THE CONSUMMATE TRAITOR by Bonnie Toews

TRILOGY OF TREASON SERIES

BOOK ONE

THE CONSUMMATE TRAITOR

Whistler House Publishing

ISBN-10: 1461015383

ISBN-13: 978-1461015383

May 21, 2011

Trade Paperback

Kindle E-Book

ASIN: B0056IXE6I

Audio enabled on Kindle devices

 

WORLD WAR II ESPIONAGE/DRAMATIC SUSPENSE

In a chain reaction of double crosses, two women stand

in the way of a nuclear disaster.

 

READERS’ GROUP GUIDE

1. How does the author set up the plot?

2. What role does music play through the story?

3. Which Bible verse does Grace quote the most to Lee? Why?

4. Why does Grace not try to convert Lee to her Christian faith?

5. What happens to Grace that makes her question her faith and God?

6. What historical event brought the two women together? How did it affect them?

How did if affect you, the reader?

7. Why are Lady Grace and the SS officer instantly drawn to each other?

8. How does Erich von Lohren regain his faith in God?

9. Why is Lee so starved for love? How does this affect her relationships with other people?

10. Since Lee does not have Grace’s faith, what sustains Lee through the dark days of her interrogation and torture?

11. Why is the horse such a significant symbol throughout the story?

12. How does the author show God’s forgiveness in the story?

13. If Lee was your friend, how would you try to overcome her distrust of religion and her disillusionment in God?

14. How does the author show the public’s reaction to people who have endured wartime trauma?

15. What happened to the traitor that shaped his ultimate betrayal? Why did he still feel justified in the end?

 

LEARN MORE ABOUT THE TRUE EVENTS

THAT INSPIRED THE STORY

 

Historically, the agent “Trudi” really was a second cousin to King George VI. According to Churchill’s master spy, “Intrepid,” she was dropped into Denmark, betrayed to the Gestapo, captured, tortured and presumed dead, though her body was never found at the Copenhagen prison. At the end of the war, SOE listed her as missing in action (MIA).

 

In creating the story for my novel, I did not set out to trace the actual royal lineage and background of “Trudi,” but in speaking with a British movie producer who is also intrigued with what happened to the real Trudi, we have both focused on the same royal lineage in Norway. He believes Trudi lived in northern Germany or Denmark and spied for the British at length on Hitler’s Penemunde rocket site. William Stevenson mentioned to an interviewer that William Stephenson (Intrepid) regretted mentioning her existence to him in his biography of Churchill’s spy master. That is why any information about Trudi is so sketchy.

 

So, I worked on the premise, “What if she survived? What would her story be?” From that scenario developed the sisters-in-spirit between Grace and Lee, and their characterizations, together with the other major players in THE CONSUMMATE TRAITOR, are purely fictional.

CHAPTER ONE

 

When you think of the long and gloomy history of man, you will find more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion. —C. P. Snow

 

PROLOGUE

 

Monday, April 26th, 1937

Distant droning roiled across the mountaintops. The engine’s thrum blended with the faint babbling that echoed skyward from the small town tucked in the foothills of the valley below her.

 

Lee Talbot held out her sketch at arm’s length and studied it. Everything around her dissolved as she focused on each line and curve.

Something was missing. She looked up and squinted. Her gaze settled on the highest peak stabbing the sky above the Pyrenees Mountains. Ah. A very important detail. With her charcoal pencil, she outlined puffs of white snow capping the brow of the ancient Mont San Miguel.

 

There, that’s better.

 

This morning, Quinn Bergin, another war correspondent like her, had chosen this escarpment for its magnificent view of Guernica. He encouraged her drawing and had left her on the mountainside in northern Spain for a day of respite.

 

Often, in Madrid, she had pulled out her sketch pad to capture the civil war’s worst moments. But here, the mountains protected the local Basques. They still followed their original customs. Like them, she didn’t believe this valley could be breached. She felt safe and had not rushed her drawing.

 

Her attention shifted.

Even this far up the mountainside, she could make out the buzz of townspeople bartering over produce and crafts.

 

When she arose at dawn, she had listened from the window of her hotel room to the clip-clop of horses’ hooves over the cobblestone streets and watched farmers from the surrounding hillsides haul their loaded carts to the market square just in front of her hotel. There, they set up stalls. Now, their far-off natter combined with the nearby bleats of sheep and birds’ chirping washed over her like healing springs. She relaxed, for the first time in months.

 

Wafts of smoke drifted windward from the chimneys of cottages that dappled the countryside. She sniffed and imagined bread baking inside their brick ovens. Her stomach gurgled. The thought of fresh bread smothered in creamy butter reminded her she had forgotten to eat. Where’s Quinn? He had promised to bring lunch. She glanced at her wristwatch. Four-thirty. Time to return to the hotel.

 

Again she examined her sketch before she scribbled on the lower right-hand corner: Monday, April 26, 1937. GUERNICA.

 

A deep-throated roar sprang from behind her. Startled, Lee jumped to her feet and spun around. She knew that sound. A twin-engine aircraft. Cupping both hands over her eyes, she strained to see against the sun’s glare in search of the intruder.

 

Vibrating air whipped from above, pinning her feet to the ground. She raised and pressed the palms of her hands upward against the slipstream. Her neck arched backward and her gaze froze on the underbelly of a twin-engine bomber. For a split second, the German Dornier Do 17 hung as if suspended overhead, engines whistling in her ears, before it swept screaming down the valley and veered onto a south-to-north track barely above the trees. The plane cast the shadow of an eerie cross rippling over the Rio Mundaca, which wound along the valley floor toward Guernica and the town’s streets rising from the river’s shore.

 

The bomber banked and then circled back, its nose aimed at her heart in a game of chicken between the pilot and Lee on the outcrop. She stood mesmerized. At the last moment, she ducked as the Dornier rocketed over her head towards the towering peaks behind her. She turned in time to watch it vanish.

 

Lee gasped, dumbfounded. Had she imagined it? Did she see darts pinned in racks under the bomber’s wings? Only this morning Quinn had told her about an incendiary bomb the Nazis had developed. It could produce massive fires wherever it landed, but he had no idea what the new bomb looked like. Could the cone-shaped canisters the Dornier carried under its wings be test incendiaries?

 

The thought chilled her. Maybe the pilot was looking for a place to drop them because the Nazis were forbidden to test such weapons on German soil. Though the Treaty of Versailles banned Germany from ever arming again after World War I, Hitler now manufactured the most advanced weapons in the world. Who would care about his testing bombs in a civil war the League of Nations ignored?

 

But this was Basque country. As yet, the Basques had not joined the Republican government to quell the Fascists even though the Republicans had finally granted them home rule. There was no reason the German Luftwaffe should be flying over Guernica.

 

Lee had to find a phone and report long distance about her sighting to Collier’s Weekly, Ohio’s Springfield-based magazine that specialized in investigative journalism. This time she would scoop Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, whose co-authored features stateside were attracting “freedom” lovers, Marxists and anarchists to join the International Brigade in their support of the Republicans in Spain.

But it was George Orwell who made her life miserable. He not only filed stories from the front line, he also joined in the fighting against Franco’s Nationalist uprising. How could she beat that kind of real-life writing? It dwarfed her sideline observations in her weekly column. Sighting the German bomber now gave her a chance to show her editor that she was as good an investigator as his star war correspondents.

 

Lee jammed the sketch pad and charcoal pencil into her shoulder bag, flung its straps over her head and looped the bag behind her back. As she scrambled down the steep slope, she tripped and sprawled on all fours. Cursing, she pulled her skirt under herself and slid down the rest of the way to her bicycle waiting by the roadside. No sooner had she yanked the bike upright than she heard the warning rumble again.

 

She checked the sky behind her. There, the same bomber slipped over the southern ridge further west. Her eyes followed its route. It took the same northern heading above the Mundaca River, but higher. Maybe four thousand feet. Fear knotted her stomach. Something dreadful was about to happen.

 

Lee ran the bike down the road before mounting it and pedaled off. At the S-turn, she misjudged the sharp angle and almost lost her balance. The bike skidded on the rim of the front wheel before she righted it. For a split second, it wobbled. She regained control and carried on cycling downhill, dangerously careening from side to side at breakneck speed.

 

Her mind raced in sync with her pedaling. She had met Quinn Bergin in Madrid and immediately liked him, because, unlike most newsmen who continually made passes, he didn’t. Instead, he invited her to join him on a trip to Guernica to study the Basques. She would never have gone alone because her Spanish was too awkward, and the Basques didn’t speak English. So Quinn acted as her Spanish translator. According to him, in Spain’s Civil War, if the rebel Fascists under Francesco Franco were to defeat the Madrid government, they had to beat the Basques first. The question for him was: How vulnerable were they to attack?

 

This morning, anticipating war strategies was her last concern. When Quinn selected the spot where she could enjoy the best view of the valley for her sketching, she thought he might join her for a picnic and suggested he bring back a boxed lunch from the hotel. He agreed but never returned. What held him up? Where was he? She pedaled faster.

 

POP! Pop-Pop! The sounds echoed up the hillside like fire crackers exploding one after the other, while green fluorescent flares splintered upward from the valley below. Recklessly jamming on her brakes, Lee locked the wheels and nearly flew over the handlebars.  Pop! Pop-pop pop! The strange eruptions continued. She jumped off her bike, using her feet like drags to bring it to a standstill.

 

In horror, she gazed downward from the roadside at the fires smothering Guernica’s heart. The market! Her fingers squeezed the handlebars, while the steeple bells of the Santa Maria church rang like banshees pitching their strident warnings over the pass.

 

THUD! The ground beneath Lee’s feet shook. Explosive booms rocked the countryside. Their repeated pounding burst inside Lee’s head. How could one bomber drop so many bombs? Her ears rang with the thunderous noise, and she gagged on the mixed odor of sulfurous eggs and burnt wood rising from the village basin. The inside of her lips burned from the acidic taste of the dreadful stench.

 

 Oh no! The hotel! Quinn!

 

Lee remounted and resumed her frantic pedaling down the mountain road to the Renteria Bridge. She crossed it and headed toward belching flames rising from the center of Guernica. After trying to ride through mounds of rubble littering the streets, she gave up, jumped off, and pushed the bike ahead on foot.

 

The town square lay in shambles. The Julian Hotel—its front—sliced away, its four stories as bare as the back of a doll’s house. Quinn’s room was at the rear of the hotel, but that was no comfort. He could have been caught somewhere else at the time of the attack.

 

Across from it, the flattened Train Station Plaza left a mangled mess of shingles, bricks and mortar. Desperate survivors scrambled over the ruins searching for loved ones, and when they found them dead, their screams split the shrill clamor of emergency-response sirens.

 

As more parts of buildings crumbled, sheers of red dust settled over the debris, while rivulets of flames broke out everywhere, disrupting rescue efforts. Lee choked on the stench and doubled over fighting an urge to vomit.

 

The fumes and intense heat from the fires burning in the square finally drove her from further searching for Quinn. Coughing, she pushed her bike onto the undamaged Calle de la Estacion and paused to catch her breath. She peered through the late afternoon shadows shedding desolate darkness over the lane ahead. From above, a sliver of sunlight pierced the gloom, illuminating the plaid shirt of a figure lying on the ground.

 

Quinn!

 

It had to be him. This morning she had called him a lumberjack.

 

Lee dropped her bike and ran to the still form. When she reached it, she found a boy no more than nine or ten-years-old. There was no visible injury to show how he died. Instead, he lay there as if asleep, clutching his fishing rod. Even in death, he refused to let the pole go. The irony stunned her.

 

Memories churned . . . little children in Madrid, made homeless by relentless Fascist bombings—hungry ones, bleeding ones, silent ones, hardly more than babies reaching out to her, begging to be fed, held and comforted, to be relieved of their endless nightmare. These were the children she left behind. Unable to wipe away their tears and heartsick with the realization there was nothing she could do except report what was happening, she clung to the hope that somehow, soon, someone would care and do something to stop this ungodly struggle of Spaniards fighting each other.

 

By some fluke, the side effect of the bomb’s impact left the boy’s body intact yet partly undressed, vaguely tinted in inky browns. His mouth gaped open like the beak of a baby bird starving. A fly landed on the dry dribbles caking his lips and, with frenzied little skips, jumped onto his protruding tongue, never pausing in its quest to probe for his most succulent blood. She shivered.

 

As if the fly’s feathery feet were brushing her own skin, she batted the air, to no avail. It kept coming back. She doubled over and held her face in her hands. Dry heaves wrenched her stomach. She wanted to vomit. Bile burned her chest and throat, but something held it back. She slumped and turned away. She could no longer look at the boy, at his young face, at his innocence, at the vermin attacking him.

 

And then she felt a delicate tapping on her left shoulder. When she looked up, there was no one there. Instead, a mournful cry caught in eternal agony dragged her eyes back to the boy. The sound sprang from deep inside his mouth—a silent scream howling into nothingness. His death tore her apart. She had failed him, and all the war victims she wrote about. Her articles changed nothing. No one cared, no one intervened. The dam of her emotions broke. She crumpled in hopeless sobs beside his body. Together, in a moment of evil, they shared the embrace of hell.

 

 

Buy Bonnie’s THE CONSUMMATE TRAITOR at

 

Amazon.com (United States)

http://www.amazon.com/Consummate-Traitor-1-Bonnie-Toews/dp/1461015383

 

Amazon.ca (Canada)

http://www.amazon.ca/Consummate-Traitor-Bonnie-Toews/dp/1461015383

 

Amazon.UK (United Kingdom)

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Consummate-Traitor-Bonnie-Toews/dp/1461015383

 

Kindle North America

http://www.amazon.com/Consummate-Traitor-Trilogy-Treason-ebook/dp/B0056IXE6I

 

Kindle Germany

http://www.amazon.de/Consummate-Traitor-Trilogy-Treason-ebook/dp/B0056IXE6I/ref=pd_rhf_p_t_1

 

 

Bonnie Toews is an award-winning journalist who has covered significant events such as the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Currently she advocates for better care and treatment of Canada’s veterans and veterans’ issues. Her websites are:

http://www.bonnietoews.com

http://www.authorbonnietoews.com

http://homecomingvets.wordpress.com

 

 

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When Sparrows Fall by Meg Moseley (DEBUT AUTHOR!)

DEBUT AUTHOR!

When Sparrows Fall

ISBN:  978-1-60142-355-9

by Meg Moseley

Publisher:  Waterbrook-Multnomah

Inspirational

May 2011

Format:  Trade

Chapter Excerpt

c2011, Meg Moseley

If running late showed a streak of rebellion, Miranda Hanford was already in trouble. Pulling her van to the side of the narrow road, she tallied the other vehicles lined up on the shoulder. She wasn’t the last to arrive at Mason’s emergency meeting. She could steal a moment with Jezebel.

