ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
After working several years as research chemist, Paula Wiseman was blessed with the opportunity to stay home with her children and follow the writer’s path. Her bestselling Covenant of Trust Series, including Contingency, Indemnity and Precedent was recognized by Indie Excellence Awards, a Readers Favorite Gold, and Next Generation Indie Book Awards, and featured on Lifetime Television. When she isn’t working on new projects, Paula blogs on matters of life and faith at www.paulawiseman.com.
Visit the author’s website.
SHORT BOOK DESCRIPTION:
Doug Bolling lost his wife of twenty years just as their stormy marriage was beginning to thrive, and he bitterly blames God. He tries to reconnect with his son, but it seems Mark is only interested if the relationship comes wrapped in religion. Mark claims he’s just following God when he moves his family, including Doug’s grandsons, further away, first to pastor, then to attend seminary. With frustrated resignation, Doug turns his attention to building a new life and a new home for himself and interior designer, Cassandra Grayson. The conflict erupts as Mark is preparing to leave for the mission field in Kenya. He delivers an ultimatum, cutting off all contact between his kids and their grandfather. God may have ripped away his wife and his son, but Doug draws the line at his grandchildren. Mark’s attempt to force him to choose between the woman he loves and the grandkids he adores, drives Doug to one fateful desperate act, even if it means destroying his relationship with his son.
List Price: $15.99
Paperback: 390 pages
Publisher: Mindstir Media (July 12, 2012)
AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:
SIXTEEN YEARS AGOThursday, July 29
Doug Bolling clutched the small bag of cookies in his left hand. His right hand rested on the door handle to his wife’s hospital room. No matter how many times he’d done this, it never got any easier.
He took a deep breath, pushed the door open slowly, and stepped inside. Images flickering across the screen of the muted television gave the room its only light. Judy’s eyes fluttered open as he got closer, and she gave him her best smile. “Hey, Babe,” he whispered, and leaned down to kiss her, wishing her cheeks were still full with the almost babyish roundness they used to have.
“You just missed the doctor.” She pulled at the bedrails and managed to prop herself up.
“There was a line at Schnuck’s.” He held the bag up for her to see.
“What’d you bring?” She stretched her arm forward, revealing her narrow wrists. Would she have enough strength to hold the bag?
“Those cookies. The white chocolate and macadamia nut ones.”
“Bless your heart.”
She labored to open the bag, and he fought the urge to do it for her.
She inhaled deeply. “They smell wonderful. I can’t wait to have one.”
“Why can’t you have one now?”
“I’m not hungry yet. I’d rather be hungry.”
“You want me to set them on the table?”
“No, I want them close.” She held out her hand, and he cradled it in his. “Almost as close as I want you.”
“So what’d the doctor say?”
Her smiled faded and she hesitated. Not good. “He’s sending me home, Doug.”
Home. Not “home” home. Home to die. “There’s not anything—?”
She shook her head. “He suggested some, uh, some hospice care providers.”
“How, how much—” He swallowed and tried again. “How much time?”
Her gentle smile returned. “He’s too slippery to give me anything definite. Christmas is probably, I mean, Christmas was his best-case estimate. He said I should think in terms of weeks . . . not months. I’m sorry.”
The grief in her eyes tore at him most of all. “Don’t be sorry.”
“I hate for you to have to go through this.”
“Me? Don’t worry about me. I’m a tough guy.”
“The toughest,” she said, and he felt the slightest squeeze. “I have a request.” She raised her eyes to his. “I want to be the one to tell Mark.”
He nodded. She’d do it better than he would anyway. He hooked his boot around the leg of the bedside chair and dragged it closer without ever letting go of her hand. Home. Hospice. Christmas. They knew it was close. But hearing it, having a doctor pronounce that . . .”Are you afraid?” He hoped she’d say yes, because he was terrified.
“No. I don’t have any pain, really.”
“I mean to die.” He regretted the words as soon as he heard himself say them. He shifted in the chair. “I shouldn’t have said that,” he mumbled.
“It won’t be as frightening if we talk about it.”
Which meant she knew he was terrified, so she would pretend she was, too. “But you’re not scared.”
“You remember when you asked me to marry you?”
“Like it was yesterday. I think it was just yesterday.”
“Seems like it. My parents were so worried. All they could see was this punk who barely graduated high school.”
“They still see that.”
