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Ebook Romance Stories: “Coming Undone” Review


Coming Undone Final 1-15-2014Reviewed by:  Writing in Purple

If you’ve ever searched for love, been afraid to love, or lost someone you love, you will love Coming Undone.

This is the story of Ben, living his life free of the responsibilities and problems that come with commitment, haunted by a past that causes him to fear giving his heart to another. But life throws him an unexpected curve, and he finds himself beginning to unravel. Uncertain why he feels drawn to her, he seeks the guidance of the attractive hospice social worker who seems to possess the quiet strength and perseverance he desperately needs but does not know how to find.

This is the story of Kathryn, the young woman with all aspects of her life neatly in place. She has a job she loves, a nice apartment, great friends and a deep faith in the God she serves. And yet, the greatest longing of her heart goes unsatisfied, a man to love and cherish her the way she sees him in her dreams. She wonders sometimes if God has given her this yearning as a lesson in patience or does He have a greater plan about to be unveiled?

When Ben meets Kathryn amidst the storms raging in their individual lives, each feels inexplicably drawn to the other, even against their better judgment. Pushing their doubts aside to pursue a friendship both exhilarating and frightening in ways they never expected, will they find only disappointment or does God have something else in mind?

Staci’s gift of writing both points of view, allowing us to see inside the heart and soul of both Kathryn and Ben as they yearn for what will fill their aching hearts and search for the happiness that eludes them is remarkable. The depth of feeling, intensity of emotion and gripping drama will pull you into the hearts and souls of her characters in a way that keeps you turning the pages of Coming Undone long after bedtime.

Have a box of tissue nearby and let Staci melt your heart, strengthen your faith and inspire your imagination as you experience Coming Undone. It is truly an expression of emotion that will remain in your heart long after the final page is read.

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Ebook Romance Stories: Cowboy, Chapter 1

#9 Top-Rated Religious Fiction @ Amazon

Cowboy New 2-2014

Cowboy

The Harmony Series, Book 1

by:  Staci Stallings

~*~*~*~

To all those who think that love has let them down…

Please never stop believing in love’s power to heal all things.

In God’s eyes, the light of hope shines eternal

where love is concerned… and so it is for you.

 ~*~*~*~

Chapter 1

“You’re never going to believe who’s coming to Denver!” Lynn Isley squealed as she streaked into the empty restaurant from the kitchen doors.

Standing at the cash register counting change, Beth McCasland barely even looked up. “Who?”

Lynn dropped her voice conspiratorially although there wasn’t a single soul in the place to overhear her anyway. “Ashton Raines!”

“65.82.” Beth dumped the pennies back in the register and frowned. “Ashton Raines?  Isn’t he that country singer?”

That country singer?” Lynn asked in disbelief as she tied her blue-and-white Harry’s All-Night Diner apron around her waist. “Are you kidding me? Ashton Raines is the country singer. He not only won Male Vocalist of the Year three years in a row, he won Entertainer of the Year last year and Song of the Year, Album of the Year, and… Beth!”

Somewhere just past one of the ‘of the Years’ Beth had tuned Lynn out.

“What?” She looked up from the drawer innocently, and when she saw the look on Lynn’s face, she repeated, “What?”

“Where’d you go?”

“The drawer’s ten cents off.” Beth looked back at it in consternation. “What do you think we should do?”

Lynn shook her head. “Who cares?”

“I do.” A moment of thought and Beth pulled a dime out of her own pocket and dropped it into the register.

In disbelief, Lynn surveyed her friend, her dark eyes flashing. “What’d you do that for?”

Beth shrugged and slammed the drawer. “It’s either that or hear Harry yell for two hours.”

“But…” Lynn began just as the bell on the front door sounded.

“Customers,” Beth said, indicating the door and signaling that the conversation was over with one word. She tucked a wayward blonde wavy-curl behind her ear, grabbed three menus, and started toward the door without bothering to wait for Lynn to so much as exhale.

*~*~*

“Ashton, what in the world are you doing up there?” Barry Braxton yelled to the stonewashed jean-clad figure leaning perilously over the edge of the top row of bleachers.

“These bleachers have to be up by seven,” Ashton yelled back over the din of workers surrounding him without so much as looking down at his manager.

“They will be,” Barry called, “but if you fall, we won’t be needing them anyway.”

Irritation at being treated like a three-year-old crawled through Ashton’s chest as he twisted the wrench on the bolt he was working on with three more quick jerks. “I’m not going to fall, Barry.”

“Well, why don’t you come on down anyway?” Barry set his hands on the rolls of excess weight just beneath his off-brown, button up shirt. “Really. There’s no reason for you to be up there. I’m sure the crew can get it.”

“Look around you, Bare.” Ashton waved the wrench angrily. “We go on in three hours. Does it look like they’re going to be ready?”

Barry shook his balding head in disgust. He really couldn’t argue with that as much as he obviously wanted to. With the concert set to start in three hours, Ashton knew his manager would’ve preferred him to be in his dressing room getting ready rather than tightening bolts on the bleachers for their latest venue. However, here he was twisting bolt after bolt tighter and tighter, wrenching his anger and frustration into them as if that would somehow make everything better.

