Fiction Friday: The Next Chapter. Chapter 3

I almost forgot to put this up today. I haven’t had a chance to go over this chapter well, so bear with me. It will definitely change before I finish the final version of the story.

To read the first two installments of this story go HERE.

Chapter 3

“Blanket, car seat, paperwork, duffle bag . . .” Molly Tanner twisted and scanned the hospital room with narrowed eyes, turned again at looked at the infant car seat on the floor at her feet. “Newborn in car seat. Check. Okay. Looks like we have everything.”

Liz smiled at the flush of red spreading along her friend’s naturally pale complexion, a sign that she was flustered, yet trying to act like she wasn’t. Molly had been a literal Godsend from the beginning, there for Liz every step of the way, from bringing her ginger tea and lemon water at work when the morning sickness kicked in, to helping her out of bed in the morning when Liz had become too round to roll out of it herself. 

Molly had even moved in with her six months ago, which hadn’t been a huge sacrifice considering she should have been out of her parent’s house and on her own long ago. It had at least been a small sacrifice, however. One, because Molly was still working on her family’s farm and in their farm store. Living in an apartment with Liz in town meant Molly had to drive twenty minutes around 5 a.m. each morning to help milk the cows. She also had to drive fifteen minutes from the farm store on the days she worked there. More of a sacrifice than any of that, though, was that Molly was now delayed an entire 20 minutes from seeing her boyfriend, Alex Stone, in the barn each morning.

“I can handle not seeing him as often as I used to,” Molly had said one day when Liz had teased her. “Don’t be so dramatic.”

Luckily, she wouldn’t be delayed in seeing him today. Alex had come with Molly to help carry Liz’s gifts and belongings to the car. He’d carried one load of gifts, flowers, and balloons to the car already.

Liz stood and winced, every muscle in her body screaming in protest. Her labor hadn’t been as long as some, but she still felt as if she’d run a marathon two days before. “I hope you didn’t bring that truck of yours to drive us home.”

Molly looped the duffle bag over her shoulder. “Give me a little credit. I borrowed Ellie’s car. I can’t have you trying to climb in a truck in your condition.”

Liz sighed. “In my condition? Do I look that bad?”

“You don’t look bad. You look tired. Rightly so. You just pushed a human being out of you.”

Alex reached for the duffle bag as he appeared in the doorway. “I’ll take that.”

“Liz is the one that had the baby.” Molly leaned away from him. “Not me. I can handle it.”

“No, I’ll carry the duffle bag and that last vase of flowers and you’re going to carry the baby.”

Liz smirked. “Shouldn’t the man carry the baby? That seat is probably the heaviest thing here.”

She enjoyed the way Alex glanced at the sleeping newborn like she was a rabid dog. He swallowed hard. “Well, I think a woman should carry a baby. I mean, women are more gentle and . . .” He glanced at the baby seat again and shrugged a shoulder. “Maternal. 

You know.”

Liz laughed. “You’d be carrying her in a baby seat, not cradling her.” She folded her arms across her chest and leaned toward Alex, lowering her voice. “You do realize that birth isn’t catching, right?”

Alex scowled, sliding the duffle bag off Molly’s shoulder and reaching for the vase. “Yes, Liz. I’m aware of that.”

He ducked out of the room before she could harass him even more.

Molly gently nudged her elbow into Liz’s side. “Leave him alone. I think he’s nervous he’ll hurt her somehow. He’s never been around a newborn before.”

Liz’s chest constricted. “Neither have I, for very long anyhow.”

Liz’s sister Tiffany had five children, but she lived several states away, so when Liz did see her nieces and nephews it was only for a few days or a few hours. Even then she barely held them. Tiffany or one of the children’s grandparents whisked them out of her arms within minutes, either wanting quality time with the children or, Liz wondered, were they afraid her recent black sheep behavior would rub off on them?

Today, looking at the tiny bundle in the baby seat, she battled second thoughts. Maybe she should have placed this baby for adoption like she’d considered when she’d first seen the two lines on the pregnancy test. Molly’s brother, Jason, and his fiance, Ellie, couldn’t have children — or at least that’s what it was looking like. They might have adopted Isabella. They’d most likely be better parents. Ellie was more organized and definitely more maternal. Her entire career was built on educating and supporting young children. She was a teacher at the local preschool. 

It seemed cruel to Liz that she might not be able to have children because of endometriosis. If anyone should be a mother, it was Ellie Tanner.

“Hey. You okay?”

She looked at Molly, wishing her best friend wasn’t as perceptive as Matt was. It was as if Molly could read her mind most days.

“Yeah, it’s just —”

“You’re going to be a great mom, Liz. God chose you to be Isabella’s mom. Okay?”

Liz nodded and took a deep breath.

Molly looped her arm under the handle of the car seat and the other under Liz’s arm. “Now come on. Your Mom and Dad are waiting at the apartment for us. They’re cooking you some lunch and your mom has ‘spruced up’ as she likes to call it.”

Liz’s chest constricted. Her parents. They hadn’t brought her up to live the way she had been living for the last couple of years. Moving in with an emotionally abusive boyfriend, starting to drink and take pills, and then, the coup de grâce — having a baby out of wedlock.

She grabbed Molly’s wrist. “Wait, Mol, I need to talk to you, before Alex comes back.” She looked at the doorway. “Matt was here yesterday when the nurse wanted to fill out Isabella’s birth certificate. He gave her his name as the father.”

Molly’s eyebrows shot up and she set the seat down gently. “Why would he do that?”

Liz pulled her bottom lip between her teeth and shook her head. “I don’t know. He said he wanted to protect us from Gabe.”

Molly sat on the edge of the bed. “But he’s leaving for the state police academy in two months. Does he think — I mean, does he want to be her father?”

Liz shrugged a shoulder. “I don’t know what he was thinking. When I asked him, he said not to worry about it and that it was just to keep Gabe’s name from being connected to Isabella’s. Then I had to nurse Isabella, he had to get to work, and I haven’t seen him since to talk to him more about it.”

Molly chewed on the back of her thumb, a usual move for her when she was thinking, her eyebrow furrowed. “But are you and Matt —”

“We’re not dating.”

“You should be.”

Liz jerked her head up. “Excuse me?”

Molly smirked. “Matt has been there for you almost from day one since he found out you were pregnant. Most guys would have taken off when they found out the woman they’d gone on a few dates with was pregnant by another man. They wouldn’t have picked up your groceries for you, booked you a day at the spa, or been with you when you went into labor. Which reminds me. You need to fill me in on that story sooner rather than later.”

Alex leaned into the room. “Okay, ladies. We ready?”

A nurse stepped past him. “No. They are not. Not until we fill out these discharge papers and Liz sits in the wheelchair outside the room so she can be pushed to the car.”

Liz scoffed. “I’m not sitting in a wheelchair.”

The nurse smiled and winked. “You sure are. Hospital policy.”

Alex chuckled. “I’d be glad to push you, Liz.”

Liz narrowed her eyes. “I’m sure you would. I think I’ll ask the nurse to push me instead to keep you from pushing me into the street.”

Alex laughed. “What would give you that idea? Just because you interrupt me and Molly every time we have a minute alone doesn’t mean I want to get rid of you.” He looked at the car seat with a grin. “Besides, who would take care of the baby if you weren’t around?”

Liz’s smile faded and her gaze drifted to the sleeping baby. Right. Taking care of a baby.

How did she do that again?

***

Ginny flung open the freezer door and stood in front of it, lifting her shirt, glad she was alone in the house since Stan had a late afternoon showing. As if gaining weight wasn’t enough, she had to deal with hot flashes and a hundred other aggravating side effects of perimenopause. Whatever that was. She wouldn’t even have known about perimenopause if Rena Lambert hadn’t asked her if she thought she might be in the middle of it — six years ago. 

 Good grief, she didn’t understand why menstruation didn’t just end abruptly instead of dragging women through up to ten years of hormonal upheaval like a lion leisurely dragging a pray through the Serengetti to devour. Not all women suffered the way she was, she knew that, and she despised those women for it.

“Oh gosh, I never even had those,” Jan Ellory said with a small laugh and a wave of her hand one day at ladies’ group. “One day my period just stopped. Snap.” Jan snapped her fingers with finely manicured fingernails. “I never felt happier or lighter than I did that day. My 50s have been amazing! Weight has fallen off like butter falling of an ear of corn on a hot summer day and I have so much energy.” She emphasized the word energy with a little shake of her head and a smile. “And —” She smiled and winked. “Things have been amazing in the bedroom. It’s like David and I are newlyweds again.”

At that moment Ginny had considered how bad it would look if she throat punched Jan during ladies group. Bad. It would look very bad. Especially right after they had discussed how to look at each season of their lives “as an opportunity to reveal God as the anchor of their souls.” 

Yes, it would have been bad, but yet . . . it might have also felt good. 

Ginny wasn’t sure how this season of sweat, crankiness, anxiety-induced trembling, and out-of-control emotions was an opportunity for much of anything other than to hopefully have a valid excuse when she actually did deck someone.

She tipped her head back and let the rush of cold air spread across her chest and then sighed. She snatched a pint of chocolate ice cream from the freezer door, jerked open the silverware drawer, grabbed a spoon, and headed toward the living room to watch a Hallmark movie. Passing the mirror on the wall between the dining room and the living room she caught sight of her uncombed hair and paused. She’d fallen asleep after work, thankful the library closed early on Saturday afternoons. Her hair was sticking out in various directions, long and unkempt. Dark circles painted the skin under her eyes, and she was sure more wrinkles had etched their way into the skin along the edge of her eyes overnight.

Dragging her hand through her hair, she sat the ice cream carton on the table under the mirror, and lifted her hair off her shoulder, propping it on top of her head. 

She needed a haircut. Maybe she’d dye it too. She needed something — anything — different at this point. Pressing two fingers against each side of her face she lifted her cheeks and pulled them back. She tried to eliminate the pooch of skin under her chin with the movement. It wasn’t working. Maybe she should consider a facelift. She stuck her tongue out at the face in the mirror – a face she was starting not to recognize each time she looked at it — and spun herself around and toward the living room.

“We’ve got to get rid of this stupid mirror,” she grumbled, snatching the ice cream carton up again.

Her cellphone buzzed as she sat on the couch. She glared at it, uninterested in a conversation with anyone, but then noticed the caller ID.

Wisconsin. She’d better answer this one.

“Hey, Mom. How’s it going?”

She fanned her chest with the folded-up newspaper she’d snatched from the coffee table. “Oh, just fine, hon’. How are things there? Are we having another grandbaby yet?”

Her son Clint chuckled. “Ah, no. I think five is enough, don’t you?”

“I don’t know. I have room in my heart for a few more.”

“Well, maybe you can have one of your daughters provide those down the road because Tiff and I are done at this point. No, what I called about was to let you and dad know some other news. Some news I hope you will all be excited about.”

