Sunday, August 31, 2008

Back To Life - Excerpt of Chapter 1

Back To Life

Avon Inspire (September 16, 2008)

"Lindsay, come on, we're going to be late!" Haley pounds on my front door like there's a fire. Haley does most things in life like there's a fire these days. I'm certain it has something to do with her chocolate frosting fetish, but I have no proof. While I slide my last earring in, I unlatch the door and let it creep open.

"Calm down. Everyone here is eighty; do you want to wake the devil?"

"It's nine-thirty." She rolls her eyes, acting more like─well, more like me than her." "His minions are already up, eating their cat chow or chicken livers or whatever disgusting things that smell up your open-air hallways. This place reminds me of the lion house at the San Francisco Zoo! It's a vegan's nightmare."

"All right. Must you be so dramatic? Get in here." I grab her by the arm and pull her inside.

"It's not like I'll wake them, you know." She drops her purse on the entry table. "It's daylight. Everyone's going to bed, probably closing the top on their caskets as we speak." Haley takes her sweater and drapes it across her face like Dracula.

After living here for a year and a half, Haley doesn't have a lot of heart for my neighbors. I can't say I blame her. The Old women (former actresses, most of them are the very definition of curmudgeon, as if life has done nothing but kick them and all they can do now is kick back.

Personally, I admire them. It must be absolutely freeing to say and do as you please. Ans at the expense of their good name, they live the lives they want. Granted, it's a little lonely for my taste, but that doesn't mean I can't see the value in it.

I step out of the foyer to pick up a newspaper. I notice a few eyes peering at me from behind slit curtains: The only sign of life in this place, other than the nine million cats, is the sliding window coverings. It's like there's always an imaginary puppet show and I'm the star.

I slam the door, shuddering as I do so. "Maury must be on commercial. I'm obviously the only entertainment."

"Look at it this way. It's like having your own security firm. As long as they can still dial 911, you're safe."

"No, it's like living in a costume shop. The blinking red eyes follow me…And just when I get that cold, prickly feeling on the back of my neck, one of those blasted cats will rub up against my leg and scare the life out of me!"

Haley laughs. "Now who is being dramatic? They have a sixth sense. Instead of dead people, cats see cat-hating people. Your hatred of them is like a call of affection. Sort of like a signal to that special guy you do not want to date. Maybe you should try to pet on."

It's eerie living here since Ron died. I suppose part of it is my own Tell-Tale Heart, throbbing with guilt. Maybe that's why I'm so aware of the neighbors. Chances are they've done some regrettable things in their long lives, but it doesn't seem to bother them But I'd love to know the actual odds. What are the chances that these guiltless women would all move here? Or that I'd be in their midst? My unfortunate providence knows no bounds. If indeed it is providence, and not divine penance. They say what goes around, comes around─and it certainly doesn't leave.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Passion Redeemed - Prologue

A Passion Redeemed

Revell (September 1, 2008)


Patrick O'Connor stirred from a deep sleep at the feather touch of his wife's breath, warm against his neck.

"Patrick, I need you…"

Her words tingled through him and he slowly turned, gathering her into his arms with a sleepy smile. He ran his hand up the side of her body, all senses effectively roused.

"No, Patrick," she whispered, shooing his hand from her waist, "I need you to go downstairs─now! There's someone in the kitchen."

Patrick groaned and plopped back on his pillow. "Marcy, there's no one in the kitchen. Go back to sleep, darlin'."

She sat up and shook his shoulder. "Yes, there is─I heard it. The back door openend and closed."

"It's probably Sean after a late night with his friends. He hasn't seen them since before the war, remember?"

"No, he came home hours ago, and it’s the middle of the night. I'm telling you, someone's in the kitchen."

Marcy jerked the cover from his body. Icy air prickled his skin. Both of size 6 feet butted hard against his side and began to push.

He groaned and fisted her ankle, his stubborn streak surfaced along with goos bumps. "So help me, woman, I'll not be shoved out of my own bed…"

She leaned across his chest. "Patrick, I'm afraid, Can't you at least go downstairs and check?

Her tone disarmed him. "It's probably just Faith, digging into Thanksgiving leftovers. She didn't eat much at dinner you know."

"I know, and that's what I thought too, but I just peeked in her room, and I'm sure she was under the covers.

"One of the others, then─"

"No, they're all sleeping. I checked. Please, Patrick? For my peace of mind? Won't you go down and see?"

He sighed and swung his legs over the side of the bed. "Yes, Marcy, I will go down and see. For your peace of mind." He swiped his slippers off the floor and yanked them on his feet. "And for mine." He started for the door.

"Wait! Take something with you. A shoe, a belt─something for protection."

He turned and propped his hands low on the sides of his tie-stringed pajamas. "Shoes. Yes, that should do the trick. Newspaper editor bludgeons intruder with wing tips."

Marcy tossed the covers aside and hopped out of bed. "Wait! My iron. You can tale my iron. It weighs a ton." She padded to the wardrobe and hefted a cast-iron appliance off the shelf. She lugged it to where he stood watching her, a half smile twitched on his lips. "Here, take it. And hurry, will you? He could be gone by now."

He snatched the iron from her hands. "And that would be a good thing, right?" He turned on his heels and lumbered down the hall, stifling a yawn as he descended the steps.

"Be careful," Marcy whispered from the top of the stairs, looking more like a little girl than a mother of six. Her golden hair spilled down the front of her flannel nightgown as she stood, barefoot and shivering. He waved her back and moved into the parlor, noting that Blarney wasn't curled up on his usual spot in the foyer.

Patrick stopped. Was that a noise? A chair scraping? He tightened his hold on the iron while the hairs bristled on the back of his neck. He spied the shaft of light seeping through the bottom of the kitchen door and sucked in a deep breath. Heart pounding in his chest, he tiptoed to the swinging door and pushed just enough to peek inside.

A husky laugh bubbled in his throat. He heaved the door wide, pinning it open with the iron. "I trust this means you've made up your mind?"

"Father!" Faith jerked out of Collins embrace while Blarney darted to the door and speared a wet nose into Patrick's free hand. His daughter faltered back several steps and pressed a palm to her cheek. Her face was as crimson as the bowl of cranberries on the talbe. "I...I was just giving Collin Thanksgiving leftovers."

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Twice Loved - Prologue

Twice Loved

Avon Inspire (July 22, 2008)


Willow Madison thought by the time she turned nineteen, she would have the spirit of a wild mustang racing across the Texas plains─free of entanglements, liberated of sorrow, racing free with the herd. Wind in her eyes, unencumbered mane…

Instead, her mare pulled her in a buckboard, trotting across the rutted Texas countryside, heart heavy with what she was about to perpetuate.

She spat out a bug, then worked the handkerchief up her neck and over her mouth. Dust flew fro the mare's hooves and fogged her sight. Fear shaded her senses. The five barrels of kerosene in the wagon bed made her uneasy, but then, the whole sordid purpose of her journey was nerve-racking. If she had her say, she'd turn this rig around and head straight for home as fast as the horse could run. But she didn't have her say.

Although, after a year of war─living with death twenty-four hours a day, and then walking away last month with nothing more serious than a sprained ankle─fear should no longer be a part of her vocabulary.

She could do this. She had to do it. Copper and Audrey were counting on her.

Yet, deliberately setting her bonnet for a man wealthy beyond description and candidly in the market for a bride wasn't her idea of romance, or for that matter, integrity. She shook her head. Marriage was a sacred matter, and she planned to honor her vows. Love was highly overrated.

Money to the wealthy was a minute matter; two coins to Willow meant she and her friends would either eat or go hungry.

She lifted a hand to shield the late afternoon glare. Black clouds hung in the west, but the hot sun seared her back. Willow urged the horse to a faster gait. She'd spent tow nights on the trail, and she didn't intend to waste a third. Her eyes fixed on the lowering clouds, charged with torrential rain─or were they? Uncle Wallace warned that it rarely rained in Thunder Ridge─only thundered and lightninged. Regardless, she was ready to be done with this godforsaken journey.

An hour later, Willow spotted a wooden sign at a crossroad. An arrow pointed west, and the crude lettering read: Thunder ridge ½ mile.

Flicking the reigns, she set off. The buckboard bounced through heavy ruts. Kerosene splashes against tightly sealed lids. Would five full barrels be enough? She mulled her uncle's letter over in her mind.

Don't forget to bring kerosene. The men are busy rebuilding the mill so they don't remember that cold winter winds will come again.

And her reply:

Dear Uncle Wallace,

Due to circumstances, I am accepting your invitation to stay with you. I will come immediately and bring kerosene.

