Saturday, February 13, 2016

A Valentine Story
by C.J.
"And I shall give them one heart,
and shall put a new spirit within them.
And I will take the heart of stone out of their flesh
and give them a heart of flesh."
Ezekiel 11:19

Julia left her desk and peeked out the front window of her office staying only partially hidden behind slightly closed blinds.  She sighed.  There goes another one.  But then she did a double take and gasped, paling before stepping back so as not to be seen.  Biting her lip, the young woman stiffened as she walked to her desk and took the yearbook out of the drawer.  Turning to the right page, she drew a thick black "X," the largest and darkest one yet on the page.  The whole section was nearly all marked by now.  She glanced at the few who were left and sighed.


She shook her head at her father, not willing to talk about it, not able to talk about it with the lump in her throat and tears threatening.

It was a small town with a small high school.  Since graduation, Julia had not left, earning her associates degree locally.  This was true for obtaining her C.P.A. license as well.  That meant that the same ones she'd gone to kindergarten with were practically all the same ones she went to junior college with.  While some went away to the university, most often returning, others stayed here in the same old ruts, ruts as deep as the graves dug by the backhoe at the cemetery.  Julia didn't know what it was about this community, but folks got stuck here, wedged in so deeply that they could never leave until they filled those holes.  The thought of leaving herself had never gone through her mind, well except once and that had been pure desperation, fight or flight. 

That was between the separation and the divorce.  It had been so painful that at times she did not think she could breathe, wishing she could die, feeling like she had already fallen into that deep, dark hole.  Instead, she had survived though her heart had turned to stone.  It was heavy.  All she could think about for weeks was fleeing.

They had gone steady since junior high, for goodness sake.  She wore a promise ring all through high school.  He gave her an engagement ring after their first year of college.  As soon as their AA was under their belts, it was time to go down the aisle.  Everything had been planned out for years.  They went forth by momentum and expectation. 

It wasn't until later that she had realized that she must not have been good enough for love, true love, lasting love.  Looking back she wondered if even God had been trying to warn her.  Certainly her dad had.  Her friends had.  But she had not wanted to listen.  Then she'd been blind-sided by betrayal.

She had no idea that Jeffery was so immature.  Julia later found out that his mother had washed his clothes, ironed them, changed his sheets and made his bed.  He'd never done any of those chores.  Mommy had made his breakfast, packed his lunch, and had dinner on the table when he got home every day of his life.  She had poured all her efforts into her only child, a son, the one that Julia had stolen away from her.  The sun rose and set on her boy.  How had Julia not realized this?  Looking back, she was sure that every bouquet of flowers and every corsage that had ever been ordered for her was begrudgingly done so by that woman who Julia had begun to think of as "the other woman," that is, until there really was another woman.

Julia had worked from high school on in her father's tax business.  Her mother had died when she was in elementary school.  Aunt Penny had come in to help some, but after that, she had picked up the slack.  The rest of life had been on the fly, grab a bite here, throw in a load of clothes there, while the bed was usually left to make itself, which somehow it never managed to do.  After the wedding, she had continued her habits, had continued to work for her father which required long hours during the tax season.  That was nothing new.  What was new was that Jeffery had found someone to keep him company in that unmade bed while she was busy at work.  One night she got off unexpectedly early and found them.  

Since that time, she had moved back home with her father in the small apartment above his office on Main Street.  Everything had gone back to how it used to be in a mindless routine, except now she made her bed. Every. Single. Morning.  Not a wrinkle was to be found in the tightly tucked sheets under the smoothed out covers.  The difference was that she had no social life.  Her father had his nightly ritual of the newspaper, crossword puzzle and the news or sports from his recliner, while she usually retreated to her room with her cat to get lost in a book with her ear-buds in playing classical music in order to drown out the T.V. noise from the other room and the deafening silence in her heart. Once in awhile, Aunt Penny swept in with a little chaos with her abrupt visits.  But other than that, it was quiet, blessed quietness.

Julia had never done anything permanently to change the fact she was married.  But when he had the papers drawn up and served, she signed them.  She changed her name back.  Good riddance.  How could someone know somebody their whole life, even marry them, and miss the "unfaithful" factor?  Julia had never even seen him wink at another girl since 8th grade.

It was a small enough town for the rumors to spread into flames, from the small spark to the ones blown way out of proportion catching fire, to the most ridiculous ones imaginable incinerating into barn burners.  But it was not a small enough of a town to put them out.  They spread like wild fire while Julia could only sprinkle them with a garden can half full of water. Even now one still flared up once in a while.  Hence, the confinement to her room.  Only Aunt Penny dared to update her on the latest gossip, whether she wanted to listen or not.

There had been many nights when she could not sleep that she would drive, long drives, to get out of town.  Dark circles under her eyes seemed to be the new look.  Her clothes hung limply on her as she lost weight.  Eventually, her father made her go buy new ones.  Even he was embarrassed by her, she guessed.  If it had not been for her cat Hercules to cuddle, she did not know what she would have done.

"Julia, when are you going to stop marking up your high school year book?" Her father's voice jarred her back.  "Don't you think you are obsessing a little over it?" he sighed looking up concerned.

"How can I help it if we are next door to the only bridal shop in the county?  I get a front row seat to all the happy couples parading by.  It's just my way of keeping an accounting book on my high school classmates," she frowned trying to keep her eyes on the ledger in front of her.

"You know good and well that you are drawing "X"s right through their faces.  When's the last time you actually talked to any of them?"

"Not interested," she grimaced.

"Exactly. You've become a hermit, a recluse.  I've a mind to lock you out come evening sometime if you don't start getting a social life.  You can't keep hiding in here forever.  I won't let you.  What would your mother have said, God rest her soul?"

"It's just a good thing that she wasn't still around to see my divorce.  That would have killed her."

"Well, it's killing you, a little more every day.  Figure it out darling or your pops is going to take drastic measures like finding you an online dating service or advertising that every bachelor under thirty in the county can have his taxes done for free by you-know-who until you perk up and start living life again.  Aunt Penny has a couple of bachelors lined up for you, you know. I'm about ready to give her the green light."

"You wouldn't dare!" Julia growled.

"I'll give you a month to go out on a date on your own or this dad is going to start meddling."

Julia slammed the high school year book on her desk and stalked out.  It was time for a drive, a long one.  She ran upstairs to grab a coat and then back into the office to retrieve her wallet and car keys when she was stopped dead in her tracks.  Garth Worthington was perched on her desk thumbing through her yearbook, which was from his graduating class as well.  His face was one of the only ones left not marked by a black "X."  Her breath wouldn't come at first, and when it did, it only came in gasps.
"What are you doing here, Garth?"

He gave her his hallmark smile that had every girl swooning since sixth grade when he got his braces off.  Looking around he said, "This is a tax office, isn't it?  I need help on my taxes.  I don't have time to do them myself this year."  And he winked. 

This was bad.  Really bad.  She and Jeffery had gone on so many double dates with him and a long line of females. She knew his type, and she wasn't it, especially standing here in her baggie, too-big slacks and company blazer her dad insisted on her wearing while at work. "O, Lord Jesus, please don't let my dad say anything to embarrass me, please, please..."  It had been a long time since she'd prayed so fervently.

"Say, Garth, have you got your face crossed out in her book there yet?"

Oh, nooo!  "Please dad, hush," she pleaded with her eyes.  He just swiveled in his chair away from her so he wouldn't have to be in her direct line of vision.

