Editor’s note: Suspended Aggravation is an original, Wheeling-centric novel by Nora Edinger and is published exclusively through Weelunk. While some of the places mentioned in Suspended Aggravation are real (or nearly real), the storyline and most characters (with the exception of a few cameo appearances by actual city residents) exist only in the author’s imagination. For the backstory, read our Q&A with the author.

CHAPTER 11

Location: Mike and Felicity’s West Liberty home, 40.1639° N, 80.6007° W

Emotion: “We are family.”

“Mike,” Allie said tentatively. “I’m really sorry the paper canceled the catwalk tours story because of all this. Are the photos hurting your business in any other way?”

Mike leaned back from the table where the four of them were finishing the last of an excellent stir fry that Felicity had whipped up. The couple’s two teen-aged daughters had already drifted off into a sunken living room at the back of the couple’s open-layout log cabin. If the obvious bulk of the girls’ backpacks was any indication, they had a staggering amount of homework.

Allie glanced the girls’ way, hoping that meant they weren’t listening too carefully. She didn’t want to tip them off to their uncle’s new internet fame in the unlikely chance they weren’t already aware of it.

“Are you kidding?” Mike laughed loudly enough to suggest he didn’t share her concerns. “It’s been a huge help. We’ve even started doing crossings on weekdays now and I plan to up the weekend tours to at least four a day, maybe five, as soon as the college kids get home to work for the summer.” He laughed again. “Of course, a whole lot of the new tourists are women. And, they all want to know if Gabe is on duty.”

Gabe glared at his cousin, who was already laughing at his own joke, but he spoke directly to Allie. “He’s kidding.”

“A little,” Mike continued. “But, not about the tourism boost. We’re even booking more nights at the bed and breakfasts and seeing an uptick at the restaurant. Hey, maybe you two should make out there.”

“Mike!” Felicity interrupted from the adjacent kitchen space. “Who’s ready for dessert? I have strawberry shortcake.”

Gabe squeezed Allie’s fingers under the table. “Allie likes food,” he said. “So, that’s two for ‘yes.’”

“What do you mean Allie likes food? Of course, she likes food. All Morelli …” Felicity, who reminded Allie of a tiny brown bird, suddenly switched directions. “Allie, would you mind helping me in the kitchen for a second?”

It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what Felicity had nearly said. Allie wondered about that as she joined Felicity on the other side of a large island.

Good grief. Am I “a Morelli woman?” Do I even want to be a Morelli woman?

She didn’t think Mike was kidding all that much about the women on the catwalk tours asking for Gabe. That wasn’t so different than cheerleaders in the school hallway.

How does a woman live with that kind of thing?

Allie hadn’t realized she had spoken the last words out loud until Felicity gave a quiet chuckle followed by even quieter words. “The women?” Felicity whispered. “You have to trust your husband and trust God at the same time. Staying as sweet and pretty as you can probably doesn’t hurt, either,” Felicity said with a grin that widened as she noticed Allie’s surprise. “Hey, Mike might not have as much hair as he used to, but, believe me, I know what I’m talking about. Morelli men capture women’s attention. They don’t even have to try.”

Allie watched Felicity as they assembled several small dessert bowls and was convinced the woman had certainly taken her own advice, at least the last part. She had to be well over 40 and was softly rounded after two babies, but Felicity had a warm, low-key sensuality about her. She was lovely in a timeless way. No wonder Mike looked so happy.

“Mike is a good man. Gabe is a good man, too, Allie,” Felicity whispered again as they carried the bowls both to the men at the table and to the girls in the living room. “It’s safe to trust him.”

Allie didn’t answer. Was it safe to trust Gabe Morelli? To maybe even love him someday? She wasn’t quite so sure.

♥♥♥

Location: near Oglebay Resort and Conference Center, 40.1007° N, 80.6618° W

Emotion: “I’m confused, so confused.”

The area between West Liberty and downtown was hilly, winding and tree-lined right up to the asphalt in most places. It demanded full driver attention and both hands on the wheel, although there was hardly another car on the road given the late hour. Just low, brooding hills and peeks of inky black sky through the treetops accompanied them.

route 88 Oglebay

“Gabe?” Allie asked. Her forearm was braced on the door rest, no doubt so she didn’t sway with the car. Its suspension was dodgier than he remembered.

“Mmm-hmm?” His attention was on a sequence of closely spaced 90-degree turns at the moment.

“You said your parents saw the photo,” Allie continued. “Did they say anything to you about it?”

Turns accomplished, he still hesitated before answering. “Not much.”

What did they say?” Allie pressed.

“Well, you have to understand my parents aren’t exactly Christians,” Gabe said. “I learned about God mostly from Mike and Felicity — and you, too, although you probably didn’t realize it at the time. My dad thought it — the picture, I mean — was pretty funny in a guy kind of way.” In truth, Tony had laughed so hard Gabe had blushed. Again. It must have been one of those lightening striking twice kind of things.

He decided he might as well finish it up. “My mom was a little worried about it after she met you. She actually called me about it late last night.”

“Why?”

Now, that was a question he didn’t particularly want to answer. He did anyway. “I think it’s hard for her to believe that I live very differently now that I’m a Christian. She was afraid you are too nice for me — that I’ll hurt you the way I’ve, well, hurt other women in the past.” Gabe sighed and reached for Allie’s hand. “I’m not going to do that, African Queen. I promise you that.”

Allie squeezed his fingers a bit in response and Gabe took that as a good sign. “Did your parents see the picture by any chance?” he asked cautiously. Something must have brought this subject to mind.

“Yes.”

“And?”

“And they asked Simon to call me.”

