Sunday, July 27, 2014

In The Field of Grace by Tessa Afshar

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





Prologue


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They are not fat.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stop, Judith. You never failed me.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t want children. I want you.”

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

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

“Take another wife.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Promise me.”

“Promise what?”

“You’ll be happy? When I’m gone.”

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

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

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

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

They were her last words.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Firewall by Diann Mills

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

Chapter 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I'll hurry."

"No problem. The future's ours."

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

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

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

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

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

❇❇❇

11:15 A.M. MONDAY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His BlackBerry rang.

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

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

"Alone?"

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

"What do we have on them?"

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

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

"I don't believe in coincidences."

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

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

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

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Shenandoah Dreams by Lisa Belcastro

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




Chapter 1


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Would appear so from your viewpoint.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gayle! Melissa! What’s going on?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hi!” they said simultaneously with great enthusiasm.

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

to their bubbly banter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lizzie grimaced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes!” Lizzie agreed with a shout.

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

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

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

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

“How’d you do?” Lizzie asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Hope Deferred by Elizabeth Maddrey

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





Chapter 1

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

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

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

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

“Do you have someone you recommend?”

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

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

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

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



###



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toby nodded but said nothing.

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

“How are you doing?”

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

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

“You know what I mean.”

“So, just disappointed?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



###



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

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

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

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

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

What are you doing up?

June glanced at the time and shook her head.

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

She reopened solitaire as she waited for Lydia to respond.

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

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

Friday night?

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


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


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Rival Hearts by Tara Randel

Rival Hearts
Abingdon Press (June 17, 2014)
by
Tara Randel


Chapter 1 - Excerpt


Molly Henderson forced herself to remain still, even though every fiber in her being wanted to scoot to the end of the chair and rattle off at least twenty questions that came to mind. “A challenge?”

Her boss, imposing as he sat in his leather chair behind an enormous mahogany desk, steepled fingers under his chin. Self- satisfaction curved his lips. “Let’s call it a little in-house competition between you and Ben. The winner will be editor-in-chief of my new magazine, American Legend.”

Pushing her glasses higher on her nose, Molly’s gaze darted to Ben Weaver, the man who had just gone from colleague to competitor. His veiled expression showed no emotion. Was he as surprised as she? Of all the topics this meeting could have entailed, informing them of a competition hadn’t been one of them.

She’d been surprised by the impromptu call to the boss’s office. Equally surprised when she found Ben waiting to attend the same meeting. What a way to start her Wednesday morning.

“My plan is unusual, I know. Both of you are qualified for the position and would do an excellent job.” He shrugged. “I decided to put my own spin on the promotion process.”

Putting his own spin on things had made Blake Masterson a very successful publisher. His unorthodox style of management set him apart in the publishing world, but somehow it worked for him. Mid-fifties, self-made and very popular in the Tampa Bay area for his publicity stunts. The stunts captivated the public, but always brought notice to charitable organizations and needs in the community. The man had a savvy mind and knew how to use it to keep his company in the limelight.

“As you know, Master’s Publishing is ready to expand with a new magazine. I need people focused for the long haul to get the magazine up and running and to handle day-to-day operations afterward. You have both proven valuable in your current editorial roles and I want to see where this challenge will take you.”

Molly bit back a sigh. She’d been with Master’s Publishing for eight years now, four as senior editor and writer for Quilter’s Heart Magazine. She loved working for the company, but steered clear of Mr. Masterson’s publicity stunts. She had seniority; her longevity alone should give her first shot at the position. But a competition involving her? Honestly, she’d never been very good at any endeavor outside her comfort zone, which consisted of working behind the scenes or immersing herself in a quilting project. Given the determined look on her boss’s face, his grand plan would definitely be uncomfortable for her.

But not for her soon-to-be rival.

She sneaked another peek at Ben. Tall, built, tan, and extremely masculine. Not to mention the most soulful brown eyes she’d ever seen. Yes, the man was handsome. But his ego? Another story all together.

They’d rubbed each other the wrong way since the first day he stormed into Master’s Publishing six months ago to take over as senior editor and head writer of Outdoor Adventures Magazine. He’d smiled his confident smile and acted like he owned the place. He assured Mr. Masterson his former freelance writing and television experience would increase circulation of his magazine and far outsell all the other magazines published by Master’s, including “the little quilting magazine,” as he referred to Molly’s magazine. He made friends with all the staff, frequently took over meetings, and whenever she tried to make suggestions, he smiled down at her, not taking her seriously. She never let on how much he bugged her, but, boy, did he bug her. And now a competition? Ben would relish any out-of-the-box trial thrown his way. This was so unfair.