"What's up with all these "X's"?  Is this some kind of voodoo or something, Juls?" Garth asked with a crooked grin.

He was the only one who called her that. She didn't know why, but suddenly it bothered her immensely.  Julia marched over and grabbed it out of his hands while her father chuckled.

"It's her accounting book for everyone of your classmates who has gotten married.  Last I heard, you're still available, so I guess there's no black mark across your forehead yet."

"Really?"  Garth grabbed the book right back out of her hands.  "Are all these people married now?"  He flipped through the pages.  I had no idea so many of them took the plunge."

"Well, some of us didn't survive."  Julia held her hand out waiting for him to surrender the book.

But he held up his hand for her to wait.  "Even Gordan McPherson?  Who would have married him?"

"He's turned into quite a nice guy, actually.  He has a good career in insurance and married a girl from Crawford High."  That was their rival high school one town over.

"How do you keep up with all this?"  He handed her back the yearbook.

"You mean, how can I miss it with every happy couple walking by our window to waltz into the bridal boutique next door, is more like it."

"Hey, that was a tough break with Jeffery.  I always thought better of him than that.  You didn't deserve what he did, you know."

"Thanks.  But that's what I got," she added with a tinge of bitterness.

"Got to run.  I have a lunch date with your Aunt Penny," her dad slipped out the door.

"How are you doing," Garth looked up with sincerity meeting her skeptical gaze.

Julia shrugged her shoulders.  "Keeping busy with work, like always."  Her divorce had been final five months ago.  It was a black mark and on her calendar upstairs.

"So this is your dream job?" He asked still searching her face.

Julia almost snorted.  Her father wasn't here so she could admit it.  "No, it's the last thing I envisioned I'd still be doing, but Dad needs me.  So be it."

"Couldn't he hire someone else so you can pursue what you want?  You're free, you're young, so you should go for it."

She rubbed her fingers over the binding of the yearbook she now clutched to her chest.  "It's a little late to be changing gears now.  I've found out the hard way that you don't always get what you wish for."  She felt a blush come over her under his scrutiny.

"Get yourself back out there, Julia.  You can't shrivel up in here."

"You sound like my dad.  Can I help you with your taxes?" She put on her business mask to hide behind and held out her hand.

He started to give her the bulging manila envelope but kept a grip on the other end.  "Not unless you let me take you to lunch first."

"What?  And ruin your reputation, Garth?  Not on your life."

He smiled and pulled the papers out of her hands.  "Okay then, I'll drive into Crawford and find somebody else to do them then."

"You wouldn't dare!" she huffed.

He walked toward the door, turned with his hand on the knob and said, "Last chance?"

"Alright, if you force me."

At that, Garth threw back his head and laughed.  "Now that's a first for me. I offer a girl a nice lunch date, and she responds like that."  He held the door for her still chuckling while she simmered putting her back to him to lock up.

"I'll drive," He said heading for his pickup.

"Aren't we walking?"  Julia was surprised, assuming they'd go to one of the sandwich shops nearby.

"No, I have someplace else in mind."

She got into his small beat up old ranch pickup as he held the door for her.  Jeffery had never done that.

"Where are you taking me?"

"To a surprise.  When's the last time you got out of town?"

"You mean during daylight hours?  I can't remember.  I do a lot of driving at night.  It relaxes me."

"I bet." 

He didn't laugh at her.  She finally began to let go of her tension.  Garth put her at ease.  He'd been one of Jeffery's best friends, but she didn't think they hung out much any more.  They drove out of their city limits, blew by Crawford's even. Then he pulled off the main highway going a totally unexpected direction down a narrow two lane country road where tumble weeds blew across the yellow line to lodge in the barbed wire fences.  It would meet up with cross highway pretty soon.

"We're out in the boonies.  If you didn't want to be seen with me, you could have said so back there.  I didn't force you to take me to lunch, you know."

"Hey, it's my pleasure, okay?  This is just one of my favorite out of the way places.  You're going to love it.  Their ribs are the best, but the tri-tip isn't too bad either." 

"Really?  What's the name of the place?"

"Joe's Diner."

"Of course."

 Actually it's Jose's, but he calls his diner Joe's for us gringo's.

"It's not our Jose's is it?  I mean there's a bazillion guys around here with that name."

"One and the same.  I came across him a few months ago and try to come back once a week at least.  We're getting reacquainted, becoming pretty good friends in fact.  He's not married either." Garth had the nerve to say that while wiggling his eyebrows.

"Oh no, this isn't a set-up I hope, because if so, you can turn this buggy right back around, Romeo."

"I'm Romeo, huh?  You know I went out for that part in the high school play when I found out you were Juliet, but Jeffery had to go and bribe the drama teacher behind my back.  I wanted the line, 'With this kiss I die.'"

"He did not," she laughed. She remembered the kiss that was part of the script.

"Oh, yes he did.  He promised her that his dad would give her a break on her next car if she'd pick him.  The rest is history."


"It's the truth.  He used to brag about it.  Remember her new blue Dodge she drove at the end of the year?  Yep.  I always wondered how things might have gone differently if I'd been picked instead, Juls."

She looked up quickly, but he wasn't teasing. looking straight ahead gripping the wheel.  Her blush was back.  Suddenly the scenery on her right was very interesting.

It was quiet the rest of the way there, except for pointing out road kill here or a hawk there, even a coyote.  Not quite a captivating conversation.

Seeing Jose again broke the ice, however.  He pulled up a chair, straddled it and visited for a few minutes after first giving her the quick once over glance.  Goodness.  She had not even checked her make-up or brushed her hair before coming, not to mention her dowdy business suit.  Jose was handsome in his dark eyed way, always with a quick smile.  He was good with his customers too, that was for certain.  He was just a nice guy.

"I've got to get back to the kitchen, but it's good to see you again, Julia.  You too, Garth, though you've become a regular fixture around here lately."

"You two sound like you're pretty good friends," she offered up in the lagging conversation after he'd left.

"Yeah, us single guys have to stick together.  There aren't too many of us left, as your yearbook proves," he winked.

"You're insufferable!" she grinned.  "I hope I can trust you to keep my little accounting secrets."

Of course, he rested his hand on hers for a moment giving a gentle squeeze.

"By the way, Jeff's new gal can't hold a candle to your beauty, Julia.  I hope you know that." There was his sincere gaze again. 

"It must have been my dazzling personality then that drove him away."  She tried to smile, but it came out lopsided.

"I'd say it was his sin nature, and online messing around behind your back.  I tried to warn him."
Garth grimaced.  "Sorry, tell me to shut up if you want to.  It made me so mad when it all came down that I almost beat him up.  Well, it was just a little shoving match, but somebody got in between us before it escalated too far.  That's the last time I've talked with him."

"Thanks, Garth.  I was clueless, so it hit me like a Mac truck coming down the highway.  I was so devastated that I felt there wasn't much of anything left of me after that, just road kill.  You know, like that flattened squirrel we saw on the road with its tail up waving in the breeze? Yep, that was me."

"I wrestled with trying to warn you, but everybody told me to mind my own business."

Julia paled.  "Everybody?  Everybody knew?"

He put his hand back on hers and held on to it before she could pull hers away.

"I didn't mean it like that.  Just some of the guys, well three or so of us who hung out together thought something wasn't quite right about the way she always showed up and clung to him when you weren't around.  We all said something to him."

