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Flight 259, Chapter 1

Flight 259Chapter 1

 Heat. Unmitigated, unimaginable, unquenchable heat seared through the silk blouse Jenna wore and began melting the skin underneath. As she lay, stunned by the scene playing itself out before her, her mind screamed at her to get away—to save herself, to move, to do something, anything. But her body wouldn’t move—couldn’t move. The ground held her fast—clawing, clutching, clinging to her, holding her there even as she fought to get free. But she was paralyzed. Paralyzed by the fear, the pain, and…

“No!”

Tearing herself upward, Jenna jerked upright. Instantly the ground released her, and she came straight up, gasping, shaking, blinking. But there were no flames in front of her now, only darkness and a silence more deafening than any explosion. She fought to breathe, to right her world, but even as she lay back down on the sweat-soaked pillow, she knew nothing in her world would ever be right again.

***

The water slid over her arms as the terror from the night before dissolved from her mind. There had always been something soothing about the water to Jenna Davis. Somehow, in the water, all of her troubles disappeared, and she could pretend, if only for a few moments, that everything was all right again. In recent years the water had become her only refuge from long days—and even longer nights—filled with memories and nightmares. In the water it all washed away as though the nightmares were no more than devil dreams from her childhood. Here, she could relax and believe for one improbably desperate moment that everything was again perfect, like it used to be.

She forced even that thought from her mind as she turned at one end of the pool and pushed off for the other side. One more lap, she told herself firmly, and then she would have to go. Her arms sliced easily through the cool water. This was her domain, her solace, her world, and she was determined to enjoy every last minute of it.

 

Toys lay scattered across the room. There was no way Scott Browning was going to get all of this stuff back into the three suitcases lying open on the beds. Why did his mother have to give Lane six million toys every time they came out here? However, he smiled in spite of himself as he surveyed the mess. He couldn’t be annoyed with her. She and his father had just seen him through one of the worst years of his life. How could he begrudge them a few toys for their only grandchild?

Somehow, he would just have to make them fit. He pulled yet another carry-on bag out of the closet. He hadn’t wanted to take this much luggage. It was always such a pain to get someone to help at the airports, but with a two-year-old, three suitcases, and a carry-on bag in tow, he wasn’t going to have much of a choice once he got to Newark.

Carefully, Scott stowed his laptop into the bottom of the carry-on. The long list of patients he would have to contact when he returned played itself over in his mind. Two weeks was too long to be gone from a private medical practice, but the downtime had done him good. He’d needed it more than even he had realized when they left. However, it was a luxury that wouldn’t come again anytime soon.

And downtime was over now. Reality was back. He knew the pressures of work would descend as soon as they stepped off that plane. Raking his fingers through his off-blond hair, he thought that at least with the laptop along, he might be able to get some work done before he got to Newark—that was if Lane would behave himself. That was always a big if as Scott had learned so well over the past year.

 

When she entered the house, the same wave of expectation flooded over her that always did. It had been almost three years, and still she expected them to greet her every time she returned. With a by-now-familiar shake of her head and her spirit, Jenna pushed her mind to more pressing matters. She had spent far too much time at the pool, and now she was going to have to hurry to make her flight. It was a good thing her bags had been packed for a week, she thought grabbing them up.

She swung one bag to her shoulder, but it slipped back to the floor as she caught sight of the pictures that still lined the dresser. Slowly she walked over to them and fingered the eight-by-ten family picture that dominated the top of the polished wood. Jeff would understand why she had to go, why staying here was going to kill her. He would, even if she didn’t. She forced the emotions that threatened to overflow back into their home in her heart. Now was not the time for tears. Now was the time to move on as everyone she knew had been telling her she needed to do for three years. Yes, it was time for her to do what she had been promising herself she would for two weeks.

This trip was about moving on with her life, about finally going forward rather than backward. Her gaze fell as it always did to the band of diamonds and gold on her finger. How could she move on with Jeff’s ring still planted firmly on her finger? She looked at it as though for the first time, and the tears came again, stinging her eyes. Beautiful had never adequately described that ring in her mind, and the word didn’t come close even now. It wasn’t that the ring was huge exactly, but he had picked it out for her. For that reason alone, it was beautiful.

Still. It had been three years, and they all said… She slipped the ring off her finger and picked up the box on the dresser she had gotten out two nights before when she had planned to do this very thing and then couldn’t. He would understand, she told herself firmly as she placed the ring in the box and then slid it into the top drawer. Yes, Jeff would understand.

With a jerk of her head to get her dark braid off her shoulder, Jenna picked up her bags again and walked resolutely out of the room, her heart aching more and more with every step. She had only taken a few steps from the room when the pain stopped her. No matter how hard she fought against it, she felt like she was leaving a piece of herself in that drawer. Surely, she reasoned, it wouldn’t hurt to just bring it along. She didn’t have to wear it—just put it in her purse. Teri would never know the difference, and Jenna was sure she wouldn’t have to answer the age-old question of why she was still wearing it.

Before she could lose her nerve, she raced back, grabbed the box from its hiding place and shoved it into her purse. Instantly she felt better. With Jeff with her, she was ready to go show Teri that she was ready to move on with her life.

 

The hugs and kisses overflowed as did the tears when Scott and Lane finally broke the bond and boarded the plane for home. It was difficult to explain to a two-year-old who had been spoiled rotten for two weeks why they had to leave. Worse, Scott’s heart didn’t fully understand it either, but the fight to get Lane onto the plane escalated to the point that his heartache over the situation became secondary. Embarrassment swept over him as several of the passengers eyed him when he finally swung his son, kicking and screaming, into his free arm and warned him in no uncertain terms that he’d better start behaving or else.

The kicking stopped, and Lane lapsed, thankfully, into a pouting silence. Scott sighed in relief. It wasn’t Lane’s fault, Scott thought as he looked at his son and gave him a tired hug. As hard as this past year had been on Scott, it had been infinitely worse on Lane. He tried not to let the melancholy sink into his thoughts, but it was never far away. He was not excited about the prospect of leaving any more than Lane was, but it was something that couldn’t be avoided. They had a life on the other side of the country whether they liked it or not.

He settled Lane into the middle seat and opened the overhead compartment. Then he thought better of stowing the bag up there and took his own seat next to the window. He stuffed the bag with the laptop and snacks under the seat ahead of him. If Lane needed something in-flight, Scott certainly didn’t want to have to climb over him and the other passenger to get it. Besides, with the laptop in there, there was always that slim chance that he might get to do a little work before they touched down in New Jersey.

 

The lights of the police cruiser flashed behind her as Jenna heaved a sigh and pulled to the side of the road. Now there was no way she was going to make her flight.

“Is there an emergency?” the officer asked as he approached the car.

“No, Sir,” she said, already digging for her identification. “I’m just late for a flight.”

He checked the usual papers and registration which took another precious five minutes. Jenna sat helplessly in the car willing him to hurry. So many things she hadn’t planned for, and now she was going to miss her flight to Newark and her chance to move on.

The officer returned and issued her a citation. He wished her a nice day and told her to slow it down, and once again she was on her way. Why do they always seem so happy to give you a ticket? she wondered angrily as she pulled into the overflowing parking lot of the Dallas-Forth Worth Airport. There was no way she would make this flight.

 

“No leave. No leave!” Lane cried for the millionth time as Scott tried desperately to distract him from the memory of Grandma and Grandpa standing at the last checkpoint.

“Look, Lane, see the big planes,” Scott said pointing out the window.

“No leave,” Lane wailed as he kicked even harder. “No leave!”

“Lane,” Scott said sharply, his patience running thin. “Listen to me. You need to sit there and be quiet! Here.” He fished for the Tell-a-Bear Grandma had given him as a going away present. He handed the bear to Lane who immediately hugged it to him.

“No leave,” Lane said pitifully as a man in a three-piece suit took the seat next to him.

Scott took Lane’s tiny hand in his and willed him to go to sleep. The eight hour flight was going to be a disaster if Lane behaved like this the whole way. The whining stopped for the moment, and he seemed to settle down as Scott made the final preparations for them both. Then they taxied down the runway, bumped once, and were airborne—leaving Grandma and Grandpa waving at the window.

 

Why had she packed so much stuff? The bags crashed into her legs as Jenna raced through the crowded airport. They were draped over every inch of her as she made her way to the ticket counter. Lines and more lines. She let out an exasperated sigh and attached herself to what looked like the shortest one, praying it would move quickly.

However, by the time she reached the front of the line another thirty minutes had slipped by, and now she had only a few left before her precious flight to sanity would leave.

“Flight 734 to Newark,” Jenna said as she reached the front.

