Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Saved by the Fireman by Allie Pleiter

Saved by the Fireman
Love Inspired (October 21, 2014)
Allie Pleiter

Chapter 1

Charlotte Taylor sat in her boss’s office Friday morning and wondered where all the oxygen in Chicago had just gone.

“I’m sorry to let you go Charlotte, I really am.” Alice Warren, Charlotte’s superior at Monarch Textiles, looked genuinely upset at having to deliver such news. “I know you just lost your grandmother, so I tried to put this off as long as I could.”

A layoff? Her? Charlotte felt the shock give way to a sickening recognition. She’d seen the financial statements; she’d written several of the sales reports. Sure, she was no analyst wiz, but she was smart enough to know Monarch wasn’t in great financial shape and a downsize was likely. She was also emotionally tied enough to Monarch and torn enough over losing Mima that she’d successfully denied the company’s fiscal health for months. As she watched her grandmother’s decline, Charlotte told herself she was finally settled into a good life. She’d boasted to a failing Mima—not entirely truthfully, she knew even then on some level—about feeling “established.”

She’d patted Mima’s weakening hands, those hands that had first taught her to knit and launched the textile career she had enjoyed until five minutes ago, and she’d assured her grandmother that there was no reason to worry about her. She was at a place in life where she could do things, buy things, experience things, to get all the joy out of life just like Mima taught her. How hollow all that crowing she had done about how she’d become “successful” and “indispensable” at Monarch now rang. Who was she fooling? In this economy, did anyone really have the luxury of being indispensable?

Except maybe Mima. Mima could never be replaced. Charlotte and her mother were just barely figuring out how to carry on without the vivacious, adventurous old woman who’d now left such a gaping hole in their lives. It had been hard enough when Grandpa had lost his battle to Alzheimer’s—the end of that long, hard decline could almost be counted as a blessing. Mima’s all-too-quick exit had left Charlotte reeling, fabricating stability and extravagance that were never really there. Hadn’t today just proved that?

Charlotte grappled for a response to her boss’s pained eyes. “It’s not your fault, I suppose.” She was Monarch’s problem solver, the go-to girl who never got rattled. She should say something mature and wise, something unsinkably optimistic, something Mima would say. Nothing came but a silent, slack jaw that broadcast to Alice how the news had knocked the wind knocked out of her.

Alice sighed. “You know it’s not your performance. It’s just budgetary. I’m so sorry.”

“The online sales haven’t been growing as fast as we projected. I’d guessed the layoffs were coming eventually—I just didn’t think it’d be—” she forced back the lump in her throat “—me, you know?”

Alice pulled two tissues from the box on her desk, handing one to Charlotte. “It’s not just you,” she sniffed, “You’re the first of four.” She pushed an envelope across the desk to Charlotte. “I fought for a severance package, but it’s not much.”

A severance package. Charlotte didn’t even want to open it. Whatever it included, the look on Alice’s face told Charlotte it wasn’t going to make much of a difference. Mima, did you see this coming? Of course that couldn’t be possible, but Charlotte felt her grandmother’s eyes on her anyway, watching her from the all-knowing viewpoint of eternity. It wasn’t that much of a stretch, if one believed in premonitions. Or the Holy Spirit, which Mima claimed to listen to carefully.

In true Mima style, Charlotte’s grandmother had left both her and her mother a sizable sum of money and with instructions to “do something really worth doing.” A world traveler after Grandpa died, Mima squeezed every joy out of life and was always encouraging others to do the same. Mima bought herself beautiful jewelry but never cried when a piece got lost. Mima owned a ten-year-old car but had visited five continents. She bought art—real art—but had creaky old furniture. Her apartment was small but stuffed with fabulous souvenirs and wonderful crafts. Mima truly knew what money was for and what really mattered in life.

That was how Charlotte knew the funds she’d inherited weren’t intended for living—rent and groceries and such—they were for dreams and art and life. Having to use Mima’s money to survive a layoff would feel like an insult to her grandmother’s memory.

Alice sniffled, bringing Charlotte back to the horrible conversation at hand. Alice was so distressed she seemed to fold in on herself. “I wasn’t allowed to tip anyone off. I’m so sorry.”

She was sorry—even Charlotte could see that—but it changed nothing. Charlotte was leaving Monarch. She’d been laid off from the job she’d expected to solidify her career. It felt as if she’d spent her four years at Monarch knitting up some complicated, beautiful pattern and someone had come and ripped all the stitches out and told her to start over.

Over? How does a person start over when they suddenly doubt they ever really started at all?

Charlotte picked up the envelope but set it in her lap unopened.

“You’ve got two weeks of salaried work still to go.” Alice was trying—unsuccessfully—to brighten her voice. “But you’ve also got six days of vacation accrued don’t have to stay the whole two weeks if you don’t want to.” The woman actually winced. Was this Alice’s kinder, gentler version of “clean out your desk”?