After a full thirty seconds Barry stalked off leaving his golden egg hanging off the edge of a set of bleachers that looked like it might fall any second. Ashton didn’t so much as watch him leave. Barry, of all people, knew Ashton’s stubborn streak ran a mile deep and just as wide. And the fact that he had acquired a death wish in the last year didn’t help matters.

Trying not to think lest the memories swarm him again, he bent his head and body into the work. If he could just keep working, keep moving, keep going, somehow he would find a way past the hurt. If he didn’t, Humpty Dumpty would look easy to put back together by comparison.

*~*~*

“So, do you want to go?” Lynn asked as she walked up to the counter where Beth stood during a slight lull in the afternoon lunch chaos.

“Go where?” Beth asked, tallying up three tickets at the same time.

Lynn leaned on the counter. Her freckled arms created a triangle with her waist. “The concert.”

Wishing Lynn would leave her alone so she could concentrate, Beth bit the pink lipstick of her bottom lip. “What concert?”

“Hello, Beth…? Is anybody in there?” Lynn waved her hand in the air.

The bells on the front door jingled. Without bothering to uphold her end of the conversation, Beth stepped around the counter. “I’ll be right back.” She heard Lynn growl in frustration, but there were other things in the world far more important than concerts and having fun. On top of that priority list was eeking out a living. She met the two customers at the door. “Good afternoon. Would you like a booth or a table?”

*~*~*

Ashton heard the familiar music the second it poured down from the enormous speakers three levels above him. The roar of the crowd that followed the music never ceased to amaze him. On the outside he looked ready—calm, cool, professional, but inside he was a disaster waiting to happen. This was the hardest part of every show. Right now she would’ve been with him, holding his hand right to the stage steps, telling him good luck, and kissing him. What he wouldn’t have given for one more kiss.

He could feel her even now, and every part of him wanted nothing more than to walk away from it all—walk away and never come back. Without her, everything had become too hard, too draining, too overwhelming. Just as the pain threatened to take him over the edge, he heard it—the four notes—his cue, and in with one giant shove, he stuffed all the hurt back down and stepped up the stairs and onto the stage as the entire arena exploded in lights, music, and screaming around him. In fact, it was so loud that not one person in the entire arena heard his heart snap right down the middle.

*~*~*

“You going home?” Lynn asked as Beth grabbed her coat from the rack.

She slid her arms into the warmth of the wool, knowing how the early April chill in Colorado could seep into a person despite all their best efforts. “Yeah, Tori should be here any time now, and I’ve got to stop at my parents’ to get Kenzie.”

“How’s she doing?” Lynn asked with genuine concern.

“Oh, growing like a weed.” Beth laughed softly and pushed the blonde curl that never quite made it into the clip at the back of her head from the edge of her face. No matter how many clips she used, she could never quite get her hair to stay up through a full eight-hour shift. “I can’t believe she’ll be starting kindergarten in the fall.”

“No kidding.” Lynn’s concern sank on the sigh that went through Beth. “You okay?”

“Yeah.” Beth ducked so her friend couldn’t see the real answer. “It just hard sometimes.” Buttoning the coat was a good excuse not to look up.

“I know, but I’m sure Kevin would be proud of how well she’s done.”

Beth smiled through the ache, which stabbed viciously into her heart. She grabbed her things from the counter. “Well, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Okay, you take care—and drive careful.”

“I will.”

Lynn watched her friend go. It had to be hard to go home every night with a child and all alone at the same time. Worse, the only places Beth ever went were her parents’ house, the diner, and home. The only time she ever went out was when Lynn forced her to, and it had been far too long since their last outing.

The radio behind her crackled. “KGRC, is proud to welcome Ashton Raines to The Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado on June 12th…”

The concert. Somehow she would find a way to talk her friend into going. It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing.

*~*~*

“Hey, great show, Ashton,” Barry said, slapping him on the back the second he descended into backstage after the second encore.

Ashton forced a smile onto his face. “Thanks.”

“We’ve got some people backstage,” Barry continued as though Ashton hadn’t heard all this a million times before.

“There he is!” someone from down the hall yelled, and in a breath he was crushed by a sea of fans.

Overwhelming numbness took over as he accepted the pieces of paper being shoved in his face. Over and over he signed a name that no longer seemed to even belong to him. It was everywhere. On T-shirts, CD jackets, programs, in lights above the entrance to every auditorium door he walked through.

As he signed the name yet another time, it occurred to him that somehow he had lost everything—not even his own name was his anymore. He wasn’t Ashton Raines, and yet if he wasn’t Ashton Raines, who was he, and when he had ceased to exist as a real person?

“That’s enough!” Barry held his hands up, forcing his way through the crowd to make a path for Ashton to follow. “We appreciate you all coming out! Thank you! Thank you!”

Somehow Ashton followed his manager, somehow his feet worked, somehow… and yet if he had to explain just how, he would never have been able to.

*~*~*

Beth lay on Kenzie’s bed, the book in one hand, Kenzie resting on the other arm. “‘Open the door,’ the prince commanded, and the guards obeyed. When the door opened, there stood Katrina in her dress of rags. ‘Hello,’ said the prince kindly. ‘Hello,’ Katrina said. ‘May I have this dance?’ the prince asked, holding out his hand to her. She took it, and they danced the whole night away. The end.”

