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."

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Promise to Keep by Elizabeth Younts

Promise to Keep
Howard Books (October 13, 2015)
Elizabeth Younts

Chapter 1

Chapter 1 of Promise to Keep


Sunrise, Delaware

A morning rain whispered a harmony of delicate drops against the second-story bedroom window. Esther Detweiler kept her eyes closed as she lengthened her legs and arms. Even as she stretched, dampness crawled through the cracks of the old house and wrapped around her like a shawl. A gentle nudging pushed her from the warped mattress, and she swung her feet onto the floor. The cool wooden planks were smooth and comforting. When she stood, the floorboard didn’t creak as it usually did. The house was perfectly still.

Her gaze landed on Daisy Garrison, the seven-year-old deaf English girl, who slept peacefully in the cot against the opposite wall in the same room. Esther had been caring for her deceased cousin’s child for four years. She was drawn to touch the girl’s silken cheek, but a sudden chill drew her attention away from the sleeping child.

She turned and her eyes landed on the embroidered wall hanging her mother had given her decades earlier as a Christtag gift. For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from Him. It was the last Christmas gift Esther received from her mother.

She shivered and pulled on her housecoat, then tiptoed down the staircase. At the bottom was Mammie Orpha’s bedroom. The door was cracked open. Orpha always kept her door open at night, saying it was welcoming to the heavenly beings. But something was different this morning. Was it too open? Or too quiet? She leaned a shoulder against the wall next to the door frame, her eyes squeezed shut. She should hear her mammie’s easy snore through the small gap, but all she heard was the warm breath of summer wrapped in the scent of freshly turned soil. She reopened her eyes.

With her fingertips splayed, she gently pushed the door. Even the usual creak was silenced. Esther stood in the doorway. In front of her, Orpha lay as still as a painting. A faint smile was cast over her lips as if she was dreaming something pleasant behind her closed eyelids. She looked happy. Losing her husband decades ago had set the stage for many losses and hardships for the past forty years. She had been like an Israelite wandering, only she never found her promised land. Maybe now, in death, she would.

Orpha’s hair, though disheveled the night before when Esther had bid her good night, was now perfectly combed and smooth, her night covering tied neatly around her soft-skinned chin. She’d taken the time to comb her long hair before she’d gone to bed. It occurred to Esther that Orpha had said good-bye last night instead of goodnight. Had she somehow known that she would pass into eternity while she slept?

The quilt neatly tucked around Orpha’s chest had been on her bed for decades. Esther eyed the simple pattern, rows of triangles forming squares. Together, they’d repaired many of the pattern pieces, salvaging her mother’s dresses to use as patches. She and Daisy had both learned to sew on the blanket.

A breath hiccupped in her throat and her hand clapped over her quivering mouth. She hated crying. Her heart drummed like the wooden mallet threshing harvested wheat, every beat aching more than the one before. Tears warmed her face and salted her lips. She heard a low groan just before she fell on this dearest of old women, a treasure that now was an empty vessel.

Orpha had been such a humble woman. A woman to follow after. Dedicated. Loyal. A mammie to everyone.

Esther wept, thankful to be alone. Loss burned within her, and her heart was heaped with ashes. Too many burdens to count. She’d faced death before, but when her mem and dat passed, the innocence of youth had cushioned her grief. Losing Orpha now was worse.

By lunchtime, the furniture in Esther’s house had been pushed aside and the rooms filled with rows of backless benches and mourners whose presence provided comfort to Esther. Daisy remained glued to Esther’s side, eyes wide, rosebud lips pursed, and hands mute. Orpha had never understood the little girl’s deafness, but they still had had a special relationship.

Funerals weren’t foreign to Esther. Life had come at her like an unbroken horse hitched to a buggy without a driver. Her father had left for the war in 1917 and had died as a conscientious objector in prison a year later. Her mother, Leah, gave up on living and died two years after that. Since Esther was only eight, the deacons had suggested that she go live with her other younger, healthier grandparents in Geauga County, Ohio. But that might as well have been another country, and Esther had refused. She would stay with Orpha. Stubbornness came as easily to her as pretending not to be hungry.

