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When I’m Weak, Excerpt

When I'm Weak 4-20-2016

 

When I’m Weak

The Grace Series, Book Two

Excerpt

With a smile curling under the scruff between his nose and lip, Derek watched her.

Jaycee felt his gaze and shrank from it. Looking at her watch, she let her shoulders slump. “So. You about ready? I could get the check.”

Although she had expected him to bounce right up, he didn’t move except for his finger going up and down the moisture on his glass. “I don’t know.” He glanced over to the tiny dance floor that now had a few couples scattered on it. Tipping his head that direction, he shrugged. “You into dancing?”

Her eyes jerked up so quickly, they almost came loose from her body. “Dancing?” she asked in barely disguised horror. “Oh. No. I don’t really…” She glanced over at the little wooden floor as that song ended and the guitarist thanked the audience.

“Oh, come on. One dance,” Derek said. “I promise I won’t step on your toes.”

One dance. Was he out of his mind?

“Then we can go home and finish the laundry,” he teased, and Jaycee felt her chest going warm. When did they turn on the heaters?

Picking up the edge of her glasses, she let out a breath and reached for her tea mostly to stall. It took amazing amounts of effort not to spill the liquid right down the front of her.

At that moment he stood and held his hand out and down across the table to her. “Come on.” He tilted his head toward the dance floor, and Jaycee thought she might actually pass out. In fact, if she could have made that happen, she would have.

Not seeing any way to turn him down, she nodded to herself. Okay. It’s one dance, Jayc. Don’t freak out here. It’s just one, little dance. Just get through it, and we can go home. Putting her hand into his took a supreme act of willpower, and standing from the table took even more because his hand proved to be so warm and solid around hers. “But I’m not very good at this,” she said, cowering behind his advance as he wove their way through the tables, his hand wrapped around hers so she couldn’t have run if she had wanted to. “I haven’t…”

The dance floor was bathed in a soft golden light that made it shine, and when they got there, Derek turned to her and smiled. Gently, he put his hands at her waist, and Jaycee somehow got hers up and onto his shoulders though her gaze wisely chose to stay at their feet.

“See,” he said after a minute. “This isn’t so bad.”

Bad? Was he completely, certifiably insane? This was horrible. This was dangerous. This was crazy.

“You’re pretty good,” he said, his gaze sliding down to her and staying right there.

She whipped her head back, sending her ponytail back and off her shoulder as she looked up at him. “I haven’t done this since high school. The prom. And I was horrible at it then too.”

However, the look in his grayish-green eyes was soft. “I wouldn’t say you’re horrible. A little quirky. Kind of bossy sometimes. But not horrible.”

The compliment or whatever it was drove right down into her heart because she was not at all prepared for him to be so charming. Why that was, she wasn’t sure because she had seen him be charming. More than a few times. Then she wrenched her gaze from his and dropped it between them. What was she thinking? This was Derek West. The Derek West. The man who was practically a household name with more women than she cared to count in their many travels. Just because they were here dancing didn’t change that fact. More to the point, the reason he was even dancing with her was because there was not a better choice in the place.

Thankfully, before she completely humiliated herself, that song ended, and she let go of him and backed away, tucking her hands in her back pockets. “Uh. Thanks.”

However, he didn’t move from the spot as the next song started. “One more, and then we’ll go.”

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When I'm Weak 4-20-2016

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When I’m Weak, Chapter 1

When I’m WeakWhen I'm Weak 4-20-2016

The Grace Series, Book Two

Chapter 1

“And that’s a wrap! Thanks, everyone!” Jaycee Lawrence called over the crowded front lawn. Cameras, boom mics, and cords snaked in all directions, save for the direction where Derek West stood, hugging the grateful homeowners one last time.

“Thank you so much, Derek,” John Walters said, shaking her star’s hand like an old-time pump he was trying to get water from.

Derek. Smooth, cool, easy-going Derek just smiled under that thick scruff of whiskers that got all the girls’ hearts a-flutter. “It really did turn out beautifully.”

June Walters gave Derek a hug. “You are so amazing. I still can’t believe how incredible the kitchen is. I might never leave.”

“Well, I hope you leave sometimes,” Derek said with a laugh. “John here might get lonely.”

“Are you kidding? I’ll be in there with her!” John put his arm around his wife and hugged her to him. “We, really… we’re so grateful.”

Staying just slightly to the side and back out of the way, Jaycee waited. Soon enough Derek would tear himself away from the adulation and rejoin reality. She used to worry about that, jumping in to tell him they needed to go right away. Now she knew he knew that well enough, but he also understood the value of spending just a few more minutes after the cameras stopped rolling so the homeowners didn’t feel like they were just one more stop on his agenda.

“Thank you, too, Jaycee.” John came over and shook her hand though maybe not as enthusiastically.

“You’re so welcome. We hope you love it.”

“Oh, we will,” his wife said. “In fact, I already know what I’m going to make tonight.”

John looked at her. “Let’s go get started.”

They turned and waved their good-byes. With one more wave back at them, Jaycee looked up at Derek and patted him on the back. “Another miracle makeover. The ratings people are going to love it.”

He shrugged and smiled that smile that almost wasn’t as they started for the cars. The crew had already started the cleaning job that would take most of the next two hours. “Making dreams come true. That’s what we’re all about, right?”

She liked that about him. His focus. He got a job, did the job incredibly well, and was happy just to make others happy.

“So where’re we off to next?” He accepted a bottle of water from one of the assistants to an assistant and downed half of it in one chug before they even got to the car.