She picked up her camera and climbed out. Working quickly in the cold, she framed the last sliver of sun, as red as a forest fire above the pine-stubbled peaks. In the foreground, a maple sapling curled its bare limbs around the sunset, unwilling to let go—like sweet, stubborn Martha at bedtime, refusing to believe the day was over.

Miranda clicked the shutter. Before the sun abandoned the Blue Ridge to the night, she nailed five promising shots. She tucked the camera into its case and locked it in the van. An old lady who’d seen more of the world than her owner ever would, Jezebel deserved tender care.

Holding her cape closed, Miranda hurried up the long, steep driveway. Mason had called only the single women for this meeting. Six who hadn’t married yet and two widows.

She hated that word. Widows were supposed to be meek, gray things with grandchildren and arthritis.

Around the last bend of the driveway, the lights of the house shone their welcome. Snow flurries swirled like silver glitter as she ran up the steps to the porch.

She knocked lightly and joined the women in the living room. They’d congregated in a semicircle of folding chairs near the feeble warmth of the fireplace, their hands clasped in their laps and their voices subdued. Like the others, Miranda left her cape on, but a draft crept under her skirt and up her legs like icy fingers. She sat beside Lenore Schwartz, the other widow.

“Where’s Nicole?” someone asked.

No one knew. Abigail too was missing, her absence making the room colder still. If Mason’s wife had been home, she would have been dispensing hugs and peppermint tea.

The ladies hushed when their pastor strode into the room. Mason crossed to the hearth and picked up the poker. He shoved the logs into compliance, making sparks fly.

Amid the smell of smoke and ashes, he hung up the poker. He cut a handsome figure, his temples barely touched with gray and his face remarkably unlined for his fifty-some years.

“Ladies, thank you for coming on such short notice. I want to share what I announced at the men’s meeting last night.” He paused, surveying the semicircle like a watchful shepherd inspecting his lambs.

One of the flawed lambs, Miranda shifted in her chair. It squeaked in the silence.

“I have a word from the Lord.” Again, Mason took a moment to study the women. “I am to move from Slades Creek.”

Mason leaving town? Miranda’s heart made an unexpected leap, but Lenore bleated in distress and twisted her age-spotted hands together. “We’re moving to North Carolina,” he said, “to a beautiful little town called McCabe. Where people take care of themselves and each other. Where the government stays out of people’s business.”

Miranda fidgeted again, and her chair betrayed her restlessness with another creak. If the government didn’t stay out of people’s business in Georgia, it wasn’t likely to be much better in North Carolina.

“If it’s the Lord’s will, it’s the Lord’s will,” Lenore said, “but I don’t know how we’ll get along without you and Abigail. We’ll miss you terribly.”

“No, you won’t.” Mason smiled. “You’re coming with us. All of you. It’s a new beginning for the whole church. There are jobs in McCabe. Inexpensive housing too, and clean air and water. It’s practically paradise.”

A wave of excited whispers rustled through the room, but defiance woke within Miranda and prowled like an angry cat. She couldn’t leave Slades Creek. She wouldn’t.

“I’ve already put our house on the market,” Mason said, “and the other men will follow suit as soon as they can.” He nodded at Lenore, then Miranda, the only single women in the church who owned homes. “I’ll be glad to help you start the process.” Some of the men might have argued, but these women without men didn’t. They embraced their marching orders with joy.

All but Miranda. She saw an escape route.

Yet, as Mason answered questions with a twinkle of amusement in his eyes, she felt a pang of loss. The church had become her family. She would miss the women, especially Abigail. Friends, secret-sharers, burden-bearers, these
women were the sisters Miranda had never had. The mother she’d lost to an Ohio jail.

Once the discussion had played itself out, she spoke, veiling her agitation with a downcast gaze and a respectful tone. “I’ll miss everyone—very much—but Carl wouldn’t have wanted me to move.”

The room hushed to a shocked stillness, punctuated by the snapping and hissing of the fire.

“I only want to honor his wishes,” she added. “He always said we should hang on to the land, no matter what. For the children’s sake. He said it’s as good as money in the bank.”

Mason’s silver blue eyes flashed a warning. “We’ll discuss it later, Miranda.” She studied the blunt toes of her sturdy brown shoes. Now she’d reinforced her status as a troublemaker.

But so what? Her pastor was leaving town. And soon.

She frowned. Why the rush? Well, Mason and Abigail could hurry. They had no family. No children to uproot from their home or leave behind. Miranda looked up, startled, when a paper appeared before her, in Mason’s hands. She took it, and he gave one to Lenore too.

“A checklist to help expedite the process,” he said. “Weed out, fix up, sell. It’s almost spring. The perfect time to attract buyers.”

The photocopied list was written in Mason’s neat, square printing. With bullet points. With tips for increasing the value of a home. With phone numbers of handymen, painters, and real estate companies. He’d even included the donation drop-off hours for the local thrift store.

He dismissed the meeting. Each woman folded her chair and leaned it against the wall beside the piano. Abigail’s living room returned to normal except for her absence.

“Somebody needs to tell Nicole,” Lenore said. “I wonder why she never showed up. And where’s Abigail?”

Mason laughed and opened the front door, admitting a gust of cold. “Why should my wife attend a meeting of single ladies?”

Because she’d attended every other women’s meeting, Miranda thought, wondering if Abigail’s absence was related to Nicole’s.

“Well, tell her we missed her.” Lenore turned to Miranda. “You’ll find another nice piece of property, honey. You’ll find a new husband too. You’re so young.” Lenore seized her oversized handbag in one hand and her cane in the other and led the charge to the front door. “All you pretty young things, you’ll find husbands there.”

Miranda hung back as the chattering pack traipsed onto the porch, exchanging their good-nights. When Mason closed the door on the cold and faced her, she’d never felt so much like an ungrateful and obstinate child.

“Miranda, Miranda,” he said with a heavy sigh. “I hope you aren’t serious about staying behind.”

“I am.” She folded his checklist in half, then in half again. “I can’t imagine uprooting the children. And the land has been in Carl’s mother’s family for generations. I can’t sell.”

“Land is only land. Your children are young enough to adjust to a move. So are you. You’re young enough to start over.”

The paper rustled in her fingers as she folded it twice more, making it a tiny rectangle. “I don’t want to start over. I want to raise my family right here in Slades Creek.”

“It’ll be harder to raise your family if you don’t have help from the church when you can’t quite pay the bills.”

“Yes, but—”

“And what if there’s a good, godly man waiting for you in McCabe? What if God plans to play matchmaker? Don’t take this lightly, Miranda. If you deny God the chance to act, you may be depriving yourself of a husband. Depriving your children of a father. You need to hear from God about this. It’s a question that deserves fasting and prayer.”

She would start fasting, all right. She’d fast down to skin and bones so no man in his right mind would want her.

“You’d better start packing,” Mason said. “The move will take you beyond the chastisement of God to true repentance and blessings.”

“Wouldn’t the church be better off if a black sheep like me stayed behind? I know I’ve been a trial to you and Abigail.”

“No, no. Black sheep or not, you’re part of my flock. Of course you’ll move. And you’ll be careful not to sow seeds of rebellion in the others.” She hesitated, wary of his new sternness. “I need to do what’s best for my children.”

“Then you’ll submit to the authority God has placed over you.” Mason shook his head. “I’ve invested in your life for years, Miranda. I’m the one who made sure Carl had excellent life insurance, and I’m the one who writes the checks from the benevolence fund. You would have lost your property years ago if I hadn’t looked after you, and now you won’t listen to my guidance?” He still spoke softly, but this wasn’t the genial pastor who preached on Sundays and prayed for the sick and made a mean chili for potluck suppers. This was a different man. A hard, unreasonable man.

“What’s right for the church as a whole isn’t necessarily right for me,” she said, quaking inside.

“Remember, Miranda, ‘rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft.’”

The prowling cat inside her tested its claws. “I’m no witch, and it’s not rebellion to make my own decisions.”

“Before you make this particular decision, remember you’re still paying for some of Carl’s unwise choices.”

Her knees went weak. “What does that have to do with it?”

“This is your opportunity to put some distance between yourself and the things you’d like to keep quiet. If the state ever gets wind of what happened, if DFCS steps in…”

She twisted her hands together behind her back. “I’ll take my chances.” “Don’t be foolish. As you said, you have to do what’s best for the children. You want to protect them, don’t you?”

Tears stung her eyes. “Of course. Always.”

“Then you’ll move to McCabe.” Mason came closer, exhaling minty toothpaste. “I won’t be held accountable for the consequences if you stay.”

The veiled threat took her breath away.

She imagined a car in her driveway. A car that bore the state seal on its doors. At the wheel, a social worker who had the right to tear a woman’s children from her arms and feed them to the foster-care system, backed up by the Bartram County Sheriff’s Department. It happened, all too often. It happened even to parents who’d done nothing wrong.

“Agreed?” he asked. “You’ll sell? You’ll move with the rest of us?”

She shivered. She’d seen his anger before, she’d even been the target of it, but she’d never seen him as an enemy.

Now, though, he had threatened her children.

Slowly, she nodded. Fingers crossed behind her back. A liar.

Mason squinted, seeming to assess her sincerity. His somber expression warmed with that Hollywood smile. “Excellent. Now, don’t make waves. Don’t try to sway anyone into staying behind. Good night, Miranda.” He dismissed her with a nod.

Speechless, she stepped outside, jamming the checklist into the pocket of her cape. Night had fallen, and the cold mountain air chilled her to the core. She stared numbly at a cardboard box in the corner of the porch, stuffed so full
of clothing that its flaps refused to stay folded down.

Abigail must have started weeding out their closets for the move. Her Christmas pullover lay on top, the same red as the construction-paper hearts the girls had cut out for Valentine’s Day. Abigail’s sister had mailed it from Topeka, but Mason said the color wasn’t appropriate for a pastor’s wife and the neckline was indecent.

Rubbish. It was perfectly modest.

Miranda tiptoed across the porch and snatched the sweater. She tucked it under her cape and ran down the steps. Now she was a thief too, but what was one more black mark against her?

She jogged down the steep driveway, slick with the barely-there snowfall. “I’m not moving. You can’t make me.” The jolting of her footsteps made her voice bounce as if she were jiggling a baby on her knee. That was what finally made her cry.

Her children. He had threatened to send the state after her children. They’d be like the family that had been in the news, their little ones scattered to different foster homes and the parents helpless against the authorities. In the morning, she would ask her attorney about naming a new guardian. Someone outside the church. Someone with no ties to Mason. She had no family though, with Auntie Lou long gone. No brothers, no sisters, no cousins. Jack? It might have to be him, but she couldn’t call him yet. Couldn’t risk giving him the idea of showing up on her doorstep again. Not until it was safe. With unsteady fingers, she unlocked the van. She fumbled the key into the ignition and shone the headlights on the dark, twisting road before her. She hadn’t felt so alone in years. Nine years.

It was even longer since she’d felt free.

Two weeks of fasting and early-morning prayer walks had left Miranda shaky but clearheaded. She eased the back door closed, allowing only a faint click that couldn’t possibly wake the children, and hung her camera around her neck.
Making no sound, she walked down the weathered steps. The wind snatched at her skirt and cape, flapping them around her like wings of blue and gray. She hoped God knew she’d started her fast not because Mason had told her to, but because she wanted to hear God too. She wanted to hear Him tell her to stay in Slades Creek.

Fighting the dizziness that always accompanied a fast, she kept her eyes on her shoes as they nosed through long grass and the first violets. By the time the girls finished their morning studies and went outside to pick a teacup bouquet for the kitchen table, Mason might have called again. He didn’t give up easily. “I don’t either,” she said under her breath.

Her choices were limited, but she wasn’t helpless. She could arrange for child care and hold down at least a part-time job. She could earn money with her photography, and she had the monthly income that she never would have seen if Mason hadn’t talked some sense into Carl, years ago.

Yes, Mason was smart about money. He was smart about a lot of things. He liked to document everything. He kept better records than God, she’d heard somebody say at one of the Sunday meetings. He’d probably hung on to his notes from that long-ago counseling session.

With the old fears nipping her heels, she slipped behind the barn and into the clearing. The camera rocked against her stomach and kept time with her footsteps and the swishing of her skirt. The faraway bleating of the goats faded
as she ducked beneath the big dogwood and entered the dripping woods. Thinking she heard footsteps, she looked behind her. No one was there, of course. It was only the wind making bare branches sway and creak.

She faced forward again. Her foot skidded across last year’s dead leaves, slippery with moisture. She nearly fell but regained her balance and walked on. Rounding the last bend, she slowed to take in the view that never got old.

The mountain peaks still hid in the mist, but the sun was fighting its way through in a glorious dazzle of white light. She held her breath and savored the sensation of standing in a cloud that had descended to her little piece of the
earth.

No matter what Mason held over her, she couldn’t sell her family’s land. Venturing closer to the heart-stopping drop-off, she peered over the edge of the cliff to the rock-choked creek far below, crisscrossed with fallen trees. It had been years since she’d dared to stand so close to the edge. The first time she and Carl had walked his late mother’s property together, he’d reminded her that the cliffs were no place for children or even for surefooted goats. When he was a boy, one of his grandfather’s young goats had fallen the twenty feet to the bottom. She’d landed on a boulder, breaking her neck.

Miranda had swallowed, sickened by the imagined sound of slender bones snapping.

The far side of the ravine wasn’t an abrupt fall like the near side, but it was treacherous too, especially when wildflowers came into bloom and disguised its dangers. Rock-cress, bloodroot, stonecrops, and bluebells would soon soften every cranny.

By the time the asters blossomed in the fall, Mason might have moved far away.

She reached into the pocket of her cape and pulled out his checklist, still folded in a neat, thick rectangle. She opened up the paper, just enough that she could crumple it, and pitched the lightweight ball into the air. The small white wad bounced off a mossy ledge and disappeared into a tangle of leafless brush. “Lord, help,” she said softly, as if anybody could hear her so far from the house. “Help me outsmart him.”

There were no sounds but the soft splashing of water on rocks and a few birds singing. Far from the commotion of her household, she could almost believe that God would speak to her, but either He wasn’t answering or He’d struck her heart deaf to punish her sins.

Mason heard God though, or claimed to. If he heard correctly, heaven had asked a hard thing of her. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Miranda removed the lens cap from her camera. The fog was lifting. If she worked fast, she could capture the mountains veiled with fog but kissed by the sunrise.

There it was. The perfect moment. She tripped the shutter.

A new wave of dizziness blindsided her. She hung her head to send blood to it, the camera still held to her face, and smiled at the silliness of staying in picture-taking mode when she had only a clump of dry weeds in the viewfinder.

She fought to step away from the cliff’s edge, but her feet melted beneath her. Someone dropped a curtain from the sky, shutting out the light.
——-

Excerpted from When Sparrows Fall by Meg Moseley Copyright © 2011 by Meg Moseley. Excerpted by permission of Multnomah Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

——–

Meg Moseley is a Californian at heart although she’s lived more than half her life in other states.  She formerly wrote human-interest columns for a suburban section of the Atlanta Journal- Constitution, and home schooled for over twenty years.  When Sparrows Fall is Meg’s debut novel!