"Oh."  She looked out the window and waited for tears to come, but they were long dried up, as shriveled up as she had become.  So she watched a lazy fly buzzing, trapped, unable to escape.

"Here's your lunch.  I hope you like it, especially, you, Julia.  I already know what this guy thinks.  He's never met a barbeque he didn't like."  Jose flashed her another smile that lingered this time. 

Garth looked back and forth between them and broke it with, "Hey, thanks, buddy."

"Thanks, Jose." She managed to smile back but was thinking her appetite had gotten up and left.  Boy howdy, was she ever wrong.  It picked right back up and carried her off to paradise with every bite.

"Oh, my!  This is the best ever!  I'm surprised you only come here once a week, Garth."

He looked up from his plate holding a rib smiling, "Well, it might be a little more often than that actually.  I was just being modest." 

She could tell the waitresses all new him, of course.  He was the best looking guy in town and then some.  She wondered what he was doing sitting across from her.  Probably pity.  But this was the best pity party she'd ever been too and was going to enjoy every last minute.

They went to the same country Bible church which wasn't all that big, but he always sat in the front while she sat in the back.  She hurried out while he stood by his mother who dawdled and was usually the last to leave.  Julia never went to any potlucks or other socials any more.  Jeffery had quit going to church at all soon after they were married.  His mother always blamed her.  In fact, she blamed Julia for everything, and gave her the evil eye every single Sunday.  Julia had never wanted to socialize since knowing that the latest gossip had once been all about her.  No thank you.

She excused herself from their table before they left so she could check her face for streaks of barbeque sauce and looked for meat stuck between her teeth.  While brushing her hair she stared at her reflection in the mirror wondering what Garth, or Jose for that matter, saw.  Julia had not really taken a real look at herself in a long time, always evading her reflection except to put on mascara.  Her face was thinner than she realized since losing weight. The dark circles under her eyes were fading some with time and a little more sleep these days.  A heavy sigh escaped.  Since Jeffery left, she could hardly think of herself as desirable.  He'd crushed that.

They waved goodbye to Jose and once again, Garth held the door open for her then his truck's as well.  He got an "A" for being a gentleman.  He'd also insisted on paying for lunch too.  It was as close to a real date as she could hope for to get her dad off her back anyway.

"Thank you.  You don't know how nice it was to get out of town, and the food was delicious.  It was nice to see Jose too.  It's been awhile."

"I hope not too nice.  I saw the way he looked at you."

"It's called a diminished dating pool is all.  Certainly not attraction," she scoffed.

He looked over at her for a long moment before watching where he was driving.  "I don't think you have any idea how attractive you are, Julia.  Do you know how it killed the rest of us guys to have you taken off the dating market when we were all just boys.  By the time we graduated, every guy was secretly in love with you and wanted to beat Jeffery to a pulp.  He didn't treat you nearly nice enough."

She would have laughed hard and long if she'd not been so stunned.  "That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard.  What were you drinking back there?"

"Pepsi, same as you."  Garth wouldn't look at her now as she stared at him.

It was hard to get the conversation back on track after that, but they tried.  They talked about the high school sports teams, the improvements on main street like which buildings were empty and which were bustling, such as the bridal boutique.  It always came back to that. 

When he parked in front of her father's business, he nodded over to the boutique next door,  "So, who's the latest to walk through their doors you're so occupied watching?" he teased.  When she hung her head and didn't answer but became so quiet it was as if a dark veil dropped over her.  So, he hurriedly said, "I was only kidding, Julia."

"I know, Garth," she whispered.  Then she turned towards him with such a grieved expression that it killed him.  "Jeffery's the latest.  I saw them this morning."

He reached over and grabbed her hand and held onto it.  "I'm sorry, sweetheart."  There wasn't any more he could say, but he could sure think about smashing somebody's face in.  He'd heard the rumors that her ex was getting married again, but didn't know if it was true.  He found he was gripping her hand too tightly and let go.  "Sorry about that.  I just get angry, you know."

"Yeah, I know.  Me too."  She took a deep breath and blew it out.  "I think I'm okay with it, anyway.  I certainly don't want him back."  Her smile was a little wane, but he was still glad to see it.  "Thank you so much for lunch, Garth.  You don't know how much it meant to me."

"We'll have to do it again, Julia."  He flashed her his best smile, but she only shrugged.  "You don't have to Garth.  I'll be okay."

"Hey,"  He was always grabbing her hand it seemed.  "I had a good time, in case you hadn't noticed.  I'd like to take you into the city next time to take in a dinner and a movie.  Why did she always look like a deer in the headlights.  Her ex had really done a number on her shooting the lights out that used to twinkle in her eyes.

"Sure, I'd like that." She tried to smile and got out before he could open the door for her.  She turned and waved as he backed out. 

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Jeffery walking down the street.  Good. He drove by at a crawl totally ignoring him, looking straight ahead smiling to beat the band making sure the jerk could see him nice and slow and happy.

That night as Julia locked up in the alley, hands came about her waist and a familiar smell wrapped her up as he snuggled into her neck.  "Hi, gorgeous."

She threw her elbow into his stomach as hard as she could and landed out of his grasp.  "Don't touch me, jerk!  I'll scream."  It was Jeffery.

"Hey, is that anyway to greet me.  I'm the one who gave you all the kisses you've ever had, remember?"

"Now you're giving them to somebody else, so leave me alone!  I'm warning you."  Julia backed into the staircase that went up to her father's apartment.  Her hands shook so she gripped the railing to keep him from seeing it.

Jeff threw his hands up in the air.  "Okay.  I get it, but how can I help it if I can't quite get you out of my system.  We did have some good times, some very good times." 

He tried one of the grins that used to pull her in, but not any more.  "I hope your new wife won't mind your philandering ways better than me.

"I just thought we might get together some night, you know, like a last time ever kind of thing before I tie the knot again.  You're looking mighty fine.  You've lost weight, and it looks good."

Julia was speechless for a moment, then anger coursed through her veins like ice.  "You don't have one drop of decency left in you, Jeffery.  I feel sorry for you."  She turned and stomped up the stairs.  She wanted to slam the door at the top, but before she could, her ex yelled, "Stay away from Garth.  He's no good for you.  He's just messing with you, you know, not really interested."  She didn't even act like she heard him.  Once inside, she stood shaking from an attack of adrenaline. 

Her dad looked up and laid down the paper.  "Julia?  You're trembling.  What happened?  Was it Garth?"

Julia didn't trust her voice for a moment before she squeaked out "Jeffery."  Her father came over and wrapped her in his arms.  "I'm sorry, sweet girl.  Don't let him get to you."

She shook her head, took a deep breath and willed herself to be calm.  "I know, dad, I know.  I really am over him, it's just that he has become so awful."

"What'd he do?  What'd he say?"  He looked alarmed.

"Nothing I can't handle, so don't worry."  She patted his arm and walked away.  Julia wanted a nice long shower, to wash away the feeling of her ex, his arms, his breath, his smell.

The next morning she confronted her father at breakfast.  "When can I ditch this ugly blazer, Dad?  It's uglier than dirt."

"I thought you'd never ask," he beamed.

Her dad was smiling?  "Wear whatever you want, darling."


"Why not.  I don't think old jackets look very professional any more, except on me, of course.  I can still pull off a "70's" look."  He pulled his on, and patted her on the shoulder on his way out.

