Fiction Friday: Mercy’s Shore Chapter 2

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

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

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

Chapter 2

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you stop at the stop sign?”

“Pretty much, yeah.”

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

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

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

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

“Mmhmm.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Selina, hey. How are you?”

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

Run over by a tractor? Really?

“I’m fine. Just been busy at work.”

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

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

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

A chill shivered through Judi. “Everyone?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lambert!”

Wishful thinking.

“You’re late! Again!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nope.” He smirked. “I quit.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How’s his head?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How’s Ben doing?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Special Saturday Fiction: Harvesting Hope Chapter 20

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. (It is free on Kindle through today.)

Chapter 20

“Hey, Trooper. How you holding up?”

Jason looked up and watched Brittany walk into the emergency room exam room, her usual jovial and flirty behavior greatly subdued.

“You here to sew me up?” he asked with a grin, his hand still holding the gauze the nurse had pressed there before she left to consult the doctor.

Brittany laughed. “No. Sadly, that is not one of my specialties. I just came to see how you were doing. Emotionally more than physical.”

He shrugged a shoulder, frowning. “Eh. I’m . . . well, hanging in there, I guess.”

She sat back on the exam table next to him and leaned her shoulder into his. “We win some, we lose some, okay? It’s not a reflection of how good we are at our job. Sometimes crap just happens.”

Only she didn’t say crap, because that Brittany didn’t tone her language down for anyone.

Jason stared at the pattern of the linoleum on the floor, Anne’s voice echoing in his memory. He knew Brittany was trying to comfort and encourage, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that if he had been more careful, he would have understood what Anne was saying and could have saved John too.

“Okay, Mr. Tanner.” The nurse stepped back in the exam room, bringing the tangy citrus smell of her perfume with her. “The doctor is on his way in. He’s going to do the sutures instead of the glue. He says that cut is too deep for the glue, so I had to grab more threat. Sorry for the wait.”

Brittany winked and slid her hand over Jason’s, intertwining her fingers with his. “That’s okay. I was keeping him company. I’ll hold his hand while the doctor stitches him up.”

She punched Jason playfully on the upper arm. At least he thought it was playful. Maybe Brittany was trying to be more than playful. Her fingers were tightly wound around his. If she was trying to be more than playful, he didn’t have the mental capacity to worry about it at the moment. The only subject on his mind, other than his need to apologize to Ellie, was hearing from Cody, finding out for sure that John was in the house and if Anne was okay.

The doctor came in next and after a greeting, wiped more blood away, cleaned the wound while Jason grimaced, and started the stitches. Jason’s phone rang on the third stitch.

“I’ll get it,” Brittany announced, snatching it from his hand.

Jason didn’t like her assertiveness in this case, but at least she wasn’t holding his hand anymore.

“Yeah, Cody, it’s me, Brittany. The doctor is sewing him up, so I thought I’d answer for him. I was on a transport to the hospital when I heard about the fire and that Jason was here. I thought I’d check on him.” She paused. “Yeah. Okay.” Her playful tone morphed into a more serious one as she nodded and listened to Cody talking. “I’ll tell him. No, I will. You know that. I’ll make sure he knows. Okay.”

She slid her finger over the screen and laid the phone on the top of the exam table between them.

He already knew what she was going to say before she said it. Her blue eyes glistened under the fluorescent glow.

“The fire marshal found John. In the kitchen. Near the stove. Preliminary investigation shows the fire was an accident, but she’ll know more later.” Brittany slid her hand over his again, squeezing gently. “Cody wants me to tell you that this isn’t your fault. You didn’t know John was in there. You’re a good man and a good firefighter. And he wants to make sure you call him if you need to talk. He’s also going to call later today and check on you and would appreciate a text when you get out of here for an update on the cut.”

Jason nodded, tight-lipped, jaw tight. He tried to speak, to thank her for the information, but no sound came out. He swallowed hard, finally got the words out. “Thanks, Brit. I appreciate it.”

She kept her hand tight on his and laid her other hand on his arm, leaning her head against his shoulder while the doctor continued sewing. “Anytime, bud. Anytime.”

***

Cody had told her Jason was at the hospital being stitched up. He’d also told her what the fire marshal had found, and that Anne Weatherly was being examined at the hospital. They’d know more about her condition later that evening.

As Ellie walked through the emergency room entrance, she felt a case of deja vu, only this time she knew Jason was okay and had only needed a few stitches for a cut on his forehead.

The situation could have been very different. One wrong step, a few more minutes of delay in the house, and she could have been here to identify a body. Of course, that task usually fell to family members, not ex-girlfriends.

Glancing at the front desk, she stifled a laugh. No way. It couldn’t be. What kind of crazy schedule did this woman have? Or maybe she was the only receptionist the hospital employed. Maybe this woman simply lived somewhere down the hall. Or pulled her bed out from under the desk in between visitors.

Whatever.

She didn’t have time to worry about the work schedule of a purple-haired stranger. She simply needed to find out where Jason was.

Wait. Purple hair? Didn’t she have blue hair last time? No. It was purple then, too. Wasn’t it?

Not that it actually mattered.

“Excuse me.”

The woman didn’t look up from the computer, per her usual customer service performance.

“May I help you?”

Fingernails clipped across the keyboard.

“I’m looking for Jason Tanner. He was brought here a couple of hours ago.”

“You family?”

“No, I’m —”

The woman pointed past Ellie’s shoulder, her gaze still on the computer. “Waiting room. Across the hall.”

“I understand, but —”

The receptionist pointed again.

Ellie rolled her eyes toward the ceiling and sighed.

In the waiting room, she pulled out her phone and saw a message from Molly.

Molly: I didn’t know whether to message you or not, but did Lucy tell you about the fire at Weatherly’s?

Ellie: Yes, I’m at the ER, waiting to check on Jason.

Molly: He texted and said it was just stitches, so we’re back at his place waiting for him.

Ellie: I’ll update you when I know more.

Molly: Thanks. Love you, El.

