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Ebook Romance Stories: Excerpt Princess

Princess final 1-14-2014Excerpt from Princess

Taking the concrete steps two at a time, Anthony Russell hurried to the front door of the Language Building, which he opened with barely a yank. He was late, and he knew it.

“God, please don’t let her leave. Please,” he begged as he all-but ran down the hall to the Conference Rooms. “She’s my last chance.” With no pretense, he yanked that door open and strode into the room.

“May I help you?” the secretary, sitting primly at the desk, asked.

“I’m here…” Anthony glanced around for anyone who looked like a tutor that he could introduce himself to before she left. “For tutoring.”

“Oh, yes. Mr. Russell, how nice to meet you,” the secretary said with a warm smile. “I watch all of your games.”

“That’s nice,” he said without really hearing her comment. Then he stopped himself. “I mean…uh…thank you…Do you…uh…know where I am supposed to go by any chance?”

“Oh, yes. The end of the hall. She’s been here awhile.”

“Thank you.” Anthony turned down the hallway. She’s been here awhile. She’s been here awhile. Great! Awhile? Awhile? What is that? Ten minutes? Fifteen? This was not the way he had wanted to start out.

At the end of the hall, he pushed the door open with one shove, and half-an-instant later heard the crash on the other side as the door hit a chair that was standing too close.

CRASH! The girl seated at the tiny table jumped up so fast, she knocked her own chair to the floor as well, and when it hit the floor, she jumped again.

“Oh, man,” Anthony said as embarrassment swept over him. He held a hand up to calm the all-out panic in her face. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you. I am so sorry.”

A fall of wavy brown hair followed her motion as she reached down to yank her chair from the floor.

“Here, let me get that for you,” Anthony said, mortified by his clumsiness. As he crossed the room in one stride, he slung his books onto the little table. But just as he reached for her chair, he heard the first book hit the floor on the table’s other side, and then from his vantage point looking under the table, he saw the papers from his notebook slide from the table to the floor with a slow-motion waterfall effect.

“Oh, no.” He righted her chair in one sweep and quickly knelt down under the table to retrieve his wayward belongings. He pulled the last paper off the floor and got his feet under him to stand, but he didn’t judge the table right and smacked his head on the edge of it.

“Ow!” he yelped, rubbing the skin at the top of his head. Putting a hand above him to judge the table, he stood slowly, making sure to leave plenty of room between his head and the table this time.

She’s going to think I’m a complete idiot. He stood to face her and braced himself for what he knew was coming. He couldn’t even look her in the eye.

“Hi,” he finally said, holding out his hand, his gaze glued to the floor, “I’m Anthony Russell.”

*~*~*

Heather stood in dumbfounded silence. She had never seen anything like this before—EVER!

“Hello,” she said, shaking out of the shock and trying very hard to sound professional. “I’m Heather Nolan. It’s nice to meet you.” She extended her hand to shake his.

“Ms. Nolan, it’s nice to meet you,” Anthony said as his hand smothered hers.

“Oh, please, call me Heather.” The words had to choke themselves past the derision in her throat. How could she be nice to this creep? After all, he was 20 minutes late, and then he almost scared her to death! But her parents had taught her well, and she was polite to a fault. This guy wasn’t going to make her change now.

“You can call me Anthony,” he said with a slow, shy smile that glimmered in his dark eyes.

Heather ran a hand down her skirt to either smooth it out or to get her palm dry again, she wasn’t quite sure which. “Well, Anthony, you make quite an entrance.”

Anthony ducked his head and squeezed his eyes closed. He glanced back at the door. “Would you mind if I try that again?”

“Again?” Heather asked in confusion.

“Yeah.”

“O…Okay. I guess so.”

“Great! Just a second.” He grabbed up his books, righted the other chair, and disappeared outside.

Heather was amused in spite of herself.

This time the door opened slowly—very slowly, and Anthony entered smoothly, books in hand, looking every bit the ultra-cool basketball star he obviously was.

“Hello.” He extended his hand. “I’m Anthony Russell.”

“Hello, Mr. Russell,” Heather said, taking his hand. “It’s nice to meet you. I’m Heather Nolan.”

“Nice to meet you, Ms. Nolan,” Anthony said formally. “And please call me Anthony.”

“Okay, Anthony. You can call me Heather.”

“Okay, Heather. I really appreciate you waiting for me. I’m sorry I’m so late.”

“It’s all right,” Heather said, wishing it wasn’t so easy to be polite to him. “Just don’t make a habit of it.”

“I won’t,” Anthony said with that same slow smile, and this one went all the way into and through the deep, near-black of his eyes. “I promise.”

“Good. Now, how can I help you?”


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Ebook Romance Stories: Excerpt “A Light in the Darkness”


ALID Cover New 1-10-2014Excerpt from “A Light in the Darkness”

Going back was ridiculous.  Gabe had told himself that ten thousand times as he drove through the sheets coming down horizontally to the pickup.  A book was not worth this.  And yet, he hadn’t read in four days.  A new habit takes hold at seven days and is established by 21.  He knew that from every motivational book he’d ever read, and he’d read many of them.

The temptation to let it go just one more day clung to his spirit, but he wouldn’t give in to it.  Not now.  Not ever.  The vision of what he was meant to do in this life was too intense, too clear as was the opposite trail that led off into a life he had almost gotten by default.  Letting his life slide in that direction again was too sickening to think about.

At the carriage house, he killed the engine and then berated himself for that.  Stupid.  He would be right back.  But he’d already done it, so he left it off, reached for the door handle, and made a break for the huge, heavy wooden door beyond.  Unfamiliarity smacked him when his hand found the handle.  The door was open—not a lot, but it was.  There was no reason for that door to be open.  No one came out here anymore.

Shrugging the rain off his shoulders and the fear from his spirit, he ducked inside.  Dark as usual.  He reached over and pulled the little light, illuminating the stairs.  The single bulb blinked on, and he stood for a moment, looking, waiting, watching.  But nothing moved. Shoving his hands in his pockets, he started up the stairs.  Which book should he get? The one he was reading but was only marginally interested in or the new one he’d gotten from Marvin over the weekend? It was funny how even now at odd times he would receive a package from his former mentor and how those packages always had a way of turning his life at just the right moment.  It was a pattern Gabriel had learned to trust.

Then, seven steps up, he heard it, and his steps stopped instantly.  He turned to look back down the stairs.  Something wasn’t right.  It wasn’t a definite sound or even movement.  More a feeling.  His movements slid into slow motion.  Concern slipped into his spirit. “Is somebody here?”

The sound of his voice ricocheted off the rounded, stone walls around him.  His gaze darted side to side, back and forth, searching for the unseen.  The little light overhead swung, sending the shadows ducking and weaving through each other.  Foreboding slid through him. Something wasn’t right. Then he heard it, for real this time.  A small, soft intake of air.

His steps turned, and he headed back down the stairs, one at a time, slowly. Listening.  Senses taking in everything.  At the bottom, he let his hand stay on the railing one more moment.  He stopped again to listen.  It took a moment, but there it was again.  Soft, but definitely there.  “Who’s here?”

On the hard stone floor, he moved along the staircase toward the sound.  When he got to the arch of the stairs over his head, he stooped down and gazed into the shadows slicing the cobblestone under the stairs.  He squinted to see better.  Indistinct and shadowed, he saw it nonetheless.  A figure, huddling there, hiding, not moving.

Gabe’s mind raced with the possibilities.  A vagabond seeking shelter from the storm?  A criminal hiding out from the authorities?  Before he could get all the possibilities reasoned out, his eyes adjusted to the dim light.  What told him first what he was looking at—his head or his heart—he would never have been able to say for sure.  But in one giant sweep, he knew this was no vagabond.  It was a woman. Wet, crumpled, and terrified, with wide, terrified eyes looking right at him.

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Ebook Romance Stories: “A Light in the Darkness” Chapter 1


ALID Cover New 1-10-2014A Light in the Darkness
The Faith Series, Book 3

by:  Staci Stallings

~*~*~

Never underestimate the power of the light

You hold. It can light not just your way

But also the way of

Another.

