Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Return of Cassandra Todd by Darrel Nelson

The Return of Cassandra Todd
Realms (February 5, 2013)
Darrel Nelson

Chapter 1


As the digital clock sounded its invasive alarm, Turner Caldwell hit the snooze button with a well-practiced thrust of his arm. Five more minutes to sink back into his pillow, he decided. There would be time to shower and grab some breakfast before beginning his day. The jobs on his to-do list would still be there. Like they were every morning.

The alarm sounded again five minutes later, and Turner staggered out of bed, running a hand through his short, brown hair. He stretched the kinks out of his six-one frame and then dropped to the floor and did fifty push-ups. He followed this with a hundred sit-ups. He was glistening with perspiration by the time he made his way into the bathroom and turned on the shower.

He adjusted the temperature to as cool as he could stand and let the water soothe his burning muscles. The last few days had been fairly busy, and he needed to get back to the gym.

After drying off on a musty-smelling towel—he made a mental note to do the laundry soon—he put on his work clothes. As he reached for a pair of socks in his dresser drawer, his hand brushed against a book he had stashed there. Gideon’s Bible. Picking it up, he looked sullenly at it for a moment and then tossed it back into the drawer.

A photograph fell out of the Bible and fluttered to the floor. As he retrieved the photograph, his scowl deepened. It showed him standing with a group of other guidance counselors in front of a large wooden sign that read Camp Kopawanee.

He flipped the photograph over and noted the dates written on the back, denoting the four years he had worked there following graduation from high school. Camp Kopawanee was a Christian youth camp for troubled teens. Canoeing, hiking, and camping activities in the summer had given Turner a chance to develop outdoor skills, while helping the participants straighten out their lives. And in the winter he had done maintenance work, which had given him a chance to develop handyman skills. It was a great situation . . . until church budget cutbacks occurred and he lost his job.

“Laid off by God!” he muttered, flicking the photograph into the drawer and kneeing it shut.

He went into the kitchen and grabbed a container of blue raspberry protein powder. After putting a scoop in the blender, he added one cup of cold milk and made a protein shake. He studied the protein powder container as he drank the foamy mixture, wondering if he could believe what the label stated. He should have energy to spare and a smile to go with it according to the advertising.

Problem was he didn’t feel like smiling. Seeing the Camp Kopawanee photograph was a downer, and he wondered why he’d bothered to keep it. Having it around was like rubbing salt into an open wound. Still, it was all that remained of the best four years of his life.

He finished the protein shake and then gave the blender jar and his glass a token rinse, placing them in the drainer to dry. After wiping his hands on a dishtowel that hung from the handle of the oven, he headed for the door.

As he stepped outside, he paused to survey his surroundings. Morning had brought a fresh wash of color to the Mountain View Motel, a two-story structure located just off Highway 6 in Lakewood, Colorado, a western suburb of Denver. During the past two years he’d worked as the motel’s resident handyman and had begun attending college. The motel was owned and operated by Harvey and Loretta Jones, and showed signs of recent refurbishment. The exterior walls had been freshly painted, and trim had been added around the doors and windows. Sunlight glinted off the new asphalt shingles and backlit the well-maintained lawn and flowerbeds.

Turner headed for the maintenance room.

Harvey was already there, waiting with list in hand. His customary windblown appearance, magnified by his large forehead and a fringe of hair that stuck out at odd angles, made him resemble the stereotypical image of a mad scientist. “There you are,” he said, rubbing his shoulder and wincing dramatically. “I thought I was going to have to send out a search party.”

“Sorry, sir. But I got in late from last night’s mission.”

Harvey stopped rubbing his shoulder. “Not that old joke again.”

“Yep, protecting the good citizens of Lakewood from crime and danger.”

Rolling his eyes, Harvey muttered, “We should be so lucky.”

Turner traced an H on his own chest with a finger. “Handyman at your service, sir. Just promise not to reveal my secret identity.”

Harvey clicked his teeth and handed Turner a piece of paper. “Here’s today’s job list. I’d help you out but my shoulder is giving me fits. My arthritis is acting up again.”

Studying the list, Turner said, “Not to worry, sir. I’ll just grab some duct tape and chewing gum and get right to work.”

“Duct tape and chewing gum,” Harvey grumbled. “And to think I pay you good money.”

“Not to mention the free rent.”

Harvey shook his head and walked away, mumbling to himself and rubbing his shoulder.

Turner watched him go and smiled affectionately. He loved the guy. No matter how bad things were for other people, Harvey had it worse. If Turner complained of a headache, Harvey had a migraine. If Loretta had a sore back, Harvey had severe muscle spasms. In the game of one-upmanship, Harvey was a true champion.

Turner grabbed his toolbox and headed for the first job on the list. He knocked on the door and called out, “Maintenance.”

A middle-aged woman answered the door, scrutinizing Turner from head to toe.

“I’m here to fix the sink,” he said, holding out the toolbox as evidence.

“The faucet is constantly dripping,” she said. “It kept me up half the night. I have a good mind to check into a different motel.”

“No need to do that, ma’am.” He switched on his smile. “I’ll have it fixed in a jiffy.”

She opened the door hesitantly, and Turner marched into the bathroom. He noticed her husband in bed, still sleeping.

The woman followed and stood in the doorway, watching him work. Turner didn’t mind. He was used to motel guests making sure their specific concerns were addressed. Fixing the problem to their satisfaction was the key.

As he reached under the sink to shut off the water supply, he said, “The problem is, they don’t build things to last anymore, do they?”

“Isn’t that the truth,” the woman replied, glancing at the sleeping figure of her husband.

“Planned obsolescence is what it’s all about. You buy something, and it only lasts for a while before it wears out and you have to replace it. Not like in the good old days. Back then things were built to last.”
“I still use the same toaster I did ten years ago.”

“Mine didn’t last a year.” He grabbed a wrench from his toolbox. “But don’t worry about the tap. It’s an easy fix.” He glanced at her from the corner of his eye and saw her expression soften. That was important. Repeat business was good for . . . business.

By now the woman was standing over him, watching as he removed the tap, replaced the worn rubber washer with a new one, and put the tap back together. Turner reopened the water supply and motioned toward the sink. “Try it now, ma’am.”

The woman turned the tap on and off several times and nodded in satisfaction. “It doesn’t drip anymore.”

“You’ll sleep much better tonight.”

“Thank goodness.”

“Anything else I can do while I’m here?”

“No, that’s everything. Thank you, young man. You’re very good at what you do.”

“Just don’t tell my boss. He might insist on giving me a raise.”

The woman chuckled. “I’ll be sure and mention you when we check out.”

