Archive | February 2012

Ebook Romance Stories: Character Interview “The Price of Silence”

The following is a feature story in the James Madison High School Chronicle on the recent controversial suspension of one of the student body’s newest members and Chronicle reporter, Robyn Lockhart.  It is not intended to influence the investigation into the incidents surrounding Miss Lockhart one way or the other.  It is only to give the students the chance to see the different sides of the story and decide for themselves.

Robyn Lockhart

Hero or Villain?

If given the chance, don’t call James Madison senior Robyn Lockhart brave.

Upon hearing that word, she will tell you, repeatedly, that moving from her former small town in Iowa to the big city took all of her courage before she ever even made it to James Madison.

“The truth is I didn’t want to come here,” Lockhart said in an interview from her home pending the investigation into the incidents leading to her suspension.  “When my parents split up, it was my mom who wanted to move here.  I was just part of the baggage she happened to bring along.”

However, it wasn’t long after her arrival in these halls that Lockhart began to make her mark through her stories in the Chronicle.

“Robyn Lockhart?” Principal Findley said.  “Yes. Yes. Of course I know her, but I’d rather not discuss the circumstances surrounding her status at the present time.  We will just wait to find out what the investigation uncovers.  Beyond that I have no comment.”

Others, however, were more willing to come to Lockhart’s defense.

“Let me tell you something,” Mr. Tucker, Chronicle advisor, said.  “Robyn Lockhart is nothing but an asset to this school.  She put herself on the line to get the administration to pay attention to the problems we’re having–not just once but several times.

“In fact, I’ve not met a more compassionate, concerned student in all my time here.  Robyn will stand up for what she believes in even if her very best friends are questioning how smart she is to do that.  Take Sean Hudson for example.  The other day in class the two of them got into this heated exchange over a poem that would have left a presidential candidate winded.

“If you ask me, James Madison needs more Robyn Lockharts rather than suspending the one we’ve got.”

Nevertheless, when this Chronicle reporter caught up with Chad Mayes, a James Madison senior and one of Lockhart’s reported friends, a different side of the story emerged.

“I’m not one to point fingers and think bad of people,” Mayes said.  “But when you see the evidence I saw in that hallway after that fight, well, what’s a guy to think, you know?  What is it they say, ‘Who are you going to believe–me or your lying eyes?’  Yeah. Evidence like I saw doesn’t lie no matter how much you might want it to.”

However, the longer one follows this story, the more angles one finds.  For instance, Kathryn Layton, a reporter with the Chronicle and reportedly one of Lockhart’s best friends, provided a very different take than Mayes who is her boyfriend.

“Robyn is no thief.  I can tell you that,” Kat, a James Madison senior, said.  “I don’t know how it happened, but I was there when it all went down at the school that night.  I’ll tell you this, Robyn did not do what they are accusing her of doing.  She was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s all.  I know Robyn Lockhart.  I trust Robyn Lockhart.  She is my friend.  You cannot tell me any of this was her fault.”

So, who is the real Robyn Lockhart?  Is she a thief or a hero who fights for justice and right?

“Don’t even go there with that whole villain story line,” Sean Hudson, Lockhart’s other good friend (obviously despite the flare-up in Mr. Tucker’s class), said.  “Robyn is a good person.  In fact, she is the best person I know.  She went into that school building the day after the break-in.  Why?  Because the students of James Madison deserve better than their getting right now that’s why.  She went in there, knowing she might get into trouble and knowing she was walking into a minefield.  But she went in.  For me and for you.  For all of us because she was trying to get to the bottom of all the junk that’s been happening around here.

“And if you’re wondering, the answer is yes.  I am talking about the break-in, but I’m talking about so much more than that.  I’m talking about the incident at the gym last February and the countless stolen items and instances of bullying that nobody wants to talk about.  Robyn may be just another student in the hallways, but she is a student who cares more about this school than most of us who have been here for years.  So put that in your little paper and give Robyn a break for a change already.  She doesn’t deserve all the nasty things people have been saying about her.”

So who is Robyn Lockhart?  Innocent small town girl?  Or dangerous thief and fomenter of trouble at James Madison?  We will leave that up to you and the investigators to decide.

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Ebook Romance Stories: Chapter 1, “A Little Piece of Heaven”

ALPH Cover New 1-10-2014A Little Piece of Heaven

The Faith Series, Book 2

by:  Staci Stallings

Chapter 1

“Aren’t they the cutest couple ever?” Emily Vasquez swooned as she and Holly Jacobs climbed the stately staircase on the way up to their dorm rooms. The lilt in her voice made her sound even younger than she was, but at the moment she was so happy for her friend, she didn’t care.

“Yeah, Rebecca seems really happy,” Holly agreed although her voice didn’t rise to the level of excitement Emily’s held. “I’m glad for her. She deserves it.”

With her hand on the banister, Emily climbed alongside Holly. “Tell me about it. I hope this semester evens out for her a little. She really had a rough one last semester.” Climbing and not thinking because of the late hour and the fatigue that was pulling her eyelids down, Emily stepped up three steps before she realized Holly hadn’t said anything in reply. When she glanced over at the young woman with the now-shortened but still platinum blonde hair, one look told her why. Head down and not looking up, Holly climbed, her shoulders sagging as if she was carrying something extremely heavy. Emily’s heart fell as why slammed into her. She of all people knew a major cause of Rebecca’s less-than-easy previous semester was in large part due to her roommate.

She retrained her gaze up the stairs as she tried to think of something to say that would take back the thoughtless comment, but short of turning back time, she could think of nothing. Finally, seeing no other option, she changed the subject. “I had fun tonight. I’m glad we went.”

Holly’s sad, tired gaze traveled over to her. “Yeah. Me, too.”

Just that look was enough to make Emily remember how desperate Rebecca’s roommate really was. “We’ll have to do it again sometime.” The brightness in her voice was forced, and she hated that. What she wanted to do was to stop and ask, to dig down into Holly to find out why she seemed so utterly devoid of enthusiasm, but she didn’t know Holly well enough to even ask the question.

Holly pulled herself up the last two steps. “Yeah. We’ll have to.”

At the third floor Holly turned for the next set of stairs, but Emily stopped. “I guess this is where I get off.”

“K.” Holly started up the next set of stairs.

Emily leaned over the above banister to be able to see Holly as she climbed to the next level. “Tell Rebecca I’ll see her for breakfast tomorrow.”

“K,” was all Holly said in reply. She didn’t even say good night just turned the corner of the stairs and climbed out of sight.

“That was good, Emily,” Emily berated herself as the suffering in Holly’s eyes transferred to her spirit. She wrapped her arms over themselves. “She really needed that kick in the teeth.”

On lead feet she walked to her room and unlocked it. The other side revealed an expanse of space dotted only with a bed and a nightstand angled from the corner one way and a desk angled in the opposite corner the other way. She kicked her bamboo flip flops off by the sink, glad she had thought to paint her toenails red before getting on the plane to come back to Boston. She would surely have missed that detail tonight with all the non-existent notice Rebecca had given them. Emily smiled at the thought of playing pool with Rebecca’s other friends. One face in particular drifted through her, and warmth spread over her thoughts. However, knowing those thoughts would take her nowhere she should go, she turned her attention to getting ready for bed.

It was nice to have a room to herself this year, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that without Dena, her roommate from the previous three semesters, this room was going to get very lonely very fast.

After removing her make-up and changing into her #7 black and gold sweatpants and T-shirt, she turned the light off, plunging the room into near-blackness. However, after a moment, there was enough silver-blue light from the opposite window to guide her to the bed where she clicked on the little blue reading light. In two days she would have to be using this time to study, but for tonight it was nice to have some time alone with her Bible.

She pulled the brown leather Bible her parents had given her for Confirmation out of its case on the nightstand and flipped it open. Taking a deep breath to push the rest of life away, she leaned back onto the wall and arched her gaze onto the words.

“But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’”

Emily laid her head back on the pale peach wall behind her. God always had a way of skewering her heart in case she hadn’t caught the message the first time. Guilt crashed through her. “I know, God. It was a stupid thing to say. I know Holly’s had a tough time. I just wish there was something Rebecca and I could do to help her. She seems so sad and so lonely. Even tonight with all of us there, it was like she didn’t want to have fun, like she didn’t want to get too close.” Her eyes closed on the hurt she found in her heart when she thought about Holly. “Please, Lord. Please. Help us to find a way to reach her. She needs You. I ask this in Your Name. Amen.”

After a moment her eyes came open, and she glanced down at the words again.

“…for man looks at outward appearances…”

Her heart tripped over the image of Rebecca’s friends. They were a tight-knit group, even Jeremy, the one with no clear partner, seemed woven in with them irreversibly. Protective was a good way to describe the others with him. They made sure to include him in every joke and in every conversation. Emily’s thoughts traveled through the evening, and she squinted unconsciously trying to see what was unseeable. There was something about him, something that didn’t quite add up.

He seemed so together. More than together. Perfect would’ve been a better word. The golden-brown tan, the moused, spiked, blonde-tipped hair fixed just right, even his dark brown sweater hanging to reveal just a hint of his white T-shirt underneath seemed to speak eloquently of his privileged status in life. Then there was the soft cinnamon color of the leather-suede jacket he took with him at the end of the night. It alone probably cost more than her tuition for the year.

Yet for all his perfection, there was a profound melancholy in his deep brown eyes. With a breath that barely reached her lungs, she put her head back again and closed her eyes. “Dear Lord, Jeremy needs You too. He’s hurting. I don’t know why or from what, but I can see it in his eyes, Lord. He’s suffering. Please ease his pain and give him some peace. Amen.”

When she opened her eyes, she glanced over at the clock. No wonder she was tired. It was almost one in the morning. Closing her Bible, she slid under the covers. She rolled to the side and laid it on its place on her nightstand. She clicked the light off, huddled under the covers, and put the rest of the night into God’s hands.

*~*~*

“Hey,” Eric Barnett said when he walked through the apartment door only to find his roommate, Jeremy Stratton, sitting in the dark at the kitchen island in his boxer shorts munching on Cheerios.

“Hey.” Jeremy scooped several round mounds into his mouth. He’d been sitting there so long, he’d almost forgotten Eric would be coming home tonight. “How was Rebecca?”

“Great.” Eric reached over and flipped on the living room light. Jeremy squinted although his gaze never left the cereal bowl. On his trek to the kitchen, Eric threw his light jacket to the couch. Jeremy’s couch to be exact. Courtesy of a round robin of apartment pairings, they now had two of everything. Two chairs, two coffee tables, and two couches.

Even as he tracked his roommate’s progress around the kitchen, Jeremy’s mind whispered softly how nice it was that his stuff was what would eventually stay.  The black leather of his couch and chair stood out in stark contrast to the wobbly, wooden coffee table that belonged to Eric. Once the old stuff was gone, it would make room for Jeremy’s matching coffee table which now sat by the door because there was simply no room for it anywhere else. Besides, in the overcrowded room, it was too likely that someone would kill their leg on one of the wrought iron corners of it.

With his head down over the bowl of cereal, Jeremy crunched a few more Cheerios as Eric went to the cabinet behind him and came back with the bag of Oreos.

“You get the girls home okay?” Jeremy asked, feeling the knot of jealousy in the middle of his spirit at the image of Eric standing on the steps of the Student Union taking not just one but three beautiful coeds back to the dorms while he, Jeremy, was left to go home in a dark, empty car.

“Safe and sound.” Eric sat down with his Oreos. “They invited us for Bible Study tomorrow night at Emily’s if you want to go.”

Jeremy recoiled physically and mentally. “Oh, I don’t think so. I’ve got stuff to get ready for Thursday.”

Eric shrugged. “Suit yourself, but it looked to me like you hit it off pretty well with Emily.”

Jeremy smiled at the memory of the young-looking, shy Hispanic girl who had accompanied Eric and Rebecca to playing pool at the Student U. “We had fun. She’s not much of a pool player though.”

“There are worse things to not be good at.”

He didn’t answer. For a moment the only sound in the room was someone running water somewhere else in the building.

“So have you heard from Gwen lately?” Eric asked although he never really looked at Jeremy.

A long sigh slid from his chest. “No. I probably won’t either. She took that job in New York, remember?”

With a half-shrug Eric tilted his head. “New York’s not that far from Boston.”

It might as well have been Jupiter for all the possibilities he had of hearing from Gwen. “Yeah, well…” He let the sentence trail into oblivion. The center of his heart wrapped around itself at the thought of Gwen and the way that relationship had ended. The last thing he wanted or needed tonight was to talk about her. Seeing no other option and knowing it would give Eric another topic to think about, Jeremy seized on the subject of Emily. “So is Emily going with anybody?”

He felt Eric’s surprise more than he saw it. “I don’t think so. Rebecca’s never said anything about it if she is. Why?”

Jeremy’s shoulders bounced up for the ceiling. “Something to do. I hate being odd-man out.” He stood and took his bowl to the sink where he washed it out and put it in the dishwasher.

“You’d really ask her out?” Eric asked, and Jeremy hated the skepticism in his friend’s voice.

“What? Is that so hard to believe?”

There was no immediate answer. Finally Eric shifted on his stool. “I’m just surprised, that’s all. She doesn’t seem like your type.”

Defensiveness and humiliation crashed together in Jeremy’s skull. “Never mind. Forget I asked.”

