Sunday, March 1, 2015

Then Sings My Soul by Amy Sorrells

Then Sings My Soul
David C. Cook (March 1, 2015)
by
Amy Sorrells



Prologue

Josef Maevski’s calloused fingers pressed the brilliant-blue stone against the grit of the turntable as he tried not to rush.

Just the other day, he’d held a half-polished piece of garnet the size of a small strawberry and as crimson red as wine. He had spent hours peering through the loupe, exploring and creating mental maps of the stone’s grain, minuscule fractures, and ancient bubbles trapped as the forces of nature formed them. He had only four more facets to create when the stone splintered and cracked clear through, an irreparable chunk flying across the dimly lit room and landing on the edge of the windowsill. A beam of sunlight illuminated the claret sliver so it gleamed like fresh blood on the edge of a cut finger.

I haven’t much time, he thought, adding the finishing buffs and polishes to the precious aquamarine, shoving a magnifying loupe against his eye socket and then removing it, angling the stone toward the lantern light and the dwindling sunlight until at last he was satis- fied with every facet.

Nobility and villagers alike considered Josef an expert stonecutter. The previous spring, an aristocratic family in Kiev commissioned him to create a one-of-a-kind faceting design for a large, egg-sized aquamarine, chosen for its color, which matched Princess Anastasia’s eyes.

Already completed and delivered weeks earlier, Josef ’s stone would be placed in the center of a gold scepter designed for Tsar Nicholas in celebration of his daughter Anastasia’s birthday. The stone in front of him now was one of two smaller versions—still of valuable size—that he’d been working on from what was left of the aquamarine used for the tsar’s scepter. Most of the companies whose orders he had received from Kiev shipped him the rough stones, and their coffers were so full that they rarely cared what he did with the scraps.

Josef ’s father spent years saving enough money to send Josef to Idar-Oberstein, Germany, for an apprenticeship with some of the finest cutters in the world. Because of that, Josef ’s family could eat and had lived mostly without fear in the bucolic shtetl,1 one of many in the Pale of Settlement. His primary work as a farmer would never have paid the bills. And with four daughters and two sons and a seventh child on the way, peace and dowries were high priorities. At least those had been his priorities until the recent bloodshed in Kishinev, where there had been yet another slaughter of innocent Jewish brothers and sisters, even babies torn to pieces, during the most recent Passover.

“Josef.” One breath from his bride still turned his stomach upside down, even after eighteen years of marriage. “Here’s your bread and butter. There’s not much beef left.”

“Thank you. Set it there.” He tilted his head slightly in the direc- tion of the table and tattered wingback chair by the fire.

“Josef. You should take a moment and eat something.”

“I know, I know.” He was more gruff with her than he’d intended. Eliana started back toward the glow of the kitchen, one hand on her lower back as she lurched unevenly from the weight of the near-term baby within her.

“Eliana, wait.”

She turned toward him, her sky-blue eyes melting him with their cool, steady, gentle gaze.

“I’m sorry, moya lyubov.† You know I have to finish. Peter will need this for his journey. The sooner he can leave the better.”

Eliana came back toward him and leaned heavily against the thick wooden worktable as she settled on the stool next to him. Her swollen breasts stretched the scarlet cross-stitching of her blouse. She picked up the aquamarine, which nearly filled the palm of her hand, and a tear rolled down her flushed cheek.

“The color of dawn. Of new beginnings,” Josef said, watching as Eliana ran her fingers over the polished contours of the gem, then set it on the table, nesting it into a dingy piece of cheesecloth.

She wiped her face and sighed, appearing impatient. “I thought we’d be safe in the Pale, that what happened in Odessa and Kishinev would not come near us. That if you continued using your trade for the tsar …”2

Josef shook his head and ran his fingers through the ends of his thick, black moustache. “We will have to choose a side soon. There is talk in Zhytomyr about the Black Hundreds radicals who are organiz- ing. Among them are those who’d like to kill anyone who even looks like a Jew. It won’t matter that we believe in Yeshua Messiah now. I will fight for my village, for Russia, for my family, and for the faith.”

“For faith? You would fight for it?” Eliana stood again, breathing hard as she trudged toward the window, where fresh snow swirled against the icy panes. Then she turned toward him, her face red with fury. “You heard the reports, Josef. Babies torn to pieces. Babies! Our brothers and sisters stripped naked and herded like cattle into the woods, into great pits, and slaughtered. Who can fight such evil? Not El Shaddai. He doesn’t pass over His chosen ones any longer. And Yeshua Messiah, if He were truly Emmanuel …” She held her belly, her interlaced fingers mottled and clenched as if someone were already trying to tear her unborn child from within her.

“The Gospels tell us that even Yeshua Himself felt as if God had forsaken Him, but He hadn’t. He won’t leave us either.” Josef moved toward her, pulling her close, and the two began to sway together as he whispered in her ear, “Sh’ma Yis-ra-eil, A-do-nai E-lo-hei-nu, A-do-nai E-chad.”

She did not answer.

He lifted her chin, wiped her tears with a swoop of his calloused thumb, and locked his eyes with hers. “Ba-ruch sheim k’vod mal-chu-to l’o-lam va-ed.”

Eliana pulled her scarf over her head. Her shoulders shook as she cried.

“V’a-hav-ta eit A-do-nai E-lo-he-cha, B’chawl l’va-v’cha.”

She joined Josef in the Shema, their family’s recent conversion to Messianic Judaism not dampening their dedication to offer praise, recite the traditional prayers, and commit to the adoration of God in the midst of fear and pain.

In their grief, each syllable felt to Jakob like a forced attempt to believe the words they’d learned as soon as they were able to form words as toddlers; each syllable a vain plea for escape from the new Pharaoh of death bearing down all around them.

“Mama, Peter’s coming!” Zahava’s shout broke the intimacy of the moment.

Josef and Eliana’s oldest daughter had been cross-stitching with her two younger sisters, Tova and Ilana, in the front room by the fire. Now with four-year-old Jakob on his tiptoes at her side, Zahava stood by the window and rubbed a spot of frost off the windowpane. The door to their home slammed open, causing the youngest of Joseph and Eliana’s children, Faigy, not yet two, to startle and burst into tears. The wind ushered a swirl of snow and ice into the house, along with a young man, tall but slender beneath his layers of sweat- ers, sheepskin, and fleece. Ice covered his eyebrows, his beaver-skin hat, and his mukluks.

“Are you a man or a beast, Peter?” Josef ’s laugh came from the depths of his belly and shook the furniture in the room.

“Tato,** it’s time.”

Josef ’s smile fell, and Eliana pulled the red-faced and whimper- ing Faigy closer.

“How can this be?” Josef said. “I heard of the madness in Kiev, but Zhytomyr? Are you sure?”

Peter was only fourteen, but he’d shown enough maturity to help other boys from the shtetl deliver milk and other goods

across the countryside, where they often learned news. “There are riders. Madmen. The Black Hundreds are well organized now. More interested in Jewish and peasant blood than in Orthodoxy. They’ve covered the city, throwing their propaganda leaflets everywhere, gathering more supporters. They’ve filled storehouses with arms, and barns with horses. They will be in Chudniv by sunset tomorrow, if not sooner.”

Josef moved toward his workroom, and Peter followed him, watching as his father picked up the aquamarine he’d been work- ing on and turned it toward the fire, sending reflections flickering around the room. The stone’s color reminded Peter of the sky on afternoons he had spent ice-skating with his classmates on the frozen pond behind the village dairy. Josef picked up another stone, identi- cal in cut and splendor to the first round stone on the worktable. He wrapped it and several other stones—some rough and others brilliantly faceted—in cheesecloth and tucked them into a leather satchel. The crinkle of wax paper came from the kitchen, where Eliana wrapped bread and cured beef.

“You must go,” said Josef, his enormous hands trembling as he handed Peter the bag of stones. “Take Galya. He is the strongest of the horses. His dapple-gray coat will blend with the birch and the aspen. He will get you across the Carpathian Mountains and foothills and into Hungary. Find your way to the sea as we talked about, and use these stones to buy your train tickets to Rotterdam and your passage to America.”

“But, Tato—” Peter tried to protest as his mother pulled him toward her.

Eliana hung the strap of the leather satchel stuffed with food across Peter’s chest, then tightened the buckle as he held up his arms while she fussed. When she finished, he stuffed the bag of stones deep into the inside pocket of his fleece-lined coat.

“I thought we’d have more time,” Peter said.

“Me too,” said Josef. “Try not to worry. We will be fine as long as people still believe I am an artisan and for the tsar, for Russia. Zahava, Tova, and Ilana are strong like their mama, and they’ll be here to help. Send letters when you can. Once you find work and a place to live, we will come too. They say there’s good work in America. Lots of work for laborers. Factories. Fisheries. The ocean. Can you imagine?”

