Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Grand Design by Amber Stockton

A Grand Design
Abingdon Press (August 19, 2014)
by
Amber Stockton


Chapter 1



“I hate the month of June!”

Alyssa Denham shouldered her way through the revolving door to her office building and onto the concrete sidewalk, her arms laden with bridal shower grab-bag gifts. She should have tossed most of the stuff, or found an unsuspecting coworker and bestowed the gifts on her as a random act of kindness. Three office bridal showers in the first three weeks of April. It had to be a record. The predictable wedding invitations arrive in her inbox, and she still didn’t have a date for the events. Some of it was her fault. It shouldn’t bother her, but it did.

I don’t have a date, period.

Every year for the past five years, whenever a wedding occurred for someone she knew, it happened in June. And this year was no different. If June was her least favorite month, then April followed as a close second. As Alyssa stepped out from under the overhang, the light drizzle falling most of the day changed to a steady rain.

“Perfect,” she muttered, looking up and down the street for a taxi to the train station. She usually walked, but the gift bags and little wrapped items she carried made the idea impossible. The six blocks would feel more like sixty.

Alyssa straightened when she saw a yellow cab round the corner. She stepped forward and tried to free one arm to signal it. When the driver maneuvered toward the curb, relief coursed through her. Just as she reached for the door handle, a Tom Cruise look-alike in a dark gray tailored suit stepped in front of her. He opened the door and held it for a young blonde who could easily pass for a magazine model.

Recognizing the girl as the latest bride-to-be from her office, Alyssa rolled her eyes and sighed. The pretty girls always get the guys—and the cabs. So what if the girl was also in a jam. The young woman and her fiancé might be late for dinner reservations, but Alyssa had an armful of packages—thanks to the two who had just stolen her ride. The cab pulled away from the curb and the rear wheels sent a spray of water in her direction.

Her favorite cream slacks now sporting a dirty rainwater splatter, Alyssa headed for the corner to catch the city bus. It arrived just as she reached the stop. Balancing her bags on one arm, she managed to withdraw enough loose change from the purse dangling on her arm for the fare, then turned to find a seat. Sandwiched between a woman in a black business suit and stiletto heels with a cell phone pressed to her ear and a fifty-something gentleman with a rounded middle and gray-speckled hair, Alyssa couldn’t wait to get home.

If you don’t do something besides work and stay at home, you’ll never meet Mr. Right. Live a little, Alyssa!

The admonishment from her best friend floated through her mind as she surveyed the other riders. From the shabbily-dressed, college-age crowd to the handful of silver-haired men headed for retirement, there wasn’t a prospect in the bunch—unless she counted the Don Juan type with the slicked back hair and gold-capped smile who eyed her from across the aisle. At only twenty-nine, she wasn’t that desperate yet.

Well, Lord, I would live a little. But on my salary, this is about as social as it gets.

Thankfully, the ride to the train station wasn’t long, and Alyssa stepped off the bus. Grateful to be under shelter, she smiled and thanked the man who held the door for her and headed inside to catch her train.

Forty minutes later, she walked through the door to her comfortable two-bedroom apartment. She deposited her armload onto the maple dining room table her grandmother had given her and breathed a sigh of relief. Alyssa flipped through the stack of mail. Nothing but bills and advertisements. She sighed. The usual. Suddenly, a bold word on the front of one envelope caught her attention.

WINNER!

Alyssa stared at the return address. Oh, no! How in the world had this happened? She’d entered the magazine contest on a dare. And now, she’d won? She’d never won anything before in her life. Was this God’s answer to her current solitary life, or was He pulling her leg? Alyssa smiled. It had to be a God-thing.

But why this? And why Mackinac Island of all places?

Curious, Alyssa slit the envelope and pulled out the full-color, tri-fold brochure along with a letter. She kicked off her pumps, padded over to her favorite burgundy recliner, and extended the footrest. The one lone accent piece in her otherwise neutral décor. Settled into the cozy comfort of the soft velour, Alyssa scanned the enticing images and well-written descriptions. Just the way the mind of her youth remembered it. As if nothing had changed in all these years. The image of a lighthouse and a few seagulls reminded her of her father and the walks they used to take along the beach. Speculating on the types of people who had walked the beach leaving prints behind had been a favorite pastime for both of them.

Every written description in the brochure promised an unforgettable time. And each picture included a happy couple enjoying the boating activities, horseback riding, rafting, and tennis, not to mention the horse-drawn carriage rides and scrumptious dinner selections. She’d done it all at one point many years ago. Advertising the island as a romantic getaway made sense. But it didn’t make her current status any easier to swallow.

Couples, couples, couples! Didn’t singles go anywhere anymore? Just once she’d like to see a vacation spot showing someone having a grand old time alone. But as she unfolded the brochure, each new page revealed another toothy twosome, caught up in euphoric delight. And she was a “onesome”—an unsmiling “onesome” at that. Blotting out the images of the couples, she focused on the swimming, boating, and nature walks—things she loved to do and hadn’t done since she was a kid. And she hadn’t taken her vacation yet this year. Why not throw out the romance and do a getaway for one?

But just the thought of going alone dampened her excitement. She’d played the odd-woman-out too many times. Not her idea of fun. She stared at the word two in the letter as if it were a death sentence. Two. Then, a flash of enlightenment tugged at the corners of her mouth. Not a couple. Just two.

Alyssa snapped the recliner into its upright position and reached for the phone on the end table next to the chair. After dialing, she waited for her best friend to pick up. One . . . two . . .

Alyssa straightened as the third ring stopped midway through and planted her feet on the carpeted floor. “Libby, you’ll never guess what’s happened.”

“What?” Libby’s excitement transcended the distance between them.

“Remember the contest the girls dared me to enter in the latest Bride magazine?” Alyssa twirled the phone cord around her fingers and leaned back. “The one promising a chance to win an all-expense paid trip for two and touted it as a ‘honeymoon in heaven’?”

“How could I forget? You almost wouldn’t complete the thing,” Libby complained. “And I had to dare you to mail it.” Her friend’s breath hitched. “Wait, don’t tell me.”

“Yep. I have the notification right here in my hand.” Alyssa held the phone away to avoid being deafened by Libby’s shriek. “There’s only one snag,” she said when it was safe. Tucking a strand of her cinnamon-colored hair behind her ear, she pivoted and propped her feet on the edge of the end table. “The getaway is for two.”

“Now you listen to me, Alyssa Denham . . .” Libby predictably launched into attack mode. “This is not a problem. We’ll figure something out. I mean, you are always looking for some excuse to get out of changing your dull routine. If you can find any reason whatsoever not to do something, you will use it. This is just the kind of thing—”

“I want you to come with me,” Alyssa interrupted, grinning.

“—you do all the time. And frankly, I’m . . .” Silence filled the line, followed by an incredulous, “What?”

Alyssa smiled. “I said I’m going, and I want you to go with me.”

“Alright. Who are you? And what have you done with my best friend? Alyssa would not agree to do something like this so easily.”

Alyssa laughed. “It’s me, Libby.”

“Well, you sure don’t sound like the Alyssa I know and love. She would die before she’d make up her mind this quickly. I mean, this is the girl who waited a year before getting her hair cut in the latest style. She got her ears pierced ten years after all her friends did. And she waits until styles go out of season before she decides she likes them enough to buy them. So this can’t be Alyssa.”

Alyssa crossed her ankles and picked imaginary lint off her cable-knit sweater. “Well, God and I had a little chat about my life on the bus ride home. And when I walked in the door, this letter was waiting. Seemed like a quick answer to me, so I decided to go.” Glancing back at the brochure on her lap, Alyssa sighed. “Just maybe, that friend you know is changing. Maybe she’s looking for a little excitement in her life.”

“Wow. I always said it would take an act of God to get you to break out of the rut you call a life, but who knew He’d take me seriously.”

Alyssa shook her head. Leave it to Libby to be sarcastic. They’d been best friends for almost twenty years. Libby’s rather boisterous style and brand of wit is what attracted Alyssa. Inwardly, she hoped some of it would rub off on her.

“Come on, Libby. Cut me some slack here. You’re the one who’s always telling me to live a little. So are you in or out? Answer quickly before I have time to talk myself out of it.”

“In,” Libby exclaimed. “Just bear with me. I’m still in shock.” She paused and took a breath. “And it’s free? No catches, no time-share spiels to listen to?”

Alyssa picked up the letter of confirmation, reading it again, barely believing it herself. “It says so right here. And I have the letter to prove it.” She reclined the chair back and stared at the stucco finish on the ceiling, the white speckled design resembling the intricate patterns on the sand-washed rocks she had on the shelf in her bathroom. Another reminder of the life she’d lived as a child.

“You seriously want me to come along?”

“Well, who else would I take? I don’t exactly have a long line of suitors waiting at my door.”

Libby’s grin came through the phone line. “No, I mean wouldn’t you want to take this trip alone? You never know. Mr. Right could be waiting for you. Speaking of which, where is this place?”

“Mackinac Island in Lake Huron.” Alyssa examined the brochure again. “There’s even something here about it being named ‘Turtle Island’ by the local Chippewa Indians who discovered it.”

“Turtle Island?” Incredulity laced Libby’s words.

Alyssa shrugged. “Hey, I don’t write the descriptions.” She read further. “Anyway, the brochure says it’s a great getaway with lots to do and the perfect place for some excitement.” Raising one eyebrow, she pursed her lips. “Somehow, I think the ‘excitement’ they promise has more to do with their billing this island as a romantic getaway than the kind of adventure you and I could have.”

“Do tell.”

“There’s boating, horseback riding, cycling, parasailing—”

“Parasailing?” Libby latched onto the word. “I can see it now. A skimpy little number with a drop-dead gorgeous instructor standing behind me as I fumble with the sail and play the dimwitted damsel who can’t tell which end is up.”

Alyssa laughed and shook her head. Her friend’s flare for the extreme is what made their friendship work. “And what if the instructor’s a woman?”

“Then I’ll give her to you while I scout out the Baywatch guy.”

“Gee, thanks. Some friend you are.”

“You know you love me.”

“Only the Lord knows why.” But Alyssa did know.

Life was an adventure to Libby, and she wanted her best friend to take part in it. Libby usually managed to pull her from her staid and simple existence to create memories far exceeding her wildest imagination.

“So other than the obvious, tell me a little more about this place.”

