Sunday, June 29, 2008

Hidden - Prologue


Avon Inspire (May 27, 2008)

Rob's right fist hurt more than she'd remembered. That was the first thing Anna thought as she tried to focus through the pain. Tried not to cry in front of hime.

But that didn't stop Anna from cupping her palm protectively over her cheek, just in case Rob decided to hit her again.

Rob was sitting across from her once more, his crisp Brooks Brothers dress shirt hardly wrinkled. He Scowled. "What Anna? Fro once you have nothing to say?"

With a force of will, she dropped her hand and clasped her palms together. Resolved to stay calm. Yet, one more time, her mind played back to what she'd seen in his office earlier that day. How he'd been cashing checks for personal use from his campaign funds. And, worst of all, the realization that he'd spent some of that money on her. "There isn't anything to say. Not anymore."

"That, my dear, is where you're wrong. I don't ever want to heat that disbelieving, sarcastic tone in your voice again. And once more, you will never even think of mentioning your opinions about my business when we're in public again. Do you hear me?"

He was yelling. Of course she could hear him.

But now she believed his threats. After she'd questioned the receipts she'd found in front of one of his closest staff, Rob had been livid. Less than an hour later he pulled her out of the party, saying they had things to discuss. He's barely spoken a word to her the whole way home. She had a feeling this was coming. And yet has hoped that his anger would subside, that it wouldn't come to this.

"Anna, answer."

"Yes." Unable to help herself, she nodded. The movement swayed the diamond drop earrings. When she'd first received them, she'd loved the sweet tinkling noise they made. Now that she realized they'd been bought with money from Rob's supporters, their weight merely intensified her piercing headache.

Rob's eyes followed the flash of the diamond against the shadows of his living room wall. Anna knew the look that glinted in his eyes. It spoke of satisfaction. Ownership.

How has she been so very wrong about him?

Color returned to his cheeks as Rob leaned back against the cushions of the cream-colored couch. "Don't forget who you are talking to. We have a future together, Anna. We have plans."

She didn't even try to hide the bitterness in her voice. "I don't date men who hit me."

"That was an accident."


His voice hardened. "It was an accident, Anna."

She knew it hadn't been. Instinctively, she knew he'd planned to hit her from the moment she said too much at the party. "Are you sure?"

Almost smiling, he raised his brows. "Come on. We both know I'm not the type of man who would hit a woman. But I'm also not the type of man to let a woman walk all over him. You need to learn your place, Anna. Learn your place and not forget it."

Unfortunately, she was slowly learning her place. She was just sorry it had taken her so long.

And that was the problem, wasn't it? Rob Peterson was all polished veneer. He was smooth talking, gift-giving, perfectly handsome and extremely well-mannered. When he'd first asked her out, Anna had been foolishly excited that he'd even noticed her.

And though he'd seemed possessive and at times controlling, she'd pretended it was only natural that a man like him would want everything to be perfect.

After all, he was running for a seat in the House of Representatives. He was an important man. A lot of people thought so.

As weeks turned to months, she'd quit her job and took another one─a silly position at an insurance company where she didn't have to work full time. Rob has asked that she'd be available at a moment's notice. To attend fundraisers and social galas.

When he took her shopping and paid cash for a closetful of designer dresses, skirts, and shoes, she'd pushed aside her own feeling for the clothes, even thought she would have usually never worn skirts so form-fitting, necklines so low, or heels so high. After all, those things were important to Rob and the clothes were so much nicer than anything she'd ever owned.

But now Rob wasn't going to let her go. She knew it, and he knew it. Now her cheek knew it, too.

She was trapped.

As she sat across from him, felt his gaze on her, noticed that her cheek was swelling, Anna knew there was only one thing to do. She had to get away.

She tried to smile. Let him think she was just going to shrug this off as she had the other times. Standing up, she smoothed the jade green silk sheath around her hips. Stepped toward him on four inch heels. Close enough to smell his cologne.

Close enough for him to touch her again if he wanted to.

Tried to think of a lit he would believe. "I'm sorry about everything Rob. I had no business saying a word about your finances, especially since I love your gifts so much. The truth is, I…I've been nervous about our future."

His dark brown eyes turned languid. "What are you nervous about?"

She picked a reason he would completely accept. "I saw how your were talking with that girl at the party earlier this evening. She was flirting with you nonstop."

"Who?" Rob leaned forward. Ran a finger up the expanse of her bare arm.

"The redhead?" Anna pretended to almost forget the woman's name. "Sammy?"

"Oh. That was Samantha, not Sammy." Oh, so gently, Rob pulled her down next to him. "Don't give her another thought. She's a nobody. You have nothing to be nervous about, baby. No other girl is like you. I get compliments on those pretty green eyes of yours almost every day."

Anna looked down so he wouldn't see the emotion she was trying so hard to conceal. But just as firmly, Rob tilted her chin up, so they were almost eye to eye. Almost tenderly, he wiped away a stray tear from her cheek. "Don't cry, Anna," he murmured, frowning. "I'm just doing what I have to do."

Inside, her nerves were warring. Fear and regret churned together, making her feel faint and nauseous. Anna knew she couldn't continue the charade much longer. "I think I better go home."

"Already?" He glanced at his gold watch. "It's not even midnight."

She tried to smile. "You're forgetting that I'm a working girl. They're expecting me at nine a.m. sharp. "She pulled away and reached for her coat.

He followed her to the door. "As soon as we're engaged, you can quit," he murmured as he helped her slip on the black wool coat over her shoulders. After fastening the top button, he leaned closer and grazed his lips across her ear. "Then your time will be all mine."

Her heart was pounding. "I know it will. I'll see you tomorrow, Rob."

Just as he leaned close to kiss her, his cell phone rang. Looking at the screen, Rob grimaced. "I've got to get this, Anna. Sorry."

She slipped out.

There were twenty steps to the car. She just had to make it twenty steps. With every ounce of effort, Anna walked slowly, her back straight, her head high. Just as if Rob was watching her from the window.

Ten more feet.

Two more feet. She slid into her sedan, turned on the ignition. Placed the car in reverse. Slowly edged the car down the driveway. Switched to drive. The front curtain fluttered as Rob finally walked away.

As she drove down his street, Anna dared to lock the doors. Safe. She was almost safe. The tears came, fast and furious. There was no doubt anymore, she has to get away.

Everyone loved Rob Peterson They loved his smile, they loved his promises. Her parents thought his commanding manner was just what she needed. So far, no one had believed her when she tried to tell them he was dangerous. No one believed that he could hurt her, that he would hurt her. Especially not his brother-in-law, the sheriff.

Yes, as far as everyone was concerned, Anna Metzger already belonged to Rob Peterson.

With a ragged breath, Anna knew what she had to do. Before it was too late, she had to go someplace where no one could find her. She had to hide. By morning, she would have a plan. And then, to almost everyone who knew her…she would be gone.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Calico Canyon - Chapter 1

Calico Canyon

Barbour Publishing, Inc
(July 1, 2008)

O n e

Mosqueros, Texas, 1867

The Five Horsemen of the Apocalypse rode in.

Late as usual.
Grace Calhoun was annoyed with their tardiness at the same time she wished they’d never come back from the noon recess.

They shoved their way into their desks, yelling and wrestling as if they were in a hurry. No doubt they were. They couldn’t begin tormenting her until they sat down, now, could they?

Grace Calhoun clenched her jaw to stop herself from nagging. Early in the school year, she’d realized that her scolding amused them and, worse yet, inspired them. To think she’d begged their father to send his boys to school.

Her gaze locked on Mark Reeves. She knew that look. The glint in his eyes told her he was planning. . .something. . .awful.

Grace shuddered. Seven girls and fifteen boys in her school. Most were already working like industrious little angels.


The noise died down. Grace stood in front of the room and cleared her throat to buy time until her voice wouldn’t shake. Normally she could handle them—or at least survive their antics. But she hadn’t eaten today and it didn’t look as though she’d eat soon.

“Sally, will you please open your book to page ten and read aloud for the class?”

“Yes, Miss Calhoun.” With a sweet smile, six-year-old Sally McClellen, her Texas accent so strong Grace smiled, stood beside her desk and lifted the first grade reader.

Grace’s heart swelled as the little girl read without hesitation, her blue eyes focused on the pages, her white-blond hair pulled back in a tidy braid. Most of her students were coming along well.


Grace folded her skeletal hands together with a prayer of thankfulness for the good and a prayer for courage for the bad. She added prayers for her little sisters, left behind in Chicago, supported with her meager teacher’s salary.

A high-pitched squeak disrupted her prayerful search for peace. A quick glance caught only a too-innocent expression on Ike Reeves’s face.

Mark’s older brother Ike stared at the slate in front of him. Ike studying was as likely as Grace roping a longhorn bull, dragging him in here, and expecting the creature to start parsing sentences. There was no doubt about it. The Reeves boys were up to something.

She noticed a set of narrow shoulders quivering beside Mark. Luke Reeves, the youngest of the triplets—Mark, Luke, and John. All three crammed in one front-row desk built to hold two children. The number of students was growing faster than the number of desks.

She’d separated them, scolded, added extra pages to their assignments. She’d kept them in from recess and she’d kept them after school.

And, of course, she’d turned tattletale and complained to their father, repeatedly, to absolutely no avail. She’d survived the spring term with the Reeves twins, barely. The triplets weren’t school age yet then. After the fall work was done, they came. All five of them. Like a plague of locusts, only with less charm.

The triplets were miniature versions of their older twin brothers, Abraham and Isaac. Their white-blond hair was as unruly as their behavior. They dressed in the next thing to rags. They were none too clean, and Grace had seen them gather for lunch around what seemed to be a bucket full of meat.

They had one tin bucket, and Abe, the oldest, would hand out what looked like cold beefsteak as the others sat beside him, apparently starved half to death, and eat with their bare hands until the bucket was empty.

Why didn’t their father just strap a feed bag on their heads? What was that man thinking to feed his sons like this?

Easy question. Their father wasn’t thinking at all.

He was as out of control as his sons. How many times had Grace talked to Daniel Reeves? The man had the intelligence of the average fence post, the personality of a wounded warthog, and the stubbornness of a flea-bitten mule. Grace silently apologized to all the animals she’d just insulted.

Grace noticed Sally standing awkwardly beside her desk, obviously finished.

“Well done, Sally.” Grace could only hope she told the truth. The youngest of the three McClellen girls could have been waltzing for all Grace knew.

“Thank you, Miss Calhoun.” Sally handed the book across the aisle to John Reeves.

The five-year-old stood and began reading, but every few words he had to stop. John was a good reader, so it wasn’t the words tripping him up. Grace suspected he couldn’t control his breathing for wanting to laugh.

The rowdy Reeves boys were showing her up as a failure. She needed this job, and to keep it she had to find a way to manage these little monsters.

She’d never spanked a student in her life. Can I do it? God, should I do it?