Beth closed the book and then looked down and smiled. Kenzie. The soft little face. The rosy cheeks. The most beautiful child in the world. Her last precious gift from Kevin. At times it seemed she was almost past the pain, and then at other times, like tonight, the thought of going to a bed devoid of his spirit threatened to fling her into a pit of despair.

Five years. Five long years, and still she missed him, and at that moment, watching their daughter sleep, the soft baby blonde curls fanned out on the pink pillow, she knew she would miss him forever.

*~*~*

“We’ve got some new material in,” Barry said as Ashton put his feet up on the coffee table, leaned his head back against the couch, and closed his eyes. “Meredith thinks one of them is a keeper.”

“Hmm.”

“Anyway, I thought maybe tomorrow on the way to Atlanta we could give it a once over—just to see what you think,” Barry continued, going over his checklist. “The concert in Tucson sold out yesterday in under two hours. They’re thinking about adding a second show. What do you think?”

“Fine,” Ashton said without ever opening his eyes.

The to-do list went silent. “Ken called. He’s wondering how you’re doing.”

Ashton was really tired of answering this already age-old question.

“How are you doing?” Barry asked pointedly. “Really?”

Slowly Ashton exhaled—knowing full well that the truth and what Barry wanted to hear were two totally different things. “You know me, Bare.” He opened his eyes to a reality he now hated.

“Yes, I do, and I’m not the only one who’s worried about you.”

Ashton smiled at that. Barry was worried all right—for himself mostly.

“I’m fine.” With no small amount of effort, Ashton pulled himself off the couch. “Just a little tired.”

Barry followed him up off the couch without taking his gaze off him.

“What time are we pulling out in the morning?” Ashton asked, stretching slowly, the starched shirt he still wore from the concert stuck in weird angles to the dried sweat on his back.

“Ten.”

“Then I’d better get my beauty rest.” Ashton yawned. “I’d hate to be sick for Atlanta.”

“Yeah,” Barry said unenthusiastically. “I’ll be here to get you around nine-thirty?”

“I’ll be ready.” Ashton followed Barry to the door. “And I promise we’ll go over the new stuff tomorrow.”

“That’s great.”

He held the door open for his manager. “Well, good night, Bare.”

“Night,” Barry said, but the closing door cut off the word.

Ashton exhaled and let his eyelids fall shut. It was true he was tired, but this tired had nothing to do with his work on stage. This tired was something he had never experienced in his life until now. It had nothing to do with sleep and everything to do with the hole he found every time he looked into his heart. He shook his head to clear it of the disturbing thoughts and went to take a shower.

Cowboy New 2-2014

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The Story: Coming Undone

Coming Undone Final 1-15-2014#1 Religious Fiction, #1 Religion & Inspirational Amazon!

Coming Undone

by:  Staci Stallings

Ben Warren had life all figured out. At 35, he’s successful in his work and free as a bird everywhere else.  He has no desire to be tied down like some of his friends, and he sees no reason to change that.  Then the unthinkable happens and causes him to rethink everything about everything.

Kathryn Walker can’t figure out what she’s doing wrong in the dating department.  The rest of her life makes sense.  She’s compassionate, strong, honest, hard-working and still alone.  She wonders if she is doomed to spend forever single.  Little does she know that fate is taking a major turn in her life.  In fact, she doesn’t even see it happening until it has.  Can she ever get past the fact that Mr. Right didn’t show up in the way she thought he would?

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Thoughts on Coming Undone

Romantic Excerpt from “Lucky”

Romance is in the air in this excerpt from the Christian Romance Novel, “Lucky”
by:  Staci Stallings

Danae’s gaze fell. She sat there without saying anything for a long moment, and then she tossed her hair back when she picked her gaze up to meet his. “So does that mean I get free tickets to your concerts?”

Kalin laughed at the 180-degree turn they had somehow made. Skepticism poured through him. “I don’t know. Do you want free tickets?”

There was only teasing in her face when she looked at him. “Yeah. And I’m thinking I’d better get them now because they’re going to be impossible to get in a month.” Letting the rest of the serious conversation go, she spun slightly and leaned back into him as the sun reached for the horizon opposite the river.

“Yeah? You just want to see Ashton Raines,” he said, pushing the possibility of what she could be telling away from him.

“No.” Her finger traced up and down his arm, sending electricity corkscrewing through him. “I’ve heard Phoenix Rising has this hot new singer all the girls are going to be crazy for.”

Throwing his head back, he laughed out loud at that. “And how do you know that?”

She arched her neck and smiled up at him. “Because I’m already crazy for him, and I’ve got really good taste.”

He shook his head slowly as he bent his lips to hers. Crazy was the least of his worries.

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Romance Stories: A First Chapter, “If You Believed in Love”


IYB FINAL COVER 1-1-2014If You Believed in Love

by:  Staci Stallings

Chapter 1

 “I do not believe I’m doing this.”  Jonathon Danforth strode past the knots of college students who were draped and drawn over every available step and statue.  Had it been cold, they all surely would’ve taken refuge elsewhere, but New York was experiencing one of those fascinating if completely frustrating warm snaps in the middle of January.

