EXCERPT: Chapter Two of ‘Set Free To Love’

This post is a continuation of “Still In Love with Maddison Holt after All These Years.” I included Chapter One of the novel in that post and promised two more. Here’s the next installment:

SET FREE AMAZON FRONT COVERCHAPTER TWO

Beth Hanover was an attractive young woman, although she didn’t feel particularly attractive or young as she stood gripping the telephone receiver, trying to pull her thoughts together and settle the thudding in her heart. In fact, she hadn’t had much opportunity in the last ten months to bother about how she looked or felt most of the time.

But that didn’t change the facts. Her clear, healthy complexion and the thick, honey blond hair that covered her head in soft, loose curls that barely touched the collar of her blouse gave their own evidence. Her eyes had been described more than once as looking like melted gold, and most of the time there was a twinkle in them, due to the fact that Beth kept her fellowship with the Lord as the most important part of her life. That fellowship made her able to deal with hard things that came her way without losing her joy.

Ten months ago, when her mother had had to have major surgery and long convalescent care, and was facing the possibility of an early death, Beth’s world had become a little shaky. Then when she had told her fiancé that she felt it necessary to postpone their wedding while she nursed her mother and helped her fight for her life, Derek had become so angry that he’d given her an ultimatum that had shaken her world even harder.

But the Lord had intervened for Beth’s mother, in answer to much prayer, and Adele had succeeded in holding on to life. Then they continued to rejoice as God’s healing power had caused health and strength to flow back into her body until she was now almost completely well.

But their great joy in Adele’s recovery was marred by another shadow that hovered over them. Something had been happening with Lex that caused both of them great concern. They had prayed much about it, and were determined not to worry. “We’re just going to believe God will keep Lex safe and show us what to do,” Adele had said.

Nevertheless, their faith had been strained by the fact that Lex seemed so sullen and wanted to keep to himself, refusing to talk to them about almost anything these days. Now, this phone call from Mr. Walker was starting to pull a detailed picture out of that vague, heavy shadow that had been hovering.

Adele, hearing Beth’s side of the conversation, had come to stand beside her daughter, fear in her eyes. Beth closed her own eyes and took a deep breath to try to settle the pounding in her chest before she spoke. “No, Mr. Walker, I don’t believe that’s the solution either. Mother and I have been praying because we knew something was wrong, but we didn’t know what. We just know that God’s the only answer. Thank you for calling me instead of the police. I’ll be with you as fast as I can get down there.”

Abel returned to the back room, and Maddison scooted his chair over to let him in. “Beth’s on her way,” Abel said.   “Thank God it’s the time of night when we have almost no business, but just to be safe, I turned off our big sign out front and put a closed sign on the door. I left it unlocked, though, for Beth.” Looking at Lex, he added, “I’ll get the first-aid kit and clean up your face, Son.”

“Ah, just leave me alone!”

Abel ignored the gruff answer and stepped into the bathroom, returning immediately with the kit.

“Here, let me,” said Maddison, taking the kit from the hands of the tired man. He put on a pair of the disposable gloves, then soaked a piece of gauze with hydrogen peroxide and turned toward Lex. He grabbed the boy’s jaw and pulled his head up so he could get a good view. “This is going to hurt a little, but I guess if you’re big and tough enough to rob a store single-handedly at gun point, you can take it.”

His point hit home, and Lex tried to jerk away from Maddison’s hands. Maddison jerked him back into position and looked him in the eyes. “Listen, kid, idiots that pull this kind of stunt are a dime a dozen where I come from, and believe me, I’ve had more than my fill of them. So if you don’t want to hurt a whole lot more than you do right now, you hold still!”

He finished cleansing the scratches, two of which were still bleeding, and then proceeded to apply antibiotic and some bandaging. Just as he was finishing, they heard the screech of tires, followed by a slamming car door. By the time Maddison had closed the first aid kit and disposed of the gloves, Beth was standing in the doorway, her golden eyes large and wet with tears that she was holding back by sheer will. She was a little pale, and her face looked strained, but she had herself under control.

Maddison, who had expected the kind of hysterical outbursts he’d experienced from so many mothers and sisters in similar situations over the years, didn’t quite know what to make of this woman. He stared at her, studying her, wondering what to expect.

