“Michael.” Issie bolted upright in bed, fighting the blankets and gasping for air. She ran her hand across her mouth and scanned the darkness enveloping her room.
Her breath, harsh at first, settled into a normal rhythm. She had nothing to fear. “Michael,” she choked out his name again and then settled back down and curled into a ball.
She’d clung to the memory of his handsome face, but with each passing year, he slipped further away. The desperate yearning to see him took her breath away.
One thing she’d never forget was the way his eyes, the color of dark chocolate, always followed her lips when she spoke as if he wanted to kiss them long and deep. He’d loved her then. She loved him now.
Another face fought to replace her treasured memory. She shuddered and closed her eyes, fighting the vision of Tom Jervis on top of her, taking everything she’d saved for Michael, for their marriage bed. Everything she desired had fallen out of her reach on that night.
“Mommy?” the frightened voice sounded from the hallway.
“Cole, I’m here. What is it?”
With bare feet, her seven-year-old plopped across the wood floor and over the old woolen rug to her bed. “Are you okay?”
Issie turned on her bed stand lamp. A soft light shone from beneath the green glass top, illuminating his sleepy face and tired soul-filled gray eyes.
“I had another bad dream.”
She scooted over, and he climbed up beside her.
The nightmare had vanished for such a long time. Why was it resurfacing now? Could you call them dreams if the events really happened?
“Mommy, do you miss Granny Rhonda’s Michael?”
She stiffened. He’d never asked that question. Had she not cried out for Michael in the night before? How could she answer? Yet, not responding might alarm him since he heard her call out the name. “Yeah, baby, I do.”
He rolled over to face her. “But your bad dreams are about him?”
She touched her finger to his nose. “No, they aren’t about him, but he’s in them. Having him there makes it better for me.”
Better for her, but not for Michael. What had it cost him to watch Jervis do what he’d done to her?
“How does he make it better?”
Issie pushed her boy’s shaggy blond hair from his face. He needed a haircut, but he wanted it long until the end of the baseball season. His helmet fit better, he said.
“How does he make it better?” he repeated, propping himself up on one elbow. “Did he help you?”
A vision of Michael branded her memory, the tears in his eyes, the rage in the flare of his nostrils, and the sorrow in the turn of his lips.
“No, but he would if he could.” She pressed her chin against the top of Cole’s head and wrapped her arms around his pint-size body, drawing comfort from his warmth and concern. “In my dream, Michael’s having a tough time, maybe worse than Mommy.”
“Where does Michael live?” He yawned and turned, facing away from her.
“I don’t know where he is today.” At least that was the truth now. “I haven’t seen him in over seven years.” Since his
release from prison, Issie had no idea where he’d gone.
“Oh,” he said. His breathing soon settled into a sweet rhythm of sleep.
“Michael.” She breathed the name. As she’d done since the day she learned she carried a boy, she imagined Michael embracing her son and accepting him as his own. The fantasy, though, was too fantastic even for her to believe.
McGillicudy’s Diner bustled with tourists and locals. The tiny bell attached to the door jingled, announcing Michael Hayes’ arrival. He hated that bell.
Roberta, the diner’s owner, stood behind the counter, her red hair pulled back with a white ribbon. As her jaws worked her usual wad of bubblegum, the large white beads dangling at the end of her earrings swung back and forth. She greeted him with a warm smile and a wink.
Michael raised a folder he held in his hand in greeting to her and the five regulars seated at the diner’s L-shaped bar. The old metal stools allowed them to turn and take note of everyone who entered. Like fine-tuned parts of a music box, in unison, they turned away from him. As he did every morning, Ted McGillicudy, Roberta’s husband, held court at the end of the counter. Ted offered Michael a curt nod.
Michael made his way to his usual table and tossed down the folder before shrugging out of his jacket and hanging it over a chair.
“You want coffee this morning, sugar?” From behind the counter, Roberta raised a glass carafe.
“Roberta, I was here first,” Ted complained. “You just been waiting for that young pup to come in so you could offer him up some of that coffee, and I’ve been waiting for over ten minutes. What’s he got that I ain’t got?”
“He’s got about sixty or more years to live, you old fool, and you’ll be waiting ten minutes longer if you don’t hush.” She blew a bubble with her gum and popped it.
Michael pulled out a chair and sat. “Give the old grouch his cup first, Roberta, if that’ll hush him up.”