Julia finished her coffee while thinking about what was in her closet.  What could she wear?  She'd gotten a few casual things after losing weight, but nothing for the office.  After work, it was time to go shopping again.  She wore her one dress that didn't hang on her like a limp air balloon. She'd probably last worn it when she was sixteen. The mirror requested the honor of her presence for a little more time than a swipe with her mascara today.  Satisfied, she went downstairs.

"Sorry about taking so long for lunch yesterday.  Did I leave you in the lurch?"

"No, Aunt Penny dropped by and filled in, but Garth just called asking for you.  He said something about coming by later this morning to go over the tax papers he dropped off yesterday.  Want me to do them or were you..." He winked.

"I'll handle them thank you very much," she said with a blush.

"You look mighty nice, if a dad can say such things."

"Yes, you can and thank you."  She sat at her desk looking over columns on her computer but not seeing them."  She took a shaky breath.  It was just a man's taxes. That's all.

The phone rang.  Her dad didn't even look up.  She answered all calls if they were both in the office, that is unless Aunt Penny happened by.  Her hours were totally at will.   "Milford's Tax Service.  Julia speaking."

"Hey, Julia."  She could hear Jose's smile clear through the phone.  So why was she so disappointed? 

"Hi, Jose.  I had no idea you had your own diner before yesterday.  The food was awesome.  I'll have to bring my dad out there sometime.  Looks like you picked a busy country crossroads for a hopping business."  She was chattering like a rabid squirrel.

"I was just wondering if you might be interested in going out to dinner sometime, unless it's too soon.  But it didn't look too soon since you were with Garth yesterday.  Are you two seeing each other, if you don't mind me asking?  'Cause if you aren't..."

"Umm.  No we aren't really.  It was just a business lunch, his taxes you know.  We just got carried away visiting like old times sake when we saw you.  But I'm not sure if I'm ready yet, you know..."  Wait, hadn't she agreed to go out  to a dinner and a movie with Garth?  She hadn't meant to lie to Jose.  Julia pinched the bridge of her nose.  Dating hadn't been this complicated since seventh grade when she had agreed to sit by Garth on the field trip bus, but Jeffery had pulled her up and made her sit by him instead.  She'd been out of the dating scene ever since then, ridiculously exclusively with her ex.
Her dad cleared his throat.  He was staring at her, now standing at his desk and staring at her.  She turned around putting her back to him.  "But it's nice of you to call.  I'll let you know.  It's been a few years since I've dated and all.  It will take some getting used to, to be honest.  But I'm sure I'll be seeing you at your diner, okay?  Well, thanks again."  She hung up.

"Dad don't.  I'm not ready.  Jose's a nice guy, but I'm just not ready.  You'll love his barbeque though."  She tried to smile but it wavered.  "I'm sorry, Dad, I really am.  Jose will be the first to know when I'm ready, okay?"

"Or Garth," he muttered under his breath.

"What did you say, Dad?" 

"Nothing.  It's your business sweetheart.  All in good time, I suppose, but I would like to try that diner you were talking about sometime.  You know how I love barbeque."

"Sure.  Sometime soon."  But not too soon. 

She finally quit quaking inside and settled down to business.  So when Garth walked in, it took her by surprise, so much so that she spilled her coffee, all over his tax folder she'd been working on for him.

"Oh no!  I can't believe I just did that!"  She shook off the coffee hoping it didn't ruin his W2 and receipts.  She looked up thinking she'd see him mad, but he was chuckling and handing her paper towels.

"I didn't know I'd have this affect on you.  It's enough to encourage a guy," he said so softly that only she could hear.

She threw the wet paper towels into the trash can.  "You're impossible, you know it?"

"I think I need to get you out of here for lunch.  How about it?  We can let the papers dry out, and go over them another time."

She looked over at her dad.  Julia could tell he was biting his tongue about the spilled coffee, but had his eyebrows raised over Garth's offer.

"I can hold down the fort here, no problem.  Aunt Penny is due in at any time.  You know how she is.  See you two later."  He buried himself back behind his computer screen, but she could swear she saw him smiling as big as the Cheshire cat.    She had not seen him smile like that in a long, long time.  The whole divorce thing had been hard on him too. 

"Sure.  Thanks.  That would be nice."

This time Garth headed out of town the other way.  "Where are we going this time?"

"Another surprise.  You do like surprises don't you?"  By the way," he looked her over,  "You look really, really pretty."  He looked away  and wiped his hand across his face.  "You're distracting.  I could get a ticket or something for being a distracted driver."

She bit her lip smiling.  It had been a long time since someone had complimented her like this.  Even if he was just messing with her, she could enjoy it for a while."

"Jose called me this morning," she said trying to make small talk before realizing that it probably  wasn't a good topic.

"He wants you to do his taxes too?"


He whipped his head over and stared at her.  "What'd he want?"

"A date."

"What did you tell him?" His jaw was clenched.

"I told him I'm not ready yet."

"Really, then what is this?"

"I don't know.  A business lunch again?"

He snorted.  "At least Jose had the nerve to ask you out right.  I had to come at you sideways with my stupid taxes.  I've done them myself for years.  They're simple. It's my dad's which are complicated.  I just wanted to see you, Julia."

"Really?"  She squeaked like a fifth grader. 

"Is it so hard to believe that a guy would think you're the best thing since, since.."  He thought better of comparing a girl to sliced bread, so he lamely finished, "...just the best thing, that's all."

"Umm.  I hadn't given it much thought, let's see, in fourteen years at least.  I think I might be a little rusty." She felt herself blushing like a school girl.  Even in school she didn't remember blushing this much. "Remember, every time I saw you in these last ten years, you've had a different girl for a date.  We did double date a lot, if you recall."

"Yes, but you have to know that it has gotten old.  I'm not interested in dating just for fun, Julia."  He looked at her as serious as a finger print in a crime lab.  "I guess, I'd like to know if I can keep seeing you.  I don't want to rush you, but I don't really want Jose or somebody else taking you out either.  I've waited a it seems like forever for you to be available, Julia.   Of course, I never expected it to happen, but just saying..."

"Really?"  She had to quit squeaking.

"Is it okay if I tell Jose that our business lunches turned into something a little more?" He asked with his eyebrow raised.

"Yes.  I guess so.  He caught me by surprise this morning, but I didn't want to tell him, yes.  I wanted to have lunch with you again first."

"Good!"  Garth was grinning.  "Really, really good."  He reached over for her hand and wove her fingers into his like they were made to fit.

Suddenly, her chest felt tight.  She had to know.  "Does it bother you, Garth, you know, that I've been married and divorced?"

"No.  Well, to be honest, yes.  I mean, I hate, hate, hate what Jeffery did to you.  But does it change what I feel about you?  No.  Well, a little."

She was quiet staring down at her feet.

He pulled his hand away to rub it against the back of his neck.  "We're grown ups here, right?  I mean, this is embarrassing for a guy to say to a girl, a girl who he has only taken out to lunch once before but...

"You don't have to say anything, Garth."

"No, I really want you to know what is inside of me, Julia.  I mean, it's just that you've been married, and you know, intimate and all, and I'm... I haven't... you know.  I don't know if that makes sense to you..."

"O, Garth," she looked out the window unable to look at him.  "This is an awkward way to start a date..." then she giggled.  "Never in a million years would I think that I would have this conversation with you, Mr. Handsome, Most Charming Garth Worthington."  She tried not to laugh, but he snorted first.  Pretty soon, they were both laughing hard, relieved to have that behind them.

