Unconditional, p.14

Unconditional, page 14

 

Unconditional
 


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“I can’t stay. Sorry, Zed. I told you that. I have to be at Lakeside Church tonight. Doing a solo for them.”

  Valerie surprised herself. She’d said those words quietly, calmly. That was particularly good, considering she’d had a busy—no, hectic—Friday. Between work and Perry Stanfield, the leader of the band, calling to notify her of a last-minute practice on Saturday morning, she felt like she was stretching herself too thin. But Perry was such a sweetheart, and he’d apologized and explained he had a couple of concert dates lined up for them. He wanted to expand the band’s repertoire with two new songs, one of which he’d written himself. That always meant they’d need time to practice them.

  Then Zed had called, practically begging her to meet him for dinner. He was upset because work wasn’t going well, then he’d gone and injured his hand when he fell that week while jogging. He knew full well she was involved with someone else now, but he contended they could still be friends and talk like old times. Couldn’t they?

  He’d sounded so sad on the phone (and her mom believed Zed O’Neill could give some Oscar-worthy performances when he wanted to) that she gave in. Dinner was fine, no big deal. Talking and laughing like old times, no problem. To his credit, in spite of his faults, Zed had always been a fun, interesting conversationalist.

  That is, when he wasn’t trying to wheedle something out of her. Which, at the moment, happened to be trying to prevent her from keeping her commitment that night to Josh and Lakeside Church.

  “Okay, I understand. It’s just that I miss you so much.” He was having the pasta and the chicken parmigiana, but was mostly just rearranging the food on his plate. “Guess your mom’s happy we’re not together anymore, huh? Wonder what happened with us. Your mom and me were, like, best buddies, once upon a time.”

  Their conversation seemed to have turned a corner. Had that been his intention all along? Valerie could recall times in the past when they’d be having a great time, chatting about anything and everything, and then all of a sudden, boom! Zed would lasso her right into some prickly area just ripe for an argument.

  “She still likes you,” she mumbled.

  “Ahhh, now you see!” He shook an index finger at her, as if he were scolding a child. “That’s a lie. You’re a Christian. Not supposed to lie, young lady.”

  “That’s not a lie. She does like you. Just not as a future son-in-law.”

  Zed didn’t like that. She knew him well enough to see through his smile and recognize that irritation underneath the façade. Pausing before nibbling at her pasta primavera, she went on.

  “Although…you might get married someday, Zed. Just not to me.”

  “That again? Is that why you’re with this guy, the fisherman?” He huffed in annoyance. “What is the big hurry to get married and have kids? It’s not like we’re thirty-five or forty. We’ve got so much time for that. I always told you, babe. When we’re ready, we’ll do it. We’ll have this big, beautiful wedding—”

  “I don’t want us to get married anymore, Zed.”

  His eyes widened. Was he hurt? She hadn’t meant to hurt him.

  “Fine. Whatever,” he muttered.

  “I don’t mean it that way. Please don’t take it the wrong way, Zed. But that’s something that both people decide, not one. You’re not ready. I accept that. I am ready for marriage. I don’t care about a big wedding. All I care about is marrying a man who puts God first, and then me before himself. And I will put God first, and then him before me. If he’s ready, then I’m ready for that big step, too.”

  “And that ‘Mr. Right’ is Josh Coleman? Is that it?”

  Valerie blinked. He’d spat out Josh’s name with such venom.

  “I don’t know yet. I don’t know him yet that well.”

  “That’s right, Val. You don’t. For all you know, he might not be such a great guy. Maybe there’s more to him than meets the eye. Maybe he’s got something he’s hiding from you.”

  She narrowed her eyes at him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

  “Nothing. Forget I said anything. Just forget it.”

  He was baiting her. Manipulating her. Trying to get his way again. What had she been thinking before, believing their relationship deserved another chance, after so many second chances before it?

  Across the table, Zed dug in now, eating heartily and downing his iced tea. He was still good-looking, and he always had been. Sure, he wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but most times young women noticed him when he walked into a room. Actually, middle-aged and older women noticed him, too. He was handsome and he had a certain presence, almost like a leading actor coming onto a stage.

  None of that mattered now. He didn’t look handsome right then, with his face contorted with barely reserved anger.

  “You don’t know him. So how can you accuse Josh of hiding something from me?” she demanded, trying to keep her voice low so that others at nearby tables couldn’t hear them arguing.

  “I don’t know Josh and I don’t want to know him. But I know you and I know how sweet you are, that you’re innocent for a woman your age. Other woman, they’ve been around the block a few times already. But you…”

  Zed leaned across the table and softened his tone. “Look, babe, I care about you. I don’t want to lose you. And, okay, I’m jealous of this guy, because he stole you away from me.”

  “Josh didn’t steal me away from you, Zed. I’m not something you own; I’m a person. And I want to be with him. That was my doing, not his.”

  He ignored that statement. “Yeah, well, like I was saying…you should know he’s not as innocent as he comes across. And he might go to church and says he’s a Christian, but a real Christian would be up front with you. Wouldn’t he?”

  Was Josh engaged? Was he hiding a girlfriend? A wife? She held fast to her facial expression, not wanting Zed to catch on that she was becoming upset.

  “How do you know all that?” It was impossible to keep that tone of resignation from her voice.

  “My cousin, Morgan—you remember him. He works with Josh and that friend of his, that skinny guy—”

  “Elliot.”

  “I guess. I don’t remember his name. Don’t care,” he said dismissively. “Anyway, they’re building, expanding onto that clinic. That’s the same guy, right?”

  “Yes. That’s Josh.”

  “All right. Well, Josh Coleman has a record.”

  “A record?”

  “Prison, Valerie. Josh was in jail. Something like two and a half years he went away.”

  “Josh?” Valerie responded with disbelief.

  “Yes, Josh. Your Josh. Possession—drugs—and armed robbery.” A moment passed during which Zed studied her reaction. “He didn’t tell you about that, did he?

  She shook her head. “No.”

  “I didn’t think so.”

  “Well, maybe he was going to tell me. I mean, think about it, Zed. If you went to jail, you wouldn’t just happily announce it to everyone you meet.”

  “No. But you’d tell the girl you want to go out with. That’s not something you keep from somebody. Unless you don’t want them to know what kind of creep you were.”

  She pushed away her plate, no longer hungry. “Everybody who goes to jail for possession of drugs is not a ‘creep.’ Sometimes people do things they regret. Errors in judgment—”

  “But armed robbery, Val.” She heard his emphasis on those two words. “You gotta really be a creep to hold somebody up at gunpoint or knifepoint. And Morgan’s not sure, because he didn’t hear the whole story, but what if somebody was hurt during the robbery? Or killed? Would you want somebody like that for a boyfriend?”

  Just the slightest trace of triumph flickered in Zed’s eyes. She almost wanted to slap him.

  “I don’t think your mom would want somebody with a past like that for a son-in-law. Do you?”

  ****

 
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