The regulars laughed, and the tourists gawked.
“How was the fishing this weekend, Ted?” Michael avoided eye contact. To see Ted’s thin body ravished by chemo might make Michael think twice before teasing him. Ted wouldn’t want Michael’s pity. The old guy loved to torment him, and he loved to dish it back.
“You writin’ an article about it or something?” Ted asked.
“Well, I heard Pastor Kip out fished you three to one, and you’re donating a new refrigerator for the fellowship hall.” Michael flipped his coffee cup upward as Roberta approached. While she filled his cup, he pulled his work from the folder.
Done pouring, she leaned down. “When you banter with my old coot this way, you’re better for him than any of the drugs them doctors prescribe.” She squeezed Michael’s shoulder. “You just keep it up. Maybe God will let me have him for more than those two years the doctors promised.”
Michael patted her hand, and she moved away.
When the Asheville Citizen-Times fell onto the table, Michael looked up from his editing. Kip Turner sat across from him, strong forearms visible beneath his short sleeves.
“Typical.” Michael shook his head.
“What?” Kip asked.
“In this beautiful weather? You cold, you little sissy?”
Again Michael shook his head.
“Not sleeping much are you?” Kip leafed through the paper and pulled out the sports section. “Ha. Breakfast is on you. The Magic lost to the Lakers last night.”
“Gambling’s a sin.” Michael redlined a word.
“Yeah, you only use that ditty on me when I win.”
“Well, you better enjoy all those free meals and refrigerators you get here on earth, because you’re going to stand before the throne of God for a very long time explaining yourself.” Michael continued to edit until the silence stretched too long. He glanced at his friend. “What? No comeback?”
“Michael, I’m going to stand in front of that throne explaining a lot more than how I got a refrigerator into that old rundown church.”
Michael breathed in the aroma of overheated coffee and grease and let it out slowly. “I’ve forgiven you. You forgave me first. Let’s move on.”
“So, why aren’t you sleeping?”
Was it his bloodshot eyes, his shaggy hair, or his unshaven face that gave him away? No matter. He couldn’t lie to Kip.
Roberta returned with coffeepot in hand.
Kip lifted his cup, and she filled it. “Morning, Sis.”
Roberta gave her attention to Michael. “Sugar, your coffee’s getting cold. You want me to freshen it up?”
Michael took a swig. “I’m fine, Roberta, and I’ll take my usual.”
“Me, too,” Kip offered her a smile.
“Whatcha writin’ about today?” She ignored her brother and leaned over Michael’s shoulder.
Michael looked into her blue eyes. “It’s a story about a small-town redheaded waitress who owns a diner full of I Love Lucy memorabilia and who loves to dress up and act like Lucy Ricardo.”
“That’s Lucy McGillicudy to you, and I expect lots of pictures of me and my diner.” She sashayed off. “Ricky, they want their usual,” she called to the Cuban cook, Manuel.
Kip stared at Michael.
“That didn’t even bring a smile.”
“What can I say? I’m busy. I have a deadline, and now your sister wants pictures.” Michael slipped the papers back into the folder and pushed it away from him.
“No one would believe you without the photos.” Kip sipped his coffee.
Michael forced his lips up into what he thought might pass for a smile. How long had it been since he’d known any real joy? Seven years, nine months, two weeks, and three days. He looked at his watch. Give or take a few hours.
“You need a break.” Kip laid down his paper.
“I’m not going back to Amazing Grace, if that’s what you mean. I’ll take a break when the Lord tells me it’s time to take a break. Once I get there, I’ll never want to leave. Matilda Jean Reilly wouldn’t let me, and Isabel will probably demand I do.” He picked up the main section of the Citizen-Times. “Any news on Tom Jervis?” He unfolded the paper and began to read. When Kip didn’t answer, Michael lowered it. “Is there any news?”
“There’s something going on. I need a better handle on it before I say anything.”
“Is Issie in danger?”
“Nothing immediate. Michael, wouldn’t it be easier to go to her now and not when you have to go? Testing the waters wouldn’t hurt.”
Michael shook his head. “No. We prayed about it. I’m keeping to the plan.”
“If Isabel doesn’t want you in her life, Jervis’s release isn’t going to make a difference. She’ll turn you away regardless.”
