Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A Thousand Sleepless Nights

A Thousand Sleepless Nights
Realms (October 16, 2012)
by
Michael King


Chapter 1





Nena Hutching loved being out on the porch first thing in the morning; it was her favorite time of day. On clear mornings the sun peeked above the black willows and painted the sky brilliant shades of pink and orange. Sometimes deer would gather in the front lawn as they crossed from one pasture to the next. She’d seen upwards of thirty or forty at a time. And if the temperature gradient was just right, a low mist would settle across the ranch, hovering like slow-moving water, giving the whole property a dreamlike appearance.

But Nena’s dream had long ago been shattered. Gathering her legs under her, she pulled the blanket up to her shoulders and took a long slow sip of her tea, letting the mug linger at her mouth so the steam could warm her face.

As a child she used to sit here with her father and watch the sun rise, listening to the sounds of the ranch stirring. The smell of cut grass and her dad’s coffee, the sounds of Spanish chatter and horses nickering for their morning meal, the hum of truck engines and men shouting . . . it had all been so familiar, so com- forting. There was a sense of peace here, of purpose and right- ness that she had come to rely on.

But now the place was a ghost town. The pastures were over- grown, the stables empty. The hands had moved on long ago, finding work and fulfillment elsewhere. The black willows, once the landmark of the St. Claire ranch, had aged without care. Some had died and been cut down; others were in desperate need of pruning. And the ranch house, once so noble and pris- tine, the signature of the success of Jack St. Claire, had fallen into disrepair. Porch paint peeled like an old sunburn, one of
the steps needed a new board, and the wisteria had long ago stopped blooming.

Jim did his best to keep up with the place, but it was just too much work for one man. Nena took another sip of tea and listened to the silence. There had been no sunrise this morning; the sky was heavy with dark gray, furrowed rain clouds. A storm was on the way, and in her bones Nena felt it would be much more than just a meteorological event.

The bleeding had started three weeks ago. At first it was spotty, nothing too alarming. But as the days passed it increased, until finally an appointment was scheduled, a colonoscopy performed, a tumor found. Now Nena could do nothing but await the results of the biopsy. Nothing but sit here haunted by regrets, sipping her tea, reminiscing about the better days the ranch had seen.

The sound of tires rolling on dirt broke the morning silence, and Nena saw an SUV making its way down the lane. She knew immediately who it was—Dr. Les Van Zante—and called for Jim to join her on the porch.

Les had never made a house call before. Of course, she told herself, maybe it wasn’t a house call. Maybe he was just stop- ping by to say good morning and tell them he hadn’t gotten the results yet, so she should stop fretting and breathe easy. He’d been their family doctor for well over thirty years; more than just a physician, he’d been a friend. But the lump in her throat and the chill that crept over her skin told her this was more than a cordial visit.

Jim emerged, coffee mug in hand, hair still disheveled, face unshaven. “What’s the matter?”

Nena nodded toward the vehicle halfway up the lane. Jim sipped his coffee and said, “Les.”

“Why do I feel like an innocent defendant about to receive a guilty verdict?” Nena said.

Jim rested his hand on her shoulder and squeezed. “Don’t do that, Nena. You don’t know why he’s here.”

The SUV stopped in front of the house, the engine shut off, and the door opened. Les stepped out and closed the door behind him. He nodded. “Jim, Nena.”

Nena noticed the absence of a “good morning.” Clearly it wasn’t a good morning.

“Morning, Les,” Jim said.

As Les made his way up the steps, avoiding the rotting sec- tion of the first board, he neither smiled nor frowned. His face was as stone-still as any world-class poker champ. He shook Jim’s hand then Nena’s.

The knot in Nena’s throat tightened, preventing her from swallowing, but her mouth had gone so dry there was nothing to swallow anyway.

“No ‘good morning’?” she said.

