Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Refuge on Crescent Hill - Chapter 1

Refuge on Crescent Hill

Kregel Publications (March 11, 2010)

by

Melanie Dobson


Chapter 1



The glass door was locked, but that didn’t stop Camden Bristow from yanking on the handle. The imposing desk on the other side of the glass was vacant, and the receptionist who usually waved her inside had disappeared. Behind the desk, the Fount Magazine logo mocked her, whispering that the money she so desperately needed had disappeared as well.

She pounded on the glass one last time, but no one came to the door.

Turning, she moved to a row of windows on the far side of the elevator. Sixteen stories below, swarms of people bustled toward their next appointment. Someplace they needed to be. Not long ago, she’d been rushing too, up and down Park Avenue to attend meetings at ad agencies and various magazines . . . including the suite of offices behind her.

Human rights. Natural disasters. Labor disputes. Whenever the photo editor at Fount needed the most poignant pictures for news articles, he called her, and nothing had stopped her from capturing what he needed for the next edition. She’d dedicated the past five years to responding to Grant Haussen’s calls, but after she came back from Indonesia two months ago, he stopped calling her.

She’d e mailed him the pictures of the earthquake’s aftermath along with her regular invoice of fees and expenses. He’d used the pictures in the next issue, but apparently discarded the invoice. She never received a check, and he didn’t return even one of her many calls.

A few years ago, she wouldn’t have worried as much about the money—those days her phone rang at all hours with freelance assignments to shoot pictures around the world—but her clients had slashed their budgets and were using stock photos or buying photographs from locals. The current results weren’t as compelling as sending a professional, but keeping the lights on—the rent paid—trumped paying for the best photography.

Her clients may be making rent, but she hadn’t been able to pay hers for two months. Her savings account was depleted. The income from her Indonesia shoot was supposed to appease her landlord and credit card company. Even though she hadn’t heard from Grant Haussen, she held out hope that she might at least recoup the expenses for her trip so she could pay off the whopping flight and hotel charges on her credit card.

All hope shattered when she read the morning’s headline.

FOUNT MAGAZINE DECLARES BANKRUPTCY

Others may have skimmed past this article, but the news stunned her. Three hours ago, she left her studio apartment and started walking until she found herself in Midtown, in the lobby of the Reinhold Building. A few staff members might remain at the Fount office, packing things up. Or if there were some sort of bankruptcy proceedings . . . maybe she could collect a few thousand dollars. Just enough to pay a portion of her bills while she tried to find more work.

It appeared that no one had stuck around to say goodbye.

The elevator dinged behind her, and she turned away from the windows and watched a skinny man in overalls push a mop and bucket into the hallway. He was at least two inches shorter than her five foot six.

She forced herself to smile, but he didn’t smile back. She pointed at the offices. “I need to find someone at the magazine.”

He grunted as he dipped his mop into the gray water and wrung it out. Shoving her fists into the pockets of her long jacket, she stepped toward him. “They owe me money.”

“You and half this dadgum town.”

“Yes, but—”

“They ran outta here so fast last night that the rubber on their shoes was smokin’.” He flopped the mop onto the tile floor and water spread toward his boots. “I’d bet good money that they ain’t comin’ back.”

Camden slumped against the window. Even if she were able to track down Grant, it wasn’t like he would personally write her a check for money the magazine owed. He was probably out hunting for a job already, or maybe he was stretched out on his couch watching Oprah, enjoying the luxury of not having to report for duty. He could collect unemployment while he slowly perused for a new gig.

Unfortunately, there was no unemployment for freelancers.

The janitor swabbed the mop across the tile in straight brushstrokes like he was painting instead of cleaning it, taking pride in his work.

She understood. At one time she had been proud of her work too. There was nothing more exhilarating than flying off to a country rocked by tragedy and immersing herself into an event that most people only read about. She was onsite to see the trauma, feel the aftershocks, though she never allowed herself to get personally involved. It was her job to record the crisis so others could help with the recovery. All she needed to do her job was her camera equipment and laptop.

Because of all her travels, she hadn’t accumulated much stuff over the years. Her landlord had furnished her flat before she moved in, but for almost five years, the apartment and everything in it had felt like hers. It was the longest she’d lived in one place her entire life.

But tonight, her landlord was changing the locks. Her home had been rented by someone else.

The man pushed his mop by her, ignoring her. She couldn’t blame him for his indifference. This city was full of people who needed a job—he was probably trying as hard as he could to keep his.

She would mop floors if she had to. Or scrub toilets. It wouldn’t pay enough for her to make rent, but maybe it would keep her from having to call her mom and beg for cash. If she called, her mother would pass the phone to her latest boyfriend—a retired executive living outside Madrid. Camden would rather sleep in a shelter than grovel to him.

She hopped over the wet trail left by the mop and stepped into the elevator.

Her landlord said she had until five o’clock to pack her stuff and vacate the building. The little credit she had left on her card wouldn’t pay for a week in a Manhattan hotel. And the few friends she’d made when she wasn’t traveling were struggling as much as she was. One of them might let her sleep on a couch, but she’d be expected to help with rent.

The elevator doors shut, and she punched the button for the lobby.

Where was she supposed to go from here?

###

The basement of the town hall smelled like burnt coffee and tobacco. The navy carpet had faded to a dull gray, and the dais at the front of the room was scuffed with shoe marks. Five men and two women sat behind a table on the platform—the bimonthly summit of Etherton’s City Council.

As the town mayor, Louise Danner presided over the city council from the middle chair. Her hoop earrings jangled below the signature Bic pen she propped behind her left ear. Copper-colored bangs veiled her smudged eyebrows.

Three steps below Louise’s chair, Alex Yates drummed his fingers on a stack of proposals and tried to listen as Evan Harper begged the councilors to let him tear down the barn on his property and replace it with a guesthouse.

In the eight months since he’d moved to Etherton, he learned that Louise Danner was almost as permanent a fixture in Etherton as the town hall. Within days of him taking this job, she told him exactly how she became mayor over the eleven thousand people in their town.

She had been born in a small house off Main Street and reigned as valedictorian over Etherton High’s Class of ’67. Armed with a degree from Marietta, she returned home after graduation and worked in several businesses across town until she secured the job of hospital administrator. Louise served on almost every town committee for the next thirty years, from historical preservation to the garden club, but when she landed the mayorship almost eight years ago, she dropped anchor.

She’d spent a boatload of money to retain her position during the last election, and with the state of the town’s economy, she would be fighting to keep her job when voters went to the polls in five months.

Alex rechecked his watch. It was almost lunchtime, and Evan Harper was still pleading his case. Alex saw the dilapidated barn every morning on the short drive to his office. Guesthouse or no guesthouse, he agreed with Evan—someone needed to put the structure out of its misery. A hearty gust of wind would end its life if the council wouldn’t approve demolition.