Turner picked up his toolbox. “Thank you, ma’am. You have yourself a nice day now.” He headed for the door. His job here was done.

As he stepped outside, his smile faded. Doing even simple tasks around the motel required him to be “on” whenever a guest was nearby. And that took a great deal of energy. But that’s not why he felt out of sorts this morning. No, it was the photograph. It stood as a painful reminder of where he had been and what he had lost. Now his life consisted of fixing taps, unclogging toilets, and repairing broken air conditioner units. He was cooped up in a small motel suite and attended crowded classrooms at college. But there was a time he had been surrounded by nature’s grand architecture, when a simple glance in any direction inspired awe. A time when he lived with purpose. And made a real difference. Unlike now.

By two thirty Turner had the chores on Harvey’s list completed. This included securing the handrail in the bathroom of Room 23, replacing several tiles on the backsplash in the kitchenette of Room 4, and fixing the coin-operated washing machine that had an appetite for quarters.

When he returned to his room, Turner washed up and changed into a clean pair of blue jeans and a T-shirt. He gulped down a sandwich and guzzled a glass of milk, and then headed for his late afternoon classes.

The September sky was clear and bright as the sun tilted westward. Because Lakewood has an elevation of 5,500 feet, the air was thin and shimmered like wrinkled curtains over the sunbaked pavement. The storefront windows became retina-searing mirrors.

He kept to the shady part of the sidewalk and made his way passed the Wells Fargo Bank while listening to music on his iPod nano, his backpack slung over one arm. A slender band of shade lined the south side of the street, and the foot traffic negotiated the sidewalk as if it was a narrow ledge.

A taxi pulled up in front of the bank, and a woman climbed out, followed by a little boy. The woman wore sunglasses, but Turner recognized her instantly, although seven years had elapsed. It was Cassandra Todd. He had gone through high school with her and always thought she was the cutest cheerleader on the squad.

Turner ducked around the corner of the bank. Like a detective in a dime novel, he peered around the edge of the building and watched as she waited while the taxi driver retrieved her luggage from the trunk, which turned out to be a single suitcase. In appearance she hadn’t changed a great deal and had lost none of her beauty. Straight, blonde hair touched her shoulders, and she still had her petite cheerleader figure.

She paid the fare and fired glances in all directions. Then, taking the boy by the hand, she quickly led him toward the front door of the bank and disappeared inside.

Turner let out his pent-up breath slowly. Memories resurfaced, sharklike, and razor-sharp teeth tore at the old wounds.

He was suddenly back in the high school cafeteria. The student council was sponsoring an early morning pancake breakfast, and Turner had just loaded his plate with a stack of pancakes dripping in syrup. Brad Duncan, All-American and captain of the football team, was sitting at a table as Turner walked by. Brad stuck out his foot, and Turner stumbled forward, doing a face-plant into his food.

As he frantically wiped the pancakes and syrup from his eyes, Turner saw faces contorted in riotous amusement. Brad was laughing his head off, along with the rest of the football team. People like them were on this earth to preserve the natural pecking order of things. They were at the top, Turner at the bottom. If this were a food chain, he was in serious trouble.

“Smooth move, Pancake,” Brad said, apparently determined to twist the knife after plunging it into Turner’s self-esteem.

“Pancake?” repeated one of the other football players. “As in pancake turner?”

That got another rousing round of laughter. How clever of him to make a play on words with Turner’s name.

Pancake Turner was not how he wanted to be known, so Turner quickly shrugged off the incident as if to say, “Clumsy me,” and left to clean himself up. However, Brad was not about to let it go, and so the nickname stuck . . . like syrup.

But worse than the embarrassing face-plant, worse than the nickname, was Cassandra Todd, blonde cheerleader and object of a long-time secret crush, observing the whole thing—her face the picture of pity. And every time he saw her after that, whenever she looked at him, her expression said just one thing: pity for Pancake Turner, loser of Lakewood High.

Turner was angry about the whole thing, but what could he have done? Brad was used to making mincemeat out of others, particularly on the gridiron, and being cheered for doing it. Turner couldn’t stand up to him, or he’d just be giving the spectators in the cafeteria more to cheer about at his expense.

As for Cassandra, how could Turner deflect pity? He couldn’t simply ask her to stop pitying him. Respect had to be earned. And in high school that was the most difficult achievement of all.

Turner pulled himself back to the present and shifted his backpack, fighting to suppress the onslaught of resurrected memories. He thought he had gotten over that incident, but seeing Cassandra Todd again proved him wrong.

He glanced once more at the bank and then continued on his way to classes, no longer aware of the music on his iPod nano. Time was supposed to heal all wounds. But how could it when memories kept picking the scabs?

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Flora's Wish by Kathleen Y'Barbo

Flora's Wish
Harvest House Publishers (February 1, 2013)
Kathleen Y'Barbo

Chapter 1

May 1887
The Crescent Hotel
Eureka Springs, Arkansas

The last thing Flora Brimm needed was to lose another fiancé. While there was no evidence to prove Will Tucker had met the same unfortunate fate as the other four—an early and untimely demise—there was also no prospective groom in residence at the Crescent Hotel this evening.

Flora stepped off the elevator and walked toward the ballroom to make her entrance late and alone. She paused to take in the grand sweep of glittering chandeliers and the wide expanse of floor-to-ceiling windows reflecting the electric light back into the room. Oversized potted palms climbing almost high enough to touch the ceiling hid the four corners of the grand room.

Though the ballroom was crowded with guests, Flora glanced around in hopes of finding the man she hoped to wed. The search was futile, of course, as tonight’s celebration of the Crescent’s first anniversary was a masked ball. Those who dared ignore the requirement were given a generic mask, white for the ladies and black for the gentlemen. And yet she hoped that somehow she might recognize him.

Or, perhaps, he would recognize her.

Flora waved off a liveried man with a tray of white masks. At her grandmother’s insistence, a disguise of pale blue silk dotted with seed pearls had been created to match her gown. She tied the mask in place and then touched Grandmama’s diamond choker with its half dollar–sized
aquamarine set into a butterfly shape. The heirloom weighed heavily against her throat, but it was lovely and she would endure it for the evening. Tiny earrings with perfectly set pearls dangling among sparkles of diamonds, aquamarines, and sapphires completed the ensemble and caused her to smile. The earrings had been Mama’s favorite.

On any other occasion, Flora would have happily joined the dancers on the floor and been the belle of the ball until the orchestra played its last tune. Tonight, however, her worry over wedding plans possibly gone awry caused her to wish she could spend the evening anywhere but smiling for strangers or, worse, for those who knew her well enough to offer condolences on her most recent loss.