Les was a tall, handsome man, with a long face and sharp nose framed by a thick crop of woolly white hair and a neatly trimmed beard. His deep-set eyes were such a light shade of blue they almost appeared to be gray. Creases outlined his eyes and mouth, and deep frown lines appeared when he was in thought. He shoved his hands in his pockets and rocked on his heels. “Nena, Jim, we received the biopsy results.” He scanned the land around the house as if searching for a way out of deliv- ering the news.

Nena tilted her head to one side. “And?”

Les rubbed his nose, ran his hand through his hair. “I’m sorry, Nena. You have colon cancer.”

The last two words that registered before everything blurred were “colon cancer.”

Les kept talking, but Nena heard little of it, just bits and pieces, like scattered raindrops that occasionally land on your nose, catching your attention. She heard “MRI” and “ultra- sound,” “surgery,” and “chemotherapy.” But they were just isolated words, foreign almost. Her ears picked up the sound of them, but to her brain they made no sense.

She looked at Jim, her husband, the man who had fought for her all those years ago and risked his life and won. The man who had never left her side because he’d promised he never would. His eyes were glassy and distant. He nodded in time to what Les said, but he too appeared to be in some other place, a place where couples grew old together and enjoyed reasonably good health, where they traveled and spent lazy afternoons walking outside or sitting on the front porch, where they spoiled their grandchildren. A place where people weren’t blindsided by cancer. He held her hand, but she didn’t feel it. Her body was numb, paralyzed. She wanted to get up and run off the porch, find a safe place in the stables, but she couldn’t. It was as if she were glued fast to the seat of the wicker chair.

Memories came clanging into her head, just images really, her father sitting atop Warlord, his prized Arabian. Her mother hanging laundry as her hair blew in the breeze and a smile crinkled her eyes. Her three children, running, laughing. Rocking her baby girl, her youngest daughter, and singing her a lullaby—Baby, my sweet, don’t you cry. Baby, my sweet, don’t you fear. Mommy will take care of you, I’m here. Her children, grand- children . . . how long had it been since she’d seen them?

As these thoughts drifted in and out, that word, that awful word clamored like an old noisy cowbell. She hated that word. It had taken her father and her grandfather, the only man she genuinely admired (except for Jim, of course). The word itself sounded like a sentence, like Les was not really telling her “You have colon cancer” but “You’re going to die.”

The porch began to spin then, slowly at first, in a perfect circle, then faster and faster and off-center. Her head suddenly felt as light as helium, and she thought she would vomit.
“Nena, honey, are you okay?”

Jim held her with both arms. She’d slipped from the chair. Had she fainted?

Somewhere in the distance, in the pasture behind the house, she heard a horse whinny. Or was it only her mind playing tricks, hearkening back to a time of simplicity and innocence?

“That’s enough for now,” Les said. He too was near her, his hand on her shoulder. “Nena, we’re going to fight this thing. We’re going to throw everything at it.”

Jim helped her to her feet, but her legs were weak, and the porch undulated beneath her.

“We’ll set things up for the MRI, CAT scan, and surgeon,” Les said. “Someone will call you with the appointment times.” He bent forward and looked Nena right in the eyes. “Nena, are you sure you’re okay? We can bring you into the office and check things out right now.”
She shook her head. “No. I’m fine. I just need to get back in the chair, have some tea.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m fine. Jim can help me.”

But could he? Could he help her this time? It was cancer, after all, the same cancer that had taken her father and grand- father. A monster that had tasted blood, and not just anyone’s blood, but her family blood.

She drew in a deep breath, but the air was so heavy with moisture and the promise of rain she had a difficult time filling her lungs. Les said his good-byes and left, promising to call later and see how she was doing.

When the SUV had disappeared down the lane, Jim stroked Nena’s hair and said, “Nena, it’ll be all right.” His other hand rested on hers, but she still couldn’t feel it. It would be all right. How did he know? He didn’t. That was the plain truth. Those were the words everyone said, the words everyone would say to her. It’ll be all right.

Jim said, “Did you hear what Les said?”

She shook her head. “No.”

Her throat felt like it was the size of a straw.

“He’s going to set you up for tests to see if it’s spread to any other organs. Then we’ll see a surgeon and talk about getting it out of you.”

