Sunday, February 21, 2016

Robin by Julane Hiebert

Wings of Hope Publishing Group (November 15, 2015)
Julane Hiebert

Chapter 1 - Excerpt

Cedar Bluff, Kansas

Late April 1877

He didn’t come. Now you’re alone. We told you so. Now you’re alone.

Her sisters’ admonitions taunted in rhythm as the big iron wheels of the steam engine began to roll, and the train hissed and chugged past Robin Wenghold. She braced herself against the strong, hot wind and gripped the handle of her valise so tight her fingernails dug into the palm of her hand.

Squinting against the afternoon sun, she limped to the end of the platform that ran the length of the stone depot. Heat shimmered above the silver tracks which stretched as far as she could see in one direction, and a twist of dust skittered down the street when she peered toward town. Why wasn’t he here? He promised. Had he discovered her infirmity and changed his mind?

A sleek, black cat occupied the one long bench on the platform, and Robin pushed it aside so she could sit. Her bad leg throbbed, and she longed to rub the pain away, but even after all these years her mama’s voice echoed in her mind. You needn’t draw attention to yourself, Robin. Your infirmity is obvious. Learn to bear your cross without pity.

The cat nudged its head under Robin’s elbow. “And for whom are you waiting, mister bad-luck kitty? Have you been jilted, too?” A steady purr vibrated beneath her hand while she stroked the cat’s warm back. If her papa were here he’d no doubt make a joke about his little bird and a cat occupying the same space like long-lost friends. But then, if Papa were here she wouldn’t be in this predicament—stuck in hot, windy Kansas waiting for an uncle she’d never seen to come to her aid.

Robin sighed. Sittin’ in a stew won’t fill a man’s belly. Papa’s words. And Papa was right. Worry wouldn’t get her any closer to her intended destination. She stood, and the cat jumped to the floor then sat on his haunches, switching its long tail against the splintery boards. Robin bent and patted the downy soft head. “Suppose you could take me home with you if my uncle doesn’t come? At least I’d have someone to talk to.” She straightened, adjusted her bonnet, picked up her valise—determined not to panic—and sidled into the depot.

One window on the far wall provided the only light in the dark room. The aroma of old tobacco smoke and mildew added to the dread, which lay like a cold biscuit in her stomach. Except for the steady ticking of the large black-framed clock which hung beside the window, silence hovered like a cloud. Even the skinny man behind the counter made no move to acknowledge her presence.

“Ahem.” She eyed the empty room. He had to be aware she was the only one there, didn’t he? She drummed her fingers on the counter under his nose. Hot and tired, she had no patience for such nonsense.

“Ahhemm. Sir?”

He didn’t raise his head, but pointed to a crudely lettered sign next to the window separating the tiny office from the waiting room. Ring wonce to git my atenshun. Ring twice if I don’t ansur the first time. If you kant see me, I ain’t here so jist take a seet and wate.

This was absurd. Robin tapped the bell with the palm of her hand. Nothing. He didn’t even wince. “Sir?” She stared in disbelief as one bony finger underscored the instruction to ring twice. She dropped her valise to the floor, moved the bell in front of her and with determination hit it two times.

“Name?” The little man licked the end of his pencil and peered from under a green visor balanced on protruding ears.

“Name? Why do you need to know my name? I only want to ask you a question.”

“Can’t answer no questions ’til you tell me your name. It’s my job.”

“But, I only need to…”

The man straightened his visor and thumped his chest. “This here says it all, ma’am.”

She moved closer to read the badge, which hung from a frayed ribbon pinned to his vest. “It says, Ticket Agent.”

His eyes crossed and forehead puckered as he peered at it upside-down. “Whooee, that do hurt them eyeballs.” He blinked, then gave a crooked grin and turned the button to the other side. “Sorry. Now, read it again and tell me what it says.”

Robin rubbed her temples. Her head hurt. Where was her uncle? “This side says Carl Rempel, Station Master.”

“See, what’d I tell you?” The little man shook his finger. “It’s my job, as the station master, to mark off the names of all them what get off at this here station. Gotta make sure ever’body who had a ticket used it at the right gettin’ off place.”

“But no one else…”

“Don’t matter. No, siree. Last week I put my mark beside five names. Next thing you know, I’m gonna need me a new pencil.” He tapped the stubby writing instrument on the counter. “Now accordin’ to my list here, you must be…”

“Robin Wenghold, sir. R-o-b-i-n. Perhaps you know my uncle, John Wenghold?” She retrieved a letter from her reticule and waved it in front of the man’s face. “He wrote he’d meet me upon my arrival.” She sucked her top lip between her teeth.

Mr. Rempel’s bald head turned red and his shoulders shook with laughter. “Well, what do ya know? Kinda late ain’t ya?” He winked.

“Pardon me?” How could she be late? Had she misread the ticket? That couldn’t be. The silly man had marked her off his list.

He rested his elbows on the counter and stuck his head through the little window. “Most robins what come in here fly in ’long about the first of March. Here ’tis late April, and you come in by train. Something happen to ruffle your feathers, did it?”

Robin closed her eyes and counted to ten. “Indeed, sir. I don’t think it’s all that funny.”

“Oh, it ain’t just your name what’s ticklin’ my funny bones.” He yanked a red bandana from his pocket and mopped his brow. “No, ma’am. You see, the real laugher is… Oh, my. See, your uncle owns a ranch they call the Feather. And it got its name from the creek running through it—Pigeon Creek, they call it.”

Robin gritted her teeth and waited for Carl Rempel to quiet his funny bones. She knew all about the silly ranch name. Papa thought it quite humorous to tell anyone who cared to listen that his family included a nest of little birds—Robin, and her sisters Wren and Lark. But his one and only sibling’s claim to fame was a feather.

“What d’ya know. Robin. Feather. That do make me laugh” Mr. Rempel slapped the counter with his hand.

Robin clenched her teeth. A lady could only take so much. Uncle John didn’t keep his word. She wouldn’t keep hers, either. She would take the first train home and forget she ever heard of Cedar Bluff, Kansas.

She rummaged in her reticule. “Mr. Rempel. I would like to purchase a one-way ticket to Chicago, please.” She counted the money and plunked it on the counter.

The man sobered. He took his watch out of his pocket, tapped it on his hand a couple of times, then peered at it from arm's length. “Oh, I’m sorry Miss Robin, ma’am. I can’t sell it to you.” He removed his visor.

“What do you mean you can’t sell it to me? I have the money.”

“Well, now, you see, according to my granddaddy’s pocket watch, the Ticket Agent is off duty ’til t’morrow mornin’.”

“But…but…you’re the Ticket Agent, aren’t you?” She pinched the bridge of her nose.

“I was the Ticket Agent when the train came in, but weren’t nobody what needed a ticket, and ain’t no more trains comin’ or goin’ today so that makes me the Station Master, and his job ain’t to sell tickets. His job is to…”

“I know, I know. His job is to take names.” A lump worked its way up her throat, but she would not let this little man get the best of her. “Mr. Rempel. Please try to understand. I don’t know what to do. I have nowhere to go.”

He sidestepped around the counter, closed the half door, and hung his visor on a peg on the wall. One crooked finger beckoned her to follow him out of the station, then he locked the door behind them.

“Sorry to leave you all alone like this, but it’s the rules.” He plopped a tattered black hat on his head and bow-legged his way down the steps. Tiny puffs of dust followed him as he shuffled a few steps away, then stopped and pointed to the sky. “Storm a brewin’ I’d say. Hope John gets here before it hits.”

“Wait! What if he doesn’t come? Where can I go if it storms?” Don’t they have gentlemen in Kansas. Does he plan to leave me here all alone in this strange town?

“Don’t suppose you need to get fretful, ma’am. That there weather change has a whole lot of hills to cross before it gets to Cedar Bluff. If John Wenghold told you he’d come get ya, he’ll be here. Never knowed the man to whistle a windy.” He scratched his head through a hole in his floppy hat. “Reckon if you have to, you could go to Emma’s Mercantile down the street a ways. That’d likely be the first place John would look if ya wasn’t at the station.”

He pursed his lips and kissed the air. “C’mon, Cat. We best see what Mrs. Rempel fixed us good to eat.” The black cat hopped from its seat on the platform, then arched its tail and marched behind the man as he shuffled away from the depot.

So much for taking me home with you, fickle kitty.

