Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Gatekeepers (Dreamhouse Kings #3) - Chapter 1

(Dreamhouse Kings #3)

Thomas Nelson (January 6, 2009)

Tuesday, 6:58 P.M.

Pinedale, California

Xander’s words struck David’s heart like a musket ball.

He reeled back, then grabbed the collar of his brother’s grimy Confederate coat. His eyes stung, whether from the tears squeezing around them or the sand whipping through the room, he didn’t know. He pulled his face to within inches of Xander’s.

“You . . . you found her?” he said. “Xander, you found Mom?”

He looked over Xander’s shoulder to the portal door, which had slammed shut as soon as Xander stumbled through. The two boys knelt in the center of the antechamber. Wind billowed their hair. It whooshed in under the door, pulling back what belonged to the Civil War world from which Xander had just stepped. The smell of smoke and gunpowder was so strong, David could taste it.

He shook Xander. “Where is she? Why didn’t you bring her?”

His heart was going crazy, like a ferret racing around inside his chest, more frantic than ever. Twelve-year-olds didn’t have heart attacks, did they?

Xander leaned back and sat on his heels. His bottom lip trembled, and his chest rose and fell as he tried to catch his breath. The wind plucked a leaf from his hair, whirled it through the air, then sucked it under the door.

“Xander!” David said. “Where’s Mom?”

Xander lowered his head. “I couldn’t . . .” he said. “I couldn’t get her. You gotta go over, Dae. You gotta bring her back!”

“Me?” A heavy weight pushed on David’s chest, smashing the ferret between sternum and spine. He rose, leaped for the door, and tugged on the locked handle.

He wore a gray hat (“It’s a kepi,” Dad would tell him) and jacket, like Xander’s blue ones. They had discovered that it took wearing or holding three items from the antechamber to unlock the portal door. He needed one more.

“Xander, you said found her! ”

Xander shook his head. “I think I saw her going into a tent, but it was at the other end of the camp. I couldn’t get to her.”

David’s mouth dropped open. “That’s not finding her! I thought I saw her, too, the other day in the World War II world. . .”

“Dae, listen.” Xander pushed himself up and gripped David’s shoulders. “She saw the message we left. She saw Bob.”

Bob was the cartoon face and family mascot since Dad was a kid, drawn on notes and birthday cards. When David and Xander had been in Ulysses S. Grant’s Union camp the night before, Xander had drawn it on a tent. It was their way of letting Mom know they were looking for her.

“She wrote back!” Xander said. “David, she’s there!”

“But . . .” David didn’t know if he wanted to scream or cry or punch his brother. “Why didn’t you go get her?”

“Something was happening on the battlefield. They were rounding up all the soldiers and herding us toward the front line. I tried to get to her, but they kept grabbing me, pushing me out of camp. When I broke away—“ Xander’s face became hard. “They called me a deserter. That quick, I was a deserter. One of them shot at me! I barely got back to the portal.” He shook his head. “You gotta go! Now! Before she’s gone, or the portal changes, or . . . I don’t know.”

Yes . . . no! David’s stomach hurt. His brain was throbbing against his skull. His broken arm started to ache again, and he rubbed the cast. “Xander, I can’t. They almost killed me yesterday.”

“That’s because you were a gray-coat.” Xander began taking off his blue jacket. “Wear this one.”

“Why can’t you? Just tell them—”

“I’ll never make it,” Xander said. “They’ll throw me in the stockade for deserting—if they don’t shoot me first.”

“They’ll do the same to me.” David hated how whiney it came out.

“You’re just a kid. They’ll see that.”

“I’m twelve, Xander. Only three years younger than you.”

“That’s the difference between fighting and not, Dae.” He held the jacket open. “I know it was really scary before, but this time you’ll be on the right side.”

David looked around the small room. He said, “Where’s the rifle you took when you went over? The Harper’s Ferry musket?”

His brother gazed at his empty hand. He scanned the floor. “I must have dropped it one of the times I fell. I was just trying to stay alive. I didn’t notice.” He shook the jacket. “Come on.”

David shrugged out of the gray jacket he was wearing. He tossed it onto the bench and reluctantly slipped into the one Xander held. He pulled the left side over his cast.

Xander buttoned it for him. He said, “The tent I saw her go into was near the back of the camp, on the other side from where I drew Bob.” He lifted the empty sleeve and let it flop down. He smiled. “Looks like you lost your arm in battle.”

“See? They’ll think I can fight, that I have fought.”

“I was just kidding.” He took the gray kepi off David’s head and replaced it with the blue one. Then he turned to the bench and hooks, looking for another item.

“Xander, listen,” David said. “You don’t know what’s been happening here. There are two cops downstairs.”

Xander froze in his reach for a canteen. “What?” His head pivoted toward the door opposite the portal, as though he could see through it into the hallway beyond, down the stairs, around the corner, and into the foyer. Or like he expected the cops to burst through. “What are they doing here?”

“They’re trying to get us out of the house. Taksidian’s with them.” Just thinking of the creepy guy who was responsible for his broken arm frightened David—but not as much as the thought of getting hauled away when they were so close to rescuing Mom. “Gimme that,” he said, waggling his fingers at the canteen.

Xander snatched it off the hook and looped the strap over David’s head. “Where’s Dad?”

“They put him in handcuffs. He told me to come get you. That’s why I was here when you came through.”


“And one more thing,” David said. He closed his eyes, feeling like the jacket had just gained twenty pounds. “Clayton, that kid who wanted to pound me at school? He came through the portal in the linen closet.” He opened one eye to see his brother’s shocked expression.

“How long was I gone?” Xander said. “Where is he now?”

“I pushed him back in. He returned to the school, but he might . . . come back.”

“Great.” Xander glanced over his shoulder at the hallway door again, then back at David. “Anything else I should know?”

David shook his head. “I guess if I die, I won’t have to go to school tomorrow.” He smiled weakly.

The school year—seventh grade for David, tenth for Xander—had started just yesterday: two days of classes. Mom had been kidnapped the day before that. David couldn’t believe they’d even gone to school under the circumstances, but Dad, who was the new principal, had insisted they keep up normal appearances so they wouldn’t attract suspicion.

Lot of good it did, David thought, thinking of the cops downstairs.

“I don’t know,” Xander said. “Dad would probably figure out a way to get your body there.”

David’s expression remained grim.

“You’ll be fine.”

“Don’t get taken away,” David told his brother. “Don’t leave with me over there. Don’t leave me alone in this house when I come back. Don’t—“

Xander touched his fingers to David’s lips. “I won’t leave,” he said. “I’ll go see what’s happening downstairs, but I won’t leave. No way, no how. Okay? Besides—“ He smiled, but David saw how hard it was for him to do it. “You’ll have Mom with you when you come back. Right?”

It was David’s turn to smile, and he found it wasn’t so hard to do. “Yeah.” He turned, took a deep breath, and opened the portal door.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Red Siren - Chapter 1

The Red Siren

Barbour Publishing, Inc (January 2009)

August 1713, English Channel off Portsmouth, England

This was Dajon Waite's last chance. If he didn't sail his father's merchant ship and the cargo she held safely into harbor, his future would be tossed to the wind. With his head held high, he marched across the deck of the Lady Em and gazed over the choppy seas of the channel, expecting at any minute to see the lights of Portsmouth pierce the gray shroud of dusk. Another hour and his mission would be completed with success. It had taken two years before his father had trusted him to captain the most prized vessel in his merchant fleet, the Lady Em-named after Dajon's mother, Emily-especially on a journey that had taken him past hostile France and Spain and then far into the pirate-infested waters off the African coast.

Fisting his hands on his hips, Dajon puffed out his chest and drew a deep breath of salty air and musky earth-the smell of home. Returning with a shipload of ivory, gold, and pepper from the Gold Coast, Dajon could almost see the beaming approval on his father's sea-weathered face. Finally Dajon would prove himself an equal to his older brother, Theodore-obedient, perfect Theodore-who never let his father down. Dajon, however, had been labeled naught but capricious and unruly, the son who possessed neither the courage for command nor the brains for business.

Fog rolled in from the sea, obscuring the sunset into a dull blend of muted colors as it stole the remaining light of what had been a glorious day. Bowing his head, Dajon thanked God for His blessing and protection on the voyage.

"A sail, a sail!" a coarse voice blared from above.

Plucking the spyglass from his belt, Dajon held it to his eye. "Where away, Mules?"

"Directly off our lee, Captain."

Dajon swerved the glass to the port and adjusted it as Cudney, his first mate, halted beside him.

"She seems to be foundering, Captain," Mules shouted.

Through the glass, the dark outline of a ship came into focus, the whites of her sails stark against the encroaching night. Gray smoke spiraled up from her quarterdeck as sailors scrambled across her in a frenzy. The British flag flapped a harried plea from her mainmast.

"Hard to larboard," he yelled aft, lowering the glass. "Head straight for her, Mr. Nelson."

"Straight for her, sir."

"Beggin' your pardon, Captain." Cudney gave him a sideways glance. "But didn't your father give explicit orders never to approach an unknown vessel?"

"My father is not the captain of this ship, and I'll thank you to obey my orders
without question." Dajon stiffened his lips, tired of having his decisions challenged. True, he had failed on two of his father's prior ventures-one to the West Indies where a hurricane sunk his ship, and the other where he ran aground on the shoals off Portugal. Neither had been his fault. But this time, things would be different. Perhaps his father would even promote Dajon to head overseer of his affairs.

With a nod, Cudney turned, "Mr. Blake, Mr. Gibes, prepare to luff, if you please." His bellowing voice echoed over the decks, sending the men up the shourds.

"Who is she?" Cudney held out his hand for the glass.

"A merchant ship, perhaps." Dajon handed him the telescope then gripped the railing as the Lady Em veered to larboard, sending a spray of seawater over her decks. "But she's British, and she's in trouble.

The ship lumbered over the agitated waves. Dajon watched Cudney as he steadied the glass on his eye and his boots on the sodden deck. A low whistle spilled from his mouthas he twisted the glass for a better look.

"Pray tell, Mr. Cudney, what has caught your eye─one of those new ship's wheels you've been coveting?"

"Nay, Captain. But something nearly as beautiful─a lady."

Dajon snatched the glass back as the Lady Em climbed a rising swell and then tromped down the other side. As the vessel's sails snapped in the rising wind, he braced his boots on the deck and focused the glass on the merchant ship. A woman clung to the foremast, panic distorted her features─indistinct through the distant haze. She raised a delicate hand to her forehead as if she were going to faint. Red curls fluttered in the wind behind her. Heat flooded Dajon despite the chill of the channel. Lowering the glass, he tapped it into the palm of his hand, loathing himself for his shameless reaction. Hadn't his weakness for the female gender already caused enough pain?