Perhaps Mr. Tucker was trying to find her at this very moment. Perhaps he’d left a note with the desk clerk in the hour since she last checked. Yes, of course. She’d meant to stop and ask again about messages. Yes, she would do that now.

Just then the elevator doors opened, and a crowd of unmasked familiar faces from Natchez spilled out. The conversation she knew she would have to have should any of her father’s friends recognize her made her scurry inside. As she crossed the threshold, the orchestra struck up a waltz. Flora noted the time as she toyed with the silver watch she’d received as an engagement gift from Mr. Tucker. Even arriving as late as she had, the evening threatened to stretch on interminably.

From across the room, she met her grandmother’s approving gaze. While Millicent Meriwether Brimm might feign dislike of such large events, Flora knew quite well that Grandmama was in her element. The gathering of important dignitaries around her proved that while she was no young beauty, she could still hold her own socially. The lift of one iron-gray brow told Flora she’d be hearing a lecture on tardiness tomorrow.

Turning from Grandmama, her attention was once again drawn to the windows. Thus far her favorite spot among all the lovely offerings at the Crescent Hotel had been the rooftop belvedere. The view of the countryside had been like nothing she’d seen since her trip up the steps of the Sacré-Coeur at Montmartre to take in the view of Paris below.

And though Eureka Springs was nothing like the City of Light that had so captivated her on her grand tour before Mama took ill, there was something about the hills and valleys that settled a deep peace in her heart. Or perhaps it was the great height from which she viewed them.

Indeed, that was likely the case. Had she been born a boy, Flora could easily imagine herself climbing the Alps or ascending some faraway mountaintop to plant a flag of discovery. The thought of it caused the beginnings of a smile, as did the recollection of how many times she’d been called down from the roof of their Natchez home to receive a scolding on the impropriety of a female attempting such a climb. Of her promise to Violet to continue the dizzying fun the sisters once had together.

The smile fled when she realized that being born a boy would also have alleviated the problem of finding a groom who could stay alive until an heir was born.

“Flora!” someone shouted over the music. “Is that you, Flora Brimm?”

Spying the mother of her second fiancé heading her way, Flora cast about for a means of escape. The last thing she needed was a reminder of the loss they shared.

Worse, she would likely be drawn into a discussion about the other “unfortunate incidents”—code words, of course, for the fact that even after Simon Honeycutt’s death, Flora continued to lose fiancés at a higher rate than the local chickens shed feathers.

Well, not tonight. Not when her nerves were already stretched so tight. And not when Will could possibly overhear the conversation or Mrs. Honeycutt could tell him exactly what she thought of Flora.

Flora lifted her fan to her face and slid it open. Pretending to wave away the heat of the room, she used the distraction to seek a place to hide until she could make her exit.

A trio of well-placed palm trees set into a corner of the room just might provide a spot where she could find sanctuary, especially given the fact there was a window behind them. Ignoring Grandmama’s pointed stare, Flora dodged out of the way to hide behind an overlarge politician and his argumentative companions. A pair of matrons strolling toward the refreshments provided a second means of preventing Grandmama and that awful Natchez gossip from spying her.

With freedom almost within reach, Flora darted behind a waiter and very nearly upset his tray. After offering a hurried apology, she managed to reach the safety of the trees.

The shadows were deep behind the palms, and the air held the earthy combination of fresh soil and patchouli. The window had not been thrown open as she’d hoped, but there was plenty of room to relax and wait for the time when she might make her exit the same way she arrived.

Peering around the foliage, she watched her almost-mother-in-law pause to look around. A moment later, the matron headed toward Grandmama.

Flora ducked back into the shadowy depths and tucked the fan back into place, and then she heaved the best version of a sigh she could manage, given the restriction of her corset. “What a waste of an evening,” she said as she slumped against the wall and closed her eyes.

“Agreed,” a deep voice responded. “Though I find the situation much improved over just a moment ago.”

Flora snapped open her eyes to see someone standing nearby. He wore the hotel-issued black mask, but there was no disguising the impertinent look in the dark-haired man’s gray-green eyes. He looked away just long enough to stash a peculiar-looking copper object in his jacket pocket.

The urge to tell him exactly how she felt about his cheeky behavior warred with the practicality of remaining silent. Neither appealed, so Flora decided to say a curt, “If you’ll excuse me,” and then make an escape.

“The window would be a better choice. That is, if you’re looking to avoid that woman.” The stranger peered through the foliage and then returned his attention to Flora. “Unless I miss my guess, that’s Mrs. Milburn Honeycutt of the Natchez Honeycutts. But apparently you knew that.”

She did. Just how he knew it gave Flora pause to wonder, but only for a moment. She straightened her spine and edged back into the shadows. “What makes you think I want to avoid anyone?”

His brow wrinkled. “You’re hiding behind a collection of potted palm trees. And though I would never claim to understand what goes on in a woman’s mind, I do have some experience in knowing when a person wants to hide.” The man’s gaze swept the length of her. “And you want to hide.”

Flora ignored him. Or rather she gave her best impression of it, for there truly was no ignoring a man with his presence, especially in such close quarters.

“The question is why,” he continued in a smooth-as-silk voice.

“Maybe I’m disappointed because I wanted to play chess, and all these people seem to want to do is dance.”

“An attempt at humor,” he said slowly. “Which is just another way of creating a diversion. Further proof that you have something to hide. But what?”

“It’s no business of yours, sir, I assure you,” she said as she looked beyond him to the window.

“When you arrived at my hiding place, it became my business.”

“Oh, really?” Flora returned her attention to the stranger. “That begs the question of why an invited guest might need a hiding place. And for that matter, I’d like to know what you tried to put away in your jacket pocket.”

A muscle in his jaw twitched. Nothing in his expression or his stance gave Flora cause to believe he might respond.

She decided to make light of his stern demeanor. “No, of course you would refuse to answer. So I’m left to guess.” She paused to brush a palm frond out of her way as she inched closer to the window. “I’d say you’re either waiting for a certain favored female or you’re some sort of spy. Which is it?”

Something in what she’d said must have struck a nerve, for he looked away. “That is much too heavy for you to lift,” was his odd response. “The window,” he added. “You appear to be trying to decide whether to open it.”

“Not the answer to my question... Oh, never mind. I truly do not care why you’re hiding behind the potted palms. Now, if you’ll excuse me.” She pressed past him to open the window, but though she was no weakling, it remained sealed tight.

On the other side of the palms, the waltz ended. While the guests clapped, Flora gave the window one more tug. Nothing.

