Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Matter of Character - Prologue and Chapter 1

A Matter Of Character

Zondervan (May 25, 2010)


Robin Lee Hatcher


St. Louis, Missouri, August 1918

Propelled by a white hot fury, Joshua Crawford pushed open the door to Gregory Halifax’s office so hard it hit the wall with a loud wham. Startled, Gregory looked up a split second before Joshua slapped the newspaper onto the desk.

“What is this garbage?” Joshua demanded.

Gregory’s expression changed from one of surprise to a smirk. “So you read it.”

“Of course I read it, and I’m here to demand a retraction.”

“A retraction? For what?”

“For what you wrote about my grandfather.”

Gregory laughed softly. “You must be joking. The article is about dime novelists. The part about Richard Terrell was the words of the author, not mine.”

“But you made what Mr. Morgan wrote in his novels sound as if it was fact rather than fiction. It’s not.”

“How do you know it’s not? Tell me. What do you know about your grandfather before he settled in St. Louis? Nothing, that’s what. You’ve said so yourself.”

“Did you contact anyone in Idaho to try to confirm that the character in Morgan’s books is based on the real Richard Terrell?”

“I didn’t need to. I interviewed the publishers for my story. And again, the focus of my article is the men who write dime novels, not on the characters found in their books.”

“But in the process you’ve dragged my grandfather’s good name through the mud. I want a retraction.”

Gregory pushed back his chair and stood, the smile gone from his face. “When you prove anything I wrote is in error, then come see me again, and we’ll have this discussion. Until then, get out.”

For one moment, Joshua thought he might be able to control his temper. For one very brief moment — just before he caught Gregory’s jaw with a right hook followed by a left jab to the gut. Gregory flew backward into the wall. The glass in the office door rattled again. Joshua readied himself for the other man to fight back. To his dissatisfaction, it didn’t happen. Gregory’s eyes were still unfocused when more men poured into the office and grabbed Joshua by the arms, hauling him away. One of the men was Joshua’s boss, Langston Lee.

“You’re fired, Crawford. Collect your things and get out. I won’t have my reporters brawling. You hear me. Get out or I’ll call the police.”

Joshua longed to turn his rage onto his boss, to give Langston Lee a little of what he’d already given Gregory Halifax. But he had enough good sense left to resist the urge. He was already out of a job. He didn’t want to spend time in a jail cell besides.

But so help him, he would get a retraction out of this newspaper. He would prove Gregory Halifax was a shoddy reporter and see that he was fired. He would hear Langston Lee apologize. And he would make certain D. B. Morgan never again maligned his grandfather in print.

This wasn’t over yet.

Chapter 1

October 1918

Maybe it was time to kill Rawhide Rick. He’d served his purpose, the old rascal. He’d hunted buffalo and fought Indians and stolen gold from hardworking miners and sent men to the gallows. Now might be the time for him to meet his Maker. The trick was deciding how to kill him.

Daphne McKinley rose from her desk and walked into the parlor, where she pushed aside the curtains at the window.

A golden haze blanketed Bethlehem Springs. It had been a beautiful autumn. The prettiest one yet in her three years in this serene Idaho mountain town. The trees had been the brightest of golds, the most fiery of reds, the deepest of greens. Daphne had spent many a mild afternoon walking trails through the forest, enjoying the colors and the smells.

If Rawhide Rick — who by this point in the series of books had become the infamous Judge Richard Terrell — was dead, what would become of the dashing Bill McFarland, hero of The McFarland Chronicles? Without his arch enemy, his life might become rather dull. Or perhaps it was Daphne who would find life dull without Rawhide Rick. Wicked he was, but he certainly kept things interesting whenever he was around.

She rubbed her eyelids with the tips of her fingers, and when she pulled them away, she noticed ink stains on her right hand. Her fountain pen was leaking. Perhaps it was time to buy a typewriter. But would writing on a machine feel the same?

Daphne turned from the window, her gaze sweeping the parlor. She’d come to love this small house on Wallula Street. Since moving into it soon after Gwen — its previous owner — married Daphne’s brother, she’d delighted in making it her home, decorating and furnishing it in ways that pleased her. Daphne’s childhood homes had been large and filled with servants waiting to attend to her slightest wish. But she had often been forced to live by the timetables of others. Now she could do as she willed, when she willed. The freedom she enjoyed was intoxicating.

The best part was when she wanted to be with family, she got into her motorcar — her very own, quite wonderful McLaughlin- Buick — and drove to her brother’s home to play with her young nephew and infant niece. She was completely dotty over the two of them. She loved to crawl around on the floor with Andy — he would turn two at the end of November — the both of them squealing and giggling. And there was nothing like cuddling three-month-old Ellie. Daphne thought the baby girl smelled like sunshine.

A sigh escaped her. She hadn’t time for daydreaming about Morgan’s and Gwen’s darling children. She must decide what to do. If she was going to kill the judge, she needed to notify Elwood Shriver at once. Wavering in indecisiveness served no good purpose.

She returned to her small office. The floor around her desk was littered with wadded sheets of paper. It was always thus when words frustrated her. “So wasteful,” she scolded softly.

of the war half a world away was splashed across the front page. More than a million American men — just boys, many of them — were now fighting in Europe alongside the Allied Powers. The end was near, some said. She prayed to God they were right. Too many had died already. Others, like Woody Statham, would wear the scars from their war wounds for the remainder of their lives — if not on their bodies then in their souls.

She flipped through several more pages of the newspaper, but nothing she read captured her imagination or sparked her creativity. Besides, she’d read every article before, some of them several times.

Maybe her problem wasn’t with Rawhide Rick. Maybe the problem was Bill McFarland. Maybe she was tired of him. Maybe he should die.

“Maybe the whole lot of them should perish,” she muttered as she laid the newspaper aside.

She spun her chair toward the bookcase beneath the office window. There, on the bottom row, were copies of The McFarland Chronicles by D. B. Morgan, all ten volumes. And if she didn’t decide soon what to do about Rawhide Rick, ten volumes would be all there were.

There was no question that Daphne loved writing stories of adventure and danger in the West of forty and fifty years ago. And while she would concede that her books were not great literature, they were entertaining, for readers and for herself. But there were days like today when she was tempted to contact her editor in New York City and tell him that she (D. B. McKinley, whom Elwood Shriver thought to be a man) was retiring and thus so must D. B. Morgan (the pseudonym used on her books). However, she knew she would miss the storytelling were she to give it up. After all, it didn’t take much effort to clean her small house or cook the As she sat down, she took up the five-day-old newspaper. News occasional meal. Without her writing pursuits, what would she do with her time?

It would be nice if she could discuss her feelings with someone, but there wasn’t another person, in Bethlehem Springs or elsewhere, who knew she was the author of dime novels. She wasn’t sure her brother would believe her if she told him. The only soul who might suspect anything was Dedrik Finster, the Bethlehem Springs postmaster, because of the mail she sent and received, but his English wasn’t the best and he probably had no idea that Shriver & Sons was a publishing company. Why would he?

Maybe what she needed more than anything was a drive out to the Arlington ranch and a long visit with Griff Arlington, Gwen and Cleo’s father. That man had given her more story ideas in the last three years than she could ever hope to put on paper. It was Griff who had told her about the escapades of the real-life Richard Terrell, every bit as much a scoundrel as her fictional character, although perhaps in different ways. Yes, a visit with Griff was just what the doctor ordered.

Her mind made up, she rose and went in search of hat, gloves, and coat.


Joshua stepped from the passenger car onto the platform and looked about him. A large family — father, mother, and six children — were being escorted into the railroad station by a young man in a blue uniform. They were on their way to a hot springs resort located north of Bethlehem Springs. He knew this because they had spoken of little else during the journey, and Joshua couldn’t have helped but overhear their conversation as they’d been a rather boisterous group.

He, on the other hand, was headed into the town that appeared to be about a quarter mile or so up a dirt road that passed between two low-slung hills. Switching his valise to the opposite hand, he set off in that direction.

The first building he saw upon entering Bethlehem Springs was a church. All Saints Presbyterian, according to the sign out front. Catty-corner from All Saints was the Daily Herald, his destination. He crossed the street and entered the newspaper office. Familiar smells — newsprint, ink, dust — filled his nostrils.

An attractive but pale-looking woman, dressed in black, came out of the back room, hesitated when she saw him, then moved forward, stopping on the opposite side of a raised counter. “May I help you, sir?”

“Yes.” He set down his valise and removed his hat. “My name is Joshua Crawford. I’m here to see Nathan Patterson.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Crawford.” Her voice broke, and it took her a moment to continue. “Mr. Patterson passed away.” She drew a long breath and released it. “I’m his widow. Perhaps I can assist you.”

Either Nathan Patterson had been much older than his wife or he had died tragically young, for Joshua guessed the woman to be no more than in her early thirties.

“I . . . I’m sorry, ma’am. I didn’t know. Mr. Patterson recently offered me a job as a reporter for the Daily Herald. I’ve just arrived in Bethlehem Springs.”

“Yes. I’m sorry. I’d forgotten your name. Nathan told me to expect you.”

Joshua had counted on this job. Without it, he couldn’t afford to stay in Idaho. He would barely have enough money for train fare back to St. Louis, as long as he didn’t spend a night in the hotel, and even then he wouldn’t have much left over to buy food. He would be extremely hungry before he reached Missouri. Not to mention that he wouldn’t have a job waiting for him when he got there — unless he was successful here first.

“I’m glad you’ve come, Mr. Crawford. My husband would be heartbroken to see this newspaper fail. I assume you can do more than report?”


“You are qualified to manage the paper, I trust.”

Manage it? That was more than he’d expected. But if it worked out . . . “Yes, I am qualified,” he answered — with more confidence than he felt.

“Good. Nathan’s final instruction was for me to offer you the job as managing editor of the Daily Herald. If you’re interested, that is.”

He hadn’t thought to be in Idaho more than a month or two. Surely he could discover the information he needed, take care of matters, and return to Missouri before Christmas. On the other hand, success as a managing editor would look good on his résumé, would give him many more opportunities than simply working as a reporter for a small paper.

“Are you interested, Mr. Crawford?”