 

~*~*~


 

Chapter 1

Holly Jacobs hit the off button on the little silver cell phone and sat back into the deep, black leather seat of the black stretch limo.  Melancholy settled all through her spirit. Although Boston and her friend Rebecca Avery were just across the country, it felt like the moon would be closer.  Rebecca and Emily Vasquez had gotten an apartment together for the summer.  By the time Holly got back, it was likely she’d have to find a new roommate—if she did go back.   That thought pulled her even lower. Her gaze fell to the expansive floorboards at her feet.

She hated leaving Boston for more reasons than she could name.  Of course Boston had its rough patches too, but it was more home than any home she had ever known.  Certainly more home than the one she was getting inexorably closer to right now.

Her gaze drifted out to the hills of green covering Napa Valley, California.  Tears of unwanted frustration threatened, but she beat them back. She hadn’t been here two hours, and already she hated it.  She didn’t belong here.  The thought that she didn’t belong anywhere cut through her spirit like a sharp dagger.

The little phone beeped to life, dragging her away from the thoughts. She glanced down at it.  With a sigh, she touched the on button and lifted it to her ear. “Hi, Mom.”

“Oh, Holly.  Good.  So you’ve landed then?”

There was no pause to let her answer, and she didn’t bother to try. She knew there wouldn’t be one.

“Listen, Luke will be at the mansion when you get here, so please try to make yourself presentable before you get here.  I hope you’re not wearing jeans.  Jeans are so tacky.”

Holly looked down at her butterfly jeans helplessly.  Like there was anything she could do about that now.

“And do not bring in that tattered thing you call a purse either.  Leave it in the car if you have to.  Give it to Rio, the driver. We’ll get it later.”

The sigh said more than she’d been able to so far. “Fine, Mom.  Anything else?”

“Yeah, be sure to put on some lip gloss.  Not lipstick.  Just gloss.  We don’t want Luke to think you are a tramp or anything.”

No, that would be your department.  Her mind had ways of betraying her at the most inopportune moments. But she said nothing.

“How long before you get here?”

Holly’s gaze slid to the vast expanses of emerald beyond. “I don’t know. I don’t really even know where we are.  Everything is just hills of green.”

“Good. Then you can’t be more than 20 minutes out. Freshen up your makeup, and get yourself together.  When you get here, I’ll be waiting upstairs.  Ring the doorbell, and I’ll let Rosa get the door.  That will give you a good entrance.”

“Whatever, Mom.”

“I’ll see you in a few.  Be sure to freshen up.”

“Okay.”  Ten more words, and Holly signed off.  She didn’t want to, but she pulled the little compact out and checked her makeup.  Her hair was a wreck, but then what did she expect after missing a flight and having three layovers in various venues from Boston to California?  All she wanted was to find a nice, soft bed and sleep for a month.

Nonetheless, dutifully, she dotted the dark circles under her eyes with concealer.  Fortunately she had left her small makeup bag in her purse.  Her gaze chanced to her purse, and hurt filled her heart.  It was a Christmas present from Rebecca the previous year.  True, it wasn’t New York stylish, but it meant that someone cared enough to think about her when they didn’t really have to. Yes, transferring to Boston Central was the best decision of her life.  Her mother still didn’t understand why she’d transferred—nor why she’d changed her major four times, but that was to be expected.

Her mother never understood.  Mostly because she was too busy messing up her own life to get terribly involved in the details of her daughter’s. And now, her mother had hooked up with some rich wine grower from California.

Lovely.  Just lovely.  It was about as great as her life always turned out.  She unclipped her long blonde hair from the back of her head and brushed through it.  Thanks to sleeping on floors and in planes, the shoulder length locks hung ugly and flat. There wasn’t much doing to it. She ran her fingers through it once more. It wasn’t great, but it would have to do.

The car slid through the gates of the estate. The two-story Victorian stood stately at the top of the hill, couched in verdant green so lush it was possible it was painted on the ground rather than growing. Holly clutched her purse as her gaze traveled up, up, up the gray and dull rose façade.  The grandeur of the place was overwhelming. Her mother had certainly done it this time.

Holly sighed wearily as her gaze dropped to her lap.  She hadn’t wanted to come.  By some miracle, she had gotten out of it at Spring Break, hoping that by summer this would all be a distant memory.  But summer had shown up before the inevitable, and  now here she was expected once again to be something she truly hated. More shows to put on to impress everyone so they didn’t get thrown out.  More being someone she didn’t even want to know.  More hearing from her mother how every single thing she did in life was wrong.

Joy. Joy.  This summer should be the best one yet.

*~*~*

“Hey, look.” Timothy Delgado stopped his work to gaze up at the looming gray mansion which looked down on the little garden work shop from the hill above.  “The ice princess has arrived.”

Gabriel Cabrales glanced up from his work on the lawn mower that was doing anything but cooperating.  Mowing the lawn. It had sounded so easy three hours ago. He beat the edge of the mower with the hammer to dislodge the debris from underneath. “You ought to go up there and introduce yourself.  I’m sure she’d love to meet you.”

“Yeah, kinda like her mother, the Wicked Witch of the West.”  Timothy twisted a wrench around his finger—the motor he was supposed to be fixing forgotten.  It was another of the chores Gabriel should have finished last week, and he would have if his father hadn’t fallen out of line three weeks before.  Ever since the heart attack had sidelined his dad, Gabriel had taken over as foreman of the grounds crew.  There were only three of them now, which did nothing to make the job easier. Nonetheless, foreman was a job he didn’t take lightly.

The clanging of the hammer on metal shook right through him. Still he hit it all the harder. The job, normally manageable, had morphed in the last two months into the worst job on the planet.  It started when the Ice Queen showed up, and it had gone down hill from there. In fact, he was sure his father’s heart attack could be directly attributable to her arrival.

“Well, lookie what we have here.” Timothy leaned on the door of the work house which was shrouded by the vast trees towering above them.

Gabriel was positive Mr. Teracini had no idea the house could be seen so plainly from here.  If he did, he would surely have constructed a concrete barrier to keep them out in the past four years since he had become the owner.

Timothy straightened, his eyes growing wide. “Wow.  She may be an ice princess, but she sure is easy on the eyes.”

Wiping the grease and dirt from his hands, Gabriel joined his friend at the door.  Although they were more than a 150 yards away, the sight whipped his breath from him.  Clothed in a pure white flowing top, fitted and then flared jeans, the ice princess brushed the sun-kissed blonde hair from her angelic face.  Of course she was beautiful.  You had to be to fit in up there.

Disgust drained through him.  “Come on, Delgado.  Since this is as close as you’ll ever get to her, you might as well get some work done while you gawk.”

However, Timothy didn’t move even as Gabriel went back to the mower.

“They say she’s a debutant from Boston.  I bet she has a boyfriend.  You know one of those jerks who will kick dirt in your face just to show you he can.”

“Like it matters.” Gabriel hit the mower with a clang, and a chunk of dirt fell to the ground underneath. “Girls like that won’t give guys like us a second look—if they bother to give us a first look.”  Exasperation over all the work they had to do and that he was the only one actually working overtook him. “Tim!  That motor ain’t going to fix itself you know.”

“Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.”  Timothy shook his head, but his gaze never left the blonde up the hill. “She sure is pretty.”

“Well, you’re going to be pretty broke if you don’t get to work.  I’ll personally tell Mr. Teracini to dock you for looking at his new stepdaughter when you should be working.”

Timothy pushed away from the door.  “Oh, boo-hoo.  Why do you always have to be so work happy?”

“Because being work happy is the only way I’m ever going to graduate from being out here with the lawn mowers and you guys to being up there.”  Gabriel nodded toward the mansion.

Tim’s laugh was sardonic. “You are such a dreamer.  Gabriel and his dreams of owning the place one day.” Timothy bowed low. “It’s such an honor to be working with the future owner of Teracini Winery. Hey, Gabe, when you own the place, can I say I knew you when?”

The taunts crawled through Gabe’s gut.  They didn’t believe him, but someday, he would be up there, on the top of that hill, in that mansion.  He would show them all.

*~*~*

“Ms. Linda, Miss Holly has arrived,” Rose, the middle-aged Hispanic housekeeper, called up the steps.

