Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Survivor - Chapter 1 Excerpt

The Survivor
Avon Inspire; Original edition (August 30, 2011)
Shelley Shepard Gray

Chapter 1

Finally, Mattie Lapp had Graham Weaver trapped. For most of their visit to the hospital, she’d been trying to speak privately with him. But every time she’d found her nerve, something would happen. Either she would get called away for one more blood test, or Graham would be busy chatting with one of the Englischers in the waiting room.

As the hours passed, she’d bite her tongue and bide her time. Not very patiently, however. She’d always secretly thought patience was somewhat overvalued.

Now was her chance.

At the moment, she and Graham were the only two people on the elevator at the Geauga County Hospital. As the elevator doors closed, Mattie knew she had only mere seconds before they would reach the ground level. Only seconds to speak her mind.

Clearing her throat to get his attention, she said, “Graham, wouldja do something for me?”

Though he’d been standing in front of the doors and watching the numbers blink overhead, Graham turned to her with his usual understanding smile. “Of course. Anything.”

Nervously, she glanced at the blinking number. Nine.

The elevator stopped. The doors opened. Her breath caught. This had been the very worst of ideas!

Maybe she’d get a reprieve?

Nee. No one entered. The Lord was obviously telling her it was now or never. As the doors closed with a whoosh, she blurted, “Graham, it’s like this. I need you to help me find a husband.”

In a flash, his kind expression turned dark and stormy. “Mattie, the things you think of. Why in the world would I want to do that?”

Ach! This was a terribly bad idea. But now that she’d said it, she had to follow through. “I don’t want to be alone anymore. I want a man of my own,” she said in desperation. Felt herself blush at her poor explanation. Honestly, it sounded as if she wanted a puppy, not a husband.

Graham leaned against the wall. Crossed his well-built arms over his terribly solid chest. “Why?” he asked. His voice was hard now.

The elevator stopped at the third floor. “I’ll explain later. Another time,” she blurted as she stepped backward and waited for the elevator doors to open and allow people inside.

Except they did not.

The doors didn’t open, that was.

Instead, the overhead light started blinking, blanketing them in pitch-blackness every other second. Without thinking, she stepped closer to Graham. Comforted by his presence, she searched his face. Looking for answers.

For a moment, true worry appeared in his eyes before he stood straighter and gently reached out and clasped her shoulder. “S’okay, Mattie,” he murmured. “I’m sure this is just a temporary thing.”

Of course, his first thought was to reassure her. He’d always been that type of friend.

“I wonder what is going on?” What was she asking, really? Was she concerned about the doors not opening . . . or what was finally happening between them?

“I don’t know,” he murmured, this time in Pennsylvania Dutch. That was the only sign that maybe he wasn’t as calm about their situation as he wanted her to believe.

Mattie pivoted and glared at the stark metal doors. Though it had only been a few seconds, already their enclosure felt confining. So much like the MRI machine that the technicians used to look for cancer. The air felt thick. Too thick.

“I hope the doors open soon,” she said. “I don’t know what we’ll do if they don’t.”

Behind her, he reached out and raised his other hand to her shoulder, gently squeezing. Reassuring. “They will. You just need patience. A bit more patience in everything,” he murmured under his breath.

But she still heard it. Turning again, she faced him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You just asked me to help you find a man,” he pointed out, none too kindly. “Like . . . like I was some kind of courting service for Amish women.”

“That’s not fair. I only asked because you work at the garage door factory now. And there’s lots of Amish men there . . .”

“Who I would want to start trying to match you with?”

His voice was condescending. And . . . a bit hurt?

Well, she was hurt, too. And confused. As the lights continued to flash, she watched him jab at the glowing buttons. “Graham, why are you so upset with me? Is it because I want to find someone? Because I want to get married one day soon? Because I want to have a life like the rest of our friends?” As she said the last words, Mattie heard the whine in her voice and mentally winced. She didn’t want to sound so pitiful. But at the moment, she also couldn’t help how desperate she was feeling.

With a jerk, Graham turned from the button panel. “I’m not upset about your dreams.”

Dreams. Yes, that was one way of putting it, wasn’t it? She had dreams that might never amount to anything. Ruthlessly, she pushed the bitter thoughts away.

Fingering her black apron covering her violet dress, she said, “If you’re not upset . . . would you? . . . Would you help me?”

“Not now.” He turned from her and started punching buttons. Again. As if the doors would suddenly open because of his fingertip on the right button!

Though she wanted to talk more, she found herself hoping his efforts would be fruitful.

But of course they were not.

Why would they?

These days, it seemed as if nothing was ever easy. After all, hadn’t she been diagnosed with cancer at twenty-one and not only endured a mastectomy, but lost all her hair and a good portion of her weight, too . . . all while her friends were going about their lives? Finding love and planning weddings?

Eager to get out of their prison, she pointed to a red knob to the right of the doors. “Should I pull this? Pull the alarm?”

“Pull it, if you want.”

His voice was still cool. Unused to that tone, she reached out to him again. “Graham, please don’t be upset with me. After all, you have Jenna.”

“You know things with Jenna and I didn’t work out.”

“Well, I’d like a chance for a relationship. All I want is for you to talk to some of the men you are working with and see if you think one of them would be a gut match for me. It makes perfect sense.”

“Mattie, I’m not meant to be your personal dating service.”

Oh, but Graham always knew the perfect sarcastic quip to make her feel ridiculous. Beyond discouraged, Mattie shrank from his glare. Pulled at her collar. Though she was sure it was only her imagination, already the confines of the elevator felt warmer. Too warm.

After a long look, he stepped closer. Wrapped an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. Just like he had when she was so, so sick from the chemotherapy drugs. Leaning toward him, she rested her cheek on his shoulder.

He cuddled her closer. Just like he usually did when she was ill. But no, this felt different. There was more tension between them.

More energy.

“Graham?” she whispered, moving so she could see his eyes under the brim of his straw hat.

He was staring at her. His lips were slightly parted, as if all his words were frozen inside of him. Just like hers suddenly were.

Slowly his head lowered. Realizing what was about to happen, her pulse quickened. She raised her chin. Suddenly, everything felt all right.

Was this what she’d been wanting, but hadn’t even realized?


They sprang apart. Dropped their hands just as the elevator door opened with a cloying jerk.

Air rushed forward, cooling Mattie’s cheeks.