Ellie: Love you too, Molly.

She spent the rest of her wait scrolling through social media posts, crinkling her nose at the outfit of some 20-something-year-old celebrity she’d never heard of.

She had no idea why she’d ever signed up for Instagram anyhow. Probably because Judi had told her to so she could follow Judi and all her city-based adventures.

Speaking of Judi . . . What had she been posting on her account lately?

She searched Judi’s name and found a photo of her with an attractive-looking man at the top of her feed. A click on the photo showed the picture had been posted more than a month ago, a few days before Judi had arrived on Ellie’s doorstep.

Ellie read the caption.

“Life is better when you’re out on the town with your seriously hooooot co-worker. Kiss-kiss-hug-hug, peeps.”

Someone with the username lifeisahighway was tagged.

Ellie clicked the name and a series of photos of the man with his arms around barely stressed women or posing sans shirt popped up. The latest photo had been posted yesterday and was him being straddled on a couch by a woman with long red hair, his hands grasping her waist, his face buried in her cleavage.

“Nothing like a sex-filled weekend in the Hamptons,” read the caption.

Ellie cringed. “Gross.”

She scrolled further down his feed and stopped at a photo of him with Judi. They were standing on the patio of some restaurant. He was one step behind her, his hands resting on her thighs.

The caption drew a gasp from Ellie. To say it was crude and beyond inappropriate was an understatement. His description of what he planned to do with her sister clearly crossed the line of pornographic.

She scrolled further down the feed, but didn’t see any other photos of him with Judi, only other women, most of them cuddled up against him, a few even in his bed, sheets draped over them, yet making it clear they weren’t wearing clothes under those sheets.

At the sound of voices in the hall, she looked up, the phone still in her hand, her mouth still slightly open, denoting her shock over what she’d seen. Through the doorway, she watched Jason stop in the hallway next to the receptionist’s desk and turn to a blond woman next to him.

Ellie couldn’t hear what they were saying from where she was sitting, but the woman’s expression exuded compassion and her mannerisms were those of someone who was familiar, very familiar with him.

The woman patted his shoulder in one move and in the next her arms were around his neck, her lips against his cheek. The embrace and kiss were brief. In less than 30 seconds she was gone, and Jason stood in the hallway alone, watching her leave.

Ellie glanced to her left, wondering how smoothly she could move out of Jason’s eyesight if he turned toward the waiting room. He didn’t, though. Instead, he pulled his ducked his head down, pulled on his John Deere cap, and walked through the exit doors. Craning her neck, she looked through the wide windows in the waiting room, her gaze following him, curious if he’d follow the blond woman to her car.

She stood and walked to the window, almost afraid to look.

A truck was idling in the hospital driveway and for a moment she thought it might be the woman, picking him up. She watched Jason climb inside and then realized, as if a fog had lifted from her, the person driving the truck wasn’t blond and it wasn’t a woman. It was their friend, Matt McGee and obviously off duty as a Spencer Valley Police Officer.

Relief swept over her, but only briefly, because then she remembered how the woman had hugged Jason and pressed her mouth to his cheek. Who was she? Was she someone Jason had been seeing? It’s not as if Ellie could say anything. She was the one who had broken it off, the one who had pushed him away no matter how many times he had tried to apologize.

She slid her purse strap over her shoulder and walked into the hallway.

“That guy you were looking for just left.”

The receptionist’s voice mixed in with the sound of her nails clicking across the keyboard. As usual, she didn’t look up from the computer while she spoke.

“Thank you,” Ellie said with an amused smile. “You’ve been very helpful.”

Fiction Friday: Harvesting Hope, Chapter 19 Part 2

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. It is free through tomorrow on Kindle.

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 will send you a free copy of the book to read in full for that.

To explain why there is a part two to last week’s chapter: originally this section was going to be a prologue to the book (I posted it on here originally a few month ago), but I’ve decided to drop the prologue and move it down here (right with the scene where Jason arrives at the fire scene and before Ellie talks to Lucy) to help the story flow better. Tomorrow I will share Chapter 20, which will focus on what happens after the fire.



Chapter 19 Part 2

A few minutes later, smoke curled down Jason’s throat, choked him, burned his eyes, reminded him he didn’t have a clue what he was doing, and he should have waited for back up.

He couldn’t stop, though. He had to keep walking, one boot-clad foot in front of the other, gloved hands feeling the wall.

A life depended on it.

 “Help . . .” Ann’s voice quivered with panic, barely audible.

“Don’t move, Ann. I’m coming. Keep talking to me, okay?”

She was in the kitchen. He knew that, could tell where her voice was coming from, but he couldn’t see beyond the thick black smoke to reach her. Was he in the living room or the dining room at this point? It should be the dining room, but where were the tables and chairs?

 A series of coughs to his right changed his direction. He kept walking, slammed his arm off a door frame, glad the fire suit was padded. Air puffed into his mask from his oxygen tank, but the smoke still stifled, making him gag. Maybe it would overtake him before he could get to her. The coughing had stopped. He needed her to cough, to make some sort of sound.

“Ann?”

He heard nothing but the crackling of the flames licking up the wall, across the ceiling of the kitchen.

“Ann?”

His foot hit something solid, almost sent him sprawling. He regained his balance, crouched, moving along the floor, his line of sight demolished by the smoke. He yanked the gloves off, felt the floor, cool to the touch. His hand bumped against warm, soft flesh.

A hand.

Now an arm and a shoulder. He shook the shoulder gently.

 “Ann, it’s me, Jason Tanner. Can you hear me? I’ve got to get you out of here. Are you hurt?”

A soft cough from the direction of the body told him she was at least alive.

 “I’m going to lift you and we’re going to get out of here, okay?”

He couldn’t fling her over his shoulder. She was too fragile at her age to be carried like a sack of potatoes. Instead, he slid one arm under her legs, the other behind her back, carrying her like he might a small child. Her head fell against his shoulder as he lifted her.

“John.”                                                   

“No, ma’am. It’s Jason. You’re going to be okay.”

