jason really did come, what would she say to him? She wasn’t sure, but she knew she needed to tell him the truth, even though she wasn’t exactly sure what the truth was.

Her phone dinged. Another text message. She smiled as she read it.

Molly: It’s a girl. I didn’t even make it to the hospital before she was born. I’ll let you know the name when I know.

Chapter 28

Hope to see you soon. When you’ve rested.

That’s what he’d texted to her.

It was true, but not the full truth.

He had wanted her to rest, recover from all she’d been through.

But he also wanted to see her immediately. It had taken everything he had not to turn into her parents’ drive on the way back from the hospital, pull in front of the house, scoop her up and hold him in his arms; to prove to himself that she was alive and safe.

By evening he couldn’t wait any longer.

Alex laughed as Jason walked from the barn to his truck. “I can’t believe you’ve waited this long.”

“Who says I’m going to see Ellie?”

Molly stood in the barn doorway, arms folded across her chest. “Your face is flushed, you’ve been distracted all day, and a half an hour ago we saw you looking like a lovesick puppy while you stared at your phone. You’re going to see Ellie and it’s about time.”

Jason grinned, sliding behind the steering wheel. “You two are the new Sherlock and Watson. Congrats.”

“Don’t forget to bend the knee when you ask her,” Alex called after him.

This was one time Jason wished Alex and Molly were distracted by each other instead of his love life. “Don’t forget to take photos of Liz’s baby and send them to me.”

He jumped into the truck, slammed the door shut, and shifted it into gear.

Looking in his rearview mirror he saw a car pulling in behind him. He slid the gear shift back into park. Climbing out, he watched Alan Weatherly slide out of the driver’s seat of the small gray Lexus.

The small woman who exited the car on the passenger side, reached out to Jason immediately. “Jason, I was hoping to catch you before the funeral tomorrow. I’ve been trying to get here to see you for a week now , but everyone wanted me to rest.”

He took Ann’s hands, guilt clutching at his chest. Tears glistened in her eyes as she spoke. “I wanted to see you in person to thank you for saving me from the fire. I’m sorry it took me so long. They made me stay in the hospital for a few days after the fire and then Alan and the girls have been helping me get settled in at Twin Oaks. I’m a few doors down from your grandparents.”

“Ann, I —”

“Now, Jason.” She tipped her head and raised her eyebrows to silence him. “I’ve talked to Cody, and I know what you’ve been thinking. John’s death wasn’t your fault. He was gone before you ever got there. I was saying my goodbyes when the smoke overtook me. I should have gotten out before the smoke got so bad, but the idea of leaving him there even though I knew he was gone — well, it was too hard for me to bear, I suppose.”

Jason nodded, his throat thick with emotion. “I wish I’d been able to bring him out for you.”

Ann smiled and clutched his hands tighter. “He was already home, Jason. All that was left was a shell.” She took a step toward him, leaned up on her tip toes and kissed his cheek. When she stepped back her eyes were bright. “Because of you, I’m going to be able to see my grandchildren grow up. My oldest graduates next year and my youngest starts Kindergarten in another month. I would have missed all that if it wasn’t for you.”

She let go of his hands and touched his shoulder gently. “Now, I don’t want to keep you. You were on your way somewhere.” She winked. “I hope you were on your way to see that lovely Ellie Lambert. Cody told me about her ordeal when I stopped at the fire hall to see if you might be there. I wanted to thank all of them too. Brought them a pie. Of course.”

Jason laughed. Of course she’d brought them pie. “Yeah. I actually am on my way over there.”

“Good. But before I go . . . Al, grab Jason’s pie.”

The small white box had Jason’s name on it.

 “Ann, you didn’t have to do this.”

Alan handed Jason the box and grinned. “She made ten of them and we’ve been dropping them off all over.”

Ann smiled and laid a hand against Jason’s arm. “Baking helps me to keep my mind off things. My daughter-in-law helped me make a few more for the dinner tomorrow as well. You’ll be sure to come say ‘hello’ to me when you visit your grandparents, won’t you?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And I know Tanner’s Country Store delivers to Twin Oaks so I’m sure I’ll be putting in at least a few small orders.

