"To err is human; to forgive, divine."
"Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all of us love poorly. We need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour--unceasingly. That is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family."
"I know you were just glad to see Ryder Feldmann convicted at the trial, sweetie, so you weren't concerned about how long he'd be in the institution."
Samantha Samuels stared at her sister-in-law, a lawyer, who'd insisted she wanted to drive her to the airport today when she left for her two-week vacation. She and Justine were fairly close. Nevertheless, she'd been a little surprised by the offer. Not once had she considered that Justine wanted to drive her so she'd have time to drop this bomb on her.
Stunned, Samantha opened her mouth. Her sister-in-law wasn't wrong--she'd heard nothing at the end of the trial but that--thank the Lord!--her attacker would be locked away. "I assumed he'd be in prison for a long, long time."
Justine nodded, her expression pained. She reached across to the passenger's seat and squeezed her hand. "I know, Sam. You didn't want to hear anything else about it whenever I tried to talk to you about this in the last several years. I can explain everything to you whenever you're ready, but the bottom line is that Ryder's term of confinement is almost up. He'll be released on September 30th, followed by a year of extended supervision..."
"Miss Samuels," the clerk called when Samantha entered the hotel with the rest of her tour group. Tired after the long day of exploring southwest Ireland's treasures, including a museum and a castle--along with fighting off the aggressive advances of a certain member of her tour group--she was eager to go to her room and shower. She'd been wondering if she'd have time to snatch a few hours' sleep before dinner.
She wended her way through the others to get to the front counter.
"You received a phone call while you were out, Miss Samuels." The man handed her a memo.
Samantha looked at the note without surprise to see her sister-in-law's name and phone number written on it. Justine had called the night she arrived in Ireland, but Samantha hadn't been able to force herself to take the phone call then. She hadn't been ready to face the fact that the man who'd raped her would be released from prison, after a mere three years paying for his unconscionable crime against her.
"I do hope everything is all right, miss."
Distracted, Samantha glanced at the clerk and nodded. Dodging the crowd, she rushed up to her room as fast as she could. Had Justine called to apologize again for seeing no other choice but to tell her the truth--even if it meant ruining a perfectly lovely trip? Samantha had thought of little else except the single sentence that had deadlocked her in the days since: "He'll be released on September 30th, followed by a year of extended supervision..."
She couldn't fathom that Ryder had served only three years. Three years! In three years, I haven't even begun to heal from what he did to me. And he's done being punished, other than a year of "extended supervision"--whatever that means.
Samantha took a deep breath to quell the sensation of suffocation rising inside her. The tightness of her chest resembled an evil force growing in proportion to her dread. Now it was gathering all the air in her lungs and transforming it into an ominous, black cloud.
After drawing another breath and letting it out slowly, she murmured to herself, "I'll be home in two days. I can call Justine then and ask her all the details I wish I didn't have to know. Right now I'm four thousand miles away and it must be nine or ten at night in Wisconsin anyway."
Why had Justine called a second time? And why in the world did she feel she had to tell me this before I left for Ireland? As if I had any chance of enjoying the trip anyway. I'm too much of a homebody not to have started wishing my flight would return me to my home the day I arrived. Why, Justine, why? As a lawyer--though only part-time since the birth of her son a few years ago--Justine was too logical to drop a ticking bomb in someone's lap without good reason. She certainly had to realize her announcement would upset Samantha for longer than a few hours.
Shaking slightly, Samantha tossed the messenger bag she'd brought with her for the tour today on her bed and grabbed the phone. Unfortunately, she realized that she didn't have the slightest clue how to make an international call. When she phoned down to the desk to explain her trouble, the clerk calmed her with the words, "Allow me to place the call for you. I'll forward it to your room shortly."
Samantha thanked him, gave him the information, then sat on the edge of the bed, her hands clasped tightly together in her lap. An odd thought entered her head. What if Justine's phone call had nothing to do with the announcement she'd made in the car? What if someone was ill? Perhaps her son, daughter or husband--Samantha's older brother--Joshua.
Daddy? Samantha's cheeks filled with shame and regret.
Luckily, the phone rang within a few moments, disrupting the usual direction of her thoughts. "Justine?" she said as soon as she picked it up.
"It's me, Sam," Justine answered, her flinty voice filled with reassurance. "Don't panic. This isn't a medical emergency or anything like that. You had to know I couldn't leave things the way we did at the airport. I didn't want that conversation to go like that, sweetie."
"Why did you have to tell me now?"
