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Ebook Romance Stories: Excerpt from “The Price of Silence”

The Price of Silence Final cover 1-18-2014

Excerpt from “The Price of Silence”

“Oh, you’re here, great,” Kat said suddenly, piling her things on the desk next to Robyn.

“Yeah,” Robyn said, feeling like a barnacle on a boat.

Kat sat down at her desk. “I told you it wouldn’t be so bad today.”

“Where is everybody?”

“Mondays and Wednesdays are nuts,” Kat said. “The paper comes out on Tuesday and Thursday, so most of the time, the rest of the week is like this.”

“This is better,” Robyn said, glancing over her shoulder.

“I agree.” Kat stood. “Ready?”

“For what?” Robyn asked, stumbling to her feet.

“An interview with Findley.”

“Now?” Robyn asked as the panic caught up with her again.

“Yeah, my story for Tuesday is on campus crime and what they plan to do about it.”

“Campus crime?” Alarm bells rang in her head.

“We’ve always had cars broken into and stuff taken from lockers, but this year seems worse than usual,” Kat said as she led the way out of the newsroom.

“Why?”

“I don’t know really. It’s a guess, but word has it that when Reese Jones took over the Scorpions, their initiation process got a lot tougher.”

“The Scorpions?” Robyn asked more alarmed than before.

“James Madison’s version of the Mafia,” Kat said, nodding. “Our very own, home grown gang bangers.”

Gangs? Robyn had heard of them, of course, but she’d never thought she’d see one up close and personal.

“So, what’s Findley going to do about it?” Robyn asked, intrigued with the topic despite the fear lurking just behind her consciousness.

“That’s what we’re going to find out.”

*~*~*

In ten minutes they were sitting in Mr. Findley’ office, and somehow it looked different today. Less threatening. Robyn was sure it was because this time she had Kat by her side.

“The number of reported crimes around school has almost doubled in the last six months,” Kat said, sounding every bit the big city crime reporter. “What plans do you have to combat this problem?”

“Well, Miss Layton, we’ve already implemented the security patrol around school. Their presence has helped,” Mr. Findley, a gray-haired man of almost sixty, said as if that should answer all questions.

“How has that helped? Crime has gone up,” Kat said not letting him off the hook.

“Well, we feel their visible presence on campus helps to deter crime in certain higher crime areas.”

“What do they look like—the campus patrol, I mean?” Robyn asked much to the surprise of everyone in the room.

“They’re the guys in the blue jackets that walk the halls during and between classes,” Kat said dismissively as she focused on the next question in her notebook.

“Huh. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one,” Robyn said, speaking her thoughts as they crossed her mind. “I didn’t even know they existed, which seems kind of strange because I’ve been caught in the halls after the bell’s rung several times during the last three days. It seems like one of them would’ve asked what I was doing.”

“Well, we only have ten of them, and they can’t cover every hallway all the time,” Mr. Findley said, sliding toward the defensive.

“So, they only work if they happen to be where the trouble happens?” Robyn asked clearly unconvinced. “Sounds pretty ineffective to me.”

“Well, we had to start somewhere, Miss Lockhart.” Mr. Findley’s tone registered a trace of annoyance.

“Do you have security cameras?” Robyn asked totally into the interview now and forgetting that she was supposed to be only observing.

“We’re looking into that, but it’s only one of several options at this point.”

“What other things are you considering? Parking lot patrol? Metal detectors? Student Crime Stoppers?” Robyn asked.

Mr. Findley bristled under the barrage of questions. “Those are all options.”

“Does the state give you any money for all of this? I mean putting this stuff in place can’t be cheap,” Kat said, breaking into the conversation.

“No, it’s not cheap.” Mr. Findley sighed. “And no, for the most part the funds we get are not supposed to be used for these things—they’re mostly for new textbooks, computer equipment, facility improvement that sort of thing.”

“It seems to me that textbooks and computer equipment aren’t going to help a whole lot if the students don’t feel safe,” Kat said. “Shouldn’t their safety be a paramount consideration?”

“It is, I assure you. We’re doing everything we can to keep our students safe while they’re on our campus.”

