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To Protect & Serve FREE Aug. 15 & 16!

FREE ON KINDLE TWO DAYS ONLY!

August 15 & 16

Staci’s “Amazing!” novel:

To Protect & Serve

“Reading To Protect & Serve, I’m taken away to another world, a world I want to be a part of and never leave. Staci’s characters are real with real everyday problems. I love that.

Oh, and the firemen in this story, they’re smokin’ hot! Especially the hero!”

–Debra, Amazon Reviewer

When control freak Lisa Matheson falls for handsome but shy firefighter, Jeff Taylor, it’s possible that life might just be going her way for a change. The only problem is she can’t control Jeff or the death wish he seems to have…

Available as a free download from Amazon!

Click here to get your Free Kindle Copy TODAY!

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Ebook Romance Stories: White Knight, Chapter 1

White Knight

Book 2

~ The Courage Series ~

Chapter 1

“This place makes the best potato skins in the world,” Dante Ramirez said from his position next to Eve Knox in the over-crowded booth. Six were stuffed into room for five, but Eve wasn’t complaining. It had been months since she’d laughed this much, and laughing felt good for a change.

“Well, for as long as they made us wait, they’d better be,” Gabe Teague said in annoyance from the other side of Eve. His deep bass shook the air around him. “I just want you to know, if Ashley kills me, I’m sending you the bill.”

“And it’ll be stamped NSF just like all the rest of the bills I pay,” Dante said.

“NSF? I thought you had some secret trust fund,” Jeff Taylor said from beside his wife Lisa.

“Yeah, it’s so secret I don’t even know about it,” Dante said with a shake of his head, and the gel-slicked, black hair caught the light like a reflector.

“Darn,” Gabe said. “You mean we can’t off you for your millions?”

“Millions of bills or millions of creditors?”

Jeff looked at Gabe skeptically. “Maybe offing him wasn’t such a good idea.”

“Uh, you think?” Gabe asked.

“You forget, he’s a fireman,” Lisa said, punching her husband in the ribs. “He makes what you make.”

Jeff shook his head. “Ugh. Definitely not worth it.”

“Definitely,” Gabe said and then looked around the restaurant. “So is anybody going to take our order or is that going to take another two hours?”

“Friday night,” Dante said. “It’s always like this. Oh, I’m sorry. I forget you’re out of commission.”

“Married,” Gabe said. “They call it married.”

Even as she laughed, Eve’s gaze fell to the table. She remembered married.

“So, A.J.,” Lisa said, addressing one of the two non-conversational occupants at the table, “were you less nervous this year?”

A.J., the one person at the table that Eve hadn’t been around at every excuse Jeff and Lisa could come up with—Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, every major holiday and three or four non-major ones they had managed to include her in as well. If she hadn’t been so tired of looking at her apartment walls, she might have come up with a few more excuses to get out of their well-meaning excursions. However, the reality was she hated that apartment and all the memories that went with it.

“At least I didn’t throw up this year.” A.J. ducked so that the light bounced off his light brown hair streaked with soft blond tones. Soft. It was a good word to describe A.J. Knight. Features, light brown eyes, manner, tone—they all fell right into the soft category.

“That’s a definite improvement,” Jeff said, laughing. “We almost had to call the other paramedics to come stitch up that gash you got when you fainted off the stage last year.”

“He did not,” Eve said with instant concern.

“No.” A.J. glanced at her defensively, but instantly his gaze dropped back to the table. “I just missed a step.”

“Yeah. Ca-thung. Ca-thung. Ca-thung,” Jeff said, spinning his hands over and over themselves teasingly.

“You’re one to talk.” Lisa punched Jeff again as she came to A.J.’s defense. “Who was it that needed a paper bag this morning before he went on?”

Jeff shrugged. “For my lunch.”

“Yeah, those ham sandwiches can just take your breath right away.”

Eve laughed at them. Jeff and Lisa. Such a sweet couple, now looking forward to their first child. It wasn’t hard to see how much Jeff worshiped Lisa, nor was it difficult to see the love in Lisa’s eyes when she looked at her husband. As she put her head down, Eve remembered feeling that look in her own heart. That time seemed so long ago as to have been another lifetime.

