Tag Archive | ebook romance stories

Ebook Romance Stories: To Protect & Serve, Chapter 1

To Protect & Serve

Book 1

~ The Courage Series ~

“I promise concern for others, and a willingness to help those in need,” Jeff Taylor said as he stood, hands clasped behind his back, shoulder-to-shoulder with 28 of Houston’s finest. His chest swelled with the words he had committed to memory in anticipation of this very moment more than ten years before. “I promise strength… strength of heart to bear whatever burdens might be placed upon me…”

He closed his eyes and breathed the words into his soul. This pledge would change his life in ways he could hardly even imagine at the moment. Where would it lead? Up flights of steps as others fled the other direction? Into the mouth of hell to pluck a single life back? Those images from the future coupled with the words making it difficult to so much as breathe them, and yet somehow his voice managed far more than that.

Strong, with a strength he had gained and a strength he would have to find in himself to do this job, his voice came. A solemn vow to all those his life would touch. “…I promise to protect and serve to the best of my ability. I promise the wisdom to lead, the compassion to comfort, and the love to serve unselfishly whenever I am called.”

A moment of silence for them all to breathe, one more moment affording a final opportunity to turn back. But like the image of those steps, he knew he never would. If someone needed him, Jeff Taylor, now standing at the door to his destiny, was ready and willing to help.

*~*
“I said I needed those reports by two! What? Were you hoping my desk would blow up and I wouldn’t notice they weren’t here?” Lisa Matheson asked in fury as the phone shook in her hand. “I don’t need excuses. I’m tired of excuses. I want them here in five minutes—or you can pack your things and I’ll find someone who can actually do this job.”

Without bothering to say good-bye, she slammed the phone down, and her gaze swept the desk stacked a foot high. How was it possible that every single incompetent moron found their way into her office? They were everywhere—and each one had more excuses than the last one did. One carefully manicured set of nails sifted through the files on her desk, but without the latest sales reports, this information was useless.

She hit the intercom button. “Sherie, did Kamden call yet?”

“About ten minutes ago. He’s on his way.”

“Terrific,” Lisa breathed as she let go of the intercom button. More bad news. Kamden was sure to jump ship the second he figured out her little agency couldn’t even get a simple set of sales figures together. She had given her blood, sweat, and tears for the better part of a year to land the Kamden Foods account. Now, she had it, and it was going to be gone before she so much as had a shot at really promoting it. It never ceased to amaze her how long it took to build something and how very quickly it simply crashed down around her. One finger hit the intercom button. “When Joel gets here with those reports, send him in.”

“Sure thing.”

If she could just get organized before the next disaster hit, it would be nice. It would also be nice if she could sweep one hand across her desk and dump all of the problems there into the garbage. With a frustrated sigh, she reached for the folder she had been compiling since that morning just as Joel not so much walked but fell into her office.

“Nice of you to make it,” she said icily. She held out a hand for the information in his. “It’s all there?”

“The last three months,” he said, nodding.

However, when she opened the folder, her gaze fell across the tallies. “No, this is last quarter. I’ve already got this. I need the newest quarter.”

“Yeah, well, the newest quarter isn’t over yet, so…”

“No.” Lisa lowered her tone as her gaze skewered through him. “I need the figures for the newest quarter. Now!”

“Well, you said the quarter. I thought you meant…”

Her head was really starting to hurt. “Do you have the figures for this quarter or not?”

“For last month,” Joel hedged as he pushed his black glasses up on his nose. “This month isn’t…”

“Then get me the figures for last month.”

“But that’s not…”

“Get them!”

“O… okay,” Joel said, and although he looked like he wanted to add another excuse, one more look at her told him a quick exit would be best. “I’ll be back.”

In frustration Lisa twirled the single strand of auburn-brunette hair that framed her face in a perfect arch. “Okay, this isn’t so bad. I’ve got the newest mock-ups. I’ll just show him those. I could probably wing the sales figures too if I had to…”

The intercom beeped. “Haley’s on line two.”

“No, no, no,” Lisa moaned as she reached for the phone. “I don’t have time for this!” The phone was at her ear in one motion, and she breathed one quick breath to squelch all of her frustration. “Hey, Haley-girl, what’s up?”

“I just wanted to make sure my maid of honor hasn’t forgotten about our little shindig tonight,” the sweet voice of Lisa’s younger sister said, sounding even sweeter couched in the middle of the most magical month of her life.