“What about the Scorpions?” Robyn asked, jumping into the topic foremost in her mind. “How are you dealing with them?”

“The Scorpions.” Mr. Findley looked from Robyn to Kat and back again, and Robyn felt Kat straighten at her elbow. “Well, as with any other group that threatens the well-being of the students, they are being dealt with in the fairest way possible.”

“How?” Robyn asked again.

“How?” He scratched his nose. “Well, the best way to explain it is to say it’s on a case-by-case basis, I suppose. It’s not easy to link an entire group to a crime and make things stick. You can only convict the person who actually commits the crime.”

“Okay,” Robyn said slowly as she pieced together what he was really saying. “So, let’s say someone is being initiated into a gang, and they’re told to swipe a stereo. If that person is caught, then that person and not the gang is punished?”

Mr. Findley nodded. “That’s correct.”

Robyn had no pen and no paper, and she hoped Kat was taking good notes. “Well, what if a school-sponsored group were to require their potential members to commit a crime to get in, what would happen then?”

Mr. Findley sat in silence for a long moment. “Well, I suppose their right to operate on the campus would be revoked.”

“So, what you’re saying is if you’re legal, the whole group gets punished, but if you’re not, nothing happens to the group, only to the person unfortunate enough to get caught,” Robyn said.

“Doesn’t seem quite fair when you put it like that,” Mr. Findley said with a sigh, “but yes, I suppose that’s what I’m saying.”

“So, the only real way to get the Scorpions or any other gang off the campus is to catch and convict every one of its members,” Robyn said, zeroing in on the real story. “How many members are there in this gang?”

“It’s hard to say.” Mr. Findley rubbed his nose as if he was battling a monstrous headache.

“Some reports say up to a 100 or more,” Kat mumbled as she scribbled furiously in her notebook.

“So,” Robyn said, disliking the picture that all the pieces of this puzzle were making, “theoretically, they could commit 100 or more crimes, and if they are all caught by your group of ten guys in blue suits, and if they haven’t added any more members, and if they actually go to jail or something for every crime, then the halls will be safe for the other students?”

Mr. Findley sat like a stone statue.

“May we take that as a yes?” Kat asked, looking up, her pen poised for the answer.

“All I can say is we’re doing our best to prevent and reduce crime on campus,” Mr. Findley said, emphasizing each word. “We’re implementing policies and incorporating new rules to combat the problem.”

“And while you’re doing that, are we as students just sitting ducks?” Robyn asked pointedly.

“Or are there things we can do to help ourselves?” Kat asked quickly softening the question.

“Well, as a matter of fact, there are several things you can do—like making sure your cars and lockers are secure. Don’t leave valuables in them if at all possible. As far as in school, keep your eyes open and report any strange activity. If you’re here at night, use the buddy system to go to cars…”

“So, we’re not talking about just robbery then. Are we, Mr. Findley?” Kat asked, breaking into the list.

He sighed heavily. “No, Miss Layton. We’re not.”

A shiver ran up Robyn’s spine. Suddenly this wasn’t about playing reporters any more. This was serious. “Has someone been attacked?”

“Back in February, a girl was jumped out by the gym,” Kat said, not letting the look Mr. Findley gave her intimidate her into sweeping the story under the carpet. “Luckily a couple of people came along just as it happened. She was okay, but it not long after that, she transferred.”

“Unfortunately, we can’t be everywhere at once,” Mr. Findley said clearly on the defensive now. “Students have to use their heads and not get themselves into a position where they can easily be injured or harmed.”

“Like the hallways between classes,” Robyn laughed with a shake of her head.

“The hallways, Miss Lockhart?”

“Yeah, I got knocked down the other day, and I was almost trampled to death.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” Mr. Findley said, more guardedly than the statement warranted.

“You know, come to think of it, how do I know whoever did that to me, didn’t do it on purpose?” Robyn asked, suddenly seeing the incident in a whole new light.

Mr. Findley tilted his head. “What do you mean?”

“Are you kidding?  Even a naïve girl from Iowa can see the potential for crime in that hallway. Three thousand students and what, ten security people?  One knockdown in a crowded, frenzied hallway?  Shoot, by the time you get your bearings back, your stuff could be halfway to Mexico.”

