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Ebook Romance Stories: White Knight, Chapter 1

White Knight

Book 2

~ The Courage Series ~

Chapter 1

“This place makes the best potato skins in the world,” Dante Ramirez said from his position next to Eve Knox in the over-crowded booth. Six were stuffed into room for five, but Eve wasn’t complaining. It had been months since she’d laughed this much, and laughing felt good for a change.

“Well, for as long as they made us wait, they’d better be,” Gabe Teague said in annoyance from the other side of Eve. His deep bass shook the air around him. “I just want you to know, if Ashley kills me, I’m sending you the bill.”

“And it’ll be stamped NSF just like all the rest of the bills I pay,” Dante said.

“NSF? I thought you had some secret trust fund,” Jeff Taylor said from beside his wife Lisa.

“Yeah, it’s so secret I don’t even know about it,” Dante said with a shake of his head, and the gel-slicked, black hair caught the light like a reflector.

“Darn,” Gabe said. “You mean we can’t off you for your millions?”

“Millions of bills or millions of creditors?”

Jeff looked at Gabe skeptically. “Maybe offing him wasn’t such a good idea.”

“Uh, you think?” Gabe asked.

“You forget, he’s a fireman,” Lisa said, punching her husband in the ribs. “He makes what you make.”

Jeff shook his head. “Ugh. Definitely not worth it.”

“Definitely,” Gabe said and then looked around the restaurant. “So is anybody going to take our order or is that going to take another two hours?”

“Friday night,” Dante said. “It’s always like this. Oh, I’m sorry. I forget you’re out of commission.”

“Married,” Gabe said. “They call it married.”

Even as she laughed, Eve’s gaze fell to the table. She remembered married.

“So, A.J.,” Lisa said, addressing one of the two non-conversational occupants at the table, “were you less nervous this year?”

A.J., the one person at the table that Eve hadn’t been around at every excuse Jeff and Lisa could come up with—Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, every major holiday and three or four non-major ones they had managed to include her in as well. If she hadn’t been so tired of looking at her apartment walls, she might have come up with a few more excuses to get out of their well-meaning excursions. However, the reality was she hated that apartment and all the memories that went with it.

“At least I didn’t throw up this year.” A.J. ducked so that the light bounced off his light brown hair streaked with soft blond tones. Soft. It was a good word to describe A.J. Knight. Features, light brown eyes, manner, tone—they all fell right into the soft category.

“That’s a definite improvement,” Jeff said, laughing. “We almost had to call the other paramedics to come stitch up that gash you got when you fainted off the stage last year.”

“He did not,” Eve said with instant concern.

“No.” A.J. glanced at her defensively, but instantly his gaze dropped back to the table. “I just missed a step.”

“Yeah. Ca-thung. Ca-thung. Ca-thung,” Jeff said, spinning his hands over and over themselves teasingly.

“You’re one to talk.” Lisa punched Jeff again as she came to A.J.’s defense. “Who was it that needed a paper bag this morning before he went on?”

Jeff shrugged. “For my lunch.”

“Yeah, those ham sandwiches can just take your breath right away.”

Eve laughed at them. Jeff and Lisa. Such a sweet couple, now looking forward to their first child. It wasn’t hard to see how much Jeff worshiped Lisa, nor was it difficult to see the love in Lisa’s eyes when she looked at her husband. As she put her head down, Eve remembered feeling that look in her own heart. That time seemed so long ago as to have been another lifetime.

“So, Eve,” Dante, the one guy she always seemed to get paired up with at every social function she was trapped into attending, said as he laid an arm the color of brown sugar over the booth behind her, “how’d Lisa con you into this speaking thing anyway?”

With a smile Eve looked across the table at the woman who had become her best friend over the last year. “She asked.”

Lisa smiled back. Together. Two women in a sea of men, and because of the other, they were holding their own.

“No arm twisting or hair pulling?” Dante asked far too into the whole cat fight scenario for her.

“Nope. None of that.”

“Darn,” Dante said. “I would’ve paid to see that.”

“Hey,” Jeff said, leveling an index finger and a warning gaze at Dante. “That’s my wife you’re talking about there.”

“Oh, sorry. I’m just saying she’s hot.”

“That’s not any better,” Jeff said darkly.

Lisa patted his leg. “It’s okay. I’m five months pregnant, and I feel like a blimp already. If the man wants to say I’m hot, don’t complain.”

Jeff’s gaze went to his wife’s face and frame, and it was clear he had no complaints.

“Is somebody going to take our order or not?” Gabe asked in frustration.

“I think they forgot about us,” A.J. said quietly.

“Well, get somebody’s attention, Jeff,” Gabe commanded.

“Me? Why me?”

“Because you’re on the end, and because this was your idea, and because as your commanding officer, I told you to,” Gabe said.

“Oh,” Jeff said, nodding. “Well, since you put it that way.” He looked around, put a hand in the air, and snagged the first waitress’s attention who happened by. “Umm, could we get some menus over here?”

Amazing, Eve thought as she watched the scene. When she had met him two years before, she would never have believed that Jeff could get so many words in a row out, in public nonetheless. However, it was abundantly clear that he had grown—in confidence and in stature since the night Dustin had first brought home his newest friend from the academy. Part of it was the job. Leading others in to fight fires had to inspire a certain amount of poise and confidence, but it was more than that. He had a woman by his side now who believed in him, who trusted him implicitly, who looked to him for guidance, and it showed in every movement he made.

In seconds the waitress was back with the menus. Each took one, and Gabe looked at his watch. “Order something that doesn’t take long to cook.”

“Like what? Kid’s grilled cheese?” Dante asked.

“You should’ve invited Ashley,” Lisa said.

“Yeah,” Jeff said. “Why didn’t you?”

“She had to work. Besides she’s heard me speak, and she wasn’t impressed.”

“I, Gabe, take you, Ashley,” Dante said serious and teasing all at the same time. “I can see why.”

Eve socked Dante’s arm. “Hey, that wasn’t funny.”

In surprise Dante looked over to Jeff who was trying not to laugh. “It was too. Wasn’t it, Taylor?”

“Like I’m stupid enough to get in the middle of that one,” Jeff said as he buried his gaze into the menu.

The waitress walked up at that moment to take their order, and when she was gone, Dante turned back to Eve. “You know that Van Gogh Exhibit is coming to the Museum of Fine Arts the first of November. Didn’t you say you wanted to go to that?”