Robin waited until she could no longer see the stationmaster and his cat, then checked the gold watch pinned to her lapel. Four-thirty. One hour since the train chugged away, but it seemed a lifetime. Uncle John still had time to get here before dark. She rotated her shoulders and moved her head from side to side. No need to panic.

She sat on the long bench, and massaged her left leg. She would give Uncle John another hour. Mr. Rempel said the storm remained a long way off, and her leg was too painful to attempt to walk any distance.

She leaned her head against the rough stone. Did her uncle know she was crippled? Surely Papa mentioned something to him over the years. But what if he hadn’t? Would Uncle John send her back to Chicago? Oh, Papa. If only you could tell me what to do.

Hot wind stung her cheeks, and she closed her eyes against the glare of the sun in her face. It wouldn’t do any good to pray, but she did so want Uncle John to get there before the storm.


Robin jerked from unbidden sleep. Heat radiated from the stone wall of the station behind her, and perspiration trickled down the side of her face. She limped to the end of the platform to search once more for any sign of her uncle. Another glance at her watch revealed a mere forty-five minutes had passed. Yet, in the short measure of time, the storm had crossed Mr. Rempel’s whole lot of hills.

Ever-changing clouds scudded low across the prairie toward her. Behind them, a roiling, seething mass of green-black turbulence advanced above the horizon and flattened into a seemingly impenetrable wall as it continued its march across the prairie. An eerie silence hovered over the little Kansas town like a pall, yet belied the fury of activity up and down the dusty street.

Men ran to untie skittish teams from the hitching rails. Conveyances of all sizes careened past her. Many held wide-eyed women clutching open-mouthed babes in their arms— infants’ cries swallowed by the pounding of hooves and clatter of iron wheels.

She gulped down the growing knot of fear. To venture forth amongst such bedlam would be foolhardy. She needed time to navigate any distance, and time evaded her.

Lightning snaked from cloud to cloud, occasionally spearing the ground. Thunder reverberated through the dusty streets. It reminded her of a Fourth of July parade she’d witnessed once—the boom of the bass drum and the vibration of marching feet sensed long before the band could be seen.

The sky darkened and long fingers of hot wind hurled handfuls of grit and dirt at anyone who dared to remain within range. Her eyes stung from the debris, and salty tears added to the pain. As quickly as the heat of her tormentors passed, large drops of rain began to fall. She hid her face in her hands and sought refuge against the side of the building.

Tiny pebbles of ice assaulted her, then larger and larger ones. She hunched her shoulders to ward off the attack, but they pummeled her painfully. No longer able to contain the storm of fear warring inside her, Robin screamed.

Without warning, strong arms wrapped around her middle and pulled her along the wooden platform.

“Don’t fight me, ma’am. I don't mean you any harm. But you must get out of this storm before the hail beats you to pieces.”

The arms tightened, lifted her over the side of the platform and planted her, without ceremony, on her feet.

“We’ve got to hurry. If we can get to my wagon we might still have a chance to outrun this thing.”

“I can’t run.” Robin yelled above the fury of the storm.

Strong hands whipped her around. Her breath caught in her chest. Black hair hung to the stranger’s collar, but curled at the ends, even in the rain. With his face so close she could see the ring of blue around his otherwise dark eyes. A shadow of a beard covered his square jaw.

“You’ve got to, ma’am. We’re going to get hit hard if we stand out here like this.” A frown settled between his eyes. He leaned toward her and put his arms around her shoulder, urging her forward.

“Please,” she twisted away from him. “I can’t run.”

A sudden stillness dropped like lead around them, and in an instant she lay against the rough stone foundation of the depot, the weight of the stranger heavy across her. A rivulet of muddy water slid past her cheek, and the scent of bay rum filled her otherwise numb senses.

“I’m not going to hurt you, but when the wind stops like that it’s a sure sign of a fierce storm, most likely a twister. We need to stay as low to the ground as possible and pray the monster won’t suck us up in it, or blow something––”

A roar like an approaching locomotive, accompanied by a cacophony of splintering wood and breaking glass sent fear coursing through her.

“It’s a twister for sure,” he yelled. “But it’s headed for open country. It’s only going to hurl its wreckage our way. I’ll tell you when it’s safe.”

When the storm at last subsided, he rolled away from her and helped her to her feet. “Terrible way to meet, isn’t it?” He smiled. “You are John Wenghold’s niece, aren’t you? Miss Robin Wenghold from Chicago?”

Robin nodded. “I thought he would meet me.” Silver flecks danced before her eyes, and her back and shoulders hurt from the barrage of hailstones. She ran her tongue over her teeth to remove the dirt. What must she look like?

“I know. I’m Ty Morgan, your Uncle John’s neighbor.”

“Is he ill? He knew I would arrive today” She pressed her fingers against her forehead.

“He didn’t forget you, ma’am. I guess he figured, since I planned to come in for supplies, it would save him a trip if I agreed to bring you back to his ranch.”

Save him a trip? What kind of man issues an invitation to visit, then sends a neighbor in his stead so he can save a trip? If only she could sit before her legs buckled.

Gentle hands rested on her shoulders, and dark eyes peered into hers. “Miss Wenghold, do you need…”

Though his lips moved, the swish of her pulse drowned out his words. She attempted to smile as a dark veil dropped over her eyes.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Pharaoh's Daughter by Mesu Andrews

Pharaoh's Daughter
WaterBrook Press (March 17, 2015)
Mesu Andrews

Chapter 1

Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt.

—Exodus 1 : 8

Four years later

Anippe dipped her sharpened reed in the small water jar and swirled it in the palette of black powder. Her scroll had only one stray drop of ink—one less drop than Tut’s—and she was determined to best her big brother. She drew a second water symbol, adding it to bread, water, basin, box, and owl, to finish her brother’s name: T-t-n-k-h-m-n. Leaning to her left, she peeked at Tut’s progress. Her letters were much clearer, and he now had three stray ink drops.

“Very good, Anippe.” The tutor peered over her shoulder, his breath reeking of garlic and onions. “Your writing is almost as precise as the divine son’s.” Tut smirked, and Anippe rolled her eyes. “Thank you, revered and wise teacher.” Maybe his vision was blurred by the cloud of his stinky breath.

“My letters are just as good!” Ankhe shouted from across the cramped classroom. She slammed her reed on the small, square table and began tearing her scroll into pieces. “You spend all your time with Tut and Anippe.”

The tutor grabbed his willow switch, and Ankhe turned her back in time to save her face from the lashing. “If I spend more time with you, Ankhe-Senpaaten-tasherit, you will likely be whipped more often. Is that what you wish? You will show me respect in this classroom, and you will act like the daughter of a god.”

Tears stung Anippe’s eyes, but she blinked them away. Daughters of gods didn’t cry. The tutor had never used his switch on her, but she didn’t wish to test him. She reached for Tut’s hand under the table, silently begging him to intervene. The divine son was never punished.

“Oh wise and knowing teacher, let us resume our lesson.” Tut raised one eyebrow, seeming much older than his ten years. “If I am to rule Egypt someday, I must understand why some vassal nations have betrayed Pharaoh Akhenaten and pledged allegiance to Hittite dogs. Our eastern border is at risk if I can’t control buffer nations between us and our greatest threat.”

Anippe gaped at her brother. He remembered nations and territories as if they were written inside his eyelids.

The tutor issued a final glare at Ankhe before returning to a stool beside his favored pupil. “Very astute questions, son of the good god Akhenaten, who is king of Two Lands and lord of all. The Hittites are indeed our greatest eastern threat, a military machine with iron weapons, but we must also beware the Nubians in the south. They pose as loyal servants to Egypt’s king, his officials, and our military, but you must never trust a people not your own.”

Anippe slipped away from the table, certain the tutor was lost in his topic, and slid onto the bench beside Ankhe. Her little sister was still whimpering, head down. When Anippe tried to smooth her braided wig, Ankhe shoved her hand away.

Like always.

Ankhe hated discipline, but she didn’t like to be loved either. Soon after Ummi Kiya’s death, Tut told the grownups that all Pharaoh Akhenaten’s children should be tutored, and he tried to have Ankhe at the same table—between her older brother and sister. But as she grew, her tantrums became worse. Sometimes even the switch wouldn’t stop her. So the tutor moved her to a separate table.

Separate. That was what Ankhe would always be, no matter what her siblings tried.