Buy a copy of Meg’s WHEN SPARROWS FALL from your favorite bookseller.  These links provided for your convenience:

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A Family for Faith by Missy Tippens

A Family for Faith

ISBN: 978-0373876655

by Missy Tippens

Publisher:  Harlequin Enterprises

Inspirational

April 2011

Format:  Mass

 

 

 

Copyright © 2011 by Harlequin Enterprises. Cover art used by arrangementwith Harlequin Ent. All rights reserved. ® and ™ are trademarks of Harlequin and/or its affiliated companies, used under license.

 

 

@ 2011 by Missy Tippens

 

Chapter One

 

Gabe Reynolds paced the photo-lined hallway, back and forth past baby and childhood pictures of his daughter, past the door where that same daughter did whatever pre-teen girls did behind closed doors. Considering the amount of time he spent coaxing her out of there these days, he figured he’d wear a path in the finish of the hardwood floor by the time his only child was grown and gone—something he intended to delay as long as possible.

He finally stopped and banged on the bathroom door. “Hurry up, Chels. You’ll be late.”

His dear, sweet daughter growled at him. Growled.

With a badge on his chest and weapon at his hip, he should be prepared to deal with anything. But give him a drunk or a thief any day over this soon-to-be-teenaged-girl business.

He pounded the door again. “I’ve gotta get back to the station. What are you doing in there?”

“For the thousandth time, I’m coming.”

He knew without a doubt that she was in there rolling her eyes at him. “What’s taking so long?”

“A work of art takes time,” she said in her best theatrical voice. Then she giggled, more like her normal, little girl self.

This switching from girl to young woman then back to girl in the blink of an eye was making his head spin. “You better not be putting on makeup.”

“I’m a teenager. All my friends wear makeup.”

“You’re not thirteen yet. And if all your friends jumped off—”

She yanked the door open so fast it banged into the wall. She glared at him. “No. If all my friends jumped off a bridge, I would not jump, too. This is totally different, and you know it.”

Her cheeks glowed with a too-bright pink that matched her tinted lips. Her mascaraed eyelashes, clumped into several uneven spikes, seemed a mile longer than usual. She looked grown-up. Too grown-up—the kind that would attract the attention of guys. “All I know is I forbade you to wear makeup and…and…” He jabbed his finger at the pile of containers on the bathroom counter. “That looks an awful lot like makeup. Where’d you get it?”

She huffed and tossed her dark curls over her shoulder. “I bought it with my allowance. And I’m learning to put it on so it accentuates my best features.”

She was accentuated all right. And sounded like she was spouting something she’d seen on an infomercial. He squinted as he checked out her face, so much like her mother’s it made it hard to look sometimes. And even though he had the urge to drop the subject and run the other direction, it was his job to deal with this kind of situation now. “You’ve got on lipstick. Wipe it off.”

“I want to look nice for our youth group meeting at the church tonight.”

“Why?”

She shrugged. “No reason.” She fingered a small picture frame on the counter, then quickly placed it face down before he could see whose photo it held. “Now, please let me finish. I’ll be out in five minutes.”

A boy. It had to be because of a boy. “Who is he?”

“Who’s who?”

“The boy. The one you’re putting makeup on for.”

She rubbed a finger with brown sparkly goop over her eyelid. “No one. I’m doing it for myself.”

“Hand it over.”

She sighed and slapped a little compact into his hand. “There, are you happy? No more eye shadow.”

“No. Hand over the photo. Of the boy.” He reached toward the picture frame.

“No!” She stopped him by grabbing hold of his hand. She looked terrified.

Which terrified him. If the guy was some high school punk, Gabe would be out the door and into the squad car in five seconds flat.

He shook Chelsea’s hand off and grabbed the gold frame. But he didn’t find some guy. All the frustration and fear whooshed out of him along with his breath when he found his wife. His sweet, beautiful wife.

Once he recovered his equilibrium, he said, “Chels, why do you have your mom’s picture in here?”

She gave a little shrug, this time not so rebellious. “I told you. I’m learning to put on makeup.”

Pain steamrolled him flat to the floor as he remembered Chelsea watching her mom put on lipstick on Sunday mornings before church and often asking if she could have some. Tina would smile, kiss a pink lip print on Chelsea’s cheek and promise to show her when she got older.

Now here their daughter was, studying Tina’s face, learning to apply lipstick by herself. Gabe ached for Chels. Ached period.

It had been five years since the accident, and just when he was making headway and felt like he might finally be able to breathe again, this had to happen.

“Please, Dad?” She took the frame from his hand and held the photo up beside her face. “See? I tried to do just what she did.”

He wanted to hug her. To protect her from any more pain in her young life. She needed her mom, especially for moments like this. But no, all she had was a cop dad who didn’t have a guess at how to handle his daughter growing up. He swallowed, then cleared his throat. “I’m sorry. But you’re just not old enough. You’ll have to wash that stuff off your face.”

She heaved a sigh that seemed to start at her toenails. “Okay.” She stared at the photo for a second. “Do I look pretty?” She’d said it so softly he wasn’t sure he heard her right. But then she turned to him and waited, looking everywhere but directly at him.

Oh, boy. “Well, now, I guess you better let me get a good look at you.”

She smiled shyly as she looked up, but then the smile went crooked as she gnawed on her lip. He had a feeling she wasn’t quite as comfortable being in makeup as she thought she would be.

“You look beautiful. Always.”

“I do look a little like Mom, don’t I?”

He breathed in through his nose, then forced a smile. “Even prettier.”

“Thanks.” She threw her arms around his waist, and for a split second, all was as it should be. Or at least it was back to the norm of the last few years. It would never again be as it should be.

He gave her a quick pat on the back before stepping away.

A horn honked outside. Chelsea’s ride to church.

“Hurry. You know Gary and Audra have other kids to pick up.”

“Go tell ‘em I’ve got to wash my face and to wait up.”

“Okay. Hey, I’m making your favorite dinner this evening. Tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.”

She splashed water on her face. “Daaad. You know we eat at church. And I guess I forgot to tell you a bunch of us are hanging out tonight after the meeting.”

All he could do was groan as he walked away. Why couldn’t everything just stay simple? Go to work. Come home. Eat dinner. Watch a little TV. Go to bed… But Chelsea had insisted on staying involved in the church.

The youth counselors had been kind to offer to drive her every week.  Of course, they volunteered for everything at the church while he, on the other hand, didn’t even make it to Sunday morning worship on the rare Sundays he was off.

The services didn’t feel right with that empty seat beside him.

When he stepped outside, the hot, humid air slapped him in the face. Another stifling July evening in Corinthia, Georgia, that made him long for winter. A blue Ford sat in his driveway with the engine running. It looked like the one that belonged to his next-door neighbor, Faith Hagin.

She rolled down her window and waved. “I’m filling in for Audra and Gary tonight.”

“She’ll just be a minute,” he hollered.

Faith had bought the local coffee shop and moved to town about a year ago. Though she tended to keep to herself, he’d gotten to know her a little as they worked in their yards and through his daily visits to her café for coffee and homemade pastries. They mainly talked about work, but he’d found out bits and pieces about her family.

He’d learned she was divorced and had a teenage son. For some reason—and Gabe hadn’t pried—the boy lived with his dad. Gabe hadn’t pushed Faith on the topic as they’d gradually formed a sort-of friendship. He figured it wasn’t his business. But if she was going to be helping with the church youth…

Chelsea barreled outside. As she spotted the car, she came to a stop. “Is that Faith?”

“Yes. Looks like she’s driving tonight.”

“Cool.” Chelsea went around to the passenger side of the car as Gabe ambled to Faith’s open window. Air conditioning blasted him in the face.

“I’ll bring her home by nine,” she said.

“Why so late?”

Chelsea rolled her eyes and shook her head, exasperated. “I told you. We’re hanging out.”

He wasn’t positive, but it looked as if Chelsea had reapplied the pink lipstick. He squinted, trying to see better, while worrying about her “hanging out” with a group that included high school aged youth. Ignoring the possible makeup infraction for the moment, he asked Faith, “Where are they hanging out?”

Faith gave him a sympathetic smile and he once again wondered about her relationship with her son. It seemed she understood his worry. “At the café tonight for some decaf and live music.”

He’d heard her coffee shop was turning into a regular teen hangout. But Chelsea, too? “As long as you’re there with them…”

“Of course.” She pointed at the seatbelt to remind Chelsea to buckle. “She’ll be fine.”

“Thanks.” He leaned inside the window and couldn’t help but notice how good it smelled inside. He filled his lungs and wondered if his daughter was wearing perfume. But he hadn’t smelled it in the house.

He glanced at Faith, and for the first time wondered if she wore makeup. He couldn’t really tell for sure. She was a natural beauty, with light brown hair she pulled into a ponytail and gorgeous greenish-blue eyes. He’d never noticed her wearing that particular flowery fragrance.

She shifted the car into reverse. “You know, if you’re worried about her, I hear they’re always looking for more volunteers to help with the youth.”

Why did someone bring that up every single week? It was all he could manage to drop off Chelsea on Sunday mornings.

Time for a subject change. “New perfume?”

She seemed surprised, but then she raised her eyebrows as if impressed. “Ah, so you’re a master of avoidance.”

His sweet daughter snorted a laugh. “Yep. Avoiding me growing up.”

He snapped his mouth closed on his automatic rebuttal and decided he wasn’t going to get drawn into that trap. Though, surely Faith would see his view on the subject. “See you at nine.” As he patted the car door to let them leave, Chels smiled at Faith, and a sheen of forbidden gloss on her pink lips flickered in the evening sun.

They honked and waved. As they drove away, toward the church, he realized just how empty his world was whenever Chelsea left. Eventually, he’d have to “get a life” as Chels always told him. But for now, he had to focus on her—and on figuring out how in the world she had managed to pull one over on him yet again.

 

***

 

Faith wasn’t sure how the youth counselors, Gary and Audra, had roped her into driving the group of kids. She planned to help this once, then get back to service more in line with her gifts—cooking, cleaning, volunteering in the church office…

After picking up the last child who needed a ride to the Sunday evening youth group meeting, Faith observed the four middle schoolers in her vehicle, the two girls giggling and the two boys jostling each other around. Her son Ben had moved to live with his dad five years ago, during seventh grade. Watching the seventh and eighth graders interact made her ache for what she’d missed. Of course, Ben hadn’t been in a good place in seventh grade. He’d hooked up with a bad crowd and hadn’t taken part in the joyful laughter and harmless teasing this bunch of kids enjoyed.

Like the oppressive humid air, guilt settled over her, pressing her into the contours of the car seat, making it difficult to breathe…reminding her what a failure she’d been.

She forced air into her lungs and tried not to think of the past. Ben was doing great now, and that’s what mattered.

“We’re here.” Faith dropped the noisy middle school youth at the back of the church where they found the others outside throwing a fluorescent green Frisbee. “I’ll see you for coffee later.”

“Thanks!” they called as they piled out of her SUV.

Her pastor, Phil, flagged her down as he pulled a cloth hanky out of his pocket and swiped it across his brow and into his graying temples. “As you may have heard, Audra and Gary are moving, so I could really use your help with the youth.”

Teens dealing with peer pressure, sex, drugs. Dealing with crises of faith. Asking my advice…

It pained her to tell anyone no when they needed her. Especially Phil, who had been kind and tried to make her feel welcome from the day she moved to town. But as much as she loved kids and would like to help, there was no way she was prepared for a youth leadership position.  If Phil knew her track record with Ben, he probably wouldn’t even ask.

Besides, her work schedule wouldn’t permit it. “Phil, you know I’d do anything—clean the church, produce the bulletin, cook the meals. But with my café to run I can’t make such a big weekly commitment.”

“Think about it. They’d really like you.”

“I’m sure I’d love them. But this summer is crazy enough with getting ready for Ben’s visit.”

“Maybe in the fall.” He waved as he headed toward the air-conditioned building. “Hey, I look forward to meeting Ben.”

Yes, Ben. Her number one priority continued to be her relationship with her son. Soon to be a senior, he would graduate and move off to college before she knew it. Since he lived forty-five minutes away with his dad—and lived and breathed baseball year-round—time with him was scarce. He’d be coming soon to stay for two week. She couldn’t wait, especially since he’d cancelled his visit the previous summer. After having to settle for quick trips to ballgames or at his dad’s house for the past year, she looked forward to uninterrupted time together and wanted it to be perfect.

First on her to-do list was to train Natalie to run the café while Faith was on vacation with her son so she could give him undivided attention.

It was her last chance to heal their relationship.

 

***

 

“I need a life,” Chelsea said later that night as Faith drove toward home, the last orange and pink rays of the sunset fading on the horizon.

Join the club, she almost said without thinking. Thirty-four years old, divorced half a lifetime ago from a man who chose the partying college life over his wife and new baby, with a nearly-grown son who acted like she didn’t exist. Yes, she also needed a life. “Give your dad a break. He’s used to the little girl who depended on him for everything.”

She sighed and looked at Faith with twinkling brown eyes—more like milk chocolate than the dark chocolate of her father’s. “I had so much fun tonight. Why can’t he let me hang out with my friends more often?”

“You’re twelve, not sixteen. Be patient.”

With arms crossed and head shaking, Chelsea tsked, sounding and looking like an adult. “Twelve is old enough to spend the night at my best friend’s house. He won’t even let me do that. And he caught me putting on makeup today and made me wash it off.”

“You’re beautiful without it.” Just like her mother had been. Faith had seen the photos in Gabe’s living room.

It had to be tough for a girl Chelsea’s age to go through so many life changes without a mom around. Though Faith’s dad deserted them when she was about the same age, at least she’d had her mom during that transitional time.

“Well, I like wearing makeup. And it’s going to be a constant battle. Unless…”

She cut a glance in Chelsea’s direction. “Unless what?”

“Unless you help me.”

Oh, boy. Even though she and Gabe had formed a bit of a friendship over coffee, he’d always been private where family matters were concerned. He would not want her butting in. “I’m sure he’s doing what’s best for you.”

“I don’t think he’d be so stubborn if my mom were here. So maybe if you could sweet-talk him about the makeup…and about letting me hang out at the café…” She turned and pretty much begged with her big brown eyes.

Faith shouldn’t get involved. She had her own family mess to deal with and might cause a bigger one with Gabe’s family.

But poor Chelsea. It did sound like Gabe was being overly protective. And she knew personally how that could backfire. He could certainly stand to give Chelsea a little bit of freedom. “If I get the chance, I’ll see what I can do.”

Chelsea squeezed Faith’s arm and squealed. “Thank you!”

Of course, Faith had heard the stories of how Chelsea nearly died in the auto accident that killed her mother. She’d spent months in the hospital and rehab. Faith would probably be protective, too, in that situation.

Just thinking about it brought back memories of worrying about her son when he moved two hours away from her former home in Augusta to live with his dad and stepmom in Atlanta. Will they love him as much as I do? Will they discipline him like he needs? Will they protect him?

