Unconditional, page 28
At that time of year the kids had returned to school, meaning the vacation crowds had thinned. The same could be said of all the towns along the New Jersey shoreline. There were still out-of-towners on the boardwalk at that hour, still handfuls here and there walking along the beach, but it was after Labor Day and the lifeguard chairs were all empty.
From his spot near the ramp leading from the boardwalk to the beach he could see Valerie approaching. His stomach tightened and he cast a glance over his shoulder at the scene behind him.
The Atlantic was oblivious to the emotions colliding inside him. The water was peaceful, though they’d entered hurricane season. Locals, including Elliot and Valerie, had told him how unnerving it was to watch the winds and the waves pick up when a Nor’easter began its destructive journey through the Jersey shore points.
The Wildwood boardwalk, unlike Seaside Heights’, for example, had been mostly spared Hurricane Sandy’s wrath. He supposed he was thinking about that, because he had faced different kind of storms in his own life.
He battled trepidation, considering that he could be facing another tempest now. Josh looked up and forced a smile as Valerie walked down the ramp, having spotted him. He then looked around, peering up at the sky, but it was too early.
Lord, You really outdid Yourself with her! His smile widened as he greeted her with a hug.
Really, it didn’t matter what clothes covered her or how she’d worn her hair on a particular day. That late afternoon, her long, brown hair was loose and flowing around her shoulders. Having come straight from work, she was wearing a pair of brown Capris, a navy blue peasant top, and a pair of brown, flat sandals.
He made that embrace last. After all…what if it was the last time he would be allowed to hold her?
Lord, please don’t let a mistake from my past take her away from me. Prepare her heart for what I’m going to say.
Interestingly, she wasn’t breaking free from his arms, either. She was in no hurry. She rested in the shelter of his strong arms, her head nestled against his chest. Then she lifted her face to his and he brushed a kiss onto her mouth.
He could say it now. He’d wanted to say it before. What had prevented him was the chance that she would think it was too soon, that his feelings for her wouldn’t be reciprocated.
How stupid of him, to let fear get in the way of expressing what she meant to him. Now it didn’t matter; now it could be the last time he would have to say those words.
“I love you, Valerie.”
He watched her reaction. Why were her eyes misty, and yet she was smiling?
“And I love you.” Even her little laugh sounded caught in a small cry. “I’m so glad I went fishing that day…and you caught me.”
Josh relaxed enough to laugh. “Ahhh…I kept thinking it was you who caught me. If I knew that was what I would catch there, that I’d find you, I would’ve gone fishing there at that spot a long time ago.”
But everything happens when it’s supposed to. Dad had said that, or maybe a former pastor, or Richie from the jail ministry. It didn’t matter who the words could be attributed to; it only mattered that they applied at that moment.
“Let’s take a walk, okay?” he urged.
He waited for her to remove her sandals. That way, she could hold them in her hand while she walked barefoot along the sand. He reached for her free hand, which had fascinated him by its cute, small size, how it seemed to disappear into his bigger hand.
Josh glanced first at the sky again, then at his watch. Yet he sighed, thinking that gesture could have been made for nothing, that seeing it would sadden them both. What he had done that involved the sky had been a gamble on his part…or rather, a step out in faith.
“What did you want to talk to me about, Josh?”
There was no running away from it anymore. He took a deep breath, walking slower.
“I wanted to tell you something that I probably should have told you before,” he began. “About…something that happened to me before I accepted the Lord. I was younger and kinda stupid when it happened…”
Valerie kept her eyes focused in front of them. Without meaning to, she tightened her hold slightly on his hand, at the same time relaxing.
“When what happened?” she prompted.
“Well, I…I had these friends in school. Kind of friends who aren’t real friends. You know, you have fun together, but…”
Pausing, he continued thoughtfully, “We had fun together. Kinda fun you can’t have without getting into trouble. Anyway, I was out with them one night. And I was driving. We were just hanging out. They were getting high and I was going to do the same. We had pot and we wanted to stop at a store to buy some beer. They told me to wait in the car, so I did. I was driving.
“And I didn’t know it, but they were inside that store…and they pulled out guns. They robbed the store. And—long story, short—we were arrested. I was arrested.”
Josh halted in his steps. He looked down at his running shoes, dusted over with sand. He had released Valerie’s hand and looked her in the eye.
“I was sentenced to the state penitentiary,” he told her. “I spent two and a half years in prison. The only good thing to come out of that was that that was where I finally gave my life to Jesus. Sad, huh? I was raised in a Christian home, but I had to go to jail before I finally realized I wanted Him in my life.”
Some seconds passed. His heart was beating hard against his chest.
Then she smiled.
“It doesn’t matter how you came to Him. Just matters that you did,” she said. “And, Josh…I knew you were in prison, but now I know the whole story. I’m sure it took a lot of courage for you to tell me that, and I respect that.”
Had he heard right? He shook his head.
“Wait—you knew I was in jail? How did you know?”
“Someone told me.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“How long have you known?”
She took a deep breath. “Probably pretty much from the beginning.”
“That—from the beginning?” At last, he broke into a smile. “Oh, baby. You knew…and you still—”
“And I still love you. That’s right. What you were before you came to the cross doesn’t change who you are to me now. The Josh Coleman I know loves the same Savior that I do. He loves to fish, like I do. He makes me feel so special just when he looks at me…the way you’re looking at me right now. I’m proud of who you are.” She looked happy, yet about to cry. “I thought you were going to tell me you didn’t want to be with me anymore.”
“That I wanted to break up?” She had thought that before, too. It seemed the past had also haunted her. He took her by her waist, pulling her in close. “Val, you’re the perfect catch. Why would I ever want to throw you back?”
She laughed with him and hugged his neck, sharing a healing kiss with him.
She knew. She knew, Lord!
And all that time it still hadn’t mattered. He heard the engine above them, approaching.
Josh turned her around and eased her against him, covering her eyes with his hands.
“Here’s the other thing,” he announced. “My other reason for walking on the beach with you tonight…”
At just the right time, he dropped his hands to her shoulders. Above them was the small Cessna, streaming across the darkening sky. Behind it trailed a banner that brought a gasp from Valerie.
The banner read: I LOVE MY VALERIE—MARRY ME—JOSH
“I love you,” he spoke up before she could answer. “I didn’t know what you’d say. Still don’t. Especially after I finally told you the truth. But I want you to know…that I love you for the beautiful, awesome girl you are. And there’s no one else I’d rather spend the rest of my life with. No one else I’d rather start a family with. The only one I want in my heart and my life. So…will you?”
With tears filling her eyes, Valerie managed to keep her voice steady.
“Of course, I will,” she answered. “My catch of a lifetime!”
About the Author
Connie Keenan, who has also written under the pseudonym Consuelo Vazquez, is the author of more than twenty-five novels and novellas and over one hundred short stories published by women’s magazines. With many more works to come, she's mostly written Christian fiction and sweet contemporary romance. She loves hiking, discovering fun little shops, trying out new recipes, and spending time with her family. Connie and her husband Bill live in North Carolina. For more information and updates, visit her on her blog, https://conniekeenanwriter.blogspot.com.