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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiction Friday: Why I’ve been struggling to write fiction lately

Several times in the last couple of weeks, I’ve started a blog post about why I have been struggling to write fiction recently.

Each time I’ve started the post, I’ve stopped because no matter how write out my feelings, it comes out accusatory and whiny, with me alternating between defense and offense.

I know it’s not wise to try to explain something while a hurt is still raw, but my blog readers have been with me through many ups and downs, in my writing and in my personal life, so I feel like I need to share a little with all of you about what has been weighing me down lately. If it comes out as over dramatic to you readers, I totally understand.

A few weeks ago, I somehow got tossed into a situation where a last minute topic was needed for a writing group I was in. Long story short, my writing was tossed up in front of a bunch of people and critiqued as a “learning moment” for other writers.

This type of critique was something I had been avoiding for a while now, but especially recently because of the health issues and personal issues I’ve been going through. The author who conducts the critiques is very good at what she does but she’s also pretty hard on writers and I wasn’t in a good place emotionally for that.

I had explained that to one of the leaders of the group (a very sweet woman with stresses of her own) that I could not currently handle one of her critiques. I can only guess this leader was not fully listening when I expressed the desire to not be critiqued since, much to my horror, my work appeared on the screen during the weekly meeting/presentation. This weekly presentation is held with somewhere around fifty other women in attendance. Lines and red marks were scratched through most of the chapter being shared, with several comments off to the side listing of all my writing sins.

I didn’t ask for this critique. What I had actually suggested for the session was for the author to answer advice on how to handle what critiques on our writing. I had recently received what I felt was a critique, but it was sent privately so that made it easier to digest.

I wanted to know how to choose what to keep and what to dismiss from a critique, especially when it comes from someone who is not a professional author. I thought that my situation would be used to teach others how to handle a critique, not that my work would be critiqued again in a much more public setting. Even though the critique was anonymous, I knew many of the women watching knew the work was mine because I had mentioned my difficulty in processing part of the original critique.

I ended up turning off the second critique before it really got underway after it was launched by several minutes of mocking comments about my choice of metaphors. I did not feel these comments were constructive. Instead they seemed to be setting up what I gathered would be several more minutes of unhelpful comments. The unhelpful remarks continued until I felt like I was openly being mocked by the two women, one with 20 years of experience and another with a few.  I knew I was in a poor place emotionally to handle any more mocking.

I turned off the session and tried instead to mentally prepare myself for a doctor’s appointment I had the next day that I hoped would help me with some of my longstanding health issues.

It’s one thing to know that your work is cliché and rather silly but it is entirely different to be told that in front of a group of fellow writers on a live feed while two women cackle and laugh at the absurdity of your writing, while not actually calling it absurd. (Clarification here: it felt like cackling and laughing at me but I’m sure they don’t feel that’s what they were doing. They most likely thought they were being lighthearted and trying to make light of a situation because they were preparing to eviscerate my writing for “educational purposes”.) I had watched this happened the month before to another writer and knew I didn’t want it to happen to me. It was extremely disheartening to see her on a video chat a week later looking completely downtrodden about her writing and like the joy of writing had been completely sucked out of her.

 I was told later that I shouldn’t feel bad about my writing flaws because MANY writers do the same thing I did. I felt like I was being told that not only was I an idiot, but I was an idiot among many other idiots.

“You are cliché and silly but so are many authors,” is how I read a “somewhat apology” sent by one of the women in the group after I canceled my subscription. I say somewhat because the apology was more along the lines of “sorry if the critique of your work displeased you.” Yes, the word displeased was actually used. To be honest, it was not the critique that “displeased” me. I never had the chance to hear the critique. It was the fact I was critiqued when I never asked for the critique and that the so-called critique seemed more mocking than instructional.

I received the replay of it all a few days later, hoping to watch it again and see if I had over reacted. I was sure I had because many people have told me over the years that my feelings are wrong, my reactions are wrong, I’m too sensitive, too easily offended, too…whatever I am too much of that day. And sometimes they are right.

Unfortunately, the replay had been edited to remove the critique, as if it had never happened. I would hope that this was out of kindness, knowing I was upset, but I would instead guess it was for self-protection to make sure this author and her writing business didn’t look bad. I really hope my second theory is wrong because I do believe these women truly believe they are writing and serving in the name of Christ.

I would not disparage these women or the writing group based on this situation. Even if they were careless with their words, the program is a good one, offered at an amazing price and it is filled with wonderful Christian women who truly mean well and support each other. This is why I am not naming the group here. I would recommend the group to other writers with one caveat — make sure you communicate better than I did and if you ask for a critique be prepared to be absolutely shredded. That’s okay. The shredding can help you improve after your wounds heal.

In the end, the proof I needed to show myself that I had been overly sensitive was gone. So, there I sat in a weird kind of limbo of wanting to be wrong (because, hey, maybe I really was way too sensitive this time. I can totally own up to that and even now I feel I probably was.) but really not sure since I had no way to confirm what I had actually heard and what else was said after I logged out of the meeting.

Needless to say, all of this has taken a mental toll on me in relation to my fiction writing and why that may not be positive, what has been a positive is that it has brought me back to the path God originally set me on.

Even though the writing group was wonderful in many ways, part of me wonders if by joining it, I overstepped God’s desire for what role writing would fill in my life.

“I never told you to do this,” is the sentence kept popping up in my head when I first joined the group.

I promptly ignored it every time.

After the forth of fifth time this sentence popped into my head, I decided that maybe God was trying to get a message across to me. If he was, what was his message? He never told me to do what? Try to improve my writing? Try to make what I enjoy also something I could make money from – even if it was only a little?

It isn’t that I think God doesn’t want us to improve and get better at what we enjoy doing. What I do think is that for me, God was, and is, saying he never told me to push this writing journey to the point where I hate it as much as I ended up hating photography years ago.

I’ve said before that when it comes to writing I hold on to the words “just have fun.” It’s what drove my writing when I first started sharing it on the blog. I wanted to have fun sharing and connecting with my blog readers, focusing on something other than my medical issues or my loneliness. It served that purpose but then I began to believe that it needed to be something more if it was going to take up so much of my time. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be better at the activity you enjoy but God didn’t ask me to ruin my love of writing while trying to improve.

A lot of Christian authors would say they feel God has called them to write fiction because has called them to change and grow his kingdom with their writing. This may be true — for them.

However, I don’t  feel that way about my writing, or at least my fiction. For me writing fiction is about having fun and entertaining a little. Do I want to share messages of hope, redemption and forgiveness in my fiction? Yes. Do I feel like maybe God wants me to do that? I think so, but I also have never looked at my fiction as some grand ordination from God that makes me something special and my writing a gift to humanity. My writing is fun, silly, probably cliché and childish and that’s fine with me.

I think a lot of Christian fiction authors feel their stories and books are going to change the world and maybe they will. I have never felt that way about my writing, though. Could my writing change a few hearts and minds here and there? Yes, I hope so, but like I told a friend this week, part of me feels like God didn’t give me the passion for writing so I can change the world. He gave it to me to help change me first and foremost.

I need to change in many ways, I am the first to admit that. I need to change my attitude and my tendency to be offended, and the way I feel hurt so easily. I don’t think that’s all that needs to be changed in me, though. The change I believe God has wanted me to make is in how I think about life.

 He doesn’t want me to see life as something where rules are followed and others are appeased at the sacrifice of my own mental well being.  He doesn’t want me to see it as a place where I don’t fit in and I am never good enough. He wants me to see the world as somewhere where we all have our place, even if it isn’t at the front of the crowd or the same place as others. God wants me, and you, to know that he placed us where he placed us for a reason and sometimes that reason may not be as somber or as serious as we think.

Sometimes God places us where he placed us because he simply wants us to have fun, to have joy, to look beyond the challenges and realize that not everything has to be perfect or polished.

Sometimes life and what we do in it simply needs to be fun.

All this being said, I hate that this post sounds like I don’t welcome critiques of my work, especially when I ask for it. I wholeheartedly appreciate the written critique I was given. I was merely trying to process it and how it should lead to changes in my work when the second, more public critique, slammed into me. I will definitely be asking for critiques of my work again in the future and I am open to them, even if they are harsh. Harsh can help me improve. I simply don’t know if I think public harsh criticisms are all that helpful to writers who aren’t career-driven but are instead fun-driven when it comes to their fiction.

Fiction Friday: I love how the men in my books interact

I love the men in my stories and how they interact with each other.

In the Spencer Valley Chronicles, I currently have three men who I write about the most and who are all good friends with each other.

Jason Tanner (Harvesting Hope) and Matt McGee (Beauty From Ashes) went to high school together and Jason met Alex Stone (The Farmer’s Daughter) in college.

The men harass and pick on each other, but are also there for each other during the tough times.

I recently listened to a class with Susan May Warren and James Rubart about how to write male characters in our fiction and realized that while I needed a lot of the tips, I also have the benefit of living with two men who I can draw from when writing from the POV of a man. Am I an expert in writing male characters? Not at all. I still make them sound like a woman more times than not, which is why my husband suggested I remove some of my “internal brooding” moments with Alex from The Farmer’s Daughter. Sure, men do some internal brooding but not as much as women. They have things to do, places to be, and, luckily, men can compartmentalize so they don’t spend every second debating their “feelings” about every single situation.

I had Alex being way too introspective in The Farmer’s Daughter, even with my husband’s changes, but, well, Alex was at an emotional crossroads in his life, so he was doing a bit more soul-searching than other times in his life.

Today I thought I’d share some of my favorite interactions between the men in my books, just for fun. If you haven’t read the books, be warned, there are some spoilers here:

When Alex had moved to Pennsylvania, he soon realized watching the Philadelphia Phillies every Saturday afternoon that they played was a requirement in the Tanner family, whether he liked it or not. He, Jason, and their friend Matt McGee had laid out a spread of subs, chips, and sodas, kicked off their shoes and flopped onto couches and chairs, ready for a baseball binge.

“Alex Stone sounds like the name of some guy from a romance novel.” Matt playfully punched Alex in the shoulder and handed him a soda. “Anyone ever tell you that?”

Jason smirked. “How would you know about the names of characters in romance novels?”

“Hey, I had sisters growing up. They all liked those romance garbage novels. You know, the romances with the cookie-cutter plots. The ones with happy endings that made you want to gag because you knew it wasn’t real.”

“Yeah, just like the movies based on them,” Alex offered, cracking open a soda. He took a sip. “Girl with big career comes back to her hometown for a visit down on her luck.”

“Girl runs into an old boyfriend,” Jason said.

Alex mockingly sighed. “Old boyfriend brings back hard memories, but then old boyfriend tries to apologize for all he’s done.”

“Girl falls for old boyfriend again,” Matt said.