He had few other options. None, actually. Not if he wanted to honor his grandfather’s memory. Not if he wanted to restore his own good name and get back his old job. Taking the job as managing editor didn’t mean he would be here forever. He could keep the newspaper running until Mrs. Patterson found his replacement. It was the least he could do for the man who had paid his train fare from Missouri to Idaho. “Yes, Mrs. Patterson. I’m interested.”

“The pay will be ninety-five dollars a month to start. I know it isn’t the sort of salary you must have received at a large newspaper, but you’ll have a place to live for free.” She pointed at the ceiling. “There’s an apartment above the office with a kitchen and bath. It hasn’t been used for several years, but with a bit of elbow grease, it should clean up well and prove adequate for a bachelor such as yourself.”

Ninety-five a month. Not quite twelve hundred a year. Less than Langston Lee had paid him back in St. Louis, but more than the sum Nathan Patterson had offered when he’d applied for the job with the Daily Herald. With a place to live thrown in, the salary would allow him to put money aside for when he returned to Missouri.

“That sounds fine,” he answered.

Mrs. Patterson gave him a fleeting smile. “Good. Now let me show you to your quarters. I’m sure you must be weary from your journey. We can begin work in the morning.”


Daphne was invited by Griff Arlington to have supper with the family and to spend the night at the ranch as she occasionally did, but she declined. Griff ’s storytelling about his early days in Idaho had done just what she’d hoped. Ideas were rolling around in her head, and she was desperate to get them on paper before they disappeared like a puff of smoke in the wind.

As soon as she walked into her house, she tossed her coat over the nearest chair, dropped her hat on the table, and hurried into her office, where she lit the lamp and began scribbling as fast as she could. It seemed she barely drew a breath for the next hour. When she looked up at last, she saw that night had fallen over Bethlehem Springs. Her stomach growled, reminding her that she’d missed supper. Still, she had little desire to cook. This seemed like a good evening to pay a visit to one of the town’s restaurants.

Daphne had three choices — the Gold Mountain, which served the most wonderful breakfasts; the restaurant inside the Washington Hotel where she liked to dine before an evening at the Opera House; and the South Fork, famous for their pies and home-style fare. She decided on the latter.

As she walked briskly along Wallula Street toward Main, her way was lit by street lamps, one of many improvements made during Mayor Gwen McKinley’s term of office, which had ended almost ten months earlier. Daphne thought it unfortunate for the town that her sister-in-law had retired from public service. She hoped that, when her nephew and niece were older, Gwen would run for office again.

As Daphne neared the office of the Daily Herald, she noticed light spilling through the windows of the apartment above it, something she’d never seen before. Was the newly widowed Christina Patterson up there, perhaps sorting through memorabilia from her marriage? Should Daphne postpone her evening meal another hour and see if she could offer the woman any comfort or assistance?

Nathan Patterson’s death had been a shock to the town. A man of thirty-seven years, he’d looked in the pink of health. To have him weaken and die so suddenly had taken everyone, especially his wife, by surprise. And even while they grieved the loss of a friend, many wondered about the future of the Daily Herald. It had been almost a week since the last edition. What would become of the newspaper without Nathan at its helm?

A shadow fell across the nearest window, and Daphne stopped on the sidewalk, still pondering what she should do. Would Christina welcome a visit from her or had she gone up there to escape intrusion? Daphne remembered all too well how difficult the death of a loved one could be. She’d been a girl of sixteen when her beloved father died, a young woman of twenty when she’d lost her mother. Even now, all these years later, she felt a painful sting in her chest, knowing she wouldn’t see either of them again this side of heaven.

She also remembered that sometimes she’d wanted to be alone with her memories, alone to cry and mourn. And so she decided not to disturb the new widow and instead moved on, rounding the corner onto Main Street and entering the South Fork Restaurant a few moments later.

Delicious scents filled the dining room, making her stomach grumble once again. It was late enough that the dinner crowd had come and gone. There were customers at only two tables — Mabel and Roscoe Finch, who worked for her brother and sister-in-law, and Ashley Thurber, the elementary school teacher. Daphne greeted each one of them before sitting at a table in the corner, her back to the wall. Whenever she dined out, she preferred similar seating. It allowed her to study others without being too obvious. She loved to watch and listen to people. She’d learned a great deal from the habit, and much of what she’d learned had made it into her stories at one time or another.

Sara Henley — a shy, plain girl of eighteen — approached Daphne, a pad in her hand and a smile on her face. “Evening, Miss McKinley.”

“Good evening, Sara.” Daphne returned the girl’s smile. “How are you?”

“Wonderful.” Sara lowered her voice. “My dad’s agreed I can study art. I won’t leave for school until spring, and I have to save every cent I earn to help cover my expenses. But all winter I can look forward to going.”

Daphne touched the back of Sara’s hand with her fingertips. “I’m glad for you. You have a wonderful talent. You must promise that you’ll write and tell me all about the school and its instructors once you’re there.”

“’Course I will. If it wasn’t for your encouragement, I never would’ve had the nerve to ask my dad to let me go.”

Daphne had done little besides tell Sara that she shouldn’t give up on her dreams, no matter how long it took, that God could open doors in surprising ways if she would simply trust Him. But she was glad Sara had found her words to be helpful and even more glad that Sara’s father had consented. “I believe art school will be the making of you. Wait and see if I’m not right.”

Sara blushed bright red. “I’d better take your order, Miss McKinley.” She glanced over her shoulder toward the kitchen. “Mr. Boyle will wonder what’s keeping me.”

“Is there any meatloaf left?”

“Sure is.”

“Then that’s what I’ll have. With gravy on the potatoes, please.”

“I’ll bring it right out.”

As Sara disappeared into the restaurant kitchen, the front door opened, letting in the cool night air along with a man Daphne had never seen before. He was tall, at least six feet, perhaps a little more. He had brown hair that was shaggy near his collar, and unless the poor light in the restaurant deceived her, there was the shadow of a beard under the skin of his jaw and upper lip.

Who was he? Not a cowboy nor a miner. That was clear by the clothes he wore. His suit appeared of good quality, but even from where she sat she could tell it had seen its share of wear. A man of trade perhaps or a salesman. Definitely not a guest of her brother’s spa, for he looked neither wealthy nor in poor health.

At that moment, the stranger turned his head and his gaze met hers. She swallowed a gasp of surprise. Good heavens! He had the most astonishing eyes. What color were they? She wished she could tell. So pale. Perhaps blue. Or maybe a silvery-gray. No, they were blue. She was sure of it. And she seemed unable to look away, even when she knew she should. Thankfully, he broke the connection and moved to a table, sitting in a chair with his right side toward her.

Daphne drew a hungry breath into her lungs. Until that moment she hadn’t known she’d held it.

Could I capture his eyes with words? What a character he would make. He could be Bill’s friend. Perhaps he could ride with him for the next few adventures. What name should I give him?

She pulled a small notebook and the stub of a pencil from her pocket and made a few notes to herself.

In Daphne’s fourth, fifth, and sixth novels, her hero, Bill McFarland, had courted a woman in Idaho City, but she’d grown tired of waiting for him to propose and had married someone else. Perhaps this new friend with his magnetic eyes could help Bill find the right woman, one who wouldn’t object to his adventurous spirit. Then again, Bill would have to watch out or his new friend might steal the right woman for himself.

The thought caused her to glance up from her notebook — only to discover he was looking in her direction. Her breath caught for a second time and a blush warmed her face as she dropped her gaze again. Oh, yes. Mr. Blue Eyes would definitely make things interesting for the readers of The McFarland Chronicles. She hoped her dinner would arrive soon. Another late-night writing session was looming.


December 5, 1871

There comes a time in a man’s life when it seems prudent that he look hard at his past, to remember from whence he came, to learn to be grateful for God’s mercy, perhaps even for the purpose of becoming a cautionary tale for others. And so I have decided to write an account of my life, from beginning to the present, knowing all the while that the future will be significantly different from those years that have gone before. In truth, I already know that my life will soon change for the better. I know this because, at the age of fifty, I am about to take a wife. No former associate of mine could be more surprised at this news than I am. I never believed I was the marrying kind. Nor would I have believed a woman as fine as my Annie would agree to be my wife, especially after she learned of my less than pristine past.

But I am getting ahead of myself. A record of my life should begin at the beginning. And so it shall.


I was born on a small farm in Missouri in the winter of 1821, the youngest of five children, all boys. My parents came to the region after the War of 1812, along with many other settlers. Like most everyone they knew, my parents were poor. They eked out a living the only way they knew how, through hard work and sweat and tears. They weren’t educated, and they yearned for something quite different for their children.

It amazes me, as I look back, that my mother managed to teach her sons so much when she never attended school a day in her life. Not that I appreciated her efforts back then. All I wanted when I was a lad was to go fishing or hunting or even just to lie on my back on a hot summer day and watch the clouds drift by. Still, despite my lack of enthusiasm, I learned to read and write and do arithmetic. I even came to appreciate, albeit many years later, the wisdom and enjoyment that could be found in books.

My parents were god-fearing people, but since there was no church within easy distance of our farm, it fell to my father and mother to see that their sons came to know the Bible and to embrace the tenants of the Christian faith. In this regard, I was even less enthusiastic. Rebellion resided in my stubborn heart, and it did not matter if my father took a strap to me or my mother sweetly entreated me. I would not yield.

Perhaps, given enough time, I might have come to know the God my parents believed in. But there wasn’t enough time. They died of the fever when I was eight years old, along with two of my brothers. Moses was ten and Oliver was nine. That was in the winter of 1829. February, I believe. There was deep snow on the ground and the temperatures were frigid. My surviving two brothers could manage no more than shallow graves as the ground was frozen hard.

I have never confessed this to a living soul, but I cried myself to sleep at night more often than not in the months that followed.

My two oldest brothers, Jefferson and Lyman, took over running the farm and raising me. They did the best they were able, them being just boys themselves, Jefferson not yet eighteen, Lyman only sixteen. I wish now that I had appreciated them more.

After I stopped crying myself to sleep at night, anger took the place of tears. I was angry with everyone, and my temper got me into plenty of trouble. I was fourteen the year I hit Lyman so hard I broke his nose. Of course, he gave me back in kind. A few weeks later, I struck out on my own.

