Chapter Seven

Chapter Seven

That evening, Cole drove to Madison’s condo. He needed to see her. He could hardly explain, even to himself, about how much she was beginning to mean to him. But he desperately needed to make sure she was okay after everything he’d bombarded on her that morning.

How she had known he was going to be at the cemetery, particularly that one, he didn’t know, but he’d felt too careless to want to ask earlier.

His headlights beamed on the wall of her garage, and he could see her, even in the darkness, and it was like his soul had been called home.

***********************

Madison took one look at Cole’s car as he pulled it up in front of her house, and she instantly straightened her back at her seat on the porch swing. She bookmarked her place, and then set her book aside. Her heart went doubly fast as he killed the ignition, and tugged the driver’s door open.

She still couldn’t believe that his family were killers. But it explained so much about him, the pain he had and kept trying to hide her from. She knew he wanted her to be safe, no matter each of their feelings, but she was determined to make sure he didn’t fight his family alone. She’d even prayed about it very hard this past afternoon. She was going to do whatever it took to keep that smile both real and constant on Cole’s handsome face.

The very moment Cole walked up the stairs to her balcony, she tensed. Just by how he was standing, not to mention looking at her, she knew he was dreading being there, only because he dreaded answering any more of her questions she had. He dreaded watching her see him in pain, and she knew how badly he wanted to keep it all hidden. But she wasn’t going to be affected by it as much as he probably thought. She refused to be.

“Cole.” She tossed him a gentle, but bright smile. “How are you?” She stood.

“No, no.” He held up a hand. “You can remain seated.”

“It’s okay.” Madison waved a hand, even though she felt it tremble. He looked so appealing from under the dim light of the balcony, and she felt her pulse heighten. His shirt was a bit wrinkled, and his gaze was momentarily downcast, bangs draped over his forehead. His hazel green eyes looked real dark in the dim light, too, which sent her pulse into overdrive. “You feeling better than…?” She couldn’t bear to repeat what had happened between them this morning. She was almost even a bit embarrassed that they’d almost kissed again, or that she’d dried all his fallen tears.

Cole nodded, obviously knowing what she meant. “Yeah. Are you…all right?” He stepped forward. “I mean…” He swallowed hard. “Not that I…” He rolled his eyes, and then looked away.

Madison hugged herself, not because she was cold, but because she was unsure of what to do. It was a grave subject. “What do you mean, am I fine? You mean after everything you told me?”

He looked at her with surprise. “How is it that you can almost read my thoughts?”

She chuckled, and then walked over to lean against the balcony railing. “It’s not like I try.”

He chuckled, too, giving a real smile that tugged at her heart longingly. She could hardly explain the feeling, even to herself. “You’re amazing.” He shook his head.

She gave a shrug. “I’m dealing with it well, I think.” She was proud at herself for having that knowledge. “It doesn’t matter how or what you told me, Cole. I have God to give me strength to help me through it, anyway.”

He nodded curtly, and his gaze filtered across her mouth briefly before caressing the railing, away from her. “I’m glad. Or…relieved.”

“I’m so sorry that I didn’t trust you before, though.” Madison couldn’t help reaching up and gently touching his upper arm. “That was very wrong of me.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s completely understandable. I expected it.” He gazed back at her, and the intense look in his eyes took her breath away.

“I was being really rude, Cole.” Madison stepped forward, determined to show how sorry she was. It meant a lot to her that he knew, because she desperately needed him to keep his trust in her, so she could in him. “That was the very last thing you needed.”

He gazed down at her, and joy, to her great surprise, warmed in his eyes. “I trust you fully, Madison. Don’t even worry about it.” He smiled wistfully. “How did you know I was in the cemetery anyway?”

Madison raised her eyebrows. “I remembered you mentioning your mother, and after how cruel I treated you, I decided that maybe you went somewhere that you could be alone and no one could hear you.” She shrugged. “I guess I just pieced it all together.”

He quirked an eyebrow. “You must be smart like that.”

She grinned. “I guess I am, huh?”

Cole nodded stiffly, and then bent toward her, very hesitant. His hazel green eyes darkened, and he stepped even closer to her. Madison’s breath caught, her heart pounding fiercely from inside her as he reached up, hand trembling slightly. He lightly caressed her hair away from her face, and then with one finger, slid it down the jawline of her heart-shaped face.

Madison’s gaze followed his hand for a long moment, and then glanced up to meet his eyes. The pain riveted there was stark and much different than the fear of losing her he’d had before, the fear of mentioning a bit of his past, or the fear of anything else.

The back of Cole’s hand caressed her cheek, and then he leaned his mouth closer, just as his right hand gently cupped her chin.

Ready, Madison leaned into him. Cole’s mouth came down over hers, and then hovered for a long moment, so close she could almost feel how powerful his kiss was going to be. But when he pulled away and pressed her forehead against hers instead, disappointment hit her like a tidal wave. Because she knew exactly why he was resisting, not because she wanted the kiss so badly.

“I have to go,” he whispered, and then let go of her. He met her gaze for a long moment, and then turned away toward the stairs.

Madison’s heart pounded heavily from inside her. She frowned. “Cole.”

Cole froze, his left hand on the railing and one foot braced forward, almost in the air as if suddenly needing to get away.

“You just don’t want me close,” she said softly. “Because you’re terrified that you’re going to lose me, possibly to your own family. But guess what? I don’t care, Cole. I don’t.”

He sighed heavily, refusing to even look at her. “Madison—”

“No.” She shook her head, one hand bracing the white-painted railing lightly. “I don’t care what you say. I’m not going anywhere, Cole. I care too much about you to even think about doing that.”

Cole glanced over at her, and his eyes pleaded with her. Begged her to just let him be, to let him go to keep her safe.

“I’m safe with you.” She stepped over to him. “I am. I’m as safe as I can ever be, and I will keep all my doors and windows locked at night. Tightly. I will.”

Cole turned toward her, almost subconsciously, and his eyes looked suddenly torn between leaving and wrapping her in his arms like she so wanted him to do.

She reached forward, and held out her hand. “Just trust me, Cole. Everything is going to be fine, because God is watching over us.” She smiled gently.

But it was all the invitation Cole needed. Stepping forward, Cole cupped her cheeks without hesitation, breathless, and kissed her very gently. He gently pushed her against the balcony post as one of her hands clutched his shirt, the other sliding up into the back of his hair. He kissed her more deeply, his pulse thundering in his ears, and Madison let him.

When the kiss was over, he gently pulled back, and grinned at her happily. Happily!

Madison giggled, and she let him wrap her in his arms and kiss her again. This time, it definitely felt like paradise. It was like she had finally come home, that she had everything she could ever want with feeling herself in his beloved, strong and very capable arms.

At last, Cole pulled back far enough to gaze tenderly into her eyes. “I’ll be back tomorrow,” he promised amongst a whisper. “Maddie.” He grinned from ear to ear.

Madison couldn’t help grinning back, and she watched him go with so much relief she almost felt lightheaded. He was finally opening up to her, and that was a definite blessing. And an answer to her prayers.

Her soul continued to feel complete even when Cole was driving far away from her.

************************

The next night, Cole slept better than he had in a long time. As soon as he woke the next morning, he read a few chapters from his old dusty Bible, one his mother had given him the day he’d discovered their family’s secret, ironically. After thanking God for Madison, whom he was now desiring to call Maddie because he was so sweet on her, Cole cooked himself a big breakfast, ate it all, and felt even better.

He remembered that Madison had classes instead of work all day, though, so he decided to actually attend his own classes this time around. He did so, and by the time he got home, it was four-thirty p.m.

Knowing he was welcome to, especially because Madison had been done with classes an hour earlier than him, he called her, and promised he would arrive at her house by five-thirty, if she wanted to go out with him again. She said that she did, and made Cole feel even more happier, which was a definite first for him.

When Cole knocked on her door, however, he was not prepared for the awkwardness of the situation he felt as he gazed into Madison’s beautiful blue eyes.

He smiled down at her, and when her sunny smile returned upon her face, he forgot all about everything that had to do with his family. What usually kept him awake at night. In fact, he felt so well rested that at the moment he could barely remember he even had a family.

“Hey, Maddie,” he greeted her tenderly, his gaze sweeping over her hair pulled back in a low ponytail for today, her honey blond, curly bangs swept to the side. She was dressed in a short-sleeved, purple blouse, jeans, and looked absolutely lovely.

She giggled, and then locked her condo before turning to him. “Hey, handsome.” She smirked. “What are we doing today?”

He raised his eyebrows. “How about we start with a movie?”

“Okay,” she whispered. “Did you have a good sleep?”

“Yes, I did.” He grinned at her, pretty much unable to help himself. She was as bright and wonderful as sunrise, only better.

During the movie at the Billings, Montana theater twenty miles away, they laughed together at the good-natured comedy. One time, Cole laughed so hard that half the popcorn in its oversized container flew onto the floor, and Madison only laughed harder at him.

“I can’t believe we were going to see the movie first, then dinner,” Madison admitted after the movie around eight in the evening as they sat at one of the mall’s restaurants—the theater had been located in the city mall—and finished their fast food dinner.

Cole shook his head at her constant teasing him as he took a long swig of his soda. He did not want to feel any distance between them, especially after everything he had told her.

The one thing that he still had left to tell her was the fact that for years he had wanted to kill his own siblings and father for everything they had ever done. But he was afraid that she might hate him for that one day. He was afraid of many things when it came to Madison, but he had a good reason to. She was special, for one thing. She had brought light into his life when he hadn’t seen such for so long. Long before his mother had even died, in fact.

Now that she was in his life, Cole was destined to protect Madison with his own life, no matter what that meant. Once, he’d been terrified at losing his own life if he ever let down the family’s company. But now he really did not care. Madison meant more to him than anything in this whole world and it had all happened so fast. Yet, it was so worth it. He’d even begun praying a lot more again in the past several days since he’d met her, which was something he once thought he would never do again.

“You look thoughtful.” Madison pointed her plastic fork at him, and gazed at him with an endearing twinkle in her eyes. “What’s on your mind, sweetie?”

Cole smiled at her calling him that. No one had ever called him that before. “I was just thinking about how wonderful you are.”

“Really.” Madison chuckled wryly. “Why would you even think so, Cole, dear?” she teased lightly. “Some people think I can be annoying by my constant sunny attitude.”

“Well, you’re not to me.” He wanted her to know that, yet he still wanted to go slow when it came to their relationship. Even though every day it was feeling much faster-going with her around. “I’m not sure why anyone would think that. Although…” He winced. “When I first met you, I thought you were a little bit. But it has shown a lot more in so many other different ways.”

Madison looked speechless for a moment, her fork halfway to her mouth. Then, she shrugged it off. “Oh, stop. You’re not half as bad either, you know. You’re so kind and sweet.”

“I’m glad you think so.” Most days he didn’t.

“Your mother raised you well,” she added, and then hesitated at finishing off her hot dog, but it was probably to choose her words carefully, not just because she was hungry. “So did mine. And by the way, I have yet to tell you about my family.”

“Yeah, where are they anyway?” he decided to tease. He pretended to search their surroundings. “I don’t see them anywhere, anyone who does look like you.”

“Probably because they actually don’t look like me. Sometimes they tease me that maybe I’m adopted because of that. But over time, relatives have said that I look more like my grandmother, my mother’s mother, than anyone else in the entire family. The same goes with my brother. He looks like my grandfather on my dad’s side. It’s weird.” She took a sip of her own soda. “My brother is finishing off his years in medical school. He has to be the funniest person on the face of mankind, though.”

“Aww, I thought you were.” Cole winked at her, and grinned.

She giggled. “Nope, my brother is. He’s a good Christian, and humor means a lot to him in life. He wants to be the sort of pediatrician that entertains kids in hospitals and makes them happy and more excited about life. You know, sort of like Patch Adams, that one doctor that Robin Williams played in that movie. I like that movie. I have it on DVD at home. In fact…” She held up a hand, and tried to ignore Cole’s look of amusement at her carrying on. “I watch it every now and then to remind me of my brother. I don’t get to see Pat very often. He’s either constantly studying and going to his college Bible studies, or spending time with friends or with his fiancee, Tina.” She gave a shrug. “I guess we all have our own values in life.” She gazed up at him sweetly.

Cole looked serious as he studied her while chewing on a few fries. Once he swallowed, his face brightened, wanting to hear more about her life. “What about your parents?”

“They’re both mechanics.” She smirked.

He chuckled. “Both of them, huh?”

“Yeah. They work together. But they love spending time with each other, so they don’t care how much money they make, as long as they’re together. It’s so awesome.” She studied his left hand lying on the table for a long moment, as if she wanted to hold it. “Sort of like us.” She gazed into his eyes, and then gently smiled.

It felt like a plow had suddenly zoomed through Cole’s gut. How could someone as sweet and wonderful, not to mention a positive-thinker, like Madison end up with a guy like him? It didn’t feel right, or sound right. She should be with a guy with similar values and interests, whose own family didn’t have such a secretive, violent past, not to mention the same kind of present. Maybe even the same kind of future, if he didn’t get both he and Madison out of it as soon as possible.

He swallowed hard, but not even a long swig of his soda could keep his throat from feeling parched. It was like Madison had been meant to be to make him feel this way, to make him feel—and know with every fiber of his being—that no one could ever feel the same amount of tenderness, not mean anything more to him than she did. It was weird how it had ended up that way, but maybe, just maybe, God had planned this for him. Yet why would He let Madison be in danger this way, unless He didn’t want Cole to die alone?

Cole mentally shook his head, and pushed aside the fear trying to trap him. He wouldn’t let his family near Madison. He would make sure of it even if his own life depended on it. He decided right then and there that it was time to enjoy this evening better, and try not to think about what could come after this first date.

The drive back to Madison’s condo was filled with lighthearted and hilarious stories about the funny stuff her cat and dog had ever done to drive her up the wall, or anything else. Cole just listened, chuckling now and then, because he was too focused on keeping all the negative thoughts at bay, and any thoughts about his family. Madison didn’t need to know anything of what he’d already told her anyway.

Cole helped her out of his car, and then walked with her up the stairs to her condo door. She was grinning as she fished her keys out from out of her little brown leather purse, and then turned to him. Her eyes were sparkling with laughter, happiness, and excitement, and just the sight of her standing before him made Cole want to kiss her senseless. But it also made him feel jolly and warm inside, shoveling any such negative feelings fully out of his body. It was amazing what real love could do to a person when it came to that.

“So.” Adorable, Madison curled her hands behind her, and leaned against her doorjamb. “I had an awesome time with you tonight.”

