Sunday, November 24, 2013

Aloha Rose by Lisa Carter

Aloha Rose
Abingdon Press (November 19, 2013)
by
Lisa Carter


Chapter 1 - Excerpt

Are you sure there’s no message waiting for Laney Carrigan?”

Laney leaned over the information desk at the Kailua-Kona Airport. “I was supposed to be met here . . .” She gestured around the rapidly emptying lobby. “By my Auntie Teah. Maybe she’s been delayed and she left a note for me with instructions?”

The airport employee, a willowy blond, craned her head around Laney at the line of people queuing behind her. She pointed down the corridor. “You can rent a car over that way.” She raised her gaze above Laney’s five-foot-three-inch height. “Who’s next?”

Laney tightened her lips. Dismissed. Again.

“Maybe an intercom page directing me to meet someone in Baggage Claim or Ground Transportation . . . ?” Laney sighed at the bored face of the woman and stepped aside as a middle- aged man wearing a flamingo pink aloha shirt shouldered past her to the front of the line. Grabbing the handle of her wheeled carry-on bag, she skirted past a group of Asian tourists who’d been greeted by hula girls bearing fragrant yellow leis.

No point in trying to rent a car when she had no idea where she was going. She paused in an out-of-the-way corner and fumbled in a side pocket of her luggage for her cell phone. Pressing the phone to ON, she waited for it to come to life.

Auntie Teah, whom she’d yet to meet, had assured her over the course of several phone calls that she would be here to welcome her long-lost niece to her ancestral home. An ances- tral home to which she’d not been given directions or an address.

Hitting the Rodrigues phone number she’d stored in her cell, she tapped her navy blue stiletto-clad foot on the shiny, white airport floor and waited for someone to pick up. And waited. After ringing four times, voice mail—a deep, rum- bling man’s voice—informed her that no one was currently at home—duh—and instructed callers to leave a callback num- ber at the tone. Laney snorted, not trusting herself to speak, thumbed the phone to OFF and stuffed it into her bag. She stalked down the passageway toward Baggage Claim.

Some welcome.

Laney pushed her shoulders back, trying to ease the ten- sion of her muscles. As her brigadier father never failed to point out, when stressed, she hunched down like Quasimodo. And at her diminutive stature, there was no one Laney wanted to resemble less than that hunchback of literary legend. She scanned the dwindling crowd encircling the baggage carousel.

Where was her Auntie Teah? Her cousin, Elyse, or Elyse’s sweet little boy, Daniel? They’d promised to be here. Laney glanced at her black leather sports watch, noted the time in addition to the barometric pressure and altimeter reading. Her own barometric pressure rising, Laney shoved her bag to the ground, threw herself on top and faced the doorway. Nobody had ever dared ignore Brigadier General Thomas Carrigan.

Apparently, his daughter not so much.

She’d told her dad this was a bad idea, but he’d insisted she answer the inquiry in response to the information he’d posted regarding the scant facts they knew of her birth twenty-eight years ago. The website, which specialized in reuniting adop- tive children with their biological families, had been silent for months. And Laney was fine with that.

Abso-flipping, positutely fine with that.

Really.

She’d never been curious as to her biological family. She’d always known her real parents, Gisela and Tom Carrigan, adopted her when she was a few months old. They’d chosen her—as her mother had often reminded her. Loved, cherished, protected her. But Gisela succumbed to a lingering, painful death to cancer three years ago.

Then her dad—administrative guru to the five stars at the Pentagon, able to cut through bureaucratic red tape and leap over snafus in a single bound—had the bright idea to post a picture of the quilt in which she’d come wrapped on their apartment doorstep.

And voilá, a hit less than twenty-four hours later.
He did some checking—to make sure none of them were serial killers—and declared it would be good for Laney to plan a visit to their home on the Big Island. Good to connect with people who knew something about her family background. Good to fulfill her adopted mother’s last wish that she one day reunite with her biological family.

Laney swallowed a sob. She’d believed she’d already found her forever family. She glanced around the claim area. Her lower lip trembled at the sight of a suitcase going round and round the carousel.

Unclaimed. Alone. Like her.

She squared her shoulders. Who needed these people? The ones who’d abandoned her, deserted her. Left her behind.

Laney closed her eyes on the hateful, treacherous tears that threatened to spill out from beneath her lashes and wondered how soon she could book a return flight to D.C.
This had been a very bad idea.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Derailed by Dave and Neta Jackson

Derailed
Worthy Publishing (October 8, 2013)
by
Dave and Neta Jackson



Chapter 1

I’m usually willing to help out at Manna House, the shelter for homeless women where my wife works as a cook, but their idea of a Valentine’s party is seldom as kick-back comfortable as watching the Super Bowl had been with my Yada Yada Brothers. So when my iPhone sounded its Law and Order ring, I welcomed the opportunity to leave my plate of tasteless white cake—definitely not something Estelle had baked—and slip out into the lobby.

I didn’t recognize the number on the screen, but it was a Chicago area code, so I answered with a roll of my eyes. “Yeah, Bentley.” Estelle bugs me about my gruff greeting, but soundin’ like the cop I once was has knocked more than one telemarketer off his game.

“Hey, bro. How’s it goin’?” The nasal twang was definitely not that of a brotha, but it sounded familiar.

“Uh . . . Okay, I guess.”

“Great! Roger Gilson here. Might have somethin’ for ya.”

Gilson . . . Roger Gilson. Of course. “Ah, yes, Captain Gilson.” “But not with the CPD. Moved over to Amtrak.”

“Amtrak . . . as in trains?”

“Oh yeah. I cover from here all the way to the West Coast . . . along with one other captain, that is. Can you believe it?”

“What happened to the CPD?”

“Ah, you know. Budget mess. The police pension fund doesn’t look so secure anymore. But then you already know that, and that’s why I called.”

Gilson’s Internal Affairs had helped me nail my corrupt boss about a year ago. But it’s hard for any cop to like Internal Affairs, and I still wasn’t sure I trusted Gilson. So I cautiously asked, “What’s up?”

“Like I said, I’m at Amtrak now, and we’re in a bit of a tussle with the TSA. They’re all over us to tighten up security or they’ll take over. But with the mess they’ve made of the airlines, nobody wants them running the nation’s trains. Know what I mean?”

Sounded like Gilson had jumped from the frying pan into the fire. If the Transportation Security Administration took over security for Amtrak, Gilson might lose his job. “So . . . why’d you call me?”

“You had some trouble with your eyes, right? Went blind for a while?”

“Yeah, I had a problem.” A problem that’d scared me spitless because it might’ve been permanent. Had surgeries, wore eye patches for a while, even had to remain face down 24/7 for two whole weeks. It was a horror movie from which God alone had rescued me—but I didn’t want to get into all that with Gilson.

“Anyway, I’m lookin’ for a few men I can trust to work under- cover. Know what I mean?”

He waited while I coughed off to the side to keep from laughing at him continually saying, Know what I mean? “Yes, Gilson. I know what undercover is.”

“Well, we place undercover officers just about anyplace—in a station restaurant having coffee, sitting next to other passengers on trains, or in bathrooms mopping up.”

“Ha! So you’re lookin’ for a black man to work undercover as a janitor. I don’t think so—”

“No, no, no. You don’t understand. I was thinkin’, with you having been blind . . . you can see now, though, can’t ya?”

“Good enough.” I could see just fine, but the man wasn’t listen- ing, so why explain?

“Great! Then here’s the deal: you could work undercover as a blind man, wander anywhere . . . even up and down the aisles of a train. I can see it now.” I could imagine Gilson waving his hand through the air like he was painting a panorama. “You staring blankly here and there from behind a pair of wraparound shades, but actually seein’ everything. Nobody would even notice you. Know what I mean?” He stopped.

The idea galled me. What was the civil rights movement about if it didn’t include helping black people be noticed as valuable, con- tributing members of society? Finally, I said, “Yeah, I know what you mean, but like Jesse Jackson used to say, ‘I Am Somebody!’ But you want me to pose as a nobody.”

“Ah, come on, Bentley. Don’t play the race card on me now. We’re talkin’ undercover, and I’m tryin’ to offer you something.”

I snorted. “Gilson, you oughta be selling used cars, but this isn’t for me.” The doors from the shelter’s multipurpose room swung open, and I was glad to see Estelle out of the corner of my eye. “Oops, here’s the wife. Gotta go, Gilson. But thanks for thinkin’ of me. You take care now!”

I didn’t wait for his response. Just touched the red End bar on my phone. “Whew!” I turned to see Estelle’s eyebrows arched high in question.

“Ah, just a guy from back in the day with the police department. Wanted me to come work for Amtrak.”

Hmph. Been askin’ all over for you. But it’s like the ladies don’t even recognize you since you shaved your gray horseshoe beard.”

“Whaddaya mean? Handsome black man, bald head, just about this tall, seen hangin’ around here all too often, and they don’t rec- ognize me?”

“Well.” She folded her arms and studied me dubiously. “With that little beard you got goin’ on around your mouth there, they say you look more like Louis Gossett Jr.”

“And that’s bad? Come on, now . . . Della Reese!”

Now she laughed. “Hey, you know I can’t sing like her.”

“But you sure can touch me like an angel.” I winked, big.

She grabbed my arm and gave me one of those light-up-my-life grins. “Oh, come on, you. We’re outta here.” She glanced back over her shoulder. “Let someone else clean up the kitchen for once—we still got groceries to get, remember?”

I sighed. But with snow still piled high after one of Chicago’s heaviest snowstorms, I didn’t want to chance her getting stuck.

“Yeah, I remember, babe. Let me get our coats.”

Twenty minutes later we were in the Jewel, and I was driving the grocery cart behind Estelle. We were paused in the produce section while she carefully examined each item before putting it into the basket when my phone rang. Gilson again. I was tempted to send him straight to voice mail, but I’d learned not to burn my bridges. Couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of my voice though.

“What now, Gilson?”

“Ah, good. Now don’t hang up on me again, Harry! I’m just tryin’ to get you on the team here. And I’ve come up with a better idea. You worked K-9 for a while, didn’t you?”