She winced, picturing Copper and Audrey, fellow soldiers and schoolteachers. The women's expressions had paled when she told them that she had accepted Uncle Wallace's solution to everyone's problem.

"It isn't right, Willow." Copper shook fiery-colored tresses. "It isn't fair to take advantage of the rich in the disgraceful manner."

"Right or wrong, we have to eat."

Audrey frowned. "But marry a man for money instead of love? Do you really think that's what God would want for you?" Well, it wasn't Willow's first choice, but she could do it. When the Yanks had come and burned, pillages, and killed, Timber Creek's surviving women had banded and fought back, formerly happy brides, and three single women. Willow and her friends had helped bitter husbandless women and mothers dig shallow graves and bury children before they took up arms. Then they had formed a small but formidable band, and they fought. Four had gone down fighting for what they believed, but the women had fought as hard and as determined as any man.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

House Of Wolves - Chapter 1

House Of Wolves

Thomas Nelson (August 12, 2008)


AD 1181
Westphalia, Ge rmany

Henry the Lion could feel their eyes digging into his skull. The blindfold
held fast, but the theater of his mind played out the scene—the golden
statue of the Virgin before him, and around him, cloaked from head to toe
in robes the color of coal, the members of the Black Vehm. His ears filled
with the sound of their breathing in unison, like the bellows of hell sighing
in eternal lament. The dank-smelling subterranean room bore no other
sound—no one was allowed to speak, save the Lord of the Tribunal.

“What say you, Lion?”

Henry recognized the booming voice immediately. A chill rippled
through his body.

The blindfold was torn from his face. Through blinking eyes he
watched the giant approach, inching so close that his flame-red beard
scoured Henry’s face.

“Are you surprised by my presence?” Barbarossa asked.

Henry answered, “Your presence is of no importance to me. I am
simply dismayed by my position here. I have stood before this court
many times, but never from this foul vantage point.”

It was true. The red-bearded giant occupied Henry’s usual position
of authority. Apparently he had missed the message that there had been
a change in leadership. How unfortunate. It would not be long before
they killed him. That was the only purpose the court seemed to serve—
to vanquish from society those who abused the Ten Commandments.

Of course, over time the court had found the commandments to be
too narrow a constraint and had drawn up its own long list of amendments
to God’s holy law, including six sins held to be the worst of all


Sixteen years earlier Barbarossa had canonized Charlemagne, the first
emperor of the Holy Roman empire. Barbarossa seemed obsessed with
continuing the great king’s legacy. Henry knew that his own ascent to
power put that goal squarely in jeopardy.

“Why have I been brought before this court, Duke of Swabia?”
Henry asked. The name was a deliberate stab at the giant’s authority—
an undercutting of his title as the new emperor of the Holy Roman
empire. He immediately felt the needle-sharp point of a sword creep
under his chin.

“You will call me emperor, as the commoners do,” Barbarossa said,
pressing the sword tip ever so slightly into the soft flesh of Henry’s neck.

“You have persuaded me, emperor,” Henry said, filling the word
with as much disdain as he dared. He backed away from the sword,
which Barbarossa lowered—but not before flashing the insignia stamped
upon its blade. SSGG. The hideous initials made Henry’s blood run cold.
He cleared his throat, gathering his nerve. “I demand to know why I
have been brought here.”

“You demand?” Barbarossa said, turning and walking toward the
statue of the Virgin Mary, which glowed with the mirrored flames of
the surrounding torchlight. “Well . . . if you demand . . .” He motioned
for another blindfolded victim to be brought from the back of the
chamber. The lamenting prisoner was dragged to Barbarossa’s feet by
two of the deputy judges, known as the Freischoffen. “Do you recognize
this man?”

“I do,” Henry the Lion said. “His name is Burkhard. He is a faithful
servant, a worker in one of my stables. What could you possibly want
with him? He has broken none of the Vehmic laws.”

“I will ask him the same question I plan to ask you, Lion,” Barbarossa
said. He leaned over until he was face-to-face with the prisoner. “Where
is the relic?”

The man’s mouth fell open. He shook his head. “I don’t know what
you mean,” he said, pleading for his life.

“Where is the relic?” Barbarossa asked a second time.

“Please, emperor, I beg of you. I do not know!” The two Freischoffen
held the poor man fixed as he fought against his restraints.

“Let him go!” Henry the Lion said.

“Silence!” Barbarossa roared. He turned back to the prisoner, ripping
the blindfold away from the man’s eyes. “I will ask you only one more
time: Where is the relic?”

The prisoner closed his eyes, a visible wish for the blindfold to return.
“I do not know, your lordship.”

Barbarossa stepped aside. “Liar! You are commanded by the Holy
Court to approach the Virgin and kiss her feet.”

The prisoner seemed stunned. “I will be allowed to live?”

“Kiss the Virgin’s feet,” Barbarossa said. “Your fate is hers to decide.”

The prisoner trembled as he knelt before the Virgin. He glanced
around nervously, as if expecting a blade to promptly deliver his head
from his body. But no blade came. The man smiled and wept, bowing to
kiss the Virgin’s feet. As his lips touched the cold metal he felt a deep
groan from within her frame. He shrieked and jumped back, his face contorted
with fear. He would have bolted from the cave if the Freischoffen
hadn’t stopped him.

“The Virgin does not sound pleased,” Barbarossa said. He nodded to
the Freischoffen.
Suddenly, through some unseen magic, a fissure running down the
front of the Virgin opened. Her two sides split wide, exposing the horror
within: an iron maiden—thick spikes, set at even intervals for maximum

“This man is innocent!” Henry the Lion cried.

“No man is innocent,” Barbarossa said. “Your turn will come soon

The Freischoffen dragged the thrashing prisoner forward and threw
him inside the terrible chamber. Before he could protest further, the
Freischoffen closed the statue. The prisoner could be heard screaming
from within.

Barbarossa turned to face the members of the Holy Court. “The Virgin
has declared her judgment! Let any man who opposes her speak now!”

The cavern fell silent, save for the cries of the pierced prisoner.

“So be it!” Barbarossa said. He advanced to the Virgin, head lowered, and placed his
hand upon the heart carved into her chest. He pressed the blessed symbol, and a grinding rumble emanated from beneath the floor. A moment later the cries of the prisoner vanished.

Barbarossa turned and raised his arms. “Behold! The Virgin’s judgment has come
swiftly today, my brothers!”

The Freischoffen threw open the Virgin. The interior was empty. The
flickering firelight revealed the only evidence of Burkhard’s short tenure
there—a dark, glistening stain of red.

“You will pay dearly for this,” Henry the Lion said as he watched the
hulking form of Barbarossa draw near.

“His life could have been spared,” Barbarossa growled under his breath. “As could
yours. Now, I ask you the same question: Where is the relic?”

Henry the Lion peered around at his brethren, hoping to find some
measure of support in their shadowy faces. But there was nothing save
their cold condemnation.

Barbarossa’s serpentine fingers curled around Henry’s neck. “Tell me
where you have hidden it, or I will spare you the Virgin’s wrath and
choke the life from you myself!”

Henry the Lion didn’t flinch. His countenance was as calm as the
evening waters of the Dead Sea, which he had viewed during his crusade
to the Holy Land almost a decade earlier. It was there that he first heard
about the relic the red giant now desired. But the relic was far more dangerous
than Barbarossa realized.

“Death would be too great a reward for the burden I carry,” Henry
the Lion said, his voice strained but steady. “Generations will pass before
the relic is found again. And to the one whose hand finally discovers its
holy power—God save him.”


August Adams could feel their eyes digging into his skull. He was on
their turf, and they wanted answers.

“Mr. Adams?”

August massaged his temples with his fingers, trying to kick-start his
mind. He hadn’t slept a wink the night before. Now his brain felt like the
bowl of cold oatmeal he’d left lying on his kitchen counter.

“Mr. Adams, do you plan on saying anything?”

He glanced at the clock on the wall. Only five minutes had expired.
Could that be right? Five minutes? He could feel his heart pounding.
Another twenty-five minutes of this torture would kill him.

“Mr. Adams?”

August squeezed his eyes shut and tried to focus, to forget the
news he’d heard last night, that horrible phone call he’d received just
before midnight. August, I’ve got something I need to tell you. Nothing good
started with those words. especially coming from his ex-wife, April.


August opened his eyes and stared into the quizzical face of his nineyear-
old son, Charlie. Sorry, he telepathed to him, wrinkling the small
expanse between his eyebrows for effect.

The boy shook his head, like a coach witnessing his star batter strike
out in the final game.

“Mr. Adams, would you mind explaining to the class exactly what a
bibliopaleontologist does?”

