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.
Book Seven Friendship Heirloom: Purity
All good things must come to an end, but bad things continue forever?
Vashti Samuels, Rozlyn Gosnik, and Justice Adams grew up together as the children of lawyers at Adams, Samuels & Gosnik General Practice Law Firm in Peaceful, Wisconsin. The three were best friends all their lives. Together, the three of them traveled the globe and went on all the adventures a restless, reckless tomboy like Vashti could desire. Never once did she realize Roz felt only jealousy and animosity for her because she believed Justice was attracted to her when Roz had loved him single-mindedly all her life. The truth came out after Vashti and Justice changed their minds about continuing with their three-musketeer plans to become psychiatrists, transferred to law school, and Justice made a surprising move on Vashti that Roz walked in on. Abruptly, Roz made her true feelings known. Their friendship fractured, and Vashti couldn’t make things right no matter how hard she tried. Meanwhile, Justice and Roz began a stormy relationship that ended in a volatile marriage.
In the years that follow, Vashti has harbored a silent attraction to Justice since their unexpected encounter, but she hasn’t allowed herself to think of him as anything but the best friend she lost to her other best friend. In her own personal life, she’s never had much use for romantic relationships. When she was lonely, she had all the friends–male or female–she could ask for. The few times she’d felt more for the men in her life hadn’t worked out and, truthfully, she hadn’t wanted them to.
When Justice ends up in the hospital after Roz commits suicide and nearly extinguishes her husband’s life in the process, he makes it clear Vashti is the last person he wants to hold his hand during his convalescence and grief. His life has always been spent in the middle between Roz and Vashti and, even with Roz’s death, he’s not free of her censure. He isn’t sure he’ll ever be free, certainly not to admit that he’s always been intimidated by Vashti, the über-independent, self-confident knockout that he’d had almost as many feelings for as he had for Roz. Vashti insists she only wants to be friends again, but deep down she knows if she can’t have his heart she’d rather have nothing at all.
Ebook and Print versions available exclusively from Amazon:
GENRE: (Contemporary Inspirational Romance) ISBN: 978-1-925574-35-7 ASIN: B07LDM9ZKL Word Count: 71,673
Book Seven Friendship Heirloom: Purity
A familiar sound threatened to bring Vashti Samuels to the surface of consciousness, but she fought anything that might wake her from slumber. She’d gone to bed late after watching a horror movie–her idea of celebrating at the completion of a major project.
The sound she recognized as a song–a ringtone–refused to go away despite that she continued to resist its pull. Better not be Alexa, her mind grumbled, only semi-awake.
Alexa Morganstern was one of the bestselling mystery authors Vashti worked for as a legal research assistant. She’d finished the massive fieldwork Alexa had needed her to do so she could write her next novel a few months ago and, after three solid months of answering the endless flood of questions that came in day or night as the time-ignorant author picked her brain about details she needed to mold to her story, Alexa had finally finished the book yesterday. Experience with this particular writer had told Vashti she wouldn’t receive too many more calls from Alexa until it was time to work on her next book.
Against her will, the question who else might be calling her at this time of the morning–it had to be an ungodly hour–intruded so she found herself rousing in spite of a wild clinging to the fringes of sleep. Groaning loudly, Vashti swam through the blankets she was immersed under, peeking out into the brightly lit room. Even though she loved the horror genre, she hated the terror that followed. Every single light was on in the bedroom–including the hall and bathroom lights.
Even as she saw the sapphire blue numbers on her digital clock, telling her it was 4:30 in the morning, she recognized the ringtone on her phone. Mom! Mom wouldn’t call me this early unless…
Her hand thrust out of the sea of blankets for her phone, and she swiped with her thumb even as she put it to her ear. “Mom, what’s going on?” She was only half-awake even as she lurched herself into the phone conversation, sitting up and crossing her legs Indian-style, her incoherent mind scrambling. She’d been home only three weeks before for Thanksgiving. Everyone had been fine then. Her parents, her eight-year-old brother Isaiah, everyone in her absolutely humongous extended family…
Her mother’s soft, elegant voice spoke into her ear with comfort regardless of the circumstance. “Vashti, honey, I’m sorry to wake you up.”
“You wouldn’t unless there was a good reason. Tell me.” Vashti closed her eyes and they burned in response. She was so tired. As usual, she was regretting her horror flick fetish.
“Vashti, there was an accident.”
Vashti stopped breathing, putting her head down. Her waist-length hair fell around her, dark, a copper-red shade and heavy, like a cave she hid inside as she freaked out at the words, not wanting anyone she knew to be the subject of this conversation. Her mind jumped from one person to the next anyway.
