Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Where Do I Go? - Prologue and Chapter 1

Where Do I Go?

Thomas Nelson (December 9, 2008)


June 1990, Montpellier, France

The two American co-eds stood at the apex of the tree-lined Esplanade, heads bent over their guidebook. Male passersby turned for a second glance, eyeing the youthful female bodies with lusty smiles. Tank tops, shorts, and Berkenstocks did little to cover the long shapely legs and tan skin. Some slowed, hoping for a glance at the faces hidden by the long cornsilk hair of one and the rippling chestnut curls of the other, both worn long and whipping about in the wind coming off the large open square sprawled before them.

“This is it—Place de la Comédie. See the Fountain up there?” The young woman with the red highlights sparking in the sun pointed to the far end of the square. “Let’s go up that way and find a café. It’s after one already.”

“But Gabby! The Polygone is right over there. It’s like an American mall.” The leggy blonde tugged her friend’s arm, pulling her to the left of the Esplanade and away from the square.

Gabby jerked her arm free. “Linda! You and your malls. I didn’t come all the way to France to shop. Come on. I’m hungry.” She ran forward a few steps, then turned around but kept walking backwards. “Come o-on! I’m going with or without you!” Then she ran on, laughing, backpack bumping on her back, threading through the other pedestrians filling the square.

Within moments she heard running footsteps and Linda’s whine. “Wait up, Gabby!”

Laughing, Gabby locked arms with her companion as they walked to the far end of Place de la Comédie and approached the Fountain of Three Graces. They stopped, staring. The three graceful female figures stood atop a rocky mound of moss and green plants with water spouts pouring water into first one shallow basin surrounding the fountain, and then another. Several families with children sat on the smooth paving stones around the fountain eating sandwiches, tossing crumbs to the pigeons that strutted about. A bald-headed guy seated on a canvas stool nearby played a guitar, his guitar case open for the occasional francs. But the majority of warm bodies milling about the square or sitting on the ground around the fountain were young—late teens, early twenties—and multi-national. University students.

“Mmm,” Linda said.

“I know. It’s beautiful.”

“I meant those two guys over there. Sitting by the fountain. Do you think they’re French?”

Gabby slapped her friend’s arm. “You are impossible!” She laughed. “Come on. There’s an empty table over there, see? At that café. We’ll have a great view of the Opera House and we can watch the fountain—oh! Oh wait! Look!” Gabby clapped her hands. “It’s a carousel!”

Linda rolled her eyes. “So?”

“I want to ride it! I’ve never ridden a carousel before!”

“Gabby! Don’t be silly! Those things go up and down and around. You get dizzy riding a stupid escalator . . . oh, brother.”

* * *

A pair of eyes shaded by sunglasses and a loose shock of dark hair followed the two young women as the curly-headed one ran up to the ticket booth, pointed at herself and her friend, paid their francs and climbed onto the prancing carousel horses. The young man poked his companion sitting on the ground near the Fountain of Three Graces, his nose in a book. “Hey, Cameron. Check out those girls.”

“Where? The carousel?” His light-haired companion shaded his eyes and watched as the carousel started up, the horses lifted up and down, and the girls’ laughter sailed over the square. “Silly Americans,” he snorted. “Present company excepted, of course, Philip.” Cameron went back to his book.

That got a laugh. “Stuffy Brit. Maybe we should go ride it, too. Be good for you, my man. Too much studying can ruin your youth!” But Philip’s eyes stayed on the young woman with the long curly hair as she came around, up and down, on her prancing mechanical horse, her head back, laughing . . . disappeared . . . and came around once more. But this time the American girl clung to the pole, eyes tightly shut.

The carousel finally stopped and the girl climbed off unsteadily and almost fell. Her friend grabbed her, and for a moment seemed to be holding her up. Philip started to his feet. Was she okay? But at that moment the young woman straightened and tossed her hair back, brushing off her friend’s attention with a laugh. The eyes behind the sunglasses followed as the girls headed for the outdoor seating of the café between the carousel and the Fountain of Three Graces.

“Hey, Cameron. Let’s get something to eat, okay?” Philip snatched the book out of the other’s hands. “Come on.”

His companion sighed, got to his feet, and grabbed for the book. By the time he got the book repacked in his backpack and slung it over his shoulder, Philip had already picked out an outdoor table at the same café.

* * *

Gabby sucked on the straw in her lemonade, and then sighed happily. “I could sit here forever watching people in this square. It’s like . . . so international!”

Linda took a sip of her iced coffee and frowned at the menu. “Yeah, well, I wish you’d sat here fifteen minutes ago, rather than ride that silly carousel. I thought you were going to throw up back there . . . Hey! Where’d the sun go?” Linda squinted upward as a shadow moved across the open square. “Better not rain,” she grumbled. “We haven’t ordered yet.”

“So what? If it rains this afternoon, we can go to a movie at the theater over there.” Gabby pulled the straw out with her teeth and pointed the dripping end at the domed building that said, “Cinema Gaumont.”

“Gosh!” Linda rolled her eyes. “Do you always have to be so cheerful?!”

Gabby giggled. “Yes. And I’d be even happier if Damien, the jerk, could see me now—in France, having a ball, with only one year to go getting my BA. Without him actually being here, I mean.” She tossed her hair back and snorted. “That would be a bummer.”

Linda raised her frosty glass. “To Damien, king of the jerks—”

Gabby clinked her lemonade on Linda’s glass. “—may he get seasick on that fishing boat with the captain’s daughter, who no doubt smells a bit fishy by now.”

The two young women collapsed into laughter—which stopped abruptly when a male voice said, “Excusez-moi, ma’amselles?”

“Ohmigosh,” Linda said under her breath. “It’s them.”

Gabby looked up, startled. A tall young man with dark hair and sunglasses stood beside their table, accompanied by another young man with sandy hair. “Yes?” Oh, dear. I should’ve said “Oui?” or something. He sounds French.

“May I introduce myself? Je suis Philippe Fairbanks, and this is Cameron Brewer, my housemate. Graduate students at La Faculté des Lettres.” He pointed at himself. “Business.” Then at his companion. “History.” He flashed a smile revealing perfect white teeth. “And you are—?”