August stared blankly at Charlie’s fourth-grade teacher. Her stern
expression reminded him of the reason he was here—Career Day.
Originally, Charlie had asked April’s boyfriend, Alex Pierson, to come
speak. But that arrangement changed in a hurry due to last night’s news.

“The term is archeobibliologist,” August said, snapping to attention.

“But I gave that up a long time ago.” He turned to his son. “I guess
Charlie forgot to tell you that.”

The class giggled. Was it funny? Not really. But the fact that he was
having a nervous meltdown right in front of them probably was. What kid
wouldn’t be amused by the sight of a grown-up completely losing it?

The teacher squatted down until she was level with August, who was
sitting on a pint-sized plastic chair. “Well, since you’re not an archeowhatever
anymore, maybe you can tell the class what you do for a living
now?” she said. “Please?”

August cleared his throat and adjusted his tie, which displayed the
thinner underneath tail extending two inches beyond the wider top layer.
He loosed it in an attempt to even things out, then finally took it off
altogether. The children giggled again. He considered telling them that
he was a clown. At least that would seem believable.

He scratched at the thick stubble that spread like a dark moss across his chin. “I buy and sell rare books,” he explained. “emphasis on the sell part.” This usually brought a chuckle from an adult audience. Instead, the class looked bored.

“Do you buy and sell comic books?” one boy asked, brushing aside
the dark, straight hair that covered his eyes.

“Occasionally,” August said, his musical crescendo in the middle of
the word implying that special circumstances had to surround the

“’Cause my dad has a comic book that he says is worth a lot of

August pondered this. “What comic book is it?”

The boy shrugged his husky shoulders. “I don’t know.”

“Have you seen it?”


“And you don’t remember?”

The teacher stepped in. “Mr. Adams, maybe it’s time you—”

“I remember!” the boy said, his smile pushing his face into a perfect
oval. “It had a picture of a guy like Superman. But it wasn’t Superman.”

August stood up. The entire class followed him with their eyes as he
approached the boy. “Think hard. Was it Captain Thunder?”

The boy’s jaw dropped, amazed at the mind reader. “I think that’s it!”

“You’re telling me your dad has a Flash Comics #1 ashcan?”

The boy’s face went blank.

“Never mind,” August said, letting him off the hook. He plucked a
business card from his pocket and jotted his private cell phone number
on the back. “Give this to your father. Tell him to talk to no one before
he talks to me. No one. Got it?”

The boy nodded emphatically.

“Good.” August returned to his undersized chair and nearly missed it
altogether, forgetting its humble height. The class laughed uncontrollably.

“Everyone!” the teacher said. “Let’s give Mr. Adams a big thank-you
before he leaves.”

“Seems a little early,” August said.

“We’ll fill the extra time,” the teacher said.

The kids were already clapping and saying their good-byes.

“I’ve got one more thing to show them before I go,” August pleaded
with the teacher. He looked over at Charlie, who had his head buried
under his hands. “Please?”

The teacher sighed. “You’re not going to try and sell someone a
book, are you?”

August set his briefcase on his lap and unclasped the front. He opened
the lid and lifted a large volume from the titanium-framed vessel, setting
it on his lap. “This isn’t a genuine rare book, but it’s an exact copy of
one,” he said. He slipped a thumb between two pages in the middle and
slowly pried the book open.

The children, seeing a brilliant glimmer emanating from the pages,
stood at their desks to get a better look. Ooohs and ahhhs fell from their

“Charlie,” August said. “Think you could help me out up here?”

Charlie rose from his seat, apprehensive at first, until he saw the looks
of envy that marred his classmates’ faces. He tried to keep from breaking
a smile as he joined his father at the front of the room.

“Thanks,” August said, putting a hand on his son’s back. “I want you
to hold up the book so everyone can see it.”

Charlie held out his arms, and August propped the book against his
chest like a human easel.

“It’s really heavy,” Charlie said.

August put a supporting hand on the underside of the book. “I’ve
got you covered,” he whispered. He turned to the class. “Has anyone
here ever heard of a guy named Henry the Lion?”

A pigtailed girl in the front row waved her hand. “He’s on Nickelodeon,

“I don’t think so,” August said. “Anyone else?”

The comic-book boy raised his hand.

“Just to warn you,” August said. “He’s not a superhero.”

The boy’s hand went back down.

“Henry the Lion,” August began, “was a famous warrior duke who
lived in the late 1100s. He was part of a powerful family known as the
Welf dynasty. Does anyone have a guess what Welf means?”

The pigtailed girl raised her hand again. She didn’t wait to be acknowledged.
“Is it like Belf?”

“Belf?” August repeated, not sure that he had heard her correctly.

“Like . . . like when a . . . um . . .”
August could tell she was clueless. Just a girl looking for some attention.

“Sorry, it’s not a belf. Anyone belf? I mean . . . anyone else?”

The class chuckled. The teacher chuckled too. He was beginning to
figure this crowd out.

A wafer-thin boy in the back raised his hand, but only halfway.

“You think you know the answer?” August asked.
“Is it an elf?” the boy asked, his voice shaking.

August smiled. It must have taken every fiber of the boy’s being to
venture an answer. “Not quite. But you’re on the right track playing
with some of the letters . . . you just chose the wrong ones.”

The timid little boy put his hands over his face. August thought he
was about to slip underneath his desk when he suddenly reappeared.


“You’re exactly right!” August said. “Welf means wolf!” He thought
the revelation would elicit a response. It didn’t. Fearing he’d lost their
attention altogether, August howled like he was baying at the moon. The
class erupted in delight.

The teacher calmed them down. “Mr. Adams,” she said. “Maybe you
can tell us about Henry the Lion’s relation to the book we’re all looking

“This book,” August said, flipping through the pages, “is called The
Gospels of Henry the Lion. Prince Henry and his wife, Matilda, ordered
its creation in the late 1100s. As you can see from the elaborate pictures
inside, it’s more than a book: It’s an amazing work of art. So amazing,
in fact, that Sotheby’s of London sold it at auction in 1983 for nearly
twelve million dollars. It would easily be worth three times that today.
And probably a lot more.”

Tiny sparks of astonishment could be heard exploding among the

August held his palm up to them. “This is just a copy!” he said, quelling
their enthusiasm. “You think I’d let you even look at this if it were the real
thing? No way! But don’t worry. You can look at this replica all day.”

The kids gathered en masse before the luminous book.

The teacher disrupted the chaos, ordering them to line up. She then
bent down for a closer look herself. “It’s a remarkable copy,” she said,
inspecting the pages.

“I agree. The best I’ve ever seen.”

“Are you sure it’s not real?”

August laughed. “That’s not possible. The real book is under high
surveillance, half a world away in Wolfenbuttel, Germany.”

“So where did you get this copy?”

“From my father,” August said. “He sent it to me for my birthday
yesterday. It was a great birthday. At least for the first twenty-three hours
and fifty-five minutes.”

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Merciless - Chapter 1


(Bethany House - July 1, 2008)

Chapter 1
Beneath the Taurus Mountains, Turkey
Hand over hand, Oblivion climbed.

The total absence of light surrounding him did nothing to slow his progress, his fingernails digging like talons into the black rock below the Hollow, ensuring a steady hold.

This was a mechanical process for him, nothing more than a necessary step of his birth. He did not tire, he did not feel fatigue or shortness of breath. There was moisture of some kind upon his face, but it was not sweat. He did not sweat. A drop reached his tongue and tasted of iron and salt.

Blood. It was the blood of the sacrifice. Of course.

Hand over hand, he climbed. Ever upward.

Oblivion knew everything that had brought him to this moment. He knew who he was and how he had come into being. He knew his purpose, knew the steadiness of his actions with detached confidence. He knew who awaited him above and what their purpose was. He knew a great deal more than he suspected they knew about what he had been brought forth to do. He knew what had happened to the world with his passage into mortal existence, and what was happening even now, to every surface he touched.

He knew the name of this container he existed within. Knew what this Grant Borrows had done since becoming the Bringer ... and now Oblivion. His great destiny, fulfilled at last.

Hand over hand.

The rock grew thicker now, but still Oblivion's fingers dug deep. The blood of the sacrifice flowed down from the rim of the Hollow, which he was drawing nearer to. It was the very blood that had allowed this process to commence. He felt no remorse for the loss of Grant's sister; he never felt remorse. He was not capable of such things.

It was all part of the process after all. Everything, from the notorious day this mortal container named Grant Borrows had first realized he was no longer the man he had once been—it was all part of the process. Every step he had taken, every path he had walked, every choice he had made. It was preordained—all of it—from a time before time began. It was the ultimate fail-safe, the final insurance. And now, after millennia of planning and preparation, it was happening.