The compulsion to flee roared up from some dark corner of her stomach Charlotte didn’t even know she had. She didn’t want to stay another minute. The fierce response surprised her—Monarch had been so much of a daily home to her she often didn’t think of it as work. “And what about sick days?”

It bothered Charlotte that Alice had evidently anticipated that question; she didn’t even have to look it up. “Two.”

She was better than this. She couldn’t control that she was leaving, but she could control when she left. And that was going to be now. “I don’t think I’m feeling so well all of a sudden.” Sure, it was a tad unreasonable, but so was having your job yanked out from underneath you. She had eight covered days out of her two-week notice. What was the point of staying two more days? Two more hours? Her files were meticulous, her sales contact software completely up to date, and next season’s catalogue was ahead of schedule. There wasn’t a single thing keeping her here except the time it would take to sweep all the personal decorations from her desk.

Alice nodded. “I’ll write you a glowing recommendation.”

It felt like such a weak compensation. Charlotte stood up, needing to get out of this office where she’d been told so many times—and believed—she was a gifted marketing coordinator and a key employee. “Thanks.” She couldn’t even look Alice in the eye, waving goodbye with the offending manila envelope as she walked out the door.

Monarch only had two dozen or so employees, and every eye in the small office now stared at her as she packed up her desk. Charlotte was grateful each item she stuffed into one of the popular Monarch tote bags—and oh, the irony of that—transformed the damp surge of impending tears into a churning burst of anger. Suddenly the sweet fresh-out-of-college intern she’d been training looked like the enemy. Inexperience meant lower salaries, so it wouldn’t surprise Charlotte at all if adorable little Mackenzie got to keep her job. She probably still lived at home with her parents and didn’t even need money for rent, Charlotte thought bitterly.

She reached into her file drawer for personal papers, her hand stilling on the thick file labeled “Cottage.” The file was years old, a collection of photos and swatches and magazine articles for a dream house. Apartment living had its charms, but with Charlotte’s craft-filled background, she longed to have a real house, with a yard and a front porch and windows with real panes. One that she could decorate exactly the way she wanted.

Just last week, Charlotte had nearly settled on using Mima’s funds to buy a cottage in nearby Gordon Falls. It would be too far for a daily commute, but she could use it on weekends and holidays. She knew so many people there. Her best friend Melba had moved there. Her cousins JJ and Max had moved there. Melba’s new baby, Maria, was now Charlotte’s goddaughter. She’d come to love the tiny little resort town three hours away on the Gordon River, and there was a run-down cottage she’d driven past dozens of times that Charlotte could never quite get out of her mind. Mima would approve of her using the money to fund an absolutely perfect renovation in a town where everyone seemed to find happiness.

Well, not now, Charlotte thought as she stuffed the file into the bag. In light of the last five minutes, a weekend place had gone from exciting to exorbitant. Get out of here before you can’t hold it in, she told herself as she stuffed the three framed photos—one of Mom, one of Mima, and one of baby Maria—in beside the thick file. She zipped the tote bag shut with a vengeance, yanked the employee identification/security badge from around her neck and set it squarely in the middle of the desk. Just last week she’d bought a beautifully beaded lariat to hold the badge, but now the necklace felt as if it was choking her. She left it along with the badge, never wanting to see it again.

With one declarative “I may be down but I’m not out” glare around the office, Charlotte left, not even bothering to shut the door behind her.


Jesse Sykes flipped the steak and listened to the sizzle that filled one end of his parents’ patio. He’d built this outdoor kitchen two years ago, and this grill was a masterpiece—the perfect place to spend a Saturday afternoon. He planned to use a photo of the fire pit on his business brochures—once his plans were finalized and they got printed. That, and the portico his mother loved. Filled with grapevines that turned a riot of gorgeous colors in the fall, it made for a stunning graphic. Only two more months, and he’d have enough funds to quit his job at Mondale Construction, buy that little cottage on the corner of Post and Tyler, fix it up and flip it to some city weekender for a tidy profit. With that money, he’d start his own business at last.

Move-in properties got plucked up quickly in Gordon Falls, so finding the perfect fixer-upper was crucial. He’d already lost out on two other houses last fall because he didn’t quite have the down payment stashed away. But the cottage he’d settled on now was perfect. It was June, and he’d planned to buy the place in March, but that was life. He’d needed a new truck and Dad sure wasn’t going to offer any help in that department. A few months’ delay shouldn’t make a difference, though—the cottage had been on the market for ages. It needed too much renovation for most people to want to bother.

“I’m pretty sure I’ll have Sykes Homes Incorporated up and running by the fall. I can still snag the fall colors season if I can buy that cottage.”

Dad sat back in his lawn chair, eyes squinting in that annoying way Jesse knew heralded his father’s judgment. “Fall? Spring is when they buy. Timing is everything, son. You’ve got to act fast or you lose out on the best opportunities, and those won’t be around in September.”

Jesse flipped the next steak. “I’m moving as fast as I can, Dad.” As if he didn’t know he’d missed the spring season. As if it hadn’t already kept him up nights even more than the Gordon Falls Volunteer Fire Department alarms.

