Unconditional, page 4
His home was small, just a one bedroom apartment close to Hathaway’s main street. Before moving down the shore he’d bought his cousin’s 2006 Jeep, which wasn’t a bad deal at all. There was a ding on the rear passenger door—courtesy of some inconsiderate driver at one of Northern Jersey’s shopping malls—that his cousin had never gotten fixed. Plus, he’d had to replace all four tires. Other than that, the Jeep got him around town just fine.
The live band wouldn’t be onstage until seven-thirty. In the meantime, the house DJ played music, a blend of contemporary and music from the 70s, 80s and 90s for the mixed ages of the clientele.
Elliot had met Josh at the door, and the other guys had drifted in within fifteen minutes after that. They were perusing the menu and deciding on sharing a couple orders of Buffalo wings as appetizers when a twenty-something with hair longer than her skirt came up to their table.
“Hey, if you’re a good boy, I’ll let you buy me a drink later,” she purred to Del.
Josh noted the other guys, including Elliot, looking on with a bit of envy. Del laughed and patted the girl’s waist.
“Yeah, like you’re a good girl? Where you been hiding, Amber?” He winked at her.
“Not hiding. Just haven’t been down to the shore in too long.” The young woman, balancing her slender figure expertly on those stiletto heels, wrapped her arms around his neck and gave him a peck on the mouth. “I missed you, Del.”
“Yeah, I missed you, too, baby.”
“So I’m with my friends right now—”
“Yeah, me, too.”
“—but come get me after. ’Kay? Come dance with me.”
“I’ll come get you, Amber. Right after dinner. You’re my dessert.”
As soon as the girl shimmied away, Elliot rolled his eyes.
“‘You’re my dessert,’” he mimicked his friend. “Cor-ny.”
“So I guess we’ll be here for a while,” Josh said, grinning.
“No. No, listen…” Del clasped a hand onto Josh’s shoulder. “Soon as we can, let’s eat up. We gotta get outta here.”
Manny Rosario’s eyes widened. “But what about your dance? Buying the Dessert a drink?”
“The dessert’s a psycho. She’s a psycho. I’m telling you, guys, she’s crazy. She’s insanely jealous. I can’t stay here.”
“She really wants you, huh?” Elliot pursed his lips, slyly looking in the woman’s direction. “Can’t want you too much if she’s over there, sharing the super nachos plate with the girls, instead of here with you.”
Josh remembered what Elliot had said about Del being a ladies’ man and laughed with the other guys. The waitress came by to take their orders for drinks and dinner, collected their menus, and hurried off.
“We can go to a club after this,” Sonny suggested. “Volcano Island is fun, usually. Lots of bennies looking to meet guys and drink.”
“My kind of place,” Manny agreed.
A benny. That was the South Jersey not-so-nice term for out-of-towners. If Josh recalled correctly, it stood for Bayonne, Elizabeth, Newark or New York.
The bennies were typically fun, because they would party with the locals for a night or two—or sometimes the entire duration of their vacation. It would rarely become serious, unless the couple cared enough about each other to carry on a long-distance relationship. Long, as in, the distance from Wildwood to Kearney or Jersey City.
Mostly, it was for fun. Some drinks, some laughs, some intimacy between strangers. No strings attached.
Josh wouldn’t have minded that before, back when he was younger, and before he became a Christian. Now he wanted something more. Deeper.
“You don’t drink at all?”
The question had come from Sonny as Josh was taking a sip of his Sprite. That question seemed to come up every time he was with a crowd.
“Tell you the truth, I never liked the taste of liquor,” he explained.
“Beer, too? Wine?”
“Nah, neither. I only drank in the past because, you know, my friends were drinking, so I did it, too. Not a good reason to do it. Why pay for something I really don’t want?”
“Ah, so you don’t feel peer pressure with us,” Del teased.
Josh smirked. “No, not from you guys.”
“But I’d bet you’d buy her a drink, right?” Manny asked.
“Her. That girl looking at you. Try not to be too conspicuous, but she’s right over there in that dress with all those flowers on it.”