I never knew what happened to my brothers. By the time I got to an age and a place where I wanted to get in touch with them, where I would have liked to see them again, they were gone. I was told they sold the farm and nobody knew where they went from there.

I have often wondered if they are still alive. I wonder if they think of me and wonder the same.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Frenzy - Prologue


Thomas Nelson (May 18, 2010)


Robert Liparulo


Sometime in the near future...

Xander flew out of the portal as though shot from a cannon. His legs kicked, his arms spun. His feet hit the ground, tangled together, and he went down. He tumbled over pine needles, a small bush. His shoulder struck a tree trunk. Clawing at the bark, he scrambled to stand.

Cold wetness struck his face, contrasting with the warmth of his tears, of the blood already on his cheeks.

Holding the tree, he turned his eyes skyward. Beyond the branches and needles, ash-colored clouds churned as though stirred by angry fingers. Rain burst from them, spattering fat drops across the woods. For the briefest moment he thought, Of course, of course the heavens would be crying too!

Then he pushed off the tree and began running. His sneakers slipped and slid over the wet ground cover. They sailed out from under him, and he fell, soaking his hip and leg with mud. He rose and ran, feeling he was heading the right direction, but not certain. He crested a small hill and descended the other side.

He stopped to get his bearings. He blinked rain out of his eyes, only to have it replaced by tears. He pushed a palm into each socket, shook his head, and tried to get ahold of himself. To his right, he recognized a short cliff of earth, tree roots protruding like veins. He knew where he was.

He stumbled forward, raised his face again, and screamed: rage, pain, grief . . . it all roared out of him. He dropped his head and sobbed.

No, no, no...

This isn’t happening. It isn’t!

Then he saw the underside of his forearms, and knew it was happening . . . it had happened. The blood was still there. It glistened darker than movie blood, thicker. It coated his arms as though someone had slathered paint over them with wide brushstrokes.

Oh, God, he prayed, let it be paint! Let there have been some mistake and make it not blood, anything but blood!

But he knew better.

Raindrops plopped on his forearms, cleaning away the red in small starbursts and long streaks. Suddenly, he didn’t want it to be gone, washed away. There was a finality to it that he couldn’t stand. He crossed his arms over his chest, protecting them from the rain.

He ducked his head and plowed into the bushes. Branches scratched at his face, his arms; they snagged his clothes. He yanked himself free and tumbled out on the other side, landing in the long grass of a meadow. He pushed himself up and saw the log where he and David had first found Young Jesse—the boy who would become their great-great uncle—sitting there, carving a piece of wood.

He ran across the meadow to another clump of tall bushes and pushed through. The rain slowed and stopped. Water dripped frm the trees like ghosts of a once-mighty army. He kept going, mounted a hill, and looked down a shallow slope to where the house stood. Barely a house, really. Only the framework had been completed, two-by-fours forming the shape of the house in which Xander and his family had been living for barely eight days.

How could so much have changed in eight days?

He spotted Jesse then, standing under a dripping roof on the railless porch—at least that much of the house was finished. He was talking to a man. Had to be his father. He looked rugged: scruffy stubble over a square jaw and hollow cheeks, short-cropped hair, and muscles pushing against a dirty white T-shirt.

The man noticed Xander and scowled. He reached back to a workbench, grabbed a hammer, and stepped forward.

Jesse, seeing Xander now as well, slapped his hand against his father’s chest. A big grin broke out on the boy’s face and he yelled, “Xander!” He turned to his father. “That’s Xander, one of the boys I told you about,” he said. “Your great-great grandson.”

The man’s scowl softened. Then he noticed Xander’s condition, and his features became worried and puzzled.

Jesse hopped off the porch and ran toward Xander. “You’re back!” he said. “You said you would be, but—”

He stopped, eyed Xander up and down. He took in the blood, Xander’s deep frown, his wet, red eyes. “What... what . . . ?” He looked past Xander. “Where’s David?”

Xander fell to his knees. He covered his face and smelled the blood on his hands. He looked up at Jesse. “Dae’s...dead. Jesse, Taksidian killed him!”


Jesse’s image clouded away as tears filled Xander’s eyes. He cried, big wailing sobs. Now that he’d said it, nothing could hold back the torrent of his emotions.

Someone dropped down beside him, put strong arms around him.

It was Jesse’s father, hugging him. He didn’t say a word, just embraced him, as if knowing it was the only thing he could do. Xander reached to the arm that was crossing his chest and gripped it.

Jesse said, “Are you . . . are you sure?” His voice was high, like a six-year-old kid’s, and he was trembling. Tears poured down his cheeks.

Xander nodded. “I saw it. He...stabbed him. Taks...he ran away. Keal...our friend...he’s a nurse...he checked... there was” He couldn’t say it: no pulse, no heartbeat, because that said too much: no David. It was too late.

He pushed Jesse’s father away so he could look at him. “Don’t build it,” Xander said. “Don’t build the house.” He looked past Jesse to the towering framework. “Burn it! You have to!”

Jesse’s father shook his head. “That won’t help, son.”

“But if there’s no house, then we wouldn’t move in. Taksidian wouldn’t try to take it. David and Taksidian would never meet, and Taksidian won’t kill him!”

“You’re here,” Jesse’s dad said. “If we don’t build it, someone will. You being here now proves it. We can’t change that. I’m sorry.”

“But...but...” Xander looked from the man to Jesse and back again. He dropped his head.

Jesse’s father touched his face. “You’re hurt,” he said. “That’s a bad gash on your chin.”

Xander slapped away his hand. “It’s not me!” he yelled. “’s David. There has to be something we can do!” he said, then whispered, pleadingly: “Something.” He looked at Jesse, and his anguish turned to anger. “Why didn’t you warn us?” he yelled. “You see me here now, telling you what happened. You’re fourteen. You come to the house to help when you’re in your nineties! You must have known. You never warned us! Why?”

Jesse’s lips quivered. “I...” He squeezed his eyes, pushing out fat drops. “I don’t know!” He rushed to Xander and knelt in front of him. He grabbed Xander’s shoulders. “I will! I promise, I will!”

“You don’t,” Xander said. “You didn’t.” A fact. Simple as that.

Xander stared into Jesse’s eyes. They were so blue, like the old man Jesse’s. For a moment he felt it was him—Old Man Jesse, not fourteen-year-old Jesse—making the promise. Xander wanted to punch him, punch him and never stop punching him.

“I wouldn’t forget this,” Jesse said. “I wouldn’t, not ever.”

“Maybe,” Xander said, “maybe...” He turned to Jesse’s dad. “I need to write it down, what happened. I need paper, paper and a pen.”

“Son, it’s too late.”

“I need a pen and paper!” Xander yelled. “Please.”

Jesse’s dad rose, looked toward the house, back to Xander.

“Please,” Xander said. “I have to try. Something. Anything.”

Jesse’s dad trudged off toward the house, head low.

“What are you thinking?” Jesse said. He sniffed.

“Keep my letter,” Xander pleaded. “Read it every day. Maybe you won’t forget now. Maybe you will warn us.”

“I will. I promise.” Jesse’s eyes dropped to Xander’s arms. He pushed his fingers into the blood, then looked at his red fingertips. His face scrunched up in pain and sorrow.

Jesse’s dad sloshed back through the mud with a scrap of paper and a pencil. Xander leaned back to sit on his heels. He spread the paper over his thigh and scribbled a word. His hands were shaking so badly, even he couldn’t read it. He groaned, tried again. Then he drew a picture. He looked at it and knew it was pointless. David was dead. Jesse never warned them. He crumpled the paper in his fist.

He leaned forward, wanting nothing more than to disappear, to be gone from this pain and this day.

David. David.

His brother’s face filled his mind: floppy long hair, dimples, Dad’s hazel eyes—more green than brown. Those eyes always seemed to sparkle . . . until they didn’t. He had held David in his arms, yelling for help. So much blood. David had watched Xander’s face. He hadn’t seemed scared, he’d seemed almost at peace. Then his breathing had failed, and those eyes stopped sparkling; they had focused on something far away and stayed that way.

Xander’s forehead landed in the mud between Jesse’s knees. He felt the boy’s hands on his back, comforting. But nothing could comfort him now. He let out a long howl. The tears came again, the wrenching sobs, and he knew they would never stop...

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Predator - Chapter 1

Zondervan (May 25, 2010)


Terri Blackstock

Chapter 1

They would find her sister today. Krista had felt it in her gut all morning as she’d assembled the volunteer search teams to comb the acres of wooded land behind the high school. Their search was for her little sister’s body — not a living, breathing Ella — but she’d clung to the hope that Ella hunkered somewhere unharmed. Elizabeth Smart, Shawn Hornbeck, and Jaycee Dugard had all been found alive. Even after two weeks, Ella could be too.

Security video near the place where she was last seen showed Ella riding her bike up to the curb across the street from a convenience store. As she waited to cross the street, a black van had driven up beside her, blocking her image for a moment. Then, when the van moved, Ella was gone, and her bike lay toppled over in the street.

In the days that followed, hundreds of volunteers had searched the area around the store, gone door-to-door in the neighborhoods nearby, and trampled every field or wooded area within a five-mile radius.

And they were still looking, hoping beyond hope . . . But when the police car arrived and pulled up to the registration table, Krista’s throat tightened. News vans had followed the squad car, and as the officer got out, reporters flurried around him.

Krista froze in the field, staring at the activity, unable to move. Her phone rang, startling her. Her hand was clammy as she pulled the phone out of her pocket and flipped it open. “Hello?”

“Hon, there’s a policeman here,” her friend Carla said. “He wants to talk to you.”

“I see him,” Krista said. “I’m coming.” She stood there a moment as she flipped the phone shut, carefully slid it into her pocket. Then she stepped through the tall weeds, no longer examining every blade of grass for any sign that her sister had been here. She kept her eyes on the officer as she slowly made her way toward him.

The volunteers who hadn’t yet been deployed to look for Ella stood motionless, silent as she approached. Cold wind whipped her hair into her face, and she hugged herself to stop her shivering. “You found her, didn’t you?” she said through chapped lips.