“You two all right?” asked a man in a light blue cotton shirt with the name Tom embroidered on the pocket. Holding the metal door open, he waited for them to exit. “We’ve been worried.”

“We are fine,” Graham answered. “What happened?”

Tom shrugged his shoulders. “Who knows? Everything around here runs like clockwork for days, then suddenly it all falls apart!” He rolled his eyes as Mattie stepped out of the elevator.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Thunder in the Morning Calm - Chapter 1

Thunder in the Morning Calm
Zondervan (August 2, 2011)
Don Brown

Chapter 1

Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI)
Suitland, Maryland

The massive Suitland Federal Center, located in suburban Maryland just eight miles southeast of the Pentagon, sprawled across 226 acres of grass, well-manicured shrubbery, and brick-and-mortar federal office buildings.

Reachable by subway off the Washington Metro’s Green Line, yet unknown to most Americans, the center is home to several federal agencies, the most recognizable being the United States Census Bureau.

From the Pentagon, the ride to Suitland by car was scenic, even on a barren mid-November day. Crossing the Potomac River, the government-issued Ford Taurus passed by the Jefferson Memorial and the Tidal Basin, the reflections in the pools and basins of Washington’s great monuments a reminder of the great force for freedom that America had been, still is, and, hopefully, will remain.

But in a few short minutes, the images of grandeur disappeared as the Taurus left behind the glamorous buildings of government and drove into the crime-infested southeast sector of the city, past the Washington Navy Yard to the right and slumlord government housing to the left.

In the front passenger seat, Lieutenant Commander Gunner McCormick, United States Navy, checked his watch. They had departed the Pentagon thirty minutes after the end of rush hour, with plenty of time to spare, unless one of those notoriously inconvenient Washington-area fender benders paralyzed traffic.

“We’ve got a few minutes, sir,” said the senior chief petty officer driving the Taurus. “Be happy to stop and buy you a coffee.”

“Sounds great, Senior Chief,” the commander said. “I could use the caffeine. Come to think of it, I could use a smoke.” He checked his watch again. “But I’d rather be early than take any chances. How about on the way back I buy you a coffee or, better yet, maybe something a little more substantial.”

“That’ll work,” the senior chief said, sporting a sly grin as the Taurus rolled east across the Pennsylvania Avenue bridge spanning the Anacostia River.

Not much was said for the rest of the trip as the commander gathered his thoughts. Three days ago, they plucked him off his ship in the Pacific, flew him to Hawaii, then to San Diego, and then to the Pentagon for one day. And now they were driving him over to Suitland, to the Office of Naval Intelligence, for a top-secret meeting about a top-secret subject. He still had no clue why he had been called.

His boss at sea, Rear Admiral James S. Hampton Jr., had not been too happy about it. But then, Admiral Hampton had not been happy about much lately. Gunner thought the admiral had been on his case over just about anything and everything. He had no idea what was bothering him. Who knew? He’d learned long ago that in the Navy, you don’t second-guess the orders of your superiors. Half those orders never made sense anyway. And you don’t try to read officers’ minds. Flag officers, especially, could change their minds as quickly as the wind shifts directions. So what was the point?

They crossed the Maryland state line into Prince George’s County. They made a right and then a left on Branch and Alabama Avenues, then stayed to the right for the final stretch along Suitland Road Southeast. As they approached Gate 1, the driver slowed down, then turned in. After presenting their credentials, they drove onto the grounds of Suitland Federal Center. The road dead-ended at Swan Road, the main corridor within the center. Most of the signs pointed to the left, toward the buildings of the giant US Census Bureau. But the senior chief clicked on the right-turn signal and made a sharp right turn.

A moment later, they reached Gate 9, with its armed Marine Corps guards. A Marine staff sergeant snapped to attention and shot a sharp salute.

“Good morning, sir,” the sergeant said. “May I help you?”

“I’ve got a meeting with the admiral at ONI,” Gunner said, referring to the Office of Naval Intelligence.

“Aye, aye, sir,” the sergeant said. “Your identification and orders, please.”

“Senior Chief,” the commander said, “show the sergeant our papers.”

“Aye, sir.” The senior chief passed the orders out the window.

The sergeant studied the papers, then passed them back. He shot another perfectly stiff salute with precision-like bearing. “You may proceed through the gate. ONI is in the building straight ahead. The duty officer is awaiting your arrival, Commander, and will escort you to the admiral’s spaces.”

“Thank you, Sergeant,” Gunner replied, and the Taurus rolled through Gate 9 past two other Marine guards and parked near the National Maritime Intelligence Center building.

Gunner stepped through the double doors into the marble-floored foyer. Flanking the entryway to the left was the flag of the United States. To the right was the US Navy flag.

“Lieutenant Commander McCormick?” A Navy lieutenant smiled and extended her hand. The gold cord hanging from her left epaulette designated her as an aide to an admiral.

“That’s me. My friends call me Gunner.”

“Yes, I’ve heard.” Hers was a dimple-accentuated smile. “I’m Lieutenant Mary Jefferies.”

“You’re the admiral’s aide?”

“That’s right.”

“Nice to meet you, Lieutenant.” He released her handshake.

“You too, Commander. I’ll take you up to the conference room on the sixth deck. We have some background information for you to read. Then the admiral and I will brief you.”

“Excellent,” Gunner said and followed her onto the elevator. “But you can call me Gunner if you’d like.”

Lieutenant Jefferies punched a button and the elevator lifted quickly to the sixth floor — the sixth deck — where the doors parted and Jefferies stepped into the hallway just ahead of Gunner.

“Right this way,” Jefferies said, holding her hand out to the left.

They walked down to the end of the long hallway. Jefferies stopped in front of a door, punched a combination lock, and pushed open the door to a windowless rectangular conference room, complete with table and chairs. In the middle of the long table was an 8-by-10-inch envelope with the words TOP SECRET in red.

“In the envelope you’ll find your orders, Commander, along with general background on the political and military situation surrounding your next assignment. I’ll leave you here to go over the material. I’ll be back in a few minutes to let you know when the admiral will be ready.”

“Excellent,” he said, “but you can call me Gunner.”

Jefferies beamed at him. “Very persistent, I see. Just like your dossier says.”

“You’ve read my dossier?”

“Would you expect otherwise?”