“I’ve been very impressed with both of you. Our sales have increased due to both your efforts and we’ve already made a pres- ence with our digital editions.

“Ben, before you took on Outdoor Adventures, I was ready to pull the brand, but the articles are entertaining and well-written. The results have increased the circulation and advertising revenue. Of course, your past foray into the cable television show Extreme Survivors helped ramp up circulation. After watching you on TV, I jumped at the chance to lure you onboard. Nothing like having a mini-celebrity on staff.”

Yes, Molly knew that part, since everyone in the office talked about him.

Mr. Masterson grinned, as if Ben’s fame would benefit him. “I allowed you to fulfill your prior commitments when you first took the job, but since the traveling has wound down, we’re happy to have you in the office full-time.”

Some people, Molly thought.

“I have to give credit to Charlie,” Ben said as he leaned back in his chair. “He kept the magazine going while I finished up my schedule.”

“Always good to have a competent assistant, especially one who knows what readers want. Since you’ve shown your dedication, I thought you might want a shot at the new position.”

“Yes sir, I would,” he said, his smile dazzling. “Good. Good.” Mr. Masterson turned to Molly.

“Molly, you’ve been here since you started as an intern. When you came up with the idea for a quilting magazine, I have to say I wasn’t convinced the market could sustain it. But you kept after me and proved me wrong. Who knew crafts were so popular? You’ve built a readership and the numbers keep growing, but you haven’t quite gotten to the place where readers connect you with Master’s Publishing.

“Your monthly Dear Reader column is great but it’s time to take your relationship with your readers to the next level. I know you’re working on a special project to connect with readers, but let’s up the ante. Get them behind you.”

Which Ben, with his high profile in the extreme sports world, had already done in just six months.

“Even though both magazines are regional, as editors, I’m sure you’d like to work on a bigger project like American Legend. You both have a knack for finding in-depth human-interest stories to touch your particular readers. Just the type of content I want for my new magazine. Stories featuring ordinary people doing extraordinary things in their lives—not expecting accolades—just doing what comes naturally. I want stories of daring-do, faith-based stories, tearjerkers whenever possible. You’ll be given a chance to shine as an editor as well as moving up in the company.”

Rumors had infiltrated the office for weeks now that Mr. Masterson had something in the works. Speculation about the new magazine ran the gamut from parenting advice, to the auto industry, even a new comic book division. With Mr. Masterson’s love for giving back to the community, American Legend was a perfect choice for his reputation. And while Molly appreciated the idea, she still had questions.

“Could you be more specific?” she asked, still unsure about her part in this latest development. “About the challenge?”

With pen and paper in hand to jot down notes perhaps affecting her future with the publisher. She waited patiently. She loved being an editor, loved her magazine. But a promotion? Who wouldn’t jump at the chance?

“Out of all our inventory of magazines, both of yours are the most popular. Top sellers, actually. And polar opposites. So I thought, why not have my two top editors switch places? Molly, you belong to a quilting group, right? The one you’ve mentioned in your column?”

“Right.”

Mr. Masterson turned to Ben. “You will join Molly’s quilting group. Let’s find out if those outdoor skills of yours translate into sewing and producing a well-made finished product.”

“Quilting?” Ben raised a questioning eyebrow.

Oh, her friends would love this. Her boss had no idea of the dynamics in an all-female gathering. Ben might be used to his rough and tumble world, where strength and experience with Mother Nature gave him the upper hand in the wilderness. Spending an hour with suburban moms who talked about love, life, kids, what to make for dinner, and what their husbands were in trouble for, might send him screaming into the sunset. She’d seen the caged look on many faces of men forced to spend too much together time in a room with chatty women. Ben didn’t know it yet, but he’d just signed up for an adventure very few men could withstand and survive to tell the tale.

“Right now you’re working on the next issue of Outdoor Adventures which features . . .” Mr. Masterson glanced down at his notes. “Kayaking?”

“Yes.”

“Perfect. Molly—”

Please, please, please, not sports. No physical activities. Anything but the outdoors. Her pulse rate elevated and she held her breath while she braced herself.

“—we’ll get you hooked up with a local kayaking event. Since Ben already has some activities lined up for the next issue, here’s a perfect opportunity to show me what you’re made of.”

“Kayaking?” Molly croaked, echoing Ben’s earlier response to his challenge.

“Afterward, we’ll showcase your individual journeys in your magazines.” Mr. Masterson shot them a teasing wink. “I do love publicity. And friendly competition.”