“Indiana.” Jaycee slid into the driver’s seat of the little white rental car they’d been using for the past six weeks and stowed the clipboard that was never far away in the backseat with the rest of her things. “Gary. It’s a cute little two-story with a dad and his daughter. The mom passed away a couple years ago. They’re still trying to recover, move on, you know?” She started the car and headed out of the little neighborhood for the last time, bound for the airport. If they were lucky, they’d be in Gary early enough to get some decent food and maybe even a good night’s sleep.

“Kitchen? Family room?” He finished the water and eased back into the seat. She couldn’t blame him for being exhausted. He’d been working night and day on this last remodel, and like most of them it had gone right down to the wire.

“Basement and maybe the master.” Glancing both directions, she turned out onto the four-lane and checked the direction on the GPS. North. Good. At least she wouldn’t get them hopelessly lost this time. Driving had been one of the most challenging parts of this job at first, that and keeping her heart in check every time Derek West walked into the room.

Nobody had to tell her why he was such a hit on the Home & Hearth Channel. Tall, with massively good looks. Just the right amount of build. Kind. Affable. Hard-working. He was the guy every woman in America wanted in her kitchen. The fact that she got to work with him nearly round the clock and up-close-and-personal had not been lost on her heart for the first several months, but eventually, they had settled into an easy rhythm and she couldn’t be upset about that. After all, she, more than anyone, knew Derek West was not the kind of guy who would ever settle down with someone. Oh, no. He had hot dates lined up from one coast to the other, and Jaycee had finally accepted that none of those dates would ever include her. As they sped out onto the freeway, she looked over at him because he hadn’t replied, and sure enough, he was already sleeping.

She wasn’t even going to count how many hours of sleep he had missed the last three nights. The job had been going so well, and then the pipe behind the sink ruptured, and after that, well, it was all kind of a blur to her as well.

Her cell phone beeped, and she dug for it in her purse on the console between them, finally coming up with it just as another motorist honked his displeasure with her driving. “Pick a lane,” she said to the car in front of her. With Derek sleeping, she didn’t want to use the speaker phone, so she swiped it on and put it to her ear. “Jaycee Lawrence.”

“Jaycee. I’m glad I caught you. Listen, we’ve decided to bump up production on the Smith house.”

“Bump it up? Brent? You can’t be serious.” With only one hand on the wheel, she maneuvered into the split lane veering off to the right. “Derek is done for. Seriously. He needs a few days.”

“Days he doesn’t have. Tell you what. It’s Thursday. If you guys can be at the Smith house in the morning to do the initial run through, he can take Saturday and Sunday off. How’s that?”

Gee, thanks for your magnanimous generosity. She wanted to say it, but she didn’t. “Can we at least make it ten tomorrow? We’re going to be lucky to get there tonight at any decent hour.”

Another horn honked, and she struggled to keep her nerves in check.

“Fine. Ten, but don’t be late.”

“When have I ever been late, Brent? Will it be Elle or Katie?”

“Elle is setting this one up. I’ve already got Katie scouting in Nevada. I thought that would be a nice change of pace. We haven’t done anything in Nevada yet.”

Jaycee couldn’t think about Nevada. Indiana was taxing her coping mechanisms. In fact, if they made it to the airport alive, she was going to celebrate. “Okay, listen, Brent, I’ve got to go. I’ll talk to you soon.”

“All right. Have a safe flight.”

And with that, she beeped the phone off and flipped it onto her purse.

In the other seat Derek shifted and opened one eye. “Brent?”

“Yeah.” However, Jaycee shook her head as her gaze took in all the traffic. “We’ll talk about it later.” She glanced over at him. “Get some sleep.”

“Hm. Okay.” And it was clear he was already there.

 

The airport wasn’t much better than the traffic, and Derek was glad he had a trail guide who would chop down the Amazon to get him where he needed to be on time. It was nice not to have to worry about things like flights and schedules, tickets and when he would eat. Mostly he just worked and let her take care of the details of living.

“I figured we could grab something quick for a late lunch,” Jaycee said as they stood in the line taking off their shoes and pulling everything out of their pockets. This part had at first been awkward, but they had done it so many times, now it was just routine.

Derek flipped his wallet into the little gray plastic container and added his boots and belt too. “Okay but nothing with grease. Whatever those burgers were the guys brought in last night… wow.”

Stepping into and then through the scanner, he collected his things back on the other side.

“That was not my fault,” Jaycee said, stepping through the scanner and being cleared to continue. “I told you we should’ve ordered Chinese.”

“And you were right as usual.” He put one terracotta-colored Chukka boot on and then the other before grabbing his belt and putting the rest of himself back together.

Jaycee was on the other side doing much the same thing except with bracelets and her watch, her clipboard, purse, tablet case and boots, she didn’t get put back together quite so easily. He was ready and waiting long before she was. Finally, she strode over to him attaché in one hand, purse in the other. “Kendall said the proofs from the photo shoot came in,” she said as he turned to follow her up the concourse. “I thought maybe we could look at them on the plane.”

“Are any of them worth anything? I still think we should have postponed that one. I felt like I was going to die that day.”

“You don’t have to remind me. I was there, remember?”

At Gate 15, they stopped to check all the pertinent information on the little board. When Jaycee was satisfied that everything was on-schedule and correct, she let out a hard sigh. “So, something to eat. A sandwich? There’s bar-be-que down the way I think.”

“How about a steak?”

She appraised him with one slow nod. “How about when we get to Gary?”

Derek put his head back. “Fine. Then I guess a sandwich.”

With no more discussion, they headed back the way they had come. “You know, I really think that last stand-up with the Walters went well,” she said as they walked. “Mrs. Walters loved that pull down faucet on her sink.”