Yet clearly the vessel was in trouble.

"We shall come alongside her," Dajon ordered.

Cudney glared at the ship. "Something is not right, I can feel it in my gut."

"Nonsense. Where is your chivalry?" Dajon smiled grimly at his friend, ignoring the hair bristling on the back of his own neck.

Cudney's dark eyes shot to Dajon, "But your father─"

"Enough!" Dajon snapped. "My father did not intend for me to allow a lady to drown. Besides, pirates would not dare sail so close to England─especially to Portsmouth, where so many of His Majesty's warships are anchored." DAjon glanced back at the foundering ship, now only half a knot off their bow. Smoke poured from her waist, curling like a snake into the dark sky. Left to burn, the fire would sink her within an hour. "Surely you do not suspect a woman of piracy?"

Cudney cocked one brow. "begging your pardon, Captain, but I have seen stranger things on these seas."


Faith Louise Westcott flung her red curls behind her and held a quivering hand to her breast, nausea rising in her throat at her idiotic display. How did women feign such weakness without losing the contents of their stomachs?

"They 'ave taken the bait, mistress." A sinister chuckle filled the breeze.

"Oh, thank heavens." Faith released the mast. Planting a hand on her hip, she gave Lucas a mischievous grin. "Well, what are you waiting for? Ready the men."

"Aye, aye." The bulky first mate winked, and then scuttled across the deck, his bald head gleaming in the light from the lantern hanging on the mainmast.

After checking the pistol stuffed in the sash of her gown and the one strapped to her calf, Faith sauntered to the railing to get a better look at her latest victim, a sleek, two-masted brigantine. The orange, white, and blue of the Dutch flag fluttered from her mizzen. A very nice prize indeed. One that would bring her even closer to winning the private war she waged-a war for the survival of her and her sisters.

The oncoming ship sat low in the water, its hold no doubt packed with valuable cargo. Faith grinned. With this ship and the one she had plundered earlier, loaded with precious spices and silks, she was well on her way to amassing the fortune that would provide for her independence and that of her sisters-at least the two of them that were left unfettered by matrimony.

She allowed her thoughts to drift for a moment to Charity, the oldest. Last
year their father had forced her into a union with Lord Villement, a vile,
perverse man who had oppressed and mistreated her beyond what a woman
should endure. Faith feared for her sister's safety and prayed for God to
deliver Charity, but to no avail.

Then, of course, there was the incident with Hope, their younger sister.

That was when Faith had stopped praying.

She would rather die than see her two younger sisters fettered to abusive
men, and the only way to avoid that fate was to shield them with their own
fortune. Cringing, she stifled the fury bubbling in her stomach. She mustn't
think of it now. She had a ship to plunder, and this was as much for Charity
as it was for any of them.

The bowsprit of the brigantine bowed in obedience to her as it plunged over
the white-capped swells. Gazing into the hazy mist, Faith longed to get a
peek at the ninnies who had been so easily duped by her ruse but dared not
raise the spyglass to her eye. Women didn't know how to use such
contraptions, after all.

Putting on her most flirtatious smile, she waved at her prey, beckoning the
fools onward, then she scanned the deck as her crew rushed to their stations.
Aboard her ship, she was in control; she was master of her life, her
future-here and nowhere else. And oh how she loved it!

Lucas's large frame appeared beside her. "The rest of the men be waitin'
yer command below hatches, mistress." He smacked his oversized lips
together in a sound Faith had become accustomed to before a battle.
Nodding, she scanned her ship. Wilson manned the helm, Grayson and
Lambert hovered over the fire, pretending to put it out, and Kane and Mac
clambered up the ratlines in a pretense of terror. She spotted Morgan
pacing the special perch Faith had nailed into the mainmast just for him.
She whistled and the red macaw halted, bobbed his head up and down,
and squawked, "Man the guns, man the guns!"

Faith chuckled. She had purchased the bird from a trader off Morocco and
named him after Captain Henry Morgan, the greatest pirate of all time. The
feisty parrot had been a fine addition to her crew...

Returning her gaze to her unsuspecting prey, Faith inhaled a breath of the
crisp air. Smoke bit her throat and nose, but she stifled a cough as the thrill
of her impending victory charged through her, setting every nerve aflame.
The merchant ship was nigh upon them. She could already make out the
worried expressions upon the crew's faces as they charged to her rescue.

This is for you, Charity, and for you, Mother.
Heavy fog blanketed the two ships in gray that darkened with each passing
minute. Faith tugged her shawl tighter against her body, both to ward off
the chill and to hide the pistol in her sash. A vision of her mother's pale face
formed in the fog before her, blood marring the sheets on the birthing bed
where she lay.

Take care of your sisters, Faith.

A burst of wind chilled Faith's moist cheeks. A tear splattered onto the deck
by her shoes before she brushed the rest from her face. "I will, Mother. I

"Ahoy there!" A booming voice shattered her memories.

She raised her hand in greeting toward the brigantine as it heaved ten
yards off their starboard beam. "Ahoy, kind sir. Thank God you have arrived
in time," she yelled back, sending the sailors scurrying across the deck.

Soon, they lowered a cockboat, filled it with men, and shoved off.

A twinge of guilt poked at Faith's resolve. These men had come to her aid
with kind intentions. She swallowed hard, trying to drown her nagging
conscience. They were naught but rich merchants, she told herself, and
she, merely a Robin Hood of the seas, taking from the rich to feed the poor.
She had exhausted all legal means of acquiring the money she needed,
and present society offered her no other choice.

The boat thumped against her hull, and she nodded at Kane and Mac, who
had jumped down from the shrouds and tossed the rope ladder over the

"Permission to come aboard?" The man who appeared to be the captain
shouted toward Lucas as he swung his legs over the bulwarks, but his eyes
were upon Faith.

By all means. Faith shoved a floppy fisherman's hat atop her head,
obscuring her features from his view, and smiled sweetly.


"Aye, I beg ye, be quick about it afore our ship burns to a cinder," the
massive bald man beckoned to Dajon.

Dajon hesitated. He knew he should obey his father's instructions, he knew
he shouldn't risk the hoard of goods in his hold, he knew he should pay
heed to the foreboding of dread that now sank like a anchor in his stomach,
but all he could see was the admiring smile of the red-haired beauty, and
he led his men over the bulwarks.

After directing them to assist in putting out the fire, he marched toward the
dark, bald man and bowed.

"Captain Dajon Waite at your service."

When his gaze drifted to the lady, she slunk into the shadows by the
foremast, her features lost beneath the cover of her hat. Odd. Somehow he
had envisioned a much warmer reception. At the very least, some display of
feminine appreciation.

"Give 'em no quarter! Give 'em no quarter!" a shrill voice shrieked, drawing
Dajon's attention behind him to a large red parrot perched on a peg jutting
from the mainmast.

A pinprick of fear stabbed him.

"Captain," one of his crew called from the quarterdeck. "The ship ain't on
fire. It's just a barrel with flaming rubbish inside it!"
The anchor that had sunk in Dajon's stomach dropped into his boots with an
ominous clank.

He spun back around, hoping for an explanation, but all he received was a
sinister grin on the bald man's mouth.

Alarm seized Dajon, sucking away his confidence, his reason, his pride.
Surely he could not have been this daft. He glanced back at the Lady Em,
bobbing in the sea beside them-the pride of his father's fleet.

"To battle, men!" The woman roared in a voice belying her gender-a voice
that pummeled Dajon's heart to dust.

Dozens of armed pirates spat from the hatches onto the deck. Brandishing
weapons, they hurtled toward his startled crew. One by one, his men
dropped their buckets to the wooden planks with hollow thuds and slowly
raised their hands. Their anxious gazes shot to Dajon, seeking his
command. The pirates chortled. Dajon's fear exploded into a searing rage.

They were surrounded.

The woman drew a pistol from her sash. Dajon could barely make out the
tilted lift of her lips. He wiped the sweat from his brow and prayed to God
that he would wake up from this nightmare.

"I thank you, Captain, for your chivalrous rescue." The woman pointed her
pistol at him and cocked it with a snap. "But I believe I'll be taking over
your ship."

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Centurion's Wife - Chapter 1

The Centurion's Wife

Bethany House Publishers (January 1, 2009)

Chapter One

AD 33, Caesarea, Judaea Province
Six Days Before Passover

Usually Leah followed the path briskly from the main kitchen to the baths. Today, with the Mediterranean breeze caressing her face and the sun not yet a scorching heat overhead, she could not help but slow her steps. She lifted her eyes at the cry of the seabirds. How peaceful it appeared. Only a few clouds hung in the sky, like a flock of spring lambs. Down below the walkway, sea waves lapped gently along the promontory's edge. Not even the first stirrings within the palace compound behind her could diminish her sense of delight.

For one further moment Leah drank it all in, her gaze sweeping across the panorama before her. Finally she turned away from the vast blue sea and studied the beauty of the city's setting.

Caesarea stretched like a royal necklace along the seafront, with the palace of Pontius Pilate its centermost jewel. From her position upon the rocky point, Leah studied the elaborate courtyard with its columns and statuary, the opulent ceramic-tiled baths, and the impressive marbled façade of the palace itself. Broad, grand entrance steps rose up to gold double doors. In different circumstances, Leah would have found it all impossibly beautiful. Even though she had been raised as no stranger to fine things and elegant living, never had she dreamed of residing in the palace of the prelate of Judaea. Yet here she stood, strangely a part of it all.

In different circumstances ...

It was the first occasion in a long time that Leah's thoughts had flown across years and countries to her grandmother. Whatever would she think of Leah now, standing here amid such splendor? Leah recalled how the old woman often stroked her face and said, "I see great things in store for you, my little one." Then she would pat her generous silk-gowned bosom with bejeweled fingers, as though sealing the promise in her heart. Her dear grandmother. What Leah would give for just a few hours with her beloved grandparent now. But she had been gone for eight long years. Leah would have that opportunity no more.

Leah sighed and turned away from the opulence of the palace and back to the contrasting beauty of the sea. Its surface sparkles like Grandmother's jewels. How easy it would be on such a dawn to overlook the reality that she was here because she had no recourse.

