Unconditional, p.21

Unconditional, page 21



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The restaurant had been built on a wharf and was popular among tourists and locals alike for its seafood, though the burgers were worth writing home about, too. There were cozy tables for two available that night that Valerie and Josh could have taken, but they decided on two of the stools that were lined up at the railing. From there they had front-row seats to the view of the inlet sprawled out before them.

  Below, to their left, were a few slips designated for boats belonging to customers, one of which was currently occupied by a nineteen-foot motor boat.

  “I want to get one of those one day,” Josh told her as they enjoyed their meal and sipped their drinks, which for her was an iced tea with lemon and for him was water with lemon. “My dad’s always talked about getting one but he never has.”

  “That’s because he’s always lived far from the ocean?” It was a question, not a statement.

  “Yeah. We had lakes, but my dad loves the ocean.”

  That brought up something else she’d been wondering. “What’s he going to do about his house? He does have a house in Parsippany, right?”

  “Uh—uh, no, he’s got an apartment. We had a house, but Dad sold it a few years back.”

  “Oh. It was probably never the same for him after your mom died anyway, I’m sure.”

  “That’s true.” He hesitated before dipping one of his fries into ketchup. “The good thing is, it’ll be easier for him to move. No house to sell before he comes here to live.”

  “He’ll be staying with you first, or…?”

  “He’ll be staying with me. Eventually, he’ll find a place. I told him there’s no hurry. Naturally, he can stay as long as he wants.”

  She giggled. “You’re a good son.”

  “I try to be,” he managed to say. “Ah—look, the band’s getting ready to play. Like I said, I don’t think they’ll be as good as your band.”

  “Why not?”

  “Because they don’t have a violin player, looks like,” he teased, leaning forward to kiss her shoulder.

  He could have told her then. It would have been the perfect opening.

  It would have also killed the mood instantly. Decimated it. Because that was supposed to be more than a date; it was supposed to be a celebration. How could he admit to her that his father had lost the house because he’d had to pay for his son’s legal fees? That he hadn’t qualified for a public defender, and even if he had, his father would have insisted on getting him the best legal representation he could find?

  Not tonight, Lord. I’m going to tell her. But this isn’t the right night for it.

  “Pretty sure I know her,” Valerie was saying, looking over her shoulder. “Yeah, I know the drummer.”

  “You know her?” Josh turned at the waist.

  “Her name is Summer. Summer, ohhh…I don’t remember her last name.”

  “Easy name to remember. Where do you know her from?”

  “The library. Where else?” She laughed. “If it’s not church or one of the places the band plays, it’s work. Sometimes I get that feeling that I’ve met someone before, but it’s really someone who came to take out some books and I don’t have much else to do with it. One of those ships that pass in the night kind of things.”

  “Uh-huh. Like a guy that you met one afternoon while you were fishing with your friend and he was fishing with his. And now here we are, both of us having dinner together and looking out at the inlet.”

  “No, both of us out on our prom. Remember?” Edging closer to him, she snuggled against his shoulder. “My real prom, even if I’d gone to it, wouldn’t have been this cool.”

  “Mine, either.” He went on, thoughtfully, “You know, that thing you said about people coming into the library, and you see them but you don’t know where you know them from? That’s happened to me, too, on different occasions. That ships-that-pass-in-the-night. It kinda reminds me of that scripture that talks about, something to the effect of, always be kind to strangers, because some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

  “I love that scripture,” she said. “I try to keep it in mind sometimes. When I come into work already with an attitude, because it’s a cold day or a snowy day and I didn’t really want to be there in the first place. I try to keep in mind that the Lord could send an angel my way that same day…or a person who needs you to be kind or patient with them. Want to hear a story like that? About something that happened to me?”

  “Yeah, of course!” His smile widened.

  She set down her fork, seemingly more interested in sharing her experience with him than in her meal.

  “I had this lady walk in one day,” Valerie began. “She was really in a bad mood. She was annoyed with the library because we didn’t have one of the books that she was looking for. Older lady, in her early fifties, but she’d gone back to school and she needed that particular book for research. Well, she was kinda rude to me. Our computers were acting up, as usual. Sometimes I want to pick up the monitor and throw it at the wall, except they’d fire me and make me pay for it.”

  Josh laughed with her. “Can’t imagine why they’d do that!”

  “Yeah, yeah, whatever!” Her tone was jovial. “Anyway, you know, even though we’re Christians, we get our bad days, too. We’re human. I don’t get snotty with people but sometimes I’ll get an attitude, too.

  “But for some reason, Josh, that day I didn’t do that. God sometimes gives you grace. I was just at peace, and I know it wasn’t me, that it was the Holy Spirit working through me. I was patient, and even gentle, with her, so I know it was Him. I apologized for the delay on behalf of the library for not having her book, and I offered to help her with whatever else she needed.