The officer hesitated. “Krista, I’m Lieutenant Baron. Is there somewhere we can speak privately?” “In my car,” she said and pointed out her Kia on the curb. She glanced at the reporters, wondering what they knew. Pulling her keys out of her pocket, she headed for her car. Lieutenant Baron followed.

As they got in, Krista swallowed the knot in her throat. Ella wasn’t dead. She couldn’t be. It was all a big mistake. Maybe they’d found her alive. Maybe she was okay.

Lieutenant Baron closed the passenger door and looked down at his hands.

“Tell me,” she demanded. “What’s going on?”

“We found a girl’s body.”

Krista stared at him, numb. “Is it Ella?”

“We’re not sure. She didn’t have identification on her... We need you to come and identify her.”

Now the numbness gave way, and a slow, burning rage climbed in her chest. “Where?”

“In a wooded area on Chastain Boulevard, behind the old Martin Lumber building.”

“That wouldn’t be her,” Krista said quickly. “She would never go to that area.” As she said it, she knew it wasn’t rational. Ella was abducted. She had no control.

“She was clearly taken there,” he said.

Taken there. The rage faded into nausea. She pictured her little sister fighting some killer for her life. Ella, who trusted everyone. The shock of betrayal would have been the precursor to murder.

“It may not be your sister at all, but we have to make sure. We tried to reach your father, but he didn’t answer his phone and he isn’t home.”

“He’s at the other search site, over by Lake Lora.”

He made a note. “We’ll get somebody over there.”

Krista’s voice came out hoarse. “Where is she?”

“She’s still where they found her. The crime scene investigators are still working the scene. We could have waited until she was at the morgue, but Detective Pensky knew you had all these volunteers out searching. He didn’t want you broadsided by reporters who got to you first.”

She looked down at her hands. They were dirty, damp with sweat, even though it was forty degrees.

She nodded then, trying to make her brain work in systematic steps. Step one, breathe. Step two, go to the site. Step three, look at the body. Step four, tell them it’s not Ella.

But she couldn’t seem to move.

“Ma’am, would you like for me to drive you to the site?” She tried to think. Could she even drive? Her mind veered off, touching on places where she could reach her father. Why wasn’t he answering his phone? He’d kept it with him day and night since Ella’s disappearance. Then again, phone reception was spotty at the lake.


“Yes,” she said, not sure what she was answering. “I mean, no. I’ll drive myself.”

“All right,” he said. “I’ll escort you.” He opened his door, started to get out. “Ma’am, are you sure you can drive?”

Her face burned, though her body shivered. She wiped the perspiration from above her lips. “Yes, I’m fine.” She started her car.

“I’m not going to talk to the reporters,” he said, “but should I tell the volunteers to stop searching?”

Krista looked out her windshield. Most of the volunteers had returned to their starting point and were huddled in a crowd, staring in her direction. The teens from the Eagle’s Wings girls’ center, where Krista worked, had come in a van to help. She had so wanted these inner-city girls to see their fragile prayers answered for Ella. They stood in a huddle with Carla, the ministry’s director, expressions of dread on their faces.

“It might not be Ella,” she said aloud. “Tell them to keep searching.”

Lieutenant Baron got out of the car, and she sat staring as he said something to the crowd, then walked away from the curious reporters and got into his car. He pulled out, and she followed him.

That flame of hope still flickered inside her. Maybe Ella was hiding somewhere, scared to death, afraid to answer the calls for her. Maybe if they just searched a little bit harder...

The police officer turned on his blue flashing light, and she followed him through Houston traffic. She glanced in her rearview mirror and saw reporters’ vans following behind her. Like vultures hunting down corpses, they were going to record this nightmare no matter who claimed the body.

Krista thought of trying to call her father, but it might be better if she waited until she saw the girl. There was no point in crushing his hopes if it wasn’t Ella. He was already distraught enough. Besides, they’d have a policeman at his search site in no time.

In minutes they were at the site — a patch of woods on a lonely, rural road — where a dozen police cars and a couple of television news vans sat haphazardly in front of a ropedoff area. She double-parked next to a police car and got out, pushing through the crowd at the crime-scene tape. A reporter was taping a stand-up before a camera.

“Police say the body was found by two ten-year-old kids who were walking through the woods. The girl was partially buried, but part of her head was exposed. We’re waiting to hear if this is the body of fourteen-year-old Ella Carmichael, who went missing two weeks ago.”

Buried? Dizziness swept over her, sweat beaded on her face. Krista looked past the reporter, into the woods where all the activity seemed to be. Through the trees, about fifty yards away, she saw people moving around. Though she strained, she couldn’t see the girl.

The reporter noticed her and led her cameraman over. “Krista, can I have a word with you?” she asked, sticking a mike in Krista’s face.

“No.” Krista ducked under the tape.

“Is it your sister?” the reporter called behind her. “Have they asked you to identify the body?”

Krista ignored the questions and shot toward the activity, but a cop stopped her. “Ma’am, you can’t go back there.”

She was about to shake him off and push through, when Lieutenant Baron came to her side. “It’s okay. They asked for her.”

He took her arm and walked her toward the investigators. When she reached them, she realized the body was another twenty-five yards beyond them. “You can’t go any closer,” the Lieutenant said in a soft voice. “There could be footprints or trace evidence. We can’t risk disturbing the site. Only the CSIs are allowed near the body right now, but they’ll give you the chance to see her soon.”

Nausea rose, but she stood paralyzed, staring toward the mound of dirt where the girl lay. She couldn’t see a thing. Not what she was wearing or the color of her hair...

The girl was still in the hole where she’d been buried. Images flashed through Krista’s mind of Ella being buried alive...

No, she told herself. It isn’t Ella. It isn’t Ella. It isn’t Ella. When would they let her see her, so Krista could set things straight and go back to search for her sister?

Icy wind whistled through the trees, and Krista thought of Ella out in the elements, crushed by dirt, and freezing rain pouring down on her. Who could do such a thing?

Not Ella. Not Ella.

She heard thunder. The sky had grown appropriately dark, as if it mourned the passing of this young life. It was going to rain. They would have to move the girl soon, or whatever evidence was still on her body would be washed away.

Krista waited, willing back the numbness, certain she wouldn’t recognize the girl. As the first raindrops fell, a man in a medical examiner’s jacket took in a gurney, and Krista watched as they pulled the body from its shallow tomb. She saw the pink-striped shirt that Ella was wearing that last day. Blonde hair matted with blood and earth.

Her knees went weak, turned to rubber. She dropped and hit the ground. At once, a crowd of police surrounded her, asking if she was okay. She blinked and sat up, let them pull her back to her feet.


She heard footsteps pounding the dirt.

“Aw, no! No! It can’t be her!” Her father’s voice, raspy and heart-wrenching, wailed out over the crowd. She wanted to go to him, comfort him, but it was as though her hands were bound to her sides and her legs wouldn’t move.

As they brought the girl closer, Krista saw the bloody, bruised face. Ella’s face.

The search was over. Her sister was dead.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Deadly Disclosure - Chapter 1

Deadly Disclosure

New Leaf Publishing Group/Master Books (February 15, 2010)


Julie Cave

Chapter 1

Thomas Whitfield climbed out of the Lincoln Towncar and stood in the snappy, early morning fall air, breathing deeply. The temperature had fallen a few more degrees overnight, signaling that winter was truly on its way.

Thomas glanced up and down the wide street. There was nobody around at this early hour, and he took a moment to drink in the sights of his beloved city. The graceful willows, their branches arching over the street, were turning gold and red and, in the gentle yellow morning light, threw off high-lights like burnished copper. This street was like many others in the center of DC — wide and tree-lined, with magnificent government buildings standing one after the other. That was another thing that Thomas found so delicious about this city — so much of it hinted at the enormous wealth and prosper-ity of the country, and yet only a few streets behind these world-famous landmarks, the seedier side of American pov-erty flourished. It was a city of contradictions, Thomas thought.

His gaze fell finally to the building right in front of him — the main complex of the Smithsonian Institution. Enormous stone pillars flanked the entryway into a marble lobby, and behind that were laid out the evidence of mankind’s bril-liance. Everything about the institution was testament to the scientific and anthropological advances of man over the pages of history — the inventions, the discoveries, the de-ductions, the sheer radiance of a human being’s intelligence at its finest.

Thomas Whitfield had always been immensely proud of this place, and everything it showcased. He had boasted about it, defended it, nourished it, and protected it, the way a proud father would his prodigious child.

He was the secretary of the Smithsonian, after all, and he felt a strange kind of paternal relationship with the build-ings and their contents.

He stood for a moment longer, a slender whippet of a man dressed immaculately, with highly polished shoes gleaming, thinning dark hair cut short, and a gray cashmere scarf to ward off the cold. Then he purposefully strode down the path and into the main building, scarf fluttering behind him.

To the malevolent eyes watching him through high-powered binoculars down the street in a non-descript Chevy, he presented a painfully easy target.

Thomas settled in his large office with the door shut, turned on the computer, and shut his eyes briefly as he con-templated what he would do next. The course of events he had planned for this day would change everything, and the impact would be felt right up to the president himself. Courage, Thomas, he told himself silently. What you are about to do is the right thing to do.

He began to type, slowly and decisively, feeling within himself a great sense of conviction and purpose. He was so lost in concentration that he was startled by the door sud-denly swinging open.

“What are . . . ?” he exclaimed, almost jumping off his seat. Then he recognized his visitor and he glanced at his watch.

“What are you doing here?” Thomas asked. “It’s a little early for you, isn’t it?”

“I wanted to be sure I caught you,” his visitor replied, moving closer to the desk. “Without any interruptions.”

“I see. What can I do for you then?” Thomas asked, try-ing to hide his irritation. He hadn’t wanted to be interrupted during this most important task.

“What are you working on?” the unannounced guest asked, ignoring him and moving around the side of the desk and trying to look at Thomas’s computer screen.

“Oh, it’s nothing,” Thomas answered with a falsely airy tone. “It’s just a family project. Nothing to do with work. Is there something I can help you with?”

Thomas was suddenly aware that his visitor was stand-ing close by him. He felt uncomfortable, and tried to roll his chair away to maintain some space.

