Read Justified Online

Authors: Varina Denman

Tags: #Romance, #Inspirational, #Forgiveness, #Excommunication, #Disfellowship, #Jaded, #Shunned, #Texas, #Adultery, #Small Town, #Bitterness, #Preacher

Justified

BOOK: Justified
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For those who try too hard

CONTENTS

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Three

Chapter Thirty-Four

Chapter Thirty-Five

Chapter Thirty-Six

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Chapter Thirty-Nine

Chapter Forty

Chapter Forty-One

Chapter Forty-Two

Chapter Forty-Three

Chapter Forty-Four

Chapter Forty-Five

Chapter Forty-Six

Chapter Forty-Seven

Chapter Forty-Eight

Chapter Forty-Nine

Chapter Fifty

Chapter Fifty-One

Chapter Fifty-Two

AfterWords

Note to the Reader

Acknowledgments

Book Club Discussion Guide

Excerpt from Jilted

About the Author

He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.

Titus 3:5

Chapter One

My world shattered last winter. A hairline crack formed, and my life perched on the edge of an abyss, set to topple at the slightest breeze. But instead of a breeze, I got a whirlwind … in the form of a positive pregnancy test.

Of course, that wasn't supposed to happen. Not to me. But when my world finally ceased its roiling, I barely recognized myself—or my thoughts and feelings—because my new life had become an inverted image of what it was before.

Now I sat on the hood of Velma Pickett's old, maroon Chevy, waiting for the sunrise, and rubbed my palm across the curve of my stomach. “Don't worry, little guy. It's not your fault.” I say
little guy
because I had the sonogram. Saw the picture. And it figures I'd bring another man into the world. Even though I wanted this child more than I imagined possible, I prayed he wouldn't be like his daddy. Or mine.

My new rent house perched fifty yards from the edge of the Caprock Escarpment, a chalky, bronze declivity dividing the flat-as-a-board tableland of the Llano Estacado, with the rolling plains hundreds of feet below. I could see for thirty miles, and I drank in the unbroken terrain as it transformed from shadows to sunshine.

And I tried to figure out my life.

I'd been trying for almost eight months, and so far I'd determined three things. I could survive without my parents' help. My heart wouldn't break if I never saw Tyler Cruz again. And I could and would make a home for my child.

I shifted on the car hood and peered down at the fading streetlights of my hometown. In a few minutes, the glow of dawn would eclipse the artificial light, and Trapp, Texas, would momentarily disappear. Good riddance.

Already the horizon glowed orange, and I sipped my iced coffee, letting its bitterness relieve the effects of the smothering heat. August had always been a source of pleasure, with its parties and cookouts, but now that I had no central air-conditioning or ceiling fans or swimming pool, fall looked better all the time.

I opened the Bible app on my cell phone and read my new favorite verse.
Children are a gift from the Lord.
I whispered it into the warm air, reminding myself that even though I hadn't followed the proper time line; even though I had disgraced my family, my church, and my community; even though this baby had turned my life upside down … my little man was a gift.

It had taken me quite a while to accept that fact. I cried the entire first trimester and threw tantrums during the second, but now that the baby could kick some sense into me, I realized for the first time in twenty-one spoiled-little-rich-girl years, my life would have purpose.

The good Lord—cranky as He was—had gifted me with a mission I hadn't thought to ask for. Not that He had rewarded my sin. On the contrary, I felt the sting of His punishment daily when people in town greeted me and then discreetly turned away. Last week my only remaining friend, Ruthie Turner, told me I'd get used to all that. But I wasn't so sure.

The ever-brightening sky continued to pull the sun above the ground, illuminating miles of uneven pastureland and revealing all its browns and greens, which gradually appeared from the blackness. The wind whipped past me, slacking as though an oscillating fan had turned from high to low and causing my hair to hover above my shoulders before falling weightlessly down my back. I breathed deeply, inhaling the scents of cedar and sage, and waited for the sunshine and wind to erase my insecurity.

I shouldn't have cared what people thought, yet the pious opinions of my parents and a handful of church members chafed my guilt like a new saddle. It didn't matter if they never spoke the words, gave the looks, cast the blame, because I knew what they were thinking. I knew they expected me to marry Tyler Cruz. I knew they thought a wedding would cover a multitude of sins. I knew, in their eyes, marriage was the only way out of my mess.

I knew it … because I was them.

The sun poised golden above the horizon, seeming to buckle its seat belt before sliding boldly into the sky, but it didn't lighten my mood. I slid from the hood, turned my back on the rising sun, and studied the house, now bathed in morning fire.

The paint had long since peeled from the wood siding, the roof slanted precariously over the front porch, and a mesquite branch rubbed against a side window, screeching like the ghost of a centuries-old resident.