Agitated nearly to tears, Grace went to her chair and sat down.

“Aahhh!” She jumped to her feet.

All five Reeves boys erupted in laughter.

Grace turned around and saw the tack they’d put on her chair. Resisting the urge to rub her backside, she whirled to face the room.

Most of the boys were howling with laughter. Most of the girls looked annoyed on her behalf. Sally had a stubborn expression of loyalty on her face that would have warmed Grace’s heart if she hadn’t been pushed most of the way to madness.

Grace had been handling little girls all her life, but she knew nothing about boys.

Well, she was going to find out if a spanking would work. Slamming her fist onto her desk, she shouted, “I warned you boys, no more pranks. Abraham, Isaac, Mark, Luke, John, you get up here. You’re going to be punished for this.”

“We didn’t do it!” The boys chorused their denials at the top of their lungs. She’d expected as much, but this time she wasn’t going to let a lack of solid evidence sway her. She knew good and well who’d done this.

Driven by rage, Grace turned to get her ruler. Sick with the feeling of failure but not knowing what else to do, she jerked open the drawer in her teacher’s desk.

A snake struck out at her. Screaming, Grace jumped back, tripped over her chair, and fell head over heels.

With a startled cry, Grace landed hard on her backside. She barely registered an alarming ripping sound as she bumped her head against the wall hard enough to see stars. Her skirt fell over her head, and her feet—held up by her chair—waved in the air. She shoved desperately at the flying gingham to cover herself decently. When her vision cleared, she looked up to see the snake, dangling down out of the drawer, drop onto her foot.

It disappeared under her skirt, and she felt it slither up her leg. Her scream could have peeled the whitewash off the wall.

Grace leapt to her feet. The chair got knocked aside, smashing into the wall. She stomped her leg, shrieking, the snake twisting and climbing past her knee. She felt it wriggling around her leg, climbing higher. She whacked at her skirt and danced around trying to shake the reptile loose.

The laughter grew louder. A glance told her all the children were out of the desks and running up and down the aisle.

One of the McClellen girls raced straight for her. Beth McClellen dashed to her side and dropped to her knees in front of Grace. The nine-year-old pushed Grace’s skirt up and grabbed the snake.

Backing away before Grace accidentally kicked her, Beth said, “It’s just a garter snake, ma’am. It won’t hurt you none.”

Heaving whimpers escaped with every panting breath. Grace’s heart pounded until it seemed likely to escape her chest and run off on its own. Fighting for control of herself, she got the horrible noises she was making under control then smoothed her hair with unsteady hands. She stared at the little snake, twined around Beth’s arm.

Beth’s worried eyes were locked on Grace. The child wasn’t sparing the snake a single glance. Because, of course, Beth and every other child in this room knew it was harmless. Grace knew it, too. But that didn’t mean she wanted the slithery thing crawling up her leg!

“Th—ank—” Grace couldn’t speak. She breathed like a winded horse, sides heaving, hands sunk in her hair. The laughing boys drowned out her words anyway.

Beth turned to the window, eased the wooden shutters open, and lowered the snake gently to the ground. The action gave Grace another few seconds to gather her scattered wits.

Trying again, she said, “Thank you, B-Beth. I’m not—not a-afraid of snakes.”

The laughter grew louder. Mark Reeves fell out of his desk holding his stomach as his body shook with hilarity. The rest of the boys laughed harder.

Swallowing hard, Grace tried again to compose herself. “I was just startled. Thank you for helping me.” Taking a step toward Beth, Grace rested one trembling hand on the young girl’s arm. “Thank you very much, Beth.”

Beth gave a tiny nod of her blond head, as if to encourage her and extend her deepest sympathy.

Grace turned to the rioting classroom—and her skirt fell off.

With a cry of alarm, Grace grabbed at her skirt.

The boys in the class started to whoop with laughter. Mark kicked his older brother Ike. Ike dived out of his chair onto Mark. They knocked the heavy two-seater student desk out of line. Every time they bumped into some other boy, their victim would jump into the fray.

Pulling her skirt back into place, she turned a blind eye to the chaos to deal with her clothes. Only now did she see that the tissue-thin fabric was shredded. A huge hole gaped halfway down the front. It was the only skirt she owned.

Beth, a natural caretaker, noticed and grabbed Grace’s apron off a hook near the back wall.

Mandy McClellen rushed up along with Sally and all the other girls. Mandy spoke low so the rioting boys couldn’t overhear. “This is your only dress, isn’t it, Miss Calhoun?”

Grace nodded, fighting not to cry as the girls adjusted the apron strings around her waist to hold up her skirt. She’d patch it back together somehow, although she had no needle and thread, no money to buy them, and no idea how to use them.

Grace looked up to see the older Reeves boys making for the back of the schoolroom.

“Hold it right there.” Mandy used a voice Grace envied.

The boys froze. They pivoted and looked at Mandy, as blond as her sisters and a close match in coloring to the Reeves, but obviously blessed with extraordinary power she could draw on when necessary. After the boys’ initial surprise—and possibly fear—Grace saw the calculating expression come back over their faces.

“Every one of you,” Mandy growled to frighten a hungry panther, “get back in your seats right now.” She planted her hands on her hips and stared. The whole classroom full of boys stared back. They hesitated, then at last, with sullen anger, caved before a will stronger than their own. Under Mandy’s burning gaze, they returned to their seats. Grace’s heart wilted as she tried to figure out how Mandy did it.

When the boys were finally settled, the eleven-year-old turned to Grace, her brow furrowed with worry. “I’m right sorry, Miss Calhoun,” she whispered, “but you have to figure out how to manage ’em yourself. I can’t do it for you.”

Grace nodded. The child spoke the complete and utter truth.

The girls fussed over Grace, setting her chair upright and returning to her desk a book that had been knocked to the floor.

“Miss Calhoun?” Beth patted Grace’s arm.


“Can I give you some advice?”

The little girl had pulled a snake out from under Grace’s skirt. Grace would deny her nothing. “Of course.”

“I think it’s close enough to day’s end that you ought to let everyone go home. You’re too upset to handle this now. Come Monday morning you’ll be calmer and not do something you’ll regret.”

“Or start something you can’t finish,” Sally added.

Grace knew the girls were right. Her temper boiled too near the surface. She was on the verge of a screaming fit and a bout of tears.

My dress! God, what am I going to do about it?

These boys! Dear, dear Lord God, what am I going to do about them?

She tried to listen for the still, small voice of God that had taken her through the darkest days of her life during her childhood in Chicago. He seemed to abandon her today. The good Lord had to know one of His children had never needed an answer more. But if God sent an answer, her fury drowned it out. She’d been putting off a showdown with these boys all term. It was time to deal with the problem once and for all.

Sally slipped her little hand into Grace’s. “Boys are naughty.”

Grace shared a look with Sally and had to force herself not to nod. Seven sweet little girls stood in a circle around her. Grace wanted to hug them all and then go after the boys with a broom, at least five of them. The other ten weren’t so badly behaved. Except when inspired by the Reeves.

God had made boys and girls. He’d planned it. They were supposed to be this way. But how could a teacher stuff book learning in their heads when they wouldn’t sit still or stop talking or quit wrestling?

Digging deep for composure, Grace said, “You girls return to your seats, please. And thank you for your help.”

Beth shook her head frantically, obviously sensing Grace wasn’t going to take her advice.

“It’s all right, Beth. I’ve put this off too long as it is. And thank you again.”

Beth’s feet dragged as she followed her sisters and the other girls to her seat.

Grace waited as the room returned to relative quiet, except for the usual giggling and squirming of the Reeves boys.

Glancing between her chair seat and her open desk drawer, Grace was worried she might develop a nervous tic. She sat down but left the drawer open. An almost insane calm took over her body. “School is dismissed except for Abraham, Isaac, Mark, Luke, and John Reeves.”

Forehead furrowed over her blond brows, Beth shook her head and gave a little “don’t do it” wave.

Grace could tell by the way the sun shone in the west window that it was only a few minutes early for dismissal. Good. That gave her time to settle with these boys, and then she’d have it out with their father. Things were going to change around here!

The rest of the students, stealing frequent glances between her and the blond holy terrors in her midst, gathered up their coats and lunch pails and left the schoolhouse in almost total silence.

And that left Grace.


With the Five Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Sir Kendrick and the Castle of Bel Lione - Chapter 1

Sir Kendrick and the Castle of Bel Lione

(Multnomah Books - June 17, 2008)

Kingdom’s Heart

An Introduction to the Knights of Arrethtrae

Like raindrops on a still summer’s eve, the words of a story can oft fall grayly upon the ears of a disinterested soul. I am Cedric of Chessington, humble servant of the Prince, and should my inadequate telling of the tales of these brave knights e’er sound as such, know that it is I who have failed and not the gallant hearts of those of whom I write, for their journeys into darkened lands to save the lives of hopeless people deserve a legacy I could never aspire to pen with appropriate skill.

These men and women of princely mettle risked their very lives and endured the pounding of countless battles to deliver the message of hope and life to the far reaches of the kingdom of Arrethtrae…even to those regions over which Lucius, the Dark Knight, had gained complete dominion through the strongholds of his Shadow Warriors.

What is this hope they bring? To tell it requires another story, much of it chronicled upon previous parchments, yet worthy of much retelling. Listen then, to the tale of a great King who ruled the Kingdom Across the Sea, along with His Son and their gallant and mighty force of Silent Warriors.

A ruler of great power, justice, and mercy, this King sought to establish His rule in the land of Arrethtrae. To this end He chose a pure young man named Peyton and his wife, Dinan, to govern the land. All was well in Arrethtrae until the rebellion…for there came a time when the King’s first and most powerful Silent Warrior, Lucius by name, drew a third of the warriors with him in an attempt to overthrow the Kingdom Across the Sea.

A great battle raged in the kingdom until finally the King’s forces prevailed. Cast out of the kingdom…and consumed with hatred and revenge…Lucius, known also as the Dark Knight now brought his rebellion to the land of Arrethtrae, overthrowing Peyton and Dinan and bringing great turmoil to the land.

But the King did not forget His people in Arrethtrae. He established the order of the Noble Knights to protect them until the day they would be delivered from the clutches of the Dark Knight. The great city of Chessington served as a tower of promise and hope in the darkened lands of Arrethtrae.

For many years and through great adversity, the Noble Knights persevered, waiting for the King’s promised Deliverer. Even the noblest of hearts can be corrupted, however, and long waiting can dim the brightest hope. Thus, through the years, the Noble Knights grew selfish and greedy. Worse, they forgot the very nature of their charge.

For when the King sent His only Son, the Prince, to prepare His people for battle against Lucius—the Noble Knights knew Him not, nor did they heed His call to arms. When He condemned their selfish ways, they mocked and disregarded Him. When He began to train a force of commoners—for He was a true master of the sword—they plotted against Him.