Why, when they had avoided this conversation for so long, was Kip treading there now? Michael swallowed down the bile his memory churned up. “Do you really want to talk about this here?”
“I’ve tried to get you to talk to me about it before. You
won’t do it. The ugly truth stands between us like a wall neither
of us wants to admit is there.” Kip leaned forward. “Why won’t you go to her now?”
Michael covered tired eyes with his fingers. “Because her pushing me away is inevitable. I won’t go to her until I have a reason to stand my ground. Why would she believe I want to protect her after I allowed an animal to take her while I watched?”
Plates jangled behind them, and Kip’s chair scraped on the laminate floor. Michael dropped his hands from his eyes.
Trembling, Roberta set their plates onto the table and then backed away, her eyes never losing contact with his until she made it to the counter.
Michael slumped forward, his shoulders sagging. “If I get that reaction from Roberta, what do you think Issie is going to do?”
Kip offered Michael a sympathetic smile.
Roberta once declared how handsome Kip was in his youth. Since Michael had met him that wasn’t the case. Kip had a long drawn face and beady eyes. Even before he’d received the jailhouse scar running from his temple to his jaw line, Michael wouldn’t have considered him good looking. Without the deformity, Issie said he frightened her.
If he’d only listened to her.
Michael shook the thoughts away. In prison, he’d tried to kill Kip. The man had shown his forgiveness to him that day, opening the doors for Michael to meet the ultimate example of forgiveness. Now he’d risk his life to save him. Kip was his best friend.
Kip slapped his hand down on the paper.
A best friend with an attitude problem.
Curious eyes turned in their direction. Kip stared at them until they turned away. When they did, Michael looked down at his untouched breakfast.
“Go to Isabel before you need to go.”
If Michael allowed it, Kip’s unbridled fervor would flame Michael’s emotions, make him take steps best saved for later. He had to douse that fire. “I think you want me to go to her now to ease your own conscience. You’ll have to do that alone.”
Kip sat back in his chair.
Michael winced. Why had he gone there when only moments before he’d reminded Kip of his own forgiveness? “Listen, we’ve discussed this. When the time is right, we’ll know it.”
Kip nodded and drank his coffee. He put the cup aside and then squeezed his eyes closed and opened them, something Michael long ago noticed Kip did when someone walked on his heart. Funny, once upon a time, Michael would have sworn Kip had nothing beating within him.
“Kip, I’m sorry, but I think you know the Lord is in this decision.”
“I know He is. That’s the only reason I can sleep at night. You?”
Michael didn’t answer. He opened the folder and looked at the useless words he’d written the night before. A puff piece like he always wrote. He no longer wanted to dig for the dirt and unearth the truth. No, he didn’t want the filth to fall on him again. Once was enough. His actions had soiled Issie.
All his hopes destroyed because he’d been a fool. He’d stumbled upon a story of murder and intrigue and rather than breaking the news, in his ineptness, Isabel Putnam had been torn from him, and he’d landed in prison.
Ted left his seat and sauntered toward them. “Kip, I’ll deliver the refrigerator to the church. I’ll throw in a new oven, too.”
Kip stood and shook his brother-in-law’s hand. “You won’t let me tell everyone the truth? I didn’t catch one fish.
You won the bet.”
“You wouldn’t want people to think I’m a giver now, would you?” He winked. “I’ll get the boys to load it up and have it there by noon.”
“Giver? You?” Michael joked—anything to change the subject.
Ted leaned down, his face close to Michael’s ear. His breath smelled of scrambled eggs and coffee. “Whatever my wife overheard you say needs some explaining. Can you do that for me?”
“Did she say anything?” Michael asked.
Ted’s bony fingers pressed hard into Michael’s collarbone. For a man fighting cancer, he still had a strong grip. “Roberta doesn’t have to say a word to me. I know when her heart is flooded with sadness. I want you to ebb that tide.” He walked out the door.
Michael stared at his cold food for a moment and then pushed his chair back. “I’ll see you later, Kip.” He made his way to the counter where Roberta was making a fresh pot of coffee. “Roberta, got a sec?”
Without a word, she motioned for him to follow her through the swinging door and into the kitchen.
“I’m sorry about what you overheard,” he whispered. “As sorry as I am that it ever happened.”
Roberta stood with her arms crossed in front of her. The toe of her tennis shoe tapped the concrete floor.