“You see,” his visitor said in a quiet voice, “there are people out there who don’t agree with you. They think the project you are working on could be very dangerous. In fact, I believe they have already tried to warn you about continu-ing with this project.”

Thomas now felt distinctly uncomfortable and a little afraid. He decided to assert his authority. “Listen here,” he said, in a voice that betrayed his anxiety. “What I am working on is none of your business. The subject is certainly not up for discussion with somebody like you. I suggest you leave my office immediately.”

The visitor managed to fuse sorrow and menace into his words as he said, “I’m afraid I can’t do that. You will have to come with me.”

Thomas retorted, “I’m not going anywhere with you. In fact, I. . . .” He broke off abruptly as he saw the small hand-gun in the visitor’s hand, pointing directly at him. There was no sorrow or pity on his face — only menace.

“Do I need to force you to come with me?” the visitor wondered, his tone like flint.

Thomas leapt to his feet, his eyes darting about wildly. He needed to get out of here, to try to get away from this situation that had so rapidly gotten out of hand. A hand shot out and grabbed Thomas by the collar with surprising strength. Tho-mas was shocked as he strained to get away from the man, who was intently staring at the computer screen.

“You traitor!” Thomas spat. “I should’ve known you were nothing more than a trained monkey!”

The visitor chuckled heartily. “That’s ironic, Thomas.”

The visitor, much younger and stronger than Thomas, began to drag him out of the room. Thomas was determined not to go down without a fight, and drove his heel backward into the visitor’s shin. There was a yelp of pain, but the unre-lenting grip did not lessen around Thomas’s arm. Instead, a thick arm curled around Thomas’s throat and squeezed, ap-plying pressure to the carotid artery. It took only a few sec-onds for Thomas to fall limply into the arms of his abductor as the blood supply to his brain was cut off.

That was the last anyone saw of the secretary of the Smithsonian Institute.


Dinah Harris woke with a scream dying in her throat, the sheets twisted hopelessly around her legs. Her nightgown was damp with panicked sweat, her heart galloping like a runaway horse. She stared, blinking, at the pale dawn light streaming through the window, while the shadowy vestiges of her nightmare slithered from her memory.

As she lay in bed, joining the waking world from sleep, the familiar blanket of depression settled over her, dark and heavy as the Atlantic winter. The dread she felt at facing an-other day was almost palpable in the small bedroom. Dinah glanced across at her alarm clock, where the flashing num-bers showed 6 a.m.

She threw aside the sheets and stumbled into the tiny bathroom, where she purposefully avoided looking at herself in the mirror. She was only in her mid-thirties and had once been relatively attractive. Certainly not beautiful, but with what her first boyfriend had once told her — a pleasant face and athletic body. Now her eyes were always underscored by dark bags, her skin pale and paper-thin, and the weight fell off her in slow degrees without ceasing. She dressed in her trademark dark pants suit, pulled her black hair from her face in a severe ponytail, and washed her face.

She made strong coffee and sat in the kitchen as she drank the bitter liquid. The dining alcove was still stacked with moving cartons, filled with books and music that she couldn’t face opening. The gray light of morning lent no color to the apartment, which suited Dinah just fine. Her world didn’t contain color anymore.

Though traffic often seemed at a standstill in the morn-ings, Dinah always arrived early to the J. Edgar Hoover building. She turned directly to the teaching wing, avoiding the eye contact and morning greetings of many she knew in the building. She knew what they whispered about during after-work drinks and at the water cooler. Her fall from grace would go down as one of the most spectacular in FBI his-tory.

So she kept up the ice-cool veneer until she arrived at her desk, checking her e-mails and teaching schedule for the week.

She didn’t look up as an imposing shadow fell across her desk.

“Special Agent Harris, how are you?” boomed the voice of her former colleague, David Ferguson. He was a big man, six-four and two hundred pounds, with a loud, booming voice and a penchant for pork rinds. He stood above her, his hand resting easily on the holstered gun at his hip; the twin of a gun Dinah no longer wore but kept underneath her pillow.

“Ferguson,” she replied. “Fine, how are you?”

“Feel like a coffee?” he asked.

“Don’t you have a killer to catch?” Dinah asked, dryly.

He waved his hand dismissively. “Oh, they can wait. Come on.”

He took her to a tiny Italian café a block away from the FBI headquarters. While they ordered, Dinah wondered at his ulterior motive for bringing her here. It certainly isn’t for my sparkling wit and charm, she thought. Rumor had it that the freshman criminology classes were afraid of her.

“So I’m just wondering if I could get your opinion on something,” Ferguson began, tentatively testing the water.

She scowled at him. “You know I don’t get involved in cases.”

He held up his hands in mock surrender. “Okay, calm down, Harris. I just want your opinion. I know you’ve given up your real talents to teach some snotty freshmen.”

His comment stung her, but she narrowed her eyes at him and pretended she hadn’t even noticed. “So get on with it already.”

“I don’t remember you always being this prickly,” com-plained Ferguson, draining his macchiato. “Anyway. What would you say if I told you the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution had gone missing?”

“Missing?” Dinah raised her eyebrows and slurped her latte. “In what context?”

“As in, turned up for work at six this morning and disap-peared off the face of the earth shortly thereafter.”

“How do you know he turned up for work at six?” Dinah asked.

“Security cameras have him arriving in the lobby and heading for his office. After that, who knows?”

“So he’s an adult, maybe he took a trip to get away from work stress or his wife has been giving him grief or his kid is in trouble.” Dinah frowned. “Why are we even involved at this early stage?”

Ferguson paused. “It’s due mostly to his rather prestig-ious position. It wouldn’t do for the secretary of the Smith-sonian to simply disappear. Congress is rather anxious.”

Dinah knew of political influence that ran high in this city but didn’t press the issue. “Is there evidence of homicide?”

“Not really, although I haven’t been to his office yet.” Ferguson made it sound like a confession, and he looked at her sheepishly.

Dinah stared at him. “What do you really want, Fergu-son?”

He gathered up his courage. “I need you to work this case with me, Harris.”

Dinah opened her mouth to respond indignantly, but Fer-guson held up his hand and continued with a rush. “You know I’m not good with sensitive cases. I. . . .”

“Or complex ones,” interjected Dinah, bad-temperedly.

“I’m operating on a hunch that this is a bad case, that it involves people in the White House.” Ferguson must have needed her very badly to allow her comment to go un-heeded.

“Well, I’m sorry, but I have a heavy teaching workload,” she said. “So I’ll have to limit my involvement to opinions only.”

Ferguson didn’t say anything but looked even guiltier.

“What have you done?” Dinah demanded.

“I may have cleared your schedule so you could work with me.” Ferguson examined his fingernails with great con-centration.

Dinah waited for a beat. “I see. You’ve spoken to my su-periors?”

He nodded. “They’ve agreed to lend you to me for as long as the case takes.”

Dinah stood abruptly. “Thanks for the coffee.” She walked angrily from the café.

Ferguson stared at her as she walked off, then slapped down some crumpled notes and heaved his bulk out of the chair. “Where are you going?” Ferguson asked, struggling to keep up with her.

She wheeled around and glared directly at him. “Who do you think you are? Do you think I’m lesser than you so you can sneak around behind my back?”

“Dinah, we really need you back in the field. You were — are — brilliant.” Ferguson spoke softly, hoping to calm her down.

“My field days are behind me, with very good reason,” snapped Dinah. I can’t see a dead body anymore. I can’t feel desire to catch the person who did it. I just want to lie down beside the body and feel the same endless peace of sleep.

“Please, I’m begging you. I need you back,” Ferguson said. Then it hit her. Dinah realized that this situation was very serious. Ferguson was the last person on the planet to beg anybody.

“I don’t really have a choice, do I?” she said dully. She knew that this case could break her.

Ferguson didn’t reply, and his answer was in his silence.


The Smithsonian Institution was bustling with tourists and school kids as if nothing had gone wrong. Dinah and David strode into the main lobby, trying unsuccessfully to look cas-ual. When they flashed their badges discreetly, they were allowed into the inner sanctum, where Thomas Whitfield’s personal assistant was fielding phone calls.

The secretary was young and pretty, with thick, dark hair waving gracefully to her shoulders, startlingly blue eyes, and a creamy olive complexion. Her only downfall was the thick eye makeup, applied to make her eyes stand out but which had the effect of making her look like a scared raccoon. “I’m afraid Mr. Whitfield simply cannot be interrupted at present,” she snapped into the phone. “I’ll have him call you back if you’d leave a message.”

She glanced up and saw the two agents standing at her desk. She gave them a wave to acknowledge their presence, repeated the details of the caller, scribbled furiously, and then hung up.

“Good morning,” she said, jumping to her feet. “If you caught the end of that conversation, you’ll know that Mr. Whitfield is in an extremely important meeting and. . . .”

“Save it,” interrupted Dinah, showing the secretary her badge. The young woman blushed. “We’re here to investi-gate the disappearance of Mr. Whitfield. What is your name?”

The secretary sat down hard, looking relieved. “I’m Lara Southall. I’m so worried about Mr. Whitfield.”

Ferguson flashed his partner a frown and took charge. “I’m Special Agent David Ferguson and this is Special Agent Dinah Harris. You’ll have to excuse her; she’s been out of the field for some time and has forgotten how to relate to people.”

Dinah opened her mouth to reply with outrage, but Fer-guson continued, “Can you tell us about this morning?”

Lara Southall regarded Dinah with a mixture of amuse-ment and fear, which Dinah filed away for future reference. “I got to work at eight o’clock as usual,” she replied. “Mr. Whit-field always arrives before me. I usually turn on my com-puter, get settled, and then get us both a coffee. When I opened his office door to give him the coffee, the room was empty.” As the girl spoke, she tapped perfectly manicured fingernails together absently. Dinah hated manicured finger-nails: they reminded her of her distinctly unattractive, chewed-to-the-quick fingertips.

“Mr. Whitfield was due to give a presentation at eleven o’clock,” Lara continued. “So I didn’t really start worrying until about ten-thirty. He hates to be late, and he had to come back to get his presentation and make it uptown in less than half an hour. At eleven, I started to make some calls.”