Jason grabbed a handful of peanuts from the bowl and shoved them in his mouth. “Old boyfriend screws up again and girl goes back to big city.”

Alex rolled his eyes. “But old boyfriend realizes he’s a screw-up and that he really loves her and follows her to the city.”

“He tells her he’s always loved her.” Matt took a sip from his soda. “And she tells him she’s always loved him.”

“And everyone lives happily ever after,” Jason concluded.

Alex choked out a gagging noise. The three men looked at each other, pretending to wipe tears from their cheeks.

“Cookie-cutter plots full of clichés.” Matt poked Alex in the chest. “And you, Alex, are one of those clichés. Alex Stone. The handsome cowboy with the six-pack who comes to steal the girl away from the boring, uptight rich guy in the city.”

Alex lifted his shirt and looked at his flat, but slightly paunchy stomach, pushing at the soft flesh. “I’d love to have a six-pack, but I think I would need to work out a little more.”

Jason opened a bag of chips and reached for the remote. “Or just work more period.”

“Oh, geez, thanks, bud.” Alex elbowed Jason in the ribs.

Then there was this interaction between Matt and another friend, Troy, when Alex revealed (spoiler alert) he had an interest in Molly.

“We haven’t seen you at the bars lately,” Troy said as the waitress brought the drinks. “What’s up with you?”

I’m growing up, Alex wanted to say.

“Just been enjoying some solitude,” he said instead, deciding not to add that he was actually enjoying that solitude with Molly when they could find time alone.

He found it uncanny that at the exact moment he thought of Molly, she appeared out front of the restaurant, talking to the librarian. What was the librarian’s name again? He thought Molly had said her name was Ginny. They’d been attending art classes together.

He smiled as an idea struck him; a way to make his friends think he hadn’t lost his way with women, when he knew he had and didn’t mind at all.

“What do you boys think about Jason’s sister? She’s good looking, right?”

Matt raised an eyebrow. “Um. Yeah. She is, but you better not be noticing.”

Alex laughed, looking out the window at Molly. “Why?”

“Because Jason will kick your butt for checking out his little sister,” Matt answered with a tone that signaled he thought Alex had lost his mind.

Troy shrugged. “I don’t know, she’s a little too big for me. Nice girl, though.”

Alex took a sip of his soda, still watching Molly talking with the librarian, and then smirked.

“She’s just right for me. I like a girl with some meat on her bones.” He winked at his friends. “More for me to hold on to.”

Matt rolled his eyes. “Dude. You’re so going to end up with a bloody nose if Jason ever hears you talking like this.”

Troy laughed and punched Alex in the arm.

“Yeah, seriously, Stone, you better watch it. Jason will kick your butt to next week if he hears you talking like that about her.”

Alex looked at Troy and Matt and rubbed his thumb and index finger along his unshaven chin. “I bet I can get her to go out with me.”

Matt shook his head. “You’re too old for her. She doesn’t want to go out with an old man like you.”

Alex’s grin widened. “Hey, she’s only a couple years younger than me. I bet you she will.” He stood up from the table. “I’ll be right back.”

“Dude! Don’t make an idiot out of yourself!” Troy called after him.

“More than you already are anyhow,” Matt added with a laugh.

Then there was later, in Harvesting Hope, after Alex and Molly were seeing each other and Jason had to put up with the two of them sneaking kisses in the barn.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Alex’s arms slid around Molly’s waist, pull her close.

“Save that for later.” His tone denoted a touch of teasing, even though he was serious. “We’re behind schedule.”

Molly and Alex locked gazes, small smiles playing at the corners of their mouth. It was obvious they were ignoring Jason’s attempt at wielding authority. He’d have to start the milking without them.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Alex pull Molly closer and lower his mouth to hers. Revulsion tinged with jealousy swirled in his stomach. Revulsion over Alex kissing his little sister right there, outside the barn door where Jason had to see it; jealousy because he wished he was holding Ellie the same way. He didn’t know if she’d ever let him hold her that way again.

Alex playfully bumped him in the arm on his way to gather the feed several moments later, grinning. “There’s always time for a sweet kiss from your sister, buddy.”

Jason choked out a gagging noise. “Dude, seriously. No. Just no. Never talk that way about my sister around me again. Especially not this early in the morning.”

There were moments he regretted convincing Alex to move in with him and work on the farm, for example right now, bogged down with thoughts of Alex kissing Molly. Most days, though, Alex was part of the family, as much as a brother as he was a best friend.

I also wrote about Jason dealing with his best friend and sister dating later in the book:

The front door slammed open, bringing Alex and a gust of wind into the room and jostling Jason from his memories.

This was present day Alex. Alex several years older but in some ways the same ole’ Alex. Well, hopefully not exactly the same, since he was dating Molly now.

The crash of thunder and rush of pounding rain roared into the living room, quieting only when Alex pushed the door closed, his clothes clinging to him. Sliding his cowboy hat off, he propped it on the hook next to the door, then paused and looked at Jason, sprawled on the couch on his back.

“All the lights are off and you’re listening to sad country music. This can’t be good.”

“It’s not sad music. It’s Chris Ledoux.”

“Who you only listen to when you’re sad.” A crack of thunder rattled the window and lightening lit the sky outside.

Alex winced as he pried his wet button-up shirt off and tossed it toward the laundry room. It landed in the hallway, and Jason hoped he would pick it up this time. “Thinking about Ellie?”

Jason tipped his head back against the arm of the couch, his long legs stretched across the faded grey cushions, one arm laying across his forehead, the other one hanging off the couch.

“Yeah. And Lauren.”

Alex reached up and flicked on the light switch. “Ah, man, no. Not a good combination. You can’t sit here alone reflecting on past mistakes. It’s not healthy.”

Jason burped and reached for the can of soda on the coffee table without sitting up. Alex kicked at an empty bag of potato chips on the floor. “Um… this isn’t healthy either. Where are your regular veggie sticks and protein shakes?”

Alex pulled his wet tank top off and walked behind the couch toward the hallway leading to the bathroom. “Listen, I’m going to go get dried off and changed. When I come back, you better tell me what’s up.”

“Will you have your shirt on when you come back? Because I don’t need to see that.”

Alex scoffed and slapped his hand against his bare chest. “Of course, you need to see this. Who doesn’t?”

“You really want me to answer that?”

“Yeah, well —”

“If you say Molly likes to see that, I will get off this couch and mess up your pretty boy face.”

Alex raised his hands in a surrender motion. “Okay. Okay. Calm down, big boy.”

And for a sneak peek of Beauty From Ashes, an interaction between Matt and Jason during a hunting trip:


Matt knelt next to the animal and drew his knife. “Too bad he rolled down here. It won’t be fun carrying him out.”

Jason lifted his arms and flexed his arm. “Leave that to me, puny man,” he said in a thick European accent. “I can carry your haul for you. When you’re done, you go ahead and get ATV and I’ll meet you at access road.”

Matt leaned back on his heels and quirked an eyebrow. “Puny man? Really? Just because your muscles are as big as my head doesn’t mean I am a puny man, Tanner. I’m perfectly capable of carrying my deer to the access road. Plus, let me point out that I got a deer today and you didn’t, remember?”

Jason laughed.  “Hey, come on. It’s barely nine in the morning. I don’t have to be back at the farm for a couple more hours. I still have time to get one.” He leaned over and poked Matt’s bicep. “But you, little man, don’t have time to build up muscle before we need to carry this deer out.” He laughed again as he swung his gun onto his shoulder. “Seriously, I’ll head down for the ATV. It will take me a while to hike down and by then you should have this dressed and carried down.”

Jason was right, of course. Matt wasn’t as muscular as him. Having played football in high school and college, plus lugging heavy hay bales and farm equipment around every day, Jason did have a lot more upper body strength than Matt and almost anyone Matt knew.

I’m looking forward to writing more interactions between these men in a future book that will focus on Alex and more of his backstory.

Fiction Friday: A New Chapter Chapter 21 Part 2

We are getting closer to the end of this story and I just wanted to let regular readers know that the book will not be called A New Chapter when I am done with it and publish it in book form. Last week it struck me that I already have A New Beginning and now I was going to call this book A New Chapter. It seemed a bit lazy on the naming side so I have changed A New Chapter to Beauty From Ashes and at this point it is scheduled to be released in full on April 26. I haven’t decided if I will keep the book in Kindle Unlimited or not yet.

For those who are new here, I share a chapter of a novel in progress on Fridays for Fiction Friday but sometimes I also share a part on a Thursday or Saturday. The version I share here often changes before I push publish on the final book down the line.

If you want to read the other chapters click HERE and if you want to read the other books click HERE.

Chapter 21 Part 2

“Ooh, boy, Bella. That’s a stinky one.”

Liz sat back on her feet and made a face. “Okay. Let’s do this.”

She reached for the wipes and the new diaper while Bella kicked her feet on the blanket she was lying on on the floor.

She should call Matt after she was done. It had been a week since she’d witnessed him arrest Gabe and she hadn’t heard a word from him. She’d been wondering why she hadn’t been hearing his voice on the scanner at night and should have asked, but then she’d have to admit she listened to hear his voice on the scanner.

Awkward.

Instead of calling Matt last night, like she’d considered doing, she’d tried to call Ginny and make sure she wasn’t somewhere alone with Keith. Molly’s suggestion that hanging out with Keith could be a temptation for her had alarmed her. Ginny hadn’t picked up the phone, though, and she’d been about to drive to her house when Molly had walked in after milking at the barn.

Calling Matt would have been awkward though What was she going to say? “Hey, how’s it going since you kicked the crud out of my ex in front of half the town the other day?”

Molly took her coat off and hung it on the hanger next to the door. “Have you talked to Matt recently?”

Liz hooked Bella’s diaper and looked up. “No, I haven’t tried him yet. Why?”

Molly slid her shoes off, sniffed them and then placed them outside the door. “He might need a friend right now.”

“Yeah, why? And thanks for putting the shoes out there this time. This apartment stinks enough with all the diapers. We don’t need to smell like manure too.”

Molly’s eyes widened. “Why? Why would he need a friend? You were there, you saw why he would need a friend. Did that really look like normal Matt McGee behavior to you?” She turned and walked into the kitchen, opening the fridge. “Not only that, but Alex just told me he got suspended from the police force.”

Liz straightened and sat back on her heels. “Are you kidding me? Reggie suspended him?”

“He had no choice. The council made him because of the charges Gabe filed against him and the threat of a lawsuit.”

Liz’s chest tightened and her throat thickened with emotion. This wasn’t fair. Matt was a good cop. What was this going to do for his acceptance to the academy?

“You okay?”

She nodded. “Yeah. I will be.”

“It’s not your fault, Liz. Matt made his own choice. It’s exactly what he told Alex.”