Anippe saw welts rising on Ankhe’s back under her sheer linen sheath, marks from the tutor’s switch. “I’ll ask Ummi Amenia for some honey to put on your back.”

“She’s not my ummi.” Ankhe picked up her reed and dipped it in water and pigment. “They didn’t adopt me.”

“But Amenia still cares for you, Ankhe.” Anippe wanted to hug her, but she’d tried that before. Ankhe hated hugs. She hated to be touched at all.

The sound of soldiers came from the hallway, spears tapping the tiles as they marched. This sounded like more than the two guards who always stood at their doorway. This sounded like a full troop. Tut looked at Anippe, afraid, and Anippe grabbed Ankhe’s hand. Her little sister didn’t pull away this time.

General Horemheb appeared at the doorway, his big shoulders touching the sides and his head too tall to enter without ducking. He looked scary in his battle armor—until he saw Anippe and winked.

She wasn’t afraid anymore. Her abbi would protect her against anything. He’d loved her and spoiled her since the day Amenia introduced them.

But when he saw Ankhe, his face turned as red as a pomegranate. He scowled at the tutor. “Why is my daughter seated with the little baboon? You have been told to keep them apart.”

Before the tutor could answer, Abbi Horemheb grabbed Anippe’s arm, lifted her from the bench, and landed her back on the stool beside Tut. Anippe’s eyes filled with tears. Abbi was always rough with Ankhe but never Anippe—never his little habiba. She sat straight and tall beside Tut, blinking her eyes dry, trying to be the princess Abbi wanted her to be.

When her abbi returned to the doorway, Anippe noticed two other people standing with the soldiers—a beautiful lady and Vizier Ay. Abbi Horem hated the vizier. Maybe that was why he’d lost his temper.

Who is that pretty woman with them? The woman wore a long, pleated robe, fastened at her shoulder with a jeweled clasp. Her braided wig fell in layers with pretty stones woven through it on gold thread. Anippe studied her face. She looked familiar, but she wasn’t one of Amenia’s friends who visited the Memphis Palace.

Vizier Ay took three steps and stopped in front of Tut and Anippe’s table. “Pharaoh Akhenaten has journeyed beyond the horizon. The priests have begun the customs of Osiris.”

Tut straightened and hid his shaking hands under the table. He was quiet for a while, breathing as if he’d run a long race. When his breath came smoothly again, he said, “The good god Akhenaten will cross the night sky and warm us with the sun each day.” His voice quaked. He was trying hard to be brave, but Anippe knew how much Tut loved Abbi Akhenaten. The weight of Egypt now rested on her brother’s slim shoulders. “When do we sail for the burial ceremony?”

Vizier Ay tilted his head and smiled, as if Tut had seen only five inundations. “We have much to discuss with you, divine son, but first I would have you meet your new wife.”

“Wife?” Tut squeaked and then peered around the vizier at the woman. Anippe’s big brother withered into a shy boy. He motioned for General Horemheb’s approach and then beckoned him close for a whisper. “I have no need of a wife, Horemheb—not yet.”

Abbi Horem leaned down, eye to eye. “Divine son and beloved prince, a young king needs three things to rule well: a teachable ka, wise advisors, and a good wife.” He tilted his head toward the pretty lady at the door. “Senpa is your good wife. Ay and I are your advisors. And you have demonstrated teachability. You are both humble and powerful. I am honored to bask in your presence, most favored son of Aten.”

Tut’s throat bobbed up and down, perhaps swallowing many words before the right ones came to mind. A bead of sweat appeared on his upper lip while everyone waited for him to speak.

“How old is she?” Ankhe blurted out the question Anippe wanted to ask but didn’t. Tut’s eyebrows rose, clearly awaiting an answer.

Abbi Horem’s face turned red again, and he slammed his hand on Ankhe’s table. “You will be silent unless asked to speak.”

Ankhe raised her chin in defiance but didn’t say another word.

Vizier Ay guided the pretty woman toward the table where Tut and Anippe sat. “Divine prince, meet your wife, Ankhe-Senpaaten. She is your half sister—daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. You may call her Senpa.

Anippe stared at Nefertiti’s daughter. All their lives, they’d been warned of Nefertiti’s evil. Now Tut must marry one of her daughters? How could they ask it of him? Senpa was beautiful, but she was ancient—at least twenty inundations, maybe twenty-five. How could a ten-year-old be a husband to a twenty-year-old queen?

Anippe shivered and earned a stern glance from Abbi Horem.

Vizier Ay cleared his throat and nudged Senpa aside. “Divine son and ruler of my heart, we have many details to discuss regarding the burial ceremony and your coronation. Perhaps you, in your great wisdom, could dismiss your sisters to Amenia’s chamber to plan the wedding festival?”

“Yes, you may go.” Tut’s voice sounded small.

Anippe wanted to stay, but Abbi Horem was already instructing a contingent of guards to escort them to Amenia’s chamber.

“Wait!” Anippe’s outburst quieted the room. “If it pleases my dear abbi, I would ask one question.” She stood and bowed to her abbi, using her best courtly manners to gain his pleasure before asking what burned in her belly.

“You may ask it, my daughter.”

Lifting her chin and squaring her shoulders, she tried to speak as a king’s sister—not as sister to a crown prince. “Will Ankhe and I remain here at Memphis Palace with Tut and Senpa after their marriage?”

Vizier Ay laughed, startling Anippe from her composure.

Abbi Horem turned her chin gently, regaining her attention. “No, little habiba. Tut will remain here at the Memphis Palace with me and Vizier Ay. However, Senpa, Amenia, you, and Ankhe will relocate to the Gurob Harem Palace with the other noblemen’s wives and children. The king’s officials visit Gurob several times a year. You’ll enjoy helping in the linen shop and have many little girls to play with.”

Anippe worked hard to keep her smile in place, but her heart felt ripped in two parts. First Ummi Kiya and now Tut? Would the gods take away everyone she loved?

She bowed slightly to her abbi and then reached for the scroll on which she’d drawn Tut’s name—a memento of their last class together.

The tutor blocked her path, hand outstretched. “I’m sorry, Princess. I can’t let you keep that scroll.”

“But why? I—”

Ankhe jumped to her side, grabbed the scroll, and hid it behind her back. Abbi Horem snatched it away, gave it to the tutor, and raised his hand to strike Ankhe. Anippe stepped between them, halting the general’s hand.

Grabbing Anippe’s shoulders, he shook his head. “You protect her too much, habiba. She must learn to behave as a princess.” He hugged her tight and kissed her cheek. When he stood, towering above Anippe and Ankhe, he addressed them both. “You can no longer write your brother’s name in hieroglyph. He is now divine, and his name is sacred. Only royal scribes may write the six-part name of a king within an oval cartouche. Now, my guards will escort you to Amenia’s chamber with Senpa.”

Anippe obeyed without argument. She looked over her shoulder as they left, wondering when Tut would become a god. This morning they’d laughed and teased and even raced from their chambers to the schoolroom. She’d almost beaten him. Surely a god could run faster than a girl.

Tut sat utterly still, expressionless, listening to his advisors. Perhaps that was what a god looked like—empty.

Anippe made sure Ankhe was behind her and then followed the beautiful daughter of Nefertiti down the open-air corridor to the women’s chambers. Losing herself in the sound of chirping birds and sandals on tile, she breathed in the smell of lotus blossoms as they passed a garden pond.

Like the waters of the Nile, I will flow. I am Anippe, daughter of . . . Horemheb and Amenia.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Soul's Prisoner by Cara Luecht

Soul's Prisoner
(WhiteFire Publishing (December 15, 2015))
Cara Luecht

Chapter 1

Chicago, 1891

Rachel eased along the seeping basement wall. Fresh linens, stacked high in her arms, almost blocked her view. The musty corridor reeked of hasty construction and paper-thin concrete. The polished marble floors in the halls above gave no indication of the dank underbelly where Rachel delivered clean laundry. Over her head, heaving mechanical guts twisted and disappeared into the ceiling, carrying cold water and flickering lights to the stomping nurses and their charges.

Condensation trickled from a shoulder-height steam pipe and collected in a slick, green puddle. Rachel stepped around it. At the far end of the hall, mildew overpowered the respectively benign odor of the underground. She filled her lungs with the stagnant air, because what came next was worse.