Then the Noble Knights, claiming to act in the great King’s name, captured and killed His very own Son. What a dark day that was! Lucius and his evil minions—Shadow Warriors—reveled in this apparent victory.

But all was not lost. For when the hope of the kingdom seemed to vanish and the hearts of the humble despaired, the King used the power of the Life Spice to raise His Son from the dead.

This is a mysterious tale, indeed, but a true one. For the Prince was seen by many before He returned to His Father across the Great Sea. And to those who loved and followed Him—myself among them—He left a promise and a charge.

Here then is the promise: the Prince will come again to take all who believe in Him home to the Kingdom Across the Sea. And this is the charge: those who love Him must travel to the far reaches of the kingdom of Arrethtrae, tell all people of Him and His imminent return, and wage war against Lucius and his Shadow Warriors.

Thus we wait in expectation. And while we wait, we fight against evil and battle to save the souls of many from darkness. We are the knights who live and die in loyal service to the King and the Prince. Though not perfect in our call to royal duty, we know the power of the Prince resonates in our swords, and the rubble of a thousand strongholds testifies to our strength of heart and soul.

There are many warriors in this land of Arrethtrae, many knights who serve many masters. But the knights of which I write are my brethren, the Knights of the Prince. They are mighty because they serve a mighty King and His Son. They are…the Knights of Arrethtrae!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Hunted - Chapter 1

The Hunted

(Realms - June 3, 2008)

Chapter 1

Present day

Caleb Saunders dashed through the woods, dodging low-hanging branches, jumping fallen trees, snaking around saplings and undergrowth. He had decided to trek along the untouched forest floor rather than the well-worn path that wove through the trees all the way to Hunter’s Creek.

The path the others were on.

His lungs burned in the chilly November air, but he pressed forward, faster and faster until the trees whizzed by in a brown blur. His eyes darted back and forth, scanning the uneven terrain, calculating, planning every step, every change of direction. Thickets pulled at his jeans and camouflage jacket like tiny claws, trying in vain to slow his progress. Leaves crunched as his feet found footing in the loose soil.

A spotted canopy of orange and red leaves provided the perfect shade cover, allowing only thin rods of light to poke through and slant toward the leaf-covered ground. There were so many hiding places, so many shrubs and fallen trees under which to find concealment, but Caleb knew where he was headed—he had been there a hundred times.

He ran faster, ignoring the slender branches that smacked at his chest and arms. He was the fastest kid in the fifth grade and knew these woods like his own backyard.

Caleb came to a descending slope, paused, quickly surveyed the best route—something he had become very skilled at doing—and then plunged down the hill. His arms flailed wildly, legs pounded the ground. In control, out of control, in control. He fought the pull of gravity and uneven terrain to maintain balance as the leafy ground below rose faster and faster to meet him.

In the small clearing stood his destination, a long-abandoned stone house that had been burned to a blackened shell long before Caleb was born, long before his parents were born. It was last occupied over eighty years ago by a hermit known only as Old Man Yates.

Rumor had it that Yates’s ghost still haunted the site.

Caleb never paid much attention to ghost stories, though. He was getting too old for that. And besides, he’d used the hollowed-out Yates place as a hideout hundreds of times and never saw or heard any ghosts.

He approached the old stone structure and stood in the doorway, resting his hands on the moss-covered stone. The roof was gone and only the first-story walls remained, stained with the residue of ancient smoke and flames. Toward the back of the house there was only a partial remnant of the second-story floor, broken floorboards charred black and supported clumsily by what was left of the wall dividing the dining room from the living room.

In the distance, Caleb could hear the excited laughter of Jeremy and the others. They make so much noise, I can hear them coming a mile away.They would certainly find him if he used one of his usual hiding places—under the first-story staircase or around the back of the house behind theraspberry bush.

Caleb brushed a shock of sweaty hair from his face and searched the ruins for a place to hide, somewhere the others would never even think to look. Of course. The cellar. The boys had a standing dare between them to spend ten minutes in the old cellar. Caleb had been down there once, but he never left the security of the stairs and lasted only four minutes before his panicked nerves pushed him up and back toward the light of day. He had to admit, the place gave him the creeps.

Running his right hand along the rough, moss-and-vine-covered stone foundation wall and his left hand along the brittle wood railing, he slowly descended the chipped and cracked concrete stairs. There were no windows in the cellar, and any light filtering down from above was quickly swallowed by the thick darkness. A musty smell hung in the damp air mixed with the pungent odor of rotting meat.

When he reached the bottom of the steps, Caleb extended one leg in front of him and felt the dirt floor with his sneaker, searching for any obstacle that might trip him. Leaving his hand on the railing, he squatted next to the stairs, not daring to wander too far from the light. He remained crouched in the darkness for a few minutes, slowing his breathing and listening for the sound of his pursuers. Outside, in the world of light and fresh air, birds chirped, a squirrel chattered, and a flock of geese honked overhead, but there was no sound of Jeremy and the others. Maybe they were looking elsewhere, thinking the Yates house too obvious a hiding place.

Or maybe they’re scared. Caleb grinned in the darkness. They’d be
talking about this one for weeks.

All at once, the outside world fell silent. Dead silent. The cellar was airless, as if a great vacuum had been placed at the top of the stairs and sucked every last ounce of oxygen out of it. Caleb could hear nothing but the quiet wheeze of his own breathing and his pulse tapping out a steady rhythm in his ears.

He held his breath and listened. Something moved. Was that footsteps? He listened closer, straining his ears to focus on the muffled sound. It was footsteps, but not from outside, not even from upstairs. They were soft and barely audible, like someone walking barefoot or wearing slippers. But they were near.

He listened closer. A chill raced down his spine. The hair on the back of his neck bristled. His blood ran cold, and a clammy sweat dampened his forehead.

The footsteps were in the cellar with him! Yates’s ghost!

His pulse pounded so loudly in his ears now that he could barely make out the faint steps inching closer. The footsteps fell too softly and unevenly; one was barely distinguishable from the other. Whatever it was in that cave of a cellar was not human.

Caleb shut his eyes and gripped the railing. The footsteps drew closer and stopped right behind him. He could now hear the thing breathing—long inhale; short, quick exhale—and feel its hot breath on the back of his neck. He wanted to run, scream, fight, anything, something, but fear paralyzed him, nailed him to his spot next to the stairs. He was frozen, eyelids pressed together so tight they hurt, the rough square edges of the railing digging into the soft skin of his palms while his body trembled uncontrollably.

Please God, please God, please God.

The thing behind him snorted, and its putrid breath filled Caleb’s nose. He swallowed hard, holding back the bile that rose in his throat. An image of a hideous spirit, all tangled hair and rotted teeth and bulging eyes, screamed in his mind, tying his stomach in a knot.

Finally, after what seemed like hours but was actually only mere seconds, the footsteps retreated and then fell silent. Caleb slowly opened his eyes and turned toward the darkness. Something was there, a vague form, but huge, at least as large as a man. He made a quick move for the steps with every intention of bolting up them into the daylight and screaming for help.

But he was too slow.

The thing lunged out of the blackness, teeth and claws flashing death in the muted light.

At the edge of the woods, the trees met a field that had lain fallow throughout the year. A man’s thin frame was silhouetted against the pale blue sky, breaking the monotony of tall, straight trunks of centuries-old oaks and walnuts.

The man twisted his face and took a long, deep breath, inhaling the aroma of the wild. “Mmmm, how’s that suit ya?” he said in a low hiss.

He then changed his voice, high-pitched and feminine. “Don’t fret, little Stevie; they won’t be botherin’ us anymore. Momma’s gonna protect ya.”

He pulled his hands out of his pockets and rubbed them together, shifted his eyes from side to side, and drew in another breath. “Yeah. Good. We make a good team, ain’t?” His voice was back to the low hiss.

He ran a hand across his stubbled chin as his lips parted in a crooked smile. “I hear ya. I hear ya. You and me, Momma. You and me.”

Exactly three hours later and ninety-five miles north, Joe Saunders had just slipped into a shallow sleep in front of the TV when his eyelids jerked open. He bolted upright on the sofa, forehead wet with sweat, hands trembling, heart banging behind his ribs like a tight drum. He dragged a cool hand across his brow and sucked in a deep breath.

Though he’d only been asleep seconds, he’d had a dream.

Still somewhere between sleep and full consciousness, he sat back against the sofa and closed his eyes. The images were still pasted to the inside of his lids, the vivid detail remarkable. Caleb, his brother’s son, teetered on a rocky precipice. His arms flailed in wide circles. Fear distorted his face. Joe tried to reach for the boy’s hand, but he couldn’t. He was no more than five feet away, but it might as well have been a mile. He was out of reach.

Joe could hear the rush and crash, the thunderous roar of waves pummeling the rocks beneath them. He hollered Caleb’s name. Panic gripped his chest like a vice. Sweat and tears stung his eyes.

Caleb’s right foot slipped on some loose gravel, his arms shot skyward, and he tumbled backward off the cliff.

That’s when Joe awoke.

He sat on the edge of the sofa and rested his elbows on his knees, head in his hands. Caleb loved the water, but to the best of Joe’s knowledge he’d never acquired a heart for cliff diving. This was not a plunge for bragging rights. It was a tragedy.

What a dream. What a terrible, terrible dream.

He had to call Rosa and make sure Caleb was OK.
He picked up his cell phone.

It rang in his hand.


“Joe.” It was Rosa, crying. “Caleb’s missing.”

Joe held the phone to his ear, but only a few random things registered after that: the faint sound of rushing blood in his ear, the trickle of sweat that lodged itself on the corner of his nostril, the sweat on his palm making the phone slick. And Rosa’s voice, weak and thready, fading in and out, “ party...pray...”

Pray. She wanted him to pray. But Joe had given up on prayer ten years ago.

“I’ll be there as soon as I can,” he said. And then she was gone.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Deep In The Heart Of Trouble - Chapter 1

Deep In The Heart Of Trouble

(Bethany House June 1, 2008)

Chapter One

Beaumont, Texas
One Week Later

The years hadn’t been good to Norris Tubbs. His back curved like a bow. Long white hairs grew from his ears in a tangled mess. His nose had increased in width and depth. And his eyes were glassy—but earnestly focused.

“Your father told me I could have Anna,” he said.

“Have Anna?” Tony Morgan asked, taking a sip of coffee.

“Yes. As my wife.”

Tony sucked in his breath, taking the coffee down the wrong pipe, choking himself and burning his throat.

Tubbs thumped him on the back. “Everything was settled.”

“Everything?” he asked, eyes watering.

“Except for informing Anna, of course.”

“Of course.” Still regaining his composure, Tony scanned the group of mourners filling his family’s parlor and caught sight of his sister accepting condolences from the governor of Texas.

Though she wore black from head to foot, the cut and style of her gown was anything but harsh, particularly on her. A modest hat sat upon piles of dark hair, and the form-fitting bodice accentuated her feminine assets.