It. He couldn’t bring himself to say the word: cancer. “The surgeon will set us up with the oncologist,” Jim said. “And then what?”

“Radiation, chemo.”

“More tests, prodding, poking, cutting.”

“Probably. But I’ll be right next to you the whole time. We’ll beat it, Nena. We will.”

“Maybe it’s not that bad,” she said. “Maybe it’ll just be a matter of cutting out the tumor and being done with it.”

The words sounded so hopeless, like someone lying there with a compound fracture, bone jutting through the skin, leg cocked at a sickening angle, saying maybe it was just a sprain.
Jim looked out over the ranch, his eyes so distant and worried.

“Maybe.”

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Beyond the Storm

Beyond the Storm
Abingdon Press (October 2012)
by
Carolyn Zane



Chapter 1


7:00 a.m.

“Good morning Rawston, heart of the American Midwest! We’ve got seven a.m. straight up on your Saturday, May 3rd, and you are listening to Mike and Julie on 101.5 K-RAW. Keep it right here for traffic and weather on the tens as head meteorologist Ron Donovan’s got some breaking news about a thunder boomer headed our way, right after this!”

* * *
The bell over the Doo Drop-In Hair Salon’s front door jangled as it opened. “I got wings!” Isuzu Nakamura shouted as she did every morning when she arrived for work. As usual, she gave the door a healthy window rattling slam.

“Mmph.” Twenty-seven-year-old Abigail Durham, the salon’s owner/operator jerked awake and blinked around the break room. Ah, man. She’d been dozing. And the day hadn’t even begun. What on earth had possessed her to stay out so late last night? Isuzu’s massive purse crashed on her workstation table and moments later, Abigail could sense her standing at the door, frowning as Abigail sat up and peeled a granola bar wrapper off her cheek.

“You look terrible.”

Abigail yawned up at Isuzu-fresh-as-a-lotus-flower-Nakamura. She might be tiny in stature, but the dainty Japanese national was as tough as the acrylic she used for her customer’s French-tip nails. Isuzu rummaged through the cupboards. “I make more coffee. You stay out too late at Kaylee Bachelorette party, last night?”

“Golly, mom. Why do you ask?” A person would never guess that Zuzu was three years younger than Abigail, the way she acted like such a granny at only twenty-five.

Isuzu dropped the metal coffee pot into the sink and turned the water on, full blast. “You wear two different shoes.”

“Oh?” She frowned at her feet. “Oh. Don’t worry. I’m not actually here yet. I just came down to check my appointment calendar. I don’t have anyone till 8:30.”

The smell of the coffee beans Isuzu ground began to tease Abigail awake. “So? How was party?”

“Kaylee hated it . . . so, it was fun.” Dancing and party shenanigans had never been the virginal bride’s bag. Probably would have left before the whole thing started, but Kaylee wasn’t one to hurt anybody’s feelings. Had Kaylee been an animal, she’d have been a dainty, coal black poodle, all soft curly hair, soulful brown eyes and perfect manners.

“Too bad you miss Friday service at church last night. They dedicate big, fat baby to Jesus. Baby cry and smack pastor in nose. Blood everywhere. Very exciting.”

“Ah. Yeah. Well. Next time.” As if. Abigail ducked her head and crossed her eyes. Church on Friday night? Isuzu needed to get a life. Sunday morning was enough for any normal person and even then, only if one couldn’t come up with a good excuse for sleeping in.

The door jangled again and Isuzu glanced up. “I do prom nails for my niece, Brooke, this morning. She invited to prom dance with nice boy tonight. Fresh coffee in two minutes, okay?” Isuzu pointed at the hissing machine and then rushed to greet her niece, leaving Abigail to mull memories of last night while she waited for her java to perk.

Kaylee’s bridesmaids had gone all out. A piñata filled with party favors and gifts, line-dancing lessons, and some dude named Bob Ray Lathrop—part-time personal trainer—had dressed as a cop, arrested Kaylee, for “breaking hearts everywhere,” and then proceeded to do a dance that had everyone howling. They’d all taken a turn on the dance floor with Bob Ray, and he’d passed out business cards and coupons for one free personal training session down at his gym, The Pump.