Molly gripped her pen. Friendly? More like a battle of the sexes if you asked her. One she doubted Ben would make easy. He took on a challenge the way an explorer took on the jungle, divide and conquer. No way could she kayak a few feet from shore, let alone with some major activity cooked up by Ben. She doubted she could get in the thing without tipping over.

“You’ll each have four weeks to complete your tasks. At the end of the month, I’ll review your progress and name the new editor-in-chief. Any questions?”

Ben spoke up first. “Yes, sir. Where will my new office be located?”

“Your office?” Molly sputtered.

He smiled at her. “Yes. My office.”

“Don’t you mean my new office space?” she countered. Mr. Masterson stood. “Both of you follow me.”

He led them down the hallway from his office. All the offices on this floor were for upper management, while one story down housed the other departments, including her office and Ben’s. Once they reached their destination, Masterson stood to the side as he opened the door with a grand flourish. Ben, his eyes bright with success, motioned for Molly to enter ahead of him. The more confident he appeared, the more steamed she became. No way would she let him win.

The vacant office had more square feet than both Molly and Ben’s current offices combined. Wide windows overlooked downtown Tampa, offering a glimpse of the vast city spread out before them. Bright sunlight glinted off Tampa Bay, where boats zig-zagged across clear azure water. From a closer view, eleven stories below, cars moving in a steady stream of traffic alongside a city park dotted with benches located under palm trees and plenty of grassy area before ending at the banks of the Hillsborough River.

Standing before the windows, Molly savored the sunshine and forced herself to calm down. Her inside office had no windows while Ben had managed to procure an outer office with one window. What she wouldn’t give for this spectacular view every day.

Ben might be Mr. Masterson’s bright, shining star, but Molly had grown tired of working her tail off with little reward. As much as she loved Quilter’s Heart, lately she’d been antsy. Ready for a change. A challenge would shake up her life, hopefully in a good way. And the best outcome? To beat out Ben for the job.

She turned just in time to see Ben place his briefcase on the empty desk, remove a clear plastic cube with a baseball inside, and set it on the smooth surface. His gaze met hers, telling her with no words necessary he’d marked the place as his. She bit back a retort because their boss hovered in the doorway, but she vowed to make him eat those unspoken words.

“Before you two plan your individual battle strategies, I suggest you return to your desks and figure out the logistics of the challenge.” Mr. Masterson motioned for them to exit the office. “I’ll stay in the loop to see how you’re both progressing. I may want to tweak things a bit as the competition heats up.”

Bad enough she had to compete, but knowing Mr. Masterson might throw in a game changer somewhere along the line? Great. Just great.

Being dismissed, Molly walked on shaky legs, allowing Ben to precede her. He couldn’t know how her boss’ grand scheme, or Ben’s confidence in assuming he’d won the challenge before it had started, rattled her. Never had she imagined she’d have to prove herself in such an unusual way. She’d been a loyal employee for years. Had doubled the circulation of her magazine in her time as editor. Shouldn’t her work ethic have merit in her boss’s decision?

She joined Ben by the elevator, tugging the lapels of her jacket over her blouse. Her mind ran in so many different directions, she couldn’t focus on any one thought. She glanced up to watch the progress of the elevator as numbers lit up above the door, trying to ignore the hunky man who now worked against her. Ben hadn’t said much after the question in Mr. Masterson’s office and the silence grated on her sensitive nerves. Finally, he turned her way.

“Do you have anything planned right now?” “Just heading back to my office.”

“Mind if I tag along? We can discuss the challenge details.” Details. Right. If only she could ignore him like she wanted to.

Suspicious, she asked, “Why my office?”

He chuckled. “Either will do. I thought you might be more comfortable hammering out the details on your own turf.”

Oh, sure. Now he decides to be accommodating, unlike his confident assumption he’d be moving into the upstairs office. “Fine.”

The elevator doors parted and Ben nodded for her to board first. He entered, pressed the button for their f loor and the doors slid shut, followed by a jerk of movement.

Molly stared at her fuzzy reflection in the metal doors. Why did these things always feel so small? And why did Ben have to stand so close? His shoulder brushed hers, but she held her ground. No way would she shy away from him.

Instead, she tapped her foot to the canned music playing some oldie but goodie.

“Something wrong?” he asked. “No. Just enjoying the music.” “You’re off beat.”

She stopped. Stood stiffly. “Guess we all can’t be good at everything.”


Yankee in Atlanta by Jocelyn Green

Yankee in Atlanta
River North(June 1, 2014)
by
Jocelyn Green



Prologue

Saturday, May 31, 1862 The Virginia Peninsula



Not now. Please, not now. Rebel bullets ripped through the sulfurous fog hovering above Caitlin McKae’s head. Her middle cramping violently, she prayed her anguished bowels would not betray her.