“Right now, no one knows quite what happened, but…Justice is in the hospital.”
Justice Adams. It’s been so many years…but there’s no distance whatsoever. The burning in her eyes increased. Justice…in an accident…but no one knows what happened. He’s alive…?! “Mom, he’s alive?”
“Yes. He’s alive. He’s in the hospital. But Roz–”
A sob so big filled Vashti’s throat that she felt like she was choking against it. No, don’t talk about Roz. Don’t think about her. Rozlyn Gosnik isn’t my friend. Wasn’t. Was never, ever. It was all a big lie. My best friend…most of my life… But not—
“Honey…oh, Vashti, Roz is…gone.”
Her mother’s voice broke at the words that couldn’t be real, couldn’t be what she intended. “Gone?” Not gone. Roz is never gone. She can’t be. Because there are too many questions, too many unanswered questions, so she can’t go away. There’s no closure if she’s…
Vashti’s mind grasped at the word ‘gone’, finding another way to interpret that was less painful. “She left Justice? That’s what you mean, isn’t it? No, Roz would never leave Justice. Never, not in a million years. She’s loved him forever. She wouldn’t leave him. She destroyed our friendship to be with Justice. So she wouldn’t leave him. I mean, sure she’d threaten to, she’d do it to torment him, make him believe she’s really going to do it if he doesn’t give her whatever she needs to be happy and content–for a minute; not a blip longer. But, no, Mom, she’ll never leave him. At least not for long. Not for good–”
She was talking a mile a minute, anything to deny what else that word ‘gone’ could mean. Feeling herself becoming hysterical, she desperately wanted to make it impossible for her mother to get a word in edgewise. I don’t want to know. Please, God, I don’t want to know.
“Vashti, Roz was killed. There was an explosion, and Justice and Roz’s house is demolished. There will be an investigation, but right now…he’s in the hospital.”
Vashti’s throat felt bone-dry. She couldn’t swallow, couldn’t speak. The burning in her eyes was accompanied by the raging threat of tears held back by some wicked force that kept the anger she’d lived with for so many years to the forefront of all her emotions. That anger was silent, insidious, building–even as she refused to acknowledge it even existed.
What did the truth matter ultimately? Her entire life had been a lie, thanks to the two people she’d believed were the most important for the majority of it…but she’d convinced herself she could live with it, live with the fallout of their betrayal and treachery.
Roz is dead. Justice is in the hospital. “How bad?” she said in a whisper that actually hurt to utter from her frozen throat.
“It could have been so much worse, Vashti. He must have been working late, got home and unlocked the front door, and that’s when it happened. He was thrown clear by the blast, and that’s probably what saved his life. He’s hurt, but not badly. Not…”
Not like Roz. Roz is dead. Killed. By an accident? Or on purpose? By her own hand? The questions were all too viable, given the person Roz had always been.
The image of Justice filled her mind, reminding her of the summer that the three of them–perpetually musketeers–had gone to Hawaii for two weeks. They’d been just about to start their third year as undergraduates at Hamline. Everything had changed in those two weeks, but not as much as they were about to…
I fell in love with Justice. That was about as unthinkable as it gets, considering we’d been best friends, a three-way best friend triangle, for more than two decades of our life and Justice and I never did more than indulge in fun, never serious, flirtation up to that point. I’ve always wondered if that was because of Roz. She hated it when we were alone, together without her. And that whole trip, it was mostly just the two of us. She wasn’t feeling well yet again–another Roz funk that we couldn’t get her out of, and, frankly, didn’t care to. We wanted to enjoy Hawaii, and, if that meant without her and her cursed moodiness, so be it.
Vashti drew in a sickly inhale that did nothing to relieve the tension in her chest. She’d believed Justice had fallen in love with her during that trip, too, and when they got back to school, he’d given her every sign that was the case…
But then I was blindsided. By Roz. She walked in on the most incredible moment of my life. No surprise, she destroyed that perfection. Then Justice blindsided me, too, when he turned tail and ran after her, only to return a few days later and tell me without any preface, explanation or details that he and Roz didn’t want to see me again. Ever. Our friendship was over. I was left to deal with it. But how? How do you deal with something you can never understand?
What would have happened if Roz hadn’t walked in? How radically altered would all their lives have been then? Would she and Justice have ended up together instead of Roz and Justice?
Vashti would never know. What had happened between her and Justice had come out of nowhere…and equally had been there for so long it felt as old and comfortable as beloved knit socks. Justice had known her better than anyone else on the planet, even better than Roz. Because, with Roz, everything was hard, as hard as it possibly could be. Everything was an obstacle in her mind, a talking-down, a reassurance over and over, never truly convincing.
