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Mirror Mirror, Excerpt

Mirror Mirror Large coverMirror Mirror

Excerpt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nah. You totally could have fooled me.”

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

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

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

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

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

“That bad, huh?”

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

“Yeah. They can be pretty strict.”

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mirror Mirror Large cover

 

 

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

 

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The Long Way Home, First Chapter

The Long Way Home

by:  Staci Stallings

Chapter 1

“I wish I could go, John, but the Rothschild account’s taking up so much time these days, I just can’t,” Phillip Anderson said into the phone as his son, Jaxton, sat on the other side of the desk, pen poised, listening. “Yeah, I know it’s important, John, but now’s just not good for me.  Can’t you go? … Yeah, I know…”  He sighed heavily. “Okay. Well, I’ll see what I can do, and I’ll get back to you…Yeah, I will. ‘kay. Bye.”

The phone hit the cradle with a clang, and Phillip shook his more-salt-than-pepper head before looking across the expanse of mahogany desk into the questioning eyes of his son.

“Bad news?” Jaxton asked without really caring.

His father shook his head and sighed again. “It’s your grandfather.”

Jaxton nodded. Grandfather Snyder. More than one conversation about him had bounced across the phone lines from Los Angeles to Chicago during the past three months.

Phillip leaned forward in his chair and squeezed the bridge of his nose with his finger. “That stupid man’s going to kill us all.”

“Mom can’t talk to him?”

“Oh, you know your mother. There’s always something more important than dealing with life,” Phillip said. “And John’s not much better. He thinks someone should go down there and at least make sure the estate’s in order, but you think he’ll go?  He’d sooner go to hell on an ice flow.”

“Somebody in Rayland can’t look it over and make sure everything’s square?”

Phillip sighed and shook his head, looking like his ulcer might be getting the better of him. “It’s Kansas. I’m not sure I trust anybody down there.”

Jaxton nodded his understanding of the situation that had his whole family vexed although sympathy for anyone in the situation came nowhere near his consciousness.

“Too bad Blake isn’t around anymore. He’d be perfect,” Jaxton said absently looking back to his notes, already tiring of the subject. He tapped his pen on his notebook a few times and then moved back to the real reason he was in the office on Memorial Day weekend. “So, what do you think about the Manning books? Did you get a chance to look at them yet?”

***

Over the rolling green of the Kansas Flint Hills, the sky hung in painted color combinations only God could get away with. Periodically the scene outside the balcony doors caught her gaze, and Ami Martin paused to take in its beauty for a moment.

Beyond the nearly full-grown red cedar trees, the land stretched in an endless parade of emerald until it rolled right off the earth’s edge. That land, this house, those trees— together they comprised the only true home she’d ever known. Even now with life devoid of any real family, the safety of those hills enveloped her like a warm hug.

She returned to her task, pulling books off the shelves and stacking them onto the little coffee table. They were a link—  a precious, priceless link to the past, and the sadness in her chest expanded with each volume she took down. How many times had she and her grandfather sat in this very room with the balcony doors opened, reading the works of the great ones? Emerson, Twain, Frost. Even when she couldn’t understand the full depth of the words, her grandfather had seen fit to share them with her.

In this room, she’d learned about life and the pursuit of true happiness. Even now at the tender age of 25, she felt the wisdom of her grandfather’s years wafting through her soul. Although he was a simple farm boy, raised in this very house by the generation before him, she knew in her heart that he had been much more than that.

Her father didn’t see it. He had called his father a stubborn old goat so many times even the tone of those words had been forever etched in Ami’s brain. It seemed odd that the wisdom her grandfather had to offer could’ve skipped an entire generation, but that was exactly what had happened. And that was why she was here at this moment, lovingly removing dust from the old, yellowed pages. She understood what no one else in her family ever had because of her grandfather’s teaching and because no matter what he had always been there for her. Yes, he had been there, even when it wasn’t convenient, even when she was sure it was difficult. She brushed the tendrils of wavy almond-colored hair from her face as tears weaved into and over her heart.

He had stayed. Not even her own mother had done so much. She had left before Ami was two, and her father wasn’t much better. His decision to send her to Rayland wasn’t about making her life more stable— it was about making his less complicated. She pushed that thought away as she ran the cloth over the shelf. Don’t think about him. Not here. Not now.

Yes, her grandfather’s steadfastness had been her one and only lifeline for 24 years, until last Thanksgiving. She pulled the black-bound Emerson anthology from the shelf and ran a loving, sad hand over it. She could almost hear his low baritone lilting over the words.

The sunset beyond the doors blurred as she slowly dropped the volume to the table with the others. The wisdom of Grandpa Martin’s years was now tucked safely in her soul. However, as she pulled another volume off the shelf and ran the cloth over it, she couldn’t help but wonder what his advice would be at this moment.

If she could just hear Grandpa Martin’s assurances that everything would be okay, then somehow she would have the strength to keep fighting. But with the money dwindling and her father calling every other day to ask if she was ready to give up and simply sell the place, her determination to make this work was waning quickly.

She pulled the Poe volume off the next shelf and laughed softly. If only her scariest problems were ravens and casks of amontillado as they had once been tucked safely in the crook of Grandpa Martin’s arm. Yes, this was the only place that had ever been home for her. The others could keep their high-stress lives and their gazillion neighbors. This was where true happiness resided, and whether they agreed or not, this was where she intended to make a home for herself— right here in Rayland, Kansas.

***

“Maybe Jaxton could do it,” Elizabeth Anderson said to her husband as she sat on the side of their bed stroking the beige silk tie on her robe like an anxious cat.

“Jaxton’s got the Manning account.” Phillip shook his head from the sink in the bathroom beyond. “I can’t pull him off that.”

Elizabeth sat silently for a moment. “You know. It’s silly I guess, but I just hate the thought of some stranger pawing through Dad’s books. I mean his heart can’t take a whole lot more right now, you know.”

Coming back into the room, Phillip reached for the remote and flipped on the television though it made no sound. “I know that ‘Lizbet, but what do you want me to do?”

She sighed in exasperation. “I just know Dad. It’d be better coming from family.”

Phillip exhaled, crawled into bed, and patted his wife’s hand. “Well, don’t worry about it tonight. I’ll come up with something.”

Just what that something was, he had no idea.

