Lost, Inc. Book 1
Survive the Night
© Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
“Tired?”Delia Jackson latched her seat belt, then looked over at Paul Mason, driving his SUV. Her day had started just after five. It was now nineteen hours long, but she had to give credit to her boss, Madison McKay, owner of Lost, Inc. Holding an “open house” at the small private investigatingfirm where Della had worked since returning to Florida three years ago was a brilliant idea. Holding it during North Bay’s annual street festival was beyond brilliant and now a proven, resounding success.”I passed tired about nine o’clock. Not that your company hasn’t been great.” On a horse wearing a cowboy hat or in a black tux as he was now, Paul Mason was gorgeous and charming. Black hair, gray eyes and lean and fit with a face chiseled by a loving hand. More importantly to Della, he was a man of character, trusted, and he expected nothing from her. That made him the perfect nondate date for any event but especially for one of Madison’s formal soirees, which Della never attended without a direct command-performance memo.
Paul’s arm draped the steering wheel. “Can I say something without you going postal on me?”
Odd remark. “Sure.” In their three years of being close friends, hadn’t they always spoken freely? From the first time she’d talked to him on the phone from lennessee through his organization, Florida Vet Net, and he’d agreed to help her relocate to Florida, she thought they had done nothing but speak freely.
He braked for a group of about thirty festivalgoers to cross the street. One boy about twelve had the Seminole emblem painted on his cheek: Red is good.
Her dress. So he had noticed that she always wore black. Was he like her landlady’s granddaughter next door? Gracie, a precocious eight-year-old, had taken one look at the red dress her grandmother was rehemming because Della had hemmed the silk with dental floss and asked if Della was done mourning. What mother ever stopped mourning the death of a child? What woman stopped mourning the resulting breakup of her marriage? “The black dress didn’t fit.”
Disappointment flashed through Paul’s eyes. “Ah, I see.” He turned onto Highway 20, then minutes later, south into her subdivision. “You seemed to have fun tonight.”
“You know I did.” They’d danced, enjoyed a battle of the bands and had a grand time. Fun. She’d had fun.
The thought sank in, and a flood of guilt swarmed in right behind it. He clicked on his blinker to turn onto her street. “It’s okay for you to have fun, Della. And to wear clothes that aren’t black. It’s been three years.”
“I know.” She’d heard it all from everyone—her former pastor, her landlady, her boss, her boss’s assistant—and now from Paul.
“But knowing it and feeling it are two different things?” he suggested.
He understood. Paul always understood. “Exactly.” Days passing on a calendar didn’t change the grief or loss in a mother’s heart. That was the part the others didn’t seem to understand. The ache and emptiness were still fresh, the wounds still raw. She sighed, glanced out the window. Gracie stood on Della’s front porch. What was that she was holding? “But I am working on—Stop!”
Paul hit the brakes hard, screeched to a stop. “What’s wrong?”
Della didn’t pause to answer but grabbed the door, flung it open and scrambled out. “Gracie!” she screamed, her voice frantic, and ran full out toward her cottage. Oh, please no. Don’t let it happen again. “Put down that package!”
Gracie stood statue-still, her eyes stretched wide, like a terrified deer blinded by headlights.
“Put the box down, Gracie.” Della softened her voice. “Do it now. Right now.”
Gracie set the box on the porch’s floor and then just stood beside it. Della snatched her off the porch, buried her against her hammering chest and ran across the postage-stamp-sized yard to the sidewalk near the street, putting the most distance possible between the package and the child, using her own body as a shield.
Paul ran up to them. “What’s wrong?”
Della ignored him. “Gracie, didn’t your gran tell you not to get my mail?”
“I—I didn’t, Della,” she said on a stuttered breath. “You’re squishing me.”
Della loosened her hold. “Where did you get the box?”
“It wasn’t in the mailbox, I promise. It was on the porch by the swing.” Her voice cracked. “I was scared you wouldn’t see it and—”
Della’s heart still banged against her ribs, threatened to thump out of her chest. She was shaking. Hard. “I appreciate it, but next time you listen to me. Don’t get my mail anymore or any packages. Got it?”
A fat tear rolled down Gracie’s cheek.
Paul smiled and flicked away Gracie’s tear. “Della knows you were trying to help, and she’s sorry she sounds so angry. She’s not, you know.”
“She sounds plenty mad.” Gracie’s chin quivered.
“No, I’m not mad.” Della felt like a slug. A terrified slug, but still a slug. “I was scared.”
“Why?” Gracie and Paul asked simultaneously. Oh, boy. She was in for it now, but it was past time for the truth. “Gracie, you know what happened to Danny, right?” Just speaking her son’s name hurt, reopened the gaping wounds in her battered heart.
Gracie nodded. Light from the streetlamp had the glittery face paint from the festival sparkling on her cheeks. “His daddy was holding him and he opened the mailbox and it exploded. His daddy got hurt, but Danny went to heaven. Now he lives with your mom and dad and my grandpa.”
“That’s right.” Della said it, and would give her eyeteeth to still believe it. But her beliefs or lack of them were her problem, not Gracie’s. “This is my fault. I didn’t want to frighten you, but I should have told you I’m worried the man who did that to Danny might do it again. That’s why I don’t want you getting my mail and why I sounded so angry. When I saw you on the porch with that box… I was really scared.”
Gracie curled her arms around Della’s neck and hugged her fiercely. Her breath warmed Della’s neck, melted the icy chill steeped in her bones. “I’m not going to heaven yet. It’ll be a long, long time. Gran said.”
Gran was the ultimate authority on all things. “That’s good to know.” Della blew out a steadying breath, then set Gracie down on the sidewalk. “You run on home now. It’s late and your gran is waiting.” What was Miss Addie thinking, letting Gracie come outside this late at night alone?