“Oh, you noticed that too, huh?” At the door to the first little restaurant they came to, he opened it and held it for her.

Once inside she ordered up the table, and they were seated in the dimly lit area over by the bar. It was 3:15 in the afternoon, so it wasn’t like the place was hopping.

Taking his menu, Derek blinked his eyes wider. “Wow. Either they don’t want you to see the menu or the prices. What is up with the lighting in this place?” He looked up and frowned. “Well, no wonder, they’ve got three lights out, and this overhead is doing nothing but creating ambiance if you want to call it that.”

Jaycee shook her head. “Do you ever stop? Seriously? Can’t you walk into a single space without figuring out how you would redo it if you got the chance?”

His smile was sheepish. “Sorry. Habit I guess.”

She perused the menu. “What sounds good?”

“I told you. Steak.”

“And I told you we’ll do steak when we get to Gary.” She reached over and snapped her fingers in front of his face. “Focus. This is lunch. Remember?”

“Well, if I had gotten more than three hours of sleep, or if there was maybe more light on the subject…”

With that, Jaycee reached down into her purse and pulled out her cell phone. She snapped it on, the light coming on with the intensity of a backlit computer. “There.” In one motion she handed it to him. “Happy now.”

Derek angled the light at his menu. “Oh, wow, look. They have steak.”

Letting her shoulders slump, Jaycee gave up. “Fine. What do you want with your steak?”

 

In no time they were on the plane winging northward over corn fields and the little towns that dotted the Midwest. Destination O’Hare International in Chicago which Jaycee was still trying not to think about. She pulled out her NotePad and swiped at it to bring up the photo shoot proofs marketing had sent over.

“There were a couple of these I thought were pretty good,” she said, swiping some more. “Like this one. I like the leaning back thing.”

Derek took one look at it and grimaced.

“Bad?” she asked, gauging his reaction.

He shook his head. “You know I hate this stuff.”

“Yeah, well, I’m sorry, but Brent wants your opinion. It’s your show as you keep reminding everyone within earshot.”

“I know, but I’m a contractor not a male model. This stuff is just weird.” He took the thing from her and swiped through the pictures. Most of them he couldn’t have even seen because he went too fast. “Bad. No. Hate it. Yuck.” Holding it out, he contorted his face. “Seriously? I look like I just ate a lemon.”

Reaching for it, she took it back and went back a couple. “They are not that bad. Look. This one’s good with the sledgehammer. Makes you look all macho and tough.”

“Okay. That one’s not so bad. But these others? What is this one?” He crossed his arms like he had them in the picture and put a haughty look on his face. “I look like the unhappy librarian right before closing time.”

Jaycee laughed at his theatrics. “It’s a good thing the marketing team can’t hear you. They would fold up their tents and go home. We only spent half a day on these. Now come on. We’ve got to narrow this down to like five or six they can use for the promos.”

With a sigh, Derek took the little device back and started swiping through them again.

“That one’s okay,” Jaycee said, leaning over his shoulder to see. “I like the fence with the black background.”

“It’s not too bad I guess,” he admitted without enthusiasm.

“And I like this close up.”

“Really? I look like I’m trying out for a soap opera.”

“I guess you could be the handyman,” she teased. “I could mention it to Brent.”

Instantly Derek sat up, wide-eyed. “Don’t you dare even think about doing that. You do and I will so kill you and bury your body so no one will ever find it.”

Biting her lips to keep from laughing out loud, Jaycee ducked even as she looked around. “Shhh. Other people will hear you.”

He gave her a hard, angry look. “Yeah? Well, it would serve you right.”

“Oh.” She sat up again. “By the way, I was going to mention. They called from marketing, and one of the syndicated radio talk shows called.” With a brush, she ran her hand through the air. “Totally a fishing expedition to see if you’d like to do their show. I told marketing I’d run it by you.”

“A radio show?” he asked dubiously. “What would we talk about?”

“I’m guessing your meteoric rise to the top of the remodeling world. Either that or the host’s leaky faucet and how to fix it. Could go either way.”

“Ha. Ha.” Tiring of the task of looking at himself, Derek handed her the NotePad back. A second and he leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes.

Surprise jumped on her. “What? Aren’t you going to help me pick something?”

“You pick. I don’t care. Just not the one with the lemon face.”

Swallowing her sigh, Jaycee sat back in her own seat. Yes, she thought sarcastically to the part of her that registered frustration, she had such a hard life. Staring at a handsome guy who could sweep any girl he wanted to off her feet. Yes, yes, she had the hardest job in America.

And with that, she pulled out her notebook and set about choosing the pictures he would have chosen if he was actually choosing them himself.

 

O’Hare turned out to be a madhouse. Jaycee had known it would be, but still she had hoped. “I wish we could get a cab.”

“To go to Gary?” Derek followed her from the baggage claim to the car rental counter. “What would that cost like a million bucks?”

“I said I wish. Then again, it might be worth it.” She stepped up and explained what they needed to the rental car attendant. Thankfully Derek wasn’t the hard-to-please type. Four wheels that wouldn’t break down and that was good enough for him.

While the attendant punched in the information, Jaycee dragged her purse back up to her shoulder and checked her watch. “I knew that layover was a bad idea. Traffic is going to be a nightmare.”

Standing there, with the black shoulder strapped bag dangling from his shoulder, Derek put his hands in his pockets and smiled and nodded to a few people who passed by. Instantly they ducked behind their hands as they stared.

“Here we are, Ms. Lawrence,” the attendant said. “I just need your signature. Here. Here. And here. And then, here as well.”