If my parents ever saw this house, they'd have a cardiac arrest. Their barn was nicer.

My sandals crunched dry grass as I dragged myself into my new home. My little guy deserved better than this.

But I probably didn't.

Chapter Two

Tyler Cruz stalked diagonally across two plots at the Snyder Cemetery.
Idiot lawyer.
Senseless will.
But his
dad
… his dad had triggered a defensive reaction within Tyler that had him growling like a cornered javelina. Good thing the old man had already died, or Tyler might have taken a sledgehammer to him.

Anger pressed against him as he stood at the center of the grave, panting. A steady rhythm pounded his temples, and the skin on the back of his neck grew moist from sweat, yet he forced himself to settle down. The will didn't matter. He could work with it. When he met his lawyer that morning, he had imagined leaving the office with the bulk of his family's estate, and he still would. Eventually.

His boots sank into the soft mound of dirt, and he asked himself why he had come to the cemetery.
Such a female thing to do.
Mothers or girlfriends or wives, left with empty arms, might stand by the graves of their
loved ones
and bawl enough tears to green the dry West Texas grass.

Tyler's eyes were dry.

He hadn't come because he missed his dad. He came because this was the last place he had seen Fawn. She had stood near the back of the crowd at the funeral—looking as if she could pass out from the summer heat—while he sat in a folding chair under the canopy. At the time, he figured it served her right, but in the past hour, he had developed a change of heart.

He looked down and noticed two flower bouquets, now brown and brittle, left on either side of the tombstone by grievers the morning of. Tyler squatted with an elbow to his knee and pulled a stem from one of the cement vases. Without thinking, he waved the corpse silently back and forth and remembered Fawn years ago in a high school play, dressed in pink fluff and holding a magic wand between her fingertips.
Glinda, the Good Witch.
He crushed the flower petals in his fist.

Four months ago, the woman had infuriated him as much as his father ever did. She had done it quietly out at the ranch, but she might as well have taken out a full-page ad in the county newspaper. Everyone for miles around knew he had been rejected. They knew Fawn had turned her nose up at his family's millions and swore a blue streak that she'd never take him back. But none of that mattered now, because Tyler was man enough to forgive her.

He released his grip, allowing the bits of dried flower to sift through his fingers and fall to the base of the granite marker. It might take a while, but he could woo her back.

After all, she needed him. Her privileged upbringing hadn't prepared her for parenthood, especially not as a single mother. Not that he had been raised any differently, but he would have enough money to make up for it. Fawn, on the other hand, wouldn't get ten cents from her uppity, Bible-righteous parents, even though they had it to give.

A chuckle rose from deep in his throat as he brushed trembling palms against his jeans. Fawn wanted him to think that her pregnancy had somehow made her self-sufficient, defiant, even tenacious, and perhaps he had wondered about that at first.

But when she showed up at his father's funeral, she nullified all the verbal claims she had made about their future. She exposed her subconscious feelings, her naive simplicity, her yearning for things to be set right.

And she proved to Tyler that he still owned her.

Chapter Three

“I can't believe you went to Byron Cruz's funeral.”

I sat stiffly on a denim-covered futon in the waiting area of Sophie's Style Station while Ruthie Turner reprimanded me. “You went too.”

“I'm not carrying his grandchild.”

“That's the point. I'm practically family.”

Her voice lowered. “But you don't
want
to be part of that family.”

“No, I don't, but that doesn't change the facts. My baby is a Cruz whether I like it or not.”

A sarcastic snicker slipped from Ruthie's lips like a stifled hiccup. “Poor kid.”

I inspected a cricket near my foot before reaching for a tattered fashion magazine. Ruthie's comments rankled, but I took the criticism as well as my pride would allow. After all, she'd stuck around when my sorority sisters flurried away like startled quail. But we were unlikely friends.

She was a grocery-store clerk desperately in need of a manicure, working nights and weekends to put herself through college, and I was the holier-than-thou daughter of the wealthiest man in Trapp. But somehow Ruthie found it in her heart to forgive my family for our sins against hers when I toppled from my imaginary pedestal and landed splat on the ground at her feet.

I'd say we were best friends, but that sounds all cute and confident and united in purpose, which we weren't. The only thing holding us together was my upside-down life, because we both knew I would flounder without her by my side tutoring me in lower-middle-class survival.

Flipping the pages of the magazine, I boasted, “I scrubbed the windows on my house.”

“The place is falling down, and you clean the windows.” Ruthie's tinkling laughter caught the attention of Sophie Snodgrass, who paused with a lime-green roller suspended above the hunched shoulders of a tiny old woman whose name I couldn't remember.