Justice had chosen Roz. That was the only thing Vashti knew for sure. The things he said when he came to get Roz’s stuff from their dorm room proved she’d never seen their friendship as real. She saw me as nothing more than an obstacle to getting Justice the way she wanted him. Once she had him, she dispensed of any pretense.
We weren’t friends at any point. All those times–twenty years at that point–she wasn’t my friend. None of the fun, the long heart-to-hearts in the middle of the night, the secrets I shared with her freely and easily–were about friendship.
Even if Justice felt differently, once he chose Roz over me, he had to agree to never see me again. Roz would never allow him to go an inch from her after that. So it was over. All the way around.
And I’ve let it influence my entire life since then. I don’t go home as much as I want to, as much as I should, for fear of running into them. Peaceful is a small town, barely 3500 people, and we would run into each other if I was there more. I can’t go to work for the family law firm Justice and Roz’s dads worked, where my mom was a lawyer my entire life until she had Isaiah and became a stay-at-home mom, homeschooling him.
I’d always planned to work there myself. Roz and Justice stopped going to my family’s church. Life as I knew it ended that day, and I’ve always wondered why. Was Roz afraid a single glimpse of me would make Justice regret his choice? Or does she hate me so much she can’t stand the idea of ever looking at me again? What did I do wrong? Even now, I don’t know. Every part of the situation took place stage left of me.
“Stay away from us.”
Even seven years later, the words Justice had left her with shattered her.
“Honey, are you okay? Please, talk to me. Are you still there? You’re so quiet.”
Her mother’s voice made her realize she was locked in the past, almost like she’d stepped into a glass bubble where those memories of her destruction were forever preserved. Anything to avoid the reality of death. “I…I don’t know if I’m okay,” Vashti managed.
“I’m sorry. I know things have been estranged between the three of you for years. But…maybe you should come home.”
Her mother almost always knew best. Though Vashti hadn’t told anyone about what’d happened to sever the friendship between her, Justice and Roz, she suspected her mom had pieced together some of the puzzle easily enough. The ultimate cliché: Two girls, one guy. Love triangle. Once two paired off, the third became the third wheel. In my case, I became the shunned.
“Okay. I’ll come home. I’m going to pack now. I’ll get going as soon as I have.”
“Text me when you head out so I can know when to expect you.”
Vashti agreed, hanging up and sitting staring at the screen of her cell phone, still lit up. The two-and-a-half hour drive ahead of her was all that got her out of her withdrawal and into a mindless kind of packing. She went to the bathroom but didn’t look at herself before she was pulling on her boots, coat, hat, scarf and mittens, shouldering the bag she’d put together and getting her phone.
She got a shock when she emerged out of the building on her way to her car and found there was a blizzard in progress. If her mother had known, she wouldn’t have suggested she come home. She’d have to drive slower, making the trip even longer. Like she expected, when she texted she was leaving and that it’d take her longer because of the snow, her mother called and tried to talk her out of coming, realizing the weather situation now.
The tone of her voice assured her mother she couldn’t be talked out of it, so she told her to be careful and to stop if it got too dangerous. That only reminded her once more of the moment of epiphany when she’d realized she was in love with Justice Adams, one of her oldest, best friends. Be careful and stop if it gets too dangerous…
I couldn’t have if I’d tried.
Vashti arrived at the Peaceful Hospital after seven a.m., just in time to watch the sun rise. She’d only stopped once halfway into the trip to refuel and get snacks. Though she’d munched almost non-stop on the nuts and seeds, raw fruits and vegetables that made up the bulk of her diet, she was starving.
The snow had stopped, and she had an unobstructed view of the fiery red-orange-yellow sun ascending in the sky. The desire to cry warred with feelings she didn’t understand, borne of lack of information about the past, and she hated that she couldn’t set it aside and focus on the immediate situation. Roz had died. Justice was in the hospital. Right now, that was all that mattered. But telling herself was easier said than done.
Because she was cold and her stomach was rumbling like an earthquake, she forced herself out of the car and went into the hospital, where she eventually found her parents waiting for her. Both of them enveloped her in their arms and their three-way hug. “Where’s Isaiah?” she asked on automatic.
“Marc and Keiko’s,” her mother told her.
“How were the roads?” her dad asked.
“Not great. But I drove slowly.”
Without words, her parents’ worry for her held in their evaluating, intense looks.
“Roz and Justice’s parents are here,” her mom said softly.