Cole stepped back to give them both a bit more breathing room as he grinned at her. How could one sweet girl make him feel so wonderful? “I’m glad you enjoyed yourself,” he said honestly, “because I did, too.”

“You’d better,” she teased. “Because I think there should definitely be a second date after this. What are your thoughts?” She quirked an eyebrow.

“You’re absolutely right.” He nodded. “That would be incredible. When would the best time work for you, Maddie?”

She thought a moment. “How about tomorrow?”

He almost laughed. “It’s another school night, though.”

She shrugged. “I hardly will make time for homework at night anymore, Cole.”

She had a point there, Cole thought. He nodded. “You know what? Me, too.”

Madison nodded. “Good.”

“Yeah.” He smiled gently. “So…” He didn’t want to make the situation any more awkward than it already was. Besides, the kiss they’d shared the night before had definitely been something. He wanted to move very slowly and did not want to scare her.

So he hoped he wouldn’t surprise her too much when he gently took her left hand from within his right, and lightly kissed her forehead.

He leaned back, and grinned at her tenderly. “Good night, Maddie. Sleep well. Pleasant dreams.” He stepped back, and turned away.

But he was almost to the stairs when Madison reached out and wrapped a hand around his left forearm.

“Oh, no, you don’t.” Giggling, Madison stood in front of him, and then looked up tenderly into his hazel green eyes. “You’re not getting away very easily, Cole. Just because you told me stuff gives you no reason to want to be weird about it.”

Cole sighed heavily, and then finally shook his head at her. “Maddie, you don’t even have to ask me twice.”

Without hesitation, she lifted her head and welcomed his lips gently coming down onto hers. She let his left hand graze her jaw lightly as she returned the kiss, and then let go gently.

Madison smiled at him. “That’s better. Good night, silly.” Chuckling, she turned and went back over to her door, where she unlocked it, and slipped inside. Right before waving at him.

Cole shook his head with mirth as he walked back down to his car. He had a big feeling that it was going to be a lot different and better between them from now on.

Chapter Six

Chapter Six

Later that afternoon, Madison’s giggle could be heard from hundreds of feet away as she and Cole walked to the park in Lincoln. They had just finished their ice cream from the ice cream shop, where they had eaten until they were full, and Cole had voluntarily begun to tell her a few stories about his late mother.

“You didn’t,” she teased him. “You really ate a whole half of a cake when you were only eight years old?”

“My mother was furious.” Cole smiled wryly. “I was grounded for two weeks.”

“Wow.” She chuckled, and then they reached a tree, and she leaned against its bark. “That’s impressive. I wish I could have seen that.”

“Well.” He gave a shrug. “Maybe one day I’ll show you some pictures.”

“Yeah, you should.” She grinned. “Does that mean that I can meet your family?”

As soon as she asked that question, Cole’s smile completely vanished, and fear as stark as any blared his hazel-green, handsome eyes. He swallowed hard, and then shook his head, looking away, unable to look at her.

“How come?” she asked gently.

“Because…” He swallowed hard. “They’re…t-they’re h-horrible..people.” He swallowed hard. He closed his eyes briefly.

“Ha, I can imagine.”

She thought that he was kidding! Cole reluctantly gazed up at her. “I’m…I’m serious, Madison.”

Madison’s sunny, bright smile faded from her face, and a piercing pain hit him, right in the center of his gut. Immediately Cole yearned for her to smile again.

“Come on,” she said softly. “They can’t be that bad.”

Pain cast over him, and abruptly, Cole closed his eyes to remember the pleading in her mother’s eyes before she’d died. Pleading him to do something, anything, to be stronger than Addison was, for once, just to save her life. To save both of their lives.

His only scream, along with Addison’s laughter, rang in his ears, in his brain.

He opened his eyes, and when he did, there was dead fear on Madison’s face for the first time in the time he’d known her. Now he’d done it. Great going, Cole.

“Cole.” Madison leaned away from the tree, and then stepped over to lightly touch his left cheek.

Her gentle touch did strange things to him, and he had to force himself to freeze so he wouldn’t lean into her hand.

“Why do you look like that?” The expression on her face begged him to tell her as soon as possible. “You look so hurt, so angry, so…” She shook her head, unable to voice more. She swallowed hard. “Why…why are your family members…horrible people?”

Cole stared at her, yearning so strong beating fast in the center of his chest. He swallowed hard again, and then stepped back. He couldn’t tell her. He’d rather die from his family’s own sting than to see her die following him telling her why. He knew he’d promised her earlier that he was going to tell her, or try to. But look what he’d done so quickly to keep her from smiling. If he told her, he was risking both of their lives, especially hers. He would never live again if something happened to her.

“I can’t tell you,” he whispered.

Madison frowned, and then stepped closer, grabbing his forearm. “Cole, you have to tell me. Now.” She shook her head. “You’re really worrying me, you know that? I care about you, as your good friend, and I will not bear to see you look like that. I hate being kept in the dark, and I know that you know the same feeling. Please.” She shook her head again. “Tell me.”

Cole studied her for a long moment, pain continuously fighting to knock him down, leaving him breathless. He knew that any bout of physical pain would never feel as badly as letting her down. That pain caused him to feel so pain-filled, he had to force his refusal out.

“No,” he clipped out softly, hating himself for refusing. “I can’t. It’s…too huge.”

Madison studied him for a long moment, and then to his relief, understanding dawned on her face. “All right.” She let go of his arm. “Maybe it is too big to explain. All right.” She clasped her hands together. “Let’s start with something small. Okay?”

Cole bit his lip, furious at himself for wanting to come on this walk with her in the first place. She was not going to give up wanting to know, and so he had to tell her. Eventually. But he desperately needed to know that she wasn’t going to tell anyone.

“How about, what kind of business does your family run?” She quirked an eyebrow. “That’s not too bad of a question, is it?”

Cole decided that he needed to choose his words carefully. Very carefully. If he didn’t, he’d regret it when gunmen his family hired would later come to his apartment. Or her condo.

“First…” he began very hesitantly, “before I answer your question…I need your solemn vow that you will not tell anybody about what I am about to tell you.”

She looked at him blankly for a moment, and then frowned. “Why not?” she asked gently.

“Just…promise me.” Cole reached out to touch her honey blond curls, but he’d barely touched them when he jerked back, suddenly afraid to know how soft her skin was. “I…I cannot bear to see you…hurt.”

She flew him a quizzical look, telling him that he’d flown the coop now. He’d definitely made the mistake of telling her too much.

“Now you’re scaring me, Cole,” she said gently, her sweet voice wavering a little. “If it comes even close to that, I definitely think I should tell anyone I want to keep myself safe.” She shook her head.

“I just need you to trust me,” he whispered stiffly.

“Well, I need you to trust me!” Her tone was suddenly sharp. “This is ridiculous. I need to know to make sure you’ll be all right. That I’ll be all right. That both of us will be all right. So for once and for all—”

“Madison…please.” He was begging her, knowing that since he’d said too much, her life could begin to become in real, grave danger. “I…I care…” He swallowed hard. One look at her frosty, violet blue, beautiful eyes, and he knew that he needed to prove to why he cared so much. Why it was so important to him that she remained safe. “I…my feelings for you…they mean far more than…friendship ever could…I think.” At his sides, he clenched his fists tightly. “If you become hurt…”

Anger suddenly riveted over Madison’s face, and she stepped forward, but it was too late. Her eyes said it all. Said it all that he was so afraid of.

“So what?” she snapped, tears welling up in her eyes, confirming her feelings for him, too. “So what that you’re in love with me, even if I may feel the…same way?” She jutted her chin out. “None of that matters now, Cole Whitworth, so for the last time, I am begging you.” Her voice was strained. “What does your family do for a living?”

Emotion clogged in Cole’s throat, and he swallowed even harder. His heart took a triple turn of speeding up, and his palms started sweating like pouring rain. His shoulders trembled, panic seizing him by full force.

“They kill people for a living,” he finally broke out, and then immediately regretted it.

Madison shook her head, and she backed away from him. “All right, you know what? If you’re not going to tell me, that’s just great.” She backed farther away. “I’ll just leave then. Okay?” She turned sharply, and stomped toward her car nearby.

“Madison,” he said flatly, too terrified by only his own feelings, not by any fear he had of losing his life, but he doubted she’d heard him.

He watched, stiff and unmoving, as Madison quickly climbed into her car, and drove away. He shut his eyes briefly, painfully, and was unable to think of what would happen once his family found out.

~*~

His family killed for a living. What kind of stupid excuse was that from telling her the truth?

Sitting on her bed that evening, Madison stared into space. She was tired from crying for ten minutes hours earlier as she’d driven back to her condo. She didn’t know how tears could make a person so tired. She stared at her closet ahead of her, her pets surrounding her, and her hair a bit messy from running her hands through it a few times. Her eyes were pink from constantly feeling like crying since she’d gotten home from the park hours ago. She’d barely made it through dinner, even.

Why didn’t Cole trust her? she demanded thoughtfully. Why was he keeping it from her?

“They kill for a living,” he’d lied, she knew, the last thing she’d heard him say to her before she’d left. Stark pain had been on his face as he’d stood there stiffly, as if unable to feel her touch on his hand, the desperation that she needed to know of why he thought she could get hurt if he told her the truth. It just didn’t make any sense.

She wouldn’t—didn’t—believe that his family could kill for a living. That only happened in horror movies, for goodness sakes. Why on earth would he make something like that up? How could he think she’d believe something that stupid sounding?

Just then, Madison’s cell phone rang, jolting her awake. She sighed heavily, shakily, and reached over on her nightstand to answer it.

“Hello.”

“Hey, girl,” Nicole’s happy voice grazed over the line. “How ya doing?”

“Just fine,” Madison fibbed, unable to explain to her best friend about her life’s latest events. The moment Cole had come into his life, it seemed, her life had been a nutcase. “How about you?”

“Oh, my goodness, I just have to tell you about my date with Jake!” Nicole squealed. “He kissed me tonight! Can you believe that?”

“Wow,” Madison praised, forcing herself to sound happy for her.

She couldn’t get Cole’s earlier words out of her mind, however.

My feelings for you…they mean more than friendship ever could…

Why was it that she felt exactly the same way?

“…And then,” Nicole continued, her loud voice interrupting Madison’s thoughts. “He leaned over in the seat and kissed me! I was like, wow! I mean, hello? Can’t you believe that? He kissed me! I wasn’t too impressed at first, since it was in the movie theater, which he apologized for later, of course, because…”

Apologized.

Gaping into space, Madison suddenly remembered three different thoughts. Her stomach lurched, and her pulse went into overdrive.

He was telling the truth.

“I hate telling lies,” he’d told her that day in the hospital.

“I could never lie to you,” he’d promised not a week ago.

“My family kills people for a living,” he’d told her earlier today.

He was telling the truth!

But why would they kill people for a living? Why did it upset him so?

Because he’d never wanted them to do so? Because he never wanted to be a part of it? He never wanted her hurt, because they killed people for a living?

There was still some explaining to be given from him, but he’d wanted her to trust her. He’d begged her to trust her right in the park, and instead of listening, she’d turned her back on him. How foolish of her to do so when he’d needed her so desperately, by a single look in his hazel-green eyes.

“Madison?” Nicole’s voice woke her. “Madison, are you there? Maddie!”

Madison looked down at her lap where her cell phone had fallen the moment she’d begun remembering everything Cole had said to her, which plainly showed how he never had betrayed her. He probably never would. He was such a great guy.

With trembling fingers, she raised her cell phone back to her right ear. “Y-Yeah, yeah. I’m here.” She swallowed hard, coming to the full realization of what had to be done. She needed to see Cole again. Tomorrow, if it was God’s will. “Uh…I’d better go, Nicole.”

Pause. “Are you all right?”

Obviously, Nicole had picked up on her hesitation and the uncertainty in her voice.

But it was true. It had to be, or he wouldn’t have told her that his family killed for a living.

“Yeah, I’m fine. Don’t worry. I’ll call you later.”

“Okay,” Nicole said. “If you’re sure. Bye.”

“Bye,” she said, and clamped her cell phone shut, ending the call.

Determination rose up from within her like fire, and she suddenly needed to see Cole as soon as possible.

~*~

That night, Cole had a nightmare about what would happen to Madison if his family found out about her. Thunder and lightning could be heard not only outside, but in his dream. Both hands clutching his sweaty pillow, his covers up to his waist as he lay on his back, Cole tossed and turned violently in his sleep, his face ridden with pain, and his teeth clenched.

“No!” he screamed as the thugs all carried him away from the storage room, where Addison was grinning happily to himself, Byron standing across the small room from him.

Madison was seen being tied to a metal post by heavy chains, her body stiff against it. Tears were streaming down her cheeks.

“I’m sorry, Cole,” she said brokenly. “I’m sorry.”

“Madison!” he yelled as he was being pulled away.

A huge metal door slammed in his face, and the thugs literally disappeared, vanishing in thin air.

“Madison!” Cole screamed as he pounded on the big metal door. “Madison, please! Open up! Father! Addison! Someone, please!”

A piercing gunshot hit the air.

Cole gasped, and then screamed, collapsing to his knees. “No!” he yelled at the ceiling.

Cole screamed, sitting upright in bed. His whole body was sweaty, his clothes damp. He was breathing heavily, but once the chill from his bedroom’s open window blared onto his skin, it was then that he realized it was just a dream. Just a nightmare.

But he could hardly bear the thought of not seeing Madison again, and he knew to the dark depths of his soul that there was no way she could be safe now. He’d told her his secret. If she told someone, rumors would eventually spread, and get to his family. Right? Or was he just underestimating her, underestimating himself?

Cole wasn’t sure, but he madly needed to know.

So after a restless sleep the rest of the night, the next morning, Cole headed to the cemetery. He desperately needed to see his mother’s grave, even though he knew it would be for the first time since she’d died. The memory of her death stayed frozen in his mind, and he just didn’t know what to do with himself. He needed answers…now!

After barely making it to the country cemetery, Cole got out of his car rather stiffly. Not caring about the fact that he hadn’t combed his hair this morning, or was wearing his pajama shirt and the jeans he’d worn the day before, he struggled to the cemetery, his whole body trembling.

The whole time, he subconsciously walked through the short metal gate, forgetting to close it behind him, and walked blearily to her gravestone. Tears gathered in his eyes, and all he could think of was what his mother had said to him two days before her death.