“That flight is going to leave soon,” the agent said.

“I know, but I need to catch it.”

The agent looked doubtful even as she punched in the numbers. “That will be Gate 84, follow the Concourse down through the security checkpoints and then take a right.”

“Thanks,” Jenna said and took off for the gate as fast as her legs and the carry-on would let her. The line through security was another maddening delay. Shoes. Jewelry. Belt. When she finally made it to the Concourse, she checked her watch—two minutes to spare. “Please be late. Please be late.”

Her legs were about to give out when she finally spotted Gate 84, but she pushed on with every remaining ounce of strength. She had to make this flight. However, just as she rounded the last corner, she could see the plane backing out and the attendant closing the door to the boarding platform.

“No!” Jenna yelled, rushing to the door. “No. Please. I have to make that flight.”

“I’m sorry, Ma’am,” the attendant said, shaking her head and latching the door behind her.

“No, you don’t understand,” Jenna said as panic gripped her soul. “I have to make that flight. I have to be on it.”

“I’m sorry,” the attendant repeated and walked away.

“But I have a ticket, and I’m here.” Jenna knew she sounded like a spoiled brat but she didn’t care about anything other than getting on that flight.

“I’m sorry,” the attendant said as she resumed her position at the counter and went to work on her computer.

“But you don’t understand. I need to get to Newark. I have to go to Newark.” Jenna stepped up and dropped her bags around her. It was true—Teri didn’t even know she was coming, but Jenna felt like this was her last chance, and she was doubtful that she would ever get herself to take another one.

“I may be able to get you on a plane that doesn’t go directly to Newark,” the attendant said.

Hope surged. “Oh, could you? That would be great.”

“Now, you would have to pay for it again,” the attendant said, her fingers poised over the keys.

“I don’t care.” Jenna shook her head and re-righted the last bag strap on her shoulder. “I have to get to Newark.”

“I’ll see what I can do.” The attendant started punching buttons on the computer as Jenna watched hopefully. “Yes, Flight 971 leaves in about thirty minutes from Gate 92. It will make a stop in Chicago where you can catch Flight 259 to Newark.”

“That’ll be great,” Jenna said, nodding. Anything. Anything at this point was great as long as she could leave.

“Now, you won’t get to Newark until around nine.”

“That’s all right,” Jenna said.

The attendant took the necessary information, punched some more keys on the computer, and Jenna was on her way to Gate 92.

 

“Eat, Da-da,” Lane whined, squirming in his seat. “Eat!”

“Lane, come on, you just ate at Grandma’s,” Scott said, and as soon as he said it, he regretted it.

“G’a’ma.” Little Lane became more pathetic. “No leave.”

The man in the seat next to Lane looked at him with sympathy. Scott smiled what he hoped was a winning smile and continued to work with Lane.

“I’ll tell you what.” Scott fished again in the bag at his feet, while commending himself for his foresight in stowing it where he could get to it. “I have some animal crackers.”

“C’ackers.” Both little hands shot out, reaching for the food and dropping the bear, which Scott retrieved. Scott gave him a few crackers, hoping they would get the chance to get some more at Chicago. If not, he would be down to a health bar and gum.

 

Finally on the plane, Jenna slipped the headphones over her ears and closed her eyes. She had never been a big fan of flying. That was why she and Jeff had gone to Colorado on their honeymoon. He had tried so hard to talk her into going to the Bahamas, but she wouldn’t budge—no flying, no way. The grudging compromise had been Colorado. However, she recalled with a smile, it wouldn’t have mattered where they were as they hadn’t seen much of anything for the week other than the inside of the cottage where they had stayed and each other.

The opening strains of St. Elmo’s Fire poured over her like rain, and she settled in for the three-hour flight.

 

The gentleman seated next to Lane was quickly becoming annoyed. His glances at Scott had turned from sympathetic to annoyed somewhere over Nebraska, and Scott was now fighting to keep his son occupied and happy—neither of which was working.

“Do you want to look out the window?” Scott asked as cheerfully as possible.

“No.”

“Do you want to read a storybook?”

“No. G’a’ma!”

“Lane.” Scott shook his head. “Grandma had to stay at home, but we can call her when we get home. Okay?”

“G’a’ma,” Lane wailed, a move that ripped Scott’s patience in two. In one motion he snapped off the seatbelt, pulled the little boy up out of the seat and crossed in front of his annoyed fellow passenger. This couldn’t continue. He headed for the lavatory and once inside, locked the door.

“Now you listen here,” Scott said, trying to keep his own anger in check. It wasn’t easy. “Look at me. You cannot keep crying like this. There are other people on this plane, and you have to be a good boy. Do you hear me?”

“No,” Lane wailed, trying to squirm away from his father’s grasp.

“Lane Scott Browning,” Scott said furiously, and without thinking he did something he had rarely ever done—he reached down and swatted Lane—hard. Lane whimpered and cringed away. The sight twisted Scott’s heart right out of him. “Now look. You’ve got to behave. Okay? We’re going out there, and you’re going to sit still, and be quiet. Do you hear me?”

Lane said nothing, just sucked his thumb with big, scared eyes.

The puppy dog look was no match for the anger. “I said do you hear me?”

Lane looked at him, and the tears trickling down his son’s face ripped Scott’s heart out. This was not what he had bargained for when Amber had announced she was pregnant what seemed a lifetime ago. Then again, he hadn’t bargained on much of any of the rest of it either.

“Okay,” Scott finally said more calmly as he picked the child up. He unlatched the door and walked with his son in his arms to his seat. He could feel the eyes of every person he walked by on him, and he was thankful he was only a few seats from the back. Lane continued to whimper even as he settled back down into the seat. Maybe holding him wasn’t such a bad idea, so Scott simply cradled Lane next to him. It seemed the better idea for both of them.

 

Jenna’s mind was working overtime. This was exactly why she had avoided being alone. Alone meant time to think and remember. Her thoughts bounced back and forth until they found a resting place on the events of the previous evening. She willed the thoughts away, but nothing would replace them for very long. Finally she gave in and let them take her.

It wasn’t the first fight she’d ever had with her mother, she reasoned, and surely her mother would eventually understand her decision, but right now the fight was replaying itself over and over in her head.

Had her mother really said those things to her? Had she really said those things to her mother? Jenna shook her head at the thought as the familiar tears threatened. Why did her mother have to be so clingy? Why did Jenna have to be so stubborn? They were questions that would never be answered, but they plagued her just the same.

She could still see her mother standing in the kitchen, the hurt and the anger in her eyes, yelling at Jenna that she was throwing her life away by leaving.

“What life?” Jenna had yelled back furiously. “Playing tennis with my mother during the day and coming back to an empty house filled with memories every night? I’m 29 years old. I can’t live like this forever. It’s not my fault you think you can’t start over. I’ve spent three years trying to make up for what happened, but I’m tired of trying, Mother. I’m tired. Do you understand that? I am sick of it, and I can’t do it anymore. Nothing I can say or do is going to bring them back. Don’t you get that? Nothing! They’re gone! And they’re not coming back!”

“But we still have each other,” her mother said as the tears overflowed her eyes.

“No, we don’t.” The pain tore holes in Jenna, and she cringed from the words. “I don’t have you. You have me, but I’ve never had you. I can’t talk to you. I can’t lean on you. I spend all my time trying to fill the void that is my life and yours, but I can’t do it anymore. I can’t, and I won’t!”

“So, you’re leaving then? Just like that. You’re going to pack up and leave me here by myself—your own mother? This is your solution? To run away? That’s just so typical of you.”

Hurt crawled over the ache. “I can’t stay here. Don’t you see that? I have to find a place to start, and then maybe I can go on with my life.”

Her mother still looked regal even under the haggard scowl she wore. “But you can do that here.”

“No, I can’t.”

Crossing her arms over the satin sheen of her blouse, her mother looked like a petulant two-year-old. “Yes, you can.”

But Jenna knew better, and this time she wasn’t backing down. “No, I can’t, Mother. You won’t let me!”

Hate bled through her mother’s eyes. “And Teri will?”

“Yes, Teri will—at least for a while, for now—and then we’ll see.”

“What does that mean?”

Tired slithered over Jenna’s spirit as she sat down heavily on the little stool overlooking the kitchen counter. “I don’t know what it means. It means I’m leaving, and I don’t know when I’m coming back.”

“But what am I supposed to do?”

It was at that moment something in her snapped. She stood, pulled her purse to her shoulder, and looked her mother square in the eye. “You know what, I really don’t care…”

Those had been the last words she had spoken to her mother before walking out and slamming the door behind her. Now, here she was flying somewhere high over Missouri—headed who knew where, and strangely for the first time in a long time, she felt almost free.

