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Ebook Romance Stories: The Easy Way Out, Chapter 1

The Easy Way Out final 1-21-2014

The Easy Way Out

Book 2

~ The Friendship Series ~

Chapter 1

“I, Harmony, take you, Aaron, to have and to hold from this day forward until death do us part, and even for the eternity after that, you have my love.”

Drew Easton stood on the top step of the church, wishing that breathing didn’t hurt quite so badly.

“May I have the rings, please?” the minister asked, and Drew dug into his pocket for the ring that at one time he’d thought he would be placing on Harmony Jordan’s finger.

After locating it, he and Harmony’s sister, Charity, stepped forward, holding the rings out for the blessing. Drew never heard the minister’s words, and there wasn’t a safe place to put his gaze. Looking at Harmony in her veil and satin tore his heart out. Looking at Aaron, with that smile that hadn’t left his face for months, brought a burning jealousy to Drew’s chest that he hated himself for. And then there was Charity.

The emerald green of her satin dress rested just below her cream-white shoulders, and with her hair pulled up in ringlets around her face, she looked far too much like Harmony had the first time Drew had met her—no, not even Charity was safe.

Suddenly he became aware of the silence that had invaded the space around him, and he looked up, wondering what he had missed. The minister smiled at him kindly, and then Drew’s gaze fell to the minister’s out-stretched hand. Quickly he dropped the ring into it and stepped back.

If he could just get through the next couple of hours in one piece, he could escape to his own apartment where his heart could ache in peace. He looked past Aaron at Harmony, and the look in her eyes as she gazed at her new husband brought tears to his own. He was happy for them. He truly and honestly was. They were right together. But his heart couldn’t help but say that if he hadn’t been dumb enough to let her go in the first place, he would be the one standing in front of her—tying himself to his best friend forever.

“…it is my honor and my privilege to present to you for the first time, Mr. and Mrs. Aaron Foster. Aaron, you may kiss your bride.”

Drew’s gaze traveled not to the newlyweds but across the heads of the congregation as the snapping of his heart cracked in his ears. Somewhere far away from him, he heard the organ swell to life, and he raked in a torturous breath. Just get down the aisle and get some fresh air.

Trying not to think too much, he looked across the step at Charity. For one second their gazes met, and when she smiled at him, he saw the relief that was overflowing through her eyes as well. Gallantly, he reached across the step and took her hand as they turned toward the back.

Like a dove alighting on its perch, she accepted his offered hand, and they stepped down the stairs together. Once in the aisle, he offered her his arm, she accepted it, and together they made their way out of the church.

They were the first ones to make it to the bride and groom, and Drew plastered a smile on his face that he sincerely hoped looked happy. Today was their day, and he wasn’t going to do anything to ruin it.

He watched as Aaron enveloped Charity into the lapel of his tuxedo jacket.

“Welcome to the family,” Charity said just loud enough for Drew to hear.

“Thanks,” Aaron said, and then Charity stepped past him to greet her sister.

“Congratulations, partner.” Drew extended his hand to Aaron.

“Drew. Thanks so much for everything,” Aaron said, and then for one moment the handshake became a hug. “I’ll never be able to repay you, man.”

Drew stepped back and looked at his friend. “Just take care of her—that’ll be payment enough.”

Aaron nodded, and Drew turned his attention to Harmony, whose smile barely masked the tears behind it.

“Harmony.”

“Drew,” she said, extending her arms to him.

He pulled her into a hug, and they stood like that for several heartbeats. When he finally pulled away, he smiled as he nodded at Aaron. “You take care of this one.”

“I will,” she said, and with one more, quick hug, he stepped away from her.

His heart could take no more, so quickly he walked out of the church into the cool October breeze. However, his brain had been so focused on the happy couple that he hadn’t bothered to keep up with where Charity had gone. As he rounded the corner, he met up with her leaning against the building.

“Oh.” He stopped, nearly tripping with the suddenness of it. “Sorry. I didn’t see you there.”

She smiled at him with sarcasm dripping from the look. “Join the crowd.”

“Huh?” His forehead furrowed in concern.

Quickly she shook her head. “Never mind.”

He nodded, thankful she wouldn’t pummel him for his own feelings. “Well, I’m glad that’s over.”

“Yeah, me, too.” Charity pulled a cigarette out of the small handbag at her wrist and put it to her lips. In two seconds she was puffing away. “Seems a little silly to waste all that money and time just so they can set themselves up for heartache and divorce later.”