"Well, you asked.  Don't ask me stuff unless you really want to know what I'm thinking."

"I'll be very, very careful what I ask you from now on, okay," she kept giggling like a kid.  "This is ridiculous."

He suddenly got serious.  "As long as I'm sticking my neck out here looking ridiculous, I'll say yes it bothers me because I'm sorry he ever laid a hand on you, kissed you, did anything with you.  I get angry thinking about it all, the way he treated you when you deserve to be cherished as the most beautiful thing inside and out there is in the world." 

"Thank you, Garth."  She could barely say it past the lump in her throat.  Julia had not felt cherished in a long, long time, except by her dad, and that was different.  If she told herself the truth about her former marriage, maybe she never had.  Jeffery had always made sure she knew she was lucky to have him, not the other way around.  She caught a tear that fell, and the next.

He reached out and stroked her hair.  Do you know how long I've waited to touch your hair, Julia, and it's as soft as I always imagined it.  You are so beautiful.  I used to have to look away so I wouldn't, you know, covet another man's wife and all.  Am I scaring you?  I don't want to scare you away.  I should shut up."

She took his hand back in hers.  "No, Garth.  You are making me feel better than I've felt in a really long time.  Thank you. I probably shouldn't tell you this, but..." She sighed.  "Jeffery was waiting in the alley for me last night when I was locking up...Never mind.  I think I'd like to talk about something else, anything else."

"Did he?  Did he do something...He did do something didn't he."  Garth slammed on the brakes and pulled over off the highway, gravel spitting every which way.  He turned off the truck, pivoted towards her and pierced her with a searching gaze.

Julia sat frozen, "It wasn't much.  He just scared me.  He thinks he can tempt me, but I find him totally despicable, disgusting..."

"Did he?"

"No.  I didn't let him get away with anything though he made it clear he wouldn't mind one last fling, as if..." 

Garth hit his steering wheel making her flinch.  "Sorry.  I'd just like to thrash him good one time, the idiot."

"I don't know why he'd think I was still interested in him. He's just full of himself, a lot of talk, you know.  I told him I felt sorry for him."  It took her a minute before she realized Garth had put his arm around her pulling her close.

Garth told her with his warm breath tickling in her hair, "He saw me drop you off yesterday.  He's probably jealous, having buyers remorse, you know, about his upcoming nuptials."

"I think I'm done talking about him, like forever." 

"Good."  Garth lifted her chin up gently and softly brushed her lips with his.  "Just a change of subject for now.  Maybe we can have a little longer discussion some other time whenever you're ready."

"That was a nice beginning." It was the happiest she'd felt in a long, long time. There was even a flutter in that hard heart of hers.

Somebody  honked  loud and long whizzing by on the highway.

"That was my Uncle Zak.  I'll hear about this later.  The guy has laser vision."

He pulled back onto the highway and headed for the big little city not far down the road.

"You haven't told me about your ranch, lately, Garth.  Have you decided to stick around even after pursuing your degree?"

"It's funny how being away helped me to see that this is where I wanted to be.  Besides, like you said, our dads need us.  He's even been open to some of the changes I've suggested too, ones that I think can make the place much more profitable.  It gets harder and harder to lease government land for grazing, but we can survive.  Working the ranch is pretty time consuming.  That's why I've gotten away during lunch time because morning and evening are the busiest times during winter.  The rest of the year it is pretty demanding from sun-up to sun-down."

"Well, I'm glad you've been able to come to town Mr. I-Need-Help-With-My-Taxes."  They both laughed comfortable in each other's company.

"I thought we could eat some place nice, then take in a movie, kinda stretch out the date a little.  I might not be able to get back to town until Sunday church after this." 

"It sounds good.  I don't have a clue what's playing though."

"Me neither.  We'll find out when we get there." 

After the movie, he finally confessed, "Wow.  I had no idea what I'd gotten you into since I didn't look it up on the internet ahead of time like I usually do.  I guess PG-13 covers a lot of territory.   Sorry about that."

"It was embarrassing, I must admit.  I thought that kind of bedroom scene was reserved for "R" movies." 

"Thanks for covering my eyes."  He was joking but still blushing. 

"Yeah right. I was too busy squeezing mine shut to look at yours. But I'm glad you aren't into that kind of stuff.  Jeffery always...forget it.  I'm not going to talk about what somebody used to try to talk me into watching."

"I think you could count on my fingers the number of movies I've been to that weren't cartoons.  I mean, I think I'd rather make out with somebody myself than watch somebody else do it.  Shoot.  That's not what I meant to say at all."

But Julia was laughing hard while he colored up prettier than a pink sunset.  "Garth, you are priceless, a real keeper."

"Well, I like the sound of that."  He suddenly swept her backward and planted a big kiss on her lips."

"What was that for?" She was so startled that she didn't know up from down.

"Don't look now, but that was for Jeffery and his fiancé who are walking towards us.  Let me help you to my truck, little lady."

"Is he stalking me?"

"Maybe.  But I'll take care of him if he is.  It's probably just a weird coincidence."

"Is he still watching?  Let this be for good measure," and she pulled his neck down and gave him a kiss, one that turned into more than the kind she'd bargained for.

When they broke apart, Garth tucked her hair behind her ear while still holding her close.  "I think that there might be a little spark there.  What do you think?  It wasn't all for show, was it?"

"No, Yes.  I mean, not all for show, and yes a little spark as in ka-boom! You certainly put your own brand on that one, cowboy."  She finally realized her hands were still clasped behind his neck and let go embarrassed by her brazenness.  "I guess, it's time to go."

Garth was quiet as if a little dazed. 

"I'm sorry about that, what happened back there.  I didn't mean to be so forward."  Julia had no idea what had come over her.

"Please don't apologize for the nicest thing that's ever happened to me," he looked over with a grin.

"Okay, I take that back.  I meant to be a hussy," and she giggled.

"That's more like it."  He held her hand.  That was becoming quite the habit.

Garth didn't get to town every day, but when he was able he took her out to lunch no longer needing his taxes as an excuse.  They talked on the phone every night until late.

One Sunday as he sat beside her in the back of church, Julia looked over the congregation as in slow motion.  She knew more about each person there than anybody had a right to, certainly more than she should.  Aunt Penny was hard to stop when she wanted to share all the gory details about other people's stuff, though Julia always tried to nip it in the bud.  She flashed back to memories during grade school.  Her mother was one to host ladies' Bible study.  She was the kind of Christian to whom women came to bare their hearts asking for counsel and prayer.  Julia had overheard too much while playing in another room as a child.  She'd also overheard plenty through their small town gossip mill even when she didn't want to, like her ex and his girlfriend "had" to get married with a little one on the way.  It wasn't her business if it were true, but it was hard to miss all the scuttlebutt.  Even if only half of it were true, it was a lot.  No one was unscathed by sin, that was certain.  They all had an enemy of their soul and had battle scars to prove it.