 

The final hour of the flight had been mostly uneventful. At least they hadn’t had to go back to the lavatory again. Scott had regained some of his confidence in his own parenting abilities, which was saying something. Lane was now sleeping peacefully in his arms, and the man across the abyss of the seat next to him had long since ceased the dirty looks.

“Sir,” the attendant said kindly. “You need to put the little boy back in his seat for landing.”

Scott looked at her with unseeing eyes. She couldn’t be serious.

“He needs to be buckled in,” she said, indicating the middle seat. Okay, apparently she was serious.

“Oh, sure,” Scott said, sitting up straight. “Okay.”

He tried to deposit Lane into the seat without waking him up, but one too many jostles brought the child back to life, and he whimpered softly.

“No, Lane,” Scott said softly. “Shh. It’s okay. Just sleep.”

As gently as possible he buckled Lane’s belt, and the transfer was completed successfully. Scott breathed a sigh of relief.

“Ding!” The speaker above him crackled to life. “We are now preparing to make our final decent into Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.”

Scott did not hear another word of the announcement because Lane let out a terrified scream that obliterated all other sounds.

“No, Lane, hey buddy, it’s okay,” Scott said, jumping into frantic action. “It’s all right I promise. No, no don’t cry. Lane, we’re going to land, see…”

 

“Flight 259 to Newark, now boarding at Gate 134.”

Jenna gathered her things, fighting tired with everything in her. One more flight and she would be in New Jersey—far, far away from Texas. If she could just get there, surely everything would be better.

She glanced out the window once again, and apprehension rose in her. The rain outside zigged and zagged down the windows in crazy patterns. This was something she hadn’t counted on. Flying was bad enough, but flying in the rain was worse.

Her courage was harder to gather up than her luggage. It was all she could do to keep her eyes from wandering back to that window—back to the dismal scene outside.

 

“Excuse me, Miss.” Scott hailed a passing flight attendant. “Could you tell me if we have enough time to go get some extra snacks?”

“I wouldn’t advise it,” the attendant said, eyeing Lane squirming to get into the aisle. “It’s only going to take us a few minutes, and we should be back in the air again.”

Scott sighed, nodded, and thanked her. With one hand on his son, he pulled the bag out from under the seat and fished through it trying to get an accurate assessment of how many snacks they had left. The sad and terrifying truth was he would have to be very sparing in his snack offerings this flight. He was already dreading the next three hours. This trip was murder on him. Lane, he was sure, couldn’t take much more.

 

Jenna stowed her purse under the middle seat about halfway from the front of the plane. She had no desire to sit by the window and watch it rain so she chose a seat next to a man who was busily reading a magazine next to a closed window.

The plane around her filled quickly. Surely it couldn’t be long before they would take off. She surveyed her fellow passengers. They all looked much like she was sure she did—harried, tired, and frazzled. Traveling like this was one of her least favorite things to do, and she contemplated simply driving home when that time came, if it ever did.

“Stop it, Jenna. Just don’t think about it.” The words under her breath came as she flipped the dark strands that were rapidly coming loose from the braid back.

A nice-looking, young couple passed her on their way to the back. She smiled to herself—probably on their honeymoon. The thought slid through her mind, and it snagged in the deep dark webbing that now surrounded her heart. There was something about honeymooners that set them apart from everyone else. She thought of Jeff again. He was never far from her thoughts. Tall, lean, dark and very handsome. They had made such a great couple.

“But, sweetheart,” Jenna heard the young man say just above her, “there just aren’t two seats together.”

“But I want to sit by you,” his bride said, and fear tinged the words.

“I…” The young man looked around in barely disguised frustration, trying to find a way out of this situation.

“Here.” With no further thought, Jenna jumped to her feet and yanked her purse up from the floor. “You can have my seat.”

“Oh, no, we couldn’t.” The young man shook his head even as his eyes pleaded with her not to rescind the offer.

“No, no, I insist.” She smiled kindly. “You two should sit together.”

“Are you sure you don’t mind?” the young woman asked, her eyes spilling gratefulness everywhere.

“No, of course not.” Jenna moved out into the aisle so they could slip in front of her.

“We really appreciate this,” the young man said. “It’s her first time to fly.”

“Don’t mention it.” Only then did Jenna realize she had to find another seat. Looking around, she realized that wouldn’t be easy. Except for a few unoccupied middle seats, there weren’t many left. Finally she saw an aisle seat toward the back of the plane. She headed for it and smiled to the young man and little boy sitting there. “Is this seat taken?”

The man who sat by the window with his arm around the child looked up, and pools of clear blue gazed out from under the tumble of disheveled blond hair. “What? Oh. Uh. No. No.”

Jenna wasted no time getting into the seat. She pushed her purse under the seat ahead of them. The flight attendant requested that seatbelts and tray tables be readied for take-off. But as Jenna reached for hers, there was an un-Godly scream from right next to her. Instinctively she put her hand out to sooth the child.

“Shhh, it’s okay, sweetheart,” she said without thinking.

Suddenly she stopped and looked up in embarrassment. He was staring at her over the child’s head. Nothing moved. All she could see were the incredible blue eyes gazing right through her soul.

The squirming between them brought them both back to reality.

“Lane,” the man said harshly. “Settle down!”

However, Lane continued to squirm and was now starting to scream.

“Here.” Jenna grabbed up her purse and reached inside. “Look what I have.” She produced a sucker from the depths of the bag and held it out to Lane who reached for it without hesitation. She unwrapped it and handed it to him just as she realized what she had done.

“Oh!” she said more embarrassed than before. “I’m sorry. Do you mind?”

“Are you kidding me?” The man blinked and then smiled. “I think you’re our savior.”

She looked down at Lane already happily munching away on the sucker, and it was clear he was not going to relinquish it anytime soon. It was all she could do not to reach out and touch him. He looked like a tiny angel that had alighted on earth. “He’s precious.”

“Thanks.” The man settled Lane back into his own seat and buckled him in before checking his own. He was young, early thirties she guessed though she didn’t dwell there. He smiled at her again with an impish, weary shrug. “But you might have a different opinion by the time this ride is over.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Jenna said, and she couldn’t stop the smile as she looked down and watched Lane. He was beautiful.

The guy’s smile faded. “Yeah, well. You didn’t see the last guy who got to sit by him. I think he was more than happy to see the airport.”

“Oh, you didn’t just get on then?” Jenna asked as the plane began taxiing to its take-off point.

“No, we’ve been on since Boise.”

“Boise? Oh, wow, no wonder he’s tired of that seat.”

“Tell me about it.” He laughed, seeming to relax.

“We’ve been cleared for take-off,” the attendant announced.

Jenna sat back in her chair and closed her eyes. Take-off and landing—the worst times of the flight. She would fly forever if it weren’t for those two times.

The plane made a final turn and began to pick up speed. The points outside the window became indecipherable blurs until the bulk of the plane lifted off the runway, and without so much as a bump, they were airborne.

Available June 28 in the “Whispers of Love” Collection

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First Chapter: Whisper If You Have To

Whisper cover FINAL 7-28-2014Chapter 1

 “Alison, time to wake up.”  Light ripped through the soft darkness in the room. “Alison. Now.”

Squeezing her eyes closed against the onslaught of the light, Alison Prescott rolled to her side, dragging half the pillow with her. The moan followed her like smoke from a fire. How could 5:30 have gotten here so soon?

The next thought hit her with the force of two semis, and she moaned again. Why did life have to be so unfair?

“Alison. I said, ‘Get up.’ That piano isn’t going to practice itself.” Her mother’s drill sergeant voice had a way of pulling dread from the center of her heart right to the surface. “And you didn’t take a shower like I told you to last night either, so you’ve got that to do before you leave too.”

A moan at a time, Alison dragged her head off the pillow although what part of her body or brain managed that much movement was beyond her. The sitting up part made her dizzy, and she put her hand up to her head and raked her fingers through her long blonde hair, pushing it out of her eyes as she did so. “Ugh.”  Her gaze betrayed her, glancing out the slits of the blinds, it told her with certainty that the sky beyond was still cloaked in dark ebony.

She wanted to lie back down, but if she didn’t get moving, her mother would be back in minutes. So she ratcheted her eyes open and blinked twice to keep them there. The yawn attacked before she knew it was there.