“So, Eve,” Dante, the one guy she always seemed to get paired up with at every social function she was trapped into attending, said as he laid an arm the color of brown sugar over the booth behind her, “how’d Lisa con you into this speaking thing anyway?”

With a smile Eve looked across the table at the woman who had become her best friend over the last year. “She asked.”

Lisa smiled back. Together. Two women in a sea of men, and because of the other, they were holding their own.

“No arm twisting or hair pulling?” Dante asked far too into the whole cat fight scenario for her.

“Nope. None of that.”

“Darn,” Dante said. “I would’ve paid to see that.”

“Hey,” Jeff said, leveling an index finger and a warning gaze at Dante. “That’s my wife you’re talking about there.”

“Oh, sorry. I’m just saying she’s hot.”

“That’s not any better,” Jeff said darkly.

Lisa patted his leg. “It’s okay. I’m five months pregnant, and I feel like a blimp already. If the man wants to say I’m hot, don’t complain.”

Jeff’s gaze went to his wife’s face and frame, and it was clear he had no complaints.

“Is somebody going to take our order or not?” Gabe asked in frustration.

“I think they forgot about us,” A.J. said quietly.

“Well, get somebody’s attention, Jeff,” Gabe commanded.

“Me? Why me?”

“Because you’re on the end, and because this was your idea, and because as your commanding officer, I told you to,” Gabe said.

“Oh,” Jeff said, nodding. “Well, since you put it that way.” He looked around, put a hand in the air, and snagged the first waitress’s attention who happened by. “Umm, could we get some menus over here?”

Amazing, Eve thought as she watched the scene. When she had met him two years before, she would never have believed that Jeff could get so many words in a row out, in public nonetheless. However, it was abundantly clear that he had grown—in confidence and in stature since the night Dustin had first brought home his newest friend from the academy. Part of it was the job. Leading others in to fight fires had to inspire a certain amount of poise and confidence, but it was more than that. He had a woman by his side now who believed in him, who trusted him implicitly, who looked to him for guidance, and it showed in every movement he made.

In seconds the waitress was back with the menus. Each took one, and Gabe looked at his watch. “Order something that doesn’t take long to cook.”

“Like what? Kid’s grilled cheese?” Dante asked.

“You should’ve invited Ashley,” Lisa said.

“Yeah,” Jeff said. “Why didn’t you?”

“She had to work. Besides she’s heard me speak, and she wasn’t impressed.”

“I, Gabe, take you, Ashley,” Dante said serious and teasing all at the same time. “I can see why.”

Eve socked Dante’s arm. “Hey, that wasn’t funny.”

In surprise Dante looked over to Jeff who was trying not to laugh. “It was too. Wasn’t it, Taylor?”

“Like I’m stupid enough to get in the middle of that one,” Jeff said as he buried his gaze into the menu.

The waitress walked up at that moment to take their order, and when she was gone, Dante turned back to Eve. “You know that Van Gogh Exhibit is coming to the Museum of Fine Arts the first of November. Didn’t you say you wanted to go to that?”

“Is it that time already?” She sighed. “I was hoping I’d be through the spring buying by then.”

“Well, I’m free,” Dante said, hinting in his tone, “if you wanted me to get us some tickets, I could.”

He was being nice. Dante had been nothing but nice since the first time Jeff and Lisa had dragged them out on what no one dared to call a double date. Still every time Eve thought about going out with him, her heart jerked in the other direction. Slowly she shook her head. “I’m not sure I can get off.”

“It’s a Saturday,” he said as though the others weren’t sitting there listening to them. “Even firefighters don’t work all the time, you know.” He tapped her on the shoulder playfully, trying to get her to look up. However, her heart just couldn’t look at him.

Wishing it wouldn’t, Eve’s gaze traveled down the table and caught Lisa’s. The pity in Lisa’s eyes told her too much. Her friends felt sorry for her. They wanted her to find someone. What they didn’t know was that there would never be another someone in her life. She’d had a someone once. Now he was gone, and she had no desire to find another one.