*          *          *

“Listen, I know you’ve got Manning,” Phillip said the next morning as he sat across the expanse of desk watching his son pace the room in front of him, “but your mother and I discussed it, and we think it’s the only thing that makes sense.”

“Come on, Dad. You can’t be serious.” The trap shadowed Jaxton’s every movement. Why had he felt that coming in on Memorial Day was a good idea again? He should have taken that vacation he was always saying he was going to. Anything to get out of this surreal discussion. “What about Easley?”

“I can get Linda to take it,” Phillip offered.

“Linda?” Jaxton raised a sarcastic eyebrow. “Easley’ll bury her the first day. You know how he feels about women.”

“Then Bob can take it.”

In a slow crawl the room began closing in on Jaxton. “What about Chambers?”

“I can get Leslie to take it.”

“Dawson?” Jaxton turned and pointed at his father. “Now you know I know more about that account than anyone else here.” He was scrambling, clawing for any shred of hope to pull himself back from the hellhole of Rayland.

“Look, I didn’t say I’m happy about this, Jax, but I don’t know what else to do.” Phillip’s voice barely stayed on the light side of demanding. “Mr. Fowler called me again last night— you know, Mr. Fowler, Grandpa’s foreman. He said Grandpa’s going fast— one more setback could take him out for good. We need to get this done before it’s too late. Uncle John can’t go. I can’t go.”

The words hung in the air as Jaxton fumed.

“I don’t know what else to do,” Phillip finally said again, and fatigue laced the words. He waited a moment before adding hopefully, “I really don’t think it’ll take very long. A week or two— tops. And I promise you’ll get all your accounts back the second you walk back through that door. Besides it’s not like you can’t keep in touch. You can bring your fax and your laptop…”

Jaxton put a heavy hand against the wall, set his jaw, and examined the painting hanging there without even seeing it. At one time he could have discoursed for hours about the artist’s subtle brushstrokes and brilliant use of back lighting, but at that moment it was all he could do not to rip the thing from the wall and tear it to shreds.

“So, that’s it then?” he finally asked as bile and anger stuck in his throat. A long pause settled in the room between them.

“Here’s your ticket to Kansas City.” His father pulled a thin sheaf from the desk drawer and slid it across the desk. “Your plane leaves at two. It’s a two-hour trip from Kansas City to Rayland. You can rent a car when you get to…”

Jaxton never heard the rest of the itinerary. His mind was alternating between red hot flashes of anger and trying to figure out the quickest way to get this job done so he could get back to his real life— back to something other than fields full of nothing but dust and old, worthless dreams.

***

Over her sandwich Ami surveyed her to-do list, marking each entry with a one through ten and trying to decide what needed attention most. The pickup sitting in the garage received a one; painting the porch a three; repainting the guests’ rooms a four; cleaning the chicken coop a two. By the time she got to the end of the list, she was already exhausted. There was so much to do. So much to get ready before she could even think about putting her plan into action.

She pulled out her calendar and checkbook and laid them on the table next to the to-do list. September 1, circled in purple, stared back at her. Just the sight took her breath away. She had less than three months to get the place in order, and a rapidly dwindling amount of funds to accomplish that.

Somehow when she had started, the money her grandfather had left her along with the place seemed like plenty, but it didn’t take long for the majority of it to evaporate. It was clear sitting here staring at the numbers that she would have to start watching the budget more closely.

Sighing as she brushed back the strands of hair that had escaped from the loose braids cascading down her shoulders, she slid the to-do list into the calendar and closed the checkbook. Sitting here worrying about it wasn’t getting anything finished any faster. She carried her lunch dishes to the sink and ran water on them. The dishes could wait; the pickup couldn’t.

***

Jaxton had only been to Rayland twice in his lifetime, and he hadn’t been overly excited about the trip either time. But this time was worse. He’d been building a client list for six years, and to be told that someone else could just take it over with no questions asked made his blood boil. Reaching up, he ran his hand over the hard-gelled sticks of brown hair lying perfectly on his head. Leslie’ll never be able to handle Paul Chambers. He’ll go to Franklin & Capshaw so fast it’ll make Dad’s head spin.

Then he snorted. It’d serve his father right if Chambers did move it. How many times had he said, “You take care of your customer before you take care of anything else”?  That lesson had been practically hammered into Jaxton’s head, but apparently that meant until you get in a bind, then the customers can fend for themselves.

He swiped at the right turn signal of the new red sports car angrily. The car was supposed to make him feel better, but it wasn’t working. His father had said, “Spare no expense.” It was a pay-off, and Jaxton knew it. How dare they send him to do what they should be doing.  He didn’t even know his grandfather for Pete’s sake. He was as much of a stranger as anyone else his father could’ve sent.

The tires kicked up dust billows behind him. If anything happens to my accounts, heads are going to roll. I’m not the president’s son for nothing. Bob’d better not screw up, or I’ll personally hand him his walking papers.

That was just all there was to it.

***

Ami crawled into the cab of the pickup and hit the starter for the third time.

“Rrrennerrr. Rrrennerr. Rrrenner.” The pickup engine sounded like a sick dog, and exasperation escaped from her throat in a low growl. Three days and $60 down the drain and still all she got was Rrrennerrr. Rrrennerr. Rrrennerr. How many times had she watched her grandfather do this?  How many times?  Apparently not enough.

“Stupid thing.” She hit the steering wheel as the sickening sound continued. Finally letting it go, she raked both hands onto her head and squinted into the problem. “Okay, Ami, you’ve got to think. The battery’s got to be good I just changed it. The cables are connected. What else could be wrong?”

Getting out of the driver’s seat, she went around to the front, mentally checking every cable she’d already checked ten times. Carefully she leaned over the hood of the pickup and examined the maze of wires and metal. She traced the battery cable away from the starter. There was a trick to this, and Grandfather knew it. All she had to do was figure out what that trick was, and she was home free. But the trip from here to home free was looking more and more impassable by the second.

***

Jaxton had always prided himself for being able to find any address in Chicago— no matter how bad the directions were, but after driving up and down identical farm roads for 45 minutes, he knew he was lost. In fact, if he’d been forced to give directions back to the main highway at that moment, he’d have been in major trouble.

“Whose stupid idea was this anyway?” he asked, the frustration pouring out of him as he turned into a tree-lined driveway.

