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Flight 259, Chapter 1

Flight 259Chapter 1

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

“No!”

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

***

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

“I know, but I need to catch it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s all right,” Jenna said.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

“No.”

“Do you want to read a storybook?”

“No. G’a’ma!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, I can’t.”

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

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

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

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

“What does that mean?”

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

“But what am I supposed to do?”

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The squirming between them brought them both back to reality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, we’ve been on since Boise.”

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

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

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

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

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

Available June 28 in the “Whispers of Love” Collection

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When I’m Weak, Excerpt

When I'm Weak 4-20-2016

 

When I’m Weak

The Grace Series, Book Two

Excerpt

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

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

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

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

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

One dance. Was he out of his mind?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When I'm Weak 4-20-2016

When I’m Weak, Chapter 1

When I’m WeakWhen I'm Weak 4-20-2016

The Grace Series, Book Two

Chapter 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fine. Ten, but don’t be late.”

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

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

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

“All right. Have a safe flight.”

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How about a steak?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She perused the menu. “What sounds good?”

“I told you. Steak.”

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Derek took one look at it and grimaced.

“Bad?” she asked, gauging his reaction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And I like this close up.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ha. Ha.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

“Let’s see here.”

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

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

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

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

“We hope you enjoy your stay with us.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll be waiting.”

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

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

 

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

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

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When I'm Weak 4-20-2016
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Mirror Mirror, Excerpt

Mirror Mirror Large coverMirror Mirror

Excerpt

As much as he hated washing dishes, Luke was having an immense amount of fun watching her walk in and out. He began to notice that each time she came back, she would say something to him. “Don’t quit your day job.” “I feel like Santa.” “I hope you don’t blame me for this.”

Each time he retorted the comment, but each one brushed across his heart like the gentle wing of an angel. By the time she brought the final items from the line, he was sad to see her reason for coming back here go.

“That’s it,” she said after stacking the last two empty bowls that had been full of cheese at the very end.

“You sure? I haven’t seen the water cooler or tea thing.”

She snapped her fingers. “Tea thing. Right. I’ll be back.”

He could hardly hold the laugh as he watched her go through the other door. In seconds she was back, hefting the tea dispenser.

“Ask and it shall be given,” he said, shaking his head. Just then he realized she was going to have the thing all over the floor if she tried to get it up onto that counter by herself. “Oh, here.” And with no more than that, he was next to her, picking the thing up and setting it gently down.

“Whew. Manual labor.” She swiped off her hands and wiped them on the backs of her jeans. “Not my forte.”

“You need help with the water?” When he stepped back, how close she was washed over him.

“I think I can get it, but don’t go too far.” With a wink, she headed back out, and Luke froze solid to the spot.

“Luke, these dishes are not doing themselves,” Ms. P said, bustling about as she stacked more pans on the other side of the counter.

He shook his head to clear it of the intoxication and went back to work. “I’m on it.”

 

Sage couldn’t explain it, but it was very much like remembering what sunshine felt like. Never would she have thought she would feel that way immersed in dirty pots and pans, but every time she went into that kitchen, her spirit said it was filled with warmth and safety. Maybe the first real safety she had felt since landing here three weeks before.

“Finally. That’s the last of it,” she said, setting the water dispenser up on the counter. This one was almost empty so it wasn’t the impossible task the tea one had proven to be. Stepping back, she put her hands on her hips. “Wow.”

“Yeah. Wow,” Luke said from the sink, looking over the pile. “So, you just going to bring them all in here and then leave me with all the hard work?”

“Hey, I brought them. You should be grateful.”

“Oh, I am. I am. Grateful is my middle name.”

“Luke. Grateful.” She came over to his side, leaned her elbows on the sink next to him and looked up at him playfully. “I-don’t-know-your-last-name. Yep. That has a lovely ring to it, don’t you think?”

His gaze fell to hers, and he shook his head. “Hey there, Ms. Sarcastic, you know how to use a dish towel?”

Her eyebrows came up. “Do I look like I know how to use a dish towel?”

“No.” He tried not to smile, but he did anyway. “But maybe it’s time you learned.” Jerking his chin up, he indicated the other side of the counter. “They’re over there in that top drawer.”

Waiting one more second, Sage picked herself up. “I said I don’t know how to use one.”

He shook his head again. “Just get a towel and start drying, Ms. Hollywood.”

From anyone else, she probably would have taken the moniker as an insult. Somehow, from him, it didn’t sound like one. She got one of the towels, trying not to notice all the holes in it. Back at his side, she picked up one small pan from the top of the new stack he was creating in the draining sink. Running it back and forth to dry the pan, she let out a breath. Strange how a month ago she never would have pictured herself doing such a thing.

“At least we didn’t have spaghetti today,” he said, leaning over just enough to bump her shoulder.

“Ugh. Don’t remind me.” She set that pan down to the side and grabbed up another one before leaning toward him. “I’m surprised Ms. P even let me in the kitchen today.”

“You and me both.” He smiled down at her, and Sage had that feeling of knowing she was safe again.

“I’m not exactly a kitchen kind of person,” she said, not looking up at him.

“Nah. You totally could have fooled me.”

“Really,” and her tone dropped into serious. “All of this is just so… surreal to me. The people. This.” She held up a pan and then set it down. “It’s so not…”

“You?” he asked gently. “I’d have never guessed.”

With a shrug she pulled up another pan. “The weirdest thing is how nice it is to be here. Today. At least I’m not staring at my walls, wishing I could be somewhere else.”

“You don’t want to be somewhere else?” He sounded actually concerned as if her feelings mattered one way or the other to him.