Holly stood awkwardly in the entryway, fighting not to fidget.  The stairs curled three steps one way, banked another six steps at an angle to the first ones and then disappeared up the opposite direction to the unseen floor above.  The mahogany hardwood floor at her feet shown so brilliantly, the sun made it resemble a mirror.  In the center of the entry a little table stood on a rose and cream circle rug.  Topped with a white vase of flowers, the table shown with the same glow as the rest of the room.

“Holly, Darling.”  Her mother swept down the stairs, floating more than walking.  Dressed in a white silk pantsuit with white gauze trailing from her shoulder, she looked like a 40’s movie star making her grand entrance.  “I’m so happy you made it.”

That should’ve been obvious.  Holly shifted feet, not wanting to break her mother’s grand entrance but embarrassed by it just the same.  “Hi, Mom.”

Her mother slid up to her, kissed first one cheek then the other. However, before she let her go, she whispered, “Call me ‘mother.’ It sounds better.”

“Oh.”  The gasp was involuntary. Holly had to shake out of the shock to get more out.  “How are you Mother?”

“Splendid.  Come, let’s sit in the parlor.”  Her mother linked her arm through Holly’s and turned her. “Rose, would you please tell Luke we’re in the sitting room?”

Rose bowed slightly. “Yes, Ma’am.”

Linda breathed in the statement. “Ma’am.” She ducked her head secretively to Holly. “Isn’t it wonderful?  Oh, darling.  I’ve fixed us for real this time. I mean look at this place. Isn’t it gorgeous? Oh, and look at the ring he gave me.”  She held out her hand upon which sparkled an oval rock.  “Isn’t it fabulous?”

There were so many questions Holly wanted to ask.  She started with the most obvious one.  “What happened with you and Dan?”

Horror coursed through her mother’s features. “Dan?  What does he have to do with this?”

“Hello.  You were married to him.  Remember?”

Her mother waved a French manicured hand at her dismissively. “He was a rung I outgrew.”

The sitting room featured a fireplace, more mahogany furniture, and full rose-colored carpeting.  They hadn’t made it to the wine-sheen couch when there was a noise behind them.  The transformation of her mother’s turning was truly difficult to comprehend. She almost literally became a different person.

“Oh, Luke, darling. I’m so glad you could tear yourself away for a few minutes.”  She spun Holly with her and presented her.  “This is my beautiful daughter Holly Marie.”

Never, not one single time had Holly ever felt so much like a trophy.

“Well, Holly, it’s very nice to meet you.” Luke, a tall, handsome, dark-haired man in his early fifties bowed gallantly, taking her hand with him.  He kissed it, completely grossing her out.  When he straightened and let her go, she had to force herself not to wipe his kiss off her hand.  “Please, please.  Have a seat.”

Holly followed them to the little enclave and sat in the wing-backed chair.  Luke and her mother sat right next to each other on the couch, and she tilted her gaze downward at the thought of Dan. How could her mother shift gears so quickly, seemingly never so much as looking back?

“So, tell me about school,” Luke said, laying his hand on her mother’s.  The gesture made Holly sick, and his thick Italian accent wasn’t helping.  He sounded as pompous and full of himself as he looked.

“Oh, I’m out for the summer.” She nodded for no real reason.  The smile hurt. “Summer break.”  The nodding was getting annoying even to her.  She looked around. “Nice house.”

“Why thank you.  It came with the estate when I moved from Italy.”

The comment gave her the opening to ask the question she’d been thinking since he’d first walked in.  “So you’re not American then?”

“Holly!” Her mother’s sharp rebuke stabbed into her.

“No, no. It’s okay, Linda,” Luke said.  “I have done business in the States for many years.  In fact I’d been looking for a winery to buy for almost ten years.  When this one came available, I jumped on it.  I’m now a dual-citizen—Italy and the United States.”

How nice for you. Holly fought to restrain the words so they wouldn’t find the air.  Her foot bounced as she searched for something else to say, but nothing was coming.

“Did you have a good trip?” Luke asked.

The look her mother turned on him yanked sarcasm from her.  The only reason Linda was in the room was to show off her daughter to her fiancé and her fiancé to her daughter.  The pretense was stifling.

“Oh, didn’t mom tell you?” Holly caught the look her mother shot her, but she continued just the same. “I missed the connection in Chicago, so I had to go through Dallas and then Albuquerque.  That’s why I’m such a mess.”

Luke’s smile was hardly condemning. “You are anything but a mess, my dear.  But you must be exhausted.  Did Rio bring your bags in?”

“They’re at the front door.”  Holly stood, and the two of them followed.

The nod Luke gave her held hardly any real movement. “I’ll call Yuri. He can take them up.”

Her mother raised her eyes to make sure Holly was suitably impressed.  However, Holly’s head was starting to send nausea signals to her stomach.  She wasn’t at all sure if it was because she was hungry, tired, or just sick of life.

Luke called for the maid who appeared almost immediately. “Rosa, will you call Yuri to take Holly’s bags up to the first guest room?” Luke turned to her as Rosa bowed and departed.  “You will have a full bath, and a full suite to yourself.  Enjoy.  And if you need anything, please feel free to ask.”

How about a bag to throw up in?  However, she simply nodded.  He bowed as it seemed they all were wont to do and strode off down the hallway.  The moment he was out of sight, her mother linked arms with her and squealed in a whisper.

“Isn’t he dreamy?  Ugh.  I knew the first time I saw him this was going to work.”

Holly removed her arm from her mother’s.  “I’m shot, Mom.  Can we talk about this later?”

With her usual flair, her mother looked at once frustrated and hurt.

It was a pattern Holly had learned long before. “No, Mom.  We’ll talk. I promise.” She put her fingers into her hair which felt like a dry weed.  “I’m just a mess right now.”

The shoulders slumped. “Fine.”

*~*~*

“So, how is it?” Rebecca asked over the phone.

Holly collapsed on the yellow daisy bed and sighed.  Even the warm bath in the claw-foot bathtub hadn’t washed away the melancholy. “Wonderful.  Isn’t it supposed to be wonderful?  He’s rich.  Mom’s in love.  What’s not wonderful?”

Rebecca paused, clearly searching for something to say. “Did you talk to her about the job?”

“Huh.  She was too busy showing off.”  Holly rolled to her stomach and twined her feet behind her.  “Man, I wish I was back in Boston with you guys.”

“You and me both.  We’ll be praying for you, okay?  Don’t let her get you down.  This is your life. Remember?  You get to choose now.”

If only it was that easy.

“Miss Holly.”  The knock on her door brought her full up.  “Dinner is being served.”

Holly spun to sitting in one motion. “Oops.  Gotta go.  Tell everyone hi for me.”

“Will do.  And Holly, we’ll be praying.”

“Thanks.” She clicked the off button and let the phone drop to the bed.  She was going to need more than prayers.  Pushing up off the four poster bed, she traipsed to the door and down the stairs.  At the entryway she listened and followed the noises to the formal dining room.  Clearly the mahogany thing was a staple of this house. The mahogany furniture in the dining room was set off by celery green walls and gold decorations.

“Holly!  Oh, my.” Her mother jumped up from the table in horror. In seconds she shoved Holly into the hallway.  “What are you thinking?  This isn’t proper attire for dinner.”

The proprietary tornado hit her so fast, she was taken totally off guard.  She looked down at her clothes which were nothing out of the ordinary.  Her nicest jeans and a fitted, purple top.  It wasn’t like it was Las Vegas showroom material.  “Proper…?”

Her mother leaned in menacingly.  “First of all, you’re late and now you show up looking like trailer trash.  What are you trying to do—ruin everything?”

“Linda?” Luke called from the dining room.

“Just a moment, Darling.”  In hushed but urgent tones she targeted Holly. “Don’t you have anything but jeans and T-shirts?”

“I…”

“You know what I mean.  Now get up there and change, and do not let me see you in those again. You hear me?”

Beaten and defeated, Holly’s head fell. “Yeah.”

Her mother squared her shoulders and shook back her hair-sprayed stiff light brunette hair. “The answer is, ‘Yes, Ma’am.’”

What could she say as her shoulders slumped forward?  “Yes, Ma’am.”

*~*~*

It was after ten when Gabriel pulled out of the front gate.  The mowing was done by no small miracle.  He shifted in the seat of the old, beaten up brown and gold Chevrolet pickup.  His mind slid down the list of things to do until exhaustion took over even that. He let out a breath and ran his hand from his forehead to his chin.