Not now.

“Don’t let them take my leg, please! I’d rather die on the field!” “We’re getting you out of here, Marty!” Caitlin fairly shouted as she and the other three stretcher bearers carried the wounded soldier a quarter mile to the rear. Sweat poured from beneath her kepi and itched across her tightly bound torso. River water from the rain-swollen Chick- ahominy soaked through her brogans, and she faltered more than once in the red clay quagmire.

Head pounding like a fusillade, Cailtin slogged back through the mud to pluck more wounded comrades from the spongy earth. She scrambled after the other stretcher bearers and wondered how long this desperate battle for Richmond had lasted so far. Had an hour passed?

Two hours? Three? Suddenly spent, Caitlin doubled over, gripping her knees. Her stomach heaved, though it had no contents to vacate.

But her body wasn’t through. Her insides churning, Caitlin was left with no choice but to break away to the furthest pine tree she could make it to and find relief in relative privacy behind its trunk.

Before she could reach it, a lead ball tore through her arm. The twisting pain in her middle paled as fire blazed through her right bicep. The bullet had ripped completely through.

As she dropped to her knees, Caitlin’s thundering pulse dimmed the sounds of battle. With fumbling fingers, she unbuttoned her jacket with her left hand, wriggled free of it, and wrapped it around her bloody shirtsleeve. I could go back. I can still hold the stretcher with my left hand. But she couldn’t. Strength sapped from her body, her limbs felt as though they’d been filled with lead.

Flat on her back now, Caitlin tried to steady her breathing. The sky is still blue, she told herself. Somewhere, far above me, where bullets can- not reach and cries cannot be heard, the sky is still blue. The haze of gun smoke thinned, and she caught a glimpse of Professor Lowe’s balloon In- trepid hovering in the sky, with Lowe inside, reporting Confederate troop movements to General McClellan. Her eyelids drifted closed and she imagined herself there. But if I were, I would cut the lines tethering it to the ground and sail away, far away from war and disease and death. If only it weren’t for Jack. Her thoughts trailed away, into a blank expanse as welcoming as the sky.

Mud splattered her face as another bullet pierced the ground next to her. Suddenly, her ears tuned to the musket fire still rattling in the air. Rolling over, Caitlin dragged herself into the pine trees, leaned against a trunk and felt the earth shudder beneath her with the boom- ing of artillery.

“God, when will it end?” she groaned through gritted teeth. “Soon.” Caitlin turned toward the gravelly voice and found a bearded Rebel soldier. Mosquitoes hummed near his bleeding stomach. He would die within hours, even if he were in a hospital. “You’re bleeding, too.” He nodded to her crimson-soaked arm. Her jacket-turned-tourniquet must have fallen off when she’d crawled here for shelter. “Take mine. I’ll not be needing it now.”

“Thank you,” she breathed, and let him help her tie his jacket to her arm. Gooseflesh raised on her skin as the sweat filming her body turned cold.

“Can you read?” He handed her a small New Testament with Psalms and Proverbs. “Do you know the one about the valley of the shadow of death? I reckon that ought to do.” His face was so pale. Surely he was in that valley now.

Though her mind began to fog, with her left hand, she flipped to Psalm 23, and forced her voice through chattering teeth. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies . . .”

Caitlin’s eyelids refused to stay open. She was sinking, deeper, and imagined the Virginia swamp was swallowing her whole. Her grip loosened on the Bible in her hand, and her consciousness slipped fully be- yond her grasp.



Thursday, June 19, 1862



Lips cinched tightly, Caitlin McKae fought the instinct to reach toward the smoldering pain in her arm—the pain that had dragged her back to consciousness and told her she had survived.

Where am I? She shook her head, hoping to clear the fog. Flies droned lazily about the room. Muffled voices swam toward her from the hallway while the air sat thick and heavy on her skin. Beyond the shuttered window, locomotives bellowed and chugged.

Where is Jack? “Please,” she prayed through cracked lips. “Keep him safe . . .”

“Well looky here.” The door creaked, and a wedge of light broad- ened on the floor, framing a stocky silhouette. The odor of corn liquor seeped from his grey uniform as he stepped to her bedside, peering past his mustache at her. “Look who’s finally awake. I got a whole heap a questions for you, girly-girl.”

Oh no. Her hand flew to her heart, felt it hammering against her palm with only one threadbare sheet between. The binding around her chest was gone.

“That’s a fact.” He chuckled. “Your secret is out now, so you might as well fess up directly.” One hand flexed around a club while the other rested on a revolver in its holster. His lips curled into a grin.