Alex stifled a yawn as Evan named all the people who could stay in the guesthouse including his wife’s elderly parents and his daughter’s college friends. Apparently, no one had told the man he couldn’t filibuster city council. If the mayor didn’t curtail Evan’s speech, he’d probably pull out the local phone book and read until the councilors adjourned for lunch. And once they walked out of the room, they may not reconvene in time.

Alex couldn’t wait for approval. He needed an answer today.

For the past month, he’d been quietly courting the owner of the ten-acre property at the edge of town—part of the old Truman farm. If the council concurred, the owner was ready to sell the land and farmhouse for a pittance. The town could buy it and use the property to help with their plans to revitalize the local economy.

Alex caught the mayor’s eye and tapped his watch.

“Thank you.” Louise interrupted Evan before he finished listing off every construction supply he’d purchased for the guesthouse. “I think that is all the information we need to make a decision.”

Evan plucked another piece of paper from his stack. “But I haven’t read the neighborhood petition.”

“We appreciate all the time and thought you’ve put into this, Evan.” Louise propped her chin up with her knuckles. “We’ll let you know if we have any other questions.”

Evan sat down on the wooden folding chair at the end of the row, and Alex leaned back as the council began discussing the hot issue of preservation versus progress.

Most of the councilors were successful business leaders and attorneys, passionate in either their pro-growth or anti-development stance. Today he needed to convince them that voting “yes” on his proposal would commemorate the town’s history and lay the foundation for their legacy while generating new revenue and development for the town.

Alex glanced at his watch and sighed. If it took the councilors forty minutes to decide the fate of a rickety barn, how long would it take them to make a decision on his proposal?

When he parted ways with corporate mania last year, he thought he’d left behind the constricting strands of red tape that kept him from doing his job, but he’d learned that Etherton’s residents, along with the city council, rode the high of debate until they were forced to vote. Sometimes the debate lasted weeks, or even months.

Edward Paxton led the charge against development. He didn’t want his town to change nor did he want Alex involved with any of the town’s business. Rumor had it that he wanted his grandson, Jake, to take the economic development position that Louise had created last spring to solicit new business. The only problem was that no one else on the council wanted Jake Paxton to be involved. Edward seemed to hold a personal vendetta against Alex for stealing his grandson’s job.

At least the mayor was on his team. She’d gambled when she hired him, but he assured her and the council that he’d deliver. On their terms.

After almost an hour of discussion, Louise called for a vote, and Evan smacked his knees when they approved his guesthouse with a 4–3 vote. He saluted the row of councilors as he rushed out, probably on his way to rent an excavator. Alex guessed the barn would be in a heap when he drove home tonight.

He sighed. If only getting the council to approve a project was always this easy . . .
Etherton needed the tax revenue from new businesses to fix its brick streets, increase the police force, and build a high school. The city’s officials expected Alex to find a way to merge their small town charm with big city business.

Blending these two ideals was no small feat. Not long after he moved to Etherton, he worked a deal to build a Wal Mart Supercenter on a piece of farm property at the edge of town. Some towns didn’t want a Wal Mart, but since their local economy had tanked, he thought most of the locals would welcome the store. After all, most of them drove forty-five minutes each week to visit the Wal Mart in Mansfield, and this would bring discount clothes, groceries, car care, and—most importantly—jobs to their back door.

He was wrong.

When the council voted last December, residents of Etherton packed City Hall, a chorus of dissension over why their town couldn’t bear the weight of a conglomerate. The icy room turned hot as tempers flared. Small business owners threatened to overthrow the seats of every council member who supported the proposal.

In the end, the council rejected his plan. The town desperately needed the revenue and the jobs, but apparently not enough to put out the welcome mat for a mega store. A local farmer bought the field to plant corn, and Etherton missed out on the much-needed sales tax that would flood into Fredericktown when Wal-Mart opened its doors there this fall.

The council told him they wanted new business, but they wanted something quaint that would fit the town’s celebration of all things old. It was a hard task—but he’d found the perfect solution. If the residents were willing to risk a little, he was ready to deliver both quaint and classy . . . wrapped up in a pretty package and tied together with a sound financial bow.

Louise slid the pen out from behind her ear and tapped it on the table. She dismissed the few people in the audience, explaining that the rest of the meeting was a closed session, and then she pointed at him. “You’re up, Alex.”

He straightened his tie and stood to face the councilors. It was about to get hot again.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Simple Secrets - Chapter 1

Simple Secrets
Barbour Books (June 1, 2010)

by

Nancy Mehl


Chapter 1



“She wants a talking pizza on the cover.”

Grant slid my proposal across the desk until it rested in front of me. His dark eyes narrowed, warning me not to argue. We both knew it was useless, but I couldn’t stop myself. I’d worked hard on a menu cover for Pizzazz Pizza. The lines were clean and bold, the graphics eye-catching.

“You know pizzas don’t actually speak, right?” An attempt to keep a note of sarcasm out of my voice failed miserably.

He sighed and ran his hand through his short salt-and-pepper hair. Managing an advertising agency isn’t easy, and Grant works with more problem clients than most. Grantham Design is a mid-range firm. Not the worst, but not the best. Grant’s dream is to make it to the top like Sawyer, Higgins, and Smith, the number one advertising firm in Wichita. I’m pretty sure I knew what those guys would tell Olivia Pennington to do with her chatty Italian pie if this was their account. But unfortunately for Grant and me, we couldn’t afford to lose her as a client.

I sighed and picked up my beautiful proposal. Maybe I could make it work for someone else—a client who was savvy enough to leave designing to the designers.

“A talking pizza,” he said once again. “And don’t get too creative, Gracie.”

“Exactly what every designer strives for, a complete lack of imagination.”

“Just make it work.” With that, he turned and strolled out of my office, leaving me with a rejected design and a verbal food product in my future. I stared out the window at the deli across the street. Feeling hunger pangs, I glanced at my watch. Maybe I could consider the new menu design over lunch. Uptown Bistro serves the best hummus in town. Just thinking about it made my mouth water. My jaw dropped when I looked at the clock on my desk. Nine thirty? How could it only be nine thirty?

I flashed back to the excitement I’d experienced two years earlier when I graduated from college with a degree in graphic design. I was determined to set the design world on fire. But since then I’d discovered that the real world is a lot different than what I’d imagined. Most clients aren’t interested in seeing my ideas. Instead, they boldly declare that they “know exactly what they want.” Unfortunately, their brilliant concepts are simply remakes of overused, hackneyed concepts, completely inappropriate for their needs. Like a talking pizza. I rubbed my forehead, trying to rid myself of the beginnings of a tension headache. Sometimes I felt like a kid who’d been handed a box of crayons and admonished to “color in the lines” without any chance for creativity or fresh ideas.