The farmhouse just beyond the trees looked like it was about a hundred years old as did every other building on the place, and as he killed the engine and looked around, he wondered if anyone even lived here anymore. In fact, the thought crossed his mind that the whole place would probably be better off if a wrecking ball just took it out of its misery.

Slowly he crawled from the car and stretched as his legs and back reminded him how long he’d actually been behind that wheel. He took a deep breath, smoothed his tie, and shook his head at just how far he’d fallen in such a short time. As he climbed the steps up to the front door, he couldn’t help but notice that the whole place was covered with chipped white paint, and the wooden porch boards creaked and groaned as he crossed the porch threshold and knocked. Putting his fists on his hip where his slacks met his belt, he arched his neck and waited, looked around and waited some more. He knocked once more.

When no one appeared, he backed up and peeked through the window. He could vaguely make out a sofa and a chair sitting by the far wall, but as for people, he saw no one.

“Well, so much for that idea.” He shrugged to the ceiling of the porch as he stepped back down onto the cracked sidewalk. He really should’ve known he couldn’t get that lucky. This whole rotten day was just another notch to add to his whole rotten life. Letting the anger and bitterness take hold, he rubbed his hand over the five-o’clock shadow that had shown up two hours early. It must be the stress.

“Yes, Dad. Whatever you say, Dad,” he said, the sarcasm dripping from each word. But just as he reached for the car door handle, his ears picked up something he hadn’t noticed before. Music.

Curious but fighting back the hope, he turned and headed for the sound.

***

“Okay, baby,” Ami warned as she lay under the front fender, wrench in hand. “If this doesn’t help, I’m afraid we’re going to have to give you last rites.”

***

The graying boards were clearly visible under the peeling red paint of the old garage, and Jaxton could see the decrepit green pickup sitting forlornly in the middle of it. Some old farmer’s. How backward can these people be? Man, I wouldn’t be caught dead in something like that.

The tune on the radio reminded him of hoe down music although he’d never actually been to a hoe down in his life. He looked around the small expanse, but there was no sign of anyone— only the small radio sitting on the workbench crackling something about a broken heart.

“GRRRRRHHH!”

Before Jaxton could react to the sound, a wrench flew out from underneath the pickup and hit the cinderblock wall next to his foot with a clang. Instantly he jumped out of the way although another couple of inches and the thing would have nailed him before he saw it coming. For one, brief moment his head said he should run— just get out of there before the farmer had a chance to turn that wrench on him, but then he thought better of the crazy thought. All he needed was some information. Surely that wasn’t such a bad thing.

“Uh-hmm.” Jaxton cleared his throat, hoping to get the old man’s attention. “Umm, excuse me, Sir. Sir?” He rapped a knuckle on the side of the pickup in case the old farmer hadn’t heard him and leaned down as if to see under the vehicle.

***

Heart, body, and soul Ami froze the instant she heard the voice. Her mind spun through who it might be and what they might want. She wasn’t expecting anyone, and people didn’t just show up on her doorstep for no reason. After all she lived more than a mile from the highway.  Quickly she looked out from under the metal pickup body, and all she could see was a pair of black slacks ending in a set of shiny black shoes.

“Sir?” the voice said again, and she fought to gather what was left of her nerves from around her.

“Hmm. Yeah.” She cleared her throat and rolled slowly out on the creeper before sitting up and pulling herself up from the floor. “Something I can help you with?”

***

“Oh,” Jaxton said with a hard swallow, thrown totally off-guard when he caught a glimpse of the grease-stained beauty who’d just stood up in front of the pickup. Gray tank top, denim shorts, and a face that was at once young and heart-stopping, she was the epitome backwoods country, and for one second too long, Jaxton forgot he was supposed to be asking for directions. “Um.” Where had all the words gone? And why were the only ones he could find telling him embarrassing jokes about farmer’s daughters and Daisy Duke shorts? “Uh. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean… I thought… I’m sorry.”

***

“’S okay,” Ami said quickly wiping the grease from her hands and coming around to the side of the pickup. She wanted to tug on her tank top, but she didn’t dare let him think she was nervous, so instead she worked on removing the grease from her fingers. At the fender she regarded him as she leaned there.

“Umm… I… I was looking for the owner,” the guy that looked like a GQ model said. He had slightly wavy dark brown hair clipped and cut just so, a multi-hued blue striped tie over a crisp light blue button down. In fact, he looked like he’d just stepped out of a board room from a million-dollar deal.

Still, Ami fought not to notice or to let the intimidation of his presence rattle her. She brushed one strand of hair back off her face. “That would be me.” Although she tried, it wasn’t easy to act like this was an everyday occurrence as she extended her still-stained hand to the Armani-suited man standing in her garage, but she did a passing job of it just the same.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said again as he extended his own hand. When she looked at him and tilted her head with a half-confused smile, he tried to clarify that statement even as he retrieved his hand. “I mean I’m not sorry you own the place. I’m sorry I didn’t realize…”

Ami smiled then, knowing the best defense was a good, strong, full-on offense. “You’re not from around here, are you?”

***

Her smile, framed by those deep dimples, was dancing circles around Jaxton’s heart as his brainwaves zipped and zinged in disparate directions. “Umm, no. I’m not. How can you tell?”

“Your shoes.” She pointed at his feet before returning to the front of the pickup. “They’re too shiny to be a farm boy’s.”

He looked down at his shoes but never saw them, and when he looked up again, the only thing his mind could concentrate on was the curve of her face under the wisps of hair trailing down the two braids. Gorgeous did not do her justice.

***

“Well, Sir, I have a full set of Encyclopedias, and I’m not in the market for insurance or a vacuum cleaner,” Ami said as casually as she could, and she slammed the hood for punctuation. The pickup would have to wait. Right now, her main priority was figuring out exactly what this guy was doing in her garage, and then getting him out of there as fast as possible.

“Oh, I’m not selling anything,” he said as she moved over to the workbench. Having tools within reach if he tried anything was a very good idea. “I was just looking for the Snyder farm, but I… I seem to have gotten lost.”

She turned an inquisitive, confused and concerned gaze on him. “The Snyder farm?”