Tony sighed. With her nineteenth birthday just a week or so away, he wasn’t surprised his father had been considering offers for her hand. But, Norris Tubbs?

Tubbs followed Tony’s line of vision. “I assume you will honor your father’s wishes?”

Pulling his attention back to the part owner of the H&TC Railroad, Tony tried to rein in his exasperation. Once his father’s will was read, he expected to be placed at the helm of Morgan Oil while his older brother ran the more profitable Morgan interests. Therefore, it wouldn’t do to alienate Tubbs.

“Dad never said a thing to me about this.”

“No? Well, I’m sure he intended to, but he just didn’t figure on dropping dead last week.”

Tony smoothed the edges of his moustache. “No, I imagine he didn’t. Nevertheless, Anna will be in mourning for a year, so there’s no need to rush into anything.”

“Now, Tony, it’s almost the twentieth century. Folks aren’t nearly as particular as they used to be about that kind of thing.”

“Maybe some folks aren’t,” he said. “But I am.”

Tubbs stiffened. “Well, perhaps it’s Darius I should be speaking to about this anyway. He’s the oldest, after all.”

Tony set his cup on the tray of a passing servant and reminded himself there was more than one railroad coming through Beaumont.

“You can speak to Darius all you want to, Norris,” he said, “but you’re forgetting that he is only her half brother. I’m her full brother, and I can assure you that her hand will not be awarded to anyone without my express permission.”

The Morgans’ longtime friend and family lawyer, Nathaniel Walker, murmured a few words of condolence to Mother, then ushered her inside his office. Tony led Anna by the arm, leaving Darius to bring up the rear. His half brother crossed to the far side of the room and installed himself in a wing chair. Tony, along with his mother and sister, made do with a small, uncomfortable black-and-white cowhide settee. Horns from about six steers acted as a cushion for their backs.

Walker fished his watch from a vest pocket, confirmed the hour, then pulled a sheaf of pages from a drawer in his grand mahogany desk. The silence, while he fixed a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles to his nose, was awkward and charged.

“I will now read the Last Will and Testament of Blake Huntley Morgan,” he announced.

He began in a strong, even voice, but the farther he went, the slower he read. After a while, the words began to recede into the background, supplanted by the thumping in Tony’s head.

“There must be some mistake,” he finally blurted out, interrupting Walker.

The lawyer looked up. “I’m sorry, Tony. There’s no mistake.”

“But what you’ve read makes no sense. It sounds as if Dad only married Mother to have someone to take care of Darius. Like Anna and I don’t even matter. Or Mother either.”

“Yes,” Walker said softly.

Mother whimpered. Anna placed a black handkerchief to her mouth.

The smell of leather, musty books, and tobacco pressed against Tony’s lungs. He caught his nails against the grain of the settee’s coarse hair. Darius shifted in his chair but showed no visible reaction to the news.

“I don’t understand,” Mother whispered.

Walker cleared his throat. “Leah, you will be allowed to reside in the mansion and awarded a generous stipend for the duration of your life. Anna may also remain at home until she weds, at which time she will receive a respectable dowry.”

“What about Tony?”

“I was just getting to that.” Peering through his spectacles, he looked down at the papers on his desk and took a deep breath. “‘I bequest to my son, Anthony Bryant Morgan...nothing. No portion of my estate, real, personal, or mixed is bequeathed to him.’”

Nothing? Tony thought. Nothing?

Mother squeezed his hand. Bit by bit, her grip tightened until he was sure her wedding band would leave an imprint on his fingers.

“‘Anthony will be endowed with the most valuable gift of all: an education. I charge him to take his knowledge and go higher and farther than even I have.’”

The windows were barely cracked, leaving the room stuffy and hot. A droplet of sweat trickled down Tony’s back.

“‘I hereby declare that after Anthony has reached his majority, my wife is not to share her bequest with him or she will forfeit all monies and inheritance provided herewith.’”

After he reached his majority? At twenty-eight, he was well past that.

As Walker read on, Tony tried to comprehend how his father could have intentionally left him penniless. Unless his brother died, that is, in which case Tony would be the subsequent beneficiary. But the likelihood of that happening anytime soon was extremely improbable. Darius was thirty-one and in excellent health.

Tony glanced at his mother, noting a fine sheen of moisture around her graying hairline. Both she and Anna had worn black serge suits. Mother was prone to fainting, and given the situation and the extreme heat, he was surprised she’d not succumbed already.

Walker finished, turned over the last page of the will and looked at Tony. “Are you all right, son?”

Tight-chested, he kept his voice calm and level. “When? When did he change it?”

Walker straightened the stack he’d made in front of him on the desk. “He didn’t change it. It has been like this for years.”

Tony nodded. “How many years?”

“Since you children were born.” He hesitated. “Well, no, that’s not quite true. He did revise it that time Darius had the fever as a boy. He wasn’t sure Darius would survive and wanted provisions in place.”

Since they were born? His father had disinherited him from the moment of birth? Only making provisions for him in the case of Darius’s premature death?

Bile rose in the back of Tony’s throat as he thought of the countless times he’d tried to earn his dad’s approval. How pathetic.

“Why didn’t you tell me, Nathaniel?” Mother asked, choking.

“It was not my place.”

“Our families have known each other for three generations.”

He removed his glasses, then slowly folded them. “I took an oath, Leah. Would you have me break it?”

“Couldn’t you have convinced him to offer Tony some kind of settlement, to give him a start?”

Walker rubbed his nose where his glasses had been, then directed his answer to Tony. “I’m sorry. Blake said he started with nothing. He wants you to do the same. I will say, however, that as the years passed, he had every faith you would rise to the occasion and then some.”

The tick in Tony’s jaw began to pulse. “I see.”

Darius, who had observed the proceedings in cold silence, finally rose. “Is there anything else, Mr. Walker?”

“No, I believe that is all.”

Tony watched his half brother cross the room. Apart from Darius’s lack of facial hair, the two brothers looked alike. The same olive skin, the same brown eyes, the same tall, lean, and hard physiques.

But they could not have been more different in temperament. Darius had no time for other men’s ethical codes. From the start, he’d been out to please himself. Leaving the Morgan Oil enterprise in his hands was as good as feeding it to the wolves.

But his father had loved his first family and merely tolerated his second. No matter how hard Tony had tried to measure up, obviously nothing had ever changed that.

Beads of sweat glistened above Darius’s mouth. “Thank you for your time, Walker. I’ll be in touch. Would you give us a moment?”

Walker nodded, gathered his papers and stepped out of the office.

Darius moved behind the desk. “Anna,” he said, leaning back in the cavernous calf-skin chair, “clearly there was no love lost between you and Dad. So you should have no objection to cutting the grieving process short. Moping about in unrelieved black will do nothing to advance your chances for matrimony.”

Mother paled even more. “You mean to marry her off before the mourning period has been observed?”

“I most certainly do. You, Tony,” he said, shifting his focus, “will be gone by morning.”

Mother gasped. “Darius! Don’t be ridiculous. He must have time to make a plan, to prepare.”

Tony took several slow, deep breaths.

Darius looked at his stepmother with neither malice nor cruelty, merely disinterest. “I’m afraid you have nothing to say about the matter. Everything now belongs to me, and no one is welcome unless I say he is welcome.”

Tony jumped up from the sofa. “Mother, Anna, leave us.”

Anna immediately stood, slipping her arm around Mother and helping her vacate the room. Their skirts rustled, muffling his mother’s sobs. But Tony heard them. And his anger swelled.

As soon as the door clicked shut behind the women, he advanced toward the desk. He had not struck Darius in years. Not since childhood.

Tony spread both palms on top of the massive desk and leaned over as far as it would allow. “If you try to marry Anna off before a year has passed, or if anything happens to her or Mother while I’m gone, you will answer to me.”

Surprise brightened Darius’s eyes for a moment, then he relaxed. “Don’t be melodramatic, Tony. I have no ill will toward Leah or Anna. We hardly see each other as it is, what with them in the opposite wing of the house.”

“That will all change when you take over Dad’s rooms. Mother has been in the chamber that connects to his for thirty years. Where are you going to put her?”

Darius pursed his lips. “Well, if it will ease your mind, I’ll allow her to choose whatever room she likes for herself.”

“Very generous of you.” The bite in Tony’s tone belied the charitable words.

“Thank you.”

Tony did not remove his hands or his bulk from the desk.

Darius cocked an eyebrow. “Do you mind?”

With slow deliberation, Tony straightened, turned and strode from the room.

Standing on the porch of the dilapidated gable-front house, Tony knocked again. The wooden door opened a crack, revealing a small blond girl shorter than the doorknob.

“Hi there, Miss Myrtle. Is your papa home?”

She said nothing. Just stood there, looking through the crack with big brown eyes.

“How ’bout your mama? Can you tell your mama Uncle Tony’s here?”

She stuck her thumb in her mouth.

He rubbed his jaw. He usually brought Russ’s kids a licorice stick, but with all that had happened, he’d come empty-handed.

Setting his suitcase down, he squatted so he’d be eye level with her, then crossed his arms over his chest, slapped his thighs and clapped his hands to the rhythm of his words. “Miss Myr-tle...?”

He extended his hands, palms up, in front of her. Smiling around her thumb, Myrtle slipped out the door and tapped her free hand against one of his at each repeating word.

“ . . . Mac, Mac, Mac,” he continued. “All dressed in black, black, black. With silver buttons, buttons, buttons. All down her back, back, back.”

Opening his arms, he waited. She came into them and he kissed her downy hair, the smell of dishwater and milk bringing a smile to his face. The door opened behind her.

“Mercy, Tony. You oughta know you can come right on in without waiting for an engraved invitation. How long has she kept you out here for?”

Tony stood, ruffling Myrtle’s head. “I just got here, Iva. Is Russ home?”

“Sure, sure. Come on in.” Shifting the baby boy on her hip, she widened the door, hollered for her husband, then frowned at his suitcase. “You all right?”

He slipped his hands into his pockets. “I’ve been better, I guess.”

He’d known Iva all his life, though she was closer to Anna’s age than his. Russ had claimed her just as soon as her red braids had been released and twisted up in a bun, and then wasted no time in filling up his house with their little ones.

The apron she had tied around the waist of her linsey-woolsey might have started out white but now held smudges of dirt across its entire breadth. Her strawberry hair stood in disarray, long since coming loose from its pins, but her cheeks were rosy and her eyes bright.

The little one on her hip blinked at him and blew bubbles through his lips. Tony reached out and tickled the boy’s chin, causing him to giggle and swat at Tony’s hand.

“You shaved off your moustache,” Iva said.

He swiped his hand across his mouth, still trying to get used to having a clean-shaven face. “Feels funny.”

“Looks nice, though. You have a right handsome face, Tony.”

He smiled.

“I’m sorry about your pa,” she said.


“Well, are you comin’ in or not?”