“It might not be fast enough.”

Jesse straightened his stance before turning to his father. “True, but learning to adapt is a good lesson, too. This won’t be the first time I’ve had to retool a plan because I’ve hit a hitch.”

Dad stood up and clamped a hand on Jesse’s shoulder. “Son, all you’ve hit is hitches so far.” This time he didn’t even bother to add the false smile of encouragement he sometimes tacked on to a slam like that. Jesse thrust his tines into the third steak and clamped his teeth together.

“Is it that older cottage on Post Avenue?” his mother asked. “The one by the corner with the wrought iron window boxes?”

The wrought iron window boxes currently rusting out of their brackets and splitting the sills, yes. “That’s it.”

He caught the “leave him be” look Mom gave Dad as she came over and refilled Jesse’s tall glass of iced tea. “Oh, I like that one. So much charm. I’ve been surprised no one’s snatched it up since Lucinda Hyatt died. You’ll do a lovely job with that.”

“In two more months I’ll be ready to make an offer.”

“You could have had the money for it by now if it weren’t for the firehouse taking up all your time, with no salary to show for it, and keeping you away from paying work. You’d better watch out or this place will be sold out from underneath you like the last one, and you’ll be working for Art Mondale for another five years.” Dad’s voice held just enough of patronizing tone to be polite but still drive the point home.

“Mike, don’t let’s get into that again.”

Dad just grunted. Jesse’s place in the volunteer fire department had been a never-ending battle with his father. Jesse loved his work there, loved helping people. And by this point, he felt as if the firefighters were a second family who understood him better than his real one. Chief Bradens was a good friend and a great mentor, teaching Jesse a lot about leadership and life. Fire Inspector Chad Owens had begun to teach him the ins and outs of construction, zoning, and permits, too. It was the furthest thing he could imagine from the waste of time and energy his father obviously thought it to be.

Mom touched Jesse’s shoulder. “You’re adaptable. You can plot your way around any obstacle. That’s what makes you so good at the firehouse.”

Jesse hoisted the steaks onto a platter his mother held out. “That, and my world-class cooking.” Then, because it was better to get all the ugliness out before they started eating, Jesse made himself ask, “How come Randy isn’t here?”

Dad’s smirk was hard to ignore. “Your brother’s at a financial conference in San Diego this week. He said it could lead to some very profitable opportunities.” Jesse’s younger brother, Randall, would be retiring in his forties if he kept up his current run of financial success. Randy seemed to be making money hand over fist, boasting a fancy condo in the Quad Cities, a travel schedule that read more like a tourist brochure, and a host of snazzy executive trappings. It didn’t take a genius to see Jesse fell far short of his brother in Dad’s eyes. A month ago, when Jesse had pulled up to the house in a brand-new truck, Jesse couldn’t help but notice the way his father frowned at it, parked next to Randy’s shiny silver roadster.

“He’s up for another promotion,” Mom boasted.

“Good for him, he deserves it.” Jesse forced enthusiasm into his voice. Somehow, it was always okay when Randy missed family functions because of work. It was never okay when Jesse had to skip one because he was at the firehouse.

“Someday, that brother of yours is going to rule the world.” Dad had said it a million times, but it never got easier to swallow. Every step Randy took up the ladder seemed to push Jesse farther down it from Dad’s point of view. While Dad never came out and said it, it was clear Jesse’s father felt that a man who worked with his hands only did so because his brain wasn’t up to higher tasks.

“I don’t doubt it, Dad.” Jesse admitted wearily. “I’ll just settle for being King of the Grill.”

Mom looked eagerly at the petite filet he’d marinated just the way she liked it. “That is just fine by me. Jesse, honey, this smells fantastic. You will make some lucky lady very happy one of these days.” Her eyes held just a tint of sadness, reminding Jesse that the ink was barely dry on Randy’s divorce papers. His brother’s raging career successes had inflicted a few casualties of late, and Mom had been disappointed to watch her grandma prospects walk out the door behind Randy’s neglected wife. This past winter had been hard on the Sykes family, that was for sure. Was Dad clueless to all those wounds? Or did he just choose to ignore what he couldn’t solve?

They were in love...once...his mom and dad. Now they just sort of existed in the same life, side by side but not close. Randy had married because he was “supposed to.” As if he needed to check off some box in his life plan. Jesse didn’t want to just make some appropriate lady “very happy.” When he fell, it would be deep and strong and he would sweep that the love of his life clean off her feet.

It just wasn’t looking like that would be anytime soon.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Quilted by Christmas by Jodie Bailey

Quilted by Christmas
Abingdon Press (October 21, 2014)
Jodie Bailey

Chapter 1

“4 . . . 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . .” The small crowd’s voice rose in pitch and trembled with the chill as the lights flickered into life on the eighteen-foot tree in the small park in Hollings, North Carolina. Along Main Street, lampposts and white lights popped to life and bathed downtown in a warm glow.