It couldn’t last.  They never did.  That’s why Jonathon wore his black wool coat even today when it was 60 degrees out.  He was ready for the moment the cold front, that one not even predicted yet, blew in.  Climbing the steps, he asked himself again, “Ugh.  What am I doing here?  This is completely insane.”

Still he reached for the large door and entered Bennett Hall.  Inside was considerably more crowded and considerably colder as well.  It was nice to see the good people of New York Central College didn’t waste money on little issues like heat and light.  His gaze slid to the ceiling where the lighting, such that it wasn’t, glowed dimly.  With a snort of derision and disgust, he made his way through the old lobby, dotted with students.

They were all young.  Nineteen, twenty.  No more than 22.  Some looked at him.  Most were content to ignore him.  In the middle of the lobby, he stopped and dug out his schedule.  English Literature. Room 103.

As he stuffed the schedule back in his pocket, he had to ask himself yet again why he was doing this.  It wasn’t like he needed an education.  He had one.  Two if you counted life experience which he definitely did.  And yet, here he was, standing at the doors of an old lecture hall that held little if any fascination for him.  Why? drifted through him again, but he beat that back.  Did it matter why?  Did it really?

He was here.  He had made this decision, and now he was going to go through with it whether he liked it or not.

It was a thing of beauty.  Lecture Hall 103.  Elizabeth Forester had been here, in the lecture hall, since eleven a.m.  It was not required that teachers, uh, professors get there two hours before the class was to start, but Elizabeth simply couldn’t help herself.  The old English wood, the desks placed just so.  They didn’t make them like this lecture hall anymore.  It was a throwback to a time long before when students came and sat up straight, ready and eager to learn.

Of course in the past three years since she’d become an actual professor, she had seen very few of such students.  Many today were not interested in doing more than minimal work and collecting a good grade (somehow that the two didn’t go readily hand-in-hand never really made a dent in their social calendars until right before finals).  She wanted to be angry about that, to make them understand what literature could do for a person, but she had no real way of conveying that except to her own heart, so she contented herself in presenting the material and letting what happened, happen.

But 103.  That was a different matter altogether.  First, it was storied—for her anyway.  It was where she had first come into the hallowed halls of higher education as a wide-eyed freshman more years ago than she wanted to admit.  And there was always the aura of Professor Avery, her first mentor, that hung about the place.

As she sat at the old desk which really served no real purpose anymore, save that they couldn’t get it out of the room, she thought about Professor Avery.  “Elizabeth, you are a fine student with a great passion for fine literature.  Have you ever considered teaching?”

And thus had the trajectory of her life forever changed.  It was odd, she thought, running her hand slowly across the smooth old wood, how one minute your life could be so one way and the very next, it would never be the same again.

Although the classroom could hardly be called full, Jonathon took a seat in the back and pulled the schedule out once more.  English Literature was bad enough.  He’d hate to stumble into a really bad class.

Voices came from around him, but he paid no real attention to them.  They were from a different world, a world that, though he might try, he would never again inhabit.  He bent and reached into his black satchel for the notebook he’d purchased for three dollars at the bookstore.  It was only a single subject notebook, not even distinctive.  He shook his head at the cost and placed it on the desk.  So many things had changed since the last time he’d sat in a room like this, praying it would be over and swearing he would never come back.

With a small sigh, he opened the notebook, took out his pen, and in careful block letters wrote:  ENGLISH LITERATURE across the center of the top page.

“Great.  We’re so screwed,” a pasty kid with bad skin and a nose ring said as he sat down with his friend right in front of Jonathon. “We got the Wicked Witch of the East.”  The kid sat or rather slumped into his desk.

“Yeah, dude,” his friend, an equally savory subject of no more than twenty, said as he fell into the desk next to his friend.  “Rachel had her last semester, and she said she required papers and all that shit.”

Jonathon swallowed and beat down the impulse to pulverize the two.  So much had changed since he’d been in a classroom, so much, and he wondered once again why he had let Janet talk him into this.  He dropped his gaze to his paper and wrote down the time of the class 1:00-2:30 p.m.  Tuesday and Thursday.  He had no syllabus or he would’ve written the teacher’s name also.

“If she gives us papers, dude,” nose-ring boy said, “I am so out of here.  I don’t have time for shit like that.  It’s not like I don’t have a life.”

Yes, Jonathon thought, a sad, pathetic little existence that will no doubt only get dimmer and darker the longer you take a breath.

“Good afternoon, class.”  The teacher’s voice, though not exactly English held a mysterious accent that Jonathon snagged on immediately. 

He looked up and sat up straighter.  Good idea or not, he was here, and he was going to make the best of it.

“Class,” Elizabeth tried again.  Although it was precisely 1:00, students still milled about, sitting on the desks, conversing with their friends, standing at the back doors of the hall.  “Um, excuse me.  If you could all come on in and take your seats, we can begin.”