A few initial semblances of light streamed flickering down, touching his gray skin for the first time, and he looked up to meet it with blazing red eyes. He noted the red mark on the back of his left hand, a fresh scar from Grant's encounter with a severed hand only days ago.

A chorus of voices reached his ears over the shaking of the earth. They were singing—no, chanting—in unison.

One voice rose above the others as Oblivion neared the top of the rim. One voice roaring with terrible conviction ...

Hand over hand, Oblivion climbed, until he was born into a brave new world.

* * *

"WE HAVE FOLLOWED THE ANCIENT COMMANDS!!" Devlin bellowed, standing five feet from the rim of the Hollow. His heart hammered as he thought he saw a trace of movement in the darkness at his feet.

"Pario Atrum Universitas! ..." the Secretum continued to chant behind him.

Devlin glanced down momentarily at the pallid, lifeless body of Julie Saunders, the Bringer's sibling, lying on the ground at the mouth of the Hollow.

Had it worked? Did her blood activate it, as intended?

Of course it had. This was the appointed day, the appointed hour, the appointed place. There was no question. Everything was unfolding precisely as the Secretum had known it would, for thousands of years.

"WE HAVE DRAINED THE BLOOD OF THE INNOCENT!" he thundered in ritualistic tones, a renewed conviction thundering through his voice so completely that his hand quaked. "SO THAT A WAY MIGHT BE MADE!!"

"Pario Atrum Universitas! ... Pario Atrum Universitas! ..."


"Pario Atrum Universitas! ..." the Secretum chanted.


With the suddenness of a candle being snuffed, the great Hollow instantly plunged into foreboding silence as the chanting and Devlin's shouting stopped. At the same moment, the monumental shaking of the ground beneath and above them came to an abrupt halt. His skin tingled with anticipation at the eerie stillness as he watched and waited.

And right on cue, the slate-colored hand of Oblivion appeared, climbing up from the gaping pit, followed by his body, and soon he was standing before them all. Calmly, with an indifferent, almost alien-like quality, he examined them without curiosity as he stood in their presence.

"The prophecy," Devlin declared in a reverent whisper, "is made flesh. Thousands of years we have waited and prepared for the fulfillment of this promise. Countless generations of our people have made endless sacrifices, but it was not in vain. Oh no, our faith has borne fruit—"

He broke off the speech he'd prepared years ago as Oblivion turned without warning and moved slowly toward the vast room's exit.

Momentarily thrown, Devlin stood frozen in place. Whatever he had been expecting of Oblivion's grand entrance, this wasn't quite it.

Another senior member of the Secretum of Six—a woman named Angela, who had been standing very near to Devlin, and whom Devlin had never particularly cared for—rushed forward, confusion tormenting her features. "Great one! Oblivion! Are you not here to begin your great work?" She reached out and touched the brown leather jacket he wore, pressed it until she felt the hard flesh beneath the folds of fabric ...

She collapsed. Devlin and a few of the others rushed forward, bending over her. She'd gone cold instantly. Her eyes were rolled up, her jaw slackened.

She was dead. Oblivion's touch killed her.

If Oblivion noticed her, he made no consideration of it. He turned mechanically to face Devlin. His eyes blazed, and his gaze was wilting. "The DarkWorld is begun," he spoke for the first time, and Devlin fought the urge to place his hands over his ears at the sound. "It was set in motion the moment I entered this flesh. This place, this Hollow, is an unworthy relic of a different age."

Devlin's mind raced. Unworthy? What did that mean? Unworthy of what?

There was something odd about Oblivion's physiology when he spoke, and it took Devlin ample consideration to put his finger on it: Oblivion's chest was not rising or falling. Where a normal person's chest rises before they are about to speak, to take in breath, Oblivion merely opened his mouth and the sound issued forth.

"The DarkWorld cannot be appreciated from below," Oblivion explained with unnerving calm.

Once again, he began to walk, and Devlin and the others followed close.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

That's (Not Exactly) Amore - Chapter 1

That's (Not Exactly) Amore

FaithWords (August 14, 2008)

Chapter 1

If this is the chance I’ve been waiting for, then why does it feel like I’m in over my head? I mean, like I’m five feet tall in seven feet of water and haven’t the foggiest idea how to swim. In short, I’m sinking fast.

“So, do we got a deal?”

I stare at Nick Pantalone’s beefy hand but hesitate before taking it. At this point, anyone with a smidge of conscience would just admit to being out of her league and walk away before she could do any actual damage to the place. But as I look around Nick Pantalone’s newly expanded coffee shop, I know this is my last chance to get anything close to a passing grade in my interior design course.

My final semester is about putting what I’ve supposedly learned into practice. It’s a joint project for my partner, Jazz, and me. Sort of like that show The Apprentice? Only there’s just Jazz and me. As project manager (and don’t ask me why I have to be the head cheese—Jazz gets better grades), it’s my job to find our project, assign tasks, and oversee every detail to its completion.

Renovating the coffee shop seems like the perfect idea, really. Nick desperately needs to expand after a newspaper article last summer proclaimed his shop “the best-kept secret in Manhattan.” Now the little place is bursting at the seams as hordes of customers breeze right by the Starbucks across the street in favor of Nick’s—the new trend. You know how we New Yorkers love to find the “latest thing.” Who knows how long the upward swing will last for Nick? But I doubt he’ll ever return to the obscurity he enjoyed once upon a time.

I mean, it’s been six months and he’s had to hire four new employees. Not to mention hiring Joe, his good-looking Italian nephew, to manage the place. And when I say “good-looking,” I’m not talking about one step up from passable. I’m talking over the fence, out of the park, to the moon good-looking.

But this isn’t about Joe.

I consider ours—Nick’s and mine—to be a symbiotic relationship. Nick needs to expand and redecorate, and I need a passing grade. I truly have no lofty goals about any of this. Give me any letter grade higher than a D and I’ll be fine. My mother doesn’t have to see my grade to know I’ve passed. I won’t lie about it, most likely, but I’m not exactly going to volunteer the information either.

“Well?” Nick growls, casting a pointed glance at his proffered hand, waiting for me to cinch the deal.

My breath is uneven as I slide my clammy hand into his. He nods and the wrinkly folds of his face push together with a grin. “That’s better. Now what’ll you have, kid? Anything you want is on the house.”

“I shouldn’t.” The truth is, since I started the two-year design program (that I’m finishing in eighteen months by taking summer classes), I’ve put on about twenty pounds. Call it my frustration with my probable failure—my first ever. I cook and eat. It’s cathartic. But I haven’t had lunch and, let’s face it, nobody makes meatball subs like Nick. I grin. “But I will.”

The bell above the door dings and I turn. My insides go hot and cold all at once. Joe Pantalone. He’s the man of my dreams—but he’s way out of my league. Even if I weren’t a redheaded Irish girl from Long Island, he’d be too much for me.

“Good to see you, Laini.” He flashes that million-dollar smile, making me feel like the only woman on earth who could possibly win his heart. Guys like that don’t play fair. They make you think you have a chance when, really, well . . . you just don’t.

Joe’s a hugger, so I try not to make anything of it every time he pulls my five-foot frame into arms that I swear could wrap around me twice. Well, maybe once and a half—since the weight gain.

I wish I could convince my heart not to get my hopes up when he greets me with his cozy hug, but who am I trying to kid? If he’d ask, I’d be his. But he won’t. A guy like that doesn’t have to settle for a thirty-year-old, freckle-faced redhead with way too many extra pounds on her petite frame. He can have anyone he wants.

Still, without a fight, I melt into his embrace, thoroughly enjoying the manly scent of soap and maybe just a hint of some sort of cologne that I’m not hip enough to identify. (Tabby and Dancy would have nailed it at first whiff.)

He lets me go and I stand weakly at the counter as Nick jerks his head toward me. “’Ey, Joey. You’re lookin’ at the new in-ter-ior designer for Nick’s. What do you think?”

Wow, I’m not sure what I expected from Joe, but certainly not a frown. Maybe the first one I’ve ever seen on his face as he looks from Nick to me. “You graduated?”

My cheeks go hot, and I know from experience that I have blotches of embarrassment all over my face and neck. Some people blush prettily (gorgeous, dark-skinned Italian women, for instance). I don’t. I get all splotchy. So I know I look hideous. “Not yet. I’m doing this for my final grade.”

Joe turns to Nick. “Remodeling and redecorating are pretty big projects, Uncle Nick. No offense to Laini, but don’t you think we should hire someone with some real experience?”

Please, floor. I beg you. Open up and swallow me whole. Seriously. Right this second would be good for me.