Far beyond the rolling waves lay her real home. True, there was no longer any place for her there, but it still held her heart. Would she ever see Verona again? And in Rome, her mother faced a new dawn as well. Alone. Bereft. Leah yearned to be with her, offering what love and comfort she was able. But she remained trapped within this imposing palace of a Roman prelate, surrounded by elegance she could appreciate only from a distance. Yes, she had been born to wealth and position, yet here she stood, little more than a slave. Bitterness filled her throat and caught her breath.

Another thought chased through her mind. If nothing more, she faced an easier circumstance than her two older sisters. She was free in spirit, if not in body. She was able to call her life her own, even if it was a life of servanthood. She would far rather be a servant in Pilate's household than slave to a man she neither loved nor respected, who ruled her every move. Hers was a bondage far more easily endured, she was sure.

Leah cast one more longing look over the blue expanse of sea, and with a determined lift of her shoulders walked on toward the bathhouse. Her first duties of the day would have her laying out fresh towels and robes and making sure that all the expensive unguents and soaps were readily available.

You must take what is good from the world for yourself, a quiet but firm voice echoed in her memory, for the world will never come to you with outstretched hand. Her father's words. Yet even as she recalled them, she was forced to admit that the philosophy had brought even him no lasting rewards.

* * *

The next morning, Leah's demanding day suddenly veered toward chaos. Like every other servant in Pilate's household, she always dreaded word that the prelate was moving to Jerusalem. For the servants and slaves it meant that their normal duties, already keeping them busy from early morning to late night, were multiplied many times over.

Leah struggled to meet the increasingly frantic pace. She had felt well enough the night before, when she had finally finished the day's work and retired to her pallet in the servants' quarters. Yet during the night she had tossed fitfully, and when she had lifted a hand to her brow, she knew she had a fever. Before dawn she had gone to the kitchen for water. She had slept some again and hoped her discomfort would pass. But now her strength drained away as her activities mounted along with the day's heat.

Leah knew her mistress, Pilate's wife, noted how sluggish Leah was that morning. She tried to add quickness to her step and lightness to her countenance. A servant's misfortunes, whatever their source, were not permitted to taint the lady's day.

But as the hours wore on, Leah found she was unable to sustain the brave front. Her body felt like it carried its own fire pit. Her stomach was unsettled, and she ached with a dreadful bone weariness from her head to her feet.

She touched her face with one hand, and her own fingers felt the unusual warmth. Though this was the first time she had ever suffered with the fever that swept the land at every winter's close, Leah knew its symptoms. She could feel the slow burn begin to scorch her limbs. I don't have time to be ill, she groaned inwardly. Not today!

A palace guard appeared from around the corner of the bathhouse and glanced her way. Despite the late afternoon light and the distance, Leah could see the scowl that touched his face. Had he noticed something? Were her steps dragging? Was she staggering? She forced herself to keep moving. Even though the sun was dropping into the western horizon, there was still much to be done. For on the morrow they all would leave for Jerusalem, where Pontius Pilate would take charge of maintaining the peace during the annual Passover festival.

She reluctantly turned away toward the servants' quarters. Maybe if she could rest for a few moments.... Midway there, however, she felt as though a wave from the sea were rising up and sweeping over her. She grabbed the wall as the light dimmed to grey, uncertain even where she was. She heard a voice call her name but did not have the strength to respond.

Leah did not fear the darkness that rose up to claim her. In fact, she welcomed it.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Stand-In Groom - Chapter 1

Stand-In Groom

Barbour Publishing, Inc (January 2009)

Chapter 1

Nothing like running late to make a wonderful first impression. Anne Hawthorne left a voice-mail message for her blind date, explaining her tardiness, then crossed her office to the gilt-framed mirror that reflected the view of Town Square through the front windows. At a buzzing jolt against her waist, she flinched, smearing her lipstick.


The vibrating cell phone chimed out a wedding march. A client. She reached for a tissue to repair her mouth while flipping the phone open with her left hand. “Happy Endings, Inc. This is Anne Hawthorne.”

“I can’t do it! I can’t marry him!” Third call today.

Why had she agreed to be set up on a date the Thursday of a wedding week? If it were just the regular weekly dinner with her cousins, she could skip out and get some work done. “Calm down,” she said to her client. “Take a deep breath. And another. Let it out slowly. Now, tell me what happened.”

Fifteen minutes later, still on the phone, she pulled her dark green Chrysler Sebring convertible into a parking space in front of Palermo’s Italian Grill. She sat in the car a few minutes—air conditioner running full blast—and listened to the rest of her client’s story.

When the girl paused to breathe, Anne leaped at her chance. “I completely understand your concern. But sweetie, you have to remember most men aren’t interested in the minute details of a wedding. Just because he doesn’t care if the roses are white variegated with pink or solid pink, don’t take that to mean he doesn’t love you
anymore. Which ones do you like the best?”

“The variegated roses,” the bride-to-be sniffled into the phone.

Anne turned off the engine and got out of the car. The heat and humidity typical for the first day of June in central Louisiana wrapped her in a sweaty embrace. “Then get the flowers you like. He will be happy because you’re happy. Do you want me to call the florist in the morning?” One more change the day before the wedding. Saturday couldn’t come fast enough.

“Do you mind?”

“That’s what I’m here for.” She opened her planner and made a note at the top of the two-page spread for tomorrow. “Feeling better?”

“Yeah. Thanks, Miss Anne. I’ve got to call Jared and apologize.”

“See y’all tomorrow.” Anne made sure her phone was set to vibrate-only mode and entered the most popular new restaurant in Bonneterre. Maybe she should have left the planner in the car, but she would have felt naked, incomplete, without it.

The heavenly aroma of garlic, basil, and oregano mixed with the unmistakable yeasty scent of fresh bread and wafted on the cool air that blew in her face when she opened the door. Her salivary glands kicked into overdrive, and her stomach growled. She really needed to stop skipping lunch.

Winding through the crowd of patrons awaiting tables, Anne scanned faces for the man her cousin Jenn had been absolutely dying to set her up with for months. She’d made a point of watching the local news broadcast on Channel Six last night so she’d know
what he looked like. Her right heel skidded on the slatelike tile and she wobbled, her foot sliding half out of the black mule. Anne hated shoes that didn’t stay on her feet of their own accord, but they were fashionable. She righted herself and arrived without further incident at the hostess station.

“Miss Anne!” A young woman in a white tuxedo shirt and black slacks came out from behind the high, dark wood stand and threw her arms around Anne’s waist.

She recognized the girl as a bridesmaid in a wedding she’d coordinated just a month or so ago. What was her name? “Hey, sweetie! It’s so good to see you. How are you?”

The bubbly brunette stepped back. “I’m great. I’ll be getting my degree in August, and I already have job offers from advertising agencies in Baton Rouge and Houston.”

Anne smiled, remembering the girl in a pewter, floor-length straight skirt with a corset-style bodice. The bride had let each of the girls choose which style top they were most comfortable in. Gray bridesmaids’ dresses. Purple and lavender florals and bunting. The Garrity-LaTrobe wedding. Six female attendants. Of course! “How exciting. Congratulations, Carrie.”

“Thanks. Are you meeting someone here?”

“I am, but I don’t see him. The reservation was for seven fifteen under my name.”

The girl ran her french-manicured acrylic nails down the waiting list and stopped at a crossed-out line. “Here you are. They were getting ready to reassign your table, so you got here just in time. Follow me, please.”

Walking through the packed restaurant behind the slender, petite young woman, Anne tried not to feel self-conscious. At nearly six feet tall and doing well to keep herself fitting into a size eighteen, she hated to imagine what others thought when they compared her to someone like this little hostess—five foot fourish with a waist so small she could probably wear Anne’s gold filigree anklet as a belt. When working, Anne rarely thought about her stature or size. In public, though, all the comments and teasing she’d received when she’d reached her full height at age thirteen rushed back into her memory. If only she’d had some athletic ability, she might have been popular and not fallen for a man who’d strung her along until he
didn’t need her anymore.

“Here we are.” Carrie gave a bedimpled grin and bounced away.

“Thank you.” Anne chose the chair facing the entry and set her purse on the floor and her planner on the table. She glanced at her watch again. Seven thirty on the nose. Surely her date wouldn’t have given up waiting on her after only fifteen minutes.

“Still waiting on someone?” The young waiter—probably a student at the Bonneterre branch of the University of Louisiana—handed her a thick, faux leather–bound menu.
Not that I want to be. “Yes. He’s probably just running a little late.”

“Can I go ahead and get you something to drink while you wait?”

“Sprite with a cherry and twist of lime, please. Are Mr. and Mrs. Palermo here tonight?”

“Yes, ma’am, I believe the owners are here. Is anything wrong?” Worry etched the young face.

She gave him the reassuring smile she’d perfected over the years of working with nervous brides and frantic mothers of the bride. “No. I’d like to discuss planning a few events with them. But only if they have time. If they’re busy, I can come back early next week.”

His relief obvious, he grinned and nodded. “Yes, ma’am. And I’ll be right back with your cherry-lime Sprite.”

She turned her attention to the menu, pleased to see the broad range of selections.

The waiter returned with her soda. “Here you are. Can I get you an appetizer while you wait?”

She probably shouldn’t, but—“I’d like the fried calamari and crawfish tails, please, with the cayenne-Parmesan dipping sauce.”

“Excellent choice. My favorite.”

She listened to the specials, making a mental note of the eggplant roulade—“Fried or grilled rounds of eggplant smothered in a spicy cream sauce with crawfish, bacon, and fresh spinach”—and the jambalaya alfredo—“With chicken, andouille, and traditional Cajun seasonings in the cream sauce.”

“I’ll be back with your appetizer in a little bit.” He glanced at the still-empty chair across from her but didn’t comment before walking away.

Anne set the menu aside and zipped open her camel-colored leather planner. Taking out a legal pad and pen, she reviewed her notes all over the two-page spread for today and the notes for tomorrow, then wrote out a to-do list of what she still needed to accomplish before her eight o’clock meeting with the bride, groom,
and minister in the morning.

“Anne Hawthorne?”

She looked up at the voice and stood to hug former clients. She chatted with the couple for a few minutes before they continued on to their table.

Anne had just regained her seat when another former client came over. Anne hugged the young woman around the bulge of her pregnancy as she asked Anne to plan her baby shower. They looked at Anne’s calendar and set an appointment to discuss ideas and dates.

The waiter returned with the calamari and crawfish tails and eyed the empty place as he set the dish on the table. “Do you want to wait until your companion arrives before you order?”

Maybe she should call to see what was going on. “Give me a few minutes?”

He nodded. “Enjoy the calamari.”



