Tuesday, September 30, 2008

It's Not About Me - Chapter 1

It's Not About Me

Sheaf House Publishers (September 1, 2008)


Ever have something happen to you that was so awful you wish you could go back and erase the memory? I did. But in a strange way I’m glad it happened. Not because I enjoyed the nightmares or the pain, but because it changed me and made me a stronger person.
On the inside.
I always thought life was about me. That behaving and being a good person were all I needed to do to be happy. But now I realize all I did was try to please other people, to make them happy. I’m not sure why I felt compelled never to let anyone down. What happened to me that horrible night forced everything into perspective. I learned something about myself that wasn’t so pretty.
It’s not about me.

Chapter 1

Annie Myers offered a shy grin to the congregation of First Christian as they applauded for her solo, “How Great Thou Art.” She dipped her head until her long hair covered her face as she returned to her seat. She hated it when her cheeks burned.

She slipped into the pew and adjusted her black skirt as she settled beside her boyfriend, Tony. He slid closer until he eliminated the space between them. Draping his arm over her shoulder, he warmed her ear with his breath. Though she stared straight ahead, she could hear the smile in his voice. “You sounded great.”

As he lingered with his lips against her hair, the light scent of his musk aftershave invaded her senses, making her grin despite her effort to appear aloof.

“Not so close.” She stifled a giggle with her fingers and tried to scoot away.

He clutched her waist and inched closer. She stopped struggling, but sighed. While she didn’t mind him displaying a little affection, she didn’t appreciate him grabbing her in church. Not when her nosy neighbor Nancy, an elderly widow who rarely left her house, perched in the row across the aisle and scrutinized them with raised eyebrows.

She tried to pay attention to the service, but her mind couldn’t focus. Between her neighbor staring and Tony’s ever-increasing proximity, she struggled to keep her breathing normal.

Nosy Nancy had made it clear she didn’t like their pastor’s youngest son and shared her disparaging opinion of him with anyone who would listen. The old woman worked hard to collect evidence against him. For what purpose, Annie didn’t know, nor did she want to.

On occasion, she and Tony performed special music together. He was the one who had given her the courage to sing in public. And she loved it when he harmonized with her. His voice was smooth and enticing, just like his personality. And though every girl in church wanted to date him, Tony had chosen her to be his girlfriend.

Shuddering as he tickled her open palm, she tried to discreetly pull away from him, but he refused to let go. Nosy Nancy probably sensed Annie’s not-so-pure thoughts and would scorn her like she scorned herself for allowing Tony such liberties. Rather than confronting him, however, she stared at the wooden cross behind the pulpit and ignored his sensual teasing.

During the closing hymn, he repeatedly traced I love you into her palm. She leaned close and whispered, “Stop.”

He shook his head. Wearing a mischievous grin, he dragged his fingers over her palm, and then trailed one up her arm. She shivered from the tickling sensation on her skin and glanced across the aisle. Nosy Nancy’s eyebrows had climbed halfway up her prune-like forehead. Something in Annie’s gut told her Nancy had seen Tony pawing her.

The moment the hymn concluded, Tony tugged her—feet dragging—across the carpet. He urged her toward the stairs that led to the Sunday school rooms below the sanctuary.

She dug her heels in and tried to pull away. “Tony, what are you doing?”

He pulled harder, refusing to let go. “Come on.”

Sensing she shouldn’t put up a fight in front of church members, she tried to not trip on the steps as she descended the stairs behind him, his hand still clutching hers. “We shouldn’t be down here alone.”

“I know. But I’ve got something awesome to tell you.”

Not sure she believed him, she allowed him to drag her along the narrow hallway. “Why so private?”

Tony laughed. “Come on. Loosen up. We’re adults now.”

Her spine stiffened at the way he emphasized the word adult, and she halted. “Wait a sec. Just because we’re going to college in a few months doesn’t mean we should start breaking all the rules. Your dad will have a fit.”

“Naw. My dad’s cool. Really.” He winked.

She laughed at his obvious lie. His dad had a reputation for being overly strict with his sons. “You’re deluded. He’ll have your hide if he finds us down here alone.”

Tony smiled and pulled her toward the door at the end of the isolated hallway. He yanked it open, propelled her inside, and slammed the door behind him.

The smoldering, sexy look on his face made her let out a high-pitched giggle. “Someone might hear and come looking for us. What will people think?”

He tipped his head, inspecting her with intense eyes, yet wearing a disarming smile. “You believe I care what anyone thinks?”

“You know I do.”

He touched her chin, then tilted it up. “You’re really gorgeous.”

The way his eyelids lowered as his gaze lingered on her lips caused her heart to do little flips. “You’re just saying that.”

“Yeah, right. Like you were voted Prom Queen ’cause you’re so ugly.”

Annie forced herself to relax. They were in church. How much could he do? She fingered the collar of his tan dress shirt. “You’re pretty hot yourself, Mr. Prom King.”

Growling playfully, he backed her into the chalkboard. “Ooh, I like it when you say that.”

One of the erasers hit the floor. Chalk dust exploded in a cloud, and she coughed. As she bent to pick it up, she wished their church would join the twenty-first century and invest in a dry erase board and markers.

“Grab it later.” He pressed her against the wall, not allowing her to reach down, his arms blocking her in. Gazing into her eyes, he tipped his head until their lips almost touched. Their breath mingled. “Oh, Queen Anne, grant me one request?”

Her pulse hammered at his sensual tone, but she didn’t hesitate. She needed to get back upstairs before anyone noticed them missing. “Sure.”

He kissed the tip of her nose. “Anything?”

She nodded and swallowed hard.

“You mean even this?” Closing his mouth over hers, Tony deepened his kiss until her knees turned to rubber. Yet the minty taste of his breath and the silky warmth from his lips made her crave more. Nobody looked or tasted as good. Not that she had anyone to compare him to. She’d never kissed anyone else.

Stopping suddenly, he gazed into her eyes and searched, as if peering into her soul.

The smell of chalk dust reminded her where they were. “I thought you wanted to talk.” She found her hands had crept up to his shoulders, and she lowered them, pushing gently on his chest. “I don’t like kissing down here. It’s disrespectful.”

He stepped back and shrugged. “God invented sex. There’s nothing wrong with it.”

“Not if you’re married. But . . .” Why does kissing always make him think of sex?

“Mmm . . . But nothing.” His soft lips moved rhythmically over hers in an intimate dance until she thought she’d faint. She had to escape.

Lately he wanted to make out every chance they got and let his hands roam further and further, and though she knew it was wrong, she didn’t hate it. In fact she enjoyed it. Too much.

“Let me show you how much I love you,” he whispered against her lips and melded his body to hers.

Panic forced the air from her lungs. She shoved him away. “Are you crazy?”

“Not here.” He laughed. Relief whooshed through her. Then he lightly brushed his index finger down her nose. “Later. Tonight.”

She frowned. He had to know how she felt; so why did he keep pushing the issue? “We’ve talked about this before.”

“I want you, Annie. I love you. I’ll be careful.”

She crossed her arms and stepped back. “And I love you. You know I’m fine with kissing, but I’m waiting until I’m married for the rest.”

He huffed and raked his fingers through his hair. “That won’t happen for four more years! Not if we graduate from college first. I can’t wait that long.”

What happened to the old Tony I knew? The sweet, patient one?

“If you love me you’ll wait.” Her voice wavered despite her resolve to remain firm.

“But your parents won’t be home until tomorrow night. Don’t you see? It’s so perfect.” He tried to cup her face, but she swatted his hands away.

So that was why her nosy neighbor had been giving her such rapt attention. She must be spying for her parents. They’ve never been out of town overnight before. The thought gave her the shivers. What would Nancy tell them? What would they think?

“No way. My parents would find out.” Her first time home alone, and she had her boyfriend over—yeah, that would go over well. She shrugged. “They trust me.”

“They don’t have to know. You’re the perfect daughter. No one would suspect a thing.” He touched her hair and tucked a lock behind her ear. “Come on, babe. I’ll leave early so no one will know I was there. I promise.”

His manipulation caused a tumult of confusion to swell within her breast, slightly weakening her resolve. Then logic assured her that Nosy Nancy would certainly be aware of his presence, which would earn them serious consequences for the rest of the summer.

“I said no. If that’s all you wanted to tell me, then I’m out of here before someone sees us and starts talking.” She tried to push past him, but he stepped in front of her.

“Is that all you care about? What people think?”

She stared into his eyes, where hurt danced with annoyance, and a lump clogged her throat. “No.”

He moved closer and whispered, his voice desperate, “Don’t you care what I think?”

When he looked at her like that, she wanted to throw caution to the wind and succumb, but she had to be strong. “Of course I do. But why is this so important to you all of a sudden? You haven’t been yourself lately.”

She hesitated at the soft, yet passionate gaze in his eyes, wanting him to love her, but not push her so hard. How could she keep him in her life and keep her reputation at the same time? It seemed impossible, and it frustrated her.

Tony closed his eyes and puckered his lips, teasing her like he always did when she got mad at him. “Plant one right here, baby.” He pointed at his mouth.

Annie sighed, then leaned toward him and offered a quick peck. “There. No more.”

“That’s more like it.” He opened his eyes and grinned. “Now add a little warmth.”

She scowled. “Tony . . .”

“I was joking.” The corner of his mouth rose. “You can’t blame a guy for trying.”

She stared into mischievous brown eyes. “Think I’ll change my mind if you keep this up?”

“No, but I hope you will.” His eyebrows zipped up and down in a suggestive manner. The gleam in his eyes and his lopsided grin dissipated her anger.

“You kiss nice, but not enough to persuade me.”

With his eyes thinned into slits, he observed her for a second. “Um, yeah. Hey. Listen. That’s not why I brought you here. My news is . . . guess.”

“You know I hate guessing games. Just tell me.”

He embraced her hands and smiled. “If you give me another kiss, I’ll tell you.”

