Sunday, October 4, 2015

Firefly Summer by Kathleen Y'Barbo

Firefly Summer
Redbud Press (June 23, 2015)
Kathleen Y'Barbo


"Next rider in the College National Finals is our oldest in the competition today. He's almost finished with medical school, but first he's got to finish this ride. Give Trey Brown a hand, ladies and gentlemen!"

Sessa Lee Chambers shifted in her seat to watch her five-year-old son stand in rapt attention watching the cowboys in gate seven move in perfect synchronization. One held the gate, one held the rope, and another sat astride a bronc that looked as if it would easily take the rider's head off if given the opportunity. A fourth man spoke energetically into the rider's ear, his words lost on the cheering crowd inside the Sam Houston Arena.

Her attention shifted back to Ross. Was that…a smile?

"Come on, cowboy," Ross shouted over the din as his lifted his little red cowboy hat to mimic the others now crowding the gate. "You can do it!"

Clutching her throat, Sessa fought back the tears that were already blurring her vision. Ross hadn't smiled or spoken a word since his father died nearly one month ago. Taking him to the rodeo had been Ross's grandfather's idea. Get him outside. Expose him to some good old-fashioned commotion. Let him pet a horse or two.

That last one was the most difficult of all. Just last week, her dwindling finances had caused her to sell the last of Ben's beloved horses to an old friend who lived south of town. Bud Jones would take good care of them, this she knew. What she hadn't known was how heartbroken Ross would be at their loss.

Of course, because she was too far gone in her grief to see anything, it had been Daddy who'd pointed out Ross's sadness. And not very nicely.

But he was right. And she had to do better.

The gate opened just a few feet away from them, and the horse bucked out, jarring her thoughts. The rider bounced with legs out and hat flying, but he held on until the buzzer sounded.

"Now that was a ride, wasn't it folks? Hard to believe he's thirty one!" The speakers blared with the announcer's excitement. "Good job, cowboy!"

Funny. The man striding victoriously across the arena was two years older than she. Her memories of college were brief and dimmed by time and distance. One semester was all she'd gone, but she'd somehow managed to meet Ben Chambers, marry him, and forget all about any ideas of pursuing higher education. Looking back, it was the worst decision of her life. Then she looked at Ross and realized that decision had been the best.

Ross waved his hat like the others standing at the gate. "Good job, cowboy!" he echoed.

He was still waving the hat when the long-legged cowboy ambled by. "Good job, cowboy," he repeated.

To Sessa's astonishment, the cowboy stalled right there and knelt down to get eye-to-eye with Ross. She couldn't hear what transpired over the noise of the crowd, but a moment later, one of the other men was handing the cowboy a pen.

Ross ran toward her as fast as his little legs could carry him. "Look, Mama!" he shouted. "The cowboy signed his name on my hat! He said someday I could be a cowboy just like him!"

"Hold on there, cowpoke."

Sessa looked up to see the sandy-haired cowboy once again kneel beside Ross. "I said you could be a cowboy like me, but only if you study hard and keep your grades up so you can get into college. Oh, and be sure and listen to your mama."

He looked over Ross's head to offer Sessa a wink.

Through the haze of numbness, she felt a twinge of…something. Attraction, maybe. Unwelcome as it was. She let her gaze drop to her son, avoiding further eye contact with the cowboy.

Oblivious, Ross beamed up at the man, one hand clapped to the hat on his head, steadying it. "I will," he said. "I promise."

The cowboy straightened Ross's hat and then stuck his hand out to offer the child a firm handshake. "I have a feeling I'm going to see you again someday," he told Ross as he rose.

"Me too!" Ross said with a broad grin.

He wore his grin, and that cowboy hat, all the way home. Even as he fell into a deep slumber in his bed, Ross still bore the traces of that smile.

And of course he wore the hat.


Fifteen years later

Venting her frustration, Sessa fashioned a block of the finest ash into the shape of a lion's nose then moved to the table where the next task awaited—carving a replacement ribbon for a century-old prancing carousel horse.