Gabe slowed the car down a bit. OK. That’s weird. He chose his next words as carefully as he could and tried to keep his tone as even as possible. “Your parents asked the man you almost married to call you about a kiss with another man? I would think that would be even more awkward for him than it would be for you.”

“Sort of,” Allie replied.

“Sort of?”

“Simon never kissed me,” Allie said quietly. “That makes our break up different — at least in some ways. We’ve been able to remain friends.”

Gabe slowed the car still more. He wasn’t sure whether to start with the crazy part or the “remain friends” part. Crazy won. “How is it possible that Simon never kissed you? You were engaged.”

“He grew up in this big home-schooling family,” she explained. “He’s the oldest of six and that’s their family policy. Like the Duggars.”

“Who are the Duggars?” Gabe asked. “And what policy are you talking about?”

“The Duggars are this huge evangelical family with like 20 kids. They had a reality TV show for a while. They don’t really even believe in dating, just what they called ‘courting’ for couples who are considering the possibility of marriage. And, at least some of them don’t kiss until they are at the altar for their wedding. Simon’s family pretty much does the same thing.”

If Allie heard Gabe’s quick gasp of surprise, she didn’t show it. She continued looking out the front windshield. He mulled over what she had said for at least a couple of minutes. “How long did you and Simon um … court, Allie?” he finally asked.

“Five years.”

Five years!” Gabe didn’t even bother to filter his words or tone this time. “This guy is married now, right? To a woman?”

Allie smiled in the darkness. “Simon’s not gay, Gabe, just religiously conservative.”

Gabe let her remark pass, although he seriously doubted there was a man on the face of the earth who was that religiously conservative. Unless, he suddenly realized, the man wasn’t all that attracted to the woman in question. Was that it?

“How long did he date his wife?” he asked pointedly.

No answer. But, the sudden frown from the passenger seat spoke loudly enough. Bingo. Gabe checked his rearview mirror and turned off more quickly than he should have into Oglebay, where he parked at the edge of the circular picnic area known locally as the “racetrack.” He turned off the engine and swiveled in his seat to face her. “How long did he date her, Allie?”

car on route 88

Her answer was so soft, he barely caught the words. “He married Sylvie five weeks after we broke up.”

Gabe hoped it was dark enough in the car to hide his involuntary wince. He didn’t need to, however. Allie was still looking beyond the windshield into the dark distance, punctuated only by the year-round lights that announced the park’s name as other displays from the holiday Festival of Lights were long since turned off or taken down.

Closing his eyes in a moment of fresh repentance over the times he had been the one to cause a woman to feel the rejection he knew she was feeling, he knew words weren’t enough.

He unbuckled his seatbelt, intending to slide over to Allie, blessing his father’s love of vintage cars and bench-style front seats all the way. She was even faster, though, moving into his arms and delivering a soft kiss that tasted wonderfully of strawberries.

His return kiss was equally gentle and deliberately low in voltage, but he hoped it carried enough warmth to ease the sting of such memories. He took her soft sigh and the shiver she gave when he made his way back behind the wheel as evidence it did.

“Are you cold?” he asked, reaching over to stroke her hand with one finger.

She nodded and he turned up the car heat against the unusually chilliness of the spring evening. They were nearly back to Centre Market and her apartment before either of them spoke again. “Allie?”

“Yes?”

“I think I started courting you that first day in the pool, even though I would have had no understanding of such a thing at the time. There is something about you that makes me want … well, everything. I’ve never felt that with anyone else. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“I think so.”

“Is that OK with you?” Gabe asked. “I mean the courting thing — me courting you now.”

“I think so.”

“Is ‘I think so” like ‘maybe’ dating?”

“Gabe, you scare me. You always have.” Allie voice was quivery. He knew this admission was costing her.

“I know. I’m sorry about that,” Gabe said, reaching again for her hand after a nervous swallow. “I wish I could change the guy I used to be — for you and for me. I can’t, Allie. But, with God’s help, I believe I can be the man you need me to be. Now, and in the future if that’s where this goes.”

Her slowness to respond seemed to suck all the oxygen from the vehicle. She’s going to shoot me down. And, that’s exactly what I deserve.

But, he was wrong. “I’d like that,” is what Allie finally said.

Gabe felt like doing a fist pump or something equally juvenile. “Wait a minute,” he teased her instead. “Did I hear an actual ‘yes’ in there somewhere?”

Allie gave a sleepy giggle-yawn combo. “Yes, Gabe Morelli. That was a ‘yes.’”

“Then get ready for some serious courtin’, African Queen. This is going to be good.”

INSIDE THE STORY:

• The conservative romance philosophy of Simon’s family is not unheard of in Wheeling, particularly inside its active home-schooling community. That expression of spirituality is only one of many in the city, however. As Wheeling is the headquarters for a diocese that includes all of West Virginia, Roman Catholicism looms large, particularly the Jesuit variety. There are also “rock and roll” churches, ethnically-based Orthodox and Maronite Catholic churches, mainline Protestant congregations and everything between. Add in a thriving Jewish community, a small Islamic population with a visiting iman, a sprawling Hare Krishna commune and a large Amish population just across the Ohio border — and you’ll find more diversity than you might expect in a small city in the Ohio Valley.

• By spring, Oglebay’s Festival of Lights is shut down except for a couple of permanent displays. Between November and January, though, that nationally-recognized holiday event boasts more than one million lights in 90 displays stretched out over a 6-mile drive. It is such a popular event that one church on the route distributes hot cocoa to festival-goers, who are often listening to local radio programming coordinated to the display.

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• A long-time journalist, Nora Edinger also blogs at noraedinger.com and Facebook and writes books. Her Christian chick lit and faith-related non-fiction are available on Amazon. She lives in Wheeling, where she is part of a three-generation, two-species household.

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