“Just spit it out.”

“Come on, hot stuff. One little kiss?”

She rolled her eyes and imparted another innocent peck.

He mimicked as he rolled his eyes back at her. “That the best you can do?”

“You said one little kiss.” She giggled. “You didn’t say make it sloppy.”

The look on his face was priceless. He wasn’t sure if she was serious or not. “Are you saying I’m a sloppy kisser?”

She laughed. “Maybe.”

His now-wide grin assured her he understood her teasing. “All right, you kept your end of the bargain, though it was pretty lame. . .”

“My bad.” She covered her mouth with her hand.

“All right, I’ll just tell you. I got my acceptance letter from Northern Christian. I’m in!” He rubbed his hands. “Now we can go to the same college. Isn’t that great?”

Her heart pounded and she stiffened. Fear and joy merged as she considered their recent struggles over sex—or the lack of it. She groaned inwardly at the daunting task of having to put him off for four more years. “Sure,” she answered, her smile weak.

He stepped back. “You don’t sound excited. Aren’t you happy? If we’re at the same college, we can be together every day.”

If they attended separate schools, it would be easier for her to deal with his burgeoning desire. Especially since it now mixed with the newly heightened awareness of her own. “Yeah, I’m glad.”

Tony squinted. “You’re not happy. You’re scared.”

She shook off her doubts and brightened her smile. “Of course I’m glad. You know I’d love to spend every day with you.” She touched his smooth chin, following the line of his jaw. “Why wouldn’t I be happy? I was just a bit stunned at first.”

“Good.” Touching her hair, he whispered, “You’re so beautiful.”

Her body warmed as he inched closer.

Pressing her against the wall, he kissed her hungrily. His fingers combed through her hair and his lips found the nape of her neck. Though she intended to behave, if he up kept up the passionate kissing, she didn’t know how much longer she could keep her resolve.

Just as he slid his other hand under her shirt, something creaked behind her. Someone walked in on us!

She shoved Tony away as she wiped her mouth with the top of her hand. Smoothing her hair, she noticed Dan lurking in the doorway. Tony’s nearly six-foot-tall, brown-haired, blue-eyed older brother stared at them, his mouth gaping in shock.

After blinking several times, Dan stepped inside and announced in his deep bass voice, “Dad’s looking for you.”

Tony stuffed his hands in his pockets. “So?”

“You better find out what he wants. He’s not happy you disappeared after service.”

Dan glanced at Annie and her neck flushed red-hot.

Despite her embarrassment at the interruption, relief washed over her because Tony had to stop. She obviously wasn’t persuasive enough to convince him on her own.

Tony touched her cheek. “Talk to you later, sweet stuff.”

He sprinted up the stairs, leaving Annie out of breath and staring at his older brother. Dan shifted his feet as he fixed his gaze on her.


His frank stare evoked a shiver. What had he seen? What did he think about her?

She glanced away, running her fingers through her long hair. Dan appeared more handsome than usual today, and more like a man than a teenager. She hated that she noticed that about him.

Why wouldn’t he go away? He’d delivered his message.

Dan’s intensity puzzled her. He’d always been nice, yet extremely attentive, which made her anxious. Several times this past month, she’d caught him staring at her in church.

Tony had mentioned that Dan had graduated from college last month and returned to Boise to find a job. For now he lived with their parents. But that didn’t explain his obvious interest.

“You sounded great today.” Dan’s voice dipped lower.

She peered at him while nibbling her lower lip. His sincere-sounding compliment caused unfamiliar warmth to fill her chest. “Um, thanks.”

He scanned the length of her and he pointed at her skirt.

Annie followed his gaze. “What?”

“You’re covered in chalk dust.”

Her mouth curved in a wry smile, though her pulse hammered. “I, um, was looking for my . . . Bible and I . . . I guess I bumped into the chalkboard.”

She slapped at the dust and fumbled through a stack of books on a table. Straightening a few moments later, she glanced at Dan from the corner of her eye.

He remained in the same spot, his broad chest puffing out as he stuffed his hands in his back pockets and shrugged. “Need help dusting off?”

Was he serious? She frowned. “No thanks.”

Dan’s neck reddened and the color spread to the tips of his ears. He cleared his throat. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like . . . Ah, never mind. I better go.” He disappeared down the hall.

Seconds later, her friend Susie popped her head into the room. “There you are. I’ve been looking all over for you, girlfriend.”

“Here I am.” She tried not to appear flustered as she cleared her throat and tugged at the sides of her skirt. “Just looking for my… Bible. Can’t find it.” And you’re lying. Nice, Annie.

“That’s ’cause you left it upstairs, you nut.”

Annie laughed and lightly slapped her forehead. “Oh, yeah. Duh!” She sure would miss Susie when she left for an upcoming missions trip that would take her away for several weeks. At least she had Tony to hang out with. If she could keep him and his persistence at bay.

Susie leaned close, her dark hair hanging in her face. “Why were you alone with Dan?”

Susie's question caught her by surprise. Annie shrugged and swallowed hard. “I wasn’t alone. Not like—”

“Yeah, right.” Susie chuckled. “I just saw him looking all red-faced and running up the stairs like the building was on fire.”

Glancing at her skirt, Annie smacked at the chalk dust. “He came to get Tony.”

Susie touched Annie’s skirt. “Boy, what a mess. You want some help?”

“No, thanks.”

Susie smirked. “I won’t ask how you managed to get so much on you.”

Annie raised her brows. “I didn’t plan it, you know. It just happened.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. But what I want to know is why the good stuff always happens to you. Why not to the rest of us average people?”

“Come on, Susie.” Annie stifled a laugh. “There’s nothing average about you.”

Susie rolled her eyes. “Whatever. But you know I’m right. It’s so unfair.” Susie tapped her chin. “Do you think if I prayed and asked God to have Dan notice me, He’d answer my prayer?”

“It can’t hurt to try, right?”

“I suppose. Come on. Let’s get out of here before people start talking.”

Annie followed her friend up the stairs, thankful for the continual interruptions despite how uncomfortable they made her feel. She didn’t know how much longer she could hold Tony at bay, and that scared her even more than her parents’ finding out about their rendezvous in the church basement. She didn’t want to disappoint them, but more than that, she didn’t want to betray her own plans for her future.

But something in her gut told her things were slowly unraveling in their relationship, and she had no clue how to make them right again.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

John 3:16 - Chapter 1

John 3:16

Tyndale House Publishers (September 9, 2008)


The elevator doors opened. Maya Morano stepped out, nearly overwhelmed by a single thought: The world is mine.

“Morning, Ms. Morano,” the receptionist said. “Congratulations on your award Friday night.”

Triumph sang an aria in her soul. She wanted to pump her arm and shout, “Yes!” like an NBA player after a perfect three pointer, but she knew better than to let loose. Reining herself in to a proper corporate humility, she gave a slight nod and said, “Thanks.” There was a time and a place . . .

She spotted her boss chatting with another employee outside an office nearby. She paused in the reception area, pretending to need something from her briefcase. But as she opened it, she mishandled the case.

It fell with a thud. Files scattered everywhere. Her ploy to get attention had succeeded—far beyond her wildest dreams.

“Why I am such a klutz?” she said, a little louder than necessary. She didn’t have to fake her reaction. The embarrassment that turned her cheeks pink was all too real.

“Let me help—” the receptionist said.

“Thanks.” She said out loud, but inside she was thinking No! Not you . . .

She sensed her boss approaching. She looked up, offering him the smile that had been so instrumental in earning Friday’s award. “Good morning, sir. If you don’t mind, I thought I’d work from here this morning.” She waved her arms above the mess on the floor. “I do like to spread out.”

“I’ve heard of employees wanting a bigger office, but this . . .” He knelt beside her to help, “is taking that urge to new heights.” He winked. “I think we can do better than this.”

Game. Set. Match.

She gathered her things with the help of her boss and the receptionist, then saw they had an audience. Other workers had noticed. She could see what they were thinking by the looks in their eyes.

Being on the receiving end of envy was very satisfying.


Maya leaned the “Top Seller” award plaque against the wall of her cubicle. She hoped it was a temporary measure. An award like this should be hung on the wall of a proper office, not tucked away in an anonymous, gray-paneled cubicle, leaning.

Soon. The boss indicated you deserved a real office. Be patient.

She set her briefcase under the desk and shoved it out of the way with a kick of her foot, nearly toppling the trash can. She sighed. She really was a klutz. But she was working on it, getting better. Every day she got closer to being the person she wanted to be. With a quarter-turn of her chair, she focused her attention on her computer screen. With a touch of her cursor, it came to life. Today’s schedule glowed with multi-colors: green tabs for inter-office meetings, orange tabs for prospective client meetings, blue tabs for personal appointments, and red tabs for any HTDs—her personal shorthand for Hate To Dos.

She needed that code, her own warning system, stern orders to herself that on this day, at this particular time, she had to do something she disliked. The content of HTDs varied, but usually involved babying some existing clients who needed reassurance that the office equipment they’d ordered from her was right for them, and that Maya had given them the best price. She hated this part of her job. She was lousy at pasting on a smile, pretending to care. “Service after the sale” may have made a grand motto for the company, but in reality it was tedious work that Maya believed took time and energy away from getting that next big sale.

A coworker peered over the cubicle. “Hey, Maya. I would say congrats on the award, but both you and I know . . .”

“Leave me alone, Brian.”

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

Another coworker approached. “Congratulations, Maya. Way to go on the award.”

Brian shook his head and walked away.

“What’s with him?” Susan asked.

Maya shrugged. “I don’t know. Sour grapes, maybe?”

Then she put a hand on the award, hoping Susan would bite.

She did. “Is that it? Let me see.”

Maya held it close to her face like a game show cutie showing off a prize. She did not let Susan touch it. “Work hard, and you too can get one of these someday,” she teased.

“Fat chance,” Susan said. “I turned forty today. You youngsters have too much spring in your step for me to catch up.”