His French accent rolled off his tongue like melted chocolate. Gabby cleared her throat, hoping her mouth hadn’t been hanging open. “Oh! Uh, I’m Gabrielle Shepherd—most people call me Gabby—and this is Linda Banks. University of North Dakota.” She had never seen such a beautiful man. Tall, dark, and handsome. Literally! And French to boot!

“Pardonne. May we sit?”

“Uhh . . . of course! Please. Sit down. Right, Linda?”

Linda nodded, eyelashes fluttering, licking her lips.

“Have you ladies ordered yet?” The dark-haired one pulled over another chair. “The lamb kebobs here are superb.”

“Mm,” the other seconded, sounding decidedly British. “Absolutely scrummy.”

Linda snorted. “Humph. Gabby needs a salad or something light. She nearly lost it on the carousel back there—ow!” She glared at Gabby. “What did you kick me for?”

The two young men laughed. Gabby flushed. “I am fine. Just a momentary dizzy spell. The lamb kabobs sound great.”

“Excellent.” The dark eyes gave an approving wink. “Lunch is on us—right, Cameron?”

And so they talked and laughed over succulent lamb kebobs and freshly-baked bread. Gabby was aware that the dark eyes seemed to feast on her, and she flushed at the attention. His English was perfect—unlike her French—and his lovely French accent gave her goose bumps . . . until Cameron pulled the plug. “Aw, ladies, don’t be fooled by this bloke. His name is Philip, not ‘Philippe,’ and he hails from Virginia in the US of A. I, on the other hand, am London born and bred.”

Gabby’s mouth dropped, then she laughed, grabbed a cloth napkin and whipped Philip’s arm with it. “You imposter!”

He threw up his hands and grinned. “Ah, well. Fun while it lasted.”

But she was actually relieved at the joke. It would have been charming to be romanced by a Frenchman, but her small-town roots in Minot, North Dakota were so . . . so provincial. She’d married her teenage sweetheart right out of high school, but a divorce two years later made her determined to “get out of Minot” and do something with her life. But until this junket through Europe with Youth Hostels International, the furthest she’d been was the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. Big deal.

However, an American in Paris—or, Montpellier, in this case—put this charming looker on more equal footing. She tossed her curls back confidently. “So, why did you decide to study in Montpellier, Philip?”

Philip’s grin was half grimace. “Oh, you know the story. Family business. Dad’s got my life planned, wants me to follow in his footsteps.” He shrugged. “It’s a good business, but I want to broaden my horizons, explore some new ideas to bring the business into the twenty-first century.”

Intrigued, Gabby leaned forward, chin resting on her hand as Philip talked. A slight shadow of a beard lined his strong jawline. His dark brown hair had a boyish way of falling over his forehead—though Damien had been drop-dead gorgeous, too, she reminded herself, and look where that got her. But . . . Philip was different. Damien was just a local pretty boy who’d swept her off her feet with empty promises. But this man . . . he had roots. A solid Southern family. (How romantic was that.) Heir to a family business. But he had new ideas. Vision. She liked that. He seemed so self-assured—the type of guy who would go places, do things—and that excited her.

“—been to Paris yet?” he was saying. “You must see the Eiffel Tower.”

Gabby let slip a wry grin and an exaggerated sigh. “Probably not. Uh, heights don’t agree with me . . . nor carousels, it seems.”

“Oh, nuts.” Linda jumped up, bumping the table and nearly spilling their drinks. “It’s starting to rain.” The leggy blonde joined the throng surging toward the inside tables of the café.

Gabby was feeling giddy and bold. “So what’s a little rain?” Instead of going inside, she ran into the square, laughing and twirling around slowly in the warm shower, arms outstretched, letting her damp hair twist up tighter like a crown of curly ribbons.

* * *

Standing under the awning of the café, Philip Fairbanks watched the sprite from North Dakota swirl, laughing, in the rain. “I’m going to marry that girl,” he murmured.

“Don’t be barmy, Philip.” Cameron hunched his shoulders against the damp breeze. “She’s just a ditzy yank from North Dakota. What would your mum do if you brought home a girl named Gabby?”

Philip laughed. “Probably have a hissy fit. I’ll tell her the girl’s name is Gabrielle—that sounds French, don’t you think? And I think she’s . . . charming. A free spirit. Different.”

Cameron snorted. “Different all right. Look at that hair. Little Orphan Annie grown up.”

Philip was looking at Gabrielle’s hair. The sun broke through the light rain, and raindrops sparkled on the mop of chestnut curls flying around and around. “Mm-hm,” he murmured to himself. “I’m going to marry you, Mop Top. You wait and see.”

Chapter 1

Looking thirty-two floors down was almost enough to bring up my lunch. Philip knew I had trouble with heights. So what kind of sadistic joke made him buy a penthouse, for heaven’s sake! Not to mention floor-to-ceiling windows that curved around the living room, like putting a glass nose on a Boeing 747.

I groaned. It’d take me a week to wash the inside of those windows. And who in the world washed the outside—?! My knees wobbled. Uh-uh. Couldn’t go there or I’d lose my lunch for real.

But the view . . . oh my.

I stood in the middle of our new living room and tried to take it all in. Trees dotted the park along Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive, wearing the fresh new wardrobe of spring. On the other side of the Drive, the western edge of Lake Michigan lapped at the miles of beaches separated by occasional rocky retaining walls and disappeared southward amid the misty skyscrapers of Chicago’s Loop. Tall, billowy thunderheads caught the late afternoon sun. Earlier that day, cars had hurried along the Drive, like toys zipping along a giant track some kid got for Christmas. But now, at the height of rush hour, the far lane was packed solid as commuters headed for the northern suburbs.

O-kay. Looking out at the view wasn’t so bad. I stepped closer to the window, keeping my chin up, refusing to look straight down. Near the beach, cyclists whizzed along a bicycle path, swerving around joggers. Dogs with their masters chased Frisbees or dashed into the water after a ball. No one was in the water—too early in the spring, I guessed. But the sand sparkled in the late afternoon sunshine. What I wouldn’t give to—

“Is that all, Señora Fairbanks?”

