Unconditional, p.23

Unconditional, page 23

 

Unconditional
 


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Valerie hadn’t been to Zumba since the spring, mostly because both her mother and Kylie were lackadaisical.

  So that afternoon, even though she was playing with the band later that evening, she dressed in her exercise clothes and running shoes and headed to her class. The instructor’s real name was Jamie Lopez, but for business purposes she called herself (and her trio of assistant instructors) the Dancing Machine. Classes were held in town, in Wildwood and in Cape May. That particular day, the monthly email Valerie had received from Jamie said they’d be meeting in the Living Word Community Church basement.

  Wrapped up in her class, which lasted a lively and vigorous hour, she hadn’t noticed two new faces in the dancing crowd until the class was over. One belonged to Suzanne Eaves, a former classmate from high school who hadn’t been much friendlier before graduation than she was now.

  And the other new face belonged to Summer Delaney, who recognized Valerie immediately.

  “You work at the library, don’t you?” the pretty redhead asked at the end of the class before taking a big swallow from her water bottle.

  “Yep. That’s where we know each other from.” Valerie dried the perspiration from her neck with a hand towel she’d brought from home. She always looked forward to a shower after a strenuous exercise class. “But I saw you one night playing with your band at a restaurant. My boyfriend dedicated that Monkees song to me. You’re an awesome drummer and singer.”

  The woman had been friendly and courteous before, and now she took even more of an interest.

  “Thank you. I’m sure that’s not true, but I do appreciate it.” Summer laughed. “I wish that was my full-time job, but of course, it’s not.”

  “Oh? Wouldn’t I like that, too!” Valerie couldn’t resist mentioning, “I’m a musician, too.”

  “Really? What do you play?”

  “The violin. I was supposed to play the piano, but I guess God had other plans.”

  Summer’s eyebrows lifted in surprise. “The violin. That’s something you don’t see a lot. Beautiful instrument.”

  “I think so, too. I play with Perry Stanfield’s band, She Likes the Weather. We’ll be on the boardwalk tonight at seven.”

  Wisps of Summer’s hair had strayed from her ponytail with all the moving and jumping around they’d done. She removed the elastic ponytail holder, held it between her teeth, and combed her hair with her hands as she put her long tresses back up.

  “I’ve heard of Perry! You know, I’m meeting someone tonight,” she said. “Maybe we’ll head over there to see you guys.”

  “Cool! I’ll try to look for you after.” Whether the woman did or not remained to be seen, but Valerie liked her just the same. There was something sweet and genuine about Summer Delaney. She was a few years older than Valerie, yet she seemed like a kindred spirit. “Where do you work, since you’re not a full-time musician? That will happen someday, though. Just wait.”

  The other woman laughed. Her smile brightened her whole face, which was dusted generously with freckles.

  “I’d love to play in a Christian band. Like Hillsong or MercyMe, you know,” Summer said. “But right now, being a receptionist pays my bills.”

  “You’re a Christian?” Valerie was happy to hear that. “Me, too.”

  “You’re a Christian, too? So nice to meet another believer.”

  “Who loves the Lord and likes Zumba!”

  Valerie was tickled to have made her laugh.

  “Who loves the Lord and likes Zumba!” Summer agreed. “That’s hard to find. Can’t find anybody to come with me.”

  “Well, I’d love to be your Zumba buddy. My mom and best friend aren’t always reliable Zumba enthusiasts.”

  “You know, I didn’t catch your name…?”

  “I’m Valerie Welch.”

  “Valerie.” Pulling her purse’s long strap onto her shoulder, Summer told her, “I have somewhere to go after this, or I’d ask you to go to the Beach Port Coffee for an iced latte or something.”

  “Well, I have to get home and shower, get ready before the concert. Can we shoot for next week to have that iced latte?”

  “Sounds good. I’ll be here next week, too. I’m paid up for the month on these classes.”

  “Me, too.” Collecting her own purse, Valerie waved at her. “See ya next week.”

  “Next week, it is.”

  And a musician, Valerie realized on her way to the car that she’d forgotten that part. Summer Delaney was a Christian, and she liked to exercise to music. It made sense that two musicians would make music part of their workout routine.

  Then again, music had always played a role in her life. Her mother swore it was because she’d listened to music through headphones while she was pregnant with Valerie.

  She didn’t doubt that was possible. Valerie also remembered her mother playing the oldies’ radio station in the morning, not too loud but loud enough to rouse her sleepy daughter from slumber in the mornings before school as a little girl. She would wake up to the tunes of the Temptations, the Bee Gees, the Drifters, the Supremes and other singers and bands her mom had listened to as a kid.

  It wasn’t until she had parked the car and climbed the flight of stairs that she saw Zed. How different things were now; there was a time when Zed could show up announced, at any time of the day or night, and she would have been happy to see him.

  Now? Her initial reaction was to think, Oh, noooo. I don’t really have time for this. I was making good time until now…

  But she had promised they would remain friends. It would be cold to just shove him away. At the very least, she could spend a few minutes with him, see if there was something he needed, and then excuse herself, telling him the truth, that she had a concert to get ready for that night.