Letting out a long breath, she turned around to face the man who stood between her and the way back into the ballroom. “You look strong enough, sir. Might I trouble you to see if you can do better?”

A smile rose slowly, and then came a nod. “I suppose I could do that. It helps if you unlock it first.” He reached to easily accomplish the task, and then he turned to regard her again. “You do understand we’re several floors up. Suggesting this exit was my attempt at humor.”

“Thank you.” She gave him her best smile. “And yes, I’m well aware of the height, though I much prefer the view from the belvedere on the roof above us. Have you seen it?”

“No, I’ve not had the pleasure.”

“You should really find the time to go up and take a look. It’s breathtaking.” Flora leaned out the window and heard his gasp behind her. “Unless you’re afraid of heights.” She cast a quick glance over her shoulder and found him once again watching her intently.

“Madam, in my line of work I’ve found little that gives me concern.” He gave her another sweeping glance. “You, however, just may be the exception.”

“And what line of work is that?” She arched a brow to emphasize the question. When he remained silent, she shrugged and then returned her attention to the glorious scene on the other side of the window.

The stars glittered as bright as the chandeliers behind her, and the moon washed the grounds below in a pale silver light. Beneath the window Flora spied a wide ledge that could easily accommodate two people walking side by side. The ledge wound around the side of the building to meet up with a balcony and a second set of doors that would allow her to return to the ballroom on the opposite side from where she’d spotted Mrs. Honey-cutt. From there it was a quick jaunt to the elevators.

She took a deep breath of pine-scented air and let it out slowly as she braced herself on the window frame. With care, she pivoted to place both feet on the ledge. Slowly she eased into a standing position. As she pressed against the building, a brisk wind lifted the edge of her skirt and then swirled up to tease at the back of her neck.

Suddenly the fourth floor seemed much higher than it had moments ago. A rail might have helped, as it had in Paris, but alas there was none.

For a moment Flora clutched the window frame. Then, with her eyes fixed on the path before her, she took a step.

The crazy woman was actually going to do it!

This was certainly not how Lucas McMinn had expected the evening to go. And now, thanks to the woman whose eyes matched the jewel at her throat, he would have to abandon his surveillance in the Pinkerton investigation that brought him to the Crescent Hotel in favor of saving a disguised debutante from herself.

He tossed his irritation aside and followed the vision in blue out onto the ledge, making sure the miniature listening device he’d only just sent off the patent for was safely tucked in his pocket.

The woman had taken two more steps before the paralyzing fear he’d expected of her kicked in. “Wait right there. I’m coming after you.”

“No, truly, I’m fine,” she said without turning around. “I practically grew up following my sister around places…well, nearly like this.”

“What are you, some kind of circus performer?” He stepped out onto the ledge just as she moved out of his reach.

“Hardly,” she said with a soft chuckle. “Though my sister and I certainly dreamed of such a thing as children.”

Before following the subject, Lucas paused to assess the situation. Out here the air was fresher and the breeze unexpectedly stiff. Staying close to the wall would not only be prudent, but it also would keep him from any unexpected wind gusts. Apparently she held no such scruples, for she had inched close to the edge and now stood with her back to the danger and her attention focused on the goings-on inside.

Light poured out of the windows, flanking the ballroom to slide across the woman’s high cheekbones and mass of coppery curls before spilling over the edge of the ledge and onto the lawn four floors below. Were he not in such a ridiculous predicament, Lucas might have stopped to admire her beauty.

Instead, he was forced to keep his mind on how he might bring her back indoors without causing harm to either of them. He had a fine filament rope in his hidden pocket and the spikes he’d worn last time he had to climb, but neither was likely to save both of them.

At least not at the same time.

Of course, he still had the one weapon that had seen him through many a tough spot. He’d been a man of prayer ever since he was dunked in the creek by the circuit-riding parson some ten years back. Tonight, however, Lucas petitioned the Lord as he never had before.

Wings would help, Lord, but until I’ve perfected a pair that works well enough, I’d settle for a good bit of patience and a nice patch of solid ground.At that moment, he stumbled on a crack in the ledge and had to grab for the wall.

“If it’s all the same to You, Lord, I would prefer to reach that ground under my own steam,” he muttered as he fought to catch his balance along with his breath. “And using the elevator.”

“What’s that?” The woman glanced his way. “Why are you following me?”

“I’ve nothing better to do.” He gestured to the far side of the building, now some thirty yards away. “How about we both head that way?”

But her attention had already gone back to the ballroom. Her fingers toyed with the bauble at her throat, and she appeared to be concentrating on something other than her own safety.

Lucas cautiously moved a few steps closer. “Is something going on in there?”

He spied Mrs. Honeycutt speaking with an older woman. Their conversation, while animated, did not appear to be worthy of deep interest, and yet his companion seemed unable to look away.

“Someone you know?” he asked gently. “Other than Mrs. Honeycutt?”

She nodded.

Apparently the daredevil was a woman of few words, for she offered nothing in the way of explanation. “All right,” he said. “We really ought to get back inside.”


Again Lucas fought the choice words biting at his tongue. The irony of two adults in ridiculous masks standing on a ledge four floors up hit him. What Pinkerton agent worth his badge would get into a predicament like this on what was supposed to be a simple reconnaissance mission?

He glanced up to gauge the distance and then reached into the special pocket in his jacket. Moving the hearing device aside, his fingers retrieved an ebony pipe.

“Please don’t smoke that near me.”

His attention was jerked back in her direction as he unscrewed the bowl from the pipe. Again he found her watching the pair of women instead of him.

“As you wish,” he said as the specially made bullet containing filament line dropped into his palm.

He returned the pipe to its place and pulled his climbing spikes out of a tobacco pouch he retrieved from another pocket. Then he took his revolver from his chest holster and removed the bullets from the chamber, replacing them with the one holding the filament line. Then the gun went back into its hiding place beneath his jacket within easy reach for the moment he might need it.

Lucas carefully knelt to fit the spikes into place along the soles of his boots. Rising, he said a quick prayer and then closed the distance between them.

She jolted at his sudden move and said with surprise, “Do you mind, sir? I’m rather busy here.”

“Busy doing what?” He could only surmise that she was still staring at the partygoers. “If you’re so interested in what’s going on inside, why don’t you let me escort you there? Then we can both get back to what we came to do.”

“That depends,” she said as she adjusted her mask. “If you were doing something illegal behind those palms, I’d rather not be associated with your return to the ballroom.”

“I assure you there’s nothing to fear.”

Her gaze moved down from his eyes until it rested on his feet. “There is if you insist on wearing those while we dance.”