Taryn McKenna shoved her hands deeper into the pockets of her coat to keep from blowing on her fingers again. It only made them colder in the end. What global warming? It felt like every year was colder than the one before. The wind coming off the mountain tonight had a particular bite to it, like it had heard the same news as Taryn and wanted to make sure she felt it inside and out.

“Have you seen him yet?” Her younger cousin Rachel leaned close and did her best to whisper, though over the small crowd it seemed more like a shout.

Even Ethan, Rachel’s recently-adopted thirteen-month-old son thought his mom’s voice was too loud. He pressed four chubby fingers against her mouth with a wet, “Shhh . . .”

For a minute, Taryn forgot she was supposed to be vigilant. She arched an eyebrow so high she could almost feel it touch the knit cap she wore over her shoulder-length dark hair. “It’s pretty bad when the baby tells you to keep it down.”

Rachel flicked honey-blonde hair over her shoulder and planted a smacky kiss on the little boy’s cheek, eliciting a high-pitched squeal. “Come on, Mr. Manners. Let’s go down to the fire station and see if we can find Daddy.” She headed off to walk the three blocks out of downtown. “And we’ll get Aunt Taryn out of the crowd before she can have an uncomfortable moment.”

Taryn shoved her hands deeper in her pockets and planted her feet. After Rachel’s comment, she should stay right here and let Rachel make the trek back to find her EMT fiancĂ© all by herself. She looked over her shoulder toward her own house, two streets over from the park defining the center of Hollings. If she started walking now, she could have hot chocolate in hand and It’s a Wonderful Life on the TV in under ten minutes.

Not as if she’d be hiding the way Rachel implied. She’d just be warm and comfortable and out of the crowd jostling her as they headed for the community center where the county’s Christmas craft festival was cranking up.

The craft festival. She winced. “Rach?”

Several feet ahead of Taryn, her cousin miraculously heard her and turned around. “You coming?”

“I promised Jemma I’d come over and help with her craft booth.” Jemma. The name was warm on her tongue. Born of the time her tiny toddler mouth couldn’t quite get the grandma to work like it was supposed to. Her Jemma. The constant love in her life. As much as she wanted to go home and tuck in under a quilt, Taryn had promised and she wouldn’t let her grandmother down. “She’s got some quilts she’s selling in the community center.”

Rachel’s gaze bounced between the small brick building at the edge of the park and the fire station, invisible down the street and around the corner, where her fiancĂ© probably waited for her to show up with his chicken and pastry dinner from the little church on, yes, Church Street. “I’ll come with you and visit your grandmother for a second. I need to thank her for the cute little fireman quilt she made for Ethan’s bed. I can’t wait until he sees it on Christmas morning.” She hefted her son higher on her hip without missing a step. “Mark is hoping the house will be ready by then so we can take Ethan over after he wakes up and have our first Christmas morning as a family in our own house, even if it’s empty of everything but a tree.”

“That’s the single sappiest thing I’ve ever heard. And maybe the sweetest.”

Ethan giggled like he knew exactly what Taryn had said.

Taryn knew better than to offer to take the boy for some snuggles of her own. This was all still new and joyful to Rachel. Give it a month. She’d be begging for a babysitter, and Taryn would be more than willing to oblige. The way her arms ached to snuggle the wiggling, giggling bundle told her so. She shoved the longing aside and slid sideways between two people. “Excuse me.”

“Where did all of these people come from, anyway?” Rachel fell a half step behind her as the crowd thickened to funnel through the double doors into the community building.

“It’s Christmas in the mountains and it’s tree lighting night. Half of them are tourists.”

“Sure enough,” said an older gentleman with a Boston accent. “Cold down here is a lot better than cold up north.”

“Cold is cold.” Taryn smiled into his kind face.

“But here, with all the evergreens and the rolling hills . . .” He breathed in deeply. “Feels like you ought to be able to catch Christmas in a bottle up here. Sell it maybe. It’s like Christmas magic.”

Okay, right. Because there was such a thing as Christmas magic. Where all your dreams came true. Taryn fought the urge to screw up her lips. Never going to happen. She scanned the crowd again, wanting to spot a familiar face and yet dreading it at the same time. It was miserable being torn in two by your own emotions.

“I know what you’re thinking.” Rachel was right on top of her, one hand holding Ethan’s head to her shoulder protectively. “It will happen for you, too. Who knows, maybe with what you heard tonight . . .” She wiggled her eyebrows.

Taryn knew her expression hardened, just from the way her jaw ached. “No. Don’t start.”

“You can’t hide forever. Especially helping Jemma. If he’s looking for you, this is the first place he’ll go.”

“If he was looking for me, he would have found me before tonight. Frankly, I told Jemma I’d help her before I knew he was in town, and had I known, I’d be home right now avoiding a scene.” Maybe she should make an appearance, tell her grandmother she wasn’t feeling well, and leave fast. It wouldn’t be a lie. Her stomach was tying into deeper knots by the second. If she wasn’t careful, the country-style steak Jemma had cooked for dinner might just make an encore appearance. “He won’t look for me. He’s home to see his family. And I’m not his family.”