“Hey, I’m not saying you shouldn’t…”

Jeremy didn’t wait for the end of the comment. He stalked to the room he now called home, which was actually a closet the landlord had the guts to call a study. With his bed in a storage unit across town, he carefully knelt on the twin air mattress and pulled the single blanket over him. Thankfully they had obtained a two-bedroom apartment which unfortunately didn’t become available until the first of September. So for now, he was stuck in a closet wondering where the great life he had in May went.

He rolled to his back and laid his arm over his forehead. Gwen. She was never far from his thoughts. She probably had a great apartment by now. After all, she had been hired by one of the biggest international banks in the world. New York. It seemed a million miles away. Had things worked out between them, would he be there right now? Would he have transferred as they had talked about? So many plans—made and unmade that were now trampled in the dust of a road he would never travel.

In fact, she had even uninvited him from her graduation after the meltdown of their relationship. His mind skipped expertly over most of that week like a stone lilting across a pond. Touching down hurt too much, so he had learned to sail right over most of it. Every so often when he wasn’t paying close enough attention, his thoughts would settle on some memory, some moment of his time with her. More often than not, those memories sent scathing hot knives through him, so he did his best to keep going, not to think, not to feel. It was the only way to keep the life he was now living from spiraling into complete disaster.

Even in the darkness, he gripped control with both hands, willing the memories away from him. Her kiss. Her creamy skin. The way she looked the night he asked her to be his wife. Anguish laced with tongues of fire ripped through him.

Dragging in a sharp breath, he rolled to his side so his face was only inches from the blank wall. A breath at a time he slammed the door on the hurt until once again the hard clamp of control came over him. He closed his eyes and willed sleep to come. It didn’t. He squeezed his eyes tighter as his chest began to heave with the pent up emotion lodged there. “Stop it,” he hissed to the darkness around him. “Being a baby about it is not going to help. She’s gone. You’re here. Get over it already.”

But the hurt wasn’t going anywhere. Vehemently he flipped over the other way, jamming his shoulder into the hardwood floor beneath the air mattress when he came down. It yanked tears from the middle of him, but he crushed them back before they could fall. Two more semesters, he thought, anchoring his focus on what had to be done. Two more and he could move on, move away. To where or to what he couldn’t really tell.

It didn’t matter. Whatever it was, it would be glorious. High-style parties in his great loft in some far away city. He could picture them now. The men in their casual, yet elegant evening attire. The women in their beaded gowns hung just so to reveal and yet conceal. All drinking martinis on the rocks—not beer from the tap. He let his top shoulder drop backward onto the mattress, and his gaze slid into the darkness above him. Yes, it was going to be glorious. It had to be. It was the life he had been destined to live from the very moment of his birth.

*~*~*

It was to be her first attempt at hosting Bible Study on her own, and Emily was more nervous than she ever thought she would be. “Oh, good grief,” she said to the empty room at quarter to seven on Wednesday, “you’d think I was hosting the Olympics.”

She went over to the swath of gray carpet that seemed smaller in this room than it had in her old one.  There, it had stretched bed to bed.  Here, it barely covered half of the peach tiles at her feet. She put her hands on her hips as she looked at it, trying to figure out how to make it just a little bigger. With a sigh because she could do nothing to make it any better than it already was, she rearranged the pillows on her bed once more as a knock sounded on her door.

Going to the door, she did a quick tug on her gray T-shirt, and raked her fingers through the low, black ponytail slung over her right shoulder. At the door she said one more prayer for guidance. With that, she opened the door with a smile. “Becca!”

“Hey, girl. I brought reinforcements.” Rebecca glanced over her shoulder to where Eric stood as she accepted the hug from Emily.

“Cool. Cool. Come on in.”  Emily stepped back and let her friends pass by. Rebecca, small and thin, with her blonde hair in a twist that fanned out across the top of her head, looked every bit the part of the manic bookworm.  Eric, Rebecca’s boyfriend of just more than four months, looked big comparatively. Although he was taller than Rebecca by several inches, that didn’t mean he was all that tall compared to most guys.

The door hadn’t even closed when two more figures appeared at the threshold. Emily’s gaze snapped to the mousy brown-headed guy with the Celtics’ sweatshirt. “Sam!”

“I found Bethany wandering around lost,” Sam said, indicating the young blonde woman standing next to him.

“I did not get lost. I was just browsing.”

“Uh-huh, and that’s why you looked like this.” Sam scrunched his face into a scowl and let his gaze trip back and forth upward. “363 has got to be around here somewhere.”

Bethany smacked his arm. “Ha. Ha.”

“Come on in.” Emily laughed happily as she stepped back. “Make yourselves at home.”

They weren’t even in the door when two more showed up.  Emily had the distinct feeling of being Noah loading the ark. “Taylor and Kira.”  She hugged Kira as Taylor stood and watched.  “How are you?”

“Great. Taylor called me and said we were meeting tonight. I hope you don’t mind us just showing up.”

“Have I ever minded before?”

As the members of the Bible study group entered, the noise level increased until it sounded like she was hosting her own party.  Quietly, gently, she closed the door.

“Is Dena coming?” Rebecca asked as nerves flitted through Emily’s stomach. She wound her arms over her abdomen to get them to settle down.

“Not tonight. She started work today, and I think she’s beat.” Emily stepped through the pairs already seated on the floor. Except for Eric and Rebecca they had mixed and matched because in truth the others weren’t really couples. Sitting down next to her bed, Emily leaned up against the hard, steel frame. “Is this everybody?”

“I tried to get Holly to come,” Rebecca said, “but I think that’s going to take a miracle.”

Sitting beside her Eric shrugged. “So, we start praying for miracles.” He smiled. “Hey, you guys prayed me in here, and that certainly took a miracle.”

The others laughed.  Emily pulled herself forward and reached her hands out to Taylor on one side and Rebecca on the other. “Then shall we pray for some miracles?”

*~*~*

Two hours later the little group busted up to go their separate ways. Rebecca and Eric hung back to clean as the others left. When Emily finally closed the door with only the three of them there, she turned to her room and let out a long sigh.

Rebecca looked up at her in concern. “What?”

She took another breath. “I don’t think I’ve breathed for two hours.”

Eric swiped two pieces of paper off the carpet. “Come on, Em. You did great.”

She shivered. “Ugh. I was so nervous. I thought I was going to throw up.”

The gaze Rebecca leveled on her was one of skepticism. “Well, you sure didn’t show it.”

Emily pointed upward. “The Holy Spirit, I assure you. I would never have made it without Him.”

“Well, then you and the Holy Spirit make an awesome team,” Eric said with a smile that drifted through Emily’s nerves, settling them one by one.

Soft gratitude wound around her. “Thanks, Eric. I needed that.”

Rebecca stepped to her friend and put her arms over her shoulders. “You can’t, but He can. Remember?”

Emily smiled as her own words traipsed through her. “Why is that always so easy to remember when it’s somebody else and so hard to remember when it’s you?”

A grin stretched across Rebecca’s face. “Hey, why do you think He gave us each other—as decorations?”

Gratitude gripped Emily. “Well, I’m sure glad He gave me you.”

“Hey, right back at you, babe.”

*~*~*

Jeremy tamped together the last application for second semester scholarships.  Finished. Finally. And unless he decided to advance his education beyond the M.B.A. he was currently pursuing, these would be the last scholarship applications he would ever have to worry about completing.

The door snapped open, and Eric stepped in. With a swing of his arm, his backpack landed on the couch in a heap with his jacket.

“Impressive,” Jeremy said with no small amount of sarcasm. “Home before ten. I figured you and Rebecca would be all hot and heavy until at least midnight.”

Eric went to the refrigerator and pulled out the milk Jeremy had bought that afternoon. “Bible study.  It’s called Bible study.”

“Bible study. Yeah, right. Is that what they’re calling it now?”

“Ha. Ha.” Eric pulled up a seat at the bar. “You should try it some time, you know? You might be surprised.”

“Does the term, ‘when hell freezes over’ tell you anything?” Jeremy stood and swiped the box he’d been using as a file cabinet from the floor and set it on the bar stool.

“I’m telling you, you’re missing out.”

“Missing out?” Jeremy snorted. “Let me tell you something about religion. It’s for weak-minded people who need somebody else to feed them lies about how wonderful life can be if you follow their rules. Well, you know what? I’m not weak, and I don’t need anybody to tell me how to live my life. Thank you very much.”

Taking a drink, Eric shook his head. “Emily was there.”

Although that stopped Jeremy for one second, he didn’t let it show. “So? What difference does that make?”

Eric shrugged. “No difference. Just thought you’d like to know.”

Jeremy swung the box off the barstool. “I couldn’t care less which of Rebecca’s kooky, superstitious friends happened to show up.”  He turned on his heel. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get some sleep. I’ve got a nine-thirty class tomorrow that I don’t want to be late for.”

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Ebook Romance Stories: Chapter 1, “A Work in Progress”


AWIP Cover New 1-10-2014A Work in Progress
The Faith Series, Book 1

by:  Staci Stallings

~*~*~

Sometimes faith is simply learning to see

What is right before your eyes.

 

~*~*~


 

Chapter 1

For the life of her, Rebecca Avery couldn’t understand it.  She had been with them twenty-four hours a day for all of five months, and still she had no clue how they did it.  Sitting in the student union building, tucked ever-so-carefully behind her new psychology book, she watched them—the beautiful people—milling about, talking, laughing, and just generally enjoying each other’s company.

To be sure she had been with them her whole life, first in her family, then in school, but never could she quite figure out the mystique that seemed to drape them in an aura that said, “Look at me.  I’m here.  Come, let’s have fun together.”

No, for as long as she could remember, she had been on the outside of that picture.  Always watching them, always studying them, but never quite learning how to be like them.

She pushed the strings of the dirt-colored blonde hair off her eyes and pushed up her thin, dark-rimmed glasses.  Her hair was up in a clip, but like everything else in her life, it had ways of slipping out of even the best holds.  In frustration, she looked down at her book.  Psychology class didn’t start until tomorrow night, but at least this way it looked like there was a reason she was alone.

Studying alone was cool—or at least acceptable.  Sitting alone staring at everyone else was not.  Absently she reached over to her cup; however, she misjudged the distance, and the cup tipped dangerously and then dropped back to the table at the last possible second.  In frustration she picked it up to take a drink, but she had already taken a long drink of air before she realized it was empty.  She looked down into the brown swirling trails at the bottom of the cup and frowned.  Figures.

With a sigh she dug into her pocket and pulled out enough crumpled dollars to buy another French vanilla hot chocolate—one more thing in her life that was less than glamorous.  No matter how many times she had tried it, she still hated coffee.  Even the smell of it turned her stomach, so she stuck to her hot chocolate and hoped no one noticed.  Leaving her book where it lay, she slid off the stool and strode to the counter.

“French vanilla hot chocolate, please.”  Her fingers counted out the dollars even as they smoothed them out and laid them on the counter.

In seconds a new cup was sitting in front of her.  She paid and reached for it as wisps of steam spiraled into the air. Carefully she picked it up, put it to her lips, and blew the steam away.  It was always too hot to drink for the first ten minutes, but greedily she inhaled the sweet odor anyway.  There was something about hot chocolate on a cold winter’s day that did wonders for her mood.

She let the cup drop from her mouth as she turned back for her table.  However, she’d only turned halfway around when she met up with what felt like the hard side of a rock coming the other direction.

The first splash of the liquid landed on her hand, and the shock from it burning its way through her skin tore through her. “Ahh!”  Without a thought she threw the cup away from her—right at the rock, and in the next breath the rock replicated her yell.

“Ahh!”  Reaching under his outer buttoned-down shirt that was opened all the way down, he pulled his now hot chocolate-covered white T-shirt away from his skin as he yelped in pain.  “H-h-ot!”

“Oh! Oh, no. Oh, my gosh. I’m sorry,” Rebecca said although the stinging pain in her own hand wouldn’t let her focus on him for more than a second. “I’m so sorry.”  Battling to forget her own pain, she grabbed as many napkins as she could from the counter and started mopping at his shirt, struggling to undo the last few seconds.  “I’m so, so sorry.  Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry.”

A look of annoyed exasperation crossed his face as he took the napkins from her and started wiping his own shirt.  “I think you said that already.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said in apology for apologizing too much, and when he looked at her, she knew she had better add something vaguely intelligent.  “I didn’t see you there.”

Her feet carried her backward although her gaze never moved from his face or his frame.  If she had seen him before she hit him, she would probably have dropped the hot chocolate on his feet in wide-eyed astonishment instead of hitting him in the chest with it.

Golden hair that dropped from the top of his head down just past his ears in the front and over his collar in the back, kind green eyes, even his frown was gorgeous.  Couched on top of a smoke blue shirt unbuttoned to reveal a white T-shirt that now sported a giant light-brown stain, he was the most incredible thing she’d ever seen.

Through its files, her brain scrambled, searching for something to say.  ‘Sorry’ came to mind, but that was the only real word she’d said so far.  Just as the fight to get her mind to think of something better reached the boil-over point, another guy walked up.  Spiked and blonde-tipped hair, a black muscle shirt, and a tan so deep he could very well have just stepped off a beach, he was the epitome of the beautiful people.

“What happened to you?” spike-haired guy asked, surveying his friend with a smirk.

“Chocolate smelling third degree burn,” smoke-shirted guy said, still wiping at the stain.

Muscle shirt guy shook his head. “You’ve really got to be more careful.”