“No, I didn’t forget, but I am a little busy trying to get away in time.”

“I can come by and get you if you want,” Haley said. “Bryn and Chandra are going to meet us there.”

“I’ve got my car.”

“I know, but I also know you’re liable to get buried six feet deep in that paperwork of yours and forget.”

“I wouldn’t…”

“Be careful where you go with that statement. This is the same sister who sat at the airport for six hours waiting for you when you decided to drive from Dallas that time.”

“Okay, okay. Come get me, but I wouldn’t have forgotten this.”

Joel slipped into the room, and Lisa looked up at him, dreading the bad news he was obviously bringing.

“Listen, Hal, I’ve got to go.”

“Six.”

“Yeah, six,” Lisa replied, feeling the full weight of the duty fall on her shoulders. If she made it that long, life could only go up from there. With that promise, she hung up.

Carefully Joel handed her the folder. “Here they are, and I’ve got the ones for this month in there too.”

With her brain going in seven directions at once, Lisa opened the folder and tried to focus on what she was looking at just as the intercom buzzed.

“Mr. Kamden is in the conference room,” Sherie said.

“Lovely.”

*~*

Surrounded by the men who had become his best friends over the last nine months, Jeff stood, drinking punch and laughing about the exploits they had traversed together—like the time Dustin had fallen backward the first time they put the full gear on him, or when Craig got stuck in the door as he went through the obstacle course, and the time Ramsey slid down the pole holding his boots in one hand and his pants in the other.

Ramsey, who was one of the six black men in their class, had never been the most organized among them, but down deep, he had a heart as big as the Astrodome. In fact, as Jeff looked around at them, it struck him how very different each was from the others—but how well they had fit together despite their differences or maybe because of them. One strength made up for another’s weakness. He only hoped that his new post would work out as well.

“Well, gentlemen.” Captain Drake clapped Jeff on the back as he stepped up to the group. “It was touch and go there for awhile, but you made it.”

“Yes, sir,” they all chorused like a well-rehearsed kindergarten class.

“So, what’s up next?”

“I’m going down to South Houston,” Dustin said, speaking up first as he always did. Dustin. Cool, smooth, confident Dustin. The leader and the one Jeff would miss the most.

“I’m headed out to College Station,” Ramsey said with a nod.

“God help them,” Captain Drake said, and they laughed. He looked over to Craig.

“I’ve got two apps in. Depends who takes me,” Craig said with his slow Texas grin. Meticulous Craig—the guy who always the right gear at the right time. Jeff would’ve followed Craig into a burning building that was destined to fall at any moment. It wouldn’t matter, Craig would be there with the right stuff to keep the whole thing upright until they had accomplished every last component of their mission.

“And how about you, Taylor? What’re your big plans?”

The attention from the group descended on him in a flash, and Jeff ducked fully comprehending that he was now center stage.

“Oh, you know, Taylor,” Dustin said after a beat. “He’s just looking for the station with the best stud calendar.” As though the statement needed emphasis, Dustin struck a heroic pose.

Instantly Jeff shook his head even as he buried it into his chest.

“Well, that’s the only way he’s ever going to get any action,” Ramsey said with a laugh.

“Yeah, Lord knows, he’s never going to actually ask anybody out,” Craig said, joining in on the ribbing session that had been going on for more than six months.

Somehow, Jeff knew he never should’ve admitted he wasn’t exactly an expert in the area of women. The other three, two married and one constantly on the prowl, made women seem like a subject with the difficulty of third-grade reading. However, when they taught the lessons the other guys had obviously learned, he must have been absent because as far as Jeff could tell, he was clueless on the subject.

It wasn’t totally his fault. It was something about how he was wired. Around the guys it was hard enough to get a few words in, but bring a woman around, and the already errant signals from his brain to his mouth became downright unintelligible.

Captain Drake laughed with the others and patted Jeff on the back. “Well, if you need a good reference…”

“He needs more than that,” Ramsey said, and they all burst out laughing again.

“Thanks, Captain.” Jeff extended his hand trying to be oblivious to the joke. “It’s been an honor, Sir.”

“Good luck, Taylor,” the captain said, and his smile spoke in terms of I hope to see you again someday and take care of yourself out there. Then the captain moved on to the next cluster of graduates.