Kat nodded. “She’s got a point.”

“Yes, I believe she does,” Mr. Findley finally agreed as he opened a folder on his desk and studied something. “In fact, that’s a problem that has just started surfacing. I’ve had three complaints about incidents just like that cross my desk in the last week.”

“So, the halls aren’t as safe as we think they are then?” Kat asked, intrigued.

“Apparently we have a long way to go in securing the building.” Mr. Findley looked at them both. “I honestly wish there was some way to ensure that every student was safe every second of every day they’re here, but I can’t. Maybe the two of you can get the word out so the students can help us help them. It would be a start anyway.”

“It can’t hurt,” Robyn said suddenly seeing a myriad of things she had done wrong in the last week.

“Well, thanks for your time, Mr. Findley.”  Kat closed her notebook and shook his hand.

“Thank you, Miss Layton, and you too, Miss Lockhart.”  Mr. Findley stood and shook their hands. “I’m glad you decided to join the newspaper staff, but I’m thinking I’d better be more prepared for interviews after this.”

They all laughed, and then Kat and Robyn made their way out of the office. They were almost out of the building before either of them spoke again.

“I don’t care what you say,” Kat said. “You’re joining the staff.”

*~*~*

It seemed like only seconds before Robyn was back home sitting at her own kitchen table trying to concentrate on Trig. But Trig was the last thing on her mind. This story was big. Much bigger than anything she’d ever worked on at Lakota. It was downright frightening to think that at any moment in the hallway she could be the victim of a crime.

She reviewed the knockdown incident again, and it was clear that no one except Kat had even noticed or cared that she was in trouble. How easy would it have been for someone to grab her stuff and be gone?  Too easy, she thought with a shiver.

“I wonder what kids who’ve been going there all their lives think about this,” she said, tapping her pencil on her Trig homework lost in thought. “Do they see the threat? Or are they so used to being bounced around in the hallway, they don’t even think about it?”

One way or the other, she needed to find out. She pulled a clean sheet of paper out of her notebook and scribbled a few questions down. Tomorrow she would do a little unofficial polling of her own.

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Ebook Romance Stories: Excerpt from “A Little Piece of Heaven”

ALPH Cover New 1-10-2014Excerpt from “A Little Piece of Heaven”

“Good grief! What is in this thing anyway?” Emily asked as she struggled to drag the box full of stereo equipment from the old apartment to the new with Jeremy pushing it from behind.

“$10,000 worth of stereo equipment.” He grunted with the effort. “State of the art. Surround sound. The best money can buy.”

On the other side she dug into the task. “Ugh. The best or the heaviest?”

He laughed although it was all he could do to keep the box moving. “You should’ve been here to get it up the elevator.”  His mind slipped back to the day he had bought it with Gwen. It was supposed to be for their apartment when they got married. It never made it that far. The memory made him push harder.

As the box slid awkwardly toward her, Emily guided and pulled as best she could. “No, thanks. Down the hall is enough for me.”  Just then the box jammed on a snag in the carpet, and she lost her grip, sending her flying backward. She landed with a thud on the carpet just as he jammed his ribcage into the box with a thwack.

“Oh,” she moaned with a little cough to get her lungs working again.

“Ow!” He rubbed his ribcage, hoping there was no permanent damage. “You okay?”

“Sure.” She pushed the pain down as she stood, readjusted her shirt, and retook her position. “Sorry.”  With both hands, she took hold of the little handle and yanked upward. It didn’t move so much as a centimeter. Again she yanked, however, the box was six times bigger than she was, and clearly she wasn’t going to get it unsnagged alone.

Jeremy had to fight the laugh because for all of her effort, yanking it upward, the box never so much as moved. “Here.” He lifted his foot and stepped around the box to take hold of it as she backed up to watch. One yank and it came free from the rug. Without letting it down, he nodded at the other side. “Go push it.”

“Right.” She lifted her foot over the edge and skirted the wall around the box to get to the other side.

“Okay, push!”

*~*~*

On command Emily did as she was told, and they were moving again.  Her feet tried to grip the carpet, but they kept slipping out from under her. Step by sliding step they shoved the box forward. Her arms and legs were screaming for mercy at the near-impossible task of staying upright. “Ugh. You should’ve told me to wear my hiking boots.”

