Flash Fiction Friday: The Friendship Contract Part 2

Brett knew from the moment Isabel ran away like a frightened kitten that she was the one for him.

Her fearful dark chocolate eyes pricked his heart. She’d obviously been hurt. He longed to comfort her and promise no one would ever hurt her again.

He would have to move slow to prove that he could be trusted—that he wouldn’t hurt her like those before him. That was fine with him. It would give them time to really get to know one another without the emotional complications.

He stood in Griffin Park by the water fountain watching for her.

There – the girl with chestnut hair pulled back into a pony tail, eyes darting around, hands sunk deep in her jacket pockets, shoulders raised giving her the appearance of a turtle cautiously peeking from its shell.

Her eyes connected with his. He smiled and waved.

When she was near, he took two steps and fell into stride next to her. “Good afternoon Isabel.” He pulled a tri-folded sheet of paper from his pocket and handed it to her.

She looked into his eyes, then took the paper, unfolded it and read it. Then her eyes met his again. “You really did it.”

“Of course I did. You said you wanted a contract … and now you have one.”

“Do you have a pen?”

He quirked an eyebrow at her.

“I need to add my signature. Do you have your copy with you? We should each have a copy with both our signatures … to make it official.”

“Of course.” He stifled a smile. He pulled another tri-folded sheet from his pocket, along with a pen. Things were off to a good start. He had predicted her need to make the contract “official”.

They stopped by a picnic table and she added her signature to her copy as well as to his. “You need to sign your own copy.” She looked at him, lips in a pinched line, as she handed his copy back to him.

He took the sheet and added his signature above hers, then refolded it and placed it, and the pen, back into his pocket.

They walked along the river that ran next to Griffin Park. Isabel kept her hands in her pockets. Brett’s fingers tingled with the desire to hold her hand in his. Remember, go slow. Don’t frighten her away.

They stopped to watch a couple sailboats float by on the breeze. “Have you ever been sailing, Isabel?”

She shook her head. “I … I can’t swim.”

He barely heard the words as she mumbled with her head down.

“You don’t have to know how to swim to go sailing.”

Her head whipped up and she stared at him through wide eyes.

“You can wear a life jacket. I wouldn’t let you fall overboard.”

Isabel shook her head, and they continued to walk.

They stopped at the park concession stand. Isabel ordered a cheeseburger, fries, and a coke, and promptly pulled money from her pocket to pay for her food.

Brett forced himself not to frown, then ordered his own cheeseburger, fries, and coke, and paid for his order.

They took their food and drinks to a picnic bench and sat down.

“Isabel, do you work?”

She finished chewing her bite of cheeseburger and swallowed before answering. “Yes, I am a freelance writer.”

“So you work from your home?”

She nodded. “Do you work?” Her eyes met his as she waited for his answer.

“Yes, I am an artist, and I teach art classes in my studio.”

He watched a spark light her eyes, but just as quickly as it came, it disappeared. “Do you like art?”

She nodded but did not meet his gaze.

“Would you like to see my studio?” He held his breath as he awaited her answer.

“Maybe someday.”

He released his breath, a bit deflated. Oh well, at least it hadn’t been a “no”.

When they finished their lunch, they continued their walk around the park. Upon returning to the fountain, Isabel said, “I need to get home.”

“Isabel, I enjoyed our time together today. I hope you did too. Should we meet at Mario’s Pizza Palace next week?”

She looked up at him and he’d have sworn the corners of her lips tipped up just a bit. “Yes.”

Then she turned and walked away.

He watched her until he couldn’t see her anymore, but she never looked back at him.

* * * * *

As weeks passed and turned into months, Brett’s heart longed for the day when Isabel would finally feel secure in their relationship. When she would truly know and understand that he wouldn’t hurt her—that she could trust him.

Through the months, she did start to open up. But they were baby steps.

His heart warmed and a smile stretched his lips as he remembered the first time she’d smiled at him. Then the first time he’d heard her laugh out loud.

It was their fourth visit to Mario’s and he wanted to make her smile again. “I read your texts the moment you send them to me, and the other day I received one of your texts. I was reading it, and I walked into a pole.”

Her laughter had bubbled forth like water from a spring and he loved the sound of it.