What utter helplessness…and rejection. Pain she never wanted to feel again.

When she and Chelsea arrived at the house, Gabe stood on his front porch with his arms crossed in front of him. “You’re late.”

“I’m sorry.” Faith’s watch showed a mere ten minutes after nine. “Had to get the café ready for the morning.”

“Understandable. But Chels, you should have called.”

“I would’ve if I weren’t the only person on earth without a cell phone.” She smirked at him and, judging by his scowl, it was not a good thing to do at the moment.

“The café has a land line. Now go on in and get ready for bed.”

“Man, I was just teasing.” With all the earlier joy wiped off her face, she stomped inside and slung the door shut with a bang.

Let it go, Faith. Don’t butt in.

But she’d promised Chelsea. “Gabe, may I offer a suggestion?”

She couldn’t read his expression as he recrossed his arms. For a second, she thought he would refuse.

“I guess,” he said instead.

He didn’t exactly look receptive, but she plowed ahead anyway. “Lots of kids Chelsea’s age are allowed to do things with their friends. Could you maybe consider giving her a little wiggle room?”

“If you give an inch…”

“She’s a good girl.”

“And she’s also strong willed.”

Faith knew a whole lot about strong willed children. She’d tried to raise one and had struggled the whole time. “You can’t be too hard on Chelsea or she might rebel.”

Memories of Ben storming out of the house—and stumbling back in—brought a wave of nausea. Who was she, a total failure at motherhood, to give advice?

He stared into her eyes as if he was thinking it over. But then the staring went on just a moment too long, and she felt like she was being examined. Could he see through to the real Faith Hagin?

She tightened her ponytail as the chirping of the cicadas crescendoed in the otherwise silent night. She shoved her hands into the back pockets of her jeans to keep from fidgeting. “What?”

“I’m just trying to figure out if you wear makeup?”

Makeup? “I, uh, don’t usually wear makeup. It’s too much trouble when I have to go to work so early. But I did put on a little for church this morning.”

He stepped closer, gently took hold of her chin and tilted her face up so he could see better in the porch light. But his touch didn’t linger and he acted surprised to have done it.

She backed up a step. “I could teach Chelsea how to apply basic cosmetics—enough to appease her.” Faith’s face blazed with heat, especially where he’d touched her.

His dark brown eyes bore into hers, as if he still held her under a microscope. A searing blush crept to her chest and seemed to squeeze her heart.

He finally blinked and stepped back toward the door. “You’re a natural beauty. I don’t see much difference between most days and Sunday.”

His matter-of-fact declaration made her heart skip a beat or two.

Before she could put two coherent words together, he shook his head. “Thanks for the offer, but no. I’m not going to give on the makeup issue.”

Scattered thoughts—he thinks I’m a natural beauty?—ricocheted around in her head. But she managed to refocus on Chelsea. “She’s almost a teenager, Gabe. You’ll have to start letting go eventually.”

He straightened up into his big, bad Chief of Police stance. “She’s my daughter. I know what’s best for her.”

And she’d thought she’d known what was best for her son. She’d been very protective of him, too. Trying to make sure he didn’t go down the drinking and partying path his dad had gone down many years before. But her controlling had pushed Ben in the opposite direction.

For some reason, she needed to make Gabe understand. “Yes, you do know what’s best. But sometimes, knowing best doesn’t matter. If we smother them and don’t give them room to become independent, we set them up to make bad decisions.”

He studied her through squinted eyes, this time with suspicion. “You sound like you speak from experience.”

“Yeah. I’d been left by my dad and my husband and thought if I worked hard enough I could hang on to my son. But it pushed him right into a group of friends who were an awful influence.”

She snapped her mouth shut before she revealed more. The townspeople knew Ben lived with his dad and that he was too busy with sports to come visit. But she’d never shared with anyone the details of her son’s problems in middle school, about his begging to live with his dad in Atlanta—about how he thrived once he moved there. When she moved to Corinthia a year ago to be closer to Ben, it was also to get away from the years of strange looks from former friends, to get away from the sideways glances. What’s wrong with Faith that her son did so poorly in her care, then had a complete turnaround when he got away from her?

“I’m sorry, Faith. I didn’t realize all you’ve been through, “ he said. “I’ll keep your advice in mind.”

She’d promised Chelsea she’d try to talk to him and she had. Duty fulfilled. “Okay, then. Good night.” She hurried down the porch stairs and along the front walk. By the time she reached the grass between their houses, she heard footsteps behind her.

“Hold up a second, Faith.” When Gabe reached her, he shoved his hands into his pockets. “Look, I’m sorry. I appreciate your offer to help. I do. But…” He looked at his feet. At the sky. At her house. “I know you’re right about Chelsea. In my head, I know it. But in here…” He thumped a fist on his chest. “…I can’t go there yet.”

Her heart ached at the look of pain on his face. “Children can do that to the best of us.”

“Yeah.” He rocked back on his heels. “I guess I actually could use your help. Some female guidance for Chelsea since she’s been pushing for independence. I’ve got to do something. I can’t let her…” His voice hitched.

Why, Lord? Why get me involved in this? She wished she could simply tell him good luck and turn away. But as if God Himself were forcing the words out of her mouth, she said, “What can I do?”

The breath huffed out of him and his tense expression eased. He laughed. “I have no idea.”

His smile ravaged her already-tender nerves. She’d always thought he was handsome. Especially when in uniform. But seeing him in angst over his young daughter sent his attractiveness to a whole new level.

“Well, I can tell you she was glowing with happiness after hanging out at the café tonight. Anything you can do to let her spend more time with friends will go a long way.”

He crossed his arms as he digested that bit of information. “Have the kids her age been coming to the café this summer?”

“Yes, some.”

“Can Chels hang out with you one day this week?”

Oh, I don’t think so was pushing at the edge of her lips. But the earnest look on his face snapped her lips tightly closed. Instead, she uttered, “Of course. How about tomorrow?”

The strong, rugged man smiled, his nearly-black eyes beaming in the moonlight. He took hold of both her hands and gave a quick squeeze. “I appreciate your help.”

What on earth was she doing? She should run the other direction. She didn’t have any business taking a middle school girl under her wing. Chelsea was right about the age Ben had been when he started rebelling. Her kid with all A’s had done an about-face and had started on the slippery slope toward becoming a juvenile delinquent. And by the time Faith realized what was happening, she’d been too late to stop it.

What if Faith failed with Chelsea, too? What if her advice to Gabe backfired?

“I’ll bring her by during my lunch break tomorrow,” he said. “If that’s okay with you.”

“Sure. Any time.”

“Good night, Faith.”

His warm, deep voice brushed along her nerves, almost like a brush of his hand, soothing her.

He was a kind man. A good father. A strong leader in the community.

But he was hurting. Probably still grieving. Struggling with a strong willed daughter.

Okay, so it looked as if God may have put Faith in a position to help father and daughter. She would do what she could. But she better not fail this time.

 

 

Copyright 2011 Melissa L. Tippens

Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin S.A.

——————————————————————

Missy Tippens is an award winning writer whose books have been finalists in the Gayle Wilson Award of Excellence, The Bookseller’s Best Award, and ACFW Book of the Year Contest. Visit her and sign up for her free newsletter at www.missytippens.com.

Buy Missy’s A Family for Faith at:  eharlequin.com Amazon.com

 

Hawks Mountain by Elizabeth Sinclair

Trade
ISBN-13: 9781611940220

Bellebooks

ebook

ISBN: 1611940222

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

c2011, Elizabeth Sinclair

Chapter 1

The deafening explosion came from nearby.  Too near.  Near enough to rattle his eardrums and rock the earth beneath him.  He plastered his body against the ground. Choking sand filled the air.  The screams of injured and dying men echoed all around him through the following eerie stillness.

“Doc!  Over here, Doc!”

“Where are you?”

“I’m here. I’m over . . . .” But the pain slicing through his head kept him on the ground, helpless to help those who called to him.

Then the voice and the screams faded away, drowned out by the melodic chirping of a bird.  The air had cooled, and the sound of mortar fire receded. The scorching, abrading sand against his cheek became a cool caress.

Nicholas Hart opened his eyes, still afraid to move.  Residual fear shook his body.  Pin points of pain jabbed at his chest.  Sweat beaded his forehead and torso.  He looked down at his hands.  Red.  Blood?

Not until Nick inhaled the perfume of the wildflowers and the ripening wild strawberries crushed in his curled fingers and saw the green grass biting into his bare chest did he come back to reality.  He was not lying in the bomb-riddled streets of Baghdad.  Instead, he lay in a sun-dappled meadow on Hawks Mountain in West Virginia.

Slowly, the fear and tremors ebbed from his taut limbs, but, as always, the guilt remained.  He must have dozed off while reading and had that dream again.  That same nightmarish dream that had haunted him since he’d come back to the states a year ago.  Would he ever truly escape the horrors of war once and for all?

After inheriting a small fortune from his grandfather and then coming to Hawks Mountain, a place he’d visited and been happy and carefree as a child, should have helped, but so far even the peace of this majestic place had done nothing to erase the nightmares of his time in Iraq.

He sat up slowly and looked around.  Everything was at it should be.  A book, 100 Ways to Commit Murder and Not Be Detected, research for his crime novel, lay open on the ground beside his discarded shirt.  Remnants of his lunch lay scattered over the grass around his open laptop.  The laptop’s screen had gone blank.  Dead battery.

He must have been asleep for sometime.  Glancing at his watch, he sighed.  Two hours. Only a few more hours of daylight remained, thanks to his unscheduled nap.  He’d wanted to get the rest of the roof on his cabin’s porch before sundown.  Maybe if he hurried he could still get at least half of it done.

He gathered his lunch leftovers and shoved them in the brown paper bag in which he’d carried them down here.  Then he marked his place in his book with a paper napkin.  Grabbing his shirt, he wiped away the juice from the crushed strawberries on on his hands, then closed his laptop and stacked everything on top of it and stood.

“Who are you, and why are you trespassing on our land?”

He turned toward the woman’s voice and froze.

A few feet away from him, the sun dancing off her coppery curls, her curvy body encased in tight jeans and a brief, pink crop-top, stood perhaps the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.  Even with the angry scowl distorting her features she was captivating.  As he stared at the woman, her youth became apparent, perhaps somewhere in her early twenties.  Though he felt ancient, it was close to his own age.

A breeze toyed with the loose curls framing her face and playfully whipped the bright strands around in wild abandonment.  The black duffle bag emblazoned with the Atlanta Falcons’ gold logo clutched in her hand made him wonder if she was a tourist passing through.  However, he deep-sixed that notion when he recalled her verbal claim to the land.  Definitely not a tourist.

Ignoring her questions, he continued to study the woman for a few moments longer, and then shook his head, denying himself the tiny flicker of enjoyment seeping into his senses and the sudden acceleration of his pulse rate.

“Well?  What do you have to say for yourself?  Why are you trespassing on my grandmother’s land?”

Ah, just as he’d suspected.  Not a tourist.  But she evidently had not been around here for a while.  First of all he would have definitely recalled seeing her before.  A woman like this did not drift in and out of a man’s life without him remembering her.  Second, she didn’t realize this was his land, sold legally to him by her grandmother, Josephine Hawks, over eight months ago.

However, he had no intention of explaining himself to her or anyone else.  If he had been so inclined, he’d have told all the speculating gossips in town why he was here long ago.  Instead he let their imaginations run the gamut between him being an axe murderer running from the law and a man dying from some horrible, incurable disease.

Clutching the laptop in one hand and balancing the brown bag and the book in the other hand, he tore his gaze away from her and turned his back, then slowly walked to the line of trees bordering the meadow.

“Where are you going?  Hey, you gonna answer me?  Mister?  You got no business being here.”

Casting one last glance over his shoulder, as if to reaffirm her existence in his mind, he turned away again. She’d dropped the duffle bag and taken one step in his direction.  Something about her pulled at him, but he fought it.  This woman may be beautiful, but that made her more of a threat to his solitude and no less an intrusion.  Whoever she was, he had no desire to let her into his life, not even the little bit that replying to her questions would allow.  He=d been alone for a long time now, and come what may, he planned on staying that way.  Sometimes, the loneliness almost overwhelmed him, but it beat the heck out of attaching himself emotionally to someone, then losing them forever.

####

“Well, I’ll be . . . .”  Rebecca Hawks stared after the stranger as he disappeared into the trees.  “If that doesn’t just beat all.”

Despite being upset with the trespasser, she had to smile.  She’d sounded just like her homespun granny and not a woman who had a college degree and had spent three years in the city working for Atlanta’s Office of Human Services.

As she gazed at the spot where the man had vanished into the trees, she made a note to speak to Granny Jo about him. Considering that he’d carried a laptop and a book and not a gun, he couldn’t be a poacher, but he was still a trespasser.  Even though Granny Jo probably wouldn’t object to the man cutting across Hawks’ land, Becky couldn’t tamp down her own unreasonable anger or the feeling of her private haven being invaded.

This was Hawks Mountain.  It had been in her grandfather’s family for generations.  Now that Grampa Earl was gone, it was Granny Jo’s land, and one day it would be hers. Becky felt an unwarranted need to protect it, to keep it safe from . . . .  From what?  A man who was perhaps only using it as a shortcut to the other side of the ridge?

Is that what city living had done to her?  Had she forgotten all the teachings of her gentle, hospitable grandmother in the seven years she’d been away from here?   Though the stranger was broad-shouldered, handsome as the day was long and silent as a rock, something about him called to her inner nurturer, something about the way his shoulders slumped and the corners of his mouth drooped that told her he wasn’t as strong inside as he appeared to be outside.  And, Lordy, the way his tanned chest bulged with muscle left no doubt as to his physical strength.

She shook her head.  You really need to get out of the sun and stop these foolish thoughts.  You’ve got enough of your own problems without worrying about someone else’s, someone you don’t even know. She picked up her duffle bag and stepped back on the dirt road leading up the mountain.

With the sight of the swaying pines, the smell of the sun-warmed earth and ripening spring strawberries in the air, she could almost forget the man in the meadow and the time she=d spent in Atlanta.  She could almost wipe from her memory the dark shadows that haunted her heart.

Almost.

She frowned and tried not to allow those memories admittance, but no matter how hard she tried, she could never completely erase the memory of the people she’d met as part of her job with the Department of Child Welfare. Crying babies without food.  Desperate mothers without a means to provide it.  The squalor everywhere.  No electricity.  Sickness.  Sometimes no heat.  Never enough funds, personnel or time to provide the help needed. And sometimes the tragic endings . . . .

Determinedly, she shook her head as if to dislodge those troubling thoughts and concentrated on her surroundings.  Like a hungry kitten in a dairy barn, she lapped up the familiar landscape’s beauty—beauty that always made her heart feel easy with life, beauty she hadn’t truly appreciated until her world had turned ugly.