“I think you’re bluffing, Lieutenant. You don’t have an actual dossier on me.”

“Oh, I’m bluffing, am I?” She raised one eyebrow.

“So just what about me have you read?”

“Hmm. Let’s see what I can recall. Graduated from Virginia Tech. Four-year backup quarterback on the football team, but didn’t play much. You got to carry a clipboard and wear a headset and send in plays to the starter.”

“Ooh, that hurt.”

“Did it now?” She smiled at him. “You got tired of not seeing any action, so you joined the Navy.”

“I just want you to know I’m in better shape now than I was when I played on the football team. We had a wimpy strength-and-conditioning coach. The guy didn’t know how to teach power lifting. An hour a day on weights now does more than two hours in the gym back then.”

“Okay. Let’s see. You attended Officer Candidate School in Newport, and after OCS, you got picked up for intel, where you finished, unimpressively I might add, in the middle of your class at Dam Neck.”

“Unimpressively? Hey, I was a football jock! At least I passed.”

“Then you got yourself assigned to a Cruiser Destroyer Group, where you met your surface warfare obligations. Again bored, you got out of the Navy. Took a high-paying job as a commodities analyst in New York. But then you got bored with that too.”

“What can I say?” Gunner quipped. “I get bored easily.”

“Yes, of course you do. This time you tried something a little less boring. You returned to active duty from the reserves and volunteered as an intel officer attached to a SEAL unit in Afghanistan.”

Gunner shrugged. “I flipped on the TV one morning and saw the commercial that said, ‘The Navy — it’s not just a job. It’s an adventure.’ Guess I missed that the first time.”

“You certainly made it an adventure the second time, Commander. Let’s see. What did it say? While attached to the SEALs, you jumped in a hole, grabbed a live grenade tossed in by the enemy, and tossed it out half a second before it exploded, saving the life of the injured Marine waiting to be medevaced out. You were cited for heroism and bravery and awarded the Navy Cross.”

“You’re embarrassing me, Lieutenant. Why do you bring this up?”

“You’re the one who said I hadn’t read your dossier. Just proving I did my homework.”

“I would expect nothing less.”

“Well, then, I’m sure you know the admiral will expect you to have these papers read prior to your meeting.”

“That your way of telling me to shut up and get to work?” He chuckled.

“That is correct,” she said. She opened the door to step out, then turned back. “I hope you will find a suitable level of excitement there.”

“You did nail me.”

She tried suppressing a smile but failed. “I’ll see you in a few minutes, sir.” She stepped out of the room and the door closed behind her.

Gunner sat down. Time to get to work. He opened the envelope and spread its contents on the table.
Date: November 17

From: Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Information Dominance (N2/N6) and Director of Naval Intelligence (DNI)

To: LCDR Chris-tianson Pendleton McCormick, USN, Staff Intelligence Officer, Carrier Strike Group Ten

Subj: Initial Intelligence Briefing Carrier Strike Group Ten Yellow Sea Deployment

Classification: TOP SECRET

1. Due to increasing hostilities on the Korean Peninsula, the Republic of Korea has requested joint naval exercises with the United States Navy in the Yellow Sea as a show of unity, solidarity, and force between the US and the ROK to deter possible aggression from North Korea.

2. The National Command Authority has ordered Carrier Strike Group Ten (USS Harry S. Truman Battle Group) into the Yellow Sea to conduct joint naval exercises with the ROK Navy. Commander Strike Group Ten shall be informed of these orders imminently.

3. As senior intelligence officer for the Strike Group, the purpose of this communiqué is to brief you on (a) the historical and political situation of the conflict as relevant to the Strike Group’s mission; (b) the positioning of North Korean shore batteries that may pose a threat to the Strike Group; and (c) the positioning of North Korean naval and air forces that are a potential threat to United States naval forces.

4. A summary of the historical and political background is as follows:



In 1910, Japan attacked and conquered Korea. The brutal military occupation ended more than one thousand years of Korea’s sovereignty as a nation and was a major source of shame to Koreans.

Thirty-five years later, Japan lost Korea in World War II. Just as Europe was divided along the “Iron Curtain,” Korea was divided along the 38th parallel into the American-backed Republic of Korea in the south (ROK) and the Communist-backed Democratic -People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the north. The DPRK was led by a young rebel and disciple of Joseph Stalin named Kim Il-sung.

In 1950, Kim Il-sung invaded the South to unify the country. North Korean Communist forces rapidly drove south, gaining control of almost the entire country before American and United Nations forces, under General Douglas MacArthur, executed a daring amphibious landing at Inchon, which decapitated the Communist supply lines into the South.

After Inchon, the military pendulum swung to the West. American forces pushed the Communists back, driving them back into North.

Korea — their goal to obliterate the dictatorial regime in Pyongyang. But the surprise entry of overwhelming Communist Chinese forces secretly crossing the border into North Korea changed the dynamic of the war. The US and Korean forces that had advanced north toward the Yalu River border with China on the western side of the peninsula were driven back by the surprise entry of Chinese soldiers, who had crossed secretly into Korea. On the eastern side of the peninsula, Chinese forces attacked the First Marine Division commanded by Major General O. P. Smith near the Chosin Reservoir on their push north. Surprised and surrounded by Chinese forces outnumbering it eight-to-one, the division, fighting in subzero conditions, rallied around General Smith and battled through Chinese fortifications, inflicting mortal damage to the enemy before returning south. Many have said that the Battle of Chosin Reservoir was the Marines’ finest hour.

In 1953, after three years of fighting, Korea remained divided in almost exactly the same place it had been divided before the war began.

The 38th parallel.

The armistice kept the two heavily armed warring armies separated, 2,500 yards apart, by a no-man’s land now known as the “Demilitarized Zone,” the DMZ.

As many as four million -people died in the Korean War, which had some of the most brutal warfare the world has ever known. The US dropped nearly one million gallons of napalm on North Korea. Eighteen of twenty-two major cities in the North were at least half obliterated.

While most -people think the war ended almost sixty years ago, there never was a peace treaty. More than 21,000 days later, the long cease-fire continues.

North Korea remains the most oppressive regime on the planet. Although intelligence is somewhat sketchy, best evidence from eyewitness reports suggests that North Korea maintains several dozen forced-labor prison camps, reserved primarily for political dissidents who dare to challenge the regime. These camps have been used over the years to dissuade political opposition.