Some part of her mother was right. She should’ve at least gone to bed before eleven the night before or taken a shower or any one of a hundred other things her mother always told her to do. But that couldn’t be helped right now. Pushing up, she grabbed her terry cloth pink robe and tramped to the bathroom. The bathroom lights commenced a second assault on her poor eyes. Blinking it back, she gazed into the mirror and almost laughed. It was worse than she had anticipated. “Wow, girl. You’re going to make some great first impression at Jefferson.”

With a sigh, she proceeded to get herself ready enough for piano practice. Dread for it and the day ahead formed a hard lump in her chest.

“Alison!” her mother’s voice was sharp and firm.

“I’m coming, Mom,” she called back. Six yanks of the hairbrush through her hair, and that would have to do. She tramped out of the bathroom and three doors down from her own room to the piano room. Closing the door quietly, she pulled her eyes open again and rubbed the corner of one.

The clock on the Wurlitzer read 5:37. She was going to have to book it the minute she was finished with her hour of practice. Shifting gears into near-normal, she sat down at the bench and pulled the piece she had been working on down from the shelf. She needed to have at least the first movement memorized by the time she got to Mr. Sarazynski’s on Wednesday.

Setting the sheets of music out, she went through the movement in her mind. It wasn’t impossible compared with some of the music she’d been subjected to playing over the years, but it still wasn’t easy either. She took a breath to settle into music mode, laid her fingers on the keys, and the music began to flow from her as if it was simply an extension of her soul.

 ***

The beep of the alarm clock raised only Chad Dourozette’s arm off the bed far enough to hit the snooze button. He should’ve called the game with Kyle Morgan before midnight the night before, but the understanding that it would be their last free night to just play hoops for no reason at all made it too tempting to forget about the time. In the seconds that followed, Chad forgot he was supposed to get up and get moving. His mind drifted back into the comfortable space of dreamland.

Nine minutes later the second screech of the clock’s alarm punched through him like a bolt. With a sigh and a small moan, he shut it off again and pulled himself upright. A hard sigh rocked through him. This was it. S-Day. Seniors at last. In one way he had thought it would never come. In another, it seemed to have arrived in slightly less time than the speed of light.

Rubbing the top of his eye, he pushed off the bed. Kyle would be here to get him as he always was at 7:30 on the dot, and Chad had no intention of taking advantage of his friend’s generosity by being late. The more he moved, the more movement felt good, and awake drifted over him. At the window, he pulled the shades up to reveal the pinks and golds of a sky coming alive. He loved mornings. He smiled at the thought.

But then he loved nights too. In fact, all of life was just pretty fantastic. And with that thought, he went to get ready for the day.

 ***

“Now don’t forget, I’ll be there to pick you up at 3:30 between my 3:00 and my 4:00,” her mother said as Alison sat at the kitchen table, cutting into waffles she really didn’t have the stomach to eat.

Jefferson was getting closer and closer, and her stomach knew it.

“Do not be late.” Her mother drank her coffee, looking over the paper. “Your dad and I are supposed to go to that fundraiser for the church tonight, so you’re on your own for supper.”

Alison nodded for no other reason than to get the bite of waffles down her throat.

“What a world.” Flipping the paper to the table, her mother took a final drink of her coffee. With a push she stood from the table, and her black heels clicked on the smoke blue tile flooring as she crossed to the sink. “Are you about ready?”

“Oh, uh. Yeah.”  She might as well be. She couldn’t look at the waffles any more anyway.

 ***

“You ready for this?” Kyle asked when Chad slid into the front seat of the little four-door car. It wasn’t great, but it ran. And it was better than walking.

“I was born ready.”  Chad shifted his attention to the back. “Hey, Brooke.”

“Hey,” she said, but never really lifted her head. Kyle’s younger sister, Brooke, was never without a book in hand. So close in age, they were more like twins, the two of them were never far out of sight of one another even though they ran in completely different circles.

Kyle, the school’s jock premier, was only eleven months and three weeks older than his little sister, and although Brooke’s taste ran more toward choir and books than basketball and baseball games, she never missed a one.

Chad angled his gaze over his shoulder again as they pulled away from his house. “Are you studying already? School hasn’t even started yet.”

“Finishing up her summer college credit thing,” Kyle supplied. “She may beat us to graduation.”

Lifting his chin, Chad nodded in understanding.

Kyle glanced across the seat to his friend. “So, senior year…”

“Yeah.” Chad took a breath to steady the thought. “Who would’ve thought?”

“Not my parents that’s for sure.”

The laugh almost beat the smile. “Did they sign you up for that ACT class thing?”

“Ugh. Let’s not talk about it,” Kyle said, his ash-blond hair streaked with light blond highlights catching on the sunlight as he spun the wheel into the Jefferson High parking lot already teeming with students.

Waves of excitement preceded their approach.

“Looks like your fan club made it,” Chad teased.

“Like you’re Mr. Unpopular.” Kyle turned into a spot and threw the car into park. “Brooke. We’re here.”

“K,” she said, never really noticing he’d said anything.

With a shake of his head, Kyle grabbed his books. He let his eyes go wide as he glanced at Chad. “On three. One. Two…”

Together, they both said, “Three” and popped the doors open. The throng of students who attended their every move surged.

“Chad!”

“Kyle!”

“Hey!”

Chad held his hand out up top in greeting to several of the other basketball players as Jason Hansley, the baseball catcher, stepped up.

“You made it,” Jason said, catching Chad’s hand.

“Of course. What’d you think, I’d bail?” 

As one, the group headed for the school, but at the last possible second, Chad glanced back over his shoulder to where Brooke was walking behind them, head down, reading. No one had come to the car to greet her. No one seemed to even know she was there. Something in him said that would be nice, to not always have to be on, to exist in a world that everyone wasn’t so enthralled with that they invaded to get some of the limelight.

But he was where everyone else wanted to be. How could he not love it? With that thought, he reanchored his attention on the others as their excitement for the promises of the year infused his soul with anticipation. Senior year. It was going to be awesome.

 ***

It was about five minutes after her mother dropped her off that Alison first had the thought, but it would be a million times after that one that the thought would attack her. Jefferson High was nothing like St. Ann’s. Nothing. Jostled in the hallways until she thought her brains would rattle free, Alison diligently worked through her schedule.

Trig, History, Computer something, French. She was in the courtyard at lunchtime, sitting up next to a pillar eating her chicken salad sandwich before she really realized there was no religion on her schedule. Perusing it again, she confirmed the fact with a munch into her sandwich. That would be strange. She’d had religion every single day for four years, and now suddenly it wasn’t anywhere on the list.

Her gaze took in her final three classes—Physics, English, and Choir. Besides the Physics part, she was kind of looking forward to the rest of the day. Okay, so she would spend it alone as part of the wall like she had the first part, but at least she liked those classes. She let her head fall back onto the hard, scratchy pillar behind her and let the warm sun soak into her. Happy noises that she would never be a part of drifted around her, and she let those soak into her as well. Nobody had to tell her the loneliness this year would hold.

She knew it when her dad announced the move back in July, and for all intents and purposes, she had already lived with the loneliness for the better part of five years. At that thought she yanked her head up. Dwelling on things that would never change no matter how much she wanted them to did no good. That much she had learned. Move on. Move on, and don’t look back. Pushing to her feet, she crumpled the bag and tossed it into a nearby trashcan. One swipe on her light blue straight skirt, and she yanked her backpack up from its resting place. Onward and upward. At least that’s what she hoped.

 ***

“You headed to English?” Kyle asked, clapping Chad on the back as he leaned over to get a drink in the fountain.

He stood to straight, wiping the water that had jumped onto his face. “Yeah. You?”

“You know it.”

Together they started down the hall.

“So, you going to the gym after school?” Chad asked.

“Na, I figured we’d go to my place. The gym’s going to be a mob scene with all the wanna be’s.”

“Cool.” Chad followed Kyle into the English classroom and right to the back where he slid into the desk right in front of his friend. “You got much homework?”

“As little as possible.”

The bell rang just as Mrs. Whitman entered. Chad sat up a little straighter. He’d waited three long years to get this teacher. She was the coolest of the cool, not because she goofed off but because she didn’t. However, that didn’t mean Mrs. Whitman’s class was boring. No, instead she was quite famous for her unorthodox teaching style.

“Nice to see you all made it today. Welcome to Senior English. I’m Mrs. Whitman, kind of like Walt Whitman except without the Walt.” 

 ***

Up front and off to the far right Alison smiled at the joke. Just less than 30 years old and full of energy, Mrs. Whitman had a spirit about her that screamed, “This is going to be fun.”

“Okay. We’ve got the boring stuff to take care of today,” the teacher said, hefting two stacks of huge books onto the desk.

Several students groaned.