Every satisfying jab of the chisel had chipped away at another piece of her resentment until exhaustion, and the completion of the piece, forced her to quit. Still the aggravation teased at her, daring her to forget her belief in the Lord's plans in favor of believing He was out to get her.

He had to be.

She set the well-used carving tool in its place and shook her head to remove the sawdust from her hair. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed the thick file of papers neatly packaged for mailing.

Today of all days, she should be on top of the world. Unlike some of her smaller commissions, the pieces strewn across her workspace could soon be replaced by several dozen intended for use in the Smithsonian's traveling carousel display. After years of careful planning and despite the death of its founder fifteen years ago, Chambers Carousel Restorations had a real shot at hitting the big time.

Her husband, rest his soul, would have been so proud. On the other hand, their son Ross would be unimpressed. What a cruel irony that she and Ben had worked to build something to pass on to the next generation, only to find their only child entertained no interest in the family business.

If only Ben had lived to help raise him. Maybe Ross would have been the man she hoped he'd become.

But then, Sessa could spend hours thinking about what might have been. Instead she chose to live in the present, only thinking of her prodigal on carefully chosen occasions. She went back to her work only to find her control had slipped.

It happened more often these days. Sometimes a glance at her son's baby pictures would bring a memory to mind, while other times it would be the sound of laughter from a child on a radio commercial or the photograph of a dark-haired boy in the newspaper. Other times her longings might stem from a conversation between herself and her mother, some snippet of a past memory that would turn happy then stab her in the heart. Then there was the red cowboy hat on the shelf in his room, faded by time and dusty from her own inability to spend much time in a place where memories hung deeper than morning fog, that hat gave rise to the best memory of Ross she had.

The day he spoke. The day some stranger turned a boy from inward to outward. To horses and riding and rodeo. She smiled and batted at the dust motes dancing in the sunshine.

Remembering Ross as the baby, the child, and the young man prevented her from thinking of him as the adult he had become. The adult she barely knew and hardly recognized.

How long had it been since she'd seen him? The months had stretched long and distant until nearly a year had gone by since his last visit. Even then, he'd been someone she loved but did not like. It shamed her to think of how relieved she'd been when he'd left.

And now this. An impossible situation with no good solution.

Her smile faded. This.

A litany of if only's assaulted her, and she covered her ears to stop them. When they'd finally quieted, Sessa reached for the next piece, a delicate rabbit's ear made of maple.

Wood shavings littered the floor of her studio, and a fine dust danced in the rays of morning sun. Seemed she might never come to terms with the guilt plaguing her.

"Guilt is not of the Lord." She reached for a piece of cheesecloth and gave the prancing horse's nose a thorough cleaning. "You're doing the right thing. There's absolutely no proof."

But the right thing seemed so wrong. And the proof was in those eyes. In the dimple in that tiny chin. In that bawl that sounded as if it came all the way up from those tiny toes.

Her cell phone mocked her, daring her to do what she knew she should, and even as she made a swipe for it, she felt the pain of doubt. "Lord, I can't," sprung to her lips in a desperate plea. "I'm too old, too busy, too… You're the one who made me, so you know how terrible I am at doing more than one thing at a time. Surely you understand."

The clock over the door read exactly eleven-thirty. One hour from now the decision would be taken away from her; it would be done. All she had to do was wait it out.

Cradling the phone in her hand, she blew a fine film of dust off its black surface only to watch the particles settle on the envelope. All her dreams, the hope for a secure future, lay beneath the dust of shattered plans. Somehow, with the Lord's guidance, she could make new plans, find new dreams.

Slowly she punched in the number she'd been given last night, a number she tried to forget yet couldn't help but remember. An eternity later, the phone rang. Sessa cleared her throat and said a prayer for guidance then found her voice when a young woman answered the phone.