A big ball of fur jumped up into Alyssa’s lap. She waited for Kalani to find a comfortable position, then stroked the dark gray Persian’s ears, earning a rumbling purr in response. “The brochure says the main hotel was built around the turn of the century, and they don’t allow cars on the island.”

“No cars? How do you get around?”

“Bicycles, horse-drawn carriages, and your own two legs.”

“Sounds like your kind of place. No modern conveniences.” Sarcasm dripped from Libby’s words. “Wonder if they have indoor plumbing.”

Alyssa planted her fist on one hip, startling Kalani. “I appreciate my modernized lifestyle, thank you very much.” She gently coaxed the cat to relax. “But, I admit, a part of me would like to get a feel for a bygone era.”

“Looks like you’ll get your chance.” Libby made a sound like snapping her fingers. “Hey, wait a second. Doesn’t your grandmother live on the island? And isn’t it the same island where you used to spend all your summers as a kid?”

“I was wondering if you’d actually remember.”

“As if I could forget. It was all you used to talk about when we first met. I always wished I could go with you just once.”

“Well, it looks like you’ll get your wish,” Alyssa replied, throwing her friend’s words back at her.

“Guess so.” She paused. “It’s been a while for you, hasn’t it?” came the soft words.

Libby knew all about what had happened—all except for the real reason Alyssa hadn’t returned.

Though her friend couldn’t see her, Alyssa nodded. “Nearly fifteen years.” Even now, moisture gathered in her eyes. She blinked several times and looked toward the ceiling. No. She wouldn’t cry. She wouldn’t. She couldn’t. It would spoil the elation she should be feeling.

“It’s been a long time.”

“Yes.” Alyssa snatched a tissue from the box next to her and held it to the corners of her eyes. “In some ways, it feels like yesterday. In others, like forever.”

“Well, experiences and memories don’t just go away. You and your dad had a lot of fun there for many years.”

Alyssa sniffed. “And then Dad got sick, and well, somehow the joys of going didn’t hold as much enticement anymore.”

“Because your mom never cared much for the island. Though I’m not sure why.”

“Like you, she preferred the more modern conveniences and easy access to an abundance of stores, outlets, and entertainment options.” Alyssa shrugged. “The island just didn’t suit her as well as it did Dad and me.”

“Probably the lack of cars,” Libby intoned. “Still, I think it’s been far too long for you, and it’s high time you returned. Guess God had the same idea.”

Obviously He did. “Well, we’ve talked about taking a vacation together. And you said you had two weeks coming to you. I can take off as well. It’s the perfect opportunity.”

“When are we supposed to fly off to our land of adventure?”

Alyssa reached for the letter and scanned the page. “Umm, July seventh.” She kicked her feet against the table and swung the chair around, squinting to see the calendar on the wall behind her desk in the corner. “It’s a Monday.”

Libby rustled some paper. “It gives us a little more than two months to plan. We can have an amazing two weeks, stop in and visit your grandmother, and get into all sorts of trouble. I can’t believe this is happening.”

“Me, either.” Alyssa was almost tempted to pinch herself. She’d wanted a change for a while. This was just the opportunity to help her make it. And it followed all those weddings she’d been invited to attend. After being present to witness three more women she knew being joined in eternal wedded bliss, she’d need a vacation. Winning this trip sealed the deal. “We’ll have a blast, whether Prince Charming is there or not.”

“You’re on, girlfriend,” Libby chimed in, obviously infected by Alyssa’s enthusiasm. “Mackinac Island, here we come!

Well, almost. Alyssa had another phone call to make.

* * * * *

“Oh, Alyssa dear, are you really coming back to our island?”

“Yes, Grandma, I am.”

“Praise be to Jesus. My little girl is coming home.” Her sniffle was like a knife in Alyssa’s gut. “Oh, how I have prayed and prayed for this day to come. I’d almost given up hoping you’d ever return, dear.”

“I know, Grandma, and I’m sorry.” She shouldn’t have stayed away so long. But the days had become weeks, and the weeks had become months, and the months had become years, and before she knew it, fifteen years had passed. “I should have made more of an effort to come see you. What with school, and my summer jobs, and planning for college, then a career, it’s hard to imagine it’s been as long as it has.”

“Child, there is no need to apologize, though I certainly do forgive you. Your mama needed you after my Richard passed away. It isn’t easy losing your soul mate, the love of your life.”

Grandma knew it all too well, even if Alyssa could only imagine. First, Grandpa, and then five years later, Dad. And Alyssa had stopped her annual visits, only keeping in touch through cards or the occasional phone call.

“No.” Alyssa sighed. “But it wasn’t fair to you to be left all alone up there. I mean it wasn’t just us. You lost Dad, too.”

“Oh, child, I’m never alone on this little island. You should know that. I’ve lived here all my life and made a lot of friends over the years.” The faint sound of Wheel of Fortune came through the phone. One of Grandma’s favorite TV programs. Hers, too. “Then, there are all the tourists. Some of them provide a great deal of entertainment for me, and I only have to watch or listen to them for ten minutes or so. Now, you stop the line of thought leading you down a path of guilt right this instant, young lady.”

Alyssa could almost see Grandma wagging a finger in her direction. She straightened, as if Grandma could see her and would tell her to stop slouching in the next breath. “Yes, ma’am,” she replied.

“I am doing just fine, I assure you, my dear.” Her voice held all the conviction needed to make Alyssa believe it. “But to tell you the truth, your call and announcement couldn’t have come at a better time.”

“Oh?” Just how orchestrated was this trip? “What’s happening?”

“Tell me again, how long is this little vacation going to be?”

“Two weeks,” Alyssa replied. “Why?”

“And dear Libby is going to be joining you?”

“Yes.” She sighed. “Grandma, what’s all this about?”

“I have a little project for you while you’re here.”

“A project?” It sounded ominous. Even though Grandma couldn’t see her, she narrowed her eyes and scrunched up her brows. “What kind of project?”

“Oh, just a little something to keep you busy in the midst of all the parasailing, horseback riding, and boating I know you just love to do.”

Yeah, right. Alyssa loved all of the adrenaline-inducing activity most of the tourists sought out as much as she loved the thought of going to three weddings as a solo act. Libby might live for it, but not her. Not in this lifetime. “Now, Grandma, you know me better than that.”

“Yes, child, I do. And it’s why I know you’ll be excited to learn of a little something I’ve been meaning to do for over a year now, but I simply haven’t had the opportunity, or the ability.”

Why was Grandma being so mysterious? Why not just come right out and say what she wanted Alyssa to do? It’s not like she’d have any say in the matter, not where Grandma was concerned. As sweet as she was, Grandma usually managed to persuade everyone to do her bidding and make them think it was their idea in the first place.

“And I suppose Libby and I coming will now give you the opportunity?”

“Yes, dear, it will. You see, I’ve started a special quilt. One to unite the decades and bring together many different families. But I can’t do it alone. It’s going to take you and Libby helping me to make it work.”

A quilt? Alyssa swallowed. As in pieces of fabric sewn together in some semblance of a pattern? Her throat constricted. She didn’t know anything about quilting. She could barely sew on a button, much less attempt to make something as big as a quilt actually look good.

“Um, Grandma?” She swallowed again. “Are you certain you want me helping with this? I mean, are you sure I won’t ruin whatever work you’ve already begun?”

“Oh, pish-posh, Alyssa dear.” She could just see Grandma’s hand waving off her concerns. “I know your skill set doesn’t exactly involve the fine art of sewing. You leave that part to me.” A chuckle. “Though I can’t promise I won’t attempt to teach you a little while you’re here.” The background sounds of the TV muted. “No, what I have in mind for you and Libby is to help me collect the various blocks to make up the larger quilt. My old body doesn’t get around as easy as it once did, and your strong legs will take you all around the island.”

“So, we’re going to be collecting quilt blocks from other people?”

“Yes. From each lady who was once part of my quilting circle. I’ve lost touch with two or three of them, so reaching them might not be so easy. And two have since passed on, but their daughters or sons still live here on the island.”

Oh, Libby was going to love this. It had adventure and challenge written all over it. Just the sort of thing to make Libby’s day.

“You met most of them when you were a girl,” Grandma continued. “So, I’m sure it won’t take up much of your time. But it will mean a great deal to me to have your help.”

“Of course, Grandma. You can count on Libby and me. We’d be glad to help you.”

What sounded like a hand slapping a table came through the phone. “Splendid! I shall begin preparing the list of ladies’ names and addresses to the best of my knowledge, and it will be ready when you arrive.” She paused. “And Alyssa, dear?”

“Yes, Grandma?”

“I’m pleased to know you’re coming for a visit, more so than seeing this project finished. You know I do, don’t you, dear?”

“Of course, Grandma.” How could she doubt her?

“Very good. We shall be seeing each other soon. Between now and then, you make sure you pack your prettiest clothes and get a fresh haircut. There are quite a few handsome gentlemen on this island, and you never know who you might meet.”

Alyssa rolled her eyes. First Libby, and now her grandmother. Was everyone going to try to pair her up? Libby and Grandma were both single, too. Besides, she wasn’t taking this vacation to meet men. Not even to meet one man. Now, she just had to convince everyone else of it.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Sky Zone by Creston Mapes

Sky Zone
David C. Cook (June 1, 2014)
by
Creston Mapes





Chapter 1


A breeze scattered leaves across the familiar winding blacktop driveway that led Jack Crittendon to the back of the gleaming steel-and-glass Columbus Festival Arena. At 4:30 p.m. the massive parking lot was a ghost town, but soon it would be teeming with cars, school buses, campers, and Greyhounds. People would be com- ing from across the region to catch a glimpse of controversial senator and independent presidential hopeful Martin Sterling as he stumped through the swing state of Ohio with hopes of making it on the November ballot next year.

Eight months ago Jack would have been covering the event as a reporter for the Trenton City Dispatch. But after the debacle that sent four top Dispatch employees to prison for their involvement with the felonious Demler-Vargus Corporation, the newspaper had folded and left him out of work. Things had been unraveling ever since.

He slowed at the guardhouse, where the slouching guy inside squinted to check the parking sticker on Jack’s windshield. The gate lifted, and Jack zipped through. He curved around to the enormous loading docks in back of the arena, where on concert days roadies loaded and unloaded stage equipment and where the stars lived in their decked-out tour buses for the brief time they were in town.