I jumped. The sweet face of the maid, who’d been setting up the catered buffet in the dining room the past hour, looked at me expectantly. Dark hair. Dark eyes. Plain white blouse with a nametag that said “Camila.” Black skirt hugging her chunky legs. A wedding band on her left hand. Obviously hoping to go home and take care of her own family.

“Oh. Yes, yes, I’m sure it’s fine, Mrs. . . . Mrs. . . .?”

She reddened. “Just Camila, Señora. Gracias.”

“Well, then, call me Gabby.” I glanced at the Fairbanks’ heirloom grandfather clock patiently ticking away in the corner of the large room. Almost six o’clock. Philip had said to expect him between seven and eight. “What do I need to do when the guests arrive?”

The short, stocky woman smiled with relief. “No problem. Cold salads in the refrigerator. Beef tips and saffron rice in the warming oven set at one hundred fifty degrees. Will be safe. Just take them out.” Picking up her bag, she disappeared quickly into the entryway—called a “gallery” in the Richmond Towers brochure—and out the front door of the penthouse condo.

Still standing in the middle of the living room, I suddenly felt bereft. I was alone. Again. Philip had been gone since seven that morning. The boys were still in Virginia at boarding school. Philip wouldn’t hear of taking them out so close to the end of the school year. And so we’d moved, lock, stock, and oriental rugs to Illinois so Philip and his new partner could hurry up and dream big dreams in their luxurious office in downtown Chicago. And here I was, not only alone, but stuck up here in the sky like an eagle impaled on a flagpole.

I imagined Camila in the elevator, riding down, down, nodding at the doorman, going outside. Free.

Stepping close to the curved window, I steadied myself with my hand, daring myself to look down, hoping to see her emerge. The glass was thick and cool to the touch. Probably leaving a grubby handprint on the glass. Huh. I’d have to clean it before Philip’s guests arrived. Had to have a clean prison wall, right?

Stop it, Gabby.

A jogger caught my eye as she ran through the park below, ran past the trees, did a sharp turn, and then suddenly disappeared. Wait a minute. What just happened? I squinted . . . then a movement on the other side of Lake Shore Drive caught my eye. The same jogger was now running on the path by the beach!

There must be a pedestrian tunnel under Lake Shore Drive. My eyes widened. Why hadn’t I seen it before? We’d been here five days already, and all this time I thought the ubiquitous Drive cut us off from the sand and water unless we got in the car and drove somewhere.

I cast another furtive glance at the clock. Ten after. Philip wouldn’t be here for another fifty minutes at the earliest—maybe longer. I was already dressed in a white pantsuit and gold-strap sandals. The temperature was almost eighty—warm for April. What if—

On impulse I grabbed my keys from the wooden bowl on the table in the gallery and headed out the penthouse door. I felt slightly giddy as I stepped into the elevator and pushed the button for the ground floor, like the time I’d ditched classes in middle school back in Minot, North Dakota. When the elevator doors opened, I pushed open the security door into the lobby and breezed past the African-American doorman, not wanting to chat, and found myself on the narrow frontage street that gave limited access to several high-rise condos besides Richmond Towers.

But beyond the street, beyond the park, beyond the pedestrian tunnel was sand and water. Sand! Sand between my toes. Splashing in the miniwaves. The desire drove me on like an urgent hunger. How long, how long had it been since I’d even been barefoot?

I burst out of the pedestrian tunnel under Lake Shore Drive like a runner carrying the Olympic flame. Oh Gabby, you are so bad. I laughed out loud. Kicking off my sandals, I ran barefoot across the grass and stepped down a low concrete wall to the sand, sending a flock of seagulls hopping into the air and landing a short distance away. Delighting in the feel of the warm sand on my bare feet, I ran at the birds, sending them scolding and hopping again.

I giggled, turning around and around, arms outstretched to catch the wind off the lake, wishing I was wearing a princess skirt to whirl. Hardly anyone was on this strip of beach, so who cared if I looked stupid? No one knew me anyway.

On impulse, I rolled up my pant legs and waded into the water—and screeched. Ay ay ay. That was cold. Hurting cold! I splashed back on to the warm sand, but now wet sand clung like chiggers between my toes and up my legs. I sat down on the concrete bench to brush off the sand, when I felt the first drop. And the second. I looked up. The clouds now hung low and heavy and looked about ready to dump.

Grabbing my sandals, I climbed back up to the grass and started running toward the pedestrian tunnel, hoping the grass would clean off my feet. By the time I emerged on the other side, the rain had become a chilly shower. Forgetting the paved path, I made a beeline across the grass and between the bushes toward Richmond Towers—and the next moment pitched forward on my face.

“Hey!” A raspy voice shot out of the bushes two feet from my head. “Whatchu go kicking my cart for?” This pronouncement was followed by several hacking coughs.

I was more startled than hurt—except for my toe, which was sending stabs of pain up my leg. I rolled over and grabbed my foot, even as the rain soaked into my clothes and hair. Cart? What cart? I squinted in the fading light toward where I’d taken my fall, and vaguely made out something metal sticking out from under the bush. “Sorry,” I mumbled. “Didn’t see it . . . where are you, anyway?”

The bushes parted, and a head poked out, half covered with what looked like a black plastic garbage bag. “Keepin’ dry is where I’m at, tha’s what.” More hacking. “Leastwise I was till Orphan Annie came along . . . uh-oh. That foot’s bleedin’, girlie. Here, lemme see it.”

To my astonishment, an old woman crawled out of the bushes, holding the thin protection of the garbage bag around her shoulders like a Superman cape, and grabbed up my bare foot in a thin, sinewy hand, even as the rain steadied into moderate shower. “Aiya. Gotta stop that bleedin’ . . . hang on a minnit.” The woman dropped my foot and pulled out a metal cart from under the bushes, set it upright, and began digging through whatever was stuffed inside, her cough grinding away like a waterlogged car motor.

