Return to Peaceful, Wisconsin and read the stories of those secondary characters in an all-new spin-off series. Nuggets of faith can be passed down as heirlooms from friend to friend, heart to heart, soul-mate to soul-mate.
Elaina Houston has had it drilled into her from birth that she has to look picture-perfect, act, speak and perform perfectly. When she couldn’t live up to the impossible expectations of her parents, she threw herself away–and paid a horrible price for her destructive surrender. But she has a second chance to turn her life around, and she won’t ever let another person decide who and what she needs to be. Even as she colors outside the lines, her internal conflicts prevent her from experiencing peace over the slightest failure. In part, that’s why Ethan Lynwood, her co-worker, best friend and all-around handyman, is so good for her. Ethan expects nothing from her and he seems to accept her just the way she is, even when she’s a mess…even when she’s a mess…maybe especially when she is.
Ethan’s spent his lifetime making stupid mistakes–because he’d believed his own wisdom was infallible. He found out the hard way that God is in control and we all need humility, humanity, and a helping hand. And sometimes the most accurate reflection comes from accepting that we’re not perfect but we’re loved unconditionally anyway.
GENRE: (Inspirational Romantic Comedy/Chick-lit) ISBN: 978-1-925191-34-9 ASIN: B0146XHSA6 Word Count: 86, 423
Book Five Friendship Heirloom: Perception
“I don’t want to see the uncut version of anything.”
~Bridget Jean Kerr
The silence was too much to bear. As soon as Elaina Houston entered the house with her best friend Ethan Lynwood, she went to her iPod in the speaker dock to fill the stillness. At the moment, she was on a Celtic kick with bagpipes and the whole hills and heather shindig–what Ethan referred to as “pulling the legs off a cat” music. But Ethan didn’t even grimace this time. When she sat down next to him on the sofa, she finally let go of the tension that’d been inside her chest for most the day.
“I know, right?” Ethan said when she leaned against him, limp after so much emotional turmoil.
“Will they be okay?” she asked him, feeling the full weight of today’s events now–not just worrying that their close friends might get a divorce but that Chad might kill himself if Winnie didn’t take him back.
Ethan shook his head. “They’re back together. For the moment. That’s all I know, sugar bum.”
Elaina looked at Ethan, who was, in many ways, her savior. That wasn’t a word she used often or out loud since most of their circle was Christian and might quail at the usage. But Ethan Lynwood could very accurately be described as a person who’d saved her from danger, ruin, and defeat. She couldn’t imagine who or where she’d be without him.
“Chad’ll probably never forgive me for the things I did to betray him.”
“You didn’t have a choice,” Elaina insisted.
“I didn’t see any other way around it,” he conceded that much.
“You knew this would happen if you didn’t intervene. He’ll be grateful. Someday. And today, thanks to you, he’s alive and he and Winnie are back together–maybe stronger than ever.”
Elaina wrapped her arms around his wide shoulders, on instinct trying to make him feel better. She knew he was hurting and Chad’s desperation of late had worn him out. Otherwise he never would have involved Chad’s father and Winnie herself in the situation. He’d had no other choice but to beg them to intervene and prevent certain disaster.
Unceremoniously tossing away the ball cap he wore most of the time, she smoothed back his thick, russet hair and pressed a kiss to his temple. Her hands massaged tense, bulging muscles as she murmured, “I wish the world could always stay the same.”
“When it’s good?” he asked, sighing in bliss at her caresses after such unrelenting heartache. “That what you really want, babe?”
Her life in the last five years came back to her in brilliant mind pictures. Ethan. Ashley Savage and the multi-faceted career and opportunities she’d handed Elaina at A&A Design for almost no reason. Her closest friends. Her relationship with the Lord. Odd Jobs–she and Ethan’s side business with Mike Fremont. This house. Three years before, Ethan had bought it as a decrepit, barely-standing fixer-upper. And, man, had he fixed it up. With a little help from me. There were two full, luxury apartments upstairs at opposite ends of the house with another small guess bedroom between. Below, they’d set up a huge “playroom” with a full kitchen and every conceivable means of relaxing after their incredibly long work days including an indoor pool, exercise equipment and games in infinite variety. When Ethan had invited her to move into the second apartment, Elaina hadn’t thought twice about it. They spent ninety-five percent of their time together anyway, between their two careers, and it’d just made sense to live in the same building.