Peter could not.

“I will finish more stones and use them to pay our way once you are settled,” Josef continued. “Faigy will be bigger, and the baby will have arrived and be strong enough to travel. But you must go first.” Eliana put her arms around Peter’s shoulders as little Jakob clung to her skirts, his hazel eyes wide with concern. “Mama.” Jakob’s chin quivered.

Peter pulled back from his mother’s embrace and squatted onto his haunches so he was at eye level with his little brother. He put his hands onto the boy’s small shoulders. “It’ll be okay, Jakob. I promise.” Peter stood and adjusted the belt across the waist of his kozhukh. “Jakob, come here,” Zahava called in a gentle but scolding voice from near the hearth where she and her sisters clung to one another and held the younger ones close.

The wetness of Peter’s tears created bright-red splotches on Eliana’s faded scarlet head scarf as he held his mother once more. Then he turned to Josef, who helped him fasten the top of his kozhukh and tuck in his woolens as if he were a schoolboy again.

“Let’s go, miy syn. I’ll help you ready Galya.”

Eliana didn’t bother to wipe the tears flowing down the grooves of her grief-blotched face. She clung to Faigy and leaned into her children, all of them staring at the heavy wooden door after Josef and Peter left.

Jakob ran to the frosty window and used his small fist to clear a spot. He stood on his tiptoes again and strained to watch his father and Peter prepare Galya for the journey.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Seek and Hide by Amanda Stevens

Seek and Hide
David C. Cook (September 15, 2014)
by
Amanda Stevens





Chapter 1


Booze behind the wheel could turn a sports car into a … well, wreck. No other word for the blue Honda that had rammed halfway through Keith’s garage door before lodging there like a dud missile. Marcus pushed a shoulder to the door. It swayed a little, but the hole’s jagged edges stayed wedged against the car. Trying to back out might take the whole door down. Not that Marcus would trust the driver to try it.

Murmuring party guests lined the garage wall. Nobody was doing anything about this mess, other than gaping at it. If the driver had kept his foot on the gas a second longer, the car doors might have cleared the crater. Then again, he might also have run somebody over.

“Brenner, man, you can fix it, right?” Keith hovered over Marcus’s shoulder, and his beer breath wafted too close. “You can get Jason out of there, right?”

The driver hammered a fist against his door. “Keith, when I get out of this car, I’m going to kick your face in, you hear me? I’m going to—”

Marcus tapped on the car window. “Hey. Don’t. We’ll get you out.”

“You shut up. You get out of my face, you—”

“That’s no way to talk to the linebacker.” Across the hood of the car, a woman wearing less than a tank top blinked at Marcus. She leaned forward and stretched a bottle toward him, spilling cleavage and beer. He tried to stare at her blue eyes.

“You’re new. Best stuff that’s left, right here in this bottle.”

He could taste it. Yes. “No. Thanks.”

The woman pouted and splashed the car hood with the rest of her beer. She sidled closer to Marcus. “You’re so big.”

And you’re so drunk.

“Your eyes are like the sky.”

Well, not unless the sky had turned brown lately. Marcus gently pushed her away.

Keith rocked from one foot to the other, his gaze shifting from Marcus to the trapped, cussing driver and back again. “See why I called you, Brenner? You build stuff and fix stuff. And I thought you could fix this. Or build it. Or yeah.”

The garage door was beyond fixing. Marcus needed something to free the car. He let his eyes roam the four-car garage without resting too long on various available drinks. The half-finished side held a workbench in one corner. Garden tools hung from a dusty pegboard: rake and trowel and yeah, that was a pitchfork. But nothing helpful.

“Keith, got an axe?”

Fortunately, Keith only had one, or he probably would have tried to help. In the next ten minutes, Marcus widened the hole around the car. November rain blew inside, the kind that mocked fall jackets but sabotaged winter coats with cold, heavy saturation. The kind that Michiganders complained about until someone piped in, “Hey, it could be snowing.” Likely would be soon. Still, at the moment, Marcus wasn’t cold. Sweat dripped down his back and chest and dampened his shirt, then his jacket. He worked hard, not only to free the car but also to ignore Tank Top Girl’s offerings of her booze and her body.

Once Marcus had verified the designated drivers, the last of the partiers dispersed. He was left with Keith and Jason for company, the two of them periodically hollering at each other through the windshield. At least neither one of them was drinking anymore.

As long as his hands curled around the axe handle, the other guys couldn’t see his shaking. He angled his next swing, and the blade chomped into the garage door with a thunk. Splinters ricocheted off the arms of his jacket and rained to the garage floor. In another minute, he should be able to back the car out. Then he could get out of here and drive home and make coffee. He breathed through his mouth but could still smell the beer-washed garage. He tried to conjure the aroma of a fresh-ground roast.

A cooler stood open in the corner. Next to the keg.

The axe bit too hard, straight through the wood, and nicked the hood of the car. A silver gash appeared in the blue paint. Marcus winced, then shrugged. One more scratch in this paint job wasn’t a big deal. From the other side of the garage, Keith raised his arms like an athlete on the Olympic medal stand and whooped in approval of the door’s destruction. In the morning, the idiot would be sober. And ticked off. He hadn’t changed one bit since their high-school partying days.

“Good thing the neighbors aren’t home,” Keith said. “They might’ve called the cops.”

About time somebody besides Marcus had a sensible thought. He set down the axe. The car door should open wide enough for him to squeeze into the driver’s seat.

“Jason, move—”

The guy turned the key and hit the gas. Marcus leaped back. The car backed down the driveway several feet, then skidded to a stop.

Jason stepped out into the drizzle with a grin born of braces. His blond hair dripped as he ducked back through the hole his car had left. “Neighbors wouldn’t call the cops, because I don’t need the cops. Because I am the cops.”

Right. Of course he was.

Keith nodded. “Hey, Brenner, did you know Jason’s the cops?”

“Uh, no.”

“I’m MPC,” Jason said.

He was?

The acronym had never rooted itself into civilian vocabulary, but everyone knew its meaning. Michigan Philosophical Constabulary. Marcus stepped back from the guy. Short, lean—Marcus could knock him to the floor without trying. He breathed. Slowly. Flexed his hands, opened them, flexed them again. Had Jason waited in the shadows last night outside a church meeting, a church like Marcus’s? Had he handcuffed God’s people and driven them away to re-education?

Keith stared from Marcus to Jason and back again. “Whoa, how crazy’s that, for you to save the day for a con-cop? I mean, you don’t like them much. Obviously.”

“Keith, shut up.” If he went to jail today, he’d go because he chose to hit this guy. Hard. Not because Keith had a big mouth.

“Hey, no worries. He never remembers a thing past his third or fourth shot. You could read a Bible to him, an old one, I mean, and he—”

“Shut up. Now.”

“You guys aren’t making sense,” Jason said.

Marcus pointed at the car outside, still running. “I want the keys.”

Jason seemed to gain height as Marcus watched. His chin lifted, and his forehead twitched above the left eyebrow. “They’re my keys.”

“You don’t need them till tomorrow.”

“Three cheers for Brenner, Garage Door Chopper.” Keith hoisted Marcus’s arm over his head, slapping the air with beer breath.

Booze made people say the stupidest things at the stupidest times.

“I’m leaving now,” Marcus said to Keith. “And he’s spending the night.”

Confusion furrowed Keith’s forehead. “You’re not driving him home?”

Not a good idea. Marcus would end up wrapping his hands around Jason’s neck and squeezing until … Could a Constabulary agent arrest you for assault, or would he have to call the regular police? But that was the point—Jason wouldn’t be arresting anybody as long as he wasn’t breathing.

Right, because incapacitating one member of a government police force could make such a difference. Marcus might as well pull one scale off a rattlesnake.

“No,” he said. “He’s staying here.”

Jason threw a splay-fingered gesture at the car still running in the driveway. Its headlights cut through the drizzle, through the crater in the door. “Car’s still drivable. So I’m going to drive it.”

“You’re drunk, moron,” Keith said. “I’ll drive you.”

Marcus squeezed his eyes shut. If he left them here, one of them would get behind the wheel. Even if they promised not to.

God, do I have to do this?

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Wisdom Tree by Mary Manners

Wisdom Tree
White Rose Publishing (September 19, 2012)
by
Mary Manners



Chapter 1

Teach us to number our days aright,


that we may gain a heart of wisdom.


~Psalm 90:12~





She’d tried to kill him.