“John . . .”

She was lighter than a sack of potatoes, that was for sure. There was almost nothing to her.

Standing he looked through the smoke to where he knew the back door was. He couldn’t carry her through there. It was already engulfed in flames. He pressed his back against the wall and slid along it, slamming into the Hoosier cabinet. He knew that meant he was only a few steps from the kitchen doorway.

If he hadn’t visited this home so many times over the last year, he wouldn’t have known that the kitchen led to a small hallway, the dining room into the living room and then a foyer to the front door

He winced when his hip slammed into the dining room table. Ann moaned and he pulled her tighter against him, breathing hard. Above him flames crackled, wood snapped, the fire ripping across the ceiling, shredding the wooden beams between the floors.

 “John  . . .”

“We’ll be out soon, Mrs. Weatherly.”

But he wasn’t really sure of that. He had thought the living room was right in front of him, but now he was bumping against walls he didn’t remember being there. Had he turned wrong and ended up in the laundry room instead? Or maybe even a bathroom. He felt out with a gloved hand, touched a wall, then something hard, metal. The washer. He was in the laundry room. The laundry room that didn’t have a door or window.

He turned around slowly, making sure Ann’s head stead safe against his shoulder. Smoke poured from below and above him now. With the fire spreading across the top floor, he wondered how long it would be before it fell down on him.

“Jason!” Cody’s voice boomed from somewhere to his right. He felt for the wall, moved forward a few steps and stopped when his foot kicked into a doorframe.

“Jason! Are you in there?!”

“I’m coming!” His breath fogged up the shield of his helmet as he spoke.

At least had the sound of Cody’s voice to follow because he was even more blind that he had been before. “Move, Tanner! The roof is coming down!”

 Shuffling he tried to ignore the crackling and snapping above him. In front of him red and orange roared along the wall, blocking his exit. He took a deep breath, curled his upper body around Ann and kept moving. After a few steps, he felt a hard pull on the front of the turnout gear, hands yanking him forward into bright light and cool air.

“Guys!” Cody shouted next to his ear. “We got a patient!”

Ann was lifted from his arms, and he stumbled forward off the front porch, pulling at the mask, falling to the ground on his hands and knees as he gulped fresh air into his lungs. Behind him he heard the snapping of wood and the shattering of glass. The top floor had caved in. Hands snatched him under his arms, dragged him forward across the grass, further away from the burning house, as he continued to gag and gasp for air.

“Did Denny get out?!” he yelled as soon as he could breathe again.

He looked up, his vision blurred by sweat and smoke.

Denny was guzzling water a few feet away by the fire truck, pouring it over his head and then drinking again. Two other firefighters, James Lantz and Duane Trenton, stood above Jason, breathing hard, wiping sweat and soot from their faces. Jason realized they were the ones who had dragged him across the yard. Cody hooked an arm under Jason’s, helping him to his feet.

“No one is sure where John is. Denny was in looking for him, but the flames pushed him back. See any sign of him?”

Jason shook his head, taking the fresh bottle of water Denny offered him. “I could barely see anything in there. Ann was in the kitchen. If anyone else was in there I couldn’t see them.”

He couldn’t have seen anything. What if John had been in there? Somewhere on the floor near his wife?

He sucked the water from the bottle down in one gulp, then quickly looked up at the firefighters still battling the flames, trying to save the house even though they all knew it would be a total loss.

“Breathe in.” Brittany pressed an oxygen mask against his face and hooked the band behind his head. “Sit.”

Brittany wasn’t afraid to order the first responders around if it was for their own good and sometimes even when it wasn’t. Jason sat on the ground, legs bent, popping his arm on his knees as he breathed deep, coughed, and breathed deep again.

Ann’s pleading voice inside the house replayed in his mind as he sucked fresh oxygen into his lungs.  “John.”

Horror shivered through him. Oh God. No.

“Cody!” He pulled the oxygen mask off his nose. “John’s still inside!”

He leapt to his feet, but Cody pivoted fast, pressed his hands against Jason’s chest. “Slow down, big guy. You aren’t going anywhere. The second floor’s collapsed. There’s nothing we can do.”

“She tried to tell me. Mrs. Weatherly. Ann. She — she couldn’t breathe, must have passed out, but she was calling for John. I didn’t understand. I should have —”

Cody shook his head. “Let’s not jump to conclusions. Maybe John is at the store or somewhere else. You couldn’t have carried them both out, anyhow.” He placed both hands on Jason’s shoulder. “Look at me, Tanner. If John’s gone, it isn’t your fault. You did all you could. We’ll know more when the fire is out and the fire marshal gets here.”

Jason nodded, pressed the mask back to his face and breathed in deep, glancing to his right and watching the paramedics attending to Ann as she laid prostrate on her backon the stretcher.

Part of him knew Cody was right.

He couldn’t have carried both Mr. and Mrs. Weatherly out of that house, but if he had only stopped to listen, to understand what Ann had been saying, he could have tried. He could have pushed forward a few more feet, found John if he was in there.

He raked a hand through his damp hair, clutched at it, and let out a long breath into the oxygen mask. His mind raced.

 Maybe John Weatherly hadn’t even been home when the fire broke out. Maybe he’d pull into that driveway any minute in his old blue 1970 Lincoln Continental and be perfectly healthy and alive. Jason slumped back against the side of the fire truck, fought the emotion grasping at his throat. Something deep in his gut told him John wasn’t going to pull into that driveway.

Not today.

Not ever again.

He was inside that house, now almost down to the ground, flames shooting up from what was left of the first floor.

Ann hadn’t mistaken Jason for her husband.

 She’d been trying to tell Jason her husband was still in the house.

His jaw tightened as he heard the ambulance siren wail, saw the red lights swirling. It took him back to nine months before, to that rainy day in the lower field, when it had been his dad being loaded into an ambulance. He had felt emotion stuck in his throat that day in the lower field too and he had swallowed it down hard, shoving the fear of losing his father tight inside the same hollow spot in his chest where he’d shoved his heartache over Ellie walking away.