***

“Yeah.” Jaxton hesitated. For some reason the tone in her voice and the look in her eye made his nerves jump to attention, and the mere thought that this farm girl was getting to him unnerved him further. He smoothed his tie down as if to emphasize his station in life compared to hers. “Umm, I’m Mr. Snyder’s grandson. I was supposed to come help him, but I can’t do that if I can’t find him.”

It was supposed to be a joke, but it thudded like a lead brick on the dusty floor between them.

“Oh.” Her eyes narrowed as she nodded knowingly, and her smile disappeared as she turned back to the workbench. “Well, if Mr. Snyder’s your grandfather, seems to me you should know how to get to his farm.”

“Yeah… well, it’s been a few years since I’ve been around here, and I wasn’t driving at the time,” he said, running out of steam mid-excuse.

Her brown braids twisted side-to-side with her head as she worked cleaning and replacing the tools. For his part, Jaxton was left trying desperately to keep his mind away from the long, tanned legs curving below the denim shorts that were making thinking straight increasingly difficult.

“So, you’re from California then?” she asked, straightening the tools on the wall, her back to him as if she wasn’t interrogating him. However, he felt every syllable of the challenge.

“No, Chicago.” He ripped his mind away from the gentle curve where her tank top met her shorts. “Why?”

***

“Just wondering,” Ami said, but wondering was the last thing on her mind. Next to her grandfather, Mr. Snyder was the only person on the planet who’d ever believed in her, and she wasn’t about to sic this shiny-shoed, tie-wearing, smooth-talking shark on him without checking out his story first. “So, your mom…”

“Elizabeth,” he supplied as if he sensed he was being quizzed.

“She sent you down here?”

“Yeah.”

“Uh-huh.” She nodded again as she replaced a wrench on the wall. “And why didn’t she come?”

The guy shifted feet. “She’s busy.”

“Must be awful important to be too busy to come see her dad,” she mumbled not altogether to herself.

“Well, she said she might come later.” He shrugged as if they were talking about the weather, not a whole family abandoning their father. “But Grandpa needed someone now.”

“I see,” she said, thinking of all the times she had been witness to Mr. Snyder’s talks with her own grandfather. She knew more about Mr. Snyder’s family than she did about her own, and she didn’t like a single one of them. “And this is important now— why?”

***

“Oh, well, I don’t know if you know it, but my grandpa had a heart attack a few months ago,” Jaxton said as his mind suddenly caught up with the conversation, and immediately asked him why he felt the need to justify his visit to a total stranger. “This was the first chance we’ve had to come and see him.”

“I see,” she said again slowly and the angelic quality of her voice had been replaced by ice. That tone was beginning to grate his nerves as he ripped his gaze from her and glued it to the old pickup.

“Look, I really didn’t mean to bother you,” he finally said, and his annoyance with the whole situation screamed through every word. “I’ll just drive back to town and see if someone there can help me.”

***

She heard him turn to leave and then start out.

“Go out to the road and turn right.” Ami turned and surveyed him coldly, wrench in hand and arms crossed at her chest. “About two miles down the road off to the left, you’ll see the Snyder place. It’s the one with the trees. You can’t miss it.”

***

He fought not to bristle under the scrutiny of the almond-eyed she-beast. “Thank you.”

And these people think city people are unfriendly, he thought as the anger rose to his clenched fists.

“No problem,” she said, and she turned back to her workbench without another look.

Jaxton’s gaze fused to her for one more moment as he seriously thought about telling her just where she could put her judgments, but with a shake of his head, he forced his gaze down to the dust-covered floor. His chest might explode at any second with the rage clawing through him. Who was this person, this girl, to question him anyway?  What had he done that was so wrong?  He was just following orders— trying to be the good son. He kicked the wrench and sent it flying back into the cinderblock wall with a clang before stomping out of the garage.

She had no right to make him feel like a jerk. It wasn’t his fault his family didn’t come to visit. There was nothing to do here anyway. Situated a million miles from nowhere, Rayland was the most boring, backward place on the whole earth, and the second he got the estate in order, he was gone.

***

It took next to nothing for Ami to hear the car roar out of the driveway, and she wondered with easy loathing which one he was. It’d been more than ten years, but she still remembered the last time Mr. Snyder’s family had come to visit. They’d all sat around complaining because it was hot and whining about how boring everything was.

She could still hear them mimicking the townspeople and joking about how backward their grandfather was. Most of all she could hear them saying how they couldn’t wait to get back to Chicago and “reality.”

It was true she’d hated them then, but she hated them even more now. Mr. Snyder had never been anything but kind to her and her family. When her grandfather had died, it was Mr. Snyder who tended the trees and kept them alive. It was Mr. Snyder who had encouraged her to take what her grandfather had given her and chase her dream. It was Mr. Snyder who showed up every day for the first month she was here just to check on her.

She was sure his visits would have continued, but then the heart attack had almost taken him out two months before. There was no way to count the hours she’d spent at the hospital sitting by his bedside, reading to him, and assuring him that his family would be there soon. But her assurances had made little difference to him. He said more than once that she was the only real family he had left and that the others were just waiting for him to die so they could split up the inheritance.

Even thinking about it now made her head pound and her heart ache. It was the same way her grandfather had felt, and regardless of how accurate it was, it still made her furious. The two most incredible men in her life, and everyone else thought they were trash.

The anger in her reached a boiling point, and she yanked the hedge trimmer from the wall. In this state she knew she would make the pickup problem worse, but she couldn’t do too much damage to the hedges. After all they could always grow back.

***

Who does she think she is to talk to me like that? No one. Not one person had ever treated him like that in his entire life. They wouldn’t dare. With a single flick of his little finger, he could squash any person he wanted to. He was Jaxton Anderson, and no one treated Jaxton Anderson like that and got away with it— least of all some greasy, conceited, little farm girl a single rung up from trailer trash.

As he turned into the driveway of the next farmhouse, he couldn’t help but notice with a hint of pride that this one looked much better than hers. It was still old, and it couldn’t compare to the houses he was used to, but at least it didn’t look like it was about to fall down.

He parked the car and crawled out as his nerves shifted from the monologue detailing each of her faults to screaming that maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. With each step he took, they told him to just get back in the car and go home. However, he had come this far— even braving the wild she-beast, and he wasn’t going to back down now. Pulling his pride back up to him, he stepped onto the front porch, lifted his hand, and knocked.