* * * * *

Today—the one year anniversary of the day they signed their “friendship contract”–they plan to have dinner at Mario’s Pizza Palace.

Brett’s gut was in knots. One year was a milestone and Isabel had opened up to him quite a bit. Tonight he’d be picking her up and they would drive together in his car. They’d done this about half a dozen times now. He’d held her hand each time they walked through the park for the past four months, but what did it mean to her?

His nerves were on edge the moment she got in the car. She chattered about her work on the way to Mario’s, but he only half listened. He parked the car and they walked into Mario’s hand-in-hand, his heart thumping like it wanted to break out of his chest.

They took a seat in a booth near the back of the restaurant. “So, what are we having tonight?”

She looked at him with a gleam in her eyes he’d never seen before. “How about spaghetti?” She giggled.

He grinned. “Are you serious?”

“No, but I’ll never forget the look on your face as I caught you slurping a noodle the last time.”

He chuckled. “That was the first time I ever heard you laugh.”

Isabel reached her hand across the table and touched his. “You know, you really have helped me during this past year.”

“I’m glad.” He gave her fingers a gentle squeeze.

“You know, I’ve been thinking about our relationship and our contract.”

He raised his eyebrows but didn’t say anything. He held his breath to hear what she would say next.

“I think it’s time for a change.”

Brett sat up, leaning harder on the table, every nerve and muscle in his body tensed.

Isabel slipped a hand beneath the table, reached into the back pocket of her jeans and pulled out a folded sheet of paper. She opened it and showed him her copy of their “friendship agreement”. She folded it again as her eyes held his gaze. Then she ripped the paper in half and in half again and again, until it was just a pile of small pieces on the table between them.

Brett’s heart pounded and his palms sweated, but his eyes were locked with hers.

“Brett, I think it’s time this relationship moved to the next step—something more than friendship.”

The breath he’d been holding burst from his mouth and he breathed normally again. “Are you sure?”

“As long as we can continue to take it one step at a time.”

Brett reached and brushed a thumb across her cheek. She clasped his hand and kissed his palm, and his heart leapt for joy. It would take a little more time, but one day he would make Isabel his wife.

Flash Fiction Friday: The Friendship Contract Part I

Isabel sat in the cafe, hands wrapped around her warm mug of tea, staring out the window at the rain. She struggled to get warm. She was chilled to the bone but supposed that was better than the numbness she’d felt for so long.

The raindrops were like the many tears she had shed. After so many failed relationships and so much heartache, she had become an empty shell.

“Would you mind if I sat here at your table?” A rich baritone voice interrupted her thoughts.

She looked up into the aqua colored eyes of a tall man with waves of black hair framing his ruggedly handsome face. Anxiety gripped her and she looked around the cafe–not an empty table anywhere. That must be why he was asking to sit at her table. She turned her eyes to his once again. “Um, yes, sure, you can sit here. I was just leaving.” She reached for her raincoat.

The man took the seat across from her. “Please, don’t leave because of me. You haven’t even finished your tea.” His eyes moved from her mug back to her face.

“It’s okay. I really wasn’t thirsty anyway.” She finished putting her arm in her raincoat, slung her purse strap over her shoulder, and picked up her umbrella. Then she strode to the cafe door and out into the rain, her heart thumping like a big bass drum in her chest.

* * *

Two days later, Isabel, arms full of books, tried to open the door to the same cafe.

“Here, let me get that for you.” A rich baritone voice spoke as an arm reached and the hand grabbed the door handle and opened it.

Isabel looked up into the same aqua eyes from two days ago and mumbled, “Thank you.”

The man smiled, revealing straight white teeth and deep dimples. “How nice to see you again. May I help you with those books?”

He reached to take the books from her arms, but Isabel turned away.

“It’s all right. I’ve got them.” She moved to put the books on a table, and after she did, she turned to move to the counter to order her tea and walked into the man with the baritone voice.

He looked at the spines on the stack of books. He murmured a couple of the titles aloud, “How to be Happy Alone; Single and Happy Life Journal; How to Overcome Loneliness”. He turned his eyes back to her, one eyebrow raised.

Heat crept up Isabel’s neck into her cheeks. She lowered her eyes and wished she could melt into the floor.

“My name’s Brett Hoover. Would you please allow me to join you at this table this afternoon?”