The alarm clanging in Caitlin’s mind rivaled the screeching steel of a steam engine grinding to a halt outside.

“Ain’t you got something to say for yourself ? For starters, how could such a pretty girl such as yourself come to this? Leastwise, maybe you was pretty once.” He reached for her, wearing the same possessive ex- pression she had seen too often before.

“Don’t touch me,” she whispered, trying in vain to knock his hand away. When he laughed and called her “playful,” she spit in his face, dor- mant anger and fear combusting in her veins.

Cursing, the officer ground his club into her bandaged arm. A gasp escaped her as searing pain ushered her back to the moment the bullet first tore through her flesh.

“George Washington Lee, you get out of here this instant!” The club fell away, and Caitlin, nearly breathless, blinked up at the blessed interruption—a silver-haired woman, blue eyes blazing, cheeks flushed. “How dare you treat her this way?”

“And just who is she, Miss Periwinkle?” Coughing racked Lee’s body until he dabbed his mouth with a handkerchief. “She reeks of espionage.”

Caitlin sat up, pulling the sheet up over her chest, and swallowed the moan bubbling up from the pain.

“Of course not.” The woman jabbed her finger toward the man, stood with one fist propped on her ample hips. “She has more patriotism in the tip of her freckled nose than a regiment of conscripts. Why else would she fight for the cause?”


“I am not a spy,” Caitlin broke in.

Lee’s eyes brightened. “You see! You heard it for yourself, she is a Northerner!”

“She’s Irish, and you know as well as I do that we have plenty of im- migrants in these parts, and them as loyal to the cause as you are.” Her tone was thick with disdain.

“I would beg you to remember that as the provost marshal of this fine city, it is my oath-bound duty to ferret out deserters, spies, foreigners, Northern sympathizers, and any other such like as would be harmful to the good of our country.”

“Humph! I would beg you to remember I changed your diapers when you were still in short dresses, young man.” Miss Periwinkle snapped opened the wooden shutters and light flooded the small space. “You’ll not bully me or anyone in this establishment or you may find the good doctor not nearly so inclined to oblige that nasty cough of yours. Now good day to you.”

“Do be advised, Miss McKae.” Colonel Lee leaned against the door- way again. “We do not abide spies in our midst.”

“I told you, I am not a spy.”

“Funny. That’s what all seven of those Yankee devils said, all the way to the gallows. The Andrews raiders said they were Union soldiers, but they were dressed as civilians when they tried stealing our train. As I said, we do not abide spies. No matter what they’re wearing.” His eyes seemed to bore through hers.

Though she did not blink, Caitlin hugged the sheet to her chest as she watched him leave.

Miss Periwinkle bustled back to Caitlin’s side. “I’m so sorry about that, dear. Rude introductions, indeed.”

Blood still rushing in her ears, Caitlin wore a tight mask of coun- terfeit composure as Miss Periwinkle prattled on. “I’m Prudence. Now drink this tea of dandelion root for the pain in your shoulder. I do wish we had some opium for you, but Lil Bit says our tea will do nicely.”

“I do wish you’d stop calling me that around the patients, Prudence.”


A white-haired gentleman stepped to Caitlin’s bedside, one hand cradling a pipe and the other resting on the stethoscope about his neck. “Older by fourteen months, and my sister still won’t let me forget it.” The doctor placed the stethoscope on Caitlin’s chest, listening. “You gave us quite a scare, my dear.”

“What happened?” Her voice creaked. She struggled to sweep the remaining cobwebs from her mind.

“Quite simply, the Richmond hospitals ran out of room after the Battle of Seven Pines, so they shuttled all who could safely be moved down to us. You’ve had a hard go of it, my girl. Your wound was only part of your trouble. By the time you arrived here, you were in the throes of typho-malarial fever, and unconscious. I imagine you had been for days. Do you remember any of this?”

Caitlin pressed her fingers to her aching forehead while snatches of memory flickered over her. The wrenching abdominal pain, headache, nausea, fever, and chills. The bullet that tore through her arm, and the Rebel who gave her his jacket as a tourniquet. “I remember some,” she whispered, mind still reeling.

“Your Bible is right here, dear.” Prudy handed a small volume tomher.




“My Bible?” Caitlin opened the cover. To the Confederacy’s Defenders in the 18th Georgia, Co. A. With regards, Chaplain Samuel York. It was the Rebel’s Bible. She’d been reading it when she passed out. Slowly, the pieces fit together. It must been in her hand when Confed- erate medical officers found her and carried her off the field. To Jack and the rest of her own regiment, she was now missing in action.