Jake swallowed an oath and cut the motor on the mower he wrestled through overgrown September grass. His heart thundered like a runaway semi as his gaze locked on the woman’s startling green eyes, framed by a wisp of sun-kissed blonde hair. She was shorter than he was—quite a bit shorter—and willowy as a ribbon in the wind, but the strappy sandals hugging her feet added a bit of height.

“Have you lost your mind?” The words tumbled out before Jake could get a hold on them. “I might have run over you, hacked off a few of your toes.” He quickly regretted his harsh tone when her smile wilted. Her gaze lowered to her feet, and she wiggled her pink-polished toes.

“But you didn’t, and I’m still in one piece. So…” She had a slight Southern accent, a soft lilting voice that he imagined could flash to a bite in an instant.

Jake drew a long, calming breath laced with the sweet scent of freshly mown grass as he swiped a forearm across his brow. Sweat trickled down his back, making his T-shirt cling to damp skin. “Don’t you know you’re not supposed to sneak up on people when they’re working with dangerous equipment?”

“Of course.” Her gaze narrowed as she crossed her arms and lifted her chin. He imagined her lack of height was no deterrent to getting her way, and her tone might have scalded the first few layers of skin from him. “But I didn’t sneak up on you.”

“Could have fooled me.” He huffed out a breath and wished he wasn’t feeling so short-tempered. It gave the wrong impression, especially here at church, and with someone new. He tugged the collar of his T-shirt and hoped for a cool breeze, trying not to think about how he was in a hurry to pick up Corey, and that he didn’t have time for chit-chat. But he’d make time…he always did. It was part of his job. “I sure didn’t hear you coming.”

“I called to you, but you’re mowing.” She enunciated the word as if she thought he might be a few cards short of a Pinochle deck. “That’s most likely why you didn’t hear me.”

“Yeah, that’s just my point.” Jake’s restraint was sorely tested by the smug gleam in her eye. His gaze grazed her crisp linen jacket over a flowered sundress that caressed a lithe figure. She looked graceful and cool under the blistering glare of the sun.

Jake, on the other hand, was sweltering to the point of self-combustion. He hadn’t intended to mow the grass, but when Bill Rogers, the church caretaker, called in with a sick daughter, there wasn’t time to find help. So Jake stepped in to pick up the slack. He brushed prickly blades of mulched grass from his faded jeans and gestured toward the mower. “Care to give it a go?”

She took a giant step back. “No thanks. I’m not…properly dressed.” She surveyed him, shielding her eyes from the sun that burned from a cloudless blue sky. Her other hand disappeared into the tote slung over one shoulder. “Drink?” She offered him a bottle of water. “You look like you can use some cooling off.”

Jake reached for the water. His pulse rate was beginning to ease, and thirst won out over pride. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

She gaped as he uncapped the bottle and guzzled the cool water in little more than a gulp then swiped stray droplets from his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Do you need to sit down for a minute? You look…winded.”

“No. I’m almost done.” Jake wouldn’t have chosen jeans that morning if he’d known he was going to have to mow; cargo shorts would have been a better choice. The thick denim held heat against his skin like a sauna. “Ahh, that’s good. Do you make it a habit to carry bottled water with you?”

“Nope…it’s your lucky day.” She adjusted the tote over her shoulder, and he saw it was filled with papers bundled neatly together by an array of colorful, plastic-coated clips. “Who knew I’d stumble across a hot groundskeeper in need.”

Jake did a double-take when her smile turned down and her gaze flashed complete mortification at the unintended double meaning. He tugged his ball cap low over his eyes and crossed his arms as she stuttered through an explanation.

“I-I mean, you’re hot from mowing…” she gulped, shading her eyes from his gaze. “Because it’s so hot out here, and you need—”

“Wow.” Jake burst into laughter. He fought hard to regain his composure as tears stung his eyes and mixed with the sweat on his brow to blur his vision.

“Hey.” Her cheeks flushed and blonde curls bobbed haughtily as she crossed her arms, threw her shoulders back, and gave him a seething look. “Don’t you know it’s not nice to laugh at someone else’s expense?”

Jake coughed into a hand and dipped his head to hide his grin. “Sorry, but you stepped right into that one.”

A crimson splotch crept up her neck and crawled across her face. “OK, I guess I did. Anyway—”

“I’m Jake.” He wiped his hand on his jeans in an attempt to brush off some of the sweat and dirt before extending it to her.

“Carin.” She grasped his hand and gave it a tentative shake. The scent of sandalwood perfume clung to the humid air, and Jake inhaled deeply, his pulse easing down another notch.

“So, what brings you here today, Carin?”

She tucked a stray curl behind one ear and trained those pretty green eyes on him. “I need to speak with the pastor of this church. I was hoping you could help me locate him.”

“Maybe I can.” Jake leaned lazily against the mower. She was neat and tidy, all business, while he stood sweaty and covered head to toe in mulched grass that had been swept up on a breeze. Maybe it was the heat, or her smug expression, or perhaps the fact he was in a bit of a foul mood and only human, after all, but he decided to have a little fun. “Which pastor are you looking for—youth or senior?”

“I…um…I don’t know.” She caught her lower lip between her teeth, gnawed for a moment and then let go. “I didn’t think to ask. I suppose he must be the youth pastor. Senior pastors tend to be older, I assume.”

Jake stifled a groan. She’d conveyed the typical sentiment. By all accounts, he should be a balding, stooped over, crotchety old man. The thought raised his ire even more. “Well, the youth pastor stepped out for a while. Meetings and planning sessions…you know how pressing church matters can be. Was he expecting you?”

“No, but…I was hoping to speak with him, confidentially.”

The disappointment in her gaze caused Jake a slight prick of guilt. His voice softened, and he remembered why he was here at the church in the first place. “Is what you need to speak about an emergency of some sort?”

“No!” Carin emphasized the word. “I mean, no, I wouldn’t want to worry him. It’s not pressing. I just need to…” The words died in her throat.

“Are you sure it’s not an emergency?” He couldn’t leave her hanging if it truly was a pressing issue.

“Sure, I’m sure.”

Jake debated. It wasn’t an emergency, and she’d be back in a day or so if he played his cards right. Then he wouldn’t be in a hurry to get Corey, and he’d have all the time in the world to talk with her—a better prospect, all the way around.

“Tell you what,” Jake coaxed. “Why don’t you come back Sunday morning for the ten o’clock service, when both pastors are sure to be here, and I can personally guarantee that following the service whichever pastor you need to speak with will give you his undivided attention for as long as you’d like.”

“You’re positive?” One eyebrow rose into a smooth little arch. “What I need to speak about could take a while.”

He nodded.

She jostled the bag on her shoulder and sighed, her gaze scanning the steps that led into the church. “Well…that’s just the day after tomorrow. I suppose it can wait until then. Ten o’clock, you said?”

“For the service, yes. And you can do your talking afterwards.”

“I don’t want to divulge the details.” Her forehead creased as her eyebrows knit together. “But perhaps I should leave a short message in the office, maybe a note with the secretary.”

“No need.” Jake tried not to glance at his watch. Corey would be waiting at the ball field, and who knew what kind of mischief he’d get into if Jake was delayed too long. “Besides, the secretary’s gone home for the day. But you have my word; the pastor will be OK with you showing up.”

“You’re sure?”

Jake eyed her…abundant ringlets of soft blonde curls, tidy appearance, and eyes that said she didn’t think he could possibly know anything about the pastor. The slight prick of guilt he’d felt fled. “I’m sure.”

“Well…” Carin wound a strand of curl around an index finger. “Thank you…I guess.”

“No problem.” The late-afternoon sun silhouetted her figure. She had to be a runner—or perhaps a dancer. Though her figure was slight, Jake noticed the definition of supple calf muscles below the hem of her skirt. He drew his gaze away. “I’d better get back to work now…unless you’d care to stay and help.”

She pressed a finger to the forehead crease and gnawed her lower lip again while readjusting the tote. “No. I’ve…um…got errands to run.”

Yeah, right, Jake thought as she backed away. You wouldn’t want to dirty those freshly-manicured nails.

“Well, the invitation’s open…anytime.” He swept a hand across the clipping-littered sidewalk. “There’s always plenty of lawn to mow.”

“I’ll…um…remember that.”

The mortified look on her face was priceless, and Jake grinned as she hastily retreated to her car. “Thanks for your help.”

“See you Sunday?” Jake called.

“Of course…if you’re here.”

“Oh, I’ll be here.”

“Me, too.” The way she said it, her voice lilting with a biting edge to it, made Jake wonder exactly what was up. Now he had no choice but to wait to find out. Guess that was the price he’d pay for letting the heat—and a bit of temper—get the best of him.