I put the Pizzazz Pizza packet in my drawer and stared at my computer screen. Well, if she wanted chatty food, I’d give her chatty food. At that moment, several ideas popped into my head that would make for interesting dialogue. Of course, none of them were appropriate for a family night out at the local pizza parlor. Then I began to wonder just what a pepperoni covered pastry would say if it could talk. I was pretty sure it would scream “Help!” as loudly as possible since it was about to be sliced into pieces and devoured. However, I doubted seriously that Olivia Pennington would appreciate the humor behind such an idea. A few other entertaining concepts were drifting through my mind when the phone rang.

“Hello, Snicklefritz!”

I sighed into the phone. “Dad, I thought you were going to stop calling me that.”

“Grace Marie, I’ve been calling you Snicklefritz ever since you were a little girl. You used to like it.”

I leaned back in my chair and stared at the framed photograph of my parents that sat on the edge of my desk. “But I’m not five anymore. What if you accidentally use it in public again—like you did at graduation?”

My dad laughed. “Your friend Stacy said I was ‘darling.’”

“Stacy was not and never will be my friend, Dad. She told everyone about that silly nickname. There are still people from school who call me Snicklefritz.”

My dad’s hearty laughter made me grab a strand of hair and twirl it around my finger—a nervous habit I couldn’t seem to shake.

“So what’s up?” My stomach tightened a notch. He usually never contacts me at work unless something’s wrong. Like two weeks ago when he told me he’d broken his leg and would be out of commission for a while. And the call last year after Mom was diagnosed with cancer. Thank God, she’s fine now.

“Honey, we got word today that your uncle Benjamin passed away.”

My stomach relaxed, and I let go of my hair. I’d never even met my father’s only brother. He lived in a little Mennonite town somewhere in northeast Kansas.

“What happened, Dad?”

There was a prolonged silence. When he spoke, my father’s voice trembled slightly. “It was his heart, Gracie.”

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fine, honey. I just wish. . .”

“You tried everything you could to mend your fences with him, Dad. You have nothing to feel guilty about.”

A shaky sigh came through the receiver. “I know that, but it doesn’t make it any easier right now.”

“Do you need me to come home? When’s the funeral?”

“The community has already held the service.”

“You mean no one told you about your own brother’s funeral?” I didn’t even try to keep the indignation out of my voice. “What kind of people are these? Is it because you’re banned or something?”

“Now don’t jump to conclusions. Turns out Benjamin left strict instructions that this was the way he wanted it. The pastor who called me felt badly but didn’t know what else to do except to honor my brother’s wishes. He—he also wanted me to know about Benjamin’s will.”

“So what did he leave you?” It couldn’t be much due to Benjamin’s lifestyle.

“He didn’t leave me anything, honey. My brother left his house in Harmony, along with all of his belongings to you, Gracie.”

Goofy talking pizzas had obviously warped my brain. My father’s words made no sense.

“What? He left what to who?”

“Left what to whom, Gracie.”

“Dad, this is notthe time to correct my English. Why in the world would Uncle Benjamin leave me his estate? He didn’t even know me.”
“I don’t know, honey. The congregation we belonged to when I was young believed in The Ban. Benjamin embraced the practice the rest of his life, even though the church as a whole doesn’t do it anymore. You were born after your Mom and I left Harmony. Since you were never part of the church, I guess in Benjamin’s mind you’re the only relative left who isn’t off-limits.” He sighed. “You know, my brother wasn’t always so judgmental. Originally, Benjamin fully supported my decision to leave Harmony. But after your mom and I settled in Fairbury, something happened. He changed—and not for the better.” My father paused. “I wish I’d taken him with me when I left. Maybe things would have turned out differently.”

“I’m sorry, Dad. I really am. But this still doesn’t make any sense.” It would take some time before I could grasp the idea that I was now a property owner in a little Mennonite town.

“I wish I could help you more, Gracie. But with this leg, I can’t travel. And Mom needs to stay here to take care of me. I’m overnighting the papers so you can look at them yourself. You’ll have to decide what to do from there.”

“Seems to me that Uncle Benjamin took a big chance leaving everything to someone he didn’t know. I might decide to sell the land and plant a Motel 6 in the middle of Harmony.”

My dad chuckled. “Well, that would definitely shake things up a bit.” He hesitated for a moment. “Your mother and I left Harmony because the bishop of our church opposed our marriage even though our parents supported us. He ruled that town, Gracie. His judgmental attitudes made life unbearable. But your mother reminds me that he’s been gone a long time. Pastor Mueller, the man who called today, seemed nice. Very understanding. Not at all like Bishop Angstadt. I’m not crazy about the idea of your going to Harmony alone, but your mother tells me I’m overreacting. Pastor Mueller said he would do everything he could to help you. He sounded very sincere.”

“Send me the papers, Dad. I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do about this.”

“I don’t want to make your mind up for you, Snickle. . .er, Gracie. But maybe you could go for at least a week or two. See if you can find someone to buy the place. The money would certainly create a nice nest egg for your future. And while you’re there, you could rescue some of the possessions that belonged to Mama and Papa so they can stay in the family. When my folks left Harmony, they deeded the house to Benjamin and left almost all their belongings behind. My guess is that Benjamin kept most of our family heirlooms. It would mean a lot to me if we could get them back.” He paused and took a deep breath. “But once you get them, if you feel uncomfortable in Harmony, I want you to turn around and come home. Forget the stuff. You’re more important than any heirlooms. Promise me, Gracie.”

“Okay, I promise.” My dad tends to be overdramatic when it comes to me. His emotional response to their old hometown didn’t alarm me. I suddenly thought of my grandfather. “Dad, are you going to tell Papa that Benjamin died?

“No. Mom and I have talked about it. I don’t know if he even remembers Benjamin anymore. It would just confuse him, I’m afraid.”

Papa Joe lived in a nursing home and was in the last stages of Alzheimer’s. Mama Essie had passed away almost five years ago. They’d never been able to understand why Benjamin had turned his back on the family and stayed in Harmony. Now it was too late for them to reconcile. At least in this world.

Harmony. Strange name for a place that had brought so much destruction to the Temple family. Would this gift from my uncle help to heal the past or would it bring even more pain? It was impossible to know the answer to that question by just sitting in my office.

I smiled down at the sketches of Pizzazz Pizza’s new logo. Let Grant figure out what conversational cuisine says.

I was going to Harmony.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Love Find You In Golden, New Mexico - Chapter 1


Love Finds You In Golden, New Mexico
Summerside Press (May 1, 2010)


by


Lena Nelson Dooley



Chapter 1


Early spring, 1890
Golden, New Mexico

“Are you plumb crazy?” Jeremiah Dennison’s loud retort bounced around the main room of the adobe house and returned to mock him. “Where did you get such a harebrained idea?”

Trying to control his anger, he shoved his clenched fists into his denim trousers’ pockets, paced to the window, and stared out, pay¬ing scant attention to the piƱon trees bending in the wind. He loved Philip Smith like a father, but the man could vex the weather. And this latest idea was the most farfetched yet.