I hesitated. “Yeah . . . I’m still certified, but that was before I
joined Fagan’s unit.”

“Great, then you know how to handle dogs. We’re trying to expand our K-9 unit. Had a young officer complete her training with the smartest dog I’ve ever seen, but now she’s on maternity leave and not likely to return since her baby has severe birth defects. So we have a dog—cost us thousands—without a handler. How
’bout that?”

I frowned. “How ’bout what? You wanna team me with someone else’s dog?”

“Corky’s young and like I said, smart, very smart. She could make the transition.”

“Wait a minute. Handlers are what? Officers? Sergeants? You’d bust me down from a detective?”

“Oh, c’mon. We can work somethin’ out. Meet me halfway here, Harry. I’m tryin’ to reel you in. I’m sure we could—”

“Gilson! Would you shut up a minute?” The man sounded like he was on too much Vicodin, and it felt good to tell him to shut up. I was a private citizen now who didn’t have to kowtow to anyone.

There was silence . . . for five seconds. “Sorry, Harry. Just gettin’ into my creative mode. I’m a creative guy, ya know? That’s what I love about this job. But seriously, we’d like you to come on board . . .

like all aboard.” He laughed at his stupid joke. “It doesn’t have to be K-9, but I’m puttin’ together a team, and they have to have integrity. That’s why I thought of you. You proved yourself when you stepped up to nail Fagan.”

Matty Fagan had been my boss, corrupt as they come, shakin’ down drug dealers and stealing their guns and dope to resell . . . until I blew the whistle on him.

“Hey,” Gilson continued, “how much were you makin’ before we asked you to take early retirement?”

“Doesn’t matter. I’m not interested.” Of course I could use the money, but . . . “Sorry, Gilson. Don’t think I’m up to travelin’ all over the country. I like trains and all, but I’m a family man now.”

“Ah, but that’s the thing! Sure, you go out on runs, but then you’re home for several days where you can focus on—hey, I didn’t know you were married! And kids too? Man, you work fast. But you’ll actually get more time with the family. Plus the benefits are great, free rail privileges for you and the family. Think about that.”

“Harry!” It was Estelle, twenty feet ahead of me with a gallon of milk in her hand. “What good’s the cart if I gotta hold this?”

“Sorry, Gilson. But I really can’t talk now. I’m in the store helpin’ my wife with shopping. Like I said, family man!” I shut the phone off and hurried to catch up.


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Paige Rewritten by Erynn Mangum

Paige Rewritten

NavPress (October 8, 2013)
by
Erynn Mangum



Chapter 1-Excerpt

My mom likes to say that good things come in threes. “Remember that time we went to see the Phantom of the Opera, Paige?” she always says to me. “Not only did our seats get upgraded for free, but we won those tickets to go see Wicked and we met Mariah Carey!”

By met, Mom meant, “saw from a distance” and to this day, I still swear it was not Mariah Carey.

And if it was her, then I really feel the need to tell her that cornrows are not a flattering hairstyle for her.

I’m curious what Mom would say about my current situation. I really don’t think I am looking at three good things.

Maybe three confusing things.

But not good things.

“Well?” My boss, Mark Lawman, is sitting in front of my desk, looking at me expectedly.

I don’t know what to say. I stare at the paper he gave me that laid out a new job description of what I did, the biggest difference being the huge raise he is offering.

On the one hand, I am excited about the prospect of more money. Saving is kind of a high priority for me at the moment after a few lean months, thanks to saying yes to too many things.

On the other hand, it will solidify my role in this adoption agency as a secretary for life.

I don’t necessarily like the mental image I have of myself at ninety-four, sitting at this same desk, answering this same phone in a warbling version of my voice. “Lawman Adoption Agency, this is Paige.”

Mark must see something in my expression because he clears his throat and stands. “Just think about it, Paige.” Then he hurries down the hall to his office, leaving me with the paper and my cluttered desk.

I reread the new job description. Basically, all he did is include transcription work, but that is something I already do thanks to a much extended maternity leave our regular transcriptionist has been taking since about two years ago.

I figure we can pretty much consider her retired.
I set the paper down with a sigh and go back to my lunch of bagged salad and the text message I was reading when Mark had interrupted my lunch break.

IT’S JUST DINNER BETWEEN OLD FRIENDS, PAIGE.

Luke Prestwick, my best friend Layla’s older brother, has a very skewed view of the past apparently. “Old friends” implies that there is an ongoing friendship.

Something he ended nearly five years ago.

Right then my phone buzzes again and I look at the message, worrying that it is Luke again.

HI PAIGE! JUST THINKING ABOUT YOU. HOPE YOU ARE HAVING A GOOD DAY!

It is from Tyler Jennings.

“Well, that’s a pretty smile.”

I look up to see Peggy, one of the two counselors who work at the agency. She is standing in front of my desk holding a microwavable cup of chicken and rice soup and a spoon, grinning at me.

I shrug and try to wipe my face clean of emotion. “Soup day?” I ask her, trying to change the subject.

“I’m not that easily distracted, Paige, and yes. It’s cold out.”

Cold is a relative term in Dallas. Particularly in March. Really, what she means is that it’s raining outside.

I peer out the front window and sigh. Nothing like a drizzly day to make you wish you were home watching HGTV shows in fuzzy sweatpants instead of sitting in an office chair in a skirt.

My phone buzzes yet again. Peggy smirks at me. “Look who is Miss Popular.”

It’s Luke again.

REALLY, PAIGE, I JUST WANT TO CATCH UP AND FIGURED THIS WEEK WOULD BE A GREAT TIME SINCE IT’S YOUR BIRTHDAY ON FRIDAY. :)

I can’t decide if I am flattered or confused by Luke Prestwick remembering my birthday. Four years ago, I would have been overjoyed.

“So?” Peggy taps my desk with the end of her spoon.

“What are we so-ing about?” Candace walks in from the hallway leading back to her office. She is absently crunching a celery stick, which means there is yet another wedding or baby shower or some milestone coming up in her ridiculously huge extended family. Candace crash diets before every event.

“Nothing.” I shake my head. These two are way too curious about my personal life, and having been shrinked by them before, I am in no hurry to have it happen again.

Last time they were critiquing my innate need to say yes to every single thing anyone asked of me. It got to the point where I didn’t even have time to do my devotions I was so busy.

So, yes, they were right about that, but there isn’t anything to tell right now. Tyler and I have been on one date. Apparently, this is the prime season for software developers so he is slammed at work.

I shrug Peggy and Candace off and they finally exchange a look. “Okay, fine,” Peggy says. “We’ll do this your way.” Then they look at each other again and go back down the hall to their offices.

Finally.

I glance at the clock. I have five more minutes in my lunch break, so I text Tyler first.

THANKS! HAVING A PRETTY GOOD DAY. I HOPE YOU ARE HAVING A GOOD DAY TOO!

It sounds horrible. I stare at it for three of my five remaining minutes before finally just sending it because I can’t come up with a different way to word it without sounding even more like a chirpy little girl.

Then I click over to reply to Luke and just stare at the touch-screen keyboard for the next ninety seconds.

I WILL THINK ABOUT IT.

I push send. No smiley face, no exclamation point. Maybe he’d get the message and recant his constant pleading over the last two weeks.

That is another thing. He can’t bother to visit for two years and now that he’s come back for his parents’ anniversary party two weeks ago, he can suddenly stay in town? He tried to talk to me the whole night of his parents’ party, but things just got crazy.

And I’ve been doing a great job of avoiding him since then.

I’ve been doing a great job of avoiding a lot of people.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Traces of Mercy by Michael Landon Jr and Cindy Kelley

Traces of Mercy
David C. Cook (October 1, 2013)
by
Michael Landon Jr. and Cindy Kelley



Chapter 1

April 1865


The assault came in the dusky-pink dawn on a Sunday. The lone soldier, who slept forty yards from the rest of the bedraggled Confederate company, bolted from his bedroll and was on his chestnut-colored horse in a matter of seconds—urging the bay toward a hill to the east.

Looking over his shoulder, he could see his boys in gray awaken and stagger into a defensive position against the surprise attack from the Yankees. His brothers in arms referred to him as the sharpshooter, the crack shot, the skirmisher. But the soldier, bending low over the neck of his horse, thought of himself by one name only: sniper. He’d heard the term from a British colonel who had told tales of one man’s supreme marksmanship. He’d tried the name on for size then—wore it in his mind and came to love it. It defined him. It was what he did.

The first blare of a Confederate bugle filled the air, and the sniper had the fleeting thought that the bugler should be picking up a rifle instead of his horn when he saw the enemy—the dreaded tide of blue—spilling out of a haze that hung over this piece of Tennessee land nestled between two hills and a meandering river.

The sniper knew from the enormous sound of the war that his boys were vastly outnumbered and the battle would be over almost before it began. He heard the otherworldly rebel yell split the dawn. The cry had always reminded him of an angry, wounded animal baying its intent to fight to the death. If the sound of his own men could send chills up his spine, he could only imagine what it did to the nerves of the Yankees.

He kept riding up the rise and away from the crash of musketry and the storm of leaden hail. His trained ear picked out the distinc- tive sound of the howitzer pummeling the troops as he reached the summit of the hill. He jumped from the saddle with his rifle and dropped to his knees behind a heavy patch of wild, knotted vines, practically becoming part of the landscape in his dark-brown shirt and green trousers.

From his vantage point, the scene below him was shrouded in clouds of gray smoke that rose from the ground. He nestled the long barrel of his rifle on top of the thick vines and looked into the high-powered scope made especially for the nine-pound Whitworth. At the sound of another thundering boom from the howitzer, he swiveled the rifle around until he located the artillery soldier who was manning the cannon six hundred yards in the distance. The sniper caught the buttons of the blue Union jacket in the crosshairs of his scope and fired. The force of the shot blew the Yankee off his feet and knocked him into the soldier behind him. One hundred twelve. As the sniper dropped a new bullet into the muzzle of his rifle, another Federal stepped into the space to fire the howitzer. The sniper squeezed the trigger and watched through the scope as the Yankee dropped. One hundred thirteen.