She fought to keep the purse strap on her shoulder as she juggled the attaché. No one would ever be able to read this signature. “Done.”

The attendant nodded. “The shuttle outside will take you to the car lot.”

“Thanks.” Jaycee reached down and retrieved the handle of her rolling suitcase. “Okay. All set.” It was interesting how normal the odd looks had become from others in airports and everywhere else they went. Outside and with him trailing her, she checked one way and then the other before heading down to the little green van. Getting in, she looked at her watch again. “It’s going to be eight o’clock even if we’re lucky. I sure hope Elle has the hotel thing all ironed out. In fact…” She scooted over for him to follow. With difficulty, she dug the cell phone out and placed the call. “Elle, hey, this is Jaycee. Yeah, we just landed. Can you give me the address for the hotel? K. Yeah. Hold on.”

The juggling continued as she fished for a paper and a pen, knowing she should have had those ready. “Yeah. Okay.”

With a screech the van pulled out into traffic, sending Jaycee careening right into Derek’s shoulder.

“Ugh. Crud. Sorry,” she said and scooted farther over. “Yeah. I’m here. Okay. What is it?”

 

Chicago traffic proved even more challenging than Jaycee had anticipated. The GPS system on the little car kept saying, “Turn left in 500 feet” because they had sat in the exact same spot for ten minutes.

“I know that!” Jaycee finally said to the thing. “Will you shut up already?”

With concern, Derek looked over at her. “How much coffee did you have this morning?”

She glared at him. “Clearly not enough.” Coming up, she hit the horn. “Come on, people! Move already!” Frustration stacked on top of her as around the seatbelt, she put her head onto her fist that was propped there at the top of her elbow on the windowsill. “I do not believe this. We’re never going to get there.”

“So, what’s the rush?” He stretched out his long, jean-clad legs and crossed his arms. “You late for a hot date or something?”

Corralling her frustration with life so she didn’t outright growl at him, Jaycee reached down and flipped on the air. “No. I was hoping to have some time to get out of these clothes.” She angled her nose down to her shirt. “I’m not even sure I changed this morning.”

He leaned over and took a sniff as well. “Probably not.”

“Ha. Ha.”

With a tip of his head, he smiled at her. “Seriously. You should learn to chill a little. Look around. It’s a beautiful day. We’re in Chicago, the windy city on a day that’s not even windy. You don’t think that’s something to enjoy?”

Enjoy? That word was not a word in her life’s vocabulary at the moment. “I just want to get to the Interstate and out of this wall-to-wall nightmare. Is that really so much to ask? Come on!” She honked at the guy cutting right into her lane. “Are you kidding me? Where did you learn to drive?”

One eye on her, Derek reached over and hit the radio button. “Maybe some music would help.”

“Not likely.” Still she watched his arm, brushed with just the right amount of glistening hair. Masculine. Did every part of him have to scream that word so loudly? She re-anchored her gaze outside and forced a calming breath into her lungs as thankfully she made the final turn. “Yes. The Interstate. Finally.”

Next to her Derek bobbed his head to the beat. “I love this song.”

It would’ve been nice to have a song to love or to have heard a song in the past year. Unfortunately, songs in her world were few and far between.

 

“Two rooms for Starr Productions,” Jaycee said when she tumbled up to the extended stay hotel counter barely making it before she dropped everything. “I think Elle Peterson already booked them?”

“Let’s see here.”

It was then that Jaycee noticed Derek hadn’t followed her all the way to the counter. In fact, he was no longer even behind her. In concern, she scanned the lobby and found him, chatting up a cute blonde who sat on one of the comfortable-looking couches.

Fighting the annoyance, Jaycee tugged at the slightly-rounded bottom of her blouse and then resettled the strap of her purse on her shoulder. He’s a grown man, Jayc. He can do whatever he wants.

“Ah, yes. Here it is. Ms. Peterson is in 515 in the tower, and the other two rooms are adjacent to that. 517 and 519.”

“Excellent.” Three more signatures, and Jaycee was ready to call it a life and die. “Thank you very much.”

“We hope you enjoy your stay with us.”

“Oh, I’m sure we will.” She accepted the little credit-card looking key things, gathered up all of her belongings one last time and with a sigh to get herself moving again, headed over to the two now chatting away as if they had been friends forever. It wasn’t easy to smile at the woman, but Jaycee did so anyway. Then she looked up at Derek. “Here’s your key-card. We’re up in the tower.”

“Oh, great. Thanks.” He accepted the card and shoved it in his pocket. “Jaycee, this is…” He looked at the woman who Jaycee now saw had a small waist cinched with a tiny belt and jewelry dripping from every limb.

“Bree,” she said with a thick Wisconsin accent.

Derek smiled his approval. “Bree. Right.” Then he turned his attention solely on Bree. “Listen, I’ll be back down in about 30 minutes if you don’t mind waiting?”

Wanting to crawl into a hole somebody else had dug, Jaycee fought to not put her head down although she did wind her lips under her teeth to keep from screaming. Humiliation drained through every pore of her whole body, and she could not stop the sigh.

“Great,” Derek said, touching Bree’s arm, and Jaycee didn’t miss the wink he gave the woman. “It won’t take me long.”

“I’ll be waiting.”

I’ll be waiting, Jaycee wanted to mimic. Ugh, could the woman be any more transparently coquettish? Even Jaycee was embarrassed for her. “Are we going now?”

Derek looked down at her as if he’d forgotten she was standing there. “Ready when you are.”

