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First Chapter: Whisper If You Have To

Whisper cover FINAL 7-28-2014Chapter 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 ***

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

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

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

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

 ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

 ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lifting his chin, Chad nodded in understanding.

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

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

“Not my parents that’s for sure.”

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

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

Waves of excitement preceded their approach.

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

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

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

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

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

“Chad!”

“Kyle!”

“Hey!”

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

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

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

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

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

 ***

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

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

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

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

 ***

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

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

“You know it.”

Together they started down the hall.

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

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

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

“As little as possible.”

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

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

 ***

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

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

Several students groaned.

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

The moans turned to laughs.

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

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

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

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

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

 ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 ***

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

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

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

 ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.”

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Ebook Romance Stories: For Real, First Chapter

For Real

~ The Courage Series ~

Book 3

Chapter One

Two months, eight days, nineteen hours, and a handful of minutes—that’s how long it had been since Melody Todd’s heart had forever given up hope of being anyone’s someone.  It wasn’t that she wanted to give up hope, but she hadn’t exactly had a choice.  When Miss Perfection walks in the door, how could anyone else have any kind of chance?

Annoyed with life in general, she flipped her long, course blonde hair over her shoulder as she bent next to the rack of shoelaces that had been dismantled piece-by-piece throughout the day.  With an audible sigh, she picked up three plastic holders and replaced them on the rack.  Midnight Madness sales were bad enough, but holding one on Leap Year Day somehow seemed unconscionable.  True if she was at home, she would only be studying, but even that seemed like a step up from Galaxy Shoes on a sale day.

The test in biology she had yet to study for crossed her mind as the last set of shoelaces found its home.  As she stepped away from the rack, her gaze chanced across her watch. Once again she sighed.  Eight o’clock already and not only had she not studied like she’d promised herself she would, she hadn’t even eaten since before noon.  Why she agreed to work these ridiculous hours she couldn’t quite remember at the moment.  It had something to do with making enough to afford tuition because the scholarship she’d needed hadn’t come through.  Yeah, it was something like that, she thought as she straightened the rack of backpacks.

“Melody,” Nathan, the night manager, said in the whiny voice that raked across her brain like a jagged fingernail.

“What?” she asked, drawing the syllable out into two.

“Look, I admire your forward thinking in getting this picked up, but not at the expense of letting a customer walk out the door.”  He pointed across three rows of shelves to an expanse of light green stretched across two nicely rounded shoulders.  “Unless you want me to make this commission.”

Melody shot him a shut-up look and turned to stride down the aisle.  “I’ve got it.”  With purposeful steps she rounded her way into the aisle where the customer was even as she made sure that Farin was safely up front ringing up another customer.  Yes, she had this one all to herself.  Now if only she could make the sale.  “May I help you?”

It wasn’t until he turned around that she realized he wasn’t examining his own shoes but those of the small boy at his feet.  “We’re fine,” the man said quickly.  “We’re just looking.”

“Oh,” Melody said, wishing she was better at high-pressured sales tactics. “I was just…” At that moment her brain caught up with her gaze and throttled her to a head-jerking stop.  “Blaine?”

With a start the young man, dressed in smart charcoal pants and a light green dress shirt set off with a green and blue necktie, stopped his assessment of the little boy’s shoes and turned to her.  “Melody?”

High-pressured sales tactics flew right out of her head.  “Hey,” she said brightly, and without thinking, she reached over to give him a hug. “It’s been awhile.”

“Yeah, it has.” He accepted the sideways hug with a smile.  “What’ve you been up to?”

“Oh, you know, selling shoes—or trying to.”  She shrugged and smiled at him as her thoughts turned to her own disheveled appearance.  Coolly her hand went up and flipped a shock of hair back over her shoulder.

He glanced down to assess the child’s progress. “I didn’t know you worked here.”

“About three years now.”  Her brain snapped back into sales mode.  “So if there’s anything I can help you with…”

With a slightly embarrassed gaze, he glanced down again at the child standing at his feet.  “We were just looking for a good deal on some school shoes.”

“School shoes,” Melody said with a nod and a smile to the small brown-toned face staring up at her.  She carefully bent down to the little boy.  “You got anything special in mind?”

The boy cowered into Blaine’s pant leg.

“We were thinking about these,” Blaine said as he picked up the box, “but they’re a little steep.”