Although Jack was thankful for the part-time job he’d found working for EventPros, the firm that provided security and guest services for events at the twelve-thousand-seat venue in downtown Columbus, something had to change. He had to find a full-time job in journalism or PR or anything that had to do with writing. Thus far, endless hours of research, filling out applications, and sending résumés had turned up zero, and he was feeling the strain at home.

Jack’s wife, Pam, had been forced to give up her cherished role as stay-at-home mom to go back to work. She would have returned to the classroom, but her teaching certificate had lapsed. Plus, she wanted to spend her evenings with the girls, not grading papers and creating lesson plans. So she ended up taking a job as an administra- tive assistant at a local orthodontist’s office.

Jack swung the Jetta into the dark parking deck, backed into his normal spot, and checked the time. He still had a few minutes. He dug around in the glove compartment for some mints and thought about texting Pam to let her know he’d arrived. They’d had to pay three more bills from their dwindling savings account, and it had caused major havoc between them on his way out the door. He felt as though she resented him for failing to provide, and he really didn’t feel like talking with her.

But since she was eight months pregnant with Crittendon num- ber three, he checked his phone to make sure he hadn’t heard from her. No texts or missed calls. He leaned back and closed his eyes. It was a relief to get away for a few hours. Although he was grateful for Pam’s mother, Margaret, who’d come to live with them after her husband died last winter, her constant presence in the midst of their deepening financial woes was stifling.

Jack stuffed a handful of mints into his pocket, locked the car, and headed for the staging area in the bowels of the arena. On his way, he double-checked his uniform: black lanyard with ID badge, flashlight on belt, khaki cargo pants, black Reebok high-tops, black EventPros golf shirt, and orange EventPros windbreaker. All set.

“Hey, Jack.” His elderly coworker Edgar, seated behind a table stacked with pagers and walkie-talkies, ran a trembling finger across a page, found Jack’s name, and signed him in. “You’ll be on the floor. Section A-2. Take a radio.”

Good. He liked being close to the action.

He grabbed the agenda for the evening and scanned the busy room. People aged seventeen to seventy worked for EventPros. Many of the retired ones like Edgar treated the job as a hobby. It gave them a chance to get out of the house, earn some gas money, and see all the big stars—from Justin Bieber and Keith Urban to Green Day, James Taylor, and Carrie Underwood.

Jack grabbed a walkie-talkie and untangled a headset from a knotted pile. Many of his colleagues, all dressed in similar uniforms, were sitting as long as possible before they would be required to stand for their four- to six-hour shifts.

He spotted the colorful self-proclaimed “survivalist” Brian Shakespeare sitting at a table with two other friends and headed over. “Gentlemen.” Jack exchanged fist bumps, then clipped the radio

to his belt and got the headset and mic adjusted.

“You hear who’s gonna be here tonight?” said Shakespeare, who once claimed he was related to the famous English writer.

“Besides Senator Sterling?” Jack said.

“Everett Lester,” Sid Turk, an overweight, blond kid with oily skin, chimed in through a mouthful of Whopper.

“You’re kidding me,” Jack said. They all shook their heads. “Since when? Pam loves him.”

“It was a last-minute deal,” Shakespeare said. “I heard it on the news on the way over. Clarissa’s trying to keep it hush-hush, but Chico heard it too. It’s gotta be goin’ viral by now.”

“Gonna be a full house for sure,” said Chico Gutierrez, a rail of a kid with straight black hair. “Anytime you can see Everett Lester for free, you’re gonna pack the joint.”

Jack tested his radio by clicking his Talk button and listening for the static in his headset. The radios, headsets, and pagers were beat up and needed to be replaced.

“Lester’s a pansy,” Shakespeare said. “He was better before his big conversion.”

“Come on, dude. You gotta like some of his new stuff,” Jack said.

“I’m just saying his music was better before. It’s just a fact. He’s not the same without the original band.”

“Oh, dude, Death Stroke rocked so big-time,” Sid said. “Even

I know that, and I was in diapers when they were in their heyday.” “That they did,” said Shakespeare, whose once-booming swimming-pool business drowned when the market plunged in 2008. He and Jack worked almost every event because they both had marriages, mortgages, kids, and cars, as well as a long list of bills to pay.

“Are we gonna have enough staff?” Jack scanned the room again.

“Are you kidding me?” Shakespeare said. “This was supposed to be a spur-of-the-moment whistle-stop. Two to four thousand people, tops. But with Lester here? We’re gonna be turning people away— you watch. Clarissa’s got calls out for all hands on deck, but we’ll be short. What else is new?”

Tab Deacon blew into the staging area with a gust of wind, his walkie-talkie glued to his mouth, and a chronic limp. That was Tab—always a flair for the dramatic. He dashed up to Clarissa and whispered in her ear at length. The pointy-nosed, gum-chewing Clarissa Dracone, head manager of EventPros, pulled back and scowled.

Jack found it odd he hadn’t picked up Tab’s voice on his headset, but he knew upper management had other channels they used to address sensitive issues.

He watched the two face off. At six foot four, Tab stared down at Clarissa with creased brow and a face full of fret. She glared up at him in her baggy orange windbreaker, her lipstick suddenly looking starkly red against her pale white face.

In an instant she snapped out of it and whipped into action, tap- ping one, two, three of the nearby supervisors and waving them into her office with walkie-talkie in hand. She quickly shuffled in behind them, practically stepping on Tab’s heel, and slammed the door.

“Hmm.” Shakespeare switched from channel to channel on his radio, trying to pick them up. “Very interesting.”

Jack did the same but got nothing.

“Wonder what’s up?” Sid wiped his runny nose with a worn-out napkin. “Are you guys getting anything?” He and Chico only had pagers.

Shakespeare shook his head. “Never seen anything like that before. I’ll be right back.”

A twitch of anxiety turned at the pit of Jack’s stomach, but noth- ing ever worried Shakespeare. He was a former marine who looked you dead in the eye, told you exactly what he thought, and never backed down. Jack once saw him manhandle five drugged-out freaks at a Kid Rock show who’d gotten way too violent in the mosh pit. Shakespeare had zero tolerance for thugs. He once called himself a “righteous patriot,” and it fit.

As Jack watched, Shakespeare tapped once at the office door and barged in. From his vantage point in the hallway, Jack saw Clarissa and the others turn toward his friend, each face pale with alarm.

Shakespeare said something. Clarissa spoke right back and waved him in.

Shakespeare spoke again, throwing a thumb back toward the staging area.

Clarissa threw up her hands, turned, and glared at Jack.

At first he thought he was just standing where her eyes happened to fall, but then he realized she was staring at him. His face flushed.

Shakespeare turned to Jack and waved him into the office. Although Shakespeare wasn’t a supervisor, Clarissa knew he was her toughest, most street-smart team member—and apparently he wanted Jack in there with him.

“Uh-oh,” said Chico, his black eyebrows raised. “Dude, let us know what’s goin’ on,” Sid said.

“Will do.” Jack took a deep breath and headed for the office. He walked past other EventPros who hadn’t noticed the developing situation.



He approached the door with a silent prayer to stay cool and stuck his head through the doorway. “Hey, folks. What’s going on?”

The room was silent.

Somber faces looked back at him.

“Get in and close the door,” Clarissa said. “We’ve got a national security threat.”

Sunday, August 3, 2014

A Heart to Heal by Allie Pleiter

A Heart to Heal
Love Inspired (July 15, 2014)
by
Allie Pleiter





Chapter 1


High School guidance counselor Heather Browning was twenty minutes into “The Backup Plan” and regretting it already.

Principal Margot Thomas seemed to agree. “That’s who you called to help Simon?”

Simon Williams, the frail but brilliant freshman boy who was Heather’s biggest concern this year, had already become the target of a senior thug. “It’s still August. We’re two days into the school year,” Heather admitted. “I thought I’d have more time than this to get Simon settled before anyone bothered him.” But that wasn’t the way it had turned out. Her initial goal—help Simon find some friends who would be protective camouflage against getting noticed by bullies—hadn’t worked fast enough.

The principal looked out the school window at that “backup plan” as he appeared in the parking lot. A boxy black car with flames painted on the side pulled into the handicapped-accessible parking space. Max Jones had arrived.

“This afternoon at lunch Jason Kikowitz decided Simon was sitting too close to the ‘varsity table.’ Evidently he grabbed the back of Simon’s wheelchair and spun him around, knocking most of Simon’s books out of his backpack.”

“Sounds like our Kikowitz,” Margot commiserated. “I’ll be glad when that boy graduates—if he graduates.”

“Simon spun around fast enough to whack Jason in the shins with the footrest of his wheelchair. It must’ve hurt, because evidently Jason hopped around on one foot and swore a blue streak in front of the lunch monitor.”

Margot gave the sigh of the weary. “Lovely.”

“At least it gave Simon a chance to get away. For now. You know Kikowitz,” Heather explained, feeling less and less sure of her course of action. “He’s likely to lay into Simon every day this week, even if I give him twenty detentions.”

The older woman looked at Heather with determination in her eyes. “You know I’ll back you up on those even if Coach Mullen gives me grief.”

Heather was grateful for Margot Thomas every single day. The principal was an outstanding administrator who cared enough to address problems head-on, even when it meant things got sticky. “Thanks, but you and I both know detentions don’t stop Kikowitz. What we need is help for Simon, and the assistance agency couldn’t come through with a proper mentor until next month. We don’t have that long, so I called JJ.” JJ was Heather’s friend and Max’s sister. And Max Jones, or “Hot Wheels” as a local magazine had dubbed him during their coverage of his highly publicized injury and recovery, was quite possibly the last thing Simon Williams needed. Even if he was the only other resident of Gordon Falls who used a wheelchair, Max seemed to be everything Heather didn’t want Simon to be rolled up into one defiant renegade.

The foolishness of calling on him struck her anew as she spied the HTWELZ2 license plate on the car. “Help me, Margot, I need wisdom and calm and I recruited a rolling tornado. Tell him I’ve been called into a meeting and that we don’t need a mentor anymore. I’ve made a huge mistake, and I don’t want Simon to pay for it.”

Margot leaned back against the windowsill. “I won’t tell him any such thing. I think I want to see how this turns out.”

“I don’t.” Heather rested her forehead in her open hand.