“Well, this is definitely better than the alternative. Believe me, I have a new appreciation for the torture of solitary confinement.”

“That bad, huh?”

She retrieved another pan as he replenished her stack. “I’m telling you, I thought I was going to lose my mind when I didn’t have my cell phone last week. At least I finally got that back.”

“Yeah. They can be pretty strict.”

“Tell me about it.” She put that pan down and got another, rotating her towel to try to find a not-wet place. “I guess you know all about that though, huh?”

“Me?” He turned surprised eyes down on her.

However, Sage just shrugged. “Yeah, you and Jayc. I mean, with you guys dating and everything.”

 

She said it so matter-of-factly that Luke felt like he’d been hit in the chest with a double-barrel shotgun blast.

“Oh, uh.” He reached up and scratched the back of his head, not realizing he’d managed to transfer suds there. “We’re not dating. We’re just friends.”

“Friends.” Sage laughed. “Yeah. Right.”

Defensively and trying to figure out what that laugh meant, he plunged his hands back in the soapy water. “Really. We’re just friends.” Before she could question it or laugh at him again, Luke plowed forward. “Good friends. The best. But we’re totally not dating.”

“Huh.” She made the sound and nodded with a scowl on her face as she dried a bowl. “But you want to… date her, right?”

If Luke had had any air in his system, he would have yelled Fire to get out of this conversation. “Uh. No. I…”

“Oh, come on. Seriously? Now, no lying over dishes.” Her gaze came up to his face, and he hated that he couldn’t think of a way to get away from her.

Lifting his eyebrows, he let his gaze slide over her face. “No lying over dishes? That’s a new one.”

“No, now, come on. No changing the subject on me. You like Jaycee.”

This was not a conversation he wanted to be in. Suddenly her word from before, surreal pounded through his mind. “As a friend, yes. I like Jaycee.”

Sage shook her head, looking imminently more comfortable than she had 20 minutes before, which did nothing for his nerves. “But you go out?”

“Not like that. Not like you mean. Not like dating.” He shrugged and reached up to push his sleeves up, realizing only after he did so that he had only succeeded in getting them wet. “We go out. We hang out sometimes, but we’re not dating.”

Something approaching sadness brushed her face. “But I see how you look at her.”

That backed Luke up. “Oh, yeah? How do I look at her?” The second the question was out of his mouth, he deeply regretted asking it.

However, instead of getting sarcastic or mischievous, she grew pensive. “Like she’s holding your whole world in her hands, like you would do anything to be with her, like you love her.”

The shotgun blast was beginning to sound merciful. He let his gaze fall to the dish water that was getting greasy instead of soapy.

“I’m right,” Sage said softly. “Aren’t I? You’re in love with Jaycee.”

“I’m going to have to switch out this water,” he said, reaching for the plug. He pulled his sleeve up to his face and rubbed it there, sensing moisture there. No way was he going to ask what was causing it to be there.

Sage continued to dry the pans, and remarkably there were now more on her side than on his. “So why don’t you ask her out?”

His heart was really starting to hurt, and the shake of his head did nothing to stop the pain. “She’s not…” He shrugged and washed the last of the old water down the drain before starting the faucet and filling the sink with new hot water. “It’s not… She’s not into me like that.” This shrug was only mildly easier. “I’ve accepted it.”

Now Sage had grown completely quiet as she continued drying, and Luke wanted to ask what she wasn’t saying. “Well, for what it’s worth, I think she’s missing something… someone pretty cool.”

It was the first chance he’d had to laugh, and Luke took it. “Cool? Me? I’m here washing dishes on a Saturday afternoon.”

She tilted her head and looked up at him. “And that’s a bad thing?”

“Well, it’s not cool, that’s for sure.”

A second and she half-nodded. “Maybe not to everyone.”

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“I fell in love with Sage. My heart went out to her, and I could so relate to how she felt. It’s no fun trying to be someone you’re not even when you don’t know that’s what you are doing.”

 

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The Long Way Home, Excerpt

The Long Way Home

by:  Staci Stallings

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

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

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

“Ami?” Jaxton called from the stairs.

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

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

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

“Well, I found the last wall.”

“Cool. So, what’s the bad news?”

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

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

“Come see.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

She shook her head vehemently. Once and then harder.

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

“But,” she started to protest.

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

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

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

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

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

“And you do?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So we’ll just call it payback.”

“For what?”

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

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

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Ebook Romance Stories: The Easy Way Out, Excerpt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His forehead knotted. “Harmony?”

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

“The weak link?”

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

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

“They’re throwing the bouquet.”

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

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

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Ebook Romance Stories: The Easy Way Out, Chapter 1

The Easy Way Out final 1-21-2014

The Easy Way Out

Book 2

~ The Friendship Series ~

Chapter 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Harmony.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh?” His forehead furrowed in concern.

Quickly she shook her head. “Never mind.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And out of trouble?” Drew asked.

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

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

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

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

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

*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You did good.”

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

*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His forehead knotted. “Harmony?”

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

“The weak link?”

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

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

“They’re throwing the bouquet.”

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

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

Together they stepped onto the concrete steps of the hall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carefully, the two of them knelt facing each other.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not for me.”

“Why not?”

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

“Permanent enough?”

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

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

“Doesn’t exist.”

“How do you know that?”

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

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

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

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

Aaron shrugged. “The more the merrier.”

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

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

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

“Yeah, I only had a little.”

She squinted at him carefully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ugh. Sorry,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I trust you,” Aaron said.

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

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

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

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

“I will.”

They all stood in a long, uneasy silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She shrugged. “It’s a free country.”

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

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

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

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

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