Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Wolves Among Us - Chapter 1

Wolves Among Us
David C. Cook; New edition (April 1, 2011)
by
Ginger Garrett


Chapter 1


Germany, 1538 Dinfoil Village at the southeastern edge of the Black Forest

Weeks had gone by since winter had lost her blinding white beauty. Cold gray mud at Father Stefan’s feet and dull clouds above him were all that remained of her icy pageant. He waved his hand at the low clouds, willing them to be gone. The hopeful golden sun of spring was overdue. He longed for its warmth to awaken new life in his little village.

The good Lord had other plans for the morning, however. The sun remained shrouded, and the air kept its chill after a midnight rain. Father Stefan could see his breath when he exhaled, a small wonder that still fascinated him even in these, the middle years of his life.

Each wet stone on the cobblestone streets of Dinfoil was packed so close to the next that the market lane looked like the side of an enormous, glistening brown fish. The lane was as slippery as a fish too, and Father Stefan was careful as he walked. If he slipped and broke a leg, he would be of no use to anyone—not as a spiritual father or as the town physician.

The sky may have refused any promise of warmth, but the new day still brought its own comforts. Bread baking in ovens and the crisp hints of spring’s first greens teased his nose as life burst out into the lanes everywhere he looked. Last night the great lashes of lightning had driven everyone inside early. Now no one wasted a moment starting the new day: Shutters were being opened as he walked, children ran through the leaves torn from trees by the winds, and merchants dashed with their carts along the bumpy stone lanes, anxious to reclaim yesterday’s lost business. When winter’s ice melted away, travelers appeared from many villages, eager to spend their money at the market and meet new people. Fresh tales were as coveted as fresh supplies in those first weeks of spring.

Father Stefan walked through the town square, where children played prancing ponies, skipping in wide circles. One boy slipped, catching himself on his palms. He winced and muttered a curse under his breath. When he caught Father Stefan watching him, he blushed and looked away.

Stefan suppressed a frown and looked around. The boy’s mother had done penance for her coarse language not a week ago, and here her boy was, repeating her sin.

“Mothers, mind your children,” he called out, hoping the village’s women could hear him through their open windows. “The stones are treacherous this morning.” He shook a finger at a boy. “No more of that,” he said.

Father Stefan walked along, greeting his parishioners, nodding at the shopkeepers and housemaids who were still opening shutters. The wealthier the family, the closer they lived inside the square, and the more housemaids he saw at work.

As was usual for this hour, no one appeared in the windows of those expensive homes except maids and dogs. After maids opened the shutters, several dogs popped their heads into the windows, looking down with great interest at the people in the square. Father Stefan particularly liked seeing the yellow mastiff that often sat, solemn as a magistrate, in a window, his jowls set in judgment. Another dog across the lane watched with bulging eyes and a little black mouth. That dog, outraged at the activity below him, barked and yapped at each passerby.

Marie, the young daughter of a parishioner in Father Stefan’s church, pranced past, chasing after her little brother. She ran into Father Stefan, knocking him onto his rear. She looked horrified.

“Father Stefan. Forgive me,” she said.

He held his side with one hand and used the other to push himself back up.

“No need for forgiveness, Marie. It was an accident, after all.”

Her face looked ashen. Her chin began to tremble. She was one good breath away from a loud wail. Stefan reached out and tapped her on the nose, startling her.

“How is your mother’s new baby girl?” he asked, looking down to wiggle his eyebrows at the young boy who now stood at the girl’s side. The boy giggled, and Marie glanced at him before she smiled too.

She had swallowed back her tears, but her eyes were still wide and watering. “The baby is well, thank you. She is at home with Mother. She doesn’t smell very good, though.”

Father Stefan pressed his lips together to catch a chuckle. “Yes, Marie, babies do smell. Tell your mother I will be glad to have her back with us for Mass.”

“But Mother is not well, Father Stefan. She cries a lot now that she has given birth. And she is pale. I try to get my brother to play with me outside, to let her rest, but I don’t think she notices.”

“I see.” He smiled and nodded, a signal that he was ready to be on his way.

Marie grabbed him by the hand. “Perhaps you could come see her?”

Stefan disentangled himself and stepped back. “My place is in the church. As is hers. Remind her of that. When she gets back to church, she will feel better at once.” He leaned down and flicked his hands at Marie, sending her away.

Marie hesitated, then rushed at him and planted a kiss on his cheek. She turned and ran off with her brother before he could say anything else. Stefan pressed a hand against the spot she had touched, mystified.

The sun broke free for a moment, warming Stefan’s arms. He pushed up the sleeves of his shirt, catching more of this sudden pleasure, the second unmerited grace of the day.

The thought prodded Stefan to turn and get on with his morning business. He couldn’t just stand here smiling in the sun like a fool. Pleasure is a fool’s reward, he thought, a distraction that keeps good people from doing God’s work. He must buy his dried hops and be back at the church before the next Mass. As he walked the square, he greeted the sweet young parishioner Elizabeth, who shopped at the herb market. She gave a shy nod and gestured back to the church, which stood at the far end of the square. Stefan smiled and nodded his head in agreement. Yes, it was almost time for Mass. They had both reason to hurry.

He then spotted Dame Alice with her wide, soft face. She sat on an upturned barrel at the front door of her home. Though wealthy, she rarely busied herself with women’s work, much to Stefan’s dismay. Instead she sat at her entranceway with her white hair neatly plaited above her ears, acknowledging those who passed.