Ginny set the ice cream carton on the coffee table and leaned forward slightly in anticipation.

“We’re moving back to Pennsylvania.”

Her mother senses alerted. This was either for a good or a bad reason. Why did her intuition tell her it was bad?

“Are you? Why? What’s going on?”

Clint hesitated. She heard it. He could deny it, but she heard the pause, the clearing of his throat, if ever so softly on the other end of the phone. 

“Everything’s fine, Mom, but I got laid off from work last week. I didn’t want to tell you until I had something else.”

“Laid off?”

“Well, not exactly laid off. My job was eliminated. The industry is changing, and the economy isn’t doing great, so they had to cut back. I was the low man on the totem pole, so . . .”

Ginny’s heart thudded with alarm. He had five children and a wife to support. “What are you going to do? Do you have a job out here?”

“Yes, actually. A colleague put me in touch with a finance company about an hour from you actually. They offered me the job on the spot. It’s a step-down, a cut in pay, but we’ll be closer to our family, and I really think that’s something we could use right now.”

Ginny tried not to read between the lines. Something they could use right now. Why? What did he mean? Was something else going on? She resisted the urge to pepper him with more questions.

“Do you have somewhere to live?”

“No. Not yet, but Tiffany’s parents have offered us a place to stay.”

Ginny felt a tinge of jealousy that they had talked to Frank and Marge Cranmer before her, but, then again, it wasn’t like her house would hold seven more people. Two or three maybe, but not two adults and five children between the ages of a year and 10-years of age. The Cramner’s had a large two-story, five-bedroom, two-and-a-half bathroom home, despite having raised only two daughters.

She’d often wondered why they needed all that space, but it wasn’t her business.

“Oh. Well, okay. When does all this happen?”

“We’ve already started packing and hired a moving company,” Clint said, screaming and giggling in the background almost drowning his voice out. “Max, Twyla. Please. That’s enough. I’m on the phone. No. Because you’ve had enough ice cream today.”

Ginny eyed her own ice cream and hoped it wouldn’t melt before she could get back to it.

“Sorry about that, Mom. Anyhow, I’ll give you more of a timeline when I have more information.”

When they’d said their goodbyes and Ginny leaned back against the couch again, she tried to decide how she felt about her son’s news. She scooped a heavy helping of chocolate ice cream onto her spoon and swished it around on her tongue, staring at the turned off TV.

She was happy her family would be living closer. 

Yet, also nervous. She and Stan saw so little of each other already. Would more visits from the grandchildren mean even less time together?

She scoffed. “Not like we spend any time together now.”

Her frown tilted upward as her gaze drifted to the photographs of her grandchildren on the mantel over the fireplace. 

It would be nice to see the children grow up in person instead of through photographs. She’d envied her friends all these years. They’d been able to hold their grandchildren, take them to the park, spoil them with sweets and send them back home to mom and dad.

 She and Stan visited Clint and Tiffany a couple of times during the year but mostly communicated with them over the phone and through video chat.

It was time to perk up. This was good news. Having the grandchildren closer would mean she’d have something to think about other than the mundane — work and feeling like a third wheel to Stan and his job. 

She took another bite of the chocolate ice cream, savoring it. 

Yes, this was good news. Very good.

Flash Fiction Fun in 60 words. No more. No Less.

I’ve joined a new “social media” site, which is more social than other “social media” sites. It is not as active, but it is friendlier. My dad calls Facebook a social discord site, rather than a social site. I agree with that. So I have joined MeWe, which seems a lot calmer in many ways. (Full disclosure, I have a FB account again for a few writing groups but I am not interacting on a personal basis there and log off after I look at my writer’s or reader’s groups.)

On MeWe, I joined a couple of writers and readers groups and in one of them the administrator (Kelly) is challenging us to write 60 words of fiction from a word prompt.

I thought I would share a few of the flash fiction pieces I have been sharing there here on the blog today, including the words used as the prompts.

Buggy

“This what you’re taking me to the church in?”

Emily felt like she’d been transported a hundred years into the past. Or into the Amish community down the road.

Her dad grinned, gestured at it. “I thought it’d be unique.”

“It is. I don’t know any other modern bride who was driven to her wedding in a horse and buggy.”

Market

The smells and sounds of the market overwhelmed her. She lost sight of her mother long ago and now she was alone among the bustling crowd, panicking.

That’s when she saw him. Again. The man with the piercing blue eyes and the scar above his right eye.

She should have been afraid but instead, a strange peace settled over her.                      

Washline

The paint-chipped back porch was old and falling apart. As an adult she had weird nightmares about it where someone was always falling off it. As a child, though, it wasn’t a scary place. It was where the cats slept in the winter and where her mom hung clothes from the washline, which hung between the porch and chicken coup.

Mules

He climbed in the odd looking vehicle and looked at her skeptically.

“And what is this vehicle called?”

She grinned at his rural naivety. “It’s called a mule.”

He cocked an eyebrow and smirked. “Seriously?”

“Seriously, Liam Finnely. We ride a new kind of mules on dairy farms these days.”

He shook his head. “I Learn something new every day.”

Tractor

He’d been plowing the ground an hour when he saw her standing along the edge of the field, a hand on her hip. She was grinning and the wind had caught her reddish-brown curls, sending them out behind her like a veil.
“Hey,” he said when he reached the end of the row. “You think my tractor is sexy?”

English

“This what you’re taking me to the church in?”

Emily felt like she’d been transported a hundred years into the past. Or into the Amish community down the road.

Her dad grinned, gestured at it. “I thought it’d be unique.”

“It is. I don’t know any other modern bride who was driven to her wedding in a horse and #buggy.”

Market

The smells and sounds of the #market overwhelmed her. She lost sight of her mother long ago and now she was alone among the bustling crowd, panicking.

That’s when she saw him. Again. The man with the piercing blue eyes and the scar above his right eye.

She should have been afraid but instead, a strange peace settled over her.                      

Washline

The paint-chipped back porch was old and falling apart. As an adult she had weird nightmares about it where someone was always falling off it. As a child, though, it wasn’t a scary place. It was where the cats slept in the winter and where her mom hung clothes from the #washline, which hung between the porch and chicken coup.

Mules

He climbed in the odd looking vehicle and looked at her skeptically.

“And what is this vehicle called?”

She grinned at his rural naivety. “It’s called a mule.”

He cocked an eyebrow and smirked. “Seriously?”

“Seriously, Liam Finnely. We ride a new kind of #mules on dairy farms these days.”

He shook his head. “I Learn something new every day.”

Tractors

He’d been plowing the ground an hour when he saw her standing along the edge of the field, a hand on her hip. She was grinning and the wind had caught her reddish-brown curls, sending them out behind her like a veil.
“Hey,” he said when he reached the end of the row. “You think my #tractor is sexy?”

English

“You know why I’m here. I’m here to meet your good looking cousin. So, where is he?”

Cecilia jerked her head toward the back door. “In the house making tea.”

“Making tea?” Emily raised an eyebrow. “Like iced tea?”

Cecilia rolled her eyes. “No, like tea and crumpets. He’s #English, remember?”

Emily’s mouth formed an ‘o’ shape. “Oh. That English.”

Special Fiction Saturday: The Farmers’ Sons Chapter 3

I totally forgot I was going to post Chapter 3 of The Farmers’ Sons earlier today. So here it is, although late. For those who followed Jason’s story when I originally posted it with Molly’s story some of this will be a bit of a repeat, but it has been reworked some.

To catch up on the rest of story, click HERE or find it under the Fiction Friday header at the top of the page.

You can read Molly’s story on Amazon in ebook form.


Chapter 3

Jason loaded another set of weights on the barbells and laid back on the bench, gripping the bar tightly.

Why did I let her think I was going to propose that night?

He grunted under the weight, pushing up until his arms were straight, then slowly lowering the bar again, counting under his breath. His muscles strained under the weight.

I should have never waited so long to talk to her.

He pushed up again.

And when she assumed I had actually intended to propose, I went along with it like a complete idiot.

Down, breathing hard.

Ellie had every right to be angry at him. Not only for his non-proposal but for the secret he’d held on to for so long.

He straightened his arms, set the bar back in its place and lay there on the bench breathing hard.

He came to the gym a few times a week to work off some stress. Lately, though he’d only been finding more stress as his mind raced not only with thoughts of Ellie, but also of keeping the farm running.

When he focused on Ellie, his mind always walked him back to the night he had planned to tell her what he’d should have told her when they’d first started dating again, the night that they got engaged instead.

***

Seven months earlier

His heart had been racing, his palms damp with sweat. His stomach was tight and nausea spun in his stomach.  What had he been thinking? Was he really going to do this tonight? Was he really going to tell his longtime girlfriend about his past and let the chips fall where they may?

He had taken a deep breath and tightened his hands on the steering wheel until his knuckles faded white. Yes, he was. He was doing this because he needed the burden off his shoulders, and he needed to know how Ellie would feel about him after he told her. He couldn’t keep waiting, torturing himself with worry of what might be.

He and Ellie had gone to school together since junior high, but it wasn’t until his junior year he really noticed her, or she had noticed him, or he guess he would say they noticed each other. It was in history class and Mr. Prawley had placed them in a group together to work on a project. Before that they’d seen each other at 4H meetings or when Robert took Jason with him to pick up equipment he’d borrowed from Ellie’s dad Jerry.

Late one night after working on their project about Pennsylvanian history they found themselves laughing about their shared interest in old movies.

“Cary Grant is the epitome of old fashioned suave and charm,” she’d said, pretending to swoon, her hand against her forehead when they watched North by Northwest together at his parents.

He grinned, a teasing glint in his eye. “I agree, but I’m the epitome of modern suave and charm, right?”

She’d tipped her head back and laughed and he wasn’t sure if she was enjoying his humor or mocking him.

“Ginger Rogers was a very underrated actress,” he’d announced after they watched Vivacious Lady at her parents’ house.

“I agree,” she had said and smiled.

Wow. That smile.

That smile that was for him and only him.

It took his breath away.

That smile and her soft, long black hair against that pale skin, those large dark eyes and her sweet round face — what a knockout combination.

He’d taken her to the movies twice, dinner once, lunch three times and attended youth group with her every Wednesday for four months before he’d finally worked up the courage to kiss her. And now, here he was working up the courage to ask her to marry him, but first he had to tell her about what had happened during the break they’d taken when they’d both been in college – at two different colleges.

Those two years in college when he’d been without her, when she had decided they should take a break from dating and see “how things developed” as she had said, were the loneliest and most confusing two years of his life. He’d felt like a ship out at sea without a compass. Returning home from college, to the farm and to her had anchored him again. He couldn’t even imagine losing that anchor again.

God, please don’t let me lose her.