“Anytime.”

“And!” She held up a finger, her eyes sparkling. “You be sure to come visit me with those beautiful babies you and Ellie have.”

His face flushed warm, and he tipped his head toward the ground, clearing his throat. “Yes, ma’am. We will be sure to do that.”

Ann craned her neck to look around his shoulder and waved toward Alex and Molly who had stepped up to the barn doorway. “Hello, kids. Alex, I hope you take Molly off the market officially soon. Neither of you are getting any younger.”

After the way Alex had harassed him earlier, Jason enjoyed the flush of pink that spread across his friends cheeks and ears.

“That’s right, Alex,” Jason called as he closed Ann’s door behind her. “You aren’t getting any younger. Better get a move on with all that proposal stuff.”

Alex waved at him dismissively. “You just worry about you, big boy.”

When Jason pulled into the Lambert drive ten minutes later, his chest was tight, and his palms were damp on the steering wheel. He pushed the truck into park and took a deep breath. Maybe he was having a heart attack. If he was, then he wouldn’t have to work up the nerve to talk to Ellie and find out how she really felt about him. Yes, she’d let him hold her and kiss her in that mine shaft, but that was a stressful situation. Maybe her mind had cleared, and she’d remembered how upset she’d been with him.

Tom met him on the front porch. “What took you so long?”

“You too?” Jason looked at him with an amused smile.  “That’s pretty much what Molly just said to me.”

Tom leaned against the porch railing, sipping from a mug. “I saw you in the hospital parking lot this morning. Sleep in your truck all night?”

Jason tipped his head toward the ground, hands at his waist. “Yeah.” He didn’t want to explain why he hadn’t come in, though he was sure Tom could figure it out. At least he was somewhat cleaner than he had been this morning, even if he had been working all day.

Tom tilted his head to the side, toward the front door. “You want to come in?”

Jason looked up, meeting the gaze of the man he hoped would be his future father-in-law. “Yes, sir.”

“She’s upstairs in her old room. Sore and tired still but doing okay.”

The creak of the front door brought Jason’s eyes up and he and Tom turned toward the front door.

“Actually, she’s down here. But still sore and tired.” She looked at Jason and he couldn’t look away. Her dark brown eyes captivated him, made him forget her dad was even there. She was wearing a pair of blue denim shorts and a white tank top covered by a patterned shirt tied at the waist. He rarely saw her so dressed down. It was breathtaking.

 “I needed some fresh air.” Her words reminded him he should take a breath of air before he passed out.

Tom held the door open for his daughter and walked inside after she stepped outside. He pushed the inside door closed firmly, which Jason took as a sign that he was giving them privacy.

She sat on the front porch swing. “I was going to sit on that top step, but I’m not sure I can get back up again with this ankle.”

He stepped up on the porch and leaned one side against the support beam, sliding his hands in his jean pockets. “How you feeling tonight?”

She shrugged a shoulder. “Sore. And pretty stupid. Walking away from that accident scene wasn’t very bright. Have you heard how Brad is?”

He shook his head. He hadn’t and he didn’t care how Brad was. “Probably sleeping it off somewhere. He’ll bounce back. Always does. How’s Judi?”

“She’s doing okay actually. She’s asleep upstairs in my old room.”

“Where you should be.”

Ellie leaned back and stretched her arms out in front of her. “I slept a lot earlier this afternoon. Too restless to sleep. Brain won’t shut down.” She leaned back against the porch swing. “How are you doing?”

“Fine. Hurts a little where the stitches are, but I’m starting to get used to stitches.”

She tilted her head, and a small smile tipped a corner of her mouth up. Seeing the compassion in her eyes verses the anger he’d been used to seeing in the last several months was soothing. “I don’t just mean physically. How is your heart?”

She always did have a way of getting to the point. “Still hurting. Ann stopped by just before I came here. She hugged me. Told me it wasn’t my fault. Clint told me the same thing. Said John had a heart attack and was dead before the flames hit him. I still feel guilty, though. Still feel like if I had pulled him out, maybe something could have been done.”

“You don’t know that though.”