He thought about going after her, but the compact sedan’s engine rumbled to life before he had time to make up his mind. As the car puttered from the lot, Jake checked his watch and quickly turned his attention back to mowing. He crushed the empty water bottle and stuffed it into the back pocket of his jeans before double-timing it through the last section of lawn. Then he wrestled the mower back into the shed, brushed off his jeans, and went inside the church long enough to wash grass from his hands and check his voicemail. The last bit of mowing gave him time to reflect, and guilt gnawed at him.

He wondered what Carin wanted. He shouldn’t have run her off without asking. What kind of pastor was he, anyway? What if it was important? What if she didn’t come back?

****

Who on earth does he think he is? The arrogant, filthy, grass-covered bohemian. Why, I’ll—

The shriek of a horn startled Carin, and she slammed the brakes, skidding toward oncoming traffic. “Oh!” She held her breath as tires squealed over pavement and her car came to rest mere inches from the pickup truck in front of her. The odor of burning rubber coupled with fear made her gag. “Sorry,” she gasped, as if the driver of the truck might hear.

Oh, why on earth had she allowed Hailey to talk her into moving from her job helping her dad at his law firm in Nashville to take a teaching job at East Ridge Middle…and seventh grade, to boot? Middle school kids were a far cry from the affluent adults who came into her dad’s upscale firm to seek his advice on everything from basic living wills to complicated estate planning and civil suits. But she had a degree in English, and East Ridge Middle needed a qualified English teacher when Mrs. Baldwin, a thirty-five year veteran, decided to retire. So when Hailey called and suggested the move, Carin had jumped at the chance to take over. She’d always loved the Tennessee Valley and the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, and there wasn’t much anymore to keep her in Nashville.

Except for her dad, and he was pretty much busy at his law firm all the time.

Besides, she needed a change to get away from the memories…the grief of losing her mom and then Cameron, and of the turmoil that had followed with Phillip, too. Nothing else she tried seemed to work. A change of scenery—a bit of distance—was the answer for her troubled heart.

But it wasn’t easy being the new kid on the block at East Ridge Middle, especially when she demanded the absolute best from her students. During the first few weeks, chaos nearly choked her, but she finally had a handle on things—a routine and a plan she was more than satisfied with.

Except for Corey Samuels. Apparently he reigned as King of Chaos.

The kid had a chip on his shoulder the size of Montana, with an attitude to match. To say his grades and effort were underwhelming put it mildly. But his records showed top test scores and well-above-average ability, and something in his eyes told her there was more to the story. He reminded her of her younger brother, Cameron. As she tamped the urge to throttle Corey when he blew spit wads at her white board and made rude comments under his breath, something about him tugged at her heartstrings.

No one had been able to help Cameron, and the end result was nothing less than heartbreaking. She missed her brother, gone nearly a year now. The pain of his death never left her.

When she asked Hailey for guidance concerning Corey, her friend mentioned that a talk with Corey’s brother might help. So on the way home she’d swung by the church where Hailey said he was a pastor, but confidentiality had kept her from searching for him past that behemoth caretaker.

Carin expelled a long breath and released her hands from their death grip on the steering wheel. She wouldn’t allow that poor excuse of a caretaker get to her, even if he did almost run her over with the hulking, dilapidated piece of junk-metal he called a mower.

A second horn blared, and Carin sprang to attention as traffic began to flow southbound toward the outskirts of town.

Just wait until Sunday, Mr. Lawnmower Man. I’m tougher than I look. I’ll show you…

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Devotion by Marianne Evans

Devotion
Harbourlight Books (September 19, 2012)
by
Marianne Evans




Chapter 1


“I don’t mean to push you.” Kellen Rossiter lifted the collar of his dress shirt and slid his tie into place, adjusting its fall. He stared at his reflection in the bathroom mirror, knowing his words weren’t entirely true.

“I know that.” His wife stood next to him at the double vanity. Dressed for bed, Juliet wore a floaty nightgown of dark green satin. She moisturized her arms, then her face. Kellen paused to watch her, captivated by the graceful, automatic motions, the soul-deep beauty she carried with a complete lack of awareness. The image of her left him to ache inside.

“I miss you when you’re not there.” He refitted the shirt collar then double-checked the knot on his patterned silk tie. “I like hearing your thoughts and impressions, but mostly I just enjoy being with you.”

Her shoulders sagged. Through the mirror, she tagged him with an apologetic glance. He had known the look was coming; she was ready for bed, after all. Plus, he knew the regret came from her heart. That’s why his statement about missing her, enjoying her, had lacked any form of condemnation. Just longing. He did miss her companionship and the feel of her at his side.

With increasing frequency.

“We used to have fun scouting talent at the local clubs, talking about anything and everything while we listened to music. Plus, this is supposedly a great new place, and we haven’t had a ‘date night’ in quite a while.” He paused again, just long enough to look at her once more. Gentle refusal still lived in her eyes, so Kellen braced himself for her ‘no thanks.’

“Sweetheart, you’ll be working. I get in the way when you’re shaking and moving.” She smiled at him, sincerely. Her eyes were so soft, a beautiful shade of deep green. “Next time, OK? I’m seriously tapped out, or I’d let you tempt me.” She moved close and tucked in tight, resting her head on his chest. Kellen wrapped his arms around her, ignoring the bite of disappointment, the urge for recriminations, like: We have no children, Juliet, nothing that ties us down. I know you’re busy with a hundred different activities that help our church, our city, and I know that fills you up, but what about us? Where do we fit together?

The thoughts launched, but with practiced ease, he shot each one down. He was being selfish. She was tired. The winter season was giving way to spring around Nashville, and she had spent the entire afternoon and evening volunteering at a soup kitchen and warming center sponsored by Trinity Christian Church, where he and Juliet were active parishioners.

“Tell you what.” Juliet leaned back in his arms. The curve of her lips, that promising sparkle in her eyes, almost cured his sadness. “I’ll wait up for you.”

Kellen nodded. He dotted her nose with a kiss; his hands slid against the glossy fabric of her nightgown. The color highlighted her ivory skin, and turned spectacular eyes to absolutely dazzling.

He made a vow to himself, then and there, that he’d get home early.

****

Irritation riled him as he drove north on I-65. He didn’t need to do this. It would be a typical late night/early morning spent at a club, this time listening to a jazz singer. Then, if he sensed any kind of potential, he’d have to host an introductory meeting. He wasn’t supposed to be taking on new clients. His roster of represented musicians was exclusive, and full to overflowing. He would have much preferred an evening at home with Juliet. At least, that’s what he told himself as intimate moments came along less and less often of late. Still, Kellen couldn’t resist that tickle in his gut, the excitement stirred by the prospect of discovering something—someone—extraordinary.

According to Associated Talent’s Weiss McDonald, tonight’s mission to Nashville’s newest hot spot, Iridescence, would be a slam-dunk. Beyond that, Kellen’s boss had offered nothing about who, or what, Kellen would be scouting.

“I refuse to taint your perceptions with any of my own.” Weiss had said, seeming euphoric. “Go. See. Report back in the morning.”

A sharp ache gnawed at his heart as Kellen navigated the narrow descent to an underground parking structure. Something didn’t feel right about this. He should have stayed home with Juliet.

Leaving the car, he made his way into the office building that housed Iridescence. A swift elevator ride later, the doors parted to reveal a white marble lobby, a translucent podium decorated by a deep purple vase full of vibrant colored calla lilies.

Nice, he thought. Definitely upscale and luxurious.

He was led to a table near the window where wall-to-wall glass revealed a Nashville skyline bursting with lights and a carpet of added illumination that went on for miles. To his left was a large, raised dais presently curtained off by black velvet. In passing, he saw a face he recognized—Jack Collins—the owner of the club. Jack’s eyes went wide when he looked Kellen’s way. Kellen chuckled under his breath, sitting down.

A waitress stepped up promptly. “Good evening, and welcome to Iridescence. Can I get you something to drink?”

She was young, a gorgeous blonde whom Kellen took in, and dismissed, just as quickly, though he offered a kind smile. “Tonic and lime would be great, thanks.”

“Right away.” Her smile and attention lingered. Kellen’s didn’t. Of far greater interest was Jack Collins who worked his way to Kellen’s table.

“Rossiter. Good to see you.” Jack touched the arm of the waitress to get her attention. “Mindy, his tab is on me.”

Further impressed, the waitress gave Kellen a second long look, which again he registered, then ignored. His focus homed in on Jack, and when the owner sat down in the chair opposite, Kellen leaned forward. “What am I in for?”

Jack’s smile took off like a fast ride. The man’s eyes flashed like a kid with a secret. “Seriously. Weiss didn’t cue you in?”

Kellen lifted a shoulder. “Mumbled some new-age nonsense about not wanting to mess with my perceptions or some such ridiculous thing. So tell me. What’s the deal?”