Jenny Graves' husband had an affair with Lucy Johnson but she took him back anyway.  Beatrice Reavers' husband was addicted to pornography.  Jessica Smith had been through two divorces and was struggling to make her third marriage work.  Mr. Kraft's wife had run up so many thousands on their credit cards, he had no way of ever paying them off, so they went through bankruptcy and lost their house.  The Hoffman's were in a hate-filled marriage while proudly letting it be known that God hated divorce.  She had felt their scorn.  No one knew who the father of Amelia's baby was, not even her; she had been a partier then, but now was a great single mom, a testimony of redemption.  Tory had taken her stepfather to court when she was in high school: he was still doing time for child molestation.  Jennifer Griffin struggled with an alcohol addiction.  Mrs. Gallagher came with bruises that many assumed were from her abusive husband.  Elizabeth Smothers grief over a miscarriage was still fresh though years had passed while she was unable to get pregnant again.  Donna Snively's husband had forced her to have an abortion threatening to leave her if she didn't.   All these worshippers were still seeking God, just like her.

There were few families in the church who did not appear to have major struggles.  Julia looked up at Garth with new eyes.  He was the best man she knew, besides her father.  His family exemplified the kind of Christianity that was the real stuff.  Sure, they sometimes had their difficulties keeping the ranch viable and afloat.  His parent's health wasn't always the greatest.  Maybe they had a crazy uncle, and the usual rough and tough struggles to go through, but they had come out victorious.  Then she remembered their darkest times when they had walked through the valley of the shadow, the time  Garth's little sister had been killed when a mule kicked her.  Julia had been going through her own grief after losing her mother at that time, so she didn't remember much of what his family suffered.  It's easy to forget other's suffering when you are going through your own.  Yet, as long as she'd known him, Garth had never been willing to compromise his walk with God.  He was someone she had always respected. 

Julia had felt deep shame for being the first in her family to go through divorce.  Her father had been her rock.  Still, she wondered where she had gone wrong?  Was she not a good enough wife?  Why had Jeffery strayed outside of the bonds of marriage?  Had there been more women through the years that she did not know about?  Were some of them her friends, young women sitting in this very congregation?  She took a deep shuddering breath.  It would take a lot to learn to trust again, to not be suspicious, to forgive.  It made her wonder what Garth saw in her.  She felt like a very broken soul barely hanging onto her shattered faith.  But hang on she would.  She was determined to at least do that right.  Once upon a time, she'd almost felt prideful, that she was above the rest of these people with their problems.  What a joke that was, a joke on her.

Garth squeezed her hand looking down.  "You're doing a lot of sighing.  Is everything alright?' he whispered.

"I'm fine," she smiled.  Somehow she was.  God was beginning to heal her.  Instead of keeping her heart tightly closed, He had found His way inside her broken places and was beginning to put Humpty Dumpty back together again from the inside out.  It was something she had not thought possible even a couple of weeks ago.  She found that now her ex-mother-in-law's looks held more grief than accusation.  Forgiveness was in order, freely given, freely received.  It felt good to let that go.

The pastor was preaching on the comfort described in II Corinthians 1:3-4, "Blessed be the God...of all comfort; who comforts us in all our affliction so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God."

As she looked over the congregation, Julia knew that's why they were all here worshipping together.  For the first time since her divorce, she felt compelled to pray for Jeffery and his new fiancé.  Just that act alone broke apart her heart of stone enabling her to breathe easier.  It felt good.

After church Garth noticed, "You look happy.  Are you glad to be going to the ranch for lunch with my family or just glad to be with me?"  He winked.

"Both and more.  I think God is beginning to heal my heart.  You might even have something to do with that," She gave him the most genuine smile than she'd felt in forever.

"I hope so.  I've done a lot of praying for you for a long time, you know." He was looking at her with such sincerity that it was overwhelming.

She stopped and stared at him.  "You did?"  It made her want to cry.  He made her feel tenderly cared for, such a friend that even before he ever asked her out that he had prayed for her. When she was in the middle of her hurting, he had prayed for her.  "You'll never know what that means."  She swallowed hard.

"But, I have to confess, that since the divorce, I've kinda added my name next to yours in my prayers."

"Is that like carving our initials on God's tree?"  It made hope sprout.

"I hope so," and he gave her one of his signature big smiles that made him such a heart throb.

Julia thought of all the girls he had dated, and she'd known most of them except for the two years he was away at college.  She'd never thought any of them were good enough for Garth.  Well, some may have been, but she had not wanted to consider that. 

When they were in his truck, she felt brave enough to ask, "Weren't you ever serious about anyone, Garth?  Did you ever give your heart away?"  Suddenly it was important to know, almost a jealous thought.

"It kind of came close a time or two."  He rubbed his neck.  "There was someone at college.  I dated her for over a year, but there just wasn't that spark.  She was a wonderful Christian, beautiful even, sweet..."

"Okay, now I am jealous," she took a deep breath.  "No, go on."

"Well, I finally broke it off even though I hated to hurt her.  I just didn't see a future for us.  Then there was Teresa.  You know her."

Yes, Julia knew her and had a hard time thinking up something terrible about her.  There wasn't anything really.  She was a very nice person.  Pretty as all get out.

"Anyway, I thought we had something there, but she dumped me for Richard.  It hurt my pride, but that was about it, I realized later."

"I thought you had broken up with her.  Tell me to thank her later."  She winked at him. "At least you know my whole dating history, Jeff, Jeff, and Jeffery.  That's the whole kit and caboodle, sorry as it turned out to be.  You are the only other one I've ever kissed, if you don't count Ernie in second grade.  But you, buddy, you could have opened up a regular kissing booth according to all the girls you dated.  Girls talk too, you know."

He was blushing like a girl now.  "Hey, can't a fella have any secrets?  In hindsight, I guess I fell to the pressure of the whole dating scene.  It wasn't all a good thing.  It kind of leaves a history, you know, pieces of myself spread out there that I wish I could take back."

"Tell me about it.  I have a whole heart I wish I could take back.  But it's a good thing God's into giving us a new heart.  I needed one after mine got trampled.  It's a relief to finally be looking forward more than back though.  Thanks."

"Thanks for what?"  He looked at her with his eyebrow quirked in that way of his.

"For giving me hope.  You are a refreshing tall drink of water, cowboy."  She smiled.

"That's one of the best things I've heard in I don't know when.  Maybe God does answer prayer," and he flashed her a mischievous grin.

They were at his family's ranch.  Julia had only been there once before when his family hosted their high school senior class party.  That was the only time she'd ridden a horse. Jeffery hated every minute of their trail ride.  She was sorry that she'd worn a dress today.  Maybe Garth would take her riding a different day.  She looked at him.  He wore his Sunday-go-to-meeting cowboy hat, respectfully doffed when inside the sanctuary.  Usually he came to town in one of his John Deere caps.  He sure was handsome with it on, or off for that matter.  He showed her his Uncle Zak's baby, a fixed up old vintage truck, but her eyes were only on the cowboy.

His mother greeted her more warmly than usual, if that was even possible.  The lady had never made her feel "less than," even when it was apparent that she was seeing her son.  It was certainly different that her previous mother-in-law, thank the Lord. 

"Welcome, Julia.  I'm so glad you could  join us today.  We've been looking forward to this, but we don't feel like you're a stranger.  We've known you since you were a pretty little girl knee high to a grasshopper, and now look at you.  No wonder Garth has been so titter-pated lately."

"Ahh, Mom, don't tell all my secrets in one fell swoop."  Garth wasn't really embarrassed though.  Secrets weren't something this family kept from each other, in a good way.  They were all comfortable in their own skin and openly frank with each other.  It was a good way to live.

