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Hating Jeremy Walters
First love. Ex-fiancé. New boss?
Natalie Groves was meant for great things. Preferably youth ministry with a side gig as an M&M connoisseur.
But soon after her fiancé left, Natalie’s evangelist father was diagnosed with cancer. Her grand plans evaporated . . . and God has seemed disappointed ever since.
Seven years later a church internship presents Natalie a chance at her destiny, but she needs a job to work around it. And the only offer is worse than a life sentence of tofu.
Seven years ago, Jeremy ‘Jem’ Walters left Charlottesville, Virginia to escape his father, God, and heartbreak over Natalie.
Now he’s back in town, a committed Christian, and desperate for help with his infant son and troubled teenage niece, Lili—who’s hiding an explosive family secret.
When Natalie and Jem join forces, sparks fly. But will they be burned in the process?
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Hating Jeremy Walters
By Jessica Kate
Natalie Groves eyed the bag of gingerbread M&M’s on the other side of the office meeting room and prayed for a divine intervention of Red Sea proportions.
In forty-five minutes, two goons from the head office of Harvey’s Bathroom Supplies would walk through the door and give her fifteen minutes from their busy mornings to convince them not to close the Charlottesville branch—the last one left in this half of Virginia.
In forty-five seconds, she might topple out of her office chair, curl up in a ball under this wobbly table, and hide.
“Natalie.” Frank, one of the salesmen, plugged Natalie’s five-year-old laptop into the projector. A muscle jerked in his sandpaper-like cheek. Was that meant to be a smile? Hard to tell. “Those corporate idiots won’t know what hit them.”
Natalie manufactured a smile and stretched it across her lips. “Thanks, Frank.”
He opened the laptop lid. “You look like you’re about to throw up. Just get it over and done with before the presentation.”
Great. Nothing said ‘confidence’ like vomit.
She took a deep breath and ignored the Mexican jumping beans in her stomach. Nothing mattered now except her presentation notes.
Suck it up, Buttercup. This isn’t about you.
No, it was about eight coworkers’ jobs and her ability to pay Dad’s medical bills.
Forget her teenage dreams of a college degree and a job in Dad’s itinerant ministry—a career that would’ve provided a tad more sense of meaning than ‘secretary at the toilet shop’.
No, now saving that toilet shop secretarial job was priority number one. At twenty-six, she’d just scraped together the cash to leave home and get an apartment. Medical bills kept coming, and between her parents’ increasing copay and dwindling savings, money was beyond tight. The past seven years had been a never-ending Monday morning.
Ever since Dad’s doctor said, “It’s cancer.”
By rights, their boss, Maria, should have been giving this presentation—not the girl who answered phones. But Maria had been struck down with an epic case of food poisoning, and Natalie was the one who’d written a business plan to save them. It was amazing what she’d been able to piece together with half a business degree and a bucket load of desperation. And in return for all that effort, she was the one condemned to public speaking.
Frank pressed a button on the laptop. Natalie, watching him in her peripheral vision, waited for the familiar whir of the fan. Nothing happened.
She peered over at him. “Did you press the right button?”
He picked up the computer and shook it. “Three times. Why do you have such an old laptop?”
Because this week’s budget was down to whatever coins she could scrounge from the back of the sofa, but he didn’t need to know that.
She dropped the notes on the table and walked toward him, smoothing her borrowed business jacket as she went. She’d hoped a power suit would boost her confidence. She’d even donned black pumps and straightened her rebellious hair.
All to no avail. But who needed confidence when you had bulldog determination?
Her cell rang, vibrating against the chipped wood veneer of the table. Probably Mom.
She paused, tempted to ignore it. Mom knew how important this morning was— someone had better be dying.
Then again, maybe Dad was.
Her mind’s eye flashed his once-strong hand trembling as he’d waved goodbye to her from his patchwork-covered bed yesterday morning.
Had that been their last farewell?
Fear punched her in the chest as she lunged for the phone, swiped a finger across the cracked screen and hit the voice message icon. She set the phone to speaker. Her normal speakers had decided to take a vacation this week, but speakerphone remained loyal.