Dr. Periwinkle unwound a bandage on her upper arm. “It’s a mira- cle the ball passed through you without shattering the bone,” he mur- mured while inspecting the entry and exit wounds. “There is still risk of infection and secondary hemorrhage.” He paused, stroked his handlebar mustache downward. “You remind me so of my own daughter, when she was about your age. And you’ll be fine, Miss McKae.”

The words pricked Caitlin’s ears. “How do you know my name?”

Prudence raised her eyebrows. “You told us yourself, dear. But you were in the fever’s grip and I reckon you’ve forgotten the worst of it.”

Her heart plunged. “Where am I?”

“Periwinkle Place boarding house. Since war came, we care for convalescents here, too. Wounded Rebels come in from all over to us, on ac- count of our railroads. Lil Bit brought you to me directly so you may recover with privacy, now that you won’t be soldiering anymore.”

“The South has sent its sons to war—including mine—but we need not send our daughters.” The twinkle returned to the doctor’s eyes. “Your patriotism does you credit, child, but it’s time you just get well and stop pretending to be someone you’re not. No more soldiering, all right? You’re safe now, in Atlanta.”

Atlanta. The Gate City to the South.

Caitlin’s spirit flagged, but her face betrayed nothing. She may be able to get well here, but to stop pretending and reveal her true identity would never do.

Then again, this would be the last place anyone would look for Caitlin McKae.

Including Jack. The void he left in her heart ached already. And yet, the price she had paid to be with him had exacted a toll only another veteran could understand. Closing her eyes, she allowed herself to imag- ine a life without marching, drilling, fighting, suffering. A life so far from her past she could stop looking over her shoulder for it.

She would start over again in Atlanta and make this place her home, at least until she had the means to leave. She had reinvented herself be- fore. She could do it again. She would have to.

This is not the end, she told herself. It is only a new beginning.

“ATLANTA HAS BEEN since the commencement of the revolution—a point of rendezvous of traitors, Swindlers, extor- tionist, and Counterfeiters. The population as a predominant ele- ment is a mixture of Jews, New England Yankees, and refugees shirking military duties.”

~COL. GEORGE WASHINGTON LEE, Provost

Marshall of Atlanta

“WE HAVE LEARNED our lessons well—can cry when we would laugh—and laugh when we would cry . . . The face must keep its color—white or red—though the heart stops beating or flames up in scorching pain.”

~CYRENA STONE, Unionist Atlanta resident

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Lawman's Oklahoma Sweetheart by Allie Pleiter


The Lawman's Oklahoma Sweetheart
Love Inspired (June 3, 2014)
by
Allie Pleiter



Chapter 1

Brave Rock, Oklahoma Territory
June 1889

Fast wasn’t fast enough.

Clint Thornton ignored the knot of iron tightening in his gut. He told his fear to go away, to stop growing colder and heavier with each minute, each uncrossed acre, each dangerous stretch of land between himself and the Brinkerhoff homestead. Oklahoma was hot and dry in June. A fire could turn deadly in a split-second. And the fastest fire of all was one that had been set to kill.

He bent over his horse, boots digging into the animal’s flanks. Faster. Clint’s breath tightened to short, hard gasps. If he failed, Katrine would soon be gasping as well, lungs frantic for air, throat singed by the heat, chest bound by the dread of a cabin burning around her. The men threatening the homestead were once soldiers, after all, men trained in the taking of lives. A renegade soldier was a dangerous man indeed. Clint had learned they were seeking to burn a cabin to the ground tonight, but only when he’d followed a gut instinct to check on the Brinkerhoff place had he learned the blood-chilling truth.

Snapping his reins against the horse’s sweating flesh, Clint pressed on toward the four torchlights circling the tiny, nearly-finished dwelling in the middle-of-the-night darkness just over the hill.

Katrine had nothing to do with any of this, but that wouldn’t stop the cavalrymen or the flames they were about to set. They were looking to kill her brother Lars, the witness to their crimes, and if she happened to die as well it would be of no consequence to them.

Clint yelled out to the men, hoping to distract them and buy Katrine more time, but he was still too far away for them to hear. The knot in his gut seemed to constrict around his whole body as he watched the leader of those men. In a cruel trick of moonlight, Clint saw Samuel McGraw casually, almost amusingly, touch his torch to the roof of a shed next to the cabin. Air fled Clint’s lungs in a helpless whoosh that seemed to say “too late.”