One moment became two, and then he looked around and listened for any sign of life. When he heard none, he reached up and knocked again just as a sickening feeling hit him. What if his grandfather had already died?  What if he was lying inside somewhere waiting for someone to find him? What if…?

The squeak of the door brought him back to reality, and he turned and found himself staring into the eyes of a grandfather he hadn’t seen in fifteen years.

“Hi, Grandpa.” He fought to smile warmly, but it never quite made it that far. “How are you?”

“Well, I’ll be tarred and feathered.” The old man shook his head as he pushed the screen door open. “Jaxton? Is that you, Son?”

“Umm, yes, Sir, it is,” he said, fighting the hesitation and having no idea what to do next. Why couldn’t his eyes hold on the old man’s? He’d never had this eye contact problem before, now he couldn’t seem to get it together.

“Well, I thought they were pulling my leg when they said you wanted to come see me, but here you are.”

“Here I am.” Jaxton attempted another smile, wondering which brilliant person had lied to the old man.

“Come on in. I was just making out next week’s work schedule,” his grandfather said, waving a hand over the papers scattered across the coffee table. “Here, have a seat. You want something to drink— water? Tea? I might even have a Coke left if you want one.”

“Oh. No, thanks. I’m… I’m fine,” Jaxton said uncomfortably as he felt the old man’s eyes appraise him like a piece of junk at a garage sale. He swallowed hard and attempted another smile, which got no farther than its predecessors.

Shifting his weight to the other foot, Jaxton stole a glance at the old couch waiting for him, and he cringed as a decade’s worth of dust jeered up at him. So this was what his life had degenerated to. He took a deep breath and folded himself carefully onto the plaid nylon hoping he wouldn’t have to breathe again before he got up.

With supreme patience he waited for his grandfather to resume his seat in the cracked brown recliner chair before he plunged ahead purposely keeping his mind off the dingy surroundings. “So, how are you?”

“Oh, I’m fine. ‘Course I’ll be better once I get this wheat harvest out of the way,” his grandfather said, looking back at the papers lining the table. “You’d think it’d get easier after all these years, but it ain’t getting no easier. Just harder and harder to find anybody who’ll do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.”

Jaxton nodded as if he saw the gravity of the situation. “I can imagine.”

Then like magic, his grandfather’s face brightened. “But Ed says we should make 80 bushels this year. That’s about the best I’ve ever seen. ‘Course, it’s still a month out, so anything’s possible.”

“Yeah, I’m sure it is,” Jaxton said, hoping he didn’t sound short but knowing he did. He could feel the dust from the couch creeping up onto his suit, and it was doing very bad things to his patience and his nerves.

“So, how’s your mom? Staying busy?” his grandfather asked, and his voice regained the heaviness.

“She is.” Jaxton forced his mind away from the dust and attempted another smile. “She says, ‘Hello.’”

Silence filled the room then as Jaxton fought to keep his body still. He didn’t want to disturb the dirt any more than was absolutely necessary.

“I guess your dad’s business’s good,” his grandfather finally said.

“Oh, yeah. Pretty good.” Jaxton rubbed his hands together, fighting to breathe and stay seated.

His grandfather surveyed him with curiosity. “You’re working with him now. Aren’t you?”

The old man’s gaze felt like a python wrapping around Jaxton’s chest. “Yeah. I’ve been there about six years now.”

Mr. Snyder sighed and shook his head. “Time sure gets by fast these days. Seems like just yesterday when you and Blake came down for the summer. How long ago’s that been anyway?”

Jaxton looked around the room, searching for some comfortable place to put his gaze. There wasn’t one.

“Fifteen years,” he heard his voice say. It sounded rotten, but it felt worse.

“Fifteen, huh?” his grandfather said slowly, and the room was once again engulfed in a long, uncomfortable silence. “Time sure gets away.”

Jaxton nodded, unsure of what else to do or say.  He chanced a hesitant glance at his host sitting in the shadows as the fading sunlight played through the folds of the curtains. From the looks of the old man, Jaxton didn’t have a moment to waste.

“Tell you what.” Mr. Snyder suddenly vaulted himself out of the chair. “Why don’t you bring your bags in, and I’ll go make us some supper?”

“Oh, I’m not that hungry.” Jaxton stumbled to his feet quickly. Unconsciously, his hand smoothed the front of his tie.

“Nonsense. You just flew all the way here from Chicago. Of course you’re hungry. But don’t worry.” His grandfather smiled. “I’ve got just the thing.”

“Well, if you’re sure…” Uncertainty swathed the statement as the old man crossed past him to the kitchen.

“You can have the room at the top of the stairs.” His grandfather pointed up the narrow staircase. “Why don’t you go on up and get settled?  I’ll call you when it’s ready.”

***

Ami wondered what was going on at the Snyder Farm as she started washing the dishes. By now she would’ve thrown that obnoxious jerk off the place. What right did he have to show up like this anyway? It was obvious he was only here to assess how long it would be before the farm changed hands. A shiver crawled up her spine at the very thought. Surely Mr. Snyder would see right through him and send him packing. Surely…

***

With his handkerchief, Jaxton wiped the layer of dust off the dresser top and carefully set his fax machine in front of the mirror he could see no reflection from. As soon as the requisite family time with his grandfather was over, he was going to get back up here and get some real work done.

Cord in hand, he sat on his heel to plug it in but stopped cold. Slowly he turned and surveyed the room, looking for a plug just as a sick feeling hit the pit of his stomach. There wasn’t a single phone jack to be seen anywhere. How was he going to get any work done with no phone jack?

“Supper!” his grandfather’s voice cut into the fury rising in him.

“Oh, you’re so going to pay for this one, Dad,” he mumbled to the empty room as he dropped the cord and crossed to the door. There wasn’t anything he could do about it now, but he vowed to find a way out of this forced imprisonment as soon as he returned.

His feet tromped their way down the stairs, and with each step the anger in his chest grew until he felt like he might explode when he stepped into the kitchen.

“Chicken rice casserole.” His grandfather glanced up as he set the steaming pan on the table. “Best food in Kansas.”

Jaxton took one whiff, and in spite of his anger, his mouth began to water. “It smells delicious.”

He sat down at the opposite side of the table as his grandfather handed him a plateful.