His curly black hair was caked with dirt and grime.  No wonder Timothy thought he was crazy.  But Timothy didn’t know—not all of it anyway.  As headlights went the other direction down the winding road, Gabriel fought to settle his surging spirit.  It was crazy to tell them the things he knew deep inside, about the signs he’d received, about the things he had read.  They wouldn’t understand.  Worse, they would think he was insane.  Sometimes he wondered if he was.  How else could anyone explain the things he saw, the things he now understood almost as an instinct?

The pickup chugged into the driveway of the little house, and Gabe killed the engine.  He slid out and made it all the way to the sink just inside the back door when he heard the shuffling.

“Gabriel, I thought you would be home hours ago.”  His mother, a woman well into her sixties, hunched by the work load she had carried her entire life, appeared in the doorway.  “Your supper is cold.”

Gabe grabbed the towel to dry his hands. “It’s okay, Mom.  I can heat it up.”  In very few steps he was at the microwave.  That was one thing about a small house, there was only a modicum of stress getting from one room to the next.  “Is Dad in bed already?”

He popped open the microwave and shoved the plate into it. Beep went the button.

“He’s supposed to go back next week, you know.”

“Yeah, I know.”

His mother spun her arms over themselves.  “Do you think that’s a good idea?”

The whirring of the microwave gave way to another beep, and he took the food out.  Without bothering to move more than to get a fork, he started eating.  “Do you think it’s a good idea?”

She sighed.  “You’ve seen him.  He can barely get from the chair to the kitchen. How’s he supposed to run a whole operation?”

It was a good question, and in it he heard the unspoken plea.  “Well, if he needs more time, I could talk to Mr. Teracini.  We could probably handle it a while longer.”

This time she shook her head, and Gabriel was starting comprehend what she wasn’t saying.

“He’s just so weak, Gabriel.  Not like he used to be.”  She paused, soft dreaming touched her voice. “No, not like he used to be.”  The dream snapped, and she looked up. “He’ll be 71 next month, you know.  71.”

Gabe tried to push the thoughts of his parents’ age away as much as possible.  He was their surprise child, their one and only, conceived long after they had stopped trying because it was declared hopeless by every doctor they’d gone to.  That’s why they’d named him Gabriel because Gabriel was the angel who had brought the good news of a child not only to Mary but to Elizabeth as well.

It was a story he had memorized.  One that had always made him feel special, hand-picked, hand-sent.  Yet now the lonely years ahead stared him in the face.  At 24, he was hardly more than a teenager.  The thought of losing one or both of his parents frightened him in ways that few things did, and he spent a good deal of energy trying not to think about it.

But there were times, like this one, that denial was not an option.

“Well, what’s the money situation if he does quit?” Somehow that question catapulted him into full-fledged adulthood.

Her faded green eyes, so much like his until age and wear had taken their toll, fell closed.  “It’s not great.  We’ve got some social security we can count on, but it’s not much.  Of course the house is ours, but… well…”  She shrugged. “I guess we’re lucky to have made it this long, but how are we going to live now? What will we do if he cannot work?”  The gray covered head shook slowly. “I don’t know.  I just don’t know.”

Careful not to make noise, Gabe set his plate on the stove, stepped to her, and put his arms around her.  “It’s okay, Mom.  We’ll figure something out.”

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Ebook Romance Stories: Behind the Story, “Deep in the Heart”

Image Rich, Reality Poor
Behind the Story:   Deep in the Heart
by:  Staci Stallings

It’s amazing to me how different life looks if you ever bother to look at more than the outside surface of things.  In our world today we’re all so busy, and we get so caught up in doing things and getting things and having things that we forget what’s really important.  What’s really important is not how something, or more to the point–someone, looks on the outside.  It’s what’s inside that counts.

One of the things that fascinates me about the story “Deep in the Heart” is the paradox of being image rich and reality poor–and vice versa, being image poor and reality rich. In the story, Keith is the son of a billionaire.  He literally has the world at his feet–a beautiful fiancée who is wealthy and well-connected and a father who owns half of Texas.  Okay, not half, but pretty close.  He is the definition of Image Rich.

Then there’s Maggie Montgomery.  Poor Maggie.  I’m telling you from the first time you meet her, you will feel a twinge of sympathy for her.  She literally has nothing in life–two dollars in her purse and a car that’s going to break down any second.  She is in every way image poor.  In fact, she’s not even wearing her own shoes, and the shoes she is wearing don’t fit.  She is to all the world the personification of Image Poor.

But look a little closer and you begin to see that everything is not as the image would have you believe.  For one thing, Keith’s life is a mess.  Oh, he talks a good game and looks good doing it–when he’s all citified that is.  However, when Maggie first meets him on the stairs of his father’s mansion, she doesn’t see that at all.  Why?  Because there he is image poor.

In his dusty jeans and ripped shirt, he doesn’t look like a billionaire’s son, and because he doesn’t look that way, she trusts him enough to be real–to let him see the real her–nerves and imperfections and all.  Had he looked image rich, she would never have trusted him because she wouldn’t have felt anywhere near his league.  And that’s part of the paradox.  We treat others by how we see them, never realizing there is always much more to the story.

Of course, for Keith he’s really not a fan of the image rich lifestyle.  He’s seen it up-close-and-personal and he wants no part of it.  Except he can’t keep his father and everyone else from dragging him down that dark hole of being who he isn’t and how he isn’t to keep up the image until he’s come to the point that maybe he should give up what he wants and just accept the image rich persona everyone wants to put on him.

For Maggie, she had no chance at image rich.  The truth is, she’s just struggling for survival.  However, because of that, she’s had to become Really (or Spiritually) Rich.  Oh, this doesn’t show on her clothes or her shoes or her hairstyle.  It shows only in her heart, and those wise enough to look below the image are the only ones lucky enough to see how truly rich she really is.  Of course, everyone in Keith’s circle is horrified because her image is all wrong, but Keith is slowly drawn not to the outside image but to what’s really there.  As this happens, he begins to question if it is possible for him to shed the image everyone wants him to be and go for what he really is.

However, shedding the image and reaching for Really Rich rather than Image Rich is not always as easy as it sounds, and Keith soon learns that becoming Really Spiritually Rich is much, much harder than it looks.  Can he break out of what the world says he should look like in order to become the man he really is meant to be?

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Ebook Romance Stories: “Deep in the Heart” Chapter 1

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#1 Amazon Best Seller:  Religious Fiction Romance, Religion & Inspirational Romance, Literature & Fiction Romance!

Deep in the Heart

by:  Staci Stallings

Chapter 1

“Please, baby, please, just get me through these gates and up to that front door,” Maggie Montgomery pleaded with her ’77 Chevette even as her gaze took in the enormous circle drive that led its winding way up a hill to the cream mansion with the stately pillars beyond. “Oh, Lord, what am I doing here? This has got to be the craziest thing I’ve ever gotten myself into.”

Trying not to think about how her beat-up navy blue two-door looked on the grounds that were perfectly manicured right down to the yellow and red rosebushes, Maggie steered the car around the concrete that was edged with white stones the size of her dresser back in her dorm room. At the apex of the circle, she put the car in park and heaved a sigh that might well be her last.

With a push she resettled her glasses on her nose, grabbed her two-page resume and shouldered the door open. “Just breathe,” she told herself as she stood on legs wobbly from the three-hour car drive. Pine Hill, Texas and the Ayer Mansion seemed a million miles from Gold Dust Drive in Del Rio. It was still Texas, but the similarities stopped there.

Of course, she was in her best dress, a floral print that was a size too big. That was better than the heels, which were at least two sizes too big. They were the best Mrs. Malinowski could do on ten minutes notice. The grace of God alone had gotten Maggie this far, and truth be told, she wasn’t at all sure how much longer His patience with her would hold out.

“Listen, Holy Spirit, I know I’m probably over my quota by now, but please… Please, let me get this. I don’t know what I’ll do if I don’t.” The remaining two dollars in her purse crossed her mind, pulling her spirit down. Defiantly she squared her shoulders and pulled herself to her full five feet, seven inches.