Together Heather and Margot watched Max perform the complicated task of extracting his wheelchair—black with flames on it that matched his car—and settling himself in it. He was athletic, graceful even, and managed to look casual, as if the process were no more taxing than tying a shoe. He wore blue jeans, expensive sneakers and a gray T-shirt with the words “Ramp it up, baby” running across his chest. It was easy to see that his shoulders and biceps carried most of his weight—his arms were toned and outdoor tan. His large hands boasted black leather driving gloves, and his mussed dirty-blond hair framed a strong face. Heather thought he needed a shave, not to mention a haircut and probably half a dozen diplomacy lessons. “Honestly,” she told her boss as Max started toward the ramp that led up the stairs to the school entrance, “that guy looks a far cry from an appropriate mentor for an impressionable teenager.”

“He’s a key executive at Adventure Access, which is supposed to be a fast-rising company in the adaptive recreation business. If they put faith in him,” offered the principal, sounding as if she was grasping at straws and not a little bit amused, “maybe he’s not as bad as…he looks.”

“Oh, I expect he’s worse,” Heather moaned. JJ’s husband, Alex Cushman, ran that fast-rising adaptive recreation company and had drafted Max as their spokesperson and development consultant. It wasn’t hard to see why. Max Jones had been so handsome, daring, arrogant and flamboyant before he’d injured himself that he’d been chosen for a nationally televised reality television show featuring adventure sports. As cruel chance would have it, he’d gotten hurt on that TV show during a risky night climb. Yet looking at him now, it seemed as if his disability barely slowed him down.

“Simon will probably adore him,” Margot offered.

“That’s exactly what I’m afraid of,” Heather moaned. “Nothing good could come from pairing that boy with that man.”

Kids were not his thing. Not before, not now.

As he rolled up the ramp to the Gordon Falls High School entrance, Max had to wonder how he’d let JJ talk him into this. If the GFHS teachers knew the kind of tyrant he’d been in high school, they’d be barring the doors.

Only they wouldn’t have to. Just take out the ramp and he couldn’t get inside no matter how hard he tried. While he’d worked on the development of all kinds of adaptive gear in his new position at Adventure Access, even those top innovators hadn’t yet come up with a wheelchair that could climb stairs.

Still, Max remembered the “special” kids from his high school days—not that long ago, for crying out loud—and how they’d been treated. It stuck in his gut that he’d been as mean as the next guy to kids who used wheelchairs or crutches or were in those classes. Max had done lots of crazy and regrettable things in high school, but those moments of picking on the weaker kids, the different kids—those gnawed at him now. He’d only said yes to this stint as a “mentor” because JJ seemed to think it might make up for some of his past crimes.

It’s four weeks with a gawky fifteen year old—I’ve faced far worse, Max assured himself as he punched the assistive entrance button and listened to the door whoosh open in front of him. At least schools usually had all the adaptations right. He’d had to sit there feeling stupid the other week when a restaurant had to literally move four tables in order to let him sit down with JJ and have lunch. Then the server had asked JJ what “her special friend” would like to eat. The nerve of some people! He’d given the server such a loud piece of his mind that they’d comped his lunch just to get him out of the place.

He rolled into the entrance, marveling at how high school was still high school. The bang of lockers, the smattering of posters for dances and sporting events, the echo of shouts from a distant gymnasium—it all flung Max’s mind back to those years. Hockey team. Prom. Working on his first car. Life was one big game back then, a never-ending stream of escapades, pranks and good times. He’d loved high school, been a master of the school scene—the social side of it, that is. Academics weren’t ever his thing though he’d managed to graduate just fine, despite a few…dozen…trips to the principal’s office.

Funny that it was his first stop now—or, rather, the guidance counselor’s office, which was practically the same thing.

“I’m Max Jones, here to see Heather Browning.” Max swallowed his annoyance that he was calling toward a counter over which he could not see. Well over six feet when he could stand, tall counters especially annoyed him now that he navigated the world from about three feet lower.

A gray-haired lady—school secretaries evidently hadn’t changed one bit since his varsity days—popped up from behind the blue Formica to peer at him over the top of her glasses. “Mr. Jones?” She did the double take Max always enjoyed. Somehow people never expected to see a guy in a wheelchair looking like him, and he got a kick out of leveraging the “Hot Wheels” persona to challenge their assumptions.

Max flicked an Adventure Access business card up onto the counter—shiny black with flames along the bottom with his name and title, “Company Spokesman and Adaptive Gear Development Specialist,” screaming out in yellow letters. “In the flesh and on the roll.”

Her wrinkled eyes popped wide for a moment, then narrowed in suspicion. “Is she expecting you?”

“Yes, I am,” came a female voice from behind Max.

Max spun around and sucked in a breath. The high school guidance counselors he remembered didn’t look like that. Maybe this wouldn’t be such a rough gig after all. “Well, hello, Ms. Browning.” He didn’t even try to hide the pleasant surprise in his voice. Where had JJ been hiding this “friend”? If he’d had a counselor like Heather Browning trying to lure him into higher education, he’d be working on his PhD by now. She had fantastic hair—long, honey-colored curls tumbled down to her shoulders in a wave. Bottle-green eyes that—well, okay, they were currently scowling a bit at him, but he could handle that. People scowled at him all the time, and he much preferred it to the diverted glances of pity that some people threw him. Pulling off his driving glove, Max extended a hand. “I am most definitely pleased to meet you.”

“Thanks for coming.” He could tell she only barely meant it. He probably shouldn’t have squealed his tires pulling into the parking lot like that.

“Anything for JJ,” Max said as they went into her office. It was filled with all the stuff one would expect of a helping professional—inspirational quotes, pretty pictures, plants and pottery. The only surprising thing was a “flock” of various flamingo figurines on her bookshelf and a metal flamingo statue-ish thingy on her desk. Max picked it up and inspected it. “I’m surprised we haven’t met before.”

Ms. Browning plucked the metal bird from his hands, returned it to its perch on her desk and sat down. She crossed her arms. “We have. This summer at the church picnic.”

He remembered that picnic as a rather boring affair, all happy community fried chicken and potato salad. Nice, if you liked that sort of thing, which he didn’t.

“Mr. Jones, if you—”

“Max,” he corrected.

“Max,” she relented. “I want to state one thing right off. This is a serious time commitment, and I’m sure you’re very busy. If you don’t have the time to give Simon the attention he needs, I’ll completely understand.”

“Hang on,” Max felt his stomach tighten at the low expectation expressed in her words. “I’m willing to make the time. Only I’m not really sure how you go about making freshman year of high school not hard, if you know what I mean. That’s sort of how it goes, isn’t it?”

“I’d like to think we can do better than that. A senior boy—Jason Kikowitz—has made Simon a target of sorts, and it’s going to take more than a stack of detention slips to set things right.”

“Kikowitz?” Max chuckled; the name brought up an instant vision of a thick-necked linebacker with a crew cut and four like-sized friends. “Why do the thugs always have names like Kikowitz?”

She didn’t seem to appreciate his commentary. “I want Simon to learn the right way to stand up for himself while I get Mr. Kikowitz to change his thinking.”

“Only Simon can’t stand up for himself, can he? Wheelchair. That’s the whole problem, isn’t it?” People always talked around the wheelchair—the elephant in the room—and Max liked to make them face it outright. It made everything easier after that, even if it took an off-color joke to get there.

She flushed and broke eye contact. “It’s part of the problem, yes.”

“It’s lots of the problem, I’d guess. Look, I’m in a chair. I get that. It’s part of who I am now, and pretending I’m just like you isn’t going to help anyone. It doesn’t bug me, so don’t let it bug you. I can take you out dancing if I wanted to, so I should be able to help this Simon kid hold his own.”

“You cannot take me out dancing.”

It was clear she wasn’t the type to like a joke. “Well, not in the usual sense, but there’s a guy in Chicago building an exoskeleton thingy that—”

“This is not a social meeting. Are we clear?”

She really did know how to suck all the fun out of a room.

“Crystal clear, Ms. Browning.” She was too stiff to even match his invitation to use first names. He’d have to work on that. “What is it, exactly, that you think Simon needs?”

“Well, I’d have to say social confidence. He’s led a fairly sheltered life because of his condition, but he’s brilliant…”

“The geeks always are.”

She sat back in her chair. “Can you at least try and do this on a professional level?”

Max made a show of folding his hands obediently in his lap. “Okay, Counselor Browning. Simon needs some base-level social skills and maybe enough confidence to know high school is survivable. Have I got it?”

She seemed to appreciate that. “Yes, in a matter of speaking.”

“And you’re thinking you need something just a little out of the ordinary to solve the problem, right?”

“Well, I…”

“Hey, you called me, not the nice bland people from social services.”

That probably wasn’t a smart crack to make to someone in guidance counseling. Her eyes narrowed. “Yes, well, the nice, appropriate people from social services were not available. This isn’t how I normally operate. It’s only fair to tell you you’re not my first choice.”

Max could only smile. “Alternative. Well, I’d have to say that’s exactly my specialty.”


Sunday, July 27, 2014

In The Field of Grace by Tessa Afshar

In The Field of Grace
River North; New Edition edition (July 1, 2014)
by
Tessa Afshar





Prologue


Those who walk uprightly Enter into peace;
They find rest as they lie in death.
ISAIAH 57:2


Death squatted at Boaz’s door, waiting like a vulture, biding its time. He could sense its presence—inexorable, hungry, patient.

Judith—the wife of his youth, the woman he had married for love, his doe-eyed companion, lay dying.

Boaz leaned over to smooth the dark, sweat-stained hair from her brow. Alerted by his gentle movements, her dog, Melekh, lifted its long snout and inspected Boaz’s movements with suspicious intensity before settling its muzzle on its paws again. The dog’s gaze shifted back to the emaciated woman on the bed. It was a mark of the drastic circumstances that the beast had been allowed on the bed. Normally, it didn’t even make it through the chamber door. Yet as soon as Melekh had come limping in through the threshold, the beast had claimed the place like it had every right of ownership. With profound indifference, Judith’s dog treated Boaz as an annoy- ance rather than the master.

Boaz ignored Melekh and lifted his wife’s hand, holding it tightly, willing her not to give up. The woman on the bed had thinning, oily hair, and a face that looked like it had melted in the sun on one side, But that wasn’t what Boaz saw. He remembered Judith as she had been when he had met her for the first time, with thick hair that fell below her hip, and a smile that could melt rock. Not that he had melted. He had been sixteen, a man in his own eyes. His father had sent him north to examine a parcel of land owned by Judith’s father. She had offered him wine and cheese when he arrived. He took the cup from her hands and turned his shoulder on her lin- gering gaze. He had no time for young girls. This was the first time he had been entrusted with an important mission on his father’s behalf and he intended to do well. The land proved fertile, and his father purchased it based on Boaz’s recommendation. The trade went smoothly, and the two families became friends as a result of the new connection. For years, Judith wove in and out of Boaz’s life, though he took his time getting around to noticing her existence.