She tucked her nose into the rough, clean fabric and backed into the swinging metal doors. They were heavier than the kind that separated the kitchen from the laundry, where she spent most of her days. They whispered open on well-oiled hinges.

Certain maintenance requests never went unanswered—never her requests, of course, but a laundry list of things that had nothing to do with the laundry. At least, that’s what she’d heard. But she didn’t have to be there long to know at Dunning, hinges never squeaked, dumb waiters sank silently into oblivion, and orderlies secreted around corners on sighing shoes. If her beau knew where she worked, what she did during the day…

Lights in metal cages were bolted to the basement ceiling at ten foot intervals all the way down the hall leading to the patient rooms. Rachel scurried from one circle of light to the next, holding her breath for the screams she knew would be coming. The lowest, windowless levels of the asylum had never been intended to hold patients, but they’d run out of room on the floors above and converted one wing into patient rooms. Conveniently, the basement housed the most disturbing cases: those whose families were only too relieved to forget.

Rachel stopped at an echoing, muffled scream.

“I’ll take those,” a quiet voice slithered from behind her. Rachel jumped but quickly corrected the feeble imperfection. Straightening her posture, she forced her shoulders down and turned to face the sniveling excuse for a man she now realized had followed her.

“Sure.” She handed over the pile, avoiding the brush of his hands. He tried, he always tried, but she’d learned to avoid his pale, clammy fingers. He was a too-young Irish man with greasy red hair. And even though Rachel towered above him, there was a hungry determination in his stature that she didn’t possess.

Rachel did her best to look as big as possible, leveling her almost-black eyes down at him. His returning, wet smile warned her he would not be intimidated by a laundress. He hissed through his crooked teeth, maneuvering the pile to one hand. With the other, he reached to brush her cheek. Rachel backed away in time. She couldn’t make it through the swinging doors, though, before the swell of his discordant laugh filled the hall.


Paint dripped from Miriam’s brush onto the wood plank floor of her studio. Speckled and spotted with the waste of more inspired days, the floor had long ceased to shine. If only she could rework that squander.

Her art had taken a dark turn.

Ice shards clawed at the window. The night beat its way into the brightly lit room. When her father had had the townhome built for her mother, it had been lit only by gas lamps. Michael, after their marriage, insisted on electric lights in her studio. Miriam had agreed but rarely used them. Tonight, both the electric and gas lamps burned loud.

Miriam inhaled the waxy air. She used to like the dark. After her father’s death, she had found comfort in the anonymity. Her painting had been her reason for being. Now, she had other reasons. But the dark shapes on the canvas shifted, the black eyes of a woman she’d never met watched, pleaded.

Miriam cut white into the deep gray on her palette to fight the dark hues that pervaded. She lifted her brush to the canvas, dragged it along the top edge until the paint dwindled, and then repeated the process, relieved to see the brighter color.

She brought green into the lighter gray, scraped it together with her knife and applied it with heavy strokes until spring-like color dominated the edges of the tightly stretched fabric. Enough for one night. She swirled her brushes in a jar of turpentine and then tried to rub the smell off her hands.

The electric light knob had been installed near the door she never used, so she crossed to it and turned it to the off position. The harsh light faded, leaving only the warm glow of the gas bulbs. Her painting called again, and Miriam turned to examine it once more before disappearing into the secret passageway that connected most of the rooms in the house.

The light paint hadn’t changed anything. The soft green only boxed in and imprisoned the strange woman who stared back from the canvas with pleading, empty eyes. Miriam tore her gaze from the pain on the canvas and made her way into the dark passages. The night would be long.


“Ya sure took yer fair time.” The portly Irish laundry matron, Bonah, slapped her red palm down on the counter. Rachel obeyed the wordless directive and heaved the last bundle of sheets onto the chipped, wooden surface. It was almost time be done for the night.

“I had to…” Rachel let the excuse die off as the uninterested woman untied the bundle and pulled the sheets apart, separating those in need of extra soaking time.

“You could start on those over there, gal.” With a slight push of her head, she motioned to a mountain of linens that would never again be white.

“Yes, ma’am.” Rachel hurried to pick up one of the heavy clumps of fabric and lift it to the wide counter. She untied the knot, found the corner of a sheet, and coaxed it out of the twisted mess. Streaks of blood gave her pause.

“What ya found?”

The smell of feces and sweat pushed Rachel back a step. She lifted her wrist to cover her nose. Bonah rolled her eyes.

“These people don’t got it all right in there”—she thumped on her sweaty forehead with a red, cracked finger. “You’re gonna have to get used to surprises.”

Rachel nodded, still breathing in the smell of her own shirt.

“Goodness, gal,” Bonah dropped her dirty linens and bustled around to Rachel’s side of the table. She elbowed her away and jerked the sticky sheets apart. “You know, I thought you was a farm girl.” Bonah huffed disapprovingly while she yanked the bundle apart. “You should be able to handle working in a laundry. You just gonna have to… Oh, my.”

Bonah took a step back before quickly covering what she had discovered and securing the bundle again with a tight knot.

“What was that?” Rachel whispered to Bonah’s back.

“Don’t you tell no one ’bout this, ya hear?”

“But what was that?”

Bonah lifted the bundle and dropped it into a cart. “Don’t you touch this one. It’s gotta be burned.”

Rachel nodded, meeting Bonah’s serious gaze. Bonah glanced back to the cart, and then to the rest of the pile of laundry that needed sorting.

“Gal, let’s sit a spell, that laundry ain’t goin’ nowhere. And with it snowing like it is out there, we’ll likely be spending the night anyway.”

“Where will we sleep?” Rachel’s mind shifted to the cells in the basement of the main building. The ones with locked doors, writhing women, huddled and muttering old men, and sneering orderlies.

“We’ll bunk with the kitchen maids in the attic. Rooms are usually warm. Why, you got someplace to be?” Bonah leveled her squinted gaze at Rachel.

“Well, yes.” Rachel looked up at the windows and the blinding white of the storm. “I was supposed to go to the Foundling House.” She had an appointment to speak with the head nurse about a teaching position there. It was the kind of job she’d hoped to do at Dunning.

But that wasn’t the whole truth. She was also hoping to see Winston. He was supposed to introduce her to his family soon. Rachel glanced to the mountainous carts of laundry. When she’d left the farm, it had been with the hopes of securing a teaching position in the poor house here on the Dunning grounds. But she’d arrived to find another had already taken the position, and she ended up in laundry.

Bonah snorted. “You’ll make more money here. They don’t pay nothin’.” She reached her round arms behind her back and fought the damp knot of her apron. “But they ain’t crazy there, I suppose.”

Rachel listened to the blowing snow hit the windows set high on the walls. Somehow, she expected it to melt before piling against the panes. The laundry was perpetually hot. The boiling vats bubbled almost around the clock, and the sheets hung heavy and lifeless in the hot drying room. Any cool draft that might have found its way to drift across the floor was blocked by their long skirts and close quarters. Rachel glanced back to Bonah, still struggling with the knot at her back.

“Let me help you.” Rachel stepped closer to the older woman. “They need someone to teach after the Christmas holiday. Right now I could tend the infants.”

The knot released. Bonah turned and with a curt nod acknowledged the helpful gesture.

“What was in those sheets?” Rachel’s eyes drifted to the bundle in question.

“Gal, just because someone’s mind don’t work, it don’t mean their other parts don’t.” She shifted under Rachel’s unwavering stare before dropping her voice to an urgent whisper. “The womens sometimes find themselves in a condition.”

“You mean…”

“Yes, gal.” Bonah hung her apron on a peg next to the swinging doors and rolled her eyes. “Yes, that’s what I mean.”

“But…” Rachel hurried to catch Bonah before she disappeared down the hall toward the lunch room. “…the women and the men are on their own floors. How…”

“I suspect it’s not the other patients that are the problem, or they was in the condition before they came.” Bonah stopped in the middle of the hallway and turned to meet Rachel’s wide eyes. “People don’t work here because they want to help. They work here because they need a paycheck. And bad people need a paycheck just like good people do. What was twisted up in those sheets was too little to live anyway. Don’t you worry ’bout that none. The ones born big never survive neither. Crazy mothers don’t breed healthy babies.”

Bonah started walking again, and Rachel fell into step.