Justine sighed. "Oh, Sam, I thought long and hard about whether to bother you about this before you left for your vacation. I talked to Joshua, Tamara, Kim and Peter, and they all advised me to tell you right away."
Tamara and Peter, Samantha's oldest siblings, and Peter's wife Kimberly were the three people Samantha trusted most in the world. Even still, she couldn't understand why any of them would encourage Justine to go ahead with this.
"Did I completely wreck your vacation?" Justine asked softly. "We all knew when you got back, you'd be going to work at the clinic, putting in long hours... and you wouldn't want to hear the truth then any more than you did at the trial and the years since. We couldn't see any other way to do this. And you insisted your friend Jordan was picking you up from the airport when you got back from Ireland. You weren't willing to negotiate."
I've been in hiding. I don't know how else to cope. After all this time, I still don't. Samantha shook her head. Eyes closed, she asked in a tone that begged her sister-in-law to enlighten her, "How can they possibly release him, Justine? He raped me. Ruined my life in ways that no can begin to understand..." Samantha inhaled shakily.
"I know, hon. And in the past, it would have been different. But Wisconsin adopted the Truth in Sentencing system a few years ago, and the statute eliminates parole for all crimes committed after December 31, 1999. As of September 30th, Ryder will have served seventy-five percent of his confinement and he's eligible for supervised release. At the trial, he was sentenced to a year of extended supervision upon release."
Samantha could hear the tears in her sister-in-law's voice as she put forth her best lawyer speech.
"While it seems unbelievable now, Sam, I believe the major impetus for the system was to provide a sense of certainty for the victims as well as for offenders."
Unbelievable doesn't cover it. What a joke! I was too happy to hear Ryder was going to prison to listen closely during his sentencing at the trial. But I don't believe I would have been comforted by the facts then any more than I am now. Samantha's eyes stung, but she wanted to know the truth she'd blindly sheltered herself from before. "What else?"
"Well, in the ES system, there will be a pre-release investigation and report. The purpose is to determine where Ryder will be released and under what conditions. I want to assure you, sweetie, that the conditions will most certainly include no contact whatsoever with you. I expect that his conditions will also require mandatory, regular check-ins with his assigned agent, that a job or school will be a requisite, as well as undergoing some counseling and anger management."
Counseling? Samantha scoffed at that condition. Three years ago, Ryder had been let out early from the juvenile delinquency institution because he'd agreed to the program Justine's law firm and her father, a pastor, had designed with local law enforcement. The program had catered to juvenile delinquents with most of the offenders voluntarily agreeing to participate in the counseling as part of the required treatment programs that went with release. Several had come to know the Lord through the counseling, too, thereby reforming and hopefully keeping them out of legal trouble. Ryder's prior juvenile offenses had been first offenses, "attempted assaults of a lesser degree with strong family support", according to what Justine had told Samantha after the rape. At that time Justine herself had been stunned to discover that Pastor Samuels was not only counseling Ryder, deliberately not having learned anything about his offenses but also pushing his young daughter to befriend him.
Samantha's father had long pastored the church she'd grown up in. His zeal to see a hurting world come to the Lord could be considered nothing less than an obsession that blinded him to reality.
And it was Daddy's visionless fervor to see a young criminal come to Christ that led to my rape. Daddy thought it was wrong to know why Ryder was in the detention facility in the first place--he didn't want to be influenced by the nature of Ryder's crimes as he counseled him. Then Daddy got it in his head that, because Ryder had been misunderstood and feared all his life, I could help him come to know the Lord. I was about the same age and a female. Ryder had a basic distrust of males. Now I know why. They always tried to keep him away from the girls because he couldn't be trusted alone with them. But did that bother Daddy? No. He refused to hear the truth...just like I guess I did at the trial sentencing.
"They won't release him in the area, will they?" Samantha asked.
Justine paused. "That'll be decided during the investigation, but I seriously doubt it. Are you all right, hon?"
After three years, Samantha told herself she should be. So why did she feel like, because of Justine's announcement, she was back where she'd been at the trial? "I'm fine. I'll be home in a couple days. We can talk more then."
"Okay. See you when you get back, sweetie. If you need to talk before then... I can't tell you how sorry I am, Samantha."
Justine was crying. She could hear her soft gasps. "Love you. We all love you. We wish... We want to do something to help."
Samantha offered reassurance in as brief a manner as she was capable of at the moment, then hung up. For a long time, she sat staring into nothingness, not moving. Why did the horror of three years ago, all of it, seem so close?