"I'll meet you at the bus station." Sessa hung up before she could take back the words. "I did what I should have, didn't I, Lord?"

Even as she spoke, she knew the answer. "I can do all things through Christ," she said on an exhale of breath, "who gives me strength."

"Well amen to that!"


Sessa heard high heels clicking on the concrete and knew the cavalry approached. What was it about her best friend that brought her running at the first sign of trouble, even when she had not yet been told about the trouble?

To the untrained eye, Cozette "Coco" Smith-Sutton hadn't aged a day since she reigned supreme as Sugar Pine High's head cheerleader and then married the quarterback—after he successfully completed his college career at Texas A&M and made it into the pros, of course. The fact that she'd also held the titles of Homecoming Queen, Cotton and Corn Princess, Miss Sugar Pine (twice!), and fourth runner up to Miss Texas should have disqualified her as friend material for a woman who would rather read or spend time in her father's workshop than just about anything else.

And yet Sessa and Coco, who began life together as babies in the church nursery, had defied the odds to remain closer than sisters all these years. Coco had been her rock when Ben's delivery truck rolled off the highway that icy night so long ago, had tucked Ross into bed at her place alongside her boys on nights when Sessa's work kept her in the workshop because not working would have seen the electricity turned off or the mortgage not paid.

In turn, Sessa had brought casseroles and fended off well-meaning church ladies when Coco's mama died and her daddy suddenly became the most eligible bachelor in the Over-Sixty Seekers Sunday School class. She'd also held Coco up through the long dark days and nights after media darling and NFL quarterback Ryan "The Rocket" Sutton, the man that ESPN called unstoppable, stopped loving perfect Coco and her boys and took up with a twenty-something stripper from Fort Worth.

Oh, they fought. For all her sweetness, Coco could go sour fast if she found out you were doing one of the three things she detested most: hiding something she thought she ought to know, telling a lie, or messing with Texas.

"I'm out in the workshop," Sessa called as she tossed off her gloves and swiped at the sawdust in her hair.

"Well of course you are," she said. "I was just heading to the grocery store and thought I'd see if you needed anything."

Today Coco had poured her long lean legs into white jeans, thrown a turquoise top over them, and finished the ensemble with matching turquoise high heel sandals. While Sessa's hair was moderately tamed in a messy bun, Coco's artfully created blonde ponytail looked as if it had been styled in an exclusive Hollywood salon instead by Vonnette over at the Hairport.

She dropped her keys into her signature oversized designer purse, this one the same color as her heels, and removed the sunglasses that hid her perfectly made up face. A dozen silver bracelets jangled as she rested her hand on her hip.

"Honey, you look like something the cat drug in. What's wrong?"

Right to the point. Typical Coco.

"I've been better." Sessa tossed off her gloves.

Coco's green eyes opened wide. "What has Ross done now?" She continued walking toward Sessa. "No, do not answer until I can get you inside and pour you a cup of coffee. You look like you need something stronger than that, though. A pity neither of us drinks."

"Coffee won't fix this."

"Don't be silly. Coffee fixes…wait—" Coco shook her head. "This is really bad, isn't it?"

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Bones Will Speak by Carrie Stuart Parks

The Bones Will Speak
Thomas Nelson (August 11, 2015)
Carrie Stuart Parks

Chapter 1

April 15, Five Years Later

I charged from the house and raced across the lawn, frantically waving my arms. "Stop digging! Winston, no!"

Winston, my Great Pyrenees, paused in his vigorous burial of some form of road kill and raised a muddy nose in my direction.

"I mean it!" Why hadn't I bought one of those nice, retriever-type dogs who mindlessly played fetch all day? Winston spent his time wading in the creek, digging pool-sized holes in the lawn, and―judging from the green stain―applying eau de cow pie around his ear. I crept toward him.

He playfully raised his tail over his back and dodged left.

"I'm warning you." I pointed a finger at him. Phthalo-blue watercolor rimmed my nail, making my gesture less threatening and more like I was growing a rare fungus.