Golden haired guy looked over at Rebecca in annoyance, which caused her heart to thump against her chest.  “Yeah, tell me about it.”

“I’m sorry,” she said as she held her own burned hand next to her chest protectively.

He wiped his shirt once more and then gave up.  “Don’t worry about it.”  Stepping over to the trashcan, he threw the napkins in and reached down to retrieve the cup from the floor.  “You want this?”

Rebecca’s head moved side-to-side with no help from her.

“I didn’t think so.”  He chunked it into the trashcan and looked down at his shirt in resignation.  Then he looked over at her, melting her with his gentle green eyes, which had softened considerably in the previous seconds.  “You okay?”

“F-fine.”  Her voice drifted out as she fell into his gaze.

“Good.”  He smiled, then looked at his friend.  “Well, I think I’ve had enough to drink for one day.  You ready?”

“Yeah.”

Her feet never moved as she watched them depart, and it wasn’t until he’d disappeared through the double glass paned doors across the room that the pain seared through her again.  Tears blinded out even the vacant door as she looked down at her hand.  Red, blistered, and throbbing with the heat, it threatened to take her knees right out from underneath her.

She wondered if the skin under his shirt hurt as badly as her hand did, but then the pain pushed even that thought out of her head.  “Man, Rebecca, if you could get anymore clumsy, I would really hate to see how.”

*~*~*

By the time Eric Barnett made it to the computer lab for work, he had resorted to buttoning up his top shirt.  Everybody noticed the stain, and everybody asked.  It was annoying, especially when it wasn’t even him that had caused the accident.  Okay, so most of the time it was him, but this time it wasn’t.  And he was getting more than a little aggravated by the implications of the questions.

He stomped through the door, wishing his whole miserable life would just go away and leave him alone.

“Eric, it’s nice to have you back,” Mr. Templeton said as Eric strode into the large room humming with the electronic world he had gotten so used to hearing in the last two and a half years.

It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t washing dishes either.  Best of all, it paid a few bills and managed to give him something to do besides studying, which was always a good thing.

He took the screen cleaner and a rag from the back of the office. “Looks like things are pretty slow today.”

Mr. Templeton’s dark hair bobbed up and down over the dusky gray shirt and tie.  “First of the semester, wait a week or two. It’ll pick up.”

“I think I’ll just enjoy today.”

“I think that’s wise.”

With two strides, Eric walked back into the computer room and sat down at the first computer.  Time to check the computers got scarcer and scarcer as the semester wore on, so it was nice to have some time to just get one-on-one with each of them and run them through their paces.

This semester he was even more thankful for the time he spent with the computers.  His new apartment wasn’t exactly home.  He hated living by himself, but with his younger brother’s recent marriage, not to mention the new living arrangement in his former apartment, he was on his own—like it or not.

Until Jeremy and Gwen had gotten together, everything had seemed perfectly wonderful with their little group.  In fact, he had felt like one of the central participants, but the pairing of his two best friends had effectively eliminated his feelings of fitting in.  They all had somebody.

Ryan had Desiree, and their newlywed status made them the odds-on solid couple of the group.  Ransom and Zoë, although on again-off again were now on again, and, by the looks of things, weren’t headed for off-again any time soon.  And then there was Jeremy and Gwen.

The thought of Gwen brought his heart up with a jerk.  Fighting to get his mind to think of something other than her long legs, slim body, and fabulous red hair, his hands worked faster over the keyboard. After another minute, he snapped that one off and moved over to the next one.  But getting her out of his mind for more than seconds at a time was completely useless.

How he had ever thought he had a shot with her was beyond him.  As completely unbelievable as it was, however, he had thought exactly that.  Right up until he walked in on her and Jeremy kissing.  It was an image he knew that would be with him forever.  His heart sank just thinking about it.

He wanted to scream at both of them, to tell them he hated them, and there were times he really did hate them.  However, getting mad would do nothing other than destroy all he had left—their friendship.  Only problem was that being around them, being around all of them was slowing killing him.  Never would he tell any of them that, but it was the truth just the same.

With a snap he turned that computer off and scooted to the next one.  Just don’t think, he told himself.  Just keep moving, don’t think, and then it won’t hurt.  But the truth was he could never move fast enough to outrun the ache, and he was beginning to think it would be a part of him forever.

*~*~*

Even cold, clear water hadn’t helped the throbbing in Rebecca’s hand.  Two small blisters had formed in the center of it, and she was glad for the moment she at least didn’t have any major papers due anytime soon.  Writing tomorrow in class was not something she was looking forward to; typing would probably be the end of her.

As she sat on her bed with a book open on her lap that she wasn’t really reading, the lock on the door clicked.  She looked over to watch her newest roommate, Holly Jacobs, slide into the room.  Bundled in a hat, coat, gloves, and a scarf, no one could’ve guessed how stunning she was, but the second she started unwrapping herself, Rebecca was again reminded.

“Man, it is like ten below out there!”  One layer came off and landed on the bed.  “They should’ve mentioned that in the little brochures they sent about how wonderful Boston Central is.”  Another layer came off.  “Sure the fall pictures are gorgeous, but winter?  I feel like I just stepped into a freezer somebody’s turned all the way down.”

The final layer fell away, and Holly ran her hazy pink-polished fingernails down her corn silk locks.  She went to the mirror and brushed her hair several times for good measure although fixed to its finest Rebecca’s hair had never come close to how Holly’s looked when it came out of that hat.

“How was your day?” Holly asked, glancing at Rebecca in the mirror.  It was then she saw the red, blistered hand that Rebecca still had pressed to her chest.  Instantly Holly spun around and slammed the brush to the sink, hair forgotten. “What did you do?” At Rebecca’s bed, she sat carefully as though moving her roommate’s body might cause her further pain.  Gently she took the hand in hers to examine it.

“I had a little mishap at the Student Union.  I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

“Did you put anything on it?”

“Water, but that hurt so bad, I decided against trying anything else.”

Holly’s eyes narrowed as she stared at the burn.  “Just a second.”

Rebecca’s gaze followed her roommate across the room and into her closet.  The burn really did hurt.  In fact, the second Holly left it had relocated back to her chest, but she had convinced herself there was nothing more to be done for it.  Holly emerged and strode to the bed carrying a small brown case.

“What’s that?”

“Emergency kit.  My mom’s a nurse.  She never lets me out of the house without it.”  Gently Holly took Rebecca’s hand and laid it on the bed.  “Tell me how you did this again.”

“Oh, it was stupid.  I had some hot…I mean coffee, and I kind of bumped into this guy.”  Just retelling it made her heart skip.  “It spilled on my hand.”

“Does it still burn?”

“It hurts.”

“No, burn.  Is it still hot?”

“Yeah.”  Rebecca had been trying not to think about that, but the second Holly mentioned it, her eyes stung as badly as the burn did.  She watched as Holly pulled out a small bottle of vanilla extract.  “Hey, we’re not making brownies here.”

Holly shook her head as she dabbed the extract on the burn.  “It kills the fire, so you’re not in so much pain while it heals.”

Remarkably she was right.  It took only seconds for the intense burning sensation to dissipate.  It was strange how a whole body could be tense from pain.  It wasn’t until the burning cooled that Rebecca realized her head was pounding.

Like a practiced nurse, Holly took out a small bottle of Vitamin E and smoothed some on the hand as Rebecca leaned back against the wall in exhausted relief.  In no time, Holly had the burn wrapped in gauze and back in Rebecca’s protective spot.

“Better?”

“Much.”

With a nod, Holly stood and started back for the closet.

“Hey, you got any aspirin in that bag?”

“Advil?”

“Anything.”

The bottle rattled as Holly handed it to her roommate.  “Here, I’ll get you some water.”

Seeing that even very small insignificant movements were going to be an effort, Rebecca finally managed to get the lid off with a hand and a half.  By the time she had it off, Holly was there with her water.

“Thanks.” Rebecca handed the bottle back.  She downed two pills and some water and then leaned back on the cool wall.  It felt so good.

“Have you eaten yet?” Holly asked as she put her winter outerwear away.

Slowly Rebecca shook her head, disturbing it as little as possible.

“Well, I’m not really hungry yet,” Holly said, “and we’ve still got an hour to be down there.  Why don’t you take a nap, and I’ll wake you so we can go together?”

A nap sounded very, very good at the moment.  Without protest, Rebecca slid down onto the pillows and drifted away on the smell of hot chocolate and the look of his gorgeous green eyes.

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Ebook Romance Stories: “The Price of Silence,” Chapter 1 & 2

The Price of Silence Final cover 1-18-2014

The Price of Silence

by:  Staci Stallings

~*~

To all those who taught me that

Standing up for right is always

Worth it and that courage

Is choosing to do the right thing in the moment

—rather than a lack of fear.

Thank you.

~*~

Chapter 1

With every step she took across the hard, gray concrete, Robyn Lockhart wondered again why her mother insisted on being so unreasonable. Getting divorced was one thing, but moving half a continent away in the middle of junior year was downright cruel.

Robyn hugged her three new notebooks to her chest as she climbed the steps to James Madison High School. How could she expect to catch up with only three months of school left?  This was truly the most selfish thing her mother had ever done, and that was saying a lot. She yanked the door to the school open and was met by a gust of stale, dank air.

Ugh. She hated the place already. With reluctant steps she forced her feet to carry her down the dim hallway. “Right now Jill and Lisa are meeting at the lockers to talk about the weekend.”

In her mind Robyn could see them standing at the lockers, and she wondered what new stories Lisa had to tell today. She was always coming up with something to keep them laughing and shaking their heads at the same time. But now, thanks to her mother, Robyn was here 600 miles away from the wild stories, walking into a principal’s office, and wishing only that she could vanish into thin air.

“May I help you?” the prim receptionist asked from behind the counter.

“I need to see Mr. Findley.” Robyn willed her soft voice to stay steady. “He’s the principal.”

“I know who Mr. Findley is, Dear,” the lady said not altogether kindly, and Robyn clutched her books tighter. “May I ask what this visit is in reference to?”

“Oh, I’m Robyn Lockhart, I just transferred from Iowa.”

“One moment, Miss Lockhart,” the lady said and disappeared through a door at the back of the office.

Somehow Robyn felt as though she were outside of herself looking in as her gaze traced the lines across the back wall of the office. She was here, but she really wasn’t. It was someone else standing here, asking for the principal, she was 600 miles away living her real life.

“Right, Mr. Hudson, I totally believe you.” A very tall, very authoritative-looking man pushed a dark-headed vagrant by the collar into the office behind her, and Robyn spun, willing herself to disappear.

“I’m telling you, Mr. Tucker, I had nothing to do with it.” The vagrant twisted, trying to look up at Mr. Tucker, but it wasn’t working.

“Tell it to Findley.” Mr. Tucker deposited his prize into one of the waiting room chairs.

“Why, Mr. Tucker,” the receptionist said, resuming her position behind the counter, “I didn’t think we would see you until at least 10 o’clock.”

“What can I say, Mary Ann?” Mr. Tucker threw his hands up. “It’s spring.”

The receptionist breathed a tired sigh and nodded. Then she seemed to remember Robyn. “Mr. Tucker, I’d like you to meet our newest student. This is Miss Robyn Lockhart.” The words were far kinder than any Mary Ann had said up to that moment. “She’s going to be in your English class.”

“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Robyn.” Mr. Tucker extended his hand, and she shook it quickly and just as quickly let it go. “It’ll be nice to have some new points of view in class, won’t it, Hudson?”

The dark-headed criminal in the chair by the wall just grunted, and Mary Ann shook her head in annoyance.

“I take it that Mr. Hudson is not here about his placement onto the honor society,” Mary Ann said, handing Mr. Tucker a form.

“In his dreams.” Mr. Tucker hurriedly filled out the form.

Mary Ann surveyed Robyn long and hard. “Miss Lockhart, why don’t you have a seat? Mr. Findley will be with you shortly.”

Robyn looked around, and suddenly the office seemed very, very small. With reluctance holding her back, she pushed her feet over to the remaining chairs and took the one with the most seats between her and the criminal. It really shouldn’t surprise her, she reasoned. It was, after all, what she had expected when she’d been told she’d be transferred to a school with five times more people in one class than had attended her entire previous school, and yet nothing had really prepared her for outright criminals to be attending classes with her.

Tentatively she peeked through her eyelashes at the criminal, but the moment her gaze met his face, her heart tripped over itself. He didn’t look like any criminal she had ever seen before—he was gorgeous. He had abandoned the slumped over look in favor of the leaning back looking at the ceiling look, and from her vantage point, he looked like he could be a model in a GQ magazine. The straight nose, the slightly long, black hair brushed back from his high cheekbones. He looked like a god—a god in a black leather jacket.

“Mr. Findley will see you now, Miss Lockhart,” Mary Ann said, breaking into Robyn’s racing thoughts.

“Oh, okay.”  Somehow she pushed her legs under her, took a deep breath, and forced herself to walk by the unmoving figure in the chair. ‘He’s trouble,’ her mind repeated as she measured her steps into the principal’s office. ‘He’s trouble. I’m telling you, don’t even go there.’

*~*~*

Five hours later Robyn yanked the schedule out of her pocket again and scanned it as the crush of bodies around her bounced her from side to side.  English, Mr. Tucker, Building B, Room 417.