Judith acted as a shepherdess for her family. Her father had assigned a herd of his best sheep to her care, knowing her compe- tence with the animals to be equal to any man’s. In the end it was her handling of the herd that had first drawn Boaz to his wife. She often teased that he had needed dumb sheep to act as matchmaker between them. True enough. He had admired her ability with the beasts before he had ever taken notice of her beautiful black eyes or her midnight-dark hair.

“How do you keep them so fat in a drought year?” he had asked one day, addressing her directly for the first time.

She had laughed at him, making him redden with self-con- sciousness, wondering what he had said that could be construed as funny.

“What?” he said, not bothering to curb the annoyance in his voice.

“They are not fat.”

“They are, compared to my father’s sheep.” And that had been the start of their attachment. Later, she had confessed that she had loved him the first moment she had seen him.

He had frowned. He knew he wasn’t a handsome man. What would make a pretty young girl set her heart on his crooked nose and ordinary face? But she insisted that to her, he was beautiful. That was the moment he had truly fallen in love with her, he thought.

He brought her hand to his lips and gave it a light kiss. A kiss she could not feel. Her dog growled. Melekh never liked when Boaz touched its mistress, not even after fourteen years of witness- ing them together. The beast wasn’t usually this touchy, Boaz had to admit. Judith’s sickness had multiplied the animal’s possessive instincts.

Melekh was born the year before they married. Judith was pres- ent when the little golden pup first opened its eyes and she liked its spirit from the start. She picked up its wriggling body and held it against her, and they belong to each other from that moment. They welded together in an affection that surpassed the usual bonds of duty between a dog and its shepherd. She named the dog Melekh, king, and as if understanding the exact significance of the name, that animal had never stopped behaving as if it carried royal blood. Boaz owned enough sheep to understand dogs were neces- sary to mind the sheep, to keep the wolves at bay, to warn their masters of potential danger. They had a prominent place in the life of a shepherd. And no part of that place included coming into the house and being caressed and cuddled like a baby. Not from Boaz’s perspective.

“Where I go, Melekh comes,” Judith had said the day they were betrothed.

“Of course. I have a nice field behind the house where he can roam freely.”

Her rounded chin lifted mutinously. For a woman unaccus- tomed to shrill arguments, Judith could be fierce. “If you want me to sleep inside, Melekh sleeps inside.”

A picture of Judith sleeping in the fields at night, with the dog on one side and him on the other, flashed before Boaz’s mind. “It can come inside.” Her dark eyes lit up with joy. Boaz decided he had made the right decision. He cleared his throat. “Never into our chamber, mind. That’s just for you and me.”

Judith had sealed her acceptance with a wide smile. For fourteen years the beast had shared Boaz’s roof and eaten the scraps of his dinner. Boaz had never warmed to Melekh enough to cuddle it and speak to the dog like it was a child the way Judith did. But he had learned to tolerate the beast. For its part, Melekh ignored him most of the time. They had moved past being enemies. But they had never grown into becoming friends either.

The room smelled like fresh blood and the musky scent of spikenard. The servants had used the expensive oil in an attempt to cover the scent of sickness. Instead, the room reeked of a mix of bodily emissions and the pungent odor of perfume. It made his stomach turn.

They should be celebrating, not mourning. Only four days ago, Judith had been large with child, weeks away from delivery. She glowed with happiness even though it had been a difficult preg- nancy. Judith’s pregnancies were always difficult. When her hands and feet started to swell, she and Boaz paid little heed. Even the midwife had shrugged her shoulder.

On the morning of the Sabbath, while dressing in her mantle, Judith fell to the floor without warning. In horror, Boaz watched her body convulse, limbs jerking about in uncontrollable spasms. Spittle frothed around her mouth. Finally, the forceful movements of her muscles relented, leaving her unconscious for over a day.

She awoke with a blinding headache, unable to move half her body. Then the birth pains came. How could a woman, half para- lyzed, manage to give birth? Boaz could not understand how she had survived. The baby, when he finally emerged, blue and silent, lingered on this earth for mere hours and even that was a miracle. He never cried. He simply closed his eyes and gave up the fight.

Boaz did not tell Judith when she awoke for a brief hour. He did not have the words. He forced his mouth to stretch into a smile and tried to protect her from one final horror, worried the knowledge of it would be her undoing. Sick as she was, paralyzed in the right half of her body and out of her mind with a headache that never left, she knew. She knew her little one was gone.

It proved too much for her. She could not cope with a shattered body and a broken heart at the same time. She gave up. Boaz left her side for an hour to see to their son’s burial. He returned to find Judith slipping away from him, one shallow breath at a time, Melekh lying by her side, watchful as if it counted her breaths.

For the first time in fifteen years Boaz reached out and patted the dog. Love for Judith bound them together in her dying hours. They were crushed under the same weight. Unspeakable horror. Grief. Loss. Unaccountably, touching Melekh felt like a comfort. It met a need deep inside Boaz, as he sat next to his wife, terrorized at the thought of losing her. Melekh looked up, its grey eyes filmed over by old age. Then it did something unaccountable too. Something it had never been moved to do. It licked Boaz’s hand.

Boaz swallowed a sob and fell on his face, praying that God would spare Judith. But he already knew the answer. She was going to their children.

She opened her eyes and called his name. Boaz sprang to his feet and ran to her. She tried to smile. Only one side of her lips lifted, the other limp, sloped down, like a permanent grimace of pain. Her face had become divided, half dead, half alive, half smiling, half grieving. He would keep her like this and be happy. If only she would stay with him.

She mumbled something he could not catch. It was difficult to make out her slurring words since she had been struck down. She tried several times and finally he understood her words. “I’m sorry I wasn’t always the wife I hoped I would be. I’m sorry I failed you.”

“Stop, Judith. You never failed me.”

“I let sorrow take me from you. I’m sorry for that.”

Boaz wept. He had left a bit of his soul in the dark, shallow grave, next to his son’s pitifully tiny body. At least the babe wasn’t alone. He was buried next to his older sister, Sarah. And soon, his mother would join them.

It seemed impossible to accept. Judith! Her name reverberated through his mind, a soundless scream of anguish.

They had been happy together for many years even though Judith had been unable to bear children. She had suffered five mis- carriages in as many years. For every baby she had shed endless tears. Every one of her tears had lashed his heart like an iron-tipped whip.

“You are an honored man. You belong to the lineage of Nah- shon, the famed leader of Judah. God has enlarged your land and prospered your cattle,” she said to him one night, holding on to a tiny garment, never worn. “You deserve children so your name can go on. Instead you have become an object of pity among our people.”

“I don’t want children. I want you.”

She shook her head, dark curls spilling down the small of her back. “I am barren. Take another wife, Boaz.”

“I will not! Be patient. Didn’t Abraham have to wait long years for a son? Didn’t Isaac? We have a long time before we match their patience.”

“Take another wife.”

He resisted. He couldn’t imagine sharing his heart and body with another woman. Judith was his wife. His love.

God blessed his patience. Judith became pregnant and this time carried the baby to term. They had a little daughter, with Judith’s beautiful face and a sparrow’s delicate voice.

For six years Boaz was enchanted by his precious girl; he heard her first words, comforted her through her tears, watched Judith put her to bed at night and laughed at her precocious antics. For six years Sarah charmed him, cuddled him, loved him, filled him with joy.

It took only six days of fever for her to be taken from him. Was it a mere year since he had lost her? It felt like a lifetime.

He only knew that he survived that season by clinging to the Lord. His heart was crushed, but his faith grew.

Judith fell apart. The loss proved too much, robbing her of health and hope. Boaz fought for her with a tenacity he had not realized he possessed. He fought for her to go on. To cling to life and persevere.

“For my sake, please Judith, for my sake! Don’t you love me as much as you loved our child? Please fight for us. Don’t give up on me, beloved.” He begged and cajoled. He prayed. He pushed. Anything to get her to hold on to living.

“I can’t bear it, Boaz,” she said one night as she sat on the roof, her feet dangling from the edge, her eyes locked on the bright stars. “I can’t bear this loss.”

Boaz felt a shiver go through him. He grabbed hold of Judith’s fingers and squeezed with desperation. “Judith, Life often brings us more sorrow than we think we can bear. But God is greater than every desolation. He is greater even than death. He will see us through.”

Judith shook her head. “I don’t have your faith, Boaz.” Months passed, months of slow agony as Boaz watched help-

lessly while his wife grew weaker in soul and body, unable to get a foothold in life, unable to hope and be restored. One night she came into Boaz’s bed. “Give me another child,” she said. “Give me comfort in my despair.”

He didn’t fight her. He should have, knowing how physically weak she remained. Instead he gave in. He kept her in his bed until she became pregnant for the last time.

And now, he was paying the price of his weakness. She lay dying because he couldn’t refuse her.

“Boaz!” she called out in her weak, mumbling voice. “I’m here.”

“Promise me.”

“Promise what?”

“You’ll be happy? When I’m gone.”

A fly tried to land on her arm and he swatted it away. No matter how hard they tried to repel them, the flies always came, attracted to the putrid scent that had begun to rise from her flesh. “How can I be happy? You have to stay with me, Judith.”

“I can’t, my love. It’s my time to go. But I want you to find hap- piness. I want you to know joy. Please try. For me.”

Her dog started to howl. Boaz was horrified by the sound. It reflected the scream that had been trapped inside his own heart too closely. He reached out his hand and, softly, comfortingly caressed the thinning fur. “It’s all right, boy. It’s all right.” Melekh’s howling subsided. It gave one last wail and placed its muzzle on Judith’s chest.

Judith gave her lopsided smile. A single tear ran down her left cheek. “I’ve finally managed to turn you two into friends.” She closed her eyes. Took a deep breath and said, “I love you, Boaz. Always.”

They were her last words.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Firewall by Diann Mills

Firewall
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. (July 1, 2014)
by
DiAnn Mills

Chapter 1

PRESENT DAY
MID-SEPTEMBER
7:00 A.M. MONDAY

Taryn's perfect day melted in the heat of an early morning bottle-
neck. Houston traffic was a war zone during rush hour. Six lanes of bumper-to-bumper vehicles slowed to a crawl with a road con- struction crew flashing warning lights ahead. Six lanes narrowed to five, then four, then three, then two.