Vashti nodded. Though the three musketeers had disbanded, none of the parents had gotten the memo, or cared to acknowledge the fact. Justice’s parents, divorced, hugged her as soon as she entered the room. Roz’s mother and father had never married, having gotten pregnant as teenagers, and Magda had married another man later when Roz was little. They also hugged her in turn, along with Roz’s stepfather.
Justice’s mother, Estelle, was the one to encourage her to see Justice. “He’s probably not awake. He’s only woken a few times.”
“Did he tell you anything?” Vashti asked.
Estelle shook her head.
He can’t or won’t tell us anything? Vashti wondered.
Justice’s mother gave her the room number and directions. Getting her legs to cooperate felt like a chore, and Vashti found herself realizing belatedly as she slowly pushed toward Justice’s room that she was still wearing her pajamas–with winter coat and boots. She’d literally gotten out of bed, peed, packed and left. She hadn’t brushed her teeth or hair, wiped the sleep from her eyes. She’d been on auto-pilot for the last three hours.
Seeing a restroom, she ducked inside to evaluate the damage. Not pretty, she concluded. Her hair was tangled and knotted, sticking out every-which-way. She’d fallen into bed at two a.m. after washing all the makeup off her face, and she looked pale and sickly without it. Lesser people would have screamed out loud at the sight of her. Kindly, those who’d seen her hadn’t done anything of the sort. But then they would be used to it because she’d made a point of going out “naked” without makeup when she was a teenager.
Roz had been horrified at the idea of leaving without her “war paint” and she’d acted like she was personally offended when Vashti dared to do the opposite. In Roz’s world, if she decided not to do something, then no one else close to her was allowed either. She’d had endless rules that she’d required those in her circle to abide by…or tried to.
Was she competing with me even then?
Vashti forced herself to remember why she was here. Roz was dead. Killed. An accident? Suicide? While she might wish there was no question of an accident, she knew better.
Without being consciously aware she was moving again, she left the bathroom without doing anything to fix her appearance. She also didn’t bother knocking once she reached the door with the number her mother had said was Justice’s. Estelle had said he’d probably be asleep. If she could help it, she didn’t want him to rouse from sleep.
Unfortunately, he was already awake and there were tears on his cheeks. She’d expected him to be asleep, and she wasn’t prepared by the way he swiped at his face with his hands, growling cruelly, “God, not you.”
She heard what he didn’t say and said it out loud herself: “Anyone but me?”
She stopped short when he looked up, his jaw clenched tight as he raged between his teeth, “How much more punishment? How much do I deserve? Get it over with! You could’ve ended it for both of us, but you’re not done with me yet, are you?”
Flabbergasted, Vashti couldn’t guess who he was screaming at: God? Roz? The memory of Roz? Ghost Roz? If anyone could come back as a ghost and haunt someone, it would be Roz. Dead Roz?
Any option was more than likely, and she found herself meandering mentally again to wonder if Justice and Roz had believed in God simply because He was the very center of Vashti’s life for as long as she could remember. Because she went to church almost as often as she’d gone to school. Because friends did what their friends did out of loyalty.
What happened to their faith after we weren’t friends? I know they went to the other church in Peaceful, the one his mom attends, but did they go because they wanted to or because they felt like they had to in order to keep up appearances? Is their belief a conforming, or real?
From across the room, she saw the damage he’d sustained. His face was scratched up, bruised, beautiful silver eyes that sometimes had a blue tint to them surrounded with black-and-blue rings as if he’d been punched–by the explosion–neck and arms showing the same scrapes and minor injuries. The bottom line–he’s not seriously hurt–made her say a prayer of gratitude out loud, her gaze lifted to Heaven.
The tears she’d wanted to come in the hours it’d taken to get here but wouldn’t arrived now–when she least wanted them to. Her words heavy with the emotion expanding inside her, she asked, “What happened, Justice?”
“Go away, Vashti. Please. Just go away and don’t come back.”
Since his teenage years, he’d had a deep, low, husky voice that could be erotic sandpaper on the senses. Now, it was so husky, she barely heard his guttural words.
“Stay away from us.”
Inside, she felt herself all but falling to her knees in clutch-your-throat, heart-wrenching sobbing. But outside the anger was like a conflagration, melting the frozen layer that’d covered her like impenetrable armor during all the years of not knowing what she’d done, what’d happened to destroy her life.
“Why should I?” she demanded viciously. “Now?” Instead of hovering near the door she could escape from in two steps, she found herself approaching the side of his bed. His expression became more and more unapproachable as she neared him. He swore under this breath, as if her words had wounded him, as if she had nerve saying them to him.
“Tell me what happened, Justice,” she said again, not asking but ordering him to explain himself.
