Jill Came Tumbling After:Madison Falls, book 2

By: Lesley Ann McDaniel

CHAPTER 1



Jill Martin flung open her front door with a burst of uncharacteristic boldness, then whirled around to face her husband. “Get out.”

Caleb’s bloodshot eyes widened with either surprise or amusement. “Ge’out?” The two words slurred together into one. “Where am I supposta go?”

“You seem to be an expert at finding places to be other than home.” She dug her nails into her palms, determined to hold her ground. It was about time she did this. In fact, she should have done it ages ago.

“Bu’ honey.” Taking a step toward her, he reached for her cheek but staggered, giving her nose a decidedly unromantic flick.

She slapped his hand away. “Don’t call me that. I’m not your ‘honey’ anymore. I’m not your anything anymore.”

“Hey.” He held both palms out from his sides like a statue of the Virgin Mary. “Wha’d I do?”

Disbelief puffed out between gritted teeth. How could he be so incredibly manipulative? And why had she put up with it for so long?

“What did you do?” Planting her hands on her hips, she braced herself against the cold October night air now gusting into their entryway. “For starters, we don’t have any food in the house, and you just blew my grocery money on beer.”

“Jilly…” His attempt at the boyish grin that had won her heart all those years ago in high school faltered under the influence of the two six-packs he’d just polished off in front of the TV. “I tol’ you I’d pay it back.”

“Oh really? Well, that’s going to be a neat trick considering you don’t have a job.”

He dropped the grin along with what looked like his hope of sweet talking her. “You can’t kick me outta my own house.”

“Maybe not.” She reached for the cordless phone, perched in its stand on the hall table next to the stairs. “But I’m sure Sheriff Drew would be happy to do it for me.”

Fear flashed across his face like a brushfire. He’d had enough encounters with the sheriff of Madison Falls to know that if he found him in this condition, he’d haul him away to cool his heels overnight in a jail cell. Jill grimaced. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Giving her a glare that was no doubt intended to intimidate, Caleb stumbled past her and on out the door, then nearly tripped down the porch steps.

Firming her jaw, she glanced up and down the street. A couple of curtains parted and faces peered out. If this had been his first public display of drunkenness, she would have been mortified. As it was, the neighbors were probably wondering why she hadn’t kicked him to the curb years ago. She shivered. At least she wouldn’t have to announce the news of her situation. Between the gossips and the prayer warriors, news traveled fast in this small Montana town.

Caleb hit the bottom step and whipped around to look up at her, waving an arm and probably thinking he looked threatening.

“I’ll be back, Jill,” he growled. “You can’t keep me from seein’ my kids.”

A pain shot through her heart at the reminder of the two innocent little ones sleeping upstairs. At least she hoped they were still sleeping, with all the yelling that had gone on for the past fifteen minutes.

As he turned and stumbled toward their car in the driveway, her stomach buckled. She quickly glanced at the hooks that edged the bottom of the vintage white mirror hanging next to the door. Her keys were there as usual, but where were Caleb’s? He was always losing them.

She looked back out to see him pat the pockets of his jeans then roll his gaze toward the house. Their eyes met in a mutual acknowledgment of the situation. He was keyless, and he shouldn’t drive in his condition anyway. Not that that ever stopped him.

He sneered, then started down the sidewalk on foot.

Releasing a prayer of thanks along with the breath she’d been holding, Jill rested the phone on the table next to the door. She would need the car more than he would, what with the kids and all.

The kids. Keeping an eye on Caleb as he swaggered into the night—probably to hit the Spur before last call—she strained her ears for any sign of wakefulness upstairs. She let out a long breath. Nothing but blessed silence.

Shaking from the dissipation of adrenaline, she shut the door and twisted the deadbolt, hopeful that Caleb wouldn’t find his keys somewhere and be able to get back in. She made a mental note to track down Sam tomorrow and tell him not to give Caleb the spare set of keys for their house, no matter how much he begged him. Sam would do that for her, she was certain of it.