Young? Hardly. At thirty-three, Maya felt the years rushing by.

A delivery person appeared, carrying a bunch of balloons. “I’m looking for Susan Bates?”

At the sound of her name, Susan looked up. “Hey, that’s me.” She took the balloons. “Thanks.”

Maya examined the silvery globes bobbing above Susan’s head. They were kind of hokey, but nice, in a weird sort of way. “Who’re they from? Look at the card,” Maya said.

“Doesn’t seem to be one,” Susan replied.

“Well, enjoy the gift from your secret admirer. Meanwhile, we’d better get back to work.”

“Work. On my birthday.” Susan looked at the balloons wistfully, then sighed. ”I don’t know where you come up with your clients, Maya, but if you have any extra, send a few my way, all right?”

Not in this lifetime.

Susan headed back to her workspace. A few seconds later Maya overheard their boss say, “Happy birthday, Susan.”

“Thank you, sir. People are being so nice. Joyce brought a cake. It’s in the break room. Make sure you get a piece.”

“I’ll do that.”

During the exchange, Maya set the award aside, flipped open a file, fanned a few papers out on the work surface, and picked up a pen. She leaned forward over the work, jotted some random numbers on the margins of a page, then moved her calculator close, adding something to anything as she waited.

“Busy at work I see,” her boss said, on cue.

She pushed her chair back and tossed the pen on the desk. “Always.” She pointed at her daily schedule glowing on the monitor. “I’m clearing up the backlog so that I can visit a client who has some issues about some damage on his last order. I know he should just call claims to handle it, but—“

“But you want to give him personal service.”

Not really. If he hadn’t insisted on the meeting I wouldn’t be going. But since I’m going, he’s going to be eating out of my hand before I’m through with him.

“That’s commendable, Maya. That’s the way we do things here at Efficient.”

“I aim to please.” You. I aim to please you.

“It’s not just about sales. I wish more salespeople realized that.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Carry on.” He walked away.

Maya looked at her award. Her boss was wrong. It was all about sales.

Her future depended on sales.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

When The Soul Mends - Chapter 1

When The Soul Mends

WaterBrook Press (September 16, 2008)

Chapter 1

Hannah’s car faded into the distance of the paved horizon. The cold concrete chilling Martin’s bare feet and the lukewarm cup of coffee in his hand confirmed that this was no way to begin a Saturday morning. Watching the place where Hannah’s vehicle had disappeared, Kevin and Lissa slowly stopped waving. For the first time since Hannah had landed in Ohio–two and a half years ago and not yet eighteen–she was on her way back to her Pennsylvania home and the Old Order Amish family she’d left behind. Maybe he should have insisted on going with her.

Lissa tugged at the hem of his T-shirt. “She packed a lot of stuff.” His niece’s big brown eyes reflected fears she didn’t know how to voice at five years old. Martin tried to catch Kevin’s eye to see how he was doing, but he stared at the ground. Hannah really hadn’t packed very much, but this had to feel like a replay of when their mother ran off months ago. When Faye had packed a lot of things into her car, she dropped Kevin and Lissa off with Hannah while Martin was at work, and never returned.

Martin suppressed a sigh, tossed the brown liquid from his cup onto the green grass, and held out his hand to Lissa. “She’ll be back, guys.”

Lissa slid her hand into his. “Promise?”

“Yes. Absolutely.” Martin gave her hand a gentle squeeze. “Her sister called to say that a good friend of Hannah’s had an accident and is in the hospital. She’ll probably be back in time for her classes on Monday. Wednesday at the latest.”

Kevin shoved his hands deep into his pockets. “I didn’t know she had a sister.”

Martin shrugged, unwilling to say too much about Hannah’s past. “She hasn’t been to see her family or friends in Pennsylvania for years.” With the coffee cup dangling from his fingers, he put his hand on Kevin’s shoulder. “Now they need her for a bit.” He headed for the house, leading the children. Earlier this morning, while Hannah called possible hospitals her friend might have been taken to, Martin found an Ohio-Pennsylvania map. Once she knew the name and address of the hospital, they studied the map together while he highlighted the route she’d need to take.

He didn’t know which caused her the most nervousness: her injured friend, having to see her family again, or driving in unfamiliar territory, but right now he wished he’d pushed a little harder to go with her.

He thought about the gifts he and Hannah had exchanged last night. He’d given her an honorary mother’s ring and had slid it onto the ring finger of her left hand. She hadn’t agreed yet to marry him, saying his proposal a few weeks back had been brazen and romance-free, which it had. But when he took her to Hawaii over Christmas, he’d find the most romantic way possible to propose.

A smile he couldn’t stop seemed to spread across the morning. Martin opened the front door. “How about some Cracklin’ Pops cereal and cartoons?”

The muscles across Hannah’s shoulders ached. With the toll roads and service plazas of the Ohio and Pennsylvania Turnpikes behind her, she pulled into the parking lot of the hospital and found a space for her car. Her frazzled nerves complained, but she was here now–whatever here held in store. Trying desperately to remember who she’d become over the last couple of years, not who she’d once been, she stopped at the information desk and waited for the woman to end her phone conversation.

Her sister Sarah had managed to get hold of her phone number and had called last night to tell her about Matthew being hurt in a fire. Hannah promised to come–a pledge she now regretted. In some ways it’d been a lifetime since she’d last faced her Amish community, yet the quaking of her insides said it’d been only yesterday.

The gray-haired woman hung up the phone. “Can I help you?” “Yes, I need the room numbers for Matthew and David Esh.”

The woman typed on the keyboard and studied the screen. She frowned and typed in more info. “We have a Matthew Esh, but there’s not a David Esh listed.” She jotted down the room number on a small piece of paper. “It’s possible he’s already been released or perhaps was taken to a different hospital.”

“Maybe so. I’ll ask Matthew.” Hannah took the paper from her. “Thank you.”

She went to the elevator, trying to mentally prepare to face Matthew’s visitors–people she knew, people she was related to, those who’d accused her of wrongdoing before they washed their hands of her.

Nonetheless, she’d come home.

Here. Not home. She corrected herself and felt a morsel of comfort in the thought. These people didn’t own her and had no power to control her, not anymore. She stepped off the elevator and headed toward Matthew’s room. Odd, but the place appeared empty of any Amish. She gave a sideways glance into the waiting room as she passed it. There were no Plain folk in there either.

Stopping outside the room, Hannah said a silent prayer. Ready or not, she pressed the palms of her hands against the door and eased it open. A man lay in the bed, but she couldn’t see his face for the bandages across his eyes. He turned his head toward the door.

“Hello?” His voice echoed through the room.


His forehead wrinkled above the bandages, and he clenched his jaw. “Just go home…or wherever it is you’re livin’ these days. I got no more use for you.”

She froze. If this is what awaited her from Matthew, one of her few friends, what would the community be like? But maybe the man wasn’t Matthew. His body was larger, shoulders thicker and rounded with muscle. His voice was raspy and deeper than she remembered. And Matthew would have visitors, wouldn’t he?


He shifted in the bed, angling his head.

“It…it’s Hannah.”
Only the soft buzzing sound of electronics could be heard as she waited for his response. Wondering a thousand things–whether the eye damage was permanent, why he didn’t have a marriage beard, and where everyone was–she moved closer to the bed.

Finally he reached his hand toward her. “Hannah Lapp, at last back from the unknown world.” Ignoring his unsettling tone, she put her fingers around his outstretched hand and squeezed. “How are you?”

The stiltedness of their words said that a lot more than two and a half years had passed between them. He shrugged and then winced, reminding her of the pain he must be in. “I’ve lost David…and every part of my business. How do ya expect me to be?”

David is dead?

The news twisted her insides, making her fight to respond. “I’m so sorry, Matthew.”

He eased his hand away from hers. “I’m grateful you came all this way, but I’m too tired to talk right now.”

“Sure. I understand. Where is everyone?”

The door swooshed open, and a nurse walked in. “I’m sorry, miss. He’s not to have visitors.” She held up a laminated, printed sign that said No Visitors Allowed. “It’d slipped off his door.”

That explained why he didn’t have friends or relatives here, but he didn’t appear to be in bad enough shape for a doctor to give that order.

Hannah studied the nurse, but she just shook her head without saying more. The only reason he wouldn’t be allowed to have visitors was because he’d requested that of the staff. And clearly he didn’t want to make an exception for her.

“Okay.” She slid her hand into his once more, wishing she could at least know more about the condition of his eyes. But he seemed in no mood for questions. “I’ll come back when you’re feeling better.”

“There’s no sense in that. I’m goin’ home tomorrow. But…David’s funeral is Monday.” His voice cracked, and he took a ragged breath. “If you’re still here, we could meet up afterward while Mamm and everyone is distracted with the gatherin’ at the house.”

The words Matthew didn’t say weighed heavily. He didn’t want her going into the community to see anyone. He wanted to meet her alone, in secret.

Unable to respond, she grappled with the space separating them. She’d expected distance from her Daed and Mamm, the church leaders, and even Gram, but she hadn’t for one second thought Matthew would sidestep her. He’d understood, even disobeyed the bishop to help her. Built the coffin for her baby, dug the grave, and said the prayer. Taken her to the train station, bought her a ticket, and stayed with her until time for the train to depart the next day. Did he now regret that he’d stuck by her?

Unwilling to push for a specific plan, Hannah gave his hand a final squeeze before pulling away. “Sure. I…I’ll catch up with you then.”

Desperate to clear her mind, Hannah hurried out of the hospital and into her car. She pulled out of the hospital parking lot and drove–to where, she didn’t know. Old feelings of loneliness washed over her, but she kept driving, as if she could outrun the sting. By the time her emotions began to settle, she had no idea where she was. Glancing in the rearview mirror, she pulled her car onto the shoulder of the road. Fields of yet-uncut hay seemed to go on forever as cars whizzed past.

