Unconditional, p.2

Unconditional, page 2



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It wasn’t brand-new, but the secondhand violin was still better than the much cheaper one Valerie Welch had purchased off the internet two years earlier. That was the one she’d used for lessons and practiced. Now that she could play—a little, anyway—she was ready for that upgrade. And she’d had her eye on it now ever since the music store had displayed it in their window three months earlier.

  It also wasn’t a piano. That was what she’d wanted to buy for herself, initially. Actually, long before the violin had come into her life. Pianos, even used ones, were more expensive ventures. Even paying to properly move one could chop a nice chunk off her budget.

  For the past few years the violin had intrigued her, sometime after she’d made the conscious decision to become a musician. Everyone played the guitar or the drums or the piano—but the violin? That was unique. Classical. Romantic. A bit on the Bohemian side.

  “Case comes with it. And the bow’s new,” the salesman told her before returning to help another customer, one purchasing some sheet music.

  Valerie liked that. He wasn’t one of those lazy, disinterested salesmen. Not one of those hard-sell salesmen, either, which annoyed her. He’d left her alone with the instrument to think about it, and he’d hung around close by but not hovering, letting her know he was available to answer any questions she might have.

  Though her only question was one the man couldn’t answer for her. She hadn’t saved up enough money to buy the violin. She had tried, bringing her lunch to work instead of eating out and cutting other corners where she could. Still, not enough. She’d shopped there enough to know the Musical Note Store wasn’t into haggling, either. Once a price was set, they could lower it eventually, if an item failed to sell. But haggle with a customer? Not in Valerie Welch’s lifetime.

  “Can I pay part of it in cash?” she asked. “And put the balance on my credit card?”

  “Sure can.” The bearded man, who was about her dad’s age, smiled. “We can do that for you.”

  Ouch. Said balance on the fiddle was seventy-five dollars, plus whatever New Jersey sales tax came to on it. She had just paid down most of that Visa, too. So much for getting ahead financially.

  But her uneasiness was instantly replaced by her joy at seeing the salesman close up the case and write its bill of sale. She pulled her wallet out from her purse and leaned against the counter.

  “I still can’t believe I know how to play that thing,” Valerie said with a little girl-style giggle.

  “Really? When did you start taking lessons?”

  “About four years ago. I’ve been using this little fifty-dollar violin I bought online. I guess I should’ve bought a new one sooner, but that served me well.”

  “I’m sure, but it definitely sounds like you deserve an upgrade. Not because I’m just trying to sell you this one, either. But you don’t know how many adults I see come in here to sign up for musical lessons. Six months, if that, they last. Then it’s more of a commitment than they were ready to make.”

  “Yeah, I know that feeling.” She received her credit card back from his hand and signed the machine with the attached stylus. “I almost quit a few times, too. Now I’m glad I didn’t.”

  “And that’s why you deserve this one. Because you hung in there. You earned the right to play this new one.” Grinning, he handed her the receipt. “Hope it brings you many years of beautiful music, Miss Welch.”

  You hung in there. You earned the right to play this new one.

  Those words had touched her heart, warming her inside as she walked out onto the street with the purchase she’d spent months saving up for. True, she could have waited a little longer to buy it, avoiding that charge on her credit card. By then, the beautiful violin might have disappeared from the store window, ending up in the hands of some other musician.

  And that’s what I am now, Lord. I’m a musician. Thanks to You, Jesus!

  From the Musical Note Store to her apartment was a short, pleasant walk. That small town, Hathaway, was a ten-minute ride from Wildwood, and that was just as well. Originally from Cliffside, up there in Northern Jersey, her mother had at first been a little leery about living too close to the ocean. Yet her mom had moved there shortly after her divorce from Valerie’s father.

  Valerie couldn’t have agreed more with her mom. She’d seen the danger a N’oreaster could bring to a seaside town on the news. Homes destroyed, even carried out to sea by storm surges and waves, like what had happened during Hurricane Sandy and storms out in Long Island.

  Hathaway was close enough to the beach, in her opinion. From what people at work and church had told her, there was a time there hadn’t been much in that little town. Then came the 1980s…and the developers.

  It had taken nearly a decade to get the place to where it was now: a fun little town with a winding, mile-long river walk, trendy restaurants and shops, all of which attracted both locals and tourists.

  She had one more stop to make before heading home. Her apartment building was four blocks away on Juniper Street. First, she stepped into Beach Port Coffee. Kylie McCoy was finishing up with a customer when she saw Valerie walk in through the door.

  “You got it?” her best friend called out to her.

  “Got it. I couldn’t wait!” she confessed.

  “Ooooh, how cool. Give me a minute, Val. Be right with you.”

  “Take your time.”

  The only thing Valerie Welch didn’t like about Beach Port Coffee was how hard it was to walk out of there without buying something. As soon as a customer walked in, the aroma of the fresh coffee beans greeted them. Large canvas sacks filled with beans were to the right, each marked with a card bearing the description of the blend contained there. French roast, Vienna roast, Cuban espresso, Italian espresso, and others. By far the most expensive in the shop was the Kona from Hawaii.

  To the right were the old-fashioned espresso pots, some dainty demitasse cup sets, and a rack with coffee-themed greeting cards. Towards the rear was the Joe Bar, where customers could buy a single, to-go cup of coffee, adding either artificial sweetener, real sugar, raw sugar, and/or anything from two percent fat milk and soy to full-fat cream.

  “Let me see,” Kylie prompted the moment her customer walked out with her cup in hand. “Oh—want a cup?”

  “I’d love one but it’s too close to dinner. I never have coffee before dinner. It’ll kill my appetite.”