“It does more than smell delicious, my boy,” Mr. Snyder said, filling his own plate and sitting down across from Jaxton who already had a forkful headed for his mouth. “Shall we say grace?”

“Oh, umm, yeah.” Jaxton set his fork down with a reluctant clink. He bowed his head and listened as the older man said the prayers he hadn’t heard in years. It was truly incredible how backward his grandfather was.

“…Amen,” his grandfather said.

“Amen,” Jaxton echoed, and this time he waited for his grandfather to start eating first.

They ate in silence for the first few minutes. The thought crossed Jaxton’s mind that his grandfather was right, this was about the best food he’d ever eaten. It was so good in fact, that for a moment he forgot about all the complications in his life and just enjoyed eating.

Besides the meals he’d eaten alone in his apartment, this had to be the quietest meal he’d ever had. Even in his apartment, sirens were always going off somewhere below him, and the sounds of the traffic were always right outside his kitchen window.

As the thoughts of Chicago, home, and normalcy invaded the silence around him, he quickly decided that now was as good a time as any to start the process he’d come to finish.

“So, how’s the farm?” he asked as nonchalantly as possible between bites. “You said the harvest should be good this year?”

“Ed thinks The Old Camdon place will be ready in three weeks,” his grandfather said, brightening to the subject.

“Ed?” Jaxton asked as he took another bite.

“Fowler,” his grandfather supplied. “Been my right hand man for more years now than I care to count. Anyway he said the boys from upstate should be here ready to harvest on the 15th so long as we don’t get any rain the week before.”

Jaxton nodded for no reason other than to keep the old man talking. “And how many people did you say you’ve got working out here?”

“There’s just the four of us for now,” his grandfather said. “Me and Ed. And then Chris Delvin and Steve Porter. I’m hoping to hire some school kids during the summer, but you never know.”

“Oh,” Jaxton said. “And Chris and Steve?”

“They’re a couple of guys who used to work for Murphey Gray.”

“And he doesn’t need them?”

“Not any more— he lost the farm a few years back.”

“Lost it?”

“The bank took over– sold the land right out from under them,” his grandfather said with a sympathetic shake of his head. “It’s not uncommon these days. Everything’s getting too big. The little guys just can’t compete.”

“So, what happened to Murphey?”

“He moved to Emporia and started selling fertilizer, but his workers were left with nothing. Chris and Steve had worked out there since they were little fellas, but by the time the place sold, they both had young families to think of and no real desire to move away from here. I hated to see them have to leave Rayland— especially with the little ones already established in the school. Besides with only 253 people, we need every person we can hang on to.”

“I’ll bet,” Jaxton said barely disguising the condescension in his voice.

“So, how’s that chow?” his grandfather asked without any indication he was about to change the subject.

“Oh.”  Jaxton looked down at the empty plate in front of him. “Excellent. I didn’t know you could cook.”

He reached over and put a second helping on his plate— having never realized just how hungry he actually was. The next two bites were in his mouth before the plate was even on the table again.

“’s not me,” his grandfather said with a smile. “Ami brought it over.”

“Ami?” Jaxton asked absently as he forked another bite into his mouth.

“Yeah. You remember Ami, Hank Martin’s granddaughter. She lives just east of here. You probably passed her place on your way in.”

Instantly the food in Jaxton’s mouth rotted. He dropped his fork and pushed the plate away trying not to look at the food or spit the foul tasting stuff out of his mouth. With Herculean effort he swallowed that bite and took a long drink of water.

“I can’t believe you don’t remember her,” his grandfather continued. “You met her when you were here the last time.”

Jaxton tried to recall the meeting his grandfather was describing, but nothing other than the disgusting plate of food staring back at him from the table was getting through to his brain.

“I wish I had a granddaughter like her,” his grandfather rambled on. “Such a sweet girl.”

Sweet? Jaxton thought as the rage from the preceding 18 hours crowded back in on him. I can think of a word for her, and it certainly isn’t sweet. But he pushed that thought down and smiled what he hoped was politely.

“Not that I’d trade you boys, of course. But sometimes it’d be nice…”  His grandfather’s words trailed into silence before he looked back across at Jaxton’s plate. “You full?”

“Uh, yeah.” Jaxton fought to erase the picture of her from his mind. Why was that so hard? “I’ve got some work I need to get done— umm, that is, if you don’t mind.”

“Course I don’t mind.” The old man shrugged. “I’m sure your father’s got you working on all his biggest accounts.”

“Yeah,” Jaxton said half-heartedly feeling sorry for himself again for a split second and then reflexively pushing that down.  He had business to do, and he was going to get it done. Putting his hand on the hard sticks of gelled hair, he worked to get the next question out diplomatically. “Umm, I noticed there isn’t a phone line in my room. Where might I find one?”

His grandfather let out a little snort. “Only phone I got ’s right there.” He pointed to the old dial around phone on the wall.

Jaxton’s eyes widened at the thought. “You’re kidding.”

“Only one. But you’re welcome to it,” his grandfather said, reaching for Jaxton’s plate. “You finished with this?”

“Uh. Yeah,” Jaxton said as he tried to figure out how to plug both his laptop and the fax machine into the same outlet. If, in fact, he could actually get to the outlet, he thought getting up to look at the phone more closely. It looked about a hundred years old, and the ingrained dirt on it made it appear brown although Jaxton was sure it had been white at some point.

He wished he could take out his handkerchief to pick up the receiver without his grandfather noticing, but the old man was still standing at the table scraping the food off the plates and watching him intently. Slowly he inspected the phone from as many angles as possible, and then he sighed and looked at his watch. 9:30.

He was too tired to deal with this tonight. Maybe if he went to bed now and gave it a few hours, when he woke up again, this would all be one big nightmare, and he’d be back in Chicago headed in to work.

“I think I’m going to call it a night,” he said, trying to keep the sigh out of his voice.

“So soon?”  His grandfather took the plates to the sink. “Thought you had work to do.”

“I can do it tomorrow.” Fatigue hit him for real then. “It’s been a long day.”

“I can imagine.” His grandfather nodded with sympathy. “Well, there’s towels in the cabinet in the bathroom upstairs. If they aren’t clean enough, let me know. Nobody’s been up there in a few years, so there’s no telling what it looks like by now.”

