Since she had worked late Saturday, Julie stayed home Monday morning and called around to various pet stores. It looked like she’d be able to unload all of her fry and some of the adults with one trip to Detroit, stopping at six different shops. She called Bethany and arranged her schedule to take Thursday off to deliver them.
Julie arrived at the office in time to cover for lunches. Since taxes were over, most of the office left by six. Julie told her mother that she would work late because of this morning and her Thursday plans. After they left, she ordered a small pizza. They had said a half hour when she called, but fifteen minutes later she heard a pounding on the door.
When she went to check, she saw Ken and quickly opened the door.
“I hoped you’d be here,” he said. Julie had to motion before he stepped just inside the door. She locked back up and faced him. His hair was windblown, and his eyes studied her closely. “I’m sorry about yesterday,” he said quietly.
Julie shrugged. “So am I, though I still don’t know what I did wrong. Come on.” She turned to go to her office.
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Ken said, grasping her arm and turning her to face him. He studied her face again, and his hand came up to touch her cheek. Then he backed away abruptly. “I’m sorry.” He took a deep breath. “It’s not you but me who will have a hard time with a working and more serious relationship. Julie, I want… love….” He stared at the ceiling for a moment, and he appeared in misery. Then he looked back at her. “I have something for you,” he said, changing the subject. “It’s in the car. Can I bring him in?”
“So your little blue guy won’t be lonely.”
Julie smiled. “Sure.” She unlocked the door for him and watched him jog back to his car. Then he pulled out a short sided Rubbermaid container, carrying it level back to the door. Just how many fish was he bringing? Mom would be so pleased. But Julie didn’t care. He was speaking to her again, and she dared to hope he had been about to tell her how he cared for her. Love was the word he said; she was almost positive.
He carried the container to her desk, set it down, and then pulled out a new two gallon aquarium to match the other on her desk. He’d thought of everything and set it up quickly. He pulled out the betta, still in his bag for her to see.
“Oh, one of the green double-tails. He’s so pretty.” She held the bag to the other aquarium. “Look, Baby Blue. You have a friend.” They flared their fins at each other, arched their bodies, and puffed out their gills.
“You know not to put them together.”
Julie grinned. “Yes, Ken. I know that much.”
“Sorry. I had to make sure.”
When he had everything set up, Julie poured in the de-chlorinated water. Then they set the fish inside to float in his bag until the water temperatures were the same inside and outside the bag.
There was a noise at the door, and Julie went to get her pizza. She brought it back. “Care to share dinner? We have pop in the refrigerator.”
“Yes. I’d like that.” Ken said the blessing, and they began eating.
They ate quietly, and Julie hesitated to break their momentary truce, but she finally had to ask. “Did you call the bank?”
“No.” Ken took a drink of his pop and took his time about swallowing, before he spoke. “If you’re willing, I’d like to go through with it.”
“But I must warn you that I care for you more than I should.”
“More than you should? How could that interfere?”
“If you don’t return my feelings, it may take me a while to get over you. I may be a bear to work with. I’ll try not to, but I’m just warning you, it may happen.”
“Ah, threats. I see,” she grinned. “I think I’m willing to take the risk. I’ve weathered your temper a few times now. If you’re not careful I’ll own all your bettas.”
Ken laughed. “I hope I don’t lose my temper that many times.” He sobered. “I hate to see you hurt – by me or anyone else.”
“I’m tougher than I look, but I’ll let you protect me,” she teased. “Are we still on for the concert?”
“I haven’t had time to check. If you find out about one first, let me know.”
“What about the tour of your fish?”
Ken seemed uncomfortable. “Maybe some other time.”
“I wasn’t proposing we go now, but we could.”
“Julie….” He shook his head.
“What is it? I don’t understand.”
“Neither do I. I’m sorry. My brother is home.”
“Then that should be a good thing. Avoiding temptation and all that kind of thing.”