She strained her eyes straight ahead, searching for the last familiar bend in the road that would reveal the white clapboard house where she=d grown up with Granny Jo, the only house on Hawks Mountain.  The house where Granny Jo would welcome her home with her all-encompassing embrace, the one safe haven that would help her heal.  The place that would provide the peace of mind and gentle familiarity for which her soul hungered.

####

Becky rounded the last curve in the winding road, stopped dead and for a moment drank in the sight of the home in which she’d grown up.  Before her, embraced by the loving bows of three large, oak trees, stood the house Grampa Earl had built for Granny Jo over fifty some years ago.

Quickly, she dropped the duffle bag and slipped off her tennis shoes, then buried her feet in the grass surrounding the house, just as she=d done as a child. She looked up at her home and sighed.  Home.  She was really and truly home.

From the side of the house, a large, gray bundle of fur came hurtling toward her, tail wagging, his tongue lolling from the side of his mouth.

“Jake!  You remember me.”  Becky squatted and buried her face in the dog’s shaggy coat.  Jake, Granny Jo’s beloved companion, licked her face and pressed against her, almost knocking her over.  “I’d love to stay here and play with you, but that’ll have to wait until later.”

She stood, watched Jake amble to a spot of shade beneath a large oak, make several circles before flopping down and closing his eyes. Then she turned her attention back to the big house.  The white clapboard could use a coat of paint and a rung was missing from the front porch railing, but other than that, it was exactly as she remembered it.  As welcoming as the caress of the cool grass on her hot, tired, bare feet.

Planted in neat rows along either side of the front path leading to the porch, Granny’s multi-colored roses welcomed visitors.  Dwarf marigolds, looking like little puffs of golden sunlight, snuggled in against their feet.  Becky held her breath and listened.  The steady buzz of honey bees filled the silence.  She watched them flit from one beautiful rose to another and thought of the patchwork life she had led since leaving the mountain for college and then to find a tenuous destiny in the big city, far removed from the tiny community of Carson, West Virginia.  And, in the end, she’d found not her shining future, but a world filled with nothing but disillusionment, pain and ugliness and guilt at her inability to change any of it.

She shook away her unhappy thoughts, determined that nothing would ruin this homecoming for her.  Picking up her duffle bag, she hooked her sneakers over two fingers, then padded up the walk to the wide front porch.  Slowly, savoring the feel of the rough wood against the soles of her feet, she climbed the stairs.  When the second step from the top squeaked loud and clear, she nearly laughed aloud with joy.  Granny Jo called it her doorbell.

“Can’t a soul around here climb those steps and not make that board squeak,” she’d say with a sly grin and a playful wink.  “Except me.”

Then she’d laugh because she knew exactly how to ascend the stairs without hitting the squeaky board, and though Becky had begged her to tell her, Granny Jo had kept her secret from even her small granddaughter for many years.

On her eighteenth birthday, Granny had revealed how to do it.  Becky stared down at the step now and counted over three nail heads from the left, then placed her foot back on that exact spot, followed by her full weight. Again a loud squeak announced her arrival.  She waited and listened.

“Well, come on in.  Don’t stand out there waiting for an invitation.”  Granny Jo’s voice rang out through the screen door.

It had come, Becky knew, from the kitchen at the back of the house.  Granny’s domain.  Becky had often thought that the rest of the house could have burned to the ground, but as long as the kitchen remained intact, Granny would have shrugged it off.

Becky smiled and opened the screen door.  Stepping into the coolness of the dark front hall, she set her bag and shoes on the worn, braided rug at the foot of the stairs, inhaled deeply of the welcoming aroma of apples and cinnamon and fresh made cornbread that perfumed the house, and then padded down the passage toward Granny=s kitchen.

Still grinning, Becky stepped quietly into the warm, fragrant room.  Granny Jo was rolling out pie crust.  Sweat beaded her forehead just below the line of her salt and pepper hair, and a dusting of flour muted the bright colors of her flowered dress and apron.  As she worked, she hummed Rock of Ages.

After using the rolling pin to carefully place the top crust on the pie plate heaped with apple slices, she laid the pin aside.  The one-handled rolling pin brought a quick grin to Becky=s lips.  Grampa Earl claimed she=d broken the other handle off over his sorry head the first year they were married.  Granny Jo never said otherwise.  As a small child, Becky had speculated on what her dear grampa could have done that had made her peace-loving granny hit him hard enough to break her rolling pin.  But, Granny Jo kept that explanation stowed away with the secret of the squeaky stair, and to this day had never revealed a word about it.

Back then it was a secret a small, inquisitive child yearned to learn.  As a woman, Becky didn’t have to ask.  Now she knew all to well that even the best of men had a dark side.

Granny crimped the edges of the crust with practiced fingers, and then trimmed off the excess. Picking up the pie to insert it in the oven, she turned, and noticed Becky for the first time.  Tears instantly filled the old woman’s clear gray eyes.

“My Lord, child.  You’ve come home.”  Granny Jo set the pie aside and then rushed to embrace her granddaughter.

Warm, welcoming arms swept around Becky and gathered her to that familiar ample bosom.  Contentment unlike any she found anywhere else but here enveloped her. At last, she’d truly come home and very soon her life would be better.  She would be better.

Disengaging their tangled embrace, Granny Jo held her at arm=s length. “Why didn’t you tell me you were coming home, child?”

“I wanted to surprise you.”

Truth be known, Becky hadn’t known she was coming back until yesterday, when she’d returned home to their tiny apartment and found Sonny, her college sweetheart and live-in boyfriend, in bed with another woman. When she’d confronted him, it resulted in the first and last time he’d laid hands on her.

Next thing Becky knew she was in the bus station with Sonny=s duffle bag and what little money she=d had to her name and no idea where she’d go.  Then the man behind that barred window had asked, AWhere to, ma=am?@  And she knew instantly.  She wanted to go home.  She wanted to go home to Granny Jo and Hawks Mountain.

AWell, you certainly did surprise me,@ Granny said, pulling Becky from her memories, then planting a warm kiss on each of her granddaughter=s cheeks, just like she used to do when she’d put Becky to bed every night.  Her grandmother peered behind Becky, and she knew Granny had expected to see Sonny, the man she’d spoken of in all her letters.  But she didn’t ask.

Instead, Granny stared deep into her granddaughter=s eyes.  “How long you plan on visiting?”

Becky could only push one word past the knot of emotion closing off her throat.  “Forever.”  Granny frowned, but just as Becky knew she would, Granny asked no questions.  When the story needed telling, she would leave it to Becky to chose the time and place.

“Lord, just look at me, blubbering like a baby.”  Dabbing at her moist eyes with the hem of her apron, Granny stepped back.  “Let me get this pie in the oven and pour us some sweet tea, then we=ll go out on the porch where it=s cool and catch up.”

Granny scurried about the kitchen.  She slid the pie into the cavernous oven of the gleaming black woodstove, then, after closing the heavy door, she cleaned away the clutter from her baking.

Becky watched, her mind wandering back to the days when she=d worked in this kitchen and dreamed of escaping Hawks Mountain.  How foolish she=d been.

The big kitchen looked exactly as it had the last day she’d spent in here with her grandmother.  Granny’s old wood-burning, cookstove dominated.  Beside it a modern electric range, which Granny shunned except for the most mundane cooking, looked out of place, like an intruder from the future. Granny claimed nothing tasted the same cooked on its sleek glass top as it did when cooked over the wood from the forests of Hawks Mountain.

Beside the white enamel sink with its built-in drain board stood a pie safe.  During Becky’s growing up years, it had always been full with Grampa Earl’s favorite pies, cookies, corn muffins and fresh baked bread.  Since Grampa Earl’s death, all but one of the shelves held a mixture of dishes, bowls and glasses, brought down from higher shelves for easy reaching.  Now, a small batch of cornbread and one lonely pie occupied the bottom shelf.

In the center of the worn, gray linoleum-covered floor stood Granny=s workbench, the kitchen table.  Over the years the old pine table had served a myriad of purposes: a work surface, an eating table, a desk at which Becky had done homework and had at times held the tin washtub in which Granny rinsed her “delicate unmentionables,” fine lace and nylon underwear, specially ordered from Raleigh. The only concession the old woman made to the well-heeled life she’d led before becoming Mrs. Earl Hawks.

AIf an accident happens, a body needs to be presentable from the skin out,@ she=d said every morning, as Becky got dressed for school.

Ice cubes clinking into glasses drew Becky=s attention back to her grandmother.  Granny Jo set the tall glasses on the table.  Into each she poured golden brown, sweet tea.  After adding a slice of lemon, she handed one to Becky.

Becky’s hot palm closed around the icy glass.  Unthinking, she raised it to her forehead and swiped it across her skin.  She could not recall when anything felt so wonderful, so life affirming.

Taking their tea, the two women adjourned to the porch and the twin rockers that had occupied it as long as Becky could remember.  Before Granny Jo could sit in the one she=d used since the rockers had come home from Clemens in the back of Grampa Earl=s old pickup truck, Jake, hurried up the steps and sprawled his shaggy gray body at her feet.  He rested his chin on the toe of her slipper.  Granny scratched behind one of his over-sized ears, then patted his head.  Jake’s eyes closed in contentment.  Life was good.

Becky sat in the rocker that bore the imprint of her grandfather’s backside. As the heat of the sun-warmed wood seeped into Becky’s body, her gaze drifted to the spot under the big oak where Grampa Earl rested.  A simple white cross marked his grave.  Granny repainted the cross every year on his birthday.  Beside it she’d planted a white, peace rose, which had just started to open its buds.  Granny Jo missed her husband as much as Becky missed the gentle old man who’d told her stories of this ancient mountain.

He=d been quit a man, Earl Jedadia Hawks.  A farmer by trade, he=d always been ready to try something new, even the electricity he=d had strung into the house before he’d brought home his new bride, Josephine Walker of the Charleston, South Carolina Walkers.  Many years later, he=d told Becky he didn’t want Granny Jo running back to the big city just because she didn’t have electricity and indoor plumbing.

In the end, Grampa Earl had nothing to worry about.  He’d laughed and said that Granny had taken to Hawks Mountain like a hog to corn mash and settled in before he’d had time to get out of his wedding duds.  Granny had always claimed that, because, underneath where it really counted, she must have been a country girl all along.  Besides, she always added, she=d have walked through briars in her bare feet if it meant she=d be able to keep that handsome Earl Hawks by her side.

Too bad something as simple as being able to flush a toilet or to throw a switch to turn on a light hadn’t convinced Becky to stay on the mountain.  So much pain and heartache could have been avoided.  But, in retrospect, she wondered if anything could have stopped that head-strong, adventure-seeking girl from leaving.

“Well, girl, if you’re gonna just sit there staring off into space, I might just as well go back to my baking.”

Granny’s teasing voice roused Becky.  “I’d forgotten how beautiful it is here.  I want to soak it all up.”  Becky sighed and leaned back in the rocker.  With a shove of her foot, she propelled the chair into a soothing to and fro motion.  “It’s so good to be home.”

Granny patted her granddaughter’s hand where it lay over the arm of the chair.  “Good to have you back here.  This place gets mighty lonely.”  She sipped her tea.  “Of course, now that I have a neighbor close by, it doesn’t seem quite as bad, but he’s not one for talking or visiting with folks.  Stays mostly to himself up there and spends a lot of time walking through the woods and the meadow.  Still, it’s awful nice knowing he’s there.”

Instantly Becky’s mind raced between an image of the man she thought to be a trespasser and the gut feeling she’d been ignoring for months that Granny needed her.  Guilt washed over her.  She should have come sooner, and she would have, except he’d been too busy trying to save the world.  But she was here now, and she’d watch over Granny and their mountain.

Then the meaning of her grandmother’s words sunk in.  “You sold part of the mountain?”

AYep. Had to sell off a few acres up on the ridge late last year to pay taxes.  Shouldn’t have to do that again though, now that I have an outlet to sell my quilts.”  She glanced at Becky. “A young woman saw one of the quilts on the clothesline and stopped to ask who made it.  I told her I did, and she asked if I’d make some for her to sell at the Fairfax craft fair.  Can you imagine people willing to pay a lot of money for the same quilt that’s been on your bed for twenty years? It appears to me that they could just sit down and stitch their own, if they wanted one so bad.”  Granny shook her head and chuckled.  ATakes all kinds.”

Becky hadn’t yet gotten past the neighbor thing.  “You sold land to someone?”

“Yup.”

“How close is this  . . . neighbor?”  Becky fought down the feeling she’d experienced earlier in the meadow . . . that her idyllic world had been invaded.

“Just up there on the ridge.” Granny pointed toward a jut in the mountain side above them.

“Who is it?”

“Oh, you don’t know him.  He’s new in these parts.  A writer from New York City.  Seems like a nice enough fella, but he’s awful quiet and pretty much stays to himself.”

“New York?:  The trespasser. A city man.  Sonny was a city man. Icy unease pricked her skin.  “Granny, do you know anything about him?”  Becky had stopped rocking and leaned forward in the chair.

Granny Jo laughed.  “Not a thing except that he came here once as a child with his granddad and never forgot it.  Course the people in town have all kinds of stories made up about why he’s here.  They just can’t resist inventing a good yarn when they don’t know the facts.”   Granny clicked her tongue, then sipped her tea and gazed out over her roses toward the big oak.  “I suppose Earl is spinning in his grave because I sold off part of his mountain, but it couldn’t be helped.  I figure he’d be even more upset, if I lost the whole kit >n caboodle.”

Becky was only half listening.  She didn’t like the idea of a stranger living so close to them.  Strangers couldn’t be trusted.  Especially city strangers.  Then again, sometimes even people you think you know couldn’t be trusted either.  Sonny’s angry face flashed through her mind.  A chill swept down her spine, and the familiar nausea rose in her throat.  Absently, through the material of her dress, Becky caressed a bruise still visible on her upper thigh. She clutched her middle and closed her eyes, fighting down the memories that threatened.  When she opened them, Granny Jo was staring at her, concern wrinkling her brow.

Granny Jo stopped rocking and leaned toward her. “You all right, girl?”

“Fine,” Becky managed with a forced smile.  AI guess the cold tea and my warm stomach didn’t hit it off too well.”  Granny was prudent enough not to point out that Becky had yet to even sip the cold beverage.  “Does this new neighbor have a name?” she asked, trying to draw attention away from herself.

“Hart,” Granny said after studying Becky for a few more moments.  “Nicholas Hart.  Goes by Nick.”

Becky tried not to read anything into a strange man living within walking distance of them on the ridge.  She wasn’t stupid, she knew all men weren’t alike.  Still. . . .

To get her mind on a new track, she clutched at something else Granny had said. “You’re selling your quilts?”

Granny sat straight in the chair and stared at Becky.  “Haven’t you been listening, child?  I just told you that I’m being paid a handsome sum for every one I can make.”  She leaned back in the rocker and set it back in motion with her foot.  “I got a tidy bit tucked away now.  Had I known it would bring in so much money so fast, I never would have sold that land.@  She sighed, then smiled and rocked contentedly.  “But that’s water under the bridge.  Shouldn’t have to sell anymore land now.”  Granny chuckled.  “That should keep Earl happy.”