She sighed. Even though Sam had been Caleb’s best friend since they were kids, he saw through him. He wanted to help Caleb, but he was more concerned with keeping Jill and the kids safe. It was good to know she could trust him.

She sighed again, leaning her back against the door. Too bad she couldn’t trust her husband the same way.

Running her hands through her unkempt hair, she let the silence soothe her ears. She’d done it. After years of thinking about it and making halfhearted threats, she’d finally made her husband leave. Closing her eyes, she sent up a quick prayer, thanking God for the surge of strength that had apparently lasted just long enough this time to get him out the door. Even as she said a silent amen, her knees turned to mush and she sank to the cold hardwood floor.

Relief gave way to a wave of anger. She picked up a mountain ash leaf that had blown in while the door had been open and crunched it in her fist. She’d been such an idiot for marrying him. And then for having children with him.

No. She wiped her palms across her thighs, flicking away the bits of dried leaf. She couldn’t go there. Couldn’t regret having her precious children.

Her hands dropped to her lap and she expelled a breath, then twisted the band around her left ring finger. He had promised—no, vowed—to take care of the family. Right.

Did he really think that “taking care” of them meant spending half his time drunk, losing his job…then getting into trouble with the law for associating with a drug dealer?

Her jaw clenched at the memory. It made her sick to her stomach to know that her husband had put food on the table for weeks using the money he’d earned making deliveries for Carson. Claimed he didn’t know what he was delivering and had gotten out of doing jail time because there was no concrete proof that he’d been directly involved with either using or dealing. Not even Jill had anything to go on but her suspicions. She would have pressed the sheriff to put Caleb behind bars if she’d known he wasn’t going to make good on his promise to look for honest work. What a waste.

And now that he was out of the house, how low would he sink to ensure his own survival?

Oh, come on, Jill. She shot a glance into the darkened living room, at the family portrait hanging above the fireplace. A reminder of happier times.

She rubbed at a dull pain in her chest. He’s got a drinking problem, but he’s not a monster. It was just that it had been so long since she’d been able to trust him. Perpetual suspicion had come to feel like a normal condition.

With her head throbbing like it might explode, she pushed to her feet. She took a step, realizing too late that Riley’s mini soccer ball had rolled underfoot. She stumbled, catching herself as exhausted frustration surged afresh.

Unable to control the new groundswell of rage, she hauled off and kicked the ball, aiming for the hall table as if it were a pintsize goal. The ball ricocheted off the table leg, amputating it from its top and sending an accumulation of mail—along with the phone stand—plummeting. Jill lunged, catching as much of the load as she could before it thundered to the floor.

With her arms full, she held completely still. No sound came from upstairs, and she eased out a breath.

An uncharacteristic curse word rolled around in her head and landed on her tongue, which she bit down on to silence. She’d been asking Caleb for weeks to fix this table leg, but of course he hadn’t gotten to it. Another empty promise. Life with him had been full of them.

Leaning forward, she propped the table on its three good legs and held it there with her hip while easing her load down onto it. Then she braced it with one hand and retrieved the wayward leg with the other, then slid it under the fourth corner. It seemed okay, but the slightest provocation would jar it out of place again. Just like her life. It looked fine, but it had no security.

Who was she kidding? Her life didn’t even look fine anymore.

As she started to tidy up the papers, something colorful snagged her attention. She pulled a bright yellow sheet from the pile and just about choked.

A shut-off notice? She gaped at the red print screaming from the page. Their power was going to be shut off? When?

Her eyes darted around the paper. Ten days from this notice. She tried to read the details, but her mind boggled and her vision blurred. Where was the date? Why couldn’t they at least make it clear?

There it was…ten days from…October thirteenth. And what was today?

Clutching the rest of the papers, she hurried to the kitchen and the calendar on the wall next to the back door. October twentieth.

Her lungs pushed out air like a spent bellows. By the look of things, she had two days to come up with…how much? She surveyed the paper in her hands.

“Three hundred and eighty-seven dollars?” She could barely breathe out the words. It might as well be a million.

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