He glanced over the box at her. “You got hiking boots?”

“Yeah, back in Colorado!” She shoved. “They sure would come in handy right about now.”

Finally, mercifully, they made it to the door of the new apartment.

“Okay, careful through the door,” Jeremy said, angling and edging the huge box through the frame.

“Oh, man! Tell me we’re almost there.”  At the threshold she resorted to turning around and pushing it with her back.

“Over here by the wall,” he said, guiding it the final ten feet. “And. We’re. There.”

The moment he stopped, she gave up and slid all the way down the box to the floor. “Hallelujah! Oh, man. I should have asked for hazard pay.”

“What’re you doing sitting around?” Rebecca asked as she breezed in the door with a box the size two pairs of shoes would fit into. She walked over to the counter in the kitchen and set it down with a clank.

“You’re kidding, right?” Emily was exhausted. She put her hand to her head to get it to stop swimming from the over-exertion. The thought of the fifteen other boxes of stuff not to mention some of the furniture still sitting back in the other apartment threatened to dissolve the last of her will. “You told me this wasn’t going to be hard.”

Rebecca shrugged. “It’s moving. It’s always hard.” With that she breezed back out.

“Come on.” Jeremy reached down for her hand and pulled her to her feet. “I promise, I’ll give you the light one this time.”

“Oh that you would be so kind.” Emily reached down and pulled her purple jersey shirt over her jeans where it had come up.  The high ponytail on her head swung in time with her feet as she followed him down the hall. “How in the world can two bachelors have so much stuff?  I thought bachelors like ate off of paper plates and slept on the couch.”

Jeremy glanced at her with a look of horror at the very suggestion. “I’m a bachelor. I’m not poor.”

“Oh,” she said, taking the statement to mean poor was like being a leper. Instinctively her arms twisted around her. “Well, I for one wish you were a little poorer.”

The gaze he trained on her held complete derision, but she smiled at him teasingly. “Not so much stuff to move that way.”

“Ah.” He lifted his chin in understanding although he still didn’t look very happy.

Sensing she’d just sent the train flying off the track, Emily followed him into the old apartment and planted her hands on her hips.  “Okay, gang. What’s next?” The sooner they got this done, the sooner she could get back to normal.


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Ebook Romance Stories: Behind the Story “A Work in Progress”

AWIP Cover New 1-10-2014A Story Seven Years in the Making

by:  Staci Stallings

In retrospect, maybe I shouldn’t have named the book “A Work in Progress.”  Maybe that was my first clue of how long this particular book would take to write.

The planting of the seed happened over a message board about 10 years ago.  Remember message boards?  You posted something, then other people responded, and you had a nice little conversation about a certain topic.  Well, I started posting about this show that I really liked on TV at the time. Another young lady was posting as well, and we got into this big (but good-natured) argument about which guy on the show was our favorite.

She liked one of the guys that I would never in a million years have ever thought about dating. In the midst of this conversation, I wrote two different books featuring the guy I liked from the show.  Then she emailed one day (after the message boards had shut down and we had remained friends despite our different tastes in guys) and said she thought I should write one about the guy she liked.

That sparked a long conversation with myself about why anyone would like this guy.  Strangely, the more I asked the question, the more I realized how much he had to offer the right girl.  I realized there were things about him that no one probably knew because although part of him was the comedy guy often claiming the center of attention, there was a lot about the other sides of who he really was that got looked over and even sometimes trampled upon.

So I started this story “A Work in Progress” about Rebecca Avery, a college student who would never be one of the popular kids.  She watches them, envies them, and hates them.  Then one day she literally runs into Eric Barnett in one of the all-time classic scenes I have ever been given the honor of writing.  In fact, one of my problems over the seven years it took to write this one was that each time I pulled it up, I thought I just had to start reading it from the beginning to know where I was again.

I read that first scene countless times and it never got old.  Each time I read through it, I would think, “Wow, this is really, really good.  Why haven’t I finished this yet?”  Then I would get to the last page I had written and start writing more.  Five pages, ten, sometimes even 20 or 30.  But time and again, I got stopped either by life or by being like that dog on “Up” going, “Squirrel!” before chasing off in another direction after another great story idea.