“You could’ve been, if you hadn’t been so stubborn.” Rachel may have meant to mumble under her breath, but it came just as a lull in the crowd’s conversation dropped, making it a loud and clear indictment.

Taryn stopped right in the flow of traffic just inside the door and turned to look Rachel hard in the eye. It was a mantra she’d stopped telling herself a long time ago, but hearing it now from her cousin, out loud for the first time, the words fired anger and released pent-up emotions Taryn thought she’d tamed long ago. “What did you just say?” The words bit through the air, hanging with icicles.

“Taryn . . .” Rachel’s eyes widened like the eyes of a deer Taryn had once hit heading down the mountain into Boone. She looked just as frozen, too. “I never should have spoken out loud.”

“So it’s okay to think it?” Was it how everyone saw Taryn? As the poor girl who let the love of her life get away? Waving a dismissive hand, Taryn turned and stalked off as best she could, leaving Rachel frozen in the crowd. Good. She deserved it. All those years she’d had Taryn’s back, now the truth came out. The whole mess was Taryn’s fault, and even her cousin thought so.

By the time Taryn arrived at Jemma’s tables, she was angry and over-stimulated. The crowd was too loud, the lights too bright, and the air too stuffy. More than anything, she wanted to pack a bag, hike up to Craven Gap, and pitch a tent for a week. She huffed into a spare metal folding chair and crossed her arms over her chest, garnering a warning glance from her grandmother, who was chatting with their preacher. Taryn sat up straighter and dropped her hands to her lap. She might be thirty, but Jemma still knew how to put her in her place.

Taryn let herself scan the room, filled with familiar townspeople and stranger tourists alike, but no jolt of adrenaline hit her at the sight of any of the faces. It disappointed and relieved her. Over the past dozen years, she’d managed to bury every emotion about the year deep down, so deep she hadn’t realized how badly she wanted to see Justin Callahan.

Despite the longing, a conversation with him couldn’t end well. Still, her eyes wouldn’t stop searching, even though something told her she’d know if Justin walked in, whether she spotted him or not. From the time she was a child, her heart had always known when he was nearby.

Rachel stood on the far side of the room at Marnie Lewis’s booth, which overflowed with all manner of jams and jellies. If she could, Taryn would slip over there and lay her head on Marnie’s shoulder, unburdening herself of the tense anticipation knotted in her stomach. Where Jemma was all practicality, her best friend Marnie was the soft shoulder for Taryn’s many tears. There had only been once when she’d had to refuse Marnie’s comfort, because the secret of those tears would have been too much for the older woman to bear.

But there was no time for pouring it all out now. Taryn shoved out of the rusting metal chair and busied herself straightening the quilts hanging from curtain rods hooked to a painted black peg board. Her fingers ran down the stitches of a red and white Celtic Twist, one of Jemma’s latest creations. This one was done on the trusty Singer machine in the upstairs sewing room at the white house in the center of the apple orchard. Tourists loved Jemma’s work, so she packed up the quilts she stitched by day and brought them to large craft fairs around Asheville and smaller ones in tiny valley towns like their own. The more tiny Hollings made its mark on the map as a North Carolina mountain tourist spot, the more out-of-towners discovered they had to have Jemma’s work. Her Celtic designs practically walked out the door right by themselves.

Taryn ran her hands over a complicated Celtic Knot to smooth the wrinkles as a shadow fell over the fabric. “This one’s a beauty, isn’t it?” She angled her chin up, ready to put on her selling face to the latest tourist.

Instead, she met all too familiar hot chocolate brown eyes. His brown hair was shorter than she’d ever seen it, though the top seemed to be outpacing the sides in growth. His shoulders were broader under a heavy black Carhartt coat, his face more defined. Every muscle in her body froze even as her stomach jumped at the heat of seeing him. She’d known this day would come, knew he was in town now, but still, she wasn’t ready.

Clearly, neither was he. He looked at her for a long moment, opened his mouth to speak, then was jostled by a tourist who stopped to peruse the lap quilts on the small plastic table. “This was a bad idea.” Justin shook his head and, with a glance of what looked like regret, turned and blended into the crowd, leaving Taryn to watch him walk away. Again.


“What exactly was that all about?”

When Jemma offered Taryn a ride home as the craft show wound down for the evening, Taryn figured she was safe. After all, Jemma hadn’t said one word about Justin’s awkward appearance and rapid disappearance. Maybe she hadn’t even noticed the entire exchange. In the bustle of answering questions and selling quilts, all she’d asked was if Taryn would come over tomorrow and spend part of her Saturday decorating the Christmas tree and working on Rachel’s wedding quilt with her.

But now, as she pulled Taryn’s kitchen door shut behind her, Jemma revealed just how much patience she had. About three hours’ worth.