Unfazed, he darted toward the line of flowering lilac bushes lining the driveway, temporarily passing from sight. How could a
hundred-and-sixty-pound canine move so fast?
I circled in the other direction, slipping closer, then carefully parted the branches. No dog.

This was ridiculous. I could chase my dog until I retrieved the road kill from his mouth, or scrub it off the carpet for the next week. And it was getting dark, with Prussian-blue shadows stretching between Montana's pine-covered Bitterroot Mountains.

I glanced to my left. Winston crouched, wagging his tail. I moved toward him. He snatched his prize and shook it.

Two black hollows appeared.

I couldn't move. The air rushed from my lungs and came out in a long hiss. I patted my leg, urging the dog closer.

Winston lifted the object, exposing a hole with radiating cracks.

Crouching, I extended my hand. "Come on, fellow. Good doggie, over here."

He placed his find on the ground. It came to rest on its even row of ivory teeth.

I approached gingerly, knelt on the soggy ground, and inspected the sightless eye sockets. "Oh, dear Lord."

Winston nudged the skull forward.

I yelped and sprawled on my rear. An overfed beetle plopped out of the nasal aperture and landed on my shoelace.

Heart racing like a runaway horse, I violently kicked the offending bug, skidded backward, and stood. Fumbling my cell phone from my jeans pocket, I punched in Dave's number.

"Leave it to you, Winston, to find a skull full of bugs—"

"Ravalli County Sheriff 's Department, Sheriff Dave Moore."

"She's dead. You've got to come now, Dave!" Winston pawed at the skull like a volleyball.

"Stop that, Winston. You're just going to make more bugs fall out." I bumped the dog away with my leg.

"What is it now, Gwen? You're calling me because Winston has bugs?"

I rubbed my face. "Of course not. Don't be silly. I already told you she's dead―"

"Question one: Are you okay?"

"Yes! Well—"

"Good, good. Now, question two: Where are you?" "I'm home. Near home. The edge of the woods—"

"Choose one."

"Doggone it, Dave, don't patronize me." I wanted to sling the phone across the yard, then race over to the sheriff 's office and kick Dave in the shin. "Stop being irritating and get over here."

"Ah, yes. That brings me to question three. Who's 'she'?"

"She's a skull. Or technically a cranium. Didn't I say that? She was murdered."

"Murdered? Are you sure she isn't a lost hiker or hunter?"

"Oh, for Pete's sake, Dave. She's got a neat bullet hole in her forehead, and a not-so-neat exit wound shattering the back." The dog reached a paw around my leg and attempted to snag his plaything. I tapped it out of reach with my shoe. I sincerely hoped no one was watching me play a macabre version of skull soccer with my dog. I already had a reputation for being eccentric.

"Are you positive it's female?"

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Cold as Ice by M.K. Gilroy

Cold as Ice
Sydney Lane Press
M.K. Gilroy

Chapter 1

IT WAS FOUR in the morning in New York City, the city's quietest hour—perhaps only quiet hour. Francis "Frank" Nelson, Jr., stepped off the curb in front of the Dexter Arms on West 58th Street, and looked left and right. A cab was idling across the street, but still no driver behind the wheel. He had crossed the street a few minutes earlier to rap on the driver's window, but the car was empty then, too. That seemed odd, but what isn't odd at four in the morning in New York City? He looked left and right again, but still saw no sign of another cab. Preferably one with a driver.

Where is the driver?

He had been freezing his butt off for almost ten minutes now, and his impatience was beginning to ball up into a tight, throbbing knot in the base of his stomach. He wasn't a New Yorker, but he did enough business in the city to embrace the cynical and sometimes too true belief that the only time you can't find a taxi or a cop is when you need one.

Stage two hypertension. Doctor says I've got to manage stress better. If I don't get out of here I'm going to stroke out tonight.