His father was a bit of a quiet, shy man but his warm gaze made her feel like she was already a part of the family.  Garth's younger brother Stephen was gleefully looking back and forth between them ready to pounce on anything he could tease them with.  Their Uncle Zak, however, had no filter on what came out of his mouth, but everyone was used to it, if not downright embarrassed by it.

"So, this is the pretty filly that Jeffery broke to a saddle too soon.  Glad you bucked that dime store cowboy off, gal.  Don't look like you came out too swaybacked though.  Ready to put the saddle back on her, Garth?"

Julia almost spit the water out that she was drinking, and coughed a few times when it went down the wrong pipe.  She hoped he didn't expect an answer from her.

"Hey, go easy on her Uncle Zek.  She's our guest," Garth warned before an attempt to change the subject.  "That was a great service today at church, wasn't it."

Uncle Zak was not to be deterred.  "I heard that Jeffery took up with another hardly before he got his lasso off you, darlin'.  She couldn't be as cotton-pickin' purty as you, so she must be one mighty fine cook instead."

"That's enough, Zak."  It was Garth's father.  "That's not a polite way to talk to Miss Julia."

"Oh, sorry, missy.  I didn't mean to hang out all your dirty laundry all over the Sunday dinner table."

Stephen had barely kept a reign on his laughter, but it now busted out.  "Uncle Zak, you're a train wreck."

"I wasn't on no train, Stevie, so don't try and get me off-track.  By the way, Garth, I've been forgetting to ask you, was that you and Miss Julia pulled off the highway a couple of weeks ago smooching?"

"Yep, that was me alright.  You have sharp eyes for an ol' guy."  Garth smiled at Julia and squeezed her hand under the table.

"Is he a good smoocher?" Uncle Zak asked her.

"The best," she grinned.  If you can't beat him, join him, she guessed was the only way around here.

"Well, I like to hear that," Garth said while Stephen hooted.

His mother waved her napkin in front of her face.  "Well, we're off to a good start.  I'm sorry Julia for all the personal observations.  I hope you'll forgive us."

"It's all right.  It's nice to be with a big family.  It's just my dad and me at home, and on holidays, my Aunt Penny, but I must say that our dinner conversation is a little tamer."

"Maybe you could invite your father along next time.  We'd love to have him."

"He'd like that.  Thank you."

"Why don't you invite your Aunt Penny while yer at it," Uncle Zak drawled.  "She still have that pretty as a new copper penny hang down hair like she used to?"

Her Aunt Penny now heavily relied on hair dye, make up, and with lots of jewelry thrown in, but Julia simply answered, "Yes, she does.  Do you know each other?"

"You could say I was sweet on her back in the late sixties."

"Well, she's still single, isn't she, Julia?" Garth asked.

"She is at that.  She's had a hard life, but is doing better now.  She's outlived two difficult husbands."

"You don't say," Uncle Zak looked startled.  "I don't get to town much, so I probably haven't seen her for at least ten years or so."

"Come to church with us, Zak, then you'd see her," Garth's mom said.

"Well, I don't know about that,"  Garth's uncle said.  "The roof might fall in."

"You'd be surprised all that grace covers under that roof," Julia said.

"Amen," Garth's father said.  "We're all sinners saved by grace, or at least we're hoping that some more will be saved by grace pretty soon."

"Just 'cause I'm don't warm a pew doesn't mean I'm not a believer, and you can bet the ranch on that," the old cowboy rejoined.

"Well, God might be inviting you to come to his house. He might be missing you, Uncle Zak," Garth prodded.  "I sure wouldn't want the only time to be in church was in a coffin up by the altar holding a lily in my cold hands."

"Well, I might surprise you all, including God, and show up one of these days.  You say that Penny goes there now?"

"Yes, she does.  Faithfully," Julia said with a smile.

The table talk simmered down and was pleasant after Uncle Zak let her off the hot seat.  She didn't know if her blush had worn off yet though.  The chili was hot enough to keep her face heated no matter what.  The spoon bread was something she'd not had before and was real comfort food after those uncomfortable moments.

After dinner, Garth took her for a walk.  "Not everybody can handle Uncle Zak.  You did yourself proud in there."

"I don't know about that.  In hind sight, it was pretty funny, I guess."

"You know you made my brother Stephen's day.  He lives for the funny things that come out of our uncle's mouth."

"I think you must all keep a pretty good sense of humor with him.  He's something else and adorable too."

"Wow, I can't tell him you called him adorable, or you'd never hear the end of it."

Garth had dropped her hand and was walking with his hand around her waist.  It felt right.  He felt right.  It would be easy for Julia to second guess her judgment for falling for somebody else so soon after her divorce, but she'd known Garth her whole life and knew he was a man of integrity.  She respected him immensely and felt honored that he showered her with attention enough to turn her head.  He wasn't the only one twitter-pated.

They stood behind the barn at the corral watching the horses.  He turned her around to face him with both arms around her waist.  "I know it's too soon, Juls, but I've got to know if you feel the same way I'm feeling."

"And how is that?"

"It might have something to do with the lasting kind of love, a jealous love that I've never gotten over since Jeffery stole my seat beside you on the bus on the seventh grade field trip, the kind that made me furious when he bribed his way to play Romeo to your Juliet our senior year play, the kind that broke me when I came home from college to find that you were marrying him. I know it was my fault for not saying something before you said yes to him.  But I have never been able to get you out of my heart, Julia.  It's not like I'm falling in love with you.  I've loved you forever and want to love you from now on."

Julia was overwhelmed seeing the truth of what he was saying in the depth of his brown eyes that sparked with intensity.  After a moment, she offered what she could.  "I respect you more highly than any other man I've known, well, like I respect my own father.  I know that you are a man of utmost integrity, a wonderful Christian and a good kisser to boot," she said with a tremulous smile.  "I can't help but see stars when I'm with you with my heart all aflutter.  But you know, of course, that I want to be sure.  You've swept me away in feelings I've never had before.  I want it to last a lifetime too.  Maybe we could pray and asked God to show us if this is from Him.  I'd very much like to think it is, but I'm a little afraid, that it's too good to be true."

He put his forehead on hers and prayed right then and there.  "God, we are asking that you clear the way if this is the right road we are on.  We don't want to be going down the wrong path no matter what.  So we surrender all our feelings, our hearts to you and ask you to lead us and guide us and reveal your will to us.  But I am asking, please God..." his voice got husky with emotion, "let me love this girl, and let her love me until death do us part.  Amen."

She was crying but wasn't wiping away the tears.  "I think I do love you, you big cowboy.  That was the sweetest prayer ever."

He was kissing her tenderly then fiercely.  They were at it a while fueling fire before he stepped back. I think I'd better stop now, Juls.  A guy can take only so much of that before the brakes fail, you know."

Her hand went from the hair that spilled over his collar to wipe his sun-streaked brown locks back from his forehead.  She wanted to feel every part of his face, from his rough-shaved chin to his closed eyelids that had relaxed under her touch.

"I could get used to you, Juls.  To wake up to you every morning, to seeing you throughout my day, to every night in bed.  I want you.  You know that."

"I know.  I feel the same way, Garth.  We need to give God time to let us know.  Maybe we shouldn't see each other this week, kind of like a fast from each other and just pray asking, seeking, knocking."

He sighed.  "You're probably right, but you know what I'll be asking.  There is an old ranch house on our property that is mine.  It just needs a little fixing up.  I plan to start working on it this week.  It'll be a good place for me to be by myself to pray."