She reached for her digital camera and scrolled through the photographs she'd taken over the past ten days. In shock, she realized she'd visited all the places she looked at, yet she remembered almost nothing about them. She might have been viewing someone else's vacation pictures, not her own.
Yet the events of three years ago are as fresh and tangible as if they just happened. In the utter silence of her room, the memories came in gasping snatches. Samantha found herself curling up on the bedspread, shivering violently.
The day it'd happened, her brother Peter had been watching her like a hawk before, during and after a funeral at the church. He'd realized Ryder was a danger to her. Their father refused to acknowledge that fact.
"You can slip out downstairs," her father encouraged. "Ryder is waiting for you. Pete believes you're helping clean up the kitchen after the luncheon."
"It's perfectly all right. Follow the Lord, sweet pea. We're so close now. Ryder expressed an interest in accepting Christ."
Samantha hadn't believed that, even a little. The only interest Ryder had ever shown was in her. She'd gone out of her way to extricate herself from the uncomfortable situation. Peter and Kimberly had helped her, especially when her brother asked her to come and live with him so she could get out of the house she'd grown up in for twenty-one years, out from under her father's daily insistence that she "follow the Lord in this". This--whatever fervor had caught him at any given time. She'd never refused any of his impassioned requests.
Almost from the start, I knew the Lord was telling me to flee from Ryder Feldmann. But I believed Daddy always had my best interests at heart. I made so many stupid decisions because the thought of disappointing him motivated me to obey even when I knew doing so was wrong. I refused to see the truth about him until I could do nothing else. By then, it was too late. Ryder raped me. And... and I knew I could never be with Kyle, Ryder's older brother, the man I'd fallen in love with, the man who fell in love with me--in secret.
Even during the trial against Ryder, her father had abided by his precious "communications with clergy" privileges and confidentiality in order to protect Ryder. While Samantha's siblings claimed that her father had repented and seen the error of his ways, she would never forget that he'd claimed his testimony at the trial was a conflict of interest, since the victim was his daughter, and asserted that he'd had no prior knowledge that Ryder was a danger to her. That'd been true enough, but even the judge had questioned Pastor Samuels' refusal to come into his counseling with prior knowledge of the patient's crime--and, having declined to proceed with counseling with those facts, still encouraged his daughter into contact that forced her to be alone with a criminal.
Even during the trial, Daddy refused to speak against a lost soul he'd wanted so badly to save. Yet Ryder's own brother confessed openly to his brother's horrible crimes. Kyle defended me. I believe it was his testimony--along with my own--that did the most damage, ensuring that Ryder went to prison. Kyle was a broken man before the court...while the father I'd entrusted everything I was, everything I did, sold me out in every conceivable way.
And now Ryder would be released from prison and punishment, free with the very rights Samantha had denied herself prior to her rape in deference to her father's wishes. Three years ago, her life had shattered beyond recognition, and she was only beginning to realize that she'd done nothing since to clean up the mess.
"You really don't want to accept Christ," Samantha said, almost under her breath. "You just told my father that to get him to agree to let me go."
Ryder had pulled up to the baseball field at Lake Peaceful Park and turned off the car. Most of the park was under a heavy layer of snow from a recent storm. It was starting to get dark. Inside her heavy coat, she shivered.
Did Daddy tell Peter where I am by now? But even Daddy doesn't really know where I am. He was so concerned with sneaking me out before Peter noticed, I'm sure he didn't bother to ask Ryder where he was taking me.
Ryder laughed from the driver's side, leaning back in the seat. "I don't know what the hell your old man is talkin' about half the time. I tune him out."
Suddenly panicked, Samantha lunged at the car door but quickly realized it was locked. She grappled for the button to release it. Ryder chuckled again, and then his hand landed purposefully on her shoulder, bringing her back to him. She turned to him and scratched his face with her fingernails.
Grabbing her hands, he yanked her forward, even closer. She saw his evil, handsome face, dark eyes filled with menace. She saw the demon she'd feared since her father forced her to be alone with him constantly these past several weeks. Afraid of disappointing her father, she hadn't told him the way Ryder looked at her, the lewd ways he tried to touch her as soon as they were alone. I should have. Why didn't I?
Because he wouldn't have believed it. He can't see anything but a lost soul that needs saving. Because he would have been disappointed... in me.