But those years had passed. A spinster at thirty-four, she and Orpha had made a life for themselves, and bringing Daisy into it had somehow completed their unusual family. It had been hard at times, and Daisy’s deafness compounded the difficulties, but having three generations in a home had given hope and some peace that Esther hadn’t realized she’d lost when her cousin Irene, Daisy’s mother, had passed away. Before her death she had been lost to her community and shunned for her marriage to an Englisher.

The scales had tipped again with Orpha’s death, and she knew what would happen next. Eventually Daisy’s father would come home from war, though they hadn’t received a letter from him in over a year when he explained he would be helping with reconstruction. A melancholy shadow in the shape of Joe Garrison hovered over her. While she never wanted harm to come to him, she didn’t like to think about his homecoming and taking Daisy away, especially now that Orpha was gone. Orpha’s death, however, made her consider when she may lose Daisy to Joe. And be alone.

“Dangeh,” Esther said as she shook an offered hand and attempted to refocus on her thoughts. Since there was no church service on the in-between Sunday, many people had already visited her. Esther found sympathetic, lingering, and mournful eyes as she greeted her visitors, though their tight grips tired her hands. She thanked another sober-faced, bearded man as the line of visitors finally ended. Then she stood in the doorway alone and watched as the Peterscheim family walked down the drive in a black, single-file row, like worker ants always well ordered and never idle.

Beyond the families dressed entirely in black, shades of English brightness appeared, parting the small crowd. Mrs. Norma White walked with such an air about her. As she passed, the entire Peterscheim family turned their heads and stared. The skirt of her neighbor’s peach-colored dress, tightly cinched about her waist with a belt, swished around her tan stockings. A small group of girls standing on the porch leaned their heads together, whispering.

“I brought a pie,” Mrs. White said as she entered the house. She looked around, never meeting Esther’s eyes, as she handed over a crumb-crusted apple pie. Esther had worked for Mrs. White at the neighboring farm since she was thirteen. Mrs. White was a strong-minded woman. She’d run the farm and raised her daughters after losing her husband in a farming accident. Mrs. White was a rigid and uncompromising employer, but she’d never used her husband’s death as an excuse to forsake living, the way Esther’s mother had. The woman’s grit had stirred Esther over the years not to give in to loss. Mrs. White hadn’t depended on anyone to rescue her from her circumstances and had risen to the occasion. She had run the farm on her own for many years, when many other women would have sold it and walked away.

When Esther had started working there, she’d seen Mrs. White in overalls doing men’s work. That was why she needed a housekeeper in the big farmhouse. That had been years ago, however, and although she still ran the farm, she now wore stylish dresses instead of overalls. She no longer needed to do the hard work herself, but the earlier years had taken their toll. It was rare that the woman didn’t wear dainty gloves. Esther understood why when she realized that the elegant woman had the hands of a hard-working man with gnarled knuckles and rough skin. Esther then understood why there was a bottle of skin cream in every room.

“Thank you.” She accepted the pie with both hands and set it down on the wooden countertop, along with the array of other goods. Esther had baked the pie herself only the previous day in Mrs. White’s modern oven, which she privately coveted. She gestured toward the small table in the center of the kitchen. “There’s coffee and water.”

“Oh, Esther. I’m so sorry, but I can’t stay. I’m already running behind.” Mrs. White smiled and slowly batted her eyelashes. “I have a prayer meeting at church tonight, and you know how I dislike tardiness. I would have been over sooner, but I had so much cleaning to do after church and dinner.” Mrs. White cleared her throat. “You understand, I’m sure.”

Esther inhaled as gently as possible. Making dinner for one could not have been of any consequence, and the farmhands served themselves on Sundays with food Esther had prepared ahead of time. Mrs. White wouldn’t have had to do more than perhaps sweep the kitchen or run a washcloth over her newly installed laminate countertops—in Lillypad Pearl, as Mrs. White called it. Esther considered it just plain green.

“Please accept my condolences,” Mrs. White offered as she patted Esther’s arm. Though her gloved hand was warm, a chill pressed through the thin black fabric of Esther’s sleeve and onto her skin. Mrs. White turned to leave, but returned a moment later. “Oh, will I see you tomorrow?”