“Is it that time already?” She sighed. “I was hoping I’d be through the spring buying by then.”

“Well, I’m free,” Dante said, hinting in his tone, “if you wanted me to get us some tickets, I could.”

He was being nice. Dante had been nothing but nice since the first time Jeff and Lisa had dragged them out on what no one dared to call a double date. Still every time Eve thought about going out with him, her heart jerked in the other direction. Slowly she shook her head. “I’m not sure I can get off.”

“It’s a Saturday,” he said as though the others weren’t sitting there listening to them. “Even firefighters don’t work all the time, you know.” He tapped her on the shoulder playfully, trying to get her to look up. However, her heart just couldn’t look at him.

Wishing it wouldn’t, Eve’s gaze traveled down the table and caught Lisa’s. The pity in Lisa’s eyes told her too much. Her friends felt sorry for her. They wanted her to find someone. What they didn’t know was that there would never be another someone in her life. She’d had a someone once. Now he was gone, and she had no desire to find another one.

“A museum exhibit?” Gabe asked incredulously. “Ugh. Ashley roped me into one of those once. Can you say, ‘Torture City’?”

Across from Eve, A.J. laughed although none of the other occupants seemed to think it was all that funny. She ducked to keep the laugh in her own chest from finding her own throat.

“I just thought it might be fun,” Dante said softly, and suddenly he didn’t look nearly so confident or so sure of the offer.

Knowing there was really no good reason to turn him down, Eve smiled over at him although to be honest, she didn’t see him at all. “It sounds like fun.”

~*~
On the other side of the table, A.J. felt the annoyed gazes of his hosts find his face, and his eyes widened as if to say, “What did I say?” Neither Jeff nor Lisa looked happy with him. He hadn’t been around them all that much, but Eve didn’t seem like someone who would be hanging out in museums all day—the mall looked more her style. But as much as she didn’t, Dante seemed even less the type. Strong, take charge, get it done so you can go have fun—that was Dante. Someone more likely to make fun of people who went to museums than someone lining up for tickets.

However, it was perfectly clear from where A.J. sat that getting in the way of Dante and Eve invited a fate worse than death. He understood that, of course. He had been there at the graveyard the day she had buried her husband. He had sat in the church and listened to Jeff’s heartfelt words about the friend he had lost, but more than that, he had been there that awful night when her husband had taken that final ambulance ride.

Yes, she had lost more than he would probably ever have, so he was smart enough to back off even when Gabe continued.

“Doesn’t make any sense to me,” Gabe said. “You meet someone, you go out with them, you try to make yourself be someone else the whole time, then you get married and boom. Who are you again?”

“I’m sure Ashley was thrilled when she figured out who you were,” Jeff said, and A.J. could tell he was trying to steer the conversation in a different direction.

“Ashley?” Gabe asked incredulously. “What about me? The first time I saw her with that awful green mask thing on, I thought I’d pass out.”

“She was trying to be beautiful for you,” Lisa said.

Gabe scrunched up his face. “She didn’t have to try that hard.”

The waitress arrived with their drinks and a dish of potato skins. A plate at a time Lisa passed them around the table. “I am starving.”

“Here,” Jeff said, dishing one potato skin onto a plate for her.

“Hey!” Dante said. “Who ordered these?”

“If you’re pregnant, you argue.” Jeff leveled the fork in Dante’s direction. “If not, get out of the way.” He put some sauce on the plate and handed it to Lisa. “There you go.”

“Thanks,” she said, ducking in embarrassment.

A.J. watched as the others dished up their own appetizers. Jeff was always taking care of Lisa, always making sure she was all right before he worried about himself. That was how love should be, A.J. thought. Not that he’d ever been around that many people who had found it. No, finding that kind of love took a heap of luck, and to this point he hadn’t had much in that department.

“So, A.J.,” Gabe said, skewering him with a glance. “Who are you taking to museums these days?”

Slowly A.J. shrugged, and the potato skin on his fork nearly slid right off into his lap. “No museums for me.” Then he looked across and caught the displeasure in Lisa’s gaze. “Not that there’s anything wrong with museums of course. I just…” He was drowning, fighting for the surface. “Well, there’s Melody, but she’s more of just a friend really.”

“A friend? Oh, boy. You’ve got to watch those friends,” Gabe said with a serious shake of his head. “That’s what I told everybody about Ash for a year.”

“Until she knocked you over the head with a frying pan?” Jeff asked.

“Something like that. I swear, I think you ladies have something figured out that you should really clue us guys in about,” Gabe said.

“We try to be subtle,” Lisa said. “Not our fault it takes a brick.”

“I’m telling you,” Gabe said, leaning over to A.J. although his volume was loud enough for the whole table to hear. “Watch out for those friends. They’re trouble waiting to happen.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

~*~
By eight o’clock the gathering was breaking up. Jeff said he had to get Lisa home. Gabe slipped out as soon as the checks arrived, saying Ashley might never let him out of her sight again. A.J. had offered to walk Gabe to his car although Eve thought that if trouble happened, Gabe looked far more likely to be the defender than A.J. did. And so, when everyone else was gone, she and Dante were left to walk to the parking lot together.

Subtle, she thought. So terribly, terribly subtle. As they pushed out into the cool October, Houston city night, her hand brushed Dante’s, and in the next breath his hand slipped around hers. Not once in all the time they had spent together had he taken her hand, and the instant hers was in his, Eve wanted to run the other direction.

“If you don’t want to do the museum thing, that’s cool,” Dante said. “It was just an idea.”

Backing out, getting away from him, running as fast as her heart was racing all sounded like very good ideas, and yet what was she running from? The fact that he wasn’t Dustin. He wasn’t. He never would be, and neither would anyone else. Her heart fell even further at the thought. “Are you sure you want to go? I kind of thought the clubs would be more of your style.”

“Can’t a guy broaden his horizons once in awhile?”

“No crime there. I just don’t want you to be bored.”

Dante turned intense deep brown eyes on her. “If you’re there, I could never be bored.”

Her chest hurt. She hated the look in his eyes—that don’t-kill-me-by-turning-me-down look. For as long as she could remember, she had been a sucker for that look. True, the guys had always turned out to be nice enough, but they always had earth-shattering soul mates in mind. It never quite made it that far for Eve. “If you’re sure you won’t be bored…”

“I’m sure,” he said as they got to her car. “I’ll call you the Friday before… just to make sure.”