Unsure of the county or town she was in, she grabbed the map off the seat beside her and searched for her location. Nothing looked familiar. Realizing the stupid thing was upside down, she flipped it around.

At this moment all she wanted was to be at home with Martin, but the next few days had to be walked through first. She’d given Sarah her word. Even as that thought crossed her mind, she wondered if there was more to it. If maybe some deeply hidden part of her wanted to be here.

Desperate to hear Martin’s voice, to feel like she did when with him, she took her cell phone out of her purse.

“Hey, sweetheart, where are you?”

A sense of belonging washed over her the moment she heard his voice. “I was hoping you could tell me.”

He laughed. “Are you serious?”

“Yeah, sort of.”

“Do you know the name of the road you’re on?”

“No. All I know is I want to be there, not here.” In spite her effort to sound upbeat, she came across as pathetic and didn’t want to imagine what Martin must be thinking about now.

“Look at the directions I printed out, and tell me what point you got to before you became lost.”

“I turned left out of your driveway.”

His low chuckle was reassuring. “Very cute.”

Determined to show Martin she could handle this, she studied the map. “Yeah, you’ve told me that before, only then you could see me.”

She angled the map sideways. “Wait. I got it. I know where I am.” She pressed her fingertip against the map and followed the line before realizing she was wrong. “Lost without you.”

“Metaphorically, I love the sound of that, but you should have let me take you there. You’ve never driven anywhere outside a twenty-five mile radius of Winding Creek.”

“You’re not helping.”

“It’s a little hard to help from here with no”–he mockingly cleared his throat–“POB to work from.”
She heard the familiar beeps of his laptop starting up. “POB…ah, engineering lingo.”

“Yep. Point of beginning. I’m logging onto Google maps right now and will try the satellite visual. Tell me about your surroundings.”

“Oh yeah, that’s a great plan. I’m surrounded by cow pastures and no houses. Found the right spot yet? There’s a Holstein watching me.”

“On Google maps, no. The right spot for you? Yes, it’s right here in Ohio with us.”

She heard the rustle of fabric. “Did you go back to bed after I left?”

“I ate breakfast and watched cartoons with Lissa and Kevin. But then Laura arrived, so I let the nanny do her job while I took a nice long nap, until you became a damsel in distress. The Mary Jane to my Peter Parker.”

“What? Damsel in distress,” she muttered. “So what does that make you when you don’t know the difference between a skillet and a pot?”

“A typical male who just happens to be…” He paused. “Come on, work with me here, phone girl. Who just happens to be…”

“Charming and intelligent.” She mimicked his clearing of the throat. “According to him.”

He laughed. A loud crash echoed through her cell. Lissa screamed, and Hannah’s breath caught.

A bang, as if his door had been shoved open and hit the wall, filtered through the receiver. “Uncle Martin, Laura said you better come see this. Lissa might need stitches.”

“Phone girl, I’ll need to call you back in a few. Okay?”

The next sound she heard was the complete silence of a cell-phone disconnection. Wondering what she was doing here rather than being there to help Martin, she closed her phone. At sixty-two, Laura was a skilled nanny, but Hannah wanted to be the one with him going through whatever the day brought.

Looking at the map one last time, she thought about calling Dr. Lehman. He was more than just her boss, and he regularly visited relatives in Lancaster, some forty miles southeast of here, so he might be able to help her. But rather than chance disturbing him, she decided to continue driving until she found a landmark she recognized. She pulled back onto the road. After a solid hour and many times of turning around, she found the road that led to Owl’s Perch. Martin hadn’t called her back, and she hadn’t been able to reach him. His voice mail picked up immediately, which meant his phone was turned off. Whatever was going on, she bet his Saturday was tough, nanny’s help or not.

The oddest sensation slid up her back as she drove alongside the Susquehanna River. She’d been in this very spot three years ago, heading for Hershey Medical Center because Luke and Mary had been taken there by helicopter after their accident. She remembered the days that followed, months of hiding her rape from everyone but her parents and hoping against hope that she wouldn’t lose Paul.

“Brilliant, Hannah, you were afraid of losing a jerk.” She mumbled the words, then turned the radio up louder, trying to drown out the whispers of resentment against him. The familiar territory had to be the reason for the fresh edge of offense that cut against her insides. In all the time she’d known Paul, he’d lived on a college campus not far from here, except for the summers, when he stayed with his Gram. She’d only seen this area twice before, once on the way to the hospital to see Luke and

Mary and again about two weeks later on the way back home, but in each instance she’d been keenly aware that she was in Paul’s stomping grounds. At the time she felt connected to him, hopeful they could overcome the obstacles that stood between them and getting married. Silly, childish dreams.

Needing a stronger diversion than worship songs, she pushed the radio button, jumping through the stations until she found a familiar song by Rascal Flatts, “I’m Moving On.” She cranked up the sound full blast and sang along, assuring her anxieties that she would survive the oddity of being here as well as the misery of not being with Lissa throughout whatever ordeal she faced.

The waters of the Susquehanna weren’t brown and frothy this time. The river looked crystal clear as the afternoon sun rode across the ripples. In less than an hour she’d be in Owl’s Perch, and as badly as she wanted to arrive, she didn’t want to face her father. What was she going to say to him?

A dozen songs later, that question was still on her mind as she drove into her parents’ driveway. Her mouth dry and palms sweaty, she got out of her car. The cool September breeze played with her dress and loose strands of her pinned-up hair, but there wasn’t anyone in sight, and the wood doors on the house were shut. Without any sounds of voices or movement coming through the screened windows, she was pretty confident no one was home. She knocked loudly anyway. It was rare for everyone to be gone if it wasn’t a church day.

When no one answered, she made a complete circle, taking in the old place, its chicken coop, barns, lean-to, and smokehouse. A sense of nostalgia reverberated through her as she absorbed the homestead where she’d been born and her mother before her. The tops of the huge oaks rustled. She walked to the hand pump, pushed and pulled the handle until water poured forth, and filled a tin cup. Taking a sip of the cool water, Hannah sensed an odd connectedness to her ancestors. A great grandfather on her mother’s side had dug this well, and springs that fed it had been sustaining her family for generations.

The quiet peacefulness moved through her, making her realize how much she’d once cherished parts of the Plain life. She hadn’t expected this, and for the first time in a long time, she wished she understood herself better. Spotting the garden, she walked up the small hill to the edge of it. The last of the corn had been harvested weeks ago, and now all that remained were the cut-off brown stalks. The pea plants had been pulled up for the season. The cold-weather plants– broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage–were thriving. She’d loved gardening from the first time her Daed had placed seeds in the palms of her hands and helped her plant them. Daed and she had come to the garden every day, watching, weeding, and watering. In the end those seeds produced enough food for her family to eat well all year long. Suddenly missing who her Daed and she had once been, her eyes misted. How much easier it would be to sort through her feelings if she understood the magnitude of emotions that came out of nowhere and took her to places she didn’t know existed. Perhaps in that one thing, she and Sarah weren’t so very different. Her sister seemed to respond immediately to the emotions that marched through her, and Hannah stood against them, but either way they left a mark.

Her mind returned to the strange conversation she’d had with Sarah–the jumbled words and thoughts that circled with no destination. She needed to find out what was going on with her.

Deciding to go see Luke and Mary for answers, she went to her car. She backed out of the driveway and headed down the familiar dirt road she used to walk regularly when going to Gram’s. The hairs on her arms stood on end as the paved road turned into a gravel one, the one where the attack had taken place. She locked her car doors and turned the music up to blaring, trying not to think about it. A few minutes later she pulled into Luke’s driveway.

Getting out of the car, she noticed that his shop didn’t appear to be open. The windows, blinds, and doors were closed. It seemed like he’d have the place open on a Saturday. She knocked loudly before trying the door.

When it opened, she stepped inside. The shadowy place didn’t look anything like a usable shop. It looked like a storage room for buggy parts, not leather goods. Waiting at the foot of the stairs that led to the second-floor apartment, Hannah called, “Luke? Mary?”

The door at the top of the steps creaked open, and a half-dressed young man stepped out. “They don’t live here. Never have. We rent the place.”

He might be Amish, but she couldn’t tell for sure since he only had on a sleeveless T-shirt and pants. He descended a few steps.

Hannah backed up. “I’m sorry for interrupting you.”

“No interruption at all.”

Luke and Mary never lived in the home above the harness shop, both of which were built by the community just for them? Unwilling to ask any questions, Hannah went to her car.

Opening the door to the vehicle, she spotted Katie Waddell’s white clapboard home amid fenced pasturelands. The once-worn footpath from here to Gram’s was thick with grass. Hannah closed the door to her car. Maybe it was time to push beyond her fears. She headed for the old farmhouse. Except for a few fences that needed mending, the place looked good. Her heart pounded something fierce as she crossed Gram’s screened porch to the back door.

“Look at me, Hannah.” As if catapulted back in time, she could hear Paul’s voice and feel the soft rumble of his words against her soul. “I’ve been aching to talk to you before I return to college. There are some things I just can’t write in a letter.”

She shuddered, trying to dismiss the memory and ignore the feelings that washed over her as she knocked on the door. No one answered. She peered through the gape in the curtains that hung over the glass part of the door and knocked louder. After several minutes she gave up, left the porch, and moved to the side yard, thinking Gram might be in the garden. But one look at the garden said no one had been in it for quite a while. Paul’s old rattletrap of a truck sat under a pavilion near the garden, the hood up and the engine dangling above by a thick chain.

Eeriness crawled over her skin as if she were trapped in one of those Twilight Zone episodes Martin had told her about. Whatever was going on, life seemed to have changed for everyone else as much as it had for her. She headed for her car. It was time to find the hotel near Harrisburg where Martin had made reservations for her and settle in for the night. She could have stayed at a hotel closer to her community, but according to Martin, the one he’d chosen was nicer: very safe, with breakfast included, and a business center in case she needed Internet access. Unfortunately she’d be stuck there all day tomorrow since it was a church day. Visits by estranged Amish may not be tolerated any day, but especially on a Sunday. And Matthew had made it clear she needed to wait until after the funeral to be seen by the community as a whole and by his family in particular. If that’s how strongly Matthew felt, her father would magnify that sentiment a thousandfold.