Philip gave a snort. “Harebrained?” He put his rocking chair into motion that sent out a rhythmic squeaking. “Why’d ya say that? It’s worked fer other men.”

Jeremiah tried to calm down. He wanted to measure his words, season them with wisdom that would awaken his elderly friend to all the pitfalls he would face. “What would you do with a mail-order bride?”

The old miner stilled the chair and stared at Jeremiah, obsidian eyes piercing under his bushy white brows. “Somethin’ ”—he smoth¬ered a hacking cough with his fist, then swiped a clean handkerchief across his face—“has a deadly grip on me.

“I know you’re sick. I take care of you, don’t I?” Jeremiah resented the fact that what he’d done wasn’t enough. Otherwise, Philip wouldn’t even consider such a preposterous proposition.

His old friend reached up to scratch the scraggly beard he’d worn all the years he was a miner, but it no longer covered his clean-shaven chin. Old habits died hard. “Jerry, I don’t wanna be a burden on ya.”

“You’d rather be a burden to a woman you don’t even know?” Jeremiah regretted his cynical tone the moment the words flew from his lips. He softened his tone. “I’ve never considered you a burden any more than you thought I was a burden when I came to the gold fields as a greenhorn.”

Philip clutched the arms of the rocking chair and slowly rose. He took a moment to steady himself before he ambled toward Jeremiah. “I ain’t come to this decision easy.” He squinted up into Jeremiah’s face. “I done studied on it fer a while.”

Jeremiah straightened the fingers he’d gripped into fists and relaxed his stiff spine. “What do you mean, ‘studied’?”

“Well, I figure a woman who’d answer them ads in the news¬paper must be purty needy, maybe even desperate to get out of a particular bad situation.” He gave a vigorous nod that riffled his snowy hair. “Made me a fortune when I sold my mine. More money than any man can spend in his lifetime. What good is a fortune to an old-timer like me? Won’t never have a family of my own. Maybe I’ll git me a woman with children. She can take care a me, and my money can take care a her.” Another nod punctuated his last state¬ment. “And her young’uns, if she has any.”

How could Jeremiah deny his mentor’s request? Philip never asked for much. If he didn’t do this, the stubborn old man would look for help from someone else. A lesser friend might have a wagging tongue and spread the story all around Golden. Philip didn’t need people gossiping about him sending for a bride. And other miners might try to nab her for themselves when she arrived. If Jeremiah had his way, it would be fine with him if they did, but his friend would be too disappointed. He didn’t want to break Philip’s heart, just talk him out of making this mistake.

“Jerry, ya ain’t mad ’cause I’m plannin’ to give my money to someone else, are ya?”

The words stabbed Jeremiah’s heart. How could Philip believe that about him? “I don’t need your money. I have more than enough of my own, thanks to selling my own mine and starting the ranch like you told me to.”

The hoary head nodded. “That’s what I figured.”

“Where you going to send the ad?” Jeremiah couldn’t believe he was considering being a part of this crazy scheme. But what else could he do?

Philip limped toward the sturdy pine dining table where a stack of newspapers was piled haphazardly beside blank paper, an inkwell, and a pen. “I read all these, and I think I’ll send it to the Boston Globe.” He picked up the top newspaper and shoved the rumpled pages toward Jeremiah.

Taking the newsprint, Jeremiah glanced at the headlines on the front page. An unusually hard winter had left many people out in the cold. “Why Boston?”

“Don’t want jist anybody. Wanna help a lady in distress.” Philip folded his scrawny arms across his bony chest. “Figure most a the women in Boston are ladies. My aunt Charlotte come from Boston, and she was a lady.” He stopped and cleared his throat, then wheezed out a slow breath. “You do the writin’, ’cause mine looks like hen scratchin’.”

Judging from the stubborn tilt to the older man’s chin, Jeremiah knew Philip’s mind was made up. He dropped the newspaper back on the stack and pulled out the chair beside the stationery. “What do you want to say?”

He picked up the pen with the golden nib—another of the things the old miner had bought after he’d sold the mine. It had never been dipped into the inkwell until now.

Philip leaned both hands on the table, puffed out his chest, and wrinkled his forehead in concentration. “How about, Wanted, a… No. Makes it sound like she’s an outlaw, or somethin’. Do it this way. A Christian man in Golden, New Mexico, is seekin’…” He waited for Jeremiah to finish writing the phrase. “Sound all right so far?”

Wanting to laugh, Jeremiah kept his eyes trained on the words before him. Philip was so serious. “What are you seeking?”

The old miner scratched his head. “I want a lady. Done already told ya that.”

“Maybe we could say, a Christian lady. That should cover it.”

Jeremiah dipped the pen in the inkwell. When he held it poised over the paper, waiting for Philip to agree with his suggestion, a small drop fell and quickly spread into an unsightly blob. “I’ve messed up this sheet. Do you have a pencil? I could use it while we figure out the wording. Then I’ll copy it in ink.”

Philip made his way to the sideboard against the back wall of the large open room and pulled out a drawer. He shuffled through the contents before holding up the stub of a pencil. “Here’s the onliest one I got.”

“It’ll do.” Jeremiah reached for the pencil and continued, “A Christian man in Golden, New Mexico, seeks a Christian lady… where do we go now?”

Once again, Philip was deep in thought. “…who needs a chance at a new life.”

Jeremiah nodded and added the words. “I like it. Do you want to say anything else, or should I just put your name and address?”

“That’s enough, but put General Delivery as my address.” A smile crept across the older man’s face, bringing a twinkle to his rheumy eyes.

He returned to his rocking chair while Jeremiah copied the words with ink, folded the message, inserted the paper in an envelope, and wrote the address for the Boston Globe on the front.

“I suppose you want me to take this to the post office.” He knew Philip didn’t get out much in the chilly spring air of the Ortiz Moun¬tains, because it aggravated his breathing problem.

“If ya don’t mind.” Philip reached into the watch pocket of his trousers and pulled out a coin. “Here’s the money.”

“I don’t need your money.” Jeremiah headed toward the front door. “I just hope you aren’t making a mistake.”

Philip cleared his throat. “Jerry?” Huskiness colored his tone. “I’m thankful fer all ya do to help me.” He paused until Jeremiah gave him a nod. “I’ve talked to the good Lord about this. I’m sure He agrees with what I’m doin’.”

What could Jeremiah say to that? Nothing. He couldn’t explain why, but when Philip Smith talked to his Lord, things happened. Jeremiah pushed his hair back before donning his Stetson and exit¬ing through the front door, being careful it latched behind him. He didn’t want Philip to have to get up and close it again if it should blow open after he was gone. Let him rest in his rocking chair. After all his long years of mining, he’d earned it.

Marching down the cobblestone street toward the post office, Jer¬emiah hoped he wouldn’t meet anyone who wanted to talk. The sooner he got this letter mailed, the sooner he could wash his hands of the whole situation. Maybe no one would answer the ad. Or maybe he could just tear the whole thing up and not tell Philip he didn’t mail it.