Grabbing her purse but leaving the planner on the table, Anne crossed the restaurant to the quieter lobby area outside the restrooms. She dialed and pressed the small cell phone to her ear.

Without ringing once, his voice mail picked up. His outgoing message gave his office phone number, which she repeated in her head while waiting for the tone. “Hi, this is Anne Hawthorne. It’s...a little after eight, and I’ve been at the restaurant for a while and just wanted to see when you think you might be getting here.” She left her number and disconnected, then called his office phone, which rolled into voice mail after three rings. Rather than leave another message, when given the option, she hit the number 0. After a couple of clicks and an ad for the TV station, someone picked up.

“KCAN newsroom. How may I help you?”

“Hi, I’m trying to get in touch with Danny Mendoza.”

“Is this Anne Hawthorne?” the female on the other end asked.

Frowning, Anne started to pace. “Yes.”

“I’m so sorry I didn’t have time to call you before now. Danny got called in on a breaking news assignment and will be out in the field for the rest of the evening. He asked me to let you know he wouldn’t be able to meet you but that he would call you tomorrow.”

She squeezed her eyes closed and rubbed her forehead. “Thanks for letting me know. If you talk to him again this evening, tell him—” What? Thanks for standing me up? “Never mind. I’ll just leave a message on his cell phone.”

“Okay. Listen, I’m really sorry I didn’t have time to call you.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Anne ended the call, hooked the phone back on her waistband, and returned to her table. The aroma from the fried squid and crawfish on the plate in front of her tantalized her taste buds.

“Any word?” The waiter returned and tipped his head at the empty chair.

“Yes. He got called in to work so won’t be coming.”

“Oh. I’m sorry. Do you want me to box this up for you?”

“If you could bring me a box, that would be great, because I’ll never be able to eat all this and a meal, too.”

“You mean—you’re going to stay?”

Anne tried not to laugh at his surprised expression. “Of course. I’ve been waiting to eat here for a month. I’m going to have the eggplant roulade—with the eggplant grilled instead of fried.”

“Yes, ma’am. I’ll go place your order now and bring you another drink.”

“Don’t forget the box for this.” Anne served a few pieces of crawfish and calamari onto the small appetizer plate. Jenn always liked Anne to bring home leftovers after dining out, to see what other restaurants were doing.

At the thought of her restaurateur cousin, Anne shook her head. This was the third time Jenn had set Anne up on a blind date and the third time it hadn’t worked out. Jenn had a habit of setting Anne up with men of Jenn’s taste rather than Anne’s type. At five foot six, Jenn didn’t have to worry about towering over her dates.
Five inches taller, however, Anne wanted to date someone who was at least six feet tall so she didn’t feel like quite such an Amazon beside him. But it seemed as though tall, single Christian men over the age of thirty were hard to come by.

Of course, every man Anne had gone out with in the past who had matched her ideal of the Perfect Man had ended up being Perfectly Wrong for her. Maybe she needed to stop focusing on the physical type and just get out and have fun meeting new people.

She spent her life making others’ dreams come true. Well, it was time for Anne Hawthorne, wedding and event planner extraordinaire, to start creating her own happy ending.

George Laurence perused the menu, surprised to find the wide variety of dishes listed. His experience with Italian restaurants in midsized American cities primed him to expect spaghetti, lasagna, and fettuccini. So far, Palermo’s Italian Grill in Bonneterre, Louisiana, appeared promising.

“So, George, where do you hail from in England?” Across the table, his employer’s local lawyer shook out the folded fabric napkin and laid it in his lap.

George closed the menu. “I spent my childhood in London. My late teens and early twenties in Edinburgh.”

“University of Edinburgh, huh? Heard that’s a great school.” Forbes Guidry handed his menu to the waitress and placed his order.

George considered his response as he ordered crawfish-stuffed manicotti. He’d wanted to live in America because he’d always heard that people weren’t judged by their family background, wealth, or education. After five years of working for one of the wealthiest people in the country, he’d learned otherwise. The social prejudices in
England and America differed but still existed. When most Americans found out he’d never attended college, they made assumptions about his intelligence and ranked him lower in their estimation.

He handed his menu to the server and returned his attention to the lawyer. “I wouldn’t know about the university. I never had the opportunity to attend. I started working when I was sixteen.” First, there would be an awkward silence, then a mumbled apology—

“I’m impressed.” Forbes took a sip of his water, seeming unflustered.

“Just from talking on the phone this afternoon, I would have guessed you had at least a master’s degree if not a PhD.”

George opened his mouth, but nothing came out. No one had ever given him such a compliment. Although, he had heard lawyers in Louisiana weren’t to be trusted. Was this man, with his tailored suit, expensive haircut and manicure, and impeccable manners, just one of those Artful Dodgers who could charm his way out of any
situation? Or was he as genuine as his Southern accent and friendly demeanor indicated? George hoped for the latter. He’d never pretended to be someone else before and needed an ally, someone who knew his true purpose and identity.

“Thank you.” No other response came to mind. Instead of putting on false modesty or being arrogant by focusing on his own merits, George returned to a previous conversation. “You said a housekeeper has been hired?”

“Yes, but since no one’s been in residence, she just goes by every so often to dust and let the exterminators in, that kind of thing. The house was built like a typical English manor, or so I’m told. There are two bedroom suites in the basement beside the service kitchen. I figured you’d take one and Mrs. Agee would take the other. Now, to business.” Forbes reached under the table and retrieved a document from his briefcase.

The document. The addendum to George’s work contract—the contract he’d never wanted to sign in the first place. The rules by which he would have to live his life while in this quaint Southern city. He clenched his fists under the table. If keeping his work visa didn’t depend on this...

“I assume your employer discussed the details of the addendum with you.” Forbes handed the contract across the table.

George nodded, guilt clenching his gut. “Yes.”

“As his legal representative, it is my responsibility to remind you of the confidentiality clause. Should you reveal to anyone, including the wedding planner, the identity of your employer or that you are not Courtney Landry’s fiancé, your employment will be terminated. As you know, if you lose your job, you will be in violation of your work visa and must return to England.”

The only reason why George had agreed to this charade. “Yes, I understand.”

“Take it with you and read over it tonight. Any questions you have can be discussed when we meet tomorrow at ten.”

George tucked the document into his own attaché case. “Very good.”

“Whew. Now that that’s over, we can enjoy our dinner.”

“Yes, indeed.” George needed a neutral topic to have time to take his mind off the fact that he was about to spend the next five weeks living a falsehood. He still hadn’t figured out how to do it and maintain his Christian values. “Have you lived in Bonneterre all your life, Forbes?”

Over the salad course, the lawyer talked about Bonneterre as it had been during his childhood. George consciously made eye contact every fifteen or twenty seconds while also looking around the restaurant decorated to resemble a Tuscan villa.

Movement at a nearby table caught his attention. A waiter stopped, two fancy desserts perched precariously on his tray. With great ceremony and flourish, he placed the sweet delights on the table.

What was it about the patron that made him stand out? The fork in the young man’s hand trembled, and he never took his gaze off his pretty companion. Neither could be much older than twenty. The lass took a couple of bites of the chocolate confection, but her fork stopped when she went for the third. She frowned, then dug something out. A small box. A few moments later, she let out a high-pitched gasp and threw her arms around her beau’s neck. The lad dropped to one knee, and the crowd broke into applause.

George hoped the two young people had given this decision prayerful consideration. He hadn’t been much older than the newly engaged couple when he’d prepared to propose to his first love. Praise God he’d learned her true nature before making a complete fool of himself.

Forbes clapped with enthusiasm. “Good for them.”

“Are you married, Forbes?”

The lawyer held up his left hand and wiggled the empty third finger. “No. Don’t know if I ever will be, either.”

George sat back, surprised.

Forbes laughed. “Now, before you go getting the wrong idea about me, let me explain. I don’t know if I’ll ever find a woman my sisters and mother will find suitable for me. They’ve been trying for years. But the ones they like, I can’t stand.”

“And the ones you like?” George raised his brows.

“Humph. That’s the problem. I can’t even find one to bring home for them not to like.” He sighed. “I suppose when God’s ready for me to fall in love, He’ll throw the right woman into my path.”

“Hopefully you won’t be driving at the time.” George kept his expression serious.

Forbes blinked, then threw his head back in laughter, drawing the admiring gazes of several nearby female diners.

The waitress arrived with their meals. George glanced at the proposal-couple’s table. A woman in an aubergine suit knelt between the two, listening to the animated young woman, her focus earnest and interested. Her blond hair was caught up in a french twist, and even from this distance, he could see a sparkle in her electric
blue eyes. Everything about her—from her smile to the way she put herself below the level of the young couple—bespoke someone who put others before herself. The kind of woman he’d always dreamed of finding.

“George?” A frown etched Forbes’s celebrity-caliber face.

George nodded his head toward the beautiful woman still kneeling beside the other table. “Who do you suppose that is?”

“Well, well, well. I knew she had other plans tonight; I just never imagined...” Forbes’s smile took on a warmth usually reserved for a man’s mother, wife, or sisters—or sweetheart. “She’s a professional wedding planner. Right now, she’s listening to all the young woman’s childhood dreams of what her wedding should be like. When she meets with them in her office sometime next week—and don’t worry, they’ll be there—she’ll already have a preliminary budget worked out.”

George’s heart sank at the woman’s title. “Wedding planner? Is she—?”

“She is. She’s going back to her table now.” Forbes leaned to his left to watch her progress over George’s shoulder. “If I can catch her before she leaves, I’ll introduce you.”

George nodded, keeping his turmoil under tight control. This would have been a lot easier if she’d turned out to be some old, grandmotherly type. How would he ever convince this wedding planner he was the bridegroom when he found her so utterly
attractive? God, what have I gotten myself into?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Sweetwater Gap - Chapter 1

Sweetwater Gap

Thomas Nelson (December 16, 2008)

Chapter 1

Josephine Mitchell was up to her wrists in dirt when she heard the whistle. She looked past the ornamental iron railing down to street level where Cody Something shut the door of his '79 Mustang.

He approached her veranda, shading his eyes from the sun with his hand. "Hey, Apartment 2B, my friend came through." Cody tugged tow tickets from the back pocket of his khaki shorts. "Louisville versus UK."

Josie pulled her hands form under the wisteria's roots and patted the dirt down. "Answer's still no." She smiled to soften the rejection, then poured more of the sandy loam around the vine's woody roots.

"Forty-yard line. Biggest game of the year…" A shadow puddle in his dimple.