“Never forget that I love you and your siblings very much,” Amelia had said as she cupped her son’s chin. “It doesn’t matter what that this family has or doesn’t have. What truly matters is that you are my son, and my family means the world to me. You are the pride of my heart, however, sweetie, because you’re the only one who has ever seemed to act on any sense around here.” She’d smiled wistfully, sadly. “I love you, Cole, just the way you are.”

Tears blinded Cole as he staggered to the grave, and then gasped at the large headstone sitting tall in front of him, proud, and strong, just like she had been. Her name was boldly engraved, following by the dates of her death, but it was all just enough to break him. Cole collapsed in front of it, sobs overtaking him. His face completely crumpled as he leaned over it, his shoulders shaking. He sobbed again, hoarse, and then shook his head wildly. His mother was dead. His own family had killed his mother, and he could’ve done something, anything! Instead, he’d been the stupid, idiotic son who’d literally abandoned her in her time of need, because of his own fears for his life.

She had not deserved to die.

Clenching the corners of the thick headstone with both hands, Cole squeezed his eyes shut and let the several tears roll down his cheeks. His whole body shook, and he coughed hard.

“Mom!” he sobbed brokenly, and sniffled hard. “I’m sorry, Mom, I’m so, so sorry!” He cried even harder, not caring if anyone heard or saw him, and even not caring if he felt less like the man he was for acting this way.

Cole bowed his head over the grave, and then hiccupped a sob. He shook some more, furious at his family for killing their own mother. He sobbed again, and more tears streamed down his cheeks.

“I’m sorry,” he sobbed again, and then tunneled a hand through his already messy hair. He sniffled hard, but he didn’t calm down yet. His whole body still trembled with fear and never-ending pain. It burst through his entire system like it’d been waiting there, all bottled up.

Suddenly, softly padded footsteps sounded nearby. Hoping it was only a bypasser, Cole kept his head bowed over the grave. But then rustled movement came, and then the sound of someone zipping something.

“Cole,” Madison’s voice sounded, and he looked up blearily to see her knelt in front of him, holding out a brown paper bag. “Here.” She gently unclenched his hands. “Breathe into this, okay? Breathe.”

With shaking hands, Cole could barely hold it as he wrapped the opening over his mouth.

“Big deep breaths,” Madison commanded sharply, and then sighed shakily, as if emotional by his own tears. “Breathe!”

Pausing from crying, Cole did as she asked, taking big deep breaths into the bag. In and out, in and out. But as he did so, Madison wiped the tears from his cheeks with her thumbs, brushing them away ever so gently. Her own blue eyes were filled with understanding tears, and she swallowed hard, but she kept trying to fix him up. She combed his hair with gentle caresses of her fingers, and then once the tears were wiped away and the bangs out of his eyes, she cupped the back of his neck with both hands, soothing him, and then simply looked at him.

“Keep breathing,” she whispered softly. “Keep your eyes on me. Don’t look at the grave.” She shook her head, and then pointed to her eyes. “Just focus…on me.”

Cole did so, even though more tears gathered in his eyes. He forced them away, yet when a couple fell, she brushed them away quickly. She shook her head, but he knew that she was sympathizing, not pitying him.

Finally, the quaking of his whole body began to cease, his heart slowed more normally, and he was beginning to feel more relaxed. He kept his eyes peeled on her, though, and the longing that he saw there made him want to look away, but he couldn’t. He wouldn’t.

“There.” She sighed heavily, as if in relief at seeing him relax. She gently took the bag from out of his hands, and then dried his damp chin to make sure all the tears were gone. The corners of her mouth quirked up, and brought sunshine back into Cole’s soul. “Feel better?”

Cole nodded jerkily, unable to look away from her.

“Come on.” She gently pushed him back. “Sit down there.”

He sat on the ground, his legs up against him, and he buried his face in his hands. He felt a little embarrassed that she’d seen him so emotional, a complete wreck, but because she was so understanding, and she was here, made wave after wave of sincere gratitude flood through him.

“There.” She patted his shoulder, and then gently brought his hands down. “I knew something was up, Cole.” She shook her head once. “I remembered you saying something to me about how you could never lie, and so I knew that you had said what you’d said for a good reason.”

Cole knew that pain had shown on his face, because she’d winced, but he looked away.

“Cole, please.” Madison reached out, and took his hand. “How did…” She swallowed hard, and then started again. “How did she die?” She glanced at the grave, as if knowing it was his mother’s, and then back. “Your mother?” Her grasp on his hand tightened a bit. “I promise. You can trust me. I just want you to be happy.” She shook her head. “That’s all I want.”

That’s all he wanted, too, for her to be happy, but he was too much of a chicken to voice that opinion aloud.

He swallowed hard, and one look at her powerful-looking, stern eyes made him realize that it was time.

“They killed her,” he whispered bitterly, keeping eye contact with her. “My family.”

Understanding dawned on her face, yet she still looked confused, as if wanting more answers. “Why?” she whispered.

Cole swallowed hard. “Because…my father said…she was a conspiracy to the family.”

“What does that mean?” she asked gently.

He stiffened, yet he wasn’t hesitant to tell her so much now. “She threatened my father that if any more…murders…happened, she was going to the FBI. But…he knew that she had to go eventually. No one could know what they did.”

She shook her head. “Why don’t you go to the police about this, Cole? This is really huge.”

“I know.” He ran a hand through his hair. “But…my father has a distant cousin on the family’s side working for the police, and the police sergeant is too oblivious about it.” He shook his head. “It would never work, and even if I did ask Mick for help, he would tell my father all about it. Then I would get into trouble. They’re always saying that I’m a disgrace to the family anyway, and that if I get into more trouble by doing stupid things…I could be their next victim.”

Madison gasped, yet she still looked strong. Anger came over her features, and Cole could just bet that it wasn’t anger at him.

“That’s absolutely horrible!” She shook her head, her hands clenching into fists. “Who does your family consist of anyway?”

“My father, Byron, brother, Jack, and sisters, Lorraine and Emily.” He shook his head again. “And Addison.”

“I take it he’s the oldest?” she guessed, and he nodded.

“He’s the one who gives most of the orders.” He sighed with disgust. “My father has Parkinson’s Disease, so he can’t work very well, effortlessly, anymore. He even hired four thugs to help with the murders to keep everyone innocent. They only kill people who have disgraced either the family, the entire legacy, or the company in itself. Addison and my father are both lawyers, not to mention Jack. Emily and Lorraine are both accountants, although Emily had never gone to college. My father wanted all of us to be as innocent as possible.”

“Is it a pretty large company?” she asked.

Cole nodded, and then hid half of his face behind his hand. “Man…I wish I never had to tell you. You could become in danger, Madison. Great danger.”

“I’m not scared of anything,” Madison said stiffly, her chin held high. “I refuse to be.” She nodded. “Besides.” She smiled a little. “We’ll go to the FBI in secret, if need be.”

“I’ve been too afraid to, Madison.” His looked turned fierce. “You should be, too.”

“Or what?” She stood, and then looked down at him. “You’ll tell on me?” She was half joking, but Cole’s face turned even fiercer, and he stood with her.

“I need you to be safe, Madison,” he whispered, standing mere inches away from her. “Please promise me that you’ll stay that way. Lock every one of your doors and windows, even if it is stuffy inside. Even lock your animals up, if need be.”

She frowned at him steadily, and then nodded. “I promise I’ll be safe. Do you trust me?”

Cole nodded, and then winced. “Promise me again,” he whispered, his eyes gazing painfully into hers.

Madison cocked her head to the side as if to warn him that he could trust her whenever or wherever, but then looked as if she’d decided against it.

“I promise,” she whispered more strongly. “Very much.”

“Thank you,” he whispered back, and then couldn’t resist. He reached up with his right hand and gently curled a loose strand of hair out of her eyes, and brought it behind her ear.

Madison smiled at him, and then gazed intently at him. “You better now?”

Cole nodded. “Thank you for everything.”

“Oh, no problem.” She shook her head, and then let out a little giggle. “Anytime.”

He studied her for a long moment, his eyes darkened. Madison thought that he was going to kiss her. He even inched closer, his mouth not hovering over hers, but still so close enough that she could feel his warm breath on her cheek.

She stepped back, however. She didn’t want anything to happen between them just because he was feeling vulnerable.

“Take care of yourself this afternoon, Cole,” she said sternly, and sent him a bright smile. “Come by if you need anything. All right?”

He nodded, and then winked at her. One corner of his mouth lifted.

“Thanks again,” he whispered, and then passed her.

Madison stood there, her back turned toward him, and listened for him until she heard his car driving out of sight.

Chapter Five

Chapter Five

“I’m warning you, Cole. I am not to be trifled with. You know that.”

Cole rolled her eyes and raked a hand through his hair the same time as he paced his apartment. Addison didn’t care that it was late at night and he needed his sleep—well, in relative terms, he probably did. But he didn’t get more then five or six hours a sleep a night anymore. If he ever had any more, they were mostly filled with nightmares from his past.

“I know that, Addison. I just…well, you know how I was injured in that motorcycle accident. How can I even begin to get well?” he lied, “if you keep bothering me?”

“You said you would be a great help to this company, and—”

“I didn’t say that. I said that I would attend every meeting,” he corrected both sharply and bitterly. “That was my sworn oath, you know that, and I want nothing more to do with any part of this.”

“What about filing? You could do some filing work, organize the bills we get, make sure there’s always good money coming in and going out. You know.” Addison’s chuckle filled the line. “Sally does plenty, but you could do a lot more.”

Cole could just feel his blood on fire with never-ending anger. “I am not going to do something that ridiculous when you know as well as I do that I hate every piece of work you all do!”

“Oh, come on, you aren’t still on that, are you?”

Cole scoffed. “I can barely stand straight knowing where I am,” he grumbled.

“Oh, don’t be so melodramatic, Cole. It’s not like I did anything with my own two hands.” He chuckled.

Cole scoffed, but when he heard someone knock on the door, his blood froze like icicles in Antarctica. He swallowed hard.

“I have to call you back,” he said. “Something’s come up, Addison.”

Addison sighed. “All right. Fine. But you better be there at next week’s meeting. This discussion is not over, Cole.”

It never had been, Cole thought, but half his brain was on whoever was at the door. “Whatever, good night.”

“Good night, bro. Sleep tight.” Addison laughed again, harder, and the line went dead.

Cole barely remembered shutting his cell phone off and flipping it to Silent mode as he walked to the door. He let the phone slip from his fingers to the little shelf by the door, and he was very cautious as he looked into the peephole.

The sight of Madison waiting sweetly on the other side made his breath catch in his throat. He should’ve never let her drive him home the other day, because, of course, she now knew where he lived.

She knocked again, three times before glancing down at something in her hands.

Almost without thinking, Cole undid the dead bolt, and flew open the door.

Madison gazed at him, and then looked at him from head to toe. “Were you asleep?”

He shook his head. “What…what are you doing here?”

“Figured you would be up.” She gently breezed past him, and set the two steaming, covered Styrofoam cups of something, along with a mini bag of something that smelled like chocolate, on the small kitchen table. “I remember those lines under your eyes, Cole.” She shook her head, and then slipped off her coat. “I may not always be smart, but I’m certainly not blind. So here, comfort food.” She motioned to the stuff she’d brought. “Hot chocolate and double chocolate chip cookies.” She grinned widely. “Sound awesome?”

Cole rose his eyebrows. He could not believe that she had come to his house specifically for this occasion only. He’d never heard of anyone doing such a thing before. No one, not even his mother, had actually done anything like that before. He wasn’t sure what he would even call the kind of friend Madison was to him.

He studied her for a long moment, and then heard himself ask, “Did you just happen to dollop my hot chocolate with whipped cream?”

She studied him back, and then a big grin slid across her lovely face. It made her look even more beautiful than she actually was, and it beamed a bright, sunny, sparkling light into him from head to toe. He had to admit that it was an awesome feeling.

“I made the hostess put a triple dollop of whipped cream on there just in case it all melted too fast. I put triple dollops on both cups of hot chocolate. Does that work all right for you?”

Cole felt himself grinning. Grinning! Something he knew for certain he hadn’t done in ages.

“Works just fine.” He chuckled. “The only problem is…it’s one o’clock in the morning.”

“That’s exactly why I won’t stay long.” Madison chuckled. “This is just a little snack to make you sleepy and hopefully make you sleep a lot better. Take my word for it. This cookie and this hot cocoa both will soothe you right to sleep.” She grinned, and then took one of the two little bags she’d brought, along with both hot chocolates. “Lead the way to the bedroom and I’ll prove it right.”

Cole swallowed hard. “Oh, so you mean right before bed.”

“Yeah.” She grinned, and then handed him the items. “Here. Good night.”

He looked at the items for a long moment, and then sighed heavily. “Could you…maybe…stay with me for ten or fifteen minutes?”

The grin completely wiped from Madison’s mouth, and she frowned.

“I-I get nightmares.” The confession had to be made. “A-Almost every night.”

She didn’t say anything for a long moment. And then finally, she swallowed hard and nodded. “This is comfort food. It’ll make you better.” She smiled wistfully. “I’ll sit next to you as you sleep. That’s how long it’ll take, you’re guessing, before one comes along?”

“Y-Yeah.” He nodded sharply. “I-I…I hope you don’t mind.”

“Of course I don’t.” She waved a hand. “Cole, you are a dear friend to me. If I minded, I wouldn’t be there.”

“I’m pretty much ready now then.” He was wearing his pajamas, white flannel pajama pants and a matching Nike T-shirt. He took the cookie out of its wrapper, from her slender hand holding it, and had it eaten before he’d even finished leading the way to the bedroom doorway.

“My goodness, I hope you don’t daily starve,” he heard Madison say, and he winced. He led the way into the mostly dark room to the single bedside lamp lit by an unmade, full-sized bed. He climbed under the black and white-striped, warm bedsheets and let Madison sit beside him. She handed him the six ounce cup of hot cocoa, and he took several large sips. Comfortable silence lurked between them as he drank, and then he found himself asleep before he knew it. The last thing he felt was Madison’s cool, gentle hand slipping the cup from his fingers, and shutting off the bedside light.

Several minutes later, he woke up sweating, jolting up in bed only by her sweet voice.

Madison’s adorable face was filled with stark concern. She still had her coat and shoes on, and was still holding her own Styrofoam cup of hot chocolate. Her eyes were wide as, with trembling fingers, she reached up and gently touched his face hot with sweat and tears. She lightly stroked the tears from his chin, and then leaned back far enough to gaze at him worriedly.