Regardless of what it took, she’d get through the next few days with her dignity intact. They’d trampled her spirit once. She’d not give them another chance.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Faking Grace - Chapter 1

Faking Grace

Multnomah Books (August 19, 2008)




Grace [√]

Nice, upstanding Christian name—lucked out on that one. Must remember to answer to it.


Monochrome hair [√]

I flip down the visor mirror and peer at the “Marilyn Monroe” blond hair that waves off of my oval face. I so miss my stripes. But under my present circumstances, it’s not as if I can afford to keep up the multiple-shade “do.” Back to the list.

Minimal make-up [√]

Do I feel naked! Another peek in the mirror confirms the feeling. As I passed on foundation and blush, applying only a light powder to even out my tone, I look pale. The overall effect is that my hazel eyes practically jump off my face from beneath perfectly plucked eyebrows (the stragglers made me do it).

Below-knee skirt [√]
Button-up collar [√]
One-inch heels [√]

Almost wish I were naked.

Cross necklace and earrings [√]
WWJD bracelet [√]

I scrunch up my nose. “WWJD? Where would Jesus...? Why would Jesus...?” I tap the bracelet. “Ah! What would Jesus do?”

“Love Waits” ring [√]

Oh no, it doesn’t. Still, it’s a nice thought, especially considering the guy I left behind. But best not to go there.


Bible [√]
Bible Cover [√]

And, I must say, it’s a nice cover. I look to where it sits on the passenger seat with the “KJV” (whatever that means) Bible tucked inside—intensely spiritual with a tapestry print of a country church. And the faux tortoiseshell handles! Nice touch.

Twist pen with 7 different scriptures [√]

One for every day of the week.

“Footprints in the Sand” bookmark [√]

Touching poem. And a surprise ending too!

Fish emblem [√]

“Oops!” I open the ashtray, dig out the emblem, and drop it in my lap. “Check!”

“Jesus is my pilot” bumper sticker [√]
Crown of thorns air freshener [√]

I glance at the scented disk that hangs from my rearview mirror. Stinks, but nicely visible—practically screams “This is one serious Christian.”


“Jesus is my savior.” [√]
“Jesus died for my sins.” [√]

I close my eyes and run the lingo through my mind. “Got it!”

“I’m praying for you.” [√]

I wonder how many Christians really do.

“I need to pray about that.” [√]

Otherwise known as “No way, Jose'!” Or, in these parts, the “Nashville no.”

“Bless his/her heart.” [√]

Sympathetic aside tacked to a derogatory remark about someone to make it acceptable (possibly exclusive to the South, as I’d never heard it before moving to Nashville four months ago).

“My brother/sister in Christ.” [√]
“God’s timing.” [√]
“Have a blessed day.” [√]
“Yours in Christ.” [√]

Must remember to use that last one for note cards and such.


Church [√]

That one on West End should do—respectable-looking and big enough to allow me to slip in and out undetected should I need to place myself in that setting. Of course, I hope the need does not arise. Not that I’m not a believer. I am. Sort of. I mean, I was “saved” years ago. Even went through the dunking process—the whole water up the nose thing (should not have panicked). But the truth is that, other than occasionally attending church with my grandmother before and after I was saved, my faith is relatively green. Hence, the need for a checklist.

Testimony [ ]

“Uh! Just had to leave that one for last, Maizy. Yes, “Maizy,” as in “Maizy Grace.” Courtesy of one Grandma Maizy, one Grandma Grace, and one mother with a penchant for wordplay. Amazing grace! And Mom is not even a Christian. But Dad’s mom is. According to Grace Stewart, the only thing my parents did right was to name me after her. I beg to differ. I mean…Maizy Grace? Though growing up I did my best to keep it under wraps, my mom blew it during a three-girl sleepover when she trilled upstairs, “Oh, Maizy Grace! How sweet the sound. Won’t you girls come on down?” Fodder for girlhood enemies like Cynthia Sircy who beat me out for student council representative by making an issue of my “goody two shoes” name. And that’s why I never use “Grace.” Of course, it could prove useful today.

I return to my checklist. “Testimony…” I glance at the dashboard clock that reveals I’ve blown ten of my twenty minutes leeway. Guess I’ll have to think up a testimony on my way in to the interview. Not that I don’t have a story of how I came to know Jesus. It’s just boring. Hmm. Maybe I could expand on my Christian summer camp experience—throw in an encounter with a bear or some other woodland creature with big teeth. Speaking of which…

I check my teeth in the mirror. Pale pink lipstick is so boring. Glaringly chaste. Borderline anti-sexual. Of course, that is the effect I’m after. All good.

“All right, Maizy—er, Grr-ace—get in there and get that job.” A job I badly need if I’m to survive starting over in Nashville, as my part-time position as a lifestyle reporter at the paper has yet to translate into the full-time position I was led to believe it would after three months. Funds are getting low.

I fold my checklist and stick it in the book I picked up at Borders the day I surfed the classified ads and hit on “Seeking editorial assistant for Christian company.” Editorial assistant—a far cry from reporter. In fact, beneath me, but what’s a girl to do?

Closing the book, I smile at the title: The Dumb Blonde’s Guide to Christianity. Not that I’m blond—leastwise, not naturally. Another glance in the mirror confirms that although the $7.99 over-the-counter bottle of blond is no $75 salon experience, it lives up to its claim. Not brassy at all. Still, maybe I should have gone back to basic brown so I wouldn’t have to worry about roots. But talk about boring.

I toss the book on the passenger seat, retrieve the fish emblem and my purse, and swing my legs out the car door. After “hipping” the door closed, I hurry to the back. Unfortunately, unlike the bumper sticker, there seems no non-permanent way to apply the emblem. Thus, I have no choice but to pull off the backing and slap the fish on the trunk lid. Not sure what it symbolizes, but I can figure that out later—if I get the job.

I lower my gaze to the “Jesus is my pilot” bumper sticker. Nice statement, especially with the addition of the fish. Honestly, who wouldn’t believe I’m a deeply committed Christian? And if someone should call me on it, I could be forgiven—it is April 1st—as in April Fools’ Day.

As I start to look away, the peeling lower edge of the bumper sticker catches my eye. Should have used more Scotch tape. I reach down.

“It’s crooked.”

The accented matter-of-fact voice makes me freeze. I’m certain it was directed at me, but did he say “It’s crooked” or “She’s crooked”? Surely the latter is merely a Freudian slip of my mind. And even if it isn’t, I’m not crooked. Just desperate.

As the man behind me could be an employee of Steeple Side Christian Resources, I muster a smile and turn. The first thing I notice where he stands six feet back is his fashionably distressed jeans. Meaning he can’t be an employee. And certainly isn’t looking for a hand out—even better (though I sympathize with the plight of the homeless, they make me very uncomfortable). So he’s probably just passing through the parking lot. Perhaps heading for Steeple Side’s retail store that occupies a portion of the lower floor of their corporate offices.

The next item of note is his shirt—a nice cream linen button up that allows a glimpse of tanned collarbone. I like it. What I don’t like is his face—rather, expression. If not for his narrowed eyes and flat-lined mouth, he’d be halfway attractive with that sweep of dark blond hair, matching eyebrows, and decent cheekbones. Maybe even three-quarters, but that would be pushing it, as his two-day shadow can’t hide a lightly scarred jaw. Teenage acne?

I gesture behind. “My bumper sticker seems to be coming off.”

He lowers his green eyes over me, and though I may simply be paranoid, I’m certain he gives my cross earrings and necklace, button-up collar, and below-knee skirt more attention than is warranted. He glances at the bumper sticker before returning his regard to me. “Yes, it is coming off.”

British. I’m certain of it. Nowhere near the Southern drawl one more often encounters in Nashville.

“Of course...” He crosses his arms over his chest. “…that’s because you’re using tape.”

That obvious? “Well, doesn’t everyone?” Ugh! Can’t believe I said that. Maybe there is something to the warning that you are what you read, as I could not have sounded more like the stereotypical dumb blonde if I had tried.

He raises an eyebrow. “Everyone? Not if they want it to adhere permanently. You do, don’t you?”

Guilt flushes me, and is followed by panic even though I have no reason to fear that this stranger with the gorgeously clipped accent might expose me as a fake. “Of course I do!”

Is that a smile? “Splendid, then I’ll let you in on a little secret.”

Delicious accent or not, that doesn’t sound good. It isn’t, as evidenced by his advance. I step aside, and he drops to his haunches and begins peeling away the tape. “You see…” Holding up the sticker, he looks over his shoulder and squints against the sunlight at my back. “…self adhesive.” He peels off the backing, positions the sticker, and presses it onto my bumper—my previously adhesive-free bumper.

He straightens. That is a smile—one that makes him look a bit like that new James Bond actor. What’s his name?

“You’d be surprised at how much technology has advanced over the last few years,” he says.

I nearly miss his sarcasm, genteelly embedded as it is in that accent. “Well, who would have thought?” Be nice, Maizy—er, Grace. My smile feels tight. In fact, my whole face feels as if lathered by Lava soap. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you taking the time to affix my bumper sticker properly.”

He inclines his head. “If you’d like, I’ll try to straighten your fish.”

My…? It’s crooked, he said. Not the bumper sticker—my fish. Meaning he probably saw me stick it on. Were he more than a passerby, I’d be deeply embarrassed. “No, thank you. I like my fish slightly crooked.” I glance at the emblem that appears to have its nose stuck in the air. “It makes him look as if he’s fighting the current. You know, like a good Christian.”

Very good, Ma—Grr-ace! Were he a Steeple Side employee, you would have won him over.