Manuel wandered from the back of the large kitchen. He looked from Michael to Roberta and back to Michael, pressed his lips into an exaggerated look of terror, and scrambled out of the way. Only once had Michael seen this wild look on Roberta’s face, and her anger had been directed toward the Cuban cook. For what, Michael couldn’t remember. He was sure to remember this rebuke though.
“You watched a girl get raped?” Roberta’s blue eyes
flashed with accusation.
He didn’t want to have this conversation, but he owed Roberta. She and Ted had taken him in, made him a respectable citizen, daring anyone to challenge his integrity. He nodded. “My fiancée.”
She slapped him, a full opened-handed swing that rattled his teeth. He rubbed his jaw.
Tears streamed down her cheeks. “I was raped once.” She turned from him, her hands clutching the sink. “I’d have given anything for someone to help me.” She looked to the ceiling. “Why didn’t you help that girl get away? What could possess you to watch and allow it to happen? Michael, I never thought you could be such a … such a beast.”
“Roberta, my transgression toward Issie started way before her rape. I didn’t see a trap someone set for us. I was after a story. Issie was everything to me. We did everything together. I’d bought her a ring.”
Why couldn’t he come out and say it? Ambition and greed. That’s what caused him to put Issie in jeopardy.
She whirled on him. “That isn’t an answer, Michael. If she was everything to you, why would you allow someone to do that to her in front of you? Surely, you could have fought for her.”
“I wish I had.” He lowered his head. “It’s complicated.”
Kip pushed open the door and let it fall closed behind him. “Sis.” He moved to Roberta, taking her hand in his and leaning against the sink beside her.
Michael stepped out of the way. Roberta’s heart was about to be crushed a second time this morning, and he couldn’t bear to watch it happen at close range.
“Isabel was raped by Tom Jervis.”
Roberta stared at Kip for a moment. Then her gaze moved to Michael. She ran her hand through her hair, pulling off the scarf. Her red curls tumbled down her back.
Michael lowered his head and closed his eyes hard to shut out the memory.
“Michael couldn’t help the girl he loved. If he tried, I’d have shot them both. She never filed charges, and it didn’t come out at the trial.”
“Michael was the one, the innocent in what you and Jervis did?” Roberta asked. “You didn’t want me at your trial. I had no reason to attend Jervis’s, and at the time, before you told me what you’d done to that poor boy, I didn’t care a lick about what happened to him. I just figured Michael was someone you met in prison.”
Michael blinked. Without knowing the truth, she’d trusted him and loved him like a son. Her care over him had softened some of the rough edges prison had cut into him.
Roberta lifted Michael’s chin with her finger. “Sugar, I’m so sorry.” She wrapped him in a warm embrace and then, stepping back, she caressed his face where he was sure the red mark of her slap remained.
Michael closed his bigger hand over hers to still her caress. “I’m not so innocent, Roberta. What happened to Isabel happened because of me. I don’t deserve or expect any forgiveness.”
“But you want it from that girl just the same.” Her hand now brushed his hair from his face. “Oh, sugar, go to her.”
“If the Lord ever gives me the chance, I will.”
Kip shook his head. “Maybe he’s given you many opportunities while you remain here licking your wounds. Do as Roberta says and go to her.”
Michael slammed his hand against the wall. “And do what, Kip? Tell her I’m living in Ascension with one of her mortal enemies. How can I tell her I’ve moved on when she’s had to live with this for nearly eight years now?”
Kip grabbed Michael’s shirt. “That’s just it, Michael. You haven’t moved on. You won’t let me give you the smallest of
news from that place. Did you know her dad died?”
Michael shook his head. He didn’t want to hear it. He loved Issie’s father. He’d asked Mr. Putnam for Issie’s hand in marriage, and Michael hadn’t been there to help Issie say good-bye.
Kip shook him. “Yeah, he’s dead. He died not long after her grandmother Viola. The old woman left her entire fortune to Issie’s sister, Elizabeth. Issie got nothing but what her father left her, and believe me, it was a consolation prize from hell.”
He pulled from Kip’s grasp. Since he’d forgiven his friend, they’d never come this close to blows. Michael clenched and unclenched his fist. “Shut up, Kip.”
“You haven’t moved out of the shadow of that night, but Issie has, and while you’re sitting up here mourning the past, Isabel needs you. With or without Jervis’s release, she needs you.” Kip stormed out of the kitchen.
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