They didn’t really pay her much mind, so with frustrated determination she turned to the chalkboard.   With penmanship that would’ve snarled the mind of the great English masters, she began the lesson.  “This is English Literature.  I am Ms. Forester.  My office hours are from 9 to 11 a.m. on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  You may come see me about any problems you are having.”  Information transferred, she strode to the desk as the students found desks and fell silent.

Pulling the syllabuses with her, she strode to the first of the rows and handed half of them one way and half the other.  “These are the syllabuses. I suggest you take them home and commit them to memory.  They are requirements, not suggestions.”

The groan she had come to expect began on one side and crossed the sea of seats to the other. 

“There are five books on the syllabus.  We will read all five in their entirety.”

More groans.

“Plus, you will have four papers,” she continued without pause, “and three tests.”

“Jeez. What are you trying to do, kill us?” a student down front asked.

“No,” she replied coolly.  “I’m trying to teach you.”  Her gaze snapped from that student up the rows to make sure everyone had the syllabus.  Turning, she readjusted her glasses.  “Now.  We will start with our section on English poetry.”  At the desk she lifted one of the little paperback books she had brought with her.  This particular one looked shabby compared with those the students who thought that far in advance had purchased.  But that was both to be expected and quite unavoidable. No book in her possession lasted longer than four read-throughs.  She had come to expect them to fall apart long before she got tired of them. “That would be this book.”

She held it up in case they could decipher colors better than words.  Opening it, she hardly took a breath before her gaze fell to the words, and she was transported once again to a place and a time that made more sense than any other place she had ever occupied.

“The rain set in early tonight,” the teacher, Ms. Forester, read from the little book that looked a hundred years old and sounded older.  “The sullen wind was soon awake,/It tore the elm-tops down for spite,/and did its worst to vex the lake:/I listened with heart fit to break.”

Something about the young woman and how she read drew Jonathon’s full attention to her though he had never been a big fan of poetry. 

Her gaze swept the class.  “When glided in Porphyria; straight/She shut the cold out and the storm,/and I kneeled and made the cheerless grate/Blaze up, and all the cottage warm.”  The words came from her softly, mysteriously as if she knew something no one else did.

Though he didn’t notice, he tilted his head and riveted his gaze onto her.  She seemed ethereal, as if only partially connected to this earth.

“To set its struggling passion free/From pride, and vainer ties dissever,/And give herself to me forever.”

It was much like being caught in a cobweb you can’t get out of; it clings—to your clothes, to your body, to everything.  Only these words clung not to his clothes nor his body, but to his spirit.  He tried to shake them loose, but they were captivating.

“That moment she was mine, mine, fair,/Perfectly pure and good:  I found/A thing to do, and all her hair/In one long yellow string I wound/Three times her little throat around,/And strangled her.”

With a gulp, Jonathon backed up.  His eyebrows narrowed on the thought.  What was this?  They were ten minutes into class, and she was already reading poetry about some idiot killing the woman he loved?  He slid back in his desk and fought not to sigh.  She was just like all the rest of the punk-nosed, acne-laden idiots that populated this institute of supposedly higher learning.  If he could’ve gotten up the courage or the energy, he would’ve stood up and left.  In fact, he glanced at the door, wishing he had fought harder against his sister’s insane suggestion.

Frustration crowded in on him as he shook his head, tapped his pen on his notebook, and forced his attention back to her and the reading of death.  This was just what he didn’t need.

“And thus we sit together now,/And all night long we have not stirred,/And yet God has not said a word!”

Jonathon looked around. Maybe there was a thought police guy close enough he could bust her for saying God in a public university.  At least then he could get out of this nightmare and go home to his couch where he should’ve been smart enough to stay in the first place.

“He killed her?” one kid asked down front in confusion.

Ms. Forester looked at him.  “He did.”

“Man, that’s jacked up,” the kid in front of Jonathon said.

“Dude,” the kid next to him said, “that’s just wrong.”

“Why?” Ms. Forester asked, and Jonathon’s eyebrows shot for the ceiling.

Was she kidding?  Reading things like that to impressionable kids who might think it sounded like fun?  It was all he could do to force himself to stay in the seat.  Dropping this class sounded like a very good idea.  In fact, he might just conveniently not even drop but just never show up again. It wasn’t like he was the one who had paid for the class anyway.

“Why’d he kill her?  I don’t get it,” a young lady down front said.  “Didn’t she like come to see him and everything?”

“He killed her to keep her,” Ms. Forester said as if that made all the sense in the world.  “He didn’t want her to find another, and so rather than risk that, he killed her before she could lose her purity and innocence.”

“Well, that’s one way to do it,” the kid in front of Jonathon said, and with everything in him he wanted to bop the kid on top of the head.

“Is it?”  The dark eyes hidden behind the stark, small glasses landed right in front of Jonathon, startling him far more than he could readily admit.  “Does it make sense?  Can you kill love in order to keep it?”

“No,” another young lady from the front said.  “If you kill it, you don’t get to keep it.  It… like… dies.”

“Yes,” Ms. Forester said, and Jonathon saw the con, “but it says, ‘And yet God has not said a word!’  So God’s obviously okay with it, right?”

“I don’t know. Wait a couple days,” one girl said.  “The smell alone will tell him that wasn’t a good idea.”