Becky nodded in agreement.  She knew Grampa Earl would have been even more upset if his Jo wanted for anything and held onto the land just so she could starve to death in her own home or lost it altogether.  But that didn’t stop the waves of guilt washing over her for not realizing that Granny had hit hard times.  Becky should have been able to read it in her letters, but she hadn’t.  Either she’d been too concerned with her own troubles or Granny had managed to cover it up with cheery news of the valley and the people in it

“Why didn’t you tell me? I could have sent you some money or come home and been here to help.  Maybe then you could have kept the land.”

Granny patted her arm.  “Honey, I do turn on that TV in the front room from time to time.  I’m not entirely ignorant of what goes on outside this valley.  I know social workers don’t get paid a whole lot.  I never expected you to send money.”

“But—”

“No buts about it.  You had your own life and your own expenses.  You didn’t need to be sending it home. Besides, I managed to work it out by myself anyway.”

Granny’s no-nonsense reply ended the conversation.  But it did nothing to erase Becky’s guilt about not being there for her grandmother when she needed her or Becky’s misgivings about having a strange city man living right on their doorstep.*

Buy a copy of HAWKES MOUNTAIN at:

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

Borders

—————————-

Best-selling, award-winning Elizabeth Sinclair is the author of twenty romance novels.  She is currently writing the third book in the Hawks Mountain series.  Book 2, SUMMER ROSE, will be released in Jan. 2012.

Visit Elizabeth’s website at: www.elizabethsinclair.com.

 

 

 

 

 

Kissing Kelli by Kathy Carmichael

Kissing Kelli
by Kathy Carmichael

Publisher: MacGowan Press
Romantic Comedy
February 2011
Format: eBook

 

 

 

 

 
@ 2011 by Kathy Carmichael

EXCERPT

“I have always had a hard time leisurely reading any of Kathy Carmichael’s books and this one was no exception. This delightful story is sure to please her many and varied fans!”

~ Kathy Boswell, Fresh Fiction

PROLOGUE

 

Even barn cats deserve love—and medical care. Veterinarian Kelli Palmer entered the barn at her family’s home with her medical bag in one hand and a large can of tuna in the other.

 

The stable manager, Fred, greeted her. He was nearing seventy, but no one would have suspected it by the way he moved. He was more physically fit than most men half his age. “Want me to saddle up Bronc for you? Lori is out on Felix right now.”

 

“No, thanks.” Kelli hadn’t seen her sister Lori in a couple of weeks and hoped they’d meet up before she left. Maybe they could even do lunch. “I’m not here to ride today, Fred.”

 

He looked at the bag in her hand. “None of the horses are sick.”

 

“It’s not that. The mama cat had kittens and they all need vaccines.”

 

His brow shot up, but he didn’t say a word.

 

He didn’t have to. She’d heard it all before. But she was a veterinarian for a reason. She loved animals. All animals. Even barn cats. “I know what you’re thinking, but they deserve to be looked after. They look after us and the horses by making sure we don’t have any rodents.”

 

He smiled. “The fact you care is one of the things we all love about you, Kelli. I’ll leave you to it.”

 

He turned and went back to work mucking out one of the stalls.

 

Kelli went to the center of the barn and breathed in the heady aroma of freshly laid hay. The barn was quiet except for the soft sound of horses in their stalls.

 

She had spent many hours in this barn throughout her childhood. Her love for the animals and the hushed solitude were, in part, what led her to become a veterinarian.

 

A whinny captured her attention. “Hello, Mable.”

 

Kelli stepped over to greet the grey and ran a hand down her soft muzzle. At one time Mable had been her horse, but now belonged to Kelli’s youngest sister.  “You’re such a sweet girl.”

 

She took a few minutes to distribute the sugar cubes she’d brought with her as well as a few hugs to the various horses in the barn. Once this fun task was completed, she stepped to the center of the aisle.

 

She opened the tuna, calling, “Kitty, kitty.”

 

Within minutes, eight cats and kittens magically appeared by her side.

 

It didn’t take long to administer both shots and tuna. The cats seemed more than satisfied by the trade-off.

 

As she rose to her feet, a gelding trotted into the barn and headed right for Kelli. He had to be Lori’s new horse, Felix. They hadn’t met yet. He was beautiful, with a healthy coat and clear eyes. The cats and kittens dispersed, running back into the rafters. As soon as the horse got within touching distance, he nuzzled against her.

 

“Hello, lover.” She’d run out of sugar cubes, so didn’t have anything to offer. She ran her fingers down his muzzle. “It’s nice to meet you, too.”

 

She heard Lori’s angry footsteps before seeing her. She stalked into the barn with her hands fisted on her hips. “I might have known.”

 

“What?”

 

“Just like my men. They all come running to you.”

 

“This?” Felix butted his head gently against her. “I’m sure he just smells the tuna.”

 

“What is it about you and my men? I just don’t get it.”

 

It was an argument they’d been having since puberty. Lori was a beautiful woman, petite, graceful and elegant. Everything Kelli wasn’t. Kelli was the tomboy to all of her five sisters’ princess-like demeanor.

 

Sometimes she felt like one of the barn cats when she was around them. They looked every inch the pedigreed and pampered show cat to her scrawny and leggy alley cat. Why any man—or horse—would choose her over any of them didn’t make sense, especially not over Lori. “He’s just being friendly. Aren’t you, boy?”

 

Lori let out an exasperated sigh. “Just leave my men alone.” She grabbed Felix’s reins and led him to an empty stall. “Let’s get you brushed down. I know you love that.”

 

Kelli waited a minute, before reacting. But it bothered her that Lori would think Kelli would ever go after one of her boyfriends. How many times did they have to repeat the same arguments? What could she say now that would be any different from the times before?

 

At last she paced the few feet to the opening of the stall where Lori was brushing down Felix. “Lori, you know you’re my dear little sister, don’t you?”

 

She looked up, puffed at her bangs, and reluctantly answered, “Yeah, I know.”

 

“I wouldn’t ever do anything to deliberately hurt you.”

 

Lori nodded. “I know.”

 

“Good. So we’re good then?”

 

Just as she thought she had finally gotten their sisterly relationship back on an even keel, Felix pushed Lori aside to nuzzle Kelli again. She closed her eyes, knowing that Lori wouldn’t be happy.

 

But Lori laughed. “You just can’t win, can you?”

 

Kelli’s eyes shot open. “You’re not mad at me?”

 

“As long as you’re not secretly toting carrots or sugar cubes, how can I be?”

 

“My pockets are empty.”

 

Lori reached over and gave her a hug, which Kelli returned in full force. God, how she adored her sister.

 

“So what do you think of my new horse?”

 

“He’s fantastic.” Kelli smiled. She and Lori were getting along better and better. It wouldn’t be long before they became the closest of friends again, just like they had been in childhood.