Ryder slammed his mouth over hers. His tongue stabbed past her lips. Instinctively, she bit down and he howled, temporarily freeing her hands. She grabbed at his long, black hair, claiming handfuls and trying to tear it out.
With a hard shove, he thrust her away from him. The back of her head hit the passenger window with a painful crack. Through the stars dancing before her eyes, she thought desperately, I have to fight. I have to...or...
With a start, Samantha woke on the hotel bed, still lying on top of the bedspread. The overhead lights were still on, and she blinked against their brightness. She lifted her hands to cover her face, encountering sticky tears on her cheeks.
Even three years after her attack, the burning treachery she felt inside her heart hadn't lessened. The truth about her father had all but suffocated her in that seemingly endless walk to get help after her rape. The veil of a devoted daughter who'd believed she was cherished had fallen away--ripped from her, stolen in violence.
Why didn't I elope with Kyle when I had the chance? she screamed silently for the countless time. If only she'd gone with Kyle the night he begged her to run away with him--irrevocably committing a deed her father couldn't talk her out of later--none of what had happened would have taken place. Her father wouldn't have forced her to be around Ryder anymore. Kyle would have been with her, protecting and loving her. She'd be living the fairy tale life she'd imagined for the two of them.
Instead, the mental and spiritual wounds afflicted had scarcely begun to form scars all these years. She'd instead ignored and run away from the conflicts that raged inside her. She'd never attempted to gain closure. She'd refused her father's first tentative attempts to talk to her, and he'd simply stopped trying in the time since. She told herself all she felt was relief. But Justine's news had torn the unhealed wounds apart. Ryder Feldmann would be free and, extended supervision aside, he might come after her again. She feared her carefully re-structured and ordered life was about to turn upside down once more and she had no one to protect her this time either.
When the plane touched down, Samantha felt everything inside her straining toward her home in Peaceful, Wisconsin. She was less than an hour from the little town she'd grown up in. After Justine's call and trying to get back into her vacation, she'd gone down to dinner with her tour group and ended up lost in the middle of nowhere. Somehow she'd made it back to the hotel. She'd spent the last day of the trip in her room, foolishly hoping her sister-in-law would call again and say it'd been a mistake. Ryder Feldmann wasn't about to be released from prison after a mere three years' incarceration.
When wallowing in her fears hadn't worked, she'd tried a different tack as she followed through on her flight arrangements for getting back home. After all, she was a different person now, no longer a naive twenty-one-year-old who didn't dare make a single decision on her own. She no longer deferred to her father's "wisdom". She was strong and independent. She could take care of herself--whatever happened with Ryder Feldmann.
She had plenty to be excited about, too. She'd spent the past several years working her butt off, completing her doctoral programs, getting a Master's Degree in psychology, finishing her internship, and getting her accreditation and state licensing. She was ready now to begin the career she'd envisioned for herself for most of her life. The career Daddy wanted for me. I ended up doing his will, after all, because I knew the Lord was calling me to help women who've gone through the same trauma I have.
Samantha squeezed her eyes closed against the pain she'd led herself to believe had lessened with time and distance. The woman in the seat next to hers nudged her gently. Opening her eyes, Samantha turned to her. The grandmotherly lady smiled. "I thought you'd fallen asleep. We've landed."
Samantha nodded. "Guess I'm just tired after my vacation."
Her best friend, Jordan Palunachek, had gifted her with the all-expenses-paid trip to Ireland to celebrate the completion of her training.
"It's good to be home."
Samantha nodded again just as the pilot delivered his end-of-flight message over the intercom. Moments later, she freed herself from her seatbelt, then rose as the people around her reached into overhead compartments. With only her messenger bag on board with her, she was one of the first off the plane and heading toward Baggage Claim. She spotted Jordan and her husband of one year, Micah, waiting for her near the carousel.
Jordan let out an unrestrained whoop at seeing her. She rushed at her to deliver a strangling hug that made Samantha laugh out loud. Her friend possessed the kind of endearing enthusiasm she envied. Jordan rarely let anything get her down. An easy enough thing to do when you've led such an ideal life.
The unkind thought brought immediate guilt. She was truly happy that Jordan's life had had so little conflict. She didn't want that to ever change. Nevertheless, it was difficult not to be jealous.
Jordan drew back, grinning, her forest green eyes sparkling with tears. "I can't believe you could possibly look any more beautiful than you usually do. Or maybe I just missed you so much, you've got the glow of an angel around you."
Samantha couldn't help hugging her friend once more. "Thanks for the trip. I was going on high rev for so many years, I forgot what it was like to relax."