I scrambled up, standing on one leg, holding up the offending foot. “Oh, don’t bother,” I protested. “I really have to get . . .” Home? I couldn’t yet say the word.

She hauled out a long rag. “Oh, don’t get your mop in a knot. Siddown.” The woman practically pushed me down, grabbed my bleeding foot, and began wrapping the rag around it. I shuddered. How long had that been in her cart, collecting germs and vermin and who knew what—

“It’s clean, if tha’s wha’s botherin’ ya.” Hack, hack. She dropped my foot. “Now git on with ya an’ leave me be.”

“Wait!” The absurdity of the situation suddenly loosened my tongue. Me go home to my sky-high penthouse while she crawled back under that bush? “This is ridiculous. It’s raining, and you’ve got a terrible cough. Come on with me. I can get you dry clothes and some cough syrup.” What she probably needed was a doctor.

The old lady snorted, sounding more like a bullfrog than a laugh. “Nah, I’m okay . . .”

But she hesitated just long enough to bolster my nerve. I took her arm. “Please, I mean it. Come on. Just until the rain stops, at least.”

Rheumy eyes gave me a long stare, then she turned, grabbed the handle of her cart, and started across the wet grass. I caught up, steering her toward Richmond Towers. “My name’s Gabby Fairbanks. Yours is . . .?”

She didn’t answer, just plowed on with me hobbling along on my rag-wrapped foot. We crossed the frontage street and somehow wrestled her cart through the revolving door of the high-rise. And stopped.

The doorman loomed in front of us. His normally pleasant expression had evaporated, replaced by an enormous scowl that would have done justice to a bouncer at a skin joint. “Hey! Get that rickety cart outta here. Lady, you can’t come in here. Residents only.”

I waved timidly from behind the old lady. “Uh, she’s with me, Mr. Bentley . . . Mrs. Fairbanks.”

“Fairbanks? Penthouse?” The man’s eyes darted between us. “Whatchu doin’ with this old bag lady?” He suddenly became solicitous, though I noticed he kept a wary eye on my companion. “Are you all right, ma’am? What happened to your foot?”

“It’s all right, Mr. Bentley. I, uh, we just need to get up to the, uh, apartment and get into some dry clothes.” I beamed a smile that I hoped conveyed more confidence than I felt, took the “bag lady’s” arm, ran my ID card that opened the security door, and headed for the elevator.

I let out a sigh of relief as the doors slid closed behind us, and the elevator quietly hummed its way upward. Closing my eyes, I started to shiver. I really needed to get out of these damp clothes, get cleaned up and changed before—

My eyes flew open. Philip! Philip and his guests were due at any time. Oh Lord, Oh Lord, I pled silently. Keep Philip out of here until at least eight o’clock. A new absurdity was standing right in front of me. For the first time I took a really good look at the woman from the bushes. Matted gray hair . . . wrinkled, mottled skin, hanging loosely like a beige mask over her facial bones. Several layers of clothes topped by a shapeless shirt or blouse, hard to tell, hanging out over faded navy blue pant legs, rolled up at different lengths. And here in the elevator, she smelled . . . stale.

Oh God. What in the world am I going to do with this, this—

“Lucy.” The old woman’s eyes were closed, and it didn’t seem as if she had spoken at all, except for the raspy voice.

“Lucy,” I repeated stupidly. “Oh! Your name. Thanks.”

The upward motion stopped. The heavy doors glided open to reveal the glistening ceramic tile of the top floor foyer. Our apartment door was the only one to be seen, flanked by two enormous pots of silk flowers. “Well, come on, Lucy. Let’s get you into some dry clothes and do something about that cough.” And get you out of here—quick, I thought desperately.

I pulled out my keys and shoved one into the lock. Good. Got the right one on the first try. The lock clicked, and I pressed the brass latch to open the door. It swung wide and I hobbled into the gallery, Lucy huffing right behind me . . . and stopped.

There, through the archway, in the middle of the enormous living room, stood my husband, tall, dark hair, easy good looks even at forty-one, a glass of wine in one hand, talking in a big voice to a strange man and woman, gesturing as though showing off the penthouse view.

In the same instant, they must have heard us, because all three turned, staring straight at me. Silence hung in the air for a split-second. Then Philip took several strides in our direction, his eyes wide. Horrified, actually. “Gabrielle!” he hissed between his teeth. “What’s the meaning of this?!”

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Engaging Father Christmas - Chapter 1

Engaging Father Christmas

FaithWords (October 30, 2008)

Chapter 1

Around me swarms of Londoners rushed by, intent on their destinations and sure of their plans. My destination was the small town of Carlton Heath, and my plans revolved around a certain Scotsman who was now officially late.

I tried to call Ian again. His voice mail picked up for the third time. “It’s me again,” I said to the phone. “I’m here at Paddington station and —”

Before I finished the message, my phone beeped, and the screen showed me it was Ian.

“Hi! I was just leaving you another message.” I brushed back my shoulder-length brown hair and stood a little straighter, just as I would have if Ian were standing in front of me.

“You made it to the station, then?”

“Yes. Although I was about to put on a pair of red rain boots and a tag on my coat that read, ‘Please look after this bear.’ ” I was pretty sure Ian would catch my reference to the original Paddington Bear in the floppy hat since that was what he had given to my niece, Julia, for Christmas last year.

“Don’t go hangin’ any tags on your coat,” Ian said with an unmistakable grin in his voice. “I’m nearly there. The shops were crammed this morning, and traffic is awful. I should have taken the tube, but I’m in a taxi now. I’ll be there in fifteen minutes tops. Maybe less if I get out and run the last few blocks.”

“Don’t run. I’ll wait. It’s only been, what? Seven weeks and three days since we were last together? What’s another fifteen minutes?”

“I’ll tell you what another fifteen minutes is. It’s just about the longest fifteen minutes of my life.”

“Mine too.” I felt my face warming.

“You’re at track five, then, as we planned?”

“Yes. Track five.”

“Good. No troubles coming in from the airport?”

“No. Everything went fine at Heathrow. The fog delayed my flight when we left San Francisco, but the pilot somehow managed to make up time in the air. We landed on schedule.”