Drew pulled back in surprise. “That’s pretty cynical. Don’t you think?” Drew asked, having never seen this side of Charity in all the time they had worked on her parents’ yard together.

She shrugged and took another long drag on the cigarette as the brunette ringlets danced around her head. “Yeah? Well, sue me.”

“Charity.” Her younger brother, Hart, emerged from the church in full tuxedo. “You know what Mom said about smoking today.”

In annoyance, she yanked the cigarette out of her mouth and blew the smoke into the air defiantly. “Quit being my babysitter, Hart.”

“Well, somebody needs to,” he said harshly.

She scowled. “I’m old enough to take care of myself.”

“Yeah? Then may I suggest you start acting like it.” Hart turned to Drew and extended his hand and a smile. “Hey, Drew. How’s business?”

“Pretty good. We’re shifting into fall/winter mode. Aaron’s got two hotels and several Christmas light orders ready to go. But we’ve been working our silly heads off trying to keep all those lawns mowed without you around. I sure hope school is worth leaving us high and dry.”

“It’s okay,” Hart said with a nod. “Sixteen hours. It’s keeping me busy.”

“And out of trouble?” Drew asked.

“Now that would take more than a few classes,” Hart said with a grin.

“Hart, Charity, Drew,” Mrs. Jordan called from the church doors. “Pictures.”

“Ugh.” Charity coughed. “Don’t they have enough pictures already?”

“Cheer up, Char.” Trying to act like this wasn’t about to kill him as well, Drew laced his arm through hers. “One more round, and we’re off the hook.”

She smirked at him and then dropped her cigarette to the concrete and snuffed it out with the emerald green toe of her shoe. “I can’t wait.”

*~*

“Drew,” Mr. Jordan said as he leaned back in his chair at the reception, “you’re on.”

With a slow exhale, Drew closed his eyes, gathering his courage. Pushing his chair backward with a screech, he stood, picked up his glass, and tapped on it with his fork.

“Uh-hmm!” He cleared his throat as gazes throughout the room turned to him. “May I have your attention, please?” The dull roar faded to silence, and extreme self-consciousness descended on him. Somehow when Aaron had asked him to be best man, this moment had never entered his mind, and now inexplicably here he was. “I’d like to say a few words about two of the best people I know.

“First, Aaron, you’re my best friend and partner. Sometimes we make decisions in an instant that change the course of our lives forever. Aaron made just such a decision when he put his future on the line to win Harmony’s heart. I just want to tell you to never forget what you were willing to sacrifice for her.”

Drew raised his glass to Aaron who smiled, and then he shifted his focus to Harmony.

“And, Harmony.” Drew exhaled slowly, drawing his bottom lip under his top for a moment, trying to figure out how he was ever going to say any more. He dropped his gaze and then lifted it, knowing she deserved that much. “Don’t ever settle for good just because you think you can’t have great. Okay? Remember this moment and know that great is always within your reach.”

He raised his glass to Harmony, whose smile was laced with tears.

“I wish you both love and peace forever. To Aaron and Harmony.”

“Aaron and Harmony!” echoed throughout the room as Drew took a small drink from his glass before sitting back down.

Charity leaned into him even as she picked up her knife and fork again. “That was nice.”

“Thanks,” Drew said as the tension of the day began to curl around him. “I thought I was a goner there for half-a-second.”

“You did good.”

Careful to keep his gaze on his meat, Drew ducked and forced the air into his lungs. It’s almost over. Just keep your eyes on the end, and you can get through this.

*~*

From the second she had awakened late at her parents’ house, the day had been one long Excedrin headache for Charity. She felt like the ugly stepsister playing nursemaid to Cinderella. Charity, do this. Hurry up, Charity, we’re going to be late to the salon. Just let her do your hair, Charity. Stop complaining. Come on, we don’t have all day. You should’ve done that last night. And they were all in on it, too—even Hart who usually took her side in the confrontations with her family.

No, today was Harmony’s day, and basically that meant that Charity was only there to get yelled at, stepped over, and complained about. When Harmony and Aaron made their way over to the three-tiered cake looking as sugary sweet as the cake itself, Charity could take no more. Without bothering to tell anyone where she was going, she pushed out of the hall and headed in the first direction her feet carried her.