She smiled and squeezed his hand again. “They never heard you say that you’d take care of me, and that you’d never, ever leave me.” She twisted and pulled herself up a little straighter. “I know this makes no sense to you, but God’s made those same promises to me, so I’m not afraid. I trusted you. I trust Him.”
He dropped his head and hoped she couldn’t see his jaw clench in the low light. The God she trusted was a fairy tale, a happy story to help her sleep better at night. A real God, a good God wouldn’t kill a wife and mother in the prime of her life.
“I see that line of discussion is a dead end.”
He smiled at the spark of attitude. “I’m glad your, uh, your faith helps you.”
“I wish it helped you.”
“It does. When I see you optimistic and brave and—” He had to look away again. If he didn’t shut up, he’d lose it in front of her. “So where’s that doctor? I need to get you out of here.”
For Mark Bolling, three-thirty was the best part of the day, and his favorite thing about working for Bolling Developers. He didn’t hate construction work exactly, even though he missed the air conditioning at his grandfather’s car dealership. His dad was rarely on-site and the guys were okay to work with. He liked being able to see progress when he left every day.
His mother smiled with quiet approval any time he mentioned working for his dad. That was the main reason he was doing it. Plus, it was her idea. Right after she got sick last summer, she suggested—no, insisted—he ask his dad for a job. His father said, “So help me, if you pull an attitude and embarrass me, you’ll wish you were shoveling horse barns for a living. Am I clear?”
“You need work boots. Pack your own lunch and be ready to leave by six-thirty in the morning.”
That was his orientation talk.
The first two days she was in the hospital this time around, it looked like this was her last trip, but she rallied once more. He planned to grab a quick shower then spend the evening there with her.
His father’s truck was in the driveway. That meant his parents were home—both of them. They’d sent her home. Great!
The stillness in the house sucked that optimism right out of him. He walked as carefully and quietly as his clunky, steel-toed boots would allow, checking the living room and the kitchen. Outside? He peeked out the back door and saw his dad fussing with the charcoal grill.
Charcoal. The guy was a million-dollar-a-year homebuilder, but he was too cheap for a gas grill. Not only that, they still lived in the same three-bedroom place he built the first year Bolling Developers was in business, and he still drove the pick-up truck he bought that year.
Mark slipped off his boots and left them by the back door, then he took the stairs two at a time, doubly anxious to talk to his mother. He heard the television. Hopefully that meant she was awake. He knocked gently as he pushed the door open. “Mom?”
“Mark? Is it that late already?” Her voice was soft, but her eyes shone. She reached for the remote and clicked off the television set. “Come and sit with me and tell me about your day.”
“I’d rather hear about yours.” He eased himself down onto the edge of the bed.
“Oh, it was about what I expected.” She tugged at the sleeve of her warm-up jacket, pulling it toward her wrist. The sicker she got, the more athletic her preferred attire became. She thought the bulky clothes hid things better. She was mistaken.
Her eyes fluttered, hardly daring to rest on his. “I shouldn’t have to go back.”
“No more treatments?” he asked, knowing exactly what that meant.
She shook her head. “The doctor said . . . well . . . his primary concern from here on out . . . is that I’m comfortable.”
Here on out. The death sentence. The air in the room thickened until it was like trying to breathe syrup. Hot, smothering syrup.
She put a hand on his knee and winked with an impish grin. “I can have all the morphine I want.”
He had to smile at her. “How did . . . ?” Mark swallowed hard and wiped his eyes. “How’s Dad?”
Her smile faded. “That’s what hurts me. Watching him.” She smoothed the comforter. “He’s so lost. He needs you more than he will ever admit, more than he understands even.”
His father didn’t need anyone, least of all him. “Excuse my cynicism.”
She took his hand and spoke with urgency. “I want you to remember this when I—” She shook her head gently. “Your dad, he carries everything inside, and he’s going to need someone he can vent to. Someone who can take it.”
“You mean someone to yell at?”
“Yell at, yell to. It’s all the same to him.”
“Then I’ve been there for him for years.”
“I’m not explaining this right,” she said. “There’s much more to your dad than the blustering guy in the hardhat. Give him a chance. Be patient and he’ll come around. Promise me you will.”
“Have you given him this speech?” he asked, carefully avoiding the promise.
“Not yet. He’s on my schedule.” She smiled. “If only I could have a few more years with him.” She blinked away her own tears. “He just needs someone who will love him.”