“Yeah, me too.” She pulled her class roll from the desk. “Let’s see. Since you’re seniors, I’m assuming you can manage this part yourselves. I’ll put the roll here, and the books here. Come up and get a book, find your name.” She stopped and looked up at them. “I assume you know your name.”

The moans turned to laughs.

“Good.” She laid the roll next to the books. “Write the number of your book—legibly next to your name. If it’s not legible, I’ll assume you were not meant to be in senior English and talk to Mr. Hunsley about taking you back to junior English.”

What was so bad about Mr. Hunsley, Alison had no idea, but everyone moaned at that.

“I promise I won’t tell him you said that,” Mrs. Whitman said. “Let’s start over here in the corner. Oh.” She stopped with a jerk when she looked at Alison. Tilting her head, the confusion was evident. “And you are?”

Alison cleared her throat but it didn’t do much good. “Al… Alison Prescott.”

The teacher turned her roll around, located the name, and smiled. “Well, Miss Prescott, it’s great to have you aboard. Come on up, and get us started.”

 ***

Chad was busy writing “Senior English” on his notebook along with his contact information. He’d found out the hard way about not doing that in Freshman English. It was then that he felt the poke on his shoulder. He swiveled his head to find Kyle standing behind him, pointing up the aisle.

“Oh!” With a jump, Chad was out of his desk, headed to the front.

“Mr. Dourozette,” Mrs. Whitman said when he got to the front. “I’ve heard some good things about you.”

Chad ducked his head, sending his kink-curled dark black-and-bronze afro into his eyes as he smiled a half-smile.

“I’m looking forward to hearing you debate Shakespeare like you make three pointers.”  Mrs. Whitman smiled with no sarcasm whatsoever.

Raised expectations, always a scary proposition. “I hope I don’t let you down.”

She shook her head, the smile never leaving. “I’m sure you won’t.”

 ***

Alison ducked her head to keep from staring at the two guys presently standing at the teacher’s desk. The white guy had longish blond-streaked hair that brushed the tops of his dark eyebrows in the front and the top half of his collar in the back. His smile was nice, but what she noticed most was the faded jeans ripped just so and the light blue knit jersey that set off his eyes. Something about them screamed, look how cool I am.

Just in front of him, talking to the teacher, was the black guy, leaning in to sign the roll—obviously a regular in the gym. His arm muscles rippled in perfect proportion down to his long fingers. He seemed as if nothing in the world ever had been or would ever be a problem. In a dark gray “Rock On” T-shirt, he looked the embodiment of cool confidence. The conversation came to an end, and the two made their way back to the back corner.

Alison closed her eyes in annoyance and put her head onto her fingers. Like anyone like those two would ever pay her two seconds worth of attention. Class started, and with a determined straightening, she got back to the real business of life. She of all people knew straight A’s didn’t make themselves.

 ***

By the time she got to choir, Alison could stand the hair in her face thing no longer. Never one for more than ponytails or anything much more difficult than a tiny tooth clip, she pulled the top of her hair up and snapped one in. With no more than a rake through her hair, she let it go at that. She didn’t have to be fashion-plate perfect. No one knew she was alive anyway.

The teacher, a sweater-vested, graying man who looked no happier than absolutely necessary, strode in. “We will have auditions today,” he said before the bell even rang, and Alison pulled herself up straighter. “These will determine where you sing or if you sing in this choir or if you are to be transferred into study hall for this period.”

Panic seized her. If she didn’t get into the choir, her mother would throw the fit of the century. Alison could hear the yelling already. Seeing nothing else that could be done, she bent her head and prayed. Prayer might not be allowed in this school, but what they didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them.

The carnage began with a student unfortunate enough to have sat on the front row. Student after nervous student stood for the 30 seconds that would decide their fate, and then it was Alison’s turn. She couldn’t stand. She could hardly breathe through the fear. Closing her eyes she pulled every second of training to her as she forced her legs to hold her up.

“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved and set me free…”

“Thank you very much,” the director said. “Next.”

Shaking like a leaf in a hurricane, Alison smoothed her skirt underneath her and lowered herself into her chair. She didn’t have to ask. She knew she was study hall bound. Worse, now it seemed that everyone was staring at her. Pulling into her well-worn shell, she put her gaze on her knees and kept it there. Why had her dad insisted upon this move? He wasn’t even unhappy in his company back home. Now he’d dragged her into a disaster of colossal proportions.

She did her best to look only at her knees the rest of the class until the director cut the last student off.

“Audition results will be posted in the morning on the wall outside the rehearsal room. If your name is not on it, please don’t bother me with your excuses.”

The bell rang, and like a full audience of funeral-goers the students stood and started out.

“Man, that was awesome,” the girl next to Alison with the dark glasses and long brown hair waving gently down across her shoulder to her chest said.

For a moment Alison snagged on the voice and turned to see who the girl was referring to. A brick to the eyes could’ve been no more surprising.

“Me?” Alison asked as her eyes went wide in shock.

“Yes, you. Who’d you think I was talking to, Bobby Reynolds?” The girl’s smile and manner were like a 1,000 watt bulb.

Alison had no clue who Bobby Reynolds was, but she wasn’t about to ask.

“Do you take lessons?” the girl asked, following her out of the row.

“Oh, uh, yeah.” Alison couldn’t quite figure out why this person was suddenly talking to her when no one else had bothered the whole day. She anchored her wayward hair over her ear. “Since I was four.”

The girl all but stopped as she raised her eyebrows and lowered her head. “Four? I was in Mom and Me gym when I was four.”

Alison shrugged because she felt the compliment that was never really spoken. “It was Mom’s idea.”

“Ah.” The girl lifted her chin in understanding and then stuck out a hand. “Brooke Morgan.”

Trying to shift her books so as not to be rude, Alison finally got her hand out. “Alison Prescott.”

“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Alison Prescott. I guess I’ll see you tomorrow in choir.”

How anyone could be sure of that was beyond Alison. “I guess so.”

“Well, this is where I get off,” Brooke said, turning one way in the hall. “See ya laters.”

And Alison was left standing smack in the middle of the hallway intersection. “Yeah, later.”  Knowing she must be dreaming, she turned her own steps in the general direction of her locker. Jefferson High. It was no St. Ann’s.

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The Story: Whisper If You Have To

Whisper cover FINAL 7-28-2014Secrets. Alison Prescott has collected a boatload of them in her short lifetime. Moving to a new school in a new town was supposed to fix everything; however, when she meets a new set of friends, keeping those secrets might just ruin everything.

Chad Dourozette has the world by the tail as his crazy T-shirts proclaim every day, but Chad has deeply held secrets of his own. When Chad meets Alison whose life looks absolutely perfect from the outside, will he have the courage to try to win her heart, or will the secrets they both carry keep them apart forever?

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Ebook Romance Stories: The Easy Way Out, The Story

The Easy Way Out final 1-21-2014The Easy Way Out

Book 2

~ The Friendship Series ~

Landscape designer, Drew Easton thought he had met the perfect girl in Harmony Jordan, but then Harmony married Drew’s best friend and business partner, Aaron Foster. Trying to pick up the pieces of the failed relationship and go on with life, Drew is not prepared for the twists the road to true love is about to take. Will his heart still be in one piece at the end of this ride?

Charity Jordan has one feeling about her older sister. Hate. Never able to measure up, always second-choice, Charity’s life has been driven by one bad mistake after another. When Harmony’s ex begins showing up to landscape her parent’s yard, Charity has no intentions of being his second choice either. But when feelings start to change, will she be able to keep herself from once again taking The Easy Way Out…


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First Chapter

Excerpt

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Ebook Romance Stories: The Easy Way Out, Review

The Easy Way Out final 1-21-2014The Easy Way Out

Book 2

~ The Friendship Series ~

Review

Learn a Better Way than Taking the Easy Way Out, (5-stars) Myrna Brorman

There are always lessons to be learned when reading a Staci Stallings novel. I happened to read this one at a pivotal time for me. I was struggling with some issues regarding conditional love. In the novel, Charity struggles with having always felt that she couldn’t do anything “good enough”. It seemed to her that her sister always “got it right” while she managed to screw things up. As is frequently the case, when one feels “less than”, they do things to make their self “feel better” which may not be wise choices at all. Then, when it is time to pay the consequences for those choices, they tend to take “the easy way out”. This is a story about two such people. Very inspiring to see them grow in their relationship with God and learning to love unconditionally. I always feel better after reading a Staci Stallings novel. And, I ALWAYS learn some valuable lessons.