An unfamiliar man’s voice glitched in and out, poor reception chopping the message. “Gregory . . . looking for Natalie Groves . . . here, called . . . ambulance . . . corner of Harding and Davis Streets.” Beep.
She froze. It had to be about Dad. No one would call her about anybody else, and his colon cancer was at a stage . . . that she tried not to think about. But why had a stranger called? Where was Mom? Had something happened to her as well?
“Natalie.” Frank’s deep voice rumbled across the room. “You should go.” His tone carried a heaviness that told her he, too, assumed it was her father.
Most folks in this town had heard of her evangelist father—Frank especially, as one of his early converts. Everyone also knew that each unexpected phone call could be announcing very bad news.
Or just another false alarm. And those head office guys would be here in forty-one minutes . . .
Frank placed a hand on her back and pushed her to the door. “We’ll be fine. It might be nothing, and you’ll be back in time. If not . . .” He paused, having pushed her to the threshold of the door. He met her eye. “There’s more important things than this store. Go.”
She reached into her pocket for her keys. If she missed saying goodbye to Dad, she’d never forgive herself.
“Thanks, Frank.” She sprinted from the room.
“And don’t take that hunk of junk you call a car,” he shouted after her as she reached the end of the corridor.
She paused, and he tossed her his keys.
“Good luck, Nattie.”
She nodded, and darted out into the parking lot. The muggy late-summer air triggered an instant sweat, and early morning sun made her squint. She hit the beeper and ran past her rusted VW Bug toward flashing headlights. Thank heavens for Frank. He knew her car was as likely to break down as not.
Natalie jumped into the driver’s seat of Frank’s SUV and pulled a fast food bag off the dash before she threw the vehicle into reverse. The scent of stale fries lingered in the air. She twisted in the seat to look out the back window. Discarded Happy Meal toys lay in a child’s car seat, strapped in next to a baby seat. He must’ve had his grandkids for the weekend again.
She rocketed backward, then out of the parking lot and onto the road. She’d go to the address the mystery man mentioned first—it was just around the corner. She might even beat the ambulance.
If there was nothing there, she’d head to Martha Jefferson hospital.
And probably say goodbye to Dad.
A man lay splayed out on the footpath ahead. Six feet of pale skin and freckles. Unmoving.
The sharp twist in Natalie’s gut eased as she slowed the SUV and flashed her turn signal. That man definitely wasn’t her seventy-one-year-old father. Thank you, God.
Goodbye would come, but not today.
She swiped a stray tear that had gathered in the corner of her eye, then squinted at the figure on the ground.
It sure looked like . . .
Movement caught her eye. An older man, standing behind the guy on the footpath, holding a baby with one arm as the other flagged her down.
She whipped the car into a parking space, fifteen yards from the man prone on the ground. She couldn’t see his face from this angle.
But recognition tickled the edge of her mind. Mouth dry and stomach on spin cycle, she jumped out.
The older man rushed toward her. Colonel Sanders without the smile.
She tried not to stare.
She gestured to the man on the ground, behind the Colonel. “What happ—”
He dumped the baby in her arms. It squirmed and squealed.
She recoiled half a step, and the baby wobbled in her tenuous grasp. She clutched a handful of blue jumpsuit. The baby arched his back against her, kicked his chubby legs and reached toward the man on the ground. “What is going on?”
“You know this guy, right?”
The Colonel Sanders look-alike blocked her view, so she couldn’t confirm or deny.
“He was jogging from that building there, back to his car with his kid.” He pointed to the wriggling child in her arms. “And whacked his head against that branch.” His finger indicated a tree branch that stretched six feet above the sidewalk. “I stopped to check he was okay, but the cut on his forehead bled and he got dizzy and passed out. Guess he hates blood. I called an ambulance, but there’s a crash on the other side of town and they’ve been held up. So I grabbed the emergency contact card in his wallet.” He spoke without pausing for breath and held up an emergency contact card. It was misshapen and discolored with age, like he’d pried it from the depths of a wallet that should’ve been retired last decade.
Colonel Sanders stepped aside, so she could see who lay on the sidewalk. The man on the ground shifted, groaned.
Natalie’s brain begged her eyes to admit they were lying.