October meant the skies darkened much earlier so that although it was only 8:30, Atlanta was already dark save for the amber streetlights blanketing the parking lot. Where she was going didn’t matter much. She could walk to Jamaica, and as long as nothing went wrong, no one would notice she was gone.

The worst part was that if it was just this one day, she could’ve handled that, but Harmony had always been first in their hearts, and Charity was sure she always would be. Harmony was the child who could do no wrong. She caused no trouble in high school, and once she had graduated, she had left home, gone to school, got a job, and found a man—all without so much as lifting her little finger.

Charity had heard the phrase, “Why can’t you be more like your sister?” so many times it should’ve been permanently engraved on her forehead by now. But no matter what she did, she could never be Harmony. No. Charity was the family screw-up. It was well-documented in all her school records.

Fights, cheating, lying, almost being expelled on two separate occasions, and finally dropping out when it all got too hard—that was Charity. To begin with she had tried to be like Harmony, then when it became clear that nothing she ever did would ever be good enough to justify her place in the family, she had given up even trying.

The October air was cool against her bare shoulders, but even as she looked down at her dress, a picture of Harmony in full wedding attire flashed through her mind and what she really wanted to do was rip the dress right off her body and throw it in the garbage.

“Argh!” In frustration she kicked a rock, sending it skittering across the parking lot. It was then that she saw the figure emerge from the shadows of the cars, and for one moment, fear said she should run. However, just before that message reached her feet, she realized who it was. Drew. And in a rush the annoyance with the whole lousy day returned. “What are you doing out here?”

He smiled at her sadly and slowly lifted the bottle in his hand into the light. “I’m not real big on champagne.”

Charity laughed the first real laugh she had all day. “You want some company?”

Drew shrugged and leaned back against the car before taking another drink. She walked up and leaned onto the car beside him.

“You want some?” He offered her the bottle, and she took it and tipped it up.

“Hmmm.” She closed her eyes as all the friction from the day slid away from her. “So, what are you doing out here?”

He shrugged. “I can only take being on my best behavior so long, and then I start to spontaneously-combust.”

“I hear you there. If I have to take one more picture, I might just break that guy’s camera.”

“Yeah, and this monkey-suit is about as comfortable as a grass sack.”

“Here.” She turned to him and loosened the bowtie at his neck. “No reason to be so formal out here.”

He smiled at her as she resumed her place against the car.

“Okay, so you know my story, what’s yours?” he asked off-handedly as he tipped the bottle up and took another drink.

Without asking, she reached for the bottle in his hand, tipped it up, and took a long swallow—enjoying how the liquid burned all the way down her throat and into her stomach.

“Perfection is highly overrated,” she finally said, dropping the bottle but not returning it to his hand. “Being reminded that I’m not tends to make me a little squirrelly.”

His forehead knotted. “Harmony?”

“My whole family.” She took another drink. “The fact that I’m the weak link isn’t lost on a single one of them.”

“The weak link?”

“Hey, Charity! You out here?” Hart called from the hall doors, and instantly she thrust the bottle back to Drew who quickly stowed it in his car. “Charity!”

“I’m coming!” she yelled back, waiting just long enough for Drew to find his way to her side.

“They’re throwing the bouquet.”

“Oh, great,” Charity said under her breath.

“Hang in there,” Drew said softly. “One more hour, and life will go on.”

Together they stepped onto the concrete steps of the hall.

“Lead me to the humiliation,” Charity said as though the guillotine was waiting on the other side of those doors. The hall was blindingly bright when they walked back in, and an invisible wall of heat wrapped around her.

“Charity, come on,” her mother called from the front, and wishing she could run without looking hopelessly dorky, Charity hurried to the small knot of women standing in the middle of the floor.

“Okay, I’m here,” she said, joining them.

Harmony looked over the small group and then turned around. “Here we go. One. Two. Three!” She flung the green and yellow bouquet over her head right in Charity’s direction; however, Charity side-stepped the press of women lunging for it, and in seconds it was in some other woman’s hands.

With a sigh of relief she shrugged at Harmony who shook her head and then laughed happily with the woman who had caught it.

“Okay, okay,” Mr. Jordan said, taking the reins as master of ceremonies. “We need Drew and Hart up here.”

Charity looked across the floor and immediately saw the pained expression cross Drew’s face. He glanced over at her as he strode to Mr. Jordan, and she made a small ‘your turn’ gesture at him. A smile crossed his face as he tore his gaze away from hers and walked up to Mr. Jordan.