“Uh—Nick. Maybe Joe’s right. I wouldn’t want to mess anything up, and you know my grades aren’t very good. As a matter of fact”—I hold up my thumb and forefinger and measure an inch—“I’m this close to flunking out. I probably don’t have a clue what I’m doing.” I don’t even give him a chance to speak. “Actually, I withdraw myself from the project. I changed my mind.”

With the agility of a man half his age and size, Nick whips through the swinging gate that reminds me of something from an Old West saloon and heads me off before I can sprint for the door. “’Ey, now. What is this baloney? Didn’t we just shake on it?”

“Well, yes. But that was before the voice of reason walked in the door. I won’t hold you to it, Nick.”

His head swings from side to side in a vehement shake. “Where I come from, a handshake’s as good as a signed contract.” His voice is filled with so much indignation, I’m afraid he might have a stroke. “You goin’ back on your word, little girl?”

“Come on, Uncle Nick,” Joe groans. “Don’t talk to Laini like that.”

“You stay out of this, Joey. You’re the one who started it anyway.” He turns back to me, his stern frown making me feel shorter than I already am. “Well?”

“Okay, Nick,” I say, carefully avoiding Joe’s gaze. “I’ll bring Jazz in tomorrow for a look at the place and we’ll have some ideas to present by the end of next week.” I glance around the room like I really know what I’m looking at. “The project is going to take some time, so we should get started on hiring an architect and a contractor. Then we’ll need to figure out what permits we’ll need.”

Nick shakes his head, cutting me off. “Don’t tell it to me. I won’t be here.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m headed to L.A. tomorrow.”

“You just got home!” I mean, less than two weeks ago.

He gives me a shrug like it’s none of my business. “I never meant to come back after Christmas, only I had to take care of some financial paperwork and finish turning things over to Joey, here. I’m sick of being away from my Nelda.”

Nelda is Nick’s wife and his true lady love. She’s been in California for months taking care of their daughter, who has cancer. The outlook is better than originally hoped for, but Nelda won’t leave the grandkids and Nick is lovesick without her. So off he goes. I knew it was coming, but somehow I didn’t expect it so soon.

“So, I’ll be working for Joe on this?” I can’t hold back the dread in my voice, even though I know it’s impolite. If Joe isn’t in favor of my working on the project at all, how on earth am I going to come in every day and do what needs to be done while he stands over me disapproving of every suggestion?

“This place is amazing, Dancy!” I stare at my friend’s newly redecorated condo, loving the Victorian decor. This is the first time I’ve been here since the redo was finished, and I have to say, I’m impressed. And maybe a little jealous. “I’m so glad you didn’t try to modernize the place.”

“Mother is fit to be tied. She can’t believe I had the audacity to go back in time.”

I laugh. “Well, I heartily approve.”

You can’t help but envy Dancy a little. Her parents not only gave her their ridiculously expensive condo, but footed the bill for redecorating. I didn’t expect to be consulted, but still . . .

Even Dancy’s life in general seems perfect. A swoony new boyfriend with a British accent who just happens to be her favorite author writing under the pseudonym Cate Able. I truly expect her and Jack to be engaged any day now.

Dancy is throwing her first dinner for the girls tonight. And I’m here just a little early to do the cooking even though Dancy offered to have the meal catered. As if! Cooking makes me happy. It’s what I do. Tabby and Dancy buy things for us from their ample cash flow. I, on the other hand, contribute to the friendship by supplying us all with ample calories—much to the chagrin of our mothers and Freddie, Tabby’s trainer. But they love it. So I’m happy.

I sort of wish my two friends had come back to the apartment we all shared until Tabby got married last month and Dancy moved into the condo, but I understand Dancy’s desire to entertain around her own table. I think we might have to do a rotation or something, though. I miss seeing my chums in the apartment.

“So where’s Brandon?” I ask as I step into the gorgeous, dream kitchen.

“Off skiing with some friends.”

Brandon is Dancy’s little brother. A musical genius, sixteen years old, in high school and accepted for the weekend program at Juilliard. He’s lived with Dancy ever since his mom took off and his dad and Dancy’s mother retired to Florida recently.

This kitchen takes my breath away. Truly. I’ve been dying to get my hands on the stainless-steel, digital, do-everything-for-you appliances. The floor and three of the countertops are ceramic tile. The others are a fabulous gray granite. My goodness, if I had a kitchen like this one, I’d just pull in a cot and live here. (Is that odd?)

“So, Chef Laini,” Dancy says with a grin, revealing gorgeous white teeth. She’s an Italian beauty—someone Joe would be attracted to, most likely, except she’s taken. “What’s on tonight’s menu?”

I lift my shopping bag, which contains the fixings for our favorite meal together. “Shrimp Alfredo with linguini. Salad with petite shrimp and blue cheese crumbles, and lovely grilled asparagus spears.”

“Mmm.” She cocks a silky eyebrow. “And for dessert?”

“Raspberry swirl cheesecake with a dollop of whipped cream.”

Her eyes roll back and she lets out a breathy sigh. “Sounds divine.”

“Don’t assign divinity to me,” I say with a laugh. “I bought the cheesecake at Nick’s.”

“Well, you can’t beat Nick’s anyway. Anything I can do to help?”

I shake my head. “Just keep me company while I work. I miss you guys like crazy.”

She gives me a look akin to pity and I wish I hadn’t mentioned it. “Your time will come, Laini.”

I hate it when people say that to me! Dancy should know better, considering a mere two months ago she was in the same boat. I look at her as evenly as I can, determined not to play into the pity. I find it’s always easier to pretend it’s not an issue.

“Hey, I’m not complaining. My rent is paid up for another month. I have the money I make baking goodies for Nick’s to tide me over, and I have all the peace and quiet I could ever want.” Much, much more than I want. But I’d die before admitting that to my dear friend.

I finish unloading the groceries while Dancy chatters on about the man in her life, as though he hung the moon and stars. Jack Quinn this and Jack Quinn that. “He’s actually sewn up a deal for me at Lane Publishing. My book comes out in about a year. Isn’t that great?”

I stop what I’m doing right then and there and grab her in a hug. “That’s fantastic, Dancy! I can’t wait to read it.”

“That’s not all,” she says with a wide grin.

I gasp. “Did he propose?”

A frown puckers the skin above her nose. “Not yet.”

“Oh.” Oops. “What’s the great news, then?”

“Jack landed a book deal with his real name.”

“You mean he’s truly hanging up the Cate Able hat?”

“Completely.” She gives a proud smile. “He’s good enough to write under Jack Quinn. And they’ll be promoting his new book with the full disclosure that Cate Able was nothing more than a pen name for Jack Quinn. He’s also going to keep writing thrillers.”

“But not the same series?”

“Well, no. I’m still mad at him for killing off my favorite character of all time. But I see why he needed to start over completely with his own name.”

Dancy grabs a slice of cucumber from my cutting board and plops down on the barstool as she nibbles, elbows resting on the counter. “So. Your turn. Tell me how it went at Nick’s today.”

Weird how I’m both happy and hesitant at the same time. Happy for the opportunity, hesitant because I’m experiencing a sense of impending doom about the whole thing. Plus, Joe isn’t thrilled.

I share all of this with my friend. Normally, we’d wait for Tabby before diving into heart-to-heart stuff, but our soap-actress friend just got married, so she’s probably having trouble tearing herself away from her husband, David, and her step-twins, Jenn and Jeffy.

“Well, you’ll just have to prove Joe wrong.”

“I guess.” I hear the doubt in my own voice and it doesn’t sound pretty.

“Who’s in charge of the colors?” Dancy’s gaze is averted to the gray countertop.


She seems relieved, which sets off my warning bells.


“Well, you know. I just wondered.”

Tabby and Dancy know I have some slight trouble with colors. But it’s not that bad. I mean, I can do bright colors okay. Besides, I heard an eye doctor say once that women can’t actually be color blind—or it’s only a percent of a percent chance or something like that. So, while I might have issues distinguishing certain close colors, I’m certainly not afflicted.

“Hey, I could do the colors if I had to!” I say, grabbing a Roma tomato and starting to slice. “For instance, don’t you think this shade of gray would be terrific for a base color on the back wall at Nick’s?”

“Um, sure.” Dancy’s hesitation doesn’t thrill me at all. I look up from the cutting board.


“Well, it’s nothing, really.” She swallows hard, like she does when she’s trying not to hurt somebody’s feelings.

“Come on, Dancy. Spit it out. What?”

“The countertop is green.”

I stare down at the granite, which is clearly gray. I jerk my chin and stick out my tongue. “Maybe you’re the one who’s color blind.”

Her chin dimples as she tries to keep from laughing. Hopping from the stool, she comes around and gives my shoulders a squeeze.

“Don’t worry about it. You have great decorating ideas. Just leave the colors to someone else and you’ll get a passing grade.”