“Fawn Blaylock washing windows? I can't picture it.” Sophie's jaw worked a wad of chewing gum like one of my father's Hereford cows, and she lifted an eyebrow at her gray-haired customer.

I answered Sophie lightly, brushing off her insulting tone. “The view is the only thing the property has going for it.”

“That's not true,” Ruthie said. “Your place is cozy, and with your fancy things, it practically looks like something on HGTV.”

Bless Ruthie Turner.

Even though she considered my house a dump—and told me so—she would never stand by and let Sophie do the same. None of my “fancy things” had been allowed to leave my parents' house. Instead, Ruthie and I drove to garage sales, collecting tacky household items, which her cousin delivered in his pickup truck.

I lowered my head. “Mother would just
die
, wouldn't she?”

“Eew, don't think about your mother,” Ruthie said.

The woman in Sophie's chair chimed in. “How's your mama doing, Fawn? I haven't seen her in town for weeks.”

Her question startled me, partly because I never dreamed the old woman could hear my private mutterings to Ruthie, and partly because I had no answer for her—I hadn't spoken to my mother lately either.

A second elderly woman appeared from the corner bathroom, inching toward a hair-dryer seat with her four-pronged, aluminum cane clicking along the linoleum. “That's not quite right, Sister,” she said slowly. “We bumped into Susan Blaylock last week in the United grocery. In front of the freezer where they keep the orange sherbet.”

“Oh, that's right. She wore high heels on a Tuesday morning.”

I lifted my magazine slightly and whispered, “Remind me of their names.”

Ruthie turned in her seat as though she were looking at something on the street. “No idea. I always call them Blue and Gray.” She winked before wandering to the air conditioner, where she held her hair away from her neck so the frigid blast could dry her skin.

Blue and Gray?
I frowned, wondering if she was referencing the Civil War, but when she crossed her eyes and tilted her head toward the hair-dryer seat, it all made sense. The woman in front of Sophie had gray hair, but her sister's hair held a tinge of blue from too much dye.

I bit my lip to keep from laughing.

“Fawn, honey,” Gray said as Sophie pulled the last roller from her hair. “I remember when your mama married. Seems like just last week.”

Blue gave an airy whistle. “Susan and Neil Blaylock's wedding was the most highfalutin event Trapp's seen in fifty years.”

“Maybe sixty.” Gray scrunched her nose. “And I bet Fawn's marriage to the Cruz boy will be even fancier.”

A sickening knot tightened my insides. Apparently the news of my newfound independence hadn't completed the local gossip circuit yet, though from the look on Sophie's face, the hairdresser was bursting to share the news.

The sweet sisters continued their conversation, oblivious to the tension in the room.

“Like mother, like daughter.”

“Sure enough, the apple doesn't fall far.”

I crossed one knee over the other and sent the futon's uneven legs tapping back and forth like the pendulum on my parents' grandfather clock. The words of two batty old women shouldn't have bothered me. Everyone from Trapp to Tahoka had already pointed out that my unplanned pregnancy and hurried wedding plans echoed that of my parents.

Sophie peered at me with wide eyes. “Fawn? Are you and Tyler a thing again?”

I wanted to crawl under the futon. Or leave the building. Or move to another state. A haircut shouldn't have been so much trouble.

Ruthie huffed. “Sophie, you know good and well Fawn broke it off with Tyler Cruz for good.”

“Well, who am I to say?” Sophie busily teased a lock of Gray's hair into a tangled frenzy.

Blue sat up straight, stretching her withered frame to peek at me over the edge of the counter. “I bet he was unfaithful to you, wasn't he, dearie?” She seemed to imply that if Tyler would sleep with one woman out of wedlock, he would certainly sleep with others.

I lowered my gaze to the floor with an air of mournful loss. I didn't want to lie to the old woman, but I wasn't about to admit the real reason I backed out of my engagement. So far, the truth hadn't come anywhere near the gossip chain—evidence of Tyler's interest in keeping it under the radar as well. In fact, I wouldn't put it past him to have started the cheating-groom rumor. He knew as well as I did that people around here wouldn't forgive abusive behavior nearly as readily as they overlooked promiscuity.

“That's the natural way of men.” Gray held up a crooked finger for emphasis. “Can't trust 'em from here to the porch and back.”

She coughed as Sophie sprayed her head with a can labeled
Big Sexy Hair
.

“You're all done, sweetie.” The hairdresser gently shooed Gray out of her seat while Blue used her cane to pull herself up.

“You and the preacher still wasting time with college?” Blue asked Ruthie. “The two of you ought to be settled down by now.”

Gray's palm rested on the counter, and she seemed to use it for balance as she looked back over her shoulder. “Now, Sister, you know how things are these days. Like on the television shows. A woman has to have a career first.”