Taryn pulled two chunky diner-style coffee mugs down from the white wood cabinets and thunked them onto the ancient butcher block countertop. “What’s all what about?” It was a long shot, but maybe the question had nothing to do with Justin at all. Maybe this was more about how she’d stalked into the booth and plopped into her chair like a three-year-old in full pout. Taryn rolled her eyes heavenward. Please, God? I’m not ready to have the Justin conversation yet.

“The little two-second exchange between you and a man who looked an awful lot like Justin Callahan all grown up.”

Nope. It was exactly what Taryn had feared it was about. She yanked open another cabinet and dug out a plastic container of Russian tea. Every year, when the first breath of winter blew along the valley, Taryn mixed instant tea with dried lemonade, orange drink, and spices just like her mother always had. It kept her close, made Taryn feel like she could close her eyes and have her mother reappear whenever she needed her. Boy, did she ever need her tonight. “Want some tea?”

“It was him, wasn’t it, Taryn?” The voice wasn’t demanding, just gentle, maybe even a little bit concerned.

Demanding would have been better.

Taryn turned and leaned against the counter to find Jemma still by the back door, arms crossed over her red and green turtleneck sweater. “I asked you to come in for something warm to drink, not to answer questions, well, I don’t have answers to.” She threw her hands out to the sides. “But yes, it was Justin. And why he came over to speak to me, I have no idea.”

Jemma nodded, one gray curl falling out of place over her temple. “Looked to me like he wanted to talk to you and thought better of it once he looked you in the eye. Can’t say I blame him. You looked scared to death.”

Yeah. Because she didn’t want him reading her mind and ferreting out all of her secrets. She might have done the right thing for him nearly twelve years ago, but it didn’t mean he ever needed to know about it. “I was surprised.”

“You always knew he’d come home someday. I’d have never thought it would take him this long. The Army’s kept him pretty busy, I’m guessing.”

“He’s been stationed overseas a lot. Too far to come home often. When he has been home, he’s kept to Dalton on his side of the mountain. I’m pretty sure he hasn’t been to Hollings since we were in high school.” The minute the words left her mouth, Taryn wished she could pull a Superman and make the world spin backwards just long enough to stop herself from saying them in the first place.

Jemma’s eyebrow arched so high it was a wonder it didn’t pop right off of her forehead. “You kept track?”

“I’d run into his mom occasionally. Rarely. Every once in a while.” Awkward encounters for Taryn, because Ellen Callahan was always so friendly, so open, as though Taryn and her son hadn’t flamed out in a screaming match in their front yard the night before he left for basic training. While she told Jemma almost everything, she’d kept those brief conversations a secret. The less they talked about Justin, the better, because talking about him kept her from pretending anything ever happened.

“I’ll have some Russian tea.” Jemma finally answered the long-asked question, then pulled a spoon from the drawer by the sink and passed it to Taryn. “You’re going to have to talk to him sooner or later.”

Taryn dug the spoon into the fall leaf-colored powder and dumped it into a mug. “I never plan to talk to him. At least not the way you’re implying. And aren’t you the one who told me for years not talking to him was the better option?”

A car hummed by on the road in front of the house, loud in the sudden silence of the kitchen. Jemma didn’t move, then she shook her head. “Opinions change. Maybe . . . Maybe I was wrong.”

“No, you were exactly right. Besides, he’s home for Christmas this year, and then he’ll be back off to parts unknown in the world. If history is any indicator, he won’t be back in Hollings for another dozen years, and by then . . .” She shrugged a no big deal. By then, she’d probably still be Taryn McKenna, schoolteacher, living in the small green house on School Street, except maybe she’d have half a dozen cats for company. It was what she deserved, and it was likely what she’d get.

With a long-suffering sigh, Jemma pushed herself away from the counter and ran light fingers down the back of Taryn’s dark hair. “It’s your choice, but I’ll be praying.”

Something in her tone froze Taryn’s fingertip on the button for the microwave. “Why?”

Jemma let her touch drift from the crown of Taryn’s head to the tips of her shoulder-length hair, just like she had when Taryn was a child, then planted a kiss on her granddaughter’s temple. “Because I had a little chat with Marnie while you were taking down the booth tonight. You know how she knows everything about everybody.”

“And you’re nothing like her at all, are you Jemma?” Taryn smiled in spite of the dread. If anyone knew the business of everybody on the mountain, it was her grandmother.

“Don’t be cheeky, hon. Your mother and I taught you better.”

The spoon clinked against the ceramic of the coffee mug as Taryn stirred her grandmother’s tea, the spicy orange scent like a much-needed hug from her mother. The restlessness in her stomach settled. In a couple of weeks or so, Justin would be gone again and she wouldn’t have to worry about running into him, wouldn’t have to worry about the split in half feeling of wanting to see him, yet wanting to hold him at a distance. “What did Marnie say?”

Jemma pulled Taryn close to her side and pressed her forehead to Taryn’s temple. “Justin’s not home for Christmas. He’s out of the Army. He’s moved home to Dalton for good.”