“Temptation. If you only knew,” he whispered. He reached for her hand. “It’s better not to pursue this. Let’s just say, I don’t know that I’ve ever felt this way.”
“Not even that girl you wanted to marry?”
Ken shook his head. “I don’t think so. We didn’t have as much in common. I don’t expect you to return my feelings. It has happened rather quickly.”
Julie squeezed the hands she held. His confession ignited all her fantasies, but suddenly Thomas’ words, her mother’s words, everyone’s words rained down on her. She had been going to tell him about her dreams, her fantasies, but now she couldn’t. And she hated Thomas even more.
“I understand,” Ken said, removing his hands from hers. “I’ll try not to rush you.”
Julie shook her head. “It’s just that everything is so crazy here. People say stuff. I know what’s right, but they make me doubt. I can’t stand it anymore.” She stood and paced the room. “I told Mom we’d decided not to buy. She was ecstatic. Everyone was relieved. I can’t tell anyone it’s still on. You don’t know what it’s like here. They talk about me and everything.”
Ken stopped her. Then he was holding her, and she was weeping on his shoulder. She hated her weak emotions. One minute she was in control and the next it all overwhelmed her. She pulled away from him. “I’m such a baby. People are dying in the hospital, and I’m whining about a little gossip. I’m sorry.”
“It would be easier for you then if no one knew we were still partners?”
“That sounds so sneaky, I know. But I can’t stand to listen to those… those lies.”
She shook her head. “No, Ken. You don’t want to know. Thomas is mean. He says mean stuff about everyone, even Paul Israel and Pastor Nat. It’s awful gossip, and it makes you doubt everyone. I can’t repeat those awful lies.”
“He talks about me, too, doesn’t he?”
Julie didn’t want to say, but she knew Ken guessed by her expression that he was right. “I don’t believe him, really. But Mom believes everything – the whole office does. They’ll realize in time what he is. They have to. But maybe they won’t say anything about you anymore if they don’t know we’re still partners. He thinks I’ll marry him. He thinks he’ll get this business. I hate him so much. Oh, Ken, I’ve never hated anyone before, and I feel so awful.” She let Ken hold her again. “I wish Daddy were here,” she whispered against him. “Daddy would have fired him a long time ago. He wouldn’t have let him talk that way about Pastor Nat and Paul and everyone. He wouldn’t make me marry Thomas.”
Ken stiffened against her. “You won’t, will you?”
“No. Never! I meant Mom keeps at it. She wants me to. He wants me to. I hate being at work when anyone else is here.”
“That’s why you’re here now alone.” Ken kissed her forehead. “Have you gone to anyone about this?”
“I was talking to Paul, but he’s with David. I mean, of course this isn’t life and death. It doesn’t compare. I’m foolish to want his time. It’s not like he’s really my father.”
Ken squeezed her gently, reassuringly. “What did Paul say?”
“That Pastor Nat won’t marry me to anyone unless I tell him I’m desperately in love with the guy.”
Ken smiled slightly. “But what about the gossip.”
“We didn’t have time to talk about it much. He just said he knew Thomas was causing trouble. He said to go to the source if I had questions. I called Jim, and he told me what you were really like. I couldn’t commit unless I knew for sure. You understand, don’t you?”
“Yes. And Jim told you I was wonderful?”
“He forgot to warn me of the temper.”
Ken smiled. “Actually, I don’t really have a temper.”
“Oh?” Julie looked up into his face.
“It’s just you….”
“No. Mine, when I’m afraid of getting hurt. I prayed about this a lot last night. And my surrogate father, Jim, helped me see what was really going on. But I have to take this risk.”
Julie touched his chin. It was rougher than she thought, but blond. “You haven’t shaved.”
“Since five this morning.” His voice was lower now.
She looked up into his eyes. “I do need time, but I also know I care about you more than anyone right now. I know emotions cloud judgment, so I can’t commit to anything but business yet. But I think I love you, Ken Wright.” She stretched up to put a light kiss on his lips. He held her to him and returned her kiss. Her senses exploded.