The sniper turned once again to the panorama of activity below him, where sulfur smoke moved around the soldiers like a living force to be reckoned with. After reloading his weapon, he used the scope to pan across the swarm of blue and gray colliding amid thrusting bayonets. A Union officer with a crust of gold braid on his shoulders charged through the thick of the battle, a rebel cap arrogantly dangling from the tip of his raised bayonet. The sniper adjusted the position of his rifle, momentarily taking the sight off the officer by raising the barrel a hair’s breadth. He cocked back the hammer, braced for the recoil, and squeezed the trigger just as the officer moved back into his view. The bullet hit the man dead center in his forehead. He didn’t even have time to blink before he died. One hundred fourteen.

The sniper figured he had one shot left before he’d foul the bar- rel of his rifle. With alacrity that was second nature, he reloaded. Through his sight, the sniper saw a Union cavalry officer, a captain, he thought, galloping wildly through the fray. The officer reined in his horse and jumped from the saddle. Seemingly oblivious to the barrage of lead flying around him, the man bent toward a wounded infantryman on the ground just as a rebel soldier wielding a bayonet came at him. The soldier managed to ram the tip of the bayonet into the captain’s shoulder, but the Yank swiftly proved himself the better combatant by turning and running his sword into the rebel’s chest. As the captain shoved his sword back into its scabbard, the sniper fixed his sight on the ribbons that decorated the man’s chest. One hundred fifteen

He felt the pressure of the trigger under his finger and squeezed off the shot just as an artillery shell exploded. Blue-tinged smoke filled the air and obliterated his view of the captain. As the smoke and debris from the shelling cleared, he searched the ground for his target, cursing when he realized that the captain wasn’t dead— he was riding off with the wounded infantryman lying across his saddle. Heedless of the peril, the sniper stood and looked out over the field of battle to watch the Union officer galloping along the river.

The sniper jumped on his horse. Seconds later, as his own company bugler sounded retreat, he was flying down the hill with but one objective: to kill his intended target.

As he neared the bottom of the hill, the sniper dismounted and tied his horse to a low tree branch before creeping the last few yards toward the river. He heard the Union officer’s deep, commanding voice before he saw him. “You’re going to be fine. That’s an order.”

The sniper moved even closer and heard a weak reply. “Your rank doesn’t have authority over me right now, Captain.”

The sniper used the barrel of his rifle to part the tall reeds in front of him, revealing the two men. The infantryman was lying prone near the water’s edge, and the captain was kneeling beside him. From his vantage point, the sniper could see that the officer was powerfully built, with chiseled features and a square jaw. As the sniper watched, the captain pulled at the buttons on the soldier’s blue coat, then turned his face away from the sight that met him. The sniper used the opportunity to continue forward.

“You can’t do this to me, Jed,” the captain said. The sniper could hear the quaking emotion in the Yank’s voice as he spoke. “I promised her I’d bring you back, and I won’t let you render my word worthless.”

The sniper took another step, thinking that for the first time, he would see the terror in a Yank’s eyes before he fired the shot that would end his life. He was so intent on the position of his rifle, he failed to notice the dry branch under his foot. When it snapped, the captain glanced up, and their eyes locked for just a moment before the sniper braced and squeezed the trigger. But there was no recoil. No report of a bullet whizzing through the air. His rifle had jammed, and the captain hadn’t flinched. The officer seemed to summarily dismiss the sniper as he pulled a kerchief from his pocket and dipped it into the river.

The sniper would not be denied. He put his rifle down and, with a trembling hand, pulled his bowie knife from a back pocket. With feet that felt as if they were encased in lead, he took a step forward while the captain washed the grime from the infantryman’s face. The wounded man struggled to lift his hand, and the captain caught it between both of his own. The sniper could hear the effort it took for the young man to utter his next words.

“They were right, Eli. This dying. It doesn’t hurt.”

As close as he was now, the sniper could actually see the captain tighten his grip on the young man’s hand. “Good.”

“Pray me home, Eli.” The voice was nothing more than a whisper.





Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Christmas Quilt by Vannetta Chapman

The Christmas Quilt
Abingdon Press (October 15, 2013)
by
Vannetta Chapman



Prologue

Mid-October
Mifflin County, PA




Annie tried to quiet the nervousness in her stomach. She
pressed her hand against the fabric of her new dress—her
wedding dress. The fabric’s bright blue color reminded her of the clear morning sky outside. From the upstairs window, she could see much of her parents’ farm—the recently harvested fields, the barn, the yard, and the rows of benches where her family and freinden were waiting. The lane stretched past it all and led to the road that would take her to Samuel’s, to her new life.

Soon she would be Annie Yoder.

A light tap at the door caused her to turn. Leah peeked inside. “Can I come in?”

“Ya. I was watching out the window, trying to freeze this moment in my mind.”

Leah joined her there, linking their arms together. One year younger, slightly thinner, her hair a shade lighter, they could have been sisters. Annie’s brother, Adam, had been courting her for over a year and already she felt like one of the family. Afraid her knees might give out, Annie sat on the bed.

“What’s wrong?”

“You and I will be sisters soon, before the noon meal.”

Leah reached forward and tucked a wayward curl into Annie’s kapp. No matter how she pinned her hair, it insisted on escaping. Last night Samuel had confessed he’d loved her the moment she’d stepped into her father’s room, when she’d come home to nurse Jacob, and he’d first seen her hair loose and cascading beneath her nurse’s cap.

“You’ve known this for months,” Leah reminded her.

“Ya, my mind knew, but today my stomach finally under- stands.” She ran her hand over the hand-stitched quilt cover- ing her bed, the bed she would no longer sleep in once she was Samuel’s fraa.

“I’m nervous, too. The crackers I had for breakfast helped.”

“I couldn’t swallow a thing.” Annie studied the blue and yellow pinwheel pattern of the quilt. “Do you think these feelings are normal?”

“It’s the excitement. Think of all Gotte has in store for us. It seems Adam and I have waited for so long, and I know Samuel would have been content to marry you months ago—”

“I was so surprised when he asked me on Christmas.”

“Today we begin our new lives.”

Annie smiled as a calm assurance settled her nerves. “By this time next year we could have a family of our own.”

“We’re marrying on the same day.” Leah stood and straightened her blue dress. “Perhaps we’ll also share the day our babies are born.”


Chapter 1

Two years later
Mid-November


Annie and Leah strolled along the sidewalk, peeking in the windows of the shops, enjoying the afternoon sunshine.

“When was the last time we had a day that didn’t include freezing temperatures and snow dusting the doorstep?” Leah stopped suddenly as two young boys playing a game of tag ran around her.

“Maybe Saturday was the wrong day to come to town though. A weekday might have been better.” Annie stepped closer and scowled after the boys. “Less traffic. Less kinner.”

“It’s not their fault I’m as big as Adam’s workhorse.”

“You are not.”

“I am! Look at me . . .” Leah rested her hands on her stomach, which was quite large. She’d recently begun her seventh month of pregnancy, but a stranger might think she was in her final week.

“Belinda told you—”

“Twins take up more room. Ya, I know. But, Annie, I can’t even put on my own shoes. Adam has to do it for me.” Leah stuck out her bottom lip and lines formed across her forehead.

Annie knew that look—pure misery.


“I should have stayed home.”

“You should have done no such thing. Let’s go on to the general store, then stop by mamm’s shop for some tea. Being out is gut for you and the babies.”

“Says Nurse Annie—”

“Yes, she does.”

“Who is four months pregnant and still not showing?”

The smile spread across Annie’s face until she was giggling. Then they were both laughing, behaving like schoolgirls. Two pregnant women, standing in the middle of the sidewalk and causing traffic to stream around them.

“Four and a half months,” Annie corrected Leah. “And she moved last night. Samuel and I both felt her.”

“She? Of all people, you should know better than to predict whether your baby is a girl or boy.”

“You’re right, but Samuel seems so certain. After listening to him for four months, I’ve fallen into the habit of saying she.” Annie hooked her arm through Leah’s and pulled her along the sidewalk. “I need to purchase the lavender fabric for the nine- patch crib quilt I’m making you, and I happen to know Rachel received a shipment earlier this week.”

“Oh, do we have to? I’m not sure what I need today is an encounter with Samuel’s sister-in-law.”

“I think she’s mellowing.” Annie whispered as they pushed their way into the general store, causing the small bell above the door to announce their arrival.

Instead of answering, Leah gave her the look. It was enough. After nearly three years back at home, back in Mifflin County, Annie had learned to read most of the unspoken cues from her sister-in-law. Packed with all of their previous conversations about Rachel, it said you know she hasn’t changed at all and we’ll do our best to love her anyway at the same time.

Annie didn’t talk to many people about Rachel—her mother, Leah, and, of course, Samuel. No one had the answer, but they all knew prayer was the one thing capable of healing the wounded places in Rachel’s heart. Until those places mended, chances were she would remain difficult and even occasionally somewhat nasty.

When they entered the store, a thousand memories surrounded Annie. Her family had shopped at the general store for as long as she could remember, but her recollection and what her eyes saw told two different stories.

The store she had visited as a child was crowded with delightful items in every available spot. Like most Plain folk, Annie had learned not to covet and to appreciate what she had rather than focus on what she didn’t. Growing up, the general store had been owned by Efram Bontrager. She remembered it clearly—it didn’t prick her desires as much as it sparked her imagination. When she walked over the doorstep, she’d always imagined herself stepping into an Englisch fairy tale. He carried supplies for Amish and Englisch alike, so all manner of things were on his shelves. Annie’s favorite spot for years had been Efram’s book nook in the front corner near the window. Her brother Adam had loved the old-fashioned candy counter with its jars of delicious penny candy.

Most of those items had vanished.

Two years ago Rachel Zook, Samuel’s sister-in-law, had moved from Ohio—after her husband died. Annie knew from comments Samuel made it had not been a happy marriage. Rachel never talked about her life before moving—so Annie had no way of knowing if she was still mourning her husband or regretting that her two boys were being raised without the help of a father. There was a third possibility. Perhaps Rachel had fallen into a habit of discontent. She had simply shown up in Mifflin County one day. Efram had decided to put the general store up for sale so he could move closer to his family. Families in the community were hardly aware of Efram’s plans, when Rachel bought the store and settled into the upstairs apartment with her boys.