“Let’s hope my cabbie can find the same tailwind your pilot did and deliver me to the station on schedule.”

I looked up at the large electronic schedule board overhead, just to make sure my watch was in sync with local time. “We have about twenty minutes before the 1:37 train leaves for Carlton Heath. I think we can still make it.”

“I have no doubt. Looks like we have a break in the traffic jam at the moment. Don’t go anywhere, Miranda. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

“I’ll be here.”

I closed my phone and smiled. Whenever Ian said my name, with a rolling of the r, he promptly melted my heart. Every single time. His native Scottish accent had become distilled during the past decade as a result of his two years of grad school in Canada and working in an architect office with coworkers from around the world. But Ian knew how to put on the “heather in the highlands” lilt whenever he wanted. And I loved it, just as I loved everything about this indomitable man.

I looked around the landing between the train tracks for an open seat on one of the benches. Since none were available, I moved closer to the nearest bench just in case someone decided to leave.

Balancing my large, wheeled suitcase against a pole so it wouldn’t tip over, I carefully leaned my second bag next to the beast. This was my third trip to England since my visit last Christmas and the first time I had come with two suitcases. This time I needed an extra bag for all the gifts I had with me, wrapped and ready to go under the Christmas tree at the Whitcombe manor.

Last Christmas and for many Christmases before that, the only gift I bought and gave was the one expected for the exchange at the accounting office where I worked in downtown San Francisco. Up until last Christmas I had no family to speak of — no parents, no siblings, no roommate. I didn’t even have a cat. My life had fallen into a steady, predictable rhythm of work and weekends alone, which is probably why I found the courage to make that first trip to Carlton Heath last December. In those brief, snow-kissed, extraordinary few days, I was gifted with blood relatives, new friends, and sweetest of all, Ian.

Christmas shopping this year had been a new experience. While my coworkers complained about the crowds and hassle, I quietly reveled in the thought that I actually had someone — many someones — in my life to go gift hunting for.

I had a feeling some last-minute shopping was the reason Ian was late. He told me yesterday he had a final gift to pick up this morning on his way to the station. He hadn’t explained what the gift was or whom it was for. His silence on the matter led me to wonder as I wandered along a familiar path in my imagination. That path led straight to my heart, and along that path I saw nothing but hope for our future together — hope and maybe a little something shiny that came in a small box and fit on a certain rather available finger on my left hand.

Before my mind could sufficiently detour to the happy land of “What’s next?”, I heard someone call my name. It was a familiar male voice, but not Ian’s.

I looked into the passing stream of travelers, and there he stood, only a few feet away. Josh. The last person I ever expected to see again. Especially in England.

“Miranda, I thought that was you! Hey, how are you?” With a large travel bag strapped over his shoulder, Josh gave me an awkward, clunking and bumping sort of hug. His glasses smashed against the side of my head. He quickly introduced me as his “old girlfriend” to the three guys with him.

“What are you doing here?” He unstrapped the bag and dropped it at his feet.

One of the guys tagged his shoulder and said, “We’ll be at the sandwich stand over there.”

“Okay. I’ll be there in a few minutes.” Josh turned back to me. “You look great. What’s been happening with you?”

“I’m good,” I said. “What about you? What are you doing here?” I was still too flustered at the unexpected encounter to jump right into a catch-up sort of conversation after the almost three-year gap.

“Just returned from a ski trip to Austria with a group from work. Incredible trip. I’m in a counseling practice now. Child psychologist. I don’t know if you knew that.”

“No. That’s great, Josh. I know that’s what you wanted to do.”

“Yes, it’s going well so far.” He seemed at ease. None of the stiltedness that had been there right after I broke up with him came across in his voice or demeanor.

“And what about you? What are you doing in England?”

Before I could put together an answer, Josh snapped his fingers. “Wait! Are you here because you’re looking for your birth father?”

“You remembered.” Once again he surprised me.

“Of course I remembered. You had that picture of some guy dressed as Father Christmas, and it had the name of the photography studio on the back. That was your only clue.”

I nodded.

“So? What happened?”

“I followed the clue last Christmas, and it led me here, to my birth father, just like you thought it would.”

“No way! Did it really?”

I nodded, knowing Josh would appreciate this next part of the story. “The man in the photo dressed like Father Christmas was my father. And the boy on his lap is my brother, or I guess I should say my half brother, Edward.”

“Incredible,” Josh said with a satisfied, Sherlock Holmes expression on his unshaven face. “What happened when you met him?”

I hesitated. Having not repeated this story to anyone since it all unfolded a year ago, I didn’t realize how much the answer to Josh’s question would catch in my spirit and feel sharply painful when it was spoken aloud.

“I didn’t meet him. He passed away a few years ago.”

“Oh.” Josh’s expression softened.

“You know, Josh, I always wanted to thank you for the way you urged me to follow that one small clue. I’ve wished more than once that I would have come to England when you first suggested it four years ago. He was still alive then. That’s what I should have done.”

“And I should have gone with you,” he said in a low voice.

“Why do you say that?”

Josh’s eyebrows furrowed, his counselor mode kicking in. “I felt you needed that piece in your life. By that I mean the paternal piece of your life puzzle. I didn’t like you being so alone in the world. I wish you could have met him.”

“I do, too, but I actually think things turned out better this way. It’s less complicated that I didn’t meet him while he was still alive.”

“Why do you say that?” Josh asked.

I hesitated before giving Josh the next piece of information. In an odd way, it felt as if he needed the final piece of the puzzle the same way I had.

“It’s less complicated this way because my father was . . .” I lowered my voice and looked at him so he could read the truth in my clear blue eyes. “My father was Sir James Whitcombe.”

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Quills And Promises - Chapter 1

Quills And Promises

Barbour Publishing, Inc (May 28, 2008)

Book 2 of the Delaware Dawning series

Chapter One

Town of New Castle,
in present-day Delaware,
Christina and Brandywine River Valley, 1756

"Chelcy!" Fifteen-year-old Elanna Hanssen waved at her best friend and crossed the cobblestone street toward the town green, lifting her petticoats to avoid the mud from the recent rains.