But, to Abigail’s way of thinking, the best part of the night had arrived too late. “Whoooie! Get a load of the Marlboro man!” one of Kaylee’s bridesmaids had shouted over the blaring country music, just as Abigail staggered off the dance floor and flopped into a chair to rest up. Craning to see, Abigail had snapped to attention. Oh, my. Yes, indeedy. Cute, cute, cute. Real cute. He wore his plaid shirt untucked, and his Levi’s and cowboy boots gave the impression that he’d just climbed off the rodeo bull. In her professional opinion, he could use a good haircut, but it was hard to tell as he’d covered most of the offense with a backwards ball cap. She ignored the niggling voice of caution that cried, Anybody that good-looking has to be a womanizing jerk. Don’t you have enough scar tissue on your heart from meeting guys like him in places like this? Feeling rebellious, Abigail had pointed her fingers, like twin revolvers at cowboy-man and pulled the trigger, then blown at her fingertips.

“Abigail! He saw you!” the bridesmaid had shrieked and ducked her head in a fit of laughter.

“Uh-oh,” she’d said and laughed. Right about that time, the bride, killjoy-Kaylee, began making noises about heading home. Seemed the bachelorette had family arriving from Seattle over the weekend and wanted some beauty rest. Plus, her fiancé had called her twice, which Abigail had razzed her about, teasing that he was probably worried about Kaylee’s virtue.

“Marlboro,” as the girls had nicknamed the newcomer, stood just inside the door, arms folded—making it obvious he spent time in the gym—and surveyed the joint for a few minutes. Then, much to the bridal party’s delight, he strode across the room and asked Abigail to dance. It had been like something out of a movie.

“My hero!” she’d shouted for the benefit of the girls. They’d all catcalled and whistled as she’d skipped out to the dance floor after him. Abigail’s hands had felt feminine in his work-roughened ones, but his touch had been gentle and polite and his smile genuine. He was all beautiful teeth and twinkling eyes and five o’clock shadow. He’d taken enough time to slap on a little aftershave that morning. Armani. It wasn’t cheap. Abigail knew this because she carried it at the salon. Mm-mm. Such deep, blue eyes. And eyelashes? Long enough to sweep her off her feet.

As she reminisced, Abigail found a mug and poured herself a cup of coffee.

“Come here often?” he’d asked in a deliciously rich baritone.

She’d leaned back in his arms and grinned at the dopey line. “Nope. You?”

“To be honest, the only reason I’m here now is because I just finished some work I was doing on a charity project and I’m starving. If I come here at all, it’s usually with a group of work buddies for burgers and to catch the game scores.”

“Sounds fun.” Charity thing. Yeah. Sure. Whatever. It was true, however, that Low Places offered burgers as big as your head and a trough of fries for a song.

“Your boyfriend mind me asking you to dance?”

She’d laughed. “No boyfriend. No husband.” He’d seemed inordinately pleased,
which pleased her. Inordinately. “You?” she ventured.

“None of the above.” He was probably feeding her a load of baloney, but she was a sucker for a pretty face.

“Ah. What about a girlfriend or wife?”

“Nope. I’m relatively new to the Midwest. Haven’t lived here a full year yet.”

“Welcome to Rawston,” Abigail murmured and smiled into his shirt. Oh, yes. He was a great dance partner. Nice and tall, which made her 5’ 6” plus heels feel perfect.

Just as things were getting interesting, Kaylee appeared at her shoulder and announced that the clock had struck midnight and she was leaving the ball. And, since Kaylee had driven most of them, it was time to bid Prince Marlboro adieu. Abigail’s friends were all laughing as they’d pulled her off the dance floor.

“Goodbye,” Abigail had mouthed and thrust out her lower lip in disappointment.

“Next Friday?” he’d answered, seeming just as disappointed.