Sunday, February 17, 2013

For Love of Eli by Loree Lough

For Love of Eli
Abingdon Press (February 1, 2013)
Loree Lough

Chapter 1 - Excerpt

Mothers’ Day Weekend at the Misty Wolf Inn Blacksburg, Virginia

Taylor stood at the bottom of the stairs and held her breath. It only seems like a hundred steps, she told herself.

As she planted her foot on the first tread, Eli whispered “You really goin’ up there this time?”
His hand, warm and small, fit perfectly into hers. “I’m seri­ously considering it,” she said, nodding.

The echo of his gasp floated up and disappeared around the first bend of the long, spiral staircase. “Can I come with you?”

She followed his line of vision to the half-door leading into the turret. It had been a source of fascination for him from the moment he’d moved into the Misty Wolf Inn, nearly a year ago.

“Please, Taylor? Please?”

Oh, how she loved the boy who reminded her so much of her brother! Peering into his trusting green eyes, Taylor wondered which excuse would work this time: it’s dirty and dusty up there. There are about a hundred ways you could hurt yourself. That big bare light bulb has probably burned out by now.

But Eli beat her to the punch.

“If you let me come with you,” he said, sandwiching her hand between his, “I promise to be careful and not touch anything without asking first. Promise.”

He’d been with her slightly more than a year now, and she could probably count on one hand the times she’d told him no. “Well,” she said, pointing at his bare toes, “but only if you put on your sneakers.”

He did a little jig, then fist-pumped the air. “You’re the best, best, best aunt a boy ever had!” He ran toward his room, stopping at the halfway point. “You won’t go up without me, right?”

“I’ll wait right here. Promise.” If she didn’t know better, Taylor would have said Eli’s smile had inspired the “face lit up like a Christmas tree” adage. Grinning to herself, she sat on the bottom step and said a silent prayer. Please don’t let me blubber like a baby—not in front of sweet Eli. He’d lost as many loved ones as she had, and certainly didn’t need to see her fall apart. Besides, if she allowed self-pity to distract her, even for a second, he could pick up a splinter, or trip on a loose board, or topple a stack of boxes. How would she explain that to his grumpy uncle?

The familiar sproing of a doorstop broke into her thoughts, followed by thuds and thumps that inspired a grin. She could almost picture Eli, tossing shoes and boots over his shoulders as he searched for his favorite sneakers. But so what if he made a mess in his own room? The last guest had checked out last evening, and she didn’t expect the next until Monday. Helping him re-tidy his closet was as good an excuse as any to give him her full, undivided attention.

He ran toward her, the soles of his shoes squeaking on the hardwood as he came to a quick stop.

“See?” he said, showing her one foot, then the other. “Shoes!”

“Yep,” she said, laughing, “shoes.” Not the bright red high-tops she’d bought as his reward for mastering the art of tying his own shoes, but a pair of his old Velcro-closure sneakers. That he’d chosen to save time by wearing them told Taylor just how excited he was about exploring the turret’s attic space.

“Well,” he said, snapping on the light switch, “are you ready?”

Ready as I’ll ever be, she thought as he darted up the stairs. She’d been putting this off far too long. It was long past time to face her past—the good memories and the sad ones too.

When she caught up with Eli, she found him grunting and grimacing as he wrapped both hands around the cut-glass doorknob. “It’s . . . it’s stuck.” Rubbing his palms together, both brows disappeared into blond bangs. “Or maybe it’s locked.”

Taylor hadn’t been much older than Eli when her grandfa­ther helped her hang the old skeleton key from the hook he’d hidden along the door jamb. She reached for it, then scooped Eli into her arms instead. “Quick, grab the key,” she ground out. “You’re heavier than you look!”

It took a second or two for him to wiggle it free, and when he did, Eli shouted “Got it!”

Taylor gave him a little squeeze before turning him loose.

Eli held it up to the light. “Never saw anything like this before.” One eye narrowed suspiciously, he looked up at Taylor. “You sure it’s a key?”

Down on one knee, she showed him how to insert it into the keyhole. “I’m sure.”

After a moment of wiggling and jiggling, the lock went clunk, startling Eli. “Whoa!” he said, giggling as he handed Taylor the key, “bet Tootie heard that all the way over at her place!”

He grabbed the doorknob again, but this time, his hand jerked back so quickly that she couldn’t help wondering if a chip in the glass had scratched him. Taylor was about to inspect his fingers when Eli said, “Is it okay if I open it, or do you want to?”

So, he’d been sincere about his promise not to touch anything without permission. Smiling, she said, “No, you do it.”

The old brass hinges squealed as the door swung into the hallway. “It’s kinda like the door on the Keebler elves’ hollow tree, isn’t it?”

“You know, you’re absolutely right!”

Hands on his knees and shaking his head, he stooped and peered into the darkness. “We can’t both fit through at the same time.”

Translation: I’m scared to go in first, but I want to be first to see what’s on the other side of this strange little door.

“I have an idea,” she said, taking his hand. “I’ll go in just far enough to turn on the light, and that way, we’ll both see what’s in there at the same time.”

“Good idea!”

Side by side, they ducked through the opening. Their entry stirred a thousand dust motes that danced like microscopic ballerinas on the beam of sunlight that poured in through the front-facing window.

“Wow,” Eli said, straightening. “Wow.”

She knew exactly how he felt. As a girl, she’d spent hun­dreds of hours here, spinning dreams when the sun was up, wishing on the stars when moonlight painted everything— especially that gigantic old steamer trunk—a strange and eerie shade of silver.

He turned in a slow circle. “Just look at all this stuff!” Then he noticed the rugged wood steps that led higher still in the turret, and pointed. “What’s up there?”

“Oh, just more stuff.” Taylor smiled, remembering how after Nonna’s stroke left her unable to sew, Grampa stacked boxes of material and spools of thread as high as his arms would allow.

“Lots more stuff.”

“Man-o-man-o-man. It’ll take days to see it all!”

Yes, it probably would—if she had any desire to rouse gloomy memories.
Eli flicked a wooden whirligig, and while giggling at its comical dance, blew the dust from a red metal fire truck. “Whoa. C-o-o-ol,” he said, picking it up. “Whose was it?”

“Careful, now,” she warned. “There are lots of sharp edges on toys that were manufactured way back when.” She held out her hand so that he could see the bright white scar in the web between her thumb and forefinger. “I got this playing with an old car that belonged to Grampa Hank’s dad.”

Nodding, he said, “I’ll be careful.” He touched the tarnished key on the side of the fire truck.

“What’s this thing do?”

“It makes the siren work. At least, it used to. It’s an antique, and nobody has played with it in years.”