“Yeah. I think the not knowing is the hardest. He was a good man. He didn’t deserve to die that way.”

“No, he didn’t, but we know where he is now, who is holding him.”

Jason nodded looking down. “Yeah. We do. It does provide some comfort.”

A few seconds of silence stretched between them. Chirping birds and the meow of a cat filled the silence before she spoke again. “So, Liz’s baby is a girl, huh?”

He grinned. “Molly messaged you too, huh? I think she’s texted the whole county. Yeah. She hasn’t picked a name yet. Molly and Alex are headed over in a few to see them.”

“Molly said Matt took her to the hospital. What was that about?”

Jason laughed softly. “I’m not totally sure, honestly. Something I plan to ask Matt about as soon as I get a chance.”

He kicked at the porch floor with the tip of his boot, watched the dirt from the barn fall off and join dirt that was probably from Tom’s barn. He knew they were dancing around why he was really here, like they’d been dancing around other issues for far too long now.

“El, listen I —”

“I’m a hypocrite, Jason.”

He jerked his head up, eyebrows knitted together. “What are you —”

“I was mad at you for hiding your past from me, but I’ve been lying to you for two years,.”

Her hands gripped the edge of the seat of the swing, her legs pushed out, feet against the porch floor, keeping it from swinging. She kept her gaze lowered, focused on her feet.

“You haven’t been lying. You’ve been scared.”

She looked up quickly, met his gaze.

He sat next to her on the swing. “I heard you tell that doctor what medicine you were on and about your procedure. I shouldn’t have been listening, but I was outside the door. I didn’t want to leave you. Finding you felt like a dream, and I was afraid if I left, I’d wake up and you’d actually be dead. I should have realized all these years how bad things were. I should have known how much pain you were in each month. I looked it up online as soon as I left the hospital. Why didn’t you ever tell me how bad it had gotten?”

Ellie looked at the floor again and tears dripped off her cheek and down her chin. She shook her head and looked out over the corn field next to the house. “I was in denial. If I told you what was really happening, then I’d have to admit what that doctor told me might be true.”

At the touch of his hand against her cheek she turned to look at him. “If we can’t have children, it will be hard on both of us, but all I’ve really ever wanted was you, Ellie. Just you. Children or not. Farming or not. None of it matters if I don’t have you.”

He kept his gaze on hers. He wanted her to know he was all in. All in on the conversation and on her. “I know you think I might be holding more back from you, but I’m not. I promise you. I want to be completely open from now on. My life is an open book and on the first page you’ll find a declaration of my love for you.”

He slid a hand to the back of her neck, watching her expression transform from worried, to relaxed. He’d dreaded the possibility of still seeing anger or hurt in her eyes, but he didn’t see either of those emotions. He saw tenderness that flowed across her entire face, that opened her mouth slightly as if she was about to say something. Instead, she leaned forward and touched her mouth softly to his. She moved her arms around his neck and slid her body against his side. He turned so he could pull her into the curve of his body, deepen the kiss.

He smiled as he pulled his mouth away a few moments later. “Was that a kiss goodbye or a kiss hello?”

She laughed. “Definitely a kiss hello.”

He stood, slid his hand in his front jean pocket and felt a tremble rush through his fingers as he pulled out the box. “I still want to marry you, Ellie. I don’t know if you want to marry me, but I want you to know that you’re the only woman for me. That’s always been true. This ring is yours, if you want it and if you don’t, I can understand that too.”

A wry smile pulled her mouth upward. “You just carry rings around in your pockets?”

He laughed. “Only when I know I want to ask my best friend to be my wife.”

The tears didn’t hide her smile, but they came, renewed and flowing freely as she looked at him. She laughed through the tears, holding a trembling hand toward him. He held her hand but looked into her eyes before he slid the ring on.

“Wait. I’m doing it wrong again.” He lowered himself to one knee, still holding her hand. “I’m supposed to be down here, and I’m supposed to say Elizabeth Alexandra Lambert, will you spend the rest of your life with me?”

She shook her head, choked out a sob and pressed a hand under his elbow. “No. Get up. The way you were doing it was fine.”

Sitting next to her he slid the ring on her finger, but it stopped part way, just above her knuckle. They both began to laugh.