English was good. Mr. Tucker was good. Mr. Hudson, however, worried her. Maybe Mr. Tucker was kidding with the crack about new points of view in class. Surely, she wouldn’t be in a class with troublemakers. She had, after all been at the top of her class at Lakota. But Lakota and James Madison were two very different places—that much was supremely obvious.

Making herself as small as she could, she squeezed her way up the stairs and found herself in a near empty hallway at the top the second the bell rang.

“Well, I’ve been late for every other class. Why spoil a perfect record?” she said to the emptiness around her.

With a tired sigh, she trudged down the hall and finally found 417. She put her hand on the doorknob and then stopped. What if he was on the other side of that door?  Her face went hot at the thought. What difference did it make? she scolded herself. It was obvious during their brief encounter that his scope of caring did not encompass many things and she was quite sure, that certainly included her.

“Miss Lockhart,” Mr. Tucker said suddenly opening the door for her. “Glad you found us.”

“Oh, hi,” she stammered, glancing up only briefly before she returned her gaze to the squares on the floor. “Sorry I’m late.”

“No problem, just don’t make a habit of it. Please, come on in and join us.”

He pushed the door open for her to enter, which she did on lead feet. She could feel every gaze in the room on her so she kept her own glued to the floor.

“Why don’t you take a seat over there?  We were just discussing ‘A Worn Path’ page 424.”  Mr. Tucker handed her a book, and Robyn took it, breathing only a small sigh of relief that at least she had already read the piece they would be discussing.

“Now, Kathryn, I believe you had the floor,” Mr. Tucker said, turning back to the class as Robyn buried her head into the pages of the well-used textbook.

“Well, I was surprised by how courageous Phoenix was—I mean even though she was old, she didn’t back down, even when the guy held a gun on her,” a young girl with the most beautiful, long, sand-colored hair Robyn had ever seen said. Kathryn was sitting directly across from Robyn in the front row, and it was obvious by her placement in the room, and the intent look on Mr. Tucker’s face, that she was no flake.

“And why, do you think she had that courage, Mr. Mayes?” Mr. Tucker’s focus shifted only slightly as he leaned against the desk and crossed his arms.

“I don’t know,” the young man with a nice face and curly black hair directly behind Kathryn said.

“Come on, Chad. This isn’t brain surgery,” Mr. Tucker said, goading.

“Well, it’s kind of trite.” Chad’s words came slowly as if he was apologizing for them. “But I think it means she did it for love.”

Mr. Tucker cocked his head to one side. “Why is that trite?”

“It’s a little over done, don’t you think?” Chad stretched his long legs into the aisle. “I’m in love, therefore, I will brave the lions and tigers and bears—oh my!”

“I see.”  Mr. Tucker nodded. “Miss Layton, do you have a rebuttal?”

“I think that to some extent Chad has a point,” Kathryn said thoughtfully, “but I still think that in the end, it’s true. We’ll do things that put our own lives in jeopardy to keep those we love safe.”

“Come on, Kat. It’s a cliché, and you know it,” Chad said in annoyed exasperation.

“That’s interesting,” Mr. Tucker said. “Now, correct me if I’m wrong, Mr. Mayes, but aren’t you and Miss Layton going together even as we speak?”

Chad’s face constricted like he’d eaten a rotten lemon. “Yeah, everybody knows that. So?”

“So, is there anything you wouldn’t do for her?” Mr. Tucker asked with just the hint of a smile.

Robyn suddenly felt sorry for Chad as she watched him squirm in his seat. He was stuck, and every student in the room knew it.

“What are you saying?  Would I die for her?  Lay down my life so she could live?”

“Something like that,” Mr. Tucker agreed.

“I don’t think any girl is worth that,” a smooth voice directly behind Chad said.

Robyn turned in her seat, and her heart stumbled for the second time that day. It was him. The vagrant. The god.

“Ah, Mr. Hudson, I thought you might have an opinion on the subject,” Mr. Tucker said with a smile and a nod. “Would you care to elaborate?”

Slung low in his chair, the vagrant never bothered to sit up. “Love isn’t worth risking your life for. I mean, okay, you risk your life, and she says she loves you, and then what, six months down the line you hate each other’s guts?”  He crossed his arms. “What’s the point?”

“The point is that you put someone else above yourself, Sean,” Kathryn said, visibly irritated.

“Other people only let you down,” Sean said with a dismissive shake of his head.

“Not all people are like that.”  Kathryn turned in her seat to take him on square. “What about Chad, here?  You two have been friends forever. Has he ever let you down?”

“That’s different.” The head shaking became more noticeable. “That’s about friends—not about love.”

“Oh, I beg to differ, Mr. Hudson,” Mr. Tucker said, breaking into the conversation. “I think that’s exactly what this piece is about. Let’s say for instance that Chad here needs your help with something, but it’s going to really put you out. You’re really going to have to go out of your way to do it. Would you put aside something you think is important to help a friend?”

“Probably,” Sean said with half a shrug, “but that’s different. That’s not love. That’s friendship.”

“Is there a difference?” Mr. Tucker asked.

Chad held up a weak hand. “Let me just say, I think there is a very big difference.”

Several students snickered, but Mr. Tucker never wavered. “Well, I think that love comes in a lot of different packages—sometimes in the form of a man-woman relationship, sometimes in the form of a parent-child relationship, or a grandparent-child relationship like in ‘A Worn Path, ’ and sometimes in the form of a relationship between friends. What do the rest of you think?”

Robyn tried not to be obvious as she watched Sean listen to the others expound on the truth of Mr. Tucker’s statement, but it was difficult not to attract attention because she sat in the front, and he sat in the back, an entire abyss between them. Nonetheless, even from that odd vantage point, she could see the edge around him. Yes, it was clear that Sean Hudson had weathered his share of storms, and they had made him very, very sour on life.

She wondered what he had done this morning to get into trouble. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out this morning wasn’t his first trip to the principal’s office, and her thoughts wandered back and forth from the conversation in the classroom to the desk behind Chad. He had an edge, a thin, razor-sharp edge that kept everyone else at a distance, and she knew she would never have a chance with him even if she was the last girl left on the planet.

The bell startled her from her daydream, and she stood awkwardly as the other students rushed past her out of the classroom.

“Miss Lockhart,” Mr. Tucker said. “It’s nice to have you in class. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Thanks,” she said shyly and followed the herd into the hallway.

The crush of bodies was still unbelievable to her. She had never seen so many people in one place in her life. She pulled the schedule out of her pocket and scanned it. Only two more classes and she would be free again. Trigonometry, Mr. Rascoe, Building B, Room 251. One thing was for sure she would get her exercise doing this.

*~*~*

By the time Psychology was over at 3:30, Robyn was exhausted. It had been seven and a half hours of lugging an ever-growing number of books up and down stairs and hallways, to rest a few minutes in a classroom, only to find that she had to do it all over again.

Slowly, she let the overstuffed backpack slide to the floor as she pulled out her schedule. Locker number 2117, Floor 2, Building C. Whatever that meant. She leaned against the wall as the hallway emptied out around her. This school was like a labyrinth, and she had the sinking feeling that by the time she figured it all out, it would be time to graduate.

“Miss Lockhart, staying after school, are we?” Mr. Tucker asked, surveying her curiously as he walked up.

She looked up and smiled at the only friendly face she’d seen all day. “No. I thought now might be a good time to find my locker, but I don’t even know where to start.”

“Oh, well, let’s see.” He took the paper from her and scanned it. “Building C. That’s where the newspaper is. I was just headed over there. I can show you if you’d like.”

“That’d be great.” Robyn hefted the backpack onto her shoulder.

“So, how was your first day?” he asked as they started down the hallway.

“Okay,” she said and then sighed. “A little overwhelming.”

“I can imagine. Was your last school this big?”

Robyn laughed as they pushed out the door into the sunshine. “The whole school kindergarten through 12th grade only had 275 kids in it.”

“Oh, so this is like culture shock, huh?”

“You could say that.”

“So, what kind of things did you do at your old school?”

“The usual, band, student council, track, the newspaper, yearbook…”

“Wow, when did you find time for school?”

Robyn laughed. “I was in line to be either valedictorian or salutatorian.”

“I’m impressed,” he said, opening the door to Building C.

“Yeah, well, it’s no big deal.” She shrugged to emphasize the point, but the words burned her throat.

“So, you say you wrote for the newspaper?” he asked as they trekked down the dimly lit hallway.

“Yeah, for two years.”

“But you didn’t sign up for the newspaper staff here?”

“I wasn’t sure I could cut it here. I heard they print a paper twice a week. We were lucky to get one out a month.”

“Well, I’ll tell you what, if you ever want to come check us out, we’re on the third floor.” He pointed directly over their heads.

“We?” she asked, puzzled.

“Oh, yes.”  He held out his hands. “Meet the Chronicle’s advisor.”

“But I thought you taught English.”

“I do, but newspaper’s my first love. I had to teach English for two years to get my foot in the door here, and by the time I inherited the newspaper, I figured out I kind of like English, too. So, what can I say?  They made me a deal I couldn’t refuse.”

Robyn nodded.

“Well, this is where I get off.”  He turned onto the next flight of stairs and pointed down the hallway. “I think your locker should be right down there.”

Thanks,” she said gratefully, knowing it really would have been graduation time before she found this place.

“Oh, and if you ever want to come check out the paper, you’re more than welcome.” His smile was friendly and inviting.

“Thanks. I’ll think about it.”

With that, he turned and bounded up the stairs. Hefting her sliding backpack up again, Robyn turned down the hallway and smiled despite the looming gloom. Mr. Tucker really was nice. She was glad she’d had a chance to meet him outside of the classroom. It wasn’t that the other teachers were mean, but they were much more formal than Mr. Tucker. He seemed like he had the time to talk—not like she was wasting his time.

In the maze of gray doors, she finally located her locker. It was a tiny expanse, hardly big enough for six books, and she wondered what someone with an instrument case or a sports bag had to do to get their stuff in one. Suddenly she realized that with the proximity of her locker to her classes, she would be lucky to get here twice a day, much less before and after every class.

“Welcome to the wonderful world of James Madison,” she said as the depression settled over her once again. It was bound to catch up with her sooner or later.

*~*~*

By the time she got home, the depression had intensified until it was almost stifling. She wondered what Jill and Lisa were up to back home. They were probably at track practice. She wanted to be at track, too. Far, far away from this dingy, box-filled apartment, her mother insisted on calling a condo.

Okay, so it had an upstairs, and two bathrooms. It was awful, and it was depressing. She locked the two dead bolts behind her and slumped against the door surveying her new life. Her mother would be at work until well after seven. That meant the task of cleaning out the boxes would be hers.

On tired feet she went to the kitchen and looked through the sparse pantry. She’d have to ask her mother for money for groceries tonight. With little enthusiasm, she pulled three cans off the shelf and stacked them next to the stove. She had an hour before it was time to start cooking, so she turned her attention to the boxes.

It was a given that the “family” boxes needed unpacked first although Robyn wished she could start on the mess stacked in her own room. But knowing that wasn’t an option, she reluctantly ripped the tape off of one box marked, “bathroom supplies” and began the arduous task of making a home.

*~*~*

Aromatic smells wafted from the kitchen when the first noise came at the lock. Robyn jumped up from the table where her Trig book lay and bounded for the door.

“Hey, Mom!” she said, smiling.

“Hey, baby, smells good.” Her mother fumbled with the keys and the briefcase she held. Robyn watched her deposit her belongings on the coffee table. “Looks like you got some stuff put away.”

“A few things,” Robyn said, happy her mother had noticed.

“What’s for supper?”

“Tuna casserole.” She went to the stove and stirred the bubbling concoction. “By the way I need some money for groceries. We’re out of everything.”

Mrs. Lockhart sighed and sat heavily at the table. “How much do you need?”

“I don’t know. I guess $20. I think I can make that stretch until Friday.”

“Well, I hope so, or we’ll be eating water.”

Robyn sighed at the sight of her mother’s defeated frame sitting at the table. This couldn’t be easy on her either, Robyn thought with some amount of guilt. Somehow, she would just have to keep her own depression at bay so she could help her mom through this difficult time.

“So, how was work?” Robyn asked, trying to sound cheerful.

“It was work. I really thought this promotion was going to be great. You know?  But it’s just more work.” She fingered her daughter’s homework. “What’s this?”

“Trig.”

“Homework on the first day?  I’m impressed.” Her mother gazed at the formulas scrawled across the page.

‘It wasn’t everyone’s first day,’ Robyn’s head screamed, but she didn’t let those words find the air.

“Here’s a plate.” Robyn pushed the homework aside and set the table. “I have a lot of homework to get done tonight, so I was hoping we could eat now.”

“Oh, yeah, sure.” Her mother rearranged the plate and silverware in front of her as Robyn brought the pan from the stove. “It looks good. You know, I’d probably starve if it wasn’t for you.”

“No, you wouldn’t. You’d just have an enormous take-out bill,” Robyn laughed.

“Very true.” Mrs. Lockhart filled her plate. “So, you didn’t say. How was your first day?  Did you meet any new friends?”

“Friends? I had enough trouble trying to find my classes,” Robyn said, picturing the winding halls of James Madison.

“Well, there’s always tomorrow.”

*~*~*

After the dishes were done, Robyn escaped to her room under the pretense of a pile of homework. Actually, she didn’t have all that much, but she wanted to familiarize herself with the Trig book and study a little chemistry before tomorrow.