 

~~~~~~

CHAPTER ONE

 

July Fourth

 

Bobby Gray Nelson ducked into the Nelson Ranch dining room, trying to avoid his brother. Monty Joe was in a mood and Bobby Gray knew why, or rather, was the direct cause of Monty Joe’s particular affliction.

 

Not that Bobby Gray deserved the negative attention. Although the Nelson Family interests were more than financially sound—in fact the two brothers were among the wealthiest bachelors in the country—Monty Joe was determined to run the show.

 

The two brothers and their sister, Charlie, were equal partners in their ranch and cattle business. As the oldest of their sibling unit, Monty Joe believed he should make all the decisions.

 

That had been fine when they were young.

 

But not anymore.

 

Bobby Gray had taken a stand.

 

After their parents passed away, Monty Joe had been risk adverse. He wanted to continue running the business in the same way it had been managed while their folks had been alive.

 

For the most part, Bobby Gray agreed. Although he didn’t plan to make huge changes, not moving with the times could be detrimental. Diversifying their interests would help ensure the future success of the Nelson Ranch.

 

“Where’s my dang blasted brother?” called Monty Joe.

 

Bobby Gray’s cell phone chose that moment to go off and he sidled into the butler’s pantry. “’Lo?” he whispered, hoping Monty Joe hadn’t heard the strains of God Bless Texas emanating from the phone. While Bobby Gray was willing to stand up for the decisions he’d made, he wasn’t quite ready yet to face his brother.

 

“Hey, Bobby Gray. It’s Lori Palmer.”

 

“Hey.” The flight attendant. It seemed a little odd that she would call him. They’d been on one date and there hadn’t been any zing. Although they’d enjoyed each other’s company, he hadn’t expected to hear from her again. “What’s up?”

 

“I wonder if I could convince you to catch the next flight to Dallas? It’s my family’s big July Fourth party and my date reneged on me. It would be too embarrassing to attend without a handsome fellow like you. It’ll be lots of fun, and if that doesn’t entice you, there will be awesome fireworks.”

 

Normally Bobby Gray would have declined immediately, but just then he heard his brother yelling a series of expletives that had even Bobby Gray’s ears blushing. All because he’d taken the opportunity, while his brother was out of town, to have Monty Joe’s favorite mare bred. What had Monty Joe all grieved was the expensive stud fee—and the fact Bobby Gray had taken a stand at all.

 

Bobby Gray stared down at his cowboy boots—all gnarled leather and stains. They were about as beat up as his self assurance.

 

Monty Joe would probably have never been the wiser, at least not until the mare showed, if he hadn’t returned from Houston two days early.

 

While Bobby Gray knew he needed to stand up to his brother, it wasn’t easy. He’d taken the easy way out by acting while Monty Joe was otherwise occupied. Given time, Bobby Gray would have found a good way to tell his brother.

 

But he knew, deep in his gut, that breeding the mare had been the correct step—with or without his brother’s approval. They’d long-since made their name on cattle, but breeding horses had the potential to create a steady and rising profit for the ranch.

 

“The fireworks sound like fun,” Bobby Gray whispered into the cell phone. “Are you asking me out on a date?”

 

“Not really. But you’ll be doing me a big favor because I hate the idea of showing up without an escort. I wouldn’t invite you if I didn’t think you’d have a good time, though.”

 

“So we’re going as friends.”

 

“Exactly. I need a male escort and I think you’d get along with my family. Nothing more.”

 

That was the way he felt, so it seemed even more okay to go along with her idea. He certainly didn’t want to give her the wrong impression. Lori was nice, but she reminded him a lot of his little sister. Before he could speak, he heard his brother bellowing.

 

“Li’l Brother—I find you and you won’t be walking again for a month,” hollered Monty Joe.

 

“I’m leaving now,” Bobby Gray said into the cell phone.

 

“Great,” said Lori. “I’ll have an airline pass waiting for you.”

 

Bobby Gray disconnected the call, grabbed his Stetson off the kitchen table and dashed out the back door just before Monty Joe reached the kitchen.

 

Getting out of town for a few days seemed like a great idea. It would give Monty Joe time to cool down.

 

 

KELLI PALMER WAS A WOMAN on a mission. She added an extra dollop of Miracle Whip to the deviled egg mixture she was working on. She wore jeans and a T-shirt and knew she looked out of place in the state-of-the-art high-tech kitchen at the Palmoral estate.

 

But she was home, exactly where she needed to be. Her boss had wanted her to fly out of town for a fund-raiser, but her mom would never have forgiven her for missing the annual July Fourth family get-together and celebration. But she had no need to miss it. It was perfect for finding a slew of potential donors for the North Texas Equestrian Rescue where she worked as a volunteer.

 

Kelli added three tablespoons of sweet pickle relish to her deviled egg mixture and wiped her chin with the dish rag on the counter, making a mess in the process. She got a clean paper towel and tried to clean up the dollops of relish, but succeeded only in making everything around her sticky.

 

She might actually need sticky fingers because she’d always depended on her dad to make up for what she couldn’t squeeze out of the guests. The horses needed the money so badly, but her father had told her she had to stand on her own two feet now, and besides, he’d already donated more than his quota.

 

Kelli sighed. It was true, but that hadn’t deterred her dad from helping out in the past. It was for a really important cause. One look at the horses she tended would convince the coldest of hearts.

 

She’d done pretty well hitting up Uncle Fernando and Aunt Julia. But she needed more. Much more.

 

Thinking about those poor horses nearly broke her heart. How many hard-working animals had been abandoned or destroyed? Horses deserved better in their old age.

 

She’d thrown herself, heart and soul, into looking after animals. Why not? She’d long since given up dreams of romance. The few men she’d dated had quickly cured her of any illusions.

 

While she wasn’t unattractive, she figured she was too much of a tomboy to attract the sort of manly man she was most interested in.

 

And speaking of manly men—at that moment a good-looking cowboy stormed into her kitchen, evidently in some sort of argument on his cell phone, judging by the loud grunts and noises he made on this end.

 

She could hear a lot of the other end of the conversation, too, which said a lot about the decibel level of the shouting there. The words louse and stud fees stood out as among the few that should have been repeated in mixed company.

 

She took a cautious peek through her bangs, but didn’t recognize him. That was strange. After she’d dated a guy who’d turned to pestering her family when she broke up with him, it was unusual to find any unattended stranger at the Palmoral estate. But if it were going to happen, Independence Day would be the day. It was an especially important holiday to her family, even though they had such strong ties to the tiny European monarchy Valrovia.

 

The event was huge, with all the Palmers, of course, and all of Kelli’s American aunts and uncles, along with their families. If that weren’t enough, everyone was encouraged to drag in any friends they could lasso for the barbecue and a massive fireworks show that any city would be proud to host.

 

Kelli’s mother, Elizabeth of Valrovia, was a royal princess. Kelli’s father, Clark Palmer, had been a smitten billionaire playboy. Both were hounded by the media, so the family had been forced to be more careful about who was allowed past the estate’s gate. Still, the guest list hit two hundred for Independence Day.

 

But security was tight enough that the cowboy had to have been especially invited by a family member. She wondered who.

 

She could tell he was the Real Deal. The cut of his jeans, the wear and tear on his boots and his bowlegged walk all said he was a working cowboy.

 

Although his clothing was clean, a pleasant cattle and horse aroma wafted her way. His fingers were weathered and callused. This was a man who worked with his hands and toiled long and hard in the fields. His dark hair sported streaks of blond from extended hours outside in the sun.

 

His lively green eyes were checking her out as thoroughly as she was looking him over.

 

Kelli quickly lowered her gaze to the deviled eggs she was working on and hoped he couldn’t see the faint blush climbing her neck.

 

She grabbed a fork, preparing to stuff the egg whites. A masculine hand grazed the top of her palm.

 

She gasped.

 

“Whoa,” said Bobby Gray. His entire frame jolted at the contact with her hand. Every nerve ending in his body stood at attention. Amazingly, it was a lot like the feeling he got when he climbed on a bull and waited for the gate to be released—an adrenalin rush sending his stomach plummeting.

 

He had reached out to her intending to ask her to tell his dang-blasted brother that Bobby Gray was at the estate, not at home and not within quick driving distance, either.

 

He hadn’t expected this reaction to her—a feeling he didn’t know how to describe in words other than dizzying. There was something about her expressive wide eyes and smile, each setting off the most appealing nose he’d ever seen on a woman.

 

She wasn’t caked in makeup and layers of hair lacquer like most of the women he met—she was naturally pretty. She was also covered in Miracle Whip, but that didn’t dampen his immediate awareness of her femininity.  A basic yin yang, he = man and she = woman.

 

There was a lot more to her than a guy would first expect.

 

Either that or her deviled egg recipe contained pheromones.

 

“Are you there, Bro?” Monty Joe’s voice came loudly from the cell phone.

 

“Hang on,” Bobby Gray said into the phone as he realized he was still clutching the pretty girl’s hand. He turned to her, summoning up what he hoped was a whole truckload of charm. At least, the 150 watt smile he turned on her was his best weapon for convincing women to do what he wanted—most of the time.

 

Even fierce Mrs. “Stone“ Wall back in fourth grade had let him off the hook after he’d set the class guinea pig free. Surely one gorgeous blonde wasn’t proof against it. “Hey, I’m Bobby Gray.”

 

“Kelli Palmer,” she replied, concentrating on her eggs and missing out on his smile.

 

Drat. This was harder than he’d expected.

 

She’d said her name was Palmer. Palmer? “Another sister in the Palmer dynasty?”

 

She shook off his hand. “Second oldest.”

 

“I thought Barbara was second oldest.”

 

“No.”

 

“Your name’s Kelli?”

 

“Dr. Kelli Palmer.”

 

“MD?”

 

“Vet.”

 

Her attitude was so formal, he couldn’t resist teasing her a little. “Pleased to meet you, Dr. Princess.”

 

Her shoulders stiffened and he liked the way she got all huffy. “I work too hard to be labeled as someone who lies around in a tiara and feathers.”

 

He fought back a grin because she might misinterpret it. “You’re pretty enough to be.”

 

She rolled her eyes, but she didn’t walk away—a very good sign.

 

“What are you making?”

 

“Deviled eggs.”

 

“One of my favorite foods.” He pointed to the jar on the counter. “Especially when made with Miracle Whip instead of mayonnaise. You don’t add celery to it, do you?”

 

“Nope. Just a little celery seed.” She offered him a spoonful of the mixture for him to try.

 

“Perfect. You’re a woman after my own heart.” All the while they talked—or as Bobby Gray preferred to think of it, sweet-talked—Monty Joe’s hollering could be heard from the cell phone speaker. Now that Kelli was looking at Bobby Gray, it was time to turn on the smile again. Amy Llewellyn had once told him this particular smile of his had made her forget she didn’t like him.

 

Again, fourth grade.

 

It had been a few years since then, but he didn’t think he’d lost his touch. He grinned at Kelli, who had long-lashed brown eyes and a high-wattage smile of her own. Hmmm. “Don’t suppose you’d do me a favor?”

 

“Depends on the favor.” She frowned and then added, “Say, you aren’t the rodeo star, are you?”

 

She must have recognized the smile. He grinned, showing his teeth. Dealing with women could be very much like dangling candy in front of children. “You could say that.”

 

“I’ve always been a big fan of your brother.”

 

“Monty Joe?” A twinge of jealousy jabbed Bobby Gray’s innards. “Yeah, everyone thinks he’s great.”

 

“Well, he’s good.” She paused thoughtfully, then added, “but I always thought you were better at hanging onto your bronco.”

 

A combination of surprise and pride washed over Bobby Gray. He couldn’t believe how bashful he felt, but he finally managed to mutter, “Thanks.”

 

The noise spewing from the cell phone got through to him again, so he lowered the hand holding it and pushed the microphone against his jeans so his brother couldn’t overhear. “My brother’s a bit,” he paused to choose the right word, “miffed with me right now.”

 

“Why’s that?”

 

“I paid a goodly amount for a stud fee to breed his mare without his say so.”

 

“How much?”

 

He cleared his throat, then muttered, “Thirty thousand.”

 

“Dollars?”

 

He nodded.

 

“I can see why that might miff him.”

 

“It’s chicken feed to him. He’s just cheap.”

 

“And you’re not?”

 

He placed his palm over his heart. “You wound me.”

 

“I’ll be happy to do you a favor—if you’ll do one for me.”

 

“What’s your favor?”

 

“Isn’t that where we started? You tell me your favor and I’ll tell you mine.” She batted her come-hither lashes at him and he wondered whether he was being had rather than vice versa. Another hmmm.

 

He pointed at his cell phone. “Tell my brother where we are and that I don’t have a car.”

 

“Done. Hand me the phone,” she said quickly.

 

Too quickly.

 

Her crinkled up nose reminded him of his mother’s and how, when she was living, she’d crinkle her nose when she was putting one past him.

 

Bobby Gray narrowed his eyes at Kelli and held the phone suspended away from her. “What’s your favor?”

 

“I’m looking for donors for my charity—North Texas Equestrian Rescue. I’ll put you down.”

 

He started to hand her the cell phone, but that enticing nose crinkled again. He could swear he saw a gleam of avarice in her eyes, too. “How much?”

 

“What?” she asked innocently, and he knew without a doubt that he’d most certainly been had by this slip of a girl whose waist was tinier than the circle made when he joined his hands together.

 

“Exactly how much are you putting me down for?”

 

“Ahh.” She gnawed her lower lip and it made him itch to get in on the action.

 

“Yes?”

 

“You paid a huge stud fee and didn’t so much as flinch.”

 

He had difficulty concentrating on her words when her nose wriggled enchantingly. What was wrong with him? He needed a straight head to deal with her. Where was a bucket of cold water when he needed it? He turned on the faucet at the kitchen sink and dabbed his fingers on one hand into the running water. “How much?”

 

She named an amount as large as the stud fee.

 

“Wha—whaht?” he managed to choke out when he could stop sputtering. Maybe he should have dunked his entire head in the sink.

 

“The horses really need it. You’re the answer to lots of prayers. You’re so successful and a great visionary. We could really use a guy like you during your spare t—”

 

He placed two fingers over her lips to stop her from further sucking up. He sighed. This was going to be the most expensive phone call he’d ever experienced, but he couldn’t turn down the owner of those deep brown eyes shining at him like he was some knight.

 

Besides, he had to stop her before she asked for more than merely cash. She didn’t know that, although he was worth millions, he was only a cowboy and pretty worthless otherwise.

 

It also occurred to him that she was an answer to an unspoken prayer. He needed a second favor. One that would get him out of trouble with his brother and make sure the Nelson Ranch would remain financially stable for his lifetime and the lifetimes of generations to come.

 

Many people thought as far ahead as their next meal or rent payment. But none of the Nelsons were like that. Each felt responsible for seeing to it that the Nelson Ranch prospered, if not through eternity, at least for as long as possible. They owed it to their parents and their legacy.

 

Bobby Gray was no exception. Looking out for his future grandkids and great-grandkids was as important to him as looking after his own personal interests.

 

What doesn’t grow often dies, so the Nelsons wanted to expand their holdings. They needed millions for the grand scale they planned. While Monty Joe wanted to expand only what they were already doing, which Bobby Gray agreed they needed, he also had great plans for diversifying—and it wouldn’t take millions for that.

 

Kelli Palmer could definitely help.

 

Running the toe of one boot over the top of the other, he said, “Fine. I sure enjoy being an answer to your prayers—”

 

She threw her arms around him, somehow smearing him with deviled-egg goop in the process. Somehow he didn’t mind in the least.

 

The posh date he needed for the big upcoming dinner with the Nelson Ranch banker would soon be in the bag. Monty Joe would quickly forget both the stud fee and the charitable donation if Bobby Gray managed to snag the daughter of a royal princess as his dinner date that night. The banker, Ed Juarez, was bonkers over anything to do with royalty. Bobby Gray mentally chalked one up for himself.

 

And Kelli felt just about perfect in his arms.

 

Bobby Gray drew in a deep lung-full of her pure womanly scent and wanted to keep on inhaling, but Monty Joe started shouting again.

 

At the same instant, Bobby Gray’s date for today, Lori, came in the kitchen. She took one look at Kelli in his arms. She emitted an ear-splitting scream, did an about face and hightailed it outta there.

 

Kelli, the most intriguing armful he’d ever held, pushed away from him and shouted, “It’s not what you think, Lori.”

 

She chased after her sister, yelling, “I didn’t steal your boyfriend!”

 

Bull puppies! Just when things had gotten interesting.

 

And he still needed to make arrangements for their dinner date with his banker.

 

Bobby Gray pocketed his phone and dashed after both women.

 

————————————————

Visit Kathy Carmichael’s website.

Buy Kathy’s KISSING KELLI ebook on Kindle.  (NOTE:  for a limited time, copies are discounted to 99 cents.)

 

 

HOMETOWN DAD by MERRILLEE WHREN

 

 

 

 

 

HOMETOWN DAD
Publisher: Harlequin
Genre: Inspirational romance
Pub date: Feb. 1, 2011
ISBN:  978-0-373-87651-8
Format:  Mass Market Paperback

 

© 2011, Merrillee Whren

Chapter One

 

“Anxiety knotted Melanie Drake’s stomach as she pushed open the heavy glass door leading into the Kellerville National Bank. Her seven- and eight-year-old sons, Andrew and Ryan, raced ahead, chasing each other around the deposit counter in the middle of the floor. As she tried to corral them, their laughter and the slap of their tennis shoes on the marble floor seemed to echo off the walls of the cavernous lobby with its cherry paneling and granite columns. Their misbehavior did nothing to soothe her frazzled mind.

Melanie grabbed each of the boys by an arm and pulled them to a stop. Letting go to adjust the satchel she’d slung over her shoulder, she leaned over and looked them in the eye. She forced herself not to raise her voice. “You two, settle down. Now.”

When a teller gave them a disapproving look, Melanie feared her harsh whisper hadn’t been as quiet as she’d intended. Staring at her wide-eyed, the boys nodded and said nothing.

“Okay, then.” She tried to put on a happy face, even though nothing was going as planned today. She guided the boys to a couple of navy leather chairs situated against a wall near the bank offices. “Sit here.”

Andrew and Ryan settled on the oversized chairs, and she handed them each a book. Ryan surveyed the book then, looked up, wrinkling his nose. “Do I have to read this? It looks boring.”

“I’ll read it.” Andrew snatched it from Ryan’s hand.

“Hey, I want that.” Ryan grabbed it back.

While Melanie tried to take charge of her warring sons, a stern-faced woman approached. “May we help you?”

Melanie took a calming breath and met the woman’s critical gaze. “Yes, I’m Melanie Drake and I have an appointment with Nathan Keller at three-thirty.”

“Mr. Keller should be with you shortly.” The woman glanced at her watch, then toward the office where Nathan Keller was clearly visible through the large window. She looked down her nose at the boys before turning her attention back to Melanie. “You’re welcome to wait right here.”

“Thanks.” Melanie sat on one of the chairs opposite Ryan and Andrew and breathed a sigh of relief as the unsmiling woman resumed her position behind a desk at the far side of the lobby.

“Mom, he touched me.” Ryan pushed Andrew’s arm.

Standing, Melanie glared at her sons and pointed to the chair next to hers. “Ryan, over here.”

“Okay.” Ryan jumped up and obeyed her orders.

After he was seated, she hunkered down between them. “I know you guys don’t want to be here, but if you can’t behave while I have this meeting, I won’t hesitate to make my excuses and leave. You’ll both be grounded, and I won’t unground you until I see improvement in your behavior. Do you understand?”