“Why not?” Ms. Forester leaned into the front rows.  “Why is it not a good idea?  She can’t not love him now.  Right?”

“Because, Miss, if she’s dead, he don’t get to keep her, and she don’t love him neither,” another guy tried. “He just gets to sit there with her for awhile, and then he gets to bury her, and love is just like… gone.”

That pushed Jonathon back from the conversation for good. As intrigued as he had been for most of the class, he didn’t hear one other thing.

Well, at least she had their attention, Elizabeth thought as she pointed out the reading assignment of fifteen poems for the next session over the noise of the departing students.  They were already back to social hour, and with a sigh, she relinquished her time with them.  It hadn’t gone badly, too badly anyway.  That was something.

Gathering up her things, she slid the extra syllabuses into her over-the-shoulder satchel and erased the board.  Her heart did a little slide at the sight of her name on that board.  How overwhelmingly in awe of Professor Avery she had been that first day.  As her hand made large, sweeping arcs, erasing her name from memory, she couldn’t help but hope she had made a difference in someone’s life today like he had made in hers all those years ago.

It was what every teacher wished for, she guessed.  At least the ones who cared.  The truth was, looking at the class today, this class, her class, she knew that English Literature, would be long forgotten by most if not all the second they stepped out of those doors.  It was a least of the worst electives for most.  Not that she blamed them, but she did wish… 

The back door snapped open, jerking her from her reverie.  The next class in here wasn’t for an hour and a half.  She had checked.  However, the man who stepped in was not any faculty member that she had ever met.  She stumbled over both the darkness of his features and his scowl. “Um, can I help you?”

Without answering, he stepped through the back desks, and when he stood, he held up a black scarf.  “Sorry,” he said.  “I left this.  It was a gift from my sister.  She would kill me if I lost it.”

“Ah.”  Elizabeth raised her chin in understanding, but in the next instant questioned everything about him.  He was older, much older than most of her students, and although she searched her memory, she couldn’t remember a single interaction they’d had the entire class.  She pulled her satchel over her shoulder and started up the steps.  “Are you…”  She had to clear her throat to get it all out.  “Hm.  Are you…. Um, were you in the English Literature class just now?”

“What? Oh. Yeah.  Very entertaining.”  He slung the scarf around his neck.  “Especially that whole killing your girlfriend thing.  Very nice.”

Softly and somewhat puzzled, she laughed.  When she got to the top step, he followed her to the door and out. 

“Well, the good news is, that was just to get their attention.”  She glanced back past him into the now-empty lecture hall.  “Next class will not be nearly so gory, I assure you.”

His smile was soft, barely there.  “Then I shall look forward to the next class.”  And with that, he clicked his heels, turned, and disappeared into the crush of students.

Looking after him, Elizabeth frowned.  That was odd.  It was like meeting Mr. Darcy’s almost-witty cousin.  Then she shook her head and rolled her eyes.  “Oh, Elizabeth, really.  I swear sometimes I think you think those characters are real.” With a scowl and another shake of her head, she turned and headed the other direction, hoping the library wouldn’t be crowded today.

For two long days and two longer nights, Jonathon had debated about going to class again—or not.  As he crossed the cold, hard concrete, knowing he was late, he shook his head at the stupidity of coming back.  She seemed nice enough—she, of course being Ms. Forester—especially after class, but it was hardly likely that she even knew he was on the planet.  She didn’t even know he was in a class she’d taught for an hour and half.  That either said a lot about him or a lot about her, and he wasn’t entirely sure which annoyed him more.

Carefully, quietly, he pulled the large wooden door to the lecture hall open and peered in.  Just as he was afraid, class had already started.  Well, at least his grade wasn’t in jeopardy as it had been his first go-round with the education system.  Slipping quietly in, he crossed past two other students to his seat in the back.

“I would I could adopt your will,” she read at the front. “See with your eyes, and set my heart/Beating by yours, and drink my fill/At your soul’s springs—your part my part/In life, for good and ill.”

Jonathon flipped his book open and found the page.  Two in the Campagna.  He’d liked that selection.  Mostly because it was short and also because no one died.

“Sounds like Browning had it bad,” a guy down front said.

“Yes, you’re right,” Ms. Forester said.  Then she stopped.  “I’m sorry. What’s your name?”

“Oh, uh.  Adam.”

“Adam…?” she asked, searching for the last name.

“Reynolds.”

“Mr. Reynolds,” she said as if she’d just stepped off a carriage in Old England, “would you like to expand on your comment about Mr. Browning’s love life?”

“Oh, well,” Adam said as if he’d never heard a question quite like that one.  “He’s just all ‘O my dove’ and ‘I yearn upward, touch you close.’ I mean it sounds like he’s got some serious needs he’s trying to get this chick to take care of.”

The answer was crude, and even if Adam was trying not to be, Jonathon rolled his eyes in embarrassment for her.  To have to expound on that one would have landed him in the hospital with an aneurism. 

“You’re right, Mr. Reynolds.  Mr. Browning did have some serious needs as you put it.  He was in love, deep, deep desperate love, with his soulmate.  Her name happened to be Elizabeth Barrett Browning.”