 He caught sight of movement out of the corner of his eye and turned his head to see her stepping off the front porch, down the steps, watching him as she walked. Her smile was broad, captivating.  His breath caught in his throat, his eyes followed the length of her body as she walked, and he chewed his lower lip hungerly. Even after all these years her beauty still took his breath away.

His voice fell into a whisper; he barely realized he was talking out loud. “Oh God, I can’t —”

“Hey.” She slid into the truck seat and had her arms around his neck and her mouth on his before he could finish asking God for strength. Once she was in his arms, his mind was clouded by her kiss. She smelled of lilac and vanilla scented shampoo. She curled her fingers in his hair and held his head down to hers.

“We should probably head out to the restaurant,” she said breathlessly a few moments later. She tipped her head to one side, her hand against his chest, and winked. “Before we go too far.”

Jason cleared his throat and nodded. “Right. Of course.”

He grinned as he turned back to the steering wheel and she hooked her seatbelt. “But it wasn’t as if things were going to get too far with us parked outside your parent’s house. Not before your dad shot me.”

Ellie laughed. “Jason, Daddy wouldn’t shoot you.”

He pulled the truck out of the driveway, onto the dirt road. “I beg to differ.”

Ellie shook her head. “He loves you. You know that.”

“But he wouldn’t like me making out with you in my truck.”

“No, probably not.” She shrugged, folded her hands in her lap, and looked out the windshield. “Unless we were married, of course.”

Jason swallowed hard.

Married.

There it was.

The one word hovering in his mind 24/7, waking him up at night, giving him near panic attacks daily. And she’d just said it. Because it was probably on her mind too.

“Right.” He pushed his foot on the accelerator, willing his truck to move them faster toward the restaurant where they could talk about the food, the weather, the farm, anything but marriage.

The drove in silence for a few moments, farmland and trees and open fields blurring into green and yellow out the window.

“Jason?”

Hurry up, truck.

“Yeah?”

“Are you ever going to ask me to marry you?”

Jason’s hand jerked on the steering wheel. The truck swerved over the center line and then back  into the right lane. Ellie gasped and clutched her hand around Jason’s bicep as he regained control of the truck.

Her voice trembled when she spoke. “Oh gosh. Sorry. I just — I shouldn’t have blurted it out like that, but I knew if I didn’t say something now, I would lose my courage.”

Jason slowed the truck down and pulled off into an empty parking lot in front of an abandoned convenience store. He slid the gear into park and turned to look at Ellie.

Was she reading his mind? They’d been together so long he wouldn’t be surprised.

His eyebrows knit together. “What would make you ask that right now?”

“I — I don’t know. I just —” Tears rimmed her eyes. “I’m sorry, Jason. Are you angry?”

Jason shook his head. “No. Not at all. I’m sorry.” He reached over and took her hand in his. The frightened expression on her face sent stabbing guilt shuddering through him. He let go of her hand and cupped his palm against her face.

“It’s not that at all. It’s just that I was actually going to talk to you about that tonight and I was surprised that it was on your mind too.”

A tear slipped down Ellie’s cheek and his heart ached even more. He swiped at it with the palm of his thumb.

“Of course, it’s on my mind, Jason. I’ve wanted to marry you since high school. I love you and want to spend the rest of my life with you. I want to have your children. But sometimes I feel like you don’t want any of that at all.”

“No, El, that’s not true. I do want that. All of it.”

“Then why aren’t you asking me to marry you?”

“I — well, I was going to —”

Ellie’s eyes grew wide, and her eyebrows shot up. “Oh! Were you going to ask me tonight and I totally ruined your plans?”

“Well, I —”

“Oh, Jason! I’m so sorry! I ruined your plan.”

“No, that’s okay. It’s just —”

Her mouth was on his again before he could explain. The expression of sheer delight on her face when she pulled back, her arms still around his neck, sent warmth bursting through his chest.

“You know I don’t need a big fancy proposal. All I want is you. Of course, I’d say ‘yes’ no matter how you asked.”

She was kissing him again and he was forgetting what he’d been going to say. Her body was so warm and solid against his and her lips so soft. Her hands were in his hair again; he couldn’t focus. Slowly his thoughts began to clear and that’s when the panic set in.

Wait a minute. Did she think he had just proposed, and she was saying yes?

She peppered his cheek and neck with kisses. “Oh, Jason! I’m so excited! I’ve been waiting for this moment for years!”

 Yes, she did think he’d just proposed, and she was saying ‘yes’.

“I know. I have been too, but I —”

She cut his sentence short again. “Are you okay? I’m so sorry I ruined the surprise.”

“No, it’s okay, I mean — It’s just that I —”

Her large brown eyes were watching him with hopeful expectation, with joy, with complete and utter adoration. There was no way he could tell her about his past now; ruin her night completely.

“I don’t have a ring,” he blurted.

She tipped her head back and laughed. “I don’t care about a ring, silly! We can worry about that later, or not at all. You know I don’t care about stuff like that.”

“But it’s a symbol and it’s important, El. I should get you a ring.”

Ellie kissed him gently and shook her head. “Later. I just want us to enjoy this moment together for now.”

Jason swallowed hard. He wanted to enjoy the moment too, but he knew he couldn’t keep his secret forever. Ellie needed to know sooner rather than later. He wouldn’t tell her tonight, though. He’d already made his mind up about that. They would go to dinner, celebrate their engagement and then later, another day, he’d tell her what she needed to know and let her make up her own mind about whether she still wanted to spend the rest of her life with him.

Only, that had never happened. She’d overheard him talking to Alex and that’s when the manure, so to speak, had hit the fan.

***

A deep voice startled Jason from his thoughts and he recognized it immediately as belonging to Cody Bracken— Spencer’s fire chief.

“Jason. Bud. You okay?”

Jason sat up, barely missing smacking his forehead on the metal bar. “Yeah. Sorry. Have you been standing there long?”

Cody laughed, tossed his duffle bag on the floor next to the wall. “A few seconds. Saying your name. You were totally gone, though. Got a lot on your mind?”

Jason guzzled the rest of the water from his sports bottle and shoved it in his bag. “Yeah. You could say that.”

Pulling off his sweatshirt, Cody unloaded a couple of the weights off the barbells Jason had been using. “I don’t have the muscle mass you do.” He winked. “Need to talk about anything?”

Jason shook his head. “Nah, but thanks.”

He stood and Cody wiped the bench with a towel. “Don’t want your sweaty germs.” He elbowed Jason playfully in the ribs. “Seriously, you got a minute?”

Jason wasn’t in any hurry to get back to the farm and talking to Cody would take his mind off Ellie for a few minutes at least. “Sure.”

“I don’t want to add anything else to your plate, but we had a meeting of the fire company the other night and we were talking about the need for more volunteers. Your name came up, along with some other men around town.” Cody sat on the bench and leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees. “As you know, we are an all-volunteer company, other than my position. It’s been tough the last couple of years to find volunteers and we’re in need of some younger, strong men to at least be trained in case we need some additional hands in an emergency. I told the board I see you at the gym sometimes, so I’d ask you if you’d be interested.” He grinned. “So, would you?”

Jason leaned back against the wall and pushed his hand back through his hair. “I am interested but things have been pretty busy with the business lately, so I don’t know if I would really be available much.”

Cody nodded. “I understand. This wouldn’t have to be a full-time commitment by any means. We’d just like some guys to be trained in case they’re needed. At the most you’d be committing to, well, 100 hours of training, but it’s broken up into a few week nights and a couple of weekends over the next few months. Once your training is complete you can hold on to the certification and we’d call you only when we are short men. You’d only respond when you’re able to.”

Jason rubbed his hand along the scruff growing along his chin and jawline. Shoving training into his regular chores on the farm and work at the farm store would be tough, but it would also be the perfect way to distract himself from constantly focusing on the situation with Ellie.

“Think about it,” Cody said. “You can let me know later if it —”

“I’ll give it a try.”

Cody raised his eyebrows. “You’re sure? I don’t want to add more to your plate. I know how tough the farms around here have had it.”

Jason shook his head. “No. It will be fine. If I start and it gets to be too much, I’ll let you know, but I’d love to be able to help out my community. My uncle had a fire on his farm a couple years back and you guys were a big help. Consider this my way of paying you back.”

Cody reached out his hand and Jason took it. “Thanks, Jason. We appreciate it. I’ll give you a call when we have the first training session scheduled. Probably about two weeks.”

Climbing into his truck, Jason wasn’t sure he truly wanted to split his time between farming and fire fighter training, but again, the more he could shove into his days, the less time he had to think about Ellie.

Creatively and Faithfully Thinking: God Can Fill In the Gaps

What I like about writing is what I like about photography. In photography you create your vision through the lens, including composition and framing. After you create the image in the camera, you transfer it to your computer and in your computer you can use various programs to further transform the image and complete your vision, if you so choose.

In writing you start with a rough draft, and that rough draft is the basic foundation of what you want to write. It’s essentially the skeleton of your blog post or short story or novel or book. The second, third, fourth and final drafts are building around that initial frame until you have a final product that is well built, polished and pretty to look at. Well built, polished and pretty to look at it doesn’t mean what you photographed or wrote has any feeling to it, though, and here is where I run into problems as a creator.

When I was attempting to be a professional photographer, seeing my services to families, people wanted well-polished and pretty. They didn’t care so much about emotion, and that’s where the disconnect came for me. I cared more about emotion and storytelling than well-polished and pretty. I find I have this same issue in writing. I’m not always great at being technically perfect in my writing. I don’t always add the descriptions or flowery language that others do. I don’t always explain myself or my story well. It’s not always “technically perfect”. I’m more concerned about emotion and the story than nitty-gritty details.

I have to learn to slow down in writing and focus a little more on the description, though, because in writing, descriptions help the emotion and the storytelling. We all have areas to improve on in our creative endeavors and there are times I focus too much on what I’m not doing well instead of on what I hopefully will do better in the future.

Sometimes I worry, like so many of us do, that the shortcomings I possess when I create will affect how God uses my creation. The good thing is that God can use anyone no matter their shortcomings, or the shortcomings they perceive they have. Dallas Jenkins, writer and director of The Chosen series, talks often about how he is giving God his loaves and his fishes, and that God will multiply what he gives for God’s glory. He is, of course, referencing the story in the Bible where there were only five loaves of bread and two fix and Jesus multiplied that food so there was enough to feed a multitude of people.

What an amazing idea that God can take our offering, no matter how small, and multiply it so it touches someone else. When God gets ahold of what we create, even if it isn’t technically perfect and pretty, he makes it beautiful, powerful, and exactly what we need to convey his message of hope and love to a hurting world. If he can create beauty out of ashes, then he can create something outstanding out of what we perceive as barely standing.

Of course, we should always strive to improve, to learn more, to hone our craft, but while we do, we (I) have to remember that God will fill in the gaps and make our meager offerings even more than we could have ever hoped for.

Quarantined Release Date and is Quarantined a horror story or a romance?