“Okay.”

“And I can pick you up if you want.”

“Oh, that’s okay. There’s never any telling what I’ll be doing. It’ll probably be better if we just meet there.”

“Okay, but you do want to go, right?”

She nodded. “I’ll be there.” Trying not to be obvious, she let go of his hand and climbed in her car even as fear that he might in fact kiss her flooded through her consciousness. “See you then.”

“Yeah.”

As she pulled out of the parking lot, the act she had been corralling around her since she had met Lisa early that morning as they headed for the second annual Cordell Youth Conference dropped away. Everything was so hard. Every moment was about holding it together, watching, noticing, making sure that no one saw beneath the mask. That was how life was now that Dustin was gone. It was called getting on with life. They all wanted to help, but the truth was no one ever could. It was like being dead without being in a grave.

Twenty-nine and living a hollow, empty, shell of a life. If it didn’t hurt so bad, she might have laughed at the irony. For it was she who had told so many people that life was not to be taken for granted, that the point was to live every single moment as if you might never have another. Yet that was exactly what she now wanted—to never have another. The moments lining up, staring her in the face collapsed her spirit. Crying didn’t help. She had come to that conclusion long ago.

Pushing the thoughts back, she hit the radio button. Not even the music helped much. There were just too many thoughts, and Eve thought at that moment that there would be forever.

*~*
“Melody came by,” A.J.’s mom said when he walked into the little kitchen around nine. “She was looking for you.”

“Oh?” He grabbed a couple Oreos out of the cabinet.

“She said something about playing a game she got.”

He poured a glass of milk. “Was she going home?”

“She didn’t say.”

“I’ll call her.”

His mother nodded and left the room. Picking up the phone he dialed the number without really looking at the keypad. He’d had it memorized since he was twelve. Melody Todd, tomboy extraordinaire.  They had been friends so long, he’d forgotten when they weren’t. “Mel? Hey, it’s A.J.”

“Well, it’s about time. Where’ve you been? I was going to show you the new Rodent’s Revenge Game I got, but now Kendra’s coming over and we’re going out.”

“Oh, that’s cool.” He bit into the cookie. “Have fun.”

“You could come with us,” Melody said.

“I’ve got work tomorrow.”

“Likely excuse. You just don’t want me to set you up with Kendra.”

“Like I said I’ve got to work tomorrow.”

“Okay, okay, I know. Shadonna was a mistake. I admit that.”

“A mistake?” A.J. asked in shock. “She read me my star charts before we got in the car, Mel.”

“I said I was sorry.”

“Yeah, and then you turned around and set me up with Monica. How’s she doing anyway? Has she found herself yet?”

“Not unless herself was hiding in the Australian outback,” Melody said hesitantly.

“Australia? Huh, well, she’ll be right at home with all those kangaroos. Oh, and let’s not forget about Teresa. Shall we?”

“What? You don’t like table dancers?”

“Not when they’re my date.” He shook his head at the mere memory of that night. “Let’s get real, here, shall we, Mel. You haven’t exactly had a stellar track record with this matchmaking thing.”

“Oh, come on, A.J. Kendra’s different.”

“Already this is not good.”

“No, I don’t mean different, different. I just mean… well, different.”

“You’re trying too hard, Mel.” He ate the last bite of cookie and chased it with the milk.

“Well, you’re not trying hard enough. It’s one night, A.J. Just one. Come on. It’ll be fun.”

“Nope. I’m thinking thirty minutes in the garage, and then I’m going to give up and hit the sack.”

Melody sighed. “So you’re really not going then?”

“No, I’m really not going.”

“Fine. See if I ever try to set you up again.”

“Finally,” he said, breathing an audible sigh of relief.

Her side went silent for a moment. “How about tomorrow night? This game will explode your head.”

“Head explosions? Cool. Here or there?”

“Better make it there. Mom’s on a no-popcorn-in-the-living-room kick again.”

“No problem. I’ll see you then. Oh, and Mel. Have fun tonight.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. And hey, don’t ruin your hearing. Okay?”

He laughed and signed off. Melody, the next door neighbor who actually lived five houses down had been his best friend forever. Well, since sixth grade anyway, but that was as close to forever as he got. With a push he stood from the cabinet and stepped into the living room. “I’m going to the garage.”

Off-handedly his mother waved. Funny even at 25, ever since moving back home a year and a half before, he had felt the need to keep his mother informed about his whereabouts. She didn’t ask anymore, but he always told her just in case. When he opened the garage door, one hand went in front of him and snapped the dim light on. Over the concrete he walked until in the opposite corner, he stepped up to the royal blue plastic tarp. Carefully he pulled it up and wrapped it around his arm so that the blue pearl trap set underneath came into view.

From the wall he pulled the headphones on, hit the power button, and sat down on the little stool. With one drumstick he hit the play button and twirled the stick around his fingers twice as the other picked up the first beats of the song. In seconds he was immersed in the music—so deep, air seemed hardly necessary. He didn’t sing much, but the words and the beat drifted over him like soft rain on a cool summer day. His hands traveled effortlessly to a beat he had committed to memory years before. When he hit the break, every part of his body hit a drum and stopped. Hit again and stopped. Five consecutive hits, and he was flying on the music again. It was the one place that always felt like home to him, and he knew it always would.

*~*
“Good news,” Lisa said ten minutes into their phone conversation the next Tuesday evening as Eve put the finishing touches on a dish of microwaved ravioli. She licked her finger off and picked up the plate to take it to the table.

“Oh, yeah? What’s that?”

“Gabe and Ash are having a party.”

“Cool.” Eve turned the plate a quarter turn as she sat by herself at the table. “I’m sure Gabe’s thrilled.”

“Oh, no. Him and Jeff already have it all figured out. Pool. All night in the basement.”

“Nice, and what are you and Ash going to do? Sit around and stare at the walls?”

“Keep the chips and dip going I guess. No, they’re having like people from her work and his work come. He said you’re welcome to come too if you want.”

Eve corralled her long, black hair in her fingers, flipped it over one shoulder, and picked up her fork. “Me? I’m not from his work.”

“Well, it’s not just people from work. Besides I think Dante’s going to be there,” Lisa said.

“And this pertains to me how?”