  “The lady came back about an hour after that. I figured she’d thought of something else she needed, but she came up to me at the counter and said, ‘Miss, I want to apologize for being so rude to you before. I just found out this morning that I have cancer. That’s no excuse for the way I behaved toward you, but I just wanted to say I’m sorry.’”

  Her eyes had moistened. Josh reached for her hand.

  “You’re still affected by that,” he remarked.

  “Oh, yeah. I’ll never forget that lady. And remembering that experience always makes me stop and think when I come across someone like that.”

  “I know what you mean. Even though, have to say, there are people who are mean sometimes, the ones who treat you like they hate you or no reason.” After a moment, he admitted, “Like this guy at work. I never did anything to him, but he treats me like his worst enemy.”

  Valerie nodded. “My half brother’s like that. He’s kind of passive aggressive. You know, when they say something mean, and they’ve got this big smile so they can act all like, ‘Oh, I looooove you! I don’t know why you’re getting mad at me!’”

  Amused, he patted her hand sympathetically. “How do you handle that?”

  “Hard to handle it when he plays innocent if you try to confront him. So, you know, I’ve come to the conclusion that the only thing I can do is forgive him. Love him, pray for him. But I don’t get that close anymore because he doesn’t want a sister. He wants someone to hurt. I’m not taking that role in his life anymore. I love you, I don’t wish you harm—but I’m not giving you permission to continue to hurt me. But as for you…” She faced him. “What are you doing about your coworker?”

  “Well, you want the Christian answer, what I know I should be doing? Or you want the dirty truth?”

  That made Valerie toss back her head and laugh. “I think I can take the truth!”

  Interesting thing to say. Josh licked his lips, giving that a second’s thought before going on.

  “Trying every day not to let him get the best of me. Trying not to let him goad me into a fight. It’s not worth losing my job.”

  “No, it’s really not, Josh. I know you’re praying about it, too, but trust the Lord to either move you or him out of the situation. And pray for him. He’s obviously not a very happy person if his whole missio
n in life is trying to make someone else’s life difficult.”

  Out of the corner of his eye Josh saw the guy, walking slowly in their direction. Beside him was a redhead in white dress pants and a halter top, her slender arms hooked through his. It took a moment but Josh recognized him.

  That was Zed.

  He had only seen Valerie’s former boyfriend once before, but he recognized him right away. Zed was with some other girl, too. More than likely he’d try to avoid his ex-girlfriend or mumble a hasty greeting, then guide his date as far away from them as possible. That was what most ex-boyfriends would have done.

  Most ex-boyfriends, evidently, weren’t this Zed character. His eyes met Josh’s, then locked in any icy stare. As soon as he was close enough, he reached an arm around Valerie’s shoulders, bent slightly to his side and kissed her.

  Right smack on the mouth. In front of Josh and Zed’s confused date.

  “See, Alexis, that’s what’s wrong with this restaurant,” he complained. “They’ll serve anybody here.”

  Josh noticed the redhead laughed, though she was giving Valerie the once-over. Sizing her up in a way that suggested she wasn’t impressed, and then she glanced fleetingly at Josh.

  “Well, be careful. We could say the same thing.” Valerie’s comeback was shaky but without malice. “Great to see you, Zed. I don’t think you’ve met my boyfriend. This is Josh Coleman.”

  “Hey, Josh. Pleasure.” Zed offered his hand and spoke with the charm of a well-trained politician.

  Regardless, Josh shook his hand. “Nice to meet you.”

  “And this is…?” Valerie prompted, looking at Zed’s date.

  “Oh—this is my beautiful date, Alexis Bridger.”

  “Bridgeman. Alexis Bridgeman.” The redhead looked perturbed before flashing Valerie a smile that looked forced. “Hi.”

  “Hello, Alexis. Very nice to meet you.”

  “Hmmm. I’m sure.”

  That was rude. Josh swallowed the commentary.

  Realistically, however, could he really blame the woman for her attitude? Certainly, none of that was Valerie’s fault, but there was the woman’s date, lavishing all that attention on the girlfriend who’d recently broken up with him, even kissing her directly on the mouth. Then, outrageously enough, Zed had also gotten her name wrong. Not surprisingly, she’d felt disrespected.

  As did Josh. Disrespected…and jealous. Which, it was crystal clear, had been Zed’s intention.

  “You’re looking dapper,” Zed complimented him. “Guess the construction business is treating you well, huh, man? Good.”

  Self-consciously, Josh adjusted his watch. A good watch, not terribly expensive, but a kicked-up-a-notch Fossil that his dad had given him a couple of birthdays ago. He assumed Zed must have learned he was in construction from Valerie.

  “I’m doing all right, thanks. Well—besides working with a company, I’ve also started a side business with my business partner.”

  Business partner. Ha! Sounds good! He knew he was bragging, but not completely stretching the truth. Besides, business partner sounded so much more official than best buddy.