For those who have been following the Quarantined story, I thought I’d let you know that the Kindle version (edited and in some places rewritten) releases on Oct. 20, 2020.

Someone asked me this week if Quarantined is a horror story or a romance. Of course, I saw the humor in the question, under the circumstances our world has been facing, but no, the novella is not a horror story. But is it a romance? Well. . . yes, in a way. A romance without the “guy meets girl, guy falls in love with girl” part of the story. The main characters of Quarantined, two married couples, have already met and fallen in love and in the case of one couple, have fallen out of love (or at least it appears they have).

I don’t see a lot of romances out there these days where the couple is already married and is now hoping to reconnect, or maybe has no interest at all in reconnecting.

This idea for Quarantined came to me during the start of lockdown back in April. I was stuck inside my house with my husband and children and for the most part it was a pleasant experience, but online I read about women who were unhappy to be stuck at home with a spouse they couldn’t stand. I began to wonder about people who would were quarantining with a person they didn’t want to be married to anymore. What would that be like? Would the situation push them further apart or would they realize they still loved each other and decide to fight for their marriage?

Looking for a way to distract myself from the stress of the daily news, but also from our move, which had been turned upside down at the time, I started sharing the story of Liam and Maddie on my blog. Later, though, I added the story of Matt and Cassie (I have since changed her name to Cassidy because I was finding that switching between Maddie and Cassie confusing and figured readers might as well).

So, Quarantined is a romance in the sense there are affectionate feelings between a man and a woman and there are kissing scenes that might make a non-romance fan roll their eyes. But isn’t a love-at-first-sight romance that will lead you through the detailed story of a how a couple meets and falls in love. This is a story about what happens after those new love feelings fade and grow instead into a deeper, long-lasting, yet still passionate (at times) love.

For those who haven’t yet read the story, here is a description of the novella:

Liam and Maddie Grant are set to sign divorce papers any day now. Liam is already packing to move out. Their plans are put on hold, though. when Liam comes home to tell Maddie he’s been exposed to a new virus that is shutting down the country and part of the world. He tells her that since he’s exposed her she’ll have to be in quarantine as well. Now the couple is locked down for the next 14 days. During that time they find themselves face to face with the issues that split them apart in the first place. Before it’s all over they’ll have to decide if they want to sign the divorce papers or try again.

Across the city, Liam’s brother United States Senator Matthew Grant is quarantined with his wife and children, wondering if his marriage could end up on the same path as his brothers. While stuck at home, Matt realizes he’s lost sight of what really matters since becoming a senator. He and his wife Cassidy have drifted apart and he wonders if he has put his family at risk by serving as a senator during a hyper-political time for our nation.

Now he must decide if he wants to run for re-election, continuing to try to help his constituents, or walk away from the job that has brought his family stress and heartache.

Fiction Friday: The Farmer’s Daughter Chapter 7

Catch up with the rest of The Farmer’s Daughter, a continuing story, at the link at the top of the page or HERE. You can also read my short romance story Quarantined about Liam and Maddie Grant, an estranged couple who get caught in quarantine together.


“I had to explain to the woman that CBD oil is not pot and she will not get high off of it,” Liz said, sliding her shoes off and sliding her legs under her on the couch. “I mean, what did she think, we were selling pot plants in the store? So, she said she’d think about buying the oil the next time she’s in. I don’t know, at least the conversation with this lady was way tamer than the one with that guy with the rash . . .”

Liz shuddered at the memory.

“I did not need that much detail about how fast his rash had spread, or where it had spread to.”

Molly handed Liz a glass of iced tea and sat next to her.

“You certainly have some interesting stories from that health food store,” Molly said, shaking her head. “I’m afraid my stories aren’t that exciting – unless you want to hear about the udder infection one of our cows had and how I had to apply udder cream on her every morning for two months.”

Liz’s face scrunched up in disgust.

“That’s right up there with the rash dude,” she said, grimacing.

“So, Liz, tell me – what’s up with you and Matt?”

Liz shrugged. “We’ve gone out twice now. He’s nice, I guess. Even if he is a friend of your dorky brother.”

“He is a little older than you and I’d hate to see you rush into anything,” Molly said. “It’s only been a couple of months since you —”

“I know,” Liz interrupted. “Since I told Gabe to get lost. Matt and I have just gone to a couple of movies and bowling. We’ve talked, hung out, but neither of us is really interested in anything serious.”

Molly sipped her tea, sitting next to Liz. “I don’t mean to be nagging, or too motherly. I just don’t want to see you get hurt again.”

“Oh, Molly, don’t worry about it. I know you are just trying to protect me. That’s what friends do.”

Gabe and Liz had dated since their senior year of high school. They’d taken a break while Liz attended a two-year business course at the local community college and Gabe had decided to attend a four-year college four hours away. The relationship picked up, gaining intensity when Gabe graduated and opened a physical therapy office in town. The relationship was tumultuous at its best, chaotic at its worst.

The day Liz called Molly, sobbing into the phone, Molly knew it was over. Liz had finally had enough of Gabe flirting with other women and was certain he had cheated on her after she’d agreed to move in with him.

“It’s not my bra,” she’d told Molly. “It’s someone else’s bra, in our apartment. How could I have been so dumb?”

“You’re not dumb, Liz,” Molly told her. “You may have ignored your intuition but you’re not dumb.”

Molly helped Liz move out of the apartment, back to her parents and had also helped her resist picking up her cell when Gabe tried to reach her. Liz had sunk into a deep depression for three weeks after the break-up, feeling as if she’d walked away from everything her parents had taught her and she’d learned at church when she moved in with Gabe. Molly reminded her there was forgiveness and healing from any shame she felt.

“You know, I don’t know how I would have made it without you,” Liz said, sitting her glass down on the end table by the couch. “I’d probably still be in that apartment listening to Gabe tell me that it would never happen again – for the twentieth time.”

“Not necessarily,” Molly said. “You’re stronger than you give yourself credit for. You would have finally had enough and cut him off, even without me.”

Liz placed her hands together on her lap and focused on Molly.

“Enough about me. It’s time to talk about you, Molly. It’s time to get you out and about a little bit. The annual summer benefit dance for the fire company is coming up in a few weeks. Let’s find you a date and go together. Maybe I’ll take Matt.”

Molly rolled her eyes. “You know I don’t go to dances.”

Liz laughed. “No one dances at that thing. Not really. It’s mainly for eating, talking and, for some people, an excuse to get drunk.”

Molly scooped her hair up in her hand and wrapped a scrunchy around it.

“I don’t even know who I’d go with. But I don’t mind tagging along with you for fun. Even if I do hate socializing with – well, anyone.”

Liz and Molly both laughed.

Liz’s eyebrows raised and Molly knew that meant Liz thought she had a brilliant idea. “Molly, why don’t you ask Alex to go with you?”

“Liz, no.” Molly shook her head, holding up her hands in front of her as if to stop that suggestion right in its tracks.

“Why not?”

“It’s just – I don’t know – he’s my brother’s friend and we work together and —”

“And that’s enough excuses,” Liz interrupted. “He’s good looking. He’s funny. It’s not like you’re asking him to get married. You’re just asking if he wants to go to the banquet with you.”

“He’s also older than me.”

“By like five or six years, not twenty,” Liz said. “You should just ask him.”

Molly drank the rest of her iced tea and walked toward the kitchen.

“I’ll think about it, but I don’t think so. He won’t want to take me. He hates dances as much as I do.”

Liz sat back against the arm of the couch and slid her feet up on the cushions, sighing.

“What we really need to talk about is what you brought up the other day at sewing club. About how you’re thinking of spreading your wings and branching out from the farm. What about asking Liam Finley at the Journal about some freelance work or writing a column? Or you could start a blog. That could be a way of branching out without making a drastic change.”

Molly’s face scrunched up in disgust at the mention of Liam Finley. In some ways, he was the stereotypical small-town newspaper editor – sleazy, unshaven, frequently intoxicated and a womanizer. He was not, however, balding, or fat. She also didn’t necessarily see the Spencer Journal as the highest form of journalistic integrity, but then again, it was better than some in an age of declining integrity overall for journalism.

“I never even finished my degree,” Molly said.

Liz shrugged. “I doubt Liam would care and you could raise the quality of that paper if you submitted a column.”

Molly didn’t like the idea of writing for the small newspaper in the town neighboring hers. She’d always imagined writing for larger publications, but everyone had to start somewhere she supposed.

“How do you know Liam anyhow?” Molly asked.

Liz rolled her eyes. “He was a friend of Gabe’s.”

Molly grimaced. “That doesn’t make me feel any better about submitting any of my writing to him then.”

Liz shrugged again. “Eh. He’s okay. A little messed up but he’s more level headed than I’d expected. He and Gabe mainly went out drinking a lot together. And he only made a pass at me once. He’s good at what he does, though, and seems to be able to separate the personal from the professional.”

“Well, I’ll think about it,” Molly said. “Who knows. Maybe doing something different means leaving Spencer.”

Liz leaned forward, eyes narrowing. “Molly Tanner. You are not seriously considering leaving me alone in this God-forsaken dump of a town, are you? Don’t you dare.”

Molly sighed and tipped her head back against the couch. “I don’t know, Liz. All I know is I feel so . . . stuck. So stagnant. So . . . I don’t even know what.”

Molly didn’t like the smirk on her friend’s face.

“Maybe you need a little excitement,” Liz said, raising her eyebrows. “And asking Alex to that dance certainly would be exciting.”

Molly playfully tossed a pillow at Liz, laughing. “Liz, stop it! Why don’t we just change the subject? Are you going to go with the ladies group with Tuesday?”

“You can change the subject, lady, but I’m going to keep on you until you ask Alex to take you to the banquet,” Liz said, sipping her tea. “And yeah, I think I’ll go this week. Jane cut the hours for the store back on the weekends now, so I don’t have to be there late anymore.”

“Good! It will be nice to have you there,” Molly said. “I’m not sure what we’re discussing this week, but it will be a good time for fellowship with other women.”

Liz grinned. “Molly, you sound so ‘holy’ anymore. Listen to you. ‘Fellowship with other women.’ Why don’t you just say, ‘We’re going to hang out with some other women.’?”

Molly laughed. “Yeah, I guess I am starting to use a lot of,” she made quote marks with her fingers. “Christianese these days. I’ll try not to do that anymore.”

“It’s okay,” Liz said. “As long as you don’t try to pray a demon out of me.”

Molly almost snorted tea out of her nose. “I don’t think there is any chance of me doing that.”

She leaned forward, reaching for the remote. “Hey, let’s take advantage of your day off and watch a movie.”

“As long as it isn’t anything with Russell Crowe, I’m fine.”

“What’s wrong with Russel Crowe?” Molly asked, looking through her brother’s old stack of DVDs.

Liz rolled her eyes. “He was Gabe’s favorite actor and we had to watch every movie he ever made. Now I can’t see a clip of Gladiator without thinking of Gabe.”