Julie had to pull away. “Please, stop,” she said weakly. “I… I need to sit.”
Ken led her to the chair. “I’m sorry.”
“Quit apologizing,” she snapped, mostly because she was so confused she couldn’t think. “I need to think. I need… I hope you’re happy that you’ve got me all mixed up inside. I was hot and now I’m cold and… and you’re laughing, aren’t you?”
“Come on. You’ve been kissed before.” He had a slight smile, and his tone teased. It helped order her mind.
“Yeah, a few times. Not by anyone I really cared about.”
“Are you admitting you love me?”
“I already did.”
“But you’ve never loved before?”
Julie waved it off. “High school crushes, even in college. None of them were right for me.”
“How do you know?”
“My dad said.”
“What would your dad say about me?”
Julie sobered. The banter hit a nerve. “I wish I knew.” She stood again and paced. He waited patiently in the other chair. “When did your father die?” she asked suddenly.
“He didn’t that I know of. He disappeared when I was fourteen, and my mom divorced him. Desertion.”
“Oh, but how could she? What if he was lying dead in a ditch somewhere? What if he has amnesia? What if he’s….”
Ken shook his head with a slight, sad smile. “That’s fiction, Julie. He had left before. Once for six months even. She wasn’t going to wait this time.”
She came to him and sat in the chair beside him, taking his hands. “I’m so sorry. You haven’t seen him since?”
“No.” He hesitated. “Evan wants to look for him. I’m not sure if we should. He wouldn’t have disappeared if wanted to see us. It’s not like we’ve been hiding. But I guess I have to know the whole story, too. Perhaps I should do that before I ask anyone to marry me.”
“Will it make a difference?”
“It might to her.”
“No. You’re not your father or your brother or anyone else.”
“You know about Evan.”
“Thomas knows everything and tells everyone whether they want to hear or not. I don’t know where he gets all his information. I know half of it he makes up, but he has just enough truth in stuff to make the lies go down. I hate him.” Julie repeated. “I’m sorry. We weren’t talking about him. How can you not hate someone like that? I’ve been praying and praying, and it doesn’t seem to do any good. If I could just get away from him…. I’m sorry; I’m doing it again.”
“Quit apologizing,” Ken teased. “I’m not real fond of the guy myself.”
The phone rang. Julie jumped. She listened as the machine picked it up in the outer office. “Julie, are you still at the office?”
Julie picked up her extension. “Hi, Mom. Yeah, I’m still here.” She placed a finger to her lips to caution Ken to silence if he had the urge to speak. Ken took the hand and kissed her fingertips. “Be good,” she mouthed.
“When are you coming home? It’s almost midnight.”
“Is it? Oh my, it is. I didn’t realize. I’m sorry. I’ll just finish up and go in at noon again tomorrow.”
“Okay then. But I’ll worry if you’re not home soon. Your grandmother does too, you know.”
“Yes. Why don’t I plan to start going in late all the time, Mom. That way I’ll be with Grandma in the morning, and you’ll be there in the evening. I think she’s been pretty lonely.”
“Julie….” Katie paused. “Okay. It’s probably easier for you to contact those pet stores in the morning anyway.”
“Yes.” Julie agreed, feeling very much like a liar because she didn’t plan to contact any more. “I’ll be home soon. Bye.” Julie hung up. “It’s quarter to twelve,” she announced to Ken.
He jumped up and double checked his watch. “Oh, no. I promised Evan.” Then he grinned. “But I don’t regret the time with you.”
She smiled and let him kiss her. “Neither do I.”
“How shall I contact you if you want this to be quiet for a few weeks?”
“Just until Paul comes back… and maybe a little longer if he’s too upset or busy to talk to me.” She looked down. “I know that’s kind of stupid, but he kind of filled in for my father on this before, and I always used to talk to my father about everything.”
“I can’t say I understand completely since I’ve felt I’ve had to make my own decisions for so long. Perhaps I wouldn’t understand at all if Jim hadn’t said I was like his son yesterday. If I’m honest I’ve gone to him for advice about quite a few things in the last five years.”