“Hey, you know, this punch is nice and all,” Ramsey said, spinning his little cup, “but I’m thinking we really deserve a better send off than this.”

“What do you have in mind?” Dustin asked as he took a drink of the punch.

“The Bar Houston?” Ramsey said quizzically. He jerked his head over to the table where the wives sat. “You can even bring them along if you want.”

Craig laughed. “How generous of you.”

“I try.” Ramsey shrugged and downed the last of his punch. “Even though I seriously hate the thought of diluting the opportunity pool. Know what I’m saying?”

“So, you going to let my man Jeff come along too?” Dustin asked, draping an arm over Jeff’s shoulders.

“Why not?” Ramsey said with a knowing smirk. “You’ve got to actually talk for the prospects to notice you’re in the hunt.”

“I don’t know.” Jeff shrunk away from the thought. “I’m kind of busy.”

“What? Polishing your boots?” Ramsey taunted.

It was too close to the truth to deny too vehemently, and Jeff scratched the back of his ear wishing he could just disappear and be done with it. “It’s been a long day.”

“And what better way to relieve a long day than a little one-on-one time with some very lovely ladies?” Dustin asked. Then he looked at Jeff. “Oh, yeah. I forgot who I’m talking to.”

They laughed as annoyance landed squarely on Jeff’s chest. “Fine. Let’s go.”

*~*

“I knew it.”

Lisa jumped at the sound of her sister’s voice suddenly in the middle of her office; however, she kept her gaze solely on the campaign spread across her desk. “Knew what?”

“You aren’t ready yet.” Haley crossed her arms in irritation.

“I am.” Head down, Lisa wrote out the rest of her idea. “I was just waiting on you.”

“Uh-huh, and I didn’t see you downstairs.”

“I figured you’d come up and get me.”

“Okay, so I’m here.”

Lisa’s gaze never lifted from the drawings. “You know, Hal, the whole bar thing really isn’t my scene.”

“Yeah,” Haley said as she walked around the desk where she laced her arm through her sister’s and tugged on her, “and if I’d let you, you’d hole up here forever and never go anywhere.”

Quickly Lisa made one more mark before she allowed herself to be pulled up. “And that would be a bad thing?”

“Come on, Bryn and Chandra are waiting.”

*~*

“Now this is a party!” Dustin said as he draped one arm over the shoulders of his wife, Eve, a lovely brunette who huddled in closer to him.

“I just hope the babysitter doesn’t charge overtime,” Craig’s wife, Bridget, said looking at her watch.

“Hey, hey, hey,” Ramsey said with a definite scowl. “Now, you ladies know I love you, but come on. Babysitters? You’re cramping my style.”

“And what style would that be, R.J.?” Eve asked teasingly.

“You know.” Ramsey slid out of the booth and did a smooth slide past the table. “My style.”

Eve ran her hand down Dustin’s chest. “I’m just glad he didn’t rub off on you while you were cooped up in that training thing with him.” Lovingly Dustin turned to her and rubbed the tip of her nose with his.

“Me too.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. While the two of you are getting all lovey-dovey on us, I’m going to go find myself a little action,” Ramsey said.

“There’s plenty of action right here for me,” Dustin said, and as Jeff watched them from across the table, his hand on his cold Bud Lite, he couldn’t help but think that in the whole general scheme of things he’d rather be where Dustin and Eve now sat than where Ramsey stood.

“I’m telling you, you’re missing out,” Ramsey said, shaking his head.

“You know for someone who wants action so bad, you sure don’t move very fast,” Craig said from his position next to Bridget.

“You just take notes, Hyatt.” Pointing both forefingers at the group as he slid backward, Ramsey arched an eyebrow and disappeared into the crowd.

“I’m sure glad I don’t have to do that anymore.” Eve slid so close to Dustin that Jeff wondered how she didn’t just disappear. “This is so much better.”

“Enjoy it,” Bridget, who wasn’t huddled nearly so close to her husband, said. “You get a couple of kids, and you’ll never get to be that close again.”

Craig laughed. “Yeah, it’s family night every night of the week.”

Coiling her neck, Eve looked up at Dustin. “Let’s not ever have kids.”

“Ah,” he said, smiling down at her, “I think making them sounds like fun.”

“Oh, yeah,” she said as a fire lit in her eyes. “Now that does sound like fun.”