Ethan turned to her, his electric blue eyes capturing her attention like magnets.
“I don’t want my life to change or be anything other than what it is now: Perfect. Ideal. I just want everyone I know to be happy and healthy and well-adjusted forever and ever.”
His Southern Matthew McConaughey grin and drawl disarmed her, allowing her tension to seep away a little more. “You want a utopia, babe?”
“Sure. Don’t you? Doesn’t everyone?”
“Not really. If you’re not changin’, you’re not growin’, and then you’re not livin’. I’d rather live, even if it gets a bit too excitin’ at times.”
This certainly wasn’t the first time Ethan had said something like this to her. In his non-confrontational, poignant way, he’d wondered too often for comfort if she was willingly choosing to live her life at a standstill, trying to remain inside a static photograph of life in her ideal. If anyone could comprehend why she wanted to stay at the top instead of the black-abyss-bottom, it was Ethan. Elaina knew he rarely pressured her about it because he did understand.
“I want the best for everyone,” she offered softly.
“I know you do, darlin’.”
“Can we pray together about Chad and Winnie’s situation?” she asked, already tucking her head into the hollow of his throat and closing her eyes.
As he spoke intimately to the Lord of the universe, Elaina realized anew how Ethan’s prayers had changed her life and altered her from the inside out. Ashley Savage had been her redeemer five years ago, teaching her about God and giving her a brand new life and perspective. But Ethan…Ethan is my angel, shining in heavenly light. He’s always there for me, always loves me, always sees the good in me–even when any memory of my own decency is long gone.
For a long time after he concluded the prayer, they sat huddled together, then he said quietly, “Didn’t you say you had a date tonight?”
“Not a date,” she insisted fiercely. “Just dinner.” The one thing she’d never done was consider these “get-togethers with male friends” dates. In Ethan’s hearing, she’d called Colin earlier because of Chad and Winnie’s crisis and told him she’d be late. Colin Lemieux (Elaina couldn’t say his name without turning into Pepé Le Pew’s French Penelope Pussycat–“Le mew, le mew”) was an insurance agent who’d only started at his agency a few years before and was Odd Job’s representing agent. Ethan had introduced Elaina to Colin, and they’d gone out a handful of times now. Unfortunately, the last time he’d broken her cardinal rule and told her he was looking for a wife and wanted to start a family soon. I should have told him then and there I couldn’t see him anymore. I’m not even sure why I didn’t…
The memory she’d been grappling with unsuccessfully lately flashed back into her conscious mind, making her stiffen in response. She’d gotten home from that “get-together” with Colin and stumbled on Ethan on this very sofa with Vashti Samuels plastered over him and kissing the life out of him. Elaina’s phone had rung at that moment while she’d been gaping–Colin calling and saying she’d rushed away so fast, he hadn’t gotten the chance to make another date with her again soon. She’d only agreed because she’d been so shocked at finding Ethan in a position she’d never seen him in with anyone. Anyone else but me. But I’m not jealous. Ethan and I aren’t together–not that way. I was just…surprised.
And now I can’t stand her. Winnie was absolutely right about Vashti. She’s the most annoying person in the world because she assumes everyone should love her and find her irresistible. I don’t know if I can compete with her. Even I can’t deny that she’s smokin’ hot, as all the boys say about her, with her long, red hair, timeless beauty, and skinny, fashionable body.
Helplessly, Elaina went rigid next to Ethan when his cell phone rang. He worked the device out of his pocket, glancing at the screen so she also saw who was calling. Unbelievably, the same woman she was grousing about inside her head had decided to call at this very moment. Elaina grimaced.
