Unconditional, p.8

Unconditional, page 8



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It was probably too early for that, and he knew he had to be jumping the gun and raising his father’s hopes, but Josh made the call anyway on the drive over from his place to Valerie’s that morning.

  “Hey, Dad, you busy?” he began the conversation, talking on speakerphone and keeping his focus on the road.

  “Never too busy for you, son.” Clearly, his father’s smile shone through those words.

  “What’re you doing? You busy today?”

  “I’m just getting ready to go out and grab some breakfast. Thinking maybe that diner you and me always go to when you come up here to visit. I want an omelette this morning.”

  “Uh-huh. Going by yourself?”

  “Yeah, you’re not here to treat me to a meal.”

  Although he laughed, Josh felt a twinge of sadness. The thought of his father having breakfast by himself in a restaurant wasn’t new, but often upset him. “I have some news for you.”

  “I’ve got some news for you, too.”

  “Yeah? Tell me yours first.”

  “No, tell me yours first,” Dad urged.

  “I met a girl.”

  “Did you really? That’s great! She nice?”

  “She’s real nice. Well, you know, we’re kinda new together, just starting…” And there’s another guy involved, I think. He left that part out and went on. “But she’s—I really like her.”

  “Oh, I’m so happy to hear that! Is she a Christian?”


  “Even better!” On the other end, his father chuckled. “That makes a big difference in a relationship, especially when you’re still forming one. So when am I meeting her?”

  Before Josh could answer, the GPS’s computerized female voice instructed, “Drive point four miles, then turn left onto Juniper Street…”

  “Not yet, Dad. Soon, I hope.”

  “Well, all right. What’s her name?”

  “Valerie. Valerie Welch.”

  “Okay. Well, I’ll be praying for you both. You going to church? Being fed spiritually?”

  “Yeah, I’m lucky. I found a nice church here in town, Lakeside.”

  “Very good, thank God. Eating well, physically, too? Work going well?”

  And staying out of trouble? Dad didn’t ask that anymore. Josh sensed that question, in the past posed in a parent’s worried tone, had been replaced by the one pertaining to church attendance.

  “Eating good. Trying to, anyway. Work is going well, too. What about you?”

  “1600 Juniper Street, ahead on right.”

  “I’m fine, son.”

  “So what’s your news?”

  “Well…I don’t want to get your hopes up, but I may be getting transferred to a store right outside of Cape May. So—”

  “So you’ll be moving down here? Cool! Dad, I love that! Best news I’ve heard all week.”

  “I know, now, but I don’t want either of us getting disappointed if it doesn’t happen,” his father cautioned. “I’ll know by the end of next week. We’re waiting for the other manager to hear about the store in D.C. first. And they’re helping me with finding a home, but—”

  “But just in case, I’ve got room for you. You can always stay with me.”

  “I know, son. Thank you.”

  Joshua was touched by that familiar tone of affection in his father’s voice. He had just pulled into a spot in front of the apartment building.

  “Look, I just got here to the girl’s house. We’re going fishing together.”

  “She fishes?”

  “Yeah. And she plays the violin.”

  “Lord, that girl is a keeper! I’ll let you go then. You have a good time, Josh, and I love you.”

  “I love you, too, Dad. Enjoy your breakfast.”

  “Oh, I will. I like those Western omelettes at the diner.”

  After clicking off the cell and tossing it gently onto the small space under the car radio, Josh said a quick prayer. He asked God to help his father land that store manager job, if it was His will, and to be with him and Valerie as they went out to spend their morning together.

  “And please help me to be the kind of son he deserves,” he whispered to His heavenly Father. “Because, Lord, You know my dad didn’t deserve what I put him through when I was younger…”

  Things were so much better now between him and his father. There were things that he still hadn’t forgiven himself for, most notably that his father had lost the house in order to pay for Josh’s legal representation. There were other factors, including a couple of times during those years when Walter Coleman had been laid off from work, leading to problems with bills and credit that had put the household finances in the red. Yet paying for the criminal attorney hadn’t helped any. It had bothered him then, and it still bothered him now. It would bother him until, somehow, he was able to someday repay his father.

  Josh climbed the stairs, which were the outside, open-air style, to the second floor and found Apartment 2C. He looked down, inspecting his choice of clothes that morning before tapping the metal knocker against the door. He had worn a more presentable shirt than he typically wore for fishing, along with those long, black cargo shorts. His favorite fishing shorts, because of all the pockets for lures and car keys and such. Though he didn’t believe in luck, he honestly believed he caught more fish whenever he wore those things. On his feet were his old, worn sneakers, the ones he didn’t mind getting either sandy or fishy, or both.

  It bothered him a little, too, that he’d asked her out with that “Zed” guy still lurking around. What’s a Zed, anyway? he’d mused.