"For the moment, you mean? I know you. As soon as you can, you'll want to get ensconced in your new office."
Jordan had graduated college two years ago with a business degree. For a year afterward, she'd set up and hosted countless fundraisers in her quest to get the funding she needed to start the rape counseling clinic. Her husband's marketing degree had helped facilitate her visions immensely. When Jordan opened Glass Angels a year ago--with part of the restitution Samantha had been provided in the disposition of Ryder's crime--she'd hired the best counselors with the widest possible contacts in the community and secured a generous space for their offices. According to the plan she and Samantha had worked out years ago, Jordan had held one of the offices for her to move into as soon as she'd completed her education.
"Are you ready for me to come to work?" Samantha asked when Jordan let her go and Micah reached over to hug her warmly.
Jordan chuckled, her short blond hair bobbing. "Are you kidding? Of course. You'll have a couple of patients to get started with. It's all set up. Didn't I always say this was meant to be, babe?"
Samantha smiled. "I can't believe it's all finally happening." An oversized satchel came into view. "That's my luggage."
Micah said he'd get it, and Jordan looked after her beloved husband with the adoring gaze of a newly-wedded bride. Samantha sighed, hating how pessimistic she felt today. She should be the happiest person in the world. The dreams she'd worked so hard toward were coming true. Unfortunately, the past had recently dumped back on her. Yesterday, while holed up in her hotel room, she'd realized so many things she'd always dreamed of had been missing from her life. It was as if she'd lost everything, even her hopes, three years ago because of a single, horrible event.
"Percy misses you," Jordan said in a sing-song voice on their way out to the short-term parking lot.
Samantha had left her Westie dog with Jordan and Micah while she was on vacation, even knowing Percy wouldn't do well anywhere except the home he'd become accustomed to and the one person he'd bonded with in life. Since Jordan and Samantha had shared her apartment for years before Jordan got married, she'd hoped Percy would tolerate her friend better than he would a kennel.
In distress, Samantha glanced at her. "Please tell me he hasn't been making poopy on the floor again."
Jordan and Micah exchanged a look that said it all.
"I'm so sorry." As a rescue dog that didn't trust easily, Percy tended to be a handful, even for the one he was loyal to.
Jordan shrugged good-naturedly. "It's not your fault. Someday I'll be cleaning up baby poopy. I better get used to it."
Samantha's eyes narrowed on the couple. "Are you trying to tell me something?"
Jordan laughed. "No! I'm not, babe. Promise. Not until Glass Angels is firmly established. Once you're on board, everything will be as perfect as it's meant to be."
Micah opened the back of their vehicle, put Samantha's luggage inside, then insisted on opening the doors for the ladies. "What a gentleman," Jordan purred, kissing him before slipping inside the passenger's seat.
I'll never have a love relationship like theirs. I was robbed of the hopes I held in that regard for a few short weeks. What chance will I ever have of falling in love again? I've got too much baggage for it to ever work. It's not fair.
In the backseat, Samantha cursed herself for her pettiness. What was the point of wondering why some people got hardship, broken dreams, and loneliness in life while others breezed through, getting everything they ever wanted? It's not fair...but would I really want it to be? I want Jordan and Micah to be ecstatically happy. Even if I can never be.
Ugh, enough of this silliness. "I'd love to go in tomorrow and get my office ready," Samantha said.
Jordan lifted an arm over her head into the backseat. Samantha saw two shiny silver keys on a ring dangling from her fingers. She took the offering, feeling a surge of excitement.
Turning in her seat to face her, Jordan's wide mouth turned down in a slight frown. "One is for the front door, one is for your private entrance. You'll figure out which is which tomorrow. I'm only sorry I won't be able to go in with you and give you the grand tour. You would have had that years ago if you'd let yourself. But I've got some important errands to run tomorrow. The other counselors will be there, and our receptionist, LeeAnn Wagner, is just a dream. She'll make you feel completely comfortable. That woman can juggle two dozen things at once, I swear."
Samantha closed her fingers around the keys. "I can hardly wait. Thank you."
"My pleasure, babe. I've got a baked spaghetti ready to go in the oven with some homemade bread sticks. You can tell us all about Ireland while we eat."
The two of them exchanged a nostalgic smile. When they'd shared an apartment, this meal had been their favorite--home-cooked, stick-to-the-ribs kind of comfort food that Samantha's own mother had made all the time while she was growing up. Moving out of my parents' home, into the apartment with Jordan, is what made it so easy for me to do what I needed to do. Jordan makes everything look simple. Independence. Confidence. Her job. Marriage.