Surprising her, Ethan ignored the incoming call, tossing his phone on the table.
With her teeth gritted, Elaina said in a breezy tone that was far from convincing, “Answer it why don’t you? I have to get ready for Colin.”
“Now you’re goin’?” Ethan asked in dramatic shock.
“When did I say I wasn’t?”
“Assumed it ’cause of how often you said you were tired and out of it on the way home. And we have work early in the mornin’.”
Considering that they generally worked seventeen hours a day or more, between the two businesses they were juggling, she would need to make this get-together an early night. In truth, neither she nor Ethan slept much. But if Vashti was going to be pestering him all night, Elaina was definitely going out. “Oh, I’m up for it, babe,” she said forcefully, standing and glaring at his annoying phone jumping around on the coffee table. “It’s just dinner anyway. Girl’s gotta eat.”
Ethan’s eyebrows were knitted together as if he was confused by her abrupt attitude. “So it’s workin’ out with Colin? I got the impression that whole thing was a no-go.”
Elaina tossed her head impatiently. “I don’t know why you thought that. I mean, I’m not looking for a conflagration here. We’re just friends. There’s no rush. I’m not interested in anything more than friendship anyway.” She never was. She tried not to think about that too much.
“No. Maybe not. But is he lookin’ for more than friendship?”
Elaina flushed, recognizing his implication. He thought she was leading Colin on, the way he always assumed she was with these male-female get-togethers. She and Colin had gone out a few times. What right did he have to throw that “commitment-bound” news at her in the first place? They barely knew each other. She wasn’t looking for anything serious–and she’d made that clear to Colin the first time they met and he’d asked her out. She hadn’t changed her mind about that and never would. Even if Ethan didn’t, she knew why that was the case.
His phone suddenly stopped dancing a jig on the coffee table, and she found herself even more irritated because he’d let that call go to voicemail. Trying to prove to me that Vashti doesn’t mean as much to him as it looked like when she was sucking the lips off his face on our sofa? Why? If nothing else, our relationship has always been honest. Why act like something has changed between us and he has to put on a show for me all of a sudden? We’ve told each other every last detail of our lives–the kind of things you wouldn’t even tell a priest. He knows why I don’t want anything to change, even for romance that sometimes seems so inevitable between us. I don’t want anything to change. I don’t want to have to make a decision…a decision about me and Ethan…one way or another. I’m not ready for what that could mean.
“You better call her. It might be important,” Elaina said, wondering if she was making more of his relationship with Vashti than it really was.
Ethan shrugged. “Like you said, there’s no rush. It’s already gone to voicemail anyway.”
The words “Is she looking for a serious relationship? Are you?” were on the tip of her tongue, but she couldn’t get herself to ask them. She’d never seen Ethan react to a woman the way he had to Vashti. That rivals even his reaction with me. Because almost as soon as we met and were spending all our time together, he told me he’d been in love with one girl his whole life and it’d ended so badly, he decided he never wanted to go through it again. Then he met me and realized I was worth taking the risk. He told me he loved me, wanted me, but would never pressure me to feel the same. And I was the one who kissed him not long after that, on New Year’s Eve almost five years ago, during one of our endless, up-all-nights sessions. He gave me his heart, irrevocably as far as he was concerned, and I’ve been at a standstill ever since. Or I’ve been running. I’ve never known which.
Elaina looked away on the pretense of finding out the time. “I have to get ready,” she said again, feeling strangely uncomfortable.
Ethan said nothing, but she could feel his omniscient gaze on her. A part of her wished she couldn’t read his expression and thoughts like a book. He wanted to hug her and tell her he’d be here for her if her mood went south tonight.
She forced herself to go get ready, thinking that without Ethan she was back at the beginning of her life–nowhere and nothing. But romantic love changed people. Changed them into…
Chad and Winnie were her first thought. They lived their lives at the knife’s edge of extremes. I’ve spent too much of my time there myself. I won’t go back. With Ethan, I have a settled, comfortable, ideal life. And I’m good enough here. Ethan accepts me unconditionally. Change could mean losing what matters most of all to me. But if he’s falling for Vashti…
Change. She’d spent the last five years spreading her wings and learning to fly. Somehow, she was afraid to reach too far, want too much because she could so easily fall out of the sky and end up back on the ground, imperfect and broken beyond repair.