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Ebook Romance Stories: The Easy Way Out, Excerpt

The Easy Way Out final 1-21-2014Excerpt from The Easy Way Out

From the second she had awakened late at her parents’ house, the day had been one long Excedrin headache for Charity. She felt like the ugly stepsister playing nursemaid to Cinderella. Charity, do this. Hurry up, Charity, we’re going to be late to the salon. Just let her do your hair, Charity. Stop complaining. Come on, we don’t have all day. You should’ve done that last night. And they were all in on it, too—even Hart who usually took her side in the confrontations with her family.

No, today was Harmony’s day, and basically that meant that Charity was only there to get yelled at, stepped over, and complained about. When Harmony and Aaron made their way over to the three-tiered cake looking as sugary sweet as the cake itself, Charity could take no more. Without bothering to tell anyone where she was going, she pushed out of the hall and headed in the first direction her feet carried her.

October meant the skies darkened much earlier so that although it was only 8:30, Atlanta was already dark save for the amber streetlights blanketing the parking lot. Where she was going didn’t matter much. She could walk to Jamaica, and as long as nothing went wrong, no one would notice she was gone.

The worst part was that if it was just this one day, she could’ve handled that, but Harmony had always been first in their hearts, and Charity was sure she always would be. Harmony was the child who could do no wrong. She caused no trouble in high school, and once she had graduated, she had left home, gone to school, got a job, and found a man—all without so much as lifting her little finger.

Charity had heard the phrase, “Why can’t you be more like your sister?” so many times it should’ve been permanently engraved on her forehead by now. But no matter what she did, she could never be Harmony. No. Charity was the family screw-up. It was well-documented in all her school records.

Fights, cheating, lying, almost being expelled on two separate occasions, and finally dropping out when it all got too hard—that was Charity. To begin with she had tried to be like Harmony, then when it became clear that nothing she ever did would ever be good enough to justify her place in the family, she had given up even trying.

The October air was cool against her bare shoulders, but even as she looked down at her dress, a picture of Harmony in full wedding attire flashed through her mind and what she really wanted to do was rip the dress right off her body and throw it in the garbage.

“Argh!” In frustration she kicked a rock, sending it skittering across the parking lot. It was then that she saw the figure emerge from the shadows of the cars, and for one moment, fear said she should run. However, just before that message reached her feet, she realized who it was. Drew. And in a rush the annoyance with the whole lousy day returned. “What are you doing out here?”

He smiled at her sadly and slowly lifted the bottle in his hand into the light. “I’m not real big on champagne.”

Charity laughed the first real laugh she had all day. “You want some company?”

Drew shrugged and leaned back against the car before taking another drink. She walked up and leaned onto the car beside him.

“You want some?” He offered her the bottle, and she took it and tipped it up.

“Hmmm.” She closed her eyes as all the friction from the day slid away from her. “So, what are you doing out here?”

He shrugged. “I can only take being on my best behavior so long, and then I start to spontaneously-combust.”

“I hear you there. If I have to take one more picture, I might just break that guy’s camera.”

“Yeah, and this monkey-suit is about as comfortable as a grass sack.”

“Here.” She turned to him and loosened the bowtie at his neck. “No reason to be so formal out here.”

He smiled at her as she resumed her place against the car.

“Okay, so you know my story, what’s yours?” he asked off-handedly as he tipped the bottle up and took another drink.

Without asking, she reached for the bottle in his hand, tipped it up, and took a long swallow—enjoying how the liquid burned all the way down her throat and into her stomach.

“Perfection is highly overrated,” she finally said, dropping the bottle but not returning it to his hand. “Being reminded that I’m not tends to make me a little squirrelly.”

His forehead knotted. “Harmony?”

“My whole family.” She took another drink. “The fact that I’m the weak link isn’t lost on a single one of them.”

“The weak link?”

“Hey, Charity! You out here?” Hart called from the hall doors, and instantly she thrust the bottle back to Drew who quickly stowed it in his car. “Charity!”

“I’m coming!” she yelled back, waiting just long enough for Drew to find his way to her side.

“They’re throwing the bouquet.”

“Oh, great,” Charity said under her breath.

“Hang in there,” Drew said softly. “One more hour, and life will go on.”

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Ebook Romance Stories: The Easy Way Out, Chapter 1

The Easy Way Out final 1-21-2014

The Easy Way Out

Book 2

~ The Friendship Series ~

Chapter 1

“I, Harmony, take you, Aaron, to have and to hold from this day forward until death do us part, and even for the eternity after that, you have my love.”

Drew Easton stood on the top step of the church, wishing that breathing didn’t hurt quite so badly.

“May I have the rings, please?” the minister asked, and Drew dug into his pocket for the ring that at one time he’d thought he would be placing on Harmony Jordan’s finger.

After locating it, he and Harmony’s sister, Charity, stepped forward, holding the rings out for the blessing. Drew never heard the minister’s words, and there wasn’t a safe place to put his gaze. Looking at Harmony in her veil and satin tore his heart out. Looking at Aaron, with that smile that hadn’t left his face for months, brought a burning jealousy to Drew’s chest that he hated himself for. And then there was Charity.

The emerald green of her satin dress rested just below her cream-white shoulders, and with her hair pulled up in ringlets around her face, she looked far too much like Harmony had the first time Drew had met her—no, not even Charity was safe.

Suddenly he became aware of the silence that had invaded the space around him, and he looked up, wondering what he had missed. The minister smiled at him kindly, and then Drew’s gaze fell to the minister’s out-stretched hand. Quickly he dropped the ring into it and stepped back.

If he could just get through the next couple of hours in one piece, he could escape to his own apartment where his heart could ache in peace. He looked past Aaron at Harmony, and the look in her eyes as she gazed at her new husband brought tears to his own. He was happy for them. He truly and honestly was. They were right together. But his heart couldn’t help but say that if he hadn’t been dumb enough to let her go in the first place, he would be the one standing in front of her—tying himself to his best friend forever.

“…it is my honor and my privilege to present to you for the first time, Mr. and Mrs. Aaron Foster. Aaron, you may kiss your bride.”

Drew’s gaze traveled not to the newlyweds but across the heads of the congregation as the snapping of his heart cracked in his ears. Somewhere far away from him, he heard the organ swell to life, and he raked in a torturous breath. Just get down the aisle and get some fresh air.

Trying not to think too much, he looked across the step at Charity. For one second their gazes met, and when she smiled at him, he saw the relief that was overflowing through her eyes as well. Gallantly, he reached across the step and took her hand as they turned toward the back.

Like a dove alighting on its perch, she accepted his offered hand, and they stepped down the stairs together. Once in the aisle, he offered her his arm, she accepted it, and together they made their way out of the church.

They were the first ones to make it to the bride and groom, and Drew plastered a smile on his face that he sincerely hoped looked happy. Today was their day, and he wasn’t going to do anything to ruin it.

He watched as Aaron enveloped Charity into the lapel of his tuxedo jacket.

“Welcome to the family,” Charity said just loud enough for Drew to hear.

“Thanks,” Aaron said, and then Charity stepped past him to greet her sister.

“Congratulations, partner.” Drew extended his hand to Aaron.

“Drew. Thanks so much for everything,” Aaron said, and then for one moment the handshake became a hug. “I’ll never be able to repay you, man.”

Drew stepped back and looked at his friend. “Just take care of her—that’ll be payment enough.”

Aaron nodded, and Drew turned his attention to Harmony, whose smile barely masked the tears behind it.

“Harmony.”

“Drew,” she said, extending her arms to him.

He pulled her into a hug, and they stood like that for several heartbeats. When he finally pulled away, he smiled as he nodded at Aaron. “You take care of this one.”

“I will,” she said, and with one more, quick hug, he stepped away from her.

His heart could take no more, so quickly he walked out of the church into the cool October breeze. However, his brain had been so focused on the happy couple that he hadn’t bothered to keep up with where Charity had gone. As he rounded the corner, he met up with her leaning against the building.

“Oh.” He stopped, nearly tripping with the suddenness of it. “Sorry. I didn’t see you there.”

She smiled at him with sarcasm dripping from the look. “Join the crowd.”

“Huh?” His forehead furrowed in concern.

Quickly she shook her head. “Never mind.”

He nodded, thankful she wouldn’t pummel him for his own feelings. “Well, I’m glad that’s over.”

“Yeah, me, too.” Charity pulled a cigarette out of the small handbag at her wrist and put it to her lips. In two seconds she was puffing away. “Seems a little silly to waste all that money and time just so they can set themselves up for heartache and divorce later.”

Drew pulled back in surprise. “That’s pretty cynical. Don’t you think?” Drew asked, having never seen this side of Charity in all the time they had worked on her parents’ yard together.