“I’m sure I’ll be fine,” Jaxton said, wanting only to escape the kitchen and be alone. “Well, I guess I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Yeah.” His grandfather smiled but never quite met Jaxton’s gaze. “Have a good night.”

“You too.”  Jaxton crossed past the old man being careful not to touch him. Once around the corner, he fled up the stairs.

“I just need a nice shower and some sleep.” In his room, he yanked his suitcase from the floor and without thinking, dropped it onto the bed, which immediately sent a noxious dust cloud wafting into the air.

Ugh. Dust. Everything’s in this house is so disgusting. Clicking the suitcase latches open in frustration, Jaxton yanked his Yale sweats out and slammed it closed again. Instantly he choked on the fresh dust cloud. Now I know why we never visited. These people should really get a life— and a maid.

He stalked into the bathroom and reached for the light, but nothing to this point had prepared him for the sight of that bathroom. Immediately all-out nausea closed in on him. Moldy rust formed a path down the back of the sink, which rose on a pedestal from the decaying tile floor. As he looked at it, all he wanted to do was run— far and fast. How had he gotten talked into this? Why him? Why not Blake? Or Uncle John? Or his father?

“What did I do to deserve this?” he asked in disgust.

On unsteady legs he forced himself to step into the bathroom knowing what was coming would be even worse. Reluctantly he glanced into the toilet, and the same nasty molded stains stared back at him.

“Ugh.” He covered his nose and backed away. “When was the last time anybody cleaned this place?”

Fearful of what he would find, he squinted at the shower curtain. “Oh, this can’t be good.”

He took a deep breath to steel the churning of his stomach as he reached for the curtain. The sight of the tub— mold crawling up the back wall and sickening green slime covering the portion of the curtain he held in his hand disintegrated the last of his resolve. Without another thought, he dropped the curtain and fled from the bathroom not even bothering to turn off the light.

***

Ami had spent the entire afternoon trying to forget about the stranger from Chicago. If only she didn’t feel such loyalty to Mr. Snyder, she could’ve easily dismissed him from her mind. But inevitably as he had for the last two months, Mr. Snyder crossed her mind again, and instantly a picture of the shiny shoes flashed through her mind.

What a jerk! What a total, unmitigated jerk! How can anybody be that callous? That calculating? He could’ve at least waited until the body was cold before moving in to divide the spoils. She shook her head to clear the intrusive thoughts away, but they weren’t going anywhere.

“I could call,” she said to the empty chair across from her as she sat in the living room, an open, un-read book on her lap. “Just to make sure supper was all right.”

Then she shook her head vehemently. As much as she wanted to check on Mr. S, the last thing she wanted to do was appear interested in the jerk who happened to be his grandson. Tomorrow she would call, or maybe if she biked out past the South Quarter she’d get lucky enough to catch Mr. S there. She needed to bring him another casserole anyway, and she was sure the jerk from the big city would do everything he could to avoid the fields.

She could get the full story then. Now she needed some sleep.

“Dear God,” she prayed silently on her way to her room, “please take care of Mr. S. I think he needs Your help more now than when he was in the hospital. Be by his side and protect him from all evil. Amen.”

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Ebook Romance Stories: Eternity, Excerpt

Eternity Final 1-21-2014Eternity

~The Friendship Series ~

Book 1

(Excerpt)

Aaron’s heart constricted as he forced himself to close the door, slowly fitting it back into its frame. He stood there, hand on the doorknob fighting for every breath. Crying at this point seemed hopelessly stupid. It was obvious she had moved on. Curling and uncurling his fist, he stood there, knowing there was not one thing he could do to alter the situation he now found himself in.

He was trapped. When he turned and leaned on the door, his gaze fell to the phone. In a flash he had it in his hand, and in less than a second the other end was ringing.

“Hello?” Harmony’s voice drifted over the lines.

“It’s her,” he said in utter desperation.

“Aaron?”

“They’re downstairs.”

“Right now?”

“On my couch. They are making out on my couch!”

“Oh, no.”

“Could you give me something a little more than oh, no?”

“Crud.”

“Yeah, that’s closer. Oh, man. What am I going to do?”

“Are you sure it’s her?”

“Harmony.”

“Okay. Of course you’re sure. Okay. Okay. Let me think. Where are you?”

“In my room.”

“Do they know you’re home?”

“No. I don’t know. I don’t think so.”

Her side went silent for a moment. “The fire escape’s on your window isn’t it?”

He looked at the window in trepidation. “Yeah, but it’s only for emergencies.”
“Hello!”

The plan was looking better and better all the time. “But where am I supposed to go? It’s 12:30 in the morning!”

Without more than a second’s pause, her voice softened. “You could come over here.”

That stopped him. In all the time he had known her, he had never been to her place, not even once. “Your place? Are you sure?”

“You’re in trouble,” she said as if stating the case for a jury. “When a friend’s in trouble, you do whatever you have to to help them out.”

“Even this?”

She didn’t say anything for a long moment. “I think I’ll live.” Quickly she gave him the directions.

He smiled, momentarily forgetting the disaster downstairs as he wrote them down. “I’ll be there in ten minutes.”

Eternity Final 1-21-2014

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Ebook Romance Stories: For Real, Thoughts on For Real

For Real

~The Courage Series~

Book 3

Reality. What a strange word. We all think we know what reality is, but do we?  And does our perspective change reality or just bend it to what we think of as reality?

In “For Real,” Blaine and Melody each have a reality and a facade, and the two couldn’t be further apart. Blaine is literally living a lie.  He is one person.  He is acting and living like another.  Others see what he’s acting like and treat and judge him as if that’s really who he is.  It’s not, but how do you get out of that trap?

Melody is on that same reality-bending, living-a-lie trip.  She can’t figure out how to be impressive enough for guys to like her, and she’s wrapped up in figuring out how to be who they want her to be long enough to get them to notice her.  It’s not working.

Then Blaine and Melody begin to reveal who they really are to each other and come face-to-face with how much their lies are costing them.  They are challenged to become “For Real” with each other, but can they do that and not lose everything they’ve built on the lies?

I love how this book challenges the judgments we put on others.  How it asks us to be who we really are and let others see our real reality.  In essence it asks, “Can you be For Real with your friends and not lose them and yourself in the process?”