“Has he ever been absent from the office before?” Fer-guson asked.

“Sure, he often has meetings or goes out into the mu-seum to talk to visitors. The thing is, I always know what he’s doing. That’s part of my job. He never goes anywhere during the day without letting me know.”

“So you started making calls at eleven. Who did you call?” Dinah asked impatiently.

Lara ticked off her fingers as she remembered. “I called his cell phone, and I called the other museums. I thought maybe he’d just forgotten to tell me he had a meeting. No-body had seen him and his cell just rang out. So I called his home. His wife told me he’d left for work at about five-thirty and she hadn’t seen him since. Then I called some of the senior executives. I thought they might’ve had an emer-gency. But nobody had seen him.”

“Did the people you called — his wife, the executives — seem concerned about his whereabouts?” Ferguson asked.

“Yes, they did. It’s so unusual for Mr. Whitfield to act this way that everyone I spoke to was concerned. I think his wife is actually here somewhere at the moment.”

“So then you called the police?” Dinah said.

“No, one of the directors came over to look at the secu-rity tapes. She specifically told me not to call anyone until she’d viewed the footage. I thought that Mr. Whitfield might’ve had an accident on the way to work. Mrs. Whitfield was calling the hospitals when Ms. Biscelli — the director — came back from security.”

“What did the tapes show?” Dinah asked.

“They showed him arriving at six-thirty or so. That’s all I know.”

“Did any of the tapes show him leaving?”

“Not as far as I know.”

“Right. So what then?”

“I called the police.”

Ferguson nodded. “What did they tell you?”

“Basically they won’t do anything until he’s been missing 24 hours.” Lara stopped clicking her nails together and started twisting her hair with one finger. “So I told Ms. Bis-celli, and she wasn’t happy with that. I think she must’ve pulled some strings, because here you are.”

Dinah and Ferguson both raised their eyebrows at her in confusion.

“The FBI,” explained Lara. “You guys wouldn’t normally get involved, would you?” She may have been a very pretty secretary, but Lara Southall was an intelligent girl. She’d asked the very question Dinah had been mulling over all morning.

“We’re going to look in his office,” Ferguson said, ignor-ing the question. He handed her his card. “Please call me if you think of anything else that might be helpful.”

She nodded and picked up the ringing phone. “No,” she said, sounding very weary. “Mr. Whitfield is in a meeting at the moment and can’t be disturbed.”


Ferguson opened the door to the office while Dinah waited to get the log-on details for Thomas Whitfield’s com-puter. Dinah stood in the doorway, looking into the impres-sive room, and felt the thrill of the chase wash over her like a wave. It had been a long time since she had felt anything.

The office was furnished with heavy cedar furniture that consisted of a large desk, a leather-bound chair, a couch, and two armchairs grouped around a glass-topped coffee table and one entire wall of built-in bookcases. The floor was covered with thick burgundy carpet, and the drapes at the picture window were also burgundy. The walls contained portraits of several great scientists and inventors — Dinah recognized Charles Darwin, Thomas Edison, and the Wright Brothers — as well as photos of the secretary with the president, the queen of England, and other dignitaries. The room itself was clean and uncluttered, likely symbolic of the man himself, Dinah thought.

Ferguson was moving around the room, muttering to himself, as was his habit. Dinah had forgotten how intensely annoying she found this habit. She preferred silence so that she could concentrate.

Having received the log-on details from Lara, Dinah strode to the desk and pulled on her latex gloves. The top of the desk was shiny and would be a great medium to obtain fingerprints. She was careful not to allow herself to touch the desktop while she turned on the laptop.

“By the way, Harris,” Ferguson said from the wall of bookcases, “I forgot to mention that if something has hap-pened to Mr. Whitfield, the media scrutiny is likely to be in-tense.”

Dinah scowled at the screen of the laptop. She hated the media, and it was a long-term grudge she held from the last case she’d been involved in. “You can handle it,” she said. “I want nothing to do with those vultures.”

Ferguson glanced over at her. “Of course I’ll handle it. But I can’t guarantee that they’ll leave you alone.”

Dinah tapped her foot against the leg of the desk impa-tiently as the laptop struggled to come to life. “Sticks and stones, Ferguson,” she said tightly. “Words can never hurt me.”

She could see that Ferguson didn’t buy the lie, but he’d decided to let it go. He at least knew not to push too far.

“This whole office is giving me a weird vibe,” he said after a moment. “It’s too . . . organized.”

Dinah logged onto the laptop. “I’m listening.”

“Look at the desk,” Ferguson mused. “No files or paper-work. Not even a pen or a Post-It note. No diary.”

“Maybe he’s just really neat,” Dinah said, opening Out-look on the laptop.

Ferguson went back to his muttering as he continued drifting around the room. Dinah frowned as she clicked through the folders in Outlook. Then she opened the other programs on the computer and looked through the folders there.

“That’s odd,” she commented at last. Ferguson looked up and came over to her.

She clicked through the inbox, sent items, and calendar of the e-mail program. There were no entries in any of them. “They’re completely clean,” she said. “The calendar is the strangest. You’d think the secretary of the Smithsonian Insti-tution would have at least a couple of meetings a week.”

“Maybe he uses a paper diary,” suggested Ferguson.

“Certainly a possibility,” agreed Dinah. “But couple the empty calendar with the fact that he’s neither received nor sent an e-mail from this computer and something isn’t right.”

Ferguson opened the desk drawers and started looking through them.

“Also,” added Dinah, “there is not one single saved document in any other program — no letters, articles, pres-entations, anything. The entire computer is as if it’s never been used.”

Ferguson sat back on his heels. “You think someone has wiped his computer?”

“Well, the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question is: did Thomas Whitfield wipe his own computer before disappear-ing or did someone else wipe his computer before abducting him?” Dinah began to shut down the programs. “After all, there is no evidence to suggest that he has been abducted. There’s no sign of a struggle in here or blood stains, is there?”

Ferguson shook his head. “No, there isn’t. But there is something off about this office. Nobody, least of all a man in his position, can get through a working day without sending an e-mail or doing paperwork of some kind.” He gestured at the desk drawers. “There’s absolutely nothing in them.”

“I agree,” Dinah said. She closed the laptop and picked it up. “I’m going to have the lab look at the hard drive. What else?”

“I’ll call in crime scene to lift some fingerprints and check for blood.” Ferguson paused, thinking. “I’d like to talk to Ms. Biscelli, and I’d like to talk to his wife.”

Dinah nodded. “If Mr. Whitfield has been abducted, what do you suppose is the motive?”

Ferguson considered. “I don’t know. Money? Fame? Half the time I think these loonies go around killing people just so they can get their name in the news.”

Dinah stared at him. “Do you think Thomas Whitfield is dead?”

He shrugged. “Right now, Harris, I know nine-tenths of absolutely nothing. Let’s talk to Ms. Biscelli. Maybe she’ll know what happened and we can solve this case before din-ner time and I’ll get a decent night’s sleep.”

Flippancy, Dinah remembered, was just Ferguson’s way of dealing with the intensity of this job and the horror they’d witnessed over the years.

Crossing Oceans - Chapter 1

Crossing Oceans
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. (May 1, 2010)

Gina Holmes

Chapter 1

Nothing deepens a stream like a good rain . . . or makes it harder to cross.

Just a few hundred feet away from the home I’d sworn never to return to, I sat on the smooth surface of a boulder. With my jeans cuffed and toes wiggling in the cold water, I reflected on how recent rains had caused these banks to widen and swell.

Perhaps a decent relationship with my father might also rise as a result of the storm we’d endured. Much could happen in six years. Maybe my absence had, as the adage promised, made his heart grow fonder. Maybe my homecoming would be like that of the Prodigal and he’d greet me with eager arms. Together we’d cry for all that had passed between us—and all that should have but didn’t.

Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.

It’s going to go just fine, I told myself as I traced the slippery surface of a moss-covered branch with my foot.

“What’s funny, Mommy?”

Isabella’s voice startled me. I didn’t dare admit that what my five-year-old interpreted as mirth was really a grimace, because then of course she’d want to know what was the matter. “Nothing, sweetness.”

She threw a pebble at the water, but it dropped inches from its goal, clinking against slate instead. “You were smiling like this—” She bared her teeth in a forced grin.

Gently, I pinched her cheek.

“You’re beautiful, Mommy.”

“Thank you, baby. So are you.”

“Yes, I am.”

I smiled at that. I smiled at just about everything she said and did.

“Mommy, why’d we drive here ’stead of Cowpa’s house?”

Cowpa was her name for grandparents of either gender. I probably should have corrected her long ago, but I found the odd term endearing. Besides, I reasoned, she’d grow out of baby talk all too soon without any help from me. I found myself wondering what other lessons she would learn in my absence.

The thought overwhelmed me, but I refused to cry in front of my daughter. Unloading my heavy burden onto her delicate shoulders was not an option. I might not be able to control much in my life lately, but I could still protect her. Nothing mattered more.

“This was my thinking place when I was a little girl. I wanted to show it to you in case you wanted to think sometimes.” I breathed in the area’s familiar fragrance—a combination of damp leaves, pine, and earth—and eyed my surroundings. Same trees. Same sounds. Nothing much ever changed in this spot. That, more than any other reason, was why I loved it so much. Especially now.

I’d spent half of my life here, sitting on this unyielding rock, trying to make sense of the world. The loss of my mother. My father’s neglect. The sometimes-sweet, often-bitter, words of my ex-boyfriend, David. It was here I’d first gotten real with God, begging Him not to take my mother. Railing at Him when He did.

Isabella bounced on one foot. “What did you think about here?”

I poked my toes through water, watching droplets glide down my pink toenails. “Well, when I was little, I thought of catching frogs and grasshoppers and wondered whether I would ever have a best friend to share my secrets with.”

“Did you find your best friend?” A dangling pine needle twirled from one of her curls.

Love overwhelmed me. “Yes, sweetness. I got you.”

She gave me one of her endearing smiles, pulled the debris from her hair, examined it, then dropped it in the stream. I scooped a handful of the cool water and let it slip through my fingers like the life I’d just left behind—my studio apartment that never really felt like home, the corporate ladder I’d just begun to climb, my coworkers who never became the close friends I had longed for. All of it now gone, as though it had never existed at all.