“We’re going to need to use the two of you for a chair,” Mr. Jordan said. “Here kneel down.”

Carefully, the two of them knelt facing each other.

“Harmony,” her father said, offering her his hand, which she took with a smile. He seated her on the tops of the two men’s thighs.

Despite the fact that everyone else in the room was whooping and hollering, Charity could see that if he had half-a-chance Drew would’ve disappeared right into the floor. As Aaron slipped the garter off of Harmony’s leg, Charity watched Drew. It was obvious, to her anyway, that he was hating every single minute of this.

When the garter was free, Aaron stood and gave his hand to Harmony to help her up. Then stiffly the two groomsmen stood. Aaron laughingly shooed them into the pack of single men waiting for the garter toss. It was funny because as Charity watched him, she thought they must have been cut from exactly the same kind of cloth. He hung back, and when the garter flew in his direction, he deftly side-stepped it.

At the bottom of the pile, Hart came up with it, and proudly slipped it onto his forearm. She watched Aaron high-five Hart for a second, but her gaze followed Drew as he quietly disappeared into the crowd. Without more than a second’s worth of thought, she pushed her way in the direction he had gone.

After only a few moments of searching, she found him, pressed firmly against the wall, looking like he could use some more of that drink he’d left in the car.

“What’s the matter?” she asked, leaning in to him carefully. “You not interested in doing all this for real?”

“Well, I didn’t see you sacrificing your life for the bouquet,” he said, and the words had an edge to them.

She shrugged. “I figured I’d let someone who believes in marriage give her life for it.”

He tilted his head to the side. “You don’t believe in marriage?”

“Not for me.”

“Why not?”

She considered the question and him for a second and then shrugged. “I’m not permanent enough for marriage.”

“Permanent enough?”

“Short attention span,” she said, using the exact term countless teachers had in her lifetime.

“Well, maybe you just haven’t found anything worth concentrating on.”

“Doesn’t exist.”

“How do you know that?”

“Trust me,” she said with a knowing nod. “It doesn’t.”

Movement from in front of them brought her attention back from the land of deep thought.

“Drew,” Aaron said, walking up with Harmony’s hand tucked firmly in his own. “You still going to take us to the car?”

“Oh, sure.” Drew straightened instantly. He took a step away from Charity and then stopped. “You mind if Charity comes along?”

Aaron shrugged. “The more the merrier.”

“We’ll go get the car,” Drew said, and Charity was thankful she wouldn’t have to parade around the hall behind the happy couple. Without being at all obvious, Drew reached into the folds of her dress and rescued her hand. “You ready?”

The heat from his hand pulsed up her arm so that it wouldn’t have mattered where he was taking her, she would’ve gone. Wordlessly she nodded, and they walked out to the parking lot.

“You going to be okay to drive?” she asked, not really knowing where the lines of friendship and loyalty crossed with the duties of responsibility.

“Yeah, I only had a little.”

She squinted at him carefully.

“I swear,” he said, holding both hands in the air, and one of hers accompanied his.

“But you would tell me, you know, if you didn’t think you could…”

“I would tell you,” he said, nodding seriously. He unlocked her door, and as she opened it, the bottle lying on her seat caught her attention. Without mention, she stowed it under the passenger’s seat.

He got in on his side and sat one moment before he reached up to put the keys in the ignition. She could see the tension creep back onto his face, and gently she reached across the seat and touched his arm. “One more hour.”

Gratefully he smiled at her. Neither one wanted to be here, but being here together somehow made that fact less soul-wrenching.

The headlights sliced through the amber light as he drove up to the sidewalk edge.

“Maybe we should let them drive,” he said, noticing the crowd beginning to push out of the doors.

“Okay.” Deftly she pushed out of her door, pulled the back seat forward and climbed in back, where he met her coming from the other side, and their shoulders collided.

“Ugh. Sorry,” he said.

“That’s okay,” she said, feeling instantly how incredibly small the backseat actually was. “Here they come.”

In a flurry of satin, petticoats, and rice, the newlyweds raced from the hall to the car door. Aaron helped Harmony in, slammed her door, and then ran around to the driver’s side even as the well-wishers continued to shower rice onto the car.

“You don’t want to drive?” Aaron asked, dusting the rice from his hair as he slammed the door.