Stefan watched as Mia, the sheriff’s wife, bustled past him, darting between the town’s children, clutching her coin bag to her stomach as she approached the butcher’s shop.

“Mia!” Dame Alice called out.

Mia stopped, clearly startled.

Dame Alice gestured widely with her arms. “Come and eat, child. I put a leg of lamb on the fire. Come and tell me of your morning.”

Mia glanced in every direction, her face turning red as others watched the interaction. She pulled her scarf lower over her eyes and hurried away.

“Mia!” Dame Alice shouted. “You need to eat. It’s how God made us.”

Mia pretended not to hear, though Stefan knew better. Her jaw muscles were flexing as if she was sorely tempted by Dame Alice’s invitation. But Mia was a good wife who she knew had no time for the gossip of idle women. Stefan would have to chastise Dame Alice once more at her next confession, though it would do no good. She had lost both her daughters and one grandson in a plague years before. Since then she had cared for the young women of the village like a mother might. He worried that too much gossip was exchanged at her kitchen table.
Stefan nodded in satisfaction as Mia ducked inside the shop. Perhaps she was too thin, but it was merely a testament to her tireless devotion to her husband and child. A model citizen, that Mia, he thought. Never a moment spent in mischief with other women.

Stefan looked up to see an unfamiliar woman with a hard, lined face staring at him from across the square. From the distance her eyes were blue flames. Her dull gray hair was long and free, hanging down to her waist. The strange woman looked up into storm clouds that were now rolling toward the village. Her eyes narrowed as her gaze returned to Stefan, accusing and cold, as if the night’s storm had been his doing.

A rooster crowed from the roof of a shop, distracting him. Thunder growled as it approached from behind the clouds. He turned back and strained for a glimpse of the woman again, but with no reward. Sometimes the market brought strange customers. She was, no doubt, just another oddity in his day.

Storm winds stirred his thin robes. He pulled his sleeves further down on his arms and put his mind back to his errand.

Mia’s husband, Sheriff Bjorn, had arrived on his doorstep last night. He had drunk a considerable amount of Stefan’s beer before he left for home. Stefan’s beer had no equal, though all the priests of his order learned the art of brewery. Wine tasted bitter and ruined many stomachs. But Stefan’s beer, made with grains he selected by hand and scent, ministered to anyone who drank it. His beer, the color of an emperor’s robe, was rich in nourishment and always bubbling. Even the pasty, flecked loam, leftover from the brewing yeast, proved good for ailing infants and livestock.

Bjorn, thirsty and agitated, had arrived at his doorstep, hoping for a draught. He had said he spent all night looking for the wolf that had stolen two of the sheep from the parish stock. Erick, Stefan’s servant, had wanted to join the hunt, but Bjorn refused him. Bjorn was not given to companionship. Erick would learn that in time.

The wolf—a tiresome, clever enemy who had yet to be caught— taunted then all. Taking two sheep was a crime that could not be overlooked. Stefan’s flock of sheep was small, only ten animals. His flock of parishioners was small too, perhaps one hundred people in total, not including those too weak or old to come to Mass. Stefan knew the wolf would be caught in time. But wolves and sinners had one thing in common: When they stole what was not theirs, their appetite for more only grew stronger. Appetite was always the doom of the unjust.

Another cloud rolled over the sun, and its shadow swept over the townspeople. A slinking darkness stole their last hope for a fine spring morning. Everyone paused, looking up and around. Shadows so early in the day meant a storm was growing in power, hiding itself at the edges of town, preparing for its first strike.

As the cloud peeled back from the sun, the shadow passed, and Stefan sighed.

A woman bumped into Stefan just then. He steadied himself and reached out to her, but she collapsed. His knees buckled under her sudden weight in his arms, and he struggled to get her to her feet. He lifted her and realized the woman was Catarina, a quiet, gentle wife from his parish. He looked up and saw Mia step from the butcher’s shop, carrying a roast, stopping when she saw the accident, as did a few others.

Catarina’s eyes were open, but she didn’t seem to recognize anyone. She pointed at the darkened alley that ran between two lopsided rows of houses.

“What is wrong, Catarina?” he asked.

She opened her mouth to gasp for a breath she could not catch.

“Did something scare you? Is it the wolf?”

She managed a deep breath that shook her body. “I love the Lord, as you are my witness. This crime is not my doing.”

Stefan saw in his peripheral vision Dame Alice, who jumped up and moved toward them.

“Do you believe me?” Catarina asked, her voice straining. “Father Stefan,” she said, grasping his arms. “I’m trying to tell you he’s dead.”

“Who is dead?”

Dame Alice came from behind Father Stefan, pushing him aside, taking Catarina by the shoulder. “Who is dead, child? What are you talking about?”

“My husband.”

Catarina kept pointing down the lane, but there was no sign of mischief. “Nonsense, dear,” Dame Alice said. “Why would you say he is dead?”

“His horse is in the lane. My husband is not on it.”

“You saw his horse wandering alone?” Dame Alice asked, stroking her arm. “Is that all? My dear …”

“From this one fact you have imagined your husband’s death and have frightened us all?” Stefan tried to control his indignation. “He’s probably drunk again, is all. Sleeping it off somewhere to get out of the rain.”

Catarina should have been happy. Cronwall was not known for being a gentle husband.

Dame Alice reached for Catarina’s hand. “You’re so cold, child.” She took off her outer cloak and wrapped it around Catarina, who did not notice.