What the hey? Maybe this time, it would be different. Maybe he was that rare combination of good-looking, unmarried good guy. Eeh. Probably not. But she’d nodded anyway, grinned, given him a thumb’s up and that had been that. Abigail couldn’t wait for Friday. She opened the fridge for some creamer and suddenly remembered.

“Oh, no,” she muttered and stared at the refrigerator door. “I forgot to ask his name!”

“What?”

“Nothing. Hey, Zuzu? I’m gonna go home and shower.” She headed to Isuzu’s nail station. “I’ll be back in by 8:15 for my first appointment. Aunt Selma is scheduled for 8:30. Oh, and if she gets here before I do, put her in the chair and give her a magazine.”

“Okay. Look at this polish Brooke pick. Nails going to be perfect for tonight.” Isuzu held up a bottle of sparkly color and waved it at Abigail.

“Hey, Brookie-cookie. How you gonna dance without any ice under your feet?” The Olympic hopeful and her figure-skating twin brother were the local celebs. “Excited?”

Brooke snorted and laughed. “Uh, yeah? To finally dance with a normal boy, and one who won’t be tossing me into the air and then not catching me? Totally.”

“What’s his name?”

“Nick Gleason.” Her face flared crimson, and Abigail had to wonder if there was more to the story than that. “He’s my best friend.”

“That’s cool. Friendship is more important in a relationship than the mushy stuff, trust me.” Abigail sighed. “Not that I’d know. I haven’t had a date with a friend in . . . ever. But hope springs eternal.”

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Accidentally Amish

Accidentally Amish
Barbour Books (October 1, 2012)
by
Olivia Newport

Chapter 1

His kiss was firm and lingering as he cradled her head in one broad palm.

“Annie,” he murmured as he took in a breath. His hand moved to brush her cheek. He kissed her again.

Annie’s stomach churned while her lips went on automatic pilot. Kissing Rick Stebbins was nothing new and, frankly, less exciting every time. But in the moment, it seemed the safest choice among miserable alternatives.

She pictured where her blue Prius was stashed in the parking lot behind the modest glazed-brick office building. A small red duffel lay on the passenger seat and a compact suitcase on the floor. The denim bag she had carried since high school, on the desk she was leaning against, held her laptop in its padded case. Car keys hung from a belt loop on her jeans. Her cell phone was in a back pocket.

Annie Friesen was ready.

Rick would never admit to what she suspected. More than suspected. She was no lawyer, but she knew it would take more evidence to make an accusation stick.

And Rick was a lawyer. Her lawyer. Her intellectual property lawyer. If only he had not slipped that extraneous document between the pages of the last contract awaiting her signature in triplicate. Whatever she thought she felt for him dissolved with that test of her attention to detail. He was the one who failed. She would sign nothing more from Rick Stebbins.

Rick took another breath. The air he exhaled on her neck was hot, and his fingers moved down to the front of her neck, toying with the gold chain resting on her collarbone.

I am so out of here, she thought, and ducked her head to avoid further lip contact. She stroked his tie before putting her fingers lightly on his chest and pressing him away gently.

“I have work to do,” she said, “a meeting tonight. I told you about it.”

“You can be late.” Rick put his hands on her elbows.

She had seen him when he did not get his way—the weight of his hand slamming the desk in frustration, the set of his jaw, the frenzy of work that ensued. This time Annie did not plan to be anywhere in sight. He would calm down once he accepted that his plan would never happen. And then they would be over.

Annie shook her head and squirmed out of his grip. “You’re the one who said I have to protect my copyright at all costs.”

“Isn’t that what you pay me to do?” Rick asked. “Are you sure
I shouldn’t be with you tonight?”

To Annie’s relief, he did not move toward her again. “I want to try the civilized approach,” she said. “Barrett and I have worked together a long time. Surely we can still talk to each other.”

“He’s adamant the new program was his idea. He even retained his own counsel.” Rick laughed. “I guess he doesn’t trust me any more than he trusts you.”

“Our relationship has been no secret to anyone working here.” Annie picked up the denim bag and slung it casually over one shoulder. But it’s over now. That was your last kiss, buddy.