Every step was pushed on by a prayer. The six wide steps up to the front door nearly did her in, but finally, after 17 years of struggling just to survive, she was here—one knock away from something more than a minute-by-minute existence.

She reached up and rang the doorbell. The wait was worse than the walk. Nervousness raked her hand up her purse strap. Seconds slid by, but nothing happened. What now? Should she ring it again? She looked back at her car and fought the fear and desperation rising in her.

Just before she bolted from the whole idea outright, the door clicked and then opened. On the other side stood a small, Hispanic woman dressed head-to-toe in white.

“Hello,” Maggie said, corralling her purse strap even as she held out her other hand. “I’m here about the nanny position.”

*~*~*

“Doesn’t anyone know how to follow a simple order anymore?” the bellowing, jowl-ridden, over-paunched, balding man at the desk fumed, shaking his head even as he continued to make notes. “I built a whole company, put in oil wells across this state—Midland, West Texas, South Texas—even three in the Gulf, and now my own son can’t get one simple solitary task carried out without messing it up.”

“Dad, it’s not that big of a deal. Q-Main and Transistor will be ready for the track in two weeks. We just need a little more time with Dragnet. He’s not where he needs to be yet.” Keith Ayers fought the urge to shift in his chair. Laid back and nonchalant was by far his best bet with his father. That much he had learned so long ago, he couldn’t clearly remember when it had happened.

One-on-one, head-to-head confrontation had never gotten them anywhere. He clasped his dirt-stained hands in front of him and set his stubble-strewn jaw. His dad was tough, but horses weren’t his specialty. They were Keith’s.

Racing a thoroughbred, especially one with as much promise as Dragnet before it was ready was the best way he knew to ruin one permanently. No amount of blustering changed the fact that Dragnet simply wasn’t ready. “I talked to Ike this morning. He’s thinking we can bring Dragnet up for a real race sometime in July.”

His father exhaled hard, clearly not pleased with the assessment. “I paid $250,000 for that animal, and I don’t like watching my investments sit around eating me out of house and home.”

The fact that house and home weren’t exactly in jeopardy crossed Keith’s mind, but he wisely chose not to say that. “Would you prefer to sink a $250,000 investment by racing him too soon? Trust me on this one, Dad, a little patience now could hold out big rewards later.”

His father scowled, his expression sinking into his jowls. “I didn’t build a billion dollar empire on patience.” Then he nodded. “You’ve got two months.”

May?  That was too soon, but it was all Keith would get, and he knew it. “I’ll tell Ike.” He started to stand and felt his father stand as well. Never. Never a good sign. “Uh, I know my way out.”

“Yes, but you also know your way back in. That’s what concerns me.” The laugh that accompanied the statement tried to pass it off as a joke, but it felt more like a knife to Keith.

His father followed him right to the door and out. “So, have you heard from Dallas? How’s she doing at Yale? Law school going okay?”

In the hallway Keith replaced his beat up, loose straw cowboy hat back over the blue bandana stretched across his head. “Good,” Keith answered with the obligatory nod. “She should be back for Spring Break. Graduation’s in May. Hayden & Elliott after she passes the bar.”

“To infinity and beyond. I like that,” his father said with the first smile Keith had seen from him all afternoon. At the staircase that wound to the upper floors, his father stopped, looked up it, and smiled. “Well. Well.”

Keith’s gaze followed his father’s up the carpeted-just-so steps, and although he first noticed his stepmother next to the railing, he stopped dead when he saw the young lady descending between her and the wall.

“Of course you will get time off occasionally,” his stepmother, Vivian, said. Her suit dress was perfectly pressed all the way up to the ruffled collar that ringed her neck like a flower. That was Vivian, always impeccable lest anyone see she wasn’t perfect. “However, I need you to realize that this is basically a 24 hour, seven day a week job.”

“Oh, yes, Ma’am. That’s not a problem,” the young lady with the mesmerizing head of chestnut brown hair which was falling out of the clip she had in the back of her head said. She pulled the strap of her purse up onto her shoulder. She was coming down, trying to keep her gaze on Vivian out of respect and attention, but she clearly could’ve used the banister Vivian was using as her own. The descent was anything but graceful, more halting and awkward. In fact, she was having so much trouble keeping up with everything that it was two steps from the bottom before the young lady with the dark glasses and cascading tresses even noticed there were others watching her descent. Her glance from Vivian to the two men standing at the bottom threw her attention from the concentration she was obviously exerting to get down the stairs for one moment too long.

As Keith watched, one step from the bottom, disaster struck. He saw it as it happened, but it was like it was in slow motion. She stepped down with her left foot, but her shoe planted awkwardly in the plush carpet. Her ankle turned, and like a puppet falling to the stage, her body pitched forward with a jerk.

“Ahh!” Her scream lasted all of two seconds—the exact amount of time it took for him to realize what was happening and reach out to snag her downward motion, which would’ve pitched her unceremoniously to the hardwood floor of the entryway had he not stepped between her and certain humiliation.

“Oh, watch…!” It was all he got out before she thwacked into him. “Ugh!” The impact of her body on his didn’t so much as move him although it was significant enough to jar her glasses askew. It was only the clasp of his hands on her arms that kept her from bouncing off of him and ending her descent on the floor next to him anyway. When her unscheduled tumble came to a complete stop, she was sprawled across him from his shoulder to his arms, which supported her without effort. In fact it felt more like holding a weightless butterfly than anything.

“Oh! Oh my gosh! I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Mortified, she yanked herself upright away from him although she looked as unhinged from the encounter as he felt. His insides were dancing with amusement and fascination as he watched her disentangle herself from him and wobble on the uncooperative shoe once more.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” She was standing, readjusting her dress, her glasses, herself. “I don’t know why I’m so clumsy today. I…”

“Are you all right?” Keith asked, gazing at her as if he’d just fallen under an angel’s spell. His hands stayed out to catch her again if need be.

“Yeah… Yes. I’m fine.” Perturbed with herself, the young lady shook her head quickly and resumed her attempt to look like she belonged there, which she didn’t. At all. And somehow, he kind of liked that.

He smiled at her, but she was clearly doing her best not to look at him. “You sure?” But she had resumed her concentration on Vivian.

“Conrad,” Vivian said with no small amount of a frown at the ineptitude of her current interviewee, “this is the young lady I told you about. Maggie Montgomery. She’s come about the nanny position.”

“Oh, yes,” Keith’s father said. He extended his hand to her, which she shook even as she continued to fight to get herself under control. “It’s nice to meet you Ms. Montgomery.”

“I have explained to Maggie,” Vivian continued, “that she is on a six month probation period. Anything not up to our standards during that time will be cause for immediate termination.”

Maggie’s gaze fell to the stairs, but she pulled her head up and looked right at Mr. Ayer with a forced smile.

“And that’s acceptable to you?” his father asked.

“Yes, sir. It is.” She looked like a proud filly with her chin up and her hazel eyes flashing determination.

“I suppose you will need two weeks to let your current employer know you are leaving,” Vivian said with a sigh, and Keith couldn’t help but notice the dramatics. She should’ve been an actress.

“Oh,” Maggie said, and he heard the note of concern. “No, Ma’am. I can start as soon as you need me to.” She pulled her fingers up through her purse strap. “I can start now… if that works for you.”

“Wonderful,” Mr. Ayer said. “That’s what I like. Someone who can make decisions.”

“You don’t mind starting today?” Vivian couldn’t hide the pitch of excitement.

Maggie turned to her. “Right now is fine if that’s what you need.”

She was intriguing, mesmerizing, captivating. And yet just why that was, Keith couldn’t accurately tell. She was nothing like the girls he’d been out with. They with their debutant good looks and impeccable manners. No, this one, this Maggie Montgomery, looked more like a nervous, high-strung pony. Proud and strong, and determined not to be broken by anyone.

“Well, then,” Vivian said smartly. “Let’s go meet the children.”

“Good luck, Ms. Montgomery,” his father said, extending his hand to help her down the last step. “It’s nice to have you.”

All the air had gone right out of the room as Keith’s gaze followed her down the hallway and out of sight in the direction of the children’s wing of the estate.

“What’re you still doing here?” his father asked, surveying him. “I thought you had horses to train.”