Her schedule wasn’t too bad, and if anything, she was ahead in most subjects, but she wanted to keep it that way. She had been at the top of her class for eleven years, and just because she changed schools, she didn’t want her grades to suffer because of it. But even as she rewrote the formulas into her notebook, her mind wandered again to the back row of the English room.

There was something about him. Him. Sean Hudson. Maybe it was his eyes, or maybe it was the I-don’t-care way he carried himself. There really wasn’t one thing that she could put her finger on, but it didn’t matter—just the thought of him was enough to send her heart racing.

Sean. Sean Hudson. She wondered what his middle name was. Sean Michael Hudson. Sean David Hudson. Sean Nicholas Hudson.

“Robyn!” her mother called from downstairs, jolting her back to reality. “The news is on!”

She looked down at her notebook and in one swipe ripped the page out. It was scrawled with hundreds of impressions of his name.

“He’s not your type,” she said, furiously crumpling the paper and sending it flying into the trashcan. “I’m coming, Mom!”

*~*~*

Supper and the news. They were the two times a day she could count on spending with her mother. She wasn’t sure when or why the news routine had started, but it had become a daily ritual that she had long ago made a point not to miss.

It wasn’t until after she was back upstairs in bed looking around the dark room with no sign of life on any of the walls that the depression assaulted her again.  It was always worse at night. During the day she could stay busy, but at night there was nowhere to hide from it.

The apartment was quiet around her. So different from the innumerable nights she had spent listening to the yelling on the other side of her wall. But even the quiet brought a foreboding with it. This wasn’t home—not really. This was a temporary stopover on a road leading nowhere, and as far as she could see there was no famous light at the end of her tunnel.

This was life, and it stunk.

Chapter 2

Robyn was proud of herself. She had made it to her locker twice during the day, and so far, she had only gotten lost once. The schedule was tucked safely in her backpack just in case, but she hadn’t used it even once.

Just as she reached 417, the bell rang, and she gave an apologetic nod to Mr. Tucker who smiled as she took her seat.

“I have to say that yesterday’s discussion inspired me,” Mr. Tucker began, and Robyn sat up straighter. She was determined now more than ever to make a good impression with this teacher no matter who might be sitting in the back row. “Mr. Mayes and Mr. Hudson made some very insightful observations yesterday about the role that love plays in literature; therefore, your assignment for the next 45 minutes is to construct a paper stating your opinion on that subject.”

A groan emanated from every student behind her.

“Let me make this clear. This is not a take-home assignment. You have 45 minutes, and your paper must be at least 450 words. And yes, Mr. Mayes, grammar and spelling will count.”

More groans.

“You have 45 minutes.”

Robyn pulled a fresh piece of paper out of her notebook and poised her pen, but then she stopped. What did she think?  Was the I’d-risk-it-all-for-you thing really overdone?  Or was it simply that the truth behind that statement was so real that authors in all time periods took it up?

She knew what she would’ve written even a couple of weeks before, but now she wasn’t sure. She thought about Jill and Lisa. They were good friends, but would she really be willing to lay it on the line for them?  She thought about her mother and father.             Where had love gotten them?  She was sure at some point they had loved each other. So, what had happened?

“People say that love is blind,” she wrote slowly, “but love is only blind because it has the ability to see past faults, past the rough edges of a person down to the core that is really there. Just because the phrase is over-used and has become a cliché does not diminish its truth, and so it is with the theme that loving someone can give one person the courage to risk their own life for the life of another…”

She reread the opening statement. For all the evidence against it, she knew in her heart it was the truth.

*~*~*

Fighting the clock, she had read and reread her paper three times, and yet Robyn was still finding small mistakes here and there. The bell sounded above her, and she sighed as she marked out a word and wrote a slightly better one in its place.

“Your assignment for tomorrow is on the board. Be sure to hand in your papers before you leave,” Mr. Tucker called over the noise of the departing students.

Robyn took one more look at her paper and decided it was as good as it was going to get. She pulled her backpack from under her desk and headed for Mr. Tucker’s desk.

“Given any more thought to joining the newspaper staff?” Mr. Tucker asked, taking her paper.

“I really don’t know if I’ll have time this semester.” She shrugged. “It’s tough catching up with everything.”

“Well, let me know.”

“Okay, I will,” she said. “See ya later, Mr. Tucker.”

“See ya.”

She exited the classroom and joined the mad rush of students flying down the hallway. The frenzy of the hallway was beginning to make perfect sense as she descended the stairs at the same pace as those around her. It was nearly impossible to make it to the next class on time without running and knocking a few fellow students over in the process.

Her foot hit the second floor and at precisely that moment, her body collided full-on with someone going in the opposite direction. In half a heartbeat she was on her knees in the middle of the melee with her books and papers fanned out around her.

“Oh, cripes!” She grabbed for her belongings through the myriad of passing legs and feet, rescuing a paper here and a book there.

“Are you all right?” One pair of legs stopped next to her.

“Yeah.” She dove in, dodging more feet intent on stomping on her English book. She retrieved it just in time.

“Jerks, they should learn to watch where they’re going. Here.” A hand appeared from above her. Robyn took it, pulled herself up, and came face-to-face with Kathryn, the sandy haired beauty from Mr. Tucker’s class. Kathryn stopped short. “Hey, I know you. You’re in my English class.”

“Yeah.” Robyn brushed her jeans off in embarrassment. “This place is nuts.”

“Tell me about it.” Kathryn smiled and surveyed Robyn head-to-toe. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“I’m fine, but I’d better get to Trig, or I might not be for long.” Robyn swung her backpack up and jerked her mouse-color brown hair from under it.

“I hear you there.”  Kathryn waved slightly. “Be careful.”

“I will.” With a sigh, Robyn rejoined the mad rush.

Kathryn reminded her of Lisa from back home. She seemed really sweet and considerate, but she was much prettier than Lisa—or anyone else Robyn had ever known in person. The bell sounded, and the hall around her emptied. There had to be a secret to this. She shook her head in amazement. She was missing something, but the trick to navigating the halls and getting to class on time was still a mystery to her.

Mr. Rascoe stared at her over his reading glasses when Robyn entered. “It’s nice you could join us.”

She hugged her English book a little tighter to her chest. “Sorry, I had a little accident in the hall.”

“Well, in the future you should remember that being late for my class is a cardinal offense not to be repeated more than once.”

“I’ll try to remember that, Sir.” Slowly she sank into her seat in the front and sighed. Some terrific first impression she was making. First, she practically wiped out in front of Kathryn, and then she got the full brunt of Mr. Rascoe’s wrath for being six seconds late.

“Well, since you made a point of disrupting my class by being late, is it too much to ask that you work the first problem from last night’s assignment on the board for the class?” Mr. Rascoe asked with sarcasm dripping from the question.

Robyn swallowed hard and pulled her book from her backpack. “I…I can do that.”

“Well, let’s see it already.” Mr. Rascoe tapped his fingers on the desk in annoyance.

She got to her feet and forced them to take her to the front of the room. What she really wanted to do was to run away and never come back, but she knew she couldn’t do that.  So, with shaking fingers, she wrote the problem on the board and went through it slowly, explaining each step only to the board in front of her.

When she finished, she carefully replaced the chalk in the tray and turned around.

Mr. Rascoe appraised her work. “Well, I must say, Miss Lockhart, I am impressed. But try to be on time in the future.”

“I will.” Heat rose into her cheeks as she headed back for her desk.

She didn’t dare look around the room, that would be a deadly mistake, and she knew it. Concentrating on not falling on her face, she resumed her seat and spent the next 40 minutes forcing herself to not make any more embarrassing mistakes.

*~*~*

Somehow Robyn managed to make it through the rest of the afternoon with nary a mistake in sight. When she arrived home, three grocery bags and her backpack in hand, she threw the bags on the table and looked around at the still unpacked boxes. Two more days of this, and she should have most of them cleared out of the living room.

Fighting to keep the depression from finding her, she went into the kitchen to put the groceries away. If this was life, she might as well make the best of it.

*~*~*

“Isn’t the city wonderful?”

It was her mother’s grand entrance, and it never ceased to amaze Robyn how her mother could hate a place one minute and the next minute it was her Utopia.

“Yeah,” Robyn agreed half-heartedly as she watched her mother bounce across the apartment.

“So, what’s for supper, sweetheart?”

“Pizza pockets.” Robyn got up from her homework to check the oven.

“They smell fabulous.”

“You’re in a good mood.”

“I’ve got a date,” her mother said happily.

“You’ve got…a…date?” Robyn stopped, swallowing hard.

“With Matt Carson, one of the guys who works down the hall from me,” her mother said oblivious to the look of dismay on her daughter’s face.

“Matt Carson…?”

“Yeah, we’re going out Friday night. Isn’t it wonderful?”

“Yeah, wonderful.” Robyn reached for the dishes to set the table as her stomach did a backward somersault. Her mother bounced off to her room, and suddenly Robyn felt like the mother with the teenage daughter, who had a date Friday night.

Friday night?  How could her mother do this?  It wasn’t that she thought her mother would never date again, but she certainly hadn’t thought it would happen this soon. What would her father think? What would all her friends think? Then she realized that she had no friends to care one way or another about the situation.

“So, how was school?” her mother asked, breezing back into the kitchen.

“Fine,” Robyn demurred as she pulled the steaming bread-covered food from the oven.

“I’m so happy you’re doing so well.”

“Yeah, so am I.” Robyn stuffed every protest she had deep down inside her. This was no time to upset her mother’s mood, no matter how lousy she felt.

“I have a terrific idea.” Her mother dug into her food. “They’re having a Three Stooges marathon on Channel 27 tonight. What do you say we pop some popcorn and make it a girls’ night in?”

“I’ve got some Trig homework I need to finish,” Robyn said. She had no intention of wasting a whole night.

“Oh, come on, surely you can watch one with me. Just for a little while.”

Robyn shook her head imperceptibly. There was no point in arguing.

*~*~*

When she finally closed the door to her room after eleven o’clock, not one problem had been touched since her mother’s arrival four hours earlier. Robyn sighed in resignation as she clicked on the light over her desk. It was one of the few things she’d had time to find in her own boxes.

She thought again about the Mr. Rascoe fiasco. How did she always manage to get the unreasonable teachers? Somehow she made it through the classes, but in the beginning, it was pure torture. She pulled her calendar out of the top drawer and marked an X through the date. Only 43 more days of this. 43 days, and then a whole year, but she pushed that thought away. One day at a time.

Somehow, at some point, she thought willing the depression away from her, life had to get better.

The Price of Silence Final cover 1-18-2014

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Ebook Romance Stories: Review, “Princess”


Princess final 1-14-2014“From college politics to interracial dating, Staci gracefully brings Heather through while teaching us a little more about ourselves in the process.”

— Joyce Handzo, Dancing Word Reviewer

“Kissing frogs isn’t the best way to find Prince Charming . . . The idea of a Prince Charming may only be a fairy tale, but author Staci Stallings has shown that love is capable of elevating people out of a storybook fantasy, and into a reality that is even more fulfilling and meaningful.”

— Angie Dobson, Love Romances Reviewer

“Get ready to be raptured as you read author Staci Stallings masterpiece. Very few stories paint as clear and precise a picture as this one. You’ll have the privilege of meeting and being immersed in the lives of Heather, a study guru, and Anthony, a champion basketball player. The two of them could not be more opposite from one another. Or are they? “

— Debra Ullrick, Love Inspired Author

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Ebook Romance Stories: Excerpt Princess

Princess final 1-14-2014Excerpt from Princess

Taking the concrete steps two at a time, Anthony Russell hurried to the front door of the Language Building, which he opened with barely a yank. He was late, and he knew it.

“God, please don’t let her leave. Please,” he begged as he all-but ran down the hall to the Conference Rooms. “She’s my last chance.” With no pretense, he yanked that door open and strode into the room.

“May I help you?” the secretary, sitting primly at the desk, asked.

“I’m here…” Anthony glanced around for anyone who looked like a tutor that he could introduce himself to before she left. “For tutoring.”

“Oh, yes. Mr. Russell, how nice to meet you,” the secretary said with a warm smile. “I watch all of your games.”

“That’s nice,” he said without really hearing her comment. Then he stopped himself. “I mean…uh…thank you…Do you…uh…know where I am supposed to go by any chance?”

“Oh, yes. The end of the hall. She’s been here awhile.”

“Thank you.” Anthony turned down the hallway. She’s been here awhile. She’s been here awhile. Great! Awhile? Awhile? What is that? Ten minutes? Fifteen? This was not the way he had wanted to start out.

At the end of the hall, he pushed the door open with one shove, and half-an-instant later heard the crash on the other side as the door hit a chair that was standing too close.

CRASH! The girl seated at the tiny table jumped up so fast, she knocked her own chair to the floor as well, and when it hit the floor, she jumped again.

“Oh, man,” Anthony said as embarrassment swept over him. He held a hand up to calm the all-out panic in her face. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you. I am so sorry.”

A fall of wavy brown hair followed her motion as she reached down to yank her chair from the floor.

“Here, let me get that for you,” Anthony said, mortified by his clumsiness. As he crossed the room in one stride, he slung his books onto the little table. But just as he reached for her chair, he heard the first book hit the floor on the table’s other side, and then from his vantage point looking under the table, he saw the papers from his notebook slide from the table to the floor with a slow-motion waterfall effect.