“A museum exhibit?” Gabe asked incredulously. “Ugh. Ashley roped me into one of those once. Can you say, ‘Torture City’?”

Across from Eve, A.J. laughed although none of the other occupants seemed to think it was all that funny. She ducked to keep the laugh in her own chest from finding her own throat.

“I just thought it might be fun,” Dante said softly, and suddenly he didn’t look nearly so confident or so sure of the offer.

Knowing there was really no good reason to turn him down, Eve smiled over at him although to be honest, she didn’t see him at all. “It sounds like fun.”

~*~
On the other side of the table, A.J. felt the annoyed gazes of his hosts find his face, and his eyes widened as if to say, “What did I say?” Neither Jeff nor Lisa looked happy with him. He hadn’t been around them all that much, but Eve didn’t seem like someone who would be hanging out in museums all day—the mall looked more her style. But as much as she didn’t, Dante seemed even less the type. Strong, take charge, get it done so you can go have fun—that was Dante. Someone more likely to make fun of people who went to museums than someone lining up for tickets.

However, it was perfectly clear from where A.J. sat that getting in the way of Dante and Eve invited a fate worse than death. He understood that, of course. He had been there at the graveyard the day she had buried her husband. He had sat in the church and listened to Jeff’s heartfelt words about the friend he had lost, but more than that, he had been there that awful night when her husband had taken that final ambulance ride.

Yes, she had lost more than he would probably ever have, so he was smart enough to back off even when Gabe continued.

“Doesn’t make any sense to me,” Gabe said. “You meet someone, you go out with them, you try to make yourself be someone else the whole time, then you get married and boom. Who are you again?”

“I’m sure Ashley was thrilled when she figured out who you were,” Jeff said, and A.J. could tell he was trying to steer the conversation in a different direction.

“Ashley?” Gabe asked incredulously. “What about me? The first time I saw her with that awful green mask thing on, I thought I’d pass out.”

“She was trying to be beautiful for you,” Lisa said.

Gabe scrunched up his face. “She didn’t have to try that hard.”

The waitress arrived with their drinks and a dish of potato skins. A plate at a time Lisa passed them around the table. “I am starving.”

“Here,” Jeff said, dishing one potato skin onto a plate for her.

“Hey!” Dante said. “Who ordered these?”

“If you’re pregnant, you argue.” Jeff leveled the fork in Dante’s direction. “If not, get out of the way.” He put some sauce on the plate and handed it to Lisa. “There you go.”

“Thanks,” she said, ducking in embarrassment.

A.J. watched as the others dished up their own appetizers. Jeff was always taking care of Lisa, always making sure she was all right before he worried about himself. That was how love should be, A.J. thought. Not that he’d ever been around that many people who had found it. No, finding that kind of love took a heap of luck, and to this point he hadn’t had much in that department.

“So, A.J.,” Gabe said, skewering him with a glance. “Who are you taking to museums these days?”

Slowly A.J. shrugged, and the potato skin on his fork nearly slid right off into his lap. “No museums for me.” Then he looked across and caught the displeasure in Lisa’s gaze. “Not that there’s anything wrong with museums of course. I just…” He was drowning, fighting for the surface. “Well, there’s Melody, but she’s more of just a friend really.”

“A friend? Oh, boy. You’ve got to watch those friends,” Gabe said with a serious shake of his head. “That’s what I told everybody about Ash for a year.”

“Until she knocked you over the head with a frying pan?” Jeff asked.

“Something like that. I swear, I think you ladies have something figured out that you should really clue us guys in about,” Gabe said.

“We try to be subtle,” Lisa said. “Not our fault it takes a brick.”

“I’m telling you,” Gabe said, leaning over to A.J. although his volume was loud enough for the whole table to hear. “Watch out for those friends. They’re trouble waiting to happen.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

~*~
By eight o’clock the gathering was breaking up. Jeff said he had to get Lisa home. Gabe slipped out as soon as the checks arrived, saying Ashley might never let him out of her sight again. A.J. had offered to walk Gabe to his car although Eve thought that if trouble happened, Gabe looked far more likely to be the defender than A.J. did. And so, when everyone else was gone, she and Dante were left to walk to the parking lot together.