Melody glanced at the box in his hand, trying not to notice the chocolate brown of his eyes.  “Hmm.  Yeah, those are good—all leather uppers, but if you just want some good, basic tennis shoes, we’ve got these over here.”  She stood, looked over the selection to her right, reached out for one, and stopped.  “What size does he wear?”

“Umm, well, he was in a four last we checked, but…”

“So we need to figure out a size, then we’ll worry about a style.”  With the precision of a hundred thousand times of practice, she whipped the size plate off the top of the shelves.  “Here we go.”  She bent back down and then decided even that was too uncomfortable so she twisted her feet under her and sat down.  “Can you put your foot right here?”

The little boy stared at her skeptically.  Putting a strong hand on his shoulder, Blaine led him around his leg.  “Come on, Dylan.  It’s okay.”  With just more than a little coaxing, Blaine got the boy’s foot onto the apparatus.

Quickly Melody measured the small foot.  “I think a four-and-a-half would work.”  She turned back for the shoe shelves.  Two swipes and she had three boxes in her hands.  “Let’s start with these.”  As she bent to the floor, she swung her hair over her shoulder.  “So, Dylan, how’s school?”

“Fine,” the little voice answered as Blaine helped him slide up on the bench seat.

“What grade are you in—first?”

“Second,” he answered softly.

In no time Melody had the shoe laced.  Her hands worked to put a shoe on the little foot even as her mind worked through a million questions that had nothing to do with school.  One date and one… well, she had never been real sure what that was, but it was definitely something you wouldn’t have gone on if you had a wife and child at home. Furtively she checked Blaine’s ring finger, left hand.  No ring, but then that didn’t always mean anything.  “Second grade.  Are you getting really smart in second grade?”

“I know how to spell knuckle,” the little boy offered.

“Oh, yeah?  How?” she challenged.

“K-N-U-C-K-L-E,” he said slowly as she worked a shoe onto his other foot.

“Wow.  That’s really good.  I couldn’t spell that until at least third grade.”  She caught the smile he beamed up at Blaine and didn’t miss the sweet, kind, brown eyes that beamed one right back.  Carefully she leaned back.  “These are four-and-a-halves, but they might not have enough growing room in them.  See what you think.”

Smoothly Blaine dropped to one knee and felt the toe of the shoe.  “How do they feel?”

“Good,” the little boy answered with a hesitant nod.

“How about you walk around in them a little?” Melody suggested.

Slowly the little frame slid off the bench and took three uncertain steps away and then came back.  Blaine watched him closely as Melody fought to keep her concentration on the little boy and away from the young man observing him.  Dylan slid in between Blaine’s knees as Blaine put a hand under his arm. “What do you think?”

The two little shoulders reached for the ceiling.

“We could try a half size bigger,” Melody said when Blaine’s silence dragged on a little too long.

“We probably ought to.”

She swung back into professional mode, and in no time Dylan was walking in the larger shoes.

“What do you think?” Blaine asked to no one in particular.  Concentrating on his feet, Dylan nodded.  When he made it back to them, Melody reached down and tested the toe.

“You’ll probably want the bigger ones,” she said.  “Otherwise you’ll have to be in here again in a month when he grows.”  As soon as she said it, she wished she had given the opposite advice.  However, it was too late to take it back because Blaine nodded.

“Then we’ll take them,” he said decisively but wavered in the next second.  “Oh, how much are they?”

“$30, but tonight it’s half off,” Melody said as she stowed the unwanted shoes back in the other box.

“Can’t beat a deal like that,” Blaine said.  He started to take the shoes off but stopped.  “Can he wear them out?”

She shrugged.  “Sure.”  Quickly she replaced the other shoes as well, but she noticed the rag-tag pair of shoes Blaine picked up from the floor.  It didn’t take much to see how fast he threw them into the new box and closed it.  When he glanced at her, she saw the embarrassment scrawl across his face, but she smiled it away.  “You need anything else?  A backpack?  Shoelaces?”

His smile stretched tighter than the grimace had.  “Nope, I think this will get it.”

Nathan would probably give her a demerit for not getting them to buy something else, but at the moment she didn’t care about anything other than the two people walking with her to the checkout.  She wanted to say something to fill the silence between them, but she could think of nothing.  She was glad to see that Farin was nowhere in sight.

