Unconditional, page 16
“Oh—careful, Val,” he said, catching her by the waist before she stumbled on the walkway from the boardwalk to the beach.
By the waist? He tried to catch her arm, but his arm reflexively reached around her lithe waist. She didn’t seem to mind, though, and gave him a shy smile. Reluctantly, he withdrew his arm.
“Thanks. I think the front of my flip-flop got caught on one of the planks,” she said.
She hadn’t heard anything. Realistically speaking, who would she hear that from? Someone had said something about it at the construction site. He knew that to be true because Aaron Dunovant had mentioned it that time. Josh had been within his rights when he confided that to his boss, and someone had been reprimanded because there’d been no more talk about it from anyone at work.
There’d been no more talk…at work. That didn’t mean gossip hadn’t spread to others outside the confines of his job. He knew Hathaway was a small town, but he doubted it was that small.
It didn’t matter. He was still obligated to tell her. And he would. Hopefully, that would be tonight.
Valerie turned to him. “I love the beach at night.”
“So do I.”
“In the summer. It’s not bad in the winter unless it’s super-cold. Then I’d rather stay indoors and have a hot chocolate.”
He ventured an arm around her shoulders. She moved in close and placed her hand on his waist.
“How are the winters here?” he asked. “It’s dead in town, right?”
“People still come down, but not anywhere near as many. Starts to slow down in September, when the kids go back to school. Then it’s just us and the seagulls.” He watched Valerie look out at the water. “And that’s all right, too. I love the excitement, but I love the quiet, too.”
“It’s exciting living at the beach,” he said, as if noting that for the first time.
“Everybody wants to come here. You’re the envy of the rest of the Garden State!” she teased. “Because you get the ocean all year-round. But that’s not without some dangers, too.”
“But not dangerous tonight.”
No, he reflected. The only danger right now is to my heart.
Back at the church, Valerie had seemed a little distant. Not like she was angry or anything like that; more like she had something on her mind. That could have been his imagination, too. She was sort of shy, and there she was, thrust in the middle of all those new people. Whatever the case, she was fine now.
As for any danger from the ocean, the water was peaceful at that hour. Other than a summer thunderstorm here and there, the weather had been perfect lately. It had been a summer much like those he remembered from his childhood.
“Ever notice that?” he mused out loud. “How summers when you were a kid were almost magical? It’s like you look back at them and they’re golden. Perfect.”
“That’s really true. My mom and your dad were talking about that tonight. This summer has been like that, like one from your childhood. Perfect.”
“Yeah, it really has. But I think it’s like that, especially…because was the summer I met you.”
Valerie’s eyes met his and held tenderly. He thought she was going to say something in response, but then she only reached for his hand and continued walking.
He tried not to read anything into that. Instead, he thought about nothing but how the ocean seemed so dark, the line between it and the sky obscured at night. Far out there was the smallest light, probably belonging to a private vessel, maybe a cabin cruiser.
To her right was, several yards away, the boardwalk, the hotels, the restaurants and the amusement park rides.
Speaking of childhood, he remembered the time his family was supposed to have gone to Wildwood. They had never gotten there because of her death. Because it was so painful a memory, any vacations after that were again spent in either Ocean Grove or Seaside Heights. Before that, there was a time when his dad had referred to Wildwood, and the nearby town of Cape May, as “the end of the beach.”
Josh grinned to himself. He wasn’t sure, because he’d never looked it up on the map, but it was certainly one of the last shore points. It was hardly “the end of the beach”—his father had neglected to tag on the words at the end, in New Jersey—but he’d really believed it was the end of the beach as a little boy. It had also lent a certain air of mystery to this placed called Wildwood…the place almost at the end of the beach.
“So what did you want to talk to me about, Josh?”
That question tore through his tranquil thoughts. Before answering, he paused to listen to the sounds of the tide and the waves as they came in, darkening the sand closest to their feet. A sigh brought in the scent of saltwater.
“Uh—okay. I…always find this hard to do. It’s not something I do all that often, I guess.” He felt as if his tongue had gotten tangled up in his words. “And I guess there’s no easy way to say this—”
“It…kinda sounds like you’re breaking up with me.”
Josh whipped his head around. Her voice was like a little child’s, airy and thin. Valerie was frowning and she looked doleful.
“Oh, no, no. Well…we can’t break up. We haven’t officially started going out with each other. Although…I wanted to ask you if you would…”
Will you just say it? Spit it out! Elliot would’ve said that to him, adding a playful, hard slap across his back.
“Does that mean you’d say yes, Val? That you’d go out with me?” he blurted. “Because I wanted to ask you. I couldn’t figure out how to do that. Or how you felt about me. And I know about Zed.”
“I broke up with Zed. I did see him tonight, but just as friends, catching up. Right now, I’m not seeing anyone but you. So…ask me, Josh.”
He swallowed, staring back at her. That wasn’t what they were supposed to have been talking about that night. He had brought her out there that night to tell her the truth about himself. The ugly truth, about his time in jail, about what had led up to his being arrested, the person he was before the Lord came into his heart. All the things he was ashamed of, but at least the truth would be out in the open. He wouldn’t have to feel as if he were keeping something from her anymore.
But how could he confess those things now?
“Go out with me, Valerie,” he heard himself murmur instead. “Be my girlfriend. I want us to be together. The Lord knows how happy I’ve been ever since I met you. And I’ll always be good to you so you can say the same about me.”
“I can. I can say the same thing about you now. I’ve been happy ever since I met you. And yes—I want us to be together, too.”
She emphasized her words with a smile and an embrace. His own arms encircled her, held her tightly against him, and when she lifted her face to his, he kissed her.
It wasn’t a moment for the past. When the kiss ended and he stood with her chin in his hand, both of them laughing softly out of joy, he had no words to describe the emotions filling him.
It wasn’t about the past. There was no past as he held her. Only the present, those moments filled with the sound of the tide and the waves and the children nearby, talking and walking on the beach with their parents. Yet even all of that was a blur, because it felt as if he and Valerie had the entire beach to themselves.
If there was only a way to photograph that moment! To capture it forever, other than just in his heart.
“I feel like we should do something to celebrate,” he said, much to her amusement.
“Like what? Go out to dinner”
“Oh, that’s too standard.”
“Well, then, I’ll leave it to you. Surprise me!”
“Yeah? But what about your input?”
Valerie shrugged. “Whatever you want to do, I’m in. I don’t mind something spur-of-the-moment, either. As long as y
He laughed. “Ah, you’re contradicting yourself. But, okay, I’m in. I’ll surprise you.”
“And then I’ll surprise you next time. But I have to be getting home. I have to meet Perry and the guys tomorrow. He wants us to work on a new song. It seems like Perry’s always got a new song for us to work on.”
“Okay, no problem, baby. That’s good. Perry’s a good bandleader. Let’s get going.”
That was what he felt like he had also: a new song.
Josh walked hand in hand with Valerie back up to the boardwalk. That would be faster than walking all that way back on the sand. His heart felt light, like their conversation all the way back to her car. There were times when he could very clearly sense the presence of the Lord, and the Savior was there with them.
Because He brought us together. Did Valerie feel that way, too? He was afraid to ask her, though he believed with all his might that it was true.
She was his and he was hers. For how long, no one knew yet. He only knew that that night had brought him closer to true love with a woman than anything he’d ever experienced before.