For the first few seconds, her eyes were centered on her brother. Suddenly, she glanced up at Maddison. As their eyes met and held for a moment, there was a spark of something between them … a sense of having found something unexpectedly … that was gone so quickly he thought perhaps he’d imagined it. Then just as quickly, she had turned to the manager and, reaching out both hands, laid hold of his arm, saying, “Mr. Walker, I’m so very sorry. I know you could have been injured or killed tonight. I can never tell you how grateful I am to you for giving Lex another chance.”

Patting her hand, Abel Walker replied, “You’ve given so much of yourself to your mother during this long illness … and to Lex. I just couldn’t see it end with him going to jail.” He turned to Maddison. “This gentleman … I’m sorry, I never even asked your name.”

“Maddison Holt,” Maddison said, returning his attention to the store manager.

Abel smiled at him warmly. “Mr. Holt, this is Beth Hanover, Lex’s sister.” Maddison and Beth nodded to each other, and Abel continued. “Mr. Holt was able to tackle Lex as he ran across the parking lot and get him back into the store. I’ve returned the money to the drawer, so we don’t have to worry about that, but that’s all we know right now.”

At that point, Beth turned back to Lex. She walked over to his chair and lifted his head up gently as she spoke. “Lex, look at me, dear. … Look at me,” she repeated, when he kept his eyes downcast. He finally looked up at her, and as his eyes met his sister’s, Maddison saw something soften in the boy’s face.

Beth squatted down so that they were on a level and began to talk again. “Lex, Mother and I have known for some time that you were troubled about something, and we’ve been praying. I don’t have any idea what’s brought on tonight’s action, but I know who’s at the root of it, and so do you in your heart. It’s Satan. And I know one other thing,” Beth continued, speaking calmly and quietly, but with absolute authority. “I know that whatever this is about, we are going to solve it together, just like we always have … you, Mom, me, and Jesus. We’re going to work through it and overcome it. You will not destroy your life or break our mother’s heart, and we’re going to get you back to where you were before this started!”

Again Maddison was amazed at her reaction. There was no hysterical crying or harsh questions or accusations. There was just a quiet determination and authority that made it obvious to him that this girl knew what she was talking about. Even in the midst of this hellish situation, this girl knew that they were going to win over this thing. She even had him believing it!

He envied the fact that, in spite of this horrible situation, she still believed. This woman has the kind of faith my parents have always had, he thought … the kind I thought I had. But she hasn’t lost her grip on hers the way I have.

Mr. Walker moved the second chair close so that Beth could be seated, and as she sat, she turned back to Lex, saying, “Now start at the beginning and tell me exactly what’s been happening. Tell us where you got the gun and who it belongs to, and don’t even try to leave anything out.”

For the next hour Lex told them how he’d begun to feel pressured to join one of the local gangs, how the robbery was part of his initiation, and how the gun wasn’t even loaded. A number of times Maddison groaned out loud at the stupidity of it all, but for the most part, he held himself in check. By 2:00 in the morning, however, he faced the inevitable. He didn’t know if it was the Christian, the cop, or the big brother in him that won out, but he finally admitted that he had to take the controlling hand in this boy’s situation.

The conversation had come to an end, and he felt as if he were on a stage, with the audience waiting for him to say his lines. “Okay,” he said, levering himself away from the old desk he’d been leaning on, “this is the way it’s coming down.” He looked at Lex. “It’s obvious you’re going to need a workable plan to keep you away from this gang and any other peers who are a bad influence. So we’re going to make one. How many hours are you in school through the week?”

“I don’t have to answer any of your questions! This is between me and Beth and Mr. Walker!”

“Lex!” Beth said. “Mr. Holt is trying to help us here!”

“Well, it’s none of his business!”

“Now that’s where you’re wrong, Lex.” Maddison said, looking the boy sternly in the eyes. “It’s very much my business. Keeping criminals off the street is my main business, and right now you fit the definition of the word criminal.”

Three pairs of stunned eyes looked at him, and Lex, who was the most shaken, asked, “Are you a cop?”