Isabel straightened, pulled her shoulders back, and lifted her chin. “Look, Mr. Hoover, I don’t know what it is you want, but whatever it is, I’m not interested. I just want to be left alone.” She tried to step around him.

He moved to block her escape. “Please, miss, I don’t want anything other than to share a table and some conversation … maybe help you if I can.” His tone was soft and gentle.

Isabel was at a loss for words. Help her? He wanted to help her? Just what did he think he could do? Brett didn’t move. He was waiting for a response. Isabel resigned herself to the fact that there was no way to avoid this guy. She shrugged her shoulders. He could share her table and he could talk, but that didn’t mean she had to talk.

They went to the counter and placed their orders — something a bit more substantial than just coffee and tea. Then they returned to their table, and Isabel quickly whisked the stack of books from the table and placed them on the floor by her chair.

“I’ve introduced myself, but I didn’t catch your name?”

Isabel studied him for a minute. What did he want? But all she saw in his eyes was kindness. “My name is Isabel. Isabel Tomson.”

“Well, Isabel Tomson, you seem to be lonely and unhappy. Would you like a friend?”

“A friend?” She wrinkled her brow.

Brett raised a hand. “I swear … a friend. No strings attached, and if you don’t like talking with me or meeting me in public places, you can tell me to get lost at any time.”

“Why?”

Now it was Brett’s turn to wrinkle his brow. “What do you mean, ‘why'”?

She dropped her eyes to his hands that rested on the table. No wedding ring. “So, you’re single?”

He nodded.

“Why do you want to be my friend?”

“Because you need one.”

“That’s it? Because I need one?”

Again, he nodded. “What do you say, Isabel? Will you give it a try?”

“What’s in it for you?”

“Ah, I see. You’ve been hurt. A man, or maybe more than one.”

Isabel sat back in her chair and met Brett’s gaze. “More than one. Enough men to make me distrust all men because they’re not interested unless there’s something in it for them.” She held his gaze, and her eyes challenged him.

“I am so sorry you’ve been hurt and that it has caused you such distrust in men. But my offer is real and honest. I just want to be your friend … help you learn to trust again. If you like, I’ll put the offer on paper and we can both sign it.” He smiled.

His smile was genuine. “Like a contract?” Isabel quirked an eyebrow at him.

They were interrupted momentarily, when the barista brought their food and drinks. When the barista walked away, Brett nodded. “Like a contract.”

Isabel picked up her fork and stabbed some lettuce and a cherry tomato. She raised it but before putting it into her mouth, said, “I’ll take the contract.”

 

 

 

Flash Fiction Friday: The “Block” Button Part 2

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Photo by Justin Snyder Photo on Unsplash

The “Block” Button – Part 2
by Kelly F. Barr

One week after pushing the “block” button, Theresa found that her credit card had been charged a couple thousand dollars she hadn’t spent. When she called about the charges, she wasn’t able to have them all returned, so the way she understood it, she was now responsible for $1500 she didn’t have.

She knew how those charges had occurred. It had to be him. I guess pushing the block button was the right thing to do. How could he say all those sweet, loving words and take advantage of me like this? The world seemed to have a lot more cruel people than when she was a kid, or maybe it only seemed that way because now she was an adult and more aware of people’s actions. Well, she’d gotten that credit card canceled so he wouldn’t be charging anything else.

December arrived and Theresa dreaded the coming Christmas. Christmas was supposed to be for spending time with loved ones but she was alone. All she could think about were the “what ifs”–What if he hadn’t been a scammer? What if he’d really loved her? What if he’d actually come to town to see her?

She walked through town, cold and alone, hands shoved deep into her coat pockets as couples walked by holding hands, talking, and smiling. She barely looked in the shop windows all decorated with colored lights, Christmas trees, and Santa Clauses. As she approached the steps to her apartment building, she noticed a man standing next to the stairs blowing onto his clasped hands trying to warm them. Would it be safe to enter her building or should she pass like she didn’t live there?

The wind picked up and stung her face. She’d have to chance it. She had nowhere else to go and it was too cold to keep walking. She raised her shoulders, ducking deeper into her coat, and kept her head down as she passed the man.

“Theresa?”

She stopped, turned to look up at the guy. She’d never seen him before. How did he know her name? “Who are you?”

“Roger Altland.” He stared at her, studying her face.