“I saw Eve the other day,” Blaine finally said as they reached the front.

Melody’s heart collapsed around the name, but she willed her voice not to register that fact. “Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah, she and A.J. are getting a house out in Rolling Hills.”

“Oh, really?” Hurt, unseen to that moment, flooded through Melody’s chest.  “I hadn’t heard that.  Cool.”  Fighting to take her mind off of the conversation’s track, she busied herself with the register.  “That’ll be $16.85.”

He handed her a twenty and waited for the change.  She didn’t want to look at him.  There were too many things she didn’t want him to see.  Quickly she exchanged the money, handed it to him, and slid the receipt into the bag. She folded the plastic handles and handed the bag over the counter. “Your receipt’s in the bag.”

For one solid second after the bag was in his hands, Blaine didn’t move.  He had such a nice face, conventional and yet striking. “I guess I’ll see you later then?”

“Yeah, later,” she said with a quick nod as she pushed her hair over her ear.

One more awkward pause and Blaine reached down for Dylan’s hand. “Well, ’bye.”

She mumbled something—presumably good-bye but for all she could tell it could’ve been ‘how could you do this to me?’  Granted, he hadn’t really done anything more egregious than innocently end up on the semi-same date with her, but still.  Just the thought of his poor car, the stench of vomit and the sound of her moans filling it, threatened to make her sick all over again.  That hadn’t been her fault of course.  The name A.J. streaked through her mind as the memory rewound a bit more, and she threw a box that had fallen on the floor under the counter a little harder than she really had to.

A.J.

A.J. and little Miss Perfection.  Heat rose in her at the very thought of them.  Now they were buying a house together.  Thrilling.  She was absolutely thrilled for them.  She kicked another box under the counter.  Of all the bad dates she had ever been on, and there had been many, that day at AstroWorld had been the very worst.  There had been a time when she had kept up with A.J. feat for feat, but apparently that time had passed.

It was Greased Lightnin’s 360-loop that ultimately got her, and in that second she had lost every shred of dignity she had managed to muster in the past 25 years. Of course Blaine, or more precisely, Blaine’s car had been the unfortunate recipient of the fall-out from that bad decision.  And while Blaine was making an emergency trip to get her home, Miss Perfect had made her move on A.J.  Things had never been the same since.

Even as the thoughts continued, Melody yanked two boxes up from the floor next to the women’s shelves. Her heart dove for the floor at the mere thought of A.J., her best friend in the whole world. Now he was gone, making a life for himself with her. Her. Eve What’s Her Name. So, now they had a house.  So, what?  They were married. Right?  A.J. and Miss Perfect Wonderful, Fantastic Eve were married. And now they were living happily ever after just like the storybook said they would.

Swiping her cheek with one hand and slamming another box onto the shelf with the other, Melody tried to stow the lump in her throat as easily.  There had been a time in what seemed a different lifetime that she would’ve been the first one A.J. would’ve called with news like this.  But now… Now she had to hear it from some semi-acquaintance who only knew her because she’d used him to make A.J. jealous.  She snorted softly. “Well, that worked.”

With a swift kick she corralled two more boxes to the shelves.  “It’s over, Mel.  It’s over.  Get over it, and move on already. Just get that through your thick skull, and we’ll all be better off.”  Unfortunately her head wasn’t the only part of her not getting the message.

*~*

Blaine Donovan checked the plate glass window once more from the safety of the darkened parking lot.  She was busy—working.  She wasn’t watching him.  That was a good thing, he told himself as he hustled Dylan into the beat up, green Toyota.  At least that way she wouldn’t notice his current mode of transportation.  Not that it made any difference to him if she wondered, he reasoned as he yanked twice to get the door opened and then jumped into the driver’s side, grabbed his glasses off the dashboard, and prayed that Lillian would start just one more time.  “Just get me out of here, Baby,” he pleaded as he pumped the accelerator before cranking the starter.  If only she would get him safely into the middle of an intersection before she decided to die for good, at least he could handle that.

Still pumping the gas, he prodded the little car out of the lot as his gaze found the rearview mirror, and he just had to smile with the sigh.  Melody. She was still as nice as he remembered.  Sweet and unassuming.  Fun even—as long as she wasn’t throwing up in your best friend’s car.  A genuine laugh escaped at that thought, and he squeezed his eyes closed at the memory.