He was tired and anxious to get back to the second floor of the brownstone on the east side of Central Park. Very nice but at twenty-five thousand dollars for the week it cost too much under the circumstances—his company was on the ropes financially. So was he. Everything he had was sunk in the company.

That is why I had to do what I did tonight.

Nelson was ready to scream with the tension. He was already irritated that no one was working the bell stand at the Dexter to make a cab appear right away. The young lady attending the registration desk, barely able to speak English and barely awake, he thought with a snort, assured him that she could get a cab in no time. Right. He paced inside the lobby and then paced outside on the street for as long as he could stand the cold. Not very long.

He had hired his own car and driver for the week, but he was cabbing it tonight because he didn't want his activities known. Nor did the people he was meeting with. The man in charge—not what he was expecting—said it would be much less conspicuous to catch a cab back to the brownstone at this time of night. He agreed. But where was the cab? Just how hard was it to get an open cab at four in the morning?

Okay, I know the cab across the street is open, but how about an open cab with a driver?

He was late to say the least, and if his wife, Justine, was awake or woke up with him coming back now, she would kill him. She would accuse him of cheating and drinking. Neither was true, of course. At least not tonight and not in the sense she would assume it.

But things could get bad, very bad, if she or anyone else began asking questions about why he was at the Dexter Arms throughout the night.

Nelson told her not to come this trip. That only made Justine more set on travelling with him.

She loves to disagree. I should have begged her to come.


"Kristen, what are you doing? Tell me you aren't going out in this weather."

"It's my last chance to run in Central Park."

"It's below zero."

"Don't exaggerate, Klarissa. The weather guy said it would be at least five degrees this morning."

I can't understand what my sister just mumbled from under the covers but I don't think it was very nice.

Her head pops into view. "Really, Kristen? Really?"

I'm tugging my leggings up. "We grew up in Chicago, Sis, this is child's play."

"It's not even four in the morning, Kristen. Go back to sleep. Or at least get out of here and let me sleep."

"I'm going. Give me a sec. I'm going."


"But not for real long. I've got to pack for my flight later this morning. Mom will be calling fairly soon to make sure I've given myself plenty of time to get to LaGuardia."

Klarissa finally sits up to glare at me. I stifle a smile. Her glorious mane of golden blonde hair looks as beautiful mussed as when it's done up for her television work. Women pay big bucks to have a stylist try to make their hair look like Klarissa's does with a simple toss of her head when she wakes up. My hair is pulled back in a tight ponytail for my run. Same as I wear it for work. Life's not fair.

"Okay, Kristen," she says. "You're right—like always. Far be it from me to argue. We grew up in a freezing cold city. So I guess that makes your obsessive . . . your obsessive stupidity toward physical activity understandable. Since you're crazy enough to run in this weather, at least be quiet about it so one of us gets some sleep," she finishes in disgust, rolling away from the nightstand light and putting a pillow over her head. "And stay warm!" she adds, muffled but loud enough to wake our wing of the Hilton.

I look over at Klarissa, her hair cascading from underneath the pillow. So beautiful. Always the princess. I'll never understand my sister. I lift the pillow, give her a quick kiss on the top of her head, smile when she mumbles something else, nice or otherwise, and head for the door.

Hey, what did she say about me being obsessive and stupid? And what's with giving me the business on being noisy? I was being quiet. I think. And what's with her claiming I always have to be right?

I've got to run. I'll argue with her later.


After the door shuts behind Kristen, Klarissa sighs and gets up to go to the bathroom.

My sister. Is it possible one of us got put into our family by mis- take? Detective. Workout warrior. Fighter. Kristen isn't happy unless she's fighting or getting ready to fight. Or sweating. She doesn't have a clue how beautiful she is. I'll never understand my sister.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Once Upon a Summertime by Melody Carlson

Once Upon a Summertime
Revell (June 2, 2015)
Melody Carlson

Chapter 1

It had never been Anna Gordon's dream to work for a motel—certainly not the Value Lodge. And most definitely not in the same sleepy town she'd grown up in. But as her grandma had reminded her just that morning, "A job is a job, and I'm sure there are plenty of unemployed folks who would be grateful to trade places." Even so, as Anna walked the six blocks from her grandmother's apartment to her place of employment, she longed for something more.