It was him. He was here. But she’d blocked him. “How did you find me?”

“It wasn’t difficult with today’s technology. After all, you’d told me the name of your town and state.”

“What are you doing here?”

“I miss you. You blocked me so I couldn’t contact you through email anymore, and when I went back to Facebook to find you, I couldn’t find your account.”

“I deleted it.”

“Listen, it’s cold out here. Can we go somewhere warm and talk?”

“What’s to talk about? You scammed me and now I have a $1500 credit card bill I can’t afford to pay.”

“I understand you’re hurt and angry, but could you please give me a chance?”

“I gave you your chance and you used it to stab me in the back.” She turned and started up the steps.

“Please. I know what I did was wrong and I’d like to make it right. Besides, I couldn’t stop thinking about you. You were the first woman I attempted to scam with a romance scam. After you blocked me I couldn’t stop thinking about you or the things we’d said to each other. I really did develop feelings of love toward you … please … can we talk?”

She turned and looked him in the eye. “Love doesn’t stay where there is no trust.” She turned and hurried into the apartment building.

Flash Fiction Friday: The “Block” Button

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Photo by Sergey Zolkin on Unsplash

The “Block” Button
by Kelly F. Barr

Theresa pushed the “block” button to block his messages and felt her heart tear in two. All her friends, and her own head, told her this was the right thing to do, but would her heart … could her heart … survive it?

Yeah, she’d heard all the warnings: “Don’t make friends with strangers on the internet”, reminiscent of the “Don’t talk to strangers” rule her parents had taught her when she was a young child. But didn’t everyone do it? Wasn’t it called socializing?

Maybe, but you weren’t supposed to lose your heart, and that is what she had done. He was so sweet; so romantic. He’d said he loved her.

Had there been red flags? Yeah, small ones at first that her heart brushed aside. Then the red flags began to occur more often—“buy a $100 Amazon gift card and send me a photo of the card and receipt”; “can I have the username and password to your credit card account”? She’d fulfilled a couple of these requests, but she wasn’t made of money.

Then he’d sent her money. So was he really a bad guy?

Theresa got scared and changed all her usernames and passwords to keep him out because of all the warnings she kept hearing in her head. Today, pushing the “block” button was her last act to shut him out. She was listening to her head while her heart shattered, leaving an incredible ache in her chest.

He’d promised he’d never let her go, said he’d fight for her.

Now she wondered, would he … could he? Would he come and find her, declare his love and propose to her as he’d promised?

Or had pushing the “block” button not only severed their connection, but also left him devastated? He had told her he had no one else but her in the world. Was that true?

Unbearable guilt and pain filled her chest. Though she had never met him face-to-face, he’d made her feel more loved than anyone else ever had.

Had pushing that “block” button protected her from someone she needed protection from, or had it shut out her knight in shining armor?

Flash Fiction Friday: “Trusting Hunter”

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Photo by Patrik Chiminec on Unsplash

Trusting Hunter
by Kelly F. Barr

 

Maddie walked along the riverfront, alone again, story of her life. She couldn’t figure out if there was something wrong with all the men in the world or if it was her. She veered off and entered the park, but it wasn’t long until she was wishing she hadn’t as she saw couples holding hands, talking, and laughing. They all looked so happy and comfortable.

It must be her—with all her fears and insecurities—who could ever earn her trust? Maddie cursed all those who had hurt her in the past. It had begun with her parents, then boys in high school, and finally grown men. Maybe she was better off alone. But how could she convince her heart?

She sat on a park bench and sighed. Maddie didn’t believe in “happily ever after”. She’d seen too much real life for that. Relationships took work—real work, and if both people didn’t put in their share of the work, the relationship would fall apart. She just wanted to find someone willing to work with her, to treat her like she was the most important person in their life. Was that too much to ask?

“Do you mind if I sit here?”

A gravelly male voice startled her. Maddie turned to find a man in faded blue jeans and a black t-shirt with disheveled dark brown hair standing at the other end of the bench. She shook her head and the gentleman sat down.

“Are you okay?” He reached into his right jeans pocket and pulled out a white handkerchief. “You can use this. I promise it’s clean.”