The old familiar tingling spread from Liz’s hands up her arms as she stood and sat on the couch. Yes, Matt had made a choice, but it was her choices that had landed him in the position to make that choice.

Molly sat next to her and slid an arm around her. “It’s all going to work out, okay? Listen, I wasn’t really supposed to say anything to you. Matt didn’t want you to know, but since I already knew you were there, I just figured you would want to know what happened.”

Liz leaned against her friend. “I did want to know. I just wish I didn’t know. You know?”

The women laughed and Molly leaned back to look at Liz. “Yeah. I know.”

They laughed again and then Liz leaned out of the embrace. “Don’t you need to get ready for your sleepover?”

Molly and her grandmother had a sleepover once a month and usually Liz was invited, but this month she’d opted to stay home and let the ladies have some together time without their third wheel.

Molly sighed. “I do, but I hate to leave you alone after I just dropped that on you.”

Liz shrugged a shoulder. “The only thing you could do is stop me from eating the entire pint of chocolate Haagendas in the freezer.” She winked. “But really, you couldn’t even do that, so go on. Have fun at Grandma Fran’s and tell her I’ll be back next month.”

Molly stood and stretched. “She’ll be happy about that. She says you make better hot chocolate than me. Plus she wants to see Bella again. You’ll have to bring her by before then.”

Liz folded one of Bella’s blankets and laid it on the back of the couch. “I will. What’s on the agenda tonight?”

Molly wiggled her body in a type of dance. “Spa night. Facial masks, manicures, pedicures, and I’m giving her a massage.”

Liz laughed at the picture of 76-year old Frannie wearing a facemask.

Molly left after a shower and change and Liz headed for the freezer, her phone in her hand. She would call Matt and check on him, but first — ice cream.

She was swallowing the first bite when her phone buzzed.

Matt: Hey, you home?

Good grief. It was like he could read her mind.

Liz: Where else would I be? I don’t have a life you know. *wink emoji*

Matt: Be over in ten?

Huh. Not even a joke back. This couldn’t be good.

Liz: Sure. I’ll be here.

She caught a glimpse of her reflection in the window on her way to the couch and winced. She should at least comb her hair, or put it in a bun, or something. She looked down at the baggy sweatpants she’d stolen from Molly and the stained Needtobreathe T-shirt. And change her clothes. Yeah. She should change her clothes. Sure, Matt was a friend, but she could at least look half way decent for him.

How should one dress when their friend was about to tell them they’d slammed their ex-boyfriend’s head off some concrete? She decided on casual, but not too casual, slipping on a white tank top, covered with a beige sweater and a pair of blue yoga pants. She was yanking a brush through her hair when the knock on the door came. Apparently her ten minutes was much different than his ten minutes because for her it had only been about six.

She’d needed that extra four to finish brushing.

She pushed her fingers through her hair instead and attempted to fluff it, as much as straight hair would fluff. Since it was shorter now, it didn’t look as crazy with just a quick brush as it had when it fell down her back, but still.

That whole saying about absence making the heart grow founder seemed to hold water when she opened the door and saw him standing on the landing, hands deep in his front pockets, looking out over the town. A cold breeze ruffled his hair and his normally smooth jawline was speckled with a few days growth, which gave him an entirely more rugged look. That rugged look sent her heart thudding fast against her ribcage and her bottom lip between her teeth as she took in the rest of him — his dark blue jeans, tan cardigan hugging his newly fit torso.

He turned his head toward her, and she ceased her pursual, hoping red wasn’t spreading across her skin as fast as the warm flush of appreciation was spreading under it.

“Hey.”

The husky tone of his voice tipped her stomach upside down.

Just friends, Liz. You two are just friends. That is all. Stop staring at your gorgeous friend and let him in your apartment.

“Hey. You want to get out of the cold?”

Of course, he wants to get out of the cold, idiot. Just step out of the way and let him in.

She stepped back and opened the door fully. “Come in.”

He stepped past her, and she drew in a sharp breath. Wow. He smelled amazing. She needed to focus. He wasn’t here for a pleasure call.

He stepped into the kitchen area and turned to face her, hands still in his pockets, cheekbones flushed soft pink from the cold. “Sorry I haven’t called. You been okay?”

He was apologizing? She hadn’t spoke to him barely at all since the day in the parking lot at the art class and he was apologizing.

He really was something else and that something else was wonderful.

“Yeah, I’ve been good.”

“Bella?”

“She’s great. Just taking a nap on the blanket right now.”

“Good. Good.”

He nodded as he spoke, then looked at the tip of his boot.

She knew she should put him out of his misery but wasn’t sure how. Should she tell him she knew about what happened with Gabe? Should she admit she’d been upset because she found out he’d been in her apartment the night of her overdose? Debating it in her head wasn’t going to help move either of them forward in their lives so she’d better pull one trigger or the other.

“Listen —”

They spoke at the same time, then laughed together.

“Sorry.”

In unison again. Really? Liz laughed softly, tugging gently on her earlobe. This was getting weird.

“Listen.” He spoke first this time. “I’m sure you’ve heard by now what happened the other night at Mooney’s.” He rubbed his hand along the back of his neck then held it there, pulling down. “I just wanted to apologize for my behavior and if I made anything worse for you. I should have controlled my anger. I didn’t and I’m sorry.”

He peered at her with what she could only describe as puppy dog eyes. His sincere contrition made her want to slide her arms around his neck and comfort him, tell him she wasn’t mad, not in the least, but there was still a part of her that was upset at him for this and for not telling her he was at her apartment that night

She bit her lower lip for a few seconds before speaking. “I know. I was there that day.” Matt winced and looked back down toward the floor as she continued. “I’m guessing that hadn’t gotten around yet.”

He shook his head. “No. Not yet. And if Alex knew he didn’t tell me.”

“Yeah. He knew. He was sworn to secrecy until I could figure out how to tell you.”

Matt looked back up at her again and his green eyes locked on hers. “I guess we both had secrets we didn’t want to talk about.”

A chill shivered through her and not just from the cold blast that had come in when he’d stepped inside. That statement held a meaning beyond what had happened at Mooney’s. She knew it, but did he?

“I wasn’t honest with you about the night you overdosed, Liz.”

Her breath caught. She hadn’t expected a confession, yet she should have. It was Matt she was talking to. Of course, he was going to be open with her. Time for her to be honest too.

“I know.”

“You know?”

“Ginny accidentally told me.”

“How did Ginny — Oh right. Stan. I asked the guys at church for prayer for you. He didn’t know the full story, but I’m guessing he put two and two together.”

A faint smile pulled at Liz’s mouth. “Yeah, he’s a horrible husband but he’s still got some brains left up there.” She played with the necklace around her neck. “I lied to you too. More than once, which, of course, you know.” The sting of the tears surprised her, and she swallowed to try to keep them at bay. “I’m sorry, Matt. I’m sorry I wasn’t honest with you.” She looked toward the living room, struggling to make eye contact. “You’ve been a good friend and I haven’t.”

He leaned back against the kitchen counter, bending his hands over the edges. “We both screwed up by not being open with each other.” He pushed himself off, stepped toward her. “I don’t want to do that anymore. Be dishonest with you.”

Her breath quickened at the heat coming off him. He needed to step back. She was having trouble thinking clearly and this time she knew it wasn’t alcohol causing issues.

“I don’t want to keep holding my feelings back or keep them hidden.” He took another step and now he was definitely too close. She started to step back but he placed a hand at the small of her back, stopping her and pulling her gently toward him. He slid the other hand on the back of her neck, leaning his head close to hers.

“And I don’t want to be just friends anymore.”

The words sent her heart slamming inside her ribcage, forcing her to take a deep breath and hold it for a few seconds. She glanced at his mouth, then moved her gaze back to his eyes. She’d imagined him kissing her a few hundred times over the last few years, but now that he was this close, she was suddenly terrified. What if changed their friendship and not for the better?

 “You know, seeing you do that to Gabe? It showed a whole different side to you.” She was stalling, she knew it.

He laughed softly, his breath tickling her cheek. “Yeah. Not a good one.”

“It showed me you’re not as perfect as everyone — as I — thought you were. It showed me you have a lot more passion in you than you let on.”

He moved his hand from the back of her neck to the back of her head, sinking his fingers into her hair. “Liz, you and are I a lot similar than you think. You’re not who people think you are, and neither am I.”

His gaze dropped to her mouth, and she smiled. “Is this confession time? Are you going to tell me you’re actually a bad guy, secretly running an underground drug ring?”

Matt laughed softly. “Yeah. Right. That’s me. A secret drug lord.” He grinned. “No. What I mean is, I’m not perfect.”

“You’re not?”

“No.”

“What do you do that makes you not perfect, McGee?”

A playful grin turned his mouth upward. “I rip those tags off pillows that say ‘do not remove’. One time I left my cart in the middle of the parking lot. I actually like pineapple on pizza.”

He pressed his hand more firmly against the small of her back and pulled her against him. “And I think about kissing you way more than I should.”

Her gaze dropped to his mouth, her voice fading to a whisper as she pressed her hands against his chest. “You can’t think of kissing me.”

“Why?”

“Because we’re just friends. Remember?”

“Then let me give you a friendly kiss.”

She closed her eyes as his lips brushed against her forehead, her cheek, and then found her mouth, capturing her upper lip.

Heat shot through her as he slipped his mouth to her lower lip next. She moved her hands to his face and leaned into the kiss as he found her whole mouth, savoring the feel of him.

If this was what it felt like to kiss a friend, then she wanted him to be her friend for the rest of her life.

He smiled as he pulled his mouth away several seconds later. “That went better than I thought it was going to.”

“Kissing me?”

He shrugged a shoulder. “That and talking to you about all the things I should have talked to you about already.”

“Did you plan to kiss me?”

“Not necessarily, but I thought it would be nice if it finally happened since I’ve been thinking about it so long. I needed to take the chance and let the chips fall where they may.”

She smiled and slid her arms behind his neck as his arms slid behind her back.

Her hand moved automatically to the back of his head, up into his hair, like she’d imagined doing many times before. She finally felt comfortable enough to mess up that perfect Officer McGee hair. She smirked. “Does this mean we’re more than friends now?”

The huskiness of his tone slid over her senses like a warm blanket on a cold winter night, transforming her smirk into a smile. “I certainly hope so.”

He kissed her again, as soft and sweet as before, no urgency, just a  comforting sense of leisure. She slid her hands down the back of his head, resting them on the back of his neck to hold him close, almost afraid he’d pull away and disappear and this would all be a dream.

A few minutes later, a small cry from the living room interrupted them and Liz pulled her mouth from his, her eyes on the living room. She slipped from his arms, and he followed her as she walked toward the blanket in the center of the floor. They found Bella looking up at them with a firm pout in place and fresh tears on her cheeks.