“So you’re a Christian?”

So much for my self-congratulatory pat on the back. Of course, maybe his question is academic. I mean, it’s obvious I’m a Christian. “Of course! A Christian. And proud of it.” Good practice. Unfortunately, if his frown is anything to go by, I’m in need of more. “Er, Jesus is my savior.” Knew Christian speak would come in handy.

His frown deepens.

Or maybe not. Making a show of checking my watch, I gasp. Nothing at all fake about that, as most of my leeway has been gobbled up. Thankfully, I was lucky to—

No, blessed. Must think as well as speak “Christian.” Thankfully, I was blessed to snag a parking space at the front of the building—the only one, as the dozen marked VISITOR spaces were taken, and the remaining spaces on either side of mine are reserved for upper management, as evidenced by personalized signs.

I fix a smile. “Thank you again for your help. If you’ll excuse me, I have an appointment.”


I step forward and, as I pass within two feet of him, take a whiff. Some type of citrus-y cologne. Nice. Not sharp or cloying. Unlike Ben whose cologne of choice made my nasal passages burn. And the Brit is nearly six feet tall to my five foot six. Not so tall I couldn’t wear three-inch heels for fear of shooting up past him. Unlike Ben who’d limited me to one-inch heels—

Go away! Another reason to leave Seattle. With his liberal application of cologne and compact height and build, Ben was nowhere near the man for me. Not that his scent and size was the worst of him. Far from it. And am I glad to be far from him.

As I step to the sidewalk, I’m tempted to glance behind at the nicely-proportioned, bumper-sticker happy Brit. Temptation wins out.

Thumbs hooked in his pockets, he stands alongside my passenger door. Watching me.

Feeling as if caught doing something wrong, I jerk a hand up and scroll through my “Christian speak” for something to reinforce my claim of being a Christian. “Yours in Christ!” I flash a smile that instantly falters.

At the rumpling of his brow, I jerk around and head for the smoked glass doors of Steeple Side Christian Resources. Cannot believe I used a written salutation! Dumb blonde alert! Speaking of which….

The Dumb Blonde’s Guide to Christianity is on the passenger seat. Fortunately, if the man is nosey enough to scope out the interior of my car, it’s not as if I’ll see him again. That scrumptious accent and citrus cologne was a one-time thing. Unless he does work at Steeple Side and I do get the job. Fat chance.

As I pull open one of several sets of glass doors, I glance behind. He’s on the sidewalk now, head back as he peers up the twenty-some floors of the building. Definitely not an employee.

The lobby is bright and sparsely furnished, but what stops me is the backlit thirty-foot cross on the far wall. Fashioned out of what appears to be brushed aluminum, it’s glaringly simple. And yet I can’t imagine it having more presence.

Crossing to the information desk at the center of the lobby, I scope out the men and women who are entering and exiting the elevators. All nicely dressed. All conservative. I’ll fit right in—

I zoom in on a woman who’s stepping into the nearest elevator. Her skirt is above the knee by a couple inches. And that guy who just stepped out of another elevator? His hair brushes his shoulders.

I shift my gaze back to the towering cross. I’m at the right place, meaning those two are probably visitors. Same goes for the young woman who sweeps past and reaches the information desk ahead of me. Not only is she wearing ruched capris, but she has my hair. Rather, the hair I had. Ha! If she’s after my job, I’ve got her beat.

She drops a jingly purse on the desk and points past me where I’ve halted behind. “Jack is so hot!”

“Really?” The chubby-faced receptionist bounds out of her chair, only to falter at the sight of me.

“Yes, hot!” The “ruched” young woman jabs the air again, looks around, and startles. “Er, not ‘hot hot.’ ‘Hot,’ as in under the collar…ticked off.”

That’s my cue to appear relieved that she didn’t mean “hot,” as in “carnal,” as she’s obviously connected to this company—at least, the receptionist. I nod. “That’s a relief.”

She smiles, then puts her forearms on the desk and leans in to whisper in a not too whisper-y voice, “This time they stole his assigned parking sign.”

It would make me “hot” too if someone stole mine. Doubtless, some visitor would snap up my space and I’d have to park—

Oh no. The front parking space I snagged… The only unmarked space in the middle of dozens of marked spaces…

I look around and peer out the bank of glass windows. The Brit whose parking space I took, and who does work here, is striding toward the doors. And he does look hot, though I can’t be sure whether it’s more in the carnal way or the angry way. Regardless, I am not getting this job.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Bride Bargain - Chapter 1

The Bride Bargain

Barbour Publishing, Inc (September 1, 2008)

Chapter 1
Nebraska Territory, Oregon Trail,
two weeks journey past Fort Laramie, 1855

That does it!” Clara Field gritted her teeth and tugged harder on her leather glove, which was currently clamped between the jaws of a cantankerous ox. She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

“I’ll get him in a headlock for you, Miss Field, and cut off his air so he’ll open his mouth.” Burt Sprouse sauntered over. “That should take care of things quick enough.”

“Oh, choking him wouldn’t be the right answer.” Clara struggled to hide her disgust at the very suggestion. “I have to marvel at how similar animals and humans can be. Neither group likes to be forced into anything, and try as I might, I can’t seem to convince him we’re trudging toward freedom.”

“Well, I reckon I could knee him in the chest to make him let go.” Sprouse shuffled closer. “Hickory’s got an eye on you.”

“Thank you, Mr. Sprouse. I’ll handle this.” Clara waited until the burly ex-lumberjack wandered away before pleading with the ox. “Your antics are going to get us kicked off the wagon train, Simon!”

At the sound of his name, the ox perked his ears and his mouth went slack, allowing Clara to yank away her glove. How an ox had a taste for leather escaped her, but bovine cannibalism counted as the least of her worries at the moment. She held up the mangled thing and sighed. Thank You, Lord, that I brought an extra pair just in case I lost one. Her lips quirked at the tooth marks on the leather. Though I never thought things would come to this.

Yanking on the length of rope she’d tied around Simon’s neck, Clara urged him toward the makeshift corral the trail boss had set up for the night. The obstinate animal refused to budge, his eyes fixed on her glove with a greedy gleam.

“There’s lots of good forage and fresh water,” she tempted.

“And plenty of rest.” Oooh, how good that sounded. A verse from Psalms floated into memory: “He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul.”

For it being a river, the Platte came as close to still water as any running water could ever hope. Wide, shallow, and dark with mud, it was their constant guide and water source. Clara tried not to compare it to babbling brooks, flowing streams, or any other clear, flowing water with a friendly rush of sound.

As for the earlier part of that scripture. . .well, they’d only just stopped for the night. Until she got this last ox to the corral, gathered enough fuel for the campfire, and cooked dinner for herself, Aunt Doreen, and the blessedly helpful Burt, she wouldn’t be lying beside anything.

But we’re one day closer to Oregon. Eleven miles farther toward a new start. Not even Simon’s snacking can take that away.

Tension eased from her shoulders as Simon ambled toward the enclosure. She and Aunt Doreen had already lost two oxen on the trail, and when they settled in Oregon, the remaining stock would be used for food or trade. The sadness creeping over her at the
thought explained, at least in part, why Clara wasn’t an accomplished driver. Even after weeks on the trail, she couldn’t bear to use a whip harshly.

With Simon safely tucked away with the rest of the train’s livestock, Clara began hunting for buffalo chips. The tall, dry grass rustled around her skirts as she searched. Typically, the prairie held a large and ready supply of the quick-burning fuel. But the recalcitrant ox had cost her valuable time. The areas closest to the circled wagons were picked over by the other women on the train whose husbands saw to the animals. She needed to go farther, though never too far, to scrape together a fair-sized load.

By the time she got back to camp and started their fire, Aunt Doreen already had vegetables—the same supply of potatoes, carrots, and onions that they’d been using since the stop at Fort Laramie—chopped and in the pot for cooking, and the batter
ready for johnnycake. Once the fire burned hot enough to heat the Dutch oven and cook the stew, Clara gratefully sank down beside the makeshift kitchen.

A healthy breeze carried away the smoke from the fire, bringing welcome coolness as the sun faded. The moon came into view, its modest glow bathing the plains in whitish blue light.

“Grub ready yet, Miz Field?” Burt Sprouse’s head tilted forward as he sniffed the air like a hopeful bear. In exchange for their cooking, alongside a bit of washing and mending, the exlumberjack provided them with fresh meat whenever possible, took on the night watches assigned to their wagon, and lent a hand when he could.

“Not quite, Mr. Sprouse.” Apologies wouldn’t make the rabbit cook any faster. “I had difficulty finding enough buffalo chips tonight.”

“Looked like the oxen gave you some trouble tonight.” Burt’s voice held no censure as he squatted down. “I’ll take on your watch tonight, like we agreed, but Hickory’s getting antsy about having you and your aunt in your own wagon. You were last in the row and last to set up camp tonight.”

“Sure were.” The trail boss, Hickory McGee, stomped over to glower at them. Disgust filled his tone. “Same as every day on this trail. I warned you gals I didn’t want to take on two women with no menfolk to shoulder the night watches, wagons, and livestock. You know the law of the trail—pull your weight or be left behind.”

“We know.” Clara forced the words through gritted teeth. Men who believed women to be inferior in every way put up her back as little else could. If you spent more time helping and less time harping, things would get done faster. As it is, you accomplish nothing with threats, yet Aunt Doreen and I hold things together in spite of them. A true gentleman—the kind of man a mother would be proud to raise and a woman would be glad to claim as husband—would be respectful and helpful.

She kept the thoughts to herself. Speaking her mind was a luxury she couldn’t afford if it angered the trail boss. A quick prayer for patience, and she swallowed her ire.

“I haven’t completely mastered the art of unhitching the oxen,” Clara admitted before staring him down. “But Mr. Sprouse makes sure our watches aren’t shirked, and you know it.” She cast a grateful look at Burt.