The pieces of this one came VERY slowly, but I’m so glad they did.  Here’s why.  When I started this book, I was one person.  By the time  I finished it, I had literally become someone very different.  I started it wanting to be this successful, bestselling author.  I read every book on marketing and did my level best to become the success I thought God required me to be.  (“Performance Christians, please raise your hands!”  I would’ve had to raise both of mine.)

However, somewhere between 31-years-old and 38-years-old, God–the real God–finally got a hold of my life and showed me that it wasn’t about my performance.  It wasn’t about anything I had ever done or could ever do.  My worth was set by Him.  Period.  As a child of the God of the Universe, I was already a success.  I didn’t have to prove anything to anybody.  I could be me and not apology or rationalize or justify that to anyone.  And, oh, the freedom and relief that flowed from finally understanding that!

Strangely enough, that’s exactly what Rebecca learns in the book.  She finally realizes that life is less about gaining friends to be popular and more about letting people into your soft spots.  Yes, sometimes that hurts.  Sometimes it hurts really, really badly.  But that’s the only way to really live.  It’s the only way to truly be friends.  Otherwise, you’re just acquaintances who just happen to know one another’s phone number, address, and favorite food.

As for Eric, I finally did learn to have almost as much admiration for him as my friend did.  She was right–he is a very cool guy when you give him a chance.

Oh, and you’ll be glad to know that the second and third books in The Faith Series didn’t take nearly so long to write as this one.  In fact, they were finished within nine months of “A Work in Progress” being finished.  It was like seven years of learning all came pouring out of me.  Lessons about how to be a friend and how to let yourself be open enough to let others in.  Lessons about not judging others for their denomination and looking instead at their hearts.  Lessons about being true to yourself and standing in the gap for one another.

Those seven years turned out to be worth every second they took to get here.  The truth is, I’m still “A Work in Progress” as I think we all are.  The more we remember that and stop trying to be perfect–and stop require each other to be perfect–the more wonderful life gets because it’s only then that we actually learn to live rather than breaking our necks trying to impress everyone else who are breaking their own necks trying to impress us!


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Ebook Romance Stories: Character Interview “The Price of Silence”

The following is a feature story in the James Madison High School Chronicle on the recent controversial suspension of one of the student body’s newest members and Chronicle reporter, Robyn Lockhart.  It is not intended to influence the investigation into the incidents surrounding Miss Lockhart one way or the other.  It is only to give the students the chance to see the different sides of the story and decide for themselves.

Robyn Lockhart

Hero or Villain?

If given the chance, don’t call James Madison senior Robyn Lockhart brave.

Upon hearing that word, she will tell you, repeatedly, that moving from her former small town in Iowa to the big city took all of her courage before she ever even made it to James Madison.

“The truth is I didn’t want to come here,” Lockhart said in an interview from her home pending the investigation into the incidents leading to her suspension.  “When my parents split up, it was my mom who wanted to move here.  I was just part of the baggage she happened to bring along.”

However, it wasn’t long after her arrival in these halls that Lockhart began to make her mark through her stories in the Chronicle.

“Robyn Lockhart?” Principal Findley said.  “Yes. Yes. Of course I know her, but I’d rather not discuss the circumstances surrounding her status at the present time.  We will just wait to find out what the investigation uncovers.  Beyond that I have no comment.”

Others, however, were more willing to come to Lockhart’s defense.

“Let me tell you something,” Mr. Tucker, Chronicle advisor, said.  “Robyn Lockhart is nothing but an asset to this school.  She put herself on the line to get the administration to pay attention to the problems we’re having–not just once but several times.

“In fact, I’ve not met a more compassionate, concerned student in all my time here.  Robyn will stand up for what she believes in even if her very best friends are questioning how smart she is to do that.  Take Sean Hudson for example.  The other day in class the two of them got into this heated exchange over a poem that would have left a presidential candidate winded.

“If you ask me, James Madison needs more Robyn Lockharts rather than suspending the one we’ve got.”