“I’m on it.” With that, he exited the main house and descended the front steps. There in the driveway sat a car that Keith couldn’t even be sure still ran. It looked like it would be a better fit for a junkyard than in front of his parents’ house. As he started past it, the thought occurred to him that it belonged to her. Her. Maggie Montgomery.

“Well, it will be an interesting two weeks anyway.” With a knowing smile, he strode on. He shook his head at his own joke. They never lasted more than two weeks. Never.

In fact, he wouldn’t have lasted more than two weeks but for the simple fact that they couldn’t get rid of him. He was a member of the family—whether they liked it or not.

*~*~*

“This is Peter,” Mrs. Ayer said, indicating the small boy with the blond hair, sitting at the table coloring slowly. “And this is Isabella.” She picked the little girl with the bright blond curls up into her arms.

“Hello, little one.” Maggie reached a hand out to the soft little face. “You are a sweetie-pie.”

Mrs. Ayer slid the little girl back to the ground and planted her hands on her hips. “Dinner is promptly at 6 p.m. They are to be dressed and ready no later than 5:30. Inez will be able to fill you in on the rest of their schedules.”

Maggie nodded, taking in the information with the sense that even perfection wouldn’t be good enough.

“If you’d like some time to get settled, I can get Inez to watch the children for a few more minutes.”

“Oh, no. I think I’m fine.” Then she remembered. “But I do need to move my car. It’s still out front.”

Mrs. Ayer sighed with disapproval. “Very well. You may park it over at the guesthouse. It’s just through the back, down the lane, and off to the right.”

“It’ll only take me a few minutes,” Maggie said, trying to assure her new employer that she was competent enough to handle all of this.

“You may as well bring your suitcases in as well. Your room will be at the top of these stairs, right next to the children’s rooms.”

“I’m sure I can find it.”

“Inez!” Mrs. Ayer called out the door.

“Yes, Ma’am.”

Maggie couldn’t clearly tell how the maid had been able to answer so quickly. It was as if she had materialized there from thin air.

“Please watch the children while Ms. Montgomery gets her things settled.”

Inez bowed slightly. “Very good, Ma’am.”

Once more Mrs. Ayer surveyed Maggie, and the fact that she didn’t believe this would ever work traced through Maggie’s consciousness. “If you need anything else, let Inez know.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“And now you’d better get that car moved before Jeffrey has a cardiac.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” Something told her she would be saying that a lot now. Pleading with her heels to cooperate long enough to get her back to the car and then back here, Maggie hurried out. The early afternoon Texas sun beat down on the outside surroundings. After having been in the comfort of the mansion’s air conditioning, the combination of humidity and heat hit Maggie like two fists.

She got in the car and took her first real breath. “Oh, thank You, Jesus.” Except for the unceremonious stumble into the hired hand, the interview had gone as well as she could’ve hoped for. “Ugh. How clumsy can you be, Maggie? That was a good one.” Forcing herself not to think about it, she pumped the accelerator and twisted the key to get the little car started. Then she carefully backed up so she could go down the back drive as Mrs. Ayer had instructed.

With a frustrated swipe, Maggie pushed the trail of loose strands of hair from her face and then blew them back up when they didn’t stay. Carefully she drove around the house, which was enormous no matter which angle it was seen from. Her heart pounded in her ears as the car slipped into the grove of hulking trees. Trees seemed to be everywhere. Somehow she had expected them to dissipate beyond the mansion, but if anything, they got more massive and thicker the farther she drove.

“Did she say right or left?” Intensely Maggie scanned the areas on either side of the driveway that had narrowed to a trail. “This is great. I get lost on my first day.”

Then just ahead, off to the right, through the knot of trees, she caught sight of the place. When she got closer, Maggie sucked in a gasp of air. If this was the guesthouse, they certainly treated their guests very, very well. Sporting orange-tan brick with blue-gray accents, the house had a bevy of inlets and cutouts. There were enormous windows, and wraparound accents at the corners, and an inlet door that looked like it alone cost the half the national debt. “Wow.”

Wide-eyed in awe but trying to keep her mind on her present mission, Maggie surveyed the small hill of a lawn, the flowerbeds, and every inlet for some clue as to where she was supposed to park. She turned her gaze up the trail. Surely there was a garage somewhere. “Oh, Jesus. Help.” The trail dovetailed with a small perpendicular drive just beyond the house, and carefully she turned there, hoping maybe this was right. In fact, there was a garage, but the moment she pulled up to it, she had second thoughts. What if someone needed in or out of that garage? If she was parked in the way, that would be a problem.

Twisting her mouth as she tried to find an answer to this dilemma, her heart jumped into her throat when her gaze caught movement in her driver’s side mirror. Fear jerked her head around just in time for her to see the hired hand with the blue bandana sticking out from under the ratty cowboy hat come striding up the side of her car. For a moment she felt better, but it was only for a moment because the reality of being out here alone with no knowledge of the terrain if trouble struck with a guy who felt like the Rock of Gibraltar did nothing to calm her nerves.

She swallowed hard. Very cautiously she reached up and locked her door, praying the others were already locked.

“Hey,” he said when he got to her window. His easy smile spread across his face as she rolled down her window just far enough not to be rude. “Fancy meeting you here.”

It was impossible not to notice his biceps, which looked like massive tree trunks streaming down from the ripped-off sleeves of his denim shirt. In a fight, she would lose without him even trying.

“Hi.” Panic smashed into her, and her lungs constricted around it. “Umm… Mrs. Ayer said I could park here, but I’m not sure where she meant.” Anxiety had never meant what it did at that moment.

“Oh, she did. Did she? Well, that figures.” He laughed, which threw her incomprehension devices into full-throttle. “Na. It’s okay. Swing around back here. We can put it in the barn.”

Maggie nodded although no real signals were getting to her brain. She rolled up the window and backed onto the driveway so she could follow him down the increasingly narrow trail. From behind, he was all denim, save for the bent, straw cowboy hat and those arms. “Oh, dear God, I don’t know about this. Please tell me if I should be doing this.” But as far as she could tell, God was not giving her any other options.

At the end of the drive, mercifully, the trees broke their hold on the surroundings, and she drove out into a clearing and down a gravel road over to the building he had called a barn, but like everything else here, ‘barn’ didn’t quite do it justice. He swung the two doors open and stepped back so she could drive in.

Crossing from outside to in, the darkness enveloped her eyes so that it took her longer than it would’ve seemed necessary to make it safely into the building. Once inside, she shoved the car into park and then had to corral her fear to gather enough courage to open the door. “Oh, God, be with me. I’m asking here.” Busying herself, lest he see just how scared she was, Maggie got out, went to the back, and unlocked the trunk. With a heave she pulled her lone suitcase out, praying it wouldn’t fall apart at her feet.

“Oh, here. Let me get that for you.” He reached out for it even as he stood at the door that stood open.

“No. I can get it.” She tried to swing it out of his reach, but with a soft smile and a wink he took it anyway.

“It’s half a mile back to the house,” he said. “In this heat you’ll be French fried by the time you carry this thing all the way back.”

Her heart was beating so loudly, her brain didn’t have a chance to put up a logical argument, so she nodded, ducked her head, and stepped past him. The bright sunshine beyond the door attacked her eyes, and she squinted as he closed the barn door behind them. Everything in her wanted to take that suitcase back and run, but barring humiliating herself against his strength again, she saw no way to do that. The gravel at her feet was playing havoc with her heels, and she fought to keep her balance and stay up with his strides as they started up the incline to the guesthouse.

He wasn’t tall exactly. Maybe a couple inches taller than her but no more than that. But the solidity of everything about him swept the air from her lungs just the same.

“So, you work here?” she asked, willing her voice to stay steady even as her shoes threatened to pitch her into the sharp white rocks at her feet just as they had pitched her into him at the mansion. The thought made her ears burn.

“Yeah. As little as possible.” There was that smile again, and if she hadn’t been so nervous, it might have had a chance to do serious work on her insides. “I run the stable operation up the way.”

“Stable?” Her brain was having trouble processing anything.

“Horses.”

“Oh.”

They made it back up to the trees, and uneasiness pushed into her consciousness again. She looked around, and the trees seemed thicker now, closing in on her, blocking all escape routes.

“I hear you’re gonna be on the pay roll too,” he said.