Molly slid a Harrison Ford movie in and sat back on the couch, but found herself unable to concentrate on the movie as she considered Liz’s suggestion about asking Alex to the banquet. Still struggling with how to interpret Alex’s recent change in behavior, she couldn’t wrap her mind around the idea of sitting next to him at a banquet, trying to make small talk without making it obvious everyone else would think they were on an official date.

Of course, asking him to go with her to the banquet could clarify the matter and then she wouldn’t have to wonder anymore. Then again, it could also complicate the situation even further. If she was honest with herself, she was terrified to find out why Alex had been acting strange around her. What if he was simply toying with her to have a story to tell his friends at the bar? She knew he couldn’t be interested in her romantically. She definitely wasn’t his type. Her hips were three times the size of the women he usually dated. Molly glanced at her chest. Well, her chest might be about the same size. She shook her head, trying to focus on the movie again.

Maybe Alex wasn’t acting differently at all. Maybe her restlessness was distorting everything around her, including her friendship with Alex.

She pushed her thoughts of Alex away, forcing herself to figure out what Harrison Ford was telling his female costar. She needed to worry more about what direction her life was taking, or wasn’t taking, than Alex Stone. It would all work out eventually — when she figured out what direction she needed to take to help her feel less . . . Less what? Trapped? Yes. Trapped. That’s how she felt. Trapped in her stagnant, boring life.

So, trapped that she was starting to hallucinate and see things that weren’t even there – like a change in the way Alex looked at her and a change in the way she was seeing him. It must be stress causing her to notice his smile more, the way his eyes sparkled in the sunlight, his long fingers and strong hands, the way his jeans fit . . . She closed her eyes and bit her lower lip, trying to stop her thoughts from spiraling out of control. What other explanation of her confused thoughts and feelings was there than stress? She couldn’t actually have feelings for goofy, obnoxious Alex.

“Harrison Ford still looks amazing for his age, doesn’t he?”

Liz’s comments broke into her thoughts.

“He certainly does,” Molly agreed. “I never thought I’d think a man in his 70s was attractive, but he has proven me wrong.”

With a small laugh to herself, she pushed the thoughts about Alex aside and instead joined Liz in commenting on the movie and admiring Harrison Ford. She could figure out how she felt about Alex and her life on the farm later. 

Quarantined: A Short Story Part 5

I feel like I’m overwhelming my blog with fiction (and posts in general), but, oh well, I guess. People seem to be following along and enjoying the stories so I’ll keep going. Plus, it’s good to give readers a lot of options that aren’t related to current events.

Quarantined was not a planned project. It came to me very fast and just poured out of me so I thought I’d share to my fiction loving readers (thanks for following along, by the way.) You can find the rest of the parts at the following links: Part 1, Part 2,Part 3, and Part 4. I’ll be posting the final part Sunday or Monday. For other fiction, you can check out the 35 chapters of A New Beginning, which will be published at a later date on Kindle (so you don’t have to click chapter to chapter if you haven’t been following along) or A Story To Tell, which is on Kindle now. By the way, this blog is not aimed at selling products, so I don’t mean to share about my book on every fiction post. My books are priced very low but I wanted somewhere I could place them where people could read them in full instead of skipping from chapter to chapter and I chose Amazon because I have a Kindle. I have found some other options since then for future books. Anyhow…let’s get on with the story, shall we?!



 They hadn’t spoken to each other for four days, other than for her to ask if the doctor had called and him to say ‘not yet,’ and him to ask if she wanted some lunch or dinner and her to say ‘I’ll make my own.’

He’d locked himself in his office, dealing with the fall out for his brother’s delay in quarantining himself after his interaction with the ambassador; writing press releases and using video chat features to do interviews with major news commentators.

She’d locked herself in the bedroom, writing bits and pieces of her novel in between pouring over news sites; scrolling through social media feeds for personal stories from those who had had the virus and were recovering. She wondered if she and Liam would eventually face the same situation, or would they be worse with one of them admitted to an ICU somewhere.

In the evenings she binged watched Parks and Recreation while eating ice cream or popcorn, grateful she’d stocked up on groceries even before Liam had told her about the quarantine. Liam spent his nights straightening boxes, speaking to his brother through video conferencing and binge-watching Bosch, the crime show about a rugged, hard-edged Los Angeles Police Department detective just what he needed to distract him from the restlessness he felt.

“So, how’s it going with Maddie?” Matt had asked via video messaging on night seven of their quarantine as he’d leaned back on his couch and cracked open a soda. His gaze wandered off to one side, toward something behind his computer before Liam could answer. “Jason. Stop hitting your sister. I don’t ca—you know what, just go outside. In the backyard. You’re allowed to go in the backyard. . . . I don’t know. Hit the ball. Chase the dog. I don’t care. Just get out for a while. Take your brother and sister with you . . . Hey! I’m still in charge around here. Do what I say!”

He looked back at Liam through the screen. “Fun times over here. I can’t wait until this thing is over.”

Liam scoffed. “It’s only been three days for you, dude. If you can’t handle three days with your wife and kids, you’re in serious trouble.”

Matt grinned. “Yeah. I know. First world problems, right? Anyhow, what’s up with you and Maddie. I see you’re still alive, so she hasn’t stabbed you yet.”

Liam winced and rubbed his hand across the back of his neck. “Not for a lack of wanting to, I’d imagine.” He sat back against the headboard of the bed, arms across his chest. “We had it out the other night. The stuff she accused me of doing — you wouldn’t even believe it. Affairs, spending more time at work than with her, not supporting her after the miscarriages. It was all a bunch of crap.”

“Well?”

Liam scowled at his brother. “Well, what?”

“Did you do those things?”

“You know I didn’t, Matt.”

“Then why is it bothering you so much? Don’t be so defensive. You know you didn’t do anything wrong so let her rant.”

Liam shifted on the bed, focusing his gaze out the window. “I don’t know. Maybe I didn’t support her like I should have after the miscarriages. And she’s pretty accurate about working too much too.”

“And the affairs?” Matt asked.

“No!” Liam snapped, looking back at his brother. “I didn’t have an affair.” He paused, a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. “I could never do that to Maddie. You know that. We haven’t been getting along, yes, but I . . . I could never hurt her that way.”

He furrowed his eyebrows and leaned closer to the screen of his laptop. “Do you really think I could do that?” he asked his brother.

Matt laughed. “Liam, no, I don’t, and I don’t know if Maddie really does either, but she’s scared. She obviously doesn’t feel secure in her relationship with you to think that. I don’t think you or Maddie really want this divorce. You’re both just afraid to do the work it will take to keep this thing going. It’s going to hurt, little brother, but I think you two need to work things out. I think you still love your wife or what she said to you wouldn’t have hurt so much.”

Liam shook his head and clicked his tongue. “Matt Grant. The hard-headed, some might say, pig-headed, youngest-ever head of the intel committee showing that he’s also a marriage counselor.”

The brothers laughed easily together.

“Seriously, though, Liam,” Matt said, leaning closer to the screen now. “Let me give you some brotherly advice: make darn sure this divorce is truly what you want before you sign those papers. You and Maddie have something special. Always have. I don’t want to see you throw this away without really thinking it through. Okay?”

Liam let out a long breath, tapping his fingers along the touchpad of the laptop.

Matt pressed him further. “Promise me you’ll think really hard about all of this while you two are locked up in there, okay?”

Liam nodded. “Yeah. Okay. Thanks, Matt.”

Three nights later, on the tenth night of quarantine, Liam packed it in early, shutting off his phone and laptop around 10 p.m. and sliding under the covers, drained and glad he hadn’t yet experienced any coughing, muscle aches, or a sore throat. His mind was racing, filled with thoughts of work, thoughts of what this virus might mean to his parents, his older aunt and uncles, and anyone else whose health might be more vulnerable.

 His thoughts were also filled with Maddie.

She was sitting in the room down the hall, but she might as well have been thousands of miles away with all the interaction they’d had this past week.

Matt was right. Liam still loved Maddie and he was beginning to wonder if she had any love left for him.

Sleep had just begun to slip over him when he heard a soft knock on his door. He didn’t answer. He rolled over and closed his eyes tighter.

The door squeaked open and then footsteps, soft across the floor. What did she want? He was too tired for another fight.

“Liam?”

Maddie’s voice was barely audible. He ignored her.

She spoke a little louder. “Liam?”

He ignored her again.

She sighed in the darkness, he felt, rather than saw, her turn back toward the open doorway.

“What?”

Silence fell over the room and he heard a breath drawn in deep and slowly let out again.

“Will you hold me?”

He rolled over, squinting in the darkness, trying to make out her face to decide if she was serious or not.

“Just hold me. Nothing else.”

He wondered if this was some kind of trick. He squinted again, trying to see if her hand was behind her back; if she might suddenly draw a knife from there and stab him.

“Please?”

She seemed to be serious. Very. He heard a vulnerability in her tone that he hadn’t heard in a long time.

“Um . . . yeah. Okay.”

She lifted the sheet and comforter, sliding next to him, her body warm, her feet cold. Her feet had always been cold and she’d always slid them up his legs to warm them, making him squirm but laugh at the same time. Sometimes he’d asked if she needed the rest of her warmed up too and often she’d say yes and he’d snuggled close and nibbled at her earlobes.

He wasn’t going to ask her tonight if she needed warming up.

She laid her head on his shoulder, a hand on his chest over his heart and closed her eyes. She remembered how comforting the soft thump of his heartbeat had been for most of their marriage.

They laid in the dark listening to each other breathe until she whispered: “I tried to stay away from the news but it’s like watching a train wreck. I can’t seem to look away.”

“I know,” he said softly.

“People are scared.”

“Yeah.”

“They’re convinced they’re all going to die.”

“They’re not. Fear does crazy things to your mind.”

Silence settled over them again.

She laughed softly again. “Yeah. Like that time you had that spider on your arm when we were driving to my parents and you almost drove us into a river.”

Liam snorted a laugh. “Well, spiders are scary, what can I say? All those legs. . .” he shuddered. “It’s just creepy.”

Silence settled over them again.

“Liam?”

He stared into the darkness, at the light of the streetlight bleeding in under the blinds. “Yeah?”

“If this kills one of us —”

“Maddie, this isn’t going to kill either one of us. I already told you we don’t even know if my test is positive. And most of the cases are mild, especially in our age group. We’re not in the highest risk age group. Okay?”

“But if it does . . . I want you to know. . .” Maddie took a deep breath and spoke fast and softly as she exhaled. “I’ve always loved you. Even when I didn’t like you.”

Liam laughed softly.

“Thanks. I guess.”

“And, Liam?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m sorry you thought you had to fix me. Only God can fix my broken heart.”

“Yeah. I know.”

Silence settled over them again and he laid his hand over hers, over the one laying on his chest.