Jack sat back and kicked out his legs, flattening his hands against his stomach. He was a sharp man, hip and artful—with an eye for what would appeal to high-end customers. “Nope. I’m glad he didn’t tell you about her.”

“Her?”

Jack straightened and settled his forearms on the table. “Chloe.”

Lord. For whatever reason, Kellen’s mind drew pictures of a platinum blonde with buxom curves and slinky lines. He sank on the inside. “I’m here to see a woman named Chloe?”

“Yeah. Chloe Havermill. Listen, I’ve gotta see to some things right now, but stick around after the upcoming set. It’s her last for the night. I’ll introduce you.”

Before Jack could dash off, Kellen put out a restraining hand. “Hey, don’t cue her in. Don’t stack the deck or get her riled up that there’s an agent in the house. I’m here to listen. That’s all.”

Jack’s eyes flashed, and his posture radiated confidence. “Yeah? Let’s see if that’s all you have to say once you hear her sing.”

The man’s stance was so definitive it took Kellen aback. His interest level inched upward.

****

The lights dimmed until all that remained was a centered spotlight. The curtain across the dais glided open. Conversations and dish clatter faded as the audience turned in unison, looking toward the stage, and waiting. A rhythmic, almost tropical drumbeat, accompanied by flowing bass, signaled the start of the Sade classic, Paradise.

The spotlight remained trained upon a woman who put to rest every doubt Kellen had felt upon hearing her name.

A long, silver dress dotted by sequins, flowed like water over a lithe body that was graceful and fluid. Spaghetti straps revealed toned arms, a long, slender neck. A straight column of black hair moved against her shoulders. He was positioned close enough to see that her large, wide-set eyes were violet.

Violet.

When she began to sing, her voice was nothing short of smooth magic.

From the opening notes, Chloe owned the room. She expressed the mood of the piece with pitch-perfect delivery. Her passion and skill rolled off the stage, slipping around the tables, enveloping her listeners. Kellen was stunned. Like the rest of the audience, he couldn’t look anywhere else. Her voice became the only thing he could hear.

It was second nature for him to size up people physically. Such was the nature of his business. Talent was the important thing, yes, but beyond that came the mysterious and elusive factors of charisma and dynamic appeal.

What was the package here? What would be the strengths and weaknesses?

A flashpoint occurred, providing an immediate answer to those questions. Quite naturally, that answer was channeled into terms any agent in the entertainment industry would understand. If Carrie Underwood had sleek, jet hair and violet colored eyes, she’d look exactly like Chloe Havermill. Chloe had the same gorgeous skin and flawless bone structure. She had the same dazzling smile. And Chloe had an innocent sweetness in her eyes, a sweetness that would provoke fierce loyalty, delight, and mega-sales.

The longer he listened, and watched, the more he stared. Captured. The corner of his mouth curved up. He felt pleasure just looking at her. That, coupled with the vocals she possessed, was an incredible intoxicant—because if this was how he felt, he was certain this was how America would feel as well.

He owed Weiss an apology for underestimation.

Kellen looked around, beginning to pay closer attention to the audience. They were enthralled. Chloe roped them in and fed their awed expectations. She drifted through smoky jazz ballad after heart-felt love song. The crowd, to a person, was completely behind her.

The set ended way too soon.

Not long after, Chloe entered the main room, accompanied by Jack. Moving through the crowd, she accepted handshakes and smiles, a few air kisses and delighted greetings while Jack led her to the table where Kellen sat. They were close enough now that Jack’s guiding touch and directing head nod caused Chloe’s focus to zoom in on Kellen, and it stayed put.

That’s when it hit him—a lightning bolt of attraction. A primitive male response to undiluted sweetness and a beguiling manner. Chloe Havermill struck him not at all as an arrogant, entitled performer—this despite a world of talent. Kellen didn’t even have time to consider his reaction before she stepped up, and looked at Jack, then back at him. Kellen stood, realizing his heart started to race, that his gesture stemmed from a mystifying call to be courtly.

Jack stepped into their elongated, intense silence. “Chloe, I’d like you to meet—”

“Chloe, honey!” Kellen’s waitress stepped up and held her empty tray to the side so she could give the singer a tight hug. “Happy birthday! Been waiting all night to see you so I could say hello! It’s a shame to be working on your big day!”

Chloe brushed that comment aside with a graceful sweep of her hand. “No worries. To me, this isn’t work. It’s a joy. Thanks for remembering, sweetie, and I’ll talk to you later, OK?”

“You bet.”

Kellen watched. Oh, he couldn’t wait to work with this woman.

She turned back, wearing an expectant expression, waiting on Jack, who started to chuckle as Kellen’s smile spread. He didn’t let Jack introduce him. Not quite yet. “So, today’s your birthday?”

“Yes. Yes, it is. Ah…” Chloe stumbled verbally, obviously confused about what was going on, and why she was standing at Kellen’s table.

Kellen reached into the breast pocket of his suit coat and extracted a business card, making ready to hand it over while Jack tried again. “Chloe, I think you’re in for a great present. I want you to meet a friend of mine.”

Already she extended her hand. Kellen connected to her promptly, taking her hand in his, but not shaking, just holding on.

Jack performed the conclusion. “This is Kellen Rossiter. Kellen, say hello to Chloe Havermill.”

Her eyes went wide. She breathed deep and the sequins of her dress shimmered. “Kellen. Rossiter.”

Because of his hold, he felt her waver just slightly.

Jack chuckled. “Pleasantries dispensed with, I’ll leave you to it.” Jack speared Kellen with a look that reeked of ‘I told you so.’

Chloe, meanwhile, gave her boss a fast, almost desperate look. “Can’t you join us?”

Kellen pulled out the chair next to his, to distract her from Jack’s exit. “I may have a tough reputation, Chloe, but contrary to industry myth, I don’t bite. I’d like to talk to you privately.” Kellen wanted her full focus, but he also wanted her to feel comfortable. The waitress—Mindy he recalled—breezed past once again and Kellen caught her eye. “Excuse me, Mindy. Would it be possible to order something to drink?”

“Of course. What can I get for you?”

“Another tonic and lime for me. Chloe?”

The interlude, as intended, gave her a few moments to regroup, but she was still dazed, completely unguarded and unprepared for this meeting. “Umm…ice water works for me.”

“Are you sure you don’t want anything else?” Kellen resumed his seat.

“Positive. I don’t want anything stronger when I feel like I’ve been thrown into the deep end of the ocean.”

He smiled into her eyes and leaned forward across the slight space that separated them. He was charmed by her. A natural reaction, all in all. “You know who I am. I’m impressed.”

“No, actually, I’m the one who’s impressed.” She laced her fingers together and rested her hands on the table. “Anyone with a pulse in the music industry should know who you are. My nervous stumbling aside, I’m very pleased to meet you.”

The comment stunned and delighted him. Full of undisguised awe, her reply stirred a second rush of attraction that wasn’t entirely welcome. Kellen wrote off the response quickly, though. After all, any man within a glance of this woman would feel just the same.

He decided to play into the moment, knowing he could easily pull back.

“Well—now that my ego is sufficiently fed” --they shared a laugh-- “Happy birthday, Chloe.” He extended his business card, the one he had held since being introduced to her, and slid it across the top of the small, dark wood table. Their fingertips brushed innocently when she took possession. She lifted the card and studied the elegant, raised black lettering, fingered the heavy white card stock. But he also noticed the subtle tremble that worked through her hand.

“I’m almost afraid to ask what this means.” Her voice was a quiet murmur.

“Then allow me to verify what you already know.” Kellen went all business and dead serious. “What that card means is you’ve just been given the best present of your life, Chloe. Opportunity.”

She blinked. Joy, he saw, became juxtaposed against terror. “Because?”

“Because you’re talented, and because I believe you deserve a shot. I want to give that to you.”

Laughter, conversations, glassware chiming—the bar sounds surrounded them while Chloe openly searched his eyes. She studied him so deep, and with such intensity that Kellen could do nothing but embrace the silence and let her, maintaining a smooth professionalism he didn’t feel on the inside. His pulse rate climbed. So did a heady, intoxicating roll of heat. The woman was exquisite.

“You honestly came here to see me?”

“I honestly did. And I’m not disappointed.”

Their drinks arrived. She tapped her fingers against the glass, looking down in a flustered way as she slid her hair to the side. But then she looked up and gave him a smile. Kellen felt its impact straight through to the core. “Thank goodness for that much. I’m glad I didn’t know you were in the audience. I’d’ve botched things up for sure.”