He swallowed hard, and then leaned as far back as he could get to the bed headboard. Her vanilla perfume and strawberry shampoo mix—she was that close—was doing strange things to him. Really strange things. And he just couldn’t be this close to her in his bedroom without losing control. It wasn’t what he was raised with, or what God taught. He at least respected those parts of religion.

And for another thing, Cole did not want Madison to know for a single moment of his feelings to her.

He swallowed hard.

Madison continued gazing at him thoughtfully, and then reached out and took his hand gently. “What was it about?” she asked softly, speaking of the dream.

He swallowed hard again, and decided that it had to be said. “I was…running through a forest. A group of…people were following me with guns and knives.” He gulped yet again, and struggled to breathe. “That’s…that’s about it.”

Madison studied him for a bit longer, and then nodded. “All right. I’ll leave you for now,” she whispered, as if there was another person in the room listening in. “You have my number in case you need anything.”

He almost smiled, because the offer was so genuine. “I doubt it,” he murmured.

She raised her eyebrows, and then nodded as if she understood. Standing, she gently moved the sweat and hair from his forehead, leaning over him and bringing with her the fantastic scent of fresh strawberries and sweet vanilla.

Cole couldn’t decide which scent belonged to perfume and what scent belonged to her shampoo. But what he did know was that he could literally feel himself trembling as her lips caressed his forehead, and then she drew back.

She gasped at him tenderly, but he knew it had to be purely friendship. Who in their right mind would care anything more than friendship about him?

“Hope to see you soon,” she whispered. With that said, she turned swiftly, and left the room.

Cole listened for his apartment door to close before lying back down. He didn’t shut off his bedside lamp or tried to sleep until several minutes later. No one besides Madison had ever affected him this way before.

He wasn’t even sure if he liked it or not.

**********************

Madison gazed into the white chocolate raspberry mocha that she had ordered from Starbucks. She peeked through the single hole in her Styrofoam cup, and gave a long sigh. A sad sigh, one that she rarely had used before she’d even met Cole Whitworth. She didn’t understand why Cole was always acting the way he was. Why he was always acting the way he was, like every hour of his life, like his whole world was crumbling at his feet.

She shook her head in disgust, and in fatigue. Since the day she’d met him, she’d gotten even less and less sleep, because she couldn’t keep from praying about him, hoping to the high heavens of the earth that Cole would find the sunny side in life, the kind of life she knew and was now disappearing from her life. She wasn’t sure what was going on, but in the past few weeks, Cole had begun to mean more to her than a friend. She wasn’t sure if that was a good thing. For all she knew, Cole could be greatly annoyed by her constantly needing to make sure he was okay. He never looked happy, just always sad, and it was just depressing. Not depressing because he looked sad, but depressing because she couldn’t figure out why it just didn’t feel quite like sadness, but of something completely different.

If he wasn’t being sad, he was being constantly let down about something, and that was another thing that kept her wondering, keeping her eyes wide open at night, at what on earth it actually was.

In return, she was feeling not only out of place in her life but totally not herself altogether. She wasn’t feeling sunny anymore, and she had to read twice as much devotions every day plus her Bible just so she could be able to get through the next day with the help of God. She wasn’t sure if she was falling in love with him or—

Madison paused from dusting the bookshelf at the bookstore to stare into space. She couldn’t believe it. Was she really falling in love with Cole? In just a matter of weeks? It didn’t feel possible or plausible. One person didn’t take that short of time for the feelings to come, although it did explain why she couldn’t stay away from him for more than a few days.

Although it had been one whole week since she’d seen Cole last.

It explained so much else. But…maybe she shouldn’t jump to conclusions until she was absolutely positive.

“Madison? Are you with us?”

Madison glanced up to see her boss frowning at her from under his curly mustache. He was a humorous guy, so his eyes were still twinkling besides his frown, but she had to wonder if he was talking to her.

“There’s going to be a fifteen-minute meeting in our conference room in a few minutes,” he said, staring at her as long as Michelle was. “Be prepared.”

He turned away, and Madison breathed a sigh of relief.

Shelly stepped over to her, her face full of concern. “Are you all right, Maddie? You don’t look yourself, and you haven’t been acting that way, either.”

“I’m fine,” Madison lied, when inside she was wondering what was going on with Cole and why he hadn’t called her in a week when she’d so wanted him to. She’d prayed he would, because she’d thought that maybe, just maybe, the more time he spent with her usual sunny self, his complete attitude for life could be changed. “Let’s just go to the meeting, Shell.” She set her dust rag aside.

Madison could feel her friend’s gaze on her as she led the way to the conference room. But she didn’t want to explain herself. She didn’t want Michelle, Nicole, or anyone else to confirm the truth.

Maybe she was in love with him after all. And maybe it was one-sided, so maybe that’s why Cole was staying away from her.

Because of how she always acted, so charming and happy as her friends and family all said she was, maybe it was good that Cole was staying away. She certainly wouldn’t blame him.

After the conference meeting, Madison spent a couple more hours at work before heading home. She told herself on the drive home that she needed to act normal and not so different or unusual. Her friends and family were definitely worried, since she wasn’t acting at all like her happy and pippy self. She knew that, so maybe beginning tonight she needed to work on forgetting about her worries over Cole. Maybe she should just forget about him altogether, and let God handle the rest for good this time.

Madison parked in front of her condo in her usual parking spot, and then prayed briefly for the courage and strength to let it go. She got out of her car, collected her keys and purse, and pressed the Lock button on her key ring remote.

But the moment she finished climbing the stairs to her condo door, she froze.

Cole stood from the porch swing right outside Madison’s condo, and swallowed hard. He looked terrible, like he didn’t even know what sleep was anymore. Dark circles were under his eyes like black eyeliner, puffy and plain as day. She just wanted to make him lie down and sleep for months and catch up on it all. His hair was combed neatly, as if he was prepared for this meeting, and his shirt looked wrinkled from lack of ironing.

As if not sure what to do with his hands, he shoved them in the front pockets of his faded blue jeans.

“I…” He began, and moistened his lips. “I…don’t know what I’m doing here.”

Madison swallowed hard, and then reached up to curl a strand of honey blond hair behind her ear. She looked him up and down, and then gazed into his lost-looking, hazel-green eyes. One glimpse at that handsome gaze, and she knew. She knew. Nothing could prepare her for the violent blow suffocating to her chest. She was really in trouble now if she felt this strongly for him—she most certainly was in love with him, no matter how unsure she was of how it had exactly happened, or why it had happened so fast.

“W-Well.” She itched to hug all the dark emotions probably swirling inside him right out.

But she had to act right about this, Christian-like. First of all, it was probably unhealthy for a girl like herself to be around someone who might not even believe in God the way he acted, and she hoped God forgave her for thinking such a thing. She wasn’t sure if lack of sleep was causing her to think such stuff, but it was still true. Maturely true. She could not stay around Cole when he was this way, and wouldn’t give her neither the time of day nor any information she inquired about.

Today had to be the last time she ever saw of him if he still refused to tell her everything she was almost dying to know about.

“Well,” she began again in a hoarse, ragged voice. “You’re here, s-so…” She shrugged stiffly. “I hope to think you probably had a good reason for coming here.”

Cole swept his gaze over her, and it irked Madison to see pain come into his eyes. But it both looked and felt different than the usual pain she seemed to see on him. She could hardly explain it even to herself, but something was definitely wrong anyway.

“You…I haven’t seen you in a whole week, Madison.” He tried for a smile, and lost. “H…How are you?”

“I’m fine,” she lied, and hugged herself. “How are you?” She forced the words out, “Nightmares still there?”

He tensed, and she already knew the answer. “C-Cole…I don’t know why you’re here either…”

Cole looked up at her in an almost pleading expression.

She fought away the tears biting her. It had to be impossible to feel such longing; such want and need to even hurt whoever was making him look so terrible. What were the nightmares even about?

“But, Cole, I’m afraid nothing can become of this if you won’t…” She forced the last words out, “If you won’t tell me anything. I won’t see you anymore if you keep hiding such obvious pain from me, Cole, so just…” She clenched her teeth. “S-Spare me, okay, and just…” She closed her eyes briefly.

Cole gulped, but then his gaze shot to her move to hoist her purse strap higher on her left shoulder. “You’re trembling,” he murmured, and lurched forward.

Gasping, Madison stepped back. “Don’t, Cole. If you can’t tell me anything, then this will have to be the last time you ever meet me.”

On rubber legs, she walked slowly to the door and fisted the keys from her trembling hands. She was only a single unlock away to freedom away from him.

Cole’s cold hand wrapped around her left wrist gently, and she stiffened.

“Madison.”

She looked up at him, and swallowed hard in preparation.

He gave her a small, sad smile. “Please. Let’s…how about I take you out for ice cream. Huh? Then…then I promise I’ll try to explain everything.”

Shock shot through her like a bullet, and Madison almost lost her footing. “Really?” she asked softly.

He nodded, and tenderness came over his face, but Madison refused to think of that look as more than friendship.

“But first I need you to trust me, Madison. Please.” He smiled wistfully. “Whatever I tell you will be worth telling, then. I promise.”

Madison thought about this for a long moment, and then felt relief from the bottom of her heart. She could trust him. It was going to be easy.

“All right.” She grinned, and suddenly felt like her own self again. She was so pleased to hear he was finally going to tell her, or at least try to. “Let’s go.”

Cole chuckled, and for the first time in her life, to Madison it felt like her world was finally back in place again.

Chapter Four

Chapter Four

Madison shook her head at how on earth Cole must be feeding himself. Hadn’t anybody ever taught him how to make a homecooked meal? Preferably not. But she was not going to be apologetic. Cole deserved every slice in the thirteen-by-nine inch pan of lasagna she’d made. Even if that meant she wouldn’t get one. He might need the food a lot more than her. She’d eaten a big breakfast, after all.

She led the way onto the front white porch of her balcony from the stairs, where her second floor condo was located.

“Here we are.” She unlocked the door, already smelling the Parmesan and tomato sauce from inside. “My neighbor Brandi was so kind to watch the lasagna for me while I was gone. It must be done now.” She led the way into the apartment. “Just make yourself at home.” She threw her purse, shoes, and keys off to one side, and then bent to check the lasagna at the stove. Before Cole had come in Starbucks, Brandi had sent her a text message saying the lasagna was done.

“We’ll be ready to eat in a little bit.” She glanced at Cole gazing around her condo.

“Nice place,” he remarked quietly.

“Oh, thanks.” With the potholders, she gently took the lasagna out of the oven. “I know there’s such bright colors on the walls. The previous tenant must have painted those there, although I would never dream of painting over them. Such nice colors, like a rainbow, don’t you think?”

“Do you need any help there?” Cole asked as he walked into the kitchen, eyeing the lasagna hungrily.

“Nope, nope.” She set the pan on a potholder on her island counter. “Just sit yourself down and be comfortable. We’ll be ready to eat in a bit.”

“Great.” Another ghost of a smile traced his face as he sat on one of the padded stools, and Madison immediately wished he’d smile more.

Yet, she reminded herself as she carefully closed the hot oven door and shut the oven off, that whenever he did smile, it was lopsided and goofy, and one of the most appealing smiles she’d ever seen. He was a looker, she’d definitely give him that, but she wasn’t in the market for that sort of thing. It’d happened once, and despite her sometimes wondering if there was a husband God had planned for her, she doubted it would ever happen again.

Still, it was good to be happy in life, and better that than sad and lost like he’d so looked in the hospital. Poor guy. She couldn’t help wondering why he looked that way.

“Go ahead and dish up.” She got out some paper plates, plastic cups, and silverware.

“Nope. Ladies first.” He shrugged at her.

Wowzer. Madison shook off his kind notion. She didn’t deserve a fraction of generosity that he probably did. “No, really, Cole. I know you’re hungry.”

“That wouldn’t be polite.” He averted his gaze, as if a bit shy of making sure she was taken care of first. “Besides, we have to pray before we eat, don’t we?”

That made her wonder if he was a Christian or just said that because he thought or knew she was.

“All righty.” She sat down across from him, and then bowed her head.

“Go ahead and start,” he said, and bowed his own head.

She nodded and squeezed her eyes shut. “Dear Lord, thank you for this beautiful meal, thank you for supplying the ingredients in which to so make it, and thanks also for an awesome  new friend, and healing Cole’s injury. Thanks also for all your blessings, and may there be a goodly share on every table everywhere. Amen.”

“Amen,” Cole murmured.

After dishing a big slice of lasagna onto her plate, Madison gently nudged it toward him. “Smells delicious.”

“Yeah, it does.” Cole bit into it. “And it tastes delicious, too.”

“Oh, thank you, hon.” She grinned.

“Do you always make your meals homecooked?”

“Of course. Well, most of the time. Sometimes…you know. You just feel like eating a sandwich or sub or something instead, or else sometimes I go out to eat with a friend. We could do that sometime, too.” She beamed.

But Cole was gaping at her. “You make homecooked meals three times a day?”

“Most of the time I feel pretty up to it.” She swallowed her second bite of food. “I like cooking anyway. Ooh, and baking! It’s so much fun.” She grinned. “I have a doughnut maker, although the bakery makes better ones.”

“I think I might have to test that theory.” A lopsided grin implored Cole’s mouth, and Madison’s heart suddenly went haywire. What was wrong with her? She swallowed hard, determined to finish her meal without losing her appetite just by how handsome he looked. How pathetic. She hadn’t felt this way about anyone since Brian, and she’d only known Cole a few days. What was up with that?

And why was she even thinking about Brian Langford in the first place? She hadn’t thought of him in ten whole months. That had to be a record somewhere in a random record-making book.

“Why not be a chef or baker instead of an art teacher?” Cole asked, taking her momentarily off guard.

She seriously needed to get a grip on herself. It was just a smile, after all. She was trying to be a good Samaritan, the way Jesus had been in the Bible.

“Well,” she said, “I thought about that at first. But I love working with kids, and I want them to experience art and coloring. I want to watch their faces light up.”

“Sounds like a good plan, then.” He nodded, and then took another bite of her lasagna. He chewed thoughtfully, and for the first time in a long time, his face didn’t look so pale, lost or sad. He actually looked like he was enjoying himself. She had to wonder when that actually happened. “So what else do you do in your spare time?”

“I don’t know.” She had to wonder how boring he’d think of her if she told him.

But it didn’t matter anyway, because she did not have a thing for him! He was just one of those regular cute guys, although maybe a bit skinnier and paler than others.

“Well,” she decided to tell him, “I like to spend some time with my great-grandmother. She is a sweetheart. I also volunteer at the zoo, foster animals if they need my help—”

“Whoa, whoa.” Cole held up a hand. “You volunteer at the zoo?”