“I’m glad you have Jim. Even if you find your real dad isn’t… you know. You still have Jim.”
Ken lifted her hands and kissed her fingers. “I know. I think I’m more concerned about Evan. He doesn’t have anyone. Not even my mother. I’ve tried, but I fail all the time.”
“Did I say the right thing yesterday? I really don’t know if the budget can even afford you and the mortgage, but you know that. We just can’t hire anyone else. Even if someone quits, and I hope someone does, that money will just go to you. Is there a way to keep your other job part time? If I had bought it I wasn’t expecting to be able to draw a salary. I’ve been really thinking about you and….”
“I know. Don’t worry. I’ll make it. And you said the right thing. I wish we could give Evan a job, but I’ve thought about everything you said. I know there’s going to be months where I may get no paycheck. I tried to explain that to Evan, but he doesn’t understand.”
“Let me know if you need more….”
“No,” Ken said firmly. “I’ll be fine. And I’m better off than if you hadn’t invested with me. I have more savings left. Besides one of the part-timers is sure to move on within a year. Now you didn’t answer my question. How should I contact you?”
“I’ll be home in the mornings. I can call you in the evenings.” Julie shut down her computer and grabbed her coat. She gathered their pizza trash together and threw it in the wastebasket. Ken grabbed his fish box, and they walked to their cars together. She let Ken kiss her one last time before she got into her car.
Julie knew she loved Ken. She hated that she had to sneak around to see him, but she couldn’t stand to hear Thomas say one more bad thing about him. Julie was so glad Ken had responded to her offer as he did. It had been an impulse to suggest it, even though she had really wondered how he was going to make it.
Julie needed to know what Paul thought of Ken before she allowed herself to make any binding personal commitment. She couldn’t enter a marriage with all these doubts Thomas had planted. She needed a father or someone like Paul who could see clearly for her without all these extra emotions mixing up her logic. She’d seen so many girls make awful mistakes based on emotions. Her friend Nicole had really been hurt as a senior in high school. Her boyfriend had seemed so sincere until he got what he wanted. That was when Julie had vowed to always seek her father’s advice on men. Paul just had to approve.
Julie remembered bringing to her father each of the boys she had thought she had cared about. Her father used humor, but each of them had been found lacking. Sometimes she had been very disappointed, but she never questioned her father’s love for her or that he had her best interest at heart. He’d always buy her something afterward to ease her loss. The first aquarium had been one such purchase. Her thoughts began to disturb her. She finally fell into a fitful sleep.
“Julie, I know you were fond of the fellow, but someone better will come along, I promise,” her father said. “Never settle for second best. Your mother didn’t.”
“But I love Ken.”
Thomas’s face intruded over her father’s. “He’s just a thief, and you know it. I’m the one for you. Give up. You’ll never escape me.” And then his mouth loomed closer, his awful lips puckering.
“No. NO!” she screamed and jerked awake. Julie lay in bed sweating. She’d never had nightmares before. “Oh, Lord, please stop Thomas,” she whispered. “Please keep him away from my dreams. I can’t handle this anymore.
Katie came into the room. “Julie,” she whispered.
“Are you all right?”
“I just had a bad dream. I’m sorry. I didn’t make any noise, did I?”
“A loud no, like you were being tortured.” Katie sat on the edge of the bed. “You’re burning up. I think you have a fever. I told your grandmother you were looking sick all day.” Katie left and came back with aspirin and juice. “I was afraid this would happen,” Katie said. “You were doing too much. This always happens when you don’t get enough rest. You stay home tomorrow and sleep.”
Julie agreed, already dozing after taking the aspirin Katie had brought her. She wouldn’t have to see Thomas tomorrow. God had given her a reprieve.
Go to Chapter 14
© 2013, 1997 by Deborah K. Lauro. You may make one copy for personal use. To share, please direct friends to this website.