He hadn’t had time for emotion then, and he didn’t now. He shoved his guilt over John right against his shame from that night with Lauren Phillips, right against the grief he still felt over the loss of his grandfather, right against the hurt he’d caused Ellie.

Special Saturday Fiction: Harvesting Hope Chapter 17

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 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. I shared Chapter 16 of this story yesterday.

Catch up with the rest of the story HERE.

Chapter 17

Loud music thumped under Ellie’s feet, in her brain, and through her veins. She could barely form a thought against the onslaught of dance music bouncing out a rhythm every second. Colorful lights flickered across the mass of bodies on the dance floor making the scene look otherworldly and, through the eyes of someone as sheltered as Ellie, demonic.

Men and women writhed against each other, whooped and screeched, the sounds reminding her of mating calls in the wild. Judi was out there somewhere, letting loose her own mating call of sorts, giggling and jumping, singing along to the music, degrading herself exactly like Ellie knew she would.

The tables were for standing only so Ellie stood at one, leaning both elbows on it, spinning the glass of ginger ale around on its surface, wishing she’d never agreed to tag along.

Brad had tried more than once to pull her into the chaos, but she’d resisted each time, finally confessing that a headache was pulsing against her temples. It wasn’t a lie. The pain was now slamming against the inside of her head at the same tempo as the dance song blaring from the speakers.

Within a half an hour, Brad was back, hair damp around the edgest, eyes bright with adrenaline. He said something she couldn’t hear over the music. She cupped her hand to her ear, even though she didn’t really want to know what he was saying.

He leaned close, his lips grazing the skin under her ear. “I asked if you’re sure you don’t want to dance.”

He laid his hand over hers as he spoke then raised it and trailed his fingertips across her wrist and slowly up her arm.

She shook her head. “I’m sure.”

“You need to have some fun once in a while, Ellie. Let off some steam.”

His other hand had slipped to the small of her back, a place too intimate for his hand to be in her opinion.

She shifted her body until his hand dropped away. “I’m good. Really.”

He shrugged a shoulder, frowned, and stepped away. “Okay then. I’ll find Judi. She’s always good for some fun.”

The comment sent a chill through Ellie. What had that meant? Judi was always “good for some fun”? They’d come up here with four other people and met six more. Weren’t any of the other women in the group good for some fun, so to speak? Or were they all paired up with other men? Either way, Ellie didn’t like the idea she’d essentially offered her sister up like a lamb to the slaughter simply because clubs had never been, and never would be, her so-called “scene.” Of course, she’d also wanted to stay as far away as possible from Brad and his roaming hands.

She lifted herself up on the tips of her high heeled shoes — shoes she’d only worn once before and were now pinching her feet like a lobster about to be boiled in a pot of hot water. Craning her neck. she tried to catch sight of Judi. Her sister had downed two beers and a mixed drink shortly after they’d arrived, disappearing into the mob, rarely seen from since, other than one trip to the bathroom.

Judi’s hair was blond now, after convincing Missy to give her highlights the other day. Ellie switched from looking for honey blond hair to looking for bleached blond hair and spotted Judi in the middle of the dance floor, under the spinning lights, arms flailing like a drowning victim. In front of her Brad was gyrating, though Ellie supposed some might define it as dancing. He moved an arm around Judi until the front of their bodies touched while they danced. Judi tipped her head back, exposing her throat and Brad lowered his head until his lips touched the nape of her neck.

Ellie made a face as Judi curled her fingers in Brad’s hair. This evening had worn out its welcome. She slammed the glass on the table, setting her jaw tight as she stomped into the pulsating crowd, pushing through sweating, perfume drenched bodies to grab her sister’s arm. Judi wrenched her arm away and used both hands to push Ellie back, pressing them against her chest.

“Back off! Just because you’re a dried-up old prude, doesn’t mean I have to be.”

Ellie gasped and fell backward into a solid body behind her. Hands grabbed at her, a derisive  laugh coming from whoever belonged to them. She looked over her shoulder, glaring into dark brown eyes connected to a leering 20-something year old.

“Hey, baby. If you wanted to meet me, all you had to do was say ‘hello.’”

Ellie clutched at his hand still on her hip and pulled it away from her. “Get off of me.”

The younger man laughed again, his eyes roaming across her, and her stomach churned.

She had clearly underestimated the strength of a fully-intoxicated Judi.

Judi had turned her back on Ellie and resumed her Dirty Dancing-style moves with Brad. He raised his eyes to look at Ellie over Judi’s shoulder, his sneer highlighted by multiple colors flashing across his face. His hands slid down Judi’s backside and cupped both cheeks of her bottom as he held Ellie’s gaze,as if to say, “You could have had some fun, could have protected Judi, but now I’m having fun with her instead.”

He flicked the tip of his tongue out across his lips, his eyes wild.

She shuddered at the evil in his eyes and movements, turned slowly, and broke his intense, mocking gaze. Wrapping her arms around herself as she walked, she rubbed her upper arms, wishing again she was at home in her apartment, curled up on the couch, sipping tea and watching a Hallmark movie.

She pulled her phone out and as if on instinct clicked on Jason’s name. She stared at it for several seconds, her fingertip tracing each letter. What would she even say to him if she texted?

My sister is in worse shape than I thought she was?

I never should have come up her with Brad?

Why did you never tell me about Lauren? Do you think of her when you kiss me? Are you worried I’ll be horrible in bed if we get married because I’ve never had any experience with a man beyond you?

She sucked down the rest of her ginger ale, her eyes still on her phone then scrolled down and clicked on Lucy’s name.

She tapped out a text that bordered on an SOS.

Judi out of control. Never should have come.

Several minutes passed before the response came.

Lucy: Sorry. I was giving Lexi her bath. What’s going on?

Ellie scowled at the dance floor. She’d rather be Lucy right now, wrapped up in calm, domestic bliss instead of out here, trapped among wolves and ravenous lions.