“Don’t sign anything I wouldn’t want you to sign.” Rick raised his dark eyebrows at her.

What he wanted her to sign was precisely the problem.

Annie opened her office door, stepped through, and waited for Rick to follow. She locked it behind him and concentrated on breathing evenly. No one would think twice about seeing them together at the end of the day leaving the building that housed Annie and Barrett’s small company.

They were more than successful. The first financial security software program Annie wrote, which Barrett marketed, sold rapidly. First, small credit unions bought it, then large ones, then conventional banks. Before long, a firm specializing in serving the financial industry recognized their program for the gem it was and bought them out. Annie was twenty-seven and had more money in her bank account than her parents had seen in all their working lives—or would ever see. She and Barrett decided to open another company and see if they could do it again, this time with a program that used store discount cards to track grocery inventory movement according to customer shopping habits and product placement. They also served a number of local companies with website design and custom software. These clients provided a working lab. Sometimes the problems she solved on a smaller level became just what Annie needed to get past a glitch in the bigger project.

Annie just wanted to write software. She was happy to see Barrett get rich right along with her. He was brilliant with the marketing and sales side and had earned his share of the fortune.

But Barrett wanted it all. He couldn’t write software to find his way out of his gym socks, in Annie’s opinion, but now that she was on the verge of a breakthrough, he wanted to squeeze her out of the latest deal.

And Rick was helping him. Annie was sure of it. She couldn’t prove it, but that didn’t mean she was going to lie down and let it happen. She merely needed a few days where she could think clearly and make a plan to fix this mess.

Outside the building, she pushed the button on her clicker, and the lights on her car flashed.

“Call me later?” Rick’s brown eyes glimmered in familiarity and suggestion.

“It might be late.” More like never!

“It’s never too late if it’s you.”

Aw. He can say the sweetest things. Not.

Annie let him peck her cheek and then walked briskly to her car while he seemed to saunter toward his on the other side of the lot. She navigated out of the maze of look-alike buildings in the complex and pulled out onto Powers Boulevard, a north-south arterial. Early on a mid-July evening, the Colorado Springs sky was still a stunning blue. The rush-hour traffic that glutted Powers in late afternoons had thinned—as much as it ever thinned on Powers—to midweek moviegoers, diners, and chain-store shoppers. Annie whizzed past one shopping center after another, a progression that also thinned and gave way to industrial complexes.

She glanced in her rearview mirror and glimpsed Rick’s bronze Jeep two lanes over and six cars back.

Maybe she should hire a private eye. Or another intellectual property attorney. Someone who had a clue what to do. But she could do nothing with Rick Stebbins hovering over her every move, waltzing into the office at his whim, and making plans for them every night. A room in a bed-and-breakfast in Steamboat Springs awaited her, but she had to slip off Rick’s radar.

Barrett was waiting—supposedly—and Rick was following. He was not even going to wait for a report from Barrett, apparently. Annie may have been trusting and naive up to this point, but she was not going to walk into a trap now.

Would he hurt her? Annie did not intend to risk finding out.

Heart racing, she turned right just where Rick would expect her to turn and headed west around the south edge of the city. A few seconds later, his Jeep slowly made the same turn. If she deviated from the predicted route too soon, Rick’s suspicions would go into high gear. And if she made the wrong turn, she would hit a dead end. Neighborhoods of Colorado Springs were not tidy little squares on a grid. They were full of curves and angles and cutoffs and one-way streets and dead ends. Annie had grown up in this town and had been driving her own car for almost ten years. At the moment, she wanted to slap herself for not being sure where these side streets would take her.

Annie jerked the wheel to the right and swung into a sedate neighborhood of lawns and front porches, as if decades ago builders were determined to recreate the Midwest in the high desert climate. She couldn’t squeal her tires without raising attention, but she pushed over the speed limit as much as she dared.

A moment later, Rick’s Jeep appeared. Was it her imagination, or was he following more closely?


Sunday, October 21, 2012

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Tuesday, October 2, 2012