Even to this day, rumors have circulated and circumstantial evidence from the North has suggested that North Korea may be holding a few elderly American prisoners never returned from the war.

“What?” Gunner mumbled aloud. He rubbed his eyes and reread the last paragraph.

Even to this day, rumors have circulated and circumstantial evidence from the North has suggested that North Korea may be holding a few elderly American prisoners never returned from the war.

“I can’t believe this.” He looked back at the communiqué.
Due to the highly sensitive political nature surrounding enforcement of the tenuous nature of the armistice, the US has been unable to confirm or deny the validity of such rumors.
“What the heck is that supposed to mean . . . ‘Unable to confirm or deny’?”

A knock on the door. Gunner heard someone working the combination lock, then the door opened. Lieutenant Jefferies was standing alone in the passageway. “The admiral is ready for you now, Commander. If you will come with me, please.”

Gunner stood, grabbed the folder, and joined Lieutenant Jefferies out in the hall. His briefing with the admiral would be interesting. But he knew that nothing the admiral could say would erase the idea growing in his mind.

American Marines could be alive in North Korea. And he intended to find them and bring them home.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Ransome’s Quest - Chapter 1

Ransome’s Quest
Harvest House Publishers (August 1, 2011)
Kaye Dacus

Chapter 1

It is too dangerous.”

William Ransome snapped his cutlass into its scabbard and turned to face his wife. “The longer I delay, the farther away they take Charlotte.”

Dread froze his lungs, his stomach, his heart. Charlotte. His sister. Taken. “If anything happens to her…”

Julia wrapped her arms around her abdomen and leaned against one of the heavy posts at the end of the bed. “Why the message to my father? What has he to do with Charlotte?”

William double-checked the load of his pistol and tucked it under his belt. “Your father has publicly vowed—more than once—to rid the Caribbean of pirates and privateers for good. Charlotte was likely a target of opportunity, not purpose.”

“But if the man’s argument is with my father, it should have been me taken, not Charlotte.”

William could not disagree with her. Nor could he agree, as the very idea of Julia’s being taken by pirates nearly ripped his heart from his chest. “I should have put her on that ship in Barbados returning to England. If I had followed my conscience”—instead of listening to Julia’s and Charlotte’s emotional arguments—“she would have been well out of harm’s way by now.”

They both startled at a knock on the door.


The door opened at his command, revealing Jeremiah. “The horses are ready, Commodore.”

“Very good.” William took up his case and hat and moved toward the door.

Julia stepped in front of him, expression imploring. “Please, William, wait until dawn. The roads are treacherous enough in the full light of day. At night…and you do not know where you are going. What good will it do Charlotte if you become lost or…or something else happens to you or the horse? Or what if the pirates have laid a trap and done this to lure you from the safety of the house?”

A mirthless laugh expanded in his throat, but he stifled it. Safety of the house? Was the house safe when the brigands had snatched Charlotte from the porch almost directly outside this very room?

“I am sending Asher with him, Miss Julia,” Jeremiah said. “He knows the roads ’twixt here and Kingston better than anyone I know.”

William tore his gaze away from Julia’s anxious face. “Jeremiah, I am depending on you to protect Mrs. Ransome and ensure no harm comes to her while I am away.”

“I will protect her with my life, sir.”

He stepped around Julia and handed his bag and hat to Jeremiah. “Thank you. I shall join you in a moment.”

As he hoped, Jeremiah understood the dismissal. He gave a slight bow and left the room, closing the door behind him.

William took Julia by the shoulders and directed her to the chaise positioned at the end of their bed. He had to apply more pressure than he liked to make her sit. “You are to stay at Tierra Dulce. You will keep an escort with you at all times. I want armed guards posted near the house.”

She nodded, never blinking or breaking eye contact. “Yes, William.”

“If you hear any word from Charlotte or receive”—his voice caught in his throat—“a ransom demand from the pirate, you will send a messenger to Fort Charles. They will get word to me.”

“Yes, William.”

Heart tearing asunder at the necessity of leaving Julia behind, he bent over and pressed his forehead to hers. “Pray for Charlotte.”

Julia’s hands slid around behind his neck, her fingers twining in his hair. She angled her head and kissed him. “I promise. I will pray for you also, my love.”

He kissed her again and then tore himself away from her embrace. “I must go. I promise I will return—and I will bring Charlotte with me.”

Determined to not look back, he made for the door. He opened it and then hesitated. Without turning around, he said the words he needed to say, just in case they were the last he ever said to his wife. “I love you.”

“I love you, William.” Though softly spoken, her words acted as the command that loosed him from his mooring. He stepped through the door and closed it, leaving her on the other side.

Ned Cochrane paced the drive below the porch steps when William exited the house. He barely spared his former first officer a glance. Intellectually, he knew Ned had done his best, having been taken by surprise and set upon by several men. However, in his heart, he wanted to rail at the younger man for failing to protect Charlotte.

Though a horse was his least favorite mode of transportation, William easily swung himself up into the saddle. Once he was settled—and Ned appeared to be also—William nodded at Asher to lead the way.

Darkness enveloped them. Behind, the light from the house acted as a siren’s call, beckoning him to turn, to look, to regret his decision to leave in the dead of night and wish he had taken Julia’s advice and waited until dawn.

His neck ached from the effort of keeping his face forward instead of giving in to temptation and taking one last look at the house, hoping to catch a final glimpse of Julia.

He focused on the bumpy motion of the animal underneath him. He must leave all thoughts of—all worries about—Julia behind, just as he now left her home behind. Jeremiah had known Julia most of her life. He had been as much of a substitute father for Julia as her father, Admiral Witherington, had been for William.

No, he could not worry about Julia and her safety. Rescuing Charlotte must be his only focus, his only thought.

The monotonous rhythm of the horses’ hooves, at a walk over the dark, deeply rutted dirt roads, along with the necessity of keeping his eyes trained on the light shirt stretched across Asher’s broad back, lulled William into a stupor.

Ahead lay his ship. The thought of boarding Alexandra and getting under sail chipped away at his anxiety. As soon as he was on the water, as soon as he stood on the quarterdeck and issued the command to weigh anchor, he would be that much closer to finding Charlotte and bringing her home.

The road widened, and Ned pulled up beside him.

“You are certain the man did not identify himself?”