Nevertheless, when this Chronicle reporter caught up with Chad Mayes, a James Madison senior and one of Lockhart’s reported friends, a different side of the story emerged.

“I’m not one to point fingers and think bad of people,” Mayes said.  “But when you see the evidence I saw in that hallway after that fight, well, what’s a guy to think, you know?  What is it they say, ‘Who are you going to believe–me or your lying eyes?’  Yeah. Evidence like I saw doesn’t lie no matter how much you might want it to.”

However, the longer one follows this story, the more angles one finds.  For instance, Kathryn Layton, a reporter with the Chronicle and reportedly one of Lockhart’s best friends, provided a very different take than Mayes who is her boyfriend.

“Robyn is no thief.  I can tell you that,” Kat, a James Madison senior, said.  “I don’t know how it happened, but I was there when it all went down at the school that night.  I’ll tell you this, Robyn did not do what they are accusing her of doing.  She was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s all.  I know Robyn Lockhart.  I trust Robyn Lockhart.  She is my friend.  You cannot tell me any of this was her fault.”

So, who is the real Robyn Lockhart?  Is she a thief or a hero who fights for justice and right?

“Don’t even go there with that whole villain story line,” Sean Hudson, Lockhart’s other good friend (obviously despite the flare-up in Mr. Tucker’s class), said.  “Robyn is a good person.  In fact, she is the best person I know.  She went into that school building the day after the break-in.  Why?  Because the students of James Madison deserve better than their getting right now that’s why.  She went in there, knowing she might get into trouble and knowing she was walking into a minefield.  But she went in.  For me and for you.  For all of us because she was trying to get to the bottom of all the junk that’s been happening around here.

“And if you’re wondering, the answer is yes.  I am talking about the break-in, but I’m talking about so much more than that.  I’m talking about the incident at the gym last February and the countless stolen items and instances of bullying that nobody wants to talk about.  Robyn may be just another student in the hallways, but she is a student who cares more about this school than most of us who have been here for years.  So put that in your little paper and give Robyn a break for a change already.  She doesn’t deserve all the nasty things people have been saying about her.”

So who is Robyn Lockhart?  Innocent small town girl?  Or dangerous thief and fomenter of trouble at James Madison?  We will leave that up to you and the investigators to decide.

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

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

The Faith Series, Book 2

by:  Staci Stallings

Chapter 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…for man looks at outward appearances…”

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What? Is that so hard to believe?”

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

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

“Hey, I’m not saying you shouldn’t…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bethany smacked his arm. “Ha. Ha.”

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

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

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

“Have I ever minded before?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, right back at you, babe.”

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

by:  Staci Stallings

~*~*~

Sometimes faith is simply learning to see

What is right before your eyes.

 

~*~*~


 

Chapter 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I think I’ll just enjoy today.”

“I think that’s wise.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you put anything on it?”

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

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

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

“What’s that?”

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

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

“Does it still burn?”

“It hurts.”

“No, burn.  Is it still hot?”

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

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

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

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

“Better?”

“Much.”

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

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

“Advil?”

“Anything.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Price of Silence Final cover 1-18-2014

The Price of Silence

by:  Staci Stallings

~*~

To all those who taught me that

Standing up for right is always

Worth it and that courage

Is choosing to do the right thing in the moment

—rather than a lack of fear.

Thank you.

~*~

Chapter 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Something like that,” Mr. Tucker agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You could say that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, for two years.”

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

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

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

“We?” she asked, puzzled.

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

“But I thought you taught English.”

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

Robyn nodded.

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

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

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

“Thanks. I’ll think about it.”

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

“Hey, Mom!” she said, smiling.

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

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

“What’s for supper?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Trig.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, there’s always tomorrow.”

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

This was life, and it stunk.

Chapter 2

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

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

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

A groan emanated from every student behind her.

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

More groans.

“You have 45 minutes.”

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, let me know.”

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

“See ya.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

*~*~*

“Isn’t the city wonderful?”

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

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

“So, what’s for supper, sweetheart?”

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

“They smell fabulous.”

“You’re in a good mood.”

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

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

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

“Matt Carson…?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m so happy you’re doing so well.”

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

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

The Price of Silence Final cover 1-18-2014

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