Picking up the suitcase, he crossed the threshold just as his best friend rounded the corner, his large body filling the hall. Russ had one boy wrapped around his leg, the other on his shoulders.

“My turn, Pa! My turn!” the one on his leg yelled.

Russ’s face sobered and he lifted Grady off his shoulders. No sooner had Grady’s feet hit the floor than they pumped as fast as they could to Tony.

“Unk Tony! Unk Tony!”

Tony lifted him up, throwing him high into the air before catching him and lowering him to the ground. Tony briefly remembered jumping into his own dad’s arms once, but his dad hadn’t caught him.

“Let that be a lesson to you, boy,” his father had said. “Never trust anybody. Not even me.”
Tony felt a tug on his trouser.

“Me too! Me too!” Jason had released Russ’s leg and now stood beside Tony with arms up. Tony repeated the ritual with Jason amidst squeals of not exactly fright, but not exactly delight, either.

“Okay, you two,” Russ said. “Go on to the kitchen with your mama.”

Iva shooed the boys toward the back. “Step lively, now, I’ve just sliced up some juicy peaches.”

All but Myrtle ran to the kitchen.

Russ glanced at the suitcase. “It’s true, then?”

“What have you heard?”

“That your daddy left you with nothing but the clothes on your back.”

“That about sums it up.”

Russ ran his fingers through his sandy hair. It had begun thinning at an alarming rate, leaving him with half the amount he’d had just last year. “I can’t believe it. Why?”

Tony shrugged. “Darius has always been the favorite. We’ve known that from as far back as our memories take us.”

And the memories stretched clear back to their one-room school days, when during lunch Tony had miss-kicked a ball outside, nearly knocking a painter off his ladder. The teenaged painter had come after Tony, cursing and whacking him with his paint paddle.

Darius had done nothing more than watch and laugh. Russ, big even then for his age, grabbed the teener and shoved him clear to kingdom come, promising more if the fella didn’t leave Tony alone.

They’d been inseparable ever since. Didn’t matter that Russ’s family lived across the tracks. The two boys were either at Russ’s place or Tony’s or somewhere in between.

“I came to say good-bye,” Tony said.

“Good-bye?” Russ’s eyebrows lifted. “You in a rush or do you have time to sit a spell?”

Tony checked his pocket watch. “I’ve a ticket on the noon train. That leaves me a little less than an hour.”

“Well, come on, then.”

The two men stepped onto the front porch and settled into a couple of rockers, Myrtle right behind them. She crawled up into her daddy’s lap and curled into a ball, sucking vigorously on her thumb.

“What are you going to do?” Russ asked.

“I’m not sure, really.” Pulling out his pocketknife, he flipped it open and began to clean his fingernails. “I bought a ticket up to Corsicana. Thought I’d try to see if I could get hired on as a cabletool worker for Sullivan Oil.”

“A toolie! For Sullivan Spreckelmeyer? You gotta be joshing me. You don’t know the first thing about it. Do you have any idea how the boys treat rookies? They’d eat you alive.”

Tony looked out over the yard. Iva kept it swept, neat, and orderly. No grass, but the azaleas around the house’s foundation would rival any in the pampered gardens around the mansion he’d built for his father.

He sighed thinking about all the work he’d put into supervising the construction of that monstrosity, hoping to earn his father’s approval. Instead, his father made him pay rent just to live within its walls.

“Are you listening to me, Tony? You know nothing about working in the oil field.”

Closing the knife, he returned it to his pocket and set his chair to rocking. “I’ve been doing the bookkeeping for Morgan Oil since its inception. I’ve handled its shipments, inspected deliveries, corrected bills, paid bills, recorded payments. If I can do all that, I figure I can manage working in the fields.”

“It’s nothing like sitting behind that desk of yours. A driller is judged on his ability to fight first and hold his liquor second. What do you think those boys are gonna do when they find out you don’t drink?”

“Fight me?” Tony hooked his hands behind his head, leaning back as far as the rocker would allow. “Sure am glad you taught me how to fight, Russ. ’Course, I can’t handle a bullwhip the way you can, but I’m plenty good with my fists. So, if that’s what they judge a man on first, maybe I’ll be exempt from the other. Besides, I’m not qualified to be a driller. I’ll have to start on the bottom rung. Nobody’s gonna pay any attention to some lowly rope choker.”

Russ rested his chin against Myrtle’s head. “They will if his last name is Morgan.”

“My last name isn’t Morgan anymore. I’m going by Mother’s maiden name. From here on out, I’m Tony Bryant.” He rubbed the skin below his nose. “Besides, I shaved off my moustache. Nobody will recognize me.”

Russ shook his head. “I saw that, and ridding yourself of that colossal mess must have taken a good ten pounds off of ya. But moustache or no, it’s a small world, the oil business. Everyone is gonna know who you are.”

“I don’t think so. I never went out to Dad’s fields. I spent my time either behind my desk or at the rail station.”

“Which brings us back to my point. You aren’t cut out for this kinda work. We work from can-see to cain’t-see. It’s brutal, dangerous, rough, and dirty. You talk like an educated man, but the boys have a vocabulary all their own.”

Tony smirked. “You think because I spent my youth sweeping out the church and my adulthood adding up numbers that I don’t have the stamina for outdoor labor?”

“I think you think you can.”

“I’m not afraid of hard work, Russ. And it’s not like I can’t tell the difference between a Stillson wrench and a pair of chain tongs. Morgan Oil doesn’t own one single tool that I haven’t inspected and logged in first.”

“But do you know what they’re used for?”

“I’m a fast learner.”

Myrtle began to squirm. Russ set her down, pointed her toward the door and gave her bottom a soft pat. “Go on, Myrtie. Mama’s in the kitchen.”

They watched her toddle to the door, then struggle to open it. Russ got up, opened it for her and let her inside before returning to his seat. “Maybe I better go with you.”

“No, Russ. Thanks, but I need to do this on my own. Besides, you have Iva and the kids. You can’t be leaving them.”

“And just how long do you suppose Darius will keep me on, do you think? Not long, I’d wager.”

Tony popped open his pocket watch and stood. “You’re the best driller in the entire state of Texas. And Darius may be a shoddy businessman, but he’s no fool. He’s gonna need somebody in charge who knows what he’s doing.”

“But don’t you resent it?” Russ asked. “Wouldn’t you like to see Morgan Oil go down in flames and Darius with it?”

Not a question Tony wanted to examine too closely. “What I want is to build a bigger and better oil company than Darius ever dreamed of. To do that, I need to know all there is to know about the business. Starting with how to work a rig.”

“Maybe I oughta give you my hat. It’s splattered with slush from the pits, and no decent driller would be seen without one.”

Tony laughed. “I may be a six-footer, but your hat would still swallow me whole. Besides, what would a toolie be doing wearing a driller’s hat? Wouldn’t be right, somehow.” He stuck out his hand.

Russ grasped it. “Do you suppose you’ll meet Spreckelmeyer’s daughter?”

“What daughter?”

“The bloomer-gal,” Russ said, rolling his eyes. “The one that caused such a ruckus up in New York City and had her name plastered in all the papers.”

“Bloomer-girls,” Tony scoffed. “They are nothing but a roly-poly avalanche of knickerbockers.”

Russ chuckled. “You better not let your new boss hear you say so. I hear he sets quite a store on that gal of his.”

“I figure that unless bloomer girls have suddenly decided to roustabout in those trousers of theirs, then I won’t be running into much of the fair sex—seeing as I’ll be working from dawn to dusk.” He picked up his suitcase.

“Well, you take care of yourself, you hear?” Russ said, slapping him on the shoulder.

“Will do.” He’d made it halfway to the gate when Russ’s deep bass voice came floating to him in a parody of a popular nursery song.

“Sing a song of bloomers out fer a ride,
With four and twenty bad boys runnin’ at her side,
While the maid was coastin’, the boys began to sing,
‘Get on to her shape, you know,’ and that sort of thing.”

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

House of Dark Shadows by Robert Liparulo

House of Dark Shadows first chapter and a lot of cool giveaways, plus the first chapter to both of the Dreamhouse Kings books can be found at the link below!

The Dreamhouse Kings Series has three contests that you will not want to miss...Dream the Scene, a weekly "Thanks For Reading Trivia contest, and the Dreamhouse Kings Street Team contest. There are also free bookplates that you can request, and a chapter of each book that you can download!

You can get all those goodies HERE.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

I Heart Bloomberg - Chapter 1

I Heart Bloomberg

David C. Cook (April 1, 2008)

Megan Abernathy

“Three female housemates wanted to share luxurious four-bedroom residence in upscale urban neighborhood. Classic historical house within walking distance of downtown, campus, and shopping. No smokers, no drugs, no pets. $550 a month includes all utilities. Oneyear lease, no exceptions. First and last, plus cleaning deposit required. Send résumé to Ms. Weis, PO Box 4721, Herrington Heights.”

Megan Abernathy folded the newspaper in half and circled the ad with her neon green highlighter pen. Then she read the words again, more carefully this time. This place sounded pretty swanky. And it should be, at $550 a month for just a room! She glanced around her crowded and messy bedroom—one of two in a crummy little apartment she shared with three other young women.

To be fair, it was her roommate’s half of the bedroom that looked the worst. Megan’s side was relatively neat. Well, other than the plastic storage crates stacked against the wall. But that’s what came from remaining in a less than satisfactory housing situation for so long. It had seemed like a smart move a couple years back—a real leap from dormitory living, but still on campus. Now it felt like a jail cell.

Megan kicked a stray flip-flop back to Bethany’s side of the room. She had meant to find another place to live after graduation, along with a job. But then Dad got sick in early May. And the summer slipped sideways with his nonstop medical treatments, hospitalizations, and finally, after the doctors admitted they’d exhausted all options, his funeral in late August. Consequently she had no time to think about housing or job possibilities or much of anything to do with her future. And maybe it didn’t matter anyway. Maybe she just didn’t even care anymore.

“Don’t become a martyr,” her mother had warned when she dropped Megan back at the rundown apartment a couple of weeks ago. “Your portion of Dad’s life insurance can easily help you afford a bigger and better place, sweetheart. You did so well in school, and we never really celebrated your graduation. I’m sure that Dad would’ve wanted you to—”

“I’ll be fine,”Megan had reassured her. “I just need to find a job.” Her plan had been to get her feet under her before moving to a better place. Of course, she couldn’t mention her regrets over not putting in applications for teaching positions last spring. That would only make her mom feel worse. Now it was the end of September, way too late to snag a teaching job. Instead, she told her mom not to worry. “I just want to take a year to figure things out,” she said.

“A year can be a lifetime.”Momsighed, then gave her a kiss on the cheek.

“How about you, Mom?” Megan suddenly remembered that her mother was going home to an empty house now, a totally different lifestyle. “Will you be okay?”