“You can,” Drew said solidly. “I’m fine right here.” He leaned back, and the shoulder of his jacket brushed Charity’s shoulder. Furtively, he looked over at her, and then he reached down and took her hand.

It was like escaping into a dark corner right under the chaperone’s nose, and Charity smiled. Her attention caught on the movement of Harmony’s hand in the front as it reached across the seats and rested on Aaron’s arm.

“We made it,” she said softly, and Charity saw the smile cross Aaron’s face in the streak of the streetlight as he looked over at his bride.

The words held a happiness that Charity couldn’t remember ever feeling. Watching them was like seeing a testament to the fact that happiness was for everyone else other than her. She turned her gaze out the window, wishing she hadn’t agreed to come. At that moment Drew’s grip tightened on her hand, and she looked over at him and smiled sadly. The absolute knowledge that neither of them would ever be sitting in the front seat like Aaron and Harmony now were engulfed them both.

After many long minutes the car crossed into the parking lot and into a space. Aaron killed the engine, and the four of them extricated themselves from the midst of the car.

“Well,” Aaron said as he wrapped Harmony under his arm and extended his other hand to Drew, “thanks for everything, man.”

“No problem.” Drew shook his friend’s hand. “And don’t worry about work. I can handle it for a week.”

“I trust you,” Aaron said.

Drew leaned in and kissed Harmony’s cheek. “Be careful.”

“Take care,” Charity said, leaning in to give Harmony an awkward hug.

“I will,” Harmony said, returning the hug with only one arm.

“And you take care of her,” Charity said, sliding to the side to give Aaron a hug as well.

“I will.”

They all stood in a long, uneasy silence.

“Well, we’d better get back,” Drew finally said, and Charity nodded. “We’ll see you two next week.”

Aaron waved slightly as Drew climbed in one side and Charity crawled in the other. Drew started the car and threw his arm over the seat to back out. But Charity’s gaze was locked on the couple still standing under the carport. Waving and smiling, they looked like they should be on the top of a cake.

“They’re sickening,” she said under her breath.

“I know,” Drew said sadly. “Wouldn’t it be great to be as sickening as they are?”

Tears stung the backs of her eyes. It was like he was reading her thoughts as they streaked across the canvas of her mind, and that was even more annoying than the newlyweds.

When they arrived back at the hall, most of the cars were already gone, so Drew pulled up into one of the front parking spaces. Like emerging from a tomb, they climbed out.

“Hey, Char, where’d you go?” Hart asked in annoyance from behind a mountain of foil-wrapped boxes.

“We took them to their car,” Charity said, slamming her door in frustration. No matter what she did, it was always wrong.

“Well, Mom’s about to have a conniption if you don’t get your little self in there and help clean up.”

“So, what else is new?” she asked only loud enough for Drew who was right by her side to hear.

They walked to the door, and he pulled it open for her although she could’ve used the effort to drain the excess of angry energy flowing through her.

“It’s about time you get here,” her mother greeted her, holding out a folded tablecloth, the guestbook, and a bridal photo of Harmony. “Take these to the car, and then come help me with the rest of this cake.”

Charity accepted the stack placed into her hands, and she turned to Drew and smiled. The torture continued.

*~*

“So, do you need a ride home?” Drew asked Charity an hour later when everything had been stowed in the cars.

“I don’t know.” She glanced over her shoulder hesitantly. “I’m just going to Mom’s.”

“Well, I just happen to know where that is.”

She smiled as her mother walked out of the kitchen. “Come on, Charity, we need to get this meat home before it spoils.”

“Drew said he could give me a ride,” Charity said softly.

“Oh, don’t be silly. That’s clear across town. He doesn’t have time to be taxiing you around.”

She hated being treated like she was ten. She hated it. “But he offered.”

“Can you hit that light switch?” her mother asked as though Charity hadn’t said anything.

With a sigh of resignation, Charity pushed her feet across the floor and hit the switch, plunging the room into darkness. Slowly she crossed back to the door where Drew still stood.

“I guess I’d better go home with them,” she said reluctantly.

He nodded, his eyes full of sadness and acceptance. “That’s okay. I understand.”

But she doubted the truth of that statement. And what she knew he did understand, she wished he didn’t.

“Can I call you sometime?” he asked softly as they stepped into the night air.

She shrugged. “It’s a free country.”

“Charity, come on,” Hart called from the car.

Quickly she closed the door and checked the lock. Then as she turned to the car, Drew caught her hand for one more brief second. “Thanks for tonight. It was nice to have a friend.”