It had cost almost a hundred bucks that he didn’t have to get that car back to good enough so that Peyton hadn’t noticed.  Not that Peyton noticed much of anything when it came to stuff he owned—especially cars.  Blaine had lost count of the number of cars Peyton had wrecked since their senior year in high school.  First it was a Mazda, cute little metallic number that probably set Peyton’s dad back more than ten grand or three.  Then there was the red Firebird. That one only lasted a month or so.  Then only six months before E-Day as Blaine had affectionately begun remembering it, Peyton got the gold Porsche Carrera GT.  Cool.  It was the coolest car Blaine had ever seen with the leather seats and the computerized everything.

Blaine still remembered pulling up to Eve’s apartment in that car.  He had felt like a million and one bucks in it. And walking her out to get in that car…  Man, it was the greatest moment of his life.  What happened next he still wasn’t real clear about—except that by the time he left the amusement park, he was coming to the rescue of a very sick Melody who couldn’t walk two steps without him holding her up, and Eve was permanently in the arms of someone he’d never even heard of prior to that day.

The ride home was when the little Carrera had been baptized.  He shook his head at the memory.  Melody had apologized until she could hardly keep her head up.  He still remembered her leaning against the bucket seat nearly lying in the trunk for how far back he had laid it. Without a doubt at that moment she was the sickest human being he had ever seen.

How much of that ride she remembered he had no idea.  Most of it she spent moaning and barely holding the green in her face from coming up again.  Thankfully when he dropped her off, no one had been at her house because explaining her state and why she was coming home with a guy she didn’t even know might not have been pleasant.  He had spent the next four hours trying to make the car semi-presentable again, and it was well after midnight when he had dropped it off at Peyton’s, grabbed Lillian and headed back across town to the little dump he called home.

A rock descended to his chest when he thought about the place he still reluctantly called home. His gaze traveled from the traffic outside the window to the child in the seat next to him.  Asleep already.  Poor little guy.  Blaine checked his watched with a short sigh.  9:34.  Dylan should’ve been in bed an hour ago.  He didn’t need to be out shopping.  He needed to be at home in his bed getting a good night’s sleep for school tomorrow.

Blaine shook his head without shaking it and refocused on the road.  It couldn’t be helped.  He didn’t get out of class until 8:00, and there was simply no time between work and class.  He shoved his cramped schedule away from his consciousness.  It was depressing, but only if he thought about it.

Allowing whatever less depressing thought that wanted to take over in, he drifted back to Melody and the panic that had set in the night she had called him a few weeks later.  Had it been him who had thrown up in her car, he would never have made that call.  No way. No how.  They should’ve given her a courage award for that one.  It still surprised him that they had ended up with A.J., Eve and the gang on that date too. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t quite get all of the pieces of that puzzle to line up in his head.

Eve was as nice as she had always been to him, and the others were pleasant enough although he really didn’t know them well enough to know if that’s how they always were or if there was something else going on.  It was only A.J. who hadn’t seemed all that happy about Blaine’s presence.  Okay, at the amusement park, Blaine could understand the animosity now.  Eve had apologized about it the next Monday.  But how long could a guy hold a grudge against an innocent bystander? Apparently, with A.J., a long time.

No, it was plenty clear that A.J. Knight had a chip on his shoulder, and Blaine had dealt with enough chips in his time to know you can either knock them off or steer clear.  He was sincerely glad that steering clear was the easiest fork in that road. As he turned into the little driveway, he prayed that the light blue flashes of light through the open front window meant his mother had already passed out on the couch.

*~*

The blinding light of the refrigerator stung Melody’s overtired eyes.  Biology was going to kill her.  She rummaged past the mayonnaise and milk and grabbed a yogurt from the back.  What she really wanted was chips, but she had sworn on Monday that she was going to start sticking to her diet.  Never on the slim side, her freshman 15 had turned into the sophomore 40.  That fact wasn’t lost on her consciousness. However, as she filled her glass with stale-tasting water, sympathy for her situation invaded her body, and she grabbed the chips anyway.

She needed something.  Something to make it through this night—if not this whole crummy semester.  First there was Biology that she hated.  She had thought the principles of marketing class would be fun until she figured out on the third class that all the teacher did was talk about guns and deer.  And then there was math.  How they had talked her into taking math and biology at the same time, she would never know.