"Oh, Elanna, I am so happy to see you!" Chelcy Greyson embraced Elanna in a warm hug, then stepped back. Her eyes gleamed, and she looked ready to burst with whatever news she had to share.

"Tell me the latest before your stays snap."

Chelcy covered her mouth with her gloved hand and giggled. "Is it that obvious?"

Elanna gave Chelcy's arm a tug and led her toward the stone bench at the edge of the green. "When I saw you, I thought you had somehow managed to capture the sunlight and shine it through your eyes."

"How romantic!" Chelcy pressed her hands to her heart. "Is that from one of your poems or journals?"

"No, it is original and new as of today." Perhaps someday all of her writing would amount to more than ink blots on parchment paper. For now, however, her friend took center stage. Elanna pointed a finger at Chelcy. "No more delays. Tell me your news."

Chelcy clasped Elanna's hands in her own and bounced on the stone bench. Elanna grinned at the enthusiastic display.

"I could hardly believe it when Mother and Father showed me the letter. It took so long to get here, and we only had three days to prepare for his arrival. We had not seen or heard from him in four years, and now he is here. It is so exciting. I do not know how I managed to remain calm this long. Mother had to remind me at least five times every day to relax and focus. Somehow, I completed my daily tasks and—"

"One moment," Elanna interrupted. "Slow down. You spoke so fast I only caught half of what you said. Now, what letter did you receive? And who sent it? Who is here?"

Chelcy touched two fingers to her lips and offered a sheepish grin. "Do forgive me. I told you how excited I was."

"Yes, that much I gathered. Will I ever get to hear who is visiting, or is that going to remain a surprise until I meet him?"

"My cousin," Chelcy announced in a rush. "His name is Madison Scott, and he is visiting from Massachusetts. There are reports that the war is spreading, and he wanted to spend some time with us before things get too bad."

A cousin? From the north? Elanna didn't know why that would be cause for such excitement, but Chelcy had enough exuberance for them both. This Madison must be held in high esteem with the Greysons since it appeared they had gone out of their way to prepare for his arrival. She had to know more.

"So, your cousin is visiting. Is he somehow connected to the Boston Assembly or to some influential person?"

"He is not a councilman, no, but he does wield a certain amount of influence among the soldiers in his regiment."

A soldier. That explained some, at least. "He managed to get enough time away from his regiment to travel this far south? He must be more than a common soldier."

Chelcy nodded. "He is the eldest son of my uncle. After spending several years serving in England in His Majesty's Royal Army and risking his life for his commanding officer during an attack by the French, he returned to Boston and has recently attained the appointment of major." She grinned. "You are going to love him."

"Are you singing my praises again, Chelcy? I must confess, the stories you tell make my accomplishments sound larger than life."


Chelcy jumped up from the bench and threw her arms around a rather dashing gentleman. Elanna couldn't see quite enough of him to get a clear view of his face, but he did make a stylish figure in his uniform. He returned Chelcy's hug with equal fervor, then unwound her arms from his neck and stepped back to get a better look at her. When Chelcy turned again to face her, Elanna caught a full vision of her cousin. Dashing only dusted the surface of an accurate description.

"And who might this charming young lady be?"

Madison took a step toward her, removed his hat with a flourish, and bowed. Gallant and handsome. What a winning combination. A dangerous one, too. He was already leagues ahead of most gentlemen Elanna knew.

"Madison Scott, milady. Might I have the pleasure of an introduction?"

"Oh, Madison, cease with your frivolous social graces. This is Elanna Hanssen, my best friend."

The glint in his eyes accompanied a beguiling grin. "On the contrary, my dear cousin." His attention never wavered from Elanna's face. "One must always adhere to the social customs in order to guarantee a good first impression." He reached for one of Elanna's hands and raised it to his lips. "Would you not agree, Miss Hanssen?"

Elanna could barely remember her name, let alone come up with an appropriate response to his query. By the gleam in his eyes, he certainly knew the effect he had on her. That only made a reply much more difficult. But she'd never backed down from a challenge before, and she didn't intend to start now. With all the grace she could muster, she withdrew her hand from his grasp. Snapping her fan in front of her with several brisk strokes, she took the needed moment to compose herself.

"I would say, Major Scott, that your observation is correct. Regardless of the circumstances, when in mixed company, one must always adhere to the social rules that govern polite society."

Chelcy released a dramatic groan. "Oh, Elanna! Not you, too."

Madison regarded Elanna with undisguised admiration. It was evident that his boldness wasn't met with indifference often; rather, he no doubt enjoyed great success with the ladies. Just how many ladies graced the soldier's life? The fleeting thought came unbidden, and she quickly dismissed it.

"And I gather that your family has raised you according to those same customs."

"Indeed. After all, Papa is a member of the assembly, and Mama is quite influential with the wives of the assembly members."

Elanna could count at least four times in the past month when the assembly wives had been invited to their home for tea. Something big loomed just beyond the horizon. She could feel it.

"It appears New Castle benefits greatly from the contributions of your family. From what my dear cousin tells me, it will not be long before these counties break off to become a colony in their own right."

Chelcy swatted Madison with her fan. "So you did read my letters."

Madison feigned insult and slapped his hat to his chest. "But of course. Do you doubt my interest in local politics? You reside in a town that is situated close enough to Philadelphia to be a significant source of information."

Finally! A topic of interest to Elanna. Despite her mother's objections, Papa kept her informed about significant news from his meetings. Although not privy to everything, she learned enough to stay up to date. She tried hard to contain her excitement. "From what Papa has told us at home, many members of the assembly wish to separate these counties from Pennsylvania so we can fully govern ourselves without their interference."

"And where is home, Miss Hanssen?"

"My family owns a farm a few miles southwest of town along the Christina River."

"Perhaps I shall be able to call upon you there someday."

Elanna dipped her head and brought her fan once more to shield her face. "Perhaps, Major Scott." The sooner, the better, for she was developing a great desire to enjoy his captivating presence and quick wit for more than these few moments.