If he wasn’t honorable, he could get away with that. But he couldn’t lie to the man who meant more to him than anyone in the world. Wouldn’t be right. He’d make sure to look over any letters Philip received. He wouldn’t let some floozy use his friend as her meal ticket and think coming here was her golden opportunity—in more ways than one. No sirree, he’d watch anyone who came with an eagle eye. She would have to pass his inspection before he’d introduce her to Philip. Even if his old friend did say he’d talked to God about it.

As Jeremiah walked into town, he fastened the top button on his long-sleeved shirt. The day would heat up later, but spring brought cool breezes in the early morning. When he passed the hotel, Caro¬line Oldman stepped through the door and started sweeping the boardwalk.

“Morning, Caroline.” He tipped his hat to the proprietress, who was also the wife of the preacher. They’d been good friends to Jer¬emiah since they arrived in Golden. Their influence had calmed the rowdy town a lot.

He kept walking toward the post office. Would Philip hear from a woman before summer? Jeremiah hoped the old miner wouldn’t receive a single answer to his ad. Jeremiah thought back to when he came from Missouri to New Mexico searching for gold. Philip was the first miner he’d met. Thin and wiry, the old man’s face was almost hidden behind his long beard and thin gray hair that reached to his shoulders, but he had a heart of gold. He’d befriended Jeremiah and helped him learn all about mining. He was even there when Jeremiah’s partner was killed in a cave-in at the mine they owned together.

Philip had listened to all of Jeremiah’s rantings and guided him toward becoming a cattleman. He knew Philip prayed for him all the time. But Jeremiah couldn’t accept all that God nonsense himself. Where had God been when train robbers killed his mother and he was left in the clutches of his cruel uncle and father?

With a shudder, he shook his head to dislodge the images invad¬ing his thoughts. The less he thought about the past, the better. Too much pain and suffering there.

He was sure Philip had prayed about sending this letter, but Jeremiah wasn’t convinced there was a God. And if there was, why would He care whether some greedy woman came to fleece the old miner? Jeremiah would guarantee that didn’t happen.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Seeds of Summer - Prologue and Chapter 1

Seeds of Summer
Zondervan (May 25, 2010)

by

Deborah Vogts


Prologue


Fear and anticipation gripped Natalie Adams’ stomach as she waited on that Las Vegas contestant stage. But she continued to smile. Always smile for the judges. Her cheeks threatened to crack at any second from the building tension.

Mama’s pet name for her had been Princess, but Natalie planned to take that title one step further and be queen. She’d spent most of her life preparing for this moment, the moment she could be crowned Miss Rodeo America, and she was ready. Her hard work had paid off in the horsemanship division of the competition, and despite her dad’s complaints, and her penchant for a good pair of boots, her fashion budget hadn’t put them in the poor house.

The competition narrowed down to two contestants — Miss Rodeo California and herself representing Kansas. Natalie could hardly breathe. Her mind spun with the possibilities of what this might mean. A year of touring, more scholarships, meeting and helping people. She’d be a national representative for the Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association for an entire year — a sport she felt most passionate about.

Oh, how she wished her mother were hhere to share this moment with her. She might finally break free.

With a nervous laugh, she squeezed the hand of the other contestant, willing the emcee to announce her name. The heat from the large spotlights radiated against her skin, and Natalie feared she might melt away in her red leather gown.

“And the new Miss Rodeo America is . . .”

It happened so fast.

The roar from the crowd couldn’t compare to the cameras flashing all around her as last year’s queen crowned the woman standing beside her.

I will not cry, I will not cry, I will NOT cry. Natalie continued to smile as she hugged the new Miss Rodeo America, her own heart breaking.

She stepped back to stand with the other three ladies, while the winner walked the stage and waved at the hundreds of onlookers in the hotel showroom. When the celebration ended, the contestants and Natalie were escorted off the stage and back to the dressing room. The Miss Rodeo America song continued to boom in her ears like a bad television commercial.

Her dad grabbed her hand and enclosed her in a suffocating hug. He led her to a quiet spot and smiled down at her. “You did good out there. If your mother were alive, she’d be real proud of you.” Natalie’s breath caught in her chest as a tear streaked down her father’s weathered cheek. Then his expression sobered and returned to what she’d known her entire life.

“You had your chance and you did your best,” he said. “Now it’s time to get back to the real world . . .”



Chapter 1




FIVE MONTHS LATER

Metal scraped against metal, waking Natalie from a restless sleep. Again, the screech came from outside. With a reluctant groan, she forced herself from her cotton sheets and fumbled in the dark to find her boots.

What was out there? And why wasn’t Jessie barking?

She slipped her bare feet into leather ropers, then hurried from the bedroom down the stairs, hoping she wouldn’t rouse her younger siblings. An instant foreboding caused her to grab the shotgun her dad always kept behind the back door. Natalie loaded it with a couple of shells before heading to the porch — just in case. As her eyes adjusted to the outside darkness, she distinguished the faint outline of a truck backed up to the barn entrance. She crept through the barnyard.

“Who’s there?” Her voice wavered as she clutched the wooden forearm of the aged Winchester, prepared to fire a warning shot at the moon if necessary.

A small beam of light darted inside the old limestone barn, then disappeared.

“Tom, is that you?” Natalie eased her finger closer to the trigger. Silence. Then the hollow clamor of feed buckets knocked to the ground as though someone had tripped over them.

Natalie held her breath. Her heart thumped wildly against her chest as she thought about the recent thefts in the county. If only her dad were here.

But he’s not, and you’re in charge. Slow, mechanical breaths helped her to see this might be nothing more than their hired hand returning from a night at the bar. She knew little about Tom Walker, but the idea that he’d been out with friends on a Friday night was more probable than not.

A tall figure edged from the shadows. Natalie recognized the pale shock of curls highlighted by the luminous night.

“Hey there, don’t shoot.” The ranch employee rested his hands on his head. “I was only putting some stuff away in the barn.”

“Working kind of late, aren’t you?”

“Just got back from a rodeo.” Tom’s voice grew louder as he approached. “Sorry if I frightened you.”

Natalie lowered the shotgun, then gazed up at the sky, relief lodged in her throat. “You could’ve turned on the barn lights. At least then I wouldn’t have thought someone was sneaking around out here.”

“Didn’t want to wake the house.”

In the faint moonlight, she caught the glint of an uneasy smile on the man’s face. “How’d you do?”

“Tough night for steer wrestling.”

Natalie knew all about rodeo and tough nights. “There’ll be others.”

He dropped his arms, and she noticed Jessie at his side. No wonder the faithful border collie hadn’t barked. Suddenly aware of how she must look, she combed her fingers through her wayward locks. Dressed in baggy shorts, a torn T-shirt, and a pair of pink boots, she held little resemblance to her former title as Miss Rodeo Kansas, or of a rancher either.