She shouldn’t have been surprised by this question. She wasn’t asking about what happened to Roz tonight. She knew it. He knew it. But somehow she felt sucker-punched by his insight into her torment anyway.
As if time thrust them back to her dorm room after they returned to school from their vacation in Hawaii, she wanted to know why he’d done what he had. He’d come to her, acting all strange and not at all his usual self. She’d laughed, asking him what was going on to make him act like a jumpy cat.
Instead of being honest, he’d tried to sidetrack her by talking about something they’d discussed privately during the vacation, without Roz. About changing their major from psychology–a whim they’d all acted on–to law. She and Justice had taken many law classes.
Though as children they’d made a pact to take over the law firm from their parents, Roz had never had any real interest in practicing law, not the way Vashti and Justice did. In truth, Roz wasn’t interested in any certain discipline. She followed the two of them in nearly everything in that regard. She didn’t really care about a career or future employment.
The entire time he’d talked, Vashti had known it was a smoke screen, that he was thinking just what he was: Roz isn’t here. She wouldn’t like this, any more than she liked us being alone together while we were in Hawaii. She’ll be mad. She’ll say she doesn’t want to be left out of anything we’re doing, but the truth is she just doesn’t want us to be alone together.
In a glance, they’d acknowledged that…and then Vashti had seen how Justice was looking at her…differently. He’d reached out his hand, touched hers…caressed it for a moment before bringing it to his chest, pressing the palm flat against his heart. The thud and rapidity of it stunned her, and her eyes had widened an instant before he’d made his move.
She’d seen everything then. The way things had been between them in Hawaii. Without Roz. Everything was always all about Roz.
Their private banter had been exciting, tense, fun, invigorating, flirtations somehow heavy instead of light and careless. She remembered looking at his body in those shocking speedos of his, remembering the way he’d looked at hers in her faded purple bikini. She’d never reacted to a guy the way she had to him those two weeks. She’d never felt things like that…couldn’t begin to explain the edge of insanity always under the surface, the reaching toward something she couldn’t define, the low hum that brought him to mind whether asleep or awake.
My heart was beating like that constantly the whole time, hard and fast and crazed to the point of recklessness. Whenever I closed my eyes in the dark of the hotel in Hawaii…he was there, in my dreams. And that day in my dorm, he kissed me for the first time and the entire world tilted on its axis. He became my gravity, the center of my universe. I realized I loved him. Love that wouldn’t be stopped or even slowed. The kisses became caresses became two hearts becoming one, and, if Roz hadn’t walked in, two bodies might have done the same…
She hadn’t thought about anything except the love and finally–finally!!!–feeling all the things other girls voiced that they felt for boys since they were pre-teens. Vashti had never been boy-crazy. She didn’t get crushes or heartaches or breaks. She hadn’t felt her heart flip-flop in her chest, and kissing before was like meh. She’d had friends who were guys. She hadn’t had boyfriends, hadn’t wanted them.
That day, she’d found love, understood what the big deal was, what all the hoopla stemmed from. From that, to Roz walking in and seeing them wrapped up in each other in the most compromising position–
The next thing I knew, I had no friends, no future–certainly not the one I’d foreseen and clasped eagerly with Justice’s passionate kisses and caresses.
All that had been torn from her. She’d felt the loss so deeply, the pit was bottomless and black. How could she understand why any of it had happened when Roz had refused to answer her phone and then Justice had shown up a few days later, and all he’d had to say for himself was, “Stay away from us”?
“Why?” she demanded. “Why did you do that? No explanation. From the start. About anything. I had no idea what was going on–”
Strangling, she gasped as her throat closed against the anger and horror she’d lived with for too long. Tears rampaged down her cheeks. The fact that he was doing the same thing only added to her anger. In barely a whisper, he acknowledged her torment with a single phrase, “I know.”
He knows? He knows I could never rest, wondering why he kissed me like that, made me realize my love for him, my desire for a future together–and he knows I want an answer for why he did it. Why he went through with it? Why? For what? To prove to himself who he wanted more–me or Roz? Did he feel something, feel everything I did? I would have said it, too, if I’d been given a chance.
I have a right to know why I wasn’t given that chance, and maybe he knows that, too. No matter what happened between him and Roz, I deserve to know why I was treated so badly by both of them when they were the most important people in my life and I never would have hurt them. Even after they destroyed me, I…gave them what they said they wanted from me. I stayed away.
Her thoughts diverted into other avenues: Was that all he knew? Did he realize what he’d done wrong? Had he regretted his cruelty to her?
“Why? Why, Justice, why? You have to tell me!”