“Come on, Eve. I know he likes you, and I think if you’d just let yourself, you could like him too.”

“He’s okay, but I’m not really interested in anything serious right now.”

“I’m not saying you are, but it doesn’t hurt to go out with some friends once in awhile either. Sitting there all by yourself all the time isn’t getting you anywhere.”

“You know, you sound just like…” A knife went through her heart, and she sighed. “When’s the party?”

“Friday at eight.”

*~*
“You can bring a date if you want,” Jeff said as A.J. sat in the dark living room, watching the little mouse careen one way and then the other over the crazy multi-colored screen.

“Why are you inviting people to Gabe’s party?” A.J. asked, leaning into the turn that Melody threatened to take too wide.

“He just mentioned you, and since he didn’t have your number… But if you’re busy, that’s cool.”

As the mouse burst through the final door, A.J. laughed when Melody threw the controller to the floor and collapsed over it. “It sounds cool, but I can bring a friend?”

“Yeah.”

“What time?”

WHITE KNIGHT

~ Expect the Unexpected ~

Now available

On Amazon Kindle

On B&N Nook

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Ebook Romance Stories: To Protect & Serve, Chapter 1

To Protect & Serve

Book 1

~ The Courage Series ~

“I promise concern for others, and a willingness to help those in need,” Jeff Taylor said as he stood, hands clasped behind his back, shoulder-to-shoulder with 28 of Houston’s finest. His chest swelled with the words he had committed to memory in anticipation of this very moment more than ten years before. “I promise strength… strength of heart to bear whatever burdens might be placed upon me…”

He closed his eyes and breathed the words into his soul. This pledge would change his life in ways he could hardly even imagine at the moment. Where would it lead? Up flights of steps as others fled the other direction? Into the mouth of hell to pluck a single life back? Those images from the future coupled with the words making it difficult to so much as breathe them, and yet somehow his voice managed far more than that.

Strong, with a strength he had gained and a strength he would have to find in himself to do this job, his voice came. A solemn vow to all those his life would touch. “…I promise to protect and serve to the best of my ability. I promise the wisdom to lead, the compassion to comfort, and the love to serve unselfishly whenever I am called.”

A moment of silence for them all to breathe, one more moment affording a final opportunity to turn back. But like the image of those steps, he knew he never would. If someone needed him, Jeff Taylor, now standing at the door to his destiny, was ready and willing to help.

*~*
“I said I needed those reports by two! What? Were you hoping my desk would blow up and I wouldn’t notice they weren’t here?” Lisa Matheson asked in fury as the phone shook in her hand. “I don’t need excuses. I’m tired of excuses. I want them here in five minutes—or you can pack your things and I’ll find someone who can actually do this job.”

Without bothering to say good-bye, she slammed the phone down, and her gaze swept the desk stacked a foot high. How was it possible that every single incompetent moron found their way into her office? They were everywhere—and each one had more excuses than the last one did. One carefully manicured set of nails sifted through the files on her desk, but without the latest sales reports, this information was useless.

She hit the intercom button. “Sherie, did Kamden call yet?”

“About ten minutes ago. He’s on his way.”

“Terrific,” Lisa breathed as she let go of the intercom button. More bad news. Kamden was sure to jump ship the second he figured out her little agency couldn’t even get a simple set of sales figures together. She had given her blood, sweat, and tears for the better part of a year to land the Kamden Foods account. Now, she had it, and it was going to be gone before she so much as had a shot at really promoting it. It never ceased to amaze her how long it took to build something and how very quickly it simply crashed down around her. One finger hit the intercom button. “When Joel gets here with those reports, send him in.”

“Sure thing.”

If she could just get organized before the next disaster hit, it would be nice. It would also be nice if she could sweep one hand across her desk and dump all of the problems there into the garbage. With a frustrated sigh, she reached for the folder she had been compiling since that morning just as Joel not so much walked but fell into her office.

“Nice of you to make it,” she said icily. She held out a hand for the information in his. “It’s all there?”

“The last three months,” he said, nodding.

However, when she opened the folder, her gaze fell across the tallies. “No, this is last quarter. I’ve already got this. I need the newest quarter.”

“Yeah, well, the newest quarter isn’t over yet, so…”

“No.” Lisa lowered her tone as her gaze skewered through him. “I need the figures for the newest quarter. Now!”

“Well, you said the quarter. I thought you meant…”

Her head was really starting to hurt. “Do you have the figures for this quarter or not?”

“For last month,” Joel hedged as he pushed his black glasses up on his nose. “This month isn’t…”

“Then get me the figures for last month.”

“But that’s not…”

“Get them!”

“O… okay,” Joel said, and although he looked like he wanted to add another excuse, one more look at her told him a quick exit would be best. “I’ll be back.”

In frustration Lisa twirled the single strand of auburn-brunette hair that framed her face in a perfect arch. “Okay, this isn’t so bad. I’ve got the newest mock-ups. I’ll just show him those. I could probably wing the sales figures too if I had to…”

The intercom beeped. “Haley’s on line two.”

“No, no, no,” Lisa moaned as she reached for the phone. “I don’t have time for this!” The phone was at her ear in one motion, and she breathed one quick breath to squelch all of her frustration. “Hey, Haley-girl, what’s up?”

“I just wanted to make sure my maid of honor hasn’t forgotten about our little shindig tonight,” the sweet voice of Lisa’s younger sister said, sounding even sweeter couched in the middle of the most magical month of her life.

“No, I didn’t forget, but I am a little busy trying to get away in time.”

“I can come by and get you if you want,” Haley said. “Bryn and Chandra are going to meet us there.”

“I’ve got my car.”

“I know, but I also know you’re liable to get buried six feet deep in that paperwork of yours and forget.”

“I wouldn’t…”

“Be careful where you go with that statement. This is the same sister who sat at the airport for six hours waiting for you when you decided to drive from Dallas that time.”

“Okay, okay. Come get me, but I wouldn’t have forgotten this.”

Joel slipped into the room, and Lisa looked up at him, dreading the bad news he was obviously bringing.

“Listen, Hal, I’ve got to go.”

“Six.”

“Yeah, six,” Lisa replied, feeling the full weight of the duty fall on her shoulders. If she made it that long, life could only go up from there. With that promise, she hung up.

Carefully Joel handed her the folder. “Here they are, and I’ve got the ones for this month in there too.”