Well, it couldn’t be denied that they’d been through an emotional whirlwind lately with their friends. Nothing else could explain why the usually even-tempered Elaina was so touchy tonight. Ethan wished she’d decided not to go out and wondered why she was so adamant about going through with something he knew she didn’t really care to. She wasn’t even up to admitting she’d rather not–and that definitely wasn’t like her.
Once she disappeared upstairs to her apartment, he glanced at his phone. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to answer the voicemail he was sure Vashti had left when he didn’t pick up. It was true when he’d met her a few weeks ago, he’d been blown away. She was beautiful–no denying that–one of the most beautiful women he’d ever met. The more he got to know her, the more he’d liked her, too.
But then that kiss on this here sofa.
She’d all but jumped him, and he’d never had the slightest clue she was thinking about what she proceeded to do. At that moment, Ethan had realized why he was so attracted to her. She reminded him of Elaina when they first met and they’d talked twenty-four hours a day. Who needed sleep? They’d shared everything in common and the world they were forging together was shiny and new. He’d lived for each new day together.
Had it been romantic? Probably more than anything else in his life had ever been. But then he’d never had many romantic inclinations. His old man and younger brother had seen to that because they’d made him responsible. For everything. To the point where he’d never even stopped to wonder why so much should be his burden. Not until it was over–when Abby, the neighbor girl he’d been sweet on since he was a kid, was dead by her own hand, and his brother was to blame. Ethan had seen only one solution. He’d walked away from all that he’d been shouldering for most of his life. He’d ended up in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and he hadn’t looked back. Then Elaina had come into his life two years later, and suddenly he’d realized he wasn’t broken beyond repair. He’d just been waiting for her, waiting on God’s good timing.
Elaina had been through more than any soul should have had to be in her short life. Her second chance had made her bloom. He’d just been happy to see the miracle happen all around him. He guessed he’d set his heart on her there and then. Nothing had changed in all these years, even after she’d shown him off and on that she was as crazy about him as he was about her. He wasn’t about to pressure her. She’d had enough with bad experiences. He’d set himself to be whatever, whoever she needed him to be, whenever she needed him. He intended to be patient, and that really hadn’t been too difficult. Ethan Lynwood wasn’t a man who rushed in to get his heart broken let alone to see his dreams come true. He preferred to let life happen to him as it happened.
Ethan grunted. Elaina had been different the past few weeks. He’d ascribed it to the craziness of their best friends’ marriage. In general, Elaina wasn’t like most females. She wasn’t moody, touchy, or sensitive. She knew how to put on a good face and she could honestly charm the devil. She possessed the easy ability to make every single person in a room fall in love with her. No doubt all the years of training when Elaina was young and her mama made her go through the rounds like a dog at a show for beauty pageants had taught her how to be irresistible.
Love that about her. She’s got the temperament of a man, but she’s all woman. Best of both worlds. But lately she’s prickly as a hedgehog. Because of Winnie and Chad?
Elaina had admitted to him she’d never had a “girlfriend” before. The girls in the beauty pageants were competitive and scrapped and fought and never said a kind word that wasn’t transitory and liable to do a three-sixty below the belt at some point. Their boss at A&A, Ashley, didn’t really count since she was like a mentor to Elaina and there was too much hero worship on Elaina’s part. With Winnie, Elaina could confide anything, have pajama parties and get all fashion-blitzed. No doubt part of the appeal with Winnie initially had been that the poor kid had twice Elaina’s problems. Lately those problems had Elaina bobbing up and down like a merry-go-round right along with her new confidante.