Subtle, she thought. So terribly, terribly subtle. As they pushed out into the cool October, Houston city night, her hand brushed Dante’s, and in the next breath his hand slipped around hers. Not once in all the time they had spent together had he taken her hand, and the instant hers was in his, Eve wanted to run the other direction.

“If you don’t want to do the museum thing, that’s cool,” Dante said. “It was just an idea.”

Backing out, getting away from him, running as fast as her heart was racing all sounded like very good ideas, and yet what was she running from? The fact that he wasn’t Dustin. He wasn’t. He never would be, and neither would anyone else. Her heart fell even further at the thought. “Are you sure you want to go? I kind of thought the clubs would be more of your style.”

“Can’t a guy broaden his horizons once in awhile?”

“No crime there. I just don’t want you to be bored.”

Dante turned intense deep brown eyes on her. “If you’re there, I could never be bored.”

Her chest hurt. She hated the look in his eyes—that don’t-kill-me-by-turning-me-down look. For as long as she could remember, she had been a sucker for that look. True, the guys had always turned out to be nice enough, but they always had earth-shattering soul mates in mind. It never quite made it that far for Eve. “If you’re sure you won’t be bored…”

“I’m sure,” he said as they got to her car. “I’ll call you the Friday before… just to make sure.”

“Okay.”

“And I can pick you up if you want.”

“Oh, that’s okay. There’s never any telling what I’ll be doing. It’ll probably be better if we just meet there.”

“Okay, but you do want to go, right?”

She nodded. “I’ll be there.” Trying not to be obvious, she let go of his hand and climbed in her car even as fear that he might in fact kiss her flooded through her consciousness. “See you then.”

“Yeah.”

As she pulled out of the parking lot, the act she had been corralling around her since she had met Lisa early that morning as they headed for the second annual Cordell Youth Conference dropped away. Everything was so hard. Every moment was about holding it together, watching, noticing, making sure that no one saw beneath the mask. That was how life was now that Dustin was gone. It was called getting on with life. They all wanted to help, but the truth was no one ever could. It was like being dead without being in a grave.

Twenty-nine and living a hollow, empty, shell of a life. If it didn’t hurt so bad, she might have laughed at the irony. For it was she who had told so many people that life was not to be taken for granted, that the point was to live every single moment as if you might never have another. Yet that was exactly what she now wanted—to never have another. The moments lining up, staring her in the face collapsed her spirit. Crying didn’t help. She had come to that conclusion long ago.

Pushing the thoughts back, she hit the radio button. Not even the music helped much. There were just too many thoughts, and Eve thought at that moment that there would be forever.

*~*
“Melody came by,” A.J.’s mom said when he walked into the little kitchen around nine. “She was looking for you.”

“Oh?” He grabbed a couple Oreos out of the cabinet.

“She said something about playing a game she got.”

He poured a glass of milk. “Was she going home?”

“She didn’t say.”

“I’ll call her.”

His mother nodded and left the room. Picking up the phone he dialed the number without really looking at the keypad. He’d had it memorized since he was twelve. Melody Todd, tomboy extraordinaire.  They had been friends so long, he’d forgotten when they weren’t. “Mel? Hey, it’s A.J.”

“Well, it’s about time. Where’ve you been? I was going to show you the new Rodent’s Revenge Game I got, but now Kendra’s coming over and we’re going out.”

“Oh, that’s cool.” He bit into the cookie. “Have fun.”

“You could come with us,” Melody said.

“I’ve got work tomorrow.”

“Likely excuse. You just don’t want me to set you up with Kendra.”

“Like I said I’ve got to work tomorrow.”

“Okay, okay, I know. Shadonna was a mistake. I admit that.”

“A mistake?” A.J. asked in shock. “She read me my star charts before we got in the car, Mel.”

“I said I was sorry.”

“Yeah, and then you turned around and set me up with Monica. How’s she doing anyway? Has she found herself yet?”

“Not unless herself was hiding in the Australian outback,” Melody said hesitantly.

“Australia? Huh, well, she’ll be right at home with all those kangaroos. Oh, and let’s not forget about Teresa. Shall we?”