“She doesn’t know I’m gone. She’s in the shower.”
That explained that. “What made you come out here?” Della should have asked that before now, and probably would have, if seeing the child holding that package hadn’t scared ten years off her life.
“I saw the man put the box on the porch.”
A chill streaked through Della. “Did you know him?”
She shook her head. “It was too dark. I just saw the box moving. He was carrying it.”
“He was wearing dark clothes, then?” Della asked.
“I dunno. I only saw the box until he left. Then when he got to the sidewalk I saw him.”
Because of the streetlight. “Would you know him again?”
“No. Everything was black.” She tilted her head. “Well, except his shoes.”
“Did you see his face?”
Paul spoke softly. “Gracie, are you sure it was a man?”
“I dunno. He was bigger than Della, but not as big as you. I couldn’t see.”
“Okay, honey,” Della said. “You go on home now before your gran can’t find you and gets scared.”
“And no more leaving the house without her knowing it,” Paul said.
“Yes, sir.” Gracie cut across the grass and headed next door. “Night, Della. Bye, Mr. Mason.”
“Good night, Gracie.”
“I wish she’d seen more,” Paul said. “I hope he didn’t see her.”
Della’s gaze collided with Paul’s. “You’re not thinking it was FedEx, are you?”
“At midnight?” She muffled a grunt. “No.”
“Neither am I,” he said, then waited, clearly expecting her to explain her behavior and her concerns.
Della hesitated, staring back at the porch at the box, but Paul let the silence between them stretch, blatantly waiting for her to look at him. Resigned, she did. At least he wasn’t scowling. “Spill it.”
“Spill what?” The porch light cast streaks of light across the sidewalk, but it wasn’t so dark she didn’t see the stern look in his eyes. She could try to act as if everything was fine now that Gracie was safely tucked into her own cottage, pretend that her being outside was what really terrified Della and hope he’d go home so she could examine the box on her own, but that required deceit. She hated deceit and she’d never practiced it with Paul. The idea of doing so now grated on her. Just considering it made her feel slimy.
“Don’t minimize this.” He frowned. “Your explanation satisfied Gracie, but I know you, Della Jackson. You’re not suddenly scared of another mailbox bomb. Not with Dawson locked away in a mental hospital. So what’s going on?”
He knew her too well. “Dawson isn’t in the mental hospital anymore. He’s out.”
Surprised lit across Paul’s face. “Since when?”
“Apparently, for about six weeks—”
“And you didn’t tell me?”
“There’s no need to shout at me. My hearing is just fine.” She frowned up at him. “I just found out two weeks ago.”
“A month after the fact? But they were supposed to give you advance notice.”
“Yes, they were, but they didn’t. I fell through the crack.”
Readers’ Group Guide
1. Della feels responsible for an injury she didn’t inflict because it was her duty to protect the victim. She couldn’t, and as a result she feels she doesn’t deserve happiness or even small things. She doesn’t feel she deserves even comfort. Have you ever felt undeserving? As if good things were meant for others but not for you? How did you address those feelings? Did you blame God? Turn toward Him, or away from Him?
2. Paul fears getting close to anyone will put them in jeopardy. More than anything, he wants a family of his own—the family he was denied growing up. How do you feel your growing years impacted what you want as an adult? And have you had to forfeit what you want most for the greater good of another?
3. Della’s husband blamed her for the death of their son, though she was in a war zone far away at the time of his death. Her husband abandoned her, and she lost everything that most mattered to her. We often hear of couples who suffer the loss of a child and end up divorced. Why do you think that happens? What can be done to prevent the breakup of the marriage, too?
4. Paul’s parents were self-absorbed. They loved each other but made little room in their lives for their children. Paul took on the role of parent to his younger sister, Maggie—so she would grow up knowing she was loved. Della wondered who had loved Paul, and discovered his uncle Warny discovered the way his parents treated Paul and Maggie and he became active in their lives. Do you think God compensates in such ways? Brings someone into our lives to fill a role that needs filling? Is there an uncle Warny in your life? Do you fill that role in someone else’s life?
5. A significant event happens to Della that changes her perspective and encourages her to open her heart spiritually and emotionally. After a traumatic event that forces a person to shut down, when that person re-engages as she does, do you think then that person is at peace with the past? Or do you think that bits and pieces of that past continue to influence them the rest of their lives? And is that influence constructive or destructive or both?
6. God gifted us with free will. So He can’t intercede unless we ask. Asking is difficult for Paul and Della and for many of us. Was learning that God stands waiting, eager to be involved in the details of our lives a surprise? Or have you been aware of it all along?
7. Paul, through his work at Vet Net, tries to help returning soldiers reintegrate into civilian life. He tries to make a difference, to make the soldiers’ lives better. That’s very important to Paul, who felt insignificant most of his life because of his parents’ treatment of him. Have you been around others who have made you feel insignificant? Have you made others feel insignificant? What did the firsthand experience teach you?
8. Della loved her husband and son unconditionally. When she lost them both, she was determined never to love again—her heart couldn’t stand that kind of pain twice in a lifetime. And yet love finds its way into her heart, and it terrifies her. Have you felt vulnerable or afraid to love or to care too much? If so, how did you work through it? What was the result? What would you do the same? Do differently?
9. Through no fault of her own, Della had to start over with everything she never wanted. She felt so lost and alone, and deemed that she deserved to be alone, doomed to suffer. Have you ever experienced that kind of loss? That level of isolation? Did you overcome it? How? What role did your spiritual life play in that journey?
10. It is said that best friends make good partners, and yet one must ask, “What if the partnership fails? Then I’ve lost it and my best friend.” That’s the situation for both Paul and Della. The risks are high. Are they too high to pay? Would you risk losing your best and only true friend on a partnership that might or might not work? Why? Why not?