“This is Grandma’s ring. She wanted you to have it so I —”

Ellie wiped tears along the corner of her eyes with the edge of her hand. “It’s perfect.”

“I have another ring. One I bought in high school. One I wished I’d given you back then. It’s at the house. I can go get it.”

“No.” She shook her head, smiling.  “We’ll resize Franny’s. This is the ring I want. I can wear the other one too, but this is the ring that will remind me that we can get through anything, as long as we’re together.”

He nodded as she curved her fingers around the ring, clutching it hard.

He pulled her against his side with one arm, leaning back on the swing. In front of them, the sun had dipped below the horizon. A soft orange and golden glow spread along the edges of the silhouetted hills. A cow mooed in the barn and one of the barn cats slipped up on the porch and rubbed against Jason’s leg.

“We still have a lot to talk about,” he said.

“Yeah. We do.”

He looked out toward the corn field, ready to be harvested in the next week for silage. Sunlight glinted off the silk peering out from some of the husks.

“Being the wife of a farmer isn’t easy.”

 “Being the daughter of one isn’t easy either.” She intertwined her fingers with his. “Plus, a very wise woman, one who gave birth to the man I’m going to marry, once told me that the wife of a farmer is a farmer as much as her husband is.”

“You think Pastor Joe will marry us? Even after our craziness in his office?”

She laughed. It was a beautiful sound. “Yeah. I think he will. He’s called me twice to check on me and ask about you.”

He looked at her mouth as he spoke, thinking about how he should have kissed her that day at the church instead of arguing with her. “Think he’ll marry us this weekend? Behind our house?”

She tilted her head back, narrowing her eyes. “Our house? What are you going to do with Alex?”

“Kick him out, of course.”

Her laughter continued to be a balm to his soul. “Shouldn’t we tell him that first?”

He shrugged, a small tugging at one side of his mouth. “He’ll adapt. He can sleep in the hayloft at mom and dad’s.”

She sighed, pressing her cheek against his shoulder. “Five days isn’t very long.”

He curled his fingers in the hair at the base of her neck as she looked up at him. “No. It’s not.”

“I won’t have enough time to buy a dress or prepare food and no time to send out invitations.”

“No. You won’t.”

She smiled, her gaze still locked on his.  “It sounds perfect.”

He kissed her mouth softly again, losing himself in the feel of her mouth under his, her body curved against his, the way she was exactly where he belonged — in his arms. When he pulled his mouth away a few minutes later, she curled her legs up next to her on the seat of the swing and pressed her cheek against his chest. He wrapped his arms around her and looked out over the cornfield again.

Tomorrow he had fields of alfalfa to plant, an architect to meet with about the construction of the new milking parlor for the A2 cows, a tractor to fix and a goat barn to finish. Tonight, though, he had a front porch swing to sit on, a sunset to watch, and the woman he loved to get to know again.

Her voice faded to a whisper. “We’re watching an old movie tonight.”

“Oh yeah? Which one?”

Shall We Dance, with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Want to stay?”

He leaned down, kissed the top of her head, and breathed in deep the smell of her shampoo. “Yeah. I want to stay.”

Special Saturday Fiction: Harvesting Hope Chapter 19

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

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

I will be looking for people to provide advanced reviews of the book on Goodreads, so if you are interested in that, let me know. I could use a couple beta readers in mid Mid-July as well.

Chapter 19

Bile rose in Jason’s throat as he drove out of the church parking lot, his foot pressed all the way down on the accelerator. He tasted bitterness and dragged a hand across his mouth, considering pulling over and vomiting on the side of the road. Had he really just snapped on Ellie in front of their pastor? He’d made her sound like she was the villain, and he was the victim. How could he have done that?

He loved Ellie. More than he could even express. He certainly hadn’t done a good job of showing it by yelling at her, though. Now he wondered if she had any love left for him at all. Not only had it sounded like he had been mocking her, and his firmly held Biblically-based beliefs, but he’d outed her as a hypocrite in front of Pastor Joe. Just as badly, he’d made it sound as if she’d done something worse than what she actually had.