With her brain going in seven directions at once, Lisa opened the folder and tried to focus on what she was looking at just as the intercom buzzed.

“Mr. Kamden is in the conference room,” Sherie said.

“Lovely.”

*~*

Surrounded by the men who had become his best friends over the last nine months, Jeff stood, drinking punch and laughing about the exploits they had traversed together—like the time Dustin had fallen backward the first time they put the full gear on him, or when Craig got stuck in the door as he went through the obstacle course, and the time Ramsey slid down the pole holding his boots in one hand and his pants in the other.

Ramsey, who was one of the six black men in their class, had never been the most organized among them, but down deep, he had a heart as big as the Astrodome. In fact, as Jeff looked around at them, it struck him how very different each was from the others—but how well they had fit together despite their differences or maybe because of them. One strength made up for another’s weakness. He only hoped that his new post would work out as well.

“Well, gentlemen.” Captain Drake clapped Jeff on the back as he stepped up to the group. “It was touch and go there for awhile, but you made it.”

“Yes, sir,” they all chorused like a well-rehearsed kindergarten class.

“So, what’s up next?”

“I’m going down to South Houston,” Dustin said, speaking up first as he always did. Dustin. Cool, smooth, confident Dustin. The leader and the one Jeff would miss the most.

“I’m headed out to College Station,” Ramsey said with a nod.

“God help them,” Captain Drake said, and they laughed. He looked over to Craig.

“I’ve got two apps in. Depends who takes me,” Craig said with his slow Texas grin. Meticulous Craig—the guy who always the right gear at the right time. Jeff would’ve followed Craig into a burning building that was destined to fall at any moment. It wouldn’t matter, Craig would be there with the right stuff to keep the whole thing upright until they had accomplished every last component of their mission.

“And how about you, Taylor? What’re your big plans?”

The attention from the group descended on him in a flash, and Jeff ducked fully comprehending that he was now center stage.

“Oh, you know, Taylor,” Dustin said after a beat. “He’s just looking for the station with the best stud calendar.” As though the statement needed emphasis, Dustin struck a heroic pose.

Instantly Jeff shook his head even as he buried it into his chest.

“Well, that’s the only way he’s ever going to get any action,” Ramsey said with a laugh.

“Yeah, Lord knows, he’s never going to actually ask anybody out,” Craig said, joining in on the ribbing session that had been going on for more than six months.

Somehow, Jeff knew he never should’ve admitted he wasn’t exactly an expert in the area of women. The other three, two married and one constantly on the prowl, made women seem like a subject with the difficulty of third-grade reading. However, when they taught the lessons the other guys had obviously learned, he must have been absent because as far as Jeff could tell, he was clueless on the subject.

It wasn’t totally his fault. It was something about how he was wired. Around the guys it was hard enough to get a few words in, but bring a woman around, and the already errant signals from his brain to his mouth became downright unintelligible.

Captain Drake laughed with the others and patted Jeff on the back. “Well, if you need a good reference…”

“He needs more than that,” Ramsey said, and they all burst out laughing again.

“Thanks, Captain.” Jeff extended his hand trying to be oblivious to the joke. “It’s been an honor, Sir.”

“Good luck, Taylor,” the captain said, and his smile spoke in terms of I hope to see you again someday and take care of yourself out there. Then the captain moved on to the next cluster of graduates.

“Hey, you know, this punch is nice and all,” Ramsey said, spinning his little cup, “but I’m thinking we really deserve a better send off than this.”

“What do you have in mind?” Dustin asked as he took a drink of the punch.

“The Bar Houston?” Ramsey said quizzically. He jerked his head over to the table where the wives sat. “You can even bring them along if you want.”

Craig laughed. “How generous of you.”

“I try.” Ramsey shrugged and downed the last of his punch. “Even though I seriously hate the thought of diluting the opportunity pool. Know what I’m saying?”

“So, you going to let my man Jeff come along too?” Dustin asked, draping an arm over Jeff’s shoulders.

“Why not?” Ramsey said with a knowing smirk. “You’ve got to actually talk for the prospects to notice you’re in the hunt.”

“I don’t know.” Jeff shrunk away from the thought. “I’m kind of busy.”

“What? Polishing your boots?” Ramsey taunted.

It was too close to the truth to deny too vehemently, and Jeff scratched the back of his ear wishing he could just disappear and be done with it. “It’s been a long day.”

“And what better way to relieve a long day than a little one-on-one time with some very lovely ladies?” Dustin asked. Then he looked at Jeff. “Oh, yeah. I forgot who I’m talking to.”

They laughed as annoyance landed squarely on Jeff’s chest. “Fine. Let’s go.”

*~*

“I knew it.”

Lisa jumped at the sound of her sister’s voice suddenly in the middle of her office; however, she kept her gaze solely on the campaign spread across her desk. “Knew what?”

“You aren’t ready yet.” Haley crossed her arms in irritation.

“I am.” Head down, Lisa wrote out the rest of her idea. “I was just waiting on you.”

“Uh-huh, and I didn’t see you downstairs.”

“I figured you’d come up and get me.”

“Okay, so I’m here.”

Lisa’s gaze never lifted from the drawings. “You know, Hal, the whole bar thing really isn’t my scene.”

“Yeah,” Haley said as she walked around the desk where she laced her arm through her sister’s and tugged on her, “and if I’d let you, you’d hole up here forever and never go anywhere.”

Quickly Lisa made one more mark before she allowed herself to be pulled up. “And that would be a bad thing?”

“Come on, Bryn and Chandra are waiting.”

*~*

“Now this is a party!” Dustin said as he draped one arm over the shoulders of his wife, Eve, a lovely brunette who huddled in closer to him.

“I just hope the babysitter doesn’t charge overtime,” Craig’s wife, Bridget, said looking at her watch.

“Hey, hey, hey,” Ramsey said with a definite scowl. “Now, you ladies know I love you, but come on. Babysitters? You’re cramping my style.”

“And what style would that be, R.J.?” Eve asked teasingly.

“You know.” Ramsey slid out of the booth and did a smooth slide past the table. “My style.”

Eve ran her hand down Dustin’s chest. “I’m just glad he didn’t rub off on you while you were cooped up in that training thing with him.” Lovingly Dustin turned to her and rubbed the tip of her nose with his.