Stefan pressed his lips together and cleared his throat. “Now, Catarina …” “You’re going to say this is my fault.” Catarina looked up at him. She dug her fingers into his arm. “The village is in danger.” Father Stefan tried to pry away her fingers. “Stop this. Cronwall is just sleeping his liquor off somewhere. He will be home soon.” She gripped his arm tighter, making her knuckles go white, then she buried her face in his robe. “You don’t understand.”

“Elizabeth,” Stefan called out, hoping the young girl would still be about. When he saw her peering through the crowd, he nodded to her. “Bring Catarina a dried apple. She has no color in her face.” The girl obediently ran off to the market.

He sighed. “And someone wake Bjorn,” he called out.

Catarina shoved him away. “No.”

“My request for Bjorn should please you. If what you say is true, we’ll need the sheriff. He can make an arrest.” She laughed or coughed—he couldn’t be sure which—and flecks of spit landed across his cheek.

When he unlatched her hand from his arm, Catarina ran off, leaving Stefan to wipe off the spit. His wet fingers were tinged with what looked like blood, but Catarina had said nothing about being hurt. The crowd that had gathered was whispering, watching him. Stefan walked between them to peer down the lane Catarina had pointed to.

Church bells rang, calling everyone to Mass. Stefan frowned at the reminder. He belonged in church, not in the street, and not down a dirty, empty lane looking for a lone horse and a dead man on the word of a confused woman. Women were prone to hysteria. He found it most discouraging. His fine morning was ruined.

He turned for the church, which was only a few doors down, but no one followed.

“Time for Mass!” he shouted. A few people glanced at each other. “Bjorn will not be here for a good hour; we all know that.” At this, people followed.

Stefan glanced back at the lane just once more. Sin was his responsibility. Crime belonged to Bjorn. As for women—well, only God knew what to do with them.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

False Pretenses - Chapter 1

False Pretenses
David C. Cook (March 1, 2011)
by
Kathy Herman


Chapter 1


As Vanessa Langley stepped gingerly across the creaky wood floor in the empty parlor at Langley Manor, the eyes of the bearded man in the painting above the fireplace seemed to follow her.

A popping noise overhead sent her pulse racing. She looked up at the chandelier. “What was that?”

Her husband, Ethan, grabbed her arm, a grin pulling at the corners of his mouth. “Maybe it’s the ghost of Josiah Langley.” He nodded toward the painting. “He’s still hanging around.”

Vanessa smiled in spite of herself. “I’m sure it’s just the house settling.”

“Is it?” Ethan lifted his eyebrows up and down. “Or have we traveled back in time—through six generations of Langleys—and entered into …The Twilight Zone? Do do do do, do do do do …”

“Don’t. That’s creepy.” She shoved him playfully.

Vanessa walked into the dining room and stood at the oblong window, inhaling the pervasive, musty smell of old wood, her eyes feasting on acres and acres of tall green stalks undulating in the summer breeze. “I love the way the cane fields sway in the wind.”

“Yeah,” Ethan said. “It’s like Mother Nature’s doing the wave.”

“It’s amazing to think that many of your ancestors stood at this very window, looking at these same fields. I wonder how much land Josiah Langley owned when he built this place.”

“Almost all the land that’s now Saint Catherine Parish.” Ethan came over and stood next to her. “But the fifteen acres we inherited with the house will be plenty for us to maintain. Be glad my great-grandparents had the foresight to sell the cane fields and use the money to give the house a face-lift. That’s going to make converting it to a bed-and-breakfast a lot more doable.”

“It’ll still be a monumental challenge.”

“We can work together on the big decisions.” Ethan kissed her cheek. “But I really want to make a go of my counseling practice so you can stay home with Carter and oversee the renovation. You’ll be great at it.”

Carter Langley darted out of the kitchen and over to her, his mound of strawberry-blond hair falling in a straight line just above his eyebrows, his tattered stuffed beagle, Georgie, tucked under his arm.

“I’m going a-a-all the way up.” He pointed to the stately white staircase, his sapphire blue eyes wide with resolve.

Ethan scooped the four-year-old bundle of energy into his arms before he could take off running. “Hold on a second. Daddy will go with you.”

“Georgie and me want to see the candy man. He’s nice. He gives us lemon drops.”

“I thought we agreed to nip this in the bud,” Vanessa said.

Ethan put his lips to her ear. “That’s what I’m about to do. Do you really think we’re going to find a candy man up there?”

“But why feed his imagination when there are so many ghost stories floating around about this house?”

“If we let Carter explore every nook and cranny, he’ll see for himself that those spooky stories are ridiculous. The kid’s going to live here some day. We might as well dispel this myth up front.”

Vanessa tilted her son’s chin and held his gaze. “It’s important to remember that the man in the closet wasn’t real. He was just pretend.”

“He let me touch his whiskers,” Carter insisted. “They felt prickly.”

“Let’s you and me and Georgie go take a look.” Ethan winked at her and started up the staircase as Carter let out a husky laugh.

Vanessa bit her tongue. Maybe Ethan was right. But she didn’t like it. She pulled up on the window and forced it open about a foot, letting the muggy July air flood the room. Not that it was much of an improvement.

She turned around and brushed the dust off her hands, admiring the spacious dining room, which was trimmed in white crown moldings, and the oval mahogany table with matching chairs, the only furniture still in the house. The red and white floral wallpaper seemed busy and overpowering and was at the top of her list of things to replace. What type of pattern would soften the room? Or should she forget wallpaper and just have it painted a solid color? She had so much to learn about preserving the rich history and yet making the place tasteful and comfortable. Was she really the right person to take the lead on this?