A benny was staring at him? Josh turned in his seat. Then he drew in a sharp breath out of surprise.
There, several feet away, standing near the musicians who’d walked in, was Valerie. She was looking intently, directly at him. When their eyes met, she hastily yanked away her gaze and Josh swirled around in his chair.
Too late. Elliot had also seen her.
“Ohhh. That’s his girlfriend.” He leaned in closer to Sonny and confided, “She likes to fish.”
“She likes to fish? No way. And she looks like that?” Sonny turned to Josh. “I hate you.”
Josh threw up his hands. “She’s not my girlfriend.”
“No? Looks like she’s like to be.” Del nodded in her direction. “Unless one of those guys is her boyfriend. Apparently, she’s in the band.”
“Wow. I guess that makes you a groupie,” Elliot said. “But Del’s right. Maybe she’s one of the musicians’ girlfriend.”
“Yeah. Maybe.” Josh swallowed hard.
How disappointing that would be.
When he thought it was safe, he turned and stole another glance at Valerie. If she’d caught his eye in shorts, she was even more stunning in a form-fitting dress that was shorter in the front than in the back, the fabric’s print floral, tropical, festive. Her long hair fell loose and wavy around her shoulders, and on her feet she wore a pair of sandals with heels just high enough to give her walk a flirty sway. She was wearing enough makeup to accentuate her large brown eyes and her pretty, highly kissable mouth. Her complexion was creamy, lightly tanned, her entire manner so sweetly feminine.
That time when she looked at him, neither of them looked away. She smiled first, then he did, too. Josh hesitated for a moment before rising to his feet.
“You gonna talk to her?” It was a question, but also more of an encouragement from Elliot.
“Yeah. She made the first move last time. I’m going up to her and saying hi.”
Behind her, his friends were whispering words of encouragement behind him.
“Offer to buy her a drink!”
“Ask her what time she gets off.”
“Better yet, invite her fishing!”
The last suggestion was from Del, and it was a pretty good suggestion, at that.
Hi. That was all he wanted to say to her.
But what if one of those guys really is going out with her?
If one of those four guys was involved romantically with her, he’d know now. Body language seemed to be conveying the contrary. The drummer had already taken his place…the bass player was tuning his instrument…the guy at the organ was standing at the keys and getting his music together.
The guy with the guitar watched Josh approaching and stepped aside. He then turned his attention to checking the microphone.
“Just wanted to say hi,” he greeted her.
“Oh—I thought that was you. Hi.” She giggled shyly. “Kylie said she saw you. You’re Josh, right?”
“That’s right. Josh Coleman. And you’re Valerie.”
“Valerie Welch,” she clarified.
Smiling, he thrust his hands into his pockets. “And you’re with the band.”
“Yes. I guess I am!” she exclaimed, as happily as if she were announcing she’d won
“My leg? Oh, that’s a lot better. One little cut won’t stop me from fishing.”
“Of course not. It would take a lot more than that to stop me, too.”
He smiled but hesitated. That was his opening. The perfect opening, in fact.
Want to go fishing with me, pretty lady? The words were there. Caught at the back of his throat, but they were there.
“So you play the violin?” he asked instead. “Or is it called the fiddle?”
“Yes, I play it. And it’s called both. Depends on a few things. I call it my violin, though.” She set the case down on a speaker. “This one’s new. Well…new to me. You want to see it?”
“Sure. I’d like to see to see that.”
The violin, to his relief, helped her to open up and talk. Listening to her relaxed him.
“I just started playing about four years ago,” Valerie told him.
“That’s all? And already you’re a professional?”
She smiled at the last word and removed the beautiful instrument and its bow from the case.
“Well, I’m not ready for Carnegie Hall or anything like that. But I earn a little money with She Likes the Weather. That’s our band. I play on a few of the songs, or if it doesn’t call for a violin, I play the tambourine. Sing backup. And I do solos at church.”
Church. Another opening, maybe even better than fishing.
“You must be very talented to do all that,” Josh said softly.