“I was a cop for ten years. Right now I’m a private investigator, but both jobs are all about putting criminals behind bars and keeping descent people safe.” As he spoke, he drew his identification from his pants’ pocket and handed it to Beth. While she looked at it, he continued talking to Lex. “Have you forgotten that I’m an eyewitness to your crime? I know the police officers in this area pretty well, and I guarantee you that if I take the facts of this case to them, they’ll have you behind bars in ten minutes tops. And by the time I testify in court, you’ll get a sentence that will keep you there a long time.

“If you don’t want that to happen … you’ll agree to whatever plan your sister and I work out, and you’ll stick with it. Now, I’ll ask you again … how many hours are you in school through the week?

“I get out at 2:00 in the afternoon, because I got put on the work program schedule so I could work here at the store.”

Maddison turned to Abel. “Any chance he could get his job back?”

“I could still use him from 4:00 to 9:00 three afternoons a week.”

Maddison nodded and then looked at Beth. “I assume you go to church regularly?” he asked, accepting his I.D. back and restoring it to his pocket.

“Oh, yes,” she answered. “We’re very active in our church. I came here to care for my mother, who was seriously ill, but now that she’s so much better, we’re both very involved in church again. And I work for the pastor in the office several hours a week, because his secretary just had a baby and needs more time off.”

Maddison nodded his head, obviously considering a number of thoughts at the same time. He sighed now, both from his own exhaustion, and from a sense of hurt on Beth’s behalf. She had obviously been loaded down with some serious problems with her mother’s health, and now she was trying to shoulder this responsibility too. He guessed that her father was deceased but felt that he needed to be sure before he could decide exactly how to proceed.

“Is your father deceased, Miss Hanover?”

“Yes, he went on to be with the Lord about five years ago. There’s just our mother now … and Lex and myself.”

“I see.” He sighed again. “Well, then, that being the case, while I don’t want to offend you by taking complete control, I do have the most experience in dealing with these situations, and I’m going to suggest the plan I think is best. If you see any major flaws in it from your perspective, you can say so.”

Beth nodded her head. “That sounds reasonable to me.”

“All right, young man,” he said, turning back to Lex. “You’ll go to school for all your classes. As soon as school is out, you’ll go straight home or come here to this back room, and you’ll do all your homework. If by some chance, you have no homework, you’ll study something else: your Bible, some book about a hobby you enjoy, or an encyclopedia if necessary … but you’ll spend the time from 2:00 to 4:00 studying something constructive.

“Three days a week you’ll work here from 4:00 to 9:00, and the other three workdays, I think the best thing to do is arrange for you to work at my uncle’s farm where I’ll be staying for the next month. That way I can keep an eye on you and help you stay out of trouble.”

He looked back to Beth now. “My uncle is Matthew Vickers, and his farm is just about five miles from here.”

At the mention of his uncle’s name, Beth’s eyes lit up, and Maddison noticed that Lex looked up with interest.

“Why, we know your uncle!” Beth exclaimed, a smile spreading across her face for the first time. “We all go to the same church.”

Maddison breathed another sigh, this time from relief. Maybe helping this family wouldn’t be such an uphill struggle after all. “Well, that makes things a little easier, then, doesn’t it?”

He turned his attention to Lex again. “Okay … every Sunday, you’ll go to church with your family and take part in whatever they feel is right. The rest of the day you’ll spend in their company or at home. Any free time you have you can spend with any friends who are welcome in your home, but they’ll come to your home to see you. You won’t go out and meet them anywhere else. You’ll stay on this plan for one month, and then we’ll see how things look.”

“But that’s practically like being in prison!”

Maddison walked over to stand in front of Lex, so close that he was almost touching him. When he spoke, his voice was a little husky, and his words were wrapped in a weariness that went beyond the physical. “Son, you don’t have an inkling of what being in prison is really like.” He sighed deeply. “And I hope with all my heart you never have to find out.”

“Lex,” Beth said now, laying her hand on his arm, “it does sound like a workable plan, and it’s what you need.” She looked up at Maddison again. “Did you say you’ll only be here a month?”

Maddison nodded. “I don’t normally stay that long, but I will this trip, and I’ll stay on top of things.” He looked back at Lex. “Now that’s the deal. Take it or leave it. I’m going out front and see if I can find myself some stale coffee while you think it over.”

“Oh, let me make you some fresh, Mr. Holt,” Abel offered, following him to the doorway.