  Yet he noticed something that night at the Wave Crest. He’d witnessed the guy checking out and even winking at other girls whenever Valerie was too busy with the band to notice or otherwise away from their table. Why a guy would be foolish enough to flirt with some other girl, haplessly jeopardizing what he had with a girl as beautiful and awesome as Valerie was a mystery to him.

  Those actions on Zed’s part had told John that, if she agreed to a date with him, then there was hope for a relationship with her, rusty old boyfriend or no rusty old boyfriend.

  “Coming!” he heard her call before she opened the door.

  She was also in shorts, not too terribly short but enough to show off her tanned, slim legs. That black denim, together with a mint tank with a big, white starfish on the slender left hip, caught his eye. With her hair loose under a floppy black hat, she looked like sort of like a mermaid who was going incognito as a modern-day hippie. Leather sandals, rather than sneakers, covered her feet and let him see the whimsical flower decals on her polished toenails.

  There were women who had fun being women. Where had he heard that before? He couldn’t remember, but obviously, the person had been talking about wildflowers like Valerie Welch.

  “Well, good morning!” she exclaimed.

  “Good morning to you. Not too early, I hope.”

  He’d arrived with fifteen minutes to spare. Better early than later was a good philosophy, unless it was in relation to a date, when it came to some girls.

  To her credit, Valerie shrugged one shoulder. “Okay with me. I’ve been up since five. I always get too excited to sleep when I go fishing. Come on in. I just need to get my stuff.”

  “’Kay. Nice place.” He was complimenting her home, but he was really more interested in her figure.

  And if he allowed himself to dwell on that, he would be thinking all sorts of things that he shouldn’t have been dwelling on. It was difficult because, bottom line, he was physically attracted to her, in addition to being taken in by her upbeat and sunny disposition. He looked around at the apartment, which opened to the living room. Small but tidy and well kept, with only a couch, a coffee table, a television set and shelves to one side stacked with music CDs and books. One book, Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers, rested on the seat of a wine-colored recliner.

  There were framed pictures and small knickknacks lining a chest-high partition that separated the living room from the kitch
en. Hanging from the side of an overhead cabinet was a little sign with a lighthouse and a beach scene that read, MY LITTLE COTTAGE AT THE BEACH. That made him smile.

  “It’s comfy. I like it here,” she said as she placed a coffee mug in the sink and grabbed her keys off a key hook plaque above the toaster. “That way, after you pass my teensy, little pantry, you get to a balcony. There’s a view of the greenway from there.”

  “You’re that close to the greenway?” Josh was impressed.

  “Yes. I don’t get to go that much. Usually ride my bike—that’s out on the terrace right now, but I bring it in when it rains. Or I go for a run on the river walk or the boardwalk. I don’t mind driving all the way there.” She laughed. “It’s an even more gorgeous view. You live far from here?”

  “Not too far. The other end of Hathaway, looks like. My apartment’s not as awesome as this. Is that your tackle box?”

  Pink. It was pink, like a flower. It matched her rod and reel combo, which he’d already seen that first day when they met. That must have been what a girl he’d known had called her “signature color.” He held back the urge to chuckle.

  “Yeah. Don’t laugh; it works.” She arched an eyebrow in mock sternness.

  Josh held up his hands. “Hey, that’s all that matters.”

  “Ready to go?”

  “Ready and excited. I’m always up earlier than I have to be on fishing days, too.”

  “Good! Let’s go catch some fish!”

  She started to reach for her cooler, which sat on the floor to the right of the door, but he picked it up for her.

  “How long we got?” he asked.

  “I don’t have to be at the Meadowview until three.”

  “Oh, well, that gives us a lot of time.” Not as much time as he would have wanted with her, but then again, he would have taken the whole day.

  “Sorry about that. I only go once a month. I’d change it except those older people really look forward to it.”

  “That’s okay. You made a commitment. And we did this on the spur of the moment, pretty much.”

  “Which I like. I like to plan, you know, but sometimes it’s fun to do things at the last minute, too. It’s adventurous.”

  “I like that, too,” he agreed. “So that’s what you do. You go and play your violin for people at Meadowview.”

  “And talk to them. If the Lord opens the door, I share the gospel with them. We chat, sometimes someone asks me to play a game. That’s where I learned to play chess.”

  “You play chess? We gotta play sometime.”

  “I’m not very good at it at all. My teacher is eighty-seven and wheelchair-bound. Beats me every time. Then, afterwards he tells me, ‘I play chess better a whole lot better than you, but you’re still a whole lot better looking.”

  Laughing with her, Josh placed her cooler beside his in the car’s trunk.

  “You close to your mom, Valerie? Go out to dinner together a lot?”

  “At least once a week. She drives me crazy sometimes, but I love her. You close with your parents, too?”

  “My dad. My mom died in a car accident when I was seven, so it’s been just him and me for years.” He opened the passenger side door for her. “He lives up in Parsippany.”

  “Parsippany? Wow—that’s far from here,” she remarked.