It had been several months since a gentleman had turned her head. Her twin brother, Edric, teased her often about spending all of her time with pen and paper. But that was how she best expressed herself. God had gifted her with the ability to communicate using the written word, and she refused to waste that talent by ignoring it. Wouldn't Edric be surprised that she had met someone despite that solitary activity?

"Very well," Chelcy announced and stepped between them, "if you two insist upon this formal address, I believe I will return home and leave you both here to determine who will win the social skirmish."

Her friend's declaration dissipated the cloud that had fogged Elanna's mind since Madison had joined their conversation. Had she just been openly coy? Mama would lapse into vapors if she had witnessed such brazen behavior. She'd do well to rein in her actions and her tongue or else risk consequences far worse than her private guilt.

Chelcy touched Elanna's elbow and drew her out of her musings. "Will you be attending the town meeting with your father next week?"

Oh, the meeting! She'd almost forgotten. "Yes, of course. With Edric learning what's necessary to take his position come his eighteenth birthday, I would sooner miss my own birthday celebration than the opening of the assembly."

Her dramatic expression elicited a giggle from Chelcy and a chuckle from Madison.

"As always, delivered with flair and pomp." Chelcy smiled. "Is it any wonder why I find you a pure delight?"

Elanna placed a hand on her chest and raised her chin just a bit. "Just think how utterly dull your life would be without me in it."

"Perish the thought. I refuse to even think of such misery."

Madison raised one eyebrow. "And you accuse both Miss Hanssen and me of frivolous speech?"

A tinge of pink spotted Chelcy's cheeks. She snapped open her fan and hid behind the folds. "I do believe that is my cue to withdraw from this fine company." She motioned for Elanna to step aside with her. "Guard yourself, my friend," she cautioned, dipping her head close. "My dear cousin has a reputation with the ladies. I fear from your expression that you have already succumbed to his charm. Promise me you will keep your wits about you."

Elanna placed a hand on Chelcy's upper arm. "I assure you that my wits will remain firmly intact. Your cousin has done nothing more than behave as any gentleman would."

"I might consider him more of a rogue," Chelcy countered, a twinkle lighting her eyes.

"Be that as it may, you have no need to be bothered about me. I vow to remain in clear view of passersby. Edric and Papa and my three uncles would lock me in my room and teach your cousin a lesson with their fists should I do anything to cause tongues to wag."

A sigh escaped Chelcy's lips. Relief filled her expression. "Very well. I shall leave you alone together...as long as you promise to tell me all that transpired when you come to town again for the meeting next week."

Laughing, Elanna brushed cheeks with her friend. "I promise."

With that, Chelcy was gone. Flutters started in Elanna's stomach, and she placed a hand atop the affected area. Forcing herself to calm, she gave Madison her full attention, but he was the first to speak.

"Shall we?" He extended a hand toward the bench. She sat and tucked her skirts beneath her, laying her fan across her lap. A part of her knew she should probably start for home, but another part wanted to hear the news from this soldier. The latter part won.

* * * * *

Madison regarded Elanna before he spoke. Something about the fair maiden captivated him. Perhaps it was her guileless nature or her winsome smile. Or it could be her engaging personality. Whatever it was, he wanted to enjoy her company for a little while longer.

"So, tell me more—"

"What is it like, living—"

They both laughed as their words tumbled over each other's.

Madison gestured, palm up, encouraging her to continue. "Please."

Elanna dipped her head, then returned her gaze to his. "I would like to know more about your life as a soldier. I have overheard bits of conversation between Papa and several assembly members that have piqued my interest, but they tell me their affairs are not for a young lady's ears." A pout drew Madison's eyes to her lips. "I do not wish to pry, but I am fascinated by what little I do hear and long to know more."

He had best tread carefully, both in his errant thought and on this subject. Too much and he would face severe consequences when he returned to his regiment. Not enough and he would risk disappointing this very attractive young woman. Neither outcome held much appeal. Madison shifted his attention back to her eyes and away from the more-engaging area of her lips.

"Tell me, first, how much you already know about the recent events in the north."

Elanna chewed on her bottom lip and gazed past his left shoulder. He took advantage of that moment to observe her unnoticed. Waves of wheat-colored hair were gathered with combs and fastened under a lappet cap. Eyes the deep gray of the wet sand along the cape near Boston hinted at wisdom beyond her years, yet her manner bespoke a youthful innocence that increasingly intrigued him. Knowledgeable about the facts but ignorant to the ways of the world, she couldn't possess more than ten and five years. If more, then the men of this town should be brought to question for not seeing the beauty before them.

The object of his scrutiny shifted her focus and caught him staring. A becoming blush stained her cheeks, and she tucked her chin to avert her gaze. Innocent indeed. A characteristic he found both refreshing and appealing. Unable to resist, Madison gave a feather-light touch to her cheek. The embarrassment changed to something warmer, but the doe-like innocence remained.

"Do forgive me. I must apologize for causing you discomfort. Please share with me what you know, and I will endeavor to supply the necessary facts to satisfy your curiosity."

His young companion brightened, and her enthusiasm once again took hold. "Over the past two years, Papa has often shared details of reports made to the assembly of the developments in the Ohio Valley and as far north as the St. Lawrence Valley. I understand the dispute over who owns the land beyond the mountains that has led to the war with the French, but I am unclear about how all of these recent events interconnect."

A sweet face paired with an intelligent mind. Madison didn't often encounter Such a combination in the women he knew.

"Basically, both the French and the English claim all the lands from the Alleghenies west to the Mississippi River. While the area along the St. Lawrence River has also been under dispute, the Ohio Valley has recently become the main focus of this conflict."

"Papa says the Ohio Territory is beautiful. From his description, I can almost see it—majestic rolling hills and valleys with glimmering crystal streams, how the rising and setting sun casts color and shadow across the landscape, and all of it stretching as far as the eye can see."

Not only intelligent, but a poet as well. He must learn more about this charming lady.

"Such a vivid imagination you possess." He offered a quick smile then sobered. "The problem is that the French claim they discovered this land, while we English claim it is ours by charter and by our alliance with the Iroquois."