Maddie wrinkled her brow, then lifted her left hand and placed her fingers on her cheek. It was wet. She hadn’t even realized she was crying. She swiped the tears away. “No, thank you.” A white handkerchief. He really has a clean, white handkerchief. She didn’t think any men carried hankies anymore.

“Let me guess … relationship problems or one recently ended.”

Maddie raised an eyebrow and frowned.

“I’m sorry. It’s just so common anymore. The dating pool lacks good character. People are too self-absorbed in today’s world. It’s tough to find someone who cares about the wants and needs of another.”

Where had this man come from? Maddie remained silent.

He smiled at her. “I’m Hunter Winters. Would you like to grab a cup of coffee? There’s a nice café just a block from here. If you need someone to talk to, I’m a good listener.”

Maddie was taken aback. Should she even consider a man with the name “Hunter”? Why would he want to listen to the sob story of a total stranger? Yet, something about his offer was very appealing, and he didn’t seem threatening at all. She continued to consider him.

He stood up and reached out his hand. “Come on, what d’ya say? Maybe you’ll feel better after a good latte and a listening, nonjudgmental ear from someone who’s been where you are.”

Maddie smiled, took his hand, and stood. If Hunter was feeding her a line, it was definitely the most unique one she’d ever heard. “That’s the best offer I’ve had in a long time.”

Hunter smiled and, still holding her hand, led the way out of the park.

Flash Fiction Friday: Making a Better Match

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Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

Making a Better Match

by Kelly F. Barr

Sandy, the barista at the Coffee Bean Café, watched as the mismatched couple came in for their weekly coffee date. The girl, Tara, was always dressed in the latest fashions, her perfectly coiffed golden hair never had a single strand out of place, and her manicured nails always appeared freshly painted. She took a seat at a table for two by the window, while the guy, Blaze, came to the counter to order their drinks.

Blaze, the complete opposite of Tara, always wore jeans—well worn and with holes in the thigh areas. His black t-shirts often boasted “Harley Davidson” or some rock band. His hair was brown, thick, and hung to his shoulders, and often showed signs of his fingers having run through it. His chocolate brown eyes and slightly crooked smile made Sandy’s heart flip.

“Good afternoon, Blaze. What can I get for you today?” Sandy greeted him.

“Uh, a butterscotch cappuccino made with almond milk and a Hazelnut coffee, black.”

“Coming right up.” As Sandy made the drinks, she couldn’t help but wonder how these two got together.

She returned to the counter and handed the drinks to Blaze. “Have a nice day.” She smiled, and he flashed one of his crooked smiles at her, causing her heart to skip a beat. She glanced at the table, where Tara awaited Blaze’s return.

Tara was fully engrossed in her smart phone, her fingers flying on its keyboard. When Blaze reached the table and set her cappuccino before her, she didn’t even acknowledge him. Sandy sighed. If Blaze was her boyfriend, she’d never ignore him.

A couple weeks later, Sandy couldn’t wait for Blaze and Tara’s arrival. There was going to be a biker show in town on Saturday, featuring lots of motorcycles. She was sure Blaze would know about it, and she was determined to mention it in conversation.

Each time the café door opened, Sandy’s gaze moved in that direction. Finally, Blaze and Tara entered. Tara, as usual, plopped into a chair by the window, and Blaze approached the counter.

“Hey Blaze, did you hear about the biker show that’s going to be in town this Saturday?”

His eyes lit up and he looked at her as if seeing her for the first time. “Yeah, it’s gonna be great! You into bikes?”

“I like to go for rides, but I don’t have one of my own … not sure I want my own.”

Blaze glanced over his shoulder toward the table where Tara sat. “Do you have to work Saturday?”

“No, I don’t usually work Saturdays because I’m here all day Monday through Friday.”

“Would you be interested in going to the show with me? And, maybe we can go for a ride after?”

Sandy glanced over at Tara, who remained oblivious to what was going on at the counter, still engaged in her phone. She looked back to Blaze. “Are you sure? I mean, what about Tara?”

Blaze leaned toward her and spoke in a low tone. “She’s not really into bikes … or anything else that I like for that matter.”

Sandy raised her eyebrows.

“I guess you’re wondering what I’m doing with her?”

“The thought had crossed my mind.”

She’s great looking and some of my friends dared me to ask her out, figuring I didn’t stand a chance. Apparently she likes what she calls “bad boys” and her parents don’t approve, which seems to make me more appealing to her.”