When she fell, weeping, on his chest, she expected him to take her in, comfort her, treat her like she meant something to him, even if only in the past. But he pushed her away immediately, turning on his side so his back was to her. “Get out, Vashti. Just get out. I can’t take anymore.”
Strangled by another sob, she straightened, holding firm even when she wanted to run and hide. “No. Not until you tell me the truth.”
He shifted his head to look back at her. “You’ll go away and not come back if I do?”
She gasped like she’d been punched in the stomach by his question, one that sounded numb and unfeeling. In his mind, she was already gone, this time for good.
What else could she do? She needed the answers, needed closure. “Yes.” Even as she made the promise, she knew she probably couldn’t keep it. The promise didn’t matter. The outcome was all that mattered. A kernel of truth…
“Fine.” He turned over to lie on his back again. The pause he implemented stretched so far beyond what felt natural or unaffected, she held her breath. Abruptly, he muttered the very last thing she expected him to–but equally what she’d longed to hear from him because at least it held some illumination, even an agonizing kind. “Roz is dead. She killed herself, just like she said she would a million times. A billion. To punish me. Punish you. And she almost took me with her this time. Damn that she didn’t. God damn that most of all.”
He didn’t look at her when he turned on his side again. “Now get out. I don’t ever wanna see you again, Vashti.”
Six months later…
A familiar sound threatened to bring Vashti to the surface of consciousness, but she fought anything that might wake her from slumber. She’d gone to bed late after staying up well past midnight with a group of authors attending the same conference she was in British Columbia.
The sound she recognized as a song–a ringtone–refused to go away yet she continued to resist its pull. Better not be Alexa, her mind grumbled, only semi-awake.
Against her will, the question who else might be calling her at this time of the morning–it had to be an ungodly hour–intruded so she found herself rousing despite continuing to cling to the fringes of sleep.
Groaning loudly, Vashti swam through the blankets she was immersed under, peeking out into the pitch-black room. Even as she saw the red numbers on the hotel room’s digital clock, telling her it was 5:30 in the morning, she recognized the ringtone on her phone.
Mom! Mom wouldn’t call me this early unless…
The last time she’d been home had been when Roz died. She hadn’t stayed for the funeral. She’d sent sympathy cards to Roz’s parents, even to Justice’s mom because she couldn’t go away from Estella without saying a word. She hadn’t given explanations, but she’d written what she could.
While she’d made Justice a promise she hadn’t actually intended to keep when she gave it, she’d been true to her word. She hadn’t tried to see him again. She’d thrown herself into her work–churning out three books on the topic of legal answers to questions authors frequently asked–attending conferences, taking contracts from countless writers for research projects. She’d called the members of her family at least once a week, sometimes every night, to make up for the damage of her absence.
Missing Christmas the first time in her life had been a nightmare. She’d gone back and forth about what to do, but, when the time came to get her butt home, she’d found herself paralyzed. As if the promise she’d made to Justice had been some kind of binding magic spell, she couldn’t cross the threshold, couldn’t get herself to return to her hometown of Peaceful. A part of her felt like the memories, the sense of betrayal and trauma would overwhelm her if she tried and she wouldn’t survive the fallout this time.
Her hand thrust out of the sea of blankets for her cell phone, and she swiped with her thumb even as she put the device to her ear. “Mom, what’s going on?” She did the calculation in her head for time difference and knew it was actually a decent hour in Wisconsin right now–two hours later.
Maybe she just misses me. She gets nostalgia in the early morning when she’s up before everyone else. Nothing happened this time–
“Honey, there was an accident–”
“Another accident?” Maybe I’m dreaming. Just don’t say Justice. Don’t say–
Almost at the same time, she spoke out loud as her mother said the exact same thing she did: “Justice.”
Vashti squeezed her eyes shut, aware she’d been waiting for this for six months. Waiting for the other shoe to drop. The words he’d spoken in that hospital room–words meant for her, God, Roz–a memory, dead, a ghost; maybe any and all–had been those of someone at the end of his rope. “How much more punishment? How much do I deserve? Get it over with! You could’ve ended it for both of us, but you’re not done with me yet, are you?”
“Where is he?” she asked instead of “How is he?”, praying double-time that her mother wouldn’t answer the question she’d avoided by saying the one thing that would have destroyed the last of her fragile soul. “He’s in the hospital. But Roz– Roz is…gone. Killed. There was an explosion.”
“He’s actually not far from you, and that’s why I called you, honey. Estelle called me because I’d seen her recently and mentioned you were speaking at a conference in Vancouver. In any case, Justice is there…close by. He was spring skiing at Whistler Blackcomb Ski Resort.”
