Unconditional, p.6

Unconditional, page 6



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After dinner, during a walk with her mother along the boardwalk, Valerie introduced her to her new violin. Mom had asked her to whip it out at the restaurant, which would have seemed so show-offy. There, with the beach and the ocean before them, it was more private. She took her time, playing a cover of Christina Perri’s “Jar of Hearts.”

  They hadn’t always lived close to the beach. Her mother had moved them there after the divorce, when Valerie was little. She could barely remember the home where she’d spent her toddler years, up there in an apartment on Staten Island. She did, however, recall hearing as a little girl, how her mother would tell people that if she couldn’t get her daughter’s piano back, at least she could give her the beach every day of her life.

  Of all the things her mother had done for her, that was what Valerie appreciated the most. Even at night, with the sun asleep somewhere beneath the horizon, Wildwood was an amazing place. The salty scent of the ocean traveled on the winds that flew in over the sand.

  There were, even at that hour, people on the boardwalk, people out on the sand. Elderly people getting ice cream from the concession stand, young couples pushing baby carriages and herding small children. An occasional runner out for a late jog. Music could be heard from the amusement pier, where the Ferris wheel cast multicolored lights against the sky set aglow by a velvety white full moon.

  Some passersby had overheard Valerie playing the violin. She hadn’t noticed a small circle gathered, keeping a respectable distance. She was aware of her mother, seated there on the other end of the bench, legs crossed, one arm draped over the back of the seat.

  Mostly, she was lost in the song. Valerie loved how that happened. It took time, too. At the start, when she first began to play, it wasn’t like that. She was too self-conscious, too focused on the notes and the strings, the way she held the instrument under her chin, the way she held the bow.

  Still a long way from being an accomplished musician, she had learned enough—and practiced enough—that she recognized that moment of enchantment. That snippet of time when she was playing as much from her heart as from her head, when music flowed from her as something organic and spiritual.

  At the end of the song she turned, smiling at the sound of applause offered by her impromptu audience. Her mother also applauded and closed in the space between them.

  “So proud of my baby,” Mom said in that low, rich voice of hers.

  Setting the bow on her lap, Valerie scratched the back of her head.

  “You don’t think it was extravagant, what I spent?” She squinted.

  “Extravagant? Honey, it wasn’t that expensive. Besides, you really can play that beautiful thing. And you’ll have it for years, to give people pleasure. And to the Lord, too.”

  Valerie shrugged. “I play in a band in a restaurant. Not even Christian music—”

  “That’s all right. ‘Do all as unto the Lord.’ Never put down your gift.” Sternly, her mother wagged a forefinger in the air. “When you criticize your gift, you’re also criticizing the Giver.”

  “I never thought of it that way. I just wish I could do something else with it.”

  “You make people happy with the violin. This is a very hard world, honey. A very hard life. And there’s music out there that isn’t beautiful and that doesn’t lift the spirit. Both of those apply to you.” Grinning mischievously, Linda added, “That violin is soooo…you. So much more than that silly old piano your half brother got.”

  Valerie laughed. She put the instrument and its bow back in its case.

  “I think about the piano sometimes,” she admitted.

  “Really? I don’t. Okay, well—maybe I did back then. I could’ve strangled your father back then for giving it to someone else.” Linda shook her head. Her hair caught the light glowing down from a streetlamp on the boardwalk, making her red highlights glisten in all that blond. “But it doesn’t matter anymore, honey. It served a bigger purpose that the one I’d intended for it.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Ahh, let’s face it. If your dad and I had stayed together and I would have forced you to take lessons, it probably wouldn’t have meant as much to you as that violin does now. I talked to your aunt, Gina, your dad’s sister. She says your half brother hasn’t touched the piano since he was fourteen.” Her mother couldn’t conceal that triumphant little glint in her eye. “But you actually get paid for your musical ability. And that’s because you really are a musician. You can give someone an instrument and force them to learn. But that doesn’t make them a musician. That’s a little bit of wisdom from my friend, Drew Lingerfelt.”

  Valerie arched an eyebrow. “Hmmmm. Drew, huh?”

  “No hmmmm about it, young lady. They call him Drew, but you know, his real name is Andrew. He’s a friend.” Her mother emphasized that last word. Though her lips were pulled taut, there was a smile under there, barely hidden. “He’s a musician, too.”

  “Cool. What does he play?”

  “The guitar. He’s self-taught, too. Talented man. Talented and wise and—”


  “Maybe. Some women might think so. I haven’t really noticed.” That long, drawn-out sigh of Linda’s told her daughter that there was more to the story than she was letting on. Quickly, her mother shifted to another subject. “So please tell me Zed’s not staying in your life. That he’s only passing by. That you’re not going to put your life on hold for him again.”

  Valerie figured it was too good to be true. They’d had a great time over dinner. Mother and daughter had shared some spicy shrimp in a fruity sauce appetizer before their meal arrived. They’d chatted and sipped sea in dainty cups while relaxing, spa-like music playing in the background. Zed’s name hadn’t come up once during their meal.

  She should have known better than to think her mother would let the matter slide entirely.

  “I don’t know what’s going to happen, Mom. We’re just talking right now. He’s—it’s like he’s courting me all over again.”

  “Courting? Where’d you get that word, a Jane Austen novel? Oh, baby…” Linda huffed out an exasperated laugh. “If you don’t know how it’s all going to go down, please, permit me. I’ve seen this rerun too many times. See, Zed’s going to be as sweet as pie for a while. Two weeks, a month, two months, tops.

  “Then he’s going to go right back to his old ways. The Lone Ranger’s gonna pull off his mask and underneath will be the same, old Zed.”

  “I know, Mom, but—”

  “You know. I know you know. That’s what I don’t understand. And I don’t want to come down on you and make you mad at me, Val. Look, let me just say one thing, and then I’ll hold my tongue…”

  Leaning forward, Linda folded her hands and took a deep breath, as if giving herself time to collect her thoughts. “Zed thinks of Zed. First. He never puts you first, Valerie. He’s Prince Charming when he wants to be. He romances you. But, ultimately, Zed will never put you first. Never. He’s like your dad. I don’t see much of a difference between those two.”


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