“Oh, yeah. Yeah, I am.”

“Well, you must be downright impressive. Most of the time they won’t let anyone within shooting distance of this place that doesn’t have security clearance from the Pentagon.”

They had made it to the main road and headed back to the mansion. Crossing in front of it now, the guesthouse was even more impressive going by slowly—if that was possible. Maggie fought not to gawk at it, but it wasn’t easy. “I passed my background check, and I had a personal reference from the Dean of Early Childhood Development at A&M Kingsville.” She sounded like she was defending herself, and she hated that.

“Impressive.” And he actually sounded impressed. “So, you’re from Kingsville then?”

“Del Rio.” Her heel picked that moment to twist out from under her. “Ugh.” Thankfully, she caught her own balance this time, but it was a close save. “These stupid shoes.”

Skeptically he surveyed her feet. “They don’t make walking look all that easy or that safe.”

“Tell me about it.” She continued walking although he had slowed down in deference to her struggle.

Shaking his head, he pressed his lips together in earnest concern. “Why don’t you take them off? You’re gonna kill yourself on that last quarter up the hill.”

“Oh, yeah. Like I’m going to walk into the Ayer mansion barefoot. That should make a really great first impression.” Sarcasm dripped from her spirit. Who would even make such a dumb suggestion?

He glanced behind them. “Well, nobody comes down this road but me. They ain’t gonna see you anyway, and besides, I’ll warn you before we get too close.”

Maggie still wasn’t so sure, but her ankles were starting to protest rather loudly. “Okay, fine.” She reached down for one shoe but had to scoot her other foot around to keep her balance. She reached out for something solid and met his arm coming the other way.

Smooth skin under her palm ripped sanity away from her. How in the world had she gotten here? Sweat beaded out of her back, and she was quite sure it had nothing to do with the humidity. Quickly she removed first one shoe and then the other. When they were off and she was once again on solid footing, she had to admit it was a good idea, even if her breathing was no longer working properly.

“You got it?” he asked, eyeing her seriously.

“Yeah.” She forced a knot of a smile on her face and started walking. The pavement would’ve been burning hot had it not been shaded by the millions of leaves above them. Just then a breeze swept through the branches and right over them. “Ah.” The sigh of relief was automatic.

“So, you’re an early childhood education major?” he asked as they made their way back up the road. It didn’t take long to understand what he meant about that last quarter of a hill. If it was any steeper than this part, she was in trouble.

“Yeah. I graduated in December. This is the first permanent thing I found.”

“Well, we’re glad to have you. I’m sure Pete and Izzy will keep you on your toes.”

The question of how familiar he seemed in referring to the children traced through her, but before she could voice that thought, he looked at her, and that scattered her thoughts like the pieces of a shattering window.

“So, are you up for the 24-hour thing? Most people hear that and go running for the exits.”

She shrugged, and it took a solid breath to beat the sadness in her chest down. “I like the idea of having a roof over my head. It’s worth a little work to have that.”

He nodded, head down, concentrating on walking. When she looked over at him, she fought not to notice how rugged and tanned his face was. In fact, with that face and that body, he looked like he belonged nowhere else other than out in nature, taming some wild beast. His whiskers were more than a five o’clock shadow. They were a dark emphasis to the sheer masculinity of the rest of him. With a glance he caught her looking at him and smiled. Lines of amusement appeared on either side of his face. “What?”

“Oh. Nothing.” She ripped her gaze away from him. “I just hope I don’t do anything to mess this up.”

When he looked at her again, the smile that was already beginning to get to her was a soft and encouraging. “I think you’ll be just fine.”


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Ebook Romance Stories: Character Insights, “If You Believed in Love”


IYB FINAL COVER 1-1-2014A Person Who Has Influenced My Life

by:  Letty Rahman

This semester I have had the pleasure of taking a course by a fabulous teacher, Professor Elizabeth Forester (Ms. Forester to everyone who knows her).  Now, Ms. Forester is not your typical teacher.  For one, she is tough.  I don’t mean tough like she’ll beat you up.  I mean she doesn’t let you ever take the easy way out.  I’m quite certain she has never seen a Scantron in her life. She probably doesn’t even know what they are. No, Ms. Forester’s tests are all-essay, and you’d better know your stuff when you walk in because it isn’t going to be fill-in-the-blank kind of questions.

On top of that, test time isn’t the only time you’d better be prepared in Ms. Forester’s class.  Every time you walk in those doors, she is going to push you and tease you and pull every nugget of information and understanding out of you.  You would be surprised how often students say things they didn’t even know they knew in that class.

Strangely, I have noticed several types of students in Ms. Forester’s classroom.  There is one type I feel the most sorry for. They took one look at her syllabus and dropped the class.  Oh, yes, in the classroom she fully lives up to her reputation as a slave-driver. At first that scared me too, but I had to have the class so I didn’t have a choice to leave.  I’m so glad now that I didn’t.  I think it was Divine Providence or something that kept me there.

Why?  Because I’ve learned so much–yes, about poems and Jane Austen, but more than that, I’ve learned about life.  I’ve learned that the things we learn in different classes like chemistry and history and even math can fill in and fill out who we become as people.  They are not ultimately about this piece of knowledge and that piece of understanding.  They are about the whole that we become by learning them.

Take, for example, the poems and books we are reading in Ms. Forester’s class.  I won’t lie to you. The Browning poems were a challenge, but Ms. Forester didn’t just stand up there and talk about iambic pentameter and rhyme.  She taught us how to understand the meaning of the words.  Like the one line about Shakespeare and how he was brave enough to put his thoughts and his understandings on paper.  How the person writing the poem thought Shakespeare was crazy for letting people into his world that far, but how, in fact, it was because he let them in that his name has been immortalized throughout the centuries.

Then there’s the whole Jane Austen thing, which I personally thought was… well, whack, to begin with. I mean who cares about these people who think women can and should be bought and sold like cattle? However, as we’ve read and understood and learned, I realized it’s not about that.  It’s not about the fairness of that society.  It’s about people who are trying to be themselves and learn and grow in spite of those rules and rigidity or maybe in defiance of them.

It’s so interesting to me because I sit here trying to explain what Ms. Forester has given to me as a teacher to a student, and it’s all right there in my mind like I can touch it and grab onto it and give it to you. But when I start to write it down, it’s like I can’t capture it.  Maybe it can’t be captured in words.  I don’t know.

What I do know is that Ms. Forester has changed my life.  She has shown me a world I didn’t even know existed, and I don’t think I’m the only one who feels like that.  In Ms. Forester’s class you are not a number.  You are not a lump of flesh who happens to be sitting in a desk.  You are a person.  A real, live person with a history and a story of your own.  In fact, I’ve learned to even look at people differently, to read who they are and where they are with life through this class.

I wish I could explain that, but maybe you just have to sit in her classroom and absorb who she is and what she can show you to ever really understand.  I just wish every student was lucky enough to take her class and to stay long enough to realize that they have something worth sharing as well.

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IYB FINAL COVER 1-1-2014Excerpt from “If You Believed in Love”

On Tuesday the weather had turned decidedly bleak.  The snow, such that it wasn’t, had come and gone, leaving in its wake swirls of nothing and temperatures that chilled right through everything.  Jonathon pulled his coat closer and quickened his steps up to the door of Bennett Hall.  There were no students congregating today, but once again, he was late.  He hated that about himself.  He really did.

But just getting out of that apartment, especially on a day like today, was a major accomplishment.  At the door to the lecture hall, he took a breath, opened the door quietly, and slipped inside.

“Shall I sonnet-sing you about myself?” she read, steeping each word in meaning. “Do I live in a house you would like to see?”

Before he’d even gotten into the desk, Jonathon was once again taken in by her beauty, by her words, by the etherealness of her being.

“Is it scant of gear, has it store pelf?/‘Unlock my heart with a sonnet-key’?”  Her gaze came up off the book and landed right on him.  The look lasted but a fragment of a moment, and yet he felt it all the way through him as if a bomb had gone off in his heart.  Then it was gone, crossing to the other students. “Would someone like to tell me what this poem is about?”

Sliding down into the seat, Jonathon opened his book to House and fought to breathe.  How could one look do that to him?