No. It could not be too late. Clint yelled “McGraw!” once, then louder, jabbing the horse with frantic boot heels. “McGraw!” Some survival instinct took over from there, turning his voice to one of conspiratorial indifference even as his insides were going off like cannons at the thought of Katrine trapped in the smoke. Even as he watched embers float lazily from the shed to settle and ignite on the homestead roof. “McGraw, it’s Thornton. Hold on there!”

Finally he was close enough to see McGraw’s face as he handed his torch to another man and peered in Clint’s direction. “Thornton?”

Clint kept at full gallop the last few feet into the homestead yard, even as the fire began lapping up the structure’s roof. “There’s men behind me,” he panted, hoping his breathlessness would come off as strain, not fear. “Just up over the ridge. Go.” He pulled on the reins as his horse made uneasy circles, spooked by the growing fire. “Get yourselves gone. I’ll cover. I’ll say the place was burning when I came up on it.”

He needed them to believe he was on their side if his plan to infiltrate the Black Four gang would ever work. But he also needed them to leave so he could save Katrine. McGraw, evidently one to see a job done, didn’t seem too eager to be gone. Clint’s heartbeat pounded ice against the heat now flushing his face. The ice threatened to swallow him altogether when he heard the sound of a bang from inside. It did swallow him when he saw the plank the soldiers had nailed across the homestead door.

“Get on out of here,” he insisted as hard as he dared. “I’ve reason to be here, you don’t. I’ll cover for you but it won’t do one lick of good in five minutes if you’re not gone.”

“He’s right,” Bryson Reeves, another of McGraw’s cronies, said as he tossed his torch into the little set of rosebushes Katrine had optimistically planted along the east wall. Clint felt them burning as if the flames nipped at his own throat. “Let’s get gone, Sam.”

Clint flung himself down off his horse with what he hoped looked like indifference. Every inch between him and that barred front door yawned long and deadly. He gestured over the ridge he’d just rushed down. “Land sakes, McGraw, are you waitin’ for an invitation? Go!”

McGraw considered for an excruciating moment, Clint’s throat turning to knots as he heard yet another sound from within. The Brinkerhoff homestead held no windows, no way out but the door barred behind him. He thought he heard a cough and imagined Katrine sinking to the floor, her pale hands clasping at her throat. He felt the heat of the flames prickle the back of his neck. The urge to rush over there and physically push McGraw off toward the river nearly overpowered him. He heard a small, insistent thud from the side of the house away from the men and for a terrible moment imagined he was hearing Katrine’s body hit the wall.

Then he remembered the logs. The loose two logs on the far side of the house, the ones Katrine was always complaining let the wind in to chill the room. He heard more thuds and realized she was trying to kick them out. Kick, he pleaded to her silently as his hands fisted in frustration. Keep kicking.

“I’m handin’ you a gift here, McGraw. Are you too dumb to take it? You’ve got four minutes, maybe five a`fore those men behind me catch up and see you standin’ here with torches while this shack burns.”

“Fine!” McGraw pronounced after what felt like a year, turning his horse and waving his henchmen to ride off.

Clint forced himself to stand and watch, shoving his weight back on one hip as if the burning house was just another prairie brushfire. The kicking behind him had slowed and stopped, halting his blood right along with it. Just twenty more feet. That’s all he needed.

Because God have mercy on him if he had to watch one more person die…

***

It was as if the walls of the tiny cabin had come alive, creeping toward her like prowling animals. Katrine’s eyes stung, far more from the smoke over her head than from the tears wetting her cheeks. The smoke made it impossible to shout, so she’d tried the door, but it would not open. She’d heard voices—there were men outside, but they did not open the door. They were not here to save her. The Black Four had struck again, had come to burn down the house to push her off her land. Her brother Lars had worried the terrible gang might someday stoop to killing, but she never imagined they would begin with her. I’m not ready for Heaven, she begged God, even though she knew He would welcome her. I’m not brave enough to die. Not like this, not trapped. Not alone.

Not yet. Turning in frantic circles, Katrine scanned the four stalking walls, searching for any help. It was so hard to see, so awful to breathe. My Lord, my protector, save me. She pulled in another scorching breath, seeing the edges of her vision curl in and grow dark. How could even the Black Four bear to stand out there and watch a soul burn to death?

Stumbling to the table more by feel than by sight, Katrine found a dishcloth, then the Mason jar that still held Black-Eyed Susans from the supper table she’d set. The supper Lars had not come home to eat. She pulled the flowers from the jar and stuffed the dishcloth inside, the water feeling cool against the growing heat of the room.

For a stunned moment Katrine wondered why she could suddenly see, why the room glowed orange. Then, pressing the blissfully cool cloth over her nose and mouth, she peered up just in time to see a flaming chunk of the roof fall with a hollow whoosh and settle on Lars’s bed.