And that’s what she was now — a twenty-two-year-old ranch owner in the Flint Hills of Charris County, Kansas. She shook her head, confounded by the turn of events her life had taken in the past week. “Well, I’m sorry for interrupting your work. I’ll let you get back to your business.” Hoping he wouldn’t sense her despair, she turned toward the house. As she did, an engine revved in the near distance. Tracing the noise, she saw a truck tear from behind the barn, its headlights aimed for the lane.

Staggering backward, she almost dropped her father’s shotgun but somehow managed to bring the wooden stock to her shoulder. “Hey, you there,” she called out. “Stop or I’ll shoot.”

The truck vaulted onto the dirt road and spun gravel as it sped away. Speechless, Natalie lowered the gun and whirled toward the hired hand, expecting him to go after the culprits sneaking around her father’s barn.

Then she acknowledged the panic in the man’s eyes.

“What were you and your buddies doing in there?” Her brows crinkled, and she instantly thought the worst. Dark barn, suspicious behavior. Had they been doing drugs, or were they stealing?

“It’s not what you think.” The hostility in the air pricked her skin as the man stepped closer. He stood a half-foot taller than her own five-foot-eight.

Natalie gripped the shotgun, her palms damp with sweat. Did she have the guts to shoot a man? She aimed the barrel at his chest. “Is this how you’re going to honor my father? By stealing from him? He’s not been dead a week.”

“The boys and I — we were just having some fun — talking was all.” His gentle voice caressed her.

Natalie recognized the seduction of his lie — the flicker of deceit in his eyes. “In the dark?”

“No law against talking in the dark.” He reached in her direction, much too close for her comfort.

She shoved his lanky body back with the metal barrel and thought of all the work they needed to accomplish the next day unloading and sorting cattle. Could she and the kids get along without his help if she fired him? Could she trust him to tell the truth?

His lips pulled into a pout. “Come on, Miss Adams. I’ve been with your dad for nearly six months. He trusted me. We weren’t doing nothing wrong . . . honest.”

Natalie searched the man’s eyes for a hint of sincerity. “Swear on your mama’s grave?” Even as the words came from her mouth, she knew she was a fool to trust him.

“Better — I’ll swear on your daddy’s.”

Natalie’s throat swelled as hot tears threatened to fall. Her good judgment now clouded with grief, she eased the barrel toward the ground and shook her head in embarrassment. “I guess the stress is getting to me. Sorry for being so jumpy.”

Tom nodded in understanding. “No need to apologize. A person can’t be too careful these days — especially a young woman like yourself. It’s good I’m around for protection.”

Natalie disregarded his remark, finding no comfort in it. Her gut twisted at the vulnerable position her father’s death had placed her in as Tom drifted back to the darkness of the barn. With a weary sigh, she studied the moon above. Like a shooting star, her life had changed in an instant and no matter how much she wished it, not even the crickets or the moaning bullfrogs could set it right again.

Returning to the house, she peeked in on her twelve-year-old brother, asleep in his upstairs bedroom. His tranquil face reflected no worries, no hint of strain from their recent ordeal.

Oh, that her rest could be as peaceful.

When Natalie opened the door to her sister’s bedroom, she failed to make out a form under the covers. A flick of the light revealed Chelsey’s bed hadn’t been slept in. She glanced about the room, and then noticed the splay of curtains caught in a warm breeze from the open dormer window.

Natalie darted back to Dillon’s room.

“Where’s Chelsey?” She jiggled her brother’s leg and watched the young boy rouse from a deep sleep.

Dillon rubbed his eyes and sat up in bed. “What?”

“Chelsey’s not in her room. Do you have any idea where she might be? Out with friends? A party somewhere?”

Her brother shook his head, then yawned. “I heard her talking on the phone to Lucas earlier. Maybe she’s with him.”

Natalie’s mouth grew taut. Nothing good ever happened past midnight, and it was now close to two. She hoped the reckless teenagers weren’t in a ditch somewhere.

A loud thump from Chelsey’s room caused those thoughts to evaporate.

Natalie rounded the hallway to find her fifteen-year-old sister crumpled on the bedroom floor.

Chelsey raised her head, her eyes glazed. “Hey, sis.” Her words came out slurred as she tried to stand. “Did ya miss me?”

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Finding Jeena - Excerpt from Chapter 17

Finding Jeena
Kregel Publications (March 8, 2010)

by

Miralee Ferrell



Chapter 17



Jeena padded around her kitchen in her slippers and pj’s, disgusted that she’d been unable to sleep. Her mind swam with images of the district attorney wading through her finances and finding something incriminating, although her common sense assured her there was nothing to find.

She had one area of joy that had kept her going. Her mutual funds matured tomorrow, and she’d catch up on her bills. It wouldn’t pay all that she owed on the back car payments, but it should satisfy the bank and keep the manager of the townhouse off her back until she found a good job. Her credit rating was already shot, so the department store and credit cards wouldn’t take priority. Food, housing, and transportation were definitely at the top of her list.

The teakettle whistled, and she decided on her favorite tea, orange mango, then settled into the comfort of her couch and picked up her mail. She’d neglected to look at it the past couple of days, as nothing came anymore except bills. The longer she could ignore those, the better.

What in the world? Her hand stilled over the stack of envelopes, then gingerly plucked one out. Why would the IRS be contacting her? She’d filed her taxes on time, and there was nothing that would have flagged her for an audit. At least she hoped not. She thought over the last return. A sense of dread washed over her, making her feel lightheaded. Maybe she needed the wine instead of the tea, after all.

Snap out of it, Jeena. Slitting open the envelope, she pulled out the sheaf of papers, thumbing through them quickly.

What did this mean? All accounts are frozen. What accounts? She felt a sense of panic as she raced through the document.

A few minutes later, she laid the papers on the table, her tea forgotten. She had to call somebody. But who? She reached for her cell but only managed to knock over the cup of tea. “Blast!” She jumped to her feet, anger and fear vying for top place in her mind.

She wished she could call Susanne. No way. She blocked out the kindness she’d seen in her friend’s face. David didn’t approve, and he had Susanne under his thumb—especially now that Susanne was a Christian.

Maybe Tammy would help. But help how? She didn’t have legal expertise, and they were barely getting back on their feet financially. The last thing Jeena needed was to burden her friend with this mess. A lawyer, that’s what. She grabbed her purse, remembering a business card given to her by an attorney who’d been hitting on her, wanting a date. The man was married, and that was a line she never crossed. Maybe he’d be willing to give her some free advice.

She flipped open her cell with fingers that shook and tried to focus on the small print on the card. Good grief, get a grip! The IRS can’t just freeze someone’s bank account.
“What can I help you with, Ms. Gregory?” Daniel asked in his most professional voice. Ha! His wife must be home. She decided to let it go, although on a better day, she would have reamed him for it. “Could I ask your advice on a legal issue?”