He stooped down before she could and lifted Bella into his arms. “Hey, little girl, jealous of all the attention your mom is getting tonight?” He winked at Liz. “Can’t be helped.”

He sat on the couch with the baby cradled in his arms, her small form practically dwarfed against his much larger arms.

Liz couldn’t believe how natural it all seemed, him with a baby, relaxed, smiling. It stopped her in her tracks, left her holding her breath without even realizing it.

She finally let herself breathe again and walked to the kitchen, lifting a bag of breast milk from the freezer and setting it to warm in a bowl of warm water. “Maybe I shouldn’t ask this,” she said as she returned a few minutes later with a bottle. She braced herself mentally, sitting next to him and handing him the bottle. “What happened with the academy?”

He took the bottle and kept his eyes on Bella. “They rescinded my application because of the charges filed against me.” He shrugged a shoulder. “Guess God has different plans for me.”

Liz’s chest felt tight, and she rubbed the top of it under her throat. Her voice fell to a whisper. “I’m sorry.”

He looked up at her. “It will work out. No big deal.”

“It is a big deal. This was your dream and it’s my fault you’re not going to be able to realize it.”

Matt kept his eyes on hers. “Not everything is your fault Liz, and this definitely isn’t. I made the choice to react the way I did to Gabe. It was my decision to slam him against my patrol car, not yours. Actions have consequences and losing that spot at the academy was mine.”

Liz dropped her gaze, watching Bella drink from the bottle. “Liz, I want you to listen to me.” She nodded but kept her eyes on Bella. “Look at me.” She lifted her eyes and once again, the green of his eyes startled her, pulled her in. “This is not your fault. I’m serious. We all make poor decisions at some point in our lives. What happened with Gabe? It was a poor decision. That’s all. That night in your apartment? The same thing. Those mistakes do not define you, though. You get that right? You are what God says you are, and He says you are his child, mistakes and all.”

It was a message Liz had resisted over and over. That God loved her, no matter her poor choices and that she could learn from those poor choices and make better ones in the future. She’d usually roll her eyes and move away or make a joke or change the subject, but something about the way Matt said it, the way she could tell he meant it, truly believed it, and wanted to her to believe it too, broke her.

She didn’t stop the tears this time, didn’t look away from him when they came. She nodded as they flowed, trying her best not to ugly cry as she let the words sink in.

“Thank you.” She finally managed the words, leaning forward and brushing her lips against his cheek. “You know it too, right?”

He looked at her with a questioning rise in his eyebrows.

“That your bad decision to react the way you did to Gabe does not define you.”

He smiled sheepishly, tilted his face down toward Bella again. “Touché, Miss Cranmer. Touché.”

She slid next to him, her feet under her, one arm across the back of the couch, watching him feed Bella, and wishing she’d let her walls down before, let herself believe she could be happy and that she deserved it. Like him holding Bella, this — her leaning into him — felt natural and right, like how her life should be and hopefully would be in the future.

Fiction Friday: The Next Chapter. Chapter 11

To catch up with other parts of this novel in progress, click HERE.

Chapter 11

Encounter Church wasn’t only the largest church in the area when it came to congregation size. Its building stretched much further than any other church structure in Spencer Valley and anywhere in a 60-mile radius.

The building housed a full-size gym with a basketball court, a moderately large sanctuary set up stadium-style, a state-of-the-art sound system, and separate rooms that stretched down long, well-lit hallways and served as a spacious nursery, two conference rooms, and six adult Sunday School rooms.

In the lower level, there were rooms for Sunday School from kindergarten to high school, as well as a kitchen stocked and furnished as if it was in a culinary school.
This wasn’t the church Matt had grown up in and it wasn’t the type of church he ever saw himself being a member of up until a couple of years ago.

Now, though, he couldn’t imagine attending anywhere else. The music was outstanding, the pastor’s sermons were electrifying, and the congregation had become like family to Matt, even more so after his dad passed away.

“Matt! Good morning!” Jake Landers stood from the table he’d been sitting at in the Sunday School room and held out a hand.

“Glad to have you with us tonight.”

Matt took the older man’s hand and shook it firmly. “Glad to be here. I finally got a Wednesday night off.”

Jake shook his head as he sat. “I don’t know how you do it, kid. You go 1,000 miles an hour all day every day and still look refreshed.”

Matt laughed as he sat his Bible down and reached for an empty mug by the Keurig machine. “I might look refreshed, but I don’t often feel it.”

He waited for the mug to fill with the hazelnut cream flavored coffee he had chosen and then stirred in a dash of creamer and a packet of sugar. By the time he was done, the room was filling up with more men and they were seating themselves in the comfy chairs set up in a circle around the room.

He had been trying to attend this men’s group for a couple of months now. He needed this pick-me-up, the reminder that he wasn’t alone in his struggles and in sometimes feeling emotionally and spiritually drained.

The session turned out to be exactly what he needed and when it was over, he felt a renewed energy as he walked toward the gym to meet with a group of teenage boys he had agreed to mentor through a bi-monthly youth Bible study.

When it concluded, he challenged the seven boys to a pick-up game of basketball while they waited for their parents. The game reminded him he wasn’t young as he used to be and despite being a police officer, he also wasn’t as in shape as he should be.

“See you next week for a rematch, old man,” Trevor Banks called to him as he left the gym.
Matt grinned and waved back. “Challenge accepted, Stretch. I’ll be ready for you next time.”

He collected his Bible and notebook from the floor against the wall and as he looked up, he saw the head pastor Taylor Jenson strolling toward him, his charismatic smile firmly in place.

“Matt. Good evening.” He spoke in his familiar, smooth Southern accent that hadn’t faded in the least in the ten years since he’d lived in the north. He stuck out his hand and once again Matt was struck with how tall the man was and how the cowboy boots he wore with his crisp blue jeans and polo shirts made him even taller and even a more imposing figure.

“Pastor. How’s it going?”

“Good. The Bible study go well?”

Matt nodded and filled the pastor in on the young men and how each one was doing.

“That’s great, Matt.” Taylor slid his hands in his front pockets and propped his side against the gym wall. “Listen, I need to talk to you about something.”

Matt propped his Bible under his arm, hoping the pastor wasn’t asking him to take on another commitment. His schedule was completely booked.

Taylor looked at the floor and tugged at his earlobe, a move Matt had seen before, usually when Taylor was about to bring up a tough subject he really didn’t want to address. “I had a couple calls today from some members of the congregation. A couple of them were parents, a couple weren’t. They had some concerns about you leading the youth after what they read in the paper this week.”

“What they read in the paper?” Matt wasn’t following. What had been in the paper that might — “Oh. The birth announcement.”

Taylor winced and brought his gaze back up. “Yeah. That.”

Matt’s words about not caring what others thought about the announcement echoed back in his mind. Maybe he hadn’t thought this all the way through.

“They’re just a bit concerned about you leading the youth, being an example to them if you’ve had a child out of wedlock.”

Taylor was rubbing the back of his neck now, then held his hand there. “I didn’t know what to say to them. I didn’t even know you’d had a baby until someone showed me the announcement. I mean, I had seen you with Liz, taking her to some appointments, but I had no idea you were even dating.”

Matt blew out a breath and chewed on the inside of his bottom lip for a few minutes. “We’re not.”

“Oh.”

“No, I mean — it’s just. Liz and I are friends. I’m not her baby’s father. I told the nurse I was to keep Liz from having to connect her baby to the real father. I asked the nurse not to send the announcement to the paper, but I guess there was some kind of mix up.”

Taylor whistled, his hand still on the back of his neck as he tipped his head back. “Oh, man. That’s crazy.” He tipped his head back down and laughed softly. “I had a feeling there was a bigger story here. Sounds like you were trying to do the right thing.” He kicked at the gym floor with the tip of his boot. “It’s put us in a tough spot here at the church, though. I don’t want to reveal your private business but at the same time, I don’t know how to answer the parents without doing that very thing.”

Matt pushed his hands into his jean pockets and shook his head. “I don’t want to put the church in a difficult position. Why don’t I just step down for a bit, until I figure out how to handle this? I told Liz we should just ignore it, go on with our lives, and maybe I should explain it to some people, but I don’t know how to do it without making Liz look bad.”

Taylor sighed. “I really hate to do that to you, Matt. You’re an important part of this church, a leader to these boys.”

“But I’ll also be gone in a couple of weeks. You’ll have to find someone new to step in anyhow. I’ll just step down a little early.”

Taylor nodded. “That’s true. I guess that will save us both from the awkwardness.” He rubbed his hand across his chin. “I really am sorry about this. You’re a good guy, Matt. If there is anything I can do, please let me know. Can I pray for you at least?”
“Of course. Prayer is always welcome.”

Taylor took the time to pray for Matt left and then men shook hands. A few minutes later Matt was behind the steering wheel of his truck, laughing to himself. If he wasn’t leaving for the academy in a couple of weeks that conversation would have caused him more concern. He easily could have been offended that the church members who had a concern hadn’t approached him before they approached the pastor. At the same time, their concern made sense. Who would he be to tell a group of boys that waiting to have sex before marriage would protect their hearts and their bodies if he himself had been sleeping with a woman he wasn’t married to?

It did feel a bit like a betrayal that part of the congregation had made up their mind about him without even asking about the situation, but he wouldn’t have been able to ask someone about something so personal either.

He could just imagine approaching a person whose name had been listed as the father of someone’s baby when no one even knew they were in a relationship. “Hey, so . . .um . . . About this baby thing . . .”

Yeah. It would definitely be an awkward conversation to have.

He turned the radio on and tapped his hand against the steering wheel to a Christian song playing on his favorite radio station.

It was his decision to tell that nurse he was Bella’s father. No, he hadn’t thought it through, but he had to live with it and in the end, it would be worth it, as long as it meant Bella and Liz wouldn’t have any official ties to Gabe Martin.

***

“I can’t believe I did it.”

Ginny turned her head and tilted it to get a better look at her hair. While it had previously fallen across her shoulders when she let it down, it now stopped at ear level. She blew out a slow breath, tilting her head up again. What was Stan going to think about this impulsive move? She truly wasn’t sure.

Liz stood behind her, admiring her own shorter cut. “It looks fantastic, Ginny. Seriously. You’re drop-dead gorgeous. Just wait until Stan sees you. He won’t be able to keep his hands off you.”

Ginny’s chest tightened. Wouldn’t he, though? He was certainly able to keep his hands off her a lot these days. She couldn’t even remember the last time he’d hugged her, let alone held her in his arms.

“Well, I don’t know about that, but your cut certainly came out great. It will be a lot easier to manage for you, which will be great for when you start back next week.”