“You ain’t the ones doin’ it,” Hickory groused. “No call for a man with his own wagon and responsibilities to shoulder yours.”

“I don’t mind taking the extra watch in exchange for their cooking,” Burt put in.

“Don’t recall askin’ you, Sprouse.” Hickory turned his glare from Clara to the lumberjack. “But anyone causin’ problems can be left behind.”

“Worse comes to worse”—Mr. Sprouse shrugged—“I can sear some meat. Got an iron stomach, I do.”

“Glad to hear it.” The guide returned his attention to Clara.

“You’re lagging behind as it is. Not being able to control your animals is one more hassle to endanger the train. One rampaging ox can set off a stampede.”

“We managed to sort it out.” Aunt Doreen tugged a bucket of water toward them. “We always do.”

“It didn’t put anyone else out.” Clara shoved aside her remorse over Mr. Sprouse’s late dinner. “We’ll be ready to pull out at dawn, same as everyone else.”

“Better be.” The disagreeable guide punctuated that statement by launching spittle toward their cookfire. It hissed as he stalked away.

When we get to Oregon, it will be worth it, she vowed to herself for the thousandth time since they left Independence and started out on the trail. The Lord will see us to a new life and a happy home.

“The johnnycake should be about ready.” Clara pushed the ashes off the top of the Dutch oven with her ladle handle, wrapped her hand in a dishcloth, and lifted the lid. The sweet smell of warm cornbread wafted toward them. “Let me slice a piece for you to have now while the stew finishes.”

“Mmmph.” A moment later, Mr. Sprouse plunked himself down and set to munching the hot bread. His obvious enjoyment didn’t soothe Clara as it usually did—not when he’d made it clear that their agreement wasn’t as strong as Hickory’s warnings.

“Here, Aunt Doreen.” Clara made sure her aunt got a large portion. After weeks on the trail, not only did their simple dresses boast enough dust to plant a garden, but the calico also hung from her aunt’s thin frame. After a grueling day of travel, any moment they could use for a good night’s rest was another small loss her aunt didn’t deserve to bear. Unacceptable.

Aunt Doreen passed Mr. Sprouse another piece before he asked. Their success on the trail depended on keeping the man well fed. So long as they did that and kept pressing onward, the trail boss couldn’t leave them behind.

Clara filled a tin with the steaming stew. Onions came from their supply, greens they’d gathered along the way, and the rabbit came courtesy of Mr. Sprouse’s shotgun. If it weren’t for their little arrangement with him, she and her aunt would be surviving on jerky.

“Best deal I ever made.” His grunt made both of them smile. Burt made no bones about the fact he liked to eat but couldn’t cook. Another’s misfortune was rarely cause for prayers of gratitude, but. . .

“I was just thinking the same thing.” Clara knew Aunt Doreen’s reply came from the heart, to say the least.

Until now, Mr. Sprouse was just one more example of how the Lord watched over them and would see them through this arduous journey, which had become more wearing than Clara anticipated. A continuous stream of mishaps drained their supplies and energy.
And they’d yet to make it past the prairie to the hardships of the mountains.

“When we reach the mountains, things will go more slowly.” She meant the words as a comfort to her own aching bones and her aunt’s worries, but Burt Sprouse didn’t see it that way.

“Yep. Snow can make us lose days, get off the trail, have so many delays food runs out and animals freeze. Everything’s harder once you hit the Rockies.”

“Our oxen are too ornery to freeze.” Clara couldn’t help smiling even as she muttered the words.

“Even so, we’ll all probably lighten our loads.” Burt shrugged.

“I hear the mountains are littered with furniture and heirlooms abandoned by travelers so they can get free of a snow bank or make it up a steep pass.”

Her aunt’s gasp made Clara wrack her brain for something positive to say.

“After that rough river crossing, we already lost several items.”

She quelled the sense of loss that overcame her at the memory of her childhood trunk, filled with her doll and doll’s clothes. The last thing her father gave her, lost in the Platte forever. “So we probably won’t need to leave anything else behind.” She forced a smile.

“For all those reasons, you have to be careful not to get on the trail boss’s bad side.” Burt waved his spoon in the air. “We won’t make it without him, and he’s dead serious about leaving behind anyone who causes problems.”

He does care. Surely Burt said that nonsense about having an iron
stomach just to placate Hickory.
She eyed him fondly as he made his way back to his own wagon. Who would have thought a burly ex-lumberjack looking to make his fortune gold mining would be their saving grace?

“You go on ahead and get to bed,” Clara encouraged her aunt after they’d eaten their fill. “I’ll clean up and join you in a few moments.”

Aunt Doreen’s lack of protest and grateful nod spoke of her weariness more eloquently than if she’d carped over the long day. Yet the older woman never uttered so much as a word of complaint. Not that she ever had, even throughout the long years of living under Uncle Uriah’s thumb.

No matter how many verses her uncle warped out of context, how often he misinterpreted her own words or actions, Clara held firm to the conviction that Uriah’s chauvinism was personal prejudice, not truth. Oft-repeated lectures against the frail values and fragile mindsets of the so-called weaker sex only underscored
the quiet strength of the woman who’d raised her.

The few months when she’d had Doreen’s sole attention soothed her soul, pulling her from the endless cycle of guilt and anger over Ma’s and Pa’s deaths. Clara owed everything to the self-sacrificing love of Doreen. Then she’d married Uriah Zeph, and their world tilted once more. For the worse.

Hopes ahead; regrets behind. Grandma’s saying had become their motto over the years and seemed more appropriate with each passing day. Tonight, as Clara fell into her quilt, she added one more phrase. . . .

And God alongside.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Isolation by Travis Thrasher - Chapter 1


FaithWords (September 12, 2008)

The Stranger in the House

A loud crash woke her. It came from outside their bedroom, but she wasn't sure where. Stephanie jerked and turned onto her back, opening her eyes and adjusting to the pitch black. Next to her Jim's heavy sleep floated somewhere between snoring and ragged breathing. She called out his name twice, but he wouldn't wake at this hour unless she tugged at him. He was a big man who didn't go to sleep easily, but once he did, he stayed asleep.

She slipped out from under the bed's massive covers, and the chill of the winter night greeted her. The wind blew hard against the house, and she wondered if it was still snowing. The first few days in January had been particularly brutal, and they were forecasting another round of snow for Chicago that weekend.

I know I heard something, and I know I'm awake this time. I'm not sleepwalking.

The doorknob felt hard and cold as she turned it and opened the door. She walked down the hallway, a small night-light illuminating the floor.

This house had four bedrooms, and they had put Ashley in the room closest to theirs. Ash and Zachary were still adjusting to separate rooms after being cramped together in their tiny room in Dambi. Sometimes Ashley still wanted to sleep with them, a habit that was hard to break and even harder to argue with now that they were in a new house.

They had been here since September, but it still didn't feel like home. The furniture had been picked out by someone else years ago. The house itself felt like a model home, one of those you toured but never lived in. It looked like it was trying to have the feel of a home but didn't really get it.

One day they might know what it felt like to have their own home. Not someone else's house they were borrowing or a house they were renting or a temporary house they built themselves on the mission field. Stephanie wanted stability, something she could see every day for ten years, maybe something she could grow old in.

Ashley lay in her bed with half the covers off. Stephanie put them back over her and made sure she could hear her breathing. She always did that with her kids, even though they were five and eight. Ashley was her baby and always would be.

What about another one?

She could hear Jim's question but knew she was through. She dearly loved her children, but she didn't want another. Men just couldn't understand the pain and the emotional journey of having a baby. Maybe it was selfish, but she knew she couldn't go through another nine months of that if she had doubts.

She walked down to Zachary's room. It felt colder than the rest of the house for some reason, and she couldn't help shivering as she entered the room.

Zach breathed heavily, but that was because he was coming off a nasty sinus infection. Everything in the room looked fine. By the glow of the small night-light, she could see him tucked under the covers—his eyes closed, his dark brown hair messy.

Her heart leaped a little as she looked at him. Even though she wasn't supposed to have a favorite, she knew she loved Zachary a little more than Ashley. She would never tell another soul this, but she knew God could see. She couldn't help it. Zachary was her first and had been an answer to prayer and was just . . . he was Zach. He was special.

He's so much like you, it's scary.

That's what Jim said, but sometimes she didn't know. Zach was restless and outgoing and inquisitive, so, yes, sure, he took after her more than after Jim's quiet, deep persona. But there was something about Zach that was nothing like her, that wasn't like anybody.

He's a fifty-year-old man in the body of an eight-year-old.

She lost herself looking at her son when she heard another noise. This one came from downstairs, in the kitchen. It sounded like something had fallen.

That's twice now. Someone's in our house.

Her heart raced and she tiptoed to the top of the stairs, where she just stood and listened. She wondered about racing to get Jim, but she knew he would think she was sleepwalking and would tell her to go back to bed. Sure, she had dreams—nightmares—every now and then, but this was real. She was awake. Her bare feet could feel the soft carpet underneath them, a foreign luxury that took a while to get used to after coming back from Papua New Guinea. Her eyes adjusted to the darkness. She looked downstairs but could see nothing.

She slowly made her way down the steps, one after another.

Someone's there.

She knew, she believed.

So why was she walking down there? She was the mother of the house. This was crazy. If someone were there, she shouldn't be going to greet them.

She reached the bottom of the stairs, then held her breath and listened. Nothing. Her hands shook, and she couldn't see anything except the light on the old VCR showing the time of 3:14 am.

She flipped the light switch, expecting to see a man in black standing in the middle of the kitchen. Her heart raced as she stood at the base of the stairs, the light illuminating the family room and kitchen.


Stephanie walked over to the kitchen and stood in the middle near the island, looking around. There was nobody to see, nothing on the wood floor. No stray pot that had fallen or pan that was out of place.

She needed to calm down. She opened the refrigerator to get some milk, then saw something out of the corner of her eye.

Something shadowy and black and big and quick.