"You do that, but I don't want to see it yet though.  I don't want to get the buggy in front of the horse."


He kissed her one more time with a gentle lingering. Then he took her hand.  "We'd better be getting back before Uncle Zak or Stephen could come looking for us wanting more ammunition to ambush us with.

She laughed.  "As if they needed more ammo."

It was the most difficult week of her life, in a different way of hard than heart break.  She wanted to pick up the phone and call him.  Her lunches alone were like sawdust.  The nights dragged on without her phone ringing. 

Finally her dad was worried enough to ask her, "Don't tell me you broke up with Garth.  I had a feeling he was the one, but you're mooning around here like the sun set and won't rise in the morning.  What happened?"

"I think we're in love, Dad.  It's just that we are taking the time to pray, to ask God, to make sure.  I don't want to make the same mistake twice."

"I think the only mistake you'd make is letting that one get away.  He's a keeper.  I've always liked the guy.  He's a real solid Christian man."

"You don't have to convince me."

"Good.  I'll keep praying like I have been, only harder.  How long is this prayer separation supposed to last?"

"Just this week."

"I hope you'll survive.  I don't want you losing any more weight there, Julia or get those dark circles under your eyes again.  You just got your bloom back."

She just smiled forlornly at him.  "Okay, whatever you say.  By the way, I think his Uncle Zak still holds the torch for Aunt Penny."

"You don't say!  They dating some in high school, but I think he said something that embarrassed her, and she broke it off.  He'd have been a sight better than the two husbands she did choose though, abusive and drunks."

The week didn't last before everything broke wide open enough for a herd of wild horses to pound through.  When she got the phone call, she didn't know whether to go to the hospital or to the sheriff's first.  Her heart beat so hard she felt like she was being trampled.  Julia went to the jail.

"I'm here to see Garth Worthington."

The sheriff was part of her church.  At least he knew Garth was a good and godly man even if his fists had gotten him into trouble.

"You know I didn't want to lock him up, but had to.  His dad's coming to post bail, so don't worry."

"What happened?"

"He'll have to tell you."

He didn't even get up off his cot.  Garth didn't look nearly as bad as she feared, except for his utter hang-down humiliation.

"What happened, Garth?"

"Nobody told you yet?  I'm surprised."

"Your mother called me, but wouldn't say much.  The sheriff says your dad is coming to bail you out."

"Is Jeffery alright?  I'm afraid I might have hurt him.  It wasn't something I planned on doing, but he provoked me pretty badly."

"I don't know anything about Jeffery except he's in the E.R.  It's probably not anything serious.  He's a cry baby.  So are you going to tell me what this is about?"

"I was having lunch at Jose's when Jeff came in.  He started in, well, saying some pretty insulting, down-right dirty stuff about you.  I told him to shut up.  He wouldn't, of course.  I might have gotten up in his face.  I wasn't having Christian feelings about him right about then.  I'm not sure who threw the first punch, but Jose finally broke us up.  The sheriff was called, and I was the one who got hauled off here.  I don't know if he'll be jailed after he's treated or how badly I beat him up, or if he'll go scot free.  I'm just responsible for my actions, and I lost it."

"I'm sure he deserved everything he got!"  She was furious with her ex.  "Isn't cowboy diplomacy still honored around here?  It is in my book when you were trying to save a woman's honor.  Thank you, Garth."

"No, you can't say that, Juls.  You don't know how badly I hurt him.  I don't even know.  I think in a match up of fists though, he'd come out on the sorry end."

"That's true, but don't worry about that and cross that bridge when you come to it.  If he presses charges, I'll press charges on him for when he grabbed me from behind a few weeks ago."

"He grabbed you that time?"  Garth stood up and came to the bars that separated them to reach for her.  "Did he hurt you?"

"Not really.  He mostly scared me and insulted me."

"I'm afraid it would be his word against yours.  I wouldn't want you in the middle of this more that you already are."

"What did Jose say?"

"I don't know, but I'm sure we'll find out."

Just then the sheriff, who had been standing at the door, let Garth's dad through whose boots resounded on the cement floor.

"Hey, son.  Got in a pickle, I hear."  He winked at Julia.  "She's worth it.  If you have to have a record, the best one is in protecting a woman's honor."

"Have you heard how Jeffery is doing, sheriff?" Garth needed to know.

"Not yet, young man."  He unlocked the cell.  "Your dad met your bail."

"Let's go to the E.R. Dad."

"That's not a good idea, son," Mr. Worthington said.

"Listen to your father, Garth.  The last thing I'd want to do is have to respond to another incident.  I wouldn't put it past Jeffery to incite it, you know.  Sorry, Julia.  Hope you don't mind me saying so."

"Not at all, sheriff.  We'll hear soon enough, Garth.  Leave it be for now."  Julia agreed.

"You can put a restraining order on him, Julia," the sheriff said.  "That might work in both yours and Garth's favor.  I couldn't help but overhear what you said about Jeffery harassing you.  It wouldn't look good on his record, especially if you did it before he presses charges against your fella here.  I'm not saying he will, but just in case.  You can tell the clerk I'll put it in writing later that I'm recommending it."

The sheriff's idea was worth looking into.  She was mad enough at her ex to do about anything to protect Garth legally.  "I'll go see about that now since I'm here beside the courthouse anyway.  I'll come see you at the ranch later."  She kissed Garth lightly feeling the split on his swelling lip.  "Better go get ice on that."

"I hope they took his blood alcohol level at the hospital.  I could smell it pretty strongly on him.  I was surprised because he used to never drink."  Garth was smashing his ball cap in his hand.

"I'll call down there and request it," the sheriff agreed.  "Thanks for the tip."

Later Julia and her father went to the Worthington Ranch.  She sat there holding on tightly to Garth's swollen knuckles.  They had found out that the hospital was going to keep Jeffery overnight since he'd been knocked out and had a concussion.  The sheriff had his deputies collect eyewitness testimonies to the fight, especially Jose's.  He'd called Garth to report about the way he saw it.  It didn't look good for Jeffery.  Everybody said they saw him take the first swing. 

Garth apologized profusely to Jose for causing the disturbance in his restaurant.  "Hey, I'll pay for any damages, buddy."  Jose had assured Garth that he was sending the bill to the guy in the hospital.

Garth put his arm around her and whispered, "So much for our week apart, Juls."

"That's over!  You're my man, Garth Worthington."  She ran her hand over the shadow of stubble on his bruised face.  You may want to let your beard grow at least until you heal up."

He caught her hand in his and her eyes with his.  "Did I just hear what I thought you said?"

"Yes.  You have my heart.  You had it before you went to jail.  That just cemented it. How can a girl not completely fall for a guy like that, heart and soul?"

And right there in front of her father, in front of his parents and brother, and even in front of Uncle Zak, he kissed her with his hurt lips and all.   When his uncle quit whistling, Garth said, "I love you, Juls."

It took a minute to get her breath, then finally opened her heart all the way.  "I love you too, cowboy."

"Now that you got the lasso on her, son, you better get her branded and quick!"  Uncle Zak drawled as the rest of the family joined Stephen in hooting and laughter.

"I think I got the fire heated up pretty well, that's for sure, but thanks for the advice there, Uncle."

Just to prove it, he kissed his gal once more, but not nearly enough. He planned on taking the rest of his life to do just that.  



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