Elanna pursed her lips. "If this land is as valuable as it is beautiful, any man would be foolish not to want it for his own." She tracked the progress of a butterfly alighting on a bed of flowers nearby. "This land here, west of the Delaware River and east of the Chesapeake, has a beauty all its own. I would gladly fight for it if someone challenged me to its ownership."

Madison straightened, frowning, astonished that he had found such a kindred spirit. She had no idea how much he had longed to find someone in whom he could confide; someone who wasn't a part of the regiment in which he served. Because he only associated with fellow soldiers and pompous assembly-men who found dalliances more agreeable than politics, Madison hadn't encountered anyone else who could hold a passable conversation with him. Never in his wildest imagination would he have expected to find such compatibility here in New Castle with a young lady. Thankfully, Elanna's attention remained with the elusive butterfly.

"That is the exact source of the dispute," he murmured. "If the French have their way, we English will be confined to this narrow space between the Atlantic and the crest of the Alleghenies. On the other hand, if the English have theirs, the French will be hemmed within a small portion north of the St. Lawrence."

The sudden flight of two blue jays overhead caught their attention. When the birds flew into a nearby tree, a squirrel chittered in protest. The birds flapped their wings, chirped a few times, and remained where they landed. Accepting defeat, the squirrel scampered down the trunk. Bounding over to another tree, he raced up to resume his previous activities. Elanna shared a smile with Madison at the little animal's antics before bringing their conversation back to the matter at hand.

"Why cannot England and France simply come to an accord on this issue?"

Madison sighed and shook his head. "In my opinion, greed is the driving force that blinds them to any compromise."

Impulsively, Madison covered Elanna's hand with his, then quickly withdrew it, conscious of passersby. She didn't seem to notice, or at least showed no signs that she did. No need to cause her undue distress by making advances that would be misinterpreted by townsfolk who happened by the green. Better yet, they should move from this somewhat secluded spot.

"Will you walk with me?" He rose and extended his elbow in her direction.

She stood and placed her hand in the crook of his arm. The warmth of her touch sent his mind wandering in another direction, but he quickly reined in his thoughts. It was enough to know he would be escorting such a lovely young lady around town.

Once they had stepped off the green and crossed the street to the sidewalk in front of the shops, he continued. "Our current situation is tenuous at best," he said. "Hostilities have risen to an alarming level. The colonies are continuing to wage war against the French, but they are suffering more loss than gain."

Elanna turned her attention to the storefronts they passed, as if attempting to piece together everything she knew and had learned. "Other than knowing of the disputes, we had no inclination here of how critical the situation had become." She pointed out several new hats in the window of the haberdashery. "Not even our trade has been affected as of yet." She inclined her chin to look at him. "Colonel Washington's journal published in the Maryland Gazette, where he shared the details of his encounter with the French near the Great Meadows, was our first indication."

Madison nodded. "The French commander and nine of his men were killed, which led to the colonies rallying in fear of the French threat. Hopefully, we will receive support soon from England." He made a general sweep with his arm to encompass the town. "None of the bloodshed has trickled this far south, which is why I wanted to pay a visit to my family here while I still had the opportunity."

"How soon must you return?"

"I am not sure. I—"

"Special edition! Just arrived! Get the latest Pennsylvania Gazette."

The loud voice of a young lad hawking copies of the Gazette prevented Madison from answering Elanna's query. If a special edition had been printed, the news must be of great import. He signaled for the boy and offered a coin for the paper. As soon as the lad continued down the cobblestone street, Madison held the single page in front of him.

Large, black letters shouted, ENGLAND DECLARES WAR ON FRANCE! Dread settled in the pit of his stomach.

Elanna touched the edge of the paper. "They have made it official." Sorrow tinged her words.

He forced himself to look up from the fateful proclamation. Concern was etched in every facet of her delicate face. How could he tell her he had to leave? But he had no choice.

Without thinking, he pulled his arm away and released his hold on the paper. The page fluttered to the ground at their feet.

"Miss Hanssen, I must go."

"Go? But must it be so quickly?"

Biting her lip, she bent to stop the paper from blowing across the street in the breeze. He hastily dropped to one knee to help. As they reached for the page, they bumped heads.

Brilliant. He was as couth as a drunken sailor. He smiled, hoping it would soften the abruptness of his announcement, then got to his feet, rubbing his head ruefully. He bent to take her hand, and she rose to stand before him, regarding him gravely.

"Forgive me, Miss Hanssen. Now that England has formally declared war on France, I must return to my post in Boston."

She clutched the paper she had gathered to her bosom. "What will happen?"

Madison wished he knew. "Only time will tell." She started to respond, but he stayed her words with his hand. "I have enjoyed every moment of our conversation, and I do not wish for things to end here." He took a breath and prayed for courage. "May I write to you?"

"Yes, of course," she answered without hesitation.

In spite of the gravity of the military and political situation they faced, a thrill lifted his spirits. He reached into his pouch for paper, but before he could find it, she retrieved a small leather-bound booklet tied with twine, along with a pencil. He raised one eyebrow in question.

She colored prettily. "I keep one of my journals with me at all times."

Yet another facet of this intriguing young lady. Madison knew the significance of what she was about to do, but at the thought of the long, solitary journey back to Boston he had before him, he already felt the absence of her company. To do this properly, he should seek out her father and obtain permission to correspond with Elanna. There just wasn't time. She quickly scrawled an address onto one of the blank pages, and he prayed his letters would reach her.

With great care, Elanna tore the page from the journal and handed it to him, their hands barely brushing. She clutched the journal to her chest. "I pray you write at the earliest opportunity."

Madison lifted her hand to his lips and brushed a kiss across her knuckles. "And I shall eagerly await the return of your letter in response."

He forced himself to turn and stride in the direction of his cousin's home. Unable to avoid a final look, he glanced back over his shoulder to find Elanna watching him. Sadness softened her features. He gave a cheerful wave and tore his gaze from her as he put more distance between them. Although hesitant to admit it, he left part of his heart behind.