Something heading for the stairs.

She stiffened, not sure what she had just seen.

She heard movement on the carpeted steps, as though it were Jim heading up the stairs. The footsteps were quick, like someone was running.

Stephanie's body froze, and she could only turn her head. She spotted the set of knives she used for cooking, one of the few things she enjoyed doing in this house. For one brief second, she couldn't move or think or do anything. But then she heard the steps find their way to the hallway
to the kids' rooms
and with the creaking sound in the hallway right outside Zach's room, Stephanie jerked into motion.

She grabbed the largest knife in the set and clenched it as she ran up the stairs.

She rushed into Zach's room and held the knife out in the darkness. She turned around. Nobody there but her child.

She ran to Ashley's room.

Same thing.

I know what I heard and saw. I know it.

She stood in the middle of Ashley's room, looking quickly toward the doorway and to the hallway outside.

Suddenly she saw a figure glide by.

She felt very cold, a cold deep under her skin.

Stephanie charged out of the room and rushed down the hall back to Zach's room. This time, the bed was empty, the covers turned over, the room deserted.

For a second she just stood there in horror.

He's gone somebody took him the darkness took him he's gone he's gone forever

She felt her legs grow weak until she had to kneel on the floor. She took in a breath and felt light-headed, but kept the knife tightly clenched in her hand.

Where'd he go? Where'd they take him?

As she panted for air, a sound rose from behind her. She jerked around with her knife to face the doorway and suddenly found herself blinded by bright light. She squinted and discerned an ominous figure in the doorway.

"Don't! I swear!" she said, waving the knife toward the doorway.

"Steph—what the—Stephanie, drop the knife!"

She looked up and saw the beard first, then the eyes, bigger than usual, then the balding head. The voice hadn't just asked her to drop the knife. It had issued a command, a deep and booming command that jerked her
and made her drop the knife.

Jim stood at the doorway. The light to Zach's room was on.

He came to her side and picked up the knife.

"What are you doing?" he asked as he helped her up.

"It's Zach. I saw someone—heard something—then I looked and someone was coming up—I didn't know—"

She turned to see Zach in his bed, his hair shaped like a mushroom, his eyes wide open and adjusting to the light.

He's there.

"He wasn't—I looked and he wasn't there. Jim, I swear. I saw something. I know I did. I don't know what—"

"What were you doing with this knife?"

"I was scared somebody—"

"Steph. You've got to get some help. This is really—"

He stopped, obviously noticing that Zachary was hanging on every word. Jim laid the knife on the small dresser and went over to their son.

"Hey, buddy. It's okay. Mommy was just having another dream."

But I wasn't dreaming this time. I swear I wasn't dreaming.

"It's okay. Just go to sleep. All right?"

Zach nodded and looked at her. "Mom, are you okay?"

She stood, and she could feel her legs shaking. "I'm fine. I'm sorry, sweetheart. I'm just tired."

As she went to kiss Zach, she saw his frightened look.

He's afraid of me. Oh dear God, my son is afraid of me.

"Get some sleep, buddy. Okay?" Jim tucked him in and took the knife from the dresser. He turned off the lights and went downstairs.

Stephanie found her way back to bed. She lay on her back, feeling as awake as she had been when she first heard the noise.

Jim came back into the room and didn't bother turning on the light. He climbed into bed and laid there in silence.


"Yeah," he said eventually.

"I'm sorry."

There was more silence, and she wondered what he was thinking.


"Let's just get some rest, okay?"

"I heard something. I know you think I was sleepwalking, but I heard something."

She could tell he was thinking, wondering whether to say something.

"James?" she asked, trying to get him to respond.

"I just found you in our son's room, hovering over him with a knife. With a knife."

Fear raced through Stephanie, and it wasn't at Jim's words. It was at the way he said them. He spoke them as though he was angry at her, as though she were a stranger and not the woman he loved, who had given birth to these children.

She could hear the fear in Jim's voice. And that scared her the most.

Jim was never scared. Of anything.

And now . . .

Jim sounded scared.

Of her.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

In the Shadow of Lions - Chapter 1

In The Shadow Of Lions

David C. Cook; 1 edition (September 2008)

Chapter One

Tomorrow, someone else will die in my bed.

Someone died in it last month, which is how it came to be called mine.

The infernal clock moved confidently toward 1 a.m., and I turned my head to look at the window. The window of this room is a miserly gesture from the contractors, producing more fog than visage. I watched the gold orbs—the lamps on the lawn of the hospice sputtering off and on in the darkness—that dotted the fogged glass.

That was the last moment I lived as an iver, one whose eyes are veiled.

One orb did not sputter but moved, gliding between the others, moving closer to the window, growing larger and brighter until the light consumed the entire view. I winced from the searing glare and tried to shield my eyes, but the IV line pulled taut. Wrestling with the line to get some slack, I saw the next movement out of the corner of my eye. I bit down hard on my tongue, my body jerking in reflex, and felt
the warm blood run back to my throat.

Outside, a hand wiped the fog away from the glass, and I watched the water beads running down the inside of my window. There was no searing light, only this mammoth hand with deep creases in the palms wiping down the window until we both could see each other. A man’s face was against the glass, but no breath fogged his vision. He was a giant, grim man, with an ring in one ear and dark glasses, and he was
staring in at me. Even through the morphine, fear snaked along my arms, biting into my stomach, constricting around my throat. I tried to scream, but I could only gulp air and heave little gasps. His expression did not change as he lifted his hands, curling them into fists. I flinched at the last moment, thinking him to be Death, expecting to receive the blow and die.

Then I grew suddenly warm, like the feeling you get stepping from an old, dark city library into the busy street and a warm spring sun.

Death didn’t even hurt, I rejoiced. I could slip into it like I slipped onto that street, eyes down, my thoughts my own, and simply turn a corner and be gone. I lifted my fingers to beckon him. Yes, I thought.I saw the beautiful Rolex on my birdlike wrist and saw that it had stopped. It is time.

When I looked back up, he was beside me, staring down, not speaking. I wasn’t dead. His frame was monstrously large, hitting what must be seven feet tall, with a width of muscle strapped across him that was inhuman. As he watched me, his chest didn’t move, and his nostrils didn’t flare, but heat and warm breath radiated from him. When he laid his hands across my eyes, I was too scared to move my head away. His
palms covered most of my face, and a sharp buzzing drilled into every pore. He began to move his hands elsewhere, touching and bringing to life every splintered inch of my body. When he got to the cancer, with one swollen lymph node visible even through my stained blue gown, he rested his hands there until the swelling sighed, and he swept it away with his hand.

“Wait!” I screamed.

I didn’t want to live. I hadn’t known that was going to be an option. I deserved to be damned. To return to my life was too much to ask of me. I was finished.

“You’ll still be dead by morning,” he reassured me. His voice was deep and clean, no telltale dialect or inflection. Taking off his glasses, I saw he had enormous gold eyes, with a black pinhole in the center that stayed round and cold. There was no white in them at all, and they were rimmed all the way around the outside with black. I stared at them, trying to remember where I had seen eyes like this. It had been years ago, this much I remembered.

I had to shake myself back to the present moment. Clearly, morphine was not setting well with me tonight. I wanted to die in peace. That’s what I paid these extravagant sums for. My hand moved to the nurses’ call button. Mariskka was just down the hall, waiting for her moment to steal my watch. I knew she’d come running.

He grabbed my hand, and the shock seared like a hot iron. Crying out, I shook him off and clutched my hand between my breasts, doing my best to sit up with my atrophied stomach muscles and tangled IV.

He leaned in. “I have something for you.”


He leaned in closer. “A second chance.”

Second chances were not my forte. As the most celebrated editor in New York City, I had made a killing. I loved the words that trembling writers slid across my desk, those little black flecks that could destroy their life’s dream or launch a career. I bled red ink over every page, slashing words, cutting lines. No one understood how beautiful words were to me, why I tormented the best writers, always pushing them to
bring me more. The crueler I was to the best of them, the more they loved me, like flagellants worshipping me as the master of their order. Only at the end, lying here facing my own death, did I understand why. They embraced the pain, thinking it birthed something greater than themselves. I saw how pitifully wrong they were. There was only pain. This is why I was ready to die. When you finish the last chapter
and close the book, there is nothing but pain. It would have been better never to have written. Words betrayed me. And for that, I betrayed the best writer of them all.

“Burn any manuscripts that arrive for me,” I had ordered my nurse, Marisska. “Tell them I’m already dead. Tell them anything.”

“I’ll let you write the truth,” the man whispered. I focused on him again.

“I’m not a writer,” I replied. My fear tumbled down into the dark place of my secrets.

“No, you’re not,” he answered. “But you coveted those best sellers, didn’t you? You knew you could do better. This is your second chance.”

It caught my attention. “How?”

“I will dictate my story to you,” he said. “Then you’ll die.”

Taking dictation? My mouth fell open. “I’m in hell, aren’t I?”

He tilted his head. “Not yet.”

I pushed away from the pillows and grabbed him. Blisters sprang up on my palms and in between my fingers, but I gritted my teeth and spat out my words. “Who are you?”

“The first writer, the Scribe. My books lie open before the Throne and someday will be the only witness of your people and their time in this world. The stories are forgotten here, and the Day draws close. I will tell you one of my stories. You will record it.”

“Why me?”

“I like your work.”

I started laughing, the first time I had laughed since I had been brought to this wing of the hospice, where the dying are readied for death, their papers ordered and discreet pamphlets on “end-of-life options” left by quiet-soled salesmen. I laughed until I was winded. He rested his hand on my chest, and I caught my breath as he spoke.

“Let’s go find Marisska.”

The door burst open, and I heard the nails moving across the floor, devouring whatever was left in my body, screaming in fury that the spirit-marrow was stolen from them. They could still taste it. I pressed my face into Aryeh’s chest, breathing in the warm fragrance of peace. I saw the book close. My story was ended.