“Whoa. Whoa. Hold up,” another young man down front said.  “Didn’t she write that other one?  That ‘How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways’ at the end?”

Ms. Forester smiled that little smile that said she knew secrets they could only guess at.  “Very good, Mr….?”

“Oh, Taylor.  Roman Taylor.”

“Very impressive, Mr. Taylor.  You read the assignment and can quote it.”

“I’d heard that one before,” Roman said.  “It’s on like Hallmark cards and sh… stuff.”

She laughed and then fell serious.  “The Brownings are one of the greatest love stories in all of English Literature.  The best part is, they were for real.”

“Did he kill her too?” one of the guys on the other side asked.

Without hesitation, Ms. Forester turned her attention to him.  “Mr….?”

“Cruz.”

“Mr. Cruz.” Ms. Forester took a moment to regather herself. “No, Robert did not kill Elizabeth, but they were both very in touch with the fact that love here on earth does come to an end.  They often wrote of such things as losing the other and the indelible pain that would bring.”

“So were they like in a war or something?” one of the girls asked, and when she saw her teacher begin the question, she answered it.  “It’s Letty.  Letty Rahman.”

Ms. Forester tipped her head to the side, illuminating the wisps of light brown hair that escaped from the weave of the two braids twisted at the back of her head.  “No, Ms. Rahman.  They were not at war.  There were wars going on, to be sure, but the English society during which the Brownings and the others we will be studying wrote was characterized by extreme manners in genteel society.  For example, people in the upper classes addressed one another as Mr. and Mrs.—even if they were married.”

“If they were married?”

“Yes.  It was all very formal and proper.  There were rules about society and about family, and you did not break these rules or terrible things would happen.  You might end up penniless and destitute.  You might end up married to some scoundrel who took you as a bride for your family’s money.  Or you might have to marry someone not for love but for family honor or to keep the family from dishonor.  For young women, life revolved around whom they would marry and who would marry them.”

“That’s whack.  Who needs a guy to be all up in your business?”

Ms. Forester turned and questioned the petitioner with one raise of the eyebrow.

“Susanna Suertes,” the girl replied.

“Ms. Suertes.”  Like she was gliding on glass, Ms. Forester strode to the space just in front of the girl four rows back almost exactly between Jonathon and the teacher.  He swallowed the trance down, fighting to break free, but it did not leave.

“In this time period, women were considered no better than cattle or horses.  They were basically property.  Fathers paid suitable and sometimes unsuitable gentleman to marry their daughters.  That was called a dowry.  If she did not have a dowry, a young lady’s chances of being suitably married were drastically reduced and therefore her chances for a life of anything more than life as a servant were greatly reduced as well.  But you have to understand, it wasn’t like a young woman could simply buy the nearest castle and move in.  Women could not own property.  They could not own their own homes.  They did not own horses or even the knickknacks or silver in the household.  The man owned everything.  If the male of the family passed on, the estate passed to the next suitable man whether he was part of the family or not.”

“Girl, that’s whack.  Why couldn’t women own anything?  Women are just as good as men.”

“Now.  Maybe.”  Ms. Forester spoke the words like small bombs, dropped with precision.  “But back then, an unmarried woman with no father was at the mercy of other relatives and the gentleman the estate went to.  Minus that, she had very few options.  So the noble class of women could go from living in idyllic settings one day to destitute the next just like that.”  She snapped her fingers.  “But this made love all the more important.  For a man who loved his wife and daughters would go to great lengths to ensure they would be provided for upon his death.  Death and love were ever at the forefront of the thoughts of these people because they were so intricately entwined.  Listen…”

And then she read from Rabbi Ben Ezra, another of the poems they had read.  Fifteen poems was enough for anyone.  Jonathon had finished this one sometime around three a.m. Wednesday morning when he couldn’t sleep for the question of if he was even going to come today.  Now, today, for the most part, he was glad he had come.  It wasn’t all symbolism and sonnets as he’d been afraid it would be.  When she talked about love, it was even kind of nice.  If you believed in such a thing, which he didn’t.

“’Grow old along with me!/The best is yet to be,/The last of life, for which the first was made./Our times are in his hand/Who saith, ‘A whole I planned;/Youth shows but half.  Trust God; see all,/nor be afraid!’” 

She slipped the book closed.  “Listen to those words.  In them Robert Browning is calling us all to be more than we are, calling us to love with a love that will slip through the provincial bonds of time and complete the whole.  ‘The last of life for which the first was made.’  He’s saying both parts are important.  This part you are living now will teach you what is right and what is important so that the last of your lives can come full circle into something that means something to the world and to God.”

Without bothering to open the book again, she continued, though Jonathon noticed she’d skipped a few lines. “Not for such hopes and fears/Annulling life’s brief years,/Do I remonstrate—folly wide the mark!/Rather I prize the doubt/Low kinds exist without,/Finished and finite clods, untroubled by a spark.”  The mystery was back in her voice again.  “Hear that?  Do you hear it?  ‘I prize the doubt.’  He’s saying, ‘Don’t live your life thinking you have to have it all figured out.  Prize when you don’t know.  Prize when you’re on the verge of something big and you don’t know if you can do it.  You can for ‘Not for such hopes and fears/Annulling life’s brief years…’ Don’t waste time now being afraid and sitting on the sidelines.  Don’t let hopes and fears take away these years.  They are quick, and before you know it, they’ll be gone.