He sighed. "When are you going to break down and say yes?"

Josie's cell phone pealed and vibrated simultaneously in her pocket. "Saved by the bell." She wiped her hands on her jeans and checked the screen.

A frown pulled her brows. Her sister hadn't called since she'd gotten the big news foru months ago. Josie hoped she was okay.

"Sorry, gotta take this." She told Cody, then flipped open the phone. "Hey, Laurel."

There was a pause at the other end. "Josie? It's Nate. Your brother-in-law." As if Josie didn't know his name or voice. He'd only dated her sister four years before finally proposing.

But Nate had never called Josie, and the fact that he was now only reinforced her previous suspicion. "Is everything okay? Laurel and the baby?"

"They're fine."

Thank God Laurel and Nate had wanted a baby for so long. They'd been ready to start trying, but then Laurel and Josie's dad had the stroke, and the newlyweds has to move in with him and take care of him and the family orchard. Laurel hadn't has the time or energy for a baby.

Josie sat back on her haunches and wiped her hair from her eyes with a semiclean finger.

"I'm calling about the orchard," Nate's tone was short and clipped. "I think it's high time you hauled your city-slicker fanny back here to help your sister."

She almost thought he was joking─Nate was as easygoing as they come, and she'd never heard him sound so adamant or abrupt. But there was no laughter on the other end of the line.

Words stuck in Josie's throat. She swallowed hard. "I don't understand."

"No, you don't. Responsibility is a foreign word to you. I get that. But there comes a time when a person has to step up to the plate and─
"Wait a minute."

"─help when they're needed. And Laurel needs your help. We can't afford to hire anyone else, you know."

This didn't sound like Nate. True, she hadn't talked to him in ages, but he's always been the picture of Southern hospitality.

Below the veranda, Cody caught her eye and waved the tickets temptingly. When she shook her head no, his lips turned down in an exaggerated pout, his chin fell dramatically to his chest, and he sulked toward the apartment's main door. But not before he turned and flashed his dimple one more time, just to let her know he wasn't too heartbroken. They both knew he was already mentally sorting through the other candidates in his little black book.

Nate's angry voice pulled her back to the conversation, which, she realized belatedly, had been silent on her end for too long.

"I don't know why I thought you'd care," he muttered. She could barely hear his words over the roar of a passing motorcycle. "You didn't bother coming after the stroke, or for the funeral, why would you care about this?"

"What this? Would you please tell me what's going on?"

His breaths were harsh, as if he expected a fight.

"Laurel is having twins. She just found out yesterday at the ultrasound."

Twins. The word brought back a cluster of momories, none of them good.

But Laurel was undoubtedly thrilled. Josie was surprised she hadn't called, but then again, they hadn't spoken much since the funeral almost a year ago. "Well, that's great news."

"The doctor wants her to take it easy. And you know laurel."

With harvest just around the bend, there wasn't much that was easy about working an apple orchard this time of year. The phone call was making sense now. All except Nate's antagonism. But then he'd always been protective of Laurel.

"When I came home from work today, I found her painting the nursery, and yesterday she spent the afternoon packing apples in cold storage for a new vendor she got. Every time I turn around, she's sneaking off to work somewhere, usually the orchard because she's so worried about it."

Josie stood, stretching her legs, then leaned her elbows on the railing. "She never been one to be idle."

"She really wants these babies, Josephine. We both do. And after what happened with your mom…" His voice wobbled as the sentence trailed off, pinching something inside her.

"Of course, I completely get that." It was all sinking in now. She knew why he's called. And she knew she wouldn't say no, because, despite the distance between them, she loved her sister.

"She needs help, that's the bottom line. I don't need to tell you how much work is involved this time of year, and she can't so it. We can hardly afford to hire more help."

"No, she can't work the harvest," Josie agreed. His words from a moment ago replayed in her head like a delayed tape. "You said you can't hire someone." Laurel hadn't mentioned financial troubles. She talked about their manager, Grady, as if he were God's gift to apples.

"Not after last year's failure."

"Failure?" her sister hadn't said anything of the kind. True, they didn't speak often, but when the topic of the orchard did come up, Laurel said everything was fine. At least, Josie thought she had.

"Laurel didn't tell you? There was an Easter frost. We lost the apples."

"Frost?" An orchard could lose a whole crop to frost, though this was the first time it had happened at Blue Ridge. Why hadn't Laurel said something?

Nate sighed. "I'm sorry. I thought she told you."

What else has her sister omitted? Laurel was always trying to protect her. Josie should've inquired more directly. "How bad is it?" the fragrance from her lavender plant wafted by on a breeze, and Josie closed her eyes, inhaled the calming scent, letting it fill her up, soothe her frayed nerves.

"The place is a money pit. We don't have anything else to put into it."

This changes everything, Josie. Do you realize that?

The selfish thought materialized before she could stop it. Her plans…How could she follow through now? When Laurel was overburdened with a failing orchard and pregnant with twins?

Nate was speaking again. "Grady insists he can turn the place around, but I'm wondering if we shouldn't sell it."

She and Laurel were the third generation to own the orchard, and as far as Josie knew, not one of the Mitchell's had thought those words, much less said them. And she'd thought Laurel would be the last one to do so.

"Laurel's considering that?" Their father's death had left Josie with shares that tied her to the place. Even three hundred and fifty miles away, it dragged behind her wherever she went, weighing her down like an anchor. But if Laurel was considering a sale…

Now that she's slipped the thought on for size, it was starting to feel more comfortable, like her favorite pair of Levi's.

"I haven't exactly broached the topic," Nate said.

That was precisely what needed to happen. It was something her father should have done long ago, before he'd saddled Laurel with his own care and the care of the orchard.

"How does this year's crop look?"

"Promising. She was hoping this year would put us in the black. But a strong crop means extra work and plenty of hands on deck. And I can't afford time off."

Nate ran Shelbyville's one and only insurance agency. Good thing they'd had his income to fall back on.

"So can you come back and help us through the harvest?" he asked.

Josie's eyes flitted over the lacy white alyssum, past the potted strawberry plant toward the haven of her darkened apartment. She closed her eyes and was, in an instant, back at Blue Ridge Orchard. She could almost smell the apples ripening on the trees. Hear the snap of the branch as an apple twisted free. See the ripples of Sweetwater Creek running alongside the property.

And with that thought, the other memories came. The ones that has chased her from Shelbyville six years ago. The ones that still chased her every day. The ones that, at the mention of going home, caused a dread, deep and thick in her belly.

"Josie, you there?"

She opened her eyes, swallowing hard. "I'm here."

"I know you've got your photography job and your plans and your life."

She breathed a wry laugh. Ironically, none of that mattered. The one plan that did matter could still play out. Same tune, different venue.

What mattered most now was seeing that Laurel's life was settled. And Laurel's life wouldn't be settled until she was out from under the orchard. Josie saw that clearly now. And it wouldn't happen, she knew, without a lot of coaxing. She only hoped there was enough time.

"I wouldn't have called if we weren't desperate."

Josie took one last deep breath of the lavender, shoved down the dread, and forced the words.

"I'll come."

Sunday, January 11, 2009

KISS - Prologue


Thomas Nelson (January 6, 2009)


The view from my therapist’s window is unremarkable. Four stories down, the parking lot blacktop ripples under waves of Texas’s blazing summer heat. I stand here facing the view because it’s easier to look at than the two men in the office behind me. There is dear Dr. Ayers, the wisest old soul I have ever met. He might be eighty, judging by that wrinkled cocoa skin and his head of hair whiter than cotton, but he’s agile as a fiftyyear-old. My beloved brother, Rudy, is also here. He has kept me tethered to my sanity in ways that should earn him sainthood.

Rudy comes to these sessions because he knows I need him to.

I come—have been coming for weeks now—because I am trying to put the past behind me.

But today I am here because tonight I will see my father for the first time in five months. My encounters with Landon are hard enough in the best of circumstances. They always end the same, with flaring tempers and harsh words and fresh wounds. But tonight, I must confront Landon. Not about my past, but about his future.

Yes, I call my father by his first name. The distance it creates between us helps to dull my pain.

“So your dilemma,” Dr. Ayers says to my back, “is that you fear the consequences of confronting him could be worse than the consequences of staying silent.”

I nod at the pane of glass. “Of course, I’d rather avoid everything. Even Rudy thinks I should wait until I know...more. But if I’m right, and I don’t speak up now...” Why am I here? I have made a mountain out of a molehill and am wasting everyone’s time. I should drop this. “Landon probably won’t even listen to me. Not the way he listens to you, Rude.”

“He listens to you too,” Rudy says. Always looking for the positive spin.

The truth is, Landon does not listen to me. But Rudy, who is deputy campaign manager of Senator Landon McAllister’s bid for the United States presidency, is following in the man’s footsteps and so has his undivided attention. Also, Rudy doesn’t look a thing like our mother, as I do. Mama was a Guatemalan beauty with a café-au-lait complexion. I have had her personality and her looks since the day my head of thick black hair came in. Even today, I wear my hair short and windblown, the way she did. I have her leggy height, her long stride, her laugh.

Against all odds, our father’s recessive Irish genes won the genetic dispute over Rudy. As for me, I have always believed it is painful for my father to look at me.

“And I don’t think she should gloss over this,” Rudy says to the therapist. “I think Shauna should step very carefully. Avoid burning more bridges with Dad, if it can be helped. If she’s right, God help us all.”

I finally turn to look at my brother. “It’s not my goal to burn anything, Rudy, even though I’ll never have what you have with Landon.” This truth pains me more than the truth of what I’ve learned. And what I’ve learned, partial though it may be, is monstrous.

The tension headache that has started at the top of my spine spreads its fingers over the back of my head. The sickness I feel right now might come from what I suspect, or it might be rooted in my certainty that he will reject me again tonight.

Yes, I’m pretty sure that I am nauseated by the prospect of another rejection.

I’ll never forget the first time my father turned his back on me, though the second time was more painful, and though all the times since have clumped together in a unified throbbing heartache.

Rudy was the unwitting cause of Landon’s first abandonment. My brother came into the world when I was seven, and our mother died nineteen minutes after his birth. I remember not being able to breathe when I heard she was gone. I honestly thought that I might die those first few hours, my mother and I both dead in the same day all because of this baby boy.

My father said it was God’s fault, though he seemed to blame Mama’s passing on me. I guess I was the more tangible target.

After Mama’s doctor delivered the crushing news, my father turned away mumbling something about my uncle and carried Rudy out of the hospital without me. Uncle Trent found me two hours later, hiding behind a chair in the waiting room.