She studied the sepia photograph that hung in an oval frame in the nook leading to the kitchen. Ethan’s great-grandparents, Chester and Augusta Langley, were the last to reside in the manor house and chose to demolish all the outbuildings. They recorded in their Bible that those structures were reminders of a time when people had “wrongfully prospered on the backs of slaves.”

The plantation house was in remarkably good condition at the time of Chester’s passing and five years later when Augusta died. But years of it sitting empty had taken a toll. Though structurally sound, it needed furnishings and a great deal of renovating before it would make a suitable bed-and-breakfast. And what would it take to make their family quarters kid-friendly without spoiling the historic value of this Langley heirloom?

Vanessa turned again to the dining-room window and imagined Ethan and his cousin, Drew, as little boys playing hide-and-seek in the cane fields. How did those two little scamps keep from getting lost in there? She imagined herself surrounded on all sides by cane stalks considerably taller than she and felt short of breath. She heard a car door slam and came back to the present. Who even knew they were out here? She walked through the parlor and opened the front door.

A white Toyota Prius was parked in the driveway, and Pierce and Zoe Broussard were already out of the car and heading in her direction.

“Hey there.” Zoe waved. “Hope you don’t mind the intrusion. Pierce and I decided to take you up on your offer. We want to see the house before you start renovating.” She grinned. “So we can appreciate it afterward.”

“I’m glad you did. Come in.” Vanessa held open the door and imagined for an instant that she was welcoming the first guests to the bed-and-breakfast. “Don’t get your clothes dirty. The maid hasn’t been here in years.” She laughed.

Pierce followed Zoe inside. “I didn’t realize Langley Manor is only three miles from Les Barbes,” he said. “For some reason I thought it was twice that far.”

Zoe’s gaze danced around the room. “It’s not as big as it looks from the outside.”

“Probably because it’s empty. Except for that dining-room table and chairs and a few pictures on the wall, everything else was sold in the estate sale years ago. Great-Grandmother Augusta specified that the table and family pictures were to stay with the house. She probably never dreamed it would be vacant this long. But Ethan’s dad and uncles didn’t want to leave Tennessee.”

“Where are Ethan and Carter?” Pierce asked.

“Upstairs looking for the imaginary fellow in the closet.”

“Ah, the candy man.” Zoe shot her a knowing look.

“I think once Carter’s familiar with every inch of the house, his imagination will take a rest,” Vanessa said. “I’m sure it’s been hard having his entire world uprooted.”

Zoe glanced up the white staircase. “Tell me again how many bedrooms.”

“Four up and two down. We plan to knock out a few walls upstairs so we’ll have six guest rooms.”

“Where will you live?” Pierce asked.

“On this level. There’s plenty of space in the back of the house to add a third bedroom and make it into our private living quarters.”

“So all the guest rooms will be upstairs?”

Vanessa nodded. “The biggest challenge could be adding private baths to each one. People who routinely stay in B and Bs have probably shared a bathroom with other guests at some point. But I never liked it.”

Pierce shot her a crooked smile. “I know bed-and-breakfasts are really the in thing, but I find it amusing that people actually pay to sleep in an old house and share the toilet with strangers.”

“It’s about the ambiance, cher.” Zoe poked him with her elbow. “It’s a little slice of history and a lot more romantic than staying at a motor inn.”

“Well, if at all possible,” Vanessa quickly added, “the guest rooms at Langley Manor will have private baths. Thankfully the house has been updated over the years and has indoor plumbing and electricity and modern conveniences. But it’s been empty a long time, and it needs a complete makeover.”

“Who’s going to do the work?” Pierce asked.

“We’ve contracted Southern Pride.”

He nodded. “I’ve heard they’re the best. When do they start?”

“The plans are being drawn up now. We’re hoping to see blueprints sometime next week.”

“So how much longer will you be renting the apartment from us?”

“Oh, I don’t see us moving in here for at least eighteen months,” Vanessa said. “Probably closer to two years. Even if our private quarters are finished before that, I have no desire to move in here until all the remodeling is finished. I wouldn’t do well with the mess or with the workers traipsing in and out.”

“Not that I want to lose you as tenants, but I can hardly wait to see this place done over.” Zoe smiled, her intriguing blue-gray eyes looking as big as quarters, framed by her dark, chin-length hair. “It’s one of the few plantation houses in Saint Catherine Parish that survived the Civil War. The locals are proud of that—even if the Langleys were British.”

“I’ve read some of Augusta Langley’s diaries,” Vanessa said. “It really bothered her that the British mistreated the Acadians.”

“Mistreated?” Pierce raised his eyebrows, his voice an octave higher. “The British ordered the forced removal of every last Acadian from what’s now Nova Scotia—because they wouldn’t renounce their Catholic faith and become Protestant. And wouldn’t swear allegiance to the British flag and take up arms against France. A third of the Acadians died in the process. I’d say Le Grand Dérangement was more like ethnic cleansing than mistreatment, wouldn’t you?”

Vanessa felt embarrassment scald her face in the awkward silence that followed. “Yes, I suppose it was,” she finally said. “What the British did to the Acadians was similar to what the U.S. government did to the Native Americans. It was shameful.”

“Yes, it was.” Pierce turned his head, his prominent nose suddenly reminding her of Charles de Gaulle. “Louisiana may have been a safe haven, but life in the bayou was totally foreign. Summers were stifling. And I’m sure alligator and crawfish weren’t all that appetizing at first. They learned to make do with whatever they could find. But it’s not like they had a choice.”