 

It took less time than even he had thought it would, and Derek West, shined up and polished, headed out for his night on the town with Bree Whatever-Her-Last-Name-Was. She was hot. That’s really all that mattered.

Coming out of the hotel room, he glanced down the hallway at Jaycee’s door and thought about knocking to tell her where he was going and not to wait up. However, she had things to do, and he didn’t want to disturb her. With a check for his wallet and his room key, he headed out. Maybe Gary, Indiana wouldn’t be so bad after all.

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When I'm Weak 4-20-2016
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The Long Way Home, Excerpt

The Long Way Home

by:  Staci Stallings

She had heard nothing but her father’s infuriating voice in her head for two hours when her finger snapped the back stitch button on and then off.  You would think he could at least try to be reasonable… for once in his miserable life.

Carefully cutting the thread away, Ami pulled the lacey material free. The curtains were turning out nicely— even Mrs. Sanders, her home ec teacher, would’ve been pleased. With one more snip she freed it from the thread and held the finished product up next to the chair to inspect her work.

“Good deal.” Pleased, she stood, unfurling the curtain onto her bed where its mate laid. Then she stepped back to examine her handiwork. It was times like this that she believed somehow she was going to make this work. She was going to make it by September, and she would show her father and prove to him he had been wrong about her and her grandfather and this farm the whole time.

“Ami?” Jaxton called from the stairs.

“I’m in here,” she called back, pulling at the material to measure for the tie-backs.

She tried not to notice as he appeared at her door and leaned there. “Well, I’ve got good news, and I’ve got bad news.”

“What’s the good news?” She tipped her head in his direction as she pinned the material together, trying to act like any bad news would be only a little bump she could easily handle.

“Well, I found the last wall.”

“Cool. So, what’s the bad news?”

“The sheet rock’s no good,” he said clearly wishing he didn’t have to be the one to tell her that.

Looking up, she scowled in confusion. “No good? What does that mean?”

“Come see.”

And with that, her feet were moving to go inspect the thing.

“It’s all crumbly,” he said as she stepped past him and headed for the stairs. “It looks like it got wet at some point.”

She didn’t say another word as she climbed the stairs and went into the room to inspect the damage. Horror hit her square. He wasn’t kidding. The floor was covered with white dust and crumbs from the wall. It was worn completely through in one, large place, and in several others it wouldn’t take much to make it fall.

As she stood looking at it, she could hear her father’s lectures, and piece-by-piece her dream began a slow crumble inside her. She closed her eyes to the stinging in the backs of her eyes, pushing back at it with her eyelids and her hand. She should have known. She should just give up now. Why was she even doing this? He was right. She would never be able to make this work.

“I’m not sure the rest is like this,” he said from behind her. “Maybe it was just this one place that got wet.”

However, she shook her head, fighting to keep the tears from spilling over. “Dad said it wasn’t worth it. I should’ve just listened to him.”

It wasn’t said for his benefit. After everything she’d been through, to make it this far and then to have the house crumble from the inside out just ripped the last piece of determination from her. The only thing left was surrender. Surrender to the utter hopelessness of it all.

“But no,” she continued in a mumbled anger, “I didn’t listen, did I?  No, I thought I knew better. I thought I could make it work. What a joke.”

“Ami.” Jaxton’s presence closed the distance between them. “Come on, don’t say that.”

“Why not?” And she spun on him as the anger flashed through her eyes. “Why shouldn’t I?”

But he never so much as blinked. “Because it’s not true, that’s why.”

“Yes, it is,” she said as one tear escaped from the corner of her eye and threaded its way down her cheek. She looked away and swiped at it furiously, hoping he hadn’t seen it, but it was too late. Still, the fury made her come back at him. “Look around you. They might as well knock this place down, and put it out of its misery.”

He put his hands on his beltline and licked his lips as he stared down at her. “You don’t mean that.”

“Yes I do,” she said vehemently. “I do. I was such an idiot to think I could make this work.”

He took one step toward her, and the fury didn’t let her think she should move.

“But it’s probably better, you know,” she said, laughing sarcastically as the tears now wound their way down over her nose, not thwarted or even held back. “It was a stupid idea anyway. Always has been.”

“No, it wasn’t.” With worry in his dark eyes, he took hold of her arm. “Please don’t say that.”

Then her senses came back to her, and she jerked at her arm. “What do you think you’re doing?”

But he held her firmly. “Come here.” Not brooking any argument, he pulled her from the room and down the hallway.

“Where are we going?” she asked as fear overtook the anger. He was so strong, she knew as she followed she wouldn’t be able to fight him off if he had anything other than honorable intentions. “Jaxton!”

However, he never stopped as he pulled her down the hallway and into the library. “I want to show you something.”

“What?” she asked as he opened the door and pulled her across the room to the French doors.

On the other side, he stopped for one second and looked down at her. “This.”

And with that, he flipped the handle and flung the doors open. Never releasing her, he pulled her out onto the balcony.

“What?” she asked again as the anger returned to her voice.

“This. Listen,” he said as he took a deep breath.

“What? I don’t hear anything.” She latched her arms in front of her to hold onto her anger and frustration as he let go of her arm and took a step over to the railing.

“Listen,” he said again, closing his eyes, and peace descend on his face.

In annoyance, Ami shook her head and pushed the beauty of the day and the way he looked enjoying it away from her. “I don’t hear anything.”

“That’s just it. There’s nothing there. Nobody yelling at you or telling you what to do or telling you that you’re doing it wrong. Nothing. Just you and the wind.” A moment and he opened his eyes so his gaze came right down to hers. He was looking right at her then, right into her, and she couldn’t look away. “Don’t you see, Ami? You can’t give up now. People need this.”