“No, sir. He did not give his name. He only said her safety depended on the mercy of a pirate.” Ned’s voice came across flat and hoarse.

“What were you doing out on the porch, alone with her in the dark?” Even as William asked this, he reminded himself Ned was not at fault. But if Charlotte had been inside, perhaps…

“I followed them—Miss Ransome and Winchester—when they went for their walk. I did not trust Mrs. Ransome’s steward to behave honorably.” He paused. “I need not have worried. Char—Miss Ransome handled the situation admirably and dispatched Winchester, and their engagement, with aplomb.”

“Winchester was with you when she was taken? Why did you not tell me this before?”

“No, sir. Miss Ransome dismissed him. He had been gone for…several minutes.”

Could Winchester be involved? Dread sank like a cannonball in William’s gut. Julia already suspected the steward of embezzling money from the plantation. And William had left her there with that man—

“I asked her to marry me.”

If Winchester were involved, and this was a ploy to get William away from Tierra—he yanked the reins. The horse voiced its protest and jerked and swerved, nearly unseating William. “I beg your pardon?”

“After Charlotte broke her engagement with Winchester, we talked about our mutual regard. I proposed marriage to her, and she accepted.” Ned’s words barely rose above the sounds of the horses’ hooves on the hard-packed earth.

From a sinking ship into shark-infested waters. Could Charlotte not have waited even a full day after breaking one engagement before forming another—again, without her family’s knowledge? “And if I refuse my permission?”

“Then we shall wait. We’ll wait until you think I am worthy to marry her, sir.”

Worthy to marry her. William did not have to think hard to remember standing before Julia’s father twelve years ago and saying the same words. Sir Edward had graciously given him—a poor, threadbare lieutenant with no prospects and nothing to recommend him as husband or son-in-law—a father’s blessing for William and Julia to marry based on nothing other than their love for each other. William had been the one to deem himself unworthy of her affections, and he had almost lost her forever.

“We shall discuss this after we return Charlotte home.”

“I pray that will be soon, sir.”

“So do I, Ned. So do I.”

Charlotte awoke with a gasp. Wooden planks formed the low ceiling above her. A canvas hammock conformed to her body and swung with the heave and haw of the ocean beneath the ship.

A ship?

Not possible. They had made port, hadn’t they?

She stared at the underside of the deck above, trying to clear the haziness from her brain. Yes. They had made port. Left Alexandra and ridden in carriage across those horrible, rutted roads to Tierra Dulce, Julia’s sugar plantation. The low, sprawling white house with the deep porch that wrapped all the way around and the white draperies billowing through the open windows.

The porch. She blinked rapidly. The porch. At night. In the dark. Henry Winchester and…and Ned.

She bolted upright and then flung her torso over the side of the hammock as her stomach heaved.

Why should she be sick? She hadn’t experienced a moment of seasickness on the crossing from England to Jamaica. She climbed out of the hammock, skirt and petticoats hindering her progress until she hoisted them above her knees, and made for the small table with a glass and pitcher.

Wan light from the stern windows sparkled through the glass, revealing a residue of white powder in the bottom of it. She set the glass back on the stand. Last night the pirate had made her drink from the glass, and then everything had gone hazy. But before that…

She buried her face in her hands. Being torn away from Ned. She prayed they had not killed him. She’d heard no gunshot, but as their raid had been one of stealth, they would more likely have used a blade to end Ned’s life.

A sob ripped at her throat, but she forced it to stay contained. She would not give the pirates the satisfaction of seeing her upset. And she must, and would, find a means of escape.

Thirst got the better of her, and she lifted the china pitcher of water and rinsed her mouth before drinking deeply the brackish liquid. She then turned and surveyed the cabin. Obviously the pirate captain’s quarters. Though smaller than Ned’s aboard Audacious, which was in turn smaller than William’s aboard Alexandra, the room was neatly kept, with serviceable furnishings, whitewashed walls and ceiling, and plain floors. Nothing to exhibit the extravagance or wealth she’d expected to see in a pirate’s private lair.

The desk. Perhaps something there would tell her more about her captor. She crossed to it, rather surprised by the empty work surface. No stacks of the papers or books like the ones resting on William’s or Ned’s worktables. Her fingers itched to open the drawer under the desktop and the small doors and drawers along the high back of it, but Mama had taught her better than that.

Two miniatures hanging above the desk caught her eye. One showed a woman, probably a few years older than Charlotte, with dark hair and angular features. Too plain to be called pretty, but not ugly either. The green backdrop of the second painting contrasted vividly with the reddish-brown hair of a pretty girl and matched her vibrant green eyes.

Mahogany hair and green eyes—just like Julia. Why would a pirate have a portrait of Julia hanging in his cabin? But, she corrected herself, the painting was of a girl no older than thirteen or fourteen. Surely the resemblance to Julia was merely coincidental.

“She was lovely, was she not?”

Charlotte gasped and whirled. A dark-haired man dressed in a blue coat that resembled a commodore’s or admiral’s—complete with prodigious amounts of gold braid about the cuffs, collar, and lapels—stood in the doorway of the cabin.

He tossed a bicorne hat—also similar to a navy officer’s—onto the oblong table in the middle of the cabin, clasped his hands behind his back, and sauntered toward her, his eyes on the portrait.

“What do you want with me?”

“I am sorry for the manner of your coming here, Miss…?” He cocked one eyebrow at her.

“Ransome. Charlotte Ransome. My brother is Commodore William Ransome. He will hunt you down. And when he finds you—”

“When he finds me,” the pirate said, sighing, “I am certain the encounter shall be quite violent and bloody. Is that what you were going to say?”

Charlotte ground her teeth together. The man stood there, serene as a vicar on the Sabbath, acting as if they stood in a drawing room in Liverpool discussing the weather. “What do you want with me?”

“With you? Nothing.” He flicked an invisible speck of dust from the oval frame. “My business is with her.”

“With her?” Charlotte nodded toward the painting. “Is that…?”

“Julia Witherington—or Julia Ransome, as I have lately learned. Empress of the Tierra Dulce sugar empire.”

The strange lilt in his voice when he said Julia’s name sent a chill down Charlotte’s spine. “Yes, she is married. To my brother.”

“The famous Commodore Ransome.” The pirate turned and ambled toward the dining table. “His reputation precedes him.”