He pounded the steering wheel as he drove toward her apartment. The conversation had careened completely out of control.

No. It hadn’t been the conversation.

He had lost complete control, and he hated it. He hated he had shared their private struggle without her permission; used her pain and embarrassment as a weapon.

He yanked the truck into a parking space in front of her apartment building but didn’t see her car. She’d probably gone to her parents.

Great.

He’d almost got her father killed and now he’d screamed at her in front of their pastor. He needed to find her and apologize.

Now.

He pulled onto the road, headed toward her parents, hoping he could find her before she reached her parents and either she or Tom met him at the door with a shotgun.

The scanner trilled out a series of tones as he drove. He ignored it, focused on the drive to Ellie’s, replaying what he’d said and how he’d said it.

He couldn’t let this conversation fester like the other one, drill holes of bitterness into their hearts. She was too important to him for him to let that happen. Like his grandmother had said, Ellie was worth fighting for.

The voice of the female dispatcher caught his attention. “Department 12, Tri-County EMS. Ellory Road, two miles past Tanner Enterprises. Kitchen fire. Two story family home. Call came from the homeowner.”

He mentally ticked off the houses on Ellory Road. There were only four houses, One was a ranch home, another a one-story modular. Dread set in like a brick, sinking to the bottom of a creek bed. What if it was the Weatherly’s? They had a two-story home. Then again, the Murphys, who were probably home with their six children having Sunday dinner, also had a two-story home.

His worst fears were realized with the next dispatch.

“Department 12, homeowner is still in the home. An elderly woman. Has been advised to leave but refuses. Coughing and choking. Difficult to understand. Possible smoke inhalation.”

He yanked the trunk into gear and took off, knowing immediately it was the Weatherly home. If Ann was the homeowner her lungs would fill up fast if she didn’t get out. She weighed less than a fifth grader at this point in her life and her lungs were probably even smaller.

By the time he ripped the truck into a space in front of their house, Denny was standing outside, pulling his gear on. Jason slammed his truck into park and reached for his suit, keeping his eyes on dark black smoke billowing from the window at the back, where the kitchen was, flames darting through the smoke and licking the siding.

“Where are Ann and John?” he asked.

Denny shook his head. “John’s car is gone. He may not be home. Dispatch says Ann’s still in there and she’s not answering me.”

Jason yanked his glove on and reached for the oxygen mask and tank he’d stashed behind his front seat. “I’m going in.”

Denny reached out and grabbed his arm. “We need to wait for the fire truck so they can fight back the flames.”

Jason jerked away. “If Ann is in there, she could be dead before they get here. I’m heading in. Spot me.”

The scanner squealed, and Cody’s voice informed dispatch the truck was on its way.

Jason smiled through the oxygen mask. “See? They’ll be here any minute.”

Shaking his head, Denny positioned his oxygen mask on his face and followed him. “You better know what you’re doing, Tanner.”

Jason knew it didn’t matter if he knew what he was doing or not. Someone had to go in that house and find Ann. He was nervous, knowing the ceiling could come down on them if the fire spread. He had to take the chance, though. Ann had lived a long, full life. She didn’t deserve to die this way, and he wasn’t about to tell her children she had.

***

Ellie had washed her face, reapplied makeup, and walked into the apartment to pick up the crockpot and Judi. She’d silently prayed Judi wouldn’t ask her where she’d been or why her eyes were red and swollen. Luckily Judi had been as self-focused as ever, dealing with a hangover. She perked up ten minutes into the drive and spent the rest of the short trip talking about new outfits she had purchased and the party she planned to wear them to later that night. She obviously didn’t remember how she’d acted the night before, when Ellie had tried to convince her to leave the club.

Ellie wondered if she was ever going back to the city. She’d said she had a job. Didn’t she have to get back to it? If Ellie hadn’t had so much on her mind already, she might have asked her. At this point, though, she couldn’t handle anymore drama. It was bad enough Judi had taken over her spare room, her mess spilling over into the rest of the apartment. Ellie had no idea why she had a spare room, anyhow.