Esther’s lips pinched, and a moment later she relaxed them, not wanting her employer to see her vexed.

“We have three-day wakes and then the funeral. I’m sorry, but I won’t be there until the day after the funeral.”

“And must you—” the English woman began.

“I can send a cousin’s wife in my place. Dorothy,” Esther suggested, keeping her voice steady. “Dorothy is one of the women on the food delivery route—she could use the extra money. You will be pleased with her.”

One of Norma White’s thin eyebrows pushed up toward her hairline. Several moments of silence passed between the two women before the elder nodded curtly.

“Send her over in the morning, and I’ll handle it from there.”

Esther watched through the kitchen window as her neighbor tiptoed across the road to keep her pumps from pressing through the damp gravel. In less than a minute, Mrs. White was behind her picket-fenced, colorful existence, leaving behind Esther’s plain life in shades of black and white.

As Daisy slipped around behind Esther, her left arm curled around the little girl’s shoulders. She squeezed three times, their special way of saying I love you. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been told the same sentiment by anyone but Daisy, and the gesture was as intimate as she’d ever been with another person.

“Sellah hooheh frau realleh meint sie sahvet,” Lucy, Esther’s aunt and Daisy’s grandmother, said in a low voice.

Esther wondered how long the older woman had been standing there. She nodded in agreement that the English woman did think very highly of herself. But hadn’t Esther herself learned to stand taller and stronger because of the high-and-mighty woman?

“Are you sure you need to work for her?” Aunt Lucy whispered candidly.

Esther sighed. “Where else can I work?” She and Aunt Lucy stepped in front of the sink and washed out water cups to put out again. “Now that most of the men are back from the war, many of the factory women are out of their jobs. I know not all of them will keep working, but either way, housekeepers are a dime a dozen right now.”

“You could teach. Our school needs a good teacher. If you don’t do it, then it’ll probably be that silly girl Matilda Miller from the district over. She’s a fright.”

“I am not a teacher.” Esther raised an eyebrow at her aunt.

There would never be enough support or approval within the Amish leadership for that to happen anyway. Esther had far too many unusual circumstances to make her a good example to kinnah. Although she strived to follow the church’s standards as laid out in the Ordnung, she was still an orphaned unmarried woman raising a deaf English child.

“Maybe not, but you sure have taught Daisy.” Aunt Lucy patted her granddaughter’s kapp. Daisy smiled at her mammie before burying her face in her guardian’s long black skirt. Lucy sighed. “She looks so much like Irene did at that age. You’ve been very good for her.” An expression of loss and hurt cascaded over the elderly woman’s face. She swallowed hard and looked away from Esther and through the window.

Esther patted Lucy’s hands. They both knew Lucy would have liked to have taken Daisy when Joe joined the Marines after Irene’s death, but she didn’t know—no one knew—how much additional work it would take to raise a child like Daisy.

What Esther had never told Lucy was that Irene had pleaded with her that if something ever were to happen to her, she wanted Esther to help Joe with Daisy. Irene made Esther promise. Joe admitted to Esther that Irene had made him make the same promise. Somehow she sensed it, he said. She could hear his words engraved in her memory. She said you would love Daisy like your own and take care of her in a way that her parents never could. She made me promise.

Lucy, however, insisted so passionately that she wanted to care for her granddaughter herself that Joe allowed his mother-in-law to keep her overnight before he shipped out. It didn’t take long for Lucy to see that Daisy needed a great deal of attention—more than she could give—and finally agreed that Esther was a better match.

Esther gazed out the window, reminiscing. Her eyes landed on the harmonica that lay on the kitchen windowsill. It had been her father’s. When he left, he told her to keep it and said that someday, when he came back, he’d teach her to play. He’d never returned. Orpha’s death compounded on all the former ones.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Lightning by Bonnie S. Calhoun

Revell (October 6, 2015)
Bonnie S. Calhoun

Chapter 1

Day 1

A clipped sound echoed along the cavernous street as Selah Rishon raised her foot onto a stone bench. She jerked her head up to glance around the abandoned streetscape.

A groan bounced from the building facades.