Worry riddled Charlotte at the pirate’s lack of worry over the thought of William’s hunting him down and blowing him and his crew out of the water. After Charlotte escaped, naturally.

“You were not part of my plan, little Charlotte Ransome.” He turned, leaned against the edge of the table, and crossed his arms. The coat pulled across his broad chest and muscular shoulders. A lock of dark hair fell over his forehead, softening the way his heavy black brows hooded his eyes. His nose had been aquiline once, but now it sported a bump about halfway down from whence the rest of the appendage angled slightly to his left. A scar stretched across his forehead and down into his left eyebrow. On first sight he could have passed for Spanish, but his accent marked him as an Englishman.

If he weren’t a no-good, dastardly, cowardly, kidnapping pirate, she might consider him handsome.

“Did you kill him?” The question squeezed past her throat unbidden.


“Ned—Captain Cochrane. The man with me on the porch.” She schooled her emotions as best she could, pretending the man standing before her was none other than Kent, her nemesis during her days aboard Audacious as a midshipman.

“If he is dead, it is through no work of me or my men. We do not kill for sport, only for defense.”

“Ha!” The mirthless laugh popped out before she could stop it. “Morality from a pirate? Someone who spends his life pillaging and thieving and destroying and killing and…and…” Heat flooded her face.

“And?” The pirate stood and stalked toward her, an odd gleam in his dark eyes. “And ravishing young women? Is that what you were going to say?”

Charlotte backed away, right into the edge of the desk. She gripped it hard. “N-no.”

The pirate leaned over her, hands on either side of her atop the desk, trapping her. “Do not try to lie to me, little Charlotte Ransome. You have no talent for it.”

Stays digging into her waist, she bent as far back as she could. “Yes, then. Ravishing.” Not that he would get a chance to ravish her. A fork. A penknife. Anything with a sharp edge or point. Once she had something like that in her possession, she would be able to defend herself against him.

Up close, the pirate’s brown eyes held chips of gold and green. A hint of dark whiskers lay just beneath the skin of his jaw and above his upper lip.

He blinked when someone knocked on the door but didn’t move. “Come!”

“Captain, Lau and Declan are back.”

“Very good. I shall meet with them in the wheelhouse momentarily to hear their report. Dismissed.”

Charlotte wanted to cry out to stop the other man from leaving, but she knew she deluded herself. She was no safer with any man on this ship than with their captain.

Would Ned still want her—even be able to look at her—after the pirates were finished with her?

“What’s this?” The pirate reached up and touched Charlotte’s cheek. “Tears?”

She shook her head, more to dislodge his hand than in denial.

With another sigh he straightened and then handed her a handkerchief. “Calm yourself, Miss Ransome. I have no intention of ravishing you. Nor of allowing anyone else to ravish you. While you are aboard my ship, you are under my protection.”

He crossed to the table and retrieved his hat. “You, however, must stay to this cabin at all times. Though my men know my rules of conduct, a few of them might give in to the temptation of their baser desires should they see you about on deck.”

Charlotte leaned heavily against the desk. The handkerchief in her hand was of the finest lawn, embroidered white-on-white with a Greek-key design around the edge. She frowned at the bit of cloth. Why would a pirate carry something so delicate?

He settled the bicorne on his dark head, points fore-and-aft, the same way the officers of the Royal Navy wore theirs.

“Who are you?”

He touched the fore tip of the hat and then flourished a bow. “I am called El Salvador, and you are aboard my ship, Vengeance. Welcome to my home, Miss Ransome.”

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Dancing on Glass - Prologue

Dancing on Glass
B&H Books (August 1, 2011)
Pamela Ewen


The images have no color. There are only shades of gray, like ash, and each one flashes through her mind and disappears before the next one takes its place. There is a raw, harsh scream, but as she struggles through the mist the thoughts and sounds slip away. Won’t stick. What was the question, anyway?

“Where is Phillip, Amalise?”

Through heavy lidded slits she can see a man in white bending over her. His grave eyes focus on hers. “Are you cold?” he says. “You’re shivering.” The voice is deep and low and soothing. He reaches across the bed and she can feel him tucking something warm around her, binding her arms against her sides, wrapping her in a cocoon. The cocoon feels safe and warm.

“Where is your husband?” he asks again. “Think of Phillip. Can you remember?”

His face wavers before her. She cannot part her lips—cannot speak.

“Try to remember,” he says. “It’s important. Think of the cottage on the lake and of Phillip and try to remember.”

She shuts her eyes and the room disappears. In a split second a hand grips her shoulder. “Wake up, Amalise. Don’t fall asleep.”

The dark is soft, but the images emerge again and sharpen—shards of Phillip’s face—the flat smile, those high, angular cheekbones, brown eyes, protruding brow—moving, bending, twisting like reflections in a fun house mirror that slip away before you pin them down. Aound her there is sand and water.

Her heart begins to pound. The blanket constricts—no longer a cocoon. She shoves the blanket away, twisting, pushing it out with her elbows as she fights to loosen the grip. Pain knifes through her head, and surprised, her eyes fly open and she cries out.

“Careful!” His voice is strident, loud. “You have had an accident.”

The pain lingers, but she stops struggling and listens in silence. “It’s a fracture—just here, on the left side.” She feels the pressure of a touch on the side of her head. The voice turns milky now, soothing. “That’s it. Stay with me. There’s nothing to worry about, but you must try to stay awake for awhile, Amalise.” Two beats. “Can you hear me?”

There is something that frightens her. Don’t say a word.

“Where is Phillip? We need your help.”

“Phillip,” she repeats. He bends forward; she can feel his breath on her cheek. Images emerge from the dark and recede, one after the other. A lake. A pier. A beach. White bird. And Phillip.

“Phillip,” she whispers. “The beach…white bird.”

“And…? Go on, Amalise.”

Footprints. She sees footprints on sand, but they disappear into the black and she is sleepy, so sleepy.

The milky voice grows loud, urgent--Leave her alone—and another voice, harsh, impatient—Doc, doc, there’s not much time.

“Don’t push. Not now. She’s fragile.”

“She’s dreaming Doc. There’s no beach out there. Outside that clearing, we got water, we got woods, we got swamp.”

Shuffling footsteps moving away. A door opens; the harsh voice says, “I got men out there in the rain and there’s not much time; it’s almost dark.” A sharp laugh follows. “Guess we’ll have to follow that bird, huh?”

A door closes.