She shrugged and took another long drag on the cigarette as the brunette ringlets danced around her head. “Yeah? Well, sue me.”

“Charity.” Her younger brother, Hart, emerged from the church in full tuxedo. “You know what Mom said about smoking today.”

In annoyance, she yanked the cigarette out of her mouth and blew the smoke into the air defiantly. “Quit being my babysitter, Hart.”

“Well, somebody needs to,” he said harshly.

She scowled. “I’m old enough to take care of myself.”

“Yeah? Then may I suggest you start acting like it.” Hart turned to Drew and extended his hand and a smile. “Hey, Drew. How’s business?”

“Pretty good. We’re shifting into fall/winter mode. Aaron’s got two hotels and several Christmas light orders ready to go. But we’ve been working our silly heads off trying to keep all those lawns mowed without you around. I sure hope school is worth leaving us high and dry.”

“It’s okay,” Hart said with a nod. “Sixteen hours. It’s keeping me busy.”

“And out of trouble?” Drew asked.

“Now that would take more than a few classes,” Hart said with a grin.

“Hart, Charity, Drew,” Mrs. Jordan called from the church doors. “Pictures.”

“Ugh.” Charity coughed. “Don’t they have enough pictures already?”

“Cheer up, Char.” Trying to act like this wasn’t about to kill him as well, Drew laced his arm through hers. “One more round, and we’re off the hook.”

She smirked at him and then dropped her cigarette to the concrete and snuffed it out with the emerald green toe of her shoe. “I can’t wait.”

*~*

“Drew,” Mr. Jordan said as he leaned back in his chair at the reception, “you’re on.”

With a slow exhale, Drew closed his eyes, gathering his courage. Pushing his chair backward with a screech, he stood, picked up his glass, and tapped on it with his fork.

“Uh-hmm!” He cleared his throat as gazes throughout the room turned to him. “May I have your attention, please?” The dull roar faded to silence, and extreme self-consciousness descended on him. Somehow when Aaron had asked him to be best man, this moment had never entered his mind, and now inexplicably here he was. “I’d like to say a few words about two of the best people I know.

“First, Aaron, you’re my best friend and partner. Sometimes we make decisions in an instant that change the course of our lives forever. Aaron made just such a decision when he put his future on the line to win Harmony’s heart. I just want to tell you to never forget what you were willing to sacrifice for her.”

Drew raised his glass to Aaron who smiled, and then he shifted his focus to Harmony.

“And, Harmony.” Drew exhaled slowly, drawing his bottom lip under his top for a moment, trying to figure out how he was ever going to say any more. He dropped his gaze and then lifted it, knowing she deserved that much. “Don’t ever settle for good just because you think you can’t have great. Okay? Remember this moment and know that great is always within your reach.”

He raised his glass to Harmony, whose smile was laced with tears.

“I wish you both love and peace forever. To Aaron and Harmony.”

“Aaron and Harmony!” echoed throughout the room as Drew took a small drink from his glass before sitting back down.

Charity leaned into him even as she picked up her knife and fork again. “That was nice.”

“Thanks,” Drew said as the tension of the day began to curl around him. “I thought I was a goner there for half-a-second.”

“You did good.”

Careful to keep his gaze on his meat, Drew ducked and forced the air into his lungs. It’s almost over. Just keep your eyes on the end, and you can get through this.

*~*

From the second she had awakened late at her parents’ house, the day had been one long Excedrin headache for Charity. She felt like the ugly stepsister playing nursemaid to Cinderella. Charity, do this. Hurry up, Charity, we’re going to be late to the salon. Just let her do your hair, Charity. Stop complaining. Come on, we don’t have all day. You should’ve done that last night. And they were all in on it, too—even Hart who usually took her side in the confrontations with her family.

No, today was Harmony’s day, and basically that meant that Charity was only there to get yelled at, stepped over, and complained about. When Harmony and Aaron made their way over to the three-tiered cake looking as sugary sweet as the cake itself, Charity could take no more. Without bothering to tell anyone where she was going, she pushed out of the hall and headed in the first direction her feet carried her.

October meant the skies darkened much earlier so that although it was only 8:30, Atlanta was already dark save for the amber streetlights blanketing the parking lot. Where she was going didn’t matter much. She could walk to Jamaica, and as long as nothing went wrong, no one would notice she was gone.

The worst part was that if it was just this one day, she could’ve handled that, but Harmony had always been first in their hearts, and Charity was sure she always would be. Harmony was the child who could do no wrong. She caused no trouble in high school, and once she had graduated, she had left home, gone to school, got a job, and found a man—all without so much as lifting her little finger.

Charity had heard the phrase, “Why can’t you be more like your sister?” so many times it should’ve been permanently engraved on her forehead by now. But no matter what she did, she could never be Harmony. No. Charity was the family screw-up. It was well-documented in all her school records.

Fights, cheating, lying, almost being expelled on two separate occasions, and finally dropping out when it all got too hard—that was Charity. To begin with she had tried to be like Harmony, then when it became clear that nothing she ever did would ever be good enough to justify her place in the family, she had given up even trying.

The October air was cool against her bare shoulders, but even as she looked down at her dress, a picture of Harmony in full wedding attire flashed through her mind and what she really wanted to do was rip the dress right off her body and throw it in the garbage.

“Argh!” In frustration she kicked a rock, sending it skittering across the parking lot. It was then that she saw the figure emerge from the shadows of the cars, and for one moment, fear said she should run. However, just before that message reached her feet, she realized who it was. Drew. And in a rush the annoyance with the whole lousy day returned. “What are you doing out here?”

He smiled at her sadly and slowly lifted the bottle in his hand into the light. “I’m not real big on champagne.”

Charity laughed the first real laugh she had all day. “You want some company?”

Drew shrugged and leaned back against the car before taking another drink. She walked up and leaned onto the car beside him.

“You want some?” He offered her the bottle, and she took it and tipped it up.

“Hmmm.” She closed her eyes as all the friction from the day slid away from her. “So, what are you doing out here?”

He shrugged. “I can only take being on my best behavior so long, and then I start to spontaneously-combust.”

“I hear you there. If I have to take one more picture, I might just break that guy’s camera.”

“Yeah, and this monkey-suit is about as comfortable as a grass sack.”

“Here.” She turned to him and loosened the bowtie at his neck. “No reason to be so formal out here.”

He smiled at her as she resumed her place against the car.

“Okay, so you know my story, what’s yours?” he asked off-handedly as he tipped the bottle up and took another drink.

Without asking, she reached for the bottle in his hand, tipped it up, and took a long swallow—enjoying how the liquid burned all the way down her throat and into her stomach.

“Perfection is highly overrated,” she finally said, dropping the bottle but not returning it to his hand. “Being reminded that I’m not tends to make me a little squirrelly.”

His forehead knotted. “Harmony?”

“My whole family.” She took another drink. “The fact that I’m the weak link isn’t lost on a single one of them.”

“The weak link?”

“Hey, Charity! You out here?” Hart called from the hall doors, and instantly she thrust the bottle back to Drew who quickly stowed it in his car. “Charity!”

“I’m coming!” she yelled back, waiting just long enough for Drew to find his way to her side.

“They’re throwing the bouquet.”

“Oh, great,” Charity said under her breath.

“Hang in there,” Drew said softly. “One more hour, and life will go on.”

Together they stepped onto the concrete steps of the hall.

“Lead me to the humiliation,” Charity said as though the guillotine was waiting on the other side of those doors. The hall was blindingly bright when they walked back in, and an invisible wall of heat wrapped around her.

“Charity, come on,” her mother called from the front, and wishing she could run without looking hopelessly dorky, Charity hurried to the small knot of women standing in the middle of the floor.

“Okay, I’m here,” she said, joining them.

Harmony looked over the small group and then turned around. “Here we go. One. Two. Three!” She flung the green and yellow bouquet over her head right in Charity’s direction; however, Charity side-stepped the press of women lunging for it, and in seconds it was in some other woman’s hands.

With a sigh of relief she shrugged at Harmony who shook her head and then laughed happily with the woman who had caught it.

“Okay, okay,” Mr. Jordan said, taking the reins as master of ceremonies. “We need Drew and Hart up here.”

Charity looked across the floor and immediately saw the pained expression cross Drew’s face. He glanced over at her as he strode to Mr. Jordan, and she made a small ‘your turn’ gesture at him. A smile crossed his face as he tore his gaze away from hers and walked up to Mr. Jordan.

“We’re going to need to use the two of you for a chair,” Mr. Jordan said. “Here kneel down.”

Carefully, the two of them knelt facing each other.

“Harmony,” her father said, offering her his hand, which she took with a smile. He seated her on the tops of the two men’s thighs.