However, her spirit held only disgusted anger with the whole horrible idea.

“Can’t you feel it?” he asked as peace found his voice and his movements.

Although she knew exactly what he meant, at that moment, she didn’t want to feel what he was talking about. She wanted to be mad. She wanted to be frustrated. She wanted to give up, and she knew if she let herself feel the peace of that balcony, she would find a way to talk herself out of it.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She shook her head, pushing the peace away from her just as easily as she brushed away the strand of hair that caught the breeze and ended up in her face.

“Okay, then, here.” Once again he took her hand and led her over to the railing where he put her hand on it gently.  His gaze slid down and rested on her. She felt it thought she never looked up.

“Now close your eyes,” he instructed, and when she moved to protest, he said, “Just do it.”

With a shake of her head, believing she could hang on to the anger no matter what, she closed her eyes.

“Just listen.” He was right beside her, his arm practically around her, and heat she wasn’t sure was from the sun began seeping into her. “Listen to the wind in the trees.”

She pushed the pain in her chest down and squeezed her eyes closed to keep it there. It was a stupid dream, a child’s fantasy.

***

“Let it go,” Jaxton said, watching her, mesmerized by her and the day. She was so incredibly beautiful. “Just let it go, Ami. For once, just breathe and let it go.”

She shook her head vehemently. Once and then harder.

His heart broke for her, for the struggle and the deck that was stacked against her. “Your grandfather gave you this place because he knew you understood,” he said softly. “He knew you’d share this feeling with everyone who came here.”

“But,” she started to protest.

“And he knew that no matter what you wouldn’t give up,” he said, knowing in his heart it was true.

“But,” she started again, just as he reached down and laid his hand on the small of her back. That touch brought her back from keeping the pain down, and she looked up, right through the depths of his eyes. He had never felt anything like that moment.

“Listen to me.” His gaze held hers gently. “It’d be so easy to let everybody else talk you out of this. I guarantee you it’d be a lot easier than trying to make your dream come true. But if you do that, if you let them talk you out of your dreams, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.”

She shook her head and mashed her lips together. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Yes, you do.” And he knew she did as he was now looking right into her soul. “You think they’re right. You think they know more about what’s possible than you do. Well, they don’t. They don’t understand your dream.”

“And you do?”

A second and he had to admit the truth. “No, I don’t see all of your dream either, but I know if you give up now, you’ll think about this moment forever and wonder what if. What if you hadn’t given up? What if you did what you had to to make this happen?”

“And what if it doesn’t happen anyway?”

“Well, then what have you lost?” He shrugged slightly. “A few months? A little time? If you don’t try, you’ve lost your dream. That’d be a thousand times worse.”

Ami ducked her head to the side, and her gaze fell onto the little grotto below.

“He gave you this place for a reason,” Jaxton said, watching her struggle, feeling it in the depths of his own soul. “He believed in you, Ami. He knew you could do it.”

She shook her head again, sending strands of hair skittering on the breeze.

“And you can,” he said softly, putting his hand once again on her back because that just felt so right to all of him.

Her spoke of exhaustion and defeat. “But there’s so much to do…”

“I’ll help you all I can,” he said solidly.

“Why?” she finally asked, looking up and searching his eyes.

With no hesitation, Jaxton enveloped her with his. “Because I know how many people need what this place can give them,” he said with a soft smile. “Just say you’ll give it to September. If it doesn’t work, at least you tried.”

“But what about you?” she asked slowly, a new worry tripping into her dark eyes. “Don’t you have to go back to Chicago?”

His gaze sank to the planks at their feet as the question raked through him. But then he knew, and he picked his gaze up to meet hers. “Chicago’ll still be there in September. I think I’m standing exactly where I need to be right now.”

Ami exhaled slowly and shook her head. “But there’s so much to do.”

“So, we take it one project at a time,” he said, “one day at a time, and we get done whatever we can.”

“But I don’t have the money to pay you,” she said, the determination to quit waning with each new excuse she found.

“So we’ll just call it payback.”

“For what?”

“For showing me what’s really important,” he said.

Although she couldn’t have known the depth of those words, she nodded. Then she closed her eyes. “Okay. So, what do we do about that sheet rock?”

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“Reading To Protect & Serve, I’m taken away to another world, a world I want to be a part of and never leave. Staci’s characters are real with real everyday problems. I love that.

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When control freak Lisa Matheson falls for handsome but shy firefighter, Jeff Taylor, it’s possible that life might just be going her way for a change. The only problem is she can’t control Jeff or the death wish he seems to have…

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Ebook Romance Stories: Excerpt “Coming Undone”

Coming Undone Final 1-15-2014

Excerpt from #1 Religious Fiction Novel, “Coming Undone”

Ragged.  That was a good word to describe Dr. Warren’s “family.”  It wasn’t a family.  Just one guy, and Kathryn wished she had thought to ask a few more questions.  As they walked down the hall, Dr. Vitter in front, her in the middle, and the guy behind her, she sank into prayer because that was all she could think to do.  God had better show up for this one because she was definitely out of her league.  He looked just barely this side of death himself.

In the office, Dr. Vitter motioned toward the little couch on the far wall, and Kathryn accepted his invitation.  When she was seated, she watched Mr. Warren sit on the other side, gaze down, looking like he might fall off the earth if someone didn’t hold onto him.  She smiled softly, hoping her compassion was evident and not condescending.  It was then that she realized Dr. Vitter was not planning to stay.

“Take as long as you need,” he said, and with that, he turned and hustled out, closing the door behind him.