My daughter looked at me askance. “I wanna go.”

The hum of nature faded. The only thing I heard now was the sharp tick of my wristwatch reminding me just how short time was. Standing, I assured myself that I could do what I had come to do. For Isabella, I could do it. I slipped my damp feet into my Birkenstocks and brushed off my rear before collecting my daughter’s chubby hand in my fingers.

I forced one leg in front of the other and made my way past my car, along the winding dirt road.

A familiar picket fence dressed in tangled braids of morning glories came into view. I clutched my daughter’s fingers tighter, feeling more like child than mother.

Placing a hand over my heart, I stopped and took it in. I’d forgotten how beautiful my childhood home was and how much I’d missed it. As I remembered running barefoot through this yard and cannonball jumping into the pond out back, joy pricked at me . . . until my gaze settled on the bare dirt beneath the stairs. How many times had I hidden under that porch, wounded by my father’s words? Too many. My smile died.

Isabella looked up at me eagerly, giving the motivation, if not the courage, I needed to continue. Ghosts of summers past faded as the fragrant scent of roses washed over me, and with it another wave of doubt so tall and wide, I felt as though I might drown in it.

What if my father wouldn’t receive me? Or worse, what if he didn’t accept my daughter? I felt sure Mama Peg would embrace her, but could he? Accepting me had proven impossible for him, but perhaps a child as charming as Isabella could thaw his arctic heart.

Now on the second stair, I paused to look behind me at the road, feeling a sudden urge to retreat. Isabella bounced on the balls of her feet, anxious to continue.

When we reached the porch, I squatted to her level. “Are you ready to meet your grandpa and great-grandma?”

The longing in her maple syrup eyes needed no words, but she added them anyway. “Jane has a cowpa, Natalie has a cowpa, Carter has two cowpas, and . . .” She gave me a look that said, Must I continue?

“Okay, I get it.” I stood and lifted a fist to the door. Before I could knock, Isabella lurched forward and did it for me. She tapped her sandaled foot twice, then reached to knock again.

I grabbed her hand. “Give them a chance.”

The oversize wildflower wreath swayed as the door creaked open. An elderly woman with thick gray hair fashioned into a bun stood before us, oxygen tubes protruding from her nostrils. Deep wrinkles fractured her leathery skin. Her eyebrows were bushes, her lips were shriveled like raisins, and a heavy, floral perfume emanated from her.

Isabella gasped, but I beamed. “Mama Peg.”

My grandmother winked at me before turning her milky gaze to her great-granddaughter. “You must be Bella.”

Isabella’s mouth opened and a strange squeal escaped. I don’t know who was more horrified at that moment—Isabella at the sight of Mama Peg, Mama Peg at Isabella’s revulsion, or me at their initial reactions to each other.

Mama Peg broke out in a deep belly laugh, intermingled with emphysemic hacks. Isabella leaped back as though she expected my grandmother and her tank to explode.

I laughed so hard tears streamed down my cheeks. That seemed to calm Isabella, and soon she was grinning too.

“I’m a wretched sight now, little girl, but not so long ago, I used to be as pretty as you,” my grandmother managed through her own amusement.

Isabella looked at me to dispel this ridiculous claim. I could only nod. I should have prepared her for this.

Mama Peg raised an unruly eyebrow at me. “I don’t think she believes me.”

Catching my breath, I wiped my eyes. “I’m not sure I do either.” I added a wink to soften the jab. I knew she had been lovely, of course. I’d seen the proof in photographs. She still was in my eyes—one of the most beautiful women I had ever known, despite the cruel effects of tobacco and time.

An exaggerated scowl deepened her wrinkles. “Genevieve Paige Lucas, you’re still a brat.”
Leaning in, I hugged her with all I had. “I missed you, Grandma.”

“You too, Jenny. You stayed away far too long.” She hugged me tight, then slowly pulled away from me. Her eyes glistened, but her tears, every bit as stubborn as she, refused to fall. She scanned the porch. “Where are your bags?”

“In the car. I’ll get them later.”

She squinted past me at the empty brick driveway. “You parked in front of the stream, I gather?”

I nodded.

A glint of understanding crinkled her eyes as she stepped back, motioning us into the house. My grandmother, more than anyone, understood my need to commune with nature.

When I entered my father’s home, my heart once again found my throat. I ushered Isabella across the threshold and hastily scanned the living room, searching for him. I watched Isabella take in the cozy surroundings. Braided rugs protected the hardwood floor. Vases of garden flowers rested on lace-covered tabletops. Everything was just as I remembered . . . including the chill creeping through me, which had nothing to do with air-conditioning.

“It’s beautiful, Cowpa!”

Mama Peg shut the door and turned to me. “What did that child call me?”

“That’s her word for Grandma—” I cleared my throat—“and Grandpa.”

My grandmother shook her head, eyeing my daughter. “Call me Mama Peg. Understand?”
Without responding, Isabella made her way toward the stone fireplace, enthralled with the portrait hanging above it. A woman with long chestnut curls flowing about her narrow waist sat sidesaddle on a white horse. My mother’s painted gaze followed me. Her sad little smile made me long to comfort her.

Isabella moved as close to it as she could without stepping onto the hearth. “It’s you, Mommy.”

Mama Peg grabbed the black handle of her oxygen canister and rolled it to where my daughter stood. “That’s your mama’s mama. They look a lot alike, don’t you think?”

Isabella nodded.

“She died before you were born.”

A familiar ache settled within me as memories of my mother’s last days forced their way into my mind, elbowing away more pleasant memories.

Isabella picked at the glitter on her T-shirt. “Where do you go when you die?”

I flashed my grandmother a warning look. “Never mind.” I had no desire to explain death to her at that moment. “Where’s Dad?” I asked.

Mama Peg’s shoulders sank. “Upstairs being him.”

“What did he say when you told him I was coming?” I held my breath and fingered my thick braid.

“You know him. He . . .” Without finishing the thought, she made her way to the kitchen and we followed. The hard rubber heels of her shoes scraped against the tile floor as she shuffled to the back door. She pulled the lace curtain to the side and looked out the window at the pond out back.

Isabella lifted the top from a white candle in the table’s center, releasing a waft of vanilla.

I wrinkled my nose at the sickeningly sweet smell, took the lid from her, and replaced it. “You didn’t tell him everything, did you?”

“I told him he had a granddaughter.”

“That’s all?”

Her voice began to break up. “Of course. A mother should never have to tell her son—”

“Bella?” I interrupted before Mama Peg could say more in front of my child than I was prepared to answer for.

Isabella’s gaze ping-ponged between us.

“See if you can find Sweet Pea.” The thought occurred to me that there I was, trying to avoid the subject of death, and the cat might be long gone. I lowered my voice, though Isabella stood no farther away than Mama Peg. “He is still—?”

“Alive?” With a chortle, she let the curtain drop back into place and turned to face me. “His Royal Stubbornness refuses to cash in his ninth life. You really must want to change the subject badly to send your sweet girl searching for that homicidal monster.”

Isabella’s expression filled with alarm.

“Not a monster.” I tousled her soft curls. “Just a kitty.”

Mama Peg hacked, her skin taking on a grayish hue. I rubbed her back, hating the plastic feel of her polyester top. When her cough subsided, she plucked a napkin from a pile on the table and wiped her mouth. “That furry devil will scratch her bloody.”

“She’ll never catch him.”

“You forget, six years have passed. He’s old and slow now.”

Considering what the tabby might do to Isabella if she tried to pet him gave me pause. I took her hands in mine and squatted to eye level. “Look for him, Bella, but don’t get too close. He’s got a bad temper and sharp claws that will give you boo-boos.”

She promised obedience, then raced off for the hunt.

Mama Peg turned to me. “She’s braver than you were at her age.”

“Who isn’t?” I had never been the fearless child Isabella was. She saw everything as a ray of sunshine living just to warm her. No matter how many times I counseled her that not everyone had her best interests at heart, she refused to believe it. After all, she loved everything and everyone, so why wouldn’t they love her back?

Mama Peg adjusted the tubing threaded over her ears. “When are you going to tell your father?”

I walked to the stove and picked up the teakettle. Finding it heavy, I set it back down and turned on the burner. A snap preceded a flame.

“I want to see how he treats her first.”

“Of course he’ll love her. She’s part of you. Part of your mother.”

An old, familiar dagger lunged into my chest and I hated that even now it could penetrate me. “He hasn’t loved anything since Mom passed.”

“That’s not true,” she whispered, as if saying it softly could somehow breathe truth into the falsehood. She pulled two ceramic mugs from the cupboard. “He’s a good man, Jenny.”

I felt a sudden heaviness about me as I pulled a chair away from the table to sit. “A good man with a hardened heart.”

She dropped a square of tea into each mug. “Having someone you love taken from you has a way of changing a person.”

I crossed my arms.

She averted her gaze. “Stupid thing to say to you, I guess.”

“I guess.”

“So what if you don’t like the way he is with her? Then what will you do?”

It was the question that had kept me awake for the past two weeks. The most important question in my world.

“I’m not her only parent.”

“I guess now would be the time to tell me who her father is.” She raised my chin, forcing me to look at her. After several seconds of reading me, she withdrew her hand. “As if I don’t already know.”

My face burned and I opened my mouth to say his name, but it stuck in my throat—a dam holding back half a decade’s worth of tears. “I never told him.”

Mama Peg’s face drained of what little color it held. I could almost feel her heart splinter. “Oh, Jenny.”

I deserved her scorn. But she wrapped her sagging arms around my shoulders, smothering me in her generous bosom, flowery perfume, and acceptance. Relief overwhelmed me.

“I found him! I found him!” The pattering of feet accompanied my daughter’s shriek.

Mama Peg released me, and we turned to the doorway in anticipation of Isabella’s excited return. She appeared, dragging my father by the hand.

His short, wavy hair was more gray now than brown. He wore his polo shirt tucked neatly into creased pants and a leather belt fastened around his trim belly. I’d have better luck trying to read Chinese than gauge his emotions by his stoic expression.