“What? You don’t like table dancers?”

“Not when they’re my date.” He shook his head at the mere memory of that night. “Let’s get real, here, shall we, Mel. You haven’t exactly had a stellar track record with this matchmaking thing.”

“Oh, come on, A.J. Kendra’s different.”

“Already this is not good.”

“No, I don’t mean different, different. I just mean… well, different.”

“You’re trying too hard, Mel.” He ate the last bite of cookie and chased it with the milk.

“Well, you’re not trying hard enough. It’s one night, A.J. Just one. Come on. It’ll be fun.”

“Nope. I’m thinking thirty minutes in the garage, and then I’m going to give up and hit the sack.”

Melody sighed. “So you’re really not going then?”

“No, I’m really not going.”

“Fine. See if I ever try to set you up again.”

“Finally,” he said, breathing an audible sigh of relief.

Her side went silent for a moment. “How about tomorrow night? This game will explode your head.”

“Head explosions? Cool. Here or there?”

“Better make it there. Mom’s on a no-popcorn-in-the-living-room kick again.”

“No problem. I’ll see you then. Oh, and Mel. Have fun tonight.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. And hey, don’t ruin your hearing. Okay?”

He laughed and signed off. Melody, the next door neighbor who actually lived five houses down had been his best friend forever. Well, since sixth grade anyway, but that was as close to forever as he got. With a push he stood from the cabinet and stepped into the living room. “I’m going to the garage.”

Off-handedly his mother waved. Funny even at 25, ever since moving back home a year and a half before, he had felt the need to keep his mother informed about his whereabouts. She didn’t ask anymore, but he always told her just in case. When he opened the garage door, one hand went in front of him and snapped the dim light on. Over the concrete he walked until in the opposite corner, he stepped up to the royal blue plastic tarp. Carefully he pulled it up and wrapped it around his arm so that the blue pearl trap set underneath came into view.

From the wall he pulled the headphones on, hit the power button, and sat down on the little stool. With one drumstick he hit the play button and twirled the stick around his fingers twice as the other picked up the first beats of the song. In seconds he was immersed in the music—so deep, air seemed hardly necessary. He didn’t sing much, but the words and the beat drifted over him like soft rain on a cool summer day. His hands traveled effortlessly to a beat he had committed to memory years before. When he hit the break, every part of his body hit a drum and stopped. Hit again and stopped. Five consecutive hits, and he was flying on the music again. It was the one place that always felt like home to him, and he knew it always would.

*~*
“Good news,” Lisa said ten minutes into their phone conversation the next Tuesday evening as Eve put the finishing touches on a dish of microwaved ravioli. She licked her finger off and picked up the plate to take it to the table.

“Oh, yeah? What’s that?”

“Gabe and Ash are having a party.”

“Cool.” Eve turned the plate a quarter turn as she sat by herself at the table. “I’m sure Gabe’s thrilled.”

“Oh, no. Him and Jeff already have it all figured out. Pool. All night in the basement.”

“Nice, and what are you and Ash going to do? Sit around and stare at the walls?”

“Keep the chips and dip going I guess. No, they’re having like people from her work and his work come. He said you’re welcome to come too if you want.”

Eve corralled her long, black hair in her fingers, flipped it over one shoulder, and picked up her fork. “Me? I’m not from his work.”

“Well, it’s not just people from work. Besides I think Dante’s going to be there,” Lisa said.

“And this pertains to me how?”

“Come on, Eve. I know he likes you, and I think if you’d just let yourself, you could like him too.”

“He’s okay, but I’m not really interested in anything serious right now.”

“I’m not saying you are, but it doesn’t hurt to go out with some friends once in awhile either. Sitting there all by yourself all the time isn’t getting you anywhere.”

“You know, you sound just like…” A knife went through her heart, and she sighed. “When’s the party?”

“Friday at eight.”

*~*
“You can bring a date if you want,” Jeff said as A.J. sat in the dark living room, watching the little mouse careen one way and then the other over the crazy multi-colored screen.

“Why are you inviting people to Gabe’s party?” A.J. asked, leaning into the turn that Melody threatened to take too wide.