Oh, help, God! her heart screamed into the abyss where she was now staring.  She looked over at the guy who looked positively ripped to pieces.  Where to start and how?  Words failed her. “I’m sorry.  I didn’t catch your first name.”

When he looked up, his blue-green eyes were filled with a pleading for her to do something, anything someone hadn’t already thought of.  “Uh, Ben.  Ben Warren.”

She nodded, wishing she could do or say something to take away the immense pain in his distraught eyes.  “Mr. Warren…”

“Please, call me Ben,” he said with the saddest of smiles.

“Ben,” she said softly, “I’m sorry about what’s happened.”  The words stopped because compassion choked the rest from her chest.  She had learned not to force herself to keep talking in such situations.  Time was a stabilizer that rushing simply couldn’t match.  “Dr. Vitter said you’re considering hospice care for your father.”

Ben’s dark eyebrows arched in slight sarcasm.  “I guess.”  He exhaled and put his elbows on his knees and his hands to his mouth.  “I don’t really know what I’m doing to be honest with you.  All of this… stuff is totally new to me.  I don’t know what’s best.  I don’t even know what’s worst at this point.”

She watched him, her emotional radar searching for any and all signals that would guide her words.  “I take it you will be the one to make the decision.”

“Yeah.” He laughed a hollow laugh.  “Lucky me, huh?”

Kathryn didn’t push it.  He was working this out in his head and his heart, and she had to let him in his way, in his time.

When he looked at her, there were a myriad of questions in his eyes.  “Um, can I ask you some things?  I mean, they didn’t really tell me much about your… program.”

“Certainly.  Ask whatever you want.”

*~*~*

Ben swallowed hard and let his gaze fall to the floor at his feet.  It was brown.  That registered. He was glad something did.  Words were becoming harder and harder to come by and harder to say without breaking down completely. “Um, well, I take it from what Dr. Vitter said that once Dad is transferred… there, that’s pretty much it.  Right? I mean he won’t get any care after that.”

“If you mean do we put him in a dark room and wait for the end, no that’s not what we do.” Her voice was soft and very kind. “We feel we’re a place that can provide the needed transition time for your father and for the family.  Hospitals are wonderful for those who are going to survive, but they are not great places to die.”

Die.  Man, he hated that word, but he nodded anyway even though his gaze was still firmly on the floor.

“The staff and machines and keeping the family at bay are just not conducive to giving everyone the time they need to say good-bye,” Ms. Walker continued. “We don’t make you say good-bye on a schedule.  The schedule is whatever you set.  You come when you want, stay as long as you like, leave when you’re ready. It’s totally up to you.”

Something akin to hope brushed his heart, and he picked up his gaze.  “No five minute visits every two hours starting at eight and ending at eight?”

She smiled clearly getting the reference.  “No, you do what works for you.  We have round the clock staff who specialize in end-of-life issues.  We can help you through not just your father’s transition, but we can point you to services that can smooth life out as you go forward as well.”

His shoulders relaxed as he let out a slow, choppy breath.  As he looked at her, the need to tell someone how overwhelmed he was overtook him.  He looked down quickly trying to squelch it.  However, even after several long seconds, he couldn’t.  “I’m… Uh, I’ve never dealt with anything like this before.  I feel like I’m in the dark with no idea which way to even go.”

“You’re not alone. Most people feel like that,” she said like the touch of an angel’s wings.  “Believe me, no one feels equal to this one.  What you have to understand is that you’re not being judged.  You get through it in the best way you can. You just have to learn to be really gentle with yourself.  That helps.”

He laughed that hollow laugh again.

She joined him.  “Well, it’s pretty much a learned skill.  We’re all so programmed to think we have to know what to do and what to say that when we don’t, we feel like utter failures.  I know.  I’ve been there.”  Her eyes were soft as was her smile.  “But this is not some kind of competition.  It’s not a pass or fail test.  It’s doing your best and giving yourself the space to do it the way that makes the most sense for you.”

“So you think I should sign the papers.”

“That’s not my decision.  I haven’t seen the medical reports.  What I want you to know is that our facility is not some draconian echo chamber.  We really do care, and we want to help when you’re ready.”

A moment more and Ben nodded.  At least he’d stopped looking only at the floor.  That was something.  And he was calm—at least on the outside.  She had seen families screaming and yelling at one another in these situations.  This was definitely better although she could tell he was struggling mightily to get through this minute to the next.

He stood from the little sofa and offered her his hand.  “Ms. Walker, thank you very much.”

She shook his hand.  “You’re welcome.  And for the record, it’s Kathryn.”

“Kathryn.”  There was almost a smile there.  “That was my grandmother’s name.”

“Really?” She tilted her head in surprise.  “Most people call me Kate, but I really prefer Kathryn.  I don’t know why.  It sounds more old-style Hollywood or something.”  With a saucy smile, she tossed her blonde locks over her shoulder as if she was anywhere near as glamorous as those ladies.  “Hey, a girl can dream, can’t she?”

This laugh made it all the way up to his eyes.  They were nice eyes, kind of a hazy bluish-green. “That she can.  That she can.”

After a moment the laughter fell away from her.  “But really, if you need anything, here’s my card.” She slipped it from her pocket and handed it to him. “Just call anytime.  Of course, I’m not the only one on staff, so if I’m not there, Clyde or Yvonne will be able to help also.”

He took the card and looked at it for a long, long moment.  When he looked up again, there was genuine gratefulness in his eyes.  “Thank you.”

Her only wish was that she could do more.  “You’re welcome.”