As Anna came to Lou's Café, someone backed out the front door with a watering can in hand, nearly knocking Anna down. "Excuse me!" the careless woman cried as she slopped cold water onto Anna's good Nine West pumps.

As Anna caught her balance, she recognized the o ender. "Marley Ferris!" she cried out. "What on earth are you doing here in Springville?"

Marley blinked in surprise. "Anna?"

"I can't believe it's you." Anna stared at her old friend in wonder. Marley set aside the watering can and the two hugged—long and hard—exclaiming joyfully over this unexpected meeting.

"It's been so long," Marley said as they stepped apart. "Way too long." Anna slowly shook her head.

"And look at you." Marley studied Anna closely, from her shoulder-length strawberry blonde hair to her shoes. "So professional in your stylish suit. And still looking way too much like Nicole Kidman's little sister."

Anna smiled. "Thanks."

"What're you doing in these parts anyway?"

"I was about to ask you the same thing." Anna adjusted her purse strap.

"I'm just home for a few days." She jerked her thumb over her shoulder. "Helping out with my parents' café. My mom's laid up after back surgery."

"Oh dear. Is she okay?"

"Yeah. It was a ruptured disc, but sounds like they got it cleaned up. She just needs to take it easy for a few days." Marley pointed at Anna. "Seriously, what're you doing back in Springville, and looking all uptown too?"

Anna grimaced, wishing for a better answer. "I'm, uh, I'm managing the, uh, the motel," she mumbled.

"Oh?" Marley's brow creased. "A motel? In this town?" Anna tipped her head down the street with a somber expression.

"The Value Lodge?"

"Uh-huh." Anna glanced at her watch. "And I should probably get going."

"Oh yeah, sure." Marley looked doubtful, as if she was still processing this bit of news.

"It's great seeing you," Anna said. "You look fantastic."

"Hey, why don't you come back over here for lunch?" Marley said quickly. "Give us time to catch up. The Value

Lodge does give you a lunch break, doesn't it?"

"Absolutely." Anna nodded eagerly. "At 1:00."

"I'll be right here." Marley picked up the can and began to water the large terra-cotta pot by the front door, which was overflowing with colorful pansies and red geraniums. "I promised Mom I'd keep her plants alive until she gets back. Can you believe how hot it's been? And it's only May!" She plucked o a dried bloom, tossing it into the gutter.

"I adore your mom's flowers. So pretty and cheerful." Anna waved as she continued on her way. And it was true—she did love seeing the café's flowers. It was a bright spot in her day. The blooms reminded her of the small hotel she'd worked at during her college years. Some students in the hospitality management program had disparaged the old Pomonte Hotel by calling it the Podunk Hotel. But compared to the Value Lodge, the thirty-six-room Pomonte was quite chic, from its cast iron flowerpots by the door to the bubbling fountain in the lobby. It was true what they said: you don't know what you've got until it's gone.

Anna felt a familiar wave of disappointment wash over as her destination came into view. The boring two-story motel had been built in the early eighties, and most Springville residents agreed it was an eyesore. Some more motivated citizens had even gone to the city council demanding improvements. Anna couldn't blame them. When she'd accepted the managerial job, she had convinced herself that she could make a difference in the humdrum lodgings—or she could move on after a year. Unfortunately, she'd been wrong on both accounts.

As she got closer to the building, her general dismay was replaced by some ironic gratitude—she was thankful that none of her college chums could see her now. It was bad enough having to confess her lackluster vocation to a childhood friend this morning. But if her college acquaintances knew—like her ex-roommate who now worked in Paris, or the ex-boyfriend who managed a Caribbean Ritz—Anna would feel thoroughly humiliated.