I know she’s trying to be encouraging. But my goodness. I’m not going to have Jazz, the color-coordinated genius, stand over my shoulder after graduation—provided I do, in fact, graduate.

No one is going to hire a color-blind interior designer. And that’s all there is to it.

I turn back to my preparations for dinner. “At least I can cook,” I say flatly.

Dancy grins. “Better than anyone I know!”

Great. So I won’t starve. Are tomatoes orange? Please tell me I haven’t had that wrong all my life? Apples are red, bananas are yellow. Yes?

And Joe Pantalone’s eyes are the color of a mocha latte—without whipped cream.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Jewel of Gresham Green - Chapter 1

The Jewel of Gresham Green

(Bethany House - August 1, 2008)

15 April 1884
Birmingham, England
Stitch and turn, stitch and turn, stitch and turn ...

Jewel Libby folded the raw edges of silk into narrow hems as her feet pumped the treadle. Monotony was what made the job dangerous. Most scarred fingers belonged not to the newest workers at J. Mobley, Elegant Corsets for the Particular Woman, but to those who had spent enough time in the sewing room to forget that the needle could hypnotize just before it bit.

That same necessity to be alert took away temptation to chat with the women nearest her for the six days weekly, ten hours daily Jewel sat among them. Besides, socializing could get a person sacked, and then how would she feed her daughter?

Mr. Fowler's whistle shrilled. Machines hummed into silence. Forty sets of eyes mirrored Jewel's own puzzlement, for no evening sunlight slanted through the west windows.

The manager jumped up onto a chair and clapped his hands; an unnecessary action in the tense stillness. "On account of the birth of Mr. Mobley's second granddaughter, you may all go home!"

"Four hours early!" Jewel said to another worker while joining the applause.

"God bless the child!" someone exclaimed.

"If she'd only been a grandson, we'd have been given the whole day," Mrs. Fenton said sagely during the homeward trek up Steelhouse Lane.

Jewel sent a look over her shoulder before risking a guilty smile. Not that Mr. Mobley would be anywhere in the vicinity. She had seen the factory owner once during two years of employment.

"Why are boys more valued than girls, do you think?" Jewel asked the older woman.

"Rich folk care about carryin' on the name. We poor need sons because we can send them out to work earlier than girls. And they're paid more."

Jewel gave her a sidelong look.

Mrs. Fenton shrugged. "Life's hard, if you ain't noticed."

They hurried past Perseverance Iron Works, its chimney belching smoke into the already pewter sky. Windows sent out ripples of heat. Jewel wondered how many sons of the poor sweat inside.

Thank God I have a girl, Jewel thought. Not that raising a daughter was easy. Most of her worries centered around Becky. Particularly of late.

They turned onto Vesey Street, then Halls Passage. Three-storey tenement buildings rose on both sides, identical in their stained brick, filth, foul odors, and weed-choked courtyards.

"I've got it!" a young voice called.

"Over here!" piped another.

Sixty feet ahead in the lane, five young boys played a game of catch with a ball. Near the arched entrance of the building on the right, a man stood holding a small girl's hand. Jewel's breath caught in her throat at the sight of the girl's berry-red hair, so like her own.

"Do you see—" Mrs. Fenton began.

"Becky!" Jewel gathered her skirts and ran.

Mr. Dunstan dropped her daughter's hand. He was forty or so, tall and solidly built, with blue eyes that could have been handsome if not set above a vulgar smile. He called out, "You'll be hurtin' yourself if you slip on them cobbles, Mrs. Libby."

Automatically Jewel slowed her steps, the immediate danger past. She drew close enough to take four-year-old Becky's hand. The small palm was clammy from the rent collector's grasp, and she had to fight the urge to wipe it against her skirt.

"It's just that she's not supposed to be out here without Mrs. Platt."

The corner of her eye caught movement. Mrs. Fenton, slipping into the building. That stung, but how could Jewel fault a woman who was the sole support for her aged mother? When these were the cheapest tenements within walking distance of the factory? When Mr. Dunstan wielded the power to toss a person out into the street?

"Why are you home early? Got one of those woman complaints?"

Jewel's cheeks burned.

Becky held out a pigeon feather, her face pinched with worry. "I found this for you, Mummy."

"It's lovely, Becky," Jewel said, grateful for the excuse not to reply to his coarse question.

That was the most maddening thing about being in the company of Mr. Dunstan—having to maintain the charade that he was just an ordinary decent person. To pretend not to notice the lust in his eyes, bad enough when directed toward her, but terrifying when fastened upon Becky.

Rumors added fuel to that fire. Such as the reason the Kents moved out last month, with their two young daughters. Mr. Kent's job at the foundry paid twice what Jewel earned at the factory, so they could afford that luxury.

"Good day, Mr. Dunstan," Jewel forced through a tight smile, while thinking, Norman would wipe that leer from your face! But two years ago he and another bricklayer had perished when scaffolding collapsed at the unfinished Castle Maltings building on Tower Street.

She dragged Becky by the hand, up the steps and through the doorway. Without knocking she turned the knob to number seven and entered. Mrs. Platt sat rocking a pair of sleeping infants. A tot squatted in a corner, picking at the straws of a broom. Another lay upon the filthy threadbare rug, playing with his own feet. Both ceased activity to send Jewel open-mouthed stares.

"Mrs. Platt!" Jewel said with a shaking voice. "Becky was outdoors!"

"Mrs. Libby, mind you'll wake the babies," the woman said through teeth as gray and crooked as old gravestones. "She whined to play with the older 'uns. She's too big for the babies. What was I to do?"

"What I pay you to do, that's what," Jewel said with less volume but more intensity. "Mr. Dunstan had her hand! God alone knows what would have happened if I hadn't come home early."

One infant stirred and whimpered. Mrs. Platt frowned above its downy head. "There you go again, harpin' on Mr. Dunstan, when he's the soul of mercy."

"Mercy? He pays too much attention to little girls."

"You should be grateful ... your poor fatherless baby." A bony hand moved from the infant's back to shake a crooked finger at Jewel. "If you'd been here in Mr. Archer's time, you'd appreciate Mr. Dunstan. Gin on his breath, even in the mornings! A hairsbreadth late with the rent, and you're out on your ear."

"I don't appreciate having my instructions ignored. Keep her with you, or I'll find someone else." As if she had not already tried, but Mrs. Platt did not have to know that.

Grimy landing windows provided the only illumination on the staircase, sticky and reeking of urine and sour spilled beer. Those forced to take the steps at night carried candles or lamps. Chest burning, Jewel hitched Becky up to her hip and kirtled her skirts with her left hand.

"I'm sorry, Mummy," the girl said halfway up the staircase.

"Don't speak now, Becky," Jewel said.

In the corridor, she set Becky on her feet and fished the key from her pocket. The door to number twenty-one opened to a tiny parlor that led to a smaller kitchen and still smaller bedroom. Washing up was done in the scullery, with water carried up from a tap in the piece of bare earth that served as the courtyard. Chamber pots saved nighttime trips to the privy, only yards away from the tap. Furnishings were sparse. Shortly after Norman's burial, Jewel was forced to sell off most of their secondhand furniture before moving herself and Becky from the small but cozy back-to-back house on Hurst Street.

Jewel locked the door behind her and turned to Becky. The tears brimming in the brown eyes, the trembling lips, broke her heart. Had hardship driven from her all memory of what it was like to be a child?

"Ah, Becky," she said, kneeling to pull her into her arms. She stroked her back as sobs wracked the small frame. "My dear, brave little girl. I love you so much."

"I don't like to go to Mrs. Platt's!" Becky sobbed against her shoulder.

"I know, I know." Jewel's voice thickened. "But Mummy must work."

She held her daughter until the sobbing ceased. Tempting as it was not to distress her any more, Jewel unwound her arms and moved her back a bit so that she could meet her eyes.

"Becky," she said, gently, but with a sternness born of fear. "You're old enough to remember that you're not to go outdoors without Mrs. Platt."

"But she never goes," the girl said through trembling lips. "And the boys are allowed."

The unfairness of it tugged at Jewel's heart. But safety came before fairness. "You must stay with Mrs. Platt."

She swallowed, dreading the answer to the next question. "How long was Mr. Dunstan there?"

"Not for a long time. He's not a bad man, Mummy. He said he wished he had a bright girl just like—"

Jewel groaned as a shiver snaked up her spine. "Just because someone smiles and speaks kindly doesn't make him good. Did you go anywhere with him?"

The brown eyes evaded Jewel's. "He said there were toys and peppermints in the cellar."


"But I said I wanted to stay outdoors and watch the boys play."