“With God’s help, I will.” Then Mom frowned up at the dismal apartment complex behind Megan. “Just promise me that you’ll at least consider another place to live. I worry about your safety in this neighborhood.”

Now, just two weeks later, Megan wondered if her mom was right about this neighborhood after all. The headlines in this morning’s paper reported that another college coed seemed to be missing. Since the sophomore had only been gone two days, a missing-person report hadn’t been filed, but the girl’s roommate felt certain that foul play was involved, and no family members had seen her either. This was the second female student to go missing in six months. And the truth was, it creeped Megan out. Not having classes to distract her only made matters worse and gave her more time to fixate on things.

More than that, she regretted not giving up her space in this apartment last June, back when she’d begun to suspect that her roommate was turning into a wild child.

Bethany had seemed okay when she moved in a year ago. She was a junior and fairly serious about school, but by springtime things started to deteriorate. Last summer, while Megan was gone, Bethany turned their room into a pigsty and, according to the other roommates, became even more indiscriminate about her male friends and partying habits. At this rate, Megan would be surprised if Bethany would even manage to graduate this year.Megan warned Bethany that her late-night partying could get her into serious trouble, not unlike the poor girl who had been missing since Friday.

Megan used her foot to nudge several stray clothes and mismatched shoes onto the skanky-looking pile of dirty laundry that seemed to be smoldering at the foot of Bethany’s unmade bed. Then she liberally sprayed this festering mound with Febreze—her new best friend—and hoped that dirty laundry wasn’t combustible. Satisfied that she was keeping the stench at bay, she returned to perusing the classifieds.

She had to get out of here. Whether to escape her raunchy roommate or the fear of some campus criminal, today, she decided, was D-day. D for determination. After slogging around in a slightly depressed slump for the past few weeks, she’d forced herself out of bed first thing this morning and went out to pick up the newspaper. Now Megan was determined to 1) get a job, any job, and 2) move out. And not necessarily in that order. After carefully searching the help-wanted section she had wandered on to the housing ads, which, typical of autumn and the beginning of school, were less than promising. But that one with the “luxurious four bedrooms” caught her eye, and it sounded surprisingly tempting just now. But to send a résumé? Just to rent a room? It seemed a little over the top.

Then again, the house did sound nice. Maybe it would be worth sending her résumé. How much trouble would it be? Just turn on her computer and pull up the doc and print it out. She needed to do this anyway if she was going to apply for those two jobs that she’d highlighted this morning. Easy breezy.

Of course, Megan never liked doing things the easy way. So, after she pulled up her résumé, which she’d edited just two weeks ago, she felt compelled to go over it again thoroughly, tweaking here and there to make sure it appeared impressive enough for this “upscale” and “classic” house that she suddenly felt desperate to inhabit. She imagined herself going to work from a beautiful home where she had a large closet with an organized and well-maintained wardrobe, not to mention a bedroom all to herself, perhaps a master suite? Maybe she would splurge on a bedroom set, even if it was simply from Ikea. And she’d get some cool bedding and bath linens and perhaps an area rug too. It was sounding better by the minute.

After about an hour, she was satisfied, or nearly. She printed out her perfected résumé on pale pink stationery, something she would never do for a job interview because it would look too girly; but she hoped this might get the homeowner’s attention. Megan wanted to show this woman that she wasn’t just the run-of-the-mill, unemployed college grad. She carefully folded the two pages and placed them in a matching pale pink envelope and, using her best penmanship, addressed it.

Then, not wanting to waste time—it was Saturday and noon was the last mail pickup on this part of campus—Megan hurried out to the mailbox in front of the apartments and slipped it in, pausing to silently ask God to give it his blessing.

“Hey, Megan!” The nasal sound of that voice was familiar—and it seemed there would be no escaping it.Megan turned to see Gwen Phillips, a girl she’d known since middle school, quickly approaching.

“Hi, Gwen,” said Megan, forcing a smile.

“I haven’t seen you around since graduation,” said Gwen as she joined her. “I thought maybe you’d gone home to recover.” She laughed. “Or have you moved off campus?”

“No,” admitted Megan. She nodded to the dull tan building behind her. “I still live here.”

Gwen made a face. “How can you stand that place?”

Megan shrugged. “Actually, I’m thinking about moving out.”

“I’m thinking about moving too,” said Gwen eagerly. “Especially after hearing about Rebecca Grant being missing now. Her roommate is certain that Rebecca was abducted.”

“Do you know her?”

“Not really, but my roommate had a class with her, and she talked to Rebecca’s roommate, so it feels like I do.”

“It’s too bad.”

“And it’s probably going to turn out just like Amanda LeCroix. Can you believe it was last March that she went missing and they still haven’t found her body yet?”

“Her body?” Megan frowned.

“Well, she’s obviously been murdered. And who knows what else? Anyway, I don’t blame you for wanting to move off campus. I’ve still got two terms left, but I hate living in a dorm, and it feels totally unsafe. There’s absolutely no security whatsoever.”

Megan just nodded, trying to think of a way to disengage from Gwen. In fact, all her instincts told her to end this conversation ASAP. But today’s morning devotion had included that bothersome little scripture about loving one’s enemies. And while Gwen wasn’t exactly an enemy per se—she was actually a fellow Christian—Megan did not consider her a friend. In fact, Megan usually went out of her way to avoid this obnoxious girl. She knew it was wrong, maybe even sinful, not to mention totally judgmental on her part, but Megan seriously disliked Gwen Phillips.

It might’ve started with that time in seventh grade when Gwen publicly disinvited Holly Benson from a sleepover because Gwen declared her “unsaved.” Gwen was one of those Christians who thought if the Bible was a “sword,” then she should use it to cut other people into little pieces—people who weren’t “saved” anyway. Megan didn’t have much patience for that sort of thing.

“Anyway, I’ve been considering moving off campus myself,” said Gwen eagerly. “I mean I still want to be close by, but I’ve been doing some research and I’ve found that it’s kind of slim pickings around here, not to mention spendy. But, hey, Megan, maybe you and I should consider getting something together. Maybe we could find a small house or a condo or—”

“I…uh…I’ve already got something in mind,” said Megan quickly.

“What?” Gwen stepped closer and Megan stepped back.

“Well, it was an ad I saw, and I’ve already applied for it, actually.” Okay, that wasn’t completely true. But at least her résumé was officially in the mail now.

“Which ad?” Gwen queried doggedly. “Where was the place?”

“Oh, I don’t know … I mean it didn’t have an address. Just a house, you know.”

“Was it that four-bedroom, the one that sounded pretty shee-shee and uptown and all that?”

Megan shrugged as if she were unsure, although she was in fact not.

“Well, if that’s the one, you might as well forget it. It sounds like everyone is trying to get into it. You won’t have the slightest chance.”

Megan smiled as if it made no difference. “Yeah, you’re probably right.”

“So you want to look into something with me then?”

Megan glanced at her watch. “Uh, actually, I need to get going. I’m supposed to meet someone right now, Gwen.”

“Well, call me,” urged Gwen. “You know my cell number, don’t you?”

Megan nodded. “Oh, sure. I’ve got it.”

“See ya then.”

“Later,” said Megan in a forced cheerful voice. “Take care, Gwen!” Then she turned and ran up the steps to the apartment, feeling a mixture of guilt and relief. She hated lying to anyone. But more than that, she couldn’t bear to spend another minute with Gwen Phillips!

Still, she felt like she’d wasted her whole morning as she went back into her smelly apartment, kicking a wadded sweatshirt as she walked through the door. Gwen was probably right—Megan probably didn’t have the slightest chance of getting into that luxurious house.

She flopped onto her bed and let out a big sigh. She knew that she should get out of this stuffy room, get some fresh air and some fall sunshine—maybe even put on her running shoes and take a jog. But ever since Dad had died…well, she just wasn’t functioning quite like she used to. It was hard to believe that friends had once called her a perennial optimist. Some had even made fun of her—calling her Pollyanna because she could find the bright side of anything. Until this past summer anyway.
That’s when skepticism had crept in … when she’d started to change.

Megan’s degree was in art education, but she’d almost majored in psychology and consequently knew enough about depression to know that perhaps she was dealing with it now. But Megan also knew that, unlike many unfortunate depression sufferers, she had God. Couldn’t God stave off depression for her? For the past few weeks, she’d been reading her Bible daily, which was much better than ever before. Shouldn’t that make a difference? But even as she told herself these things, she felt that familiar
lump in her throat as tears of frustration gathered inside of her.

“Christians aren’t immune to sadness,” her good friend Jarred had told her recently. “Trying to pretend that you’re not grieving won’t make the sadness stop, Megan.”

“But it’s been weeks,” she said. “And I know that Dad’s with God. He was a Christian, you know.”

“I know.” Jarred had put his hand on her shoulder, probably practicing his counseling skills. “But you gotta admit that you still miss him, right?”

She nodded, knowing full well where this was going. Jarred was leading a grief therapy group as part of his master’s thesis. More and more, he seemed determined to include her as one of his practice cases.

“Come to my group,” he urged. “You’d be a real asset, Megan. There are only a couple of other Christians. We need you there.”

“I’ll think about it,” she’d told him. But that was about all she’d done. She looked at the blue flyer he’d given her. It was still lying on the coffee table where she’d tossed it a couple weeks ago. Now it was partially buried beneath her other roommates’ piles of junk mail and a couple of old pizza boxes. According to the flyer, the group met on Saturdays at five. She knew she should go, but she also knew that she wouldn’t. And she knew that she should probably go outside and take a walk or a run or get a cup of coffee. But she also knew that she wouldn’t. Instead, she went back to her smelly room and pulled down the shades and crawled into her bed. Maybe she would burrow in and stay there until Christmas.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

From A Distance - Chapter 1

From A Distance

(Bethany House June 1, 2008)

Rocky Mountains, Colorado Territory

April 15, 1875

Elizabeth Garrett Westbrook stepped closer to the cliff's edge, not the least intimidated by the chasm's vast plunge. Every moment of her life had been preparing her for this. That knowledge was as certain within her as the thrumming inside her chest. At thirty-two, she still wasn't the woman she wanted to be, which was partially why she'd traveled nineteen hundred miles west to Timber Ridge, Colorado Territory. To leave behind a life she'd settled for, in exchange for the pursuit of a dream, for however long she had left.

A chill fingered its way past her woolen coat, into her shirtwaist, and through the cotton chemise that lay beneath. She pulled the coat closer about her chest and viewed the seamless river and valley carved far below, the mountains heaved up and ragged, draped in brilliant dawn to the limits of sight. She peered down to where the earth ended abruptly at the tips of her boots and the canyon plunged to breathtaking depths.

The Chronicle offices in Washington, D.C., were housed in a four-story building, and she estimated that at least ten of those buildings could be stacked one atop the other and still not reach the height of the cliff where she stood. She'd never before experienced such a sense of possibility. Standing here, she felt so small in comparison to all of this, yet in awe that the same Creator who had orchestrated such grandeur was also orchestrating the dissonant fragments of her life.