“Go ahead, but I need to keep it brief.”

“I got a letter from the IRS. They’ve frozen all my accounts, and I can’t touch any of my funds. Can they do that?”

“Do they give a reason?” The voice on the other end turned brisk as Daniel moved from sneaky husband into smooth attorney.

“The document says it’s because I worked for Browning and Thayer. Mr. Hanover made good his threat and turned them in to the IRS. Everyone in the firm is under investigation.”

“So they’ve named you as a person of interest?”

“Yes. But I only worked there three months and had nothing to do with the bookkeeping or taxes. If I call them and explain, will they release my accounts?”

“They can do pretty much anything they want to. I doubt calling them will help. The freeze won’t be permanent, but they have the right to keep it in effect until they’re satisfied you aren’t liable for the company’s taxes and had no part in the tax evasion.

“If they found you culpable in any way, they would drain your accounts and probably throw you in jail. Be thankful you didn’t have anything to do with the bookkeeping.”

“How long could this drag on? I need my money.” She tried to keep the panic out of her voice.

“No telling. I’ve seen cases like this drag on for months, even years. It all depends on how far it goes back and how deep they need to dig.”

Jeena jumped to her feet. “Years! I can’t go years! I can’t even go months. I need to eat, buy gas, pay my bills. There has to be something I can do.”

“Sorry, I can’t help you. Retain a good tax attorney, but they don’t come cheap. In the long run, he’d probably take your money and tell you what I have. Tough it out till they clear you.”

“This can’t be happening! You’ve got to help me, Daniel.” She stormed across the room and careened around the corner of an end table, narrowly missing the lamp sitting near the edge.

“I have to go. My wife’s coming. Sorry I can’t help more.”

She heard the click of the phone before she was able to say good-bye. Great. But it wasn’t as if he cared. He was so worried about his wife finding out what a jerk he was that he hadn’t even registered her fear.

God, why are You doing this to me? Are You paying me back for hating my dad? Is that it? Jeena sank onto her sofa, all hope draining from her like water draining out of a kettle shot full of holes, and tried to still her shaking hands. It was time for that bottle of wine.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Deceit - Chapter 1

Deceit

Zondervan (June 18, 2010)
by

Brandilyn Collins





Chapter 1


February 2010

Some evil shouts from rooftops, some scuttles in the dark. The greatest evil tips its face toward light with shining innocence.

Baxter Jackson shone with the worst of them.

In my sister’s kitchen I focused out the sliding glass door to her backyard. Relentless rain pummeled the night. The weather matched my mood. The Vonita Times, our town’s weekly paper, lay on the square wooden table across from me. Its front-page headline glared: Skip Tracer Accuses Police Chief of Shirking Duty.

My sister followed my gaze. “Maybe it really was an accident, Joanne.”

I shot her a look of accusation and hurt. “You too?” As if the rest of the town weren’t enough. “I thought you agreed with me.”

She drew a long breath. “I don’t know what to think. Two wives gone does look suspicious, but there’s no proof Baxter did anything. Once Cherisse’s death was ruled an accident — ”

“How many people fall down stairs and die, Dineen, even if they are hardwood? That only happens in old movies.”

“But that’s what the coroner said.”

“And he’s up for reelection next year, and who do you suppose gave the most to his last campaign?”

“I know, but I just can’t believe any coroner would find signs of a murder and look the other way, especially this man. I mean, I know Bud Gidst. So do you.”

I pushed back my chair, picked up my plate, and stacked hers on top. Marched them over to the sink and set them down none too gently. I loved my sister like crazy, always had. She was twelve years younger, and I’d always looked after her. I steered her clear of bratty, bully girls in grade school, the wrong guys in high school. I urged her to fight her self-serving ex in court until he paid the two years’ worth of child support he owed for Jimmy. But the fact was, Dineen had always been too trusting. She just couldn’t believe anything bad about anybody until it hit her in the face.

“Sometimes people don’t want to see the truth, Dineen.” I rinsed the plates, the water hissing. “Autopsy findings are open to interpretation. To say all those bruises and contusions on Cherisse’s head didn’t match a fall down the stairs would be calling Baxter Jackson a liar. Maybe Bud didn’t want to believe that.”

Or maybe his ruling was far more sinister. Baxter Jackson was the richest man in Vonita and practically ran the town. He sponsored a Little League baseball team and personally paid for Vonita’s Fourth of July fireworks. He was everybody’s best friend. Nobody in the county ever spoke against Baxter.

Except me.

I turned off the water. If only I could wring that eavesdropping reporter’s neck. My argument with the chief of police had not been intended for the public’s ear.

“Yeah, maybe.” My sister sounded only half convinced. She pushed a lock of dark hair behind her ears, then hugged herself.

Voices from the TV drifted in from the den. Nine-year-old Jimmy was watching some reality cop show. My head hurt. I walked back to my chair and slumped into it, suddenly feeling old at fifty-two. Dineen pressed her lips together and regarded me with a beleaguered expression. Her hazel eyes held concern. “I’m just sorry you’ve gotten yourself mixed up in this.”

Thursday’s newspaper headline fairly shouted at me. I reached out and flipped it over. “I know.” I gave her a wan smile. “But I shouldn’t be worrying you about it. You’ve got enough to deal with right now, given your stress at work.”

Dineen shrugged. “It’s not that bad. Things are just crazy because Doug’s so wrapped up in the lawsuit. It’s almost over. He’ll win, as usual, and he and his client will walk away with lots of cash. Everybody will be happy again.”

Everyone except the San Jose hospital he was suing.

I made a face. “Including you, I hope. Happy, as in getting a big honking present for all the abuse you’ve taken.” Dineen answered phones at Doug Brewer’s firm, nothing more. She wasn’t a law clerk. She didn’t deserve his snapping temper. But when Doug was fighting a big case, everyone around him bore the brunt of his impatience.

“Were things any different for you on Friday, after that came out?” I gestured with my chin toward the newspaper. Doug and Baxter were good friends. I didn’t want my sister taking any heat for me.

My sister fiddled with her hair. “Not really.”

“What does ‘not really’ mean, Dineen?”

She tilted her head. “A few people did ask me what you were thinking. I didn’t even see Doug. He went straight to court.”

Yeah, what was I thinking? Who was I to go up against Baxter Jackson?

“Know what?” I sounded sorry for myself, and I hated it. My nerves were just too worn to care. “Right now you and Jimmy are about my only friends in town.”

“Come on, that’s not true.”

“It is, Dineen. You should see the looks I’ve gotten the last few days. The disgusted whispers.” Sudden tears bit my eyes. I looked at the table.

Dineen made an empathic sound in her throat. “What about all your friends at church? You’ll see them tomorrow.”