Eyeing the landscape cautiously, she secured her dark mop of unruly curls that sorely needed a visit from Mother’s shears and finished tightening her exercise shoe. She stretched her calf muscle. Time to get this done before the sunrise and hot temperatures took over.

She switched feet, tightened her other shoe, and stretched again as she squinted into the soft rays of the morning sun trying to climb over the horizon. Dramatic shadows sliced across the ancient brick buildings creating elongated, one-dimensional fright-men. She shuddered and pushed off on a slow jog down the broken, weed-congested street. A shadow slid to the edge of the surrounding darkness in a doorway two building cavities away on her side of the street.

Selah stopped. Her chest constricted as her heart rate ticked up, pushing starbursts into her vision. She squinted at the different shades of black, attempting to distinguish a face among the sprinkled flashes. She deciphered the outline of a short club protruding from an overly thick hand, probably gloved. Her mouth went dry. She sniffed at the air. She could almost distinguish his smell. Sweat and vegetation mixed with musk and dirt. A male.

The black-clad figure separated from the darkness and lunged onto the uneven sidewalk. She inhaled to draw in calm and studied the shape and posture of the figure. A little taller than her five foot six. Broad at the shoulders, rectangular stance between legs and hips. Yes, it had to be a man.

Her heart pounded a staccato rhythm against her rib cage, drowning out her thoughts. Control your breathing.

She turned to run the other way. Adrenaline surged, prickling up the back of her neck and across her scalp. A movement whispered in front of her.

A second figure emerged from one of the numerous doorways, blocking her retreat.

How did she miss him? Not paying attention could get her hurt.

She pivoted and her back faced the street. No! Bad move. Another attack angle unprotected. She spun, positioning her back against the building. One assailant stood to her left, the other approached from the right. If she let them get close at the same time, she’d be done. Her legs trembled. She steeled herself for an attack.

A squeak. An audible click. The man to her left flicked open an auto-blade. He brandished the knife and lunged. Selah jerked her wrist up to block the attack but overswung. Her hand accidentally connected with her own chin and she bit her lip. The taste of copper heightened her senses. Selah balled her fists tight to her chest and thrust out her left leg, planting her foot in his stomach.

He doubled over as air expelled from his lungs with a grunt. The knife flew from his hand and skittered across the broken street surface. He scrambled for the weapon. Selah bounced to a defensive stance. Pivoting her hip up, she kicked out to the side with her right leg, connecting with his chest. He collapsed to the road, gasping.

Emboldened that she hadn’t suffered a blow, she bolted in the other man’s direction. He raised his club and she assumed a fighting posture. He swung. She blocked the downward motion of his left wrist with an upward thrust of her right forearm. It rocked her core, stinging her arm. An adrenaline rush absorbed the pain.

His right fist jabbed at her head. She pulled to the right side. Her left leg shot out in a low kick and connected with the outside of his knee, knocking him off balance. As he started to fold, she maneuvered a hefty jab and shoved her fist into his nose.

Spittle flew from his mouth.

The man grabbed his face. “My nose! Why, you—” He cursed and released the club. It clattered to the ground.

She sprinted down the street, crossing to the other side. Her core buzzed with the electricity of rapid-fire movements and precision strokes. Her speed felt fluid and natural.

Pay attention. Focus. Focus, she recited until her breathing leveled off.

Stinging. She shook her hand, blew on her fingers, and examined them. Tiny smears of blood dotted the back of her hand. She had skinned two knuckles.

White AirStream at three o’clock. Someone in the pilot’s seat.

This time she wasn’t taking chances. She dodged behind a tree and used the street-side refuse container to hide her advance. She sprang from the hiding place, ran to the AirStream, and crept along its length to the front. With her back against the sleek side, she reached across her chest with her left arm and snatched the occupant out by his tunic. As his torso exited the cockpit, she jammed her right hand into the space between his left arm socket and shoulder blade. She felt his shoulder separate and he howled in pain.

Lowering his center of gravity to throw him off balance, she drove his face into the narrow grassy strip at the edge of the sidewalk and planted her knee on the back of his neck.

“All right, all right! I’m down!” With his plea muffled by the grass, the man fell limp.