Her smile cracked right through the annoyance with her family. “Yeah, it was.”

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

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

The Faith Series, Book 2

by:  Staci Stallings

Chapter 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…for man looks at outward appearances…”

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What? Is that so hard to believe?”

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

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

“Hey, I’m not saying you shouldn’t…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bethany smacked his arm. “Ha. Ha.”

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

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

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

“Have I ever minded before?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, right back at you, babe.”

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

by:  Staci Stallings

~*~*~

Sometimes faith is simply learning to see

What is right before your eyes.

 

~*~*~


 

Chapter 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I think I’ll just enjoy today.”

“I think that’s wise.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you put anything on it?”

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

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

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

“What’s that?”

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

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

“Does it still burn?”

“It hurts.”

“No, burn.  Is it still hot?”

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

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

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

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

“Better?”

“Much.”

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

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

“Advil?”

“Anything.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ebook Romance Stories: Princess, Chapter 1


Princess final 1-14-2014Princess

by: Staci Stallings

Chapter 1

Those ugly posters are everywhere. Heather Nolan pushed her rounded, black glasses back up the narrow bridge of her nose. She bent from her shoulders and sipped her drink for a moment. However, in a breath, her gaze traveled back up to the poster hanging over the ledge above her. Who really cared that the Jaguars were “Unstoppable” this year? In the whole general scheme of things, how important was it to be able to dribble a little ball down a court and put it through a hoop? It was just so unthinkable to her that anyone would put any effort into that endeavor at all—much less pay money for it.

With a jerk she twisted her fingers through the tangle of wavy, mouse-brown hair and flipped it from her shoulder onto her back. Money. That was the issue that she kept bumping up against. There was never enough of it, and yet the college just threw it away by the handful on sports. Where was the justice in that? It seemed like every other day they were cutting programs and scholarships for students like her who wanted the education, but when it came to sports, there was always more than enough money for whatever new program that came along. It made her sick just thinking about it.

“Heather. Hello. Earth to Heather,” Jennifer Flynn, the one person on the whole campus who bothered to talk to her on a semi-regular basis, said, waving her hand in front of Heather’s face.

Heather snapped back from the melancholy thoughts. “Oh. Hi. Sorry.” Only a moment to acknowledge Jennifer’s presence, and then she went back to her drink and the depressing thoughts.

“He’s really good looking, isn’t he?” Jennifer asked as she laid her books on a chair and pulled up another to sit on.

“Who?” Heather asked, not really caring about cute guys at the moment.

“Anthony Russell.”

“Who’s that?”

“Anthony Russell.” Jennifer hooked her thumb over her shoulder at the poster behind her. “The point guard for the Jaguars. I mean, he’s black and everything, but he’s still really—uh, easy on the eyes.”

Heather yanked the anger back to her as she went back to her drink. “I hadn’t noticed.”

“Yeah right. You were staring at that poster so hard, I thought you might burn holes through it.”

“Oh, yeah, the Unstoppable Jaguars.” Heather pushed the other side of her thick wavy fall of hair over her shoulder and scowled. “How wonderful they are. The college gods. Oh-wow. They’re so cool. I don’t know why they don’t just bronze them and put them up in every classroom to remind us all why we are really here.”

Jennifer’s light-copper eyebrows reached for the ceiling. “Whoa. A little on the edgy side today, aren’t we? What’s got you so riled up?”

“It’s just been one of those days.” Heather sighed. “Tuition is due, dorm fees are due, I’ve still got two books to buy for classes, and my bank account reads a big fat zero.”

Concern drained onto Jennifer’s face. “But I thought you had that work-study thing lined up for this semester.”

“Yeah. So did I. Until I got this this morning.” Heather held up a cream-colored envelope and then dropped it back to the table next to her. “‘Dear Ms. Nolan, We regret to inform you that the work-study program you were signed up for has been cut due to insufficient funding.’ Insufficient funding my foot. They just need more money to pay their stars up there on that poster.”

There was a long pause, and Heather knew Jenn well enough to know her brain was spiraling to find any positive thing it could to say.

“So what are you going to do?” Jennifer finally asked.