  Zed pursed his lips and nodded. “Glad to hear that. Best of luck to you.”

  “Thanks.” Could he have written the guy off unfairly? Probably because of his own insecurities? Josh extended an olive branch. “And what do you do, Zed?”

  “I was working for a few years with my dad’s property management firm. Started my own business a couple of years ago. A restaurant I co-own with my business partner. It’s doing very well, I’m happy to say.”

  “Uh-huh. Well, good. Glad to hear that.”

  It seemed like Zed was trying to sound humble, and maybe he was. For some reason, Josh discerned it was a tone he’d adopted, like an actor playing a role. Discreetly, Zed fidgeted with a chunky gold ring on his right hand. A gold chain peeked out through the unbuttoned collar of the man’s shirt.

  And to add icing on the cake…was that watch a Rolex?

  Why would it matter?

  “Can we get a table now?” Alexis sounded like she was bored or annoyed, possibly both.

  “A table. Yeah. Let’s do that.” Under the glossy surface, Zed also sounded irked. He seemed to hover over Valerie as if about to kiss her again but must have decided against it. “Have a good night, you kids.”

  “You, too. And again, nice to meet you,” Josh said.

  “Same here, man. Really.”

  Alexis was saying something to Zed, her lips tight. Her words were drowned out by the band, which was finishing up a rousing cover of Bob Seeger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll.” The waitress came by to take their plates. Valerie took her up on her offer for coffee and Josh did the same.

  “And what about something sweet? Can I tempt you guys into getting a dessert?” the waitress asked playfully.

  Valerie smiled. “I’m really full.”

  “Me, too,” Josh agreed.

  “You guys suuuuuurrrrrrre? Our Death By Chocolate Cake is a very sweet way to meet anybody’s demise.”

  Heartily, Valerie laughed. “Maybe next time.”

  “Thank you. Just the coffee and the check,” Josh told the waitress, “when you get a sec.”

  “All righty. No problem. Thank you, guys.”

  “You’ve been awesome,” Valerie told her.

  “I’d come back here sometime,” Josh said as he reached for his wallet. “With you.”

  “Okay. But next time, I’ll treat,” she said. “And I’m sorry about…you know.”

  “About what?”


  “Zed? No need to apologize. You went out with him for a long time. We live in the same town. I expect you’ll bump into each other a lot.”

  “Yeah, but…he shouldn’t have kissed me.”

  “No. I’ll let him slide. This time.” He winked at her and she smiled. “He’s…kinda well-to-do, huh?”

  “His dad is. His restaurant business isn’t his first business. And this one is struggling.” Valerie shrugged, leaving it at that.

  “My dad’s a big supermarket manager, but he’s not rich. And I don’t suppose I will ever be, either.” Josh took a deep breath before continuing. “But I’m a hard worker. And I try to be a good steward of what God’s given me.”

  “Well, then, that’s all anyone can ask of you.” Leaning in closer to him, Valerie confided, “I’m never going to be rich, either, Josh. But you know what? I don’t need a hundred pair of shoes. Or a house the size of the New York Museum of Natural History or anything. Being with a man who loves the Lord, who puts no one but Him above you and treats you right, is honest and kind, that’s worth more than all the riches this world can offer you.”

  He swallowed hard. “That would be me. Because I love the Lord…and you—you, I could love forever.”

  She gave him the prettiest smile yet. “That’s how I feel about you. Like I could love you forever.”

  Aware of someone standing behind her, Valerie blushed when she saw the waitress holding the check.

  “Didn’t mean to interrupt,” the young woman said apologetically.

  “It’s okay,” Valerie assured her. She waited until the waitress had set down the check before chuckling with Josh. “You know, they’re pretty good.”

  He glanced at the check and tucked his credit card into the slot over it.

  “You mean the band?” he asked. “Yeah, they are.”

  “And Summer, the drummer—oh!” She laughed hard again. “That rhymes! Anyway, she’s amazing!”

  “Hold on, Val…”

  He wasn’t really leaving yet, knowing that last song had been a cue between the band and himself. He turned Valerie to face them, several feet away, as that amazing and lovely drummer adjusted the microphone attached to her ear.

  “This next song is going out to Valerie from Josh,” she announced, earning surprised gasp from Val. “He told us that tonight is more than a date. It’s their prom! I love that!”

  The other
patrons all seemed to find that as delightful as Summer did. She continued, “Josh wanted her to know that this isn’t just their own, private prom tonight, but that she is his prom queen…” She hesitated, allowing people to voice their awwwwws, bringing laughter to both Josh and Valerie. “Now this is an old song, back from some great guys called the Monkees, and Valerie’s mom named her after this song. So after hearing it online, Josh is dedicating it to her now. See here it is…”

  Her heart full, Valerie turned as the band began to play and kissed Josh, with the restaurant erupting into applause and cheers.

  Definitely more romantic and infinitely more awesome than any high school prom could have ever been!


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