  “Too far. He manages a Healthy Market up there, though. He’s trying to get the store manager spot in a store outside of Cape May.”

  “Cool. Hope he gets it.”

  His shyness with her was dissipating. Maybe it was because it wasn’t his first time being around her, or because he felt so comfortable with her. Like he could be himself with her.

  Almost. His new self.

  And what about your old self? Are you going to tell her about what you were before?

  That was one of those cross-that-bridge-when-we-get-to-it kind of questions. Josh didn’t even want to think about that for now. He started the engine and waved at the radio.

  “I have some CDs in the sleeve on the sun visor on your side,” he said. “Or we can listen to the radio. I don’t have satellite. Or we can talk.”

  “I’d rather talk. If that’s okay.” She flashed him a little grin. “I love music. But I want to know about you. You grew up in Parsippany?”

  “Yep. Born and raised there.”

  Just as he anticipated she would, Valerie asked her next question: “So how did you end up here in South Jersey?”

  Josh held back a groan. Keeping his tone light, he told her a half truth.

  “My friend, Elliot—he’s the guy who was with me that day when I met you—he moved down here a couple years before I did. Tried for a whole to talk me into coming down. I kept telling him I needed a job first. So he helped me land one.”

  “Really? Doing what?”

  “Construction. Good job for now. I did it back in Parsippany with another friend and his dad, so I’m not new at it. Pays good. We’re building an addition to one of those urgent care clinics.”

  “Wow. And you like the beach?”

  “I love the beach.”

  “Me, too.” He glanced at her, one hand on the steering wheel, the other cupped over the gear shift. “I’ve lived here for most of my life, Josh. I can’t imagine not living close to the ocean.”

  She was a girl who didn’t mind driving with the window down. He would have turned on the A/C for her, too. Yet she seemed to enjoy having the wind swirl through her hair under that hat, which she held onto with one hand.

  “Can I ask you something, Valerie?”


  “Your boyfriend. What’s his name again? Zed?”

  “Yes. You have a good memory.”

  He noticed she looked vaguely uncomfortable when he brought up the name. Not a good way to start off their morning, but he preferred to get it out of the way before he became even more emotionally involved.

  “Kind of an unusual name. Guess that’s why I remembered it. What’s it short for?”

  “Nothing. That’s his real name. Zed.” Valerie giggled. “We’re not serious. I wouldn’t have said yes to coming with you today if I was, Josh. I’m not like that.”

  If he hadn’t caught himself in time, he would have breathed out a zesty, “Yessssssss!” in relief.

  “That’s what I wanted to know. So you’re not seeing him?”

  “I used to. We used to be serious. Or I was, anyway. I loved Zed for years.” Suddenly, she shook her head. “Looking back, I don’t know if I ever knew where I stood with him. But, look, it’s not something I want to talk about with you, here, now. I mean—I want to talk about you. And I want to tell you about me. But I’m not here with you and hiding from him, because I’m free to see whoever I want, and so is he.”

  Valerie was struggling with her answer. It still wasn’t the answer Josh wanted to hear, since the underlying message coming through was: Zed is still around. Like a bad winter cold that stubbornly refuses to go away.

  But it wasn’t serious. That meant he had a chance with her.

  “Okay. That’s all I wanted to know,” he said. “And I didn’t want you to think I’m the kind of guy who would—you know. Get in the way of something serious between you two.”

  “No, I’m glad you brought it up. I’d rather be up front and honest with each other, even if it’s…you know, we’re just going fishing. It’s just one date.”

  “Right. That’s where I’m coming from, too.”

  Up front and honest. Yep, that’s me. Oh, boy.

  How was he supposed to tell her about his past, when they were having enough trouble just talking about the “Zed” matter? He sighed with relief to hear her change the subject.

  “I packed us some sandwiches for lunch,” she told him. “I hope you like Virginia ham and cheese, with lettuce and tomato. Oh—and seedless grapes and chocolate milk for you. Unless you’d rather have the apple juice…?”

  Josh broke into delighted laughter. “No, I’ll take the chocolate milk, if t
hat’s okay. How did you know?”

  “I don’t know. Something told me you were a chocolate milk kind of guy.”

  “Okay, I’m impressed. Guess that makes you an apple juice kind of girl?”

  “Exactly!” She joined him in laughter.

  “That’s awesome.”

  You’re awesome. He wanted to say that, but he couldn’t. The same way he wanted to touch her hair, her hand, and to kiss her. For now, those things were off limits to him.

  One date. One half day of fishing. That was all they had for now.

  Josh pulled the car into an available space close to the pier, at the beginning of which was a bar/restaurant that charged five dollars per person to go out on their fishing pier. Not a bad deal, considering it covered the entire day. He would be paying for himself and Valerie, plus he’d planned on treating her to a quick lunch before she had to leave. He loved the fact that she’d taken the time and effort to pack a lunch for them.


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