Dad’s voice comes—wake up, Amalise! And Mama’s voice, from somewhere far away…you cannot go to sleep…concussion…please don’t sleep!

Images explode. Phillip’s eyes, hard with sudden recognition, lips twisting, contorting. Comes again the white coat’s milky voice…don’t sleep, don’t sleep, don’t sleep…She fights to stay awake and there’s an electric hum around her now…Judge, we’re losing her…Amalise wake up…and then that harsh raw scream intrudes inside, that silent fateful scream that shatters thoughts, and voices in the room are fading, and Phillip now is pleading, pleading.

She moans, fighting the memories—willing the darkness to veil the terror. The white bird soars in the light, a pulsing light inside of her…sheets of stark and angry light that blind…Phillip loved her, loved her, always loved her… Ama, Ama, Ama. You are mine. But the voice is filled with something fierce; something that she cannot name. And then the voice shatters into glassy glittering points of light, like stars, and at last the stars wink off, one by one so that the merciful black haze, called upon, descends.

Echoes from the past, present, future, pulse and disappear.

Amalise wake up!

She’s slipping away.

But the voices fade. Here is peace—here is silence, refuge. Nothing exists; there is no space, no boundary, no time.

We’re losing her!

Forgive me… For…give… me…

Sunday, August 7, 2011

A Most Unsuitable Match

A Most Unsuitable Match
Bethany House; Original edition (August 1, 2011)
Stephanie Grace Whitson

A Most Unsuitable Match

The Hardest Thing to Do - Chapter 1

The Hardest Thing
Crossway Books (July 31, 2011)
Penelope Wilcock

Chapter 1

Brother Thomas sat impassively in his stall in the choir: he felt irritated nonetheless. The air was astir from Father Chad’s bustling as the prior made his way with exaggerated purpose to the abbatial seat. The energy of his going generated a crack and flap of robes that grated on Brother Thomas’s nerves.

Why can’t he just tread quietly? Why does he have to exude this self-importance every blessed time someone gives him something to do? Oh, ye saints and archangels, just sit down, Chad—whatever it is I bet we’ve heard it all before.

Ash Wednesday. The smell of the burnt palm crosses mixed with chrism pervaded the chapel.

Prime, then the morrow Mass and imposition of the ashes: “Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris... Remember, O man, that dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return... Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”

Tom rose to his feet, his brow marked with ashes by the prior’s thumb. He returned from the altar rail to his stall, where he sank down to his knees again, wanting to repent about Father Chad and not finding it possible to rid himself of baser thoughts: His voice is annoying. His face is annoying. That little nervous laugh is annoying. The way he says “homo” sets my teeth on edge.

There exists nothing that God has not made. Is God annoying? Did Chad spring fully-formed from some irritating, halfbaked little crevice unacknowledged in the mind of the Divine?

Lent is hard. Cormac’s bread is hard, but in hard Lent the bread is even harder: just flour, salt, and water, no leaven. No eggs, no meat, no cheese, no butter. Beans and roots and cabbage; cabbage and roots and beans. There are no alleluias in Lent. But the hardest thing to do is to take away every comfort, every grace note from the daily round, and still remember not to look at Chad as if you wished he’d crawl right back under his stone.

Come soon, Brother John. This place needs you. I need you. The community filed through into the chapter house to hear the reading of the Rule, the superior’s homily, and the daily discussion of community concerns.

“Brothers, there has come unsettling news of a tragedy.” Father Chad’s voice resonated with the frisson of awful tidings. “One of our guests who was with us on Monday night brought word yesterday of a great fire that has broken out, he said, in a monastery but a few days’ ride from here. I pressed him for more detail, but he had heard only rumors—talk of complete destruction, of ashes floating on the wind across the neighboring country, and many lives lost. When I hear tell of what community has suffered this dreadful calamity, I will bring you news: for now, dear brothers, please keep those stricken in your prayers.

“Please pray, of course, also for our brother who is traveling home to us and will be with us any day, we hold good hope. We beseech God of his great kindness that our brother may be kept in safety from danger, disease, wild animals, and violent men, that he may soon be received under our roof with all charity and rejoicing.

“And we keep in our prayers before God all who are sick and frail, especially Brother Cyprian, whose health is failing.” Father Chad turned to the Rule of St. Benedict and the chapter for the observance of Lent, exhorting the brethren to keep their lives pure and to wash away in this stretch of extra effort the creeping negligences that gradually attached themselves through the rest of the year. The chapter urged each man to seek out some extra offering of his own self-denial—some item of food or drink, another hour of sleep, forbearance from conversation—to deepen the penitential journey of Lent and heighten the joy of spiritual desire for Easter.

Tom noted the enriched timbre of Father Chad’s voice as he read from the Rule: “Let each one, however, suggest to his abbot what it is that he wants to offer, and let it be done with his blessing and approval. For anything done without the permission of the spiritual father will be imputed to presumption and vainglory and will merit no reward. Therefore let everything be done with the abbot’s approval.”

Tom considered the possibility of humbly asking Chad’s permission to keep out of his way for six weeks—for the good of his soul. Then he felt a sudden stab of shame at his lack of charity.

Father Chad had proposed that the admission of their new abbot be incorporated into the Easter festivities as a grand and joyful occasion. Brother Thomas had seen things differently. “It’s not for show; it’s not about the pomp and ceremony!” he had wanted to say, but had stood in silence, biting back the flood of criticism that had wanted to tumble out, until the prior asked him, “Yes, brother?”

And with an effort he had kept his words honest and simple. “Father, I think Brother John likes things done quietly. I think the receiving of our new abbot is a private, family thing. I beg to offer that we do this simply, just among ourselves, and let Easter have the glory that belongs to it, without us trying to gild the lily.” Father Chad had nodded thoughtfully, alert to the quiet stir of assent that reached his ears.

“That sounds like wisdom, dear brother,” he conceded. He hesitated, then added, “We shall be empowered to do this because the bishop has given us permission to admit our new abbot as soon as he arrives among us. I am permitted to act as the bishop’s commissary.”

Tom nodded, keeping his eyes lowered. He understood what he was hearing. Chad had no confidence in himself, no natural authority. He swung between the paralysis of hopeless inadequacy and preening himself on account of borrowed authority. He was not the abbot of this community and felt the deepest relief to know he never would be. He entertained not even a fantasy of becoming a bishop. Responsibility frightened him, administration confused him, and pastoral ministry frankly terrified him, but to pull borrowed rank occasionally restored his self-esteem.