“Me too.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. While the two of you are getting all lovey-dovey on us, I’m going to go find myself a little action,” Ramsey said.

“There’s plenty of action right here for me,” Dustin said, and as Jeff watched them from across the table, his hand on his cold Bud Lite, he couldn’t help but think that in the whole general scheme of things he’d rather be where Dustin and Eve now sat than where Ramsey stood.

“I’m telling you, you’re missing out,” Ramsey said, shaking his head.

“You know for someone who wants action so bad, you sure don’t move very fast,” Craig said from his position next to Bridget.

“You just take notes, Hyatt.” Pointing both forefingers at the group as he slid backward, Ramsey arched an eyebrow and disappeared into the crowd.

“I’m sure glad I don’t have to do that anymore.” Eve slid so close to Dustin that Jeff wondered how she didn’t just disappear. “This is so much better.”

“Enjoy it,” Bridget, who wasn’t huddled nearly so close to her husband, said. “You get a couple of kids, and you’ll never get to be that close again.”

Craig laughed. “Yeah, it’s family night every night of the week.”

Coiling her neck, Eve looked up at Dustin. “Let’s not ever have kids.”

“Ah,” he said, smiling down at her, “I think making them sounds like fun.”

“Oh, yeah,” she said as a fire lit in her eyes. “Now that does sound like fun.”

“Hey, hey! Hello! What are we going to have to do, hose you two down?” Craig asked.

“Well, considering you’ve got a hot babe sitting right next to you, I don’t think I’d be so concerned with us,” Dustin said, smirking.

“You know,” Craig said as he turned to Bridget. “The man has a point. Do you remember how to dance, Mrs. Hyatt?”

Instantly she smiled. “I thought you’d never ask.” Together they slid from the booth.

“That doesn’t sound like a half-bad idea,” Eve said, tracing a finger around and around on Dustin’s chest.

“Well, then what are we waiting for?” Dustin asked, and they slid out the other way. Just before they stepped from the table, Dustin turned back to the lone table occupant. “Hold our seats.”

Off-handedly Jeff saluted with two fingers. Somehow he wished he had just stayed home to polish his boots.

*~*
“Good grief, Lisa-girl, you’ve really got to get out of that office more.” Bryn, one of the other bridesmaids tipped up the beer in her hand.

“What makes you say that?” Lisa asked, trying not to squirm defensively. Her own bottle of beer sat on the table without so much as a sip taken out of it.

“Look at you.” Chandra frowned. “You look like you just stepped off the cover of Working Women Today.”

“You really should learn to let your hair down a little,” Bryn confirmed.

Lisa’s hand went to the back of the upsweep of hair. “I didn’t have time to change before Haley dragged me out here.”

“Okay, I heard my name,” Haley said, slipping up to the booth. “So, what? Are we going to sit here all night and drink, or did we come to enjoy ourselves a little?” Haley was moving to the beat of the pounding music like she was born in a dance club.

“Well, let’s go dance already!” Bryn said, pushing Haley out in front of her.

Chandra slid out the other way and then stopped. “Lis, aren’t you coming?”

“No, I think I’ll just hold the table,” Lisa said, waving them away.

With a shrug, Chandra followed the other two out into the crowd, swaying with every step she took. As soon as they were gone, Lisa relaxed into the soft plastic of the booth as her finger played with the ice on her beer. Haley. She was here because of Haley. Just remember that. Put a smile on your face, and get through this.

“Hi,” a tall guy in a T-shirt and a baseball cap suddenly said, standing in front of her table. “I saw you sitting over here by yourself. I was wondering if you’d like to dance?”

The relaxation snapped right out of her spine as she sat straight up. “Oh, no. Umm, no thanks. I’m not really into dancing.”

“You sure?” He flashed that false smile she’d seen so many times it sickened her now. “I’d hate for you to just be left over here all by yourself.”

“No,” she said, trying to smile but the effort hurt her face, “maybe later.”

He held out his palms in surrender. “Your loss.” And he moved on through the crowd.

Wishing she could just disappear, Lisa laid her elbow on the seat back behind her and put her fingertips to her forehead. This was pointless. Utterly pointless. The whole idea of bars was to go and meet people and have fun, but she didn’t want to meet anyone and the last thing she had time for was fun.

In frustration, she let her arm fall forward where it immediately met up with a brick mildly resembling an arm. “Oh!” Instantly she sat up as she looked across the booth back at the target she had surprise attacked. “I’m sorry.” Her eyes widened as the guy sitting there yanked his arm away.

“Oh, no. It wasn’t you,” he said with a visible swallow. “It was me. I wasn’t paying attention. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” she said as her senses took in the strong yet quiet features, the black hair clipped neatly over his ears and the gentleness of his blue eyes. She was sure she must be dreaming, and then he smiled, and she knew that in fact she was.

In utter self-defense, she turned back to her table, holding the part of her arm that was now burning from that one single solitary brush with his. She could feel his gaze still on her, and quickly if for no other reason than to quench the fire in her chest, she took a long drink of the ice-cold beer. When she set the bottle down, she wasn’t sure if the headache she suddenly had was from the music or the beer or the fact that her eyes were trying desperately to move to the side of her head to get another look at him.

“Come on, Lisa. Get a hold of yourself,” she breathed. “He’s just like all the rest of them. Snap out of it.”

The girls picked that moment to conga line up to her table with what looked like half the bar following them.

“Come on, Lis!” Haley yelled, dancing and laughing, and pulling her sister out of the booth. “Have some fun!”

*~*

“Look at you, sitting here all alone,” Bridget said as she and Craig followed the conga line back to the table and sat down. The pity in her eyes made Jeff’s head fall of its own accord. Softly Bridget laid a hand on his arm. “We’ve really got to find you someone, Jeffrey. You’re making my heart hurt.”

Sheepishly he scratched the back of his neck. “It’s not so bad.” He laid his arm over the booth back behind her, and his gaze followed it to the now empty table beyond. But he shook the sight of the angel-ghost away from his consciousness. “I’m just glad you guys are having fun.”

“But you’re not having any,” Bridget said, frowning. Then she brightened. “How about you dance with me?”

“D-dance?” Every awkward part of his body stood to attention. “Oh, I don’t think…”

However, she already had his other hand in hers. “That wasn’t a question. You don’t mind, do you, Craig?”