“Okay, Selah,” boomed the speaker mounted high on the side of a nearby building. “Your session is done, and by the looks of it, so are my men.” Taraji, the head of TicCity security, chuckled over the intercom.

Selah looked up at the tiny visi-unit mounted on the street illuminator and smiled. “Okay, Taraji. I think I may have broken Arann’s nose. He zigged when he should have zagged. And Hex needs to lubricate his auto-blade. His prop has a serious squeak.” She looked down the street and assessed her friendly victims.

Arann, still holding his nose, raised his hand in a thumbs-up. Selah waved and jogged back to the training zone entrance.

A black-clad form dropped in front of her. Selah recoiled as the hooded figure crouched like a jumping spider and charged. She blocked the charge and spun to the right, executing a roundhouse sweep. The figure jumped her leg and came in with fists flying. The two of them parried back and forth, blow for blow, slice for slice. Selah’s comfort level with the defensive moves increased with her added speed and confidence.

A smile pulled at the corners of her lips. She felt exhilarated.

The spider figure lunged, rolled, and swept Selah’s feet from under her with one fell swoop. Selah landed on her back with a grunt as the air rushed from her lungs. The figure scrambled over her and pressed a glove-covered fist to Selah’s throat.

Selah raised open palms. “Augh! I surrender.”

The black-clad spider figure ripped off its hood. Taraji grinned at Selah. “Never let an opponent see your level of confidence because they will use it against you every time.”

“I really thought I had you.” Selah shook her head.

Taraji held out a hand and yanked Selah to her feet. “You would have, if you hadn’t stopped to grin at me. It made for a perfect break in your concentration. But your increased speed is phenomenal. You’re ready to move to the next level of training.”

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Firefly Summer by Kathleen Y'Barbo

Firefly Summer
Redbud Press (June 23, 2015)
Kathleen Y'Barbo


"Next rider in the College National Finals is our oldest in the competition today. He's almost finished with medical school, but first he's got to finish this ride. Give Trey Brown a hand, ladies and gentlemen!"

Sessa Lee Chambers shifted in her seat to watch her five-year-old son stand in rapt attention watching the cowboys in gate seven move in perfect synchronization. One held the gate, one held the rope, and another sat astride a bronc that looked as if it would easily take the rider's head off if given the opportunity. A fourth man spoke energetically into the rider's ear, his words lost on the cheering crowd inside the Sam Houston Arena.

Her attention shifted back to Ross. Was that…a smile?

"Come on, cowboy," Ross shouted over the din as his lifted his little red cowboy hat to mimic the others now crowding the gate. "You can do it!"

Clutching her throat, Sessa fought back the tears that were already blurring her vision. Ross hadn't smiled or spoken a word since his father died nearly one month ago. Taking him to the rodeo had been Ross's grandfather's idea. Get him outside. Expose him to some good old-fashioned commotion. Let him pet a horse or two.

That last one was the most difficult of all. Just last week, her dwindling finances had caused her to sell the last of Ben's beloved horses to an old friend who lived south of town. Bud Jones would take good care of them, this she knew. What she hadn't known was how heartbroken Ross would be at their loss.

Of course, because she was too far gone in her grief to see anything, it had been Daddy who'd pointed out Ross's sadness. And not very nicely.

But he was right. And she had to do better.

The gate opened just a few feet away from them, and the horse bucked out, jarring her thoughts. The rider bounced with legs out and hat flying, but he held on until the buzzer sounded.

"Now that was a ride, wasn't it folks? Hard to believe he's thirty one!" The speakers blared with the announcer's excitement. "Good job, cowboy!"

Funny. The man striding victoriously across the arena was two years older than she. Her memories of college were brief and dimmed by time and distance. One semester was all she'd gone, but she'd somehow managed to meet Ben Chambers, marry him, and forget all about any ideas of pursuing higher education. Looking back, it was the worst decision of her life. Then she looked at Ross and realized that decision had been the best.

Ross waved his hat like the others standing at the gate. "Good job, cowboy!" he echoed.

He was still waving the hat when the long-legged cowboy ambled by. "Good job, cowboy," he repeated.

To Sessa's astonishment, the cowboy stalled right there and knelt down to get eye-to-eye with Ross. She couldn't hear what transpired over the noise of the crowd, but a moment later, one of the other men was handing the cowboy a pen.