Ellie: Judi’s out on the dance floor practically having sex with her clothes on with Brad. They’re both drunk. He’s mad I don’t want to dance. What made me think I could keep her from making a fool out of herself?

Lucy: You’re a good person, that’s why. And you’re a good sister. You love her. You’re worried about her and as much as she drives you crazy, you still want to protect her.

Ellie: I guess.

Lucy: Sorry we missed your grandma’s birthday party. How did it go? Did you have to see Jason?

Ellie: Of course, I had to see Jason. It’s his grandmother. I saw him all afternoon. With his shirt off while he split wood. It was torture.

Lucy: LOL. Girl, you just need to admit how much you still love him. You two need to talk this out. Your heart belongs to him, and you know it.

Ellie chewed on her lower lip, swirling the ice in her glass with her finger.

Yeah, she thought with a sigh, but is his heart still mine?

Paragraph Squiggle with solid fill

Jason looked around the barn and noticed the only other one there was Molly. Somehow in the last several weeks they hadn’t been alone together anywhere, and he’d been glad. It had meant she couldn’t bring up what she’d heard in the church parking lot that day. He had hoped wouldn’t have to try to explain to yet another woman in his life what happened in college. Maybe he’d get lucky, and he still wouldn’t have to.

“You’re actually on your own?”

Molly looked up from the bottle she was filling for the calves and smile. “Yes. Alex is out mixing feed. Why? Should we be connected at the hip all the time?”

“You shouldn’t be, but you normally are.”

Molly scowled at him. “Very funny.”

She stood and placed the lid on the bottle then placed the bottle in a bucket and reached for another empty bottle. “Hear anything from the builders for the new bottling plant and milking parlor yet?”

Jason shook his head. “No. So far we’ve only got the plans for the goat barn. Still can’t believe everyone is on board with this. What do you think? Is it going to work or are we spreading ourselves too thin?”

Milk poured from the spout into the bottle. Molly would feed the calves as soon as the bottles were filled. “I’m worried about the goats, but I think the A2 milk is going to be a good thing. Keeping the cows separate will be a challenge unless we can get another heifer barn built at the same time. And that’s if we can get that grant, we applied for through Tina’s office.”

Tina Shipman was their local state representative and a family friend. Her staff had been optimistic about their chances, but the grant would only cover about half of the project at this point. The rest would need to come from loans or a federal grant they’d applied for around the same time they’d applied for the state one.

He took the bottle from her and placed it in the bucket. “If we apply for the loan and all of these changes do work out, we should be able to have it paid off within the first year.”

She agreed. “It would definitely help us secure things more financially if it does pan out the way Dad and Uncle Walt hope.”

She screwed a lid off another bottle. “Hey, Jase, I wanted to ask you something.”

His chest tightened. Here it came. The conversation he’d been dreading.

He placed another empty bottle next to her.

“Listen, I know you overheard Ellie and me in the parking lot that day so if this is about that, let me explain first.”

“You don’t have to explain. It’s none of my business.”

“I’m sure you’re thinking the worst of me about now and I can’t blame you, I —”

“Jason.” Molly straightened, a half-filled bottle in her hand. “I don’t think the worst of you. It sounds like you screwed up in college somehow and your upset about it, not like you were bragging.”

Upset was an understatement, but he decided Molly didn’t need to hear about how deep his shame went. There was only so much a sister should have to hear about her older, supposed-to-be more mature brother. “Yeah. I am upset about it. Have been for years.”

She stooped to fill the rest of the bottle. “I gathered from what you and Ellie were saying that it had something to do with a girl. I figured that maybe,” she looked up, hesitating. “Maybe you slept with this girl?”

Jason took the bottle from her and screwed the lid on. “Yeah. I did. Not a proud moment for me or a nice memory and a one-time thing.”

Two more bottles and it would be time to feed the calves. He’d like to leave Molly to it and go finish fixing the sensor on the robot feed pusher they’d installed a few years ago. Without it, feeding the cows would be a very lengthy process tonight, complete with manually sweeping the feed into the cow’s troughs.

“Whatever happened to the girl?”

Jason looked up, startled by the question. Up until a couple of weeks ago, he’d never given it much thought. When he’d asked Alex if he’d ever heard, he was disheartened at the answer.

“I’m — uh —  not exactly sure. Alex looked her up on some social media site and said it looks like she’s not married and is still pretty messed up.” Jason looked at the floor, shoving his hands deep in his front jean pockets. He kicked at the barn floor with the tip of his boot, knocking dirt and manure off it.

“I can’t help feeling that I had a part in that. To her I was probably just another guy who used her for what they wanted and tossed her aside.” He shook his head, rubbed the side of his hand against his chin, under his bottom lip, and winced. “You know, for years I’ve made her the villain in my story – when I talked to Alex about it and when I thought about it. Instead, I was the villain. I was the one who could have shown her something different, who could have not slept with her and shown her she was as worthy of being loved even if she wasn’t laying down. All girls like Lauren really want is to be loved. She equated sex with love instead of understanding that love can be shown in other ways too. Most of the guys she had sex with didn’t love her. I didn’t even love her. I was drunk and depressed and used her to take my mind off being hurt by Ellie. I’ve lived with that guilt for years but always hid the guilt behind anger — at Lauren, at myself and even at Ellie.”

Molly placed the last bottle in the bucket and laid a hand against his arm. “Neither of you were the villain in the story, Jason. You were just two people who both made bad choices. Pray for Lauren. It’s all you can do at this point.”

“Yeah.” Jason lifted one pail and handed the other to Molly. “Sorry I went on that rant. I just figured that’s what you wanted to talk to me about so — ”

Molly took the pail and walked toward the calf pens. She looked over her shoulder, talking as he followed her. “Actually, I was just going to ask you if you thought Alex would like a new hat for his birthday or if he’s too attached to the one he has. Then I was going to ask if I did decide to get him a hat if you would help me pick it out because I put two in my shopping cart at that hat place online.”