“And think of the delicious cuisine that just keeps evolving.” Zoe put her hand on his back as if to calm him down. “Our entire Cajun culture has evolved into something unique in all of America. We can be proud.”

“I am proud. Just not of the way it all came about.” Pierce was quiet for a moment, and the tautness left his face. “Sorry for getting on my soapbox, Vanessa. I used to teach history and have strong feelings about the plight of les Cadiens. Some Acadians were my ancestors who settled here long before that fat cat Josiah Langley

bought up the land. No offense.”

“None taken.”

“Langley didn’t even try to adapt. He clung to everything British, right down to the name he gave this place. He chose manor instead of plantation—his way of flaunting his British superiority. The Cajuns resented it.”

“Were any plantations owned by Cajuns?”

“Not around here. French Creoles, not Cajuns.” Pierce’s dark eyes matched his mood. “Back then most Cajuns barely had enough to live on. Look, no one can change what happened, but outsiders should understand how and why the Acadians settled here—and what was taken from them. It drives me crazy that most everything associated with the word Cajun has been reduced to a tourist attraction or a souvenir.”

So Pierce regarded them as outsiders? Vanessa was relieved to hear footsteps coming down the staircase and turned just as Ethan and Carter reached the bottom.

“I thought I heard voices. Hey, guys.” Ethan walked over to Zoe and hugged her and shook Pierce’s hand. “What’s up?”

“Just came to get that tour you offered us,” Pierce said. “Maybe Carter would like to show us around.”

“Yay!” Carter threw Georgie up in the air and then caught him.

“Looks like the yays have it.” Ethan smiled. “He knows his way around as well as I do.”

“And what about the candy man in the closet?” Vanessa raised an eyebrow.

“No sign of him or his lemon drops.” Ethan winked. “I guess he’s moved on.”

“Maybe he went a-a-all the way up on the roof.” Carter stood on his tiptoes, his hands stretched toward the ceiling. “Like Santa Claus!”

“Are you old enough to show Mister Pierce and me all the rooms in the house?” Zoe asked.

“I had my birfday. I’m four.” Carter proudly held up four fingers.

“Well, that’s certainly old enough. Where should we start?”

“There’s a big, big, big, big fireplace—bigger than Daddy. Big as a giant!” Carter took her hand. “I’ll show you.”

“Okay, I’m ready.”

Zoe reached for Pierce’s hand and let Carter lead them toward the back of the house.

Vanessa met Ethan’s gaze and wondered if even he could love that child as much as she did.

“This place is going to make a wonderful bed-and-breakfast,” he said. “I can picture us living here. What a great way for Carter to grow up. He’ll charm the guests and learn some important people skills in the process. I can hardly wait to see the blueprints.”

“Me either. But the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that all the guest rooms should have a private bath.”

“I agree.… Honey, what’s wrong? You look flustered.”

“I am.”

“What happened?”

Vanessa fanned herself with her hand. The heat was suddenly oppressive. “Oh, I mentioned something I read in Augusta Langley’s diary about her feeling bad that the British had mistreated the Acadians, and Pierce went off.” She told Ethan everything she could remember about the uncomfortable exchange. “I totally agreed with Pierce about how awful it was. But I was floored at how prejudiced

he is toward the British. I didn’t see that coming.”

“I haven’t noticed it.”

Vanessa arched her eyebrows. “You will if you ever get into a discussion about Cajun history. Be forewarned.”

“The last thing we need is a Cajun landlord who resents us. It’s going to be a long time before we move in here.” Ethan looked over her shoulder, seemingly distracted by something. “Is that a marble on the floor?”

He walked past her to the dining-room table, got down on all fours, and stretched out his arm underneath it until he had something in his hand.

“No way,” he said. “You’re not going to believe what this is.”

“Tell me.”

Ethan crawled out from under the table and rose to his feet, holding a tiny yellow object between his thumb and forefinger, his eyes wide. “It’s a lemon drop.”

“Very funny.”

“See for yourself.”

Ethan walked toward her, the object in his open palm.

“It’s obviously a lemon drop,” she said. “I just think you put it there.”

What? Why would I do that?”

“As a prank. To make me think Carter actually saw some guy in the upstairs closet. I don’t think it’s funny.”

“Neither do I. And I’m not into cruel pranks. I have no idea where it came from.”

She studied his stony expression, half expecting him to break into laughter at any moment. “Well, I’m sure Carter didn’t put it there.”

“Honey …” Ethan gently gripped her wrist. “I didn’t. I promise.”

“We had all the locks changed. No one else has a key to the house.”

“Well”—Ethan pursed his lips and looked up the white staircase— “if Carter did see a man up there, the guy got in without a key.”

“How? The doors are all locked. Windows, too.”

Ethan shrugged. “I don’t have an explanation. Yet. But it wasn’t the ghost of Josiah Langley. Besides, I doubt they had lemon drops in 1839.”

“Don’t kid around, Ethan. This is creepy. How will we ever be safe here if someone can get in and out without a key?”

“Take it easy, honey. There has to be an explanation.”

“It terrifies me that Carter might actually have been close to this … this … trespasser.” Vanessa glanced up at the oil painting, a chill crawling up her spine. “Let’s not say anything to Zoe and Pierce. I don’t want anything else added to the ghost stories about this place.”

“Agreed. We need to talk to Carter again and start taking his description of this character seriously. And we need to report it to the sheriff.”