He gave the key two quick cranks and grinned when the toy emitted a tinny, high-pitched wail. Down on his hands and knees, he rolled the truck back and forth. “Vroom-vroom!” he said, oblivious to the tracks its tires left in the dust.

Taylor knelt too—in front of the cedar hope chest that had lured her up here in the first place. A wedding gift from Taylor’s maternal great-great-grandparents to their only daughter, it had been handed down through the generations until, on Taylor’s sixteenth birthday, it became hers. For years, it stood at the foot of her bed, pestering her to look inside. Two days after hiring Isaac, she silenced the nagging by asking him to carry it to the turret.

And it had been here ever since. Would she have the cour­age today?

Eli put the truck back where he’d found it and went to the window. “Gosh,” he said, using the heel of his hand to rub dust from the bubbly glass, “you can see all the way to the creek from up here.”

“On a clear day,” she said, tracing a burl in the trunk’s rounded lid, “you can see even farther than that.”

“Bet Uncle Reece would love this place. Wonder what he’d say if he came up here and saw all this.”

Taylor harrumphed. No doubt he’d say something like, The boy should be outside, playing in the fresh air, instead of inhaling all this grit and grime. There are probably millions of dust mites up here, along with a hundred ways he could hurt himself!

With most people, Taylor gave people the benefit of the doubt. Why not Reece?

Maybe, she thought, because he acts more like a grumpy old codger than the thirty-something man he is.

But that wasn’t fair, and she knew it. Eli might as well be Reece’s only living relative after the way his parents treated him. It couldn’t have been easy, finding out the way he did, that his sister hadn’t named him Eli’s guardian.

She remembered that day in the lawyer’s office, when Reece’s expression went from stunned to angry to anguished as the attorney read the paragraph in Margo’s will that gave Taylor total control of the boy. The news had shocked and puzzled her, too. For one thing, she’d only known Margo since shortly before her marriage to Eliot. For another, Reece had changed his entire life to help out after Eliot was killed in Afghanistan.

Eli’s excited voice pulled Taylor’s attention back to the here and now. “Oh, wow,” he said from his perch on the window ledge, “I can see our horses! There’s Millie. And Alvin and Bert. And Elsie, too!” With each one he pointed out, Eli left a tiny fingerprint on the dusty glass. “And a whole bunch of deer. Taylor! Come see! There must be fifty of ’em!”

She loved how he called everything at the Misty Wolf “ours,” from the big house itself to the land surrounding it. Taylor went to him, and hugging him from behind, said, “That is a big herd, isn’t it! And you’re right . . . we can see the horses from up here.” It still amazed her that, almost from his first day here, he’d started referring to the Misty Wolf Inn as home. Even more astounding was how quickly he’d accepted the fact that his dad had been killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, and a car crash had taken his mom. Oh to have the pure, unquestioning faith of a child, she thought, thanking God for the green-eyed blessing who stood in the circle of her arms.

“Can we go riding later?”

“Maybe . . . if there’s time. It’s Friday, don’t forget.”

“Oh, yeah. I almost forgot. An Uncle Reece Friday.”

“Mmm-hmm.” Uncle Reece Fridays . . . her least favorite nights of the month.
“Can I call him, see if he can come get me a little early, and maybe go riding with us?”

“I don’t see why not. As my grandpa used to say ‘It never hurts to ask.’”

One of two things would happen when they got down­stairs: Eli would get busy doing little boy things and forget to make the call, or he’d get his uncle on the phone only to find out that Reece still had patients to see and wouldn’t be able to leave the office early.

Turning to face her, Eli looked up into Taylor’s face. “So what’s in the ugly ol’ trunk over there?” he asked, using his thumb as a pointer.

Taylor kissed the top of his head. “You know, I honestly have no idea.”

“Whose is it?”


“Whoa. No way. It’s yours, and you don’t know what’s in it!”

Smiling, Taylor shrugged. “ ’Fraid not.”

“But . . .” His eyes widened as he looked at the trunk. “Why not? Did somebody say you weren’t allowed to?”


“That you’d get in trouble for opening it?”

“No, nothing like that.”

Frowning, he said, “Then . . . then why haven’t you opened it!”

How could she explain to this bighearted boy—who’d lost both parents in less than a year’s time—that she didn’t have the guts to look at reminders of the people she’d lost?

“I don’t have a good reason.” In truth, Taylor didn’t have any reason.

“You know that’s just weird, don’t you?”

“Yes, yes, I suppose it is.”

Eli crossed both arms over his chest. “So, what do you think is in there?”

“Oh,” she said with a sigh, “probably just a bunch of old junk. A few things that belonged to my mom and dad, and to my grandparents, maybe even your dad.”
Eyes narrowed slightly, Eli said, “Oh. I get it. You don’t want to see all that stuff ’cause you’re afraid it will make you sad . . .”

“Well, I-I—”

“. . . and remind you how much you miss them, right?”
She pictured Eliot’s gap-toothed grin, her dad’s playful wink, her mom’s loving smile. “Right.”
He took her hand, gave it a little squeeze. “You know what I do when I miss my mom?”
Taylor didn’t know if she had the self-control to keep her tears at bay if he continued.

“I hug their pictures re-e-eal tight.”

“. . . because that’s all I have left of them,” Taylor finished. Stirrings of resentment swirled in her heart. She’d never forgive his mom for giving away everything that might have reminded Eli of her and his dad. Makes it real hard to believe your death was an accident, Margo, Taylor thought. But bitterness quickly gave way to a blush of shame as she realized what Eli was really telling her: you should be thanking God that you have these things to help you remember your loved ones.

“It’ll be okay,” he said, patting her hand. “I’ll be right here with you. Don’t worry, if you get sad, I’ll give you a hug.”

With that, Eli led her over to the trunk. “There’s nothing in there to be scared of,” he said, getting down on one knee. “There’s probably nothing in there but old lady underwear!”

He giggled at his little joke as Taylor marveled at the depth of his perceptiveness. “Bummer!” he said, tugging at the big padlock. “Did your grampa lock everything up?”

“Pretty much,” she admitted, picturing dead bolts on the tool shed and barn, the garage, and the slanting doors leading into the basement.

“Oh, cool!” Eli said, pointing at a tarnished skeleton key. It dangled from a yard-long strand of twine that had been tied around one of the trunk’s leather handles. “Must be something pretty good in there,” he said, inserting it into the keyhole.

Her heartbeat doubled when the latch went click because now, she couldn’t turn back. The sound bounced from sun-faded bureaus, threadbare chairs, framed photos, and fading portraits that stood like somber sentries against the turret’s curved walls.

Eli sat back on his heels. “Well?”