In her room, she threw the bag of chips onto the bed with a crunch, grabbed her book off the desk and replaced it with the yogurt.  With a flop she fell onto the bed and reached for a chip.  “The five parts of the circulatory system are…”

*~*

He was missing something, Blaine thought as he scanned back across the textbook page. His fingers rested on his head, his thumb holding up the edge of his glasses that he only wore for reading and close-up work.  Drafting 202.  He should’ve known this stuff forward and backward by now, and yet somehow this point was eluding him.  It just couldn’t be this hard.  Slowly word-by-word he reread the section that he should’ve already had memorized.  Still what it said was exactly what he was doing, and it wasn’t working.  In frustration he stood from the little kitchen table and strode over to the refrigerator.  One hand slid down to keep his tie in place as he opened the door and scanned the contents.  He pulled out a Coke and then looked down at his attire and sighed.  Nearly three o’clock in the morning and he was still in the same clothes he’d put on at seven the morning before.

Somehow, some way he was going to have to get a little sleep.  He couldn’t keep up with this schedule much longer.  He popped the Coke open and took a sip.  But what were his options?  Cut down on work?  They’d all starve.  Not go to school?  No, that wasn’t an option he would even consider.  He had worked too hard to this point.  He wasn’t going to back out now.

Straddling the chair, he sat back down, sighed, scratched his head, and stared at the book lying open on the table.  Only then did his gaze slide from the printed words up to the four-color illustration at the top and then to the one small angle in the corner.  With a clank the Coke can hit the table, and he grabbed his pencil.  “Oh, please, please, please, let this work,” he breathed, knowing if it didn’t he might very well show up for work in five hours in those exact same clothes.

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Ebook Romance Stories: White Knight, The Story

White Knight

Book 2

~ The Courage Series ~

Hoping for some excitement and a little extra money, A.J. Knight signed up to be a Houston EMT. However, when he did, he never thought about the life-and-death situations he’d be put into or the lives that he might be called on to save. Worse, he never so much as considered the lives that might be lost while he was working to save them.

Eve Knox understands what it’s like to have life ripped away in an instant. After the death of her first and only love in an unimaginable tragedy, she is struggling to go on with a life that seems to have been stripped of its former meaning. Hurting and alone, Eve knows her friends are just trying to help her cope, but their attempts to fill the void in her heart are starting to smother the spirit she once had. She sees no point in searching for love a second time, what happens when a second-chance love shows up in a way she never saw coming…

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Ebook Romance Stories: White Knight, Excerpt

White Knight

Book 2

~ The Courage Series ~

“Oh, and if you find popcorn over by the couch,” A.J. said as Eve retrieved her small jacket from the closet and slipped into it, “That was Eve’s fault.”

“Ah,” she said as if she had been wounded. “That wasn’t very nice.” She took a swing and caught his shoulder with her fist. He shrugged away from the punch even as he laughed.

“Well, I didn’t want her to blame me!”

Ashley and Gabe laughed.

“Well, come back and we’ll make some more popcorn just for you,” Gabe said as he laid a hand on Ashley’s shoulder.

“Just tell me when,” A.J. said. “I never pass up free food.”

Eve leveled an exasperated gaze at Ashley. “He’s such a guy.”

“You act like that’s a bad thing,” A.J. said, looking at her with a smile in his eyes that rounded down into his apple-curved cheekbones.

One look at Ashley and she and Eve said, “It is!”

Good-byes flew in all directions as the last four partygoers stepped out into the cold night. At last the door closed behind them, and the light of the streetlamps guided their journey down the sidewalk.

“Drive careful, you two,” A.J. said, waving to Jeff and Lisa when they got to the end of the sidewalk and he and Eve started to turn the other direction.

“You too,” Jeff said, and then he stopped. When he looked at Eve, all playfulness was gone. “Do you want us to follow you home?”

Eve’s face scrunched in annoyance. “I’m a big girl, Jeff. I think I can get home by myself.”

“Are you sure? Because it’s really no trouble.”

Eve smiled softly. “It’s an hour out of your way. Just get your wife home and into a bathtub. I’ll be fine.”

“Okay,” Jeff said uncertainly after a long moment. He stared at them, sizing up the situation and her. “Do you want to call us when you get there?”

