Umm…whoops! I completely forgot I had promised to post the final chapters of the book Sunday night so here they are now.
As always, this is a continuing/serial story. I share a chapter a week and at the end of the story, after I edit and rewrite it, I self-publish it. To catch up with the story click HERE. To read the rest of the books in this series click HERE.
If you would prefer to read the book when it is all complete, you can pre-order a copy HERE on Amazon. It releases on January 31, 2023. There is also a link to the previous chapters HERE.
Judi snatched the phone off her bedside table. So much for sleeping in this Saturday.
The caller ID said Evan, though, so she didn’t mind losing a couple hours of sleep.
“Hey, you,” she said back, a broad smile tugging at her mouth at the sound of excitement in his voice.
“I’m back in town for a week, maybe more. I was wondering if you’d like to meet me out at the Tanner’s new pumpkin farm today. Maybe around noon?”
She rolled on her stomach, propping herself on her elbows. “That sounds very nice. I wasn’t sure you’d want to be around me again.”
Evan laughed. “You got all those flowers I sent, right? Of course I still want to be around you. I thought maybe I could buy you a donut and a cup of apple cider. Plus, it’d be somewhere — um —neutral.”
She agreed to meet him at noon and spent the next two hours looking for the perfect autumn outfit. She spent another half an hour looking at herself in the mirror, adjusting her makeup, brushing her hair, then wiping some of the makeup off. Letting out a huff of breath she blew her bangs out of her eyes and shook her head in resignation.
“Don’t overthink it, Lambert. Just go.”
But she did overthink it. All the way to the pumpkin farm and in the parking lot, looking at herself in the rearview mirror. When a face appeared at her window out of the corner of her eye she screamed, then burst into laughter as she watched Evan lean back and laugh loudly.
“You jerk.” She laughed as she climbed out of the car and gently slapped his upper arm with the back of her hand.
“Sorry. That was just too funny.” His smile made her heart lurch. “You look beautiful, by the way. You don’t have to keep fixing your hair.”
Warmth spread up from her chest to her face. “Thank you.”
He tipped his head sideways to the entrance behind the store. “Care for a walk? I think the cider and donuts are back there.”
“Sure. That sounds nice.”
Leaves crunched under their feet as they walked. Judi slid her hands in her sweater pockets, her gaze drifting across a pumpkin field to her left, filled with pumpkins but also children swarming the pumpkins, loading them into carts, or carrying them to their parents. Beyond the pumpkin field were drying stalks of corn and a sign marking the entrance to the maze. Haybales were positioned at various places around the walkway, and she breathed in the scent of the drying hay, remembering her time growing up on the farm. During her teenage years, she avoided barn chores, using any excuse not to help with the milking, or shovel manure, or feed the calves. She was glad her dad had her sister and young men he’d hired to help him in the barn now, but a part of her did miss that time, a much more innocent time.
“How’s work going?”
The question was one that used to cause her stomach to clench. In the last few weeks, though, she’d helped Ben draw up wills, help close sales for properties, and watched Ben calmly walk a woman through a divorce from an abusive husband. Working for Ben gave her more of an opportunity to help others than any other job she’d ever had. She felt like she was actually contributing to society instead of floating through it.
“It’s going well, actually. I still don’t really know what I am doing, but Ben’s been patient with me.”
Evan ordered them apple cider and donuts at the small concession stand and motioned toward a wooden bench off to one side. “How are you doing otherwise?” he asked and she noticed he positioned himself a good distance from her as they sat, practically on the other end of the bench.
“I’m doing okay, really.” She sipped her cider. “I’m sure Ellie filled you in on some things.”
He shook his head once. “No. She said it wasn’t her place to and I respect that.”
She sipped more of the apple cider, enjoying the tartness on her tongue as she considered what to say next. “I’m sorry, Evan. I don’t know why I reacted that way. Well, I do, but I shouldn’t have with you.”
He laid an arm across the back of the bench, watching her as if waiting for her to continue. Concern etched his face.