Liz pulled her lower lip between her teeth, still looking at her hair in the bathroom mirror, pulling the strands against her jawline. “I can’t believe my maternity leave is already over. It was nice of Linda to even give it to me. I don’t think it was easy for her to give me that much time off.”

She ruffled her hair and pouted. “Look, I look like a brunette Taylor Swift that time she chopped her hair. Well, the haircut does at least. Not the rest of me.”

Ginny cocked an eyebrow. “Who?”

Liz snorted. “A pop singer whose music I don’t even like.”

“Oh. Well, I’m old. That’s probably why I’ve never heard of her.”

“Be glad. You’re not missing much other than a lot of sappy songs about broken hearts.”

Ginny touched her finger to her chin. “Oh wait. Is she the one who breaks up with men and then writes songs about her breakups?”

Liz laughed as she picked up a brush and pulled it across her hair. “Yes. That’s her. Maybe I should have written a song after I left Gabe. I might could have made a few bucks.”

She turned and looked at Ginny, at the way Missy had angled her hair so it was short in the back and longer along the sides. Ginny looked ten years younger, if not more. Her entire persona seemed brighter now. Maybe this would help raise the heaviness the woman had around her some days. Maybe her husband would see her and whisk her out the door for a fancy dinner, bringing a bright spot to her day. She certainly deserved it.

“Is Stan going to be home tonight?”

Ginny shook her head. “No. We’re going to a real estate banquet together. He’s up for real estate agent of the year for the region.”

Liz’s eyebrows raised. This was a change from Ginny’s usual answers to questions about Stan. Most of the time he was away on business or not home at all. “That’s awesome. He’s finally taking a night away from work and taking you out to boot. Way to go Stan.”

Soft pink spread along Ginny’s cheekbones as she hooked an earring in. “Yeah, it should be a nice night out. We haven’t been out in —” The pink darkened to crimson. “Well, a while anyhow.”

Liz leaned back against the dresser behind her and gnawed at her thumbnail, pondering the color along Ginny’s cheeks. Was it brought on by anticipation or something else?

“Do you think he’ll win?”

“He has before and he’s been even busier this year so I’d be surprised if he doesn’t.”

Liz didn’t hear the excitement in Ginny’s voice she thought she should. She studied the woman for a moment then let her gaze drift across Ginny’s bedroom to the lightly -colored dresser and the mirror attached to it, the queen-sized bed set up high off the ground, covered in what looked like a handmade quilt of various colors, to the peach-colored walls and pillows that matched the walls. The headboard and armoire against the wall near the bed matched the dresser she was leaning against and a walk-in closet was open on the other side of the room.

“This is a beautiful house, Ginny.”

“You’ve never been in here?” Ginny turned her while adjusting her other earring. “I thought you were here for the engagement party.”

Liz shook her head. “Just the backyard. I was so focused on feeling out of place and left out I barely noticed even that.” She walked toward the walk-in closet. “I would say I’ve matured since then but it’s a work in progress, as you know. Hey.” She reached for a black gown hanging in the closet. “This is lovely. You should wear this tonight.” A white blouse with a silver sheen caught her eye and she reached for it too. “Oh, and you could put this over it. It would set off your eyes.”

She turned to see Ginny blushing again. “You think so? I don’t know. Maddie bought that for me two years ago and I just — well, I never — I didn’t have anywhere to wear it. I thought about wearing it to last year’s banquet but it seemed a little too . . .” Her voice trailed off and she shrugged. “Revealing? Sexy? I don’t know.”

Liz laid the dress and blouse on the bed. “It’s hot is what it is and you will look hot in it. Stan isn’t even going to want to go to the banquet when he sees you in it. He’s going to want to get you right back out of it again.”

The blush had spread to Ginny’s neck and chest now and she laid a hand at the nape of her neck as if to stop it.
“Oh — well, I don’t know about that but I — I mean, I could wear it, I guess.”

Liz walked to the dresser and flipped open the jewelry box. “I bet you have a necklace that would go great with this.” She shut the box abruptly and turned away from it. “Oh, my word. What am I doing? I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be getting into your things like that.”

Ginny laughed and opened the box again. “Actually, I would appreciate your advice and opinion. I haven’t really dressed up in a while. I do have a couple necklaces that might work.”

The women looked through the necklaces for a few moments. Liz pulled her gaze away when her phone dinged. She reached for it and checked the message.

She sighed. “It’s McGee. Asking what to bring for dinner.”

Ginny swung around with a gold necklace in her hand and placed a hand on her hip. “Dinner, eh?”

Liz scowled playfully. “Calm down. It’s like a potluck dinner. Molly, Alex, Ellie, and Jason are all going to be there too. Then we’re going to watch Ellie and Jason’s wedding video.”

She texted a response and tossed the phone onto the bed. “Matt and I are just friends. Like I told you.”

Ginny held the necklace up in front of her while she looked in the mirror. “A friend who is clearly in love with you. I get it.”

Liz scoffed. “He is not in love with me. He’s just a good friend. I mean, don’t get me wrong, he’s a very good friend. He’s been there for me in the worst moments of my life and in the best. He brought me food when I was too big and sick to get around when I was pregnant. He drove me to a few appointments when my car broke down. He, well, obviously delivered Bella. He’s also stopped by plenty of times and held her while I cleaned the apartment or took a nap. He’s just a good guy. You know that. He’s good to everyone.”

Ginny held up another necklace, narrowing her eyes as she studied her reflection in the mirror. “He’s not as good to everyone as he is to you, and I can’t say I’ve ever heard him say he was in love with you, but I do know that he was very upset when you had that fall at your apartment last year.”

Liz’s chest constricted and a lump pushed up into her throat. Her hand trembled as she straightened the dress she’d lain on the bed, averting her eyes from Ginny. “What do you mean?”

“Stan said Matt asked for prayer for you during the men’s Bible study a couple nights after you were taken to the hospital. He didn’t give any details, but said there had been an accident and he’d arrived before the ambulance.”

The room suddenly seemed small and tight as Liz sat on the edge of the bed and took a deep breath. Matt was at her apartment that night? She’d known there was an officer there, but she’d been told it was Tom Landry, Matt’s older partner. If

Matt had been there, why had he never told her?

The idea of him seeing her, barely conscious, at the worst moment of her life. Bile clutched at her throat and she gagged.
Ginny whirled to look at her. “Uh-oh. Are those tacos we stopped for causing an issue?”
She shook her head against Ginny’s concern then changed her mind and nodded. “Actually, yes, they are a little. Will you excuse me?”


She found the bathroom down the hall, doubled over the toilet as she shut the door, and gagged again. She closed her eyes tight, desperate to remember the voices that night. Had Matt’s been one of them? She couldn’t remember. She needed to remember.

Dear God . . . Please no.

So when she’d first lied to him, said she’d accidentally taken too many pills from a prescription for painkillers for her knee, he’d known all along. He’d most likely even known she was pregnant. She wretched into the toilet bowl, grasping the seat as colors played across her vision.

Reaching for a piece of toilet paper, she wiped it across her mouth and shook her head. He’d never said a thing. He hadn’t told her he already knew. That had been almost a year ago. And he’d never said a thing. She couldn’t believe it.
He had now twice seen her at her most vulnerable. If the earth opened up right now and swallowed her whole she wouldn’t have been totally fine with it.

“Really God? How much more do you need to punish and humiliate me for what I did?”

She stood and turned the sink on, cupping a handful of water to wash her mouth out with. She pictured herself in the bathroom floor of her apartment that night, desperately trying to get the pills to come back up again. She hadn’t wanted to die. Not really. She’d simply panicked. She hadn’t wanted the baby to die either. She hadn’t even really accepted there was a baby yet.

In those moments when she shoved those pills in her mouth, she had told herself it was the best way to keep her parents from finding out how she’d been living, from Molly being disappointed in her, from feeling the same day after day. But at the moment she stuck her finger back against her tonsils a different kind of panic had set in. A panic that she might actually die, that she’d never had a chance to say goodbye to Molly or her sister.

There was a baby to think about. The baby hadn’t done anything to deserve a death sentence. She had to stop the pills from taking effect and there was no way they wouldn’t. She’d downed half a bottle of opioid painkillers.

Praying to God, she had begged while vomit trickled down her chin. It obviously wasn’t enough vomit to bring the pills back up because blackness had encroached across her vision quickly. She had chased the darkness away with a deep breath that was more like a gasping scream.

“Jesus! Save me!”

She couldn’t even feel the phone in her hand when she’d hit the 9 and collapsed against the cool linoleum.

A knock on the bathroom door ripped her from the memory and back to the present. She tried to gather herself, remind herself she wasn’t in her old apartment, begging to live. She was at Ginny’s and she needed to get it together already. She splashed her face with water and snatched the hand towel to dry herself off.

“Liz? Honey? You okay in there.”

“Yes, I’m fine. I’ll be right out.”

There she went again, lying. How many times in her life was she going to tell everyone she was fine when she clearly wasn’t?

No matter.

She smoothed her newly cropped hair back, took a deep breath, and forced what she hoped was a natural-looking smile on her face.

Faking happiness had become like breathing to her.

This time would be no different.

Fiction Friday: The Next Chapter Chapter 9

As always, this is a story in progress. There might be typos or errors that will be fixed later.

To catch up with the rest of the story click HERE.

Story description:

Liz Cranmer is a single mother struggling to figure out life after past mistakes. She can’t change the past but she can change her future and she’s determined to do so, first by going back to college and maybe later proving to her parents and the people in her small town she isn’t the train wreck they all think she is.

Ginny Jefferies, is Spencer Valley’s 53-year old librarian, retired teacher and she’s stuck in a rut. Her husband is too busy for her and the lives of her children are taking unexpected turns.

When Liz, the sister of Ginny’s daughter-in-law comes to the library looking for ideas to help her new motherhood journey, the two form a bond they hope will lead them both to a better, more fulfilling future.