Kellen highly doubted that statement. “For just that reason, I operate below the radar until it’s time to make a move. Why unsettle the waters? On the recommendation of my boss, I wanted to see you perform without forewarning or prep. I get a far more honest performance that way.”

For the next couple hours, they talked about everything. She was Ohio born and bred—a singer from the day she could speak. Her preferences leaned toward country blended with a soulful style of jazz. Five years in Nashville had taken her through the doorways of a number of clubs that dotted the District; she had even played The Stage and Tootsies.

Tootsies is where Jack Collins had found her, but now a chic, more high-end atmosphere called—one that was much better suited to her elegant looks and musical style.

She warmed quickly and offered her background details with increasing ease. He appreciated that she didn’t mind revealing herself because his intrigue was absolute, and he wanted to know what he was getting into by representing her. Chloe seemed to understand that without prompting.

Before he knew it, it was almost one o’clock in the morning, and the spell shattered.

I’ll wait up for you.

Kellen double-checked his watch while Juliet’s promising smile, her sparkling eyes, swirled through his mind and prompted him home. “I have to leave.”

Chloe moved back with a nod and a chagrined expression. “I’m so sorry if I kept you.”

“You did no such thing. I’ve enjoyed the time we spent talking.”

“Me, too. I should have been home a while ago myself.”

Boyfriend? Husband? They stood, and his attention darted to her ring finger. Empty. But that didn’t mean much. He’d find out more on that later. “Call my office and let’s set up a formal meeting. Meantime, my team will draw up an agreement for you to look over.”

“I certainly will, and thank you again.”

They walked toward the rear of the club. “Where’s your car?”

“In the parking structure.”

The idea of Chloe walking to her car all alone in a large, empty facility didn’t sit well. “Let me walk you out.”

She tilted her head; he watched a dangling gold earring brush against her bare shoulder. She folded her arms against her midsection and her eyes sparkled. “Are you always so chivalrous?”

Danger flags rose—vivid red and snapping in a stiff wind. Kellen obeyed the signs and delivered a business-like nod that he tempered with a grin. “Let’s just call it looking out for my future investment.”

Her smile only widened. “Let me grab my purse and coat. I’ll be right back.”

Kellen knew that smile of hers was going to haunt him. Big time.



****

Kellen arrived home to darkness and silence.

I’ll wait up for you.

Juliet’s words echoed through his mind and guilt slid in.

Entering from the garage, Kellen walked quickly and quietly through the kitchen. The stove clock read one forty-five. He had never meant to stay at Iridescence so long. When he’d left Juliet, he’d fully intended to make good on his promise to return home promptly.

He removed his suit coat and draped it over his arm. He tiptoed up the stairs to their bedroom, sliding off his tie, loosening the top few buttons of his shirt. No shaft of light cut a line beneath the closed door. Of course she would be asleep by now. Guilt performed its second dance when he eased open the door and crept inside.

Tucked beneath the bed blankets, Juliet slept. He didn’t need the milky, dim moonlight in order to see her. He needed nothing but the memories in his heart to draw the image of her soft, beautiful features.

What had gotten into him tonight with Chloe? He needed to figure that out—but not right now. He needed to pray about it—but the time for that would come later as well—when he was more focused, and rested. For now, he wanted Juliet. With all his heart.

He moved silently to the side of the bed where she slept. He sat down carefully, fingering back the tumbled waves of her silky, auburn hair. He bent to drop a slow, lingering kiss on her cheek, willing her awake, longing for clear, sweet eyes of deep green. He snuggled gently against Juliet’s neck, nuzzling her with soft kisses. She responded by coming alert slowly, turning into the ready warmth he offered.

“Hi,” she whispered in a husky voice.

“Hi.” He backed away just far enough to stroke her sleep-warmed cheeks with his fingertips and cup her face. Any other loose-flung thought or desire promptly evaporated. In Juliet’s presence once more, he was struck anew by the precious connection he shared with her—the wonder of their love. “I’m so sorry I’m late.”

She shifted beneath the blankets and feathered her fingertips through his hair. “Was it a successful night?”

Kellen fought the urge to squirm, and he battled back every image he held of Chloe. “Very. I think I’ve found a very gifted performer.”

“I’m glad.” She stifled a yawn and stretched out a bit. “I tried to stay up.”

A craving took over him all at once. He held his wife, he drew her close, and they dissolved into one another, sharing a kiss deep and stirring. Loving Juliet was as beautiful as a dream, and as easy as drawing breath.

She turned toward the glow of the alarm clock, but Kellen brushed his lips against her throat and kept her from facing the hour. He took a breath and came upon the last tantalizing traces of lily of the valley perfume, a scent that would forever speak to him of Juliet. “Don’t look. It’s crazy late. Do you have to be up early?”

She pulled him toward her and made a happy sound against his cheek as she loosened a few more of his shirt buttons. Her fingertips skimmed against his chest. “Not that early.”

He sank into a mix of emotions—pure, loving desire, then a longing that possessed two very distinct and potent layers. One belonged to his wife; the other belonged to the echo of a lightning strike—to a woman named Chloe Havermill. Tangled within himself, Kellen knew just one thing to be true: Juliet was the antidote. His wife was the author of his heart, and he loved her deeply. She would keep him centered. The sureness of their relationship would soothe away anything else.

First thing in the morning, he would drink in God’s word like a parched man. He would return to his daily reflections and humbly, devoutly pray. Tonight, however, all he wanted to do was pour his love over Juliet like a benediction.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

A Stitch in Crime by Cathy Elliot



A Stitch in Crime
Abingdon Press (January 20, 2015)
by
Cathy Elliot


Chapter 1


Perhaps if she simply avoided eye contact.

Thea James turned her back on the partygoers, paying attention to the dessert buffet instead. The Quilt-Without-Guilt Guild had surpassed their Christmas potluck standard. Among a bounty of petite cakes, cookies, puffs, and bars, Thea found her own offering, a plate of blueberry tartlets. They appeared untouched. Strange. She pulled them to the front of the culinary display.

“Thea! Why are you hiding out in the desserts when I need your help?” The familiar voice of fellow guild member, Heather Ann Brewster, hinted at desperation.

Turning with reluctance, Thea morphed into hospitality mode. “Blueberry tartlet?”

“What?” Heather Ann viewed the diminutive dessert, gave a small shudder, and then had the grace to look apologetic. “Ah...no, thanks. I haven’t browsed the appetizers yet. Anyway, I can’t think about food now. I’m too upset.”

Thea shoved her reluctance aside. “What seems to be the prob- lem, Heather Ann?” This time.

“You know the publicity banner we had made? The one adver- tising the quilt show next weekend? The one supposed to be hang- ing over the entrance to Old Town?”

“Supposed to be hanging over the entrance? I thought they put it up yesterday.” Thea calculated the days left until the show opened. Today was Sunday, and tonight’s kickoff quilt show soirée started the festivities. The main event was scheduled for next Saturday. Folks needed to be aware of the date so they’d attend en masse.

“City utility workers were supposed to put it up. Oh, and it’s beautiful, Thea. In bold letters it says, ‘1st Annual Blocks on the Walk Quilt Show, Pioneer Park’ and the date.”

“Good . . . very good. So why isn’t it hanging up?”

“I had the letters made in red, too. Sort of reminds me of Janny Rice’s redwork quilt, you know? Perhaps she’ll place with hers. Beautiful embroidery.” Heather Ann seemed lost in the vision, green eyes staring at nothing.

“Heather Ann. Focus, hon. You said there was a problem. As the quilt show chairperson, I want to help.” Well, that was a lie. Helping was overrated. Thea wanted to eat some desserts. And she wasn’t the chairperson. Another fib. Rather, the co-chair, along with Prudy Levasich.

Where was the elusive Prudy, anyway? Probably showing off her twin sister, Trudy, visiting from the East Coast. The co-chair’s co-twin. If Prudy stuck around now and then, she could co-solve these problems with Thea.

“You have to do something! The Larkindale City Planning Commission won’t let us put up the banner.” The desperation returned to Heather Ann’s tone, sending her voice to a higher key.

“Why not?”

“It’s not up to code. They said the banner needs holes cut in it so the wind will f low through and not blow it down.”

“Makes sense. Without the holes, it could act more like a sail,” Thea said. “Can’t you cut some?”

“I guess.” Heather Ann looked uncomfortable. “But I don’t know how big to make the holes. Or how many. The banner was expensive. I don’t want to ruin it.”

“Very responsible.” Thea considered the options. “I have an idea. Call the Larkin Lake Resort. They’re always putting banners up for some event. The Fly-Fishing Derby. And the Daisy Pedal Bike Race, right?”

“Oh, you’re good.” Heather Ann’s expression turned eager, like a puppy about to score a treat.