She cleared her throat. “One night a year and a half ago, a little more, a guy tried to get further with me than I wanted. I was able to get away from him but another woman, a girl really, wasn’t as lucky.” Tears pricked at her eyes. “I don’t know why he let me go and not her and maybe other women, but he did.” She laughed softly, a tear slipping down her cheek. “Of course, my knee to his groin probably didn’t do much to make him want to try to keep me there.” She drew the back of a finger across the tear. “I guess I didn’t realize how much it had all affected me. I tried to laugh it off, drink it off, and run away but it seems like it all has been catching up with me lately and hit me full force that night with you.”
He winced and reached a hand toward her, but then pulled it back again, closing his fingers into a fist briefly before letting the hand drop to the back of the bench again. “Judi, I’m sorry. If I had known, I never would have been so forward.”
“You didn’t do anything wrong, Evan. It was me. I tried to move faster than I was ready that night. I wanted to forget everything, and I guess I thought I could erase all the memories of him by being with you. I’m the one that is sorry.” She pulled her lower lip between her teeth briefly. “And embarrassed.”
“There is nothing to be embarrassed about. You couldn’t control that reaction, as much as you wanted to. I understand.” A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. “Well, I don’t totally understand, because I’m not you and didn’t experience what you did, but I can see how that could have triggered some negative memories.”
Judi reached out and laid her hand on his. “I just don’t want you to think that you somehow triggered anything negative. You didn’t do anything wrong.”
Evan kept his arm over the back of the bench and sat the cup of cider on the seat next to him. “What happened to this guy? Did you report him or anything?”
She pushed a strand of hair back from her face and hooked it behind her ear. “No, I never did. He’s going to trial for the other woman he assaulted, though. He’s somehow out on bail and called me a few weeks ago.”
Evan’s eyebrows lifted. “He called you?”
“Yeah and he doesn’t want me to tell anyone what happened, but I’m going to. This girl’s lawyer called me a while ago. Ben and I talked to him yesterday.” She drew in a shaky breath, startled by the emotion gripping her. “I talked to the girl a few days ago. Her experience was so similar to mine, from everything he said to everything he did.” She closed her eyes briefly against the tears. “I knew she wasn’t lying.”
When she opened her eyes, Evan’s jaw had tightened, and he swallowed hard.
“I’m scared,” she said, her voice dropping to a whisper. “But I’m going to be with her in the courtroom. I don’t want her to feel like it’s her against him. It will be us against him.”
Evan leaned toward her, then leaned back again. “I’ll be there for you if you want me to be. I really want to hold you right now, but I don’t want to touch you unless you want me to. I talked to a therapist friend of mine and she said I shouldn’t try to make the first move in any way. I should let you tell me when it is okay for me to physically be near you.”
A smile pulled at her mouth. “You talked to a therapist about me?”
Crimson colored his cheeks. “Yeah, but I mean, I didn’t tell her your name or anything. I just told her a little bit about the situation and asked how I should handle it because I care about you and — yeah —” He rubbed a hand across the back of his neck. “I just told her I want to pursue a relationship with you, so I want to know how to help you heal from all of this.” He cleared his throat. “That’s why I thought it might be good to meet here where it’s a little more neutral.”
He cared enough to talk to a therapist about how to talk to her? Was this for real?
A small laugh came from her throat. “Evan McGee, I think that you really are as sweet as I’ve heard your brother is.”
He made a face. “Ew. Don’t compare me to Saint Matt. I’m not that good.”
She moved closer to him on the bench, touching a hand to his cheek. “Well, you are very close and that’s not a bad thing.” Leaning closer she lightly touched her mouth to his. “Thank you.”
He grinned, tipping his head closer to hers. “You’re welcome. And listen, we can take this slow and just hang out. We can go out to public places, or have friends over when we watch movies, or —”
She slid her hand to the back of his neck and pulled his head down to hers, pressing her mouth to this.
“Thank you,” she whispered several seconds later, her lips grazing his. “All of that sounds really nice. I’m not used to men being so nice to me so it may take me a bit to get used to it.”