“He just mentioned you, and since he didn’t have your number… But if you’re busy, that’s cool.”

As the mouse burst through the final door, A.J. laughed when Melody threw the controller to the floor and collapsed over it. “It sounds cool, but I can bring a friend?”

“Yeah.”

“What time?”

WHITE KNIGHT

~ Expect the Unexpected ~

Now available

On Amazon Kindle

On B&N Nook

More New Covers!

by:  Staci Stallings

I’m so excited to announce more new covers for my books!  Thank you so much to Allan Palor (Aki) who has done an amazing job on all of them… God bless you, Aki!

You can click on any book cover to see more about that story…

~ The Faith Series ~

Happy Reading!

Ebook Romance Stories: Excerpt from “Deep in the Heart”


Deep in the Heart Cover Final 1-18-2014Excerpt from “Deep in the Heart”

It was stupid. Keith knew it, but the quieter the house got, the more he wanted to check, just one time. They were already in bed, probably asleep, and yet, he wanted to make sure of that. Finally, unable to talk himself out of it, he quietly exited his room on the far opposite side of the mansion. He shook his head as he crossed past the master suite. How very far it seemed from the kids’ rooms.

Not for the first time ever, he wondered why they bothered to have Pete and Izzy in the first place. Little trophies. That’s all they had ever really been. It was just like Ike said. Kids were meant to live with their parents, not be put on display to make the parents look good. Shaking his head to clear it of the disturbing thoughts, Keith made his way to the three doors at the far end of the hall.

He noticed without really looking that the light was on under her door. She was probably reading or getting ready for bed. He’d have to be extra quiet. On his way to Isabella’s door, however, he noticed the white door on the opposite side cracked open. That was strange. Curious, he stepped over to it and peeked inside. The scene beyond knocked sanity and air from him simultaneously.

There, on her knees, next to Peter’s bed knelt Maggie. He couldn’t see her face, but her back was arched. She was huddled in the protectiveness of her shoulders. Next to her, Peter lay, eyes closed, but turned toward her.

“And help Mommy and Daddy come home safely. Thank You for today, God. Give us good sleep tonight, and let us have a great day tomorrow. Amen.”

Unbidden tears sprang into Keith’s heart as he watched.

“Amen.” Peter’s eyes opened, and he smiled at Maggie. Just then he glanced up, and Keith knew he was busted. He sniffed self-consciously.

In the next heartbeat Maggie whirled around, fear and determination met in her face right up until she figured out who he was standing there. She stumbled to her feet. “Keith. I didn’t hear you there.”

The A-lined white cotton shirt set off her curves as did the oversized tan pants. They were very loose and too short to be called pants. He was having trouble getting a full thought through his head. “I… I’m sorry. I was just checking everything before I turned in.”

“Oh.” Her hand slid to the back of her shirt, which she pulled down. Then she brought her hand back around her middle and scratched the inside of her other forearm. “Everything locked down tight?”

“Seems to be.”

“Oh. Good.”

If he hadn’t been thrown so hard off-track, he might have noticed how much trouble she was having to not fidget right off the planet. She wrapped her arms in front of her and scratched behind her ear. “We were…” Her gaze fell to Peter. “… just…”

Compassion for her came over him. “No, hey. No need to explain. I talk to Him sometimes too.”

“Oh.” She seemed rooted to the spot. “Well… I guess I should be getting to bed.” Her smile became gentle as she glanced back at Peter. “You, mister, have a good night. Okay? I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Okay.”

The quiet peace of the scene traced over Keith as he watched her tuck the covers in around Pete. She was going to make a marvelous mother someday.

“Good night, sweet prince.” She kissed the tips of two of her fingers and pressed them onto Peter’s forehead. “Now go to sleep.” Gently she drifted her fingers over his face and down the sides of his nose. With a sigh, he settled down and soft peace came over his little face.

Maggie turned back to the door and walked all the way to it and through it without stopping. Keith let her pass and then closed the door and stood watching her in the hallway.

“That was nice.”