Sophie held the door open. “Ladies, I'll see you again next week. Same time.”

I stepped around the puttering women and wondered if the hairdresser was anxious to get me captive in her chair. I mumbled to Ruthie, “I'm beginning to remember why Mother always took me to the spa in Lubbock.”

“Welcome to the working class.”

I settled into Sophie's throne as she approached. “What can I do for you, Fawn, hon?”

A brief explanation quickly set her to work on my split ends, and soon her gentle combing and snipping relaxed my nerves. I closed my eyes, hoping she would let me enjoy the goose bumps tickling across my scalp.

“Oh, sorry.” She yanked a tangle, and when my eyes popped open, she asked, “So you're living up on the Cap?”

“Yes, ma'am.”

“But I see you're still driving Velma Pickett's car.”

“That's right.”

“Ansel and Velma were awful hospitable to board you while you worked things out with your folks.”

What was she getting at?
Not only had I not worked things out with my folks, but my moving in with the Picketts was old news. “I talked it over with Ansel and Velma, and we agreed I should have my own place before the baby comes. That's why I rented.”

Sophie's response came so quickly, her words tripped over mine. “Someone sat in this very chair the other day saying they knew the reason that house has been vacant so long.”

“Sophie …”
Ruthie plopped into the hair-dryer seat. “This sounds like something you shouldn't bring up.”

“Why shouldn't I bring it up?”

Sophie's movements grew rapid and jerky, and I began to fear for my hairstyle. “I've probably heard it already,” I said.

“Oh, I doubt it. You never would have moved there.”

The lingering scent of
Big Sexy Hair
stung the back of my throat, but I accepted it along with Sophie's prattle. Another layer of my sentence.

She paused in her work, clearly waiting for us to ask for details, and when we didn't, she blurted, “The place is infested with rattlesnakes. I heard the last tenants moved to Oklahoma after they found their six-year-old daughter dead one morning … with a rattlesnake coiled on her pillow.”

“That's not true, and you know it.” Ruthie looked as if she might slap her.

“Well …” Sophie's bottom lip pooched. “I heard there were tons of—”

“But nobody ever
died
.”

The hairdresser lifted her chin. “So you admit there are snakes up there.”

“Of course. We live smack in the middle of rattlesnake country, but don't start telling Fawn wild stories.”

“I've heard all the stories.” A small foot or hand or elbow poked my insides, reminding me to keep things in perspective. “But I've been there a week, and I haven't seen anything but scorpions and tarantulas.

“Did the owner mention snakes?” Sophie turned her head so quickly, her bobbed hair whipped against her cheeks.

“I haven't met him.”

She dropped her hands to her sides. “Then how did you rent the house?”

“Ansel knows him.” I adjusted the vinyl cape hanging from my shoulders. “I don't know where the man lives. Dallas or Austin, I guess.”

“Ruthie, do you know who he is?”

“No, but if he's a friend of Uncle Ansel, he's probably supernice.”

I ran my thumb across the stubble on my knee. I hadn't told Sophie everything, but Ruthie knew the sole detail that redeemed my ratty little shack on the Caprock. The owner offered to let me stay there rent-free for two months if I cleaned the place up, and the financial break would make a difference.

Sophie stood motionless with her eyebrows bunched together in concentration. “Let me see if I've got this straight. You're willing to live alone in a snake-infested dump because you're too proud to live in Tyler Cruz's enormous mansion?”

Ruthie slapped her palms against her thighs. “Sophie Snodgrass, Fawn's house may not be as nice as what she grew up in, but she sure as heck doesn't need any help from Tyler.”

“Oh, he's that bad, is he?” Sophie chuckled, then squirted gel into her palm and began working it through my curls. “Maybe that boy wants to do right by Fawn. Have you ever thought about that?”

Ruthie snorted.

“He doesn't,” I moaned. “When I broke it off with him, he didn't argue. He seemed relieved.”

“Not that it's any of your business.” Ruthie scowled at Sophie, and the hairdresser's lips momentarily wadded into a tight pucker before she smiled down at me.

“Well, I'd bet money you misjudged the boy. I'd wager he's concerned for his little family.”

“Why on earth would you say that?” Ruthie's voice rose. “He hasn't shown an ounce of interest in Fawn or the baby in months.”

Sophie wrinkled her nose at Ruthie's reflection in the mirror but then made eye contact with me. “I just think you're wrong about that.” She looked pointedly out the front window to the street.

The vinyl cape around my shoulders acted as a barrier, trapping warm air against my torso, but when I looked past the front counter, chill bumps shimmied up my arms and legs as though I had stepped outside during a cold snap.

Tyler stood on the curb leaning against Velma's Chevy, waiting for me.

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