The store had changed.

Rachel’s store was clean and orderly, and was stocked with items she was certain would appeal to the maximum number of customers. In other words, there were no surprises. The charm was gone.

Annie had to admit the place was cleaner.

“Leah, I’m surprised to see you out today.” Rachel sniffed from her place behind the counter. Tall, thin, with a beautiful complexion only the scowl on her face could ruin, Rachel was dressed in her usual gray dress and black apron.

Why the sniff? Did she have a perpetual cold? Or was she suggesting they smelled bad? Annie knew they didn’t, but she was tempted to check. Her mind went back to a psychology class she’d taken while pursuing her nursing certification, during the time she’d lived with her aenti, among the Englisch. The psychology instructor would have had a good time with some of Rachel’s mannerisms.

“And Annie. I thought you were helping Belinda deliver the infant to the family on the south end of our district, though why Samuel would allow you to go scurrying around the county in your condition—”

Gudemariye, Rachel.” Annie aimed to keep her voice low and calm, as if she were speaking to a child. An image of Kiptyn immediately jumped to her mind, but she pushed it away. Although she’d had letters from her former patient for three years, she hadn’t seen him since she’d left Philadelphia. She still missed the children she once worked with, and today wasn’t a good time to focus on that loss. Today she needed to concentrate on making Leah’s outing a pleasant one.


Sunday, October 20, 2013

Greetings from the Flipside by Rene Gutteridge

Greetings from the Flipside
B&H Books (October 15, 2013)
by
Rene Gutteridge

Chapter 1 - Excerpt

Suck it in. Come on, suck it in.”

“My stomach is on the other side of my spine,” Hope wheezed, barely enough air in her lungs to finish the sentence. Becca tugged and jiggled the zipper while trying to maintain a smile for the crowd of elderly residents who’d gathered around for the fitting. Normally Hope would be leading them into the bingo hall, but today was different. Special. There was a certain excitement on all the faces of those who’d managed to stay conscious.
“Are you sure you gave them the right measurements?” Hope whispered to Becca.

“Are you sure you haven’t been eating cheese? Or Popsicles? Both?”

Then, with one final tug, the zipper slid up the teeth and the dress closed. Hope let out the breath she was holding, her stomach
pooching a little. She prayed she wouldn’t blow the seams out.

She turned and smiled for her seamstresses, every one of which was in a wheelchair or held steady by a walker.

“Oh, honey!” Mrs. Teasley gasped. “It looks beautiful. You’re stunning!”

Miss Gertie, who had worked as a seamstress her whole life, wheeled closer. “Did you notice the hem, Hope? It’s done the old-fashioned way. These days, nobody takes time on the hem, rushing through it as if it doesn’t matter. It is the most important part!”

“Miss Gertie, it’s perfect.” Hope whirled around, glancing in the mirror they’d brought out for her. She’d been hesitant when the nursing-home gang offered to make her dress. But she was barely making over minimum wage here, and her mother certainly didn’t have any money to help. It had been a gamble, and for once, she won.

Mr. Collins’s hearing aid went off, sounding like a dying fire alarm. “Mr. Collins!” Hope tapped on her ear to let him know. She twirled again, her fingers sweeping over the hand-stitched pearls and the lace on the sleeves.

“Sam will love me no matter what I look like,” she said to Becca. “But I look awfully good, don’t I?”

Becca clapped. Miss Gertie wheeled even closer to Hope. “I’m so glad this is your last day.”

Hope laughed. “I know you mean that in the nicest way.”

“You’re too good for this place. You’ve got to go out in this world, make a name for yourself!”

That was the plan, to flee Poughkeepsie and move to New York City with Sam right after the wedding. She’d dreamed of it her whole life, and it was almost here. She glanced at Miss Gertie and Mrs. Teasley, both of whom had their hands clasped together, pure delight shining in their eyes.

Hope leaned in for hugs. “I’m going to miss you both.”

Miss Gertie sat up a little straighter in her chair. “Listen, we need to talk.”

“About what?”

“I know this may come as a startle, but when you get married,
you’re going to have duties.”

It was something about the way she said duties under her breath that made Hope realize Miss Gertie wasn’t talking about vacuuming. “We don’t really need . . . we don’t have to talk . . .”

“Doesn’t take long, dearie.” Mrs. Teasley patted her hand. “Just endure it.”

“I bet she’ll be pregnant by Christmas!” Miss Gertie said to the room full of hearing aids. At the word pregnant seven of the ten ladies woke to attention. Ms. Cane was looking at her own belly.

A hot flush crept up Hope’s neck. “Miss Gertie, really, it’s okay—”

Suddenly Mr. Snow shuffled in, moving faster than anyone on a walker should. His bright white hair was blown back and he leaned way forward on his walker, making him look like he was fighting a stiff north wind. Hope knew he was looking for her but probably wasn’t recognizing her in the long, white dress.

“Mr. Snow, over here!”

“Ah! There you are. Didn’t see you.” He shuffled her way, smiling, his always-clean dentures sparkling under the fluorescent
lights. He let go of his walker, which normally didn’t turn out well for him, and grabbed her hand as he wobbled. “I’m going to miss you, Hopeful.”

“I’m going to miss you too, Snowball.”

He reached into the small bag that hung off the side of his walker and pulled out a card. “I couldn’t let you leave without giving you a card to rewrite.”

Hope read it aloud. “‘There are five stages of grief.’” Hope looked at Mr. Snow.

“I’m sorry. Who died?”

“My cousin, Burt. He was one hundred and three years old and wanted to die two decades ago.”

“Ah.” Hope opened the card. “‘Let the Lord help you with each stage, one step at a time.’”

Mr. Snow took out a pen from his bag and handed it to her. Hope thought for a moment, then scratched out the fancy italics, wrote beside them, then handed the card back to Mr. Snow. He slid his reading glasses on. “‘There are five stages of grief.’” His shaky hand opened the card. “‘You’ve been in denial for a while. Can I help you move on to anger?’”

The room was suddenly quiet. Hope fidgeted . . . too snarky? Too insensitive?

Then Mr. Snow threw his head back and laughed. Everyone else joined in and soon the room was filled with chuckles. Mr. Snow slapped her on the back. “Good one.”

Becca looked at her. “We’re going to have to go soon.”

Hope nodded. She knew it was time to say her good-byes. One by one, she bent down to hug each person, careful to avoid any mishaps with the dress. Some of them hugged back. Some of them didn’t. But they all knew she loved them.

She made her way to Miss Gertie and knelt by her wheelchair. “Will you make sure my grandmother’s fresh flower arrives every day?”

“Only if, when you find that job making your own greeting cards, you send me a new card every day. They sure do make me giggle.”

“I promise.”

Becca tapped her watch. “We’ve got about forty more things to do today.”

“Just a few more minutes.” Hope hiked her dress up to her shins, headed down Wing Two. She smiled and nodded at all the familiar faces: Mr. Speigel, a once-successful CEO for a large bank, who hadn’t had a single visitor in the last four years; Aunt Jackie, as she liked to be called, who suffered a stroke in September and lost the ability to move any muscles in her face—but there was life in those green eyes of hers; Old Benny, once a major-league baseball player, now with amputations at both knees because of diabetes. He lost his sight and his mind back in ’08.

The door to Hope’s grandmother’s room was open, like always. Two towels were tossed on the floor. Hope dutifully stooped to pick them up and throw them in the hamper. Her grandmother sat by the window, staring out at nothing more than an empty lot washed in hazy sunlight, twirling a Columbine flower in her hand.

Hope scooped up tissues, flattened the silky bedspread, fluffed the pillows, wiped clean the sink, and replaced the tissue box. Five cards lined the same table that held the tissues. Ten more sat across Grandmother’s nightstand, and another ten on the cabinet. There were weeks when Hope wrote a card a day and brought them to her grandmother’s room. Sometimes they didn’t move, other times her grandmother would give them away or, when she was more lucid, mail them. Mostly they just sat with all the others, simply signed Hope. A glance at one of the wittier lines she wrote caused her to laugh, and her grandmother looked her way.

“Thank you, young lady.” Her grandmother’s smile, though feeble, was gentle and genuine. She didn’t seem to take notice of the long, white dress Hope wore.

Hope stooped by her wheelchair. “Grandma, it’s me.”

“Okay.”

“I wanted you to see me in my dress. It’s finally happening. This weekend.”

“Okay.”

“I wish you could be there, but I know you’ll be there in your heart.”

“Okay.”

“Did I tell you that Sam is writing me a song? I probably did. He’s been writing it for a long time. I thought he was going to have it ready at Christmas, but he said he needed a little more time. He hasn’t said it, but I’m pretty sure he’s going to debut it at the wedding. I heard he’s been inquiring about getting a grand piano into the church.” The thought made her smile. She’d been dying to hear the song, imagining it over and over in her head. “So, Grandma, Sam and I are moving to New York City. That’s right. I’m finally getting out of Poughkeepsie, just like you always wanted.” Hope paused, searching the elderly woman’s eyes. She laughed at the memory of her grandmother, before she lost her mind, trying to talk her into some boy from Hope’s school days. “I have a feeling about him,” she would say.

But Grandma also always wanted bigger and better for Hope, and everyone knew bigger and better was not to be found in Poughkeepsie. The name itself implied its own identity crisis. Few knew how to even pronounce the name and those in the know disagreed as to whether it was puh or poo or poe. The kips-see was generally acknowledged by all as the proper way to end the word, but then there was the question as to whether Poughkeepsie was upstate or downstate. Also in question was the matter of the town and the city. For no reason anyone could identify, Poughkeepsie was split into the Town of Poughkeepsie and the City of Poughkeepsie. The town boasted enormous houses and even larger taxes. The city had low taxes and lower housing.