She wasn't a big fan of social networking, but she occasionally sneaked a peek at friends' Facebook pages—not for long, lest she feed any jealous green demons festering inside of her. Naturally, she never posted a single word about her own personal or professional life. Occasionally she was tempted to fake some exotic photos and falsify her whereabouts, just for fun, but really that wasn't her style. Better to remain honest and simply suffer in silence.

From across the street, she frowned at the garishly painted Value Lodge. Not for the first time, she wondered what idiot picked out those colors. The bright yellow and red stripes had always reminded her of a fast-food restaurant; they looked like mustard and ketchup, but much less appetizing. In Anna's opinion, almost everything about this motel was unappealing, from the "free continental breakfast," which consisted of small cardboard boxes of cereal and cartons of milk and juice, to the kidney-shaped swimming pool in its varying shades of blue and sometimes green, to the lumpy queen beds topped with bedspreads with a texture akin to fiberglass. For the life of her, she could not understand why anyone would stay here on purpose. Well, except that the Value Lodge boasted the "lowest rates in town." She would give the motel that much—it was definitely cheap.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Hope Harbor by Irene Hannon

Hope Harbor
Revell (July 7, 2015)
Irene Hannon

Chapter 1 - Excerpt

Closed until June 13

Michael Hunter stared at the hand-lettered sign on the Gull Motel office, expelled a breath, and raked his fingers through his hair.

Not the welcome he'd been expecting after a mind-numbing thirty-six-hour cross-country drive to the Oregon coast.

And where was he supposed to stay for the next three weeks, until the place opened again?

Reining in the urge to kick the door, he leaned close to the glass and peered into the dim, deserted office. Rattled the rigid knob. Scanned the small, empty parking lot.

The sign hadn't lied. This place was out of commission.

He swiveled toward the marina down the hill, where boats bobbed in the gentle swells. The motel might be a bust, but at least Hope Harbor was as picturesque as promised. Planters overflowing with colorful flowers served as a bu er between the sidewalk and the sloping pile of boulders that led to the water. Across the wide street from the marina, quaint storefronts faced the sea. A white gazebo occupied a small park where the two-block-long, crescent-shaped frontage road dead-ended at a river. More shops lined the next street back, many adorned with bright awnings and flower boxes.

The town was exactly what he'd expected.

But with the only motel closed, it didn't appear he'd be calling it home during his stay in the area.

A prick of anger penetrated his fatigue. Why had the clerk let him book a room if the motel was going to shut down for several weeks? And why hadn't someone corrected the mistake in the thirty days since he'd put down his deposit?

If shoddy business practices like this were indicative of the much-touted laid-back Pacific Northwest lifestyle, the locals could have it—especially since such sloppiness meant he was now going to have to find another place to rest his very weary head.

He reached for the phone on his belt, frowning when his fingers met air. Oh, right. He'd taken it o as he'd rolled out of Chicago two days ago—a very deliberate strategy to make a clean break from work. Wasn't that the point of a leave of absence, after all?

But the cell was close at hand.

Back at his car, he opened the trunk, rooted around in the

smaller of his two bags, and pulled it out.

Three messages popped up once he powered on, all from the Gull Motel.

He played the first one back, from a woman named Madeline who identified herself as the manager.

"Mr. Hunter, I'm afraid we've had an electrical fire and will be closing for about three weeks for repairs. Please call me at your earliest convenience so we can help you find other lodging." She recited her number.

The second and third messages were similar.

So the shutdown had been unexpected, and someone had tried to call him.

Slowly he inhaled a lungful of the fresh sea air, forcing the taut muscles in his shoulders to relax. Driving for fifteen hours two days in a row and getting up at the crack of dawn this morning to finish the trip must have done a number on his tolerance. Giving people the benefit of the doubt was much more his style. Besides, he was used to operating on the fly, finding creative solutions to problems. Glitches never phased him. His ability to roll with the punches was one of the things Julie had loved about him.