“Maddie?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m sorry you thought I didn’t care. I’m sorry I let my career become more important than our marriage.”

He had been trying not to be aware of her body warm against his, of the smell of her shampoo, of how soft the skin on her arm felt under his hand, of how her closeness made his heart rate increase. But he was aware of it. All of it. Much more than he wanted to be.

He slid his hand slowly up her arm, resting it just below her shoulder, squeezing gently.

He gently pressed his lips against the top of her head, her closeness suddenly intoxicating. “I love you, Maddie. Despite it all. I love you.”

He listened to her breathe and for a moment he thought she had fallen asleep.

 “I’m so tired. . .” she whispered against his neck, her breath warm. He could tell she was fading fast.

“Sleep,” he said softly. “We can talk more in the morning. It’s not like we’re going anywhere.”

She slept but he couldn’t. Not now with her tucked against him soft and warm, kicking his thoughts into high gear. He hadn’t expected her to come to him for comfort. He hadn’t expected it, but he welcomed it and loved having her so close, even if it was only physically.

 Had she meant what she said? That she still loved him? Maybe it had been the stress and the worry talking. The exhaustion even. He wasn’t sure but what he was sure of was that those words had sparked a warm, comforting fire in the center of his chest. He closed his eyes, savoring the feel of her hand over his heart, trying to switch his brain off and knowing he’d meant it when he’d told her he still loved her.

Fiction Friday: A New Beginning, Chapter 32

If you missed it, I posted Chapter 31 of A New Beginning yesterday.

Thoughts on the story so far? Let me know in the comments!

As always, this is a story in progress so there will be typos, missing words and maybe even plot holes. Feel free to let me know about them in the comments. I’ll be editing and fixing them before the final publication later this spring.

A New Beginning is a sequel to A Story to Tell but you don’t need to read A Story to Tell to understand and follow along with A New Beginning. The link to the chapters of A New Beginning, in order, can be found HERE or at the link at the top of the page.

 


Chapter 32

“How close do you think I was to dying that night with Hank?” I asked Emmy six months after I’d left Hank.

Emmy looked at me with furrowed eyebrows. “Why would you ask that? Did you really think he was going to kill you that night?”

I hugged a pillow to my chest. “I honestly don’t know. It’s how it felt that night, yes. The look on his face  . . . Emmy, it was horrible. It was like he wasn’t even human.”

I thought about the conversation and Emmy’s question back to me as I pulled my legs up into my stomach, curled up under my covers, in my own bed, after finally returning home with Edith, Jimmy, Lily and the new baby, who Lily had named Alexander Josiah.

How close had I been to dying that night? Did it make me a horrible person to think Hank really could have been capable of killing me? Was he truly that horrible of a person? I pictured his fist hitting Judson’s face, the anger radiating off of him when he’d watched Judson and I through his truck window as we drove away. He was full of anger, of bitterness, but was he capable of killing?

I wondered if he would be capable of killing if he ended up in Vietnam. I squeezed my eyes tight against the darkness, willing sleep to come. Why was I thinking about all of this now? My body was heavy with exhaustion. I’d worked longer hours at the shop the last two days, trying to catch up on the work I’d been behind on after the extended trip to the city with Edith and Jimmy. I hadn’t even stopped to see Judson, or call to see how he was, but I’d thought of him almost constantly.

I rolled to my back, stared at the ceiling, then rolled to my side and closed my eyes again.

I could have died that night, I thought to myself. Emmy and I both could have died that night in the storm. Life is so short. Life is so fragile. I’ve barely been living all these years. Why am I doing this to myself? Why am I so afraid to take risks?

I threw the covers off me, sat up and swung my legs over the bed, my thoughts racing. I was wasting my life and pushing people away and for what? For nothing. I was doing it all under the guise that I could somehow keep anything bad from happening to me, simply by controlling every situation, every feeling. But feelings weren’t something I could control and right now I was fighting against admitting my feelings for Judson were much more than simple friendship.

I quickly dressed and slid my shoes on, sneaking down the hallway and the stairs, glancing at the clock in the living room on my way through. 11:30 at night. What was I even thinking, taking a walk at this time of night, heading to see the one person who wanted me to enjoy life as much I did? I knew I’d never sleep if I didn’t tell Judson I’d wanted to kiss him that night at the lake and I wished I hadn’t run away.

I felt almost like I was in high school again, sneaking out to see Hank, as I tip-toed past my parent’s room and walked gingerly down the stairs. I wasn’t in high school again, though, and I wasn’t going to see Hank. I didn’t feel guilty about this late-night escape.

The crisp air stinging my nose and eyes as I walked down the dirt road toward Judson’s reminded me that winter was almost here. Above me, the night sky twinkled with stars and a full moon was showing bright just above the treetops. Somewhere across the fields one of Mr. Worley’s cows mooed from either in his pasture or inside the barn.

Movement in the brush as I walked past a barren cornfield on one side and a tangled thicket on the other startled me. My breath and steps quickened. A terrifying thought hit me like a rock between the eyes. What if there was a bear in the bushes?

Oh my gosh. It is a bear. I am going to be eaten by a bear while being a fool and walking out of my house in the middle of the night to tell a man who has probably forgotten me about since I hadn’t even called him in more than a week to check on him that I – that I what?

I stopped walking, breathing hard, my breath floating white in front of me in small quick puffs.

I looked up at the stars, the cloudless, dark sky, and heard the rustling again in the bushes. I swallowed hard and started walking faster. What was I even going to tell Judson? And why hadn’t I taken the car? What had I been thinking? I had a child to take care of. How would my parents tell him I had been eaten by a bear while walking off in the middle of the night to go see some man.

A black, furry blur rushed at me from the bushes and I screamed in terror, holding my arms up to block the attack of the bear.

But the attack never came.

I slowly lowered my arms and opened my eyes, squinting in the moonlight. A plump black cat yowled at me as it sauntered toward me as if to mock me for my fear. It darted past me, back toward our house. I remembered at that moment why I had never been a fan of cats.

I looked back toward our house, then back the other way, down the road, at the bend in it, knowing Mr. Worley’s tenant house where Judson lived was a hundred feet away. If I went home, I could crawl back into bed and forget about this night and my foolishness. If I walked to Judson’s I took the chance he was asleep but then again, what was I going to even say if he was awake?

Standing in the middle of this old dirt road I’d driven and walked on a thousand times I closed my eyes and felt the tears hot behind them. I thought about the fight with Hank, the bruises on Judson’s face, the way his eye had been swollen the next day. Absent-mindedly I walked, kicking at the dirt, pulling my sweater closer around me, wondering why I always seemed to cause everyone pain.

When I reached Judson’s front yard, I stood looking at the light glowing from his front window. Was he inside reading a book? Building a table?

On a date?

My heart lurched at that thought. I drew in a deep breath but couldn’t bring myself to walk onto the front porch.

Blanche Robbins, what are you doing? I thought with a hand pressed against my forehead. Go home and gather your thoughts before you make a fool out of yourself.

I turned to leave and screamed for the second time that night, this time at a figure standing behind me shining a light in my face. I held my hands up against the blinding light.

“Blanche? What are you doing out here?”

I recognized the smooth Southern accent immediately. I squinted in the light.

Judson lowered the flashlight and stepped toward me in the darkness.

“I – I was taking a walk,” I gasped.

“At midnight?”

“Uh…yes?”

“In the pitch dark?”

“Yes?”

“Without a flashlight?”

I cleared my throat and rubbed my hands nervously across my arms.

“Umm . . .yes?”

“Did you scream a few moments ago?”

“Yes, that was me.”

“I thought it was a dying cat, so I came out to see what was going on.”

I giggled. “A dying cat? I sounded like a dying cat?”

Judson laughed loudly. “Well, yeah.”

“So, you were going to come out here and do what with the dying cat?”

“I don’t know!” he said, still laughing. “Maybe put it out of its’ misery.”

He jerked his head toward the house. “It’s cold out here. Do you want to come in?”

I looked at the front porch and shook my head, shivering. “I don’t think – I mean, I don’t know if it would be right to go into the house of a man I’m not married to in — uh, well, the middle of the night.”

I thought he might laugh at me but instead, he nodded in apparent understanding.  “Okay, well, then come up on the porch and I’ll get a blanket to put around your shoulders. You shouldn’t be out here alone at this time of night. There could be bears or — some other crazy Pennsylvania creature out here.”

I snorted a small laugh, pretending the idea of bears being along this road was absurd and I’d never thought of such a thing. “Bears. Yeah. Right.”

Up on the porch I sat on the step while Judson went inside and returned with a quilt. He draped it around my shoulders and sat next to me, leaning his back against the porch column, one leg up, one stretched down on the top step. Had I really just suggested I shouldn’t go into his home because it might not look right? First of all, who was going to see us at this time of night on a dark, rural road? The cat? Secondly, as if being in his home the other day in broad daylight couldn’t have been construed by some as inappropriate behavior as well.

Judson propped his forearm arm on his knee. “Blanche. Seriously. What are you doing out here?”

I looked at him in the dim porch light, at the fading bruises under his eye and along his cheek, a choking pain searing through my chest.

Oh please, Lord, don’t let me start crying, I might not stop.

But it was too late. Without warning, I lost the fight to hold in my emotions and began to sob. It was as if a dam broke. I pressed my hands against my face and sobbed, tears soaking my face.

“Blanche, what’s going on?” Judson’s voice was full of shock and concern. He touched my arm gently. “Did something happen? Did Hank come back or —”

I shook my head behind my hands. “No. No. Nothing like that,” I choked out, trying to wipe the tears from my face with my hands.

Judson lifted a corner of the quilt and dabbed my cheeks with it. “What is going on?”

I turned my face away from him, trying to stop the tears.

“You really could have been hurt the other night with Hank and it’s my fault.”

“How was it your fault that Hank was a jerk and I chose to step in? We already talked about this. That was my choice.”

I pulled the quilt tight around me. “It’s like everything I do hurts someone else.”

Judson laughed softly.  “Well that’s a little self-centered isn’t it?” he asked.

I sniffed and looked at him through tears. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You seem to think you have so much power you are the cause of the pain of others. Can you also use your powers for good?”

I sighed. “That’s not what I meant. I just meant that people get hurt trying to help me because of my stupid —”

“Stepping in with Hank was my choice,” Judson interrupted, his tone sharp. “Protecting you was my choice.”

He turned toward me, pushing my hair back from my face. When he spoke again his tone was tender, husky.

“Loving you is my choice. And your safety is worth whatever pain I’m in right now.”

The serious tone of his voice sent a ripple of exhilaration from the top of my head to the tips of my toes. How could he still love me, after all the ways I’d pushed him away over the last two years?

I swiped my hand across the tears streaming down my cheeks. I couldn’t imagine I looked very nice, my face splotchy and red from the crying.