She wanted, expected, him to be the one—a worshipful son to take the place of the smitten wife. He was in so much trouble.
Doug sat at the kitchen table sorting through the latest stack of bills. Doctor, doctor, hospital, ambulance, radiology. What a mess. He wrote check after check, stuffed them in the envelopes, and dropped the keep this portion in the box at his feet. He didn’t have time for this. He should be in there with Judy. Christmas. Christmas was only five months away. He couldn’t be ready in five months.
If she didn’t eat any more than she did today, he didn’t see how she could last that long. She used to have this metabolism most people would give anything to have. She could eat whatever she wanted, and still keep a cheerleader’s figure. He teased her about out-eating him.
She was never what anyone would call beautiful. Judy was cute. Petite and youthful, she never seemed to age. She’d never let herself get old, she said. Terminal cancer took care of that for her.
Mark strode into the kitchen and pulled a glass from the cabinet. “She’s asleep.” The teenager got a two-liter bottle from the refrigerator and it hissed loudly when he twisted off the cap. “You want a Coke or something?”
“No.” Doug laid down his pen and pushed his chair back from the table. He’d dreaded this conversation all day, especially the part where he’d ask the center of the universe to relinquish his position. “Listen, I think you need to sit out this semester coming up.”
“Why?” Mark gulped the Coke, then set the glass on the counter, clinking it against the sink.
“Really? I have to explain this to you? Your mother is dying, Mark. It’ll be a miracle if she lives past Christmas. Don’t you think you belong here with her instead of some frat house somewhere?”
“I’m not even gonna respond to that.”
Doug had seen the same condescending sneer on Judy’s face more times than he cared to remember.
“Mom specifically said not to drop out of school. She told me to go on with my life.”
“I bet she did,” Doug muttered.
“Fine! You want me to stay home? I’ll stay.”
“Oh no. I’m not taking the blame for bullying you into dropping out of college.”
“You bully me into everything else.”
“And Mommy always rescues you, doesn’t she?”
“Again, I’m not going to respond. You’re just ranting at me, and I’ve learned not to try to reason with you when you’re like this.”
“Right now, yes.”
Doug jerked himself out of the chair and stood inches away from his son. The boy, the man now, straightened himself until he stood half a head taller than Doug, with a look of annoyed indifference he inherited directly from Judy’s father.
Then Doug stopped himself. He waved his hand and stepped back. Mark couldn’t understand, and he didn’t have the strength or the words to explain it.
“Go ahead and say it, Dad.”
This time it wasn’t a challenge. Mark was inviting him, the way Judy did. Maybe the long talks with his mother were paying off. Maybe he was listening.
“Just . . . you better pray to that God of yours that you never have to stand by and watch your wife . . . watch her go through something like this.”
“He’s your God, too.”
“I have no God.”
“That’s your problem.”
Tuesday, August 3
“What do you think you’re doing?” Doug leaned against the kitchen doorframe, his arms crossed against his chest as he watched his wife rummage through the kitchen cabinets.
“Making your dinner.” Judy hugged a skillet close to her body.
“You have no business—” He gently took the skillet from her hand and set it on the counter.
She huffed like an angry teenager. “Will you please, please, let me do as much as I can for as long as I can?”
“But you shouldn’t be wasting your energy—”
“It’s not wasting it if I’m doing what I enjoy.”
“You enjoy making my dinner? Since when?”
She pulled the skillet toward the stovetop. “All right, all right. There have been times when making dinner was not my favorite thing.”
“Like the first nineteen years of our marriage,” Doug teased.
“Get out the spaghetti, smart aleck.”
“That’s more like it.” He handed her the box of pasta and watched her brown the ground beef. He wasn’t joking, though. She had begrudged everything she did for him until she got sick.
“You know, this reminds me of the time we were at Disney World and Mickey or Goofy or somebody sat down beside Mark and begged for his spaghetti.” She smiled as she stirred. “He wouldn’t walk close to the characters any more after that. Do you remember?”
“Oh, sure you do. Mark was about . . . five . . .”
“Judy, I wasn’t there. You and your parents took Mark. I couldn’t get away.”
“That’s not fair.”
She sighed with a heavy sadness. “Why did we treat each other that way for so long?”
“We were young. We didn’t know what we were doing.”
“I was selfish, Doug.” She struggled to pull a heavy pot from the cabinet, so he steadied it for her. “I married you because it infuriated my father.” She slid the pot into the sink and turned the water on. “You deserved a woman who loved you for you.”