“Whatever size they advise, be sure you use the white space and don’t cut into those big red letters you chose. That way people will only see the letters and not notice the holes.” Thea gave Heather Ann an encouraging pat on the shoulder. “Sound okay?”

“Sounds great. Thanks so much, Thea. I’m on it.” Heather Ann dashed away, blonde ponytail bouncing, presumably to make the call.

Or grab a few appetizers.

Which seemed an even better idea to Thea.

“Well, aren’t you just the CEO. Or is that dictator?” Renée Fowler pushed up against Thea in jest, as she used to do when they were teens.

“Oh, stop.” Thea grinned at her best friend since fifth grade, recently returned home from a long honeymoon tour of Europe.

She had missed Renée terribly. But something seemed off between them. Had the travels changed Renée? She certainly looked different. More elegant. Her brown hair, cut in Paris, was styled in a fashionable pixie cut. But weren’t her large gray eyes filled with disapproval now? Or was the still single Thea a little jealous of her friend’s marriage and new life?

Thea studied the crowd. “A wonderful turnout, don’t you think? I’ve been watching for him but have yet to see Dr. Cottle. Did he already check in?”

“How would I know, Thea?” Renée asked. “I may own the Inn, but I don’t keep up on what time every guest walks through the door.”

Not a hint of a thank-you for recommending Renée and Howie’s Heritage House Inn as lodging for their illustrious judge and guest speaker, Dr. Niles Cottle. Typical treatment from Renée since her return to Larkindale.

Thea waved to a friend of Gram’s. “Everyone seems to be enjoy- ing themselves. And no better place to do it than in Mary-Alice Wentworth’s garden. Exquisite, isn’t it?”

Glorious roses edged a pavestone patio, which surrounded a sparkling pond, highlighted by the spectacular fountain in the pond’s center. Water poured endlessly from an urn held by a grace- ful granite lady. The effect was more than tranquil. It was hypnotic. Tables with bistro chairs dotted the grounds, and this evening’s attendees alternately chatted in groups or relaxed with a cool drink. A number of quilts were displayed near the walkway, staging a quilt show preview and adding a folksy feel. Thea’s mother’s string quar- tet played various classical selections with so much enthusiasm the occasional sour note went unnoticed.

Except maybe by Renée, who now winced as if she had stepped on a nail.

Uh-oh. Thea grabbed the dessert plate and shoved it at her friend. “How about a nice blueberry tartlet?”

“Tartlet?” Renée’s distasteful look increased. “What’s in the fill- ing? And look how thick the crust is, Thea. You must use very cold dough to make a f laky crust.”

Crestfallen, Thea placed the plate back on the table. “Tasted good to me.”

“They probably are good, for Larkindale. I do like the antique serving plate though,” Renée said. “My tastes have refined so much from my exposure to other cultures. Like what I’m wearing, for instance.” She smoothed out her simple black dress. “In Europe, everyone wears something elegant like this. Understated, you know? Your dress is much too frilly. Too yesterday.”

“Oh.” Thea’s cheeks burned. Was it no longer okay to like yes- terday’s fashions best? Her vintage cocktail dress had been a steal from the family’s antique store, James & Co. Antique Emporium. Certain the cut was f lattering to her figure, Thea also thought the cobalt color and purple tulle overlay brought out the periwinkle blue in her eyes. Both Mum and Gram had agreed.

“But the pouffy skirt is a great illusion. One’s not sure if it’s so full because of your curves or the dress’s design.” Renée put a hand on her hip and once-overed her friend. “I could never pull it off. It would just hang on my slender frame. But those strappy sandals are cute. A nice change from your clogs.”

Thea was beginning to wonder why she was friends with Renée. And where was Dr. Cottle?

Thea studied the gathering again but didn’t see him. Their host- ess, Mary-Alice, was also missing. Perhaps she was inside greeting him this minute.

Leaning toward Thea, Renée said, “Here comes your Cole Mason. So handsome. Did you see him chatting with Mayor Suzanne Stiles for more than a half hour? You better watch out, Miss Thea. Step it up or you’ll remain Miss Thea for a long, long time.”

“He’s not my Cole Mason, and he can talk to whoever he likes!” Thea almost hissed at her friend as Cole approached them. His rov- ing reporter role tonight was to cover the quilt show kickoff soirée for the Larkindale Lamplight’s society pages. Surely he wouldn’t report any petty problems from putting on the show. It could result in a definite damper on attendance at the official opening.

Moving past a sullen Renée and closer to Thea, Cole f lashed his disarming dimples. Then appearing stunned, he stopped and said. “You look so . . . nice! Am I writing about the wrong subject for the Lamplight? How about a full-page spread of you in your dress?”

Renée rolled her eyes.

“No comment,” Thea said, laughter in her voice. “What are you planning to cover?” Making her a feature story was not an option. He had to be kidding. Especially if she looked as chunky in her dress as Renée seemed to say. And the camera added what? Thea sucked in her stomach.

Cole’s attention had diverted to the treat table. “What do you call this delicious-looking sweet?” He plunked a pink petit four on a faux-china plate. “I don’t want to get the name wrong in my article.”

Relieved, Thea named each dessert. Cole listed it in his note- book and took still shots with his smartphone. Without embarrass- ment, he snuck a few more tempting treats.

“And this . . . ,” she swept her hand in front of the tartlets with a f lourish, “is what I made. Blueberry tartlets. Care to sample one?”

So far, Renée stood silent. But apparently she’d reached her etiquette limit. “You don’t want to eat those, Cole. They’re made by our peanut-butter-and-pickle sandwich queen here. Need I say more?”

“Good recommendation. I’ll take two.” Cole stacked the tarts on the last empty spot on his plate.

The tiny triumph tasted like sugar. But Thea wondered if Renée, with her newly acquired European sensibilities, was right. “Perhaps I should have used raspberries instead of blueberries,”Thea said. “Might have looked more appetizing.”

“I doubt it,” Renée said. “Probably would have looked like coddled blood.”

Coddled blood? Coddle? What was familiar about that word? Then Thea shivered, remembering Dr. Cottle was still a no-show. What if something horrible had happened to him?

She surveyed the party once more. Mary-Alice’s favorite nephew appeared to have captivated a small audience, his hands in motion, probably spouting his expertise on the family quilt, “Larkin’s Treasure.” The string quartet sawed with vigor. Thea spotted Prudy hard at work, gabbing with the guests. Or was it Trudy? Thea’s Aunt Elena, along with a few others, admired a magnificent Grandmother’s Garden quilt displayed on the walkway.

But no Dr. Cottle.

Cole’s voice cut through her concerns. “You know, these look so good, I think I’ll take another one in case we run out before I’ve had my fill.” He balanced another tartlet atop the others and winked at Thea.

Renée blew out a sigh. “You are quite the risk-taker, Mr. Mason.” She waved a dismissal and strolled toward the mayor, probably for a little update on her conversation with Cole.

That’s it. That’s all I can take. I’m leaving before one more person says boo to me.

Cole’s hand brief ly touched the middle of Thea’s back, stopping her f light, his dark eyes inquisitive. “Are you quite sure she’s your best friend?”

No. She wasn’t sure anymore. But what could she say? Thea groped for a reason for her friend’s bad behavior. In the search, she found an emptiness she couldn’t name.

“Renée’s . . . not been herself since she got back from Europe.” “A lingering case of jet lag. That’s probably it,” Cole said.

Thea looked up, grateful for his kindness.

“So where’s the famous Dr. Cottle?” Cole asked, changing the subject. “I’ve heard he can read the stitches on a fastball from the nosebleed section at Yankee Stadium.”

“So they say. He’s a major leaguer on quilts and quilting in our state,” Thea said. “In fact, I should go see if there’s been any word of him. Folks came tonight to hear his talk about the Wentworth legacy quilt.”

“You go then. I’ll pacify myself with a blueberry tartlet.” Cole stuffed a whole one in his mouth and started chewing, pleasure written all over his face.

Did he like it or was he trying to cheer her up? Maybe she didn’t want to know.

Thea excused herself and strode purposefully toward the house. No eye contact. No eye contact. No eye contact. She managed to slip through the French doors, muting her mother’s Mozart, and put- ting a wall between herself and the problems outside.

She closed her eyes. See no evil.

Beyond the glass door, a distant voice called out, “Has anyone seen Thea?”

She clicked the door closed.

Hear no evil.