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Finding Mercy by Michael Landon Jr & Cindy Kelley

Finding Mercy
David C. Cook (October 1, 2014)
Michael Landon Jr. and Cindy Kelley

Chapter 1

Chapter One

May 1866

The sky was dark as pitch except for the streaks of lightning skittering across the heavens. Fat drops of rain pelted the top of Mercy’s head as she hid from the world inside a vertical tomb. The muscles in her legs, pressed against brick on either side, trembled, and she tried to shift positions even as she listened for noise unrelated to the storm. Faceless men had been chasing her; now it seemed they had found her. She felt the rain run down the back of her neck and shivered. Maybe this is my punishment for leaving the protection of Elijah and Isaac At the moment, wedged into a brick chimney on the second story of a boardinghouse, she regretted that action greatly.

The wind ripped down around her, causing her to look up. Something wasn’t right. She squinted hard at another layer in the darkness—grayer, moving, closer than it should be. She had only a few seconds to think of the possibilities before a surge of lightning backlit a man leering down at her. Thunder followed, and her scream dissolved into the vortex of night noises.

“Come out, come out wherever you are, Miss Mercy.” The singsong tone of his voice mocked her, and her heart hammered. The sheer speed of what happened next took her off guard. A hand shot out and strong fingers wrapped around her arm. She tried to pull free as he tugged and yanked, moving her inch by inch toward the opening. His face was so close at one point she could smell alcohol on his breath as his other hand grappled for purchase anyplace on her body. But still she had the crazy thought that in other circumstances she would think him a nice-looking young man. Not at all like the bounty hunters she’d conjured up in her imagination.

She resisted with all her weight as he tugged, but it wasn’t enough and she could feel the end of her journey coming at her with ferocious haste. Thunder cracked overhead—so close it felt as if it was sitting right on top of them—and the young man seemed startled by it. Mercy seized the opportunity. She pushed upward, giving slack to the man’s grip on her arm, and catching him off-guard. For a second, his hold loosened, and she yanked her arm back with all her might. Without the tension and her weight, he lost his balance, staggered for a moment, tried to grab the edge of the brick, but missed. The angle of the roof lent itself to his swift tumble down the shingles and off the edge. She could hear his scream over the sound of a brief lull in the storm. More telling than the scream from his fall was the way it abruptly ended. An alarmed voice from below yelled out. “Hell’s bells, he’s down!”

Mercy swallowed big gulps of the wet air just before she felt herself slip down the brick toward an even darker place. She struggled against the fall, knees bent, twisting and turning until she thwarted gravity by wedging herself sideways in the chimney. She tried to still her escalating panic and told herself she was safe for the moment. At least, she thought, if anyone else came out on the roof and looked into the chimney, they’d not be able to see her. Now, if they looked up the chimney from the fireplace in the parlor, that might prove to be a problem. She had no idea how far she’d fallen—only that the sky above seemed further away. She wondered about the man who’d fallen from the roof, and wondered how many were left. She’d heard two men whispering in the hall outside her rented room, seen another standing thirty feet below as she’d stood barefoot on slippery shingles and contemplated her escape. Did the man survive his fall from the roof? What kind of people hunt someone for money? How long will they wait to catch me?

* * *

A soft but steady shower of rain hit the young man lying on the wet grass behind the boardinghouse. A man called Gus kneeled beside him. Behind them, three other men stood in an uncomfortable semicircle. Luther and Newt, two ex–Union soldiers who had saved each other on the battlefield more than once, traded sad glances. The third man, Harland, had spent the last four months of the war confined to an army hospital for two bullet wounds. Vengeance for the Confederate who’d shot him had gone unmeted. It was Harland who finally broke the silence.

“He’s gone, Gus,” Harland said. “Let’s get him outta the rain.”

But Gus didn’t move. Harland traded looks with the other men, who shrugged. Luther looked up at the pitched roof and shook his head. “I swear that vixen is half witch. Disappeared is what she did.”

“We need a new plan,” Newt said.

Gus never took his eyes from the man on the grass. “You keep after her,” he said. “I’m taking my boy home to his mother.”

* * * * *

It was the sound of garbled voices that made Mercy open her eyes again. She stared at a triangle of light on her arm and then looked up. Daylight. Broad daylight overhead that left her wondering how on earth she’d passed the rest of the night in the chimney. Her head throbbed, her joints ached, and her back felt as if she’d never be able to straighten it again. She shivered in her damp dress and, ironically, wished she were sitting next to a warm fire. Had she really fallen asleep in such nightmarish conditions?

The sounds below her floated up the flue, which magnified people’s voices. She pictured the interior of the boardinghouse, specifically the parlor with the large fireplace and the worn velvet chairs placed in close proximity to the hearth.

“Really, Mr. Douglas, that is most unkind!”

Mercy recognized the voice of Mrs. Douglas. She and her husband of fifty years had a strange way of addressing each other so formally; Mercy wondered if the two even remembered each other’s first name.

“I am not being unkind, Mrs. Douglas.” The old man’s voice was querulous. “I am simply stating the truth. That young woman was too beautiful for her own good. Beauty like that gets a woman in all kinds of trouble.”