Samantha looked at the keys in her palm, realizing her real beginning started here--not three years ago, when the worst thing she could have ever imagined destroyed her life and drove her away from home. Despite what might happen with Ryder's release, maybe this starting point would bring her the healing that eluded her. The only question was how exactly to facilitate what sounded to her like an impossible miracle.
Kyle Feldmann's phone buzzed. He dropped another folder that wasn't what he needed into the file cabinet, wishing again that his secretary was a little more organized. His flourishing Christian divorce counseling practice would be more organized if everything he needed was neatly arranged in appropriately labeled files on the computer and therefore a snap to retrieve.
Shaking his head, he went to his desk. "Your son," his assistant, Zoë Rossdale, told him when he answered. "I'll put him through. Give me a minute."
Kyle gave her many more than one. Obviously Zoë was still having trouble with the phone system. Anything technical baffled her. I'd be better off answering my own phone. Then no one would ever get hung up on--before Zoë and I have any idea who's calling in most cases. So why do I even have a receptionist?
"There's no food in the fridge or the cupboards, Dad," his fifteen-year-old son greeted him several minutes later, just when Kyle was about to tell Zoë to hang up, he'd call home himself. "Can me and Winnie order a pizza?"
Chad's girlfriend since he was nine years old lived next door to them. Her parents were also Christians and used to their children skipping from house to house on a whim. Though Chad had considered getting a summer job this year, Kyle had let him off the hook, saying he should enjoy his childhood as long as he could. Unfortunately, his son--and his equally jobless girlfriend--seemed to be spending an inordinate amount of time at home, inside the house, instead of enjoying the season.
"None at Winnie's house either?" Kyle asked, allowing his smile to come through in his tone.
"I'll stop by the store on my way home."
"When will you be home?" Chad asked pointedly.
He's been asking me that a lot lately. Does that mean anything? Kyle wasn't sure. There'd been a time when Chad never asked--either because Kyle had worked standard hours five days a week, or because Kyle automatically told him when he'd be home at the start of each day. This past summer, Kyle's practice had grown from almost twenty steady patients that he saw regularly over the course of a month, to thirty-five in the same amount of time. The publication of his first Christian divorce counseling manual may have led to the increase or simply patient recommendations. The extra money with the influx of new patients had been a nice boost, but he worked more hours, especially since he was still doing most of his own office work. And that makes me realize how my son, work and church are my life. My whole life. Since his divorce more than twelve years ago, he'd had little reason for anything else. Little reason since Samantha Samuels had disappeared from his life. And now's not the time to rehash all of those regrets.
Kyle considered asking his son outright, "Do you need me? Do you need me more than you'll admit?"
At one time in his life, he could have asked Chad a question like that and gotten a halfway truthful answer. Since his son turned fifteen, Kyle had found it almost impossible to connect with him. Chad didn't want to talk, his moods were erratic and unpredictable. He rebuffed Kyle's every effort to draw him out and regain the closeness they'd once shared. With no idea where else to turn, Kyle had actually considered becoming a Youth Group leader at the church they attended every week--where Chad attended Youth Group when it was in session during the school year. He couldn't think of any other way to be closer, more involved in his son's life, while learning more than head knowledge about the struggles those Chad's age went through.
"I'm leaving now," Kyle said, though he hadn't planned to. He needed to study a past case file that he believed would help him with one of his newer patients. "But go ahead and order the pizza. Get a twenty from the emergency jar. I'll buy enough groceries to last a few days before I head home."
Chad hung up with thanks, and Kyle sighed. He needed that case information for an appointment the next day. He planned to go over the file tonight. Ironically, his thriving practice had convinced him that it was high time he acquired an assistant to help him with the organization of his office. Instead, he'd simply made more work for himself by hiring the most incompetent help he could find. Next time, he'd demand a resume instead of accepting a sob story.
He ducked out to find Zoë preparing to leave for the day. Exasperation made him tense when he said, "I really need this old case file, Zoë, but I haven't been able to locate it--in the computer or the file cabinets. You organized everything, didn't you? Months ago?" He held his scribbled sticky note out to her.
The frizzy redhead didn't look at him as she shoved her things into her tote bag. Like a deer in the headlights, Kyle stood watching her vigorous struggle, holding back the words to remind her that her shift wasn't technically over for another half hour.