  As she drew closer, he turned, hearing her footsteps. He was dressed in jeans and a short-sleeved shirt, his good shoes, and yet he looked flushed and disheveled.

  Worse, she was nearly accosted by the smell of liquor emanating from him.

  “Where have you been? I’ve been calling your phone all morning,” he snapped.

  “All morning? I had it turned down while I was in exercise class.”

  One glance at her cell, which she’d whipped out of her purse’s side pocket, told her he’d exaggerated. There were three missed calls from Zed’s number, all within the last half hour.

  “I need to talk to you,” Zed said. He was clearly slurring his words.

  Valerie pulled her keys from her purse. “Zed, I just came home. I need to shower and get ready for a concert tonight—”

  Under his breath, but in a voice loud enough for her to hear, he uttered a swear word.

  “Your stupid concert can wait,” he sputtered. “It’s not like you’re a rock star or something, come on. You play the violin, for Pete’s sake—”

  Instinctively, she stopped before inserting the key into the door’s lock. “You’ve been drinking. Did you drive yourself here?”

  “Yeah. But I did okay.”

  “No, that’s—that’s not good. You could kill somebody that way. Or yourself. Either way…” She tossed her watch a glance. “I’ll take you home. You could pick up your car with a friend tomorrow or something.”

  Perry was not going to be happy about her being late. Yet if she hurried, she would have enough time to get everything done.

  “Forget that right now, Val.” Zed didn’t push her, exactly, but he nudged her—hard—against the door. “I need to talk to you. Come on, please. Let’s go in.”

  “Zed, what happened to your girlfriend? What was her name?”

  “Alexis. Yeah, that’s not working out between us. She’s jealous and she’s impossible.”

  And a lot smarter than I was, I’ll bet, Valerie thought.

  She remained calm. “I’m sorry to hear that. Maybe you need to take a break from seeing people for a while.”

  “No, what I need is you. Can we please talk, Valerie? I won’t take up a lot of your time. Just give me a few minut
es…”

  Hearing someone walking up the stairs, she looked around. Fortunately, that person continued walking up the next flight of stairs.

  She was embarrassed. She couldn’t deny that. She didn’t want any of her neighbors to see her standing in front of her apartment with a former boyfriend who’d very obviously been drinking.

  “I don’t think this is a good time to talk,” Valerie said, trying to take control of the situation. “Let’s get you home. And then we’ll talk some other time, when you’re sober—”

  “Please, Val, I want to talk now. Give me a few minutes. You need to talk to me. You owe me that much.”

  Raising her head, she stared at him. “Owe you? Why would I owe you anything?”

  “Because you do, that’s all. We’ve been together a long time. And I’ve been trying so hard to get back with you and you just keep avoiding me and saying you want to be with that ex-convict.” Zed glared back at her, his face growing redder, his expression sullen.

  He had never looked so unattractive to her before in all the time she’d known him. There was no telling what would happen if she allowed him into her apartment, especially in his present condition.

  “We broke up. I’m sorry, Zed,” she told him. “Josh is my boyfriend now. You need to respect that. I’ll always be your friend—”

  “I don’t want your friendship!” Zed raised his voice, then caught himself. Spittle flew from his mouth. “Why can’t you just talk to me? I don’t understand. You know me. You know I’m not going to hurt you.”

  That was true. Under ordinary circumstances, she wouldn’t have been afraid of Zed O’Neill. He had been a lot of things over the years—unfaithful, manipulative, always out to get his own way—but he had never been abusive.

  But don’t let him in through that door. Not this time. Not the way he is right now.

  “Look, I care about you, but you need to go home. I’ll forget the concert. I’ll take you home.”

  And she would call his parents, with neither of whom Zed shared a particularly good relationship, especially his dad. But she knew she couldn’t leave him alone. She had seen him when he’d had too much to drink before, but never quite like this.

  “It’s your fault that I’m like this right now.” It was a statement, calmly said, though his eyes were puffy and moist. “You need to be with me again. I’ll be better from now on, Val. I promise.”

  “It’s not my fault that you’re drunk.” The words were out of her mouth before she could stop them. She completely disregarded that old and stale promise he’d made, time and time again, over the years. “I’m so tired of you doing that, Zed. Trying to blame your actions on me. I didn’t force you to drink.”

  “Well, no, you didn’t. But it’s still your fault.” He was flustered, mostly because he was unaccustomed to seeing her defend herself. “All because you wouldn’t talk to me—”

  One of the tenants from 2C, a couple of doors down the hallway from her apartment, stepped out of his home. The middle-aged man frowned to himself, overhearing their conversation, and decided on taking the stairs on the opposite side of the building. Valerie felt the heat rise in her face from the embarrassment.

  “Come inside. You have five minutes to talk.” She fumbled with her key as she unlocked the door. “And then I’m taking you home, and that’s that. Five minutes, Zed.”

  CHAPTER ELEVEN

 
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