That was settled then. Their new abbot would be installed privately, quietly, simply, as soon as he had come back home to them.


“Brother Conradus, you’re late.”

This was undeniably true and not atypical, but Father Theodore understood how to soften the rebuke. Only recently clothed in the habit of the Order, still relying on friendly hands to steer him into the right place at the right time, the short, plump, young novice clung to his name in religion and the right to be a brother of this house as a consolation amid chronic weariness and bewilderment. Brother Conradus—the words brought exultation, even when they were normally a mere preliminary to correction.

He fell to his knees before the novice master seated in the teaching circle. “I confess my fault of tardiness, my father, and I ask forgiveness of God and of you.”

It never felt hard to ask Father Theodore for pardon. Even as Conradus kissed the floor in penance, the gentleness of the novice master’s voice—“God forgives you, and so do I, my son; I do know you are trying your best”—brought comfort and the feeling of being understood. It was not impossible to make Theodore angry, but that happened only when deserved. Theodore could see the difference between human weakness and human sin. He was ready with a hand to lift you up when you stumbled, which was very often in Brother Conradus’s present reality. It was not easy to get used to plain food made awesomely plain in Lent. It was almost impossible, having tossed and turned on the lumps of a straw mattress on a February night and having finally fallen into an exhausted sleep, to waken at the clamor of the bell, then leave a blanket still barely warmed and join the subdued line of tired men stumbling down from the dorter at 2 A.M. for Matins, to pray for the king and the dead—the situation of either seeming infinitely preferable. The silence, the work, the unquestioning obedience—Brother Conradus thought everything was as difficult as he’d been warned and maybe more so. But he thought the hardest thing to do was holding it all together, trying to remember everything he’d been told and asked, where everything was and where he was meant to go.

Eager for Father Theodore’s morning lesson, Conradus took his place in the circle with the others, and peace settled upon him. Conradus did not know that when Theodore had passed through the novitiate the novices had sat in rows facing their master at the front. He did not consider Theodore’s reasoning in arranging the stools in a circle; even so, he was not insensible to the atmosphere of community in this room. Here was a place where people learned together, and everyone felt included.

The young monks and their novice master, all now gathered, sat without speaking in the circle—another innovation of Theodore’s. Invariably late to almost everything as a novice himself, his memories were of lessons begun and half missed: he used to miss the start because he was late, miss the next bit because he was overcome with bitter humiliation and selfrebuke, and miss most of the rest because he couldn’t quite make sense of it, trying to imagine what the bits he had missed might have been.

So he initiated the practice of starting the time together in silence.

“In silence we enter the room, brothers. In silence we take a place in the circle—any place, not my place or your place, not the same place always, for place is nothing to be possessive about. We sit quietly then and take in where we are. Sit with your eyes open or shut, it matters not; but be aware. Know that being a monk is not about withdrawal but about community, and feel the community here. We listen to our brothers . . . see them . . . smell them . . . [that usually brought a laugh] and we stay open to what else we can notice. Restlessness? Weariness? Friendship? Peace? Every day is different in community, and we are made more sensitive to the differences because every day is the same.”

Conradus liked to sit with his eyes open and rest his gaze on the circle of his brothers, because he had noticed that this was what Father Theodore usually did. Sometimes, like today, a deep sigh escaped from somewhere deep in his body, as he began to relax in this accepting circle. He looked at the smudges of ash on the faces of his brothers. The acceptance belonged to every day; but this was the day of ashes, and that set it apart.

Into the silence Theodore spoke quietly about miracles of transformation.

“A miracle alters the normal course of things, turning what comes naturally into something new. In the everyday world, we take a flint and a rag, or take a taper to a candle, and we make a light. We take the light to the hearth and start the fire. When night comes down and we cease to feed it, the flames die away, the embers grow cold, and all that is left is ashes.

“A vocation can be like that, or a marriage, in the everyday. Someone sets alight something new, it flames up warm and bright. But with time and neglect, it dies down, dies out. As the years go by while you walk this way, you will sense among your brothers those of whom this is true.

“The psalmist says, ‘Quia factus sum sicut uter in pruina, justificationes tuas non sum oblitus. Quot sunt dies servi tui? For I am become like a bottle in the smoke, yet do I not forget thy statutes. How many are the days of thy servant?’

“And when it is like that—as it can be for any of us at times—the going is so arduous. As you walk this path, my brothers, if you see that . . . if you see that your brother has become like a bottle in the smoke, just the used remnant of what must once have been a vocation, oh, do not judge him. One day it might be you.”

Brother Ced lifted his head, his face troubled. Father Theodore caught his eye, his face kind.

“But the miracle starts here,” he said, and he sounded so certain that Brother Cedd felt reassured. “A miracle is not the everyday way of things—light, fire, ashes. A miracle changes everything, challenges the order we know. In a miracle God smiles and says, ‘Try this for a change: ashes, fire, light.’ Inside a soul, when all is ashes—when a brother has become as grubby and unattractive as a bottle in the smoke—the secret fire of the Holy Spirit arises out of the kind desire of God, burning away the dross and the sin, kindling again the precepts, the statutes, the rule of life. Fire is painful, oh, God, it is painful; there is nothing warm and cozy about the mercy of God as it burns away coldness and indifference. But the flowering of the miracle is luminous; there comes light that is evident to everyone who has eyes to see; the inner light of peace betokening the house where Christ lives again: resurrection, I suppose.

“That bottle in the smoke—the empty, clouded, burned-out vessel—you notice the Latin word for it is uter—something we use, a useful container—but growing also into the word for a womb, the place where new life begins. The jar lying forgotten in last night’s ashes can be the womb of a new beginning.

“So the slow, painful journey of Lent takes us from ashes, through fire, to Easter light: reversing our tendency to fall asleep and neglect the flame, to let the fire go out.”

Theodore stopped speaking. His novices, shifting a little on the uncompromising wooden seats, glanced up to see what might follow and traced his quizzical, amused gaze to Brother Robert, who furnished a helpful illustration as he nodded off to sleep.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A River to Cross - Chapter 1

A River to Cross
Bethany House; Original edition (August 1, 2011)
Yvonne Harris

A River to Cross