To grow up in the Spackenkill District was to go to its privileged high school, where lockers didn’t even need locks. Hope did not live near nor even infrequently visit that district, but overall Poughkeepsie was a decent place to grow up, with a glorious view of the Hudson at dusk. The smog did wonders for the color spectrum. It was home to Vassar College and the Culinary Institute of America and city-dwellers were flocking to Poughkeepsie, pushing the population over thirty-five thousand.

She looked out the window her grandmother stared out of every day. It was a colorless view of warehouses and smokestacks. Her grandmother was born and raised here and as far as Hope was concerned, she was Poughkeepsie’s shining star. But eleven major-league baseball players also hailed from Poughkeepsie, as did professional poker player Hevad Khan and the inventor of Scrabble, Alfred Mosher Butts, who sold his invention to entrepreneur James Brunot. Brunot renamed it Scrabble, from the Dutch word scrabben, meaning “to grope frantically, to scrape or scratch.”

It was that word, scrabble, that defined what Hope always felt about this city and her place in it. The word pointed her toward the escape chute, so to speak. She always felt, someday, she would make a disorderly haste straight out of this town, clambering and scraping and climbing her way to freedom.

Ironically, or perhaps not, the word was also used to mean the act or instance of scribbling or doodling and that . . . that . . . was her ticket out of Poughkeepsie. Simple doodling would set her free.

That, and Sam.

She turned to her grandmother, stroked her knobby shoulder with the back of her hand. “I won’t be able to see you every day.”

“Okay.”

“But the ladies will make sure you always have a new flower. And Mom will of course come by to see you.” Tears stung Hope’s eyes as she looked into her grandmother’s bright blue gaze, twinkling
with a life Grandma no longer remembered. Hope knew—her grandmother loved this dress. Would love the wedding day if she could go, and would love Sam if she could ever know him.

A soft knock came at the door. “Hope, we have to get to the church,” Becca said.

Hope squeezed the hand that didn’t have the flower. “I will send you a card as soon as I get to New York City, okay?” She stood and kissed her on the cheek, which smelled like baby lotion. “I love you,” Hope whispered into her ear.

“Okay.”

Sunday, October 13, 2013

A Plain Disappearance by Amanda Flower

A Plain Disappearance
B&H Books (September 1, 2013)
by
Amanda Flower



Chapter 1

Steam rose from Sparky’s nose and mouth into the frigid late December air as he shook his bridle and pulled the sleigh over a small hill. The sleigh owner’s grandson, Timothy Troyer, sat in the driver seat, wearing a thick wool coat, black knit cap, and navy scarf wrapped about his neck. He held the reins with a light but firm touch, and he looked every bit the part of a young Amish man out for a sleigh ride—even though he’d left the Amish way years before.

Did that mean I was the Amish girl to complete the picturesque
scene? I pulled the wool blanket up closer to my face and chuckled to myself. Beneath it I wore a purple and gray ski jacket and flannel-lined jeans. A pink and purple Fair Isle stocking cap, complete with pompom, covered my shoulder-length, straight red hair, and tortoise shell-patterned framed sunglasses protected my hazel eyes from the sun’s glare off of the snow. Not exactly Amish attire.

Timothy cut his bright blue eyes to me, and a smile played on the corners of his mouth. “What’s so funny?”

I burrowed deeper under the heavy wool blankets wrapped around me cocoon-style. “I was just thinking that this was unlike any first date that I’ve ever been on.”

Amusement lit his eyes. “Have you had many first dates?”

“A few,” I teased.

“Really. And what did you do on these dates?”

I thought for a minute. “Went to the movies or out for coffee. Once a date took me putt-putt golfing.”

“Putt-putt golfing?” He laughed. “And how am I doing in comparison to that?”

“Not bad. The putt-putt guy didn’t ask me out on a second date when I beat him twice in a row.”

He winked at me. “I’m glad to hear it.”

Ahead of us a weathered barn came into view through a stand of pine trees. The trees stood well over twenty feet high in a straight line perhaps to protect the barn from the wind and rain flying across the fields. If their purpose was to shelter the barn from Ohio’s dramatic change in seasons, nature won that battle. What remained of the old building consisted of grayish-white weathered boards, the structure’s edges and shape barely discernible in the falling snow until Sparky and the sleigh cleared the stand of trees.

Timothy pulled back on the reins. “Whoa!”

The horse came to a stop.

I released my hold on the blanket. “Why are we stopping?”

“I thought it might be nice to stretch our legs. The hardest part of the winter for me is being stuck indoors.”

I tilted my chin. “You don’t exactly have a desk job.” Timothy was a sought-after carpenter in Knox County and he’d parlayed his business into being a general contractor. Unlike me, he never sat still. As the Director of Computer Services at Harshberger College, I spent most of my time sitting at a desk in front of a computer screen. I inhaled the cold air, and it stung the inside of my nose. “A walk sounds nice.”

Timothy hopped out of the sleigh and whistled. His black-and-brown, mixed-breed dog, Mabel, snuffled from her spot under the bench seat but made no move to leave the warmth of the sleigh. Her body curved around the warm brick that Grandfather Zook—the sleigh’s owner—had placed inside before we left the Troyer farm. “Come on, girl,” Timothy said.

The reluctant dog whimpered.

Timothy placed his hands on his hips—a pose his mother made on a daily basis when she dealt with her seven-year-old son, Thomas. I stifled another chuckle.

Mabel woofed softly, but finally she wriggled out of her place. The dog jumped into the snow, and a cloud of white flew into the air and covered her entire body with a fine dust.

I stood, about to jump from the sleigh myself.

“Wait!” Timothy ran toward me.

I glanced around in search of any danger that may have caused Timothy’s outburst. All I saw was the old forgotten barn, the pine trees, and the white fields. “What? What’s wrong?”

He beamed at me and extended his hand. “Let me help you.”

My face grew hot, but I placed my gloved hand into Timothy’s and jumped lightly to the ground. To my pleasure, when I found my footing, he didn’t release my hand. Despite the leather gloves that kept our skin from touching, a charge passed between us—something I first had noticed when I met Timothy five months ago after moving to Appleseed Creek, Ohio, from Cleveland.

Despite Mabel’s grumbling about leaving the warmth of her blankets in the sleigh, she leaped over a snow-covered stump and rolled onto her back, lavishing herself in the feeling of white powder
against her fluffy body.

Timothy blew out a mock sigh. “It’s going to take me an hour to brush all of the knots out of her coat.”

I smiled. Snow fell all around us, as if Timothy, Mabel, and I moved forward inside a snow globe shaken by a giant’s hand. I could almost hear the tinkling notes of the music box.

I pointed to the barn. “Whose farm is this?”

Timothy squinted against the snow’s glare. “This is the old Gundy place.”

“Gundy? I don’t think I’ve heard that name before.”

Timothy brushed away the snow gathering on his coat sleeve. “They moved to Colorado six or seven years ago.”

“They didn’t sell their property before they moved?”

“Not as far as I know.”

I took in the crooked window shutters and gaping hole in the roof of the barn. “It is pretty in a sad, abandoned sort of way,” I said. “Becky should come here sometime with her paints and try to capture its loveliness before it falls to the ground.”

Becky was Timothy’s nineteen-year-old sister, my housemate, and an aspiring artist. Her brother had left the Amish in search of a different kind of Christian faith, but she left the Amish way to pursue her art—a pursuit put on hold by a terrible auto-buggy accident. The collision left an Amish bishop dead and Becky with a criminal record.

Timothy grabbed my other hand and turned me toward him. “I’m glad you like it, but I didn’t bring you here just to see the old barn. I brought you here to give you your Christmas gift.”

I frowned. “I thought we agreed to exchange them with your family tomorrow on Christmas Eve. I didn’t bring mine for you.”

He smiled. “I wanted to give you something without the entire family watching.” He removed a small black box with a bright red bow on top from his coat pocket.

My breath caught. It was too soon. I wasn’t ready for what he was about to ask me. He placed the box into my hand, and by its long rectangular shape I realized it wasn’t a ring box at all. Disappointment replaced the sudden rush of fear that had coursed through my body.

“Open it,” Timothy whispered. His voice sounded so much like Mr. Green’s did when he watched his children, Tanisha, my best friend, and her young brother open one of their presents Christmas morning, I felt a rush of homesickness for the family that took me in when my father walked away from me. For Mr. Green the joy of Christmas was truly in the giving. I wasn’t the least bit surprised that Timothy was the same way.

I opened the box. Inside on a bed of baby blue velvet laid a delicate
silver necklace with two small charms on it. One of the charms was a computer mouse, the other a hammer. I glanced up at Timothy.

He removed the necklace from the box. “Don’t you see? These things can be side by side.”

He didn’t need to explain. Timothy was the hammer, and I the computer mouse. It was such a thoughtful and creative gift, that it brought tears to my eyes. Embarrassment surfaced, too. Timothy bought me this lovely gift and I had a new ratchet set wrapped for him under my Christmas tree. How romantic was that? I suppressed
a groan.

“Let me put it on you.” Timothy stepped behind me and hung the necklace around my throat. He tucked the clasp under the collar of my ski coat, his calloused fingers brushing the nape of my neck, raising goose bumps on my skin. He moved back around to face me.

I kept the charms out on top of my scarf and rolled them back and forth between my fingers. “How did you find these?”

“Google.” He laughed. “Actually, I found them with Becky’s help.”

Although Becky left her Amish family much more recently than Timothy had, she was already a whiz at searching and shopping
online. Before long she would become better at it than me—and I worked with computers for a living.

“Thank you. I love it. It’s the most thoughtful gift I’ve ever received.”

Timothy leaned forward, and I closed my eyes. Nothing happened.

I opened them again and I blushed. Timothy was staring at Mabel. She was hunched low to the ground as if prepared to spring into action. A growl escaped from deep within her throat.

I tucked my silver necklace from sight under my coat. “I’ve never heard her make that sound before.”

Timothy placed his hand on the dog’s fluffy head. “Neither have I.”

Mabel’s growls became louder and more ferocious.

I scanned the white landscape. “Do you think a wild animal is out here? Like a bear or a coyote?”