“Yeah.” She shrugged. “I love hanging out with the animals, and even the lions can be in good moods. Oh, and there’s the quilt I’m making for the town bazaar—”

“You make a quilt?” he asked, astonished obviously.

“Sure. I make one every year for our annual summer town bazaar. I always get a good profit.”

Cole’s eyebrows shot up as he hungrily finished the lasagna. “Wow, is there anything you can’t do?”

She chuckled. “Oh, stop. I bet you have plenty of fun stuff to do in your life, don’t you?”

Cole shrugged, and Madison took that as a no. She all the sudden wanted to teach him how to sew or play guitar the way she did. Or bake or cook. Something to keep that sad, lost look off his face.

A long moment passed, and then a sudden jingle broke the silence.

She watched Cole freeze, and then pull out his cell phone from the front pocket of his jeans. He stared at the it for a long moment, and Madison felt the taste of the lasagna turn into dust in her mouth.

If it was possible, Cole’s face grew even paler, and his eyes slightly widened as he continued staring at the screen and letting it ring. Then, his whole body started trembling, and Madison dropped her fork.

“Goodness, Cole, are you all right?” she asked gently.

But the moment his shoulders started quaking and his breath became a bit wheezy, Madison sprang into action. She recognized the clear signs of a panic attack. She set the phone aside, and then took a brown paper bag from the pantry.

“Here,” she commanded him sharply, holding it over his mouth. “Breathe in here. Deeply. Come on.”

Cole took several deep breaths, and she had to wonder what had triggered the attack. His eyes stayed connected to the phone on the counter, though, and Madison turned to swiftly knock the phone to the floor.

“Don’t look at that,” she said sharply, and then put both of her index fingers and thumbs on either side of both his eyes, making him look at her. “Look at me, okay, Cole? Don’t look at that. Look at me. Just think of nice, calm things.”

He nodded, and the color eventually seeped back into his face. He swallowed hard, and when his breathing became more normal, Madison gently removed the  bag from his mouth.

“You okay?” she asked him gently.

He nodded. ”Yeah. I’m just…” He shrugged. “I’m fine.”

Madison didn’t look convinced, however. “Cole, you’re really worrying me. What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong.” He got up, determined to ignore that his panic attack ever happened. “Sometimes I get panic attacks.”

“Well, what triggers it?” Madison gently touched his shoulder.

“Nothing.” He looked away, and then swallowed hard. “Nothing at all.” He reached for his fork with trembling fingers, and then took a big bite of the lasagna so he wouldn’t have to answer any more of her probably prodding questions.

Madison studied Cole for a long moment, but then went back to her own stool with reluctance. She finished eating her large slice of lasagna, but she didn’t look her usual sunny self. She took a big swallow of milk, but her slender fingers were trembling slightly as if she didn’t know what to do with herself, or the situation.

That tortured look sent an invisible sword straight through Cole’s gut. He couldn’t explain what he was feeling, but what he did know was that he didn’t want to like the feeling. The phone call proclaimed his every fear. If Madison knew even a smidgen of what was going with his family, she would be lost. No doubt about it.

“You’re not going to tell me about the phone call, are you?” Madison quirked an eyebrow at him, and she set down her fork. Maybe she had lost her appetite. “Whoever was calling seemed to have scared you.”

“I told you it’s nothing, all right.” Cole meant to sound gentle, but it ended up coming out gruff. The last thing he wanted was to cause another bit of hurt to cross her lovely face.

Oh, boy, maybe he was going overboard here.

“Well, it’s not all right, Cole!” Madison shook her head so hard, her curls swayed from side to side. She was purely adorable. “It bothers me to see such a good friend being tortured like that, like his entire set of guts was being ripped out. If you get my meaning.”

Had he looked that bad? Cole barely noticed anymore. He’d felt more numb by the day, ever since the day after his twelfth birthday when his mother had sat him down and told him the doggoned awful truth: the truth of what their family did for a living. He’d finally felt pain again when his mother had died, but now he could barely feel his heart beating most days. He was not sure if he was depressed. Mostly it was just never-ending stress. His sleep had turned lost as well, and it certainly didn’t help that he had to have his entire family’s phone numbers on his silver, Blackberry cell phone.

“I’m not your friend,” he grumbled, and knew with every word it was true. “I never have been.”

“Oh, of course you are, honey!” Madison surprised him by wrapping his cold in both of her own. She held his hand so dearly as if he honestly meant the world to her, and he could not believe of the numbness wearing off him like novocaine. “You matter very dear to me, to the good Lord, too. And I trust very much that He will help you with whatever you’re dealing with, and certainly won’t mind if you tell me your troubles.”

“I can’t, Madison.” He tried jerking his hand away, but she held on tight.

She couldn’t know what her touch was doing to him. Like Band-Aids being ripped off quickly from skin, it was ripping off every bit of numbness inside him. More than that, it was causing good thoughts to melt into his brain like warm honey, and he couldn’t keep them at bay. The only thing that could was Addison’s phone call.

If he called again, he was doomed.

“I don’t believe that,” he croaked, and then swallowed the lump in his throat. Boy, he certainly wasn’t hungry anymore. “N-No one has ever been this good to me.”

“Oh, come now, that can’t be true.” She cocked her head at him so sweetly that his eyes blurred. How could this be possible? He was suddenly becoming attracted to her, and the mere thought of what could happen if his family discovered her terrified him. It made him want to kidnap her and take her away to Europe, anywhere safe from the other Whitworths. “What about your family?”

Cole winced as if twelve bullets had hit him, and he bit his lip to keep from screaming. How could this attraction be possible? How could he keep letting her do this? He had to put a stop to all this kindness. He had to keep her safe.

A too-familiar jingle suddenly pierced the silence.

He and Madison both glanced down at his cell phone lying on the floor. This time, the speed dial said Jack’s name that was calling. What if they traced his footsteps? They’d done that before, with the one girlfriend he’d had in high school…and watched her end up dead.

“I’ll get that.” The stool squeaked on the tile floor as Madison quickly rose to her feet. “Whoever’s upsetting you is obviously not in their right mind, Cole.”

Jingle, jingle.

“So I am going to definitely give them a piece of my mind.” She nodded with stark determination.

Jingle, jingle. Cole’s blood began to rise a temperature beyond boiling.

“Right here, right now.” She began to bend down.

Panic seizing him, Cole grasped her by the shoulders and gently shoved her against the fridge behind her. She stared up at him with wide, confused eyes. She was so close he could smell vanilla on her, a beautiful smell that definitely made him believe that she must be sent straight from heaven, from all those heavenly scents and places.

“Do not touch that phone,” he growled, and then swallowed hard. “I…I cannot let you.”

Madison narrowed her eyes.

In one fluent movement, Cole snatched the phone from the ground just as it went straight to voicemail, he knew, by a single beep. He shoved it in the front pocket of his jeans to deal with later, and then nodded to the door.

“I better go.” He nodded at her. “Thanks for the lasagna, but I’m not hungry anymore. Sorry. Have a good night.” He began to turn toward the door.

“Cole, wait.” Madison snagged his arm, turning him fully toward her. “Come on, hon, you have to tell me what’s going on. Something has to be going on here. Please. Tell me.”

“I can’t.” He dared to glance at her. “Please understand, Madison. Or at least try to. I have to…keep you here.” He couldn’t resist. He reached up, and curled a strand of hair behind her ear. “You’re too perfect to leave behind.” Had he really said that? “But…another time.” He nodded curtly, and then turned the doorknob.

“Call me.” Madison pressed a piece of paper into his hand. “Here’s my number, in case you forgot. Please. Call me.”

Cole studied the door across the hall from Madison, and then prayed for a first time in a long time that He would definitely keep her safe.

“I’ll think about it.” He swallowed hard. “Goodbye.”

It tore him apart to leave, but he had to keep her safe. She was so full of goodness, and if anything happened to her, he’d never forgive himself. And he’d certainly never forgive his family, just like he’d never forgiven them for the past one hundred and twenty deaths.

***********************

Hours later, three hours after Madison usually went to sleep, she was still awake thinking about Cole’s panic attack. What had caused such a thing in the first place? Why was he acting as if she was the world’s worst enemy? It didn’t make any sense, and it was especially not very pleasing to a Christian girl like herself.

Madison decided that she needed to think about this over some hot chocolate. And maybe, just maybe, she should call Cole and ask if he was okay.

One look at the dark lines under his eyes of what she had seen today told her he was probably still up.

Cheeriness is Contagious; Chapter Three

8 November 2019

Hello everyone,

 

Are you a morning person? Or are you the kind of person that needs a ton of coffee in order to feel revived, alert, and energetic? Or are you always feeling crabby in the morning, even on your best days? Madison starts to rub off her constant cheeriness on Cole in these beginning chapters as you’ve already read. Sometimes extra cheery people annoy me. Other times, I’m grateful to have them around as opposed to negative, grumpy people or people who complain a lot. For me, hearing other people complain about stuff they shouldn’t be complaining about is one of my pet peeves. Although, for myself, I do complain more than I should. But alas, we are all a work in progress – including Cole. Watch below as Madison begins to change his demeanor.

 

Chapter Three

“No way am I getting strolled around in that thing.” The next morning, Cole eyed the wheelchair Nurse Bettie had indicated.

The nurse quirked a challenging eyebrow. “Hospital regulations.”

“Fine.” Madison crossed her arms and met the woman’s glare. “If he does get to ride on it, we’ll make it look like a recliner instead of a wheelchair. And, I’m going to be the one pushing him to the door.”

“But—”

“Nope.” Madison shook her head. “I’m sorry, but I’m not taking what you say.” She reached forward without waiting for a reply from neither Nurse Bettie or Cole. She slipped the pillow at the back of the wheelchair, and then threw a small blanket she’d brought along over the back so it looked more comfortable. “There! Is that a dealio or what?”

“Fine,” the nurse said, and then reached for Cole’s left arm while Madison grabbed his other arm. Together, they helped him into the wheelchair.

Cole felt ridiculous as the nurse pulled out the foot rests, and he wondered what Madison must think of him. But one glance at her, and she sent him a bright smile before giving a quick frown in the nurse’s direction. She went behind him.

“I’ll push him.”

The nurse sighed. “But hospital—”

“Hospital regulations, my foot! Let me push him, and you can just walk alongside, and then wait instead of touching the wheelchair or any part of him, unless of course, he feels sick, while I go and get my car. Are we clear…please?”

Cole had never been so defended in his entire life. Madison sounded so serious, however, that he had to hide his smile behind his hand. For the first time in too long, he actually wanted to smile.

“Fine. Go ahead.”

“Thank you.” With that, Cole was being pushed out the hospital room door, and down a long white corridor. They stopped before double doors, and he braced himself.

“I’ll be right back, sunshine.” Madison sent him a wink, and then hurried out into the sunlight.

Minutes later, to Cole’s great surprise, a bright yellow—literally—VW Bug drove up to the curb and parked. Madison got out, and then took the wheelchair again. She had the nurse open the car door as they gently helped him into the passenger seat. After he was settled, the nurse shut the door, and Cole watched in amusement as Madison practically shoved the wheelchair at the nurse, and said something that actually made the nurse’s eyes widen. Madison briefly watched as the nurse stormed away, and Madison went to the driver’s seat.

“All right.” She clipped herself in, after him, and then brought the car into Drive. “Are ya ready?”

Cole raised his eyebrows. “What exactly did you say to her? She looked mad,” he said as they began to make their way out of the hospital parking lot.

“Oh, not much. Just told her if I saw him treat another patient so rudely, I might have her fired.” She chuckled. “I was only half teasing, but Nurse Balonga probably didn’t know that.”

He almost smiled. “I think it’s Nurse Bettie, Madison.”

“Whatever.” She grinned at him, and then gently stepped on the accelerator once they reached the road. “Say, are you feeling better today? I don’t think I asked.”

She’d already asked three times, but surprisingly enough, Cole didn’t mind. “I’m fine. Thanks.”

“You didn’t have a rough sleep, did you?” She winced. “How hard can it be to sleep with an IV attached to your arm?”

“I’m a pretty still sleeper anyway.” He shrugged. “I slept okay.”

“Awesome.” Madison beamed at him once they reached the main highway. “I’m so proud of you for getting through this. You’re so brave to constantly chew the nurse and doctor both out.”

“Not like what you did.” It had to be said. “You should win an award.”

She chuckled. “Oh, stop.”

But Cole kept looking at her. She was dressed in a yellow T-shirt, jeans, and flip flops. Honey blond curls hugged her shoulders, and her violet eyes were alive with great enthusiasm. He had to wonder why she was so proud of him. He’d just had a gash to the forehead. Nothing major. He hadn’t had a concussion that bad. He hadn’t even felt sick once.

“You didn’t worry about me, did you?” he asked. “‘Cuz you know I’m fine.”

Madison waved a hand. “Worrying is natural. Besides, I know you are now. But I hated how those people treated you.” She shook her head with disgust. “As doctors, I hope they treat people a whole  better than that. Gee Louise.” She giggled. “I wonder if they even enjoy their jobs.”

Cole really, really didn’t know what to think of her. She was a constant ray of sunshine. “Where do you get all your energy?”

“Probably coffee.” She giggled again. “I drink like six cups of it every morning. It’s amazing I’m not hyper.”

“Yeah. Amazing.” So amazing that all Cole could do was stare at her. He hadn’t even met a woman like her. She was a too far contrast from both of his sisters put together.

Madison noticed, and then giggled again! “Oh, go ahead and say I’m weird. Or random. I probably deserve it. You must think how crazy I must be for a total stranger to give you a ride home.”

“Not really.” And she didn’t feel like a stranger either. The moment she’d been with him from his accident, she’d never felt strange. And she was so positive.

“Well, thanks. I really appreciate that.” She grinned at him. “Now where do ya live, silly?”

“I’ll show you.” Cole rambled off the directions to his apartment.

Madison kept the car alive with happiness and tease up until she parked in front of his apartment.

“The nice girl that I am, I’m going to make sure you get to the door okay.” She beamed at him, obviously no stranger to happiness. “You just got out of the hospital after all, and the doc had said that you had a mild concussion.”

Cole smiled wryly. He couldn’t help it. She was just so full of joy that he didn’t know what to do with himself. Besides, if he refused, he might hurt her feelings. That had to be a rare thing for her, being the way she was constantly joyful. It was almost ridiculous the way she was acting.