Craig smiled at them as Bridget pulled Jeff out of the booth. “Just bring her back. Okay?”

Every step was torture for Jeff, all the way to the dance floor. There were things in life that he did well—dancing was not one of them. On the floor he tried to find the beat, but it kept moving on him. Side-to-side not really dancing so much as just moving, he swayed. How did all the other guys make this look normal? It felt utterly foreign to every inch of his body.

At that moment he caught sight of Dustin and Eve slow dancing although the beat was more of a jungle rhythm. He couldn’t even dance the way you were supposed to with music like this, and he sure couldn’t pull something like that off. No, for all intents and purposes, he was doomed to forever be the awkward one, to forever be the one that the world overlooked.

But that was okay. He didn’t need the spotlight. One, true love—if he could just find that, the rest of life would be perfect. As he glanced again at Dustin and Eve, that was his one and only wish.

*~*

Lisa’s head was swimming by the time they made it back to the table, and in seconds a waitress appeared with a round of shots.

“Oh, no.” Lisa waved her hands in front of her. “None for me. Thanks.”

“Come on, Lis,” Haley said, laughing and begging at the same time, “just one.”

It wasn’t a good idea. She knew it. “Okay. One.”

The glasses were filled, and Chandra raised hers. “To Cory who dang sure better know how lucky he is to be getting Haley!”

“Here, here.”

In one motion the other three downed their drinks as Lisa looked at hers knowing how awful this was going to be. She squinted into the on-coming drink, counted to three, and nearly choked when the sharp, stinging liquid assaulted her throat.

“More dancing!” Haley announced, jumping to her feet. The other two followed without question, but Lisa slunk back behind the table so they wouldn’t notice her absence. When they were gone, she sat up and coughed again. Peeling her eyes from the back of her eyelids, she shook her head. Work was not going to be fun tomorrow.

“No, no, no,” the arm guy from earlier said, sliding into the other booth as he pushed the other two occupants back out to the floor. “That’s enough for me. You two go. Dance. Have fun.”

Laughing at him, the guy put his arm on the lady’s waist, and they disappeared into the crowd. For one moment Lisa folded the edge of her napkin up and then down, fighting not to look over at him. It was crazy. He was just a guy at a bar. One of thousands, and yet… Without her permission, her gaze chanced across the divide between them, and the jolt from the pools of blue looking back at her sent her diving back to her side.

He was looking at her. That wasn’t good. No, no. That was not good. Her face went hot. Now he was going to think she was looking at him. Well, she was, but not because she wanted to. She really couldn’t help herself. After all, where else are you supposed to look—at the table all night? But still she shouldn’t have been looking. That might be an invitation, and she didn’t want to be sending out any invitations. Not tonight. Not ever.

Slowly, carefully she wound the strand of hair sliding down her face over her ear. One more furtive glance over the divide between them. This time she was thankful to find only his silhouette. Good. At least he wasn’t going to think she was trying to make eye contact or something. Casually she sat up, nodding to herself as she closed her eyes. Her brain coached itself on what to do and what not to do. However, when she opened her eyes, the fact that his arm was again only a foot from her jumped into her consciousness.

Nervously half of her gaze followed the sculptured forearm up past the black sleeve that covered everything from his elbow up to his shoulder. She shut her eyes, trying to block him out, but the second she opened them he was back. However, this time the blue pools were back too. Her gaze locked with his, and she knew he knew she was looking. Quickly she smiled as she wound the errant hair around her ear.

“Nice music,” she said.

“Yeah.” His smile was better than she had remembered.

She wanted to say something else, but her brain was scrambled by the proximity of his arm and the disarming way his gaze fell to the table as if her eyes were too intense to hold on. “You come here a lot?” she asked, wholly reprimanding herself for pursuing when she should be thankful he wasn’t.

“No, not really.” He shook his head and shifted a little, and this time his smile was less sure. “We’re celebrating.”

“Oh, really? Us too.” With her tone she tried to coax his full gaze back to her although she was only mildly successful. “My little sister’s getting married next weekend.”

“Oh.” This smile was stronger. “Lucky her.”

“Yeah, lucky me too.” Lisa shook her head and wrinkled her nose. “Bachelorette party. Woohoo.”

This time he laughed outright. “Sounds terrible.”

“Well, as long as they don’t drag me out there, it’s not so bad.”

He nodded. “I hear you there.”

For a moment she sat, gathering her scattering sanity and trying to get her gaze not to notice the gold cross shining atop the solid black shirt at his neck. “So, what’re you celebrating?”

However, at that moment her attention snapped to the other edge of his table where two of his friends slid into the booth with him without pretense.

“Man, it’s hot out there!” the girl with the nearly-black, wavy hair said, fanning herself with her hand as Lisa self-consciously slunk back into her own world.

“Yeah. I’m sure it’s the dance floor,” elbow guy said with a laugh as he retreated back to his own table.

“Hey, how would you know?” the guy in the skin-hugging, brown-gold pullover shirt asked. “It’s not like you can tell from way over here.” He took a drink. “Man, have you seen Ramsey? That guy’s insane. He’s got like a whole bachelorette party dancing with him.”

Lisa’s ears tried to peel themselves from the conversation as she slid farther down into the booth.

“Yeah, well, dancing isn’t everything,” elbow guy said as he laid his forearm on the booth back, causing the remaining sanity in Lisa’s head to disperse.

Lunacy. It was the far side of it; however, the alcohol or something had a hold of her because Lisa’s brain took a nice little journey to the middle of that hot dance floor with her in his arms, swaying in time with only one another. A low growl of disgust with herself crawled into her gut. Where was her willpower? He was a guy after all. A guy. And that meant only one thing—trouble.

“Lisa-girl! What are you doing sitting over here all by yourself?” Haley asked as she, Bryn, Chandra, and a tall, well-built black man danced up to the table. He had his arms around each of the two girls.

“We found ourselves a fireman!” Bryn said loud enough for the whole bar to hear.

“Hey,” the man said with a glance to the table next to them, “well, look what we have here!”

Not one part of Lisa liked the sound of that statement.

“Man, you ladies must have some seriously good compass directions going for you. These are the friends I was telling you about!”

Occupants from both tables looked across in surprise.

“Ramsey, what did you do?” pullover guy asked as though he was reprimanding a two-year-old.

“Two,” Ramsey mouthed over the top of the girls’ heads as he nodded and smiled.