“Hey, hey! Hello! What are we going to have to do, hose you two down?” Craig asked.

“Well, considering you’ve got a hot babe sitting right next to you, I don’t think I’d be so concerned with us,” Dustin said, smirking.

“You know,” Craig said as he turned to Bridget. “The man has a point. Do you remember how to dance, Mrs. Hyatt?”

Instantly she smiled. “I thought you’d never ask.” Together they slid from the booth.

“That doesn’t sound like a half-bad idea,” Eve said, tracing a finger around and around on Dustin’s chest.

“Well, then what are we waiting for?” Dustin asked, and they slid out the other way. Just before they stepped from the table, Dustin turned back to the lone table occupant. “Hold our seats.”

Off-handedly Jeff saluted with two fingers. Somehow he wished he had just stayed home to polish his boots.

*~*
“Good grief, Lisa-girl, you’ve really got to get out of that office more.” Bryn, one of the other bridesmaids tipped up the beer in her hand.

“What makes you say that?” Lisa asked, trying not to squirm defensively. Her own bottle of beer sat on the table without so much as a sip taken out of it.

“Look at you.” Chandra frowned. “You look like you just stepped off the cover of Working Women Today.”

“You really should learn to let your hair down a little,” Bryn confirmed.

Lisa’s hand went to the back of the upsweep of hair. “I didn’t have time to change before Haley dragged me out here.”

“Okay, I heard my name,” Haley said, slipping up to the booth. “So, what? Are we going to sit here all night and drink, or did we come to enjoy ourselves a little?” Haley was moving to the beat of the pounding music like she was born in a dance club.

“Well, let’s go dance already!” Bryn said, pushing Haley out in front of her.

Chandra slid out the other way and then stopped. “Lis, aren’t you coming?”

“No, I think I’ll just hold the table,” Lisa said, waving them away.

With a shrug, Chandra followed the other two out into the crowd, swaying with every step she took. As soon as they were gone, Lisa relaxed into the soft plastic of the booth as her finger played with the ice on her beer. Haley. She was here because of Haley. Just remember that. Put a smile on your face, and get through this.

“Hi,” a tall guy in a T-shirt and a baseball cap suddenly said, standing in front of her table. “I saw you sitting over here by yourself. I was wondering if you’d like to dance?”

The relaxation snapped right out of her spine as she sat straight up. “Oh, no. Umm, no thanks. I’m not really into dancing.”

“You sure?” He flashed that false smile she’d seen so many times it sickened her now. “I’d hate for you to just be left over here all by yourself.”

“No,” she said, trying to smile but the effort hurt her face, “maybe later.”

He held out his palms in surrender. “Your loss.” And he moved on through the crowd.

Wishing she could just disappear, Lisa laid her elbow on the seat back behind her and put her fingertips to her forehead. This was pointless. Utterly pointless. The whole idea of bars was to go and meet people and have fun, but she didn’t want to meet anyone and the last thing she had time for was fun.

In frustration, she let her arm fall forward where it immediately met up with a brick mildly resembling an arm. “Oh!” Instantly she sat up as she looked across the booth back at the target she had surprise attacked. “I’m sorry.” Her eyes widened as the guy sitting there yanked his arm away.

“Oh, no. It wasn’t you,” he said with a visible swallow. “It was me. I wasn’t paying attention. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” she said as her senses took in the strong yet quiet features, the black hair clipped neatly over his ears and the gentleness of his blue eyes. She was sure she must be dreaming, and then he smiled, and she knew that in fact she was.

In utter self-defense, she turned back to her table, holding the part of her arm that was now burning from that one single solitary brush with his. She could feel his gaze still on her, and quickly if for no other reason than to quench the fire in her chest, she took a long drink of the ice-cold beer. When she set the bottle down, she wasn’t sure if the headache she suddenly had was from the music or the beer or the fact that her eyes were trying desperately to move to the side of her head to get another look at him.

“Come on, Lisa. Get a hold of yourself,” she breathed. “He’s just like all the rest of them. Snap out of it.”

The girls picked that moment to conga line up to her table with what looked like half the bar following them.

“Come on, Lis!” Haley yelled, dancing and laughing, and pulling her sister out of the booth. “Have some fun!”

*~*

“Look at you, sitting here all alone,” Bridget said as she and Craig followed the conga line back to the table and sat down. The pity in her eyes made Jeff’s head fall of its own accord. Softly Bridget laid a hand on his arm. “We’ve really got to find you someone, Jeffrey. You’re making my heart hurt.”