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Ebook Romance Stories: For Real, Review

For Real

~ The Courage Series ~

Book 3

“There I was just enjoying the heck out of this story when those dreaded words came up. “Epilogue.” What? NO! It can’t be over yet.

Staci Stalling has done it again. She’s taken a handful of characters that we can easily associate with and shown us some of their flaws and hidden insecurities. She does a masterful job of describing how people tend to lie and/or manipulate the truth so others will be impressed. And then they have to cover the lies with other lies and pretty soon it gets easier and easier to tell more lies. They play a lot of games in life trying to impress, gain attention or make others jealous.

“As he went, person by person through those in his life, he saw their desperate attempts to hide the hurt and fear with… what? Everything. Clothes. Shoes. Money. Cars. Education. Position. Status. And down the other spectrum drugs, alcohol, anger, violence, selfishness. As he thought about it, he realized that it was the same disease just with different symptoms.”

In this story we have Blaine who is a really nice guy, but insecure about who and what he is because his father pulled a fast one on the family 10 years earlier. Yes, for 10 years he’s had these issues. We briefly met Blaine in book 2 of the Courage Series, “White Knight”, when he worked with Eve. Wanting to impress Eve he borrows a top of the line sports car from his buddy to go on a group date with Eve and everyone thinks he’s a spoiled rich guy. What a stretch from the truth. He’s really an incredibly nice guy who is trying to get an education, hold down a job, take care of his little brother and mother, and do it all while keeping everyone from seeing who he really is and what his life really looks like. Blaine met Melody on that group date and when she got sick he drove her home, which involved her losing her lunch all over his borrowed car. Not the ideal situation for starting a relationship.

Now in For Real they meet up a few months later and things progress to the point where they can have a relationship. But he’s already established the lie of being a rich guy and they have to learn how to be REAL with each other, thus, the title of this novel.

“It was a long moment before she continued. “For what it’s worth, I think the nice guy fits you much better, but I think you’re scared to be him.”
“Why would I be scared of that?”
“I don’t know. Why would you?”
Pain tore through him so deep it felt like it ripped the middle of him apart. “Because being a jerk is so much easier.””

Ms. Stallings does a fine job of describing life of college coeds and bringing back all the memories of my own college days. Too many nights of staying up late studying, working, trying to balance it all out with a bit of a social life. I enjoyed watching the resolving of conflict between old relationships and bringing them to the point of being able to have meaningful relationships as friends who went on to play a major role in each others lives. As Melody figured out her own life and that things aren’t always as they seem, she is able to see that other people also hide behind their insecurities but when you can get past them, your perceived enemies can actually become your best friends.

The story was full of emotion and conflict and I was cheering them on to figure out that they weren’t the only ones with misconceived notions.There were a LOT of issues brought up in this book but they were handled in such a way that it didn’t overwhelm the senses. They just sort of followed a natural chain of events. This issue leads to the next which leads to the next which… As a reader we can see what the characters can’t, that it’s just in their head, so it’s kind of comical and keeps the story light enough to enjoy.

“What he wouldn’t give to be able to just be as honest with her as she was with him.”

This line from For Real, by Staci Stallings sums it up in a nutshell for me.”

— by:  June, Amazon Reviewer

For Real

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Ebook Romance Stories: For Real, Excerpt

For Real

~ The Courage Series ~

Book 3

Blaine sensed movement toward the door, and he ducked into the bathroom just as the door down the hall swung open. Flattening against the bathroom wall, he left the door open enough to be able to hear. A.J. plowed down the hallway with Eve right behind him. They stopped on the other side of the bathroom threshold.

“A.J., come on.  Tonight was supposed to be special.” She stopped him by grabbing his elbow and swinging him around. “Lisa and Jeff knocked themselves out to make this nice for us.  Please, please, don’t ruin it.”

The pleading in Eve’s voice was so desperate, it wafted over Blaine’s heart as well.

“Please.”  She moved toward A.J., and Blaine let his gaze fall to the darkness.  It was such a private moment between the two of them, how could he not?  “I know you think the world of Melody, and I love you for that.  I know you want to protect her, but please don’t cause a scene tonight.  Tomorrow you can call her and let her know how you feel about Bobby.”

“What? Am I supposed to just let him have a wide open shot at her tonight?”

Eve backed up from the intensity of his voice. “Maybe… Maybe, we could… I don’t know.  Do something so she doesn’t go home with Bobby, but with someone else.”

“Like who?  Except for Dante who’s like 12 years older than her…”

“Maybe Blaine.  He’s here too.”

A huge whoosh of air went into Blaine’s lungs and clung there.

“Blaine?  Spoiled little rich jerk Blaine?  Oh, yeah.  Like that’s an improvement.”

Eve softened.  She really was trying.  “Come on, A.J.  Blaine’s a nice guy. You should give him a chance.”

It was like forever passed before either of them spoke again. There wasn’t a fiber of Blaine that had moved, and his muscles had begun to atrophy.  Yet how could he move?  Not only would they know he had heard everything, A.J.’s already dim view of him would surely be set in concrete from then on.

“Fine,” A.J. spat.  “Fine. I won’t say anything tonight.  I’ll call her tomorrow.”

The breath Eve breathed coupled with the soft kiss she put on A.J.’s cheek about did Blaine in.  A.J. Knight didn’t deserve her.  He wondered at that moment if any man did.  With that they moved on down the hall.  Long after they were gone, quietly, slowly Blaine closed the door and counted to 70 before he turned on the light.

When he did, the first thing he saw was his reflection in the mirror over the double sinks.  He wanted A.J. not to be right.  He would’ve fought it with his fists had he had the chance.  But looking into his own eyes, what did he really see?  A guy who was living a flagrant lie and flaunting a life he could only dream of living.  With a shake of his head, he dropped his gaze and gave up trying to figure it out.  There was no answer.  Not a good one anyway.  So it was better to forget it, and move on.

For Real

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Ebook Romance Stories: For Real, First Chapter

For Real

~ The Courage Series ~

Book 3

Chapter One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The boy cowered into Blaine’s pant leg.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What grade are you in—first?”

“Second,” he answered softly.

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

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

“Oh, yeah?  How?” she challenged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The two little shoulders reached for the ceiling.

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

“We probably ought to.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A.J.

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

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

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

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

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

*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*~*

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

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

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

*~*

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

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

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

For Real

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