Jason inwardly groaned. He’d just spilled his heart out to his sister and she’d only wanted to buy a gift for Alex. Seriously? “I guess I shouldn’t have assumed.”

Molly stopped at the calf pen, grinning as she kneeled down to offer an all-black bull calf the first drink. “Nope. You shouldn’t have. We all know what the proverbial ‘they’ say about assuming.”

Jason tipped a bottle to a smaller heifer calf, black except a white stripe across her back. “Yep, and I certainly feel like one.”

Talking about his past with his sister wasn’t something he ever thought he’d be doing. Now that the conversation was over, though, it was like a burden had been lifted. A small portion of the burden anyhow. He still felt the heaviness of what he’d done and of not telling Ellie.

Footsteps behind him signaled they weren’t alone anymore.

“Want to trade?” Alex dragged the back of his hand across his forehead.

Jason narrowed his eyes. “So what you’re saying is, you want me to go finish mixing the feed so you can hang out with Molly.”

Alex grinned and reached for the bottle. “Yeah. Pretty much.”

Jason jerked his head toward the barn door. “Get out of here, lover boy. There will be plenty of time later for you two to make googly eyes at each other. After we’re done with work.”

Alex sighed and slid an arm around Molly’s waist. “That’s fine. I guess I’ll just give her a long good-bye kiss before I head back to the mixer.” He pulled her against him, his eyes drifting to her mouth. “While you’re standing here. Right next to us.”

Jason shrugged a shoulder and reached for another bottle so he could feed two calves at once. “Doesn’t bother me. I can handle it.”

Alex wasn’t lying. The kiss was long and slow, and by the end Jason was fighting nausea. He wasn’t going to back down, though. Alex was always trying to get out of the hard work. If they started kissing again, though . . .

“Oh, come on!” Jason shoved the bottle at Alex. “Take it. I’ll finish mixing the feed. Take a cold shower when you’re done, both of you.” Jason paused in the doorway and used two fingers to point at his sister and best friend. “Wait. Let me clarify. A cold shower alone. In separate bathrooms. In separate houses and preferably in separate counties.”

Molly’s eyebrows darted upward and her mouth dropped one. “Jason!”

“I’m serious. My rifle’s in my truck and I won’t hesitate to use it.”

Alex clicked his tongue. “Jason Andrew Tanner.” He propped his hands on his waist and shook his head in a mock scolding motion. “You are so violent. You should really see someone about that.”

Jason snorted out a laugh as he walked toward the skid steer. “As long as you behave yourself, you’ve got nothing to worry about, Stone.”

He glanced over his shoulder at Molly and Alex laughing as they fed the calves. That’s right. Keep them working. It would help keep their hands off each other.

Fiction Friday: The Farmers’ Sons Chapter 4

Welcome to Chapter 4 of The Farmers’ Sons.

As always this is a work in progress so this chapter will probably change in content and definitely with typos before a future publication as an ebook.

To catch up on the story click HERE.

***

Spencer was a small town, quieter than a city, but still nosier than a small farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. Instead of drifting off to the sound of crickets and peepers, the squeal of tires, revving of diesel engines, laughter from people leaving the bar down the street, and the occasional whoop of a teenager pulling a late night wheelie for his friends bombarded Ellie’s ears. She’d purchased a white noise machine after a sleepless first week. The synthetic sound of running water had finally helped her drift off and stay asleep.

Tonight, though, she’d scrolled through all the sounds her machine offered and nothing was working.

Chirping birds, jungle sounds, a train bumping on the tracks, the whir of a fan, the hum of an air conditioner.

None of them could drown out her racing thoughts, her memories of the night Jason had not-actually proposed. She still couldn’t believe she’d been so stupid not to notice he’d never actually said the words. It had taken a conversation with Judi a week later to make her question if he really had intended to propose that night or not.

She’d been organizing her bookshelf in her room at the farm when the buzz of the cellphone startled her. As she remembered the call, she realized organizing her bookshelf was apparently a favorite pastime for her. She had shoved Pride and Prejudice back into the “A” section of the bookcase and checked the caller ID.

Oh, great. This should be fun.

“Hello, Judi.”

“Heya, sister of mine. Tell me you’re somewhere exciting doing something that would make me proud.”

Ellie rolled her eyes toward the ceiling, kneeling back in front of the bookcase. “I’m in my room. Organizing books.”

Judi snorted. “Why am I not surprised? You’re so predictable, El.”

A car horn sounded in the background and a mix of car engines and voices filtered through the receiver.

Ellie slid another book onto the shelf. “On your way to work?”

“I’m at a café, actually. They have the best lattes and blueberry scones, and a beautiful veranda overlooking Central Avenue. So, what’s up with you. Anything new?”

Nothing I’m going to tell you about.

“Nope. I’m predictable. Like you said.”

Judi’s laughter grated on Ellie’s nerves. “Predictable, loyal, dedicated, and perfect. That’s my big sister. Still living with mom and dad, I suppose?”

Ellie bristled. “You know I am.”

Judi’s laugh was infuriating. Ellie pictured her wearing a pair of sunglasses, her honey brown hair spilling down her back, bright red lipstick, her head tipped back as she laughed.

“You’re such a trooper, Ellie. Helping mom and dad out and working two jobs. Always showing off. You know, you really should move up here with me. Expand your horizons. Kick the dust off that cruddy little town already.”

Ellie slammed a book into the bookcase. Tension grabbed at the back of her neck, spread down her shoulders. “Judi, you know I can’t.”

“Why?” There was a long slurp, and a muted snorting laugh, following by words dripping with sarcasm. “Oh, right . . . Jason.” Ellie could practically hear the eye-roll. “Your dud of a boyfriend who hasn’t even proposed to you after all these years.”

The tension clutched at Ellie’s jaw, slithered down her chest. “Actually—”

“Wait.” There was a clink on the other end of the line, probably Judi’s glass of peach iced tea on the surface of the table. She always drank peach tea with a twist of lemon. “Did he actually propose?”