“I have one.”
“But I’m not gonna be around to finish the job.” She turned off the faucet and held out a hand. He slipped in beside her and put an arm around her waist. She was so thin now. “Can you forgive me?”
“For being such a horrible wife.”
“That’s crazy.” He dropped his hand and stepped away. “You were, I mean, are, you are a perfect wife.”
“Now who’s crazy.” She arched an eyebrow at him, and he smiled. “I know better.”
“At least we had the last couple of years when things were good. Some people don’t have that.”
“It has been good, hasn’t it?”
He nodded and lifted the pot from the sink, then set it on the stove for her. “I think we both learned what was really important.”
“I learned what love was. I couldn’t give you what I didn’t have.”
Doug braced himself. He recognized the set-up for another Christianity commercial from her.
She wrinkled her brow at him. “All right. I won’t say anything else.”
“No, say it. I don’t want to leave anything unsaid between us.”
She faced him and spoke with urgency. “You’re a good man, Doug. You’ve made your own way. You work hard, and you have great integrity. I love all those things about you.”
He smiled, trying to diffuse the heaviness in the moment. “Tell me more.”
“Those things aren’t going to be good enough. The only thing, the only thing that scares me is an eternity without you. Mark finally came around, and I pray every day you will, too . . . and I pray I’ll get to see it.”
He saw the tears in her eyes, and guilt washed over him. Why couldn’t he simply say he believed whatever she wanted him to, make her happy, let her have peace these last few months?
Because he couldn’t lie to her.
“Babe, here’s how it looks to me. God . . . I don’t trust Him. He could fix all this and He won’t. He’s holding out.”
“But He’s not like that!”
“Not to you.”
“Let me find somebody who can explain things better than I can—”
“I don’t want to talk about it with somebody else. I only talk about it with you because—”
“Because I’m dying. You’re patronizing me.”
“I’m not patronizing you. I’m trying to be supportive.” He sighed deeply at the hurt in her eyes. “Just save your religion talk for Mark.”
“You hate that, too.”
“I don’t. ” He turned his back to her, paced away, and took a deep breath. If she saw his eyes, she’d know he was lying.
“You resent every minute I spend with him.”
It was a soft declaration, not an accusation, but she still knew how to cut into his very soul. He faced her again. “Can we compromise on this?”
“Can we?” The light in her eyes faded, and her hair seemed to gray before his eyes. She’d spent all her energy on him.
“Talk about your religion, your faith. Tell me all about it, but I don’t want to hear how much I need it. No hard sells, no sob stories, nothing.”
“And you won’t give Mark a hard time?”
“Mark and I will be fine.”
Wednesday, September 22
Mark met his father at the top of the stairs outside his mother’s room, and to his utter surprise, his dad held out a hand. Mark shook it as grieving fear took hold of him. “Is she . . . ?”
“They said it was a matter of days now.” His father glanced back toward the door. “She’s on a lot of medication. She’s kind of in and out.”
Mark nodded. “You tell her I was coming?”
He shook his head. “She didn’t want me to call you. Afraid your schoolwork would suffer.”
As if he had anything more important to do.
“I’m gonna grab her a glass of water and throw a load of her things in the laundry. Did you get the mail on your way in?”
“It’s on the table.”
“Thanks.” His dad stepped around him and headed down the stairs.
“We’ll get through this.”
His father shook his head and shuffled into the kitchen.
Mark pushed the bedroom door open, and his breath caught when he saw his mother, ashen-faced and motionless, propped up against a pillow. “Mom?”
“Mark? It’s not Friday, is it?”
“No, it’s Wednesday.”
“Your dad doesn’t listen.” She managed a smile.
“I’m glad he called me.”
She reached for his hand. “Your dad, he reads my Bible to me. I wish you could hear him.” Her eyelids drooped until they were only half open. “It’s the most beautiful thing. Mark.” She let out a dreamy sigh. “Would you let him read at your wedding?”
“You’re still dating the preacher’s daughter, aren’t you?”
“You love her?”
“See, you’re already practiced up on the ‘I do.’” She smiled again and rolled her eyes to look at him. “Don’t wait, Mark. Don’t wait until you’re older . . . or you’re more settled . . . or you have more money. There are no guarantees.”