My fingernails dug into my palms and I felt the need to sit before registering that I was already seated. When his gaze met mine, he gave me a quick once-over. I studied the lines around his eyes. Was he fighting a smile? If so, was it due to smugness that I’d come crawling home or joy at seeing me after so long? Or was I imagining it all?

Without a word, he walked to the kitchen window, held his hand over his eyes, and panned the side yard.

Mama Peg threw me an annoyed glance. “What the dickens is he doing?”

He turned around, this time donning a sly grin. “I’m looking for the airborne swine.”

The dumb look on his face told me he expected laughter, but I just sat there slack-jawed.

“As I recall, you said you’d come home when pigs fly.”

Though I promised myself I would curb my usual retorts, my mouth opened before I could will it not to. “Yeah, I get it. I’m smarter than I look.”

He surprised me by waving his hand in dismissal. “So after six years of nothing, you’ve finally decided to let me meet my granddaughter. How very humane of you. I assume you’re here because you’re broke?”

My thoughts flashed back to the phone call home I’d made after leaving. I’d tearfully told my father I was pregnant. Five minutes into a lecture on the sins and consequences of fornication, I hung up without a word and never called again.

Every day for two weeks after that, his number showed on my caller ID. Not wanting further berating, I never answered or called him back. After several months of silence, the number flashed again. This time I picked up, but it was my grandmother on the other line, not my father. Never again my father.

“Assumptions have always been your specialty.” As soon as the words left my mouth, I wanted them back. Why was I waving a red cape before this bull instead of the white flag I’d intended?

The teakettle’s high-pitched scream pierced the uncomfortable silence. Mama Peg hurried to the stove and jerked the vessel to a cool burner.

My father squatted before Isabella. “Do you know who I am, young lady?”

Considering the question, she looked to the left. “My daddy?”

I cringed at her unexpected response and my gaze flew to meet my father’s eyes. The icy glare he sent my way could have frozen an ocean.

“That’s your grandpa,” I managed.

She looked up at him with adoring eyes, then flung her pudgy arms around his shoulders.

I exhaled in relief when he reciprocated. After the hug, he stood. His expression once again bore the emotional void I’d come to expect since Mom died.

Clearing his throat, he straightened an already-even belt buckle. “I think I saw Sweet Pea run by.”

Isabella jerked her head left, then right. My father pointed to the living room and off she went, oblivious to the manipulation.

“She doesn’t know who her father is?” He glared at me as I fought back tears of frustration. I didn’t trust myself to speak, and he probably felt the same. After a few long seconds, he snatched a set of keys from the wall hook, glowered at me one last time, and slammed the door shut behind him.

A Woman Called Sage - Chapter 1

A Woman Called Sage
Zondervan (April 1, 2010)

DiAnn Mills

Chapter 1

Southeastern Colorado
Summer, 1875

Life didn’t get any better than having the love of a good man and his baby kicking against her ribs. Add a summer breeze to cool the heat of a southern Colorado sun and a bed of soft green grass tickling her feet, and Sage felt a slice of heaven had come to earth.

“Remember the first time I asked if I could come courtin’?” Charles propped himself on one arm and placed his hand on her mountainous stomach.

“Every minute of it. I was ordering sugar and coffee from the general store while Mama looked at yard goods, and you were asking about a rifle.” She laughed. “You nearly rubbed the finish off that Winchester.”

“But I bought it. You were wearing a blue bonnet and trying to look like you weren’t watching me.”

Just how did he know she had fought to keep from staring at him? Her childhood friend had grown into a handsome man. “Now, Charles, that’s not true. You were pretending not to look at me.”

He shook his head as though she were a naughty child. “You’re right about me not being able to keep my eyes off you, but — Oh, I feel her kick. She’s a strong one.”

“You should feel him kick after midnight.”

Charles kissed her stomach. “I couldn’t remember when you’d gotten so pretty, and I vowed I wouldn’t leave the store until you let me call on you.” He shooed away a honeybee buzzing over them. “I turned that rifle over and over in my hands until you and your mama were finished with the storekeep. Sage became the most beautiful name I’d ever heard.”

“No one can say my name like you or make me as happy.”

He sat up and stared out at the cottonwoods in the distance; one had seen too many seasons, and its gnarled branches twisted to the sky like a crooked old man. Sage’s pet wolf chased a rabbit, and the animal scampered away. Birds serenaded them as though they were the only two people in the world — well, three.

“We’ll give our baby a fine life, Sage. You’ll be the perfect mama because you’re the perfect wife.” He turned, and his brow etched into deep lines. “Every day I wake up next to you is a gift from God.”

She started to sit up, and he helped her. “I will always remember the things you say to me because my heart says them back to you.” She touched his face. “Here I am the size of a buffalo, and you’re making me feel pretty. Oh — ” Placing a hand on her stomach, she grinned. “He’s kicking like he knows we’re anxious for him to get here.”

“It’s a she.”

She reached up to run her fingers through his thick, nut-colored hair, and envisioned a son with his papa’s green eyes, sparkling like the stars. “He’ll be here in about six weeks.”

“Boy or a girl, it will be a fine baby. Elizabeth Sage.”

“Timothy Charles.” She smiled, admiring his broad shoulders. Oh, what a lucky woman she was.

There was a long pause before he spoke again. “I have something to tell you.”

Her pulse raced faster than a hummingbird’s wings. “Is the news good?” she said, hoping he wasn’t leaving again. Those times were so hard to bear.

He caressed her face, gently, as he always did, so she wouldn’t feel his calluses. “You can tell your father that after two weeks, we won’t need him to help with chores anymore.”

Sage held her breath. “You won’t be traveling?”

“Nope. I head out three days from now, and I’ll be back in less than ten days’ time. Then I’m home for you and our baby and all of our babies to come, every day, for the rest of my life. I’ve sold the ranch up north, and I’m heading there to close the deal. We’ll have enough money to buy more land here and maybe some cattle too.”

She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him long and hard. He smelled like the outdoors, and she loved it. Loved him. At times her feelings frightened her, as though she didn’t deserve Charles and his affections. Tears slipped down her face.

“I think you’re pleased,” he whispered.

“Very pleased.”

“It’s about time I ran this ranch myself and became a respectable husband and papa. Your father’s right. I leave you alone much too often and depend on him to oversee the place.” He laughed. “Who knows? Now he might learn to like me.”

Having Charles and Papa enjoy each other’s company would be next to perfect. Her tears flowed like a rushing stream — a steady occurrence of late, with the baby growing inside her. “You are more than I could ever ask for. We’ll work this land together and raise a fine family.”

His gaze grew intense, as though he had something more he wanted to say but couldn’t bring himself to speak.

Had he and Papa argued again? “What is it?”

He shook his head. “A man has no right to be this happy.”

“Or a woman.” She heard his stomach growl. “I think we need to head back home so I can finish supper. Can’t have my husband starving.”

He kissed her nose, each cheek, and her lips. “There, I just had dessert first.”

Charles whistled for Wolf to join them, then pulled her to her feet. The gray and white female bounded toward them. Sage patted the animal’s head, and Charles laughed. Her pet wolf was the talk of neighboring ranches, but Sage had tamed her. Just like Charles had tamed some of Sage’s wildness but not her spirit.

Hand in hand they walked the mile back to their ranch. While Charles fed the livestock, Sage checked on a fork-tender beef roast that had been simmering most of the afternoon, along with potatoes, onions, and green beans. She rolled out biscuits and added another log to the fire before baking them. For a moment, she stole a whimsical glance at the cradle Papa had built and the tiny quilt Mama had stitched. Baby clothes draped over the side. Soon. Very soon.

Grasping the vegetable basket, she hurried outside for fresh tomatoes. From the shade of a juniper, she squinted into the sun and saw men riding near the west pasture and the creek that wound through the ranch.

“We got company,” she said to Charles, who was pumping water into the cattle trough.

He caught a glimpse of the men and snatched up his rifle from where it leaned against the trough. “Sage, get inside the house. Now! Fetch your rifle and be ready to use it.”

As clumsy as she felt with the weight of the baby, Sage raced to the porch, up the three steps, and inside the house. The tone of his voice had shaken her. He’d never used it before.

He knows who they are.
The loaded Winchester rested in the corner nearest the door. The moment she wrapped her fingers around the metal barrel, the gravity of Charles’s warning sent an icy chill up her spine. Who were those men? Or was Charles simply being cautious?

She glanced out the open door toward the riders. Charles had moved into the shadow of the barn, his rifle resting against his shoulder. She closed the door just enough to see outside and shoot.

The four men were a dirty lot, but that wasn’t anything unusual.

“Stop right there,” Charles said. Wolf growled, and Charles didn’t hush her.

“Not until we get what we came for,” one of the men said. “We know it’s here.”

“There’s nothing on this ranch that belongs to you. Consider yourself warned. There’s more than one rifle fixed on you.”

“Liar. Ain’t no one here but you and your Injun woman. We came to get what’s owed to us, and we ain’t leavin’ until we have it. We can tear this place apart with or without your say-so.”

“This is your last chance,” Charles said. “Get off my land.”

“When we have our money and you’re dead.”

“Kill me and you’ll have more trouble than you ever thought.”

Sage held her breath, straining to listen to every word. She wanted to shout at Charles to give them whatever they wanted. And why did they want him dead? All she and Charles had of value was livestock. The men could have driven them off and been gone.

Before she could further contemplate the situation, a shot rang out, and Charles fell backward. Sage gasped and rushed onto the porch. Another shot, and Wolf sprawled out beside Charles. Something seized her — a mixture of fury and panic. She stumbled down the steps, tripping in her awkwardness.

“Charles!” He didn’t move, no matter how loudly she screamed his name. Blood poured from his chest and spilled onto the ground. The men laughed, and she stared up at them, memorizing each grimy face.

The one who had shot Charles pointed his rifle at her. “Tell us where the money is or you can join him.”

“We don’t have any money. Take the cattle and horses.”

“I won’t ask again.”

She stared into his face, memorizing the dark, curly hair and hollow, wide-set eyes. With Charles’s body at her feet, revenge rose in her spirit. She raised the rifle, but too late. He fired.