A heavy sensation of anticipation settled in the center of my chest as he spoke. “Why won’t you just let me love you, Blanche? Why can’t you stop thinking so much and just,” he stood impulsively and tossed his arms out to his side in frustration, looking down at me. “I don’t know, feel! Feel something and let that be your guide, not your thoughts or your ‘what if’ worries.”

My excited feeling was being replaced with a growing annoyance and I wasn’t sure I had the emotional fortitude to handle the roller coaster of feelings

How stupid can he be? Doesn’t he know what happens to women when they go through life guided by their feelings?  I stood to face him, the quilt sliding off my shoulders, landing in a pile on the porch floor.

“I did ‘just feel’ once upon a time,” I snapped, my voice breaking with anger, as I tossed my arms out to mock his gesture. “With Hank. I didn’t think. I just went with my feelings and took a risk. And where did it get me? Beat up. A pregnant teenager with no clue how to raise a baby. It got me shame. It got me guilt because my son has been growing up without a father — ”

“Blanche, stop it.” Judson’s voice was sharp and loud as he interrupted me. I stepped back, startled. “Stop using Hank Hakes as a measuring stick for every situation in your life, for every man that walks into your life. Hank is a stellar example of what a man shouldn’t be, but not every man is Hank Hakes.”

He walked toward me briskly, cupping my face in his hands. “I am not Hank Hakes, Blanche. I love you and I want you to tell me how you feel about me – not what you fear will happen if you let yourself love me. For God sake, Blanche, if this whole thing with my dad has taught me anything, it’s that life is short, too short to wait to tell people how we feel. I have spent too many nights aching to speak to you, aching to hold you, aching for you to let me in.”

We were only inches apart now. I couldn’t take my eyes off his. My gaze focused on the flecks of green scattered in the blue of his iris. His hands on my skin woke a passion and need in me I knew had always been there but had tried to ignore.

“I know how I feel about you Blanche. I know I can’t stop thinking about you, worrying about you, wondering what you’re doing when we’re not together. I know when we are together I find myself memorizing every little gesture you make, quirk you have, wondering how it’s possible that simply being with you calms me like nothing else, like no one else, does.”

I searched his eyes, saw in them tenderness and searching of his own. I didn’t understand why he seemed to love me so fiercely. I didn’t understand how I deserved someone who wanted healing for me as much as I wanted it for myself.

I knew he was right. Realizing how short and fragile life was had been what had brought me here tonight. I had come here to tell Judson I was afraid to love him, to be loved by him but also that I didn’t want a life ruled by fear and anger. Why couldn’t I just say it?

“Oh, Judson. I’m sorry.”

The words rushed out of me as if an emotional dam had burst, tears flowing before I could even try to fight them back.

“I’m so sorry I keep acting like you’re even remotely like Hank. You’re not. You’re so wonderful and beautiful and sweet and I want to know all there is to know about you. I want to know what you think about all those books on your bookshelves and how you made all that furniture and what you did in the summer with your brother when you were a little boy and what your favorite food is.”

“I want to know what you think about God and if you’ve ever gone swimming in the ocean.  I want to know it all but I’m so afraid to know it all.”  I choked out a sob. “I don’t have to let myself love you, Judson. I just do. Even when I don’t want to. And yes, it frightens me because I don’t want Jackson to be hurt again, but I also don’t want to be hurt again. I kissed you at the lake because I wanted to kiss you. I felt an insane physical attraction to you, but it scared me because I needed something more. I didn’t want any decision I made to be based on physical attraction because I took that path before and it didn’t end well.”

I gasped in a breath and tears slipped down my face as Judson kissed my forehead, then my cheek, pulling back to look at me.

“But, I also don’t want to hold my feelings for you in any longer,” I whispered. “I know now that I love you beyond appearance, that I love your heart as much as I love your soft lips and your beautiful eyes.”

Judson grinned. “You think my eyes are beautiful?”

My face flushed warm. “I think all of you is beautiful.”

His grin had widened and I actually thought I saw red flush along his cheekbones as he laughed softly.

“You know, C.S. Lewis once said that to love at all is to be vulnerable.”

“Have you been talking to my Dad?”

“What?”

“My Dad quoted that same thing from C.S. Lewis a few weeks ago.”

Judson laughed again. “Great minds think alike apparently.”

He pressed his forehead against mine. “Blanche, I’m scared too. Loving you is scary because I don’t want to hurt you either and I know I could someday, but I know I could never treat you the way Hank treated you. I know I will do anything in my power to protect you, to protect Jackson, and to protect your heart.”

My body relaxed as he spoke, a peace settling over me at each word. When he tilted his head and gently pressed his mouth against mine, I surrendered to how tender love could be. Unlike that day at the lake, I accepted each second of the kiss, each tender touch. His hands slid from my face, pushed into my hair, and cradled the back of my head. I clutched the front of his shirt, worried he might pull away like I had at the lake.

I didn’t want him to pull away. I didn’t want him to stop kissing me. I didn’t want him to stop showing me how much he truly loved me.

His hands slipped from my hair, moving down my back, resting in the small of it as he gently pulled me against him. When he pulled away and started to speak, I laid a finger against his lips. I shook my head. I didn’t want to talk about anything anymore. I wanted to feel all the emotions I hadn’t let myself experience when I’d kissed him before.

His mouth found mine again and pleasure coursed through me as his mouth moved to my neck and then my throat, kissing a trail across my skin. I slid my hands into his hair, clutching it, focused only on the fire each touch of his mouth and hands lit inside me.

I don’t know how long we stood there holding each other, lost in the moment, forgetting all we’d been worried about, but when he finally pulled back to look at me we were both breathing hard and he was laughing.

“That felt —”

I tipped my head back and let my hair fall back across my shoulders.

“Like freedom,” I said, finishing his sentence.

He laughed and I kissed him again, enjoying the softness of his hair between my fingers.

“Blanche,” he whispered hoarsely a few moments later. “I need to drive you home.”

I pulled his head down to mine again to resume our kiss, but he stepped back taking my hands in his, clasping them together and holding them against his chest.

I could feel his heart pounding fast under my hands.

“I need to take you home now,” he said firmly, looking me in the eyes. He spoke quickly. “If I don’t, I’m afraid . . .” He shook his head slowly. “Of what we might do.”

I looked at him in surprise, warmth rushing from my chest into my cheeks. I knew what he was saying and that he was right, though I’d never intended that when I’d started walking to see him earlier. My own heart was pounding as fast as his, my thoughts spinning; the perfect storm for clouded judgment and choices that might be regretted later.

I signaled I understood by a quick nod of my head. He left me standing on the porch and grabbed his truck keys from inside the house. We drove to my parents’ house in silence, and he shut the engine off in the driveway. I was trembling and I knew it wasn’t from the chill in the air.

Stretching his arm across the back of the seat he looked at me and let out a long sigh. “So, we talked and … yeah … that was good.”

“It was.”

“I’m glad we got that talk out of the way and know how we feel now.”

“Me too.”

I gasped and then giggled as he reached out and clutched my hair at the back of my head, tilting my head back gently and pressing his mouth firmly against mine.  I giggled. When was the last time I had actually giggled?

“We’ll talk more later today,” he whispered when he pulled his mouth from mine several moments later. “Now get out of here before your daddy chases me off with a shotgun.”

I laughed. “I don’t think that’s going to happen with you. He likes you too much.”

His hand touched my arm gently as I opened the door and I turned to look at him.

“Blanche….”

His expression was tender as he cupped my cheek against his hand. “Is it too soon to say I love you? Because I do.”

The words flowed over me like warm water. I leaned close to him, laid my hand against his cheek, and brushed my lips against his. “I hope it isn’t because I love you too, Judson.”

I watched him drive away, as I pulled my sweater tight around me and then slipped inside the house. Inside my room, under the covers I closed my eyes, struggling to fall asleep, wondering what my future held now that I’d told Judson T. Wainwright I loved him and knew he loved me too.

Fiction Thursday: A New Beginning Chapter 29

Ya’ll ended up with an extra chapter last week. Don’t expect another extra chapter this week. *wink*

As always, this is a first draft of the story and also as always, you can catch the first part of Blanche’s story, A Story to Tell, on Kindle. You do not need to read A Story to Tell to follow A New Beginning.

Also, this is a work in progress so there are bound to be words missing or other typos. Maybe even plot holes. Feel free to tell me about them in the comments. To follow the story from the beginning, find the link HERE or at the top of the page. This book will be published in full later this spring on Kindle and other sites.

Let me know what you think should happen next and what you think of the story so far in the comments.


Chapter 29

I knocked softly on Judson’s door the next morning and waited nervously on the porch. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t asked him how his father was recovering from the surgery and if they’d been able to work through any of their issues. It seemed like I would be forever self-focused. I’d had an entire 20-minute car ride the night before to focus on someone other than myself and I hadn’t even bothered.

Daddy had taken Jackson to school that morning on his way to work and I had taken the day off after Edith called late the night before to tell me Lily’s baby had been born. It was a boy and Edith asked me to travel with her and Jimmy to pick him up that afternoon. It was a nice morning for a walk from our house to the Worley’s and I needed it. It had given me time to think about everything that had happened the night before, though my mind was still spinning from it all.

I knocked again but when there was no sound inside, I decided he must have gone to work. As I started back down the steps to walk home, I heard the door open behind me.

A groggy voice greeted me. “Hey.”

I turned to see Judson standing in the doorway in a white undershirt and his jeans from the night before, blood dried near the knee. Part of his cheek was swollen and dark blue, almost purple, the eye barely open. I could see the edge of the cut above his eye on the other side under the bandage Mama had placed there. His hair was disheveled and he was unshaven and for some reason the combination made my stomach feel funny in the middle – funny in a good way. I had the same sudden urge I’d had the night before to kiss away all the pain.

“I’m so sorry to wake you.” I felt my knees tremble as I spoke. Why were my knees trembling? I’d spoke to Judson many times before. Today wasn’t any different. Was it?

“I just realized that I’d forgotten last night to ask you how your dad was,” I continued, hoping I didn’t sound as awkward as I felt.

Judson laughed softly and leaned against the door frame, blinking in the bright sunlight. “It’s okay. You were a little preoccupied.” He jerked his head toward the kitchen. “Come on in and we can talk while I make myself some coffee.”

He looked down at himself and rubbed his hand across his chin as I stepped inside. “And after I wash up and shave. I have to head into the job site later. Uncle James gave me the morning off when he heard what happened.”

You don’t need to shave, I thought to myself. You look fine the way you are. Boy do you look fine.

“Did he hear what happened from you?” I asked out loud as I walked past him inside.

Judson grinned. “Not me. Thomas. You know how newspaper men are. They like to spread the news.” He gestured toward the chair across from the couch. “Sit if you like. Excuse the mess. I fell asleep on the couch last night.”