The competition had been rigorous, but she'd made it—one of three final candidates being considered for the position of staff photographer and journalist at the Washington Daily Chronicle. The other two candidates were men—men she'd met, liked and respected, and who knew how to frame the world through a lens as well as they did with words—which meant she would have to work extra hard to prove herself.

A breeze stirred, and she brushed back a curl. She inhaled the crisp, cold air, held it captive in her lungs, and then gave it gradual release, as the doctors had instructed. Hailed for its purity and ability to heal, the mountain air was even thinner than she had expected, and more invigorating.

Refocusing on her task, she strapped on her shoulder pack and checked the knotted rope encircling her waist for a second time, then untied her boots and placed one stockinged foot onto the felled tree.

She tested her weight on the natural bridge and judged it would more than hold her. Even though the tree looked solid, she'd learned the hard way that things were not always as they appeared. She trailed her gaze along the length of the gnarled trunk to where it met with the opposite ledge some twenty feet away. Heights had never bothered her, but once she started across, she purposed to never look down. Better to keep your focus on the goal rather than on the obstacles.

She adjusted the weight of her pack, concentrating, focusing, and took that crucial first step.

"Don't you go fallin' there, Miz Westbrook!"

Startled by the interruption, Elizabeth stepped back to safety and turned to look behind her. Josiah stood on the winding mountain trail, gripping the other end of the rope that was secured to a tree behind him.

Uncertainty layered his mahogany features. "I's just offerin' one last warnin', ma'am. 'Fore you set out."

Heart in her throat, she tried to sound kind. "I assure you, I'm fine, Josiah. I've done this countless times." Though, granted, never over so great a height. But be it eight feet or eight hundred, the ability to traverse a chasm successfully lay in focus and balance. At least that's what she kept telling herself. "But it would help me if you would stop your screaming."

His soft laughter was as deep as the canyon and gentle as the breeze. "I ain't screamin', ma'am. Womenfolk, now, they scream. Us men, we yells."

She threw him a reproving look. "Then, please ... stop your man-like yelling."

He tugged at the rim of his worn slouch hat. "I won't be havin' to yell if you'd start actin' like a normal-headed woman. Instead of some ... hoople-head traipsin' herself across a log for some picture of a bird's nest."

The felled tree was large, nearly fifty inches in circumference, hardly the log Josiah referred to, and crossing it to the opposite ledge would provide a better vantage point of the eagle's nest. The aerie was built on a precipice jutting from the side of the mountain, slightly below the level of the cliff and some thirty feet beyond. The photograph of the nest with the chasm below and the mountains in the backdrop would be breathtaking—if she didn't fall and break her neck first.

She'd crossed wider drop-offs on much narrower tree bridges than this. Doing such things always made her feel a little like a girl again, and took her back to a time when she hadn't yet been told that certain things were impossible.

"May I remind you that I'm paying you, very well"—she raised a brow, appreciating the ease of banter they'd shared since the outset of their association—"to carry my equipment and assist me in my work, not to offer opinions on my decisions."

"Ain't no extra charge for them, ma'am. They's free."

She shook her head at his broad smile. For the past week Josiah Birch had followed her instructions to the letter, as well he should. When properly motivated, the Washington Daily Chronicle had deep pockets.

Two other men had applied for the job as her assistant. They'd both seemed capable, but there was something about Josiah Birch that she innately trusted. He wasn't an educated man, but he knew how to read and write, and he'd learned to handle and mix the chemical solutions for her trade as fast as she had. And that he weighed twice what she did and held the excess in lean hard muscle and in an honest, open gaze had only bolstered his nonexistent résumé.

Focusing again, Elizabeth placed her right foot on the tree. Arms outstretched like a tightrope walker's, she compensated for the heavier-than-usual shoulder pack and took a carefully plotted first step.

Then a second step. And a third ...

Approximately twelve feet below, a rock ledge protruded from the mountainside. It would break her fall should the rope fail for any reason, but the ledge only extended out halfway beneath the natural bridge. From there, it was a sheer drop down to the canyon floor. Not easily intimidated by heights, she kept her focus on her footing and occasionally glanced to the other side.

Inch by inch, the ledge disappeared from view. She resisted the temptation to look down at the river winding like a snake in the valley below. A gust of wind came from behind and pitched her forward. Loose curls blew into her eyes. She flailed for footing ... and found it. But the rope around her waist suddenly went taut and pulled her back.

"No, Josiah!"

Every muscle in her body tensed. Her back spasmed. She struggled to stay upright. The weight strapped to her shoulders tempted her to lean forward, but leaning too far could prove disastrous. Then she did what she knew not to do—

The snaking river below blurred in her sight.

She quickly pulled her gaze back to the ledge and, as taught from the age of six, imagined a ramrod extending from heaven's gate straight down through her spine and into the tree trunk beneath her. Slowly she felt her chin lift. As did her shoulders. Her legs trembled, but she regained her equilibrium and continued on across, one foot in front of the other.

With a rush of exhilaration she stepped from the tree onto solid rock again. Terra firma. She brushed back her hair and, masking her relief, looked at Josiah standing on the opposite ridge. "There, you see? I told you not to worry."

His dark eyes were wide, his knuckles a noticeably lighter shade as he gripped the rope. "You done scared ten years off'a me, ma'am. And they's years I coulda used." As if an invisible weight had been removed, his broad shoulders lifted.

Elizabeth set down her pack and opened it, excitement still coursing through her. A bit more excitement than she'd bargained for, but having made it across only sweetened the success. "I'm sorry, Josiah. That wasn't my intent. But I've been doing this since I was a little girl. I used to outrun and outclimb every boy I knew." She eyed the eagle's nest a good twenty feet away. "I could outride them too."

"Bet them boys liked playin' with you, all right."

"Actually ... no. They didn't like it because I never let them win. Not when I could help it anyway." She unpacked her equipment, mindful of the rope still tied about her waist, and a particular memory came to mind. A memory of an afternoon at the riding stables, years ago. She'd felt similar exhilaration then as she did now—until her father discovered what had transpired. A bully of a boy had challenged her to a horse race. And she'd beaten him squarely. At the time she hadn't known that he was the son of her father's superior officer, and had not considered the possibility that her father and his fellow officers would catch her riding straddle-legged and wearing breeches beneath her skirt.

She'd long ago given up trying to forget the embarrassment that had darkened his face. And little had she known then what a defining moment that would be in her life.

Made of sticks and larger twigs, the aerie appeared to be at least seven feet wide and nearly that deep, and was built onto a ledge in the side of the mountain. Masterful. Even at this distance, she could distinguish feathers and tufts of grayish white down protruding from the sides. The nest was empty, for now. If only its occupant were nearby so she could capture a photograph of it too. Not that an eagle would remain stationary long enough for her to take its picture. That's what made taking pictures of animals—and fidgety people—such a challenge. If the subject moved, even the slightest bit, the image appeared ghosted once she developed it.

Since seeing the photographs of a place called Yosemite two years earlier, she'd dreamed of coming to the western territories, of taking photographs of the frontier—a place so far removed from the nation's capital and Maryland, her birthplace.

While landscapes such as the one before her were breathtaking, pictures of wildlife were what Wendell Goldberg, her employer at the Chronicle, truly wanted. Spectacular photographs of wildlife he'd written in a telegram days earlier—as if she needed the reminder. Along with those photographs, he wanted real-life adventures from people who lived in the West. Stories that championed the human spirit and that would entice would-be travelers and game hunters to venture west to the Colorado Territory—patronizing a travel company that was conveniently owned by the Chronicle's largest shareholder, Adam Chilton.

The travel company was only a small portion of Chilton Enterprises. The bulk of the company's fortune lay in hotel properties, specifically resort spas. Word had spread back east about the therapeutic hot springs in this region. Their curative powers were the topic of conversation at extravagant cotillions and women's teas, and their attributes were lauded in the plush leather surroundings of gentlemen's clubs and smoking rooms. Chilton Enterprises requested that she take photographs of property in the area that they were considering for their next endeavor. And in exchange, their company would advertise exclusively in the Chronicle.

Wendell Goldberg was forever capitalizing on business opportunities such as these, and she considered it an honor to be personally mentored by the man—even if she didn't always agree with his tactics or his opinions.

"You best back away a mite, Miz Westbrook." Josiah's voice held gentle entreat. "Gonna be hard to help you from all the way over here. You liable to go slammin' into the mountain 'fore I can get you up."

She took a small conciliatory step back from the edge. "Satisfied?"

His cheeks puffed. "Ain't 'bout me bein' satisfied, ma'am. 'Bout you hirin' me to see you safe up these mountains and on back down again. I ain't been knowin' you but for a week, but you hangin' off the side of some mountain ..." He scoffed. "I don't mean no disrespect, but that don't bode well for your soundness of mind."

Elizabeth laughed. "I appreciate your concern, but I assure you, my state of mind is quite sound. From now on, understanding that we'll be traveling together"—she attempted a somber tone—"I'd prefer it if you wouldn't sugarcoat your opinions, Mr. Birch. Speak your mind plainly, if you would. Without fear of offending me."

He mumbled something she couldn't make out, but could well imagine, and then took a cross-armed stance that reminded her of a famous Negro orator she'd once heard. "I just tryin' to do my job, ma'am. Like you hired me to do. That and keep the truth as plainspoken as I can."

Plain-spoken truth ... How refreshing that was. And she preferred that too, however abrasive or uncompromising, to the sting of having one thing spoken to her face and another behind her back—an occurrence she hoped she'd left behind her back east. "I think you and I will make a good pair, Josiah." However an unlikely one.

"I'm inclined to think that way too, Miz Westbrook. Long as you don't go do somethin' foolish and end up at the bottom of some mountain."

Choosing to ignore that last comment, she lifted the nine-pound camera from the bottom of the burlap bag and situated it as close to the edge as she dared so that it encompassed both the view of the eagle's nest and that of the valley below with the mountain range in the distance. She looked around for small rocks and placed them beneath the camera to balance it on the uneven ground.

Since she couldn't carry over all of her supplies, she had prepared the camera's wet glass plate beforehand and already had it inserted into its light-protective holder. Which meant only a short time remained for her to take the photograph, return to the other side, and develop the glass plate before the light-sensitive chemicals dried on the surface. It was a tedious process when she was in a darkroom, but was even more so in the field. If the glass plate dried out, or got the slightest crack, it became useless.

She lay flat on the cliff, arranging her skirt over her legs, and worked to get the image focused in the glass viewer.

When Josiah had met her with the horses outside the boardinghouse this morning, darkness had ruled the predawn skies. They'd tethered the mounts at the base of the mountain an hour ago, and with the aid of lanterns, they'd started their trek. Then the eastern horizon had begun to stir, showing its intent, until finally dawn rose to reveal the before-hidden crevices and canyons, and the mountain peaks rising so high they disappeared into the pinkish-purple clouds.