The darkness under the table was looking very inviting to Lisa at that moment.

Pullover guy waved them over. “Well, what are you standing over there for? Come, join us.”

“What do you say, ladies? Join us?” Ramsey’s clothesline of a grip around Bryn and Chandra made arguing pointless as he led them over to the other table.

Instantly Haley stood to follow them. “Come on, Lis.”

Lisa closed her eyes and exhaled. There was no way this was going to turn out well.

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Ebook Romance Stories: To Protect & Serve, Review

To Protect & Serve

Book 1

~ The Courage Series ~

Reviewed by:  Cindy, Amazon Reviewer

Owner of her own successful company, self sufficient, no emotional ties, Lisa’s life is safe. She’s worked hard to get here and that’s the way she wants it.
Jeff’s life has been all about fulfilling his destiny by becoming a firefighter. He’s met his goal, found good friends and is now settling into his new job. He’s worked hard to get here and this is the way he wants it.

To Protect and Serve is Lisa’s story. Afraid to put her emotions on the line or risk her heart being broken, she pours herself into her fledgling advertising company only to find that her life still lacks meaning and purpose. The more control she gains over her life and work, the more stressful things become for her. Shouldn’t it work the other way around?

To Protect and Serve is also the story of Jeff. Allowing the past to make demands on his future, Jeff searches to fill the void in his heart by becoming a firefighter. Putting his life at risk to save others is an everyday occurrence. He is good at what he does and feels a sense of accomplishment in it. Why then, does the emptiness inside him only seem to grow, gripping his mind in a search to fill it with something as yet unknown?
What happens when these two lives heading entirely different directions collide one night, sending their motivations and ambitions hurtling into places they have never dared to venture before now? Can Lisa allow her heart to run free long enough to see where it takes her? Will Jeff let his job succeed in extinguishing the spark that threatens to catch his emotions on fire? Can they find faith along the way?

As you have come to expect from Staci Stallings, emotions run rampant through her characters, expertly captured into the written word. To Protect and Serve will hold you prisoner to its pages until the final one is turned. Prepare to cry, laugh, wish, love and maybe even cry again as you become enveloped in the hopes and feelings of Lisa and Jeff. You will find yourself encouraging them along the pathways of their lives, nudging them to find the right direction, perhaps daring them to chase the dreams long hidden in their hearts.

Staci Stallings has woven reality into fiction in a powerful way. To Protect and Serve truly honors those who protect and serve us every day. You will definitely enjoy this behind the scenes glimpse of the sacrifices they make to keep us safe.

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Welcome, Readers… Your Search for Great Books Has Ended!

With the advent of ebook readers, reading has become more fun than ever!

But with the avalanche of fiction novels hitting the market every single day, how do you decide what to read and what to pass on? How can you find great books that take your breath away?

It’s tough, we know, but here at Ebook Romance Stories, we want to help you find great Christian and inspirational fiction novels that you will want to read again and again and again.

In fact, here’s what one of our readers said,

“I fell in love with this story, so much so, that I read the novel again the next day. I hated to say goodbye to these characters.”

That’s what we think you should say about every book you choose to read too!

We’re not talking about just good books.  We’re talking great books!

The problem is, how do you find those kinds of great books–the kind you want to read again and again?  Searching through Amazon and Barnes & Noble can be tedious and time-consuming.  So we want to take the guesswork out of the equation and introduce you to a Christian author you are going to fall in love with…

Best Selling Christian Romance Author

Staci Stallings

However, instead of us telling you about the great books you can find on this site, we’ll let actual readers tell you what they think of these awesome fiction novels:

  • “I was just going to start this story when going to bed and finish reading the next day…I was hooked.”
  • “I started reading the first two chapters on the author’s site….and got hooked for a variety of different reasons.”
  • “I had problems getting anything else done while reading this book.”
  • “This book makes you realize how many things in life keep us from being where we should be.”
  • “Full of truths and illustrations of God’s grace…”
  • “The ending of this wonderful novel actually made me cry, in a good way. It was a beautiful ending to a most beautifully written love story.”

So if you’re looking for quality novels, you’ve definitely come to the right place.

Feel free to browse the fiction novels available.

Read The Stories

Peruse an Excerpt or two

Even read the first Chapter of every fiction novel on the site.

You can’t go wrong choosing a Staci Stallings book from Ebook Romance Stories!

There truly are great books galore all over this site, so enjoy!

Peace and blessings to you…

And have a fabulous time reading and being inspired!

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

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

The Faith Series, Book 2

by:  Staci Stallings

Chapter 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…for man looks at outward appearances…”

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What? Is that so hard to believe?”

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

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

“Hey, I’m not saying you shouldn’t…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bethany smacked his arm. “Ha. Ha.”

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

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

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

“Have I ever minded before?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, right back at you, babe.”

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

by:  Staci Stallings

~*~*~

Sometimes faith is simply learning to see

What is right before your eyes.

 

~*~*~


 

Chapter 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I think I’ll just enjoy today.”

“I think that’s wise.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you put anything on it?”

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

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

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

“What’s that?”

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

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

“Does it still burn?”

“It hurts.”

“No, burn.  Is it still hot?”

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

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

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

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

“Better?”

“Much.”

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

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

“Advil?”

“Anything.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Price of Silence Final cover 1-18-2014

The Price of Silence

by:  Staci Stallings

~*~

To all those who taught me that

Standing up for right is always

Worth it and that courage

Is choosing to do the right thing in the moment

—rather than a lack of fear.

Thank you.

~*~

Chapter 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Something like that,” Mr. Tucker agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You could say that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, for two years.”

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

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

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

“We?” she asked, puzzled.

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

“But I thought you taught English.”

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

Robyn nodded.

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

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

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

“Thanks. I’ll think about it.”

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

“Hey, Mom!” she said, smiling.

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

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

“What’s for supper?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Trig.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, there’s always tomorrow.”

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

This was life, and it stunk.

Chapter 2

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

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

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

A groan emanated from every student behind her.

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

More groans.

“You have 45 minutes.”

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, let me know.”

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

“See ya.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

*~*~*

“Isn’t the city wonderful?”

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

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

“So, what’s for supper, sweetheart?”

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

“They smell fabulous.”

“You’re in a good mood.”

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

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

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

“Matt Carson…?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m so happy you’re doing so well.”

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

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

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