“I don’t know.” Heather shook her head and exhaled slowly. “I’ve thought about it all day, and I just…I don’t know. All the decent jobs in town have been taken, and I’m not going to go back and ask Mom and Dad for more money now. They practically gave me the third degree the last time.” She shook her head again and punched back at the tears rising in her throat. “I don’t know. It just makes no sense to me why the real students in this university get the shaft while guys like Anthony Russell, who wouldn’t know a noun if it walked up and introduced itself, get to live like kings.”

“Yeah.” Jennifer corkscrewed her mouth. “I see what you mean, but who knows, maybe things will turn around. You never know.”

“Oh, yeah? Well, please, tell that to anyone up there that might happen to be listening. ‘Cause right now without some serious cash, I’ll be enrolling in Hanson Junior College before the end of the term.”

Jennifer nodded. “I’ll be sure to put in a request for you.”

“I’d appreciate that.” With no energy Heather picked up her backpack, swiped her hair out of the way, and righted the pack onto her shoulder as she stood. “Well, I’ve got to get to English. I might as well learn all I can before they kick me out. You know?”

“Well, good luck,” Jennifer said as Heather started for the door. “And hey, chin up!”

“Yeah, chin up,” Heather replied with all of the enthusiasm of a wet noodle. “See ya later, Jenn.”

“See ya.”

*~*~*

Not even the unseasonably warm weather outside could brighten Heather’s spirits as she kicked her booted feet past the flowing print skirt that hung nearly to her ankles. What was the point of even going to classes anymore? All those long hours studying, making the Dean’s list every semester and even the President’s list once just so she could go back and be a waitress in some dive back home? It wasn’t an exciting thought.

At the Language Building, she yanked the heavy door open and trudged inside. She glanced up as she entered the stairwell and once again saw the scowl of the Unstoppable Jaguars staring down at her. Fury rose in her gut until she could barely keep herself from ripping the poster down and tearing it into tiny red, white, blue, and black shreds. It wouldn’t help her situation, but it sure would feel good.

English classes had always been her favorite. The papers that everyone else groaned and moaned about seemed to her to be personal challenges from the professors, and she loved it. Now she wondered, taking her seat for Professor Mather’s Dramatic Plays class, how much longer that love affair would last. She had already had Mather for two other classes, and he seemed to like her work. In fact her perfect A record in his class seemed to not even be in question this semester—provided that she could scrounge up enough money to make it through this semester. She pushed those thoughts to the back of her mind even as she twisted the hair that hung nearly to the middle of her back into a knot at her neck and held it there with the hand that wasn’t preparing to take notes.

They were discussing “Hedda Gabler,” and when class started, for once that day Heather forgot about even the money situation. This was her arena. Here she could be the star, and it was exhilarating. The hour flew by, and before she knew it, she was stuffing books back in her backpack.

“Ms. Nolan?” Professor Mather said over the noise of the departing students.

The book in her hand stopped in mid-stuff. “Yes, sir?”

“Could I see you in my office for a moment?”

“Oh.” Heather quickly deposited the rest of her books in her backpack and swung it to her shoulder. “Sure.”

What in the world was this about? They had just taken a test, and she thought she had done well on it. Today, however, it wouldn’t surprise her to find out she had bombed it too. The questions flowed through her brain at ever-increasing speeds as she followed the short, balding professor down the hall to his tiny office. The room reminded her of her dorm room—books stacked everywhere trying desperately to seem organized in a space too cramped to organize anything.

“Ms. Nolan.” Professor Mather sat down in the cracked leather chair behind the desk and folded his hands on the stack of paper in the center of it.

“Yes, Sir?” she asked, standing awkwardly, unsure of whether to sit or stand.

Professor Mather waved her into the chair on the other side of his desk that wasn’t stacked with books. “Oh, please, have a seat.”

“Thank you, Sir.” Fighting the nerves, she sat on the edge of the chair and swung her backpack down next to her feet.

“I’m sure you’re wondering why I called you here, so I’ll get right to the point.” Professor Mather leaned across the desk. “Would you be interested in becoming a tutor?”

“A tutor, Sir?” Heather asked, stumbling across the words.

“Yes. I have a student in my Great Works of Literature class who’s really struggling, and quite frankly I don’t think he’s going to make it without some help.”

What registered on her face, she couldn’t be sure, but her heart registered only utter confusion.

“You were my first choice,” Professor Mather continued, “but of course if you are not interested, I could always find someone else.”

“Oh, no. I’m interested. I just…umm, I wasn’t prepared for this, that’s all.”