“Never you mind anything else,” Bonah interrupted. “You just do your job and stay out of the places you don’t need to be.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

The windows in the hallway were lower. Their dusty panes provided a view of the expansive stone asylum. The gray block towered overhead, looking back through its own glowing, gas-lit square eyes. Patient shadows hung and wavered against the barred glass. Two rooms in the attic flickered to life. Snow whipped between the buildings, obscuring the small, infrequent windows of the misery-infested basement. They persisted in their black, shuttered stare.


Miriam slipped out of the passageway and into what had once been her father’s bedroom. Now it was Michael who slumbered in the huge four-poster bed, unaware of her night-veiled visit to her studio. The woman still called from the painting. She had dark hair, dark eyes, and the palest of complexions. Miriam wanted to think her pallor was natural, but she knew it wasn’t. It was the color of fear. And again, Miriam railed against her changing gifting. She used to see people on the street—sometimes they were strangers, sometimes she knew them, but they would be people whose faces she’d studied. She would paint them, and then paint who they would become. This change—now painting someone she’d never met, a completely unfamiliar face, someone she knew lived and breathed, and then painting them in distress—this was new. This was different. And if this was real, she was powerless to do anything.

Miriam sat at her husband’s dressing table and fingered the silver handle of his shaving brush. The clock in the downstairs hall chimed five times. The heavy drapes remained dark. The sky was too thick, the early snow too demanding. She was scheduled to visit the warehouse today. Beatrice planned on meeting her there after her tour of the Foundling House. There were new contracts in the making, but with the snow, it promised to be a quiet day. One she should spend painting. One she should dedicate to completing that tortured stranger’s portrait. Miriam tucked her cold fingers into her pockets and looked back to her dozing husband.

If she were a better wife, she would abandon the woman upstairs, the one who stared back from the painting. She would climb back into bed with her husband, she would mold her body against his and wake him up with softness and promise. But she was not. Miriam stood and crossed to the heavy brocade drapes. They had decided on the fabric together: a cascade of peacock-like colors with gold and cream thread woven into blossoming almond trees that grew from floor to ceiling. The pink- and cream-laced blooms only opened at the very tips of the fragile branches near the top, where the mahogany carved rods echoed the unpredictable movement of tree bark.

“Come back to bed.” Michael spoke softly. He was always so careful not to disturb her thoughts. Miriam knew he’d taken on a burden when he married her. Marrying a woman who painted the future, one who preferred to be alone, one who would rather sit quietly than be forced to make polite conversation with strangers, was not on the list of dreams for any man—especially one who needed a wife on his arm for a unending list of social and business obligations. What he would think of her shifting focus, she didn’t want to consider.

Miriam nodded and unbuttoned her robe. She draped it across the chaise and slid beneath the sheets to where his warmth gathered.

“You’ve been gone for a while.” Michael’s breath rustled Miriam’s hair as she turned and he pulled her close.

“I was just upstairs.” Miriam tucked the quilt beneath her chin, breathing in the scent that was uniquely theirs.

Michael hummed his understanding. It was a sound that communicated everything left unsaid. Miriam smiled and closed her eyes as Michael’s breathing shifted back to a soft snore.

When it was light, Miriam would go back to the woman who haunted her mind from the floors above and try to fix her again. Maybe, if she tried hard enough, she could paint satisfaction into the stranger’s existence. After all, if she’d never met her…

Miriam bit the inside of her bottom lip until it hurt. It would be what it would be.

“Hi, Ma.” Jed filled the doorway. Rachel watched the icy snow convulse around his lantern.

Jed stooped under the frame and shuffled into the laundry. His movements were too slow for someone who needed to hide from the dark, icy blast. He in no way resembled Bonah, which made sense, because she was not really his mother. But the way she babied the giant would lead anyone to believe that he had come from the small, stocky woman.

“Where ya been?” Bonah reached up to help him unwind his scarf. Jed bent at the waist while she pulled. Once it was removed Jed stood, and Bonah hooked her hand under his forearm, leading him to a bench in the corner of the room.

Jed set the lantern on the folding table and wrestled his gloves from his hands. He didn’t loosen the fingers first, instead he grabbed them at the wrist and yanked until his huge hands were free. He shoved the gloves into the pockets of his overcoat and turned the wick down, all the time watching the flame die. He looked up and smiled at Bonah. Her face softened, and she nodded back. He had done a good job. Exactly with what, Rachel had no idea. The nod could have communicated that he’d completed a task only Bonah had known about, or it could have meant that she was proud he had removed his gloves without assistance. In the short time Rachel had worked in the laundry, she had learned that questioning Bonah or Jed was a fool’s errand. It was enough to know that they took care of each other.

Rachel picked a sheet out of a bundle of clean linen and spread it on the table.

“Oh, don’t mess with that now.” Bonah waved her hand, indicating she was done for the evening. “We’ve already put in more hours than we should have waiting for that snow to lighten up.” Bonah glanced out of the high windows again. This time they were nearly completely covered. “I think we’d better make our way to the main building with this last load before it gets any darker or starts blowing any harder.”

Rachel nodded and tossed the sheet on top of the bundles in the wheeled laundry cart. Before she could push it up against the wall in line with the rest of the carts, Jed jumped up to stop her.

“I’ll do that.” He shrugged his huge shoulders and moved into her path. Rachel had no choice but to let him help.

“Thank you, Jed.” Rachel caught Bonah’s approving glance and nodded her understanding.

Jed had been at the asylum longer than anyone could remember. The most accepted rumor was that he had been dropped off as a child. No one ever came to visit him, but then the only regular visitors seemed to be the university students who studied the mind or the reporters who wanted to interview the most recent sensational case. And no one wanted their visits.

“There should be a bed made up for ya upstairs here in the laundry. I’ll have to find a bed in the upper floor of the main building.” Bonah frowned and wound the scarf around Jed’s neck again before attending to her own. She pulled on her mittens and tucked them into the sleeves of her coat. “Don’t ya have any mittens, gal?”

“I’ll be fine.” Rachel shoved her bare fingers deep into her coat pockets. Her coat was too thin for this weather, but the walk to the main building was short. It was the walk back alone that she didn’t look forward to. Although the maids stayed together above the laundry, and they typically ate together, that was as far as the friendships went. And as a laundress, Rachel was even further removed. The only thing worse than staying on the asylum grounds was staying there alone.

Bonah shook her head. Jed stared at the door handle.

“Go ahead,” Bonah gave Jed the permission he was waiting for as she re-lit the lantern and turned the knob for the last gas light that still flickered in the metal fixture overhead. The lantern illuminated the door, and Jed blocked the rest of the light. Rachel ducked into Jed’s shadow and sank into the cold snow. It filled her shoes, even though she followed Jed’s footprints.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Sunday, November 8, 2015

A Father's Second Chance by Mindy Oberhaus

A Father's Second Chance
Love Inspired (July 21, 2015)
Mindy Oberhaus

Chapter 1

Perhaps love wasn't a fairy tale.

Watching the bride and groom share their first dance, Celeste Thompson was taken aback by the longing that filled her heart. She'd never been one to entertain romantic notions. Yet she suddenly found herself wondering what it would be like to be in love. To share your life with someone. To give that person your whole heart.

Celeste froze, the long pearl-handled knife midway through another slice of wedding cake. She could never trust her heart to anyone. She laid the piece of raspberry-filled white cake on a plate. Precisely why she was the caterer, not the bride.

As the romantic ballad came to an end, her eyes again roamed the crowded, dimly lit reception hall in Ouray's Community Center. From all appearances, Cash and Taryn were the epitome of forever and always. Yet how could anyone promise forever? People change. At least that was what her mother said. Countless times. Usually followed by a less-than-flattering remark about Celeste's wayward father.

"Cake, please."

Celeste glanced down to see small fingers gripping the edge of the lace-covered table. A pair of large sapphire eyes framed by white-blond curls peered up at her.

A smile started in Celeste's heart, spreading to her face. "Well, hello there, sweet girl." The child was adorable, her frilly lavender dress making her look like a princess. "You must be the flower girl."

The little girl nodded, her mischievous grin hinting that she might not be as innocent as she appeared.

"Emma… " A man with dark brown hair and Emma's same blue eyes sauntered toward them. His hands were tucked into the pockets of his tuxedo slacks and his loosened bow tie dangled from beneath the unbuttoned collar of his starched white shirt. Very GQ. Tall, dark… Of course, at five foot two, everyone seemed tall to Celeste. One of many reasons high heels were her best friend.