Chapter 9

It was too late. Liz’s knees gave away and Matt’s arms tightened around her, catching her before she slid to the floor. Black spots were encroaching on the edges of her vision. She took a deep breath to try to chase them away.
“Hey.” His brow furrowed as he tipped back his head to look at her face. “What’s going on?”
“Just get me out of here,” she hissed. “Don’t let me ruin their reception.”
“What’s going on?”
“I’m weak. Like that day after I brought Bella home. Just get me out of here.”
“Can you walk?”
She let out a shaky breath, nodding slowly.
When he slid his arm around her waist and turned her away from the dance floor, though, she wasn’t as confident. Hypochondria-ridden thoughts roared through her mind, thoughts she had been able to push aside for most of the pregnancy and in the last few weeks. Something was wrong. What was going on with her body? Did she have a fatal disease?
Sweat beaded across her forehead as they walked slowly toward the back of the house.
Please, please don’t let Molly be watching me.
No one followed, though, and when they turned the corner, Matt scooped her into his arms, much to her annoyance and carried her to the front porch, cradling her like she was the baby.
“No.” She shook her head. “Take me to my car.”
“I’m not taking you to your car. You’re not driving anywhere.”
“I won’t until I’m feeling better. I just don’t want anyone to see me this way.”
“Okay.” He huffed out an aggravated sigh. “Fine.”
They changed directions, crossing the small driveway toward her car. He let her stand next to the car but kept an arm around her as he opened the passenger side of the door.
“Sit,” he ordered and when she did, her legs facing him, he squatted in front of her and looked up into her face. “What’s going on, Liz? This is the second time in the last three months I’ve had to keep you from hitting the floor.”
Liz sighed and raked her hand back through her hair. “I’m supposed to be drinking more water when I’m nursing.” She shrugged a shoulder. “I just didn’t drink like I should have today.”
Gosh she hoped that was all it was.
“Why?”
Because I kept thinking about everyone in town thinking you are the father of my baby instead of remembering to drink water.
“I don’t know. I just forget sometimes.”
Matt huffed out a breath and stood. “Stay here. I’ll be right back with a bottle of water.”
Where else was she going to go? She wanted to put the key in the ignition and take off, but her head still felt like it was full of helium and her arms fell limp next to her as if someone had sucked the muscles out of them.
When Matt returned, he opened the bottle and handed it to her. “Drink. Slowly.”
She sipped the water while he cracked open a sports drink bottle.
“Where did you find that?”
“Jase’s fridge. He has them to drink after his workouts. You’re drinking this next.”
She sipped more of the water, resigned to the fact she couldn’t leave until she’d consumed the liquids Matt had brought her. Matt set the sports drink on the roof the car, then turned leaning back against the back door with his arms across his chest, resembling a centurion she’d seen on the front of a fiction novel one time. He was definitely guarding her, and she wasn’t sure how she felt about that. She wasn’t a fan of people telling her what to do. In this case she had no choice.
Five minutes passed before he spoke. “You getting anymore rest these days?”
“Yeah. Some. Bella is sleeping through the night more.”
He chuckled. “Going with the nickname Bella instead of Izzy, huh?”
Liz made a face. “Yeah. Izzie is too close to Lizzie.”
“Lizzie Borden took an —”
“McGee! Knock it off!”
Matt chuckled, looking out toward the setting sun. “Heard that enough, huh?”
She scowled at the setting sun. “You know I have.”
The music from the reception drifted toward them, mixing with the sounds of birds chirping and a cow mooing up the road at the Tanners main barn. A breeze rustled the leaves of the maple trees lining one side of the driveway. Brighter colors were already starting to spread across the green, dull yellows, and oranges. Liz wondered if they would have a nice foliage this year or if the leaves would simply shrivel and die like the year before.
“I like Bella,” Matt said after a few minutes. “Sounds like a princess name. It fits her. She’s already beautiful enough to be a princess.”
He handed the sports drink to her without looking at her. “Drink.”
She obeyed and sipped the lemon-flavored liquid, calculating in her head if she could make it back to town without needing a bathroom with all these fluids in her.
The tenderness in his voice when he spoke about Isabella touched her somewhere deep in her chest, but she didn’t want to think about that right now. She just wanted to feel better, head home, and relieve Ginny so the woman could go home and spend some time with her husband. She also wanted to get out of the driveway before Molly or anyone else saw her in this ridiculously vulnerable state.
“Feeling any better?”
She nodded slowly. She wasn’t lying either. The sports drink was doing its job.
“Sit a little longer.”
She scowled at the man who obviously thought he held authority even out of uniform.
Sitting there begrudgingly she realized she’d left her purse at her table under the tent.
“I don’t have my keys,” she mumbled.
“Where are they?”
“In my purse.”
Matt stepped away from the car. “Stay here. I’ll get it.”
Aggravation bubbled up in her. Even more, than being in a weakened state, she hated being waited on or fawned over. She was feeling better. She could get her own purse.
He came back holding a small black purse like a football. He thrust it at her like he was making a pass. “Molly asked where you were.”
She shot a glare at him.
“Don’t worry. I didn’t rat you out. I told her you were getting some fresh air.”
She took the purse. “Thank you.”
She’d already made her way to the driver side door and was preparing to slide behind the steering wheel when he held out his hand. “No way. Give me your keys.”
Her jaw tightened, but she tried to keep her voice calm. “You are not taking me home, McGee. I feel fine now. Really. I can drive myself.”
Matt reached over her and plucked the keys from her hand. “Nope.” He folded his hand around the keys. “I can’t allow that. It’s in violation of code 38, section 75. Driving while impaired.”
Her eyes widened. “Impaired?! I am not impaired! Doesn’t that mean under the influence of alcohol? There isn’t even any alcohol here.”
“That’s the main purpose of the code, yes, but that’s not the only thing that can impair a person.”
Oh, wonderful. He’s gone into police officer mode again. She started to open her mouth to respond, but he talked over her.
“You are impaired because you are suffering from dehydration. I can’t possibly, in good conscience, let you drive yourself home.”
Liz’s eyes narrowed. She tried her best to steady her voice. “I am no longer dehydrated. I am fine. Give me my keys.”
“Slide over, Liz.” It was obvious his stubbornness was as strong as hers. “The only way you are getting home today is if you let me drive you.”
She slid over with a small huffed of breath and folded her arms tight across her chest, sliding in the seat like a teenager. Matt laughed as he slid behind the steering wheel.
Liquid sloshed in her stomach. “How are you even going to get home?”
“Alex and Molly are coming over to watch a movie later, remember? Alex will bring me back for my truck.”
“You just have an answer for everything, don’t you?”
“I do when you’re trying to get out of letting me help you.”
Liz rolled her eyes. She wished some of the ladies at her parents’ church could see Matt now — harassing a poor single mother. She sat back in the passenger seat and slid her shoes off, pulling her legs up next to her so she could rub her soles. Matt slid the seat back to accommodate his long legs and adjusted the steering wheel and rearview mirror. He wriggled in the seat and scrunched up his nose.
“This is weird.” He leaned back against the seat and stretched his arms out and made a face again.
“What is?”
“Being this close to the ground. How do you ride around like this? It’s awful.”
“I’m not exactly tall, McGee. Climbing up in a big pick-up really doesn’t appeal to me.”
He lifted an eyebrow. “You should want to be in a truck that much more. Then you can feel tall for once.”
“Ha. Ha. You’re so funny.” She gestured toward the front of the car. “If you’re going to drive me home then let’s just go already.”
She yawned and stretched her arms over her head as he pulled onto the dirt road in front of Jason’s. “You know my mother thinks I was sleeping with you and dating Gabe at the same time thanks to that birth announcement.”
Matt snorted a laugh. “She does not.” He glanced at Liz. She wasn’t laughing. “She really thinks you would do that? Or that I would?”
Liz shrugged. “Par for the course in my life. She always seems to think the worst of me. The fact she’s thinking the worst of you is definitely different. She’s always looked at you like you have a glowing halo above your head. ” She pushed her lower lip out and gave him a mock expression of pity. “Sorry, McGee. You’ve clearly fallen from the pedestal she had you on.”
He shifted one hand over the other, as he turned off the dirt road onto a paved one, his brow furrowed. “I don’t think she really thinks that. About you or me. You talked to her, right? Told her what happened?”
Well, not exactly.
He didn’t wait for her to answer. “Let me talk to her. I’ll clear it up.”
“I don’t want you to talk to her.” The way Liz snapped startled even herself. “Sorry. It’s just, she made up her mind without even asking me. Let her believe what she wants.”
I’m not a perfect person, but I’m not that bad, she wanted to add but decided not to in case he agreed with her mother about what kind of woman she was.
Matt reached over and squeezed her hand. “Why don’t you close your eyes and rest?”
She looked at his hand on hers for a few seconds before drawing it away. There he went again. Being the charming man everyone said he was.
She slid her sweater on and leaned against the door, reluctantly closing her eyes. Matt was right. She needed to rest. When she got home, she would be on baby duty and need to be alert.
She jerked awake when he pulled into the parking lot behind her apartment 15 minutes later. She blinked her eyes and rubbed them. It hadn’t been much, but hopefully, it would help. A cat nap was better than nothing these days.
Inside they found Isabella snuggled in the bassinet asleep and Ginny laying on the couch, a blanket pulled up over her shoulders and her eyes closed.
Standing in the living room doorway, Liz smiled. “I hate to wake her,” she whispered. “She looks so peaceful.”
Matt grinned, standing behind her, looking over her shoulder. “Bella or Mrs. Jefferies?”
Liz looked up at him, amused. “You can call her Ginny now Matt. She’s not your teacher anymore.”
Matt frowned and cocked an eyebrow. “I can’t do that. That would be weird.”
Their eyes met and she suddenly realized how he close he was standing. So close she could see a small scar under his bottom lip, in the crease of his chin. She was pondering where the scar might have come from when snickering from the couch brought both of their attention to Ginny. She tossed the blanket off her shoulders, laughing fully now.
“My name is Ginny, Matthew. Why would it be weird to call me by my name?”
Matt’s eyes widened. “The way you said Matthew just now gave me flashbacks to that time you made me write the spelling words I’d missed five times each. I’d missed ten that day. My hand ached for a week after that.”
Ginny stood and began folding the blanket. “I don’t even remember that, kid. The fact you do makes me think you might need a bit of therapy.” She looked over her shoulder and winked. “Anyhow, how was the wedding?”
Liz tossed her purse on a chair and flopped onto the couch as Ginny laid the blanket across the back. “Wonderful. Ellie was beautiful. The wedding beautiful. The reception was beautiful . . .”
Matt waved his hands and raised the tone of his voice to mimic Liz. “Oh my. There was just so much …” He placed his hands to his face and gasped. “Beauty.”
Liz playfully tossed a pillow at him. “Shut it, McGee.”
Matt ignored her admonishment and caught the pillow tossing it back at her. He jerked his thumb toward the door. “Hey, I’m going to pop down to Ned’s and grab us some snacks for the movie. Want anything.”
Liz’s feet ached and all the liquids Matt had made her drink were hitting her system now. “Nothing specific. Something crunchy. Just nothing spicy. It upsets Bella’s stomach.”
Matt saluted and headed toward the door as Liz rushed toward the bathroom. When she came out, Ginny was reaching for her purse.
“Thank you so much, Ginny. I really appreciate your help today.”
“No problem, my dear. I absolutely adore that baby of yours. It was a nice break from tearing down the garden for winter.”
Liz pondered the older woman as Ginny pulled a sweater over a light tan tank top. She was always so well put together; her long, dirty blond hair pulled back from her face in a ponytail or bun, her makeup on point, her outfits perfectly matched and always clean. Yet, there was something that seemed out of place somehow. There was a sadness in her eyes each time she left to go home. What was going on at home that made her shoulders droop slightly each time she said goodbye?
“So, are you and Stan going to have some quality time together tonight? Watch a movie maybe?”
Ginny shook her head as she buttoned the sweater, her eyes on the buttons. “No. Not tonight. He’s in Philadelphia for a real estate conference.”
Meetings last week. A conference today. Was this guy ever home?
“Oh. So, you’re going home to an empty house then?”
Ginny smiled. “Yep. A nice quiet night with a good book is in order, I think.”
Liz narrowed her eyes, studied the woman as she finished buttoning the sweater. Did she really want to be home alone with a book? “Sounds a little boring. You sure you don’t want to hang out with us tonight? We’re going to watch a movie and will probably order a pizza at some point. You’re more than welcome to stay.”
“That’s sweet of you, Liz, but this old lady would just cramp your style.” Ginny laughed. “Do they even say that anymore?”
Liz sat on the couch and rubbed the bottom of her foot. “Some people do, yes, but you wouldn’t cramp our style. We don’t have any style.”
Ginny hooked the strap of her purse over her shoulder. “Very funny, young lady. Seriously, though, I’m sure Matt would prefer to have a little alone time with you this evening.”
The liquids were definitely kicking in again and Liz wanted to rush back to the bathroom but needed to set the record straight first. “There’s nothing between me and Matt. We’re just friends.”
She didn’t like the way Ginny’s eyebrows raised as she looked at her. A small smile pulled at one corner of her mouth. “Oh. Does he know that you’re just friends?”
Liz’s eyelids drooped and she huffed out a sigh. “Yes. He does. Why do you ask?”
“It’s just — well, the way he looks at you makes me think maybe there’s a little more going on there.” Ginny cleared her throat, twisting her purse strap around her finger. “At least in his mind.”
Two could play at this game.
“Oh yeah? You mean the way that Keith guy was looking at you the other day?”
Ginny visibly flushed and she tilted her face toward the ground. “Now, Liz, Keith and I knew each other years ago. He was not looking at me the way Matthew McGee looks at you.” She smirked. “This conversation is over, young lady.”
The conversation wasn’t over, but Liz couldn’t argue. Not right now anyhow. Her bladder wouldn’t allow it.
“Ginny, you need to tell me more about Keith.” She stood and held her finger in front of her face. “As soon as I get out of the bathroom. I had a ton of water before I left Jason’s. Don’t go anywhere. I want the full story. There is definitely a history there. I could tell.” She started toward the bathroom. “Wait. I know you. You’re going to slip out on me before you fill me in. I know how you work. Follow me to the bathroom. You can tell me through the door.”
Ginny tipped her head back and laughed. “Liz, go use the bathroom. There’s really nothing more to tell about Keith. I knew him in high school and that’s all.” She turned toward the front door. “You young people have fun tonight.” She looked over her shoulder. “Are you still going to that art class with me Monday?”
“Yes!” Liz shut the bathroom door, shouting the rest of her words through the door. “I’ll meet you there! You still think it’s okay if I bring Bella with me?”
“Absolutely. She’ll probably nap in her seat during the class anyhow. You might as well enjoy it while you can. She’ll be demanding your undivided attention soon.”
When Liz came out of the bathroom, Ginny was gone as she had predicted, and Isabella was waking up. She’d need to be fed. Liz decided she’d better hide in the bedroom so Matt wouldn’t get too much of a shock when he got back from the store.
When Isabella seemed finished, Liz made sure nothing was exposed that shouldn’t be and returned to the living room where Matt had already made himself comfortable in the center of the couch, leaning back casually. Containers of food were unopened on the kitchen counter next to two grocery bags. Liz stifled a laugh. Even the way he sat was polite. He didn’t prop his feet on the coffee table or sprawl back with his legs taking up half the couch like Alex did when he came. He sat with one arm across the back of the couch, but still looking like a Bible study leader waiting for the rest of the attendees to arrive. All he needed was a Bible on his lap and a thoughtful expression as he flipped through the pages.
It wasn’t that Liz minded the idea of him waiting for a Bible study to start, or the way he looked sitting on her couch. It was — she didn’t even know what it was. Maybe it was that she didn’t feel like she could ever measure up to the grandeur of Matt McGee’s reputation.
“Hey.” His face lit up as she walked into the room, Isabella cradled against her shoulder. He tilted his head to get a better look as she sat next to him. “Hello, little girl. Get your fill of dinner?” His eyes were focused on Bella’s, his smile wide and, dare Liz say it, amazingly attractive. Soon Bella’s hand was encircling his index finger, bringing an even more delighted grin to his face.
Liz leaned toward him. “You want to hold her?”
He reached over. “Absolutely.”
His hands cradled Bella and then he laid her gently in his arms where she laid on her back, looking up at him, eyes wide, tiny mouth slightly open. “You’re beautiful, Bella-girl. Do you know that? Yes, you are.”
Liz couldn’t help smiling, watching Matt’s demeanor completely transform from friendly, sometimes goofy police officer to a man completely adoring a newborn. He was entranced, completely oblivious to the world around him. He laughed softly, his eyes still on Bella’s. “Is that a smile? Are you smiling at me? Is this your first little smile?”
Liz glanced at her daughter and saw that she did indeed look like she was smiling. Huh. She’d figured it was probably gas and maybe it still was, but the newborn’s little arms and feet were kicking too. She certainly seemed happy.
Liz’s chest constricted. Again, she felt the familiar pang of disappointment, of shame.
Why had she taken that drink from Jimmy Sykes hand? Why had she believed Gabe when he’d said he just wanted to talk?
She was such a fool. If she had simply walked away, then — She smiled at Bella’s little mouth as it curved into an o shape. If she had walked away maybe she wouldn’t have Bella right now. Or maybe she’d have had Bella, but later, in a future with someone like Matt. Or with Matt.
Thinking about it was futile, of course. She couldn’t turn back time, change what she’d done. She could only move forward even if her parents were still stuck on her past mistakes.
Moving forward wouldn’t include Matt either. She had to get used to him not being around because in only a couple of more weeks he’d been off to the state police academy and after that who knew where he’d be assigned. Besides Molly and Ginny, she was on her own and it was high time she remembered that.