Her words pierced. I shook my head. “I can’t go back there, not now. With Baxter as head elder? Which side do you think would win? And anyway, I don’t want those dear people taking sides. I can’t put them in that position. They loved Cherisse, and Linda before that.” My voice tightened. “They’re like family to Baxter. They’re grieving along with him.”

Cherisse had died only two weeks ago. I could imagine church members’ reactions as they read that newspaper article. Even though they loved me. Even though I’d attended that church for fifteen years, long before my husband, Tom, died of a heart attack. I was the one who always got things done. Led committees, rallied the troops for fund-raisers, taught Sunday school. They knew my heart for helping others. But how dare I talk against Baxter Jackson — especially as he mourned the death of his second wife? How could I be so cruel?

Dineen laid a hand on my arm. “I’m sorry. I know how much you miss Linda.”

Yes, I did miss her. Terribly. Linda, the irrepressible woman who encouraged everyone around her. Even in those moments when some inner pain she refused to share fleeted across her face, she would shake it off, flash that dazzling smile of hers. Now, six years later, Linda’s disappearance still haunted me. Baxter claimed she’d left the house one night and never returned. A few days later her car was found some twenty miles away, smears of her blood on the front seat. Her body was never recovered. I didn’t believe Baxter’s story about my best friend — not after what she’d told me. And she hadn’t been herself for weeks before her disappearance, would barely even return my calls.

But Chief Eddington hadn’t listened to me then either. Indignation bubbled inside me once more. I raised my eyes. “Two wives in six years, Dineen.” One unsolved murder and one accident. “A total of one million dollars’ life insurance. One million. Why would he even take out policies on his wives in the first place, when neither of them worked?” Linda’s policy had taken three years to come through. The courts had to declare her dead first, aided by the fact that her credit cards, bank account, nothing had been touched since the night of her disappearance. Even so, I wouldn’t be surprised if Baxter’s influence swayed that legal process as well.

Dineen lifted a shoulder. There was nothing in this argument we hadn’t covered a dozen times before.

Sometimes I wished I could be more like her. More of an accepter, less of a fighter. Life would be so much easier. But I just hadn’t been wired that way.

I leaned back and pressed my hands to my temples.

“Another headache?” Dineen asked.

I nodded.

Dineen rose and walked to the cabinet by her refrigerator, where she pulled out a bottle of heavy-duty aspirin. She shook out two and handed them to me. “Here.”

“Thanks.” I swallowed them with the last gulp of water from my glass. A gust of wind pelted rain against the sliding door. It was nasty out there. February in Vonita, California, forty miles south of San Jose, was balmy compared to some parts of the country. The current temperature hovered in the low forties. But the dampness made it feel so much colder. I hated winter rain. It reminded me of death and despair. Five years ago I’d buried my husband on a day like this.

I pushed from my chair. “Better go.”

“Want a Jelly Belly hit?” Dineen gestured toward my favorite cabinet.

“Always.” I managed a smile. “Especially if you’ve got Grape Jelly or Watermelon. They’re my headache flavors.”

Dineen fetched a large glass bowl from the cabinet. “I don’t know what’s what in here. You figure it out.”

I leaned over the bowl, moving the candies around with a finger. Grape Jelly ones are dark purple. Watermelon are green. I found a few of each and popped them in my mouth one by one, relishing each bite. Nothing in this world beat Jelly Belly jelly beans. Particularly on a night like this.

In the den I leaned over the couch to brush my fingers against Jimmy’s cheek. He was recovering from a nasty bout of flu. Jimmy looked pale and tired, but he smiled at me all the same. His brown hair stuck out in all directions — a casualty of lying against all the gathered throw pillows. “G’night, Aunt Joanne.”

“Good night, favorite nephew.”

“I’m your only nephew.”

“Well, if I had a hundred, you’d still be my favorite.”

At the front door I pulled on a raincoat and picked up my umbrella. Dineen hugged me hard. “This mess will all blow over, you’ll see. Chief Eddington can’t stay mad at you forever.”

“Sure.” I slid my purse over my arm. No point in disagreeing, even though I knew better. Wayne Eddington and Baxter Jackson went way back. “Thanks for dinner, as always.”

Dineen nodded. “See ya next Saturday.”

“You bet.”

She opened the door, and the monster wind blew its clammy breath over us. I stuck my umbrella outside, hit the button on its handle, and hurried down the porch steps to my Toyota 4Runner. By the time I slid into the car my ankles were wet and chilled.

The loud battering on the roof turned up my headache. Gritting my teeth, I started the car. The digital clock read 8:33 p.m.

My house lay about five miles from Dineen’s on Stillton, a rural road at the edge of town. I drove stiff-backed, fat raindrops cascading through my headlights and bouncing off the pavement like spilled popcorn. My thoughts eddied with increasing frustration. In my own business as a skip tracer I spent my workdays hunting down people, many of them criminals. I’d built a good reputation for finding my skips. Now I had a possible double murderer in my sites, one of his victims my best friend. A friend I could have saved, if I’d only pushed harder.

And now I couldn’t do a thing about my suspicions.

I passed through the last stoplight on Elmer and turned left onto Stillton. Two miles of narrow road and curves, and I’d reach my warm, dry house. I turned up the heat in the car. Eyes narrowed, I drove slowly, frowning at the headlights of an oncoming vehicle until it swished by. My windshield wipers drummed a furious beat.

Why didn’t you investigate Cherisse’s death?” I’d demanded of Chief Eddington four days ago. We stood in his office at the station, the door open. I tried to keep my voice low.

The chief’s face reddened. He planted both hands on his thick hips. “So now you’re going to rag me about this case for the next six years? They’re over, Joanne. Both Jackson cases are closed.”

“And you’re happy about that, aren’t you? Now life can just go on, and Baxter remains your favorite pal.”

The rest of our heated argument ran through my head. I’d never even seen reporter Andy Wangler in the station, much less in proximity to hear us. He must have salivated all over his notepad.

My last bend before home approached. I eased off the accelerator.

A hooded figure darted into the road.

I gasped and punched the brake. The anti-lock system shuddered. The figure jerked its head half toward me, one side of a man’s face lit skeletal white. A rivulet of blood jagged down his bony cheek. The eye on the shadowed half of his face shrunk as black and deep as an empty socket.

He raised his arms.

My car slid toward him.

I whipped the steering wheel left. The figure jumped backward.

Too late.

I heard a sickening bump on my right fender. In peripheral vision I glimpsed the body knocked aside. My Toyota kicked into a spiral over slickened asphalt. The world dizzied as I spun, my widened eyes taking in a dancing fence on the road’s left side... the curve I’d already traveled...a gnarled oak straight ahead...a crumpled figure on the ground. My wet tires sang and sizzled, the smell of my own sweat acrid in my nostrils.

A hysterical thought flashed in my brain: I hit the Grim Reaper.

With a final nauseating jolt my SUV carved to a stop in the middle of the dark and rain-pelted road.