Sandy frowned. “That’s sad, but she doesn’t seem all that interested in you.”

“Yeah, well, I get that, and I’ve been thinking it’s time I moved on.”

Sandy smiled at him, then turned and prepared his drink order. She returned to the counter a few minutes later and handed him the drinks.

“I’ll see ya Saturday? Should I just meet you out front here?”

As he took the cups from her, his fingers brushed hers, and a jolt shot up her arm. “That would be great! I look forward to it.”

Sandy had such a good time Saturday. Blaze told her everything he knew about every motorcycle they admired at the bike show. After about an hour of walking around, he reached for her hand and held it in his until they finished exploring the exhibits. He bought her a burger, fries, and a Coke at the food stand and they found a picnic table in the park, where they sat to eat.

What do you like besides motorcycles?” Blaze asked between bites of his burger.

“I like some of the bands whose logos I’ve seen you wear on t-shirts.”

Blaze grinned. “Maybe we’ll have to attend a concert together. Your name, Sandy, reminds me of the beach. Do you like going to the beach?”

“Yes.”

As they finished their meal, Blaze looked into Sandy’s eyes. “Are you ready to go for a ride?”

She grinned up at him. “Absolutely.”

Flash Fiction Friday: Until Death Do We Part

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Photo by Mustapha Muhammed on Unsplash

Until Death Do We Part

by Kelly F. Barr

Jillian sat on the damp concrete surrounded by darkness and the musty odor of wet earth. Even without the blindfold, she could see nothing. She walked around, hands groping along the concrete walls in search of a door. She found one—cold steel and locked from the outside.

Stupid, stupid, stupid! Jillian knew better than to converse with strange men on social media, but she was so sick of being stuck in a marriage in name only. Oh, it hadn’t started out that way, but after the first five years, things changed. Her husband became harsh—demanding, critical of everything she did. She could never please him no matter how hard she tried. A few months ago, she’d grown tired of trying.

She had longed for someone to pay attention to her, treat her kindly, have conversations with her, and show her some affection. That’s how she’d fallen to temptation, and ultimately, into this basement … hole in the ground … whatever it was.

Conrad Brandt, if that was even his real name, seemed so sweet when he’d sent his first message through MyCorner, the latest popular social media site. She posted a couple pictures of herself on her MyCorner page.

Conrad’s first message: “Hello, beautiful lady.”

Jillian’s heart had skipped a beat as she read that line. His profile picture exhibited a handsome, aristocratic-looking gentleman with dark brown eyes and a cleft chin.

Jillian’s response: “Hello.”

Things went on from there: Conrad took an interest in Jillian’s work and things she liked to do for fun, and he continued to flatter her.

Then the conviction hit her. The Holy Spirit speaking to her heart. Jillian, you know this is wrong. You’re a married woman. You made a commitment—until death do you part.

But she liked how Conrad’s interest and flattering words made her feel, so she suppressed the conviction—ignored it. Now “until death do you part” was too close for comfort.

How had he found her? She’d never given Conrad her address or phone number. She’d kept everything limited to MyCorner’s messaging board. He must be some kind of computer hacker.

What was he going to do with her? To her? So far, he’d kidnapped her, blindfolded her, and dumped her in this cold, dark room. She knew it was him by the use of his pet name for her, “Beauty”.

A sudden pang of terror shot through her heart. “Beauty”. Did that make him “the Beast”? This didn’t feel like a “happily ever after” fairy tale. She trembled and her stomach groaned. How long had she been here? It was impossible to tell as no reprieve from the darkness came. There were no windows in this prison.

Had Lucas noticed she was gone? Did he care? Would he look for her? How long until he realized she might be in trouble? After all, none of her clothes were missing from the closet.

Metal clinked against metal and a key turned in the lock. Jillian rose to her feet and felt her way to the door. If she could get there and press herself against the wall, maybe she could slip out the door behind Conrad when he entered the room.

The door opened outward and a bright beam of light sliced through the darkness, scanning until it came to rest on Jillian, who used her arm to shield her eyes from the flashlight’s glare.

“Ah, there you are my beauty. I’m sorry these accommodations aren’t worthy of you, but it won’t be much longer. Then you will be surrounded by the luxury and comforts you deserve.”