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.

Fiction Friday: Harvesting Hope (formerly The Farmer’s Sons) Chapter 18

Hold on to your seats, regular readers. Today’s chapter is going to send you on a bumpy ride. In fact, the next several chapters are going to.

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.

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.


Chapter 18


Sunday morning Ellie watched a bottleneck effect unfold in the sanctuary doorway and wished she had slipped out of the service early. At this rate, standing all the way at the back of the crowd, she’d never get out of the sanctuary. It was her turn to provide lunch at her parents, and she still had to go back to her apartment and pick up the crock pot with the shredded chicken. And Judi. If Judi was even awake. Ellie had driven a drunk Brad and Judi home the night before, sometime around midnight, dropping Brad off first and then parking his truck at her parents. He could walk to her parents this morning, or whenever he regained consciousness, and pick it up.

She’d done everything she could to keep Judi quiet while she helped her from Brad’s truck and practically shoved her in the passenger side of the sedan, hoping their parents didn’t wake up and find out the truth about Judi at 1 a.m. on a Saturday night. Her absence in church wouldn’t have been a sign to them that anything was amiss, since Judi hadn’t attended a service since she’d arrived. Their mom had mentioned it once, in private, to Ellie, expressing concern about Judi’s spiritual health, but hadn’t pursued it further as far as Ellie knew.

This morning Ellie’s eyes were heavy, and she’d yawned more than once during the sermon, hoping Pastor Joe hadn’t seen her and thought it was a silent review of his message.

She looked to her left and flinched involuntarily at the sight of Jason standing directly next to her. She had no way to get away from him. People were crushed against them on all sides.  Their shoulders touched, and heat rose from her chest to her face. There it was again. The physical attraction she wanted to deny but couldn’t. Without warning, an image of him shirtless by the woodpile the afternoon before popped into her mind.

She let out a slow breath and willed the image away, but only managed to transform the image into one of him swinging the ax, his biceps contracting with each hit. His biceps. The ones she used to run her hands up as they kissed. The ones pressed against her shoulder at this very moment.

 He glanced at her at the same moment she glanced at him, then they both looked away quickly. Like a pair of love struck teenagers, she thought, withholding an eye roll, so he didn’t think she was rolling her eyes at him.

“Good morning,” he said at last.

“Good morning.” Where had her voice gone? It came out as a squeaking rasp.

Finally, the crowd broke through and they were stepping into the more spacious lobby area. Sunlight taunted her through the floor to ceiling windows lining the front walls. A few more steps and she would be free. She started to step away from him, toward the hallway that led to the back door, when she heard a voice behind her.

“Ellie. Jason. Hey.” Pastor Joe stepped between them and placed a hand lightly on each of their elbows like a teacher who’d caught two students misbehaving in the hallway. His voice was gentle, though not in the least bit scolding. “Glad to grab you two together.”

They caught each other’s gaze. They weren’t exactly together. They’d simply walked out at the same time.

“I was hoping I could talk a few minutes with you,” Joe continued. “In my office?”

He gestured down the opposite hallway that Ellie had been trying to escape down.

She looked up and Jason was looking at her, as if he was trying to decide how he should answer the pastor.

“Um. Yeah,” Jason said slowly, his gaze still locked with her’s. “Sure.”

Sure? No. It wasn’t supposed to be sure. Where was his usual excuse of “I’ve got work to do at the farm”? She could have really used that line from him today.

“Hey, Don.” Pastor Joe called to the assistant pastor, who was saying goodbye to parishioners. “Can you make sure we’re not interrupted?”

Don nodded and smiled as if he knew something Ellie and Jason didn’t.

Ellie’s eyebrows dipped down, and she frowned. Is this some kind of intervention?

Inside his office, Pastor Joe sat in a chair in front of his desk and gestured to two chairs across from him. “Sit down, guys.” He gently pushed the door closed. “I don’t like to sit behind my desk when I talk to people, if you’re wondering why I’m sitting here instead. I feel the desk puts up metaphorical walls between us and we don’t need walls up today.”

Ellie’s muscles tensed at his words. Walls? What walls? Had Pastor Joe heard about her conversation with Jason in the parking lot? The service has been in the middle of worship. Could the congregation have heard them between the songs? Maybe the walls weren’t as thick as they looked. If someone other than Molly had heard them, though, then why had Pastor Joe waited so long to talk to them about it?