His view of the harbor blurred around the edges, and he clenched his teeth.

Let it go, Hunter. Self-pity won't change a thing. Move on. Get your life back.

It was the same advice he'd been giving himself for months— and he intended to follow it.

As soon as he figured out how.

Fighting o a wave of melancholy, he tapped in the number the woman had provided, his index finger less than steady on the keypad. For a moment he examined the tremors, then shoved his hand in his pocket. He was tired, that's all. He needed food and sleep, in that order. The sooner the better. Things would seem brighter tomorrow.

They had to.

If this trip didn't help him sort out his life, he was out of options.

While the phone rang, he looked toward the harbor again, past the long jetty on the left and the pair of rocky islands on the right that tamed the turbulent waves and protected the boats in the marina. His gaze skimmed across the placid surface of the sea, moving all the way to the horizon where cobalt water met deep blue sky. From his perch on the hill, the scene appeared to be picture perfect.

But it wasn't. Nothing was. Not up close. That was the illusion of distance. It softened edges, masked flaws, obscured messy detail.

It also changed perspective.

If he was lucky, this trip would do all those things for him—and more.

"Mr. Hunter? This is Madeline King. I've been trying to reach you."

He shifted away from the peaceful panorama and adjusted the phone against his ear. "I've been traveling cross-country and my cell was o . I'm at the motel now. What can you suggest as an alternative?"

"Unfortunately, there aren't many options in Hope Harbor. But there are a number of very nice places in Coos Bay or Bandon."

As she began to rattle o the names of hotels, he stifled a sigh. He hadn't driven all the way out here to stay in either of those towns. He'd come to spend time in Hope Harbor.

"Isn't there anything closer?"

At his abrupt interruption, the woman stopped speaking.

"Um . . . not anything I'd recommend. I could probably find you a B&B that's closer, but those are on the pricey side. Most people book them for a night or two at most, and I believe you intended to stay for several weeks. Plus, B&Bs tend to be geared to couples."

Good point. A cozy inn would only remind him how alone he was.

"Okay . . . why don't you line me up with someplace for a few nights while I decide what I want to do. Bandon would be my preference, since it's closer."

"I'll get right on it."

"Don't rush." He inspected the two-block-long business district, such as it was. "I'm going to wander around town for a while and grab a bite to eat."

"Sounds like a plan. And again, I'm sorry for the inconvenience."

Once they said their good-byes, he grabbed a jacket from the backseat and locked the car. The midday sun was warm, but the breeze was cool—by his standards, anyway. Perhaps a slight nip in the air was normal for Oregon in the third week of May, though.

Stomach growling, he started down the hill. If he weren't famished, he'd head the opposite direction and check out the big, empty beach at the base of the blu s on the outskirts of town that he'd spotted as he drove in. A walk on the sand past the sea stacks arrayed o shore would be far more enjoyable than wandering along—he glanced at the street sign as he arrived at the bottom of the hill—Dockside Drive.

The two-block waterfront street didn't take long to traverse, and by the time he was halfway down the second block it was clear his food options were limited to a bakery and a bait-and-tackle shop with a sign advertising takeout sandwiches for the fishing crowd.

All the real restaurants must be in the business district, one street removed from the marina.

Just as he was about to retrace his steps, a spicy, appetizing scent wafted his way. He squinted toward the end of the block, where a white truck with a serving window on one side was perched at the edge of the tiny waterside park with the gazebo. Charley's, according to the colorful lettering above the window where a couple of people were giving orders to a guy with a weathered face and long gray hair pulled back in a ponytail.

Another whi of an enticing aroma set o a loud clamor in his stomach.

Sold. Whatever they were cooking, he was eating.

With a quick change of direction, he stepped o the sidewalk to cross the street.

"Hey! Watch it!"

Sunday, July 26, 2015