Timothy shook his head. “I’ve never seen a bear in Knox County and a coyote is too skittish to hang around us with Mabel’s scent in the air.”

“What—”

My next question was cut off as Mabel launched from her frozen position, running full tilt for the barn. Without a word, Timothy and I ran after her.

We drew closer, the barn much larger than I had first thought. In its prime, it could have housed horses, cows, and other large livestock. We reached the barn and icicles the size of baseball bats hung from eaves twenty feet above us. Mabel had already rounded the far corner of the weathered structure.

We followed her, and I hoped that she wouldn’t run too far, or worse, come across the bear I worried about. As we jogged around the corner, we stopped short to avoid tripping over Mabel who, in a hunched position, stared at an object half-buried in the snow.

We peered over her at the mound of black and navy cloth. On closer inspection, it was much more than cloth that had caught Mabel’s attention—a bluish, fine-boned hand stuck out of the snow, reaching for us.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Dark Justice by Brandilyn Collins

Dark Justice
B&H Books (October 1, 2013)
by
Brandilyn Collins





Chapter 1 Excerpt

Sunday, February 24, 2013
“When I was in fifth grade, three kids in my class swore up and down they saw a woman with a baby fly by the window.”

This statement, out of the blue, from my eighty-two-year-old mother.

I glanced at her. She was looking out her car window, veined hands folded in her lap. Her ever-present Annie-Hall-style purple hat sat at a rakish angle on her white head. As usual, she wore no makeup, but her cheeks still tinged a faint peach. That coloring was a source of pride for my mother, as was her perfect eyesight.

“Interesting. Why do you suppose the kids said that?”

“Because it happened, of course.”

“People don’t fly, Mom.”

“Well, they did that day.”

Here we go.

“Maybe the woman just walked by, and the kids thought she was flying.”

“Our classroom was on the second floor.”

Mom had me there. “Maybe they made it up.”

“Absolutely not! One of them was my good friend, Julie. She was straight as an arrow. Never lied about anything.” Mom’s voice carried that decisive ring that signaled she’d dug in her heels. Happened more and more often these days. Many times I just let it go. But when her words defied logic, something within me wanted to fight the dementia that had begun to nibble at her mind. My mother had always been so independent. If elderly women were supposed to wear red hats, Carol Ray Ballard’s would be purple. If they attended classical concerts, she’d go to a nightclub and dance to every song—by herself.

Of all people, my mother should be able to beat this.

“Okay, maybe they were just mistaken.” I kept my tone light. “Maybe a big bird flew by, and somehow the kids convinced themselves they’d seen flying people.”

Mom sniffed. “Birds so often look like a woman with a baby.”

My heart twinged. Now she’d descended into just plain stubbornness. Why did I insist on pushing her? It was pointless. This life-stealing illness was so powerful. Yet I kept acting as though I could beat it back. I couldn’t. It just came on and on, a slow-rising tide. I was a fixer, but I couldn’t fix this.

I should take cues from my twenty-seven-year-old daughter, Emily. She handled her grandmother far better than I did. Emily was known for speaking her mind and not taking flak from anyone. Yet she was so patient with her “Grand.” So willing to just let the woman be.

“Honestly.” My mother folded her arms and huffed. “Sometimes you act like I’m just stupid.”

“Mom, no! I’ve never thought you’re stupid. Not for a second.”

I negotiated a curve on Tunitas Creek Road, off Highway 1, a little south of Half Moon Bay, California. We’d set out from our weekend at the Ritz Carlton on the ocean to return to our home in San Carlos. Instead of taking the more popular Highway 92 over the hills, I’d taken a detour, choosing to follow the little-used Tunitas up to Skyline, then hook up to 92.

An off-the-cuff decision that would change our lives.

It was a beautiful drive on this afternoon in late February. The weather was unseasonably warm and dry, the month known for bringing rain to the Bay Area. Mom and I wore coats, but they were much lighter than usual. We’d both dressed in casual clothes for our trip home, I in jeans and a blue sweatshirt, Mom in her pull-on knit pants and a long-sleeved blouse. Our weekend had done Mom a world of good, or so I’d thought. She’d had fewer episodes of disjointed conversation or misplacing an item. I’d hoped that could last. Maybe I just needed to get her out more. Maybe . . . something.

“Anyway, I’m sure your friends were right, Mom, the woman and baby must have flown.” I tried to keep the defeat from my voice.

Mom made a point of continuing to look out her window. “You don’t really believe me.”

“Yes, I do.”

We rounded another curve, admiring the scenery. I hoped Mom would let the subject drop. The wild pull of the ocean had given way to an open field. “We should call Emily when we get home. She’ll want to hear—”

“Look!” Mom’s finger jerked toward her side of the road. My gaze flicked to follow her gesture—and landed on a small gray car, gone some distance off the pavement and flipped onto its passenger side. I gasped.

“Oh, dear, there’s a man!” Mom’s voice quivered.

He lay on his back in the grass. Unmoving.

It happened so fast, we’d passed the scene before I could react. My foot hit the brake. I steered our car off the road and onto grass, carving to a halt. Turned off the engine and grabbed out the keys. I couldn’t leave them in the ignition with my mother around. “Mom, you stay here, okay? Don’t move. I’ll run back and check on him.”

I bounded out of my Ford Escort, dropping my keys in the pocket of my coat. Then I remembered my cell phone. I whirled back and opened the rear door to fish it from my purse.

“You think he’s okay?” Mom was turned around in her seat, her face pinched.

“Don’t know, I’ll see.”

My cell phone fell into the same pocket as my keys. I ran toward the man and sank to my knees beside him. He looked to be in his late seventies, his face gray. On more than one occasion a patient in the cardiologist’s office in which I served as receptionist had collapsed in the waiting room. I was used to helping the infirm and elderly. My heart ached for every one of them, even as I snapped into a no-nonsense, medical mode.

“Sir?” I placed the backs of my fingers against the man’s neck and felt a pulse. “Sir, can you hear me?”

His eyes fluttered open. His mouth moved to talk, but no sound came.

“Do you hurt anywhere?” I checked down the length of his body. His legs looked normal, nothing torqued at an odd angle. Had he been thrown from his car? I glanced at the vehicle. The open window of the driver’s side gaped up at the sky. Could he have been thrown out of such a small space? Maybe he climbed out.

The man’s lips tremored. “M–my . . .” He lifted a shaking hand and slid it over his heart.

“Your chest?”

“Unhh.” He winced.

I pulled my phone from my pocket and punched in 911. The man’s hand raised, reaching for my wrist.

“Nine-one-one, what is your emergency?”

“Auto accident on Tunitas Road, off Highway 1. One victim, male, late seventies. He’s outside the car, lying on his back. Complaining of chest pains. I see no other obvious signs of trauma.”

“Is he breathing?”

“Yes. Trying to talk.”

“All right, stay on the line, please.”

The man’s cold fingers fumbled for me. “Lis . . .”

“It’s okay, it’s okay.” I grasped his hand. “Help will be on the way. I’ll stay with you.”

“Nnnn . . .”

“Shh, it’s okay. Let’s have a look at your chest.”

I eased his arm toward the ground and fumbled one-handed with the buttons on his coat. His hand shot up and grabbed mine again. “Lisss!”

His strength startled me. Abject fear etched his face. I stopped all movement.

“Ma’am, ma’am?” The woman’s voice came through my phone.

I held the man’s hand, my eyes on him as I pulled the cell close to my ear. “I’m here.”

“Is he able to move his legs?”

The man’s fingers tightened over mine. “Pleease . . .”

Such fear in his eyes. I’d seen it before in a patient who knew he was dying. Did this man feel that? I tried to give him a reassuring smile, but it came out twisted. “Shh. It’s all right.” Into the phone I said, “I don’t know. When will you get here?”

“Help’s on the way from Half Moon Bay. Five to ten minutes.”

The man gasped in breaths. “Raaaalll . . .” His fingers sank into my palm, his determined expression shooting right through me. He must be feeling himself slip away. Did he have a final message for someone? If so, I would move Earth to deliver it.

I knew I was supposed to stay on the phone. Report what vital signs I could. But this panicked man was alone and terrified, and I was all he had.

“I have to put the phone down for a moment,” I told Emergency. I laid it on the grass without waiting for a reply.

“Raalll . . .”

With both hands, I grasped the man’s fingers. Shifted my body so he could see my face more easily. “Ral?”

His head tried to nod. “Ral . . . ee.”

“Raleigh?”

“Unhh.” His nails sank into my skin. “In . . . Ral-leigh.” The last syllable sank like a sigh.

“In Raleigh.”

“Yeah.” Tears sprang to his eyes, as if he couldn’t believe he’d gotten it out. My own eyes watered in response. His emotion rolled off him like fog, wrapping around my shoulders. Making me shiver.

Pain crimped his face. He closed his eyes, a tear running down each temple. “F-find. Please. S-save.”

Find what? “Okay.” I nodded. “I will.”

He looked at me once again, his gaze piercing. “Prom . . .”

“I promise.”

“Im . . . port . . .”

“It’s important?”

“Uh.”

“Is he okay?” My mother’s voice drifted from behind me.

Oh, no. I half-turned. “Mom, I wanted you to stay in the car.”

She gazed down at the man, her cheeks red. Her hat was about to slip from her head. “Oh, the poor thing.”

“Mom, please.” Anxiety edged my voice. I couldn’t trust her here. What if she wandered out into the road? I let go of the man’s hand, fumbling around to face Mom, still on my knees. “Please get back to the car.” How long until we saw the ambulance? The police?

“No, I want to help.”

Movement from the man rustled from behind. He grasped the left side of my coat, his fingers plucking at my pocket.

“Mom, listen to me.”

But my mother had no intention of listening. She slipped to the man’s other side and awkwardly lowered herself to the ground. I shuffled back around to face them both. At least Mom was right in front of me.