Despite the fact that everyone else in the room was whooping and hollering, Charity could see that if he had half-a-chance Drew would’ve disappeared right into the floor. As Aaron slipped the garter off of Harmony’s leg, Charity watched Drew. It was obvious, to her anyway, that he was hating every single minute of this.

When the garter was free, Aaron stood and gave his hand to Harmony to help her up. Then stiffly the two groomsmen stood. Aaron laughingly shooed them into the pack of single men waiting for the garter toss. It was funny because as Charity watched him, she thought they must have been cut from exactly the same kind of cloth. He hung back, and when the garter flew in his direction, he deftly side-stepped it.

At the bottom of the pile, Hart came up with it, and proudly slipped it onto his forearm. She watched Aaron high-five Hart for a second, but her gaze followed Drew as he quietly disappeared into the crowd. Without more than a second’s worth of thought, she pushed her way in the direction he had gone.

After only a few moments of searching, she found him, pressed firmly against the wall, looking like he could use some more of that drink he’d left in the car.

“What’s the matter?” she asked, leaning in to him carefully. “You not interested in doing all this for real?”

“Well, I didn’t see you sacrificing your life for the bouquet,” he said, and the words had an edge to them.

She shrugged. “I figured I’d let someone who believes in marriage give her life for it.”

He tilted his head to the side. “You don’t believe in marriage?”

“Not for me.”

“Why not?”

She considered the question and him for a second and then shrugged. “I’m not permanent enough for marriage.”

“Permanent enough?”

“Short attention span,” she said, using the exact term countless teachers had in her lifetime.

“Well, maybe you just haven’t found anything worth concentrating on.”

“Doesn’t exist.”

“How do you know that?”

“Trust me,” she said with a knowing nod. “It doesn’t.”

Movement from in front of them brought her attention back from the land of deep thought.

“Drew,” Aaron said, walking up with Harmony’s hand tucked firmly in his own. “You still going to take us to the car?”

“Oh, sure.” Drew straightened instantly. He took a step away from Charity and then stopped. “You mind if Charity comes along?”

Aaron shrugged. “The more the merrier.”

“We’ll go get the car,” Drew said, and Charity was thankful she wouldn’t have to parade around the hall behind the happy couple. Without being at all obvious, Drew reached into the folds of her dress and rescued her hand. “You ready?”

The heat from his hand pulsed up her arm so that it wouldn’t have mattered where he was taking her, she would’ve gone. Wordlessly she nodded, and they walked out to the parking lot.

“You going to be okay to drive?” she asked, not really knowing where the lines of friendship and loyalty crossed with the duties of responsibility.

“Yeah, I only had a little.”

She squinted at him carefully.

“I swear,” he said, holding both hands in the air, and one of hers accompanied his.

“But you would tell me, you know, if you didn’t think you could…”

“I would tell you,” he said, nodding seriously. He unlocked her door, and as she opened it, the bottle lying on her seat caught her attention. Without mention, she stowed it under the passenger’s seat.

He got in on his side and sat one moment before he reached up to put the keys in the ignition. She could see the tension creep back onto his face, and gently she reached across the seat and touched his arm. “One more hour.”

Gratefully he smiled at her. Neither one wanted to be here, but being here together somehow made that fact less soul-wrenching.

The headlights sliced through the amber light as he drove up to the sidewalk edge.

“Maybe we should let them drive,” he said, noticing the crowd beginning to push out of the doors.

“Okay.” Deftly she pushed out of her door, pulled the back seat forward and climbed in back, where he met her coming from the other side, and their shoulders collided.

“Ugh. Sorry,” he said.

“That’s okay,” she said, feeling instantly how incredibly small the backseat actually was. “Here they come.”

In a flurry of satin, petticoats, and rice, the newlyweds raced from the hall to the car door. Aaron helped Harmony in, slammed her door, and then ran around to the driver’s side even as the well-wishers continued to shower rice onto the car.

“You don’t want to drive?” Aaron asked, dusting the rice from his hair as he slammed the door.

“You can,” Drew said solidly. “I’m fine right here.” He leaned back, and the shoulder of his jacket brushed Charity’s shoulder. Furtively, he looked over at her, and then he reached down and took her hand.

It was like escaping into a dark corner right under the chaperone’s nose, and Charity smiled. Her attention caught on the movement of Harmony’s hand in the front as it reached across the seats and rested on Aaron’s arm.

“We made it,” she said softly, and Charity saw the smile cross Aaron’s face in the streak of the streetlight as he looked over at his bride.

The words held a happiness that Charity couldn’t remember ever feeling. Watching them was like seeing a testament to the fact that happiness was for everyone else other than her. She turned her gaze out the window, wishing she hadn’t agreed to come. At that moment Drew’s grip tightened on her hand, and she looked over at him and smiled sadly. The absolute knowledge that neither of them would ever be sitting in the front seat like Aaron and Harmony now were engulfed them both.

After many long minutes the car crossed into the parking lot and into a space. Aaron killed the engine, and the four of them extricated themselves from the midst of the car.

“Well,” Aaron said as he wrapped Harmony under his arm and extended his other hand to Drew, “thanks for everything, man.”

“No problem.” Drew shook his friend’s hand. “And don’t worry about work. I can handle it for a week.”

“I trust you,” Aaron said.

Drew leaned in and kissed Harmony’s cheek. “Be careful.”

“Take care,” Charity said, leaning in to give Harmony an awkward hug.

“I will,” Harmony said, returning the hug with only one arm.

“And you take care of her,” Charity said, sliding to the side to give Aaron a hug as well.

“I will.”

They all stood in a long, uneasy silence.

“Well, we’d better get back,” Drew finally said, and Charity nodded. “We’ll see you two next week.”

Aaron waved slightly as Drew climbed in one side and Charity crawled in the other. Drew started the car and threw his arm over the seat to back out. But Charity’s gaze was locked on the couple still standing under the carport. Waving and smiling, they looked like they should be on the top of a cake.

“They’re sickening,” she said under her breath.

“I know,” Drew said sadly. “Wouldn’t it be great to be as sickening as they are?”

Tears stung the backs of her eyes. It was like he was reading her thoughts as they streaked across the canvas of her mind, and that was even more annoying than the newlyweds.

When they arrived back at the hall, most of the cars were already gone, so Drew pulled up into one of the front parking spaces. Like emerging from a tomb, they climbed out.

“Hey, Char, where’d you go?” Hart asked in annoyance from behind a mountain of foil-wrapped boxes.

“We took them to their car,” Charity said, slamming her door in frustration. No matter what she did, it was always wrong.

“Well, Mom’s about to have a conniption if you don’t get your little self in there and help clean up.”

“So, what else is new?” she asked only loud enough for Drew who was right by her side to hear.

They walked to the door, and he pulled it open for her although she could’ve used the effort to drain the excess of angry energy flowing through her.

“It’s about time you get here,” her mother greeted her, holding out a folded tablecloth, the guestbook, and a bridal photo of Harmony. “Take these to the car, and then come help me with the rest of this cake.”

Charity accepted the stack placed into her hands, and she turned to Drew and smiled. The torture continued.

*~*

“So, do you need a ride home?” Drew asked Charity an hour later when everything had been stowed in the cars.

“I don’t know.” She glanced over her shoulder hesitantly. “I’m just going to Mom’s.”

“Well, I just happen to know where that is.”

She smiled as her mother walked out of the kitchen. “Come on, Charity, we need to get this meat home before it spoils.”

“Drew said he could give me a ride,” Charity said softly.

“Oh, don’t be silly. That’s clear across town. He doesn’t have time to be taxiing you around.”

She hated being treated like she was ten. She hated it. “But he offered.”

“Can you hit that light switch?” her mother asked as though Charity hadn’t said anything.

With a sigh of resignation, Charity pushed her feet across the floor and hit the switch, plunging the room into darkness. Slowly she crossed back to the door where Drew still stood.

“I guess I’d better go home with them,” she said reluctantly.

He nodded, his eyes full of sadness and acceptance. “That’s okay. I understand.”

But she doubted the truth of that statement. And what she knew he did understand, she wished he didn’t.

“Can I call you sometime?” he asked softly as they stepped into the night air.

She shrugged. “It’s a free country.”

“Charity, come on,” Hart called from the car.

Quickly she closed the door and checked the lock. Then as she turned to the car, Drew caught her hand for one more brief second. “Thanks for tonight. It was nice to have a friend.”

Her smile cracked right through the annoyance with her family. “Yeah, it was.”

The Easy Way Out final 1-21-2014Buy for Amazon Kindle

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