“I don’t know about that. I was supposed to learn how to play the piano. My mother bought me a piano when I was a baby. She wanted me to learn how to play it later on, when I got older.
“Except then my parents got divorced. My dad kept the piano and gave it to my half brother. But that was my piano…” She shrugged. “Long story, I guess. Probably more than you asked for.”
He shook his head, grinning at her. “No, it’s interesting. Go on.”
“Well…I guess it always bothered my mom that my dad gave away my piano. It was her idea, because she’d always wanted to play the piano herself and never learned. So I promised her I’d learn how to play one day. Only…well, somehow I ended up playing the violin. And to be honest, I love it more than I could ever love the piano.”
“That’s what matters. ‘Whatever you do, do it unto the Lord.’” He chuckled. “I’m not very good at quoting scripture, but—”
“That’s close enough. Good scripture, too. It fits.” Valerie held the violin to her chest and the bow at her side, regarding him shyly. “I haven’t been walking with the Lord for a long time. I just accepted Him about five years ago.”
“Oh. I accepted the Lord about that long ago, too. Seven, I think. But I’ve been walking closer with Him—sincerely living for Him—for about a year and a half now.”
Was she surprised? That was how he interpreted her expression, and he was encouraged by her slow smile.
“We have movie night at the church I go to,” he told her. “The next one is this coming Friday. You’re welcomed to come. We start at seven.”
“Ah. What movie are they showing?”
“I think it’s called The Encounter. I’ve never seen it. Our pastor says it’s good, though.”
“Well, maybe you’ll see me there—”
“Hey, Val! Sorry I’m late.”
Coming in like a whirlwind from behind him was a man who wasn’t too much taller than Valerie. He was older, though—six, maybe seven years older. He brushed past Josh to greet her with a quick kiss straight on the lips.
“Oh, Zed—that’s okay,” she blurted. She glanced at Josh, then directed her attention back to the other man. “I didn’t think you were coming.”
“Well, I wasn’t sure…but I’m here now.” The man was dressed casually, as if he’d just come from work. He regarded Josh curiously before greeting him with, “How’re you doing?”
“Good. Yourself?’ Josh forced a smile.
Possessively, the guy draped an arm around Valerie’s shoulders. His smile dissolved into a smirk.
“Doing good…now.” Again he kissed Valerie, this time on her forehead. “I’ll go get a drink. And I’ll get us a table. Okay?”
Was that wishful thinking on Josh’s part, or had he heard just a touch of irritation in Valerie’s sigh? Suddenly, he felt awkward, out of place, that uncomfortable feeling one felt when they fell into a swimming pool while fully clothed.
“Well, anyway,” he stammered, “I’ll let you get back to your—uh, concert.”
“All right.” Valerie licked her lips, also appearing rather uncomfortable. “It was nice seeing you again.”
“Yeah. You, too.”
When he turned, he noticed her boyfriend—or whoever he was—leaning against the bar and staring at him before tearing his stare away.
“Maybe I’ll see you on Friday,” she told him before he walked away.
Josh nodded. “Sure. Hope to see you there.”
She’s not coming. She’s just saying that to be nice.
All the way back to his own table, he hoped the guys hadn’t been watching. He felt foolish, remembering Elliot’s teasing words: She’s out of your league.
But that other guy—what was his name again?—he wasn’t all that good-looking, either. He was older, maybe he had a little more cash, judging by the ring and watch he was flashing.
Still, he’s shorter than me. And he’s kinda scrawny. That was petty of him, but he could barely help himself.
When he sank back into his seat, trying to pretend like he was fine, Elliot leaned in closer to him.
“She’s got a boyfriend, huh?” he whispered. “Ah, I’m sorry about that, buddy.”
Glumly, Josh drank his soda and watched from that distance as Valerie joined the band on the stage. She readied her violin, seeming rather cautious about letting her gaze drift from the microphone in front of her. He managed to smile through his disappointment.
“It’s okay. Just a girl. There’s other fish in the sea,” he told his friend, “like my dad would say.”