Shep touched her arm, his gold-brown eyes expressing tender- ness. "Babe, the driver will get us to the airport in plenty of time."

"I hate traffic." She pulled her iPad from her purse, a habit when she needed to keep her mind occupied.

"Taryn, our honeymoon starts today." He smiled. "Do your new husband a favor and put away your gadgets. Didn't the VP tell you to forget about work and concentrate on your husband?"

"He did, and you have all my attention."

"Better yet, let me have all your toys, and I'll keep them safe. The one thing I plan to do for the rest of my life is take care of you."

Oh, this wonderful man. And he was all hers. "You're right. My life's no longer a solo project. I've been single for so long—"

"And a workaholic. Don't worry. I have room right here in my backpack." He chuckled, the rich sound reminding her of a thundering waterfall. "I'll keep them for you, Mrs. Shepherd. But I doubt you'll have time to use them."

She blushed, remembering last night. How could she argue with such devotion? "Can I at least keep my phone?"

"I suppose." He brushed a kiss across her lips. "I love the blush in your cheeks."

Would she always grow warm with his touch? "Comes with the hair."

"A gorgeous match." He twirled a tendril of her hair around his fingers and let it fall against her neck, causing a shiver from far too many sources.

Taryn knew what he was thinking, but she couldn't respond with the limo driver listening to every word. She handed Shep her iPad, hoping he understood that until she met him, her first love had been designing software. Now, with bittersweet regret, she watched him tuck her technological lifeline into his leather backpack.

"We'll be at the airport in twenty minutes." He took her hand into his. "Then we're off to our San Juan paradise. We might never
come back. Live in Puerto Rico forever."

She snuggled close to him. For the first time in years, she wouldn't miss work—no software development projects or unrealistic deadlines. And to think she'd spend the rest of her life with this delicious man. Had it only been three months since they'd met and fallen in love? From the moment he walked into her life, he'd become her prince. They'd been inseparable, just the two of them, realizing they were meant for a lifetime. She'd dreamed of a man like Shep since she was a little girl, a man who wouldn't care that she kept her nose in books. His entrance into her heart was like a golden path to a fairy-tale future.

After checking in at the airport, she stared at her boarding pass and wished it held her married name: Mrs. Francis Shepherd. Their next trip would show them as husband and wife.

Security moved like the traffic they'd left behind. In the crowd, everyone's personal space was invaded, and some people responded with hostility. Taryn stepped into a long, winding line, and Shep wrapped an arm around her waist. Oh, she loved her new life. He blew her a kiss while loading his shoes and personal belongings into a bin. If cravings like these occupied her mind for the next fifty years, how would she ever get any work done again?

Once they walked through the body scanner and gathered their things, they wove through the crowd and on toward the gate. The predawn coffee caught up with her. With the urgency, she pointed to the women's restroom. "Do I have time for a quick stop?"

"Sure. My fault since I filled your cup twice to wake you. Let me have your carry-on, and I'll wait here." His smoldering look could have melted the wings off a jumbo jet.

"I'll hurry."

"No problem. The future's ours."

Rushing inside, she noted six women ahead of her, one with two children. Shep had a tendency to be impatient with time constraints, but she'd be miserable on the plane if she didn't wait her turn. Her iPhone notified her that she had fifteen minutes before boarding time.

Finally a stall opened and she hurried in. While she was drying her hands, a thunderous explosion shook the floor. A crack snaked up the wall. Then another. The mirror shattered, breaking her image into shards of glass.

She screamed and swung toward the entrance. Before she could take a step, the ceiling collapsed. Amid dirt and fallen tile, moans filled the air like a nightmare that refused to end. The walls creaked, metal and concrete shifting . . . falling.

Muffled groans alerted Taryn to her impaired hearing from the blast. Trembling, she bent to check on a young woman sprawled at her feet. Blood seeped from a head wound, and Taryn couldn't detect a pulse.

Debris rained on her. Something crashed against her head, sending her spiraling into darkness.

❇❇❇

11:15 A.M. MONDAY

No one had the right to take the lives of innocent people.

Special Agent Grayson Hall always faced the challenges of his life with dogged determination. His experience with the Joint Terrorism Task Force meant his skills were needed, and he wel- comed it. The bomb that exploded at IAH in a parking garage near terminal E had killed dozens and wounded countless more. The initial response team, Houston Police Department, fire depart- ment, EMTs, and FBI searched for the dead and wounded. The evidence response team labored to make the crime scene safe for investigators, conducting a postblast investigation to determine the components of what appeared to be a vehicle-borne impro- vised explosive device. Their findings, both electronic and physical, would lead out the investigation with the JTTF involved every step of the way. A team of FBI bomb technicians along with state and local law enforcement searched for a secondary bomb. Nothing had been found yet.

A command post had been quickly established at a hangar outside the airport on JFK Boulevard. A second post at the Houston FBI office housed the Joint Intelligence Center, and a third command post operated out of DC. Grayson worked from the FBI office, reviewing surveillance cameras. Hundreds of agents were on the case, and undoubtedly thousands would be involved before this tragedy was solved.

Those within two hundred yards of the blast were dead or would soon be. The pressure exploded their sinuses, ears, and lungs—a cruel way to die. Several victims were foreign travelers, those who believed the US was safe.

FBI agents and other Homeland Security personnel, as well as local law enforcement, were trained for disasters. But who wanted to experience it? After 9/11, every terrorist threat had the poten- tial to be devastating, leaving too many US citizens emotional cripples. History had proven an attack on US soil could happen again.

It looked like Homeland Security had failed, and that meant Grayson had failed too.

No chatter on the wires had indicated a potential bomb threat. The FBI's Field Intelligence Group, the FIG, scrambled for missed intel. The governor was en route to Houston via helicopter, and the White House was demanding an explanation before the presi- dent spoke to the country and the world. Grayson questioned how the country's leaders would soothe the chaos in this grave situa- tion, especially with the death toll mounting. He mentally listed US enemies who claimed responsibility, and North Koreans and Iranians danced in the streets.

Grayson scrolled through screen after screen of heavily scruti- nized security footage. The scene looked like a war zone merged with a cyclone. Agents searched for clues leading to a person or persons who might be responsible for the tragedy. He examined two segments that raised questions. Both photographs showed the guy knew where the cameras were located. Why? Unless he had something to hide. Grayson zoomed in and sent the image to the FIG.

His BlackBerry rang.

"What do you have?" Supervisory Special Agent Alan Preston, the SSA of FBI Houston, had phoned him every twenty minutes since the explosion.

"I've run info through the FIG. A couple ticketed for San Juan checked in about thirty minutes before the explosion using the names Francis Shepherd and Taryn Young. Shepherd left shortly afterward. We have Young entering a restroom, and a few moments later, Shepherd heads out and leaves in the same limo he arrived in."

"Alone?"

"Apparently. The bomb exploded five minutes after his exit."

"What do we have on them?"

"Shepherd's name is fictitious. He avoided the cameras. Wore a cap. Little for facial recognition to compile. Young works for Gated Labs Technology, a software development company." His BlackBerry notified him of a message. "Just got a response from the FIG on the couple." Grayson blew out his exasperation. "Nothing on either of them. Continuing to search for Shepherd's identification, but we don't have a clear photo."

"I want him found and brought in for questioning. It's one thing for a man to change his mind about going away with a woman. It's another to dodge security cameras and escape a bombing."

"I don't believe in coincidences."

"Back to Young," the SSA said. "Gated Labs is high-tech. Some top-secret government contracts. Any connect?"

"Young's their top developer. Maybe the best in the country. Right now she's in a coma at Houston Northwest Medical Center."

"You and Vince get over there and find out what you can. At this point, it looks like Shepherd and Young are involved. Don't lose track of her until we see where she fits. That's your job."

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Shenandoah Dreams by Lisa Belcastro

Shenandoah Dreams
OakTara Publishers (July 1, 2014)
by
Lisa Belcastro




Chapter 1


The aroma of popcorn filled the air as Melissa Smith strolled through the entry gates of the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Fair. She’d made a habit of stopping in on opening day alone to see how her fair entries had done and relish the moment. But, first thing first. Melissa followed her nose to the vendor selling her favorite snack, gladly avoiding the longer lines at the ice cream sundae and cotton candy booths. As she munched on the buttery goodness, she chuckled at the irony of kids filling up on sweets and goodies and then running to the carnival rides that were sure to mix and tumble the snacks in their unsuspecting bellies. Shaking her head, she slid her camera bag around to her left side and started back toward the Ag Hall.

“Miss Smith. Miss Smith.” Enthusiastic young voices shouted from the Ferris wheel. “Come ride with us!”

Melissa turned to her right and waved as the silver gondola carrying two of her English students ascended into the bright noonday sky. “Maybe next time,” she called. Melissa watched the girls make one round, waved at them again, and then made her way across the grassy field to the large, weathered building that housed all the non-breathing, non-shedding fair entries. She had entered six photos in the adult amateur divisions, all of them taken last summer while she chaperoned the Holmes Hole student cruise aboard the schooner Shenandoah.

The Shenandoah had captured Melissa’s artistic eye. Once aboard, she’d rarely been without her camera in hand or within arm’s reach. Photographing the students, the crew, the sails, the rigging, the sea and shores in the changing light throughout the day had added to her ultimate pleasures during last year’s weeklong voyage. And she was eager to see if any of her images had won a prize.

Inside the hundred-year-old reconstructed barn, Melissa paused and took in the beauty of the post-and-beam building. Just as she was with the Shenandoah, Melissa was impressed with the care taken to maintain the old barn. In 1995, a team of fifty or so Vineyarders had gone to New Hampshire to disassemble the century-old structure, pack it carefully onto numerous trucks, transport it back to the Island, and then re-assemble it.

Captain John Roberts had done something similar when he purchased the original Shenandoah from a shipyard in southern Maine. The centuries-old ship was not seaworthy, but many of the original beams and planks were salvageable. Every board in good condition was re-used, fastened, and hammered to create an impressive replica of the eighteenth-century Shenandoah. And Melissa would be on her soon.