Sheepishly he scratched the back of his neck. “It’s not so bad.” He laid his arm over the booth back behind her, and his gaze followed it to the now empty table beyond. But he shook the sight of the angel-ghost away from his consciousness. “I’m just glad you guys are having fun.”

“But you’re not having any,” Bridget said, frowning. Then she brightened. “How about you dance with me?”

“D-dance?” Every awkward part of his body stood to attention. “Oh, I don’t think…”

However, she already had his other hand in hers. “That wasn’t a question. You don’t mind, do you, Craig?”

Craig smiled at them as Bridget pulled Jeff out of the booth. “Just bring her back. Okay?”

Every step was torture for Jeff, all the way to the dance floor. There were things in life that he did well—dancing was not one of them. On the floor he tried to find the beat, but it kept moving on him. Side-to-side not really dancing so much as just moving, he swayed. How did all the other guys make this look normal? It felt utterly foreign to every inch of his body.

At that moment he caught sight of Dustin and Eve slow dancing although the beat was more of a jungle rhythm. He couldn’t even dance the way you were supposed to with music like this, and he sure couldn’t pull something like that off. No, for all intents and purposes, he was doomed to forever be the awkward one, to forever be the one that the world overlooked.

But that was okay. He didn’t need the spotlight. One, true love—if he could just find that, the rest of life would be perfect. As he glanced again at Dustin and Eve, that was his one and only wish.

*~*

Lisa’s head was swimming by the time they made it back to the table, and in seconds a waitress appeared with a round of shots.

“Oh, no.” Lisa waved her hands in front of her. “None for me. Thanks.”

“Come on, Lis,” Haley said, laughing and begging at the same time, “just one.”

It wasn’t a good idea. She knew it. “Okay. One.”

The glasses were filled, and Chandra raised hers. “To Cory who dang sure better know how lucky he is to be getting Haley!”

“Here, here.”

In one motion the other three downed their drinks as Lisa looked at hers knowing how awful this was going to be. She squinted into the on-coming drink, counted to three, and nearly choked when the sharp, stinging liquid assaulted her throat.

“More dancing!” Haley announced, jumping to her feet. The other two followed without question, but Lisa slunk back behind the table so they wouldn’t notice her absence. When they were gone, she sat up and coughed again. Peeling her eyes from the back of her eyelids, she shook her head. Work was not going to be fun tomorrow.

“No, no, no,” the arm guy from earlier said, sliding into the other booth as he pushed the other two occupants back out to the floor. “That’s enough for me. You two go. Dance. Have fun.”

Laughing at him, the guy put his arm on the lady’s waist, and they disappeared into the crowd. For one moment Lisa folded the edge of her napkin up and then down, fighting not to look over at him. It was crazy. He was just a guy at a bar. One of thousands, and yet… Without her permission, her gaze chanced across the divide between them, and the jolt from the pools of blue looking back at her sent her diving back to her side.

He was looking at her. That wasn’t good. No, no. That was not good. Her face went hot. Now he was going to think she was looking at him. Well, she was, but not because she wanted to. She really couldn’t help herself. After all, where else are you supposed to look—at the table all night? But still she shouldn’t have been looking. That might be an invitation, and she didn’t want to be sending out any invitations. Not tonight. Not ever.

Slowly, carefully she wound the strand of hair sliding down her face over her ear. One more furtive glance over the divide between them. This time she was thankful to find only his silhouette. Good. At least he wasn’t going to think she was trying to make eye contact or something. Casually she sat up, nodding to herself as she closed her eyes. Her brain coached itself on what to do and what not to do. However, when she opened her eyes, the fact that his arm was again only a foot from her jumped into her consciousness.

Nervously half of her gaze followed the sculptured forearm up past the black sleeve that covered everything from his elbow up to his shoulder. She shut her eyes, trying to block him out, but the second she opened them he was back. However, this time the blue pools were back too. Her gaze locked with his, and she knew he knew she was looking. Quickly she smiled as she wound the errant hair around her ear.

“Nice music,” she said.

“Yeah.” His smile was better than she had remembered.

She wanted to say something else, but her brain was scrambled by the proximity of his arm and the disarming way his gaze fell to the table as if her eyes were too intense to hold on. “You come here a lot?” she asked, wholly reprimanding herself for pursuing when she should be thankful he wasn’t.