He stopped beside the child. "You've had enough cake, young lady." His baritone voice was firm. Unyielding.

Emma frowned. Her bottom lip pooched out as she crossed her arms over her chest. "Cassidy had two pieces."

"Your sister ate her dinner." The man stared down at her, seemingly unfazed by the pathetic look.

"No fair." The little girl stomped her foot.

He held his hand out to the child. "Let's go see if we can find some more of that brisket. Then we'll discuss cake."

Emma's lip quivered, her eyes welling with tears. Her face reddened and contorted in ways Celeste had never witnessed firsthand. Nonetheless, she recognized the markings of a tantrum. And, from the looks of things, this was setting up to be a good one.

Perhaps she could find a way to change the subject. She opened her mouth, but the man she presumed was Emma's father held up a hand to cut her off.

"I've got this."

Fine by her. After all, Emma was his daughter.

He dropped to one knee. "Emma, please. Not here."

His plea was met with a loud wail.

Celeste bit back a laugh. Seemed the poor man had been through this before.

Pulling his daughter close, he begged her to stop crying. His tuxedo jacket was doing a fair job of muffling Emma's sobs, still…he glanced up at Celeste, defeat and perhaps embarrassment marring his otherwise handsome features.

Surely there was something she could do.

Then again, Emma's father had made it clear he didn't need her help.

The child let out another cry. This time loud enough to be heard over the music.

People started staring.

Celeste couldn't help herself. While she might not be an expert with kids, she'd quelled many an executive tantrum in the boardroom. Perhaps those tactics would come in handy now.

She wiped her hands on a napkin and rounded the table. Knelt beside the pair. "Emma?" She touched the baby-fine curls.

Emma hiccupped then slowly turned her head until her red-rimmed eyes met Celeste's.

"Have you ever had a birthday party?"

The child nodded against her daddy's chest.

"And all your friends and family were there?" She looked at Emma's father, afraid he'd tell her to back off. Instead, he seemed to wait for his daughter's reaction.

Emma nodded again, this time lifting her head.

Celeste continued. "Now, suppose one of your friends got mad and started crying at your party. How would that make you feel?"

The child's eyes darted back and forth across the wooden floor. She wasn't answering, but she wasn't crying anymore, either.

"Would that make you sad?" Celeste offered.

Emma nodded, gnawing on her thumb.

"Well, this is Cash and Taryn's party. You wouldn't want to make them sad, would you?"

Emma shook her head, her eyes growing even bigger. "Tawyn's my aunt."

"I see." She dared a glance at Emma's father. He seemed to have relaxed, though he didn't necessarily look happy. "Well then…" Her gaze shifted back to Emma. "You want to be a big girl for your aunt Taryn, right?"

Emma's smile returned. She nodded once more.

Celeste pushed to her feet.

So did the child's father.

She took hold of Emma's hands and spread her arms wide. "Look at your pretty dress." She let go of one hand and twirled the child with the other. "That's a dancing dress if I ever saw one."

Emma giggled, and Celeste didn't know if she'd ever heard a sweeter sound.

"Now—" stopping, she smiled down at Emma "—do you think you can do what your daddy tells you?"

Emma nodded.

"Good girl. And then, maybe, if it's okay with your mommy and daddy—"

"I don't have a mommy."

Celeste blinked, her cheeks growing warm at the child's candor. "Oh. Well then…" She swallowed, her gaze flitting briefly to Emma's father. "If it's all right with your dad, I can send a piece of cake home with you for later. How does that sound?"

"Yay!" The little girl just about bounced out of her white patent leather shoes. She tugged her father's hand. "Come on, Daddy. Let's get some more bisket."

"Brisket, sweetheart." As his overzealous daughter pulled him toward the buffet table, he shot Celeste an irritated look. "Thanks for the help. But I can take care of my daughter."

Celeste bristled. She hadn't expected his praise, but she hadn't expected him to be so rude, either. That'll teach her to get involved.

Shrugging off the exchange, she watched the pair walk away. Emma obviously knew she had her father wrapped around her little finger. But did she have any clue how blessed she was to have a father who cared?

I don't have a mommy.

Celeste ached for the child. And wasn't there some mention of a sister?

She shook her head. A single dad with two daughters. No wonder the guy looked defeated. He didn't stand a chance.


She turned as Erin, one of her part-time servers, approached.

"We're down to crumbs on the brisket."

"No problem. I've got another tray in the kitchen." Celeste pointed to the cake. "You mind taking over?"

"Not at all." Erin picked up the long knife as Celeste started toward the swinging door. "Sausage is running low, too."

Celeste waved a hand in acknowledgment and continued into the community center's small yet efficient commercial kitchen. The groom's request for Texas barbecue seemed to be a hit with the guests. Good thing Granny had taught her the art of smoked meat. Building the catering side of Granny's Kitchen was important to her bottom line. As were those old hotel rooms over the restaurant.

Donning her oven mitts, Celeste grabbed another foil-covered pan of meat from the oven. The smoky aroma wafted around her as she carried it into the main room. It had taken her all summer to decide how best to address the upstairs units, but she'd finally decided to convert the cluster of six tiny rooms into three large suites. All while remaining true to the building's character and Victorian architecture.

She set the pan into the chafer, thinking of all the beautiful millwork throughout the upstairs space. The wide baseboards and detailed moldings…quality like that was hard to find these days. She could only pray God would lead her to the right contractor. One who didn't cringe when she mentioned the word salvaging.

After replenishing the sausage, she topped off the grated cheese and bacon bits at the mashed potato bar, pleased that everything had turned out so well. Word of mouth was a powerful thing, especially in a small town like Ouray.

A popular tune boomed from the DJ's speakers and people flooded the dance floor. Celeste paused to watch. Young and old, everyone appeared to be having fun. Including two little blond-haired girls in lavender dresses. Emma held her daddy's hand, as did the other girl Celeste presumed was her sister.

Although she found Emma's father to be a bit on the arrogant side, the adoring look on his face as he twisted and twirled his two precious daughters around the dance floor melted Celeste's heart. His girls were obviously the center of his universe. And though they were without their mother, Celeste got the feeling that Emma's dad was the kind of guy who would do whatever it took to be both mother and father. He would never desert them, like Celeste's father had.

A sad smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. Those two were lucky girls indeed.

Gage Purcell escorted his daughters, Emma and Cas-sidy, off the dance floor. In the year and half since his wife, Tracy, had left, Emma's tantrums had grown more and more frequent. Maybe it was a coping mechanism. Maybe she blamed him for her mother's absence. Whatever the case, he needed to find a way to make them stop.

The fact that a total stranger could settle his daughter better than he could had bugged him all night. Not that he wasn't appreciative of the caterer's intervention. The last thing he'd want to do is ruin his sister's special day. Still.

He raked a hand through his hair, eager to call it a night. Dinner and dancing had gone on far longer than he anticipated, though the latter had afforded him some special moments with his daughters. But now that the bride and groom had made their exit.

"Time for us to think about going, too, girls. It's way past my bedtime." Gage wove his daughters between the round cloth-covered tables to retrieve their sweaters.

"But you go to bed after us, Daddy." Seven-year-old Cassidy peered up at him with serious eyes.

"That is true. So it must be way, way, way past your bedtimes."

"I'm not—" yawning, Emma leaned against a folding chair "—tired."

He chuckled, knowing his youngest would likely crash before he even put his truck into Drive. Kneeling beside her, he held up her pink sweater. "But your old dad might fall asleep at any—" His eyes closed, he lowered his head and pretended to snore.

Emma giggled. "Wake up." Her tiny hand nudged his shoulder. "Wake up!"

"What?" He jerked his head. "I must have dozed off."

Emma shoved her arms into the sleeves of her sweater.

"You're silly."

Turning his attention to Cassidy, he held up the purple sweater.

His oldest complied immediately, a dreamy smile lighting her face. "I loved this day."

Standing, he donned his tuxedo jacket and stared down at his two beautiful girls. Their usually straight blond hair had been curled and pulled back on each side and their fingernails were painted the same pale purple as their dresses. "I guess you did. You look like little princesses. And you got to hang with the big girls."

"That was the best part," said Cassidy.

A twinge of guilt prodded Gage. With their mother out of the picture, the girls didn't get to do many girlie things, so he was glad Taryn had included them in all the primping and pageantry that leads up to a wedding.