Smiling, Melissa moseyed past the cakes, cookies, and brownies, past the arts and crafts, and around the corner to the photography walls. She wadded up her empty popcorn container, then she nervously tossed the glassine bag from one hand to the other while she searched the panels for her pictures. Her portrait of Captain Roberts, his gaze focused on the horizon and a long stretch of sea visible behind him as he sailed Shenandoah across the Vineyard Sound, had won an honorable mention.

Her favorite image, a tight shot of the sails aglow in the morning light, had taken second place. A great sense of accomplishment filled her. She’d been toying with the idea of shooting specific angles and images and then creating a line of stationery to sell at some of the Island gift shops. Between these awards and the new wide-angle lens she’d ordered in July, she felt a surge of confidence to set and achieve her new goal.

“Congratulations, Melissa. I love that shot of the sails.”

Melissa turned to see her neighbor Alexandra Simmons and realized the striking blonde had been glancing over her shoulder. “Thanks, Alex. It’s easy to take a good picture on the Shenandoah. Everywhere you look there is beauty and magic.”

“Would appear so from your viewpoint.”

Melissa smiled, but not being one to focus too much on herself, she brought up the next big event most Islanders and tourists attended on the third Friday of August. “Are you going to the fireworks in Oaks Bluffs tomorrow? I’m hoping to capture the flavor of the event. I’d love to shoot your famous blanket buffet, the essence of an Islander’s love of the event.”

“Wouldn’t miss them or the chance to cook for the masses.” Alex was known for laying out a veritable feast, turning her picnic blanket into a five-star dining event. “I’m trying a new lemon-blueberry tart recipe with candied lemon peel. Might be a magazine cover in the making. See you by the gazebo?”

“I’ll be there—with my appetite and the camera,” Melissa said, tapping her wadded-up popcorn bag on her camera case.

“See you then. Time to find my boys so I can get home and start cooking.” Alex bent over and picked up a grooming box filled with brushes, ointments, and baby oil. “One day Brendon or Kevin will remember their supplies,” she said with slight exasperation and marched toward the animal barns housing the Holsteins her sons would show on Saturday.

Melissa stifled a giggle. If parents only knew how many excuses and creative stories a teacher heard throughout the year when homework wasn’t done, a book wasn’t read, or a test wasn’t passed. That Alex lugged their brushes instead of insisting one of her sons run back to the truck and gather his own tools was one of the reasons the boys expected to get away with late homework or missing books. But Melissa didn’t want to think about the complexities of how the home environment affected the classroom. Not today, not with the fair in full swing, not with her photos of the Shenandoah garnering a few prizes.

Shifting her focus back to her pictures, Melissa realized she was counting the days until she was back on the Shenandoah. Stepping onboard was like stepping back in time. The ship sailed by wind power . . . only wind power. No electricity, no hot water, no showers, no twenty-first century conveniences. Leaving behind her computer, answering machine, television, and all electronics was a break Melissa delighted in. A couple of kids would complain for a day or two about their lack of cell phones, games, and gadgets, but they all came around by week’s end.

A week isn’t long enough. She ran her hand over the mat of the sail picture. Shenandoah was beautiful, serene, and calling her name. Melissa walked over to the nearest trashcan about five feet away and discarded her empty popcorn bag. Time for an ice-cold drink before a visit to the animals.

“Leaving so soon? Gloating over those ribbons, I bet.”

A frosty pall covered Melissa. She knew that voice. Gayle Burroughs. Her ex-husband’s third wife. The woman who blamed her for Bryce’s death.

“Don’t be feeling too high and mighty. We both know you should be in jail for murder.”

Melissa sucked in her breath. Fear chilled her body, freezing time and her ability to move. Gayle’s words wrested the warmth of the summer air and stole the oxygen out of the barn. Melissa struggled to draw a shallow, ragged breath before turning around to face Gayle.

“You should be behind bars, not winning blue ribbons!”

The accusations weren’t new, but Melissa dropped her gaze to the floor. There was no truth to Gayle’s bitter allegations, but Melissa’s fear of what her ex-husband’s widow might do was real. Almost three years had passed since Bryce’s car crash and death two weeks later, and Gayle appeared more intent on blaming Melissa every time their paths crossed.

The woman stood clutching an old purse under her left arm, her right arm pressed against her chest as her fingers clung to the shoulder strap. Her eyes darted left and right in a frenzied, non-stop movement. Menacing was the first word that came to Melissa’s mind when she came face to face with Gayle.

Melissa couldn’t help but wonder if there was a gun in the grungy yellow bag. She wasn’t going to stick around and find out. Faking a calm she didn’t feel, Melissa took a step away from Gayle.

“Not so fast, goody two shoes.” A surprisingly strong hand clamped onto Melissa’s left forearm. She stopped and looked back to find Gayle glowering at her.

“I know you were jealous when he left you.” Gayle’s voice rose another octave. “I know you wanted him back. I know you probably lured him away that night. I’ll prove it too—just you wait.”

The last sentence came out in a shriek. Melissa wanted to jerk her arm free but saw the vehemence in Gayle’s murky brown eyes. Without glancing around the photo area, Melissa was certain fair-goers were now witnessing and hearing Gayle’s crazy claims.

“Gayle! Melissa! What’s going on?”

The knot in Melissa’s stomach unwound a bit when she spotted her friend hurrying toward her. Kendra Natale stepped between them, forcing Gayle to release her grip on Melissa’s arm. Kendra placed one hand on each woman’s back and gently guided them closer to the wall of pictures.

“Oh, Miss, you won. Well done. No wonder I heard you two shouting,” Kendra said with a smoothness Melissa wished she possessed. Kendra could negotiate her way out of mousetrap and leave with the cheese.

Gayle’s eyes narrowed and zeroed in on Melissa. “We’ll finish this another day.” She patted her purse with her right hand.

“Kendra,” she said with a curt bob of her head and then strode off.

Melissa reached out to steady herself on Kendra’s shoulder. The five-foot, seven-inch tower of strength wrapped her arms around Melissa and rubbed her back.

“Shake it off, hon. She’s a whacko, a certified loon. I feel sorry for her. What’s it been—three years? And she’s still looking for someone to blame,” Kendra said in a soft voice.

Stepping back, Melissa said, “I know, Ken, but why me? I don’t doubt for a second Bryce was out cheating on her, but why does she suspect me?”

“Who knows? Probably her own guilt. She cheated with him when he was married to you, so it makes a weird kind of sense that she’d fear he would go back to you.”

“I wouldn’t have done so much as shaken his hand. Forgiveness is one thing. Letting him back into my life was not ever going to happen.”

“Ha! You got that right. You were the lucky one. You kicked his butt to the curb. Poor Gayle bore the shame of pitying glances and awkward condolences.”

A shard of painful memories pierced Melissa’s heart. “Bryce was a train wreck.”

Kendra frowned. “A train wreck? Bryce was multiple train wrecks. You know it and I know it. And you are sworn to secrecy.”

Protectiveness squashed her own upsetting recollections. Melissa reached out and gently squeezed Kendra’s right hand. “My lips are sealed. Forever.”

“I know they are. Now let’s get out of here and get on with enjoying this beautiful day.

The two friends walked through the Ag Hall and back to the entrance by the carnival rides, where sunlight welcomed them. Kendra paused just outside the large barn doors. “You got time for lunch before you sail off into the sunset?”

“Other than packing and some errands, next week is wide open.”

Kendra smiled. “Monday, then? Twelve-thirty at Owen Park?”

“Perfect. You in a rush or can you hang out for a bit?”

“Let me go tell Jamie that I’m going to have lunch with you and I’ll meet you back here in five minutes,” Kendra said.

“Great.” Melissa hadn’t gone but ten steps when her two Ferris-wheel-riding students called her name once again, ponytails flopping as they ran.

Melissa grinned when the two girls raced to a halt in front of her. At age eleven and just entering the sixth grade, Mya, pronounced me-yuh, and Lizzie were still excited about school and their teachers.

“Hi!” they said simultaneously with great enthusiasm.

“Hello, girls. Looks like you’re enjoying the fair.” Melissa smiled as she listened

to their bubbly banter.

“It’s awesome!” declared Mya Wright, her large brown eyes alive with excitement. “We’ve ridden the tilt-a-whirl five times, the scrambler three, and now we’re gonna try the rockets. Well, maybe the rockets. Lizzie’s afraid she’s going to be sick when we go upside down.”

“You could come with us—or go with Mya if you want,” Lizzie said, her unspoken plea for help quite clear.

Melissa shook her head and scrunched up her face. “No, thanks, Lizzie. I’d be sick in two seconds if I rode that machine.”

Lizzie Rubello nodded, the grimace on her face a dead giveaway to her fear and dread. “I love rides, Miss Smith, but even some high school kids have puked their guts out on that thing. ”

The poor girl. Melissa pointed left to the stretch of arcade games on the back part of the field. “Maybe you girls should save your tickets and play a few games instead. The fair is here for another three days. There’s plenty of time to try a new ride.”

Kendra walked over and joined them. “How’s it going girls?”

Lizzie grimaced.

“Did you ride that horrible thing?” Kendra asked pointing to the rockets.

“We were just discussing their other options,” Melissa said.

“Such as avoiding anything that goes upside down for the next three days?” Kendra joked and pretended to gag. “Every August Islanders and visitors flock to the Fairgrounds from the time the gates opened until late-night closings, and even though we’re small compared to many fairs, they always manage to bring in two or three terrifying rides that I wouldn’t be caught dead on. Why can’t we all enjoy the food and animals and games and forget the stomach-tossing disasters?”

Everyone laughed. Melissa thought Kendra made a fine point. She loved the hometown feel of their fair and how Islanders entered everything from vegetables to artwork to baked goods for judging. Crowds cheered for their favorite pot-belly in the pig races, clapped during the dog show, gasped as the draft horses pulled unbelievable weights, and then hooted and hollered as women competed with fervor in the skillet toss.

“I’m with you, Kendra. I don’t need to go on another ride for the rest of my life,” Melissa said.

While she loved the tamer aspects of the Fair, most kids of all ages loved the rides. Many of the younger ones could be found at the steamship dock, watching the big flatbed trucks roll off the ferry with the carnival rides secured on the back. “Ooohhs” and “Aaaaahs” were common exclamations, as were bets on who would ride which ride first.

“What do you say, Lizzie, should we hijack the ferry next year and take the Rebel Rockets over to Hyannis?” Melissa jested.

“Yes!” Lizzie agreed with a shout.