Ellie immediately regretted even starting down this path. “Well, sort of —”

“Sort of? What do you mean, sort of? He either has or he hasn’t.”

Ellie closed her eyes against the onslaught of interrogation from her younger sister. She pressed her fingertips against her temple. “He did.”

Judi’s excitement was palpable. Her breath quickened. Ellie could picture her leaning forward, darkly lined eyeliner framing wide green eyes. “What did he say? How did he do it? Tell me everything.”

Ellie felt a pulsating rhythm under her fingertips. “Actually, I asked him if he was eve going to propose. He almost drove off the road and then he said he was going to talk to me about marriage that night, actually.”

Judi’s excitement had waned some. Her tone flattened. “Soooo… wait. You asked him first about it? That’s sort of weird. Like, did he actually say the words?”

“The words?”

“Uh. Yeah. The words.” Judi’s tone indicated she thought Ellie should understand her meaning. “You know, like, ‘will you marry me Elizabeth Alexandria Lambert and make me the happiest man in the world?’”

The thumping rhythm in Ellie’s temple had increased, pushing an ache through the rest of her head. “You’ve been watching way too many romantic movies, Jud.”

A long sigh huffed against her ear. “Well, did he at least say, ‘will you marry me?’ And give you a ring?”

The phone tightened in her hand, and her jaw ached from clenching it. “No. He didn’t say that, and he didn’t have the ring with him.”

Standing at the window across from her bed, Ellie had looked out at her dad driving a tractor into the field. Her mother had been hanging a sheet onto the clothesline between the maple trees in the side yard.

“But you said he said he was going to talk to you about it at dinner, so why wouldn’t he —”

“I don’t know.” Ellie was snapping now. “He just didn’t.”

More slurping and the click of well-manicured nails on a tabletop.

“Well, that’s not very romantic.” Ellie didn’t have to see Judi to know she was making a face.  “But at least you two are finally getting married. This has dragged out long enough. Do mom and dad know?”

Turning from the window, an anxious buzz hummed in her ears, and she marched to the laundry basket to quiet it. She cradled the phone against her shoulder and ear.

Blue top, tan khakis, blue and green striped socks. Red top, light blue denim capris, white socks with red hearts. White ruffled shirt, light blue pencil skirt, tan high heels.

“No. No one knows yet except us and now you. We want to keep it that way, so keep this between us. We’re going to announce it at the firemens banquet in August. After he gets the ring.”

  A series of giggles in the background made it sound like Judi was at a wild party. Her voice faded to muffled mumbling. “Miranda! Heya! Yeah! I’ll be right over, sweets. I’m talking to my sister.” Her voice was louder again. “Calm down, Els-Bells, I won’t tell anyone. I promise. But let me know when I can because I totally want to tell Melanie Fitzgerald – oops, I mean Stanton — I forgot she got married.”

Ellie folded another series of clothes into a coordinating outfit, sliding them in a drawer, scrunching her face in a questioning expression. “Why Melanie?”

“Because we were all friends in high school and she’d be so happy for you. Plus, she bet me $20 Jason would never propose that last time I was home.”

Ellie pulled the phone from her ear and scowled at it. Judi had been friends with Melanie, not her. She thought about reminding her sister is this fact, but it wouldn’t have mattered. Judi was still stuck in high school.

 “Okay, Judi, I’ve got to go.” She slammed the dresser drawer shut. “I’ve got a shift at the farm store in a half an hour.”

Judi’s voice was far away again. “A refill on the peach tea with a twist of lemon, the summer breeze salad with grilled chicken, avocado , cucumber, no tomatoes, and a light balsamic vinaigrette on the side. Right. That’s perfect.” The patronizing click of the tongue made Ellie wince and pull the phone back from her ear again. “Oooh, Ellie,” she cooed. “You’re such a good girl. Helping the Tanners, helping at the farm, teaching those little kiddies. You’re such a saint. So steadfast and dependable.” Judi sighed and if it had been anyone else, Ellie would have interpreted her tone as sentimental. “Anyhoo, have to go. The new guy from the men’s department is here. I’m going to see if he wants to join me and the girls for lunch. Talk later.”

The phone went dead.

Ellie sat on the bed, tossing the phone onto the bedside table. 

Steadfast and dependable.

She knew Judi really meant.

Boring and predictable.

Ellie had quit her part-time job at the Tanner’s store the week after she found about Jason and the girl at college, rented an apartment in town and marched down to Missy’s one Saturday morning and asked for this haircut. It had been a long time coming. The need to change and the changes themselves.

Rolling onto her back and staring at the ceiling in the darkness, she huffed out a sigh.

Changing her appearance and her location wouldn’t change how she’d had to rearrange her life plans again, though. During her senior year of high school, the list had read, valedictorian, graduation, Bachelors in Education, career, marriage, children.

When Jason had suggested the break in college, she’d added question marks to marriage and children. But when they’d started dating again five years ago, she’d been able to add marriage and children back.

Now, though, she’d scratched a thick dark line through the words in her journal. She didn’t know if she’d ever add them back.

***

“Hey, Jason.” Molly called to him from the back room of the store. “We’ve got an order here for Mr. and Mrs. Weatherly. Can you drop it off on your way by?”

He’d just delivered a few hundred pounds of locally produced beef and pork from the meat packing plant two hours away, still had stalls to shovel and a tractor to fix, but dropping a delivery off to two of the nicest people he knew wouldn’t be a problem.

“You bet.”

Molly smiled as he lifted the box. “You don’t mind because Mrs. Weatherly always gives you cookies when you stop.”

He was just glad she wasn’t looking at him the way she’d looked in the parking lot of the church a few weeks ago. He still hadn’t talked to her about it and didn’t know how.

“Cookies, a pie, a piece of cake. Whatever she’s baked that day. What can I say? She loves me.”

His sister rolled her eyes and laughed. “You keep taking those cookies and that stomach of yours is going to grow.”

He shrugged a shoulder. “I’ll just work it all off at the gym the next morning.”