Vashti had considered extending her own trip for a little spring skiing. That Justice was skiing was no surprise. He’d been a hound about the sport most of his life, just as she had been. Because they’d gone together most of those times when she was younger, she knew firsthand that Justice was an okay skier, not a great one, and he was best on the easy to moderate difficulty hills. Trying to steer him from the difficult or expert ones hadn’t been easy because, while she and Roz had never gone off-piste, they’d enjoyed the black runs. Sometimes Roz and Justice had stupidly lost all sense with their ski-bombing, but Vashti had refused to join in that recklessness, afraid of hurting others along with herself.
Taking a deep, shaky breath, she asked, “What happened?”
“You can guess. He went on the most difficult trail currently open.”
“And broke something?” Vashti wasn’t ready to be relieved yet.
“His ankle. He’s at Whistler Medical Clinic. He didn’t want anyone to know, but he can’t be discharged until he’s got someone to drive him. He apparently had a concussion and may still have one. He called his mother.”
Vashti frowned. “Mom, what does this have to do with me? Justice and I…we’re not friends anymore. I’m sorry about his accident.” He was probably bombing and that’s why it happened.
“Estelle can’t get to him as fast as she’d like.”
A sigh escaped her, far too large for the circumstances. “Justice doesn’t want to see me. He made that clear last time. I told you that.”
He blames me…or…I don’t know, the sight of me torments me somehow, makes him remember things that cause him to suffer and feel punished by the universe. God Himself.
But I did what he asked me to, what he unfairly made me promise. I went away and I haven’t seen him since. Haven’t seen my own family because he cursed Peaceful so entering my own home feels wrong. I told myself I could live with not seeing Justice. Forever if I have to. So there’s no reason I should ever see him again. Why should I care about any of this?
The mere thought of such a cruel sentiment had her begging the Lord to forgive her for her insensitivity and selfishness. She’d felt it frequently when her mother had unwillingly fed her information about the explosion that had killed Roz and landed Justice in the hospital.
He’d had no choice but to give his testimony during the investigation. He and Roz had apparently had an argument–another one. It seemed the couple did little else but fight, make up, and start all over again. He’d gone to work to escape the latest bout and gotten home late that night. Just as he’d pulled into their driveway, he’d gotten a text from Roz. She’d taken a picture of herself in front of the open gas stove. No flames could be seen on the range. She’d been holding a candle and a lighter. Her text had said “Now I won’t be a burden to you anymore, my love. You’re free. And I’ll always love you even if you can’t love me the absolute way I’ve always needed you to. Yours for eternity, Roz.”
Justice had run to the front door. As he’d unlocked it, screaming his wife’s name, the explosion had come, throwing him clear with powerful force. While he’d been superficially wounded and lost consciousness, he’d suffered nothing like he would have if he’d gotten inside the house before Roz lit her candle in the gas-filled room.
According to the investigators, she’d been filling the house with the invisible gas for the period of hours. She’d probably been feeling the physical effects of the gas by the time Justice got home, but somehow–maybe by spending most of it outdoors (as the neighbors corroborated she had)–she’d been able to text him the final payoff she’d prepared in advance and delivered almost as soon as he arrived. The explosion had decimated the house–and the woman inside it.
Even as Vashti had wept endlessly for all that’d been lost in the months that followed, she’d understood Roz far longer than even she wanted to. Roz had wanted to punish Justice because he wasn’t as obsessed and manic about her as she’d been about him–but she hadn’t wanted to physically hurt him. What she’d done had had nothing to do with love, pure love, sacrificial or any other kind. She’d wanted to haunt him for the rest of his life so he’d blame himself and never be whole again.
She wanted to make sure he’d never dare to try to get over her, fall in love again, and live a normal life without her.
Guilty as those thoughts had made Vashti feel to entertain, she’d known they were the truth. There were so many ugly truths she didn’t want uncovered even as she did more than anything.
She guilted Justice into choosing her over me. She was never happy, not even when she got exactly what she wanted. If anything, she’d probably been more miserable. Roz would never have gotten herself to believe he would have chosen her willingly, and not because she’d manipulated him. She would always doubt and it would make her insane.
She did everything in her power to make Justice just as miserable–because if she wasn’t happy, no one should be. Justice went out of his way to cut all ties with me after she died. He didn’t do it because it would help him heal and find closure. He did it because, as usual, it was what Roz would have wanted. And so I did the same.
Despite asking those around her not to tell her what was going on with Justice, they continued to anyway. Since Roz’s death, he hadn’t gone back to practicing law at their family legal firm. He’d claimed to need time. But what he did with that time…
“Estelle is trying to get a flight out to be with to Justice, but she can’t possibly arrive faster than you could.”