Mya winked at Lizzie and gave her an affectionate bump. “Come on, I’m hot. Let’s split a sundae and go see the pigs. We can pick our favorites for the races.”

Lizzie beamed at her friend. “Yeah, ice cream would be soooooo much better.”

Mya glanced into the Ag Hall. “Did you enter a pie or cake, Miss Smith?”

Melissa shook her head. “No. I submitted a few photos from last year’s Shenandoah trip.”

“How’d you do?” Lizzie asked.

“She won a couple of ribbons,” Kendra bragged.

“That’s cool. Maybe you’ll take one of me next week,” Mya said with a grin. “I’m gonna own the Shenandoah diving contest. I’ve been practicing off the bridge every time we go to State Beach.”

“I’ll have my camera ready.” Melissa patted her camera bag.

Lizzie walked over, leaned toward Melissa, and whispered, “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” Melissa whispered back. “I wouldn’t go on that ride if you paid me.”

Lizzie stepped back. “I can’t wait for our school trip. It’s going to be the best week of school.”

Though school was not officially in session until the Wednesday after the incoming sixth graders returned from their class trip, Melissa knew that Holmes Hole students considered their Shenandoah trip to be the start of the school year. Each of the five Island elementary schools sent their graduating fifth graders on a summer sail. Holmes Hole was the final school to go during the last week of summer break.

Melissa had signed up as the woman teacher chaperone the summer after her divorce was final. She’d needed to get away and couldn’t afford a weeklong vacation. Working as a chaperone, she’d been paid to sail aboard the two-hundred-year-old schooner. Not a bad way to make money. This would mark her fifth year.

She smiled at Lizzie. “My favorite week too. Best week of the year. You girls are going to have a fantastic time. “

“Can’t wait! See you next Sunday. Bye Mrs. Natale,” Lizzie said, then skipped off with Mya.

Melissa and Kendra meandered through the rides, waving to a few students and friends before they got in line for her frozen lemonade and gyro sandwiches. A couple of Melissa’s sixth-grade students from last year were working the garbage detail, earning free entry into the Fair every day they volunteered.

She sipped the cool beverage, allowing the chilly sweet and sour flavors to melt in her mouth. No frozen lemonade on the Shenandoah. No frozen yogurt, ice cream, or ice cubes two hundred years ago, at least not at a store or fair booth.

Melissa could live without a few luxuries for the daily peace she felt while sailing with students for that one week. After the encounter with Gayle, she was doubly ready to go. If that week could become two, or four, or even fifty-two, Melissa wouldn’t complain.

She was looking forward to the cruise more this year than ever before. Captain Roberts had called two days earlier to let her know they’d changed locations of the boys’ and girls’ cabins because they had far more boys than girls going on the Holmes Hole trip. The new sleeping arrangements gave Melissa an additional reason to anticipate the journey. She’d have her own cabin—a first. Even better, Cabin 8 was the only cabin onboard that was completely intact with its original boards from over two hundred years ago. The boys and men who’d bunk there before probably never appreciated how close they were to history. Melissa thought she would.

During the past sails, she’d gotten a taste of what life might have been like two hundred years ago, and she liked it. This year she’d be one step closer to that romantic notion being a reality.

“Those two are really looking forward to their Shenandoah trip,” Kendra said.

“Me, too. It’s going to be our best school trip yet.”

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Hope Deferred by Elizabeth Maddrey

Hope Deferred
HopeSprings Books (July 1, 2014)
by
Elizabeth Maddrey





Chapter 1

“I’ve done all I can.” Dr. Strong tented her fingers.

June swallowed the lump in her throat. It wasn’t a surprise, not really. But the verdict still left her breathless. “So now what?”

“You’ll want to find a reproductive endocrinologist. I’ll make a copy of your file for you, hopefully that’ll keep you from having to re-do three cycles of Clomid before moving on to something more likely to work.”

June nodded. If only it was really that easy. She couldn’t just go to an RE. Even with a referral from Dr. Strong, her insurance was going to fight it. And if they didn’t pay…would Toby even consider it?

“Do you have someone you recommend?”

Dr. Strong shook her head. “Not really. It’s not my specialty—and different insurance companies cover different medical groups. You tell me who your policy is most likely to work with and I’ll write the referral to them.”

“That’s easy. No one.” June huffed out a breath. “Sorry. I’ll have to read through everything again, but I’m fairly sure they’re not going to cover anything.”

“Then I’d recommend choosing someone whose office is easy to get to first thing in the morning. You’ll be making daily, or at least every other day, visits for ultrasounds during treatment.” The doctor tapped a pen against her desk. “Tell you what, I’m going to fill out the form but leave the practice name blank. That way, once you decide where you’re going, you can just fill it in. Saves you another office visit with me.”

“Thanks.” June watched as Dr. Strong scribbled on a pad of paper. How was she going to convince Toby?



###



June’s head fell back against the top of her desk chair. Why couldn’t insurance companies just write in plain English? Her pulse throbbed in her temples and words continued to swim in front of her eyes, despite the fact that she was no longer looking at her computer screen. Her eyelids drifted shut. At least…at least what? Her mind went blank. Surely there were blessings to count somewhere?

“There she is, my beautiful bride.” Toby’s lips brushed across her forehead.

“Hi, sweetie. How was your day?” June flicked her eyes to the computer screen—it had gone blank. Thank goodness for screen savers. The conversation about medical treatment to start a family could wait for a little while. At least until she got her thoughts together.

“Eh.” He shrugged. “You know how it is. How was your day off?”

Or maybe it couldn’t wait. “Fine…I had a consultation with Dr. Strong.”

Toby ran a hand through his hair. “Oh?”

“Yeah. I should have mentioned it—meant to, in fact—I just never figured out how. Then I thought it’d just be easier to tell you once I knew what she had to say. I’m sorry.”

He sank into his chair and leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “Okay. I guess. So what did she say?”

June sighed. It was better to rip the band-aid off, right? “She can’t do anything else for us. It’s time to see a specialist if we’re going to keep trying.”

Toby nodded but said nothing.

June watched him. What was he thinking? The wheels were spinning behind his eyes, but his expression stayed blank. “We don’t have to talk about it now. Or even do anything about it right away.”

“How are you doing?”

June drew her eyebrows together. He wasn’t mad that she’d forgotten to mention the appointment? Or that they were going to have to pay for this out of pocket? “Um…okay, I guess. Disappointed. But I’m honestly starting to get used to that. This last year has left a layer of discouragement over most of my life that’s thicker than the dust on the bookshelves.”

The corner of Toby’s mouth quirked up. “Is that a hint that I need to dust more?”

“You know what I mean.”

“So, just disappointed?”

What was he getting at? “Not just, no. But I haven’t sorted through everything yet—processed it, I guess. I…honestly, I was more worried that you were going to be angry.”

He rolled his chair closer to hers and took her hand. “I’m sorry.”

“There’s nothing for you to be sorry about. As far as we know, all our problems are my fault. If anyone needs to be sorry, it’s me. I know you didn’t sign on for a broken wife.”

He squeezed her hand. “That’s not what I meant—and you’re not broken. But we’ll come back to that.” He cleared his throat and waited until their eyes met. “I’m sorry that I’ve made you feel like you can’t—or shouldn’t—talk to me about this. I don’t want you to only worry that I’m going to be angry when you’re hurting.”

“Oh.” June offered a slight smile. “Thanks.”

“I love you. Kids or no kids. When I asked you to marry me, I signed on to be your husband and spend the rest of my life with you. Anything else is gravy.” He stood and kissed her forehead. “Why don’t I see what I can scrounge for dinner? Then afterward, we can tackle the nightmare of the insurance website and see what we can figure out.”

June’s mouth dropped open as he left the room. He was taking this so well…had her impressions from the last four months been that far off? After their first failed cycle on Clomid in April, he’d been so insistent that they wait until June to try again. Then when that cycle failed, he’d pushed for another break before a third try. She’d assumed he was going to want an even longer break now that he was going to have to be more actively involved in the process. Maybe he didn’t understand how much more he was going to have to do? Even if he didn’t, she was going to savor having him back on her side for as long as it lasted.



###



June eased out from under the covers. Toby’s breathing continued its even rhythm, punctuated by quiet whuffles every fourth breath. He was so cute. He probably wouldn’t appreciate the term, but it was what fit. Especially when he was asleep. Careful to avoid the squeaky floorboards, she made her way downstairs to the office and wiggled her computer mouse.

The time they’d spent looking at insurance and various fertility doctors after dinner hadn’t been particularly productive. Insurance wasn’t going to cover anything after testing. That was clear. The tests themselves were likely to be covered, at least the way they were reading the coverage descriptions. But it wasn’t clear if a specialist could do the testing or if she had to convince Dr. Strong to do it.

Sighing, June clicked on Solitaire. The cards darted across the screen into neat piles. Why couldn’t life be that easy? Click a button, get a nice, manageable stack of things to deal with and tick through them one at a time. She dragged a few cards around before closing the unfinished game and opening a browser. Automatically, she clicked the Facebook button. Maybe someone had posted something funny that would penetrate the hazy funk that had settled over her as she got ready for bed and was responsible for this bout of insomnia.

Or not. The first item in her newsfeed was a baby picture from Ginger and Martin. She quickly scrolled past. It wasn’t that their daughter was ugly—she was beautiful—but she was also one more kick in the gut. At least she wasn’t Facebook friends with everyone in the small group. The August baby-boom had made the class almost unbearable. Having it thrust in her face every time she ventured online would’ve simply capped off the misery.

She was about to close the browser when her chat box popped up and the computer dinged.

What are you doing up?

June glanced at the time and shook her head.

I could ask you the same thing, Lydia. Couldn’t sleep. U?

She reopened solitaire as she waited for Lydia to respond.

Same here. Thinking too much, mostly. You free for coffee anytime soon?

Her head fell back and she stared at the ceiling. Was she free for coffee? The easy answer was yes. Her social calendar wasn’t bustling and never had been. But her relationship with Lydia had been weird since April. Relationships with a lot of people had been weird since April. On the other hand, Toby had a guy’s night planned for Friday, and July and Gareth were going away for the weekend. Coffee with Lydia would be better than hanging around the house moping.

Friday night?

It’s a date! Guess I should run and try to sleep. You should too.


She closed the browser and stared at the photo of her and Toby grinning from the desktop. Sleep. Sure. Like that was going to happen.