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Vicious Cycle - Chapter 1

Vicious Cycle
Zondervan (February 22, 2011)
by
Terri Blackstock


Chapter 1


I should have died.
Jordan lay on her bloody sheets, her newborn daughter in her arms, and longed for one more hit. She had never hated herself more. Her baby had come two weeks early, and she hadn’t been sober enough to get to the hospital. Giving birth at home had never been part of the plan, but there was no one in her house whose mind was clear enough to care.

What kind of mother traded prenatal vitamins for crystal meth? Her age was no excuse. At fifteen, Jordan knew better than to get high while she was pregnant. Now she had this beautiful little girl with big eyes and curly brown hair, innocence radiating like comfort from her warm skin. That innocence, so rare and short-lived in her family, made the birth all the more tragic. Worse, the baby seemed weak and hadn’t cried much, and sometimes her little body went stiff and trembled.

Was she dying? Had Jordan tied off the umbilical cord wrong? Her mother, who had once worked as a nurse’s aide, had told her to use a shoestring. What if that was wrong? What if she’d waited too long to cut the cord? It wasn’t like she could trust her mother. It was clear she didn’t have Jordan’s or the baby’s best interests in mind.

Jordan had made up her mind to give the baby up for adoption, even though she’d felt so close to her in the last few weeks as her daughter had kicked and squirmed inside her. While she was sober, she’d come to love the baby and dream of a future for her . . . one that bore no resemblance to her own. But once Jordan went back into the arms of her lover — that drug that gave her a stronger high than the love
of a boy — the baby stopped kicking. For the last week of her pregnancy, Jordan believed she was dead. So she’d smothered her fear, guilt, and grief in more drugs.

Then last night her water broke, and cramps seized her. She had responded to her fear as she did every emotion — by taking more drugs. By the time she felt the need to push, it was too late to get to the hospital, even if there had been someone who would drive her. She craved another hit, but she was out of ice. Her mother and brother claimed to be out too. They’d already burned through Zeke’s casino win, so one of them would have to find a way to score. Maybe it was better if they didn’t, though. Her baby needed her.

She wrapped the child in a dirty towel, swaddling it like she’d seen on one of those baby shows. She hadn’t expected to love it so fiercely. The baby had big eyes, and now and then she would open them and look up at Jordan, as if to say, “So you’re the one who’s supposed to protect me?”

The door to her bedroom burst open, and Jordan’s mother, eyes dancing with drug-induced wildness, swooped in with sheets in her hand. She must have been holding out on Jordan. She had a secret stash of dope somewhere that she didn’t want to share.

“Up, up, up,” she said with trembling energy. “Come on, baby, you’ve made a mess. Now let’s clean it up.”

Since when did her mother care about neatness? Rotten dishes festered in every room, and garbage spilled over on the floors. “Mom, I have to get the baby to the hospital. She’s not acting right, and I don’t know about the cord.”

Her mother leaned over the baby, stared down at her with hard, steel-gray eyes. “Looks fine to me. I’ve called the Nelsons. They’ll be here soon. They’re anxious to get their baby.”

The Nelsons? No, this wasn’t how it was supposed to go.

Her mother released the fitted sheet from the corners of one side of the mattress and pulled it up, clearly trying to roll them both out. Jordan braced herself. “Stop! Mom, I can’t.”

“Get up,” her mother said, clapping. “Come on. We’ve got to get the little thing cleaned up before its mommy and daddy come. If they come back here I don’t want them to see these sheets.”

“Mom — you don’t get to pick her parents!” Jordan got up, clutching the baby. Blood rushed from her head, blotches blurring her vision. “I’ve worked it all out with the adoption agency. I’ll call them and tell them — ”

Her mother’s face hardened even more, all her wrinkles from hard living starkly visible now. “It’s a done deal, darlin’. Baby, we have to do this. It’s great for our family! This is the whole reason we let you leave rehab early.”

“It’s not the reason you gave me, Mom. You said you missed me, that I needed my mama while I was pregnant. But it was all a lie.”

Her mother snapped the sheets. “Forty thousand dollars, baby. Do you know how much ice that’ll buy?”

“Just take her to the hospital to make sure she’s all right. Then we can talk about who — ”

“No!” her mother bellowed, and the baby jerked and started to cry.

Jordan pulled the baby’s head up to her shoulder and rubbed her back. She was so tiny, just a little ball. Her arms and legs thrashed, as if she protested her birth into the wrong family.

“Its new parents can take it to the hospital,” her mother said.

“Not it — her!” How could her mother talk about her as if she were an object? “And they’re not her parents. I don’t know them. They’re not on the list the agency gave me.”

Her mother flung the soiled sheets into a corner. The blood had seeped through and stained the mattress. “Look what you did, you piece of trash! Bleeding all over the mattress.”

“If you’d taken me to the hospital — ”

“To do what? Let them arrest you because you were high as a kite while you were giving birth to that kid? Let them arrest me? I’m on probation. You know they can’t see me like this. And you’re fifteen. They might have taken you away from me, put you into foster care. Then where would you be? Or they could take the baby away and put it into foster care. Then we got nothing to show for it. I ain’t gonna
let that happen.”

Jordan squeezed her eyes shut. If she’d only stayed in rehab, under the protective wings of New Day.

She felt dizzy, weak, but as she held the baby, her mother threw the clean sheets at her. “Put these on the bed. But first get that stain out of the mattress.”

“Mom . . . I need some things.” She kept her voice low. “Something to dress her in. Some diapers. Bottles.”