When he reached the Weatherly’s, Ann Weatherly was on the front porch with a smile, wearing a white apron with a border of red cherries running across the bottom.

“Jason Tanner, you’re a sweetheart.” She opened the door for him. “Put it right on the kitchen table there and then I’ll get you a piece of apple pie. I just took it out of the oven.”

He set the box down and held his hand up. “No, no, Mrs. Weatherly. I don’t need any pie. Really.”

She propped her hands on her hips. “I can tell you’ve been working hard already today, and I know you Tanner boys, you’ve got more work to do. I bet the pie would help you get through the rest of your day.”

Jason wasn’t great with ages, but he knew Ann had gone to school with his grandmother. Her husband, John, was probably about her age, maybe a little older. Saying ‘no’ to her would be like saying ‘no’ to one of his grandmother’s.

She gestured toward the table. “Go on and sit down. I’ll cut you a piece.”

Smiling, he shook his head at her persistence. His gaze drifted across the kitchen — the patterned plates displayed in a row on a shelf above the stove, the 1960s-era flowered wallpaper, cast-iron pans hanging on the wall below the cupboards — then wandered down the hallway leading to the dining room, photos hanging on the wall. He walked down the hallway, looking at photos of Ann and John with their children and grandchildren smiling laughing. Here was one of Ann and John on their wedding day. There was one with their daughters, Mary and Ellen and son Alfred. They were older than Jason, probably closer to his parents’ ages, living out of the area now.

Jason felt a twinge of emotion in his chest as his eyes roamed over the photos, an emotion he couldn’t pin down. It was a mix of loss, disappointment, and heartache at the thought he might never have a wall like this, full of photos of his own wife and children.

He ate the pie while listening to Mrs. Weatherly talk about her grandchildren, her plans for her garden, and John’s trip to town to pick up seeds for said garden.

Their conversation reminded him of conversations with his grandmothers. It also reminded him how lucky he was to have a job where he could take time to sit down and chat after delivering food that he and his family had helped grow.

Driving home later in the afternoon, Jason reflected on the conversation with his grandmother Franny a month before Ellie learned about his night with Lauren. Watching his normally outgoing grandmother withdrawal in the last year and a half, become a shell of her former self, had been hard, almost as hard as watching his grandfather fade behind the fog of Alzheimers. She had been avoiding many family gatherings and activities she used to enjoy, including church. Only in the last few months had he seen some of the melancholy fall away.

Franny had ushered him into the kitchen that day, sitting at the table as he unloaded the soup has mom had sent. “That’s very nice, hon’. You tell Annie thank you for me.” She smiled. “What happened? You draw the short straw to bring your cantankerous grandmother dinner?”

Jason laughed, bending down and kissing Franny’s cheek. “Now, grandma, you know I love coming to see you. We all do. Molly had an art class, Dad was working on that broken tractor, and I actually asked to bring it.”

Jason sat on the chair across from his grandmother and leaned back, stretching his legs out.

He decided to jump right into it, not pull any punches. “So, what’s going on with you, Grandma? You know you can talk to me.”

Franny avoided his eyes, stirring her spoon in the soup she’d dipped out. “I’m fine, Jason.”

“You’re anything but fine. Out with it. Is it your eyes?”

She shot him a glare. “You always were too observant for your own good, Jason. How did you know about my eyes?”

“I’ve noticed you bumping into tables when I’ve been here, squinting through your glasses. Plus, there was that whole driving into the back of the dump truck thing.”

She cleared her throat. “Well, yes, I am concerned about them. As for the dump truck — well, yes, I misjudged the distance between it and my car.”

“Misjudge or didn’t see it well?” She didn’t offer a verbal response. Her raised eyebrow and scowl were answer enough. “Do you think it could be macular degeneration?”

“I don’t know.” Her eyebrows furrowed. “I’ve heard of that but I’m not really familiar with it.”

Jason hooked his hands behind his head, keeping the conversation casual. “Ellie’s grandma has it. Her eyesight is slowly deteriorating, but maybe yours isn’t that bad. We can go see Dr. Fisher. Maybe you just need a prescription.”

Franny lifted her finger. “Ah, now. Speaking of Ellie —”

“Grandma, we’re talking about you right now.”

“We’ll get back to that. Let’s talk about Ellie and you.” She slapped her hand on the table. “Why haven’t you proposed to that girl yet?”

“Grandma…”

“Jason, honey, she’s the girl for you. You believe that, right?

Jason laughed softly and cleared his throat, unfolding his arms from behind his head and shifting in the chair. “Yes, Grandma. I do.”

“Then what are you waiting for?”

Jason softly groaned and covered his face with his hands, leaning his head back. This conversation had definitely gone off the rails. “Grandma. . .”

“Don’t let her get away from you, Jason. Do you hear me?”

Jason looked at his grandma, his face flushed but a smile tugging at his mouth. “Yes, ma’am. I hear you, but right now we are talking about your eyesight. I can drive you to Dr. Fisher. Let’s find out what’s going on. It may not be as bad as you think, okay?”

Franny sipped from her glass of water, a small smile flicking across her lips. “Okay. I’ll make you a deal, Jason Andrew Tanner. I’ll let you take me to Dr. Fisher if you agree to propose to that lovely Ellie.” She reached her hand out toward her grandson. “Deal?”

Jason tipped his head back again and let out a deep laugh. He shook his head and chewed his lower lip for a moment, rubbing his chin as he looked at his grandmother’s hand. If he did this, it would mean no more avoiding talking to Ellie about his college mistakes.

His large hand enveloped her much smaller one. “Yeah, okay, grandma. Deal.”

A month later Franny had her cataracts removed, and he’d been ready to confess all to Ellie.

If only he hadn’t failed to hold up his side of the bargain.

Franny knew something had happened between him and Ellie, and he knew she wanted to ask, but so far, he’d been able to avoid her. A family lunch was planned at her house next weekend. He had a feeling she’d corner him before the day was out.