“So.” The pastor clapped his hands together and leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees. “This is an awkward conversation for me to initiate but, well, I care about you two and I’m just going to go for it.” He cleared his throat and sat back in the chair, propping his elbow on the arm. “Normally I don’t get involved in the private lives of my parishioners, unless they ask, but in this case, I hope you’ll take this as me simply being concerned about your well-being and not me being nosey. Frankly, I’m worried about you two.” He paused for effect and held each of their gazes for a few seconds. “Let’s not beat around the bush. I’m aware you two are not a couple at the moment and, well, I just want to be sure that this is what you both want.”

Ellie and Jason had both pulled their gazes from their pastor. Jason had found something very interesting on the front of his shirt and was picking at it. Ellie was examining the carpet like it was a science experiment that needed to be figured out. Ellie chewed lightly on her bottom lip and Jason rubbed two fingers against his chin, as if suddenly deep in thought.

After about thirty seconds of silence, Pastor Joe cleared his throat. “So, it is what you both want then.”

It was a statement, not a question.

Jason glanced at Ellie, then looked back at the desk. “It’s what she wants.”

She stiffened at his comment, and her jaw tightened. Oh really? She’d wanted him to keep his past from her?

“Okay.” Pastor Joe leaned back in his chair and looked at each of them. One at a time. “Is there a reason for that? I mean, would you two like to talk more about it sometime? Maybe during a type of counseling session?”

Ellie laughed softly. “What, like marriage counseling? We’re not even married.”

And probably never will be at this point.

Pastor Joe smiled. “I know, but you’ve been together so long it’s almost like you are.”

So long. Yes. Twelve long years. Maybe twelve long, waisted years.

“But we aren’t,” she said stiffly.

She felt rather than saw Jason roll his eyes. “Just keep rubbing that in why don’t you?”

She didn’t respond, crossing one leg over the other and leaning back in the chair instead, now studying Pastor Joe’s collection of books.

Oswald Chambers, C.S. Lewis, Derek Prince, Billy Graham, and several theological texts.

All out of alphabetical order too. She should volunteer to organize it for him sometime. The disorganization was making her head spin.

Pastor Joe nodded. “Okay, so I’m guessing one of you wants me be married and the other doesn’t?”

Her muscles tightened at the question, waiting to hear what Jason would say.

He didn’t say anything for several minutes. Then, finally, he cleared his throat. “You could say that, I guess.” He was looking at the arm of the chair as he spoke. “I wanted to marry her but she —”

“He wasn’t even really going to propose.”

Had she just said that out loud? Apparently she had, and apparently, she wasn’t done. “I thought he proposed, but really he was going to tell me about something he did in college. Something he’d never told me about.”

Pastor Joe nodded, encouraging her to continue.

“Well, I mean —” She swallowed hard. Her mouth was dry. What had she been going to say? To their pastor? She certainly wasn’t going to say what Jason had done and why it bothered her.

“You mean what?”

Jason’s tone was as sharp as the look he was giving her.

Her heart rate had increased, her palms were damp. She clutched the sides of her skirt, hoping to calm her breathing. For a brief time Pastor Joe disappeared from her view, or at least she forgot he was there.

“You gave to her what you were supposed to give to me.” She blurted the accusation out before her brain had fully engaged. “‘Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother and shall cleave unto his wife and they shall become one flesh.’ That’s what we were supposed to be on our wedding night but you became one flesh with another woman instead.”

She’d expected Jason to apologize again, to recognize she was trying to tell him how she really felt. She expected him to soften, to understand the vulnerability she was showing.

Instead, he snorted.

Literally snorted.

Like Old Bart before he charged.

His green eyes darkened.

“I know the verse, Ellie.” His tone was even and low, but she could hear the slight tremble in it, like a rope straining under a great weight, just about to break. “That’s what I wanted with you but then you dropped me in college.”

“I did not drop you in college. We agreed to take a break.”

“No. You wanted the break. I agreed because I thought it was what you wanted.”

“What I wanted? I thought it was what you wanted. You kept talking about hard long-distance relationships were. I thought you were saying you thought we should break things off while you were in college.”

“You thought? Why didn’t you just ask?”

“What, like you asked me? You didn’t ask either. You assumed. You assumed I didn’t want you and I guess that was the excuse you needed to go get what you’d probably always wanted to do anyhow.”

A muscle in Jason’s jaw jumped, like the pump of a shotgun being pulled back. “Excuse me? What’s that supposed to mean? What I always wanted to do?” There was the snort again. “Is that all you think I ever wanted from you? I mean, it’s how you acted part of the time over the years. Always apologizing when you told me we had to slow down like I was some sex-craved maniac who only wanted to ravage you. Then me, going home, feeling guilty because I wanted to ravage you, but it wasn’t all I wanted to do. There’s more to a relationship than sex, Ellie and I thought that was obvious by how I’ve respected your wishes all these years.”

Now it was her turn to snort. “My wishes? Weren’t they your wishes, too? You act like it wasn’t hard for me either.”

“Well, was it? I don’t know. You always acted like it wasn’t difficult for you. As far as I know you’ve never even wanted our relationship to progress beyond making out and holding hands.” He gripped the arms of the chair, his knuckles white. “You know what, that’s not true.” He leaned forward. “I know you did. Let’s stop pretending for our pastor’s sake. You never said it, but your body showed it more than once. Don’t sit here and lie. Why don’t you tell Pastor Joe the truth? That you aren’t the innocent little virgin everyone thinks you are. That you have sexual desires just like anyone else. You’re not some virtuous, pure of thought woman, sitting on a bed of lily-white. You wanted me as much as I wanted you or your hands wouldn’t have been —”

She stood quickly. “That’s enough Jason.”

“What’s enough?” Jason leaned forward, and she could feel the anger radiating off him. “Pulling back the curtain you hide behind? Calling you out for your hypocrisy? Who knows, El. Maybe I’m not the only one who has secrets. What happened between you and Brad while I was gone?”

Her mouth opened slightly and stayed there a few seconds before she closed it again.

“Nothing happened between me and Brad.”

“Really? Because he’s been sniffing around you like a bloodhound since he got back. Seems like he wants to rekindle a fire he started at some point. Maybe on those dates you two went on while I was in college.”

“You’re comparing three dates with your cousin to you sleeping with a girl in college while drunk and never telling me?”

Jason was standing now. He took a step closer, his eyes never leaving hers, practically boring holes straight through her.  “I screwed up. I told you that. I forgot who I was. I was drinking and made a huge mistake.” He pointed a finger at her chest, like he had that day in the parking lot. “Real life isn’t like one of your Christian romance novels, Elizabeth Lambert. Those novels where everyone is pure and perfect and never fall. In the real world, people go against everything they stood for and wanted in life to make all the pain stop and then they regret it.” Her gaze fell on a vein popping up on the side of his neck as his voice rose.” I messed up. I know that. I went against God’s word and my morals. I shattered my idea of what my first time would be like, and I get I shattered your perfect dream of that moment, but real life is messy.”

He stepped back, tossing his arms up and then down again. “And I’ve apologized. More than once. To God and to you. I will not spend my whole life apologizing for something I can’t go back and change.”

Pastor Joe stood and took a step forward until he was practically between them. “Okay, guys, listen. I can tell there are some real issues here. I have no problem talking through them with you now, but if you want to take a break, calm things down some, we can agree on a time to meet again and —”

Jason propped his hands at his waist, shook his head. “What’s the point? She’s never going to forgive me.”

Ellie huffed out a sigh. “It’s not just about forgiving, Jason. It’s also about forgetting. I have to forget that you weren’t open with me, that you felt like you couldn’t tell me about your past. I have to forget about you sleeping with this other woman. That’s not an easy thing to do.”

Even as the words came out of her mouth, she knew it was a mistake. First, she had her own issues she hadn’t been open with him about and second  . . .

“And this is why I didn’t feel like I could tell you about my past. Because I didn’t know how you would react, if you would stop loving me, stop looking at me like I’m someone you want to spend the rest of your life with. My nightmare became a reality the moment you broke down when I told you, the moment you told me you needed a break. Be honest with me, Ellie. You don’t just want a break, you want to end this. You want to turn around and walk away and find the perfect man who fits your perfect idea of what a Christian man should be — pure and righteous and never makes a mistake.”

He took a step back, shaking his head again, jaw tight again, eyes flashing again. “Well, I can’t be that. I’m real. I’m not the figment of some novelist’s imagination. This is real life. Right here. With me loving you despite it all, with me wishing you could see that I’m not perfect, but all I’ve ever wanted is to spend my life loving you and our future children. If you can’t see past my imperfections, then I don’t know what to tell you.”

He turned quickly and ripped the door open, walking through it and maybe, Ellie realized with sickening dread, out of her life.

Pastor Joe placed a hand on her shoulder. “You okay?”

She nodded slowly, knowing she was lying, again, to her pastor. Emotions swirled in her like a tornado across the Kansas prairie. Hurt, desolation, and anger dominated, ready to alight on her soul and take it over. Humiliation was fighting for its rightful place, too. Her face flushed warm at the memory of Jason’s words. How he’d almost told Pastor Joe about the many times they’d pushed the envelope, set a foot over the line of temptation and almost been unable to turn back.

“I need to go.”

“Ellie, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have pushed you two to talk. I had no idea things would get that heavy that fast.”

She waved away his guilt. “It’s not your fault. It’s been building up to that for months. Sadly, you were just here to witness the final explosion.”

He squeezed her shoulder gently. “If you need to talk, you know how to reach me. Call me anytime. Truly. And if you’d feel more comfortable talking to a woman, I know Emily would be more than willing to talk with you as well.”

She thanked him, suddenly numb. Out in the parking lot, she didn’t even feel the sun warm on her face or hear the birds chirping in the oak tree next to the church playground.

The next ten minutes were a blur. The dam she’d built over the last several months broke as she drove out of town. Her vision blurred behind a veil of tears. She barely noticed the buildings and cars rushing by her, the town fading into farmland and forests, green and brown rushing by her car window until she reached a pull off along a wooded area next to the river, five miles out of town.

She slid the car into park, shut it off and pressed her hands against her face, images of Jason’s angry face swirling in her mind as sobs shook her body. Rung out, beat down, drained of any strength, physical or mental. That’s how she felt.

How could he have said all of that in front of Pastor Joe? About the times they’d almost slept with each other? About the times they’d gone further than either of them had planned? About how she was a liar and a hypocrite?

She was glad she saw the dark side of him before she’d made the mistake of marrying him. Now she was sure that the Jason she had thought she had known all those years wasn’t the real Jason.

The real Jason was the shouting man in Pastor Joe’s office.

The real Jason kept secrets from her and humiliated her.

The real Jason wasn’t who she wanted to spend the rest of her life with.