Taylor might have said, Well what? if she could have found her voice.

“You want me to open it, or are you gonna do it?”

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Daybreak by Shelley Shepard Gray

Avon Inspire; Original edition (February 12, 2013)
Shelley Shepard Gray

Chapter 1

The moment Viola Keim entered the main parlor of the Day- break Retirement Home, she heard her favorite resident call- ing her name.

“Viola, come here quick,” Mr. Swartz ordered. “I received another letter from Edward this mornin’.”

After straightening her black apron over her purple dress and smoothing a wayward strand of hair under her white kapp, Viola grabbed a carafe of coffee, and did as he bid. She tried to summon a smile. Atle Swartz adored his son. Noth- ing could make his day like a letter from Edward.

Unfortunately, Viola could think of a dozen other things she’d rather do than listen to more news from the wayward Ed Swartz. She privately thought Ed sounded like a jerk.

Mr. Swartz’s eyebrows clamped together as he glared at her. “What’s wrong with your feet? You’re walking so slow, you’d think they were cobbled together.”

“I’m holding a pot of coffee, Mr. Swartz,” she retorted. “I’ve no desire to spill it on the carpet or myself. Or you,” she added with a small smile as she filled his coffee cup.

“It would be a real shame if I stained the carpet. Or burned someone,” she said with a wink.

“You haven’t burned me yet, Viola.”

“There’s still time. I’ve only been working here six months,” she teased.

“Feels longer.”

It did, indeed. Six short months ago, after a series of in- terviews, she’d gotten the job as an assistant at Daybreak, a retirement home for the Mennonite and Amish in the com- munity. Right from the start she’d hit it off with the seventy- four-year-old gentleman. Though he was for the most part confined to a wheelchair, he had lots of energy and a biting wit. Somehow, he’d taken to teasing her, and she’d learned to give as good as she got.

Now she looked forward to visiting with him every day. Though, truth be told, she didn’t think he belonged there.

He was too young to be in a retirement home. In her opin- ion, all Atle Swartz needed was someone to look out for him every once in a while. To do a little cleaning, and to make sure he had his coffee and supper.

Actually, what he really needed was his son. After all, it was a child’s duty to look after his parents in their declin- ing years. Not be off gallivanting in the wilds of Central America.

Not that it was any of her business.

Taking a seat beside him, she poured herself a cup of coffee as well and pretended she was eager to hear every word the illustrious Ed Swartz wrote. “I can’t wait to hear what he has to say,” she lied. “What a wonderful-gut way to start my day.” When Atle narrowed his eyes over the rim of his cup, she felt her cheeks heat. Perhaps she had laid things on a bit thick. “Is the kaffi all right?”

Jah. It is fine. . . .” Carefully, he folded the letter smooth on the table in front of him. “Viola, are you certain you want to hear the letter? I’m beginning to get the feeling you don’t enjoy them all that much.”

Now she felt terrible. Sharing his only child’s letters wasthe highlight of Atle’s day, and she was ruining it by letting her personal feelings get in the way. “Of course I want to hear it, Mr. Swartz. I always enjoy sitting with you.” Now that was the God’s honest truth.

Two men sitting on a nearby couch cackled.

“You’d best watch it, Viola,” one of them called out, his smile broad over a graying beard.

“Atle’s going to read every single word of Ed’s letter. Might even read it twice, just to make sure you didn’t miss a single thing. You won’t be able to attend to anyone else for at least an hour.”

“I guess I’ll simply have to hope that you won’t need me anytime soon, Mr. Showalter,” she said sweetly, smiling when the men chuckled again.

The camaraderie she’d found with the residents of the retirement home brought joy to her heart. She loved working with the elderly folks in the area, loved feeling like she was making a difference in their lives.

“Girly, you ready to listen?” Two raps on the table with his knuckles brought her back to the present.

“Of course,” she replied mildly. Truly, one day she was going to tell him that she was twenty-two years old. Too old to be called “Girly.” “Ah, what does Edward have to say this time?”

After casting a sideways glance her way he cleared his throat and began. “Dear Daed, greetings from Nicaragua. As usual, the temperature is near ninety degrees, but my heart is warm from all the good works we’ve been doing. Not only have we given out a great amount of food and clothing lately, but we’ve also had some wonderful interactions with the children in the area. . . .”

As Mr. Swartz continued to read about Ed and his mission work, Viola tried to imagine what would possess a man to leave everything he knew and loved to attend to people so far away. Though of course he was doing many good things with the Christian Aid Ministries Association, there was much in Holmes County, Ohio, that he could focus on.

Most especially, his wonderful father.

As Atle continued to read, stopping every now and then to repeat what his son said—just to make sure Viola didn’t miss a single word—she felt her attention drift. Edward’s stories, while impressive and heartfelt, simply didn’t mean that much to her. Not when she had plenty of concerns right here in Berlin.

She couldn’t imagine walking away from her family, it was so tight-knit and demanding. At home, she was surrounded by all things familiar, and found comfort embracing traditions that had continued for many generations. Though her family was New Order Amish, not Old Order like many of the other Amish in the area, or Mennonite like some of the residents of the home, she’d found that her traditions and values weren’t any different from the folks she helped.

She was grateful for the many blessings God had graced her with. She’d grown up in a beautiful white house, part of the newest addition to their already sprawling property that had first been built in the 1920s. She was close to her grandparents, who lived in the dawdi haus behind them, and close to her parents, and to the few of her aunts and uncles who hadn’t moved far away.

She’d always gotten along fine with her brother Roman and her twin sister Elsie as well.
Of course, things would likely start changing soon. After all, she and her siblings were all of marriageable age. One day, she and Roman would get married and move on.
But no matter what happened, she intended to live close and continue to help Elsie. Her sister was always going to need a lot of help. Born with a degenerative eye disease, Elsie would need at least one of her siblings to look out for her for the rest of her life.

Just imagining the idea of leaving Elsie in the care of strangers made her heart clench.
Thank goodness neither she nor Roman was like Ed Swartz!

“. . . and so, Daed, I must let you go. The children are about to open their shoe boxes and I don’t want to miss a minute.”

That caught her attention. “Shoe boxes?” she blurted. “Why in the world does he need to hurry to open a shoe box?”

“It was Christmas, Viola,” Atle said with more than a touch of exaggerated patience. “Weren’t you listening?”


“There’s only one right answer, Viola!” Mr. Showalter called out. “Otherwise, you’ll be hearing that there letter again, mark my words.”

After giving her heckler a disapproving frown, she got to her feet. “Of course I was listening, Mr. Swartz. Once again, your son Edward seems to be having a mighty fulfilling and charitable life. I just was caught off guard by the mention of the shoe boxes. That’s all.”