She scanned the man from head to toe. A shock of red hair. Boyish freckles. Broad shoulders.
Jeremy Walters, her ex-fiancé.
I’m outta here.
She reached for her keys and turned to the Colonel to return the baby. She only saw his retreating back. “Wait! You can’t leave me.” She ran after him.
The man spun to face her, but kept walking backward toward a truck parked by the roadside. “You have no idea how late I am. He’s only been out for a minute or two. Take him to the emergency room if you’re worried.” With the final words he hauled himself into his vehicle.
“You can’t go.” His revving engine drowned her plea. A puff of exhaust fumes tickled her nose, and she sneezed. The truck drove further away but she kept watching.
Turn back, turn back.
It rounded a corner and disappeared.
She swiveled with the enthusiasm of a vegetarian at Outback Steakhouse.
Jem hadn’t crumpled to the ground. He lay flat on his back, long limbs stretched in every direction. One hand lifted from the ground to rest on his bleeding forehead, and his eyelids twitched but remained closed.
No one would call him a bodybuilder, but neither did he have a gangly look anymore. He’d grown his hair longer than the military-style cut his dad used to do at home every month, and his face sported more freckles.
But it was him.
She ground her teeth against the warm rush of memories that poured into her mind. Sure, she hated his guts, but he wasn’t just the guy who broke her heart seven years ago. He was the tang of lemonade after they raced their bikes down the street. He was the crinkle of comic book pages as they hid from his dad under the back porch. He was the smell of lavender in Mr. Holbert’s jewelry shop, where her nineteen-year-old self pointed to a diamond and said, “That one.” He was every good memory before life got complicated.
But now things had changed—though not all. Blue ink still smudged his palm. Jem without a pen was like a Saturday night without M&Ms. Had he fulfilled his journalistic dreams?
She scrubbed a sleeve across her face. Time to focus. The man burned faster than forgotten eggs on a stove, so she should get him out of the sun.
Or better yet, leave him there.
God, what did I do to deserve this?
Running into the guy who dumped you two months before your wedding was always bad, but especially like this. She was broke. Single. Going nowhere.
He’d take one look at her and thank his younger self for leaving.
She shifted on her feet. She’d give up anything, even pumpkin spice M&M’s, to jump in the car and go back to work. To meet the head office representatives and save the store.
But there was a baby in her arms and she couldn’t plop him on the ground and leave.
Jem lurched up to a sitting position. “Oliver!”
Jem swung his head around and squinted into the sun toward her. He jumped to his feet and swayed.
“Whoa.” She stepped forward and grabbed his arm with her free hand, then dropped it.
He leaned back against the tree trunk—the one supporting the branch that put that red gash with congealing blood on his forehead. Raised his gaze and did a double-take.
Jem blinked against the waves of dizziness assaulting his body and tried to focus on the five feet and six inches of woman radiating resentment towards him. Gorgeous as ever.
Even if her brunette hair was frizzing and his nine-month-old son’s flailing hand was smearing her pink lipstick across her cheek.
He steadied himself against the tree trunk behind him, pressed his hand into the scratchy bark to check he was really awake. Natalie was really standing in front of him. For the first time in seven years. And her first impression was…“You saw me drooling on the footpath.”
Terrific. Just the look he’d been going for.
He fought for focus as his vision narrowed. “Olly. Is he okay?” A bubble of panic popped inside. He’d been holding Olly when he whacked his head, saw the blood, and the dizziness swallowed his consciousness. Had he hurt his son?
Natalie looked at Olly, fussing in her arms. She held him out. “Here.”
That wasn’t a ‘yes, he’s fine’. Nausea flooded Jem for a second time. He tried to blink away the fuzzy static on the edges of his vision as he reached for Olly.
Just before their hands met, she jerked Olly back. “You’re not going to drop him, are you? You’re white as a ghost. He’s fine, by the way.”
Jem blew out a relieved breath. When a new parent asks if their kid is okay, the only two responses should be ‘yes’ or ‘we’ve already called the chopper’.
He slid down the trunk till his backside hit the ground. “Just let me sit for a minute, get the blood back to my head.” And re-start my heart.