He smiled. “That’s fine by me. I’m a patient man.” He pressed his forehead against hers. “Is it okay if I kiss you again?”
She tilted her face toward his and they resumed their kiss, pulling apart a few minutes later when Judi heard a voice call out behind them.
“Oooh! Judi and Evan sitting on a bench, k-i-s-s-i-n-g.”
Judi glowered at Ben. “Bench doesn’t have the same ring to it, you know.”
Ben laughed. “Yeah, I know, but you’re not in a tree.”
Judi glanced at Angie beside Ben. “How about you two? Any k-i-s-s-i-n-ging between you two?”
Ben held up a hand. “That, ma’am, is privileged information.” He gestured toward a hay wagon to the right being pulled by a tractor being driven by Alex. “Anyone care for a hayride? I’m willing to ride with you two, as long as you can keep your hands off each other.”
Judi scoffed and folded her arms across her chest. “With Alex at the helm. I don’t know if I’d feel safe.”
Alex looked over his shoulder and scowled from under his hat. “I heard that, Lambert. Even over this tractor engine, which just shows everyone what a big mouth you have.”
Judi hooked her arm through Angie’s. “Come on, Angie, let’s go find the pumpkin cannons instead. We can pretend we’re shooting them at Ben and Alex.”
“Hey!” Ben cried. “What did I do?”
Evan laughed. “I don’t know, but I’m glad I wasn’t included in that list.”
Judi fell into step with Angie, glancing over her shoulder at Ben and Evan. “You think you two will be able to work things out?”
Angie smiled. “Yeah, I think so. I hope so anyhow. How about you? Will you be sticking around the area for a while?” She winked. “Maybe hanging out with Evan?”
The light feeling in her step and the way her muscles had lost their tension was a foreign, but welcome feeling to Judi.
“Yeah. I think so. I hope so anyhow.”
“Hey, you still coming to dinner tonight at mom’s?”
Judi paused at her car and looked up at Evan, smiling. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world. I can’t wait to taste her cooking again. I have to do something quick before then, though. Meet you there?”
“How about I pick you up. Say 5:30?”
“Yeah. I’d like that.”
After years of being fiercely independent, she wasn’t lying when she said she would like to be picked up. She’d also been liking Evan being home more in the last two weeks as he started a job with a local construction company.
She turned the music up as she pulled away from her apartment building, wishing the cold temperatures didn’t preclude her from sliding the window down. Half an hour later she pulled into a parking space and checked her hair and make-up, then laughed at herself. She didn’t need to worry about her hair.
She had a feeling he wouldn’t care.
The sanitary smell and squeak of her soles on the newly mopped floor reminded her of where she was and where she was headed. Her chest tightened. Hospitals weren’t her favorite place, and she wasn’t sure what reaction she’d receive.
She asked for his room number and if visitors were allowed at the nurse’s station.
The shades were open. Sunlight poured across his bed. She took a deep breath and straightened her shoulders, trying to recapture the confidence she’d once possessed. She pulled a chair up to the side of the bed and sat quickly before she changed her mind.
“Hey, Jer. You’re not looking so great.”
Jerry blinked the one eye free of the bandages, grunted through bruised and scarred lips, and lifted one stitched-up hand. Judi was expecting a rude gesture, but instead, his thumb raised slowly.
He pointed at the notepad on the small table by the bed. She handed it and a pen to him. After a few long minutes of scrawling, hampered by bandages and fingers that didn’t seem to want to bend, he pushed the pad toward her. The letters were shaky and a couple were missing, but she got the drift.
I owe you more than one. Not a beer. A soda. When I get out of here.
A smile pulled her mouth up and she looked up at him. “You definitely do. How about a root beer float down at that new ice cream place on Main? Be warned, though, I might look light a lightweight, but I can pack it away.”
A raspy laugh came from Jerry and to anyone else it might have been unnerving, but to Judi it was one of the best sounds in the world.