“I supposed I’ll lose the argument if I try to talk you out of it,” he said, and then grinned.

Madison killed the engine, and then motioned to his face. “That’s what I’m talking about, sunshine! Just a little bit of grinning. That’s all it takes to make everything better, don’t you agree?” She tossed him a wink, and then got out of the car, keys, purse, and all.

Cole led the way to his apartment door, and then unlocked it. “I think I’ll be fine here now, Madison. Thanks.”

“Don’t lie to me,” she warned teasingly. “It’s rough getting out of hospitals. I know, because my brother’s had two minor surgeries before.”

“I could never lie to you,” he said. “But anyway…thanks again.”

“Oh, no problem.” She waved a hand. “I should totally give you my number, though. Not because, you know, that I want to ask you out, but because in case you need anyway, dear.”

She called him dear? Cole raised his eyebrows. “I’m fine. Really. I probably won’t need it.” But just as the words were out of his mouth, a wave of sudden dizziness hit him. He needed to get inside ASAP.

But when everything suddenly started to swim from around him, Cole felt like he’d lost his brains. The apartment keys somehow had dropped to the floor, and Madison’s “yeah, right, silly” reply sounded way too far away. Like an echo, almost.

Addison’s threatening words, “I’m going to kill you if you don’t get this right” from yesterday echoed from around him, and before Cole knew it, his head had hit the floor.

******************

“That’s right. Just breathe. You’re all right.” Cole heard Madison say in another echo. He wasn’t sure how long it was later, but what he did know was that the moment he opened his eyes, the room was spinning again.

Madison’s blurry face was grinning over him. “You’re on the couch, sweetie. You just fainted, and I had to carry you inside. Are you still dizzy?”

Cole had absolutely no idea how Madison had gotten him into the apartment, much less on his couch, but she had. “Uh…” He suddenly felt a little sick.

Madison chuckled and then held something over him. “How many fingers am I holding up?”

He looked at the four fingers. “Four.”

She chuckled again. “Close enough. It was actually two, but I think we’re making progress. What do you think?”

“Ow.” He slapped a hand to his head. “It hurts.”

“Yeah, I bet it does.” Again, her voice was echoing. “I called your doctor, by the way. He said to just let you rest, so don’t even try getting up, mister. It’ll totally not be worth it.” She laughed. “My goodness, I wonder how you must feel right about now. But anyways, don’t fret. Just close your eyes and count to a hundred for me. Can you do that?”

Cole nodded and closed his eyes, though it felt like he was on a roller coaster, going round and round and round.

***************

The sound of a lawn mower was what woke Cole up the next morning. He found himself on the couch, covered up with two blankets. He gazed around his empty apartment, and then immediately felt grateful that his dizziness had ceased. He was feeling a lot better, except for some pain, but that he could definitely deal with. He carefully sat up, holding a hand to his forehead in case another wave of dizziness came about. He carefully got up, and then figured that Madison must have gone home. The clock in the living room said that it was eight-something in the morning. He would miss his first class, but that was fine. He didn’t much care for those classes nowadays anyway.

The moment Cole stood, however, and then took a real look around his apartment, he knew there was a definite change. The dishes in the sink were all washed and set aside. The coffee pot was on, with a full pot of coffee all ready for him. He was shocked. Madison had done all this?

Stepping forward, Cole froze. And then gaped.

At the island counter, there were four different kinds of fruit, all freshly bought. Oranges, apples, and bananas piled there. Stepping around the counter, he counted two or three bars of chocolate, a medium-sized case of French vanilla cappuccino, a new bottle of ibuprofen, and a new box of brown-sugar-flavored instant oatmeal. Madison had bought all this. He could not believe it.

At the far corner of the counter, though, was a note from under a last, but not least, new loaf of white bread. He studied the note, where Madison’s cursive, beautifully sprawled handwriting had her phone digits at the top. The note read: “If you need anything, just give me a holler. Figured you could use some extra food. Make sure and eat it or I will track you down. Hope you’re feeling better,  Madison Brooks.”

Again, Cole shook his head. He just couldn’t get over how a strange woman like Madison herself, no matter how welcomed she’d brought herself out to be, could buy all this stuff for him just because she was concerned. Or that she cared. But no woman in his life except his mother had ever done anything like this. Especially no one non-related to him had ever done anything like this before, and he was just in awe. But deep inside him, Cole felt a big swirl of emotions that he’d never felt before. It didn’t make any bit of sense to admit that he might possibly be a smidgen attracted to Madison Brooks, but it was also highly possible. Yet a pretty, sunny girl like herself probably had a boyfriend anyway. Isn’t that how it always went?

And why was he even wondering if she had one anyway? It wasn’t only none of his business, it was totally wrong altogether.

Cole decided to eat the stuff, and he did, but the whole next week of classes and constantly hoping Addison would never call bit into him. It kept him busy all the way through, but in the days when it wasn’t so busy, when he was driving back home at night, or when he was lying awake right before going to sleep, Cole thought about Madison. He’d wanted to call her and thank her, since he still had her number. It was lying beside his phone mocking him constantly, but what else would he say? Would he want to hear her joyful voice and then feel terrible that they couldn’t see each other anymore? What on earth did Madison even mean to him?

He didn’t know, but the following Saturday afternoon, a week later, Cole found himself in a Starbucks, staring into his hot chocolate, and wondering where he was going.

A couple left in the booth ahead of him, and to his great surprise, Madison was sitting two booths away facing him. She was eating something. When she looked up, her entire face brightened, as did part of Cole’s soul. She waved at him, and before he knew what was happening, Cole was standing and walking over to her booth.

“Hey, Cole.” Madison grinned at him.

“H-Hi.” He indicated the seat across from her. “Are you alone? Can I sit?”

“Sure.” She beamed. “Of course I’m alone. I very rarely come here with somebody.” She chuckled, and them motioned to his drink. “Hot chocolate, huh?”

“Yeah.” He nodded to her to-go, Styrofoam cup of something. “What do you have?”

“Oh, just a big coffee.” She finished chewing her large cookie, a quarter eaten off of it. She motioned to it. “You can have a bite if you want. It’s massive.”

“No, I’m fine.” He smiled at her gently. “I, um…was going to call….you.” He swallowed hard at her curious look. What was going on with him? “I wanted to…thank you for everything you did. And you didn’t even need to buy that stuff for me. I mean…that’s really nice, thanks.”

“You’re very welcome.” She cupped her hands around her cup. “I was afraid of leaving you, so I asked my friend Kristi to buy the stuff for me, and then I’d pay her back. I did so without even leaving you, even when you were sick.”

“Oh.” Cole grinned. He barely remembered that moment. “I’m…I’m so sorry.”

“Hey, it didn’t bother me too much.” She grinned. “So did you eat the stuff? You didn’t go hungry, right?”

“No. I still have some left, but I’ve been eating it.” Cole shook his head. Why was she even wondering? Why did she care so much?

“Well, since I’m a good Samaritan, you know. I wanted to make sure you had some stuff you needed. I did your dishes, too, because I thought you might not feel well enough to do them.” She shrugged. “Sorry if I interrupted any privacy.”

He chuckled. “What privacy?” he asked, and then he wished he hadn’t said that. His life was pretty private as it was.

“At least you’re better now.” Madison reached over, patted his hand, and then let go to take a sip of her coffee.

But Cole had to wonder why her touch felt like an electric zap straight to his heart. For about twenty seconds he couldn’t breathe normally. Which was extremely odd in his situation. He just wasn’t thinking straight.

“Go ahead and have it.” She motioned the cookie to him. “I’m pretty full. I’ve had a big breakfast.” Suddenly, another lightbulb seemed to have flipped on inside her head, because her face brightened even more if that was possible. “Say, you know, you should have a homecooked meal. You know, a whole three-course extravaganza kind of dealio. Let me ask you something, Cole. When’s the last time you had a homecooked meal?”

Her gaze briefly filtered over him, as if trying to guess why he was skinny as he was. Cole felt like he should hurry and buy a sweatshirt, even in the hot summer air, because maybe he wouldn’t look as skinny then.

“Um…” He had to think about the last time he had a homecooked meal. It’d been quite a while.

“All right, that settles it.” She slapped the table. “Sometime, I will definitely invite you over to my condo, someday, maybe, and you’ll have what you’re looking for.”

“In my defense, I do eat every day.” Cole knew that he looked skinny, but sometimes, the stuff that happened in his family and the company just made his appetite vanish, to the point where he sometimes even felt sick. Of all the bodies he’d seen in his lifetime, few of the killings he’d seen occur…it was a wonder he wasn’t thinner.

“Yeah, you probably do.” But Madison shook her head. “But in case you go hungry or run out of food, at least you have my number, right?” She chuckled, and then glanced at her leatherband watch on her slender left wrist. “Oh, my. I better run. I have to head to the bank before home. There’s lunch cooking and waiting for me there.” She grinned, and then stood. “It was really nice seeing you again, Cole.”

She was leaving? Cole wanted to seriously object, another new thing for him.

“You don’t have to go yet.” Had he actually said that?

“But I do.” Thankfully, she didn’t look taken aback at all. She grabbed her cup of coffee, and then patted him on the shoulder. “Take it easy, all right? Hope to see you sometime in the future.” She flashed him one last grin, and then waved. “Bye, Cole.”

“B-Bye.” Cole couldn’t help watching her leave, though, and again, the booth felt empty. Just like the hospital room and the apartment had both felt empty when she’d left. It was like he was never going to see her again, and suddenly, Cole needed to see her again. He didn’t understand why, exactly, but he just couldn’t let her get away so easily.

Before he could even make himself have second thoughts, Cole stood and hurried out of the building.

Madison had just opened her driver’s door to her bright yellow car when he hurried onto the sidewalk, clutching the crumbs of the cookie in one hand, and his cup of hot chocolate in the other.

“Wait!” he exclaimed.

She looked up, surprised, and then grinned. “Did you forget something?”

“Y-Yeah.” Cole swallowed hard. “I…on s-second thought, I think I might take you up on that…homecooked meal offer.”

“Really?” Pleasure seeped over her lovely heart-shaped face. “Well, I’ll be. Did you want to do it now? Do you like lasagna?”

Cole nodded, and then felt himself grinning like a fool. What on earth was wrong with him? He’d never acted this way before. “Y-Yeah.” He swallowed hard. “I love the stuff.”

“Well, awesome!” Madison gave a little squeal, and then clenched her left fist as if fighting to contain her excitement. “How about you follow me up there? That way you’ll know where I live in case you ever want to visit me.” She grinned. “Then I can head to the bank this afternoon. Sound like a plan?”

“It sure does,” he concluded. “S-See you there.”

“Yeah, see ya!” She clutched her cup. “Oh my goodness, this is going to be so much fun.” She got into her car.

Cole watched her for a bit before realizing what he was doing. Staring like an idiot. He sharply turned away to his car two cars down from hers, and got into his Mustang. He wasn’t sure how he could’ve parked in this lot without seeing her bright yellow car.

As he turned on the ignition, he seriously wondered what he would have done if he had seen it, went to a different coffee place or gone inside anyway.

The Art of Optimism; Chapter Two

11 October 2019

Hello everyone,

 

I wish I could be as optimistic in life as Madison is. Her spirit for giving and helping others is what first appeals to Cole – but I won’t give anything away. Personality tests try to tell us who we are, but they’re not always accurate. Only God knows us better than we know ourselves – and that’s the true art of optimism. He sends us into situations that we’re not expecting, but even we don’t like the situation at first, it always ends up in our favor and for our own happiness.

 

Keep reading to see how God switches everything around for Cole and Madison!

 

 

Chapter Two 

“He sounds spectacular.”

“I know.” Madison giggled as she stored books away in the bookstore, glancing at her co-worker and friend, Michelle Larson. “He’s a very handsome guy, but I don’t know. He just seems really troubled, for some odd reason.”

“I would be cautious, if I were you.” Michelle grinned. “You never know what kind of guy he is until the end sometimes, and it’s not always good.”

“Oh, please, come on. Just be optimistic. I am.”

“You always are.”

She chuckled. “I have a good right to be, Shelly.” She shrugged. “God’s love is amazing. He can make the smallest, most horrible things turn into the biggest and brightest, wonderful things!” She shook her head.

To this day she was still amazed at the unique power of God’s amazing love. He’d been the One who had made her into the sunny, happy-sunshine self she was every day from the day she’d been born to present day. All her life, every friend and, perhaps, some of the few foes, had constantly been impressed with her sunny self. She very seldom got mad, and she was constantly determined to see not only every day to the fullest and live it that way, but to look for many amazing things in each day, whether they were in nature or elsewhere. She knew that God was always watching out for her and those she loved, so it was so easy to trust in Him daily, for her, at least. Her wonderful parents had led her to look for the sunny side in the every day, and her brother’s own sunny self had brought him to be engaged to a wonderful person, also a Christian like she and her family so were.

“I guess that’s true.” Shelly shrugged. “But I guess that’s for me to learn and find out, huh?”

“Yeppers.” Madison nodded curtly, although she sent a silent prayer heavenward for His constant watch to be over Shelly and her family, more so than for her. She had everything she needed, but after Michelle had broken up with her boyfriend, her faith had spun into a pessimistic downturn. Madison hoped and prayed that Shelly would once again have the same kind of faith that she tried to daily. “But don’t worry, Shell. God, I’m sure, is leading you in the right direction, too.”

“You deserve it more than me, though, Maddie.” Shell quirked an eyebrow. “I mean, come on. How many bad things have happened to you and you’ve always seen through it so optimistically, and so faithfully? Unlike me.”

“Every person is different. Each Christian has their own unique styles and abilities, like how they pray, for example.” Madison patted her friend’s shoulder, and continued dusting the bookshelves. “I hope, though, that Cole finds his  heart soon. He seems to be so lost. I’m going to see him right after work, though.”

“I’d like to have known what was going through his mind the moment he met your sunny self.” Michelle smiled wryly.

“Hopefully he’s thinking that he’s hungry, ‘cuz I’m thinking of buying a package of those yummy doughnuts at the bakery before I head over there.” Madison giggled in excitement.

“Oh, Maddie, don’t you know that bringing in food for patients is against the hospital rule?” Michelle gave her a warning look.

But Madison waved it aside. “Not if I have anything to do with it.” She nodded with stern determination, and then continued working.

******

“I don’t think so,” Cole’s nurse told Madison later.

They were standing in the doorway of Cole’s hospital room. Cole was gaping at them with shock as Madison shook her head at Nurse Bettie. She was quite the beetle, Madison noted. She wasn’t sure how the woman could be so fierce and determined.