“Oh, no.” He righted her chair in one sweep and quickly knelt down under the table to retrieve his wayward belongings. He pulled the last paper off the floor and got his feet under him to stand, but he didn’t judge the table right and smacked his head on the edge of it.

“Ow!” he yelped, rubbing the skin at the top of his head. Putting a hand above him to judge the table, he stood slowly, making sure to leave plenty of room between his head and the table this time.

She’s going to think I’m a complete idiot. He stood to face her and braced himself for what he knew was coming. He couldn’t even look her in the eye.

“Hi,” he finally said, holding out his hand, his gaze glued to the floor, “I’m Anthony Russell.”

*~*~*

Heather stood in dumbfounded silence. She had never seen anything like this before—EVER!

“Hello,” she said, shaking out of the shock and trying very hard to sound professional. “I’m Heather Nolan. It’s nice to meet you.” She extended her hand to shake his.

“Ms. Nolan, it’s nice to meet you,” Anthony said as his hand smothered hers.

“Oh, please, call me Heather.” The words had to choke themselves past the derision in her throat. How could she be nice to this creep? After all, he was 20 minutes late, and then he almost scared her to death! But her parents had taught her well, and she was polite to a fault. This guy wasn’t going to make her change now.

“You can call me Anthony,” he said with a slow, shy smile that glimmered in his dark eyes.

Heather ran a hand down her skirt to either smooth it out or to get her palm dry again, she wasn’t quite sure which. “Well, Anthony, you make quite an entrance.”

Anthony ducked his head and squeezed his eyes closed. He glanced back at the door. “Would you mind if I try that again?”

“Again?” Heather asked in confusion.

“Yeah.”

“O…Okay. I guess so.”

“Great! Just a second.” He grabbed up his books, righted the other chair, and disappeared outside.

Heather was amused in spite of herself.

This time the door opened slowly—very slowly, and Anthony entered smoothly, books in hand, looking every bit the ultra-cool basketball star he obviously was.

“Hello.” He extended his hand. “I’m Anthony Russell.”

“Hello, Mr. Russell,” Heather said, taking his hand. “It’s nice to meet you. I’m Heather Nolan.”

“Nice to meet you, Ms. Nolan,” Anthony said formally. “And please call me Anthony.”

“Okay, Anthony. You can call me Heather.”

“Okay, Heather. I really appreciate you waiting for me. I’m sorry I’m so late.”

“It’s all right,” Heather said, wishing it wasn’t so easy to be polite to him. “Just don’t make a habit of it.”

“I won’t,” Anthony said with that same slow smile, and this one went all the way into and through the deep, near-black of his eyes. “I promise.”

“Good. Now, how can I help you?”


Princess final 1-14-2014Buy “Princess”

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Ebook Romance Stories: Princess, Chapter 1


Princess final 1-14-2014Princess

by: Staci Stallings

Chapter 1

Those ugly posters are everywhere. Heather Nolan pushed her rounded, black glasses back up the narrow bridge of her nose. She bent from her shoulders and sipped her drink for a moment. However, in a breath, her gaze traveled back up to the poster hanging over the ledge above her. Who really cared that the Jaguars were “Unstoppable” this year? In the whole general scheme of things, how important was it to be able to dribble a little ball down a court and put it through a hoop? It was just so unthinkable to her that anyone would put any effort into that endeavor at all—much less pay money for it.

With a jerk she twisted her fingers through the tangle of wavy, mouse-brown hair and flipped it from her shoulder onto her back. Money. That was the issue that she kept bumping up against. There was never enough of it, and yet the college just threw it away by the handful on sports. Where was the justice in that? It seemed like every other day they were cutting programs and scholarships for students like her who wanted the education, but when it came to sports, there was always more than enough money for whatever new program that came along. It made her sick just thinking about it.

“Heather. Hello. Earth to Heather,” Jennifer Flynn, the one person on the whole campus who bothered to talk to her on a semi-regular basis, said, waving her hand in front of Heather’s face.

Heather snapped back from the melancholy thoughts. “Oh. Hi. Sorry.” Only a moment to acknowledge Jennifer’s presence, and then she went back to her drink and the depressing thoughts.

“He’s really good looking, isn’t he?” Jennifer asked as she laid her books on a chair and pulled up another to sit on.

“Who?” Heather asked, not really caring about cute guys at the moment.

“Anthony Russell.”

“Who’s that?”

“Anthony Russell.” Jennifer hooked her thumb over her shoulder at the poster behind her. “The point guard for the Jaguars. I mean, he’s black and everything, but he’s still really—uh, easy on the eyes.”

Heather yanked the anger back to her as she went back to her drink. “I hadn’t noticed.”

“Yeah right. You were staring at that poster so hard, I thought you might burn holes through it.”

“Oh, yeah, the Unstoppable Jaguars.” Heather pushed the other side of her thick wavy fall of hair over her shoulder and scowled. “How wonderful they are. The college gods. Oh-wow. They’re so cool. I don’t know why they don’t just bronze them and put them up in every classroom to remind us all why we are really here.”

Jennifer’s light-copper eyebrows reached for the ceiling. “Whoa. A little on the edgy side today, aren’t we? What’s got you so riled up?”

“It’s just been one of those days.” Heather sighed. “Tuition is due, dorm fees are due, I’ve still got two books to buy for classes, and my bank account reads a big fat zero.”

Concern drained onto Jennifer’s face. “But I thought you had that work-study thing lined up for this semester.”

“Yeah. So did I. Until I got this this morning.” Heather held up a cream-colored envelope and then dropped it back to the table next to her. “‘Dear Ms. Nolan, We regret to inform you that the work-study program you were signed up for has been cut due to insufficient funding.’ Insufficient funding my foot. They just need more money to pay their stars up there on that poster.”

There was a long pause, and Heather knew Jenn well enough to know her brain was spiraling to find any positive thing it could to say.

“So what are you going to do?” Jennifer finally asked.

“I don’t know.” Heather shook her head and exhaled slowly. “I’ve thought about it all day, and I just…I don’t know. All the decent jobs in town have been taken, and I’m not going to go back and ask Mom and Dad for more money now. They practically gave me the third degree the last time.” She shook her head again and punched back at the tears rising in her throat. “I don’t know. It just makes no sense to me why the real students in this university get the shaft while guys like Anthony Russell, who wouldn’t know a noun if it walked up and introduced itself, get to live like kings.”

“Yeah.” Jennifer corkscrewed her mouth. “I see what you mean, but who knows, maybe things will turn around. You never know.”

“Oh, yeah? Well, please, tell that to anyone up there that might happen to be listening. ‘Cause right now without some serious cash, I’ll be enrolling in Hanson Junior College before the end of the term.”

Jennifer nodded. “I’ll be sure to put in a request for you.”

“I’d appreciate that.” With no energy Heather picked up her backpack, swiped her hair out of the way, and righted the pack onto her shoulder as she stood. “Well, I’ve got to get to English. I might as well learn all I can before they kick me out. You know?”

“Well, good luck,” Jennifer said as Heather started for the door. “And hey, chin up!”

“Yeah, chin up,” Heather replied with all of the enthusiasm of a wet noodle. “See ya later, Jenn.”

“See ya.”

*~*~*

Not even the unseasonably warm weather outside could brighten Heather’s spirits as she kicked her booted feet past the flowing print skirt that hung nearly to her ankles. What was the point of even going to classes anymore? All those long hours studying, making the Dean’s list every semester and even the President’s list once just so she could go back and be a waitress in some dive back home? It wasn’t an exciting thought.

At the Language Building, she yanked the heavy door open and trudged inside. She glanced up as she entered the stairwell and once again saw the scowl of the Unstoppable Jaguars staring down at her. Fury rose in her gut until she could barely keep herself from ripping the poster down and tearing it into tiny red, white, blue, and black shreds. It wouldn’t help her situation, but it sure would feel good.

English classes had always been her favorite. The papers that everyone else groaned and moaned about seemed to her to be personal challenges from the professors, and she loved it. Now she wondered, taking her seat for Professor Mather’s Dramatic Plays class, how much longer that love affair would last. She had already had Mather for two other classes, and he seemed to like her work. In fact her perfect A record in his class seemed to not even be in question this semester—provided that she could scrounge up enough money to make it through this semester. She pushed those thoughts to the back of her mind even as she twisted the hair that hung nearly to the middle of her back into a knot at her neck and held it there with the hand that wasn’t preparing to take notes.

They were discussing “Hedda Gabler,” and when class started, for once that day Heather forgot about even the money situation. This was her arena. Here she could be the star, and it was exhilarating. The hour flew by, and before she knew it, she was stuffing books back in her backpack.

“Ms. Nolan?” Professor Mather said over the noise of the departing students.

The book in her hand stopped in mid-stuff. “Yes, sir?”

“Could I see you in my office for a moment?”

“Oh.” Heather quickly deposited the rest of her books in her backpack and swung it to her shoulder. “Sure.”

What in the world was this about? They had just taken a test, and she thought she had done well on it. Today, however, it wouldn’t surprise her to find out she had bombed it too. The questions flowed through her brain at ever-increasing speeds as she followed the short, balding professor down the hall to his tiny office. The room reminded her of her dorm room—books stacked everywhere trying desperately to seem organized in a space too cramped to organize anything.

“Ms. Nolan.” Professor Mather sat down in the cracked leather chair behind the desk and folded his hands on the stack of paper in the center of it.

“Yes, Sir?” she asked, standing awkwardly, unsure of whether to sit or stand.

Professor Mather waved her into the chair on the other side of his desk that wasn’t stacked with books. “Oh, please, have a seat.”

“Thank you, Sir.” Fighting the nerves, she sat on the edge of the chair and swung her backpack down next to her feet.

“I’m sure you’re wondering why I called you here, so I’ll get right to the point.” Professor Mather leaned across the desk. “Would you be interested in becoming a tutor?”

“A tutor, Sir?” Heather asked, stumbling across the words.

“Yes. I have a student in my Great Works of Literature class who’s really struggling, and quite frankly I don’t think he’s going to make it without some help.”

What registered on her face, she couldn’t be sure, but her heart registered only utter confusion.

“You were my first choice,” Professor Mather continued, “but of course if you are not interested, I could always find someone else.”

“Oh, no. I’m interested. I just…umm, I wasn’t prepared for this, that’s all.”

“Good. Now before we go any further, I need to tell you this is no ordinary student, and the English department would like to keep his being tutored as low-profile as possible.”

Confidential tutoring? What was he, the King of Oahu? “I understand,” she said, sounding less than sure.

“Good.” His countenance relaxed. “Of course, we’re prepared to pay you for your services. How does $200 a week sound?”

“Two hundred dollars?” Heather asked in undisguised shock. “Are you serious?”

“Very serious.”

“That sounds…umm.” Heather tried to regain her composure. “That sounds just fine, Sir.”

“Great, so we have a deal then?”

She willed a smile to her face. “Yeah, okay. We have a deal.”

“Well, I appreciate your willingness to help out a fellow student in need,” Professor Mather said. “I’ll just give Coach Winton a call right now.”

“Coach…Winton?” Heather’s head throbbed to life as Professor Mather picked up the phone and began dialing. “Umm, Sir, you never actually told me who it is that I’ll be tutoring.”

“Oh, yes. Sorry about that. His name is Anthony Russell. He’s the…”

“…point guard for the Unstoppable Jaguars,” Heather finished in a daze as the chair back caught her shoulders.

But Professor Mather was already speaking to someone on the other end of the line. Everything started moving in slow motion as the realization hit her like a left hook—she would be tutoring him. The snarling face, her nemesis from the posters. This couldn’t be happening. Suddenly she couldn’t breathe. He was the reason she was in this mess in the first place! She couldn’t help him. No, she wouldn’t help him!

“Okay,” Professor Mather said. “If Tuesday doesn’t work for her, I’ll have her give you a call. Great. See ya, Bill.” He hung up the phone. “It’s all set. Anthony will meet you in the lobby of the English Department Conference Rooms on Tuesday at four o’clock. Bill…uh…Coach Winton said if that isn’t convenient for you, you could call and set up another time. You can use the small conference room in the Department. I’ll reserve it for Tuesdays and Thursdays four ‘til six—if that’s all right with you, of course. Now, if you decide you need to schedule another time, just contact me. That will be no problem.

“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you taking the time to do this, Ms. Nolan.” Professor Mather stood. “You’ve saved me a good amount of sleep I’m sure.”

Somehow she stood, but she couldn’t really tell how.

He led her the two paces to the door. “Oh, and here is a copy of A Tale of Two Cities. That’s what we’re reading now. If you need anything else, feel free to ask. Thank you so much.”

And she was out in the hallway wondering where her voice and sanity had gone. She had meant to tell him no when he got off the phone. She could have said that Tuesdays wouldn’t work for her, lied that she had a class or something, but she just sat there like an idiot. Now what was she supposed to do?

Standing on the other side and looking at the bleach-tan door, she weighed her options. She could always knock on that door right now and tell him no. Yes, that’s what she should do. She forced her hand up to knock, but something stopped her.

Two hundred dollars a week. Her chest constricted around the amount. Two hundred dollars! This was the answer she had been hoping for, praying for—right here, so close she could almost touch it, and she was going to turn it down? For what? Because basketball was stupid? Because she should be the one getting special treatment not Anthony Russell, poster guy for the academically challenged?