"God help us," Jewel moaned. She got to her feet. "Mummy has to go somewhere for a little while."

* * *

"Are ye sure ye trust me with her?" Mrs. Platt sniffed.

"Yes," Jewel said, adding mentally, What choice have I? "I'll try to return within the hour."

Fortunately, Mr. Dunstan no longer lurked outside. Jewel hurried up the lane. Cabbies avoided Halls Passage, but she would have walked the nine blocks anyway to save a shilling. On Great Russell Street, a well-dressed woman held a laughing small boy up before a toy display window.

"Oh, now it's a train you want for your birthday? What will it be tomorrow?"

Jewel envied not her finery but the unhurried enjoyment of her son, the taking for granted that there would be plenty of such moments.

Outside Great Russell Street police station, she brushed a wrinkle from her faded calico. If only she had taken time to change into her Sunday gown! Few in authority took seriously the poor, the illiterate, which was why her trip to this same station last month did no good.

Chin up, she ordered herself. Look them in the eyes. For Becky's sake, she must set aside her natural meekness, her feeling of inherent unworthiness, and present herself as a citizen deserving attention. At least she spoke proper English, having absorbed its importance when employed as a maid in the household of the headmaster of King Edward's School.

* * *

"As I said last time, Mrs. Libby," said Constable Whittington, "we cannot arrest a man who's done naught."

"He was holding her hand," Jewel argued, attempting to keep her tone steady.

"Not a crime, Mrs. Libby."

"He asked her to go to the cellar with him."

"Aye?" An eyebrow raised. "Did she go?"

"No. But—"

"Bright girl. And so he didn't forcefully carry her, did he?"

"He may have, if I hadn't arrived early."

"Mrs. Libby, if we arrested for may haves, we'd have to build more jails. Why do you not find another place to live?"

"I've tried to find one as cheap."

"What about your family?"

"I've no family, sir."

"None at all?"

She held back a sigh. Did the wheres and whys have any bearing upon the situation? Norman's childhood was spent in the Asylum for the Infant Poor on Summer Lane. She knew not the whereabouts of her father, whose drunken ways had contributed to the premature death of her mother when Jewel was twelve.

"None," she repeated.

"Then marry again," he advised in a fatherly, not familiar manner. "A smart-looking woman such as you should have no trouble finding a husband."

How many times had Jewel been so advised? She was no fool. She knew a husband would indeed take the load from her shoulders. Norman would have forgiven her. But the corset factory sewing room was shy of men, and those living in the tenement were either married, layabouts, or drunks.

Don't give up! said a little voice inside. "Sir," she said, "have you a daughter?"

The constable's weary gray eyes studied her.

Jewel held her breath, cautiously hopeful.

He sighed. "What's the name of the gent who owns your building?"

The hope wavered. "I-I don't know. We have dealings only with Mr. Dunstan."

"Well, I'll look him up in the town records, pay him an unofficial call. May be that other tenants have complained."

"Oh, thank—!"

He held up his hands. "Now, don't go thanking me. I can't guarantee he'll give a hedgehog's fleas about your problem. Some are like that ... don't want to be troubled by the folk who put bread on their tables."

But at least it was some action. Despite his protest, she thanked him again.

* * *

"Will you tell me a story, Mother?" Becky asked in bed that evening, after a supper of potatoes and cabbage, followed by baths in the kitchen using flannels.

Jewel smiled in the darkness. Times like this, with her daughter curled beside her, she could almost forget Mr. Dunstan even existed. Almost.

"Which story?" she asked.

"Um ... 'Silverhair and the Bears'?"

"Very well." Another gleaning from the educated household was the wealth of stories stored in Jewel's brain, for both the headmaster and his wife had read to their children.

"Once upon a time, a wee girl named Silverhair was told to stay indoors while her mother worked at the corset factory...."

Not the headmaster's version, but Jewel had to seize any teaching moment available. When her daughter drifted off to sleep, Jewel prayed, God help us. Ofttimes that was all she could manage before succumbing to fatigue, but this night she added, Please make the owner listen to the police.

She could hear Becky's soft snoring and the scurrying of rodent feet in the attic. An infant wailed from the flat below. Somewhere down the corridor, a man began shouting. His words were muffled; the anger behind them was not.

And please ... She swallowed saltiness as her eyes brimmed. Help us have better lives one day.

* * *

The following morning, she tucked her handkerchiefwrapped jam sandwich into an apron pocket and delivered a still-sleepy Becky to Mrs. Platt with a reminder to both that she was to stay indoors. And again, for ten hours she had to struggle to concentrate on the needle, so deep were her misgivings.

What if Mr. Dunstan is the owner's brother or some other relation? What if we're forced to leave?

Her fears were justified that evening, unhappily so, when she spotted Mr. Dunstan outside the factory.

"Oh dear," she said to Mrs. Fenton.

"I forgot my handkerchief," Mrs. Fenton said, turning back for the door.

Jewel attempted to hurry past him, lose him in the press of workers, but he fell in step beside her.

"There's been a misunderstanding, Mrs. Libby," he said. "I didn't mean to frighten you over your little girl."

Walking faster did no good. His legs were longer, and he was not even breathing heavily. "I'm truly sorry ..."

Jewel swallowed a sob.

"... so I need you to speak with Mr. Brown."

She did not ask who this Mr. Brown was, for she had no word to spare for Mr. Dunstan. Besides, who could he be but the owner of the blocks of flats?

"He stays late in his office. I need you to come with me ... say you've made a mistake."

"No," she said tightly.

"Please," he cajoled with voice breaking. "I need my job."

She continued on, teeth clenched.

"I'll ... cut your next month's rent by half, and cover the rest myself."

Jewel halted in her tracks, almost did not recognize her own voice for all the rage it held. "My daughter is not for sale!"

"Do you need help, Mrs. Libby?" came a voice from behind.

Jewel turned a burning face to Mr. Fowler and his assistant, Mr. Evans. "This man—"

But when she looked over her shoulder, Mr. Dunstan was making tracks.

"Coward." Mr. Fowler spat on the pavement.

The men turned back for the factory. Mrs. Fenton called out to her a moment later. Jewel waited, still sick at heart, but grateful.

"You sent Mr. Fowler out?" she asked.

"It was the only thing I knew to do."

Jewel squeezed her arm.

"Do you suppose he's been sacked?" Mrs. Fenton asked.

"I think so."

* * *

Mrs. Platt's aggrieved expression confirmed it was true when Jewel arrived to retrieve Becky. "Did ye hear?" she said, spotted hands worrying her frayed collar. "Mr. Dunstan's been sacked!"

Ironing her face of any expression, Jewel took Becky's hand. Thank you, Father!

Mrs. Platt's eyes narrowed. "Did you have aught to do with this?"

Jewel still needed her to tend Becky. Gently, she said, "I'm sorry you're displeased."

"You'll be, too, when they replace him with a heartless sot like Mr. Archer."

Jewel's lips tightened. As long as he leaves Becky be, I don't care if he has a walnut for a heart.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

All Through The Night - Chapter 1

All Through The Night

(Bethany House - July 1, 2008)

"I know who you are."

The voice was all burr and rough music, the words slanted at the edges like her eyes. Wayne thought it was silly getting a tingle in his gut, just hearing this woman finally speak. He saw in her gaze the message he had come to know all too well. The one that said, I'm not going to give you anything like what you want. Not now, not ever.

But there was nothing to be gained by letting her know he knew. So he leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms, and asked coolly, "And you are?"

"My name is my own. I will tell you only if you agree to help. Otherwise, I will leave here today and you will never see me again."

The longer she spoke, the more distinctive her accent became. A slight rolling of the r's, a musical inflection to some vowels. Try as she might to give him nothing but serious chill, the woman tasted each word in a most exotic fashion.

She made a mistake then. That is, if she intended on holding this little gathering to a totally professional level. Nerves or a simple desire to dominate caused her to rise from her chair and begin to pace.

Jerry emerged from the kitchen. Foster settled back in his chair, deeply involved in the show. The woman transformed the bare boards into a catwalk rimmed with lights and cameras.

"I represent a very important businessman. He holds considerable power in central Florida. He ..."

It was the woman's turn to take a two-armed grip upon herself. She wore a skirt of linen smoke and a matching jacket tight enough to make self-hugging a strain. But she did it anyway. She held on and she paced.

"You might as well tell him," Eilene said. "It won't get any easier."

The woman said, "He believes he has been visited by an angel."

She made two more circuits of Wayne's tiny front room before Jerry said, "Run that last bit by us again."

"You heard her," Eilene said.

"I heard the words, but I'm not putting them together well."

"An angel," the woman repeated.

"As in, guardian angel?"

"He doesn't believe in them."