He rested his throbbing forehead on his knees, and willed the rushing in his head to go away. Olly was okay, so now he needed to deal with problem number two: salvaging his first conversation with Natalie in seven years, two months, and—if memory served correctly—about three weeks.
In the thousands of times he’d pictured this moment, he’d envisioned the full spectrum of scenarios, from the sting of her slap to the M&M flavor of her kiss.
But not one of those scenarios had included a tree branch, a throbbing skull, nor the distinct possibility of throwing up at her feet.
If he could stay conscious for five seconds, he could figure out why she was here and how he could stop her from punching him in the teeth. From the sparks shooting from her green eyes, he was in imminent danger.
Maybe he should let her hold Olly till he got his reflexes back.
After a minute, his tunnel vision cleared and equilibrium returned. He sent up an emergency prayer for help, faced Natalie and offered a small smile. “Let’s start over. Hi.”
She plopped Olly in his lap. “Let’s not. Goodbye.” She spun toward an SUV parked by the sidewalk.
A jolt of loss shot through him. He’d missed this woman for years, and today woken up on a warm concrete footpath to find her holding his son.
She couldn’t vanish now.
He scrambled to his feet, off-balance with Olly in one arm and residual dizziness swirling in his brain. “Hey, wait! Where are you going?”
“Not that it’s any of your business, but I’m late for an important presentation.”
He leaned against the side of her car and studied her face. She’d matured from his bright-eyed college-student fiancée into a professional twenty-six-year-old woman. Freckles faded. Eyelashes as dark as ever.
And he didn’t buy her excuse for a second. The Natalie he’d known would swear off sugar before she’d speak in public.
Not that he could blame her for avoiding him. He’d be mad at him too.
Still, she had to listen to what he had to say—even if this wasn’t the exact scenario he’d envisioned for saying it.
She opened her door, and he placed a gentle palm on it.
“Hold on. Just let me give you a heads-up. I’m moving back to town. Moved, actually. Yesterday. The boxes are at Mike and Steph’s.” Reconnecting with his brother Mike and niece Lili had been the best part of yesterday.
His sister-in-law Steph . . . not so much.
She paused. Her brow furrowed, lips pursed, then the flash of emotion disappeared. “Whatever.” She jumped up into the SUV and started it without closing the door. She looked over her left shoulder, away from him, like she was checking for cars before she pulled out onto the road. Her hand reached toward the door handle that his body blocked.
Not so fast. He owed her a proper apology, and he couldn’t exactly yell it at her fleeing car.
Time to play the sympathy card.
He edged closer to her, almost leaning into the car. “You’re just going to leave me here with a concussion and a baby?”
More like an I-hate-blood-faint and a baby, but whatever.
She whipped her head around to face him, her long ponytail slapping him across the eye socket. “You’re really going to say that to me?”
Ouch. Not that he didn’t deserve it. No matter how honorable his intentions had been at the time.
She pushed him back from the door and slammed it shut, but the window was down.
He poked his face through it. Her perfume filled his senses—that, and the salty scent of what looked like old McDonald’s on the passenger seat. “Which road is the hospital on again?” he asked, in his most innocent voice. “I’ll take myself there, but I can’t remember.” He gave his forehead a dramatic rub. “Must’ve been the knock to the head.”
She glared. “Liar. And it’s called Google Maps.”
He held eye contact, and after a moment, she looked away. Sighed. “You shouldn’t drive, anyway.”
Bingo. Chink in the armor.
“It’s okay, I’m fine.” He fished his keys from his back pocket with one hand, Olly now content in his other arm. “I’ll figure it out. See you later.”
He walked toward his Camry.
Three, two, one.
“You should call your dad,” she called out after him.
He stopped. “Doesn’t know I’m here yet.” And he’d put that unpleasant moment off for as long as possible.
“Mike, then. That’s what big brothers are for.”
He waved off her concern. “He’s busy. Minister stuff.”
“They have actual emergencies to go to.” He turned back to his car. Not that he had any intention of driving. But she didn’t know that.
Her engine started. Maybe he was wrong.
He sighed. He could sit here awhile, make sure he really was okay, before he drove to the doctor.
Though that wouldn’t help him say what he had to say to Natalie.