She had made it to her door obviously not planning to stop and talk to him. Her gaze was down when she turned to him. “Peter has a tough time getting to sleep. It seems to help.”

Tenderness touched his heart. “So, you do that every night… pray with him?”

It took her a long moment before she nodded. “It always helps me, so I figured it couldn’t hurt with him.”

True admiration for her tilted his head to the side. “They’re lucky to have you.”

She tried to meet his gaze but couldn’t hold it. “I wish I could do more. They’re great kids.”

If he could’ve thought of something to say that would’ve kept her there, he would’ve said it. However, for some reason his brain wasn’t cooperating with his mouth.

“Well, ‘night.” She turned, opened her door, and stepped inside.

“Yeah, ‘night.”

And then she was gone. Keith closed his eyes and shook his head. Why she had this effect on him, he couldn’t clearly tell. This was completely crazy. He was, after all, engaged to be married. Engaged. That meant you weren’t up at all hours of the night, standing in darkened hallways with some woman in her pajamas. He needed to call Dallas if for no other reason than to douse the guilt slashing its way through him.

*~*~*

Okay, there are certain things in this life a girl just shouldn’t have to deal with. Changing flat tires for instance. Radiators overheating, yes. A busted pipe. Programming the remote control. But being blindsided like that wasn’t fair at all. When the door closed between them, Maggie forced herself to breathe in a deep inhale. It did nothing at all to stop the swimming of her thoughts or the racing of her heart, but at that point anything was worth a try.

Showing up in the kitchen at breakfast for no reason was one thing. Showing up when she was in her oldest pajamas with the rip on one side was quite another. Her hand went up to her hair, and she raked her fingers through it extra hard. There was no telling how she looked, but how he looked?  Wow, was he easy on the eyes. Not to even mention how heart-stoppingly handsome he was minus the hat and the bandana. Dark hair, cropped extra short, and that face, and that smile. Ugh. It just wasn’t fair.

She rolled her eyes so she was looking up at the ceiling in desperation. “God, listen to me. I do not need to fall for this guy. I don’t need him to keep showing up like this. Please. Please. I’m asking You…”

Deep in the Heart Cover Final 1-18-2014

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Ebook Romance Stories: Review “Deep in the Heart”


Deep in the Heart Cover Final 1-18-2014Review by: 
Betty Anne Bantz

Maggie Montgomery drives her aging Chevette up the hill, hoping it will make it to the huge Texas mansion with its tall pillars before the engine dies of thirst. Neither

the car nor her outfit borrowed from the foster home fit the manicured estate. But she has to get this nanny job. The $2 in her pocket won’t take her to the next town, much less three hours back to Del Rio.

After being shown around the children’s wing by the children’s mother—the impeccably dressed Vivian Ayer, Maggie trips down the stairs and into the arms of the handyman, she assumes. When Vivian’s husband dismisses the worker, Maggie finds herself duly interviewed and surprisingly employed. And suddenly, she’s alone in the house for a week with a two-year-old girl, a four-year-old boy, a Spanish housekeeper, and a surly social secretary, plus that handsome handyman, when the Ayers decide to go on a cruise.

Keith Ayer finds the new nanny for his half-brother and -sister quite appealing. And overseeing things at the mansion in his father’s absence proves no hardship either. Even the obligatory phone calls to his fiance at law school can’t diminish his enjoyment of the young nanny and her sweet prayers over the children that he shows up for each night. But what Keith doesn’t know is how much he and the girl have in common. It’s a heartache he’s never fully understood.

This is more than a romance.  The author cuts straight to the heart of God–love.  God is love. Even through unexpected tragedies.  And we can overcome evil with good–by His love.

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

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Ebook Romance Stories: Excerpt from “A Work in Progress”


AWIP Cover New 1-10-2014Excerpt from “A Work in Progress”

By Tuesday night Rebecca’s hand was mended—her heart, however, was a different story.  She hadn’t seen him since Saturday night, and although she had managed to convince herself it was to be expected, she hadn’t managed to convince herself it was okay.

So, the wings on her feet crashed her into her Psychology chair fifteen minutes early on the off-chance that they would be early and she would have the undeniable privilege of hearing his voice again.  The angels, she knew, wouldn’t sound as sweet.