Truth not only hurts, it shames: at the time, I wished Rudy were dead. The day I stood at the head of Mama’s casket, I wondered what would happen to Rudy if I covered his squalling face tight with that silky blue blanket. Wishing that the balance of the universe might require Mama to come back.

It took just one night for me to understand that Rudy’s heart had been broken into more pieces than my own. The tears he cried for Mama came from some well that would not dry up. That night I fed him a bottle of warm milk and took him into my bed, promising to keep Mama’s memory alive in this little boy who’d never met her.

I’m twenty-eight now, and I have long since realized that the wounds of rejection do not heal with time. They reopen at the lightest touch, as deep as the first time they were inflicted. The pain is as real as flash floods in the wet season here in Austin, overwhelming and unstoppable.

The pain, even when I can successfully numb it, has kept me at a distance from people and God. Now and then I consider the irony of this: how it came to be that my mother’s God, who once seemed so real and comforting to me, managed to die when she did.

So many deaths in one night.

And here I am, expecting yet another tonight. The death of hope. For most of my life, hatred of my father and hope of gaining his affection have lived in stressful coexistence behind my ribs.

I’m crying and didn’t even notice I had started.

Dr. Ayers’s voice is gentle. “Do you believe your father is culpable in this matter you are investigating?”

The question behind the question stabs at the tender spot in me that longs for Landon’s love. Do you believe your father is guilty of anything more than hurting you? Do you care about truth or only about the past?

Somehow I care about both. Is that possible?

“I believe he is capable. More than that . . .” I sniff. “I don’t know yet. Very soon, though, I will. Very soon.”

Dr. Ayers leans back in his leather chair and folds his wrinkled hands across his slender stomach.

“Tell me: what do you want this confrontation to do for you?”

Several possible answers rush me. I want to be wrong, in fact. I want Landon to tell me that none of what I suspect is true. I want my father to reassure me that I have nothing to worry about, that he is an upright man who would never do anything so foolish, so hurtful. Nothing like what he has done—

Rudy’s eyes bore into the side of my head, and the truth of what I really want punches me in the stomach. I step to my chair and sit.

“I want to bring him down,” I say before I think it through. “I want him to know what betrayal feels like. I want to get him back.”

My tears turn into sobs. I can’t help it. I can’t stop.

Rudy places his hand on my knee. Not to urge me to stop bawling, but to remind me that he is by my side.

Hatred for my father did not become a part of my life until the second time he turned his back on me.

I was eleven. Patrice had been my stepmother for three days when she took over my upbringing, with Landon’s permission. He claimed Rudy and she got me.

Her style of parenting, if it can be called that, involved locking me in closets and burning the scrapbooks my mother had made me and refusing to feed me for a day at a time. As I grew I quit trying to make sense of such behavior and simply became more defiant. She responded by graduating to more extreme measures. There was no hiding our animosity for each other.

I suspect I reminded her, too, of my mother.

When she turned brazen enough to beat and burn me, though, I broke down and told Landon. I showed him the triangular burns on the inside of my left arm, imprinted by Patrice’s steam iron for my failure to pull my clean clothes out of the dryer before they wrinkled.

Landon handed me a tube of ointment and turned away, saying, “If you ever go to such lengths to lie about my wife again, I’ll bandage those myself. And you won’t like my touch.”

My wife. He had always called Mama my love.

Dr. Ayers makes no attempt to calm me. He has said before that crying is the best balm. Eventually I fumble through my mind for the words to justify what I have said.

“If Landon pays for what he’s done, I’ll get closure.”

“On what?” says Dr. Ayers.

“On my past.”

He takes a few moments to respond. Rudy produces a tissue out of thin air and I try to compose myself.

“So you’re saying that closing yourself off from your past is what you need in order to move on with your life.”

There is more than an attempt at clarity in Dr. Ayers’s tone—a challenge perhaps.

“Yes.” I swipe at my nose with the tissue. “That’s exactly what I’m saying. I want to put the past behind me.”

“By inflicting on your father what he has inflicted on you. By betraying him, you said.”

“No. By forcing him to remember me.”

“Ah! I see. So when he remembers you, then you will have accomplished your goal and can forget your past.”

His words fill me with confusion. The way he says it, I have this all wrong. But in my mind, my goal is—was—clear. Isn’t that how it works? Deal with the past, get justice, make the pain go away?

“Something like that,” I say.

Dr. Ayers nods as if he sees everything clearly now. He rises and comes around the desk, propping himself against the front of it and leaning toward me.

The doctor reaches out with an aging hand and touches my shoulder. “Would you mind if I gave you an alternative theory to consider?”

Honestly, I have no idea.

Dr. Ayers straightens. “It is possible that your plan will only root you more deeply in the pain of your past, not separate you from it.”

My confusion mounts. “So how do you suggest I put my past behind me?”

“It is behind you, dear. And that’s where it will be forever. You can’t make it vanish—”

“But I want to. I believe I can.”

“By creating more pain? The mathematics of that isn’t logical.”

“I can’t just ignore it!”

“No, that’s true.”

“But you think I shouldn’t confront Landon.”

“Oh, I’m not making any judgment about what you should do, Shauna. I’m only talking about your motivations. What do you really want?”

“To forget. I want to forget every single, stinging moment that was inflicted on me by people who were supposed to love me. I want someone to take these memories away from me.”

Dr. Ayers wags a finger in my direction, smiling. “I felt that way once.”

I take a steadying breath.

“You know I used be a reverend before I began helping people here?” He gestures to the modest office.

“Ministry of a different but no less valuable kind. Got thrown out of my pulpit by some folks who said they loved God but hated his black children. I spent a lot of years feeling the way you do now—that if I looked far and wide enough, I’d find a way to erase both the blight of my memory and the stink of people I held
responsible for my pain.”

He leans forward again, encroaching on my space. “But I discovered something better. Shauna, your history is no less important to your survival than your ability to breathe. In the end, you can only determine whether to saturate your memories with pain or with perspective. Forgetting is not an option. I tell you the truth
now: Pain was not God’s plan for this life. It is a reality, but it is not part of the plan.”

I exhale. “God and I aren’t exactly on speaking terms. Especially not about his plans for my life.”

“Pain or perspective, Shauna. That’s all that’s within your control.”

I drop my head into my hands, feeling more certain than ever that absolutely nothing is in my control.

* * *
In spite of Dr. Ayers’s warning, I decided to talk to Landon tonight. Regardless of the outcome—closure for me or more pain for him—I hoped the truth would count for something.

Instead, when the moment came, I tripped all over my words. Landon’s larger than life and had the upper hand from the outset. Instead of staying on topic, I took offense at something he said. I can hardly remember now, something about a man’s world, and when I tried to set him straight he cut me to the floor with
a few harsh words.

So here I am once again, driving fast through the night on a rain-slicked road away from yet another argument with Landon. And as he has so many times before, Rudy has come along to calm my explosive temper. He is smiling slightly at my ranting. Sometimes I think he finds me entertaining.

The hum of tires kissing asphalt through water soothes my anxious heart. “I don’t know why I let him roll over me like that, Rude.”

“You handled yourself just fine. I thought you showed remarkable restraint.”

“But not enough.”

“Okay, not enough.” Truth does not make Rudy flinch. My car follows a downward slope onto a bridge, pointing me east into Austin.

“Underneath it all, Dad worries about you, you know.”

I look at Rudy. No, no I didn’t know. Just as Rudy doesn’t know about my scars from Patrice’s iron.

I’ve told Dr. Ayers, but not Rudy. He and Patrice get along.

“What does he worry about?” The relative unsafety of my little car? The condition of my heart?

My heart is even more mangled than the skin under my arms.

So why have I never stopped wishing? Wishing that Landon would only—

“Watch out!”

Rudy’s cry comes at the same moment that glaring lights from another vehicle blind me. It all happens so quickly that I don’t have time to think about swerving or stopping.

A horn is blaring, and voices are screaming, and then the terrible sound of metal smashing into metal.

Daddy . . .

This is the last plea for help that fills my mind before the world ends.

* * *

He shifted his cell phone to the opposite ear and stared at the hospital entrance through the windshield of his car. The parking lot lights were still on, though dawn had broken the horizon behind him.

“She was in surgery six hours,” he said. “Internal bleeding.”

“Where is she now?”

“Private room.”

“But still in a coma, correct?”

“Yes.” Ironic that Shauna McAllister had dodged death only to end up in a coma. “I can get to her easy enough now. She’ll be dead within the hour.”

“No. Change of plans. Our hands are being forced. I’ll explain later, but for now she stays alive.”

“She’s too big a risk to just—”

“What’s her prognosis?”

“Too early to tell. She could be in a coma for a day or for a year.”

“Or forever. Even if she comes out, she could have brain damage.”

“Yes, that’s possible.”

“So she stays alive for now. She’s not a threat as long as she’s unconscious.”

“And when she comes around?”

“With any luck, she’ll forget everything.”

“I don’t do business with luck.”

“You will today. Like I said, our hands are being forced in this. Her condition buys us time. I’ll call Dr.Carver; he’ll have options for us. If we have to change course, we do it later.”

“What if she remembers?”

“If she remembers, she dies.”

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Perfect Match - Chapter 1

The Perfect Match

(Tyndale House January 1, 2009)

Chapter 1

Leo Simmons had made good on his mumbled threats.

Pastor Dan Matthews stared at the pager address and the taste of condemnation swept through him like poison, down his throat, through his blood, into his bones, and pooled in his soul.

Diving into his turnout gear, Dan tossed his fire helmet onto the front seat and gunned his VW bug toward Leo Simmons' old log house.

Leo Simmons might have set the fire, but, just as surely as if Dan had struck the match, he had ignited the explosion that brought Leo to this desperate moment.

Dan should have recognized the gathering heat, the greed, grief and not a little small-town shame that had fueled this inferno.

Leo's pastor had failed him.

Dan wrestled his guilt as well as the steering wheel as he floored it around 10th Street East and screeched to a halt behind firefighter Joe Michael's green pickup. Deathly images ravaged the night as Dan got out, buckling his helmet. He hesitated, transfixed at the flames raging through the bottom floor of the Simmons' two story log home. They licked out of the broken windows like the tongues of death; black smoke curled around the porch beams and spewed toxic fumes into the fall night. Despite its status as a historical site, the house sat bordered by newer homes -- ramblers and bungalows, on the piece of cleared forest that had once been the old Miller homestead.