Ross ran toward her as fast as his little legs could carry him. "Look, Mama!" he shouted. "The cowboy signed his name on my hat! He said someday I could be a cowboy just like him!"

"Hold on there, cowpoke."

Sessa looked up to see the sandy-haired cowboy once again kneel beside Ross. "I said you could be a cowboy like me, but only if you study hard and keep your grades up so you can get into college. Oh, and be sure and listen to your mama."

He looked over Ross's head to offer Sessa a wink.

Through the haze of numbness, she felt a twinge of…something. Attraction, maybe. Unwelcome as it was. She let her gaze drop to her son, avoiding further eye contact with the cowboy.

Oblivious, Ross beamed up at the man, one hand clapped to the hat on his head, steadying it. "I will," he said. "I promise."

The cowboy straightened Ross's hat and then stuck his hand out to offer the child a firm handshake. "I have a feeling I'm going to see you again someday," he told Ross as he rose.

"Me too!" Ross said with a broad grin.

He wore his grin, and that cowboy hat, all the way home. Even as he fell into a deep slumber in his bed, Ross still bore the traces of that smile.

And of course he wore the hat.


Fifteen years later

Venting her frustration, Sessa fashioned a block of the finest ash into the shape of a lion's nose then moved to the table where the next task awaited—carving a replacement ribbon for a century-old prancing carousel horse.

Every satisfying jab of the chisel had chipped away at another piece of her resentment until exhaustion, and the completion of the piece, forced her to quit. Still the aggravation teased at her, daring her to forget her belief in the Lord's plans in favor of believing He was out to get her.

He had to be.

She set the well-used carving tool in its place and shook her head to remove the sawdust from her hair. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed the thick file of papers neatly packaged for mailing.

Today of all days, she should be on top of the world. Unlike some of her smaller commissions, the pieces strewn across her workspace could soon be replaced by several dozen intended for use in the Smithsonian's traveling carousel display. After years of careful planning and despite the death of its founder fifteen years ago, Chambers Carousel Restorations had a real shot at hitting the big time.

Her husband, rest his soul, would have been so proud. On the other hand, their son Ross would be unimpressed. What a cruel irony that she and Ben had worked to build something to pass on to the next generation, only to find their only child entertained no interest in the family business.

If only Ben had lived to help raise him. Maybe Ross would have been the man she hoped he'd become.

But then, Sessa could spend hours thinking about what might have been. Instead she chose to live in the present, only thinking of her prodigal on carefully chosen occasions. She went back to her work only to find her control had slipped.

It happened more often these days. Sometimes a glance at her son's baby pictures would bring a memory to mind, while other times it would be the sound of laughter from a child on a radio commercial or the photograph of a dark-haired boy in the newspaper. Other times her longings might stem from a conversation between herself and her mother, some snippet of a past memory that would turn happy then stab her in the heart. Then there was the red cowboy hat on the shelf in his room, faded by time and dusty from her own inability to spend much time in a place where memories hung deeper than morning fog, that hat gave rise to the best memory of Ross she had.

The day he spoke. The day some stranger turned a boy from inward to outward. To horses and riding and rodeo. She smiled and batted at the dust motes dancing in the sunshine.

Remembering Ross as the baby, the child, and the young man prevented her from thinking of him as the adult he had become. The adult she barely knew and hardly recognized.

How long had it been since she'd seen him? The months had stretched long and distant until nearly a year had gone by since his last visit. Even then, he'd been someone she loved but did not like. It shamed her to think of how relieved she'd been when he'd left.

And now this. An impossible situation with no good solution.

Her smile faded. This.

A litany of if only's assaulted her, and she covered her ears to stop them. When they'd finally quieted, Sessa reached for the next piece, a delicate rabbit's ear made of maple.

Wood shavings littered the floor of her studio, and a fine dust danced in the rays of morning sun. Seemed she might never come to terms with the guilt plaguing her.

"Guilt is not of the Lord." She reached for a piece of cheesecloth and gave the prancing horse's nose a thorough cleaning. "You're doing the right thing. There's absolutely no proof."