“Fine. I’ll eat them myself then,” Madison said. “I won’t share any with Cole, and I’ll save the rest for that.” She tossed the woman a big smile. “That way I won’t get into any trouble. Dealio?”

Bettie quirked an eyebrow.

Madison rolled her eyes, and then forced a smile. “It means, ‘deal?'”

“Deal.” Bettie neglected Madison’s extended hand, and left the room.

Madison waited until the door had closed behind the woman before she started giggling. Then, she hurried over to Cole’s table, and opened the package for him. “Hurry.” She smirked. “Before Nurse Baloney comes back.”

A faint ghost of a smile leered across Cole’s face.

Okay, it was almost progress, Madison thought. So far, all she’d gotten from him was either that or frowns. Cole was very difficult for her to read. She could usually sense people’s emotions so well, but Cole here was as talented hiding his emotions as a volcano sprouting lava.

Okay, bad comparison, maybe.

“Are you sure it’s safe?” Cole asked, no ounce of amusement on his face as he took a bite of a mini chocolate doughnut. “You could get kicked out.”

“They’d have to call security to kick me out,” Madison determined, eating a frosted mini doughnut with him. The package had a mixed variety of kinds of doughnuts, twelve altogether. “But I bet not even then they’ll be successful. They’ll have to throw me over their backs screaming.” She chuckled at the thought. “But they should probably know I’ll be back the next day.” She glanced up at them, and her eyebrows shot up.

Cole was studying her as if she’d literally lost her mind, one doughnut halfway to his mouth. It was his second. Finally, he chomped into it. “Where’d you get these anyway?”

“At the bakery across from the bookstore. That’s where I work, remember.” Madison daintily wiped the edges of her mouth with one of the napkins she’d also brought along. “I figured that staying in the hospital for a few days really has to be the dickens dirt, so I decided to cheer you up. It adds to the coffee, don’t you agree?”

“I’m getting discharged tomorrow,” Cole said, and then gently shoved the mini doughnuts aside, as if full. But by how lean he still looked, Madison doubted it very much. Her brother could eat a whole package of doughnuts in one day and later regret it. “By then, you’ll wish you’d never met me.”

“How so?” Madison grinned at him. “You seem pretty awesome to me.”

He shook his head, and then looked away, all stone serious. “That’s because you barely know me.”

“What are you talking about?” Madison pushed the doughnut package back toward him. “I feel like I’ve known you forever. I shared both coffee and doughnuts with you. I call that knowing you.”

“Maybe in your world, not mine.” He looked away.

She laughed. “Do you think that I would believe that?”

He shrugged. “I hate telling lies.”

She didn’t get him. He was even tempting her sunny attitude to dampen, and that rarely happened. Very rarely, in fact.

“Keep eating.” She handed him another chocolate doughnut. “Here, I know you like these. By the way, my brother, Patrick? He can eat like three of these in one whole week. He tried to eat two in one day once, but he almost ended up sick.” She chuckled. “We all thought it was hilarious, even my mom, and she’s like the one who actually knows how to worry.”

Cole looked at her then. “You mean you’re always like this?”

“Always like what?” she asked, and then frowned lightly. “‘Course I am. My friends sometimes call me Maddie, Cole, although my family calls me Madison. You can call me anything you want, really. My grandpa calls me Mads, and my aunt calls me Mads-Pads, but I don’t know if I’d go that far with you.”

Another ghost of a smile hinted across Cole’s face. “Wow. What do they call your brother?”

“Well, his fiancée calls him Patty, which is weird. I call him Pat, Mom and Dad call him Pat, but he prefers Patrick.” She chuckled. “He’s twenty-four, only two years older than me.”

“I’m twenty-three,” he said gruffly, and the moment he did, pain laced his face.

Madison stood there momentarily staring at him, shell-shocked.

“Eat up, mister.” She again extended the doughnut. “I know you still have room inside you.” She grinned. “Tempting, isn’t it?”

Cole reluctantly took the doughnut, but just how he ate it made Madison wonder how much food he ate per day.

“By the way…” She finished chewing her own doughnut before swallowing, so she could talk better. She didn’t want to spit food at him. “I’m taking you home tomorrow, Cole. No suggestions or excuses. It’s hospital rule anyway. Right? Or did one of your family members change their mind?”

Cole looked down, and fingered his blankets like he had earlier. “No, they haven’t.” Sigh. “You can take me if you want.”

“Well, you don’t have to be so downhearted about it.” She waved a hand. “You live in Manhattan, right? It shouldn’t take too long.”

He looked up at her sharply. “Why are you helping me anyway? I don’t need any help.”

“I think I owe it to you.” She both playfully and gently punched his shoulder. “Besides, I adore helping people. Even animals. Did you know that I like to foster some animals for a living? It’s a side job. It’s not always fun, of course, but you know me. I like to think of the sunny side of things.”

Cole frowned hard. “Why?” he asked, looking at her as if it was the most ridiculous piece of information he’d ever heard of.

“Why not?” She shrugged a shoulder. “Life is to enjoy, and it’s the only life God ever gives you, except for eternally, of course. Right?”

“I…guess.”

“Glad you agree.” She slipped her third doughnut into her mouth, and then lifted the cover over the package. “You done?” she asked around the doughnut.

Cole nodded, but he looked even more sad.

Madison’s giggle sent him looking up, though.

She shook her head fiercely. “Just think what sort of ruckus I would have started if I’d argued with Bettie a bit more.” She giggled again. “Goodness gracious.”

Cole quirked an eyebrow. Ever since the woman had jumped into his life like one of those jumping beans, he’d been surprised at almost every sentence coming out of her bow-shaped mouth. She was cute and pretty, he had to give her that. She was also fun-sized, and couldn’t be more than five feet, four inches tall. His brother Addison was a six story building compared to her height, and he knew, at least, that he was way taller than her, five feet, eleven inches, to be exact. But the way she kept going really was beginning to irk him only a little.

Finally, Cole decided that he needed to know how she kept going the way she did. What kept her going, exactly? How come she was so constantly sunny?

But first, he needed to know one other thing.

“Can I ask you a question?” he asked, expecting a big and bright answer from her.

“Sure as shootin’.” She grinned at him, every one of her teeth meaning the brightness of her smile. It was exactly like a hundred-watt lightbulb.

“How come you’re so nice to me?” He had to ask. “You’re bringing me doughnuts and coffee. What’s with that?”

Not a single bit of light went out in her violet-blue eyes. She shrugged. “I don’t know. Does a girl need a reason to cheer up a Mr. Grumpy?”

He quirked an eyebrow. “I am not grumpy.”

Madison let out a trill of bell-like laughter, and crossed her arms. “Prove it, oh grumpy one.”

The statement sounded so serious and so humorous at the same time, despite her twinkling eyes, that Cole almost smiled. Every time he wanted to, though, he was starkly reminded of the pain so ready to meet him at home, or at “home.” The harsh reminder of what his family had planned for him if he didn’t stick to his quietness in every meeting. In fact, two days from now, he had to go to another meeting. Addison had decided to hit bimonthly meetings now instead of just monthly meetings. He had to be at every one if he wanted to sleep well at night, or not wake up in heaven instead.

“Maybe I’m not grumpy,” he decided firmly. “Maybe I just would rather see the seriousness of life.”

“What seriousness?” Madison obviously did not know the meaning to the word serious. “There is no such thing.”

“What about death?” Cole felt his whole body flinch at the very word, remembering his mother. “Isn’t that serious?”

“It is if they’re not a Christian.” Madison shook her head, her smile disappearing briefly. “That has to be the saddest thing I’ve ever heard of.”

She had a point there. As a trying Christian, Cole knew that for people who didn’t believe in God, death had to be the most horrifying thing ever. That’s why, despite their deadly sins, he hoped his family never had to deal with that.

“I better go.” Madison grinned at him. “I have a full evening with my dog planned ahead of me, but count your blessings, mister. I’ll be here right away in the morning to bring you home, and perhaps even chew Nurse Balogna out then. All righty?”

Cole nodded. “Sure. I guess I can’t stop you.”

“Of course not.” She tossed him a wink. “I’ll leave the doughnuts with you.” She waved, and then left.

But it wasn’t until she did that Cole realized how empty the room felt.

Baby Nerves; Chapter 1

13 September 2019

Hello everyone,

 

Well, we’re here. The month of our baby’s due date has finally arrived. I am so terrified and excited all at once. I plan to not use an epidural during childbirth, and I hope and pray that the delivery process goes as smoothly and as quickly as possible. We are as ready as we possibly can be, and the nursery has been thoroughly decorated. The only two beings in my life I have yet to surprise are my two cats, Lefty & Felix. I can only pray that the adjustment for them will go smoothly and really well – I’m even hoping that maybe they’ll “help out” or want to be best buddies with the baby.

 

For all you moms out there, do you have any interesting and unique childbirth stories? I’d love to read them! Please comment below 🙂

 

Until then, please enjoy the first chapter of “Time & Tide”:

 

One

Two months later

“I can’t believe he actually asked you out!” twenty-two year old Madison Brooks squealed with delight, glancing at her light blue-colored cell phone sitting between the driver’s and middle seat of her bright yellow VW Bug. She shook her dark, honey blond, long hair as she hit the left turn signal to pass the motorcyclist in front of her.

Madison’s best friend since second grade, Nicole Donovan’s happy laugh came over the speakerphone. “Ha! I know. But what else can I say? I guess those looks we’d cast each other in the college library finally paid off.”

“Bravo.” Madison shook her head as she turned back into the right lane of the four-lane highway. Hills and hills of countryside passed her by. She was just leaving Seattle, at the very edge of Washington State after shopping for a present for her cousin’s bridal shower coming up in a week. “You are one brave girl. But be careful, Nicole. You know as well as I do how co-worker relationships can turn from a blossoming to a dud relationship in mere weeks.”

“That was different. When you worked at the computer store last year, that was different, Maddie. He was a dud, while Jake is so cool! So awesome, I just want to spend forever with him. You know what he told me? He told me that he’d liked me for six months! He didn’t even get hired at the library until seven months ago!”

“You were so lucky to find that job.” Madison laughed, and then smiled at the small town approaching, just sixty miles out of Seattle. “Okay, hon, you know what? I’m finally at Lincoln. I’d better go, but I promise I’ll call you tonight.”

“I have that family reunion thing tonight, sweetie,” Nicole added, and laughed again. She was obviously just so excited about her upcoming date with her co-worker. “But how about I call you ASAP, and then we’ll go have a whipped cream mocha together?”

“Sounds great. Have a great date tomorrow, if I don’t hear from you, then,” Madison called, and sped down her car, reaching the town just yards ahead of her.

“Oh, I will! Bye!” There was a clicking of the phone.

But not a minute after Nicole had hung up, there was a loud bang from behind her, along with a sharp jerk of Madison’s car.

She gasped in time to see, through her rearview mirror, the motorcyclist she’d just passed sprawled in the ditch.

Thankful no other cars were surrounding her to go into town, Madison slowed down immediately, and parked her car on the side of the road a few yards from the man. After calling for an ambulance, she hurried out of her sedan, and ran to the man lying in the ditch. The legs were crossed in a non-normal way, and he was very still. His mortocycle looked crushed from nearby, but she didn’t care about that.

“Oh, my goodness!” Madison madly prayed that the good Lord would help this poor guy. She reached the man’s side, and then felt for a pulse. She silently cheered when she felt a very steady one. “Sir, are you all right?” she called loudly, wondering how he could’ve barely hit the back of her car, yet look so still. “Sir, please. Can you hear me?”

She reached up, and unsnapped the fasten from under the man’s helmet. Then, she gently tugged the helmet off strongly with one hand, keeping her other hand at the back of the guy’s neck.

She gasped the moment the helmet was off, at the small gash at his head, and immediately understood that he must have hit it. He groaned, and she let her gaze caress his strong jaw, lean appearance, and short, blond-streaked, light brown hair. He wore a white dress shirt and black slacks, as if he’d just come from somewhere formally, and she frowned. Who was he?

“Sir,” she called again, and then patted his cheek. “Sir, are you okay?”

He groaned again, and then opened his eyes. The deep, tormented-looking, hazel-green eyes met hers glassily, and she swallowed hard at the appeal there. But she shouldered that off.  Her ex-computer store boyfriend from last year had taught her to trust only some men, like her father and brother, and various uncles and male cousins in her family, or her very few guy friends.

“Hi, I’m Madison Brooks,” she greeted him. “An ambulance is on the way. What’s your name?”

Resting his head against the soft grass, the man closed his eyes briefly, but she didn’t miss the flash of pain. “C-Cole,” he stammered, and then winced.

“Okay, Cole, just sit tight.” She braced herself for his resistance. “And try to stay awake. You hit my car, sir, but I’m sure it was a grave mistake, so I won’t call anyone on you. I’ll just have it repaired myself. Okay?”

Cole nodded jerkily, although he closed his eyes again.

Madison bit her lip, praying that he’d stay with her.

The sound of the ambulance sirens, though, answered her prayers, but she couldn’t just leave him.

He’d hit her car. Maybe it was a sign from God that he needed help.

*************************

The next morning, Madison carried two Styrofoam, small cups of coffee in the Billings, Montana hospital, twenty miles from Lincoln, Montana. She’d waited all day yesterday for this Cole guy to wake up so she could come to the hospital and apologize for being in his way. Since he had a mild concussion, the doctor told her that he wasn’t going to be released until tomorrow. That meant that today she was going to see if he was awake. By her request, the doctor had called her last night, telling her he’d awaken then, but stated that Cole had said he had no family to contact, so his insurance was strictly his own. So far, he seemed to be a bit of a grump, but Madison was determined, with her usual sunny attitude, to cheer him up. She figured it had to be really difficult to sit in bed and feel so hopeless. The doctor had also said he hadn’t been very hungry, so she also hoped to change that. In her opinion, he looked a little weak with how plumb skinny he was. He was tall and broad-shouldered, but still skinny, and that unnerved her.

As for the family thing, she couldn’t possibly see how one could have absolutely no family, but if he didn’t have any visitors, she’d visit him. It was as simple as that, the good Samaritan she tried to be anyways.

As she reached the private hospital door, she asked the Lord to give her courage, strength, and the guidance to act any way according to His will.

She knocked, and she recognized the doctor’s voice saying, “Come in.” She walked inside, noting that Cole was asleep, and then smiled brightly at Dr. Lewis.

“How’s he doing today?” she asked, placing her cup of coffee on a table by the window.