“Good. Now before we go any further, I need to tell you this is no ordinary student, and the English department would like to keep his being tutored as low-profile as possible.”

Confidential tutoring? What was he, the King of Oahu? “I understand,” she said, sounding less than sure.

“Good.” His countenance relaxed. “Of course, we’re prepared to pay you for your services. How does $200 a week sound?”

“Two hundred dollars?” Heather asked in undisguised shock. “Are you serious?”

“Very serious.”

“That sounds…umm.” Heather tried to regain her composure. “That sounds just fine, Sir.”

“Great, so we have a deal then?”

She willed a smile to her face. “Yeah, okay. We have a deal.”

“Well, I appreciate your willingness to help out a fellow student in need,” Professor Mather said. “I’ll just give Coach Winton a call right now.”

“Coach…Winton?” Heather’s head throbbed to life as Professor Mather picked up the phone and began dialing. “Umm, Sir, you never actually told me who it is that I’ll be tutoring.”

“Oh, yes. Sorry about that. His name is Anthony Russell. He’s the…”

“…point guard for the Unstoppable Jaguars,” Heather finished in a daze as the chair back caught her shoulders.

But Professor Mather was already speaking to someone on the other end of the line. Everything started moving in slow motion as the realization hit her like a left hook—she would be tutoring him. The snarling face, her nemesis from the posters. This couldn’t be happening. Suddenly she couldn’t breathe. He was the reason she was in this mess in the first place! She couldn’t help him. No, she wouldn’t help him!

“Okay,” Professor Mather said. “If Tuesday doesn’t work for her, I’ll have her give you a call. Great. See ya, Bill.” He hung up the phone. “It’s all set. Anthony will meet you in the lobby of the English Department Conference Rooms on Tuesday at four o’clock. Bill…uh…Coach Winton said if that isn’t convenient for you, you could call and set up another time. You can use the small conference room in the Department. I’ll reserve it for Tuesdays and Thursdays four ‘til six—if that’s all right with you, of course. Now, if you decide you need to schedule another time, just contact me. That will be no problem.

“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you taking the time to do this, Ms. Nolan.” Professor Mather stood. “You’ve saved me a good amount of sleep I’m sure.”

Somehow she stood, but she couldn’t really tell how.

He led her the two paces to the door. “Oh, and here is a copy of A Tale of Two Cities. That’s what we’re reading now. If you need anything else, feel free to ask. Thank you so much.”

And she was out in the hallway wondering where her voice and sanity had gone. She had meant to tell him no when he got off the phone. She could have said that Tuesdays wouldn’t work for her, lied that she had a class or something, but she just sat there like an idiot. Now what was she supposed to do?

Standing on the other side and looking at the bleach-tan door, she weighed her options. She could always knock on that door right now and tell him no. Yes, that’s what she should do. She forced her hand up to knock, but something stopped her.

Two hundred dollars a week. Her chest constricted around the amount. Two hundred dollars! This was the answer she had been hoping for, praying for—right here, so close she could almost touch it, and she was going to turn it down? For what? Because basketball was stupid? Because she should be the one getting special treatment not Anthony Russell, poster guy for the academically challenged?

No, she decided, letting her hand fall back to the soft material at her thigh, this was her chance to make it—her chance to control her own destiny. And Anthony Russell or no Anthony Russell, she wasn’t going to let it slip through her fingers. Besides, she reasoned as she straightened her shoulders, she didn’t really have to try all that hard to help him.

Four hours a week. She looked down at the well-worn novel in her hand. Resolutely she turned to leave the office. It’s only four hours a week. I can do this. Besides it’s for the best cause there is—me!

“Look out Unstoppable Jaguars,” she said to the empty hallway, “here comes Heather Nolan.”

Princess final 1-14-2014

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


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

by:  Staci Stallings

~*~*~

Never underestimate the power of the light

You hold. It can light not just your way

But also the way of

Another.

 

~*~*~


 

Chapter 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How long before you get here?”

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

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

“Whatever, Mom.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rose bowed slightly. “Yes, Ma’am.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The shoulders slumped. “Fine.”

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

If only it was that easy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Linda?” Luke called from the dining room.

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

“I…”

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, I know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deep in the Heart

by:  Staci Stallings

Chapter 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sure I can find it.”

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

“Yes, Ma’am.”

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Ma’am.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Horses.”

“Oh.”

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

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

“Oh, yeah. Yeah, I am.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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