“You can nurse her until they take her. I’m not putting one penny into this. They’re paying me!” She yanked the baby out of Jordan’s arms. “I’ll hold it while you change the bed.”

Jordan hesitated, uneasy about the fragile baby in the hands of a wild woman who didn’t know her own drug induced strength.

“Do it!” her mother screamed.

Again, the baby let out a terrified howl. Jordan took her back. “I will, Mom,” she said softly. “Just let me put the baby down.”

Breathing hard, her mother watched as Jordan laid the baby on the floor and tried to make her comfortable. Then Jordan got a towel and blotted at the blood stain on the mattress, watching the baby from the corner of her eye.

She couldn’t get the stain out, so she grabbed the new sheets and tossed them over the mattress. Out of sight, out of mind, she hoped. As she worked, she panted, fighting dizziness. Her bones ached, and she shivered with chills, though her skin was damp with perspiration.

“Now clean the kid up. I want it to make a good impression. Wish she was a blonde. They pay more for blondes.”

Jordan tried one last time. “Don’t you think she’ll look better to that couple if she’s dressed? They’re not gonna want to take her without a diaper or outfit. Get Zeke to go and get her some things.”

Her mother hesitated, then walked out. A few minutes later, Jordan heard her shrieking at her brother. After a loud exchange, the front door slammed.

Jordan’s hands trembled as she picked up the baby and wrapped her in the towel again. These people her mother had found to take the baby — how did they even know Jordan’s mother and brother, who only hung out with losers and convicts? Forty thousand dollars was a lot of money. Maybe it meant they were desperate for a child and would be good parents.

But something about this whole scheme stank. She couldn’t let it happen.

The baby’s crying grew louder then silenced as her little body arched and jerked. Was this a seizure? Panic drove Jordan to the window. She’d have to climb out with the baby and get to the car. But Zeke had taken it.

Jordan dragged a chair to the window. When Zeke came back, maybe she could make her escape. Her child’s whole life hung on the frayed cord of a lot of maybes. And she knew from past experience that maybes never worked out in her favor.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Caregiver - Prologue

The Caregiver
Avon Inspire; Original edition (March 8, 2011)
by
Shelley Shepard Gray



Prologue


Lucy shielded her face when the antique platter crashed to the floor. Though whether she was shielding it from shards of pottery or bracing herself for another sting from Paul’s hand, she didn’t really know.

Most likely both.

But all her husband did was pull open the screen door. “You are such a disappointment, Lucy,” he bit out, each word seething with venom. “Such a disappointment. In every possible way.”

Her lip bled as she fought to remain still under his glar¬ing eyes. Prepared herself for another diatribe. Then Paul simply shook his head in disgust and stormed out the kitchen door. It slammed behind him as he bolted down the stairs and strode along the worn path to their barn.

When his footsteps faded, Lucy leaned against the gleaming counters of her kitchen and willed herself to stop shaking.
Trembling and crying won’t help, she sternly urged her¬self. When Paul came back, he would expect every trace of the bright blue dish cleaned up and the rest of the kitchen to be spotless. With a scant glance at the clock over the screen door, she saw it was a quarter after six.

She had fifteen minutes. Maybe eighteen.

After wiping the blood from her mouth with a dish¬cloth, she carefully picked up the pieces of pottery. Tried not to remember her grandmother’s expression when she’d presented the serving piece to her and Paul. Her lip quivered. Oh, but her grandmother had been so proud to give her something that had been in their family for four generations.

And Lucy had been proud to receive it. After all, she was the eldest of six children and was marrying well. Paul Troyer was a pillar of their community and had promised that he would be able to help out her brothers and sisters financially.

And now the dish was shattered. Irreparable. Much like her marriage.

She glanced at the clock again. 6:22. Oh, but time is wasting! Quickly, Lucy picked up her pace. Putting both knees on the ground, she scanned the floor and snatched up every shard that she could find, only wincing slightly when one of the pieces tore at her thumb.

After hurriedly bandaging her finger so blood wouldn’t stain anything, Lucy wiped the floor with a damp cloth. Then she attacked the dishes—the source of Paul’s latest discontent. Dinner had been late. She’d been helping her mother with her littlest sister. Lizzie had the flu and was feverish, so Lucy had offered to watch her while her mother went to school to attend Jeremy and Karl’s spell¬ing bee program.

But then her mother had run late. Making Lucy return late. And the chicken had gone into the oven at 5:30 in¬stead of 5:15. Paul had been very angry.

She darted a look out the window. Surmising that he was still in the barn, Lucy breathed a sigh of relief. All she had to do was wash the dishes, scrub two pans, and put them all neatly away before he returned. If she did that, everything might still be all right.

She stole another glance at the clock. 6:26.

With the experience of almost two years of marriage, Lucy hurriedly wrapped up the remains of the dinner, then washed and dried each piece of pottery. Sweat ran down the middle of her back as she raced to put each dish away, then ran a cloth over the counters.

Finally, she straightened out the red-and-white tin can¬isters to the right of the oven. Made sure they were in perfect alignment, not a one out of place.

Only then did she allow herself to breathe a sigh of relief. The kitchen was clean. She darted yet another glance at the clock. 6:34. She had made it.

As she always did, Lucy braced herself to hear Paul’s footsteps. Prepared to meet him with a smile . . . as if he hadn’t thrown the dinner platter to the floor. As if he hadn’t raised his hand to her.