But the right thing seemed so wrong. And the proof was in those eyes. In the dimple in that tiny chin. In that bawl that sounded as if it came all the way up from those tiny toes.

Her cell phone mocked her, daring her to do what she knew she should, and even as she made a swipe for it, she felt the pain of doubt. "Lord, I can't," sprung to her lips in a desperate plea. "I'm too old, too busy, too… You're the one who made me, so you know how terrible I am at doing more than one thing at a time. Surely you understand."

The clock over the door read exactly eleven-thirty. One hour from now the decision would be taken away from her; it would be done. All she had to do was wait it out.

Cradling the phone in her hand, she blew a fine film of dust off its black surface only to watch the particles settle on the envelope. All her dreams, the hope for a secure future, lay beneath the dust of shattered plans. Somehow, with the Lord's guidance, she could make new plans, find new dreams.

Slowly she punched in the number she'd been given last night, a number she tried to forget yet couldn't help but remember. An eternity later, the phone rang. Sessa cleared her throat and said a prayer for guidance then found her voice when a young woman answered the phone.

"I'll meet you at the bus station." Sessa hung up before she could take back the words. "I did what I should have, didn't I, Lord?"

Even as she spoke, she knew the answer. "I can do all things through Christ," she said on an exhale of breath, "who gives me strength."

"Well amen to that!"


Sessa heard high heels clicking on the concrete and knew the cavalry approached. What was it about her best friend that brought her running at the first sign of trouble, even when she had not yet been told about the trouble?

To the untrained eye, Cozette "Coco" Smith-Sutton hadn't aged a day since she reigned supreme as Sugar Pine High's head cheerleader and then married the quarterback—after he successfully completed his college career at Texas A&M and made it into the pros, of course. The fact that she'd also held the titles of Homecoming Queen, Cotton and Corn Princess, Miss Sugar Pine (twice!), and fourth runner up to Miss Texas should have disqualified her as friend material for a woman who would rather read or spend time in her father's workshop than just about anything else.

And yet Sessa and Coco, who began life together as babies in the church nursery, had defied the odds to remain closer than sisters all these years. Coco had been her rock when Ben's delivery truck rolled off the highway that icy night so long ago, had tucked Ross into bed at her place alongside her boys on nights when Sessa's work kept her in the workshop because not working would have seen the electricity turned off or the mortgage not paid.

In turn, Sessa had brought casseroles and fended off well-meaning church ladies when Coco's mama died and her daddy suddenly became the most eligible bachelor in the Over-Sixty Seekers Sunday School class. She'd also held Coco up through the long dark days and nights after media darling and NFL quarterback Ryan "The Rocket" Sutton, the man that ESPN called unstoppable, stopped loving perfect Coco and her boys and took up with a twenty-something stripper from Fort Worth.

Oh, they fought. For all her sweetness, Coco could go sour fast if she found out you were doing one of the three things she detested most: hiding something she thought she ought to know, telling a lie, or messing with Texas.

"I'm out in the workshop," Sessa called as she tossed off her gloves and swiped at the sawdust in her hair.

"Well of course you are," she said. "I was just heading to the grocery store and thought I'd see if you needed anything."

Today Coco had poured her long lean legs into white jeans, thrown a turquoise top over them, and finished the ensemble with matching turquoise high heel sandals. While Sessa's hair was moderately tamed in a messy bun, Coco's artfully created blonde ponytail looked as if it had been styled in an exclusive Hollywood salon instead by Vonnette over at the Hairport.

She dropped her keys into her signature oversized designer purse, this one the same color as her heels, and removed the sunglasses that hid her perfectly made up face. A dozen silver bracelets jangled as she rested her hand on her hip.

"Honey, you look like something the cat drug in. What's wrong?"

Right to the point. Typical Coco.

"I've been better." Sessa tossed off her gloves.

Coco's green eyes opened wide. "What has Ross done now?" She continued walking toward Sessa. "No, do not answer until I can get you inside and pour you a cup of coffee. You look like you need something stronger than that, though. A pity neither of us drinks."

"Coffee won't fix this."

"Don't be silly. Coffee fixes…wait—" Coco shook her head. "This is really bad, isn't it?"