“I’ll be fine,” Eve said in exasperation. “It’s not like I haven’t driven by myself before.”

“Well, which direction are you headed?” A.J. asked, breaking into the conversation.

“South,” Eve said shortly.

“I’m headed South. I’m going as far as Elgin. I can follow you that far if you want.”

Eve looked at Jeff for his blessing. “Happy now?”

Jeff took a moment to assess A.J. and another to decide. “Yeah, I guess that’ll work.”

“Good,” Eve said, crossing her arms over herself, “because it’s freezing out here. See you, Lis.”

“Call me,” Lisa said as Eve turned and started for the cars, but ten steps down the sidewalk she realized that A.J. wasn’t with her. In annoyance she turned just in time to see him shake Jeff’s hand and nod. On her heel she turned and stomped to her car. She wasn’t a baby. She had managed to make it through 29 whole years without Jeff’s constant protective gaze following her every move. How she had ever managed, she was sure he couldn’t quite tell.

Just then she heard the tennis shoes on the concrete behind her, and in the next heartbeat A.J. jogged up beside her.

“I’ve got ten cents that says you drive better than he does,” A.J. said.

“Ten cents? Boy, you have a lot of confidence in me.”

“Okay, make it 20, but that’s my final offer.”

She glanced at him skeptically.

“Hey,” he said, his tone serious, “I have to eat this week you know.”

Eve shook her head and laughed, and as mad as she was at the whole situation, for some reason she just couldn’t be mad with him at her side. “Okay, twenty cents it is.” Without question he followed her across the street and to her car, and then it was time to say good-bye. Gratefulness poured through her as she glanced at him. “I had fun tonight.”

He shrugged. “It was a party. You were supposed to have fun.”

“Well, it was extra fun.”

That apple rounded across the top of his cheek. “I thought so too.”

For a moment she stood, not really wanting to leave.

“Take care driving home,” he said and backed away from her. At the door to the little brown Honda Civic across the street he stopped. “And don’t lose me either.”

“Try to keep up.”

 White Knight
~ The Courage Series~
Book 2

“Expect the unexpected…”

“Through a series of entertaining twists and turns and a lot of suspense, two very unlikely people find in each other a reason to laugh and love and live.”

–Amazon Reviewer, Myrna Brorman

The hardest part is losing the person someone else loves… 

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Ebook Romance Stories: White Knight, Chapter 1

White Knight

Book 2

~ The Courage Series ~

Chapter 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Millions of bills or millions of creditors?”

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

“Uh, you think?” Gabe asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeff shrugged. “For my lunch.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nope. None of that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Me? Why me?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” Jeff said. “Why didn’t you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks,” she said, ducking in embarrassment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay.”

“And I can pick you up if you want.”

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

“Okay, but you do want to go, right?”

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She didn’t say.”

“I’ll call her.”

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

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

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

“You could come with us,” Melody said.

“I’ve got work tomorrow.”

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

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

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

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

“I said I was sorry.”

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

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

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

“What? You don’t like table dancers?”

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

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

“Already this is not good.”

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

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

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

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

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

“No, I’m really not going.”

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

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

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

“Head explosions? Cool. Here or there?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah? What’s that?”

“Gabe and Ash are having a party.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And this pertains to me how?”

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

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

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

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

“Friday at eight.”

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

“What time?”

WHITE KNIGHT

~ Expect the Unexpected ~

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Ebook Romance Stories: To Protect & Serve, Chapter 1

To Protect & Serve

Book 1

~ The Courage Series ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure thing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then get me the figures for last month.”

“But that’s not…”

“Get them!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ve got my car.”

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

“I wouldn’t…”

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

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

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

“Listen, Hal, I’ve got to go.”

“Six.”

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

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

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

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

“Lovely.”

*~*

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

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

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

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

“So, what’s up next?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Craig laughed. “How generous of you.”

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

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

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

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

“What? Polishing your boots?” Ramsey taunted.

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

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

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

*~*

“I knew it.”

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

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

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

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

“I figured you’d come up and get me.”

“Okay, so I’m here.”

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

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

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

“Come on, Bryn and Chandra are waiting.”

*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Me too.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*~*

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

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

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

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

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

“Here, here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nice music,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This time he laughed outright. “Sounds terrible.”

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

He nodded. “I hear you there.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Occupants from both tables looked across in surprise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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