"Don't forget the cake, Daddy."

He should have known Emma wouldn't forget. He could only hope the caterer didn't.

Taking his daughters by the hand, he started across the hardwood floor.

"Hey there, Gage." His old friend Ted Beatty, a shift supervisor at one of the mines outside town, walked alongside them.

Gage had been trying to get a job with a local mine since moving back to Ouray last year. So far, though, not one nibble.

"Whatcha know, Ted?"

"Not much." He stopped.

So did Gage. He eyed the man who was a little older than his thirty-one years. A deep love of mining and its history had bonded the two from a young age.

"Any hiring going on?"

Ted shook his head, his lips pressed into a thin line. "Don't give up, though, buddy." He gripped Gage's shoulder. "Things could change at any time."

Easy for him to say. Ted had remained in Ouray, getting his foot in the door early when the first gold mine had reopened. Gage, on the other hand, had gone off to Colorado's School of Mines for a degree in mining engineering. If only he'd hung around. Maybe he'd be following his dream instead of biding his time working construction.

"Daddy…what about the cake?" Emma squeezed his hand, bringing a smile to Gage's face.

His girls were the reason he gave up his dream job in Denver and moved back to Ouray. He needed the support of his family. And he'd do it a thousand times over, whatever it took to provide a stable, loving environment for them. He only wished he could say the same for their mother.

He shifted his focus back to his friend. "We're on a mission, but let me know if you hear anything."

"Sure thing, Gage."

Emma skipped alongside him as they continued on to the kitchen. He hoped she wasn't getting a second wind. If that happened, they could be up all night.

He carefully pushed open the swinging door.

"Nana!" Both girls bolted toward a long stainless steel work table as his mother, Bonnie Purcell, stooped to meet them with open arms.

Behind her, the caterer moved aside and busied herself at the sink. But not before her deep brown eyes narrowed on him.

"Oh, my precious girls." Mom embraced her granddaughters. "You were so good today." She released them, smoothing a hand over her shimmering dress as she rose. "Gage, have you met Celeste?" His mother's gaze drifted between him and the caterer, that matchmaking twinkle in her eye.

Man, Taryn hadn't been married but a few hours and his mother had already set her sights on him.

Well, she could try all she wanted, but Gage wasn't going down that road again. He was a failure at marriage and had no intention of setting himself or his daughters up for another heartbreak.

"Not officially." The caterer grabbed a towel from the counter. Chin jutted into the air, she held out a freshly dried hand. "Celeste Thompson. Nice to meet you."

Recalling the irritation that had accompanied his parting words earlier in the evening, he reluctantly accepted the gesture. "Likewise."

Long, slender fingers gripped his with surprising strength.

"Celeste was telling me that she's looking for a contractor to do some renovations in the space above her restaurant." Mom fingered Cassidy's soft curls, her attention returning to the caterer. "Gage has quite an eye for detail."

"Well, it just so happens that I'm a detail kind of girl. I'm very particular about how things are done." Her smile teetered between forced and syrupy. "But, if you think you can handle it, you're welcome to come by and look things over."

"Oh, don't be silly." Mom took hold of his daughters' hands. "Gage can handle just about anything." She beamed at Celeste first, then Gage. "Come on, girls. Let's go say good-night to Papa."

The trio stole through the door, leaving him alone with the caterer. Talk about awkward.

She stepped toward the counter and retrieved a disposable container. "Here's the cake I promised Emma. I included enough for you and her sister, too."

He wasn't sure how he felt about that, but accepted the package anyway. "Cassidy."

"I'm sorry?"

"My other daughter is Cassidy. I'm sure she will appreciate the cake every bit as much as Emma and me. Thank you. And…" He forced himself to meet her gaze. "Thank you for helping me out earlier."

"You're welcome." Her golden-blond hair was slicked back into a long ponytail. Save for one wayward strand, which she promptly tucked behind her ear. Her expression softened. "Look, I realize that was kind of an uncomfortable situation with your mother." She peered up at him with eyes the deep, rich color of espresso. "If you'd like to drop by and check out the project, great. However, I understand if you don't have time."

She was actually giving him an out?

He hadn't expected that.

Unfortunately, his finances dictated he not turn down a job. "How about Monday at two?"

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Thornbearer by Pepper Basham

Vinspire Publishing, LLC (May 7, 2015)
Pepper Basham

Chapter 1 - Excerpt

May 1, 1915

There is a distinct difference between marrying a man you do not love, and falling in love with a man you cannot marry. As Ashleigh Dougall locked eyes with Sam Miller across Manhattan’s crowded dock, the sting of that truth stripped all doubt. Pinpricks of fresh awareness rifled through her like the sharp May wind off the wharf of the Atlantic, bringing to life a shocking realization.

Heaven help her. She was in love with her sister’s fiancé.

Even through the space of noisy travelers and hurried porters, Sam’s grin tripped her heartbeat and introduced a myriad of emotions she’d reserved for three-volume novels and daydreams. Ash-brown curls twisted in an unruly manner from under his brown Fedora and shadowed his best feature – his eyes.

In love with her sister’s fiancé? A man who’d become her dearest friend? Nonsense.

But her mental reprimand did nothing as her pulse skittered into rhythm with Alexander’s Ragtime from the pier. She waited for her mind to catch up with her errant heart, to blame the high emotions of departure, but each thought confirmed the growing attraction. He’d provided escort for the long journey from North Carolina and only now her emotions swelled from girlish fancy to—

No. The idea was utter madness and complete betrayal, a family trait of which she would not fall prey. Whether she blamed youthful blindness or disappointed hopes, the truth remained: Sam was ever faithful – and forever Catherine’s.

Or the woman he thought her sister was.

Ashleigh drew her day suit jacket taut. Rumors had made their way across the Atlantic in Mother’s letters and Fanny’s quick missives. The faithful maid gave more insight into Catherine’s notorious flirting and dogged pursuit of Edensbury’s elite, flaunting a wealth her family didn’t possess. After a year abroad to help her mother grieve, nothing had changed.

A child’s scream pierced through her mental fog. Ashleigh turned in time to see a little girl tumble forward and land in a crumpled mess of lace and cloth on the dock floor, arm pinned beneath her.

A woman with the same blush of auburn hair, rushed to the child’s side. “Alice, are you all right?”

Without another thought to the maddening confusion of her heart, nursing instincts quickened Ashleigh’s steps to the pair on the dock. The older woman pulled the child into her lap.

“My wrist hurts, Mama.” The girl’s cries were muffled against her mother’s chest.

Ashleigh dropped her valise and reticule and lowered herself to the dock beside the pair. Their faded, but pressed clothes, suggested poor – but hardworking. Like so many she’d served over the past two years in the rural North Carolinian Mountains.

She met the mother’s frantic gaze with the cool calm of her specialty. “My name is Ashleigh Dougall. I am a trained nurse. Might I be of assistance?”

Alice whimpered. “I can’t move it, Mama.”

“My girl, Alice, has hurt her wrist.” The mother’s voice pitched higher, a sudden awareness raising her volume and drawing attention from the passersby. “If it’s broke what are we going to do? I used my last dollar to pay for our tickets. How am I going to—?”

“Let’s see what we have here, first. What do you say? I’ve watched magical recoveries with little girls and wounded wrists before.” Alice peeked her teary gaze from her mother’s shoulder. “I shouldn’t wonder if this might not be the perfect setting for another bit of magic.” Ashleigh smoothed her words into softer tones and the spell worked.

The mother’s breathing slowed. Alice sniffled and squinted at Ashleigh, her eyes a beautiful umber hue.

“Hello, darling, I’m very sorry for your spill. I would like to help you. I’m a nurse and know a bit about things like bruised wrists and skinned knees. May I look at your arm, Alice?”

The little girl tightened her hold on her doll, proving the wound was more a sprain than a break. Painful, but not as serious and certainly a less expensive fix.

Sam emerged in Ashleigh’s periphery a short distance across the dock, his whistle at full volume. She caught his gaze in a solid hold of unspoken messages. He paused. Ten years of friendship worked its wonders. He surveyed the situation and increased his pace toward them, resuming his tune along with the band.

She turned to the little girl and lowered her voice to increase the suspense. “My friend Sam has a secret. Do you like secrets?”