It’s not like she had visitors, or at least rarely did, which is probably why she’d only placed a used daybed in the room after she moved in. Lucy liked to joke she would crash in it some night when she needed a break from Denny and the kids. Her cousin Randi had used it once to stay in when she’d come for a family reunion.

Ellie did her best to sound chipper during lunch, grateful when it was over, and she could use the headache she’d developed since leaving the church as an excuse to leave early.

“Want to go to a party with me at Lana’s?” Judi asked on the drive home.

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I still have a headache from last night.”

“Take an Advil. It’ll be gone in time for the party.”

“I’m not interested, Judi.”

“I’m not interested, Judi.” Judi’s tone was mocking. “You’re not interested in much, are you? What do you even do all the time now that you don’t have a boyfriend?”

Ellie pressed her foot down harder on the accelerator. “Maybe you’d know if you were ever around.”

Judi snorted a laugh. “As if you’d want me around. You never have and you know it.”

Ellie didn’t have the energy for this. Not now. She turned the music up on the radio.

“Isn’t there anything to listen to besides Family Life?”

Judi reached for the radio knob, but Ellie slapped her hand.

“Oooh. Someone’s hormones are raging.”

She wasn’t in the mood for Judi’s snarky retorts. Family Life offered uplifting Christian music and that was what she needed at the moment.

“I like Family Life. Leave it.”

Judi groaned. “But the music is so boring.”

 “It’s my car and we’ll listen to what I want. You can listen to whatever you want while you clean the mess you’ve made in my apartment.”

Judi sighed and propped her feet on the dashboard, sliding her finger across the screen of her phone. “You’re such a cranky old lady, I swear.”

Back at the apartment Ellie walked to her room immediately, not even caring if Judi had followed her inside. She flopped on the bed and pulled her knees up to her chest, closing her eyes, hoping in vain that when she opened them Judi would be gone, and everything that had happened earlier in the day with Jason had never happened at all.

When sleep didn’t come, she rolled over and picked up her phone. She tapped the FaceTime button, hoping Lucy was home and not at her or Denny’s parents.

Lucy’s cute, round, and very perky face greeted her. Maybe this had been a bad idea. Lucy looked so happy and relaxed. Ellie didn’t want to ruin her day.

“Hey, pretty lady. I lost you after church. Where’d you go? You okay?”

Ellie sighed. “Yeah. No. I don’t know. Pastor Joe asked if Jason and I would come talk to him.”

The image on the phone blurred, jerked and straightened again, Lucy’s background now the family photo on the wall behind her couch.

“Oh boy. How did that go?”

“I don’t want to dump on you. It sounds quiet there, like maybe you’re finally getting some alone time?”

Lucy waved her hand dismissively. “Don’t worry about it. Now we can talk without the kids interrupting. They’re at my parents. Denny and I were going to watch a movie, but the tones dropped so he’s out on a call.” She popped a grape in her mouth. “Tell me what happened. Did Pastor Joe getting the boxing gloves out for you?”

Ellie scoffed. “He should have. That’s how bad it got.”

Lucy’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh. Am I going to need chocolate for this story? Or should I hop in my car and come over?”

Ellie shook her head. “No. Don’t do that. I’ll be fine. Maybe get the chocolate for yourself, though.”

“Fill me in, kid. Come on. I can tell you need to talk about this.”

Ellie filled her in, blow by blow, even telling her the part where he accused her of trying to act like she was a perfect, virtuous woman. Lucy knew about her struggles with trying to be authentic, yet still trying to keep her private life private. She also knew about her struggles with desiring more of a physical relationship with Jason, even as she desired waiting until marriage.

Ellie didn’t think she actually pretended to be virtuous or have only pure thoughts. It’s just that Bible study wasn’t the place she was going to admit she’d imagined Jason naked more than she cared to admit. Maybe it should have been the place, and maybe the ladies would have appreciated her honesty, but it wasn’t something she felt comfortable with. She supposed she’d have to analyze why later. Maybe Jason was right and she wanted people from the church to think she was someone she wasn’t.

“Okay, El.” Lucy clapped her hands together and shifted closer to the camera. “I think it’s time for some tough love, but I’m really not sure if you are in a place you can handle it. Are you in a place where you can handle it?”