When Ethan looked at his phone again, not reaching for it, another thought occurred to him. Heck-yeah, Elaina had been prickly lately–precisely since she’d met Vashti. In fact, she’d reacted the way he’d never expected someone like Elaina to, since she seemed to like everyone. She’d been hesitant and put off by Vashti. That first time, after Elaina walked in on them kissing and beaming Vashti left, Elaina had asked him when he was next seeing his new squeeze. He’d shrugged, not at all sure, since they’d made no plans. Then Elaina had blown him into next week when she’s said in a scorching tone, “Well, warn me in advance because I’d like to be anywhere but here when you see her.” When he’d asked her about the burr in her rump, Elaina has simply said, “Winnie was right about her. I can see why she can’t stand her, especially around Chad.”
Ethan couldn’t deny he’d liked that kiss, but he’d pushed Vashti away–too late because Elaina had walked in and saw the whole thing. In her perspective, what else could Elaina assume but that he’d only pushed Vashti away because she’d come in, not that he planned to do that anyway, whether or not Elaina was there.
Catch-22. If I tell Elaina the reason I was initially attracted to Vashti is ’cause the little red-head reminded me of her, that’ll put pressure on Elaina. I’d be as good as admitting I’m waiting around to be the one Elaina jumps on. She knows how I feel about her, what I want. I’ve never pressured her to return the favor, but there’s more to why I don’t wanna force Elaina to make a decision. Because I’m holding back something she’ll see as treachery if and when she ever finds out about it.
Ethan picked up his phone, not ready to talk to Vashti. He was pretty surprised she hadn’t said she never wanted to see him again after he told her no more kissing. Vashti had asked if he was in love with Elaina, and he’d admitted she was his whole world. He couldn’t see himself without her. Predictably (being someone who didn’t stand on ceremony and met everything in life head-on, damn the collision), Vashti urged him to admit his feelings. But he’d already done that. The ball was in Elaina’s court, and she knew it.
Ethan rose and turned off the screeching music. Even after all this, he’d gotten the sense Vashti wasn’t ready to give up on the idea of the two of them becoming an “us”. She’d been calling ever since she went back to Minnesota where she was attending law school, but she’d avoided the subject of Elaina. I should tell her to chill out for a while or forever. I don’t mind being friends, but I’ve seen enough of Elaina’s “male friends” to know I’d just be leading Vashti on if we have any contact from this point on.
He went up to his own apartment and fed then let his Bullmastiff Butch into the living room. Butch was a slobbering wreck, drooling and shedding and incapable of not tearing everything in sight to pieces. For that reason, the canine had his own room in Ethan’s apartment and was only allowed in the living room with close supervision. Ethan considered his own dinner but somehow the thought was lonely, since Elaina would be going out.
He and Butch went out to the backyard to do a little private business, then Ethan threw the dog’s favorite rubber ball around the wide lawn. Ethan’s mind and gaze kept straying to Elaina up in her apartment. He wasn’t sure why she was continuing this flirtation with poor, unsuspecting Colin. Ethan wasn’t even really jealous. He knew nothing happened with these guys Elaina dated and told herself she was only being friends with. The dating turned out the same every time. The dude fell helplessly, desperately in love with her and became Butch–slobbering, wrecking everything in sight to get her attention. She never got serious about any of the pitiful guys. After three dates, they were always throwing themselves over a cliff for her, and she had no choice but to save them by letting them go.
One of these days, some poor fool’s gonna get dangerously obsessed with her and refuse to draw the line at merely calling her until she changes her phone number. She laughs that idea off, but she doesn’t wanna admit what I know. She wants all those dudes to fall madly in love with her. She needs attention like a drug. Her mama made competition an addiction for her when she was parading her ten-year-old daughter around in her bathing suit and too-old-for-her evening gowns in front of the judges, coaching her to win affection and all the votes. Now Elaina has to win at all cost. Anything else is unthinkable for her.