The forty-something-year old doctor shrugged. “I was just going to see if I should wake him up. His breathing and heartbeat are both normal, though, and when I changed his bandage, the gash looked better and a bit more healed over than it had yesterday.”

Madison swallowed hard, now wishing she hadn’t had that second doughnut for breakfast this morning. “Thank you for that,” she said wryly, feeling disgusted.

She walked right over to the window, and drew open the blinds with one big sweep.

As soon as the morning sunlight beamed on Cole, he flinched awake, and then squinted up at the window, then briefly at her as if annoyed.

“Morning,” she called happily, and then walked over to his side to mostly shade him from the sun beams. “You look better this morning, Cole.” She glanced at the doctor. “Dr. Lewis was just going to wake you up, but I thought of a better way.”

“Hello, Cole,” Dr. Lewis greeted the man, who cast an annoyed glance at the wall past him. “Like I said last night, you have a small concussion.”

“Yes, you do,” Madison added brightly. “But it’ll get better very soon. You’re even being let out tomorrow.” She glanced at the doctor, who was frowning. “What?”

Dr. Lewis cleared his throat. “Anyway, as I was saying before I was interrupted…”

Madison shrugged, and then shined a big smile on Cole, who quirked an eyebrow as if only a tiny bit amused.

“You will be discharged tomorrow, but I suggest you eat a good lot today,” Dr. Lewis added. “You look a bit thin, and it’ll just be less on this lady’s nerves anyway.” He cleared his throat. “Again, I have to ask your last name, Cole.”

“My full name is Cole Douglas Whitworth,” Cole said softly, and again, Madison didn’t miss the brief flash of pain in his eyes at saying his name. “Does that answer your question?”

“Yes,” Dr. Lewis answered calmly, one to not be trifled with. “And, again, may I ask, should I contact any family?”

Madison swallowed hard, bracing herself for whatever annoyed remark Cole might say next.

Cole gazed down at his bed sheets for a long moment, until Madison thought he wasn’t going to answer, and then he closed his eyes briefly. “Even if you did contact my family,” he said softly, “instead of being concerned, they’d just…” He swallowed hard. “Laugh at me.”

Madison and Dr. Lewis exchanged confused glances.

“May I suggest,” Dr. Lewis added stiffly, “that even though no family will be contacted, someone will  need to drive you home. That’s the hospital’s orders. Besides that, the mechanic shop in Lincoln, Montana called, and they said that your motorcycle won’t be finished being repaired until a week from now…at least.” He held up a hand at Cole’s sharp look. “Also, Miss Brooks tells me here that you barely hit the back of her car.”

Cole glanced at Madison for confirmation. “I thought you said you wouldn’t make me pay for anything.”

“I did,” Madison said with a nod.

“Which brings me to also point out,” Dr. Lewis concluded, “that I doubt very much that gash came from the accident. It was obviously caused by something else. Would you like to discuss that?”

“No,” Cole said softly, playing with the sheets. “I’ll be perfectly fine, Doc. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.” Dr. Lewis nodded at Madison, and then picked up his clipboard from the little movable table over Cole’s bed. “A nurse will be in here to check on you every hour or so.” He raised his eyebrows at Cole, as if warning him to keep from getting out of bed, and he left the room.

The only sound that followed was the ticking of the room clock.

Madison slowly gazed over at Cole, and then sent him a bright smile.

Cole frowned, and then sat up straighter in his bed. “What are you really doing here, Miss…?”

“I’m Madison Brooks. Remember?” She smiled sweetly at him. “I’m the one who rescued you?”

Cole’s eyebrows shot up. “Well, I don’t need rescuing any more.” He nodded at her. “Thanks. But I’m fine now.”

There was a long moment of silence.

Here was Madison’s cue to leave Cole’s room and never look back, to completely forget about ever looking after him. But she was determined to do God’s will, so since it didn’t seem done yet, she walked to his side, and handed him the extra Styrofoam cup of coffee.

“I don’t know how you like your coffee,” she said gently, and set the cup on the movable table. She slid it over to him so he could reach it, and then broadened her smile. “Of course,” she added, ignoring Cole’s quizzical look at her. “If you don’t like coffee, I can get you anything else to drink. Or eat. Orange juice, apple juice. Or if you like hot drinks…maybe some tea? I like tea. Or water? Or how about a mocha? Cappuccino?”

“This is fine,” Cole whispered, and took the coffee from the table.

“It’s black,” Madison warned, “although I brought some cream and—”

“I like it this way,” Cole whispered again, and then took a slow, cautious sip of it. He paused, and then looked at the cup as if it was his salvation. “I thought coffee like this was not allowed in hospitals.”

“It’ll be our little secret,” Madison said, and then sat in the chair next to his bed. She studied him for a long moment as he took another sip.

Then, Cole looked at her. “If you want to know where the door is…” He nodded his head at where it was. “It’s over there.”

“I know.” Madison kept a smile on, as if she was determined to stay. “But I just wanted to make sure you’re okay.”

“I’m fine,” Cole persisted. He couldn’t believe this woman. She didn’t look much older than he was, but her sunny attitude was beginning to bother him. What did she want? Money? Why was she even here? It couldn’t be to just help him. No one he knew ever did that.

“You have a bandage on your head, Cole, and the doctor said you have a slight concussion.” She shook her golden blond head. “You’re far from fine, silly.” She shook her index finger at him. “Besides, it’s Saturday. I don’t have to work today, so let me enjoy my day off.”

“Good for you,” he quipped, and then decided that  he’d better talk to her. She obviously was determined to stay, and he wasn’t like any other person in his family to just leave or else. Half the time, the “or else” meant a yet another murder he was forbidden to tell outside the business, lest he be their next victim.

He took a ragged breath, and then swallowed hard. The coffee turned to sand in his mouth, yet he continued drinking. He needed to ease the constant grief he felt every day of his life in the past two months over the loss of his mother, a grief no one else would ever have. After all these years, he still couldn’t believe how cruel the rest of his family was.

Yesterday, by opening his stupid mouth, he’d paid for his smart remarks. For an instant, his father had yelled at Addison for hitting him, but Cole knew that everybody thought, even his father, that he deserved it. Even if he had tried to defend his mother’s late reputation, the only one who ever had or who ever would.

“Where do you work?” he sighed out, deciding to do something besides sit in the room and feel sorry for himself.

“At a bookstore in Lincoln,” she stated happily. “That’s where I was going when you accidentally hit me.” She chimed out the words as if she hadn’t just said anything negative, harshly reminding him about his motorcycle, the only thing his brothers both liked about him. “Were you headed there, too?”

“I attend college at Montana State,” he said curtly, softly.

“Oh, me, too.” She grinned. “I’m now in graduate school for two years, going into art. I want to be an art teacher. Doesn’t that sound like so much fun? My best friend, Nicole was going into art, too, but then she changed her major. She now wants to be a dentist. But I guess colleges are all different anyway. She’s attending Washington State college in Seattle.”

Seattle. The one home Cole had ever known, except for his apartment in Manhattan. The place where his mother had died, for absolutely nothing in the world. His father, Byron had stated too many times that she’d been a pest, that with how her attitude and entire personality had gone, she would have eventually told the FBI about all the murders they’d committed in the past, although Cole had nothing to do with any one of them. He was determined to keep no criminal record in his sight, yet sometimes he worried that he’d go to jail one day just for knowing about all those nameless murders. His mother had wanted a good life, yet by a single mistake of marrying their father, she’d ruined all of their lives. Yet it hadn’t been her fault. Byron had been the one vowing that he was a good man, despite his great wealth. But when they’d married, Byron had taken on his late father’s legacy of the business, yet there had only been one murder before then. Every murder they had was inconsistent, completely innocent, and gravely hidden. Every victim’s family either had no family, or were murdered along with. They were mostly people who Byron or Addison had previously hired, and who later tried to tell someone about all the bad things happening from inside the business.

That was why Cole daily feared for his life. He’d rather live than have to suffer the torment his mother had gone through, being killed by her own family, hiring thugs to take care of her and all the rest of them.

“Have you ever been to the bookstore?” Madison asked him.

“Can’t say I have,” he said stiffly, and took another tried sip of his coffee.

“Well, you should sometime. It’s a fab place to work. My co-workers have become my friends. They’re so nice to be around.” Madison grinned. “I take it you’re in graduate school as well?”

He nodded. “I’m just going into business, math emphasis.”

“Sounds interesting. I guess all majors do in that way.” She thought hard for a long moment, and then her peaches-in-cream complexion looked guarded for several seconds. “If you don’t mind my asking, Cole Whitworth, what job do you have? Or don’t  you have one?’

“Not at the moment,”  he said carefully. “But my family…they….they have a big business.” If “big” was even the correct term to describe it.

Madison frowned for the first time all morning. Confusion was written all over her face, but the last thing Cole wanted to do was describe a single detail of the business. It would all turn into bad news, and since Madison seemed such a sweet girl, he hated to hurt her by letting gunmen come to her house…

He shook his head, mostly to get rid of that image. “It’s nothing.” He took another sip of his coffee.

“Oh,” was all  Madison said.

Just then, the door opened, and a nurse with a big grin walked inside.

“Hello, dear,” she greeted him, carrying a tray of food. “Ready to try some food today?”

Cole was ready to refuse, since his stomach felt too twisted to eat.

“Maybe something light to begin with?” She placed the tray on his table by the coffee.

“Yes, he will eat,” Madison remarked, and Cole looked up with surprise.

Madison was standing next to his bed, looking over the tray of food as if deciding for him on what he should or should not eat. “There’s only toast and orange juice here.” She frowned, and then glanced at the nurse. “Will you please get some soda crackers, Jell-O, and a small bowl of cereal? This can’t be all he eats for breakfast.” She fisted her hands on her hips.

“Right away, hon.” The nurse gave him one last smile, and then left to retrieve the items.

He frowned, and then glanced back at Madison. “What are you—”

“You are going to eat,” she told him, looking at him sternly. “And if you don’t, I might as well feed you.”

Now he was really confused. “All right, why are you helping me so much, Miss Brooks?”

“Madison,” she corrected instantly, and smiled. “I want to be a good Samaritan. You know. For God?”

God. The One Person Cole tried to count on as much as possible, despite all the  bad things constantly happening in his life. “O-Oh.” He swallowed hard.

“Besides.” She smiled gently at him. “They’re not going to discharge you until you’ve eaten at least two three-course meals.”

“Fine,” he sighed, knowing how relentless she was being. “You can help. But don’t feed me.”

“All right.” Madison giggled, a bell-like sound that momentarily filled the room with warmth. Then, she cocked her head at him. “But don’t look so guilty or frustrated, Cole. I’m just trying to be a good helper. You probably need it anyway, right?” She briefly glanced at his shoulders. “To get some skin on those bones?” She shook her head as if she couldn’t believe him, and then gently edged the table closer to him.

Cole couldn’t help feeling a smile start at the corners of his mouth. She was something else. He’d never met anyone as demanding  yet so kind, at least not since his mother had passed.

“All right.” He sighed, hoping his stomach accepted the food.  ”I’ll eat.”

“Thank you.” Madison beamed at him, and then walked over to the table by the window to take her own coffee and drink it.

The nurse came back inside with another tray, and set the plate of crackers, and two different plastic bowls of cereal and Jell-O on his other tray so it wouldn’t be so cluttered around him. “There. Want anything else?”

“I’m fine, thanks,” he said, and then stared at all the food he had to eat. And he had to eat it, too, or he was sure to get a good scolding from someone, either the nurse or Madison.

“Thank you,” Madison called as the nurse left.

Cole heard a chuckle come out of him for the first time in some months, at least. “I think she’s a bit scared of you.”

“She’d better be.” Still standing by the table, Madison rolled her eyes. “How dare she for feeding you so little to begin with. Your stomach has to be screaming with hunger by now, right?”

“Sure,” he said, and took another sip of his coffee before digging into the food….reluctantly. The hospital food was a little blah, but feeling Madison nearby, as if a new friend, was brightening his spirits a bit. He could hardly explain the feeling, so he kept eating to make himself behave better. She was just a helper, after all, and she’d probably be gone from his life in a mere few hours.

There was the sound of some jolly jingling, and he glanced over to see Madison punch in a button of her cell phone. “Hey, Nicole.” She grinned at him, mouthed, “eat,” and then turned her back on him to answer the call.

But as Cole ate, however, he couldn’t help hearing how delighted and unbelievably happy Madison sounded as she talked on the phone.

He was almost finished when he heard her gasp.

“Oh, Joan,” she groaned on the phone, now on her second call in the thirty whole minutes it’d taken him to force down all that food. He had to admit, though, that he did feel better than he had yesterday. “You’re kidding me.” She turned back, her face looking fallen, and Cole couldn’t explain it, but it felt like someone had punched him in the gut at that look on her face. She sighed heavily. “All right, fine. See you in a bit.” She ended the call, and then glanced at him, apologies deep in her eyes. “I’m so sorry, Cole, I hafta go.” She reached for her stuff. “I was called into work, because my co-worker Joan got food poisoning. She’s okay, of course,” she added as if she thought he might want to know, “but I need to fill in for her.”

“Go ahead.” He waved a hand. “I’ll be fine. I even finished my food, see?” He motioned to his mostly empty tray of food, filled with mostly empty, plastic dishes.

“Great job.” She grinned as if meaning the words. “But hey, I’ll see you in about five or six hours. ‘Kay? Hope you rest until then.”

She was coming back? Cole swallowed hard, appalled by her kindness. “You….You don’t have to.”

Madison stopped fidgeting with her purse to glance up at him.

“I mean…” He swallowed the lump in his throat. “I’m a lot better now. You don’t have to come back. I appreciate your generosity, really. It’s just…”

“Just that I’m not going to leave you alone.” She shrugged. “I already called a church friend, and told them I’ll be into church late tomorrow, since I’m taking you home.” She smiled at him. “I’m not going anywhere. I rescued you, remember?”

That didn’t matter, Cole knew. Because if he became friends with this woman, his family might find out.

“Eat up.” She grinned. “I’ll come back later, and by then you better have eaten two full meals, mister.” She pointed her index finger at him. “Or you’re getting it good.” She waved. “Have a great afternoon!”

In a blur, then, Madison Brooks was gone, and Cole was gaping at the door as it closed behind her. He could not believe how she was acting. It was extremely generous of her. Why would she want to be so kind? Or even try? She didn’t know the kind of man he was.

Cole forced himself to finish his breakfast, although the rest of it just tasted like dust to the ends of the dreaded earth.

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