Ellie sighed, her chin propped on her hand, her elbow propped up on the bed. “Might as well let it loose. Soft love isn’t getting me anywhere these days.”

Lucy shifted her bottom on the couch, wiggling like she was trying to get more comfortable. Ellie braced herself.

“Okay. So. You said Jason showed you his true colors today. Let me ask you something.” She leaned closer to the camera, narrowing her eyes. “Do you really think that? Do you really think that what you saw from Jason today is who he is? Ellie, you’ve known this man for over a decade. Besides this one secret and him blowing up today, have you ever witnessed him be anything other than good, kind, and loving to you? He’s never going to be perfect, but Jason is always going to strive to be a good man and he’s always going to strive to be the best man for you and in the sight of God. You know that. Deep down I believe you know he’d never intentionally hurt you. I’ve told you before that one day your stubbornness is going to be your downfall. I hate to say it, but that day might be here.”

Ellie’s whistle sounded similar to Judi’s from the other day. “Ouch. That was some tough love.”

“Yeah, well, I think you needed it. No matter what, though, you know I love you, right? You know I’m always here for you no matter what you decide when it comes to Jason.”

Ellie propped the phone against a pillow and moved her other hand under her chin, folding it over the one she’d been leaning on before. “Yes, I do.”

“El, we’ve known each other almost our whole lives. I know you planned your life out long ago.  Who you would marry, when you would marry, when you would have kids and a career. You have these ideas in your head of how it is all supposed to go, but life doesn’t always work out the way we expect it to.”

Ellie knew that.

She did.

There were just times, like now, that she didn’t want to accept it.

Lucy squinted at the phone screen. “Hold on. Denny’s calling. I’d better take this. I’ll switch back over in a minute.”

The screen went blank, and Ellie waited, thinking about what Lucy had said. How Jason had always strived to be a good man. How the angry Jason at the church wasn’t all there was to Jason. She knew that, of course. It was hurt and anger giving her tunnel vision. She needed to pull back and look at the bigger picture.

 Like her, he had many emotions, many feelings and even though this was the first time she’d witnessed anger directed at her with such animosity, it didn’t mean it had taken him over completely.

“Hey, El?” Lucy’s face popped back on the screen, but her smile had faded, replaced by a somber expression. “You still there? The fire was at the Weatherlys.”

“Oh, no.”

“Yeah, total loss but worse than that, they think John didn’t make it out.”

Ellie gasped, tears filling her eyes again. She and Jason had both delivered groceries to Ann and John over the years. She also remembered Ann well from when her mother used to host a sewing circle at their house.

“Denny said he and Jason were first on the scene. Jason went in and carried Ann out. He didn’t see John though and he’s taking it pretty hard that John might have been inside. Cody wants a cut on Jason’s head checked at the ER, but Denny said he won’t go. He just keeps pacing back and forth, waiting for the state police fire marshal to come so they can get confirm if John was inside.”

Ellie sat up on the bed and drew in a shaky breath.

For the last seven months she’d been questioning who Jason really was, asking herself how much of his life and their relationship had been an act. She still had lingering concerns about what else he’d hid from her, but what she did know was that Jason hadn’t been faking it when he showed love for the Weatherly’s. He hadn’t been faking the glint in his eye over the years when he announced he’d “take one for the team” by delivering their groceries, knowing they’d lavish him with praise and, most likely Ann would slide him a desert for his effort.

This would hit him hard.

Very hard.

“You okay?” Lucy asked.

Ellie wiped a finger under her eye. “Actually, in a renewed effort to be authentic, I will tell you that no, I am currently not okay.” She laughed through the tears and rubbed the palm of her thumb along the corner of her eye. “I’m going to go sign off and have a good cry. Can you call me if you hear anything else?”

Lucy nodded. “I will. For now, though, let’s pray before you hang up.”

Lucy prayed for the Weatherlys, the firefighters, and Jason, asking for God’s comfort in all the ways that were needed.

After they hung up, Ellie knew she couldn’t sit in her room crying. She needed to drive to the scene as hard as it would be.

She needed to make sure that Jason was okay, even if he pushed her away.