“Please tell me you guys aren’t matchmaking. Because Justice hates me–”
“No one could hate you.”
“He doesn’t want to see me. He couldn’t have made that clearer.”
“I promise we’re not doing that, Vashti. This isn’t about that at all.”
“So she really thinks he’s hurt?”
“Yes. He passed out and was confused for a long time after they got him to the hospital. So whatever’s happening may be worse than it seems. As for the broken ankle, you would know best about what trouble that’s going to cause him. You had the same injury when you were fifteen.”
Certainly, it was true that Vashti had had her share of injuries growing up. She’d been athletic, energetic and adventurous. But the worst injury had come from a skateboarding accident–reckless stupidity.
She’d probably never forget the first few days. She’d felt like she was in a nightmare that would never end. Being utterly helpless was foreign for someone so independent. Her mother used to joke that she’d checked herself into school when she was five and handled all the paperwork herself. She’d had to learn to use crutches, accept help, and she’d hated every traumatizing moment of what she considered the ultimate debasement.
For Justice, who was impossibly more independent than even she was–but with a heavy dose of iron-bull stubbornness–she couldn’t imagine how he’d survive it. When he was sick, he was a big baby, for one thing, and for two, he’d never accept help willingly if there was the remotest chance he could do something himself with a little (or a lot of) effort.
“He’s going to need help, especially the first few days,” her mom said what she well-knew.
“Maybe he should stay in the hospital until Estelle gets here.”
“He won’t. Estelle says if they don’t discharge him, he’ll leave on his own, and he’ll hurt himself worse.”
“I don’t know what you guys want me to do. I have no control over him.”
“Oh, Vashti, Justice hasn’t been the same since–”
Since Roz destroyed him–maybe not physically but in every other conceivable way.
“He doesn’t want me there, Mom. He doesn’t want anything to do with me. You know that’s why I don’t come home. If you guys didn’t visit me, I’d probably go crazy, but…I feel like if I set foot in Peaceful–”
She shook her head, unable to voice the feeling of dread that was so big and bad, she hadn’t been able to fight it in all this time. “I can’t bulldoze my way into his clinic room and demand to know if he’ll live. Surely Justice didn’t lie to his mother when he talked to her and told her he broke his ankle and maybe has a concussion. So he’s probably fine.”
“She said if you don’t want to go into his room, that’s okay. She just wants someone there. To make sure he doesn’t hurt himself.”
“You’re saying Justice isn’t thinking rationally,” Vashti guessed.
“That’s exactly what I’m saying. Broken ankle or something worse, that’s not the part that has Estelle worried.”
Vashti swallowed, understanding even though a part of her didn’t want to. His mother was worried that this accident was no accident. She thinks he may have been trying to kill himself to escape all that Roz settled on him like a black-magic hex.
“The conference you attended is over now, isn’t it?” her mother asked gently.
A bit of grousing brought the answer. “Yes. I have a flight out first thing in the morning.”
“It’s not even a full, two-hour drive, honey. As soon as Estelle gets there, you can leave. You’ll have time to rearrange your flight home while you wait with him…or just outside his room.”
Though everything inside her insisted she categorically say ‘no’, Vashti couldn’t refuse. She began the long task of packing–something she tended to wait until the last minute to do anyway–then hopped into a shower, finished packing, and left a note for the conference coordinator she’d planned to have breakfast with. In her rental SUV, she programmed the GPS for the Whistler Medical Clinic.
It wasn’t long before her mind settled where it’d been going often lately. That Justice was so close to her seemed like extreme coincidence. Maybe he wasn’t in Vancouver, but he was close enough for kissing, as the saying went.
And this isn’t the first time in the last six months that I’ve felt like Justice was near me. I could swear I saw him more than once during my travels. Definitely on the book tour after Frequently Asked Legal Questions Answered for Writers, Volume I came out. And I’m pretty sure I saw him at some of the other conferences I’ve been to in-between my book tour.
Is Justice following me? Why? Why would he do that?
Just like all the other times she’d wondered, she couldn’t get herself to believe he would, nor fathom a reason for such a breach of conduct considering he was the one who’d expressly made her promise to honor his wish for her to stay away from him indefinitely.
Although Vashti had promised her mother she’d stay in the clinic, outside Justice’s room, until Estelle arrived, she realized long before she reached the location at 7:30 in the morning and found his room that she wasn’t going to be able to stay quietly outside his room and keep vigil. She wanted to know if and most certainly why he’d been following her, or at least keeping tabs on her.