The man’s hand fell back to his chest. His mouth trembled.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Pretty is as Pretty Does (Class Reunion Series) by Debby Mayne

Pretty is as Pretty Does (bk 1)
Bless Her Heart (bk 2)
Tickled Pink (bk 3)
Abingdon Press (June 1, 2013)
by
Debby Mayne




Chapter 1

Priscilla Slater


Wow. Ten years. As I read my high school reunion invitation a second time, I can’t help smiling. Although I own one of the most successful businesses in my hometown of Piney Point,
Mississippi, I’ve lost track of most of the people I graduated with.

Knowing the people I went to high school with, this is going to be one crazy event—that is, if everyone attends. I’m not sur- prised Laura added a preparty to the invitation. Her husband has never attended any social event before prepartying his face off—even in high school. Pete Moss graduated with the distinct honor of high school lush, and as far as I know, he continues to hold that honor, which is ironic since I don’t remember ever seeing Laura touching a drop of anything stronger than her mama’s two-day-old sweet tea.

Poor Laura.

I pin the invitation to the bulletin board beside the fridge. And for extra measure, I jot the date on my calendar. In pencil, just in case . . . well, in case something comes up.

As I kick off my killer high-heels, I wonder if Maurice will be there. I sigh as I remember the guy who, in my mind, almost became my boyfriend. I used to stand in front of my bedroom mirror, practicing “looks.” I think back and realize things weren’t as they seemed, but I still wonder if he’ll see me differently now that I’ve made something of myself. Not that I’m trying to impress anyone.

And I sure haven’t impressed my parents. Quite the oppo- site. Still, I’ve taken a small-town beauty shop and turned it into a fabulous business—one of the most successful in Piney Point. And I’m not ready to stop there. I already have three shops—the original, which used to be called Dolly’s Cut ’n Curl, one in Hattiesburg that formerly held the title Goldy’s Locks, and the salon where my current office is located in Jackson. In honor of the first, they are all called Prissy’s Cut ’n Curl, although I’m seriously considering changing the name to something a little trendier since I’m planning to expand. I mean, really, can you imagine anyone in New York City telling her friends she gets her hair done at the Cut ’n Curl? Besides, I hate being called Prissy.

I’ll never forget Mother’s reaction when she found out I’d dropped out of my first semester of college and enrolled at the Pretty and Proud School of Cosmetology. You’d have thought I announced I wanted to pledge Phi Mu or something. No offense to anyone in Phi Mu. It’s just that Mother was a Chi Omega, and that makes me a legacy, which carries even more clout than being Miss Piney Point, something I never was. Mother would have had a fit if I’d even suggested entering a beauty contest. So when I met some of the Chi Omegas at Ole Miss, I was surprised by how many of them were beauty queens— something Mother never mentioned. Makes me wonder what happened to her between her Chi O heydays and now.

My parents are academics and proud of it. Mother is a pro- fessor of English, and Dad is head of the history department at the Piney Point Community College, but you’d think they had tenure at an Ivy League school the way they carry on.

I missed lunch today and my stomach’s grumbling. But when the noise turns to hissing, I relent and pull a Lean Cuisine from the freezer. I know how to cook, but it seems pointless to do that for one. I also know that one Lean Cuisine isn’t enough, so while it heats in the microwave, I grab a bag of salad and dump the contents into a bowl. Then I chop a tomato, grab a few olives, and pour a tablespoon of ranch dressing on top. I step back and study the salad before I squirt another tablespoon or two. The salad’s full of fiber and the Lean Cuisine is low-fat, so I figure that balances out the extra calories.

Just as I’m about to sit down and enjoy dinner, the phone rings. It has to be Mother, I think. She’s the only one who ever calls my house phone. I hesitate, but my daughterly duties overcome me. What if she needs something? I’d never be able to live with the guilt if I didn’t answer an important call from the woman who gave birth to me after twenty hours of labor— or so she tells folks when they ask why I’m an only child.

“Did you get your invitation yet?” she asks without letting me finish my hello. “Are you planning on going?”

Leave it to Mother to know about the reunion before me. “Yes . . . well, probably.”

“There’s really no point, Priscilla. After all, it’s all about showing off all your accomplishments, and it’s not like you’ve made all that much of your life.”

I bite my tongue, as I always have. I want to let Mother know how I really feel, but talking back has never gotten me anywhere with her, so I somehow manage to keep my yap shut. She takes that as encouragement to keep going.

“That silly-frilly little job of yours will get old one of these days, and then what will you do?”

“Mother, you know it’s more than a job to me.”

She laughs. “All you do is decorate the outside of women—”

“Some of our clients are men,” I remind her.

“Okay, so you work on the outer appearance of women. . . and men. How does that really make any difference in the world? You could have been so much more than that, Priscilla. Your father and I—”

“My business makes a huge difference in a lot of people’s lives. Our clients feel better about themselves, and I keep a couple dozen people employed so they can feed their families.”

“Well, there is that.” Mother pauses as she reloads. “At any rate, why would you even want to go?”

“Because I want to?” I can’t help the fact that I’m starting to sound like an adolescent.

“That’s a shock. Your father and I were wondering why you haven’t shown your face in town in the past year. Then it dawned on me that you didn’t want folks to see you wearing braces. I’m surprised you even have a salon left. You know what the mice do when the cat’s away.”

“I hire people I can trust,” I tell her through gritted teeth.

“So are you going to the reunion or not?”

“Like I said, I’m not sure.”

“Do you want your old classmates to see you in braces? After all, since you’re so into appearances, I would think—”

“I’m getting them off soon, so that’s not an issue.” I suspect she’s annoyed that I got braces for cosmetic reasons. I begged Mother to let me have braces when I was a kid, but after the dentist assured her it wasn’t necessary for good dental care, she told me I was just being shallow. Throughout high school, I smiled with my mouth closed so people wouldn’t notice my overlapping front teeth.

Mother lets out one of her long-suffering sighs. “Okay, well, if you do decide to go, give us plenty of notice so we can clear our schedule for your visit. Your father and I have social obli- gations, since he’s the head of his department.”

“Yes, I know.” Ever since Dad’s promotion, Mother likes to remind me of his position. And it’s been at least three years.

“Whatever I decide, there’s no need to clear your schedule.”

“You know you’re always welcome to stay here at the house,” she adds.

I wish I really did feel welcome. “Thank you, Mother.” But I’ve learned to live with the tension.

“And don’t forget to bring your church clothes. We’re not like your church in the city. We still show our respect by dressing nicely.”

“Yes, I know.”

I hear Dad calling out to her, so I’m relieved when she tells me she needs to run. After I hang up, I lean against the wall and slide to the floor. Talking to my mother is exhausting.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Nurse's Secret Suitor by Cheryl Wyatt

The Nurse's Secret Suitor
Love Inspired (October 1, 2013)
by
Cheryl Wyatt



Chapter 1


Decorated military veteran turned civilian trauma nurse Kate Dalton was known for keeping a cool head under fire. But she'd never faced anything like this.

Here she was, back in the United States, biting back bile and terror as strong as any she'd experienced overseas. When she was in a combat situation, she was braced and prepared for things to go wrong. Here at home, her guard was down. Ten minutes earlier, she'd been enjoying the reception at her friends' masquerade-themed marriage ball. But then the text message arrived.

Phone clutched like a pinless grenade, Kate strode from the wedding reception room to the nearest exit. There. Patio. Best way out. If she could get there before hurling blissfully consumed cake.

Regal-hued LED lights danced over her sapphire costume and skin tanned by a three-year deployment under Middle Eastern sun. She probably looked striking—if you didn't notice the tension in her shoulders or the frown on her face.

"Breathe, Dalton, that's an order. You can't fall apart. Especially not where everyone you know can see you. You don't break down. You don't give in to fear. That's not who you are."

Despite her drill-sergeant self-talk, Kate's thumb quivered as it scrolled again over Mom's frustratingly cryptic text.

I'm afraid I have some upsetting news. Call me when you've got time to talk.

Unable to wait, Kate had found a quiet corner of the room and called immediately, but Mom was too distraught to talk. Mom never cried. Something was really wrong. Worse, Dad wasn't answering his personal or military phones.

Terrible scenarios raced through her head. Had something happened to her father? Or to her grandfather, who was scheduled for surgery? She knew the procedure was risky already—her career-military grandfather had ruined his lungs inhaling so much military jet fuel over the years. Had there been another complication? Or maybe her parents had bad medical news of their own. Cancer, heart disease…the possibilities went on and on.

Kate couldn't breathe. Her chest tightened, eyes burned. She rushed out a side door hoping no one saw. She couldn't be around people right now, not until she composed herself. In a secluded corner of a low-lit garden patio, she hid under an ornamental fuchsia tree. Heaving fresh Southern Illinois air, she redialed her mother's number.

An answering click, then sniffles sounded. Kate's jaw clenched. "I'm not getting off this phone till you tell me what's going on. Don't make me leave my good friends' wedding to drag it out of you."

"The wedding! I forgot, Kate. I shouldn't have texted you."

"Did something happen to Dad?" He was a deployed war general, sure, but he hadn't been near danger, had he?

"No. Your dad is safe. It's…honey, it's us."

"What's 'us' mean?" Kate paced. "Me and you?

You and Dad?"

"Your dad and I. I didn't want to tell you by phone, but I fly out in the morning for Grandpa's hip recovery. That'll keep me out of touch for days, and I don't want you hearing secondhand. Kate, I need to tell you, your dad and I are divorcing."

"Div—" Kate choked on the last word she expected to hear. Surely Mom is kidding. Right? Her mind couldn't wrap around it.

"Kate, Grandma's calling in, probably with a surgery update on Grandpa. We'll talk later, okay? I love you." Click Teeth grinding, Kate redialed Dad, stat.

"Hello?"

Finally! "Dad?" Kate hated that her voice broke in front of her five-star military hero dad. "Please tell me it's not true."

A deep sigh. "I'm sorry. She served me papers today."

Kate's voice and composure broke. "Daddy, why?"

"Your mom can't handle me overseas all the time. She waited to break the news until she was sure. Kate, are you okay?"

"Not with this. She texted me while I was at a wedding."

"Mitch, your surgeon friend, right? He's one of the ones who founded Eagle Point Trauma Center, isn't he? I remember now. Kate, sorry about the poor timing. With her dad so ill, your mom probably wasn't thinking. Neither am I."