Ethan went back inside the house and sat down in his apartment living room with his laptop, resigning himself to being alone tonight at least for a few more hours. As he sung “A Change Is Gonna Come” under his breath, he marveled at how Elaina worked so hard to take the “date” angle out of these get-togethers. She drove herself, paid her own way, didn’t linger over goodnights. Mostly, she took her car in case things went sour, as they were bound to with opposing goals, and she had to make a quick getaway.
In her prickly mood, he didn’t expect her to say goodnight before she left, yet she came up to his apartment wearing a dark plum, off-the-shoulder, long sleeve dress with a little skirt that showed off her gorgeously tanned, mile-long legs. If she’d had anything more than a beautiful B-cup, the dress would have been sleazy, but her body was athletic and willowy with just enough curves to make him insane.
“Old boy, you better heel,” Ethan said, standing before the Bullmastiff woke from his drowse on the floor at Ethan’s feet. Ethan put a restraining hand on Butch’s head as he barked excitedly. The mutt was dead-gone in love with Elaina himself, but he drooled so much Elaina tended to keep her distance, especially when dressed like this for going out.
She giggled. “Who are you talking to? Butch or yourself?” Elaina asked in obvious reference to his “heel” comment.
When she twirled to show him all the angles, he almost had a heart attack she was so beautiful. Her skin looked as soft and velvety as a pillow he wanted to sink into and bury his face against. “Ah, darlin’, have mercy on Colin. How’s he gonna be able to help fallin’ for you if you kill him like this? He’ll be helpless.”
“Oh, stop,” she scolded without bite. She’d put her sun-kissed brown hair up in a ponytail and the back was sprayed out like a starburst, her movie-star blue-green eyes standing out dramatically with her butterfly-long, thick lashes. Ethan knew firsthand that a man could get lost in eyes that beguiling.
“So, did you call Vashti back? You shouldn’t keep her waiting,” she said, sounding breezy but he knew she was anything but.
Falling back on honesty, Ethan offered, “I wanted to be on-call in case Chad calls and needs anything.”
As if the Elaina he knew and loved fell back into her body from some other prickly place, she came to hug him. “It must have been hard for you to see him like that, at the bottom, considering his life over.”
Ethan had been pushing Chad for most of the last year to admit to his overworked wife that he’d registered for college. When he kept putting off the inevitable, Ethan had backed him into a corner with only one escape–telling Winnie the truth–because the dude wasn’t being fair to his wife and the longer Chad waited, the worse it’d be for him. Ethan’s predictions had come true. Winnie had gotten close to divorcing him and taking their young daughter away.
“You did what was best for him, for Winnie. Don’t beat yourself up about it anymore,” Elaina said, looking into his face almost at his height in her daring, stilt pumps. “Do you want me to stay home?”
He knew she would if he only said the word. Honestly, he’d like nothing better than to spend the rest of this night looking into the breathtaking face of the woman who meant more to him than his own life. Cradling her jaw between his hands, Ethan drew her against him and leaned his forehead against hers. “You’re already dressed, ready to go out. I’m fine. Go. I’ll be here when you get back.”
Despite his words, he lowered his hands to her waist and hugged her possessively.
“I won’t be late,” she said in a soft, husky voice that made him want to turn his head and seek out her full, lush lips. She drew back an inch from their embrace, putting her mouth firmly in his sights. “What are you going to do?”
He shrugged, his gaze not relenting from a kiss he wanted more than his next breath, a kiss so close. “Some work. Maybe get a swim in.” He didn’t need to do formal workouts, though they had all the exercise equipment available for just that. His workouts were of the hard work variety.
He lifted his hand to her cheek again. “Miss ya, babe.”
Since she’d moved into the house, he’d discovered new ways to get lonely for her. He’d bought this place as an experiment. He’d wanted to learn how to fix, renovate, design, install, you name it everything from top to bottom. It’d been logical for Elaina to move in and put her touches on it, considering her work with A&A Design and Odd Jobs, which was an all-around handyman business he owned with a close friend. Since Elaina had moved into the other apartment, they hadn’t been apart for longer than a few hours. He had every intention of keeping it that way. Permanently, if she agreed.