Eilene said, "Guardian angel is a Catholic term. Or earlier. A lot of pagan sects hold to the concept. There's nothing in the Bible to suggest humans have individual ..." She stopped because of the look her brother gave her. "What?"

Wayne said, "Skip the history lesson and get to the now."

The woman stopped by the rear window. She said to the outside world, "He believes he has been visited by an angel."

"God's holy messenger," Eilene said.

Jerry asked, "This guy, he's a religious nutcase as well as rich?"

The woman just stared out the window.

"I've known him for fifteen years," Eilene said. "He's a friend. Yes, he lives for his faith. And no, he's not insane."

"Delusional, then."

The woman said, "That's what I want you to find out."

Wayne asked, "Why me?"

The woman touched the glass by her face. As though wanting to assure herself of reality.

Eilene said, "Something the angel told him."

The woman corrected, "If it was an angel."

"Of course," Eilene said.

Wayne asked his sister, "You were there?"


"Then, if you don't mind, I'd like to hear it from her."

The woman said, "I was not there either."

"But this guy, he described it to you, right? So tell me what he said."

The woman's accent grew decidedly stronger. "The angel told this gentleman that he was in grave danger and must hide himself away—his life and the lives of his family depended on it. The angel also told him to find himself a warrior. Someone he can trust to act as his arms and legs. This warrior must be one who gives his strength to the weak. One who cares little for gold."

She was Russian, Wayne decided. Or one of the break-off states with stan at the end of its name. It went with the slanted eyes and the haughty demeanor. "I don't have anything against money."

"You refused your commission," Holly pointed out.

Foster asked, "That's what you three were doing in your office before you come marching over here. Talking about how you were going to set our buddy up, see if he'd go for the money?"

Eilene said, "We had to know."

"He's your brother."

"That's right. And this is a friend in a crisis situation." Eilene vented a trace of steam with her words. "Since the incident, her boss has refused to leave his estate. He's turned his entire empire over to associates. Some of whom she does not trust."

Wayne said, "So you think one of his people used this guy's religion against him—"

"His faith," Eilene corrected. "This has nothing to do with religion."

Wayne waited until he was sure she was done, then continued, "Used it against him so they could take control of his company?"

The woman did not respond.

Jerry said, "Man, that is cold."

"Tell me," Eilene said.

Wayne said, "So you want me to investigate this situation and discover who's behind the scam."

"No." The woman turned around and gave him a look of feline fear. "I want you to keep my friend alive."

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Dogwood - Chapter 1


(Tyndale House Publishers - July 9, 2008)

Chapter 1


Ruthie Bowles once said I would wind up hating her. She was right.

I met Ruthie on a Tuesday afternoon after a sleepless Monday night in my closet, a space littered with poetry and my mother’s well-worn Bible, dog-eared at the Psalms. The poetry kept me sane, and the Psalms gave me hope. NyQuil stopped working
long ago.

“Whoever fights monsters,” Nietzsche said, “should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”

I ran across that in a quote book. At 3 a.m. it looked interesting. Ruthie doesn’t quote Nietzsche, but the truth is the truth. I am a student of the abyss, but I get no credit. It’s a night class I audit.

When I met Ruthie, I had an ache in my heart left by the echoes of friends and choices. Mistakes. I knew women in the neighborhood, names and faces from church and the local preschool, but I did not have what Anne Shirley would call a bosom
friend, and there were few prospects. My husband, Richard, pastor of the Little Brown Church—though it is not little and more cranberry if you ask me—has been
supportive. “Just give it some time,” he’ll say. “We all go through tough seasons.” I’ve seen him lose a night’s sleep about three times in his life, and I fight resentment when I hear his rhythmic breathing. Sleep is a luxury to anxious minds.

Since childhood I have sung about the “river glorious” of God’s peace. I hadn’t planned on the river running dry.

And the church. I longed for a refuge or oasis. Instead, it became Alcatraz. To me, church has always meant relationships, not a building, but my problems sent me away from people rather than toward them.

In my first fledgling nights in the closet, when sleep and every sense of peace crawled away and hid like a wounded animal, I feared I was losing my mind. I pictured white-coated men strapping my arms and pushing me toward an oversize van while my children screamed and the elders shook their heads. I could hear my husband saying, “She just needs a little time. We all go through tough seasons.”

Ruthie walked into my loneliness—or should I say hobbled—at a time when God was trimming the nails of my soul to the quick. Angels laughed so hard at my prayers that they held their sides. So many angels.

And God was silent.

One of my mother’s favorite songs contains these words: “Then in fellowship sweet we will sit at His feet, or we’ll walk by His side in the way . . .” I’ve felt constantly in his way. He seemed too ticked off to tell me to get out of it, so he kept quiet. The ESO, Eternal Silent One.

My constant companions were fears, not God. I convinced myself he was simply on vacation, out carrying someone else on that beach with all the footprints. My heart had shriveled, and my soul was as wrinkled as the prunes Ruthie loved.

I kept a journal—don’t ask me why—and the ramblings tackled these fears and questions. Ruthie was the fi rst to tell me that God hadn’t abandoned me but was drawing me deeper, calling me out of the shallows, past the abyss, and into the current of his love and mercy.

Yeah, right, I thought. God hadn’t asked me if I wanted to go deeper, and thank you very much, I liked the shallows. It’s easier to play when there’s no current. In the middle you lose your footing; you lose control.

You lose.

However, something drew me to this old woman. Was she an apparition? an angel in disguise? It would be my luck to get an angel with varicose veins. The sliver of hope that she was from God kept me going, but I did not know she had secrets and a closet full of haunted memories. She had seen the abyss long before me and had wrestled monsters of her own.

I suppose we all do.

I grew up in Dogwood. There are memories and stirrings from some other life. My mother and father, Cecilia and Robert Ashworth, still live here. So do his parents. At least, Will’s mother does.

Ruthie asked me about him at that first meal, what she dubbed our “First Supper.” She asked innocently, or so it seemed at the time. Something about her questions should have tipped me off that she knew more. She did not know how many hims there had been before the pastor. Or that my mind was drawn to someone I could never love. Could never kiss or hold or touch again.

“My husband is a good man,” I said. It sounded appropriate, and I hoped she couldn’t sense the hurt behind the answer. I knew I had settled for less. Someone safe. Faithful as an old dog but better smelling.

Ruthie let the answer slip away as easily as my children coming down the slide at the park where we watched them play. Tarin is with me during the day. Darin and Kallie are already in school.

I changed the subject. “Do you have children?”

“Grown,” she said. “They fl y like birds before you know it. Just when you thought you had the nest fi gured out. But I guess that’s our job.”

“Your husband?”

She smiled. “He flew too.”

Was he dead? Had he left her? “I’m sorry,” I said.

“I remember when mine were your daughter’s age. I was different then. Wrapped up in froth.”


Ruthie scooted forward on the bench. “Like a beer on tap. You spend your life chasing froth and bubbles. I used to think it satisfied, that it could fill me up and make me happy. But froth is froth. Empty. What I needed was underneath, at the root, the soul. Can’t fi nd happiness in froth, at least not for long.”

She sounded like a preacher—or one of those homespun storytellers on public television, dispensing wisdom one sound bite at a time. I wanted to switch channels or leave. Make an excuse. Head for a fi ctional doctor’s appointment. I needed to get home to the wash. But it was already evening, and I couldn’t fool her. Plus, something drew me. Was it her voice, her eyes, or the way she seemed to wallow in life?

“Come to my house for dinner,” Ruthie said. The idea came out of the blue, like a magician pulling fried chicken out of a hat.

“That’s very kind of you, but—”

“You look like you could use a friend and I love children.”

When I was a child, my brother and I wandered near bushes my mother had ordered us to avoid. We were searching for hidden treasure or a lost baseball—I can’t remember which—when we stumbled upon a hornet’s nest the size of Detroit. Bobby Ray ran, but I stood, paralyzed by the enormity of the nest and all those stingers writhing inside. For a month I had nightmaresm about hornets covering my face and arms, stinging every inch of exposed fl esh.

As it turned out, one lonely hornet snapped me from my stupor, and I ran to my mother, my arm swollen. She grabbed a fresh onion from the refrigerator, cut it in half, and placed it on the sting. The onion felt wet and slick. “Hold it right there,” she said. “It’ll draw the poison out.”

I have been staring at the hornet’s nest called life, afraid to live, too stunned to move. Ruthie was the one who drew the poison from my soul. She became my teacher. Our classroom was her living room or the playground at the Memorial Park. Some of the most intense lessons we tackled while standing in line at

“Life isn’t pretty, so you’ve got to hug the ugly out of it,” she said one day.

She had no idea how much ugly there was.