"Clearly. You both aren't thinking. How can you flippantly throw thirty years of marriage away? Our family? And to do it now, when we might be losing Grandpa. Daddy, don't let—"

A presence stirred behind her, and Kate froze. "Gotta go," she barked out, suddenly eager to end the conversation as quickly as possible. "I'll call later, okay?" The last thing Kate wanted was to ruin the festive mood of Lauren and Mitch's wedding by letting one of the guests overhear her having a breakdown. Or let anyone see this crack in her tough-girl image. She never cried. Ever. Not even in the worst combat scenarios overseas or trauma cases here.

Kate flicked a tear but others followed. "Nice night out," she called to the tall shadow over her shoulder. She pretended to gaze at brilliant stars glittering against a raven sky to keep from turning and letting whoever was there see her tears.

No answer—not out loud. Instead, the figure moved; a strong hand weighted her shoulder and turned her around. Heady masculine cologne mingled with pleasant garden scents. Kate tucked her chin to hide red-rimmed eyes, but a leather-gloved finger lifted her face.

Oh, my. The most gorgeous, mysterious man stood before her. What she could see of his masked face seemed carved from exquisite stone. His eyes, etched in ebony and concern, were so piercing they arrested her breath. His impressive height strained her neck as her eyes skimmed a firm jaw and sensual mouth and a muscular build that showed serious dedication to fitness.

Silent as a sniper, he removed her fancy feather mask and dabbed her eyes with a blue camouflage-patterned kerchief, the item odd and out of place with his all-black Zorrotype ensemble.

"Thank you." She hated how her warbling voice revealed how she was falling apart. What did the masked intruder want, anyway? "May I help you?"

Dark eyes bored into hers, so intense she startled backward. Embarrassed by her reaction, she opened her mouth to apologize and found herself rambling instead. "I must look raccoonish with mascara running down my face. I didn't even bother to buy the waterproof kind—I wasn't expecting to cry. Not that I'm not happy for Mitch and Lauren, it's just… I don't cry." She let out a brittle laugh. "Except for now. My parents just informed me they're divorcing after a lifetime together." Her voice fractured as the words, spoken aloud, made the truth suddenly become a cruel kind of real.

His chiseled face softened, compassion shining out of his eyes as if he really cared about her, cared about her pain. But how could he? He had to be a stranger. She'd helped each costumed guest sign in and knew each name on the list. No one had been conspicuously absent. He must be a wedding crasher. That she didn't know the guy made him seem infinitely safe. He didn't know her, so he wouldn't judge her for breaking down.

As though sensing her thoughts, he shifted his stance and sweetly adopted a listening pose. Kate drew herself up, surprised at the level of relief she felt at being able to say how she really felt to someone she'd likely never see again.

"My friends inside…they all think I'm strong enough to do anything. I served overseas as a trauma nurse in the army. After that, anything should be easy, right?" Tears pressed for release again. "The problem is, people expect me to be some kind of superhero all the time." Her voice dragged to a whisper. "How can I let them see me cry like this? Especially here. It's a wedding—we're supposed to be happy and hopeful and…and all the things I'm not."

His grip strengthened on her shoulder, fingers gently kneading. She wanted to lean into him. So she did. He stood so near, the leather on his jacket cooled her cheek.

"It's not just because of my parents," she admitted in a low voice, barely more than a whisper. "It's me. The truth is, I hate weddings. They make me scared I'll end up alone after all my friends pair off. I look at brides and grooms who seem so in love, so wrapped up in each other, and I know no one's ever made me feel that way. I've never been able to let go and get lost in the moment and the person I'm with. Maybe I'm too practical to ever truly fall in love. I worry so much about not making a mistake that I never take a relationship risk, never fall into anything—not even love."

His sustained presence girded her with courage. His gloved hand settled against her back, nearly a hug. Stalwart. That's what he was. Plus a stranger. Which meant she could spill her guts without leaving behind an emotional mess she'd have to clean up, explain away or deny to death later. And something about the night…the moon…the masks…made her embrace being honest, being vulnerable. What could she possibly have to worry about when being in his arms felt so safe?

He responded by drawing even closer. Care ebbed off him in waves, dangerously appealing combined with his handsomeness. It didn't even occur to Kate to protest as he dipped his head and covered her mouth with his in a mesmerizing dance.

He exuded strength, mystery, masculinity and hints of delectable spearmint. His breath, his kiss were so soft. So delicious. Everything else fogged. Stress from her parents' devastating news melted. Her world contracted to the cove of his arms, the core of gentleness driving his kiss and the calming rhythm of his breathing.

He broke contact to press his mouth to her ear and whisper, "Hang in, sweetness. Darkness never defeats the dawn." His voice held a gravelly quality, as if he'd disguised its coffee-rich depth. She tilted her chin up.

Uncertainty flickered in his eyes before his lips found hers again. This kiss felt final. Declarative, like a seal over a covenant. Dizzy and disoriented, Kate swayed. Strong arms braced her up as he pulled her in for a hug that felt more like pure comfort. Then he bolted.

"Kate?" The voice of her best friend Bri Landis drifted from a doorway. No wonder the bandit had fled. The crasher had sensed company before Kate had, and hadn't wanted to get caught.

After the sensation of being stun-gunned subsided, Kate faced his retreating back. "Wait! Who are you?"

But her bandit had already scaled the eight-foot-tall wood fence, cape flying behind him like a flag, and she lost sight of him.

"Marvelous Masked Intruder, come back," she whispered into the inhospitable night. Bri's voice neared, reeling Kate back to reality. Kate banged her forehead on the fence. Why hadn't she chased him down? Simply put—she couldn't.

He had taken her by such sublime storm and surprise, and that kiss had so incapacitated her, she wondered if she'd imagined it. She put fingers to her lips and tingles there whispered she most certainly hadn't.

Kate couldn't kick the insane urge to find him and spend time with him again. Not only because of the amazing kisses, but also for the way it had felt to have someone she could really talk to—someone who would listen without judging and comfort without questioning. All the things none of her friends would imagine she'd ever need and that this stranger had offered automatically. That kind of thing could go to a girl's head. It made her sad to think that the beautiful moment they'd shared would be the only moment they'd ever have.

"Hey!" Bri approached, dressed to the nines in a frilly-winged fairy costume but with a warmly concerned look on her face. "I got worried when I couldn't find you. Everything okay?"

Kate slid onto a nearby bench. "Yes. No. I don't know." Bri was the one person she could talk to about this. Kate thanked God Bri was who He sent.

Bri sat next to her. "What's going on?"

Where to begin? "Well, there was Mom's mysterious text and thirty years thrown away like yesterday's trash, then a man dressed as a bandit in black leather appeared out of nowhere. We talked—well, I talked and he listened. And then…we kissed. He swept me off my feet, really—until he vanished. Jumped the fence when he heard you coming out to find me. Night swallowed the most appealingly compassionate creature who ever lived."

Bri blinked slowly. "Wait, text? What text?"

Kate calmed herself and took time explaining everything from the first text from her mom, to the blue camo handkerchief wiping away her tears, to the kiss that ended with her bandit disappearing over the fence. She only left out the part where she'd confided her fears about never finding love. Bri was currently engaged and blissfully happy—Kate didn't want to make her friend feel bad. That part of her little breakdown could remain a secret between her and her bandit.

"Kate, there's no one remotely dressed like a bandit here. I took photos of each and every person in their costumes for Mitch and Lauren's memory-book gift."

Kate shrugged. "I know. He had to be a stranger." Kate left out the part where knowing he was a stranger made him easy to talk to. It would hurt her best friend's feelings to be told Kate found it easier to pour her heart out to someone she didn't know. "Probably a wedding crasher who heard about the masquerade theme, since he knew enough to show up in costume. Whatever his reasons for being here, he did manage to show up at exactly the right time, when I needed someone to listen to me unload about my family fracturing apart."

Bri nibbled her lip. Kate flinched at what she'd said and the painful memories she might have stirred. If anyone knew what fractured family felt like, Bri Landis did. Her father had been the first to drop out of her life—he'd walked out on the family when Bri was a child. Now he sat incapacitated in a nursing home with all hope of reconciliation gone. Her mom had passed away recently, leaving Bri to tend a run-down family lodge alone. Her brother, Caleb, the only family she had left, was deployed overseas, dedicated to building his military career.

Kate sighed. "I'm sorry, Bri. I shouldn't be melodramatic, in light of all you've been through."

Bri shook her head. "Nonsense. Things are looking up for me. While I desperately miss my geeky gun-toting army-medic brother, I'm freakishly in love and freshly engaged to Eagle Point's most gorgeous anesthesiologist." Bri wiggled her ring-embellished finger, reminding Kate how much there was to be happy about. Yet a twinge of sadness hit Kate instead. Mom, Dad…

"I'm also fulfilled being a mother figure to Tia. Though she's only five, you and I both know Ian's daughter is an amazing gift and constant source ofjoy. And of course her daddy and our wedding plans are equally bright on my horizon."

Bright horizon. Kate recalled the bandit's admonition that darkness never defeats the dawn, as the confidence that usually carried and defined Kate ebbed back. Grandpa could still get better. And her parents' divorce wasn't finalized yet—maybe things could still be fixed. If not, as Bri had reminded her, there was still so much to be thankful for.

Like a moonlit kiss from a handsome stranger.

Kate brushed the thought aside. She'd probably never see the bandit again. He was just someone God sent her way to give comfort she needed at her lowest moment. She'd weathered it, and was ready now to be strong on her own again—as always.

"Speaking of that handsome fiance of yours, let's go back in before he wonders where you are." Kate rose to her feet.

Bri stood, as well. "Sure you're all right to go back in?"

"Of course." Kate flashed Bri the grin that used to win her the tiara back in her beauty-pageant days. "I'm always all right."

For a second, Bri looked as though she wanted to argue, but with a shrug she let it go, leading the way back into the reception hall. Kate followed her with a quick, confident stride.

And if she paused for a moment before stepping through the door to look back at the spot where she'd last seen her bandit.. well then, that was no one's concern but hers.