The pen in her hand doodled across the page.  Eric and Rebecca.  Rebecca and Eric.  Hearts and flowers.  It was all she could see when she thought of him.  When that page was full, she turned the page and had just started the scribbling intently when she heard the voice that echoed continually in her head coming from the door, down the aisle, right to the seats behind her.

“No, man, I didn’t blow you off,” Eric said as he approached her desk.  “I had a lot of stuff to get done.”

“Like what?  More studying?” spike-haired guy asked as she felt Eric take the seat behind hers.

“Is that so hard to believe?”

“From you?  Yeah.”  Spike-haired guy laughed in a way that made Rebecca want to turn around and knock his head off his shoulders.  How dare he make fun of Eric.

“I needed to meet with Diane,” Eric said defensively.  “She was going to help me with sign language.”

“At ten o’clock on a Saturday night?” spike-haired guy asked.

“It was the only time she could meet.”

Rebecca’s eyes narrowed in confusion.  Saturday night?

“Well, the party was just getting started.  You could’ve invited her over.”

“We studied at the Student Union it was quieter there.”

Saturday night he was playing pool—alone, Rebecca’s head said as she listened.

“Sign language?” spike-headed guy asked as if that was akin to cleaning cesspools.

“Yeah.”

“Well, what time did she go home?”

Clinging to every word, Rebecca pressed back against the chair, waiting to hear the answer.

“About 11:15.  The place was a madhouse.”

“I thought you said it was quieter.”

“Oh, yeah.  Well…”

Rebecca heard the stumble.

“It was, but then a ton of people showed up, so we decided to pack it in for the night.”

“Uh-huh,” spike-haired guy said.  “And where did you go after that?”

“She went home, and I went home.” Eric’s story paused.  “I know.  Wonderful night, but she’s not my type anyway.  She’s all interested in her studies.  Glasses, books, notebooks—you know the type.  Not the kind of girl I’m looking for.”

Unconsciously Rebecca pushed her glasses up as her heart dropped.

“Yeah,” spike-haired guy said.  “Seems like I remember that.”

Mr. Templeton walked in down front, but Rebecca’s attention never wavered from the seat behind her. Eric was obviously lying.  Yes, he was at the Student Union, but there was no girl. Was there? Fighting with her brain to recall every last detail of the non-encounter, Rebecca examined the clock in her mind.  Although she couldn’t clearly remember the time they had left, it was 11:25 when she and Holly got back to their room.

How far was it from the Student Union to her dorm?  Five minutes?  Ten?  But even so, his line about studying the rest of the time was totally bogus.  And although she knew she should be paying attention to the lecture down front, one thought kept working its way into her brain.  Why was he lying?


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Ebook Romance Stories: Review of “The Price of Silence”

Review of “The Price of Silence” by Debra Ullrick

Stupendous read! Absolutely fabulous! Will leave you wanting to read more by this amazing author!

Staci Stallings is an amazingly gifted writer. Her characters are fabulous and her writing is so poetic. I love all of her stories! I’ve read, The Price of Silence, three times now. It’s that good. Wait, did I say good? Make that great! There are places in this story that keep you on the edge of your seat, holding your breath, wondering what’s going to happen next, and places that have you crying–so get the Kleenex–and other places that have you saying, “Ah-h-h.” Because of the strong message in, The Price of Silence, I think it should be mandatory reading in every middle school and high school. Sometimes doing the right thing isn’t easy. And sometimes we stand alone when we do choose to do what’s right. Find out if protagonist Robyn Lockhart does what’s right in the face of danger, and if she stands alone. The Price of Silence, is an excellent read for all ages. I highly recommend it, and all of Staci’s books.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, push!”

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Robyn Lockhart

Hero or Villain?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Faith Series, Book 2

by:  Staci Stallings

Chapter 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…for man looks at outward appearances…”

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What? Is that so hard to believe?”

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

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

“Hey, I’m not saying you shouldn’t…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bethany smacked his arm. “Ha. Ha.”

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

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

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

“Have I ever minded before?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, right back at you, babe.”

*~*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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