"I'm bettin' you done real good in your schoolin', ma'am."

She smiled at his phrasing. "I did well enough, I guess." She lined up the viewer, making sure the North Maroon Bell showed clearly off to the right. The varying distances of objects would give the frame its needed depth. Splendid. "But one of my teachers, a Mr. Ainsworth ... he shared the same opinion as the boys I was telling you about. He didn't encourage my athletic prowess."

"I take that to mean he didn't like your ridin' and climbin'?"

She chuckled. "No, he didn't like it one bit. He said I was ... boyish and that my assertiveness was unsuitable and unattractive. Not qualities becoming of a young lady." Funny how she remembered Ainsworth's exact wording and could still hear his irritating nasally tone. The audacity of that pompous, overconfident—

"Don't sound like somethin' wise for a teacher to be sayin' to a young girl. 'Specially to one who prob'ly coulda whupped his hide." Josiah gave a high-pitched hoot, and his laughter echoed against the canyon walls.

Laughing with him, Elizabeth slid the protective holder into the camera slot and removed the exposure panel. She then uncapped the brass cover from the lens and let science work its wonder.

Her stockinged foot kept rhythm on the cliff as she silently recited the oft-remembered words from a speech given at an event her father had insisted she attend years prior. "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that ..."

It was a speech considered a disappointment by most in attendance that day, but not by her. Twenty years old at the time, standing hushed beside Tillie, her Negro nanny—whose full name of Aunt Matilda had been cast aside somewhere during childhood—she remembered every detail of that solemn gathering on the battlefield at Gettysburg, and would as long as she lived.

"The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here ..."

The wind caught the feathers in the nest, and she wished she could capture this moment in a truer sense of time, so people would actually see those feathers moving and could hear the wind as it whistled low over the mountain and dove deep into the canyon below. An idea came for an article to accompany this photograph when she mailed it to Wendell Goldberg at the end of the week, and she tucked the thought away, hoping to remember.

When enough time had lapsed, she carefully replaced the lens cap and hurriedly repacked her camera. Now to get the exposed plate into the dark tent Josiah had set up across the ridge. She arranged the pack on her shoulders, checked the rope again, and shot him a quick glance before taking the first step.

The deep furrows lining his forehead stayed foremost in her mind as she made her way back across. The stocking on her right foot caught on a piece of bark, but a quick backward tug freed it. She stepped onto the opposite ridge and felt another sense of triumph. So much for Mr. Ainsworth and his assessment of her boyish skills!

She worked quickly in the tent—her makeshift darkroom—pouring a developing solution of iron sulfate and acetic acid over the photographic plate. The procedure turned the light-sensitive grains into a metallic silver that glistened in the half glow of the stubby, wax-skirted candle.

Witnessing this part of the process never lost its allure, and the image was stunning. She gave the glass plate a final water rinsing, which rendered it safe to the light again, and she reemerged from the tent.

As Josiah set to packing the equipment and loading it on the mule, she pulled out her notebook and recorded the date, hour, minute, location, and lighting of the picture she'd taken, along with a description. Keeping this information aided her understanding of how the various conditions influenced the success of her photographs.

She put her notebook away and bent to help Josiah pack, when her breath caught in her throat. Not much of a catch—just enough to gain her attention. She straightened and slowly inhaled, testing her lungs.

The doctors had made no claim there was a cure for her ailment, but they had encouraged that this territory's dry climate and mountain air should lessen the stress to her lungs. Their foremost recommendation—soaking in the region's hot springs—was a practice she looked forward to experiencing. In the past, she'd sought deliverance through physician-prescribed arsenic and chloroform remedies, and pungent mustard poultices. All hideous regimens that had brought no healing. On the contrary, they only seemed to have weakened her constitution and worsened her condition.

She breathed in and out again, beginning to think she'd overreacted. How she hated this weakness. Her health was excellent but for her lung ailment. She wanted to push on but didn't want that desire to blind her to her body's limits. Perhaps she should try and take the photographs she needed from the current vantage point.

"Are you certain, Josiah, that the view ahead holds more promise than this?"

He tied the last bundle onto the mule and pulled the strap taut. "This here's pretty, ma'am, but it ain't nothing compared to what's up ahead."

She nodded and, when he resumed the climb, fell in step behind him, trusting her own body's stubborn resolve as well as Josiah's judgment. So far he'd been right about everything—not that she would remind him of that.

Navigating the steep ribbon of switchback trail, she was grateful he'd insisted they travel this portion of the journey afoot. Shale dotted the path and made the ascent more difficult.

The weighted pack on her back grew more pronounced, and she paused for a few seconds to stretch and readjust the load.

"No need for you to tote that, ma'am. I can strap it on Moonshine, or I can tote it for you myself, if 'n you let me. Like I said before, I be gentle with it."

She waved him on ahead. "It's not a bother, really. I just need to pace myself."

"Pace yourself ...? Sounds like you back there pacin' yourself right straight to death."

She laughed, despite the truth in his statement. "You haven't told me ... why did you name that stubborn animal Moonshine?"

Josiah rubbed the bridge of his mule's nose. "I named him after somethin' my mama used to tell us kids when we was young. She used to say to us ... that if ever we was to get parted from the other, we was to look up at the moon come night, and that no matter where she was, or where any of us was, we'd be together. Cuz we be lookin' at the same moon God hung in His heavens."

Elizabeth envied him that memory. What stories might her own mother have shared if she'd lived long enough to have the chance?

Josiah continued the uphill hike, and it took her three generous steps to equal his every two, her heeled boots and long skirt hindering her efforts. Her split skirt was in a trunk of clothing that still hadn't arrived from Washington, but she looked forward to the freedom and practicality it would allow.

Walking behind Josiah, she again noted the broadness of his shoulders, and the raised welts on the back of his neck. Once deep wounds, now long healed by the looks of them, the scars extended above his coat collar and blended into his hairline, giving insight into his past. Josiah Birch's physical strength was impressive, and he was proving himself an able assistant on these mountain treks. And quite entertaining.

But no matter how capable an assistant he might be, she always shouldered her own pack. Especially when it contained something so valuable. She'd saved for months to buy her camera, and it held the key to her achieving her dreams.

"Townsfolk don't much use this path." His deep voice carried to her over the plod of the mule's progress. "Too narrow and steep for 'em. Mostly the Ute who pass this way."

"The Ute ... I'd like to meet—" Cold air prickled her windpipe as it fed down and filtered into her lungs. The higher they climbed, the thinner the air became and the more difficult to breathe. Studying the effects of higher altitude back east and now actually experiencing them were turning out to be two very different things. "I'd like to meet some of the Ute. If"— a painful stitch in her left side staccatoed her breath—"you could ... arrange that."

"Only one man I know has any contact with the Ute, Miz Westbrook, and he ain't easy to find. I ain't seen him in a while, and he only makes hisself known when he has cause to. Which don't happen too frequent."

Massaging a pain in her side, Elizabeth skirted a larger rock in the path, aware of the loose shale close to the edge and of how unaffected Josiah seemed by the altitude. "This man ... he sounds peculiar. Like ... some sort of hermit."

"No, ma'am, he ain't no hermit. Just keeps to hisself. Likes it best that way is how I figure it."

A spasm started in her upper chest, forcing Elizabeth to slow her pace. It was a small one this time, and she managed to coax some breaths past the tangle at the base of her throat. She fixed her gaze to the trail and continued to climb. "How do I ... contact this gentleman?"

"You don't. More like he finds you, if he has a mind to. Which he most often won't."

"And ..." She breathed slowly, in and out, as physicians had instructed since her youth—advice more easily followed when one wasn't hiking up a fourteen-thousand-foot mountain. "Why is that?"

When he failed to answer, she looked up to find him halted on the trail, his arm raised, his rifle drawn.

She went absolutely still, grateful for the chance to gain her breath but with senses at alert. Crackling noises sounded from deep within the wooded ridge. Then the breaking of twigs, the faint rustle of branches. Wind whistled through the low-bowered pines and stalwart spruce, masking sounds that might otherwise have been detected.

She slipped a hand into her pocket as she scanned the wooded rise to their left—unsure whether her shortness of breath stemmed from her ailment or from whatever was out there ... or perhaps both. Gripping the curve-handled derringer, an indulgent purchase she'd made before departing New York City, a measure of courage rose within her. Its .41 caliber ball would hardly deter a large animal, but it was better than facing one completely defenseless.

Josiah cocked his head to one side as though listening for something.

The first time he'd done this on the trail three days ago, she'd questioned him. After spotting the mountain lion, she'd swiftly learned to keep her silence. He'd shot at the animal and missed—by a wide margin if the splintered bark held truth—but his actions had apparently convinced the lion that they were unworthy prey.

It was unrealistic, she knew, but one photograph of that sleek, muscular predator would have all but guaranteed her the much sought-after position at the Chronicle. But in the flick of a second hand, the cougar had disappeared, taking her opportunity with it. And they'd spotted no wildlife since, other than the occasional bird and furry marmot—hardly prey capable of enticing travelers and game hunters west.

Josiah gradually lowered his arm and murmured low, a sound she'd heard from him before. "Felt somethin' on the breeze." His focus remained on the shadows beyond the trees. "Don't no more."

Elizabeth tried to respond but couldn't. A familiar ache wedged itself inside her throat, lodging like a fist in her windpipe.

Josiah looked her direction. His eyes narrowed. "You all right, ma'am?"

Elizabeth shook her head and groped at the high collar of her shirtwaist. The first two buttons slid free, but the effort earned her no relief. Each attempt to breathe ended in a pathetic wheeze, and her world took on that strange spiraling sensation she knew only too well.

She clenched her eyes tight—as if surrendering the ability to see might persuade her lungs to function. Stay calm ... steady breaths ...

"It be happenin', miz?" The deep cauldron of a whisper sounded close beside her.

Frantic, she nodded, furious at her body's betrayal. She'd warned him about this, just in case it happened while they were together. She hated being seen as weak; people treated her differently. She'd pushed too hard this morning. She'd known better.

Strength left her legs....

Josiah eased her to the ground and pulled the pack from her shoulders. "Tell me what to do, ma'am! You got that medicine? One you told me 'bout?"

She shook her head, unable to answer. It was back in her room, and only a little remained. She'd been rationing it, waiting for a new shipment. No matter how many times she'd experienced this, it still terrified her.

He eased her onto the ground, her throat closing by the second. She stared into the sky, trusting God could see. She didn't doubt that. She only wondered if He would intervene. He had every time before, but it didn't mean He always would. She'd learned that early in life—when her mother died.

Her throat felt the size of a rye grass straw, and what little air she could inhale and expel hung in anemic wisps in front of her face. Elizabeth squeezed Josiah's hand and felt his flesh give beneath her nails. Yet he never let go. The panic in his eyes mirrored hers, and her body jerked as she fought for breath.