  “Yeah, me, too.” Her best friend rolled her eyes and laughed. “Nothing helps me on that. I could have a whole pot of coffee and still have dinner. Hey, the salad and dessert, too. And later, chips. Oh—ohhhhhh, Val!”

  “I know, I know. And by the way, stop putting yourself down. You’re the most gorgeous girl I know.”

  “Eh! Shhhhuuurre.” Kylie waved a hand in the air, then accepted the violin from Valerie with both hands. “I’m just high maintenance. I’m still fat. But enough about me—this thing is beautiful, Val.”

  High maintenance. That was true, in a way, though Valerie didn’t think of Kylie that way. True, she was, in her own words, OCD about getting her hair and nails done. Other than on days like the other morning when they’d gone fishing, she rarely wore denim or T-shirts, let alone sneakers. But that was because she took her job as the assistant manager of Beach Port Coffee seriously. Her accessories were always perfect, and so was her makeup, and she really knew how to “work it,” as another of their friends loved to say.

  Yet Kylie never passed up the chance to criticize herself for her size 14 figure. Like that made her any less beautiful or any less wonderful a person and sister in the Lord.

  “I spent a little more than I’d planned to,” Valerie admitted sheepishly.

  “Yeah…and? It’s not every day you buy a violin, you know.”

  “I know. Just plumping up my credit card again.”

  “So make sure you pay it off with what you earn with She Likes the Weather at your concerts first. Before you do anything else with it. You can do that. You have good self-discipline.”<
br />
  “Good idea. That’s what I’ll do. So you like it?”

  “I love it. We going to Girl’s Night Out this week? You, me and Dawn?”

  “But of course! We’d have to have a national emergency to call off Girls’ Night Out.”

  As Valerie laughed and carefully placed the instrument back into its case, she heard the door opening and closing behind her. Another customer had stepped into the shop.

  “I’ll let you get back to work,” she told Kylie.

  “Okay, but before you do…” Folding her arms on the counter, she leaned forward and whispered, “Guess who walked in today?”

  “Don’t know. Somebody interesting?”

  “You might think so. Your fisherman, the one who got cut up by a ferocious sea robin.”

  To her chagrin, Valerie did find that news interesting, though she pretended to only find it vaguely entertaining.

  “Sure it was him?”

  “Oh, it was him, all right. He recognized me first, so you know he’s observant. I didn’t even say a word to him that morning. Came in to have a regular cup of coffee. Cream and sugar, so he’s kinda old school.”

  Valerie laughed. “That must make me old school, too. I take my coffee like that.”

  “So do I. I tried that soy stuff. Not for me. Anyway, we got into a little convo. Just small talk. He said he appreciated your help that morning and told me to pass that on to you. Asked what your name was.”

  “Hope you didn’t give him any more information than that.”

  “Don’t be silly. I wouldn’t do that. He says he works construction right now with his friend, and…”

  Kylie always did that for dramatic effect, pausing for a looooong moment, during which she pulled lint off her blouse and studied her nails. That habit tested Valerie’s patience.

  “You can’t wait too long to build the drama. You’ve got a customer,” she reminded her.

  “Eh, she’s browsing right now. I could kill you with suspense and nobody would notice.”

  Groaning, Valerie bowed her head and lifted it again. “Aaaaand? Just spill it, woman.”

  “Aaaaand he says he’s going to Lakeside Church.”

  Valerie masked her disappointment. “So? I go to True Vine Gospel.”

  “So you can’t go visit Lakeside?”

  “Not to see some guy I don’t even know, no.”

  “Even a cute guy? One who looked at you like you were the last Coca Cola on the beach?”

  “Hey, nice saying! Not true, but nice.”

  “Thanks. I’d love to claim it’s an original, but, nah. Heard it a long time ago in a movie.”

  Out of the corner of her eye, Valerie spotted the customer, a middle-aged woman, stepping in line behind her. She took the violin case by its handles.

  “I’ll let you get back to work, Ms. High Maintenance Assistant Manager,” she said.

  “Whatever, dude. See ya Friday, my little musical prodigy. Oh—and in case you’re wondering, the fisherman’s name is Josh Coleman.”

  Valerie shrugged. “I wasn’t. But you’re very thorough. Must be your OCD acting up again.”

  Josh. Simple, strong name, not something romance novel-y, just real guyish. If anyone could be called the last Coca Cola on the beach, it was him. Because he was pretty cute. The way he’d gazed at her at one point, too, had sent that familiar tingle through her.

  But earlier that week, Zed had called. Out of the blue, after months of not seeing each other. She could have almost believed he’d fallen off the face of the earth.

  He’d done more than just called. He’d called and cajoled and charmed and apologized. He’d sounded teary as he pleaded for her to see him again, “Just one more time, okay, baby? Please.”

  Valerie was almost over him. Almost. She really should have said no. Really, though, how could she do that? Zed was only asking for one date. After all those years together, she couldn’t very well turn him down, now could she?

  They deserved one more chance together. Even if it didn’t work out, as it hadn’t in the past, she had to give their relationship one last chance. Because, bottom line, deep down, she still loved Zed O’Neill.

  Not that she would share that news with Kylie. She knew better, what with the way Kylie felt about Zed and how he’d hurt Valerie in the past. Valerie had hurt him, too, but of course, Kylie didn’t account for that. Best friends never were the most objective people when it came to a situation like that.

  Five years they’d been together, she and Zed. On and off, but still. Five years couldn’t be thrown away that easily.

  Not even for a good-looking, blue-eyed, tall, cool drink on the beach.


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