After she left, Ben went down to the cafeteria, got some coffee, and found a little corner to disappear into.  It was only three in the afternoon, but it felt like midnight-thirty.  He took a sip of the coffee and set the cup on the table.  Reaching in his pocket, he pulled out her card.  Kathryn Walker, St. Anthony’s Hospice, Social Worker.

Who signed up for a job like that?  He would run for the hills.  Slowly he turned the card over and over in his fingers.  What to do?  She didn’t make it sound as horrible as he had envisioned, and yet a good salesman could sell anything.  True, she didn’t seem like a pushy salesperson.  But it was her job to make her facility seem as user-friendly as possible.  He thought it through again and took another drink.

It wouldn’t hurt to check the place out.  At least then he could give Dr. Vitter a logical reason why he wasn’t going to take that option.  Downing the last of the coffee, he grabbed his cell phone out of his pocket.  With a hard blink, he forced himself to dial the number correctly.  As it rang, he realized she probably wasn’t even back yet.

“St. Anthony’s Hospice, this is Kathryn.”

His heart snagged on the softness of her voice.  He spun the phone’s speaker down to his mouth. “Uh, yeah.  Kathryn? This is Ben Warren.  I just talked to you?”

“Oh, yes.  Ben.  Did you need something else?”

“Um, well, yeah. Kind of. Um, I was wondering if maybe I could come over and see the… facility.”  There were certain words he just couldn’t utter.

“Oh, well, sure.  Of course.  Do you want to come now?”

Now?  Now was a little soon.  His spirit recoiled at the thought.  He’d long before given up the nursing home route on his sales trek through the city.  There were just some things he did not want to subject himself to.  “Uh, well, I don’t want to bother you.  I’ve already taken up so much of your time…”

“Oh, it’s not a problem.  Tell you what, I’ll meet you by the elevators on the neurology floor.  Will that work?”

“Uh. Yeah. Sure.”

“I’ll be there in five.”

“Okay.”

And she was gone.  Only then did reality occur to him. What was he thinking?  He wasn’t anywhere near the elevators on the neurology floor.  He jumped up, nearly knocking the chair to the ground.  Two doctors from the table near him glanced his direction.  He quickly resettled the chair, ditched the cup, and headed out.


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Ebook Romance Stories: Thoughts on “Coming Undone”


Coming Undone Final 1-15-2014by:  Staci Stallings

When I was growing up, death was a part of life.  I didn’t realize it then, but I learned a lot in that little town from my parents and those around me.  Mostly what I learned is that death is important, especially for those left living.

Maybe that seems contradictory, but I’ve been to enough funerals to know that although they say you go to “pay your respects to the one who died,” you really go to embrace those closest to the one who has died because they need you now more than ever.

Death is a tough thing.  It just is.  In the ensuing years since my growing up period, I have experienced death in many ways.  I have lost my brother and my brother-in-law.  I have lost a father-in-law, one really great friend, and all of my grandparents. I have also witnessed the death of “once-removeds” such as three uncles, multiple friends of friends as well as multiple animals my children have lost.  And one thing I have learned:  Death never gets easier.

Yes, there are some deaths that are easier than others.  For example, my grandmother was 89 years old when she passed away.  She had lived a good and blessed life.  She had left a legacy of children and grandchildren.  Hers was a life well-lived.  And still, it was hard.  The shock of her being gone, the decisions that had to be made, the total upheaval of life during the funeral week–they all take their toll.

Then there are those that are simply heart-wrenching.  The son who dies suddenly in a car accident, the suicide of a young father, the victim of cancer who dies at 20-years-old–these shatter our sense not just of life but of fairness and right.  We are angry–sometimes with nowhere to go with that anger. We are in sorrow, we are in shock.  And yet, all those decisions, all that upheaval of schedules and life must be dealt with as well.  It can be extremely difficult.

In many ways death forces us to grow up, to reckon just for a moment with the fact that this life is not all there is, or to question if it is.  Death brings life into focus in a way I’m not sure that anything else does. It robs us of sleep and normalcy.  It steals our thoughts and our comfort.  It kidnaps our sanity so that it feels like the heartache will go on forever and how can anything ever feel normal again?

For me, going through this process with people around me growing up taught me how difficult it is–for everyone.  However, so many people in our world today don’t get that training.  They don’t go to funerals of loved ones because Uncle Sal lived 2,000 miles away and they really never knew him all that well anyway.  Death kind of becomes a “once removed” thing in our lives.  Yes, we know it exists, but we assume it’s going to stay WAY OVER THERE away from us forever.

But that is not reality, and when the reality of the death of someone very close to us comes, we find ourselves completely unprepared.

That’s what happens with Ben Warren in “Coming Undone.”  He thinks he has life altogether. He’s got the great apartment and the great job.  All the girls are crazy about him.  He’s living life for himself, and that’s perfectly wonderful with him until…

When Ben’s world is shatter by news he never saw coming, he is forced to face life in a way he’s never had to before, and that reality rips his world apart and then reassembles it in a way he could never have envisioned.

I’ve had people tell me that they “still sniffle” when they think about this book.  That’s okay.  Death will do that to you.  My hope is that in reading “Coming Undone” those who have lost close loved ones will see that their struggles were not odd or stupid, that those who say “get over it” have no real understanding of how deeply death can cut.  And maybe, just maybe they can find some peace in God’s healing mercy as Ben does.

I once heard someone say, “Life goes on, but death does too.”  I simply want to give people a depth of understanding about death and how hard it is so that maybe they can learn compassion for others who have lost someone or for themselves when death shows up for someone they love.

It’s not meant to be morbid.  It’s meant to be real.  “Coming Undone” because broken was never in his plans…

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