Kyle had hired the young woman four months ago, after hearing her testimony at the church. While his intentions had been good, he'd quickly realized what a terrible employee she was. She came in late, left early, rarely took messages that made any sense--partly because her handwriting was atrocious, partly because she had absolutely no sense of order. Most of the time, she gave him his messages too late for him to attend to them. He'd lost count of the number of things she'd spilled liquid on and destroyed, not to mention all the items she'd broken in her few months here, from coffee cups to expensive printers. In desperation, he'd moved the fourth new coffee pot he'd purchased in as many months into his office to keep it safe. If she wanted coffee, he got it for her.
Shaking his head to dislodge his fixation on her struggles with her tote bag, Kyle bit back a mirthless chuckle of disbelief. He'd hired Zoë and, in essence, became his own assistant. I have two jobs instead of one with this woman here. Unbelievable.
Finally succeeding in shoving the fiction novel she'd apparently been reading at her desk again into the massively overstuffed tote, Zoë took a deep breath. Her oval-shaped, black tortoise shell glasses were now so far down her nose, he waited for them to make the final slide off her face to the floor, where the ungainly creature would no doubt step on them and break them in her retrieval attempt.
Filled with almost painful sympathy, Kyle reached forward and pushed her glasses back up her bumpy nose. "Zoë?"
She looked up at him at last and blinked, her expression confused. He offered her the sticky note again. "Oh. Yeah. I don't know where it is. I'll see if I can find it in the morning, Dr. Feldmann." She tossed the scrap on her desk, for all intents and purposes did the same with her goodbye, and then she was gone.
Grimacing, Kyle stared after her. Zoë had assured him she'd work on computerizing his entire case history within the first two months of her employment. That task was one of the major reasons he'd hired her and stressed during her informal interview. Apparently she'd told him what he wanted to hear. He found out the truth about the situation when he sat down at her bombed desk.
Boxes of files had been all around the reception area those first couple months, when he assumed she'd been scanning and organizing the case files appropriately on her computer, where they would be able to share the files between both of their terminals. He saw that the computer desktop had about seventy-five file folders crammed onto it. He opened a few of them and muttered shock at what he found. Scanned pages were crooked, some of the words cut off. He even discovered an entire file with the words completely backwards and couldn't imagine how she'd accomplished that. He wasn't surprised by it, though. Other files wouldn't open at all and he got "corrupted" messages. The file names themselves had no rhyme or reason. He'd asked her to name them by case file year or patient last name. He couldn't guess what she'd chosen to do instead.
While there were lots of files--too many for one poor desktop to handle--most of them weren't usable, and there weren't enough of them to convince him she'd done anything but shove the dozens of boxes back into the storage room without doing anything at all with them.
He considered cleaning up the computer desktop, but then remembered Chad was waiting for him. He'd have to talk to his assistant tomorrow. And say what? He needed that particular case file now. By the time she dug it up, he'd no longer require the information. He might even be in a retirement home.
Sighing again, Kyle shut down her computer, stood and walked to the store room to begin his search. The door wouldn't give at first, and he realized why when he at last managed to push his way inside. The boxes were stacked willy-nilly from one end of the small room to the other. Before Zoë came, he'd at least had the boxes neatly arranged in chronological order and could find what he needed without too much trouble. I'll be here all night looking for that file!
He couldn't help thinking that LeeAnn Wagner would be the perfect assistant, if only he could lure her away from Glass Angels next door and have the guts to fire Zoë.
Kyle owned the two-suite office building where Feldmann Christian Divorce Counseling conducted business. It'd been a good investment, but when he'd heard Jordan Palunachek was looking for cheap or even free office space for her rape counseling clinic, he hadn't thought twice about offering the other suite in his building to her for nothing. While the rent profit would have been a nice incentive up until that point, he believed in her cause. My contribution toward what I might have been able to prevent if only I'd asked a few more questions to begin with. If I hadn't been so eager to reform my wayward sibling. If I'd been strong enough to convince Samantha to elope with me and forget her father's wishes.
Kyle pegged his downfall during the first half of his life to his inability to learn that it did no good to reform those who refused to change. No doubt his downfall would haunt him through the second half of his life as well.
Stunned, he found the old file much sooner than he expected--and certainly not where he anticipated finding it. As he turned off the light and closed the door of the storeroom, he vowed for what had to be the millionth time to fire Zoë Rossdale. Tomorrow. Without delay.