“‘Low kinds exist without.’  If you are chained to this earth by your doubt and your fears, you are a low kind.  You are a ‘finished and finite clod.’  That means if you let your doubts and your fears take over your life, then this is it.  This is all there is. If you stayed chained to the fear and doubt of this earth, then you are a finite clod, and when you die, they will put you in the ground, and you will rot, and that will be it.  You will be untroubled into eternity by the spark of love… or even of life.

“Browning understood something that few of us ever do.  It is in the risking to really love, to really put yourself out there that life is truly and most wondrously lived.”  Her gaze caught the large clock on the wall.  “I know it’s almost time to go, but please, just a couple more.”

No one, least of all Jonathon moved.

“All I could ever be.”  Her voice reverberated around the room. “All men ignored in me./This, I was worth to God, whose wheel the pitcher shaped./Aye, not that the Potter’s wheel,/That metaphor! And feel/Why time spins fast, why passive lies our clay–/Thou, to whom fools propound,/When the wine makes its round,/’Since life fleets, all is change; the Past is gone, seize today!’”  She seemed transported to a wholly different space and time, and with her most of the class.  “Listen to that.  The Potter made you, and even though the world may ignore you, the Potter knows what He’s doing, but we have to seize what’s right in front of us and not let this moment slip into the Past.”

He wished she wouldn’t keep looking at that clock.  It reminded him he would have to leave very soon.

“One more,” she said as if begging for permission.  A soft groan crossed the classroom.  “I know. I know, but this one is really good.  ‘So, take and use Thy work;/ Amend what flaws may lurk,/What strain o’ the stuff, what warpings past the aim!/My times be in Thy hand!/Perfect the cup as planned!/Let age approve of youth, and death complete the same!”

The final words rang in the great hall and whispered there for another moment into eternity.  Had this been a performance, Jonathon would’ve been the first to applaud sarcastically, but this was no performance.  He could see it in her eyes and could hear it in the breathlessness of her voice, she believed every single word of it.

“He’s saying,” she said softly, and not even a pen moved, “that we may not be perfect.  We may have our lives all out of sorts, and our cups may not look like what we think they should, but the strain of the stuff that happens to us, those intentions that went past the aim—those times are in God’s hands, and He can fix them if we’ll let him.  Then in our old age we will approve of those lessons we learned in our youth, and our death will bring us full circle.”

A second and then another the words hung there, and then she smiled softly almost apologetically.  “Read the rest of the poems in the book for Tuesday’s class please.  You are free to go.”

They might have been free to go, but it took several long seconds for anyone to move.  And then they were moving, but it was subdued, hushed in a way it hadn’t been before.  Jonathon moved slowly, blinking and trying to understand the trance he’d fallen into.  He didn’t bother to put his Poetry of Robert Browning book back in his satchel.  As the other students crossed out into the noisy world beyond, he watched her up front.  She moved like she was not even on solid ground.  Dressed in that soft tan cotton dress that swirled around her ankles encased in black boots, she looked more like a spirit escaped from history than a real, live person. Stepping to the board, she erased the markings there and then strode to the desk to gather her things.

He’d never stayed behind before to talk to a teacher, that he could remember anyway.  And he knew doing so branded him as a hopeless kiss-up, but his mind and body simply wouldn’t shift back into normal mode.  She climbed the steps and smiled when she saw him coming down the row.

“So, see,” she said as if she was proud of herself.  “No one died today.”

He smiled, amused in spite of himself.  “That’s a definite improvement.”

At his row she stopped and waited for him to join her before they stepped out into the hallway.

“So, did you enjoy these poems?”

Man, he wished he could just say yes.  Instead, he wrinkled his nose. “I’m not really a poetry kind of guy.”

“Oh.”  She lifted her chin, revealing a long slender neck.  Then she pursed her lips and nodded.  “I guess not.”  When her gaze came to his, it almost knocked him backward.  Soft with a hint of both sadness and determination, she looked at him.  “Well, I hope to see you Tuesday.  Watch My Last Duchess, it’s kind of an echo of Porphyria’s Lover.”

“Oh, okay.”  He nodded.  “Thanks for the warning.”

“You’re welcome.”  She jerked her gaze away from him and then smiled. “I’ll see you Tuesday.”

He lifted the book in a half-hearted wave.  “Tuesday.”

And with that she turned and strode off across the lobby and down the hallway beyond. 

When she was gone, Jonathon’s senses kicked back in, and he dropped his gaze to the book in his hand.  It held something, something that was innate about her.  Vowing to figure out just what that something was, he did not turn the other way as he had the previous Tuesday.  Instead he headed for the library.  His apartment was so horrible for studying. 

First there was the refrigerator.  When he was bored, it was too much of a temptation, and reading these poems was about as boring as it got.  Unless she was in the front of that lecture hall reading them.  Focusing on the fact that she saw something there he clearly didn’t, he directed his steps to the library.  He would read as long as he could, and then he would go home.  Thursday wasn’t turning out to be so bad after all.

 

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