A clump of onlookers, some in bathrobes, all wearing expressions of horror, pressed against the envelope of danger, aching for a closer look. Dan's breath came in short gulps. Please, Lord, let the family be out!

An explosion shook the ground as another window blew out. Flame and sparks tore the fabric of the night sky. The howl of the fire as it consumed wood and oxygen sent Dan's fine neck hairs on end, reviving the analogy of fire being a living entity, needing oxygen and food to survive. It rattled Dan free and sent him running toward the Deep Haven pumper engine. "Mitch!"

"Get back!" Mitch Davis shouted to the gathering gawkers. Attired in his turnout coat, bunker pants and helmet, the captain wielded his axe like a Billy club. "I said get back!"

His gaze hiccupped on Dan before he turned back to the house and shouted commands at the other volunteers. Although Davis hadn't yet been named Fire Chief to replace the sudden vacancy left by Kermit Halstrom's heart attack, the forest ranger had already moved into the position with some arrogance. Dan ran to old engine two and grabbed his scuba tank and mask. Two hose lines snaked out from the truck, and Craig Boberg bent over the hydrant at the end of the block, wrestling with the coupling.

The heat blasted from the house like a furnace. As Dan ran to help Joe Michaels who battled to unhook the 55-foot house ladder from the truck, his eyes began to water. "Is everyone out?"

Despite the fact that Leo had set a fire two years ago that had nearly succeeded in killing Joe's wife, Mona, Joe wore a gut-wrenching, grim look at the tragedy before him. "The first story was engulfed by the time we got here. We can't get in there."

Dan's brain closed around Leo's family -- Cindy, the baby, the boys -- and he fought the grip of horror. Through the darkness, the haze of smoke and tears, he saw that the fire hadn't yet consumed the second floor, although the toxic fumes rising through the house may have already asphyxiated Leo's sleeping family.

"The second story!" He grabbed the end of the ladder. Joe read his mind. He hustled to far end of the house and propped the ladder against the porch roof. Dan jumped on it nearly before Joe had a chance to secure it.

Dan heard screams as the crowd reacted to his courage.

Or stupidity. He'd left his scuba equipment beside the engine totally abandoning every scrap of training. Fire fighting 101 -- don't go into a burning house without equipment, namely, a mask, breathing apparatus, and an axe. Safety first. But Dan's well thought out actions hadn't netted any outstanding successes over the past fifteen years, and now wasn't the time to ponder the choices.

It would be so much easier if he didn't have to go through life with hindsight flogging his every step. A preacher who spent less time conjuring scenarios might have spotted the psychotic signs in Leo's demeanor, taken seriously Leo's morbid self-depreciation and moans of "Cindy would be better off if.". Instead of following Leo down to the local pub to listen to his problems, gently hoping to befriend the man, a true man of the cloth would have reacted to the moment, hauled Leo out, forced coffee down his gullet, and shaken him clear of his downward spiral. Then again, with the way Dan's words rolled off his congregation of late, he could have beat the man over the head with a hefty King James Bible and still not made an impact.

The thought sent a shudder through him as he dived into the burning house to rescue Leo's family.

Jumping onto the roof, he felt profoundly grateful for the steel-toed, insulated boots that let him walk over what seemed like live coals. He had an uneasy sense that about a minute remained until the place exploded into a torch that would light up half the North Shore. He hoped someone had already dispatched the St. Francis Township fire crew.

But by the time they arrived, the Simmons' place would be a carbonized smudge on the landscape. Dan prayed the scars wouldn't include the two boys and their little sister. His eyes burning, he staggered toward the window. Black pressed against the window.smoke or simply the fragments of night? He couldn't remember who slept in this room, but he prayed he'd find someone alive.

A second before he cracked his elbow into the glass pane, his firefighting science kicked in. If toxic fumes had gathered in the ceiling, raising the temperature in the room to a combustion point, the sudden inflow of oxygen would ignite a back draft that would blow him clear off the roof.

And kill whoever was inside.

He yanked his arm back. "Mitch!"

As if reading his mind, Mitch had climbed half-way up the ladder.

"Your axe!"

Mitch barreled past him and sent the axe in hard, over his head, near the soffits of the house, next to the ceiling. Dan felt the house shudder with the blow. Three more quick blows and the room purged smoke, a stream of black, toxic fumes.

"Now!" Dan yelled and Mitch sent the end of his axe handle into the top half of the window and cleared it in less than five seconds. Dan gulped clean air and dove in.

The smoke invaded his nose, burned his eyes, suffocating with its grip. He hadn't even worn a handkerchief, and air evaporated in his lungs. Dropping to his knees, he scrabbled around the room, feeling a rocking chair, a dresser, then -- oh, no, a crib? Crawling up it like a prisoner begging for escape, he dove over the edge and brailed his way around the bed.

A soft form. He dug his fingers into the clothing and hauled the baby over the edge, not gently, into his arms.

Baby Angelica. He wanted to howl.

"C'mon!" Mitch's voice turned him around, as he fell to his knees, clutched the baby to his chest and scrambled out. His lungs burned, now begging for air. He passed her over into Mitch's arms as black swam through his brain.

And then, hands grabbed his jacket, hauled him over the window frame into the night. Joe called out to him, yanking him to semi-consciousness as someone dangled him over the roof. His hands slapped at air and he managed to find three ladder rungs before landing on the ground, curling over and coughing out the poison in his body.

"She needs oxygen!" A woman's voice broke through the haze -- he couldn't place it. It didn't sound like Anne, their volunteer summer EMT.

Then Joe crouched next to him. "Dan, you okay?""

"The.boys." He coughed hard, feeling as if his lungs might expel from his chest.

Joe clamped him on the shoulder, squeezed.

Dan turned back to the house. Flames shot from the window of baby Angelica's room. "They're.in the back!" Struggling to his feet, he ran around the house, pinpointed the room. Black windows, no flames. "Joe, get the ladder!"

He ran back to the front of the house, desperation filling his ears. Jordan and Jeffrey were only eight and six. The memory of their round eyes on him as he taught the children's sermon, their smiles in the face of personal sorrow had nurtured his own hope. He grabbed the ladder, began to muscle it from the porch.

"No, Dan!" Joe grabbed him, dug his fingers into his turnout coat. "No!"

"Yes, Joe." Dan growled and wrenched free. Somewhere in the back of his brain, he heard common sense shouting as he ran with the ladder and bumped it up next to the back. Still, no flames.

He flew up the rungs. This time he didn't stop vent the soffits. Adrenaline pumped into his veins and he swung his elbow high and hard. Pain splintered through his arm as smoke roared out the opening.

He sensed the flashover two seconds before it ignited. The hiccup of time, a sudden gulp of air, as if the flame took a breath then --

The window exploded out with the force of a land mine. Dan flew off the ladder and landed in a blinding flash of agony. His breath whooshed out as blackness crashed over him. So this is death.

Somewhere on the backside of consciousness, he heard screams.

"Breathe!" A female voice, this time harsh and angry. He tried to obey, but the pain clamping his shoulder fought him. "Breathe!" Forcing himself to inhale, he nearly cried with the agony.

"There you go."

He felt hands on him, feminine and strong, cupping the back of his neck, unbuckling his helmet, easing his head to the ground. "Stay still. I'm going to get a stretcher over here. The voice gentled, as if tempered by relief. A cool touch on his forehead brushed back his hair. "You're lucky you didn't land clear in Canada."

He wanted to smile, but couldn't push past the grief that clamped his chest. He'd killed those boys. He hadn't only failed Leo, he'd failed the man's family.

His throat burned, probably from the smoke he'd inhaled. Somehow, he screwed his eyes open. Through a watery haze, he watched the inferno engulf the house, flames four stories high climbing into the night, frothing black smoke. Shingles exploded off the roof, red-hot cinders and ash fell like snow around him. He tried to raise himself on his elbows and earned a fresh burst of torture. His left arm hung like a noodle at his side and the pain nearly turned him cross-eyed.

Then he saw her, the woman belonging to the voice. She had turned to watch the fire, a frown on her fine-boned face. She wore two short, stubby braids, and had flipped up the collar on her jean jacket, like he had on his fire coat. Almost absent mindedly, she had her hand curled around his lapel, the other pointing to some unknown sight in the flames.

A short and spunky angel. He had to wonder from where she'd materialized. She seemed to be transfixed by the fire, and something about her profile, her clenched jaw, the way she stared at the blaze with a defined sorrow nearly broke his heart. She shouldn't be here to see this. He had the sudden, overwhelming urge to cover her eyes and shield her from the horror.

She turned to him then. Eyes as blue and piercing as a northern Minnesota sky speared through him with the power to pin him to the ground. "I gotta get you away from the flames. Brace yourself. This is going to hurt." She stood, grabbed his coat around the collar, and tugged.

Okay, she hid serious muscles somewhere inside that lean body. He nearly roared with pain as she propelled him back, away from the shower of ash, the mist of water and smoke. She didn't even grunt.

"Who are you?" he asked, in a voice that sounded like he gargled with gravel.

She knelt beside him again, pressed two fingers to his neck, feeling his pulse. "I'll go get you a stretcher," she said, not looking in his eyes.

He reached up and grabbed her wrist. "Wait.are you a dream?"


The intent was meant to scare Leo. To make the parolee take prophetic words seriously. Fat, bossy Leo, with his prison gut and his beady eyes, always watching, condemning without words. Self-righteous, as if he had any claim on absolution.

Images of old time zealots burning at the stake pushed a smile up the bystander's grimy face. Leo deserved the flames.

Or maybe not. Maybe he wasn't good enough to go head-to-head with fire, to watch it curl through the house, close enough to feel the breath of the beast, to experience the power.

A trickle of sweat ran between wide shoulder blades. Standing behind the pumper engines, a crowed gasped or cheered. Raw adrenaline pushed any guilt to oblivion.

Oh, this moment was to be cherished. The one that conjured up invincibility in a chaotic world.

One of the paramedics wheeled past a firefighter -- the pastor? and evoked the slightest spur of guilt.

And, a woman accompanied him. A pretty one. With braids and a concerned expression.

Breath dried in a horrified throat as Dan was loaded into the ambulance. It drove off without a siren. The pretty woman watched as it drove away, then turned back to the fire. Her face glowed against the fire's reflection.

Tears welled. Finally, God had answered. Emilee, baby, welcome home.


Ellie Karlson had seen men fly out of the sky more times than she could count, but never had it wrenched her heart out from between her ribs. The way this fireman had looked at her left her feeling raw and way too tender, as if he'd hit a line-drive straight to the soft tissue of her heart.