I moved a book aside and sat in the chair, looking at the tangled mess of blankets on the couch, as Judson disappeared down the hallway toward the bathroom. I looked at the book, laying on the floor where I had placed it, John Steinbeck emblazoned on the front. I picked it up, flipping pages as the sound of running water filtered through the bathroom door down the hallway. I had to do something to distract myself from the thought that Judson was just beyond that door, not wearing a stitch of clothing.

We have only one story,” I read to myself. “All novels, all poetry, are built on the never ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.”

Standing, I carried the book to the bookcases along the wall in the dining room, sitting where other people placed china cabinets. I trailed my fingers along the binding of the books, reading the names of the authors, Orwell, Tolkien, Shakespeare, Golding, Fleming, Lewis — as in C.S. Lewis. Good grief, no wonder Judson got along so well with my father.

I touched the edge of the bookcase in front of me, rubbing my hand down the smooth side, knowing Judson had most likely built it and much of the rest of the furniture in the house. My eyes focused on a picture over the mantle above the fireplace. A woman stood in black and white against a backdrop of ivy, her dark hair and dark eyes captivating against pale skin, her head tipped back in an obvious laugh. I guessed by her clothes that the photo was taken some time in the 1930s.

A couple stared out at me from another photo, the woman looking similar to the woman in the larger photo, but older, the man looking almost exactly like Judson but older, his hair thinning slightly, his arms wrapped tightly around the woman. I wondered if they were Judson’s parents. Two small boys were posed against a tobacco barn in another photo. Both boys were wearing denim overalls, shirtless, the youngest missing his front teeth, his hair standing in several directions on top of his head. Looking closer I realized the oldest was the Judson I remembered from our childhood, freckles spread across his nose. Judson walked out of the bathroom, rubbing a towel across his wet hair, as I studied the photograph with a small smile, remembering how obnoxious he’d been back then.

“That’s me and my brother,” he said, standing behind me. A sweet smell of aftershave and shampoo washed over me. “I’m sure you can see I’m the better looking one.”

I winked and walked over to the couch, starting to fold the blankets. “Uh-huh. I see that.”

“You don’t have to clean up after me, you know,” Judson laughed from the kitchen, pouring water into the coffee pot. “Like Hank said last night, I’m a big boy.”

He sat down on the couch a few moments later and patted the cushion next to him as I laid the folded blanket across the back. “Come sit down while the coffee brews and I’ll tell you about my visit down South.”

I winced as I saw the bruises and cuts up closer. “You look worse today than last night.”

He laughed. “Well, gee thanks and I was just going to say you look much better this morning.” He reached over and pushed a strand of hair that had fallen out of my bun behind my ear like he had the day in the barn. “No problems last night?”

I leaned back against the arm of the couch. “None. Now tell me how your dad is.”

Judson propped his arm across the back of the couch. “He’s recovering but it’s going to take a bit. His heart might be weak for a long time, maybe forever but he’s better than he was.”

“Did you two work anything out?”

“No big make up scene, no, but we were at least able to be civil to each other.”

“Well, that’s a start at least.” I pointed toward the photograph on the wall. “Is that him in that photograph?”

Judson nodded. “Yep. That’s him and my mom a few years ago. And that’s my mom in high school in the other photograph. My dad took the photo. It’s one of my favorites so I asked if I could have a copy of it. Dad had it by his hospital bed after the surgery too, but told Mom it paled in comparison to having her there in person. Dad wasn’t always the best with me, but he is definitely much better at being a husband.”

He stood and walked into the kitchen toward the coffee pot. “Hey,” he said over his shoulder. “What did Thomas mean when he said he hoped things would be less complicated with me now?”

Ugh. Thomas. I had hoped Judson would forget about that.

“Oh, who knows,” I said with a wave of my hand, hoping to change the subject. “It’s Thomas.”

“Yeah. Thomas. The guy you went out with while I was gone.”

I laughed. “Yeah. I wasn’t exactly the person he had on his mind that night. I told you he’s dating Midge Flannery, right?”

“Isn’t her dad the pastor at the Methodist Church?”

“Yes.”

“And she’s dating Thomas? Seriously?”

“Yeah. I know, but Thomas said maybe she’ll help him turn over a new leaf. Let’s just hope it’s not the other way around.”

Judson laughed from the kitchen. I could see him through the doorway, adding creamer and sugar to his coffee. I tried not to stare at him as he moved between the refrigerator and the counter, but I was like a deer caught in headlights, my gaze drifting over his broad shoulders and finely toned arms.

“Did you want a cup of coffee?”

“What?” I looked away as he glanced at me “Oh. No. Um… actually, you know what? I’m not really a coffee fan.”

“Oh. How about a glass of juice instead?”

“I’d much more prefer that. Yes.”

My gaze fell on the bruises on Judson’s cheek as he leaned over to place the juice on the coffee table in front of me a few moments later, my heart aching. He was in pain because of me and I didn’t like it. He sat next to me, sipping the coffee.

“It doesn’t hurt as bad as it looks,” he said, as if reading my mind.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered.

“What are you sorry for?”

“For Hank. For causing you to be in pain, for —”

Judson laughed, interrupting me. “You didn’t cause me any pain. I’m the one who inserted myself into that situation. I could have handled it a lot better than I did. I didn’t have to keep letting him egg me on. All I had to do was take you by the arm and lead you to my truck, but like I said last night – I wanted him to pay.”

He rubbed his chin, wincing slightly. “I’m not proud of myself but I guess I wanted him to feel what it’s like to be on the other end of a beating. The only problem is that verse in the Bible: ‘Vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord.’ I guess I didn’t trust the Lord to bestow vengeance on Hank in the way I wanted and took it upon myself. I shouldn’t have done that. Of course, it didn’t help that Emmy she filled me in on what else Hank had done to you.”

He looked at me and I saw regret in his eyes. I felt warmth rush into my face. I knew Emmy had told him about Hank cheating on me and I couldn’t decide if it made me angry or not that she had. I had realized long ago that Hank’s choosing another woman over me had made me feel unworthy and incapable of being truly loved by another man. It had made my insides ache with embarrassment.

Telling Emmy and Edith, and then much later Mama and Daddy, had been humiliating, even though they all insisted the issue was his, not mine. Knowing that Judson now knew I hadn’t been  — dare I even think it — woman enough for my husband, was like having a deep secret exposed to the light. It was a secret I somehow felt would make Judson look at me like Hank once had, not only as someone who wasn’t pretty enough, but also someone who couldn’t fulfill her husband’s physical or emotional needs.

I lowered my eyes, picking at a thread on the bottom of my shirt.

“She told you that?”

“Yeah, I hope it doesn’t upset you, but it sort of slipped out when she was in one of her ranting modes a couple weeks ago.” He rubbed his hand across his chin and winced. “You know how she gets.”

I laughed softly, my eyes still on my shirt. “Oh, I do.”

Judson took a sip of his coffee. “I called to update her on my dad and she told me Hank had been in town. She said after all he’d done to you, he had better not try to see you. After cheating on you and smacking you around, he was worthless, she said, and she didn’t want him near you or Jackson. I think if she’d had a gun in her hand she would have gone after him like your dad did all those years ago.”

I tipped my head at Judson, narrowing my eyes. “So, you already knew Hank had been in town when you acted indignant last night that I didn’t tell you.”

Judson placed the coffee mug on the corner of the coffee table, laying his arm over the back of the couch and grinned.

“Yeah. Just trying to make you feel like a heel for not telling me.”

His grin faded into a more serious expression and his voice lowered to a soothing, comforting tone. “Listen, I’m sorry he did that to you. I can’t imagine any man tossing you aside for someone else. You’re worth much more than that.”

I bit my lower lip, tears stinging my eyes. I shook my head to shake them away and push down the emotion. “It’s fine. That was a long time ago.”

I cleared my throat and blinked the tears away, looking up at him. “For what it’s worth, I appreciate what you did for me last night.”

I reached over and laid my hand over his, but immediately felt awkward being so intimate and pulled my hand back, laying it in my lap.

He looked at me and his smile sent my heart pounding hard in my chest. Looking into his blue eyes, I was transported back to that night at the lake, his lips against mine, his arms around me when I’d started to run away.

He reached down and enclosed his hand around mine. He rubbed the top of it with his thumb, then lifted it, his mouth grazing the palm. His voice was barely a whisper. “For what it’s worth, I would do it again.”

The way he was speaking, his gaze never wavering from mine, made me consider jumping away before he moved any closer, but I didn’t need to worry about it. A knock on the front door startled us both and I pulled my hand quickly from his, not sure if I was relieved or disappointed.

“I guess I should get that,” he said with a sigh.

I recognized Marion’s voice as he opened the door. “Oh Judson! You look awful!”

“Well, Mrs. Hakes, thank you,” Judson laughed. “This is the second time today someone has told me that. You, however, look lovely.”

Stepping inside Marion laid her hand against the side of Judson’s face, tears in her eyes. “I’m so sorry for what Hank did to you. I just stopped at Alan and Janie’s to check on Blanche this morning and they told me what had happened. I’m so sorry for what he did to you. If I had known he was back in town, I would have warned Blanche.”

Judson took Marion’s hands in his and looked her in the eye. “Mrs. Hakes, you have nothing to apologize for.”

“He’s my son . . .”

“He’s not your responsibility anymore, ma’am,” Judson said firmly. “He’s a grown man.”

Marion nodded, a tear slipping down her cheek as Judson hugged her gently. “And besides. I’m fine. I’m sore but I’m in better shape than I could be.”

Marion walked over to me and sat down, taking my hand. “Hank called me this morning and said he’s leaving for bootcamp. I don’t think we’ll have to worry about him again anytime soon.”

Edith and Jimmy appeared in the doorway as Marion spoke, concern etched on both their faces. It was like a full-on family reunion at this point and I realized my family had some of the worst timing of anyone I’d ever met.

“Judson!” Edith cried, rushing toward Judson. “Oh, you look just awful! Are you okay? We stopped to pick up Blanche and Mama said she had come to check on you and filled us in.”

“I’m fine,” Judson said again. “Really. All of your concern is certainly appreciated. Although, can you all stop saying how awful I look? I’m starting to get depressed.”

Jimmy stepped inside the door, standing behind Edith. “Please tell me you nailed him good,” he said, then catching Marion’s eye he cleared his throat. “Excuse me, Mrs. Hakes. I mean —”

Marion laughed as she wiped her eyes with her handkerchief. “It’s perfectly fine, Jimmy. A good beating is what Hank needed.”

After a few more moments of conversation, Marion said she would leave Judson alone to get ready for work and I followed Edith and Jimmy to their car, hugging Judson quickly before I left. He stood on the porch, leaning against the porch column as he watched us drive away. I looked back at him, knowing we would eventually need to talk about all the tender moments between us, the kisses and the gentle touches that were waking my soul to the possibility of love. And I knew I would eventually have to decide what all those moments meant for the walls I had built around me.