No, she decided, letting her hand fall back to the soft material at her thigh, this was her chance to make it—her chance to control her own destiny. And Anthony Russell or no Anthony Russell, she wasn’t going to let it slip through her fingers. Besides, she reasoned as she straightened her shoulders, she didn’t really have to try all that hard to help him.

Four hours a week. She looked down at the well-worn novel in her hand. Resolutely she turned to leave the office. It’s only four hours a week. I can do this. Besides it’s for the best cause there is—me!

“Look out Unstoppable Jaguars,” she said to the empty hallway, “here comes Heather Nolan.”

Princess final 1-14-2014

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Ebook Romance Stories: Excerpt “A Light in the Darkness”


ALID Cover New 1-10-2014Excerpt from “A Light in the Darkness”

Going back was ridiculous.  Gabe had told himself that ten thousand times as he drove through the sheets coming down horizontally to the pickup.  A book was not worth this.  And yet, he hadn’t read in four days.  A new habit takes hold at seven days and is established by 21.  He knew that from every motivational book he’d ever read, and he’d read many of them.

The temptation to let it go just one more day clung to his spirit, but he wouldn’t give in to it.  Not now.  Not ever.  The vision of what he was meant to do in this life was too intense, too clear as was the opposite trail that led off into a life he had almost gotten by default.  Letting his life slide in that direction again was too sickening to think about.

At the carriage house, he killed the engine and then berated himself for that.  Stupid.  He would be right back.  But he’d already done it, so he left it off, reached for the door handle, and made a break for the huge, heavy wooden door beyond.  Unfamiliarity smacked him when his hand found the handle.  The door was open—not a lot, but it was.  There was no reason for that door to be open.  No one came out here anymore.

Shrugging the rain off his shoulders and the fear from his spirit, he ducked inside.  Dark as usual.  He reached over and pulled the little light, illuminating the stairs.  The single bulb blinked on, and he stood for a moment, looking, waiting, watching.  But nothing moved. Shoving his hands in his pockets, he started up the stairs.  Which book should he get? The one he was reading but was only marginally interested in or the new one he’d gotten from Marvin over the weekend? It was funny how even now at odd times he would receive a package from his former mentor and how those packages always had a way of turning his life at just the right moment.  It was a pattern Gabriel had learned to trust.

Then, seven steps up, he heard it, and his steps stopped instantly.  He turned to look back down the stairs.  Something wasn’t right.  It wasn’t a definite sound or even movement.  More a feeling.  His movements slid into slow motion.  Concern slipped into his spirit. “Is somebody here?”

The sound of his voice ricocheted off the rounded, stone walls around him.  His gaze darted side to side, back and forth, searching for the unseen.  The little light overhead swung, sending the shadows ducking and weaving through each other.  Foreboding slid through him. Something wasn’t right. Then he heard it, for real this time.  A small, soft intake of air.

His steps turned, and he headed back down the stairs, one at a time, slowly. Listening.  Senses taking in everything.  At the bottom, he let his hand stay on the railing one more moment.  He stopped again to listen.  It took a moment, but there it was again.  Soft, but definitely there.  “Who’s here?”

On the hard stone floor, he moved along the staircase toward the sound.  When he got to the arch of the stairs over his head, he stooped down and gazed into the shadows slicing the cobblestone under the stairs.  He squinted to see better.  Indistinct and shadowed, he saw it nonetheless.  A figure, huddling there, hiding, not moving.

Gabe’s mind raced with the possibilities.  A vagabond seeking shelter from the storm?  A criminal hiding out from the authorities?  Before he could get all the possibilities reasoned out, his eyes adjusted to the dim light.  What told him first what he was looking at—his head or his heart—he would never have been able to say for sure.  But in one giant sweep, he knew this was no vagabond.  It was a woman. Wet, crumpled, and terrified, with wide, terrified eyes looking right at him.

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Ebook Romance Stories: “A Light in the Darkness” Chapter 1


ALID Cover New 1-10-2014A Light in the Darkness
The Faith Series, Book 3

by:  Staci Stallings

~*~*~

Never underestimate the power of the light

You hold. It can light not just your way

But also the way of

Another.

 

~*~*~


 

Chapter 1

Holly Jacobs hit the off button on the little silver cell phone and sat back into the deep, black leather seat of the black stretch limo.  Melancholy settled all through her spirit. Although Boston and her friend Rebecca Avery were just across the country, it felt like the moon would be closer.  Rebecca and Emily Vasquez had gotten an apartment together for the summer.  By the time Holly got back, it was likely she’d have to find a new roommate—if she did go back.   That thought pulled her even lower. Her gaze fell to the expansive floorboards at her feet.

She hated leaving Boston for more reasons than she could name.  Of course Boston had its rough patches too, but it was more home than any home she had ever known.  Certainly more home than the one she was getting inexorably closer to right now.

Her gaze drifted out to the hills of green covering Napa Valley, California.  Tears of unwanted frustration threatened, but she beat them back. She hadn’t been here two hours, and already she hated it.  She didn’t belong here.  The thought that she didn’t belong anywhere cut through her spirit like a sharp dagger.

The little phone beeped to life, dragging her away from the thoughts. She glanced down at it.  With a sigh, she touched the on button and lifted it to her ear. “Hi, Mom.”

“Oh, Holly.  Good.  So you’ve landed then?”

There was no pause to let her answer, and she didn’t bother to try. She knew there wouldn’t be one.

“Listen, Luke will be at the mansion when you get here, so please try to make yourself presentable before you get here.  I hope you’re not wearing jeans.  Jeans are so tacky.”

Holly looked down at her butterfly jeans helplessly.  Like there was anything she could do about that now.

“And do not bring in that tattered thing you call a purse either.  Leave it in the car if you have to.  Give it to Rio, the driver. We’ll get it later.”

The sigh said more than she’d been able to so far. “Fine, Mom.  Anything else?”

“Yeah, be sure to put on some lip gloss.  Not lipstick.  Just gloss.  We don’t want Luke to think you are a tramp or anything.”

No, that would be your department.  Her mind had ways of betraying her at the most inopportune moments. But she said nothing.

“How long before you get here?”

Holly’s gaze slid to the vast expanses of emerald beyond. “I don’t know. I don’t really even know where we are.  Everything is just hills of green.”

“Good. Then you can’t be more than 20 minutes out. Freshen up your makeup, and get yourself together.  When you get here, I’ll be waiting upstairs.  Ring the doorbell, and I’ll let Rosa get the door.  That will give you a good entrance.”

“Whatever, Mom.”

“I’ll see you in a few.  Be sure to freshen up.”

“Okay.”  Ten more words, and Holly signed off.  She didn’t want to, but she pulled the little compact out and checked her makeup.  Her hair was a wreck, but then what did she expect after missing a flight and having three layovers in various venues from Boston to California?  All she wanted was to find a nice, soft bed and sleep for a month.

Nonetheless, dutifully, she dotted the dark circles under her eyes with concealer.  Fortunately she had left her small makeup bag in her purse.  Her gaze chanced to her purse, and hurt filled her heart.  It was a Christmas present from Rebecca the previous year.  True, it wasn’t New York stylish, but it meant that someone cared enough to think about her when they didn’t really have to. Yes, transferring to Boston Central was the best decision of her life.  Her mother still didn’t understand why she’d transferred—nor why she’d changed her major four times, but that was to be expected.

Her mother never understood.  Mostly because she was too busy messing up her own life to get terribly involved in the details of her daughter’s. And now, her mother had hooked up with some rich wine grower from California.

Lovely.  Just lovely.  It was about as great as her life always turned out.  She unclipped her long blonde hair from the back of her head and brushed through it.  Thanks to sleeping on floors and in planes, the shoulder length locks hung ugly and flat. There wasn’t much doing to it. She ran her fingers through it once more. It wasn’t great, but it would have to do.

The car slid through the gates of the estate. The two-story Victorian stood stately at the top of the hill, couched in verdant green so lush it was possible it was painted on the ground rather than growing. Holly clutched her purse as her gaze traveled up, up, up the gray and dull rose façade.  The grandeur of the place was overwhelming. Her mother had certainly done it this time.

Holly sighed wearily as her gaze dropped to her lap.  She hadn’t wanted to come.  By some miracle, she had gotten out of it at Spring Break, hoping that by summer this would all be a distant memory.  But summer had shown up before the inevitable, and  now here she was expected once again to be something she truly hated. More shows to put on to impress everyone so they didn’t get thrown out.  More being someone she didn’t even want to know.  More hearing from her mother how every single thing she did in life was wrong.

Joy. Joy.  This summer should be the best one yet.

*~*~*

“Hey, look.” Timothy Delgado stopped his work to gaze up at the looming gray mansion which looked down on the little garden work shop from the hill above.  “The ice princess has arrived.”

Gabriel Cabrales glanced up from his work on the lawn mower that was doing anything but cooperating.  Mowing the lawn. It had sounded so easy three hours ago. He beat the edge of the mower with the hammer to dislodge the debris from underneath. “You ought to go up there and introduce yourself.  I’m sure she’d love to meet you.”

“Yeah, kinda like her mother, the Wicked Witch of the West.”  Timothy twisted a wrench around his finger—the motor he was supposed to be fixing forgotten.  It was another of the chores Gabriel should have finished last week, and he would have if his father hadn’t fallen out of line three weeks before.  Ever since the heart attack had sidelined his dad, Gabriel had taken over as foreman of the grounds crew.  There were only three of them now, which did nothing to make the job easier. Nonetheless, foreman was a job he didn’t take lightly.

The clanging of the hammer on metal shook right through him. Still he hit it all the harder. The job, normally manageable, had morphed in the last two months into the worst job on the planet.  It started when the Ice Queen showed up, and it had gone down hill from there. In fact, he was sure his father’s heart attack could be directly attributable to her arrival.

“Well, lookie what we have here.” Timothy leaned on the door of the work house which was shrouded by the vast trees towering above them.

Gabriel was positive Mr. Teracini had no idea the house could be seen so plainly from here.  If he did, he would surely have constructed a concrete barrier to keep them out in the past four years since he had become the owner.

Timothy straightened, his eyes growing wide. “Wow.  She may be an ice princess, but she sure is easy on the eyes.”

Wiping the grease and dirt from his hands, Gabriel joined his friend at the door.  Although they were more than a 150 yards away, the sight whipped his breath from him.  Clothed in a pure white flowing top, fitted and then flared jeans, the ice princess brushed the sun-kissed blonde hair from her angelic face.  Of course she was beautiful.  You had to be to fit in up there.

Disgust drained through him.  “Come on, Delgado.  Since this is as close as you’ll ever get to her, you might as well get some work done while you gawk.”

However, Timothy didn’t move even as Gabriel went back to the mower.

“They say she’s a debutant from Boston.  I bet she has a boyfriend.  You know one of those jerks who will kick dirt in your face just to show you he can.”

“Like it matters.” Gabriel hit the mower with a clang, and a chunk of dirt fell to the ground underneath. “Girls like that won’t give guys like us a second look—if they bother to give us a first look.”  Exasperation over all the work they had to do and that he was the only one actually working overtook him. “Tim!  That motor ain’t going to fix itself you know.”

“Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.”  Timothy shook his head, but his gaze never left the blonde up the hill. “She sure is pretty.”

“Well, you’re going to be pretty broke if you don’t get to work.  I’ll personally tell Mr. Teracini to dock you for looking at his new stepdaughter when you should be working.”

Timothy pushed away from the door.  “Oh, boo-hoo.  Why do you always have to be so work happy?”

“Because being work happy is the only way I’m ever going to graduate from being out here with the lawn mowers and you guys to being up there.”  Gabriel nodded toward the mansion.

Tim’s laugh was sardonic. “You are such a dreamer.  Gabriel and his dreams of owning the place one day.” Timothy bowed low. “It’s such an honor to be working with the future owner of Teracini Winery. Hey, Gabe, when you own the place, can I say I knew you when?”

The taunts crawled through Gabe’s gut.  They didn’t believe him, but someday, he would be up there, on the top of that hill, in that mansion.  He would show them all.

*~*~*

“Ms. Linda, Miss Holly has arrived,” Rose, the middle-aged Hispanic housekeeper, called up the steps.

Holly stood awkwardly in the entryway, fighting not to fidget.  The stairs curled three steps one way, banked another six steps at an angle to the first ones and then disappeared up the opposite direction to the unseen floor above.  The mahogany hardwood floor at her feet shown so brilliantly, the sun made it resemble a mirror.  In the center of the entry a little table stood on a rose and cream circle rug.  Topped with a white vase of flowers, the table shown with the same glow as the rest of the room.

“Holly, Darling.”  Her mother swept down the stairs, floating more than walking.  Dressed in a white silk pantsuit with white gauze trailing from her shoulder, she looked like a 40’s movie star making her grand entrance.  “I’m so happy you made it.”

That should’ve been obvious.  Holly shifted feet, not wanting to break her mother’s grand entrance but embarrassed by it just the same.  “Hi, Mom.”

Her mother slid up to her, kissed first one cheek then the other. However, before she let her go, she whispered, “Call me ‘mother.’ It sounds better.”

“Oh.”  The gasp was involuntary. Holly had to shake out of the shock to get more out.  “How are you Mother?”

“Splendid.  Come, let’s sit in the parlor.”  Her mother linked her arm through Holly’s and turned her. “Rose, would you please tell Luke we’re in the sitting room?”