“I liked her,” his wife said. “She was sweet and didn’t gossip.”

“We knew her all of three days. Not nearly enough time to form a suitable opinion of her.”

“You just said she was beautiful,” Mrs. Douglas responded tartly.

“That is not an opinion,” Mr. Douglas said. “It is a fact.” His tone said he regarded the subject closed. “I don’t remember a spring as cool as the one we’re in now, do you?”

If Mrs. Douglas was miffed at being dismissed, the pleasant modulation of her voice gave no evidence of it. “I don’t believe I do,” she said. “Well, maybe the spring of ‘32. Remember how cold it was the day Joseph was born? Positively frosty in April.”

“Yes, you’re quite right. That was a cold spring. And right now, it feels rather frosty in here,” he answered.

From her perch in the chimney, Mercy tried to shift her weight. She tried not to think of her thirst. Then she tried not to think about her other basic needs that needed to be met.

Below her, she could hear Mr. Douglas moving very close to the fireplace. More sounds carried up the shaft. Someone seemed to be stacking kindling as if intending to start a fire.

Mercy looked up at a sky that seemed miles away while she wriggled and turned to get her feet wedged in a better position on the brick. She’d have to climb up. Her legs quivered, muscles protesting every move she tried to make, as gravity seemed to grab hold of her ankles and pull her back down. She heard Mr. Douglas ask Mrs. Douglas for a match. Her nerves frayed to a breaking point, Mercy had a quick mental picture of a fire below her. The thought was so frightening her urgent need for the outhouse vanished and was replaced by sheer panic.

“Don’t light the fire!” Mercy yelled.

Silence from below, then, “Did you hear that, Mrs. Douglas?”

“I think it came from the stairs, Mr. Douglas.”

Mercy yelled again. “It came from in here. Don’t light the—”

She slipped and the hearth of the fireplace came quickly at her. She clawed at the creosote-covered brick to slow her descent, but it didn’t help—she dropped like a rock into the wide opening of the hearth in the parlor. She landed on the stack of kindling feet first, but her legs buckled and she found herself on her backside staring at the astonished faces of Mr. and Mrs. Douglas.

“Good day,” Mercy said.

Mrs. Douglas, holding a teacup, opened her mouth as if to scream, but no sound came out. Mr. Douglas stood rooted to the spot, a box of matches in hand, his jaw dropped in shocked surprise.

“I’m sorry if I startled you,” Mercy said, struggling to get out of the hearth.

“What the blazes is this?” Mr. Douglas demanded. “Where did you come from?”

Mercy tried to dust the chimney soot from her dress but then noticed her arms were as black as her dress.

Mercy looked around nervously. “Who else is here?”

“No one,” Mr. Douglas said. He went to the fireplace, braced his hands on his knees and bent to look up the chimney.

“How in the world …?”

“Where is Mrs. Kline?”

Mrs. Douglas seemed to have found her voice. “Bess hasn’t been down yet. It was a late night here. Lots of commotion.”

“She knows it was a late night, Mrs. Douglas,” Mr. Douglas said. “I believe we can surmise the commotion was about her.”

“I’m sorry about that,” Mercy said.

Mrs. Douglas swallowed hard, then pointed a trembling hand at Mercy’s chest. “You … you appear to have a gun in your bosom.”

Mercy pressed a soot-covered hand against the pistol tucked into the bodice of her dress, more to reassure herself it was safe than to apologize for it. “Yes,” she said. “I don’t have pockets.”

Mr. Douglas glanced at her pistol, then caught himself and looked away. “It seems you’re in a tight spot,” he said. He looked at the chimney. “No pun intended, my dear. Let’s get Bess and maybe we can help you figure this out.”

“Thank you for your kind offer, but I’ll be fine,” Mercy said. “No need to wake Mrs. Kline. I’ll just get my things and leave you all in peace.”

Mercy hurried out of the parlor. She tread lightly on the steps, carefully avoiding the two she knew creaked, and made her way toward her room. The door stood open and she could see the splintered wood of the door jamb where the lock had been kicked in. She should probably pay Bess, the landlady, for damages, but she’d spent her last dollar securing the room.

Mercy entered and went straight to the bed, got down on her knees and did a sweep with her hand to feel for her saddlebags and shoes. Nothing. She tried again, pressing herself even closer to the floor so she could extend her arm further—but again, her hand came in contact with nothing at all. She lifted the bed skirt, pressed her cheek to the floor and looked under the bed. She had little in this world—just her pistol, the clothes on her back, a pair of shoes, and a saddlebag. She might have been able to leave without the shoes, but the saddlebag was another matter. She didn’t know if the men had taken it or if it was still in the house. She stood and thought of what to do next, and that’s when it dawned on her—the bed was made. Neat as a pin. Quilt pulled up, pillow fluffed. It certainly didn’t look like the rumpled bed she’d deserted in the middle of the night. It looked like someone had done some housekeeping in the wee hours. Mercy had never been in her landlady’s room, but she knew where it was. She padded barefoot down the hall.