He put the file in his briefcase, got his jacket and locked up. While he considered another lost cause, he made his way to his car parked in the back lot. His ex-wife, Norah, who still lived in Chicago where they both hailed from, had been scheduled the previous weekend for a supervised visit with Chad. She'd never shown up. While Kyle had been furious, his son had shrugged his mother's failure off, saying it didn't bother him.
Kyle shook his head, embarrassed about the way he'd forced his concern on his son after the disappointment with his mother. He'd waited for Chad to come to him first, but, when he hadn't, he'd been too desperate to talk to his son and tell him his mother had issues, it wasn't his fault...
"She didn't wanna see me, Dad," Chad had broken in. "I'm not a priority in her life. I get it. I think I started to accept that when I was a little kid. I'm okay. I never expected her to show in the first place. You don't need to be concerned about me."
Kyle had wanted to say, 'You might as well tell me to stop breathing.' Instead, he'd offered all the usual sincerities--If you need to talk... Are you sure you're okay? I love you--you're my main priority.
Chad had just nodded, giving him the look that said he could shut up at any time. Never mind that each time Kyle saw his son, he wanted to talk about the incident again, even if he knew it would only make Chad mad at him. He'd also wanted to call Norah and demand answers for why she hadn't come. Didn't their son mean anything to her?
Chad would really kill me if I did that. Kyle had realized long ago that he wasn't Norah's keeper, that he couldn't act as a buffer between Chad and his mother anymore. If his son wanted to contact her, he would. He could. It's not my place. But taking my own advice hasn't been easy.
Grocery shopping was an ordeal because he noticed how many other single men and women were doing the same thing on a Thursday night. Are any of them going home to someone? At the very least, I have my son. Most of the time, that's enough. Or it used to be.
A half hour later, Kyle pulled into the two car garage connected to the luxurious bungalow he and Norah had bought right after they were married. He'd gotten it--and Chad--in the divorce, which made sense to him because he'd purchased the home before their marriage and he loved it more than she ever could. Same with our son.
Kyle walked into the house from the garage carrying a bag of groceries and calling, "Hello." The scent of pizza greeted him.
A moment passed, then Chad and Winnie came out of the living room to greet him. The couple looking strangely guilty. "Car is full," he told his son, glancing once more into Chad's tense face. Winnie had turned away and started taking things out of the bag Kyle set on the counter.
Chad followed him out to the full trunk. "Any pizza left?" Kyle asked to break the tension. His empty stomach helped him recognize how many hours it'd been since the pastrami and Swiss on rye he'd eaten for lunch in the deli near his office.
Loading his hands with bags, Kyle peered at his son with his shaggy dark brown hair and lean, lanky physique so like Kyle's own. Chad had opted for contacts as soon as they learned he needed glasses. Kyle had always felt comfortable wearing frames.
"Sorry," Chad said without too much remorse after they both headed inside the kitchen again.
"I told you to save a few slices!" Winnie scolded, obviously having heard their conversation. With long, dark hair that curved all around her small, pale face, she'd been the picture of sweetness for as long as Kyle had known her. He loved her almost as much as his son did.
"You've got the ingredients for brownies," she told them. "I was planning to make a batch."
Chad, the bottomless pit, encouraged her to go ahead with the task while the two of them finished bringing in and putting away the groceries. Then Kyle made himself a sandwich and stood leaning on the counter to eat. He watched Winnie whipping up the dessert and slapping Chad when he dipped his fingers in the batter more than once.
Kyle remembered the guilt on their faces when he'd arrived. Obviously Winnie felt bad for being a co-conspirator in devouring every bit of that pizza. Had Chad felt initially guilty, too?
"School's starting soon," Kyle said, shaking himself out of his worry. "Barely two weeks away. We should really start thinking about getting your supplies and clothes."
"Can you just give me the money? I can get everything I need myself."
Kyle remembered all the years they'd been doing the task together. Another father-son activity to give up to memory.
He took a deep breath. His son was growing up, he was beginning to need independence. Beginning to need him less. Those milestones came with being fifteen years old--and seemed to have imparted a moody, uncommunicative nature. Kyle had believed the predicted "teenage curse", in which the two of them would only communicate with each other across a vast ocean, would never happen with him and Chad. They'd always been so close.
Kyle nodded. "I'll get a cash advance tomorrow."
The look of surprise on Chad's face didn't escape Kyle. He'd hadn't expected him to agree for a second. Kyle actually felt a moment of mirth at getting the better of his son for once.