“Mom, it’s a little—”
She managed another smile. “Your dad doesn’t know about her, does he?”
“It’s not like I’m trying to keep it a secret. It just never seemed like the right time to bring it up.”
“Practice then. Tell me about her. Tell me what you love about her.” She settled back against her pillow, her eyes drooping shut again.
“Um, well . . . She’s, uh, she’s pretty, of course, and smart. She listens to me.”
His mother nodded slightly. “Mmmm. You need that. Men need that. They need someone who believes in them . . . then they can do anything.”
“Did you believe in Dad?”
“Not like I should have. Look what’s he’s accomplished in spite of it. What if I’d been what he needed? What could he have done?” She reached for his hand and squeezed it gently. Her fingers were soft and cool. “With, uh, tell me her name again.”
“Julie. Julie Hammell.”
“With Julie behind you, there’ll be no stopping you. I wish I could have met her. I’m sure she’s wonderful.”
Mark smiled and nodded. “She is.” Julie Hammell was his ticket to respectability, acceptance, and purpose, and it didn’t hurt that she was crazy about him. “Does Dad know you want him to read?”
“He promised me today.”
“You pick out the passage?”
“First John, chapter four. Where it talks about love, God’s love for us. He read it today.” She sighed and closed her eyes. “‘There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out all fear.’ It was beautiful. He has a beautiful voice . . . and he read it slow so he didn’t stumble.”
“Are you getting tired? I should let you rest.”
“No, stay. I have one for you too.”
“Something to read at my wedding?”
“No, a promise. I want you to make me a promise.” She squeezed his hand weakly again. “Promise me you won’t give up on him. Promise you’ll make sure your dad becomes a believer.”
“Mom, I can’t. He has to make that decision.”
“You have to tell him. You have to. It’s like in Ezekiel. You’re the watchman. If you don’t tell him . . . if he dies in his sins, Mark, we’re accountable. Maybe not responsible, but . . . Please tell me you won’t let that happen. I have nightmares—”
“I won’t, Mom. I’ll take care of it.” How could he not promise?
She relaxed against her pillow, apparently exhausted, and guilt closed off his throat. He couldn’t make his dad become a believer. He’d just lied to his mother on her deathbed.
“Talk to me,” she said without opening her eyes. “I love hearing you. I’m listening.”
Mark talked about his classes, his homework, the drive home, whatever he could think of, but the promise hung in the back of his mind. I’ll take care of it. How?
The more he talked, the more each word came with a keen awareness of every breath she took. If she passed without his father there at her side . . . God help them all.
Friday, September 24
Doug rubbed his eyes and shifted in his chair. In the pale early morning light he squinted, trying to make sure Judy was still breathing. Finally, he reached his hand to her chest. It rose and fell in a slow, shallow rhythm. That reassurance was costly. Now he was afraid to pull his hand away for fear he’d miss the last one.
Ellen and Russell Carson had passed the night with him here, hovering over their only daughter. Of course they belonged here, had a right and a need to be here, but Doug hated it. When Ellen slipped out to get a quick shower, at least Russ left to make coffee, giving Doug these precious few moments alone with Judy.
“You’ve never answered anything I’ve ever asked,” he whispered. “But . . . I’ll do . . . anything. Or take me instead . . . Just . . . Don’t . . . You can fix this. I read those stories to her, I know what You can do . . . I need her. Take anything else of mine . . . Just not—”
Judy drew in two quick breaths and opened her eyes. “Doug?”
“I’m right here.” He slipped his hand around hers. “Right here.”
“I love you.” She labored to draw the corners of her mouth into a smile. “Mark . . . ?”
“He’s down the hall. He’ll be right here.”
“Were Mom and Dad . . . ?”
He nodded. “Your mom’s down in our bathroom getting a shower and your dad’s making a pot of coffee. They’ve been here the whole time.”
She closed her eyes. “You need . . . that.”
“Need what? Coffee?” he asked, daring to tease her in this moment.
She blinked slowly in place of a smile. “I heard . . . you pray.”
He felt himself flush with the shame of desperation. “I don’t think it did any good.”
“I pray . . . for you . . . and Mark. You need . . .”
You, he wanted to say. I need you, Judy.
“You need someone . . . someone who deserves to have you.” She squeezed his hand. “You . . . I love you. We will meet again. I have that peace.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I can let go. You’ll . . .” Her hand relaxed, and everything inside Doug Bolling died.