Gravel crunched beside him. He glanced up. Natalie’s SUV slowed to a stop.
He couldn’t stop his smile. She might be mad at him, but ol’ Nat’s dependability never changed.
“Get in the car.” She didn’t even look at him, but he’d take what he could get.
“I’ll grab Olly’s car seat.”
“Already got one. Seriously, hurry up. I told you I’ve got somewhere to be.”
Oops. Maybe she hadn’t lied. But too late now.
He buckled Olly in and jumped in the passenger seat. At least the hospital wasn’t far.
She pulled out from the curb at a somewhat alarming speed. He gripped the door handle and prayed his son wasn’t about to be orphaned at just nine months old.
When the tires stopped screeching, the silence rubbed his nerves like a cheese grater.
Well, it was now or never.
He took a deep breath and faced her profile. “Nat, I owe you an apo—”
“Why are you back, anyway?” Her eyes stayed on the road, expression tense.
Huh. She’d cut him off, almost like she didn’t want to hear it.
Well, whatever the lady wanted.
He settled back in his seat, gaze bouncing off his blood-stained hand. “Work transfer.”
“That doesn’t make sense. Weren’t you in Chicago?” Her cheeks flushed a little after her words.
Interesting. He grinned.
“I wasn’t keeping tabs on you.”
He grinned wider. She now had a serious case of tomato-face. “I know.”
She shifted her hands on the steering wheel, still looking flustered. “Then what’s with the move?”
He cleared his throat. “I was about to get fired, so I found another job. Here.”
She slid a glance toward him, like she was waiting for more.
He shrugged. No point being anything but honest. They’d always told each other the truth. “When you have to convince your ex-girlfriend not to end her pregnancy every ten minutes, and then you become a single dad, work…suffers.”
A beat of silence. “That’s, uh, unfortunate.” Her understatement carried a note of sympathy.
“It’s okay. Olly and I are the dynamic duo. The first few months were a bit rough, but the old lady next door was a lifesaver. We made it.”
He risked another glance at Natalie. “So, how are you?”
She took the corner five miles an hour faster than she should have. “I’m fine.”
He swept his gaze from her face to her feet and back again. Worry lines had carved their way across her forehead. “Really? Because you look awful.”
Her jaw tightened. “That better be the concussion talking.”
He rolled his eyes. “I didn’t mean it like that. I mean you’re stressed. I can tell.” You date someone for four years, you learn to read their expressions.
No matter how long it’s been since you saw them.
She jerked the car right and jammed on the brakes.
His seatbelt snapped tight. He threw one hand against the dash and looked for whatever she’d braked to avoid.
It took a moment to realize they were parked in front of the hospital.
Natalie yanked the park brake up and turned to face him.
If looks could kill, he would’ve just been incinerated. “Why don’t you try getting a mystery phone call about someone being taken to the hospital? No wonder I’m stressed, I thought it was Dad!”
Jem’s insides flipped at the mention of her father. A man he’d been far closer to than his own dad. “Phil? What’s wrong with him?”
“It’s a little too late to pretend you care.” Her phone rang. She snatched it from her pocket and hit the answer button without checking the screen.
“Hello?” She angled her body away.
“Natalie?” A man’s voice blared through the speakerphone.
“Hold on, Frank. I’ve got to—”
“Nat, the head office rep just left. They came early. We’re all out of a job.”
A pit of dread opened in Jem’s chest. Had that been the important presentation she’d mentioned?
Had he just cost Natalie her job?
Natalie stared at her phone, blinking rapidly. “I’ve got to go.”
“Get out of the car, Jem.” The words didn’t sound angry, just sad.
And that ripped him far more than her fury ever would.
He pulled Olly from his car seat and stood back on the sidewalk.
She drove away without a backward glance.
Just like he had seven years ago.
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Jessica Kate is a 26 year-old Australian writer. She prefers the term writer because it’s too hard to say ‘journalist, online training developer and author’ in one sentence.
Her manuscript Hating Jeremy Walters was a finalist in the 2015 Frasier Contest, run by My Book Therapy, and is a finalist in the 2017 American Christian Fiction Writers Genesis competition.
She is now penning her second novel, Stuck With You.