But Atle didn’t buy her words for even a minute. “It was Christmas, Girly. This was his Christmas letter. Those boxes were from us! Our shoe-box ministry! Don’tcha remember?”

“Sorry. I had forgotten.” “I didn’t.”

With more patience than her parents would have ever guessed she had, she smiled tightly. “I’m sorry, Mr. Swartz.

It’s simply that, uh, I thought he would have been talking about something else by now. It is the middle of January, you know.”

“He’s far away. All the way in Nicaragua,” he said slowly. Pulling out the country’s name like she had trouble understanding things. “The letters take a long time to get here.”

Feeling her cheeks heat all over again, she tucked her chin. “Oh. Jah. I mean, yes, of course. Thank you for reading it to me.”

“But don’t you want to talk about the note? I’m sure you have questions. . . .”

The only question she ever had was “why?” As in why did Ed never ask his father how he was doing? As in why didn’t he ever come back to visit? Why didn’t he care enough to stay close to home?

But of course it was best to keep those things to herself. She didn’t want to hurt Mr. Swartz’s feelings. “The letter was so thoughtful, so detailed . . . I, um, I don’t have a single question. And I had better deliver more of this coffee before it all runs cold. You know that Mrs. Ames expects me to visit with several people this morning. Have a good day, now.”

The spark in his blue eyes faded. “You’re certain you can’t stay for a bit longer? I have some more news to share.”

Oh, he was lonely. It broke her heart. “I’m so sorry, I can’t stay today.” She just wasn’t up to hearing one more story about his perfect child. “I’ve got quite a bit to do before I leave this afternoon.”

“Well, all right, then. Have a good day, Viola.” “You too, Mr. Swartz.”

After topping off his cup, and refilling the other two men’s mugs, she rushed out of the room and went to the kitchen, where she put coffee and snacks on a tray for the ladies in the craft room. Balancing too much on the white wooden tray, she hurried out of the kitchen, turned left, and then headed toward the back of the building.

When two cups started to wobble, she abruptly stopped and set them to rights. Then rushed forward, and promptly ran into a man leaving the office.

When their bodies collided, the plastic bowls of snack mix fell to the ground. And the coffee carafe began to wobble.

“Watch out!” she said as she tried to gain control of the tray.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Redeeming Grace by Ward Tanneberg

Redeeming Grace
Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas;
1st edition (February 28, 2013)
Ward Tanneberg


Daufuskie Island, South Carolina

She dropped to her knees, oblivious to the shards of glass scattered about in the dark shadows. Each second passed like the chimes of a clock on the hour.

Unhurried. Sonorous. Deliberate. Adagio.

She stared down at her best friend, crumpled grotesquely on the flagstone terrace. Reaching out, she pressed trembling fingers against BJ's throat.

No response. Nothing.

BJ’s deep, round eyes, always dancing with fun and laughter―everything in life, a party―stared back at her now.

Interrupted. Empty. Lost. Caesura.


Beyond her touch.

Death sliced through the sultry night, like an arrow tipped with ice, plunging deep into her soul. Taking her breath away.

She could feel it.

She just couldn’t stop it!

Her mind refused to accept whatever was next. There was no next.

Not for BJ.

Not now. Not ever.

Oh my God, what have we done?

A shadowy figure flashed across her peripheral vision and loomed over her.

She looked up at a man she did not recognize. He had a gun.

Where had he come from?

The rancid taste of fish and sweets and too much alcohol exploded without warning. She leaned forward. Hands on flagstone. Gagging. Heaving. Wiping phlegm and saliva with her fingers. The stranger grasped her shoulder with one hand until the nausea passed.

“Stay right here,” he ordered, his voice hard and gruff. He turned away and disappeared around the corner of the house, calling to someone as he hurried out of sight.

How many of these people are there anyway?

Then the nausea returned a second time. She spewed another repulsive mixture of food and alcohol onto the flagstones.

Voices filtered through the broken window above her.

Words jarred her back to the moment.

What was it they were saying? She looked up at the window, incredulous.

This cannot be happening! She’s still up there. With them!


No answer.

She cried out again. “Ilene!”

“Go get her, and shut her up!”

Seconds later, she heard a door open and slam shut on the opposite side of the house.

The lump in her throat refused to go away.

He’s coming back!

Do something.

I don’t know … what can I do?

Save yourself.

Her heart pounded—a wild, erratic staccato, like that of a deer that senses the crosshairs of the hunter’s riflescope.

But I can’t leave her…Oh, God, how can this be happening?

A last despairing look at BJ’s lifeless form. The thought of Ilene…up there alone…with them.

Get away from this place. Run!

Scrambling to her feet, she turned to her left, stumbling as the sole of her high-heeled shoe slipped on broken glass. As soon as her hands and knees hit the flagstones, she was up again, running toward what looked to be a dirt path that led away from the house. With a desperate glance over her shoulder, she plunged headlong into the late night darkness, each step fueled by an incendiary mixture of panic and adrenaline.


A tsunami wave filled with fear and remorse swept her along the trail. There could be no stopping now. No turning back.


The path narrowed. Thorny brush stems lashed at her face, scratched her arms and legs, tearing at her dress as she flew past. A canopy of sugar pine closed over the path, making the darkness darker still, slowing her headlong flight. Eyes wide, hands extended in a vain attempt to split the darkness, she pushed deeper into the woods, straining to find her way.


A shout from the house. “She’s gone!”

“She can’t have gotten far. Go after her. Don’t let her get away!”

The second voice she recognized instantly.


Unnerved, disoriented, she groped her way along the path; her only sense that of heading into the island’s interior.

Where am I going?

No matter. Just keep moving.

Away from that nightmarish house!

At last she stopped, bending down to remove her shoes. She clutched them in one hand and pressed the other against her knees, sucking air, heart pounding as she strained to hear the inevitable.


At the sound, she bolted again, terrified. They were coming. She knew they would be. Getting closer. The words echoed in her ears. “Don’t let her get away!”

What's going to happen to me?

Frantic, she didn’t see the sharp bend in the trail until it was too late. Her ankle gave way as she plummeted head first off the path, sliding and rolling down a steep slope into a brushy thicket until coming to a sudden stop against the base of a tree. Stunned. Breathless. Unable to move.

Above her, amongst the trees along the trail, a light bobbed back and forth. She could see it. Someone was running. She could hear it. The light drew nearer. She could hear his heavy breathing. The footsteps slowed as they came closer to where she lay. And now she knew. Accepting the inevitable.

They’re going to kill me!