She attributed it to the fact she'd nearly lost her first firefighter -- before her watch even began. At least she knew his name -- Dan. She'd have to look up his file and figure out how many years he'd been fighting fire. He'd shown the courage of a veteran, but the panic of a probie -- a first year rookie.

Ellie stopped her pacing, leaned into the hospital wall, and touched her head to the cool paint. The quiet in the ER ward pressed against her, tinder to every cell in her body that wanted to howl in frustration. Fire, she could face. The somber tones of sorrow. she could not. Antiseptic and the smell of new carpet added to the simmer of the post fire adrenaline that never left her veins without a fight. She should go back to her hotel, do about a hundred sit-ups, or even hop on her bike for a very early morning ride.

Or maybe she could find a piano and pound out a few rounds of Chopin's 5th. Something other than this mindless, useless pacing. She noticed a man and a woman sitting against the wall across from the firefighter's room, huddled -- praying? Maybe. Then again, she was a woman of action, and praying only seemed to slow her down. Besides, God knew her thoughts, didn't He?

She shot another glance at the man and remembered seeing him at the fire, helping the less-than-brilliant victim in the next room. Fatigue etched into the lines on his sooty face, layered his burnished blonde hair. He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, fiddling with the buckle to his helmet. A woman, whom Ellie assumed was his wife, leaned her head against his shoulder, her blond hair flayed out, her eyes closed. He'd shed his turnout coat onto an adjoining vinyl chair but even his flannel shirt looked dirty. He was probably some lumberjack down from the north woods.

A nurse charged down the hall in their direction, blonde pigtail belying her starched appearance, shot a sympathetic look at the couple on the chairs, then, entered the man's room. Ellie caught a glimpse of a white-coated doctor blocking her view before the door closed.

She just might have to tackle the nurse when the woman exited. Ellie blinked back the sight, right behind her eyes, of fireman Dan flying off the roof, his arms flailing against the backdrop of flame and ash. It still caught her breath in her throat. He'd landed practically at her feet with a gut-tightening thwunk and an outcry of pain that echoed through the chambers of her soul.

And then he'd looked at her like she was some sort of heavenly being, or at least an earthy dream come true. He must have jarred a few brain cells loose. She'd never been anyone's dream. Ever. Their worst, nightmare, however, oh, yes. She'd been called that more times than she could count. This fireman definitely wasn't the hottest spark in the fire. Fifteen years of scrabbling for respect and footing in the very masculine world of firefighting told her no one considered her a dream come true when she stepped over the firehouse threshold.

But she didn't care. She wasn't in town to win their affection. Respect, obedience, and loyalty, however, yes. And pacing outside this wounded firefighter's hospital room seemed a good way to seed a reputation that said she cared about her men.

Since when had she started lying to herself? The black, scuffed tread she'd worn on the floor wasn't only about gaining a foothold of respect. Something about this firefighter tugged at the soft, hidden places in her heart. Setting aside his smoky gray eyes, or his bravado in the face of tragedy told her he wasn't an ordinary soul.then again, none of the rank and file firemen who deliberately threw themselves between death and life could be called ordinary. Still, something about this jakey's gutsy determination told her he would be a man to count on in a fire.

She had to meet him, face to face, away from the raging adrenaline and confusion of a conflagration.

And, truth be told, she did like hearing his crazy, pain-filled words. Even if they'd die the second she introduced herself.

The door to his room opened. The pigtailed nurse strode out. Ellie was hot on her tail. "Is he going to be okay?" Her voice sounded exactly like the person she'd become. Hard. Demanding. Blunt. She wanted to cringe, then decided that she just might need to build her reputation in this town on those merits.

The nurse stopped, turned. Her blue eyes considered Ellie with the slightest edging of sympathy. "Who are you?"

"Concerned bystander." Ellie offered a slight smile. It wasn't exactly a lie, but then again, dodging the truth always made her feel grimy.

"The doctor will be out soon. But yes, I think our pastor will be out in time to preach on Sunday."

Pastor? Ellie's mouth opened, and she knew she looked like an idiot standing there, turning the shade of old milk, as the nurse walked away.

This wide-shouldered, face-death-with-a-roar fireman was a pastor?

Of course. She should have guessed it.

In a flare of memory, she saw a man -- no, a boy, his ponytail flying, careening over the rutted dirt of a fire camp on a pair of roller skis while attached to the bumper of a convertible VW Bug by a water-ski line. His laughter still echoed in the canyons of her heart.

Why was it that all the heart-stopping real life heroes in her life belonged to God? That realization doused the tiny flare of hope that had ignited deep inside her heart.

She resumed her pacing, meeting the gaze of the huddled couple as she stalked by. The hall clocked ticked out the next ten minutes in merciless eternal seconds. Ellie nearly flattened the doctor when he emerged, tucking his pen into his jacket. He stopped at the couple and shook the lumberjack's hand, a smile on his face.

"He's a lucky one, Joe," The doc said. "Just a few minor burns and a dislocated shoulder."

Ellie nosed up to the crowd and didn't flinch at the doctor's hard look. "Just checking on him," she said. "Can I see him?"

The doctor opened his mouth, "Well I guess --"

Ellie didn't wait. She barged into Dan's room.

Even with his arm slung, his right cheek blistered and swollen and shadows etched under his eyes, he still had the ability to stop her heart dead in its tracks. Maybe it was that tousled black hair, or perhaps those lazy gray eyes that latched onto her with more than a little interest. Her disobedient heart did a tiny jig when he gave her a lopsided smile.

"So," he said, "are you a dream?"

Oh, she could be in big, big trouble. For the smallest second, she wanted to pull up a chair, dive into his friendship and delay the inevitable. He seemed to have the unsettling ability to wheedle past her defenses and find the lonely places in her heart. She feared Dan the Pastor might just have the power to make a girl chuck her life goals, unpack her suitcase, and paint her name on a mailbox. Solid, wise and just a little "rapscallion." A man who respected her, who though she just might be, indeed, a dream come true.

Except, she couldn't be that girl. Not with a bevy of promises pushing against her, keeping her on the run.

Besides, once she told him the truth, the antagonism would begin. She knew too well -- the shock, the disapproval and finally the cold wall that would come with her announcement.

If she hoped to etch a toehold of respect in this backwoods community, it would have to start at this hero's bedside.

"No. I'm a very real and slightly angry reality, fireman. What were you doing on that roof?" She crossed her arms, neatly shielding her heart as she watched his smile vanish.

"Excuse me?"

"You risked your life, and the lives of your fellow firemen. Thankfully, no one was behind you, but by not waiting to vent that room, you could have killed my entire crew."

"Your what -- wait, just who are you?" He frowned now, and somehow it only added to the wounded hero effect.

She took a deep breath. "Ellie Karlson. Interim Fire Chief."

His mouth opened for the shock phase. She debated smiling, but she'd need all her stoic arsenal for phase two.

"No way. You can't be -- I mean a firefighter has to be -- "

"A shapely version of a man? A knuckle-dragger in high heels?" She arched one eyebrow. "Have hairy fists and dangling nose hair?"

He looked properly chagrined and she knew she'd hit the bulls-eye. Why did men always think that a woman doing a job that required courage, strength and stamina had to be built like a tank? Still, now that she'd doused him with the cleansing reality, she should add some painkiller to the wound. Perhaps it would ward off stage three -- the big chill.

"I'm not what many people expect. But I assure you, I know what I'm doing." She sat beside him on the bed, reached out and touched his slung arm. "And, for the record, I was impressed by your dedication. We're about saving lives, and you risked your life for that family. Next time, take a partner, and your axe."

He stared at her with a potent mix of horror and disbelief. O-kay, so maybe he'd hit the ground harder than she thought. "It could have been much worse," she offered. "Be thankful you lived through it."

"Too bad the little boys didn't."


He clenched his jaw and for a second, she thought she saw tears glaze his eyes. "But you saved them," she said, confused.

His gaze shot back to her.

"Yes. When you vented the fire, flames ran to the oxygen. The fireball that knocked you off the porch kept the fire from tracking to the other side of the house. They found the boys and their mother in an upstairs bedroom."

"Are they --"

She had the wild desire to run her hand along that whiskered jaw that seemed one shave away from his respectable position of town pastor.

Suddenly, painfully, he reminded her of a man now doing a jig through heaven. She clasped her hands firmly in her lap.

"They're in intensive care.but, well, it doesn't look good." She tried to soften the blow by gentling her voice. She never had adapted well to this aspect of her job.

He nodded, as if he expected the news, and again looked away. "It's all my fault, you know."

She frowned, not clear at his words, noticing how he'd bunched the covers in his right fist. "Yes. But it worked. Not a technique I'd employ, but hindsight is sometimes best vision, especially in firefighting."

He met her words with his own frown, something that made her pulse race. Calm down, El, she thought. She'd been surrounded by burly hero-types her entire life, starting with her father's fire-buddies, to her brother's chums, to her own fire-crew cronies. This guy wasn't any different than every other jakey. So her heart would just have to get used to those mesmerizing eyes and intriguing smile. Besides, he was probably married. Except, where was his wife? Her gaze flickered down to his hand, now strapped to his chest. No ring.

Could mean nothing. Plenty of firemen took off their rings a fire. The metal attracted heat. Still, any wife in her right mind would be prowling the corridors with worry, if not standing at the foot of his bed, directing traffic.

She would.

"So, let me get this straight," he said, in a voice that sounded slightly.angry? "You're Deep Haven's new fire chief?"

Perhaps he hadn't jostled any brain cells in that fall -- how could he with his brain packed in an outer case of granite? Hadn't he heard a word she'd said?

"As I live and breathe. I heard the fire on my scanner and hustled over hoping I could help." She refused to sound apologetic

He gave her a look that sucked her back in time and made her feel like the rebellious teenager who'd hitchhiked to Colorado to keep up with her big brother. Sad. Disgusted. Horrified.

It raised her ire like static electricity. Oh, please -- they didn't live in the dark ages. Women had been fighting fires on crews for over a hundred years starting with Molly Williams in 1818. Cro-Magnon man needed to enter the twenty-first century.

"Help?" he said in a one word, cave-man grunt.

Maybe she should simplify things, speak slowly, use small words."Listen, Bub, I'm here to fight fires and to keep you out of trouble."

Yes, he'd definitely just emerged from the big thaw, for Mr. Tall, Dark and Neanderthal looked at her with a chauvinistic gleam in his eye and, in a low growl, tossed aside one hundred years of women's rights.

"Over my dead body."