“Mr…?” she said in that way she had of asking student’s names without asking them.  “I’m sorry.  I didn’t catch your name.”

He glanced up and was instantly woven fast by her gaze.  Swallowing, he gulped down the breath, glancing behind him only to find the solid wooden wall. “Oh.”  He cleared his throat and sat up straighter, neither of which helped.  “Danforth.  Jonathon Danforth.”

A soft smile went through her eyes.  “Well, Mr. Danforth, would you like to tell us what you think this poem is about?”

“Oh. Huh.” Words clogged at the top of his throat all at once, and he coughed to get them unstuck.  “Uh.  I think that the…” Each word came in haltingly unspaced steps as if drunk and on the verge of passing out.  “I think the poem, House,” he added for her benefit so she didn’t think he was a complete loser, “is about how frightening it is to let someone else in.”

That piqued her interest, pulling it up in her eyes, so he continued, gaining confidence with each word.

“At the beginning, Browning is saying, like, ‘So you think you want to come into my house?  You’re asking me to unlock my heart to you and let you come in and see?  I’ll tell you what happens when you do stupid things like that.  People come.  The neighbors and just whoever, and they take a look in your house, in your heart, and they say, ‘Oh, well, I figured he was always much less a person than he seemed on the outside.  I mean look, he smoked, and he didn’t even sleep with his wife anymore.  Yep, could’ve pegged him for a loser.’”

This time it was her, not him that seemed caught in the web.  With one glance at her, he pushed the words from his heart.

“And then at the end, he basically says, it’s not worth it to let the world see who you really are.  Maybe Shakespeare could and did, but he was a fool.”

*~*~*

The words, his words, were spoken with so much eloquence and understanding that Elizabeth had to reach out to even grab back onto life.  “Very nice, Mr. Danforth.” She shook her head without shaking it and flipped her attention away from the man hovering in the back desk all dressed in black to one of her other students closer down front.  “Do you agree with him, Mr. Hansen?”

“With Browning or the old dude?” the student asked.

Elizabeth glanced back up at Mr. Danforth with apology.  “With Mr. Browning.  Do you think it is not smart to let people in?”

“Oh, yeah.  Sure.  I mean people will diss you if you let ‘em.  Even if they don’t really know anything about you.”

“People judge you,” Susana said.  “That’s just the way it is.”

Elizabeth walked slowly across the room.  “And so it’s smart to keep yourself hidden, to not give anyone the key?”

“Either that or you get trampled to death.”

“Uh-huh.”  She opened her book.  “But what about this last line?  ‘With this same key/Shakespeare unlocked his heart,’ once more!’/Did Shakespeare? If so, the less Shakespeare he!”

“What about it?” someone asked.

“What’s he saying?”

“That Shakespeare was an idiot for putting his feelings into words for everyone to read them and see who he really was.”

“Right,” she said and tilted her head inquisitively.  “But is that true?  Was Shakespeare an idiot for writing down his feelings for everyone to read?  And by extension was Robert Browning an idiot for doing the same?”

A moment of pause.

“Well,” Letty from down front said, “kind of, I guess so.  I mean we’ve seen how in love with his wife he was, but we’ve also read some really dark stuff—like Porphyria’s Lover and My Last Duchess.  I mean those aren’t fantasies or thoughts or whatever that I’d let everybody know I had.”

“Do you think less of him because of them?”

*~*~*

Jonathon’s whole attention was captured by her—not just because of her outer beauty but also because she didn’t go for the easy answers.  She didn’t stand at the board and tell them about pentameter and alliteration.  She dug into the poems and brought out more insights and depth than he had even seen reading them once, sometimes twice, and even on occasion three or four times.

“No, not really,” one of the boys said.  “I mean, sometimes I think he’s whack, but sometimes I really get what he’s saying because it’s something I feel—even if I’d use better words to describe it.”

Ms. Forester smiled almost to the point of laughing.  When she grew serious, however, it was a slow process into its depths.  She turned, and her gaze swept the class. “Have you ever heard of Shakespeare?”

The confusion that crossed the room went through Jonathon as well.

“Do you know some of the things he wrote?”

“Um, like plays and stuff,” someone offered.

“Plays like what?” she asked, turning slowly at the far end of the room.

Romeo & Juliet, Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth.”

As if really thinking this through with them, she nodded.  “But this was a man who lived in the sixteenth century.  This was a man, one man, a simple playwright.  Why have his words lasted not just minutes, not just years, but centuries?”

And then Jonathon saw it as well.  His gaze snapped back to his book.  Was the point really there, or was she making it up?  He read and re-read those last couple of lines.

“Is Browning saying it’s stupid to be like Shakespeare, or is he really saying the only way for your work to live on into the eternities past even your death is to open your heart and let the world in, to let them see who you really are?”

Not a sound.  Not a breath in the whole room.

Without looking at her book, she gazed at them. “Rather I prize the doubt/Low kinds exist without,/Finished and finite clods, untroubled by a spark.”  Her pause held every breath in the room.  “Was Shakespeare a finished and finite clod untroubled by a spark?”

“No,” someone breathed.  “He was brave enough to live.”

“How do we know that, Ms. Moore?”

“Because we still have his words, we know he lived.”

Ms. Forester nodded thoughtfully.  “Because he was brave enough, or crazy enough, to open his heart and let the world see.”

If anyone had so much as breathed, it would’ve knocked Jonathon completely over.  He could hardly get to the depth of her eyes much less her words.

“Turn to Appearances, page 31.”  Without more than a second’s time, she continued without reading her book. “And so you found that poor room dull,/Dark, hardly to your taste, my dear?/Its features seemed unbeautiful;/But this I know—‘twas there, not here,/You plighted troth to me, the word/Which—ask that poor room how it heard.

“And this rich room obtains your praise/Unqualified—so bright, so fair,/So all whereat perfection stays?/Aye, but remember—here, not there,/The other word was spoken!—Ask/This rich room how you dropped the mask!

“Browning uses the metaphor of a house again in this one, a structure of some kind with different rooms.  And what’s the story with this house?”

“The guy likes one room but not the other.”

Quiet depth filled her eyes.  “Why?”  She turned, and her gaze caught a raised hand. “Mr. Hansen?”

“Because in one room he was trying to be something he wasn’t, and in the other, he dropped the mask.”

“And the first room, where he was wearing the mask was…?”

“Unbeautiful,” Susana said.  “Dull and dark.”

Ms. Forester seemed lost in the thought.  “And the second room? What was it like?”

“Unqualified,” someone down front said, “so bright, so fair.”

“He’s saying the same thing in both poems, is he not?” She turned on the toe of her boot and gazed at the whole of her students.  “Be who you are.  Drop the mask. Be brave enough to show the world, and far from losing yourself and being criticized like a finite clod, you may be immortalized like Shakespeare, or at the very least, the room you’re standing in might just seem a little brighter than the one where you were before.”  Her attention jumped up to the clock. “Oh, look at the time.  Be sure to read the last selections for Thursday’s class.  See you then.”

It was like snapping awake from a dream and not being at all able to shake it.  Jonathon stood as the others did as well.  His mind spun trying to think of something, some reason that could keep him here with her for one more minute.  He checked his things, gathering them slowly, watching her down front the whole time.  One of the other students stepped up to her, and she bent to listen.  What could he ask her?  What question would be good enough to go to the front?

But his mind was not cooperating at all.  Finally with a sigh, he gave up the search, and with only one more look, he headed out.

Outside it was still cold.  Frigid really.  However, instead of turning to his apartment, he picked up the collar of his coat and headed for the library.  He was glad he’d spent the extra time there on Tuesday.  That helped him be ready for today.  However, as his mind traced through his answer, he couldn’t help but feel like an idiot.  She was going to think he was completely lame.  There wasn’t one truly deep, brilliant insight in any of it.  And sadly, he’d thought he knew what that poem was about.

Determination to dig a little deeper seeped into him.  It wasn’t like it was a formal requirement.  She didn’t say, “Do it or else.”  Nor was it a challenge as in “You have to do it like me to be worthy of my time.” Instead it was more, “Do it because…”  Because it will teach you something important about life and about yourself.  He was intrigued by that, more than he could say.  And he couldn’t wait to get into these new poems and see what they had to teach him.


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