Rose bowed slightly. “Yes, Ma’am.”

Linda breathed in the statement. “Ma’am.” She ducked her head secretively to Holly. “Isn’t it wonderful?  Oh, darling.  I’ve fixed us for real this time. I mean look at this place. Isn’t it gorgeous? Oh, and look at the ring he gave me.”  She held out her hand upon which sparkled an oval rock.  “Isn’t it fabulous?”

There were so many questions Holly wanted to ask.  She started with the most obvious one.  “What happened with you and Dan?”

Horror coursed through her mother’s features. “Dan?  What does he have to do with this?”

“Hello.  You were married to him.  Remember?”

Her mother waved a French manicured hand at her dismissively. “He was a rung I outgrew.”

The sitting room featured a fireplace, more mahogany furniture, and full rose-colored carpeting.  They hadn’t made it to the wine-sheen couch when there was a noise behind them.  The transformation of her mother’s turning was truly difficult to comprehend. She almost literally became a different person.

“Oh, Luke, darling. I’m so glad you could tear yourself away for a few minutes.”  She spun Holly with her and presented her.  “This is my beautiful daughter Holly Marie.”

Never, not one single time had Holly ever felt so much like a trophy.

“Well, Holly, it’s very nice to meet you.” Luke, a tall, handsome, dark-haired man in his early fifties bowed gallantly, taking her hand with him.  He kissed it, completely grossing her out.  When he straightened and let her go, she had to force herself not to wipe his kiss off her hand.  “Please, please.  Have a seat.”

Holly followed them to the little enclave and sat in the wing-backed chair.  Luke and her mother sat right next to each other on the couch, and she tilted her gaze downward at the thought of Dan. How could her mother shift gears so quickly, seemingly never so much as looking back?

“So, tell me about school,” Luke said, laying his hand on her mother’s.  The gesture made Holly sick, and his thick Italian accent wasn’t helping.  He sounded as pompous and full of himself as he looked.

“Oh, I’m out for the summer.” She nodded for no real reason.  The smile hurt. “Summer break.”  The nodding was getting annoying even to her.  She looked around. “Nice house.”

“Why thank you.  It came with the estate when I moved from Italy.”

The comment gave her the opening to ask the question she’d been thinking since he’d first walked in.  “So you’re not American then?”

“Holly!” Her mother’s sharp rebuke stabbed into her.

“No, no. It’s okay, Linda,” Luke said.  “I have done business in the States for many years.  In fact I’d been looking for a winery to buy for almost ten years.  When this one came available, I jumped on it.  I’m now a dual-citizen—Italy and the United States.”

How nice for you. Holly fought to restrain the words so they wouldn’t find the air.  Her foot bounced as she searched for something else to say, but nothing was coming.

“Did you have a good trip?” Luke asked.

The look her mother turned on him yanked sarcasm from her.  The only reason Linda was in the room was to show off her daughter to her fiancé and her fiancé to her daughter.  The pretense was stifling.

“Oh, didn’t mom tell you?” Holly caught the look her mother shot her, but she continued just the same. “I missed the connection in Chicago, so I had to go through Dallas and then Albuquerque.  That’s why I’m such a mess.”

Luke’s smile was hardly condemning. “You are anything but a mess, my dear.  But you must be exhausted.  Did Rio bring your bags in?”

“They’re at the front door.”  Holly stood, and the two of them followed.

The nod Luke gave her held hardly any real movement. “I’ll call Yuri. He can take them up.”

Her mother raised her eyes to make sure Holly was suitably impressed.  However, Holly’s head was starting to send nausea signals to her stomach.  She wasn’t at all sure if it was because she was hungry, tired, or just sick of life.

Luke called for the maid who appeared almost immediately. “Rosa, will you call Yuri to take Holly’s bags up to the first guest room?” Luke turned to her as Rosa bowed and departed.  “You will have a full bath, and a full suite to yourself.  Enjoy.  And if you need anything, please feel free to ask.”

How about a bag to throw up in?  However, she simply nodded.  He bowed as it seemed they all were wont to do and strode off down the hallway.  The moment he was out of sight, her mother linked arms with her and squealed in a whisper.

“Isn’t he dreamy?  Ugh.  I knew the first time I saw him this was going to work.”

Holly removed her arm from her mother’s.  “I’m shot, Mom.  Can we talk about this later?”

With her usual flair, her mother looked at once frustrated and hurt.

It was a pattern Holly had learned long before. “No, Mom.  We’ll talk. I promise.” She put her fingers into her hair which felt like a dry weed.  “I’m just a mess right now.”

The shoulders slumped. “Fine.”

*~*~*

“So, how is it?” Rebecca asked over the phone.

Holly collapsed on the yellow daisy bed and sighed.  Even the warm bath in the claw-foot bathtub hadn’t washed away the melancholy. “Wonderful.  Isn’t it supposed to be wonderful?  He’s rich.  Mom’s in love.  What’s not wonderful?”

Rebecca paused, clearly searching for something to say. “Did you talk to her about the job?”

“Huh.  She was too busy showing off.”  Holly rolled to her stomach and twined her feet behind her.  “Man, I wish I was back in Boston with you guys.”

“You and me both.  We’ll be praying for you, okay?  Don’t let her get you down.  This is your life. Remember?  You get to choose now.”

If only it was that easy.

“Miss Holly.”  The knock on her door brought her full up.  “Dinner is being served.”

Holly spun to sitting in one motion. “Oops.  Gotta go.  Tell everyone hi for me.”

“Will do.  And Holly, we’ll be praying.”

“Thanks.” She clicked the off button and let the phone drop to the bed.  She was going to need more than prayers.  Pushing up off the four poster bed, she traipsed to the door and down the stairs.  At the entryway she listened and followed the noises to the formal dining room.  Clearly the mahogany thing was a staple of this house. The mahogany furniture in the dining room was set off by celery green walls and gold decorations.

“Holly!  Oh, my.” Her mother jumped up from the table in horror. In seconds she shoved Holly into the hallway.  “What are you thinking?  This isn’t proper attire for dinner.”

The proprietary tornado hit her so fast, she was taken totally off guard.  She looked down at her clothes which were nothing out of the ordinary.  Her nicest jeans and a fitted, purple top.  It wasn’t like it was Las Vegas showroom material.  “Proper…?”

Her mother leaned in menacingly.  “First of all, you’re late and now you show up looking like trailer trash.  What are you trying to do—ruin everything?”

“Linda?” Luke called from the dining room.

“Just a moment, Darling.”  In hushed but urgent tones she targeted Holly. “Don’t you have anything but jeans and T-shirts?”

“I…”

“You know what I mean.  Now get up there and change, and do not let me see you in those again. You hear me?”

Beaten and defeated, Holly’s head fell. “Yeah.”

Her mother squared her shoulders and shook back her hair-sprayed stiff light brunette hair. “The answer is, ‘Yes, Ma’am.’”

What could she say as her shoulders slumped forward?  “Yes, Ma’am.”

*~*~*

It was after ten when Gabriel pulled out of the front gate.  The mowing was done by no small miracle.  He shifted in the seat of the old, beaten up brown and gold Chevrolet pickup.  His mind slid down the list of things to do until exhaustion took over even that. He let out a breath and ran his hand from his forehead to his chin.

His curly black hair was caked with dirt and grime.  No wonder Timothy thought he was crazy.  But Timothy didn’t know—not all of it anyway.  As headlights went the other direction down the winding road, Gabriel fought to settle his surging spirit.  It was crazy to tell them the things he knew deep inside, about the signs he’d received, about the things he had read.  They wouldn’t understand.  Worse, they would think he was insane.  Sometimes he wondered if he was.  How else could anyone explain the things he saw, the things he now understood almost as an instinct?

The pickup chugged into the driveway of the little house, and Gabe killed the engine.  He slid out and made it all the way to the sink just inside the back door when he heard the shuffling.

“Gabriel, I thought you would be home hours ago.”  His mother, a woman well into her sixties, hunched by the work load she had carried her entire life, appeared in the doorway.  “Your supper is cold.”

Gabe grabbed the towel to dry his hands. “It’s okay, Mom.  I can heat it up.”  In very few steps he was at the microwave.  That was one thing about a small house, there was only a modicum of stress getting from one room to the next.  “Is Dad in bed already?”

He popped open the microwave and shoved the plate into it. Beep went the button.

“He’s supposed to go back next week, you know.”

“Yeah, I know.”

His mother spun her arms over themselves.  “Do you think that’s a good idea?”

The whirring of the microwave gave way to another beep, and he took the food out.  Without bothering to move more than to get a fork, he started eating.  “Do you think it’s a good idea?”

She sighed.  “You’ve seen him.  He can barely get from the chair to the kitchen. How’s he supposed to run a whole operation?”

It was a good question, and in it he heard the unspoken plea.  “Well, if he needs more time, I could talk to Mr. Teracini.  We could probably handle it a while longer.”

This time she shook her head, and Gabriel was starting comprehend what she wasn’t saying.

“He’s just so weak, Gabriel.  Not like he used to be.”  She paused, soft dreaming touched her voice. “No, not like he used to be.”  The dream snapped, and she looked up. “He’ll be 71 next month, you know.  71.”

Gabe tried to push the thoughts of his parents’ age away as much as possible.  He was their surprise child, their one and only, conceived long after they had stopped trying because it was declared hopeless by every doctor they’d gone to.  That’s why they’d named him Gabriel because Gabriel was the angel who had brought the good news of a child not only to Mary but to Elizabeth as well.

It was a story he had memorized.  One that had always made him feel special, hand-picked, hand-sent.  Yet now the lonely years ahead stared him in the face.  At 24, he was hardly more than a teenager.  The thought of losing one or both of his parents frightened him in ways that few things did, and he spent a good deal of energy trying not to think about it.

But there were times, like this one, that denial was not an option.

“Well, what’s the money situation if he does quit?” Somehow that question catapulted him into full-fledged adulthood.

Her faded green eyes, so much like his until age and wear had taken their toll, fell closed.  “It’s not great.  We’ve got some social security we can count on, but it’s not much.  Of course the house is ours, but… well…”  She shrugged. “I guess we’re lucky to have made it this long, but how are we going to live now? What will we do if he cannot work?”  The gray covered head shook slowly. “I don’t know.  I just don’t know.”

Careful not to make noise, Gabe set his plate on the stove, stepped to her, and put his arms around her.  “It’s okay, Mom.  We’ll figure something out.”

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Ebook Romance Stories: Behind the Story, “Deep in the Heart”

Image Rich, Reality Poor
Behind the Story:   Deep in the Heart
by:  Staci Stallings

It’s amazing to me how different life looks if you ever bother to look at more than the outside surface of things.  In our world today we’re all so busy, and we get so caught up in doing things and getting things and having things that we forget what’s really important.  What’s really important is not how something, or more to the point–someone, looks on the outside.  It’s what’s inside that counts.

One of the things that fascinates me about the story “Deep in the Heart” is the paradox of being image rich and reality poor–and vice versa, being image poor and reality rich. In the story, Keith is the son of a billionaire.  He literally has the world at his feet–a beautiful fiancée who is wealthy and well-connected and a father who owns half of Texas.  Okay, not half, but pretty close.  He is the definition of Image Rich.

Then there’s Maggie Montgomery.  Poor Maggie.  I’m telling you from the first time you meet her, you will feel a twinge of sympathy for her.  She literally has nothing in life–two dollars in her purse and a car that’s going to break down any second.  She is in every way image poor.  In fact, she’s not even wearing her own shoes, and the shoes she is wearing don’t fit.  She is to all the world the personification of Image Poor.

But look a little closer and you begin to see that everything is not as the image would have you believe.  For one thing, Keith’s life is a mess.  Oh, he talks a good game and looks good doing it–when he’s all citified that is.  However, when Maggie first meets him on the stairs of his father’s mansion, she doesn’t see that at all.  Why?  Because there he is image poor.

In his dusty jeans and ripped shirt, he doesn’t look like a billionaire’s son, and because he doesn’t look that way, she trusts him enough to be real–to let him see the real her–nerves and imperfections and all.  Had he looked image rich, she would never have trusted him because she wouldn’t have felt anywhere near his league.  And that’s part of the paradox.  We treat others by how we see them, never realizing there is always much more to the story.

Of course, for Keith he’s really not a fan of the image rich lifestyle.  He’s seen it up-close-and-personal and he wants no part of it.  Except he can’t keep his father and everyone else from dragging him down that dark hole of being who he isn’t and how he isn’t to keep up the image until he’s come to the point that maybe he should give up what he wants and just accept the image rich persona everyone wants to put on him.

For Maggie, she had no chance at image rich.  The truth is, she’s just struggling for survival.  However, because of that, she’s had to become Really (or Spiritually) Rich.  Oh, this doesn’t show on her clothes or her shoes or her hairstyle.  It shows only in her heart, and those wise enough to look below the image are the only ones lucky enough to see how truly rich she really is.  Of course, everyone in Keith’s circle is horrified because her image is all wrong, but Keith is slowly drawn not to the outside image but to what’s really there.  As this happens, he begins to question if it is possible for him to shed the image everyone wants him to be and go for what he really is.

However, shedding the image and reaching for Really Rich rather than Image Rich is not always as easy as it sounds, and Keith soon learns that becoming Really Spiritually Rich is much, much harder than it looks.  Can he break out of what the world says he should look like in order to become the man he really is meant to be?

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