But still the clock ticked . . . and he didn’t arrive. Warily, Lucy peeked out the window. Glanced at the clock. 6:50.
A new set of worries settled in her stomach. To spend so long in the barn wasn’t like him. Paul was nothing if not prompt; and she had learned the hard way about the folly of not adhering to his schedule.

Not knowing what else to do, she pulled out a chair. And waited. Another hour passed.

When the sun started to set, Lucy stood and paced. Common sense told her to walk to the barn to check on her husband. But self-preservation warned her. Paul didn’t like her to disturb him. He didn’t like her to spy on him.

And surely he would not be happy if she went to the barn without him telling her she could. Almost without thought, she rubbed the knot that now was a permanent fixture on her arm. She’d learned that lesson the hard way.

Thirty minutes later, Lucy felt sick to her stomach. It was now almost 8:30, the time Paul liked to read the Bible and discuss his plans for the next day. Surely something was wrong.

Worrying her bottom lip, she slowly opened the screen door and stepped outside. Her heart skipped a beat when she saw Star, their shepherd mix, whining outside the barn door.

“Star?”

The dog barked, then whined some more. Pulled on the rope that hitched him to a post by the barn’s entrance.

Lucy started forward. For Star to be still tied up, that was strange indeed. Usually Paul let him loose once he went into the barn to inspect the horses. “Star? Are you okay?” she asked as she freed the dog.

The dog answered by barking again and pawing at the barn’s entrance.

Lucy gathered her courage. Prepared herself to meet Paul’s barrage of abuse for disturbing him. Or for him to yank at her shoulder for spying.

But the daylight was waning. Lucy didn’t know what Paul wanted her to do, but when Star pawed the door again, she opened it and stepped in. Her heart beat wildly. With a cautious, dry swallow, she whispered, “Paul?”

Only the nervous neigh of their horses replied.

She walked in farther, then stopped in shock.

Paul lay at the base of the ladder that led to the barn’s loft. She rushed to his side and knelt, Star at her heels. “Paul!” she cried out. “Paul! Paul?”

That’s when she noticed his neck was at an odd angle and his eyes were open. Lifeless.

Gingerly, she pressed two fingers to his neck, searching for a pulse. But there wasn’t one. Her husband was dead.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

In The Shadow of Evil - Chapter 1

In The Shadow of Evil
B&H Books (March 1, 2011)
by
Robin Carroll



Chapter 1


Prologue


Eighteen Years Earlier


What a night!

Maddox turned his car into the residential area and glanced at the digital display on the dash—12:28. Great, late for curfew. He smiled. Being late was worth it when he’d had a hot date with Julie Cordon. Man, the girl was something else. Beautiful, sexy, and funny. Just being with her made him feel special. Made him forget lots of things, including time.

Besides, he was seventeen. Curfews were for kids! A senior in high school, and he had to be home by midnight? All his Pop’s doing.

Tyson Bishop…Mr. Air Force man, determined to force the entire family to live by rules and regulations.

But his dad was over foreign soil right now, jumping out of perfectly good airplanes. Mom understood better, wasn’t quite the stickler about curfews like his dad. Good thing, too. Maddox was almost thirty minutes late tonight. Pop would blow his top and ground him for at least a month. Probably take away his car. But not Mom. She’d just caution him to pay closer attention to the time. Launch into the whole spiel about responsibility and accountability. He could recite it from memory.

Maddox whipped into the driveway and pressed the garage door opener. The light from the kitchen door spilled into the garage. Mom would be up…waiting. He should’ve called.

But being around Julie was like being caught in a time warp. Even the car’s interior held her smell. Light, flowery…teasing and tempting.

He killed the engine and jogged up the steps, slipping his charming smile into place. His mom had never been able to stay mad or disappointed when he flashed his dimples at her. He’d promise to mow the grass tomorrow before Pop got home, and she’d forget all about his tardiness.

He shut the garage door behind him and entered the kitchen. “Mom? I’m home.” The hint of roast lingered in the air.

The house was as silent as a tomb.

Odd. She would normally be on her feet to meet him.

He passed the kitchen’s butcher-block island and continued into the living room. A soft light filled the space beside her reading chair, but no sign of her.

“Mom?”

Maddox backtracked to the kitchen. Maybe she was in the downstairs bathroom.

“Hello?” His voice rose an octave as his pulse hammered. The bathroom door was wide open, the room dark.

Where was she?

His steps faltered as he pressed into the kitchen again. The backdoor stood open, the glass pane closest to the knob—shattered. His heart jumped into his throat.

“Mom!”

Using the agility that had garnered him the wide receiver place on the varsity football team, Maddox flew down the hall toward his parents’ bedroom. He pushed open the door with shaking hands.

His mother lay sprawled on the floor, a pool of blood staining the carpet around her. Her face pale against the dark red spilling from her chest. A metallic odor permeated the room.

What? He blinked repeatedly, his mind not processing what his eyes saw. Then…he did. And nearly vomited.

He raced to her side, lifting her head into his lap. “Mom.” Tears backed up in his eyes as he smoothed her hair.

“Mad-dy,” she croaked.

He grabbed the phone from the nightstand, the base landing on the floor with a resounding thud. He grabbed the receiver and punched in 9-1-1.

“Hang on, Mom. I’m calling for help.” Every nerve in his body stood at high alert.

“Too. Late.” She grimaced. A gurgling seeped from between her lips. Her body went slack in his arms.

“911, what is the nature of your emergency?”

He closed his eyes. Fought back scalding tears. “My mother. She’s been murdered.”