“Wh … what are you g… going to do with me?”

“Beauty, you aren’t afraid of me, are you? Surely you know I mean you no harm. I have rescued you from the beast who held you.” He reached out and brushed a lock of her brown hair from her face.

“Here, I’ve brought you some food.” He handed her a bag—McDonald’s—not exactly a meal for a princess.

Footsteps sounded on wooden stairs and a beam of light shown from behind Conrad.

“Let the girl go.” A deep, commanding voice ordered.

Jillian spotted the red dot shining on Conrad’s chest, a split second before he grabbed her, pulled a knife from his back pocket, and held the blade to her throat.

“Let me out of here, or I’ll slit her throat wide open.”

Jillian could now see the man on the stairs—a S.W.A.T. officer. There were more officers above them. Apparently she’d been held in an underground bunker.

With eyes opened wide, she whimpered. Would this be her “’til death do we part”?

A shot sounded, the knife clattered from Conrad’s hand to the ground, and Jillian was jerked backward with Conrad’s falling body. Conrad hit the cement floor of the bunker and acted as a cushion for Jillian, except for her right elbow hitting the concrete.

“Jillian!”

That was Lucas’s voice, but she couldn’t see him. She couldn’t get out from under Conrad’s arm, and he wasn’t moving. She held her breath to see if she could sense his, but even his chest was still—no rise and fall.

“Sir, stay back. We’ll get her and bring her up to you.” The same deep, commanding voice instructed Lucas.

Then the man with the deep voice was kneeling next to her. “Ma’am, are you hurt?”

The tears started flowing down Jillian’s cheeks. “Just … just my right elbow.”

“Okay, well, I’m going to remove that arm from around you and help you up.”

She nodded as the tears broke into full-fledged sobs.

The S.W.A.T. officer helped her up, wrapped his arm around her back, and guided her up the steps. She was sobbing with full-blown hiccups when she stepped onto the ground above the bunker, the S.W.A.T. officer’s arm still supporting her.

“Jillian!” Lucas rushed toward her.

The officer raised his hand to stop Lucas. “Sir, she’s in shock. She needs medical attention. She needs a gentle touch.”

“Of course. I understand. She’s my wife!”

“I know, sir. That’s why I’ll help her over to the ambulance crew. You’re too emotional right now, sir. Take some time to calm down. She needs you to be strong for her.”

The officer led Jillian to the ambulance crew, Lucas trailing. A man in an ambulance uniform placed a blanket around Jillian’s shoulders and a woman helped her sit just inside the ambulance. The pair checked Jillian for injuries. When she flinched and cried out as they touched her right elbow, the woman gently probed it as Jillian gritted her teeth. Her sobs subsided to sniffles and an occasional hiccup. The woman said, “I don’t think your elbow is broken, just badly bruised. I’m going to put a sling on it, to cradle it in front of you, then I want you to lie down on the litter to rest for a while, okay?”

Jillian widened her eyes again, and Lucas stepped closer to the ambulance woman. “Would it be okay if I sat with her while she rests and, maybe, hold her hand? I’m her husband.”

The woman looked at Jillian who nodded, then turned to Lucas. “That would be fine, but we need to keep her warm and calm. That will help bring her out of the shock.”

“I understand.”

The woman helped Jillian into the back of the ambulance and onto the litter, then she climbed down, and Lucas moved to sit by Jillian’s side. He took her hand in his and stroked the back of it with his thumb. When he looked at her face, she offered a small smile.

“Jillian, I’m so sorry. I know I haven’t been the kind of husband I should be. When I saw that man stuff you in that van and drive off, I was terrified.”

Jillian tried to rise. “You saw?”

Lucas gently pressed her shoulder to keep her flat. “That’s how we found you. I called the police. I thought I’d lost you, and I realized how much you truly mean to me. I hope you can forgive me and give me another chance. I promise I’ll be a better, more attentive, loving husband.” A tear slipped down his cheek.

Jillian squeezed his hand and tears slid down her cheeks as well. Why did it sometimes take tragedy to bring about lasting change? She saw love and concern in Lucas’s eyes again, for the first time in thirty years. She offered a silent prayer of thanksgiving to the Lord, for protecting her, for bringing about Lucas’s transformation, for not allowing this to be their “until death do we part”.