Had they found Lars first? Was he already dead? Katrine’s heart froze at the thought that her brother, who’d saved her from how many dangers since they’d come to America, might no longer be alive to save her now. No, he must be alive, she declared silently. He must live and make a future for himself in this new town, maybe a family… Her thoughts were coming in tangles now and her eyes stung so badly. Where was Lars? He’d know what to do. He’d built this cabin for the two of them; he’d know how to keep it from being their tomb. Think, Katrine, try to think.

The beams overhead gave a dreadful groan and Katrine backed away from the noise, grabbing the jar of water as she did. She stuffed the dishcloth into the water again, but its paltry contents didn’t help much against the smoke and heat now filling the room. Why, why hadn’t she fought harder with Lars to make windows? He said they would only let in the cold, but the drafty corner did that already.

The drafty corner. The pair of loose logs on the corner of the house. Oh, how she’d cursed those cracks, how they seemed to welcome the flies and dust into the room. Lars had not yet fixed them; they still wiggled when a boot kicked them hard enough. Katrine crouched down and crawled over to the corner, not caring how the split-log floor snagged on her nightshift or scraped against her knees. Behind her, gold light burst out into the room, and Katrine turned to see Lars’s coverlet consumed in flames. It gave her just enough light to find the logs and shift around to start kicking.

Her shifting knocked over a chair, but she merely pushed it aside and continued to slam her bare feet against the loose wood. It shifted, but not enough. “Flytte!” she yelled, commanding the logs to give way in her native Danish as she kicked them again. Behind her the fire’s crackle and growl seemed to come closer. Katrine moved up and began kicking with both feet, not caring about the growing pain on her heels—what would that matter in a few minutes as she lay gasping? The air seemed to race away from her, stealing the breath she needed to keep kicking. She could feel her efforts growing weaker, feel how the smoke robbed her strength.

Keep kicking. Her leg wobbled as she forced it against the log, and somewhere through the thickness of her mind she heard a voice. She thought she heard crumbling, imagined the log was pulling itself from the cabin, coming to life to save hers.

“Katrine!”

She couldn’t actually say whether the voice was real or imagined. Everything was spinning into a black hole in her mind, like water draining through the bottom of a barrel.

The rush of night air hit her face like a slap, clear and startling. She heard a man’s growl of effort as another log shuddered loose and fell onto the floor beside her. Air. “Here! Through here!” the voice called. Without thinking, Katrine turned and reached through the ragged opening, clinging to the hands that grabbed her outstretched hands.

The change in air was astounding. Yellow sparks swirled against a dark violet sky as she felt herself pulled from the menacing heat. Katrine sucked down a huge draught of air, only to curl over in a cough that seemed to tear her throat into pieces. Before she could catch her breath, the hands dragged her across the cool prairie grass as the most dreadful, most unearthly sound filled her ears. A wind-filled echo, an evil rush of air such as she’d never heard before. Katrine looked up to see her home, her cabin, sprout flames from every corner and tumble in on itself, spouting in a volcano of smoke and sparks.

The fire burned hot and bright in all directions, throwing sharp light and flickering long shadows into the night. She coughed again, tasting coal and acid, and felt a hand on her back. Turning to look, she saw the face of Clint Thornton. She was safe in the grip of the town sheriff, thank goodness.

Fear widened his dark brown eyes, sweat glistened on his cheek even as it plastered the front of his dark hair against his forehead. “Are you all right, Katrine? Are you hurt?” His voice was tight and dark with worry.

Was she? She wasn’t sure she even knew. Too parched to speak, Katrine managed a weak nod, giving over to the shivers that suddenly took her. She hugged herself and drew up her knees, appalled to remember she was in nothing more than a summer nightshift.

Sheriff Thornton kneeled in front of her, shucking off his coat to wrap it around her shoulders. He took each of her hands and arms in turn, checking them for cuts and bruises. His touch was quick and reassuring. Her feet throbbed and felt as if they were covered in scratches, but she could move them. She started to say, “I’m fine,” but the words only became another cough. When he went to stand up, Katrine grabbed his hand, stopping him until he looked at her.

“Thank you,” she managed in a thin whisper that hurt with each word. She squeezed his arm again. Sheriff Thornton was Lars’s good friend. Surely he would know about her brother. “Lars? Is Lars alive?”

“Yes…and no.”

Katrine felt her fear surge back up. “Whatever do you mean?”

“Lars is safe, but only if no one knows.”

She blinked up at him, confused.

His dark brows furrowed. “I have a plan, Katrine, but you may not like what it is.”