They nodded, their little faces solemn, but Melanie wasn’t sure they believed her. She sat down and plucked a paperback novel from her satchel. Although she tried to read, her thoughts wandered to her children. Some of their bad behavior was the result of her lax discipline since their father had died. She was working on being a better disciplinarian, but sometimes she found the task difficult. She knew how much her little boys missed their father and hated to make them feel worse by scolding them.

A single mom, she had all of the parental responsibilities, making for extra stress in her life. People from church stepped in from time to time to help her out, but it wasn’t the same as having Tim there to share the parenting duties. She tried to remember that God was with her and would see her through, but she sometimes forgot that one important truth.

Every day was another step toward learning to deal with her grief. She wasn’t going to let that sadness keep her from being the best parent for her boys. Loving them and caring for them was her top priority.

She’d been putting on a brave face for her sons, but some days were really hard. She’d made a lot of progress in the past two years, maybe not as much as she would have liked. She wanted Ryan and Andrew to have a bright future, and part of that meant having this meeting with someone who knew investment strategies and could help her make the first move in getting her financial life in order. That’s why she was here.

Melanie glanced toward the office where Nathan Keller talked with an older couple. Could he help her? His sandy brown hair, cut in a neat short style, gave him a business-like appearance. Did his serious demeanor mean she could trust him to give her the advice she needed?

Although she was a friend of Nathan’s cousin, Juliane, and they attended the same church, Melanie didn’t know him very well. His father was the bank president, and his mother taught at the local college. They were prominent people in the little town of Kellerville. According to Juliane, Nathan was being groomed to take over the bank when his father retired. Melanie had to believe Nathan could answer her financial questions.

Her stomach churning, she looked back at Ryan and Andrew and hoped she could get through the afternoon without another outburst from them. If the boys misbehaved during the meeting, she would be mortified. Would Nathan look down his nose at her the same as the woman behind the desk had?

Melanie felt as though she’d spent most of her life dealing with people who looked down on her because of her upbringing. Her late husband’s parents were people like that. Ever since she’d met them, she’d been trying to show them she deserved their respect, not their disdain. She didn’t want to think about them and forced herself to concentrate on her book.

“Mrs. Drake.” A deep male voice startled her. “I’m sorry to keep you waiting. It’s nice to see you.”

“That’s okay, and it’s good to see you, too.” Standing, Melanie looked up into Nathan’s brown eyes—brown, the color of her morning tea. They exuded warmth. Despite the kindness in them, her thoughts skittered. She hadn’t realized she was so nervous, but the notion of making the wrong decision about the money she’d inherited had kept her from making any decision at all. “Thanks for meeting with me.”

“The bank is here to serve you.”

As he shook her hand, she tried to ignore the little prickles that raced up her arm. Melanie looked over at her sons. “These are my boys, Andrew and Ryan. I didn’t intend to bring them, but my sitter cancelled at the last minute. I didn’t have time to find another one.”

Nathan looked over at the youngsters. Melanie watched to see his reaction. He smiled. Kindness radiated from his smile just as it had from his eyes. “Hello. Which one is Ryan?”

“Me.” Ryan sprang from the chair.

Not to be outdone, Andrew pushed his way in front of Ryan. “And I’m Andrew.”

Melanie wanted to scold Andrew, but she’d done enough scolding already. Besides, she was too embarrassed to correct her sons in front of this man, who was a VIP in Kellerville.

Nathan shook hands with each of the boys. “I’m glad to meet you, Andrew and Ryan.”

The tension in Melanie’s shoulders eased as the boys politely returned Nathan’s handshake. At least they remembered some of the manners she’d taught them.

Nathan escorted them into his office and indicated that Melanie should sit in the wood frame armchair at the side of his desk. Grabbing two armless chairs, he set them in the corner in front of a small desk containing a computer. “You guys can sit here, and if you promise not to tell anyone, I’ll let you play one of my games.”

“We won’t tell.” Ryan glanced at Andrew. “Will we?”

Shaking his head, Andrew looked at Melanie, then back at Nathan. “I won’t, but what about our mom?”

Winking, Nathan grinned at her. “What about it, Mom? Will you keep our secret?”

“Sure. Your secret’s safe with me.” Melanie noticed for the first time how Nathan’s grin made a nice looking man twice as handsome. But this wasn’t the time to let a heart-stopping grin make her realize the way his broad shoulders filled out his gray pinstriped suit. She’d barely been aware of him when they’d met in passing at church during the last two years. Why was she noticing so much about him today?

While Nathan gave the boys instructions about the game and outfitted them each with a set of headphones, Melanie tried to collect her thoughts. Despite Nathan’s affability, her mind whirled. She shouldn’t be this nervous. He was trying to put her at ease, but for some reason, his smile had her thoughts scrambled. She gripped the satchel and took a shaky breath. Finally, she squared her shoulders and looked at him as he settled on the chair behind his desk.

“What can I do to help you?” He smiled again.

Her heart hammered. She didn’t want him to think she was a complete dunderhead, but she felt out of her league talking about investments. Trying to remember the little speech she’d practiced, she pulled a folder from the satchel and laid it on the desk. “You know I’m a hygienist in your uncle’s dental practice. Dr. Joe told me that I should see you about some financial advice.”

“Yes, good ole Dr. Joe. He’s always looking out for his employees.” Nathan patted the folder. “What do you have here?”

“My financial papers.”

“What kind of financial advice are you looking for?”

“I’m not sure.”

Nathan picked up the file. “May I look through this?”

Studying Nathan’s demeanor as he thumbed through her papers, she hoped she hadn’t made a mistake in following Dr. Joe’s advice. Her boss was like the father she’d never had, and she trusted him to steer her in the right direction. But as she watched Nathan’s eyebrows knit in a little frown, she worried that she’d made the wrong decision.

Finally, Nathan looked up. Warmth still radiated from his eyes, but she detected a little curiosity, as well. “There’s a lot here. Do you want me to draw up a financial plan for you?”

“What exactly does that mean?”

“I can give you ideas about where to invest your money.” He glanced at Andrew and Ryan, who were thankfully quiet and busy with the video game. Looking back at her, Nathan nodded his head in the boys’ direction. “I imagine you want to put some of this in a college fund for them.”

“Yes.” Melanie nodded. “I’m sure you’re wondering why it’s taken me two years to do something about this.”

Nathan shook his head. “No, I imagine you’ve had to collect yourself after a shocking, life-changing experience. Sometimes, it’s better to do nothing than to make emotional decisions that you might regret later.”

Melanie placed a hand over her heart. “Oh, you do understand. I just couldn’t bring myself to tackle the job. Every time I thought about it I would…”

Closing her eyes, Melanie pressed her lips together. She wouldn’t fall apart now. Tim was gone. She couldn’t bring him back. He would always have a place in her heart, but she had to pick up all of the pieces of her life and move on. That included the money from Tim’s life insurance that she’d let sit in the bank and his other investments that she hadn’t paid enough attention to.

She summoned her courage. The LORD is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation. The words from a Psalm she’d recently memorized as part of her grief recovery group flitted through her mind, giving her peace for the moment. When her husband Tim had died from an aneurysm at the young age of thirty-four, she’d started the group as a church ministry. Somehow she felt as though she should have it all together by now, rather than letting memories of Tim make her feel weepy two year later.

“Are you okay?”

At the sound of Nathan’s soothing voice, Melanie opened her eyes and tried to smile. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to let this affect me. I’m doing better, but as you see, looking at this stuff brings back all the sorrow.”

“So you’ve been putting it off?”

“Exactly. Thank you. Thank you for recognizing the difficulty I’ve been having.” Melanie smiled. This time it was genuine, not forced. “I’m trying to move on with my life.”

Nathan nodded. “You are. Just the fact that you came to see me shows that.”

“Dr. Joe has been such a help to me. I’m so glad he suggested that I get your financial advice. You’ve made me feel better already.”

“Good. I’m here to help you.” Nathan closed the folder. “Do you mind if I keep this and look it over more fully? That’ll give me time to formulate some recommendations for you. Then we can meet again and get a better understanding of your needs.”

“Okay. When would you like to get together?”

“At your convenience.”

What would another meeting with Nathan bring? Melanie couldn’t forget how this initial encounter made her heart race, but that was from nervousness, wasn’t it? She barely knew the man. How could there be any other reason?

“Mom, he’s cheating.” Andrew’s voice made Melanie jump, short-circuiting her response about another meeting. Embarrassed, she hurried to the corner to negotiate the peace. She’d been doing a lot of that lately.

“I’m not cheating. He’s just a sore loser.” Jerking off the headphones, Ryan stared at her.

Andrew also removed his headphones. “I wouldn’t lose, if he didn’t cheat.”

“The game is over for both of you.” Melanie didn’t want to turn and face Nathan. What must he think after he’d been so nice to allow them to play? She couldn’t slink away, although she wished she could. Gathering her courage, she turned to Nathan. “I’m sorry about this. I’d better take them home.”

“That’s okay. I’ll give you a call after I’ve had time to study this?” He held up the folder.

“That would be fine. Thanks.” Melanie could hardly wait to make her exit as she moved toward the door.

Nathan accompanied her and opened it for her. “I’ll call you in a few days.”

“I’ll be waiting to hear from you.” As Melanie ushered her sons out of Nathan’s office, she couldn’t imagine what he must be thinking. It all had to be awful—everything from her sons’ misbehavior to her inability to keep her emotions in check had shown her in a bad light. He must surely think she was a basket case with a couple of miscreants on her hands. How was she going to face him again? Maybe they could work out the details of her investments by phone and e-mail, and she wouldn’t have to see him again. But whatever happened, she wasn’t going to let the investments fall by the wayside again, no matter what she had to do.

She’d overcome a terrible childhood, and she would make sure her kids never had to suffer the way she had.

Standing in his office door, Nathan watched Melanie and her sons leave the bank. Her dark brown hair shone in the warm sunshine of a late May afternoon. He wasn’t sure what to make of his reaction to her. He could still see the sadness in her coffee-colored eyes. Her vulnerability made him feel as though he needed to protect her, even though he barely knew her.

Since she’d moved to town more than two years ago with her husband and children, Nathan had seen her on occasion at church, but their paths had rarely crossed. He’d never paid much attention to her before, but the attractive young widow certainly had his attention now.

Nathan strode across the lobby and gazed outside. Melanie was already out of sight, but she wasn’t out of his thoughts. She had her hands full with those live-wire boys. With a smile, he remembered his own childhood. He’d been exactly like them—full of mischief and always fighting with his older brother Marcus. Or maybe a more accurate description was trying to compete with him. Wasn’t he still trying to compete with Marcus? Their father was always bragging about some big deal that Marcus had closed. Nathan wanted that kind of attention. But he didn’t want to think about that. He’d rather think about the lovely widow.

Nathan felt an obligation to help her in whatever way he could, because single parents had double duty. Despite her attempt to put on a brave face, he could see that she was still struggling with her grief. What must a person go through when someone close to them died, especially a spouse? He had no idea. No one close to him had ever died. His parents, both sets of grandparents, brother and sister were still living. Yet, Melanie believed that he understood.

Wishing he knew more about her, Nathan stared out the glass doors toward the Kellerville town square where the courthouse stood. A gazebo graced the expansive lawn in front. As he stood there, the clock in the tower chimed four times. He supposed he should get back to work, but he couldn’t get Melanie off his mind. Maybe he should talk to his cousin Juliane. She and her husband Lukas babysat Melanie’s boys occasionally. Could Juliane shed any light on the young widow?

With a heavy sigh, Nathan turned toward his office. Then he spied Trudy Becker, who had given Melanie and her boys a rather disdainful look when they left the bank. She’d given the same look to him and his brother Marcus when they’d been kids. He hadn’t liked it then, and he didn’t like it now. Her expression prompted him not to wait, but to find out about Melanie today.

Nathan marched over to the loan officer’s desk. “Trudy, I have some personal business I have to take care of away from the bank. If anyone needs me, you can reach me on my cell.”

Not waiting for any comment from Trudy, Nathan left the bank. He hardly ever left the bank early, especially for a personal reason, and he enjoyed seeing the speculation in Trudy’s expression. He hated having bad thoughts about people, but the woman was sometimes unpleasant to be around. He often wondered why his father had hired her, but she’d been there since he was a kid. He hoped by the time he took over as president of the bank that she would be retired.

As Nathan crossed the square, he shook unpleasant thoughts from his head. He wanted to enjoy the beautiful spring day in this little southwestern Ohio town, where he’d grown up.

Quickening his step, he passed the gazebo surrounded by a rainbow of tulips. He headed straight across the square to Keller’s Variety, where Juliane worked for her father as manager. When he entered the store, the smell of potpourri and leather goods greeted him. Looking around, he spied Juliane as she helped a customer.

While he waited, he perused the merchandise that ranged from knickknacks to specialty clothing. “Variety” was definitely a good name for the store that his uncle Ray owned.

After the customer left the store, Juliane came his way. “Hi, Nathan. I’m surprised to see you here. What are you shopping for today?”

“Information. Do you have time to talk?”

Curiosity painting her face, Juliane glanced around the store. “No customers at the moment, so I guess so. What kind of information do you need?”

“Information about Melanie Drake?”

Juliane raised her eyebrows. “So you finally has a romantic interest—”

“Absolutely not. This is strictly business.”

Juliane chuckled. “I should’ve known. My nose-to-the-grindstone cousin doesn’t have time for romance. He’s in love with the bank.”

“You’re right. I love that bank. It’s what gets me up in the morning and makes my day.” Nathan knew his response would get a rise out of Juliane, but his life did revolve around work.

In the past few years, his dad had taken more and more time off as his parents did a little globetrotting. He left Nathan in charge. He knew this was his father’s way of testing him—to see whether he could run the bank. And Nathan intended to show his father that the bank would be in good hands when he retired.

“You’re no fun to tease.” Juliane swatted at him with one hand. “So why do you want to know about Melanie?”

Nathan wondered how he could get a handle on Melanie’s life without divulging her reason for coming into the bank. He’d have to keep his statements as vague as possible. “She was in the bank today with her two boys.”

“So what do you want to know?”

“How’s she doing? She seemed a little…ah…I guess you’d say lost.”

“Lost? Still grieving maybe, but not lost.” Grimacing, Juliane shook her head. “I thought she was doing better. Do you think she isn’t?”

“I don’t know. I sensed that she might feel a little overwhelmed with having to raise those boys by herself.”

“I’m sure it has to be hard without Tim. I should’ve been better about checking on her, but we haven’t visited as much since she went back to work.” Juliane sighed. “Maybe you should ask her out.”

“Don’t get any crazy ideas.”

“Come on. It would do you both good. You need some social life, and she’d probably like some adult conversation outside of work at least one evening a week.”

Nathan shook his head. “Don’t try to play matchmaker, Juliane. I’m the last person she needs to date. After what she went through with her husband, she probably isn’t looking for another man with a health problem.”

“Come on. It’s been at least two years since you’ve had a flare-up with your Crohn’s disease.”

Nathan dropped his gaze. He didn’t want her to guess that he’d had a couple of flare-ups that she didn’t know about. Keeping his health problems to himself was the way he liked to operate. He quietly sought treatment and definitely didn’t broadcast his difficulties. He knew the stress from work caused some of his problem, but work was what he lived for. “Are you forgetting that I’ve already been through one broken relationship because of it? I don’t need to have another one.”

“I haven’t forgotten, but Andrea didn’t deserve a good man like you. She was selfish and spoiled. I’m glad she broke up with you.”

“Wow! I had no idea you liked her so much.”

“Quit being sarcastic.” Juliane gave him an annoyed look. “You know she did you a favor by dumping you. You’d have been miserable being married to that…that—”

“Drop it. It’s history. Besides, I like my single life.”

Juliane laid a hand on Nathan’s arm. “I’m sorry I was grousing about your old girlfriend, but she treated you shabbily.”

“Let’s not talk about her.”

“Okay.” Juliane brightened. “Let’s talk about Melanie instead.”

Nathan narrowed his gaze. “Juliane.”

“I thought that’s why you came to see me.”

“I did, but I didn’t expect that you’d start with this matchmaking.” Nathan sighed. “So what do you think about getting her boys involved in the youth baseball league? They are so full of energy, so I thought playing baseball would be a good outlet for their liveliness. Has she ever mentioned signing them up?”

“Not that I recall?” Juliane gave him a puzzled look. “You mean you had to ask me whether you can recruit her kids for the bank’s youth baseball team?”

“No.” Nathan frowned. He had no idea he would invite Juliane’s matchmaking with his inquiry about Melanie and her kids. “I wanted to make sure she wouldn’t think I was interfering if I suggested the baseball for them. Also, I was just wondering how you think she’s doing these days.”

Juliane chuckled. “I don’t know about the baseball, but now that I’ve had a chance to think more about the two of you together, I like the idea.”

“Well, I don’t. So stop.”

Juliane gave him a Cheshire-cat grin. “Okay. If you say so.”

“Would she be receptive to a little help with her kids?”

“You’ll have to find that out for yourself. I can’t help you with that, but I can help you if you’d like to ask her out.”

“I won’t be asking for that kind of help.”

The bell over the door jangled as a woman entered the store. Saved by the bell. The old cliché couldn’t have been more appropriate.

“We’ll see.” Juliane hurried off to wait on the customer. “Remember what I said.”

“I’m sure you’ll remind me. I’ll talk to you later.” Annoyed, Nathan left the store and moseyed across the square toward the bank. His visit with Juliane had not gone as he’d planned. She not only didn’t give him any clue about Melanie’s state of mind, but Juliane had started that whole dating scenario. That was the last thing he wanted.

How was he going to get the answers he needed when even Juliane, who was as close to Melanie as anyone, didn’t seem to know what was going on with her? He wanted to help her, especially with her boys. From what he’d seen, they needed a male influence. He still wasn’t sure whether Melanie would think he was interfering unnecessarily if he interjected himself into her sons’ lives. Did he dare take a chance and ask?*

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Merrillee Whren is an award winning author. She writes contemporary inspirational romance for Harlequin’s Love Inspired line.

Visit Merrillee’s Web site: http://www.merrilleewhren.com/index.html

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