Sunday, January 18, 2015

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Soul Painter by Cara Luecht

Soul Painter
WhiteFire Publishing (March 15, 2014)
by
Cara Luecht





Chapter 1

Chapter One

Chicago, 1891

The bricks crumbled under her feet. Down by the docks, repairs to the infrastructure of the thick, stretching city were considered more luxury than necessity. Walking in the dark hours, after the fog slipped up from the churning lake and gave body to every shadow and mass to every lamp, walking then, when even the air closed in around her, she could move freely.
Her long wool skirt blended with the fog. A hooded cape, buttoned at the chin, molded to the back of her head and fell over her face. The heavy folds draped her shoulders.

It had been years since someone had looked directly into her gray eyes. She wrapped that knowledge around her like the fog, wore the isolation like a second cloak, let it melt into her pores as she navigated the city.

Her feet knew every cobble, every crack. She counted the steps. At step nineteen, the brick gave way to yellow, desperate patches of grass. Six steps later, she turned behind a fence, again counting the steps to the streetlamp burning at the base of the cathedral stairs. A statue of the Virgin glowed in the muted light. The Virgin’s robes were faded to gray and a crack scarred her smooth complexion. It crawled from her hidden ear, across her lips, and toward the inner corner of her eye. The crack never lengthened. It was almost as if the Virgin had decided when the pain should stop.
Miriam loved the Virgin. She loved how her stone-carved hair was pulled tight under her cascading veil. Miriam imagined her own brown hair becoming one with her colorless cape and falling to the ground. On damp nights it wicked up the moisture from the stones, and, if she stood still enough, clung to the street. For as much as she avoided the crowds, she was as much a part of the city as the immoveable, silent Virgin.

The church towered overhead. She knew the stonework, the carved faces of the saints, and every piece of stained glass. The windows of her rooms in the upper levels of the warehouse faced the cathedral, and although she had not stepped a foot inside since childhood, she could remember every detail: the sputtering candles to the right of the heavy oak doors, the pool of water that never rippled, and how the sun cast pieces of color across the heads of the penitent, kneeling parishioners.
She hadn’t stepped inside since her mother’s funeral. Her father had sat in the front pew, stonefaced, clenching her eight-year-old fingers. His hand trembled, once. They followed her mother’s casket out of the doors, down the stone steps, and watched the men load her into the wagon. When they returned from her grave, they turned right, into her father’s warehouse. He carried Miriam up the stairs, past his offices, and into her new nursery, where he kissed the top of her head and handed her over to a motherly nurse.

They never returned to the glittering townhouse where her mother had hosted parties for the city’s elite. As far as she knew, her mother’s brushes still sat, a decade later, on her dressing table with her tangled hair wrapped around the bristles.
Miriam looked up to the carved façade of the cathedral. She could only make out the details to the bottom of the second row of windows. There, the light failed.

When her father died, his solicitor knocked on the door. Miriam watched him from her rooms above the warehouse. Eventually, the bespectacled man gave up and mailed the letters. She instructed him through correspondence to leave all as it was, to make deposits into her trust at regular intervals, and to send her the balance sheets. He complied and left her in peace. The few men who worked in the offices were paid generous pensions.
And Miriam locked the doors.

Down by the docks, the city was never akin to the rich, planted gardens where she’d spent the years in her mother’s arms. But they had a flavor of their own. A reality she could smell and taste from her windows above the streets. The changing landscape of people passing, hurrying, every day, gave her an unlimited source of new faces to capture on canvas.
The church was the center of her world even if she never stepped inside. She gave, via her solicitor, and in return was rewarded with glimpses into the lives of the devoted, the employed, and those on the periphery. They were close to the docks and the shipbuilders. While some sailors populated the stone steps to wait for a priest to hear their confessions, others used the deep shadows that ran through the alleyway and found reason to confess.

Miriam stepped around the Virgin and out of the illuminated mist. There would be no one in the alley at that hour, and she was tempted to change her path, to veer down the narrow walkway, to see where it all happened. She didn’t. Instead, she counted her steps back to the warehouse door, pulled her key from her pocket, inserted it into the well-oiled lock, and turned it. The lock opened without hesitation, as relieved to find her as she was to find it, and she stepped into the dark, dusty room. She closed the door, locked it behind her, and turned to the stairs. She didn’t need to light a lamp.

Once upstairs, she made tea. She sat in her living room with her feet up on cushions and her back pressed deep into the upholstery of her chair. Her father’s chair still sat on the other side of the room, with his imprint permanently registered in the sawdust stuffing. Miriam never sat in the chair herself, nor had she ever thought to remove it. It filled the corner of the heavily decorated room as if it had grown there of its own volition, and she would no more extract it from its place than she would chop down some unsuspecting country tree. There simply was no reason.

The cushion under her feet was red, with gold stitching and tassels in a rainbow of colors. On its own, it would have appeared ostentatious, gaudy even. But in Miriam’s room, an echo of her father’s younger years spent in the orient, it was completely at home.

She watched from her lead-framed, factory-grade windows until the sun glinted off the cathedral’s stained glass panes. When it reflected and caught the crystals hanging from the lampshade next to her, she rose, rinsed her cup and saucer, set in on the counter to dry, and found her bed where she would sleep until the bells of the church chimed and the school spilled its children into the streets. The children’s faces were her favorite, had been since she was a child herself, watching them from above.
They wore their day like a mask. Over the years she watched as that mask slowly became their adult face, just as hers did in the mirror. But she painted, painted the children when the mask was still a mask. Painted the child, and then added layers of brush strokes over the child’s face, predicting with color the person they would become.

***

John had made the habit of watching for her before the sun burned off the fog. As a deacon in the cathedral, he woke before all the others in order to prepare for the morning mass. It was a congregation consisting primarily of aging mothers praying for wayward sons, and wayward sons who had exhausted every other resource. Of course, there was never an opportunity to match mother with son.

The strong coffee he poured from the pot did little to add to the early hour, so he turned off the lights and watched the street through the barred windows. He knew she would be by. The fog had come in heavy that night and had only thickened during the pre-morning hours.

She stopped as he knew she would. Once again he took a step nearer to the pane of glass. He could see a shadow of what appeared to be fine, small features. Under the shadow of the hood he failed to make out the color of her eyes.
He wasn’t sure why it mattered. It shouldn’t. She was a soul, like the countless other souls that passed by every day. She was a soul who never stepped a foot into the church. He knew he should turn away, should review the passages for that morning’s service, should make sure everything was ready. There were more pressing matters, more urgent needs. People walked by every day, desperate, hopeless, yet she filled his thoughts.

Maybe it was the way she paused to face the statue. Her motionless lips open with her exhale, as if she might start up a conversation. He thought of her lips. Wondered if they had ever felt the pressure of a man, wondered how much she had in common with Mary.

Mary. That’s what he called her in his mind. She was called by other names. The school children whispered about her. They called her the factory witch. The eldest priest called her “that poor creature.” John never questioned his superior about her real name. He didn’t trust himself enough to maintain the proper demeanor of concerned, but casual indifference.
Mary she was.

***

Ione shivered. She hated the fog. Hated the way it hid the men. Hated the way she could hear their work boots slosh in uneven stumbles before she could see their approach. But they always knew where to find her.
She waited at the entrance to the alley and watched the strange, quiet fog-woman pause mere feet from where Ione stood. Ione shifted behind the hedges at the entrance to the alley. The solitary woman with the ghostly white skin unsettled her far more than the men who claimed her time. A drip of water fell from a low branch and traveled down her bare shoulder, into the void between her breasts. Ione shivered again.

The clock struck four chimes. But even that bold, bronze beacon was dampened by the everthickening blanket that suffocated the docks. It was time to go home, to crawl into bed with her younger sisters, and to look in on her mother. She moved her toes against the night’s earnings wadded in a cloth under her stocking. The coins were taking on the chill of the concrete. Her bed would be warm, her sisters’ limbs smooth and soft. So unlike the rough, groping hands of the men that held her still, then trembled as they fastened buttons and dropped the coins into her hand—sometimes with a mumbled apology, sometimes with a sneer. Her mother was too sick to ask where the money came from.

Ione looked up from her hiding place. The fog-woman had slipped away. Ione stepped out of the shadows and into the damp light of the streetlamp. In the morning, after her sisters had left for school, Ione would go to the butcher—to the back door, but to the butcher, nonetheless—and she would buy soup bones. The good ones, with meat still tucked in the crevices. She would buy the bones and boil them to a rich broth, and her sisters would come home to something hot and good. She would spread the marrow on a cracker for her mother, and maybe her mother would eat. Ione wiggled her toes against the money one more time before stepping off the curb and into the street. It had been a profitable night.

Jenny passed by—a white girl with dirty hair and gapped teeth. She was on her way home too, only Jenny lived with her father, one who knew how Jenny spent her nights. They made quick eye contact without slowing down. Jenny nodded her recognition before turning down the alley that led to her storefront rooms. Ione continued into the fog.