Alice’s whimpers died altogether. A smile tickled at the corners of Ashleigh’s lips in response to the interest glittering in Alice’s golden eyes.

Sam removed the newspaper from beneath his arm and knelt at Ashleigh’s side, bringing with him his usual scent of soap and lemon. Heat swirled up her neck and planted firmly on her cheeks, no doubt darker than her mauve day suit.

She acknowledged him with a nod, but kept her attention fastened on Alice’s movements, in part to monitor her injury and in part to gain time to cool the sudden warmth around her chest at his nearness. “Have you ever had a LifeSaver? I wouldn’t wonder if one or two might be the medicine you need to feel better. What do you think, Sam?”

Alice’s sharpened gaze fastened on Sam.

“Well…” His rich bass voice melted into conversation. “You have to be pretty special to get a piece of my candy.” He pulled a colorful roll of paper from his pocket and slowly opened the wrapper.

Alice didn’t miss one twist of Sam’s fingers.

“So, Alice, I need you to reach those fingers out for that candy, and if you use both hands, Sam will put a LifeSaver in each.”

“Two?” Her lips wobbled into an ‘o’ shape.

“Two.” Ashleigh looked to the mother. “If she can clasp this candy, then it will confirm my suspicions of a sprain rather than a break.”

The mother gave a feeble nod.

In an easy sweep of his hand, Sam popped a piece from the wrapper with his thumb, tossed it up in the air and caught it in his mouth. He sighed and closed his eyes with a look of utter satisfaction. “Mmm, that’s some good candy.”

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Deadlock by Diann Mills

Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. (October 1, 2015)
Diann Mills

Chapter 1



7:15 A.M. MONDAY

FBI Special Agent Bethany Sanchez swung open the door of her truck with the same jitters she had her first day at Quantico. On this gray morning, she was beginning a violent crime assignment and would meet her new partner, Special Agent Thatcher Graves, the man who'd sent her brother to jail.

Bethany caught her breath and took in the unfamiliar sur- roundings. The residential area was flooded with Houston police officers and unmarked cars, part of a task force between HPD and the FBI. Alicia Javon had been murdered here late yesterday afternoon, leaving behind a husband and two daughters.

The homes rose like monuments in this older, exclusive neighborhood, a mirror of refinement and dollar signs. The Javons' two-story brick with classic black shutters was no excep- tion. Not a dog or cat in sight. In her parents' neighborhood, dogs ran loose and usually in packs, whether the four-legged or two-legged type. Here, a pair of squirrels scampered up an oak. The bushes and hedges received regular manicures. Freshly mowed yard. The three-car garage was the size of her apartment.

Contrast the tranquility with a woman who'd been shot, and it was Bethany's job to help bring down the killer.

She arched her shoulders and walked to the front door, wishing her first day in violent crime could have been less stressful. She'd been up most of the night giving herself a pep talk about working with Thatcher Graves despite their history. A little confidence on her end would boost her ego. She looked like a professional. Wore a black pantsuit and a white blouse. Hair secured at the nape. No rings. No bracelets. Just tiny gold balls in her earlobes, a small gold cross necklace, and a keen sense of determination that had never failed her.

After greeting two police officers and displaying her credentials, she entered the home, and another officer directed her toward a hum of activity to the right. She passed through a living area, where an upright bass, grand piano, and harp filled a third of the space. Beyond there she'd find Special Agent Thatcher Graves.

Her gaze pulled ahead. She wanted the partnership to work so badly that her blood pressure flared at the thought of it. She moved through the room to the kitchen. Thatcher bent behind the crime scene tape, where the body had been found. He glanced up, his earth-colored eyes stormy.

She extended her hand and hoped he didn't observe the trembling. "Good morning, I'm Bethany Sanchez."

He stood and towered over her, but most men did over her small frame. "My new partner. The gal from the civil rights division who solved a cold hate crime in the Hispanic community. And was influential in bringing peace to an Asian business district where a prostitution ring worked the streets. Welcome to violent crime." He gripped her hand, not too firm and not an ounce of wimp. "We've met before."

She offered a slight smile while her stomach rolled. "Yes, we have."

"I think it was the Labor Day picnic. Certainly not what the victim had here."

Had he forgotten Papá's threat at the courthouse, or did he expect her to elaborate? "I understand there's a link between this murder and a previous one, and that's why the FBI's been called in."

"Right. Three weeks ago, Ruth Caswell, an elderly woman in the River Oaks area, was murdered. She was under hospice care but otherwise lived alone. Shot with a 9mm to the forehead, hollow-point bullet, and the killer left a plastic scorpion on her body. At that time, HPD requested our help, due to the unusual circumstances. Alicia Javon's murder appears to be identical, but it'll take weeks before we learn if the two women were killed with the same weapon."

"Didn't realize the lab was so far behind. Fingerprints?"

"Too soon to have the report. We'll see about the DNA."

"Anything to go on?"

"Looks like a serial killing."

"But the husband is a viable suspect. Looks to me like a domestic squabble that went bad."

He lifted a brow. "I've been at this longer than you have. The family will arrive in the next thirty minutes for an interview. They spent the night at a hotel."

"Can't blame them." She glanced around the kitchen. A stock- pot rested on the stove, a box of pasta beside it. A dinner that never happened. "I wouldn't want to stay here either. What else do you have?"

He grabbed a large Starbucks cup from the kitchen counter and toasted her. The man wore a muscular build like an Italian suit. "You fit your MO."

She lifted a brow. "What do you mean?"

"No-nonsense. Gets the job done. Analytical. Outstanding record—"

"Whoa. You're armed, and all I have is office chatter and media headlines."

He sipped the coffee. "I'm sure it's all true."

Egotistical, but with a sense of humor. She stared into his chiseled face. "I hope not or I'm doomed."

"Doubt it, General Sanchez. Your reputation is outstanding." She drew in a breath. The ring of his tone pierced her like a dull knife.

"Guess I won't call you a general again." The muscles in his jaw tightened. "Okay, back to the case. The killer is most likely a psychopath."

"We need more information to make that determination, a sus- pect whose behavior we can psychologically examine to determine if he's hearing voices and the like."

"Not every psychopath is a killer, but serial killers are psychopaths." She'd mull his explanation when she had time to think about it.

"Has the blood spatter been analyzed?"

"Yes. Nothing additional for us to follow up on there. I've been here since five thirty poring over the reports, trying to find a motive for both murders. We have two victims killed with the same type of weapon and identical scorpions left on each body.

I sent a copy of the reports to you about an hour ago."

"Hold on a moment while I retrieve them." She eased her shoulder bag to the floor and snatched her phone, berating herself for not checking it sooner. She scrolled through the various reports. There it was. "Go ahead. I'm ready."

"Alicia Javon was a forty-five-year-old wife and mother. She held a vice president position at Danford Accounting. Two daughters are enrolled at Rice University majoring in music. Her husband is currently unemployed and on disability due to a spinal injury sustained in an auto accident. He told the police his wife's Bible and several pieces of her jewelry are missing. All heirlooms from her family. HPD noted a sizable inheritance from her family's estate."

Bethany read the list of diamonds, rubies, and sapphires stolen. Motive? "The husband claims the jewelry is insured. Has HPD checked the pawnshops?"

"Yes, and they will continue," Thatcher said. "No signs of forced entry."

"She may have known her killer or opened the door without a visual check. Where was her husband? Do her daughters live at home?"

"The girls were out with their father. Walked in and discovered the body," he said. "It's in the report. I labeled it Scorpion."

Ouch. Could this get much worse?

"Hey, I'm messing with you. Don't worry about it."

She smiled but didn't feel it. "I noted Mrs. Javon's arm was in a cast. Worth looking into."

"I agree. Have a few thoughts about the injury."

"Theory or fact?" Immediately she regretted her question.

Arguing fact and logic solved nothing. "That was inappropriate.

I know you operate on instinct, and you're quite successful."

"But you have no respect for my methods, right?"

She reddened. "I'd like to think our partnership could work well organically."

He took another sip of coffee. "Well said. We could fail or become a dynamic team. When we're finished here, let's head back to the office and discuss the case."

A police officer stepped into the kitchen. "The family has arrived."

"They're early." Thatcher glanced out the kitchen window to a patio and pool area, his face stoic. "Tell them Special Agent Sanchez and I will talk to them in a few minutes. We're stepping outside for privacy."