“Don’t bother,” Maddison waved him back. “As tired as I am, I wouldn’t notice the difference. As long as it’s hot and caffeinated, it’ll keep me awake until I get where I’m going.”

He stuck his head around the door again a few seconds later, with a grin on his face. “By the way, I just remembered that I never did get any gas. I’m going out to fill up now.”

“You do that, Mr. Holt, and don’t you pay a penny. We owe you,” Abel said with a warm smile.

When Maddison entered the store again after filling his gas tank, Beth was waiting for him just inside the door. “Mr. Holt,” she said and extended her right hand to him.

Maddison closed his hand gently around hers. It fit into his perfectly, and with the connection, he felt something like a strong, warm current flow into him. I seemed so right, somehow, to keep standing there holding her hand in his own. In fact, he was concentrating so intently on that feeling that he almost missed her words.

“The Lord brought you to this store at just the right moment. I have no doubt about that. My whole family will be eternally in your debt.”

Embarrassed, Maddison did let go of her hand and ran his through his hair in what Beth thought was a rather endearing gesture. “Miss Hanover, you don’t owe me anything … particularly not if you believe God brought me here. He’s the One to thank. I’m just doing what I would have appreciated if … if it had been … my brother,” he said, his voice becoming husky.

“Oh, do you have a younger brother too?”

Maddison was stunned by the intensity of the wave of sorrow that rolled through him … and by the sense of having been assaulted … blindsided by such an innocent question. His hands curled into fists at his sides, and he swallowed hard. Beth could see that the question had disturbed him and felt bad, but helpless to change the situation now.

Finally, the stunned look left his eyes, and he refocused on Beth. “I did have.” Maddison spoke quietly, his face rigid.     “He was killed a couple of months ago.”

“Oh, I’m so very sorry.” Beth reached out and laid her hand gently on his arm. “Was it an accident?”

“No! … It was no accident!”

Beth looked at him expectantly, hoping he would tell her what had happened. Finally, with a sigh born of weariness and resignation, Maddison answered the question in her eyes.

“My brother” … He had to stop and clear his throat. “My brother was working with me on a case. … We got too close to the truth, and one of the guys we were after shot and killed him.”

He looked away again and just stared at nothing, obviously lost in thought and fighting for control. “But then again … I guess you could say it was something of an accident too.”

“I don’t think I understand,” said Beth.

“The man who shot my brother was trying to kill me.” He heard Beth’s quick, indrawn breath, and looked straight into her eyes as he added, “And I don’t understand either.”

Lex and Mr. Walker joined them at that moment, and Maddison welcomed the distraction. “Well, Lex, what have you decided?” he asked the boy, recognizing the look on his face. He’d seen it dozens of times on the faces of boys who had recently stumbled into accepting crime as their way of life. It was a mixture of shame for what they’d done and a kind of bitterness at being forced to take the consequences. But Lex’s face had softened considerably now, remorse getting the controlling hand, and Maddison felt hope for him.

“I’ll follow your plan, Mr. Holt … and … thank you,” he said, extending his right hand tentatively toward Maddison.

Maddison gripped his hand firmly. “Good. I’ll leave one of my business cards with the phone number at the farm on the back,” he said, as he proceeded to take three cards from his case and write on them. “I’ll leave one with your sister and Mr. Walker also.” Looking at Beth, he said, “I’d appreciate it if you’d give me your address and phone number too if you don’t mind.”

“Not at all,” she said. “I’ll write it down for you.” She quickly did so and handed him the slip of paper.

“What day will Lex begin work with you?” he asked Abel.

“Tomorrow afternoon at 4:00.”

“Good. I’ll be by some time during that shift to check on things and make more definite plans for the work at the farm. I’d better take the gun with me and lock it up,” he added, reaching under the counter and retrieving the plastic bag Abel had used for it, to avoid any more fingerprints. “I’ll get it into the hands of the proper authorities tomorrow.” At Beth’s look of alarm, he added, “I think I can manage to keep it from causing any more trouble for Lex at this point.”

His face wore just the hint of a tired smile now. “Well, … good night folks.” He nodded to all three in general and headed for his car.


Purchase SET FREE TO LOVE

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~~~

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