“No, not really.” He shook his head and shifted a little, and this time his smile was less sure. “We’re celebrating.”

“Oh, really? Us too.” With her tone she tried to coax his full gaze back to her although she was only mildly successful. “My little sister’s getting married next weekend.”

“Oh.” This smile was stronger. “Lucky her.”

“Yeah, lucky me too.” Lisa shook her head and wrinkled her nose. “Bachelorette party. Woohoo.”

This time he laughed outright. “Sounds terrible.”

“Well, as long as they don’t drag me out there, it’s not so bad.”

He nodded. “I hear you there.”

For a moment she sat, gathering her scattering sanity and trying to get her gaze not to notice the gold cross shining atop the solid black shirt at his neck. “So, what’re you celebrating?”

However, at that moment her attention snapped to the other edge of his table where two of his friends slid into the booth with him without pretense.

“Man, it’s hot out there!” the girl with the nearly-black, wavy hair said, fanning herself with her hand as Lisa self-consciously slunk back into her own world.

“Yeah. I’m sure it’s the dance floor,” elbow guy said with a laugh as he retreated back to his own table.

“Hey, how would you know?” the guy in the skin-hugging, brown-gold pullover shirt asked. “It’s not like you can tell from way over here.” He took a drink. “Man, have you seen Ramsey? That guy’s insane. He’s got like a whole bachelorette party dancing with him.”

Lisa’s ears tried to peel themselves from the conversation as she slid farther down into the booth.

“Yeah, well, dancing isn’t everything,” elbow guy said as he laid his forearm on the booth back, causing the remaining sanity in Lisa’s head to disperse.

Lunacy. It was the far side of it; however, the alcohol or something had a hold of her because Lisa’s brain took a nice little journey to the middle of that hot dance floor with her in his arms, swaying in time with only one another. A low growl of disgust with herself crawled into her gut. Where was her willpower? He was a guy after all. A guy. And that meant only one thing—trouble.

“Lisa-girl! What are you doing sitting over here all by yourself?” Haley asked as she, Bryn, Chandra, and a tall, well-built black man danced up to the table. He had his arms around each of the two girls.

“We found ourselves a fireman!” Bryn said loud enough for the whole bar to hear.

“Hey,” the man said with a glance to the table next to them, “well, look what we have here!”

Not one part of Lisa liked the sound of that statement.

“Man, you ladies must have some seriously good compass directions going for you. These are the friends I was telling you about!”

Occupants from both tables looked across in surprise.

“Ramsey, what did you do?” pullover guy asked as though he was reprimanding a two-year-old.

“Two,” Ramsey mouthed over the top of the girls’ heads as he nodded and smiled.

The darkness under the table was looking very inviting to Lisa at that moment.

Pullover guy waved them over. “Well, what are you standing over there for? Come, join us.”

“What do you say, ladies? Join us?” Ramsey’s clothesline of a grip around Bryn and Chandra made arguing pointless as he led them over to the other table.

Instantly Haley stood to follow them. “Come on, Lis.”

Lisa closed her eyes and exhaled. There was no way this was going to turn out well.

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Ebook Romance Stories: To Protect & Serve, Excerpt

To Protect & Serve

Book 1

~The Courage Series ~

“I won’t let you fly away.” Jeff stepped over to Lisa, careful to keep the kite in the air as he reached down for her hand. One second of hesitation, and her slim, smooth hand latched onto his. She stood, and he didn’t miss the brush she did to the backside of her jeans. Gently he pulled her farther away from the tree, and out into the open field where he transferred control of the kite to her. “It’s not hard.”

However, the second she took control, her face set as if she was working on a micro-chemical component in a laboratory that might explode at any moment. His gaze chanced over her.

“Hey, this is supposed to be fun, remember?” he asked, but with only inches separating them, even he was having trouble remembering that.

“I’m not very good at fun,” she said, and he noticed how her whole body set to alert at the very word.

“Well, then we need to work on that.” Carefully he reached around her, and although the curve of her arm was only a breath from his, he managed to keep just that much distance between them. “Roll some out.” His hand helped hers without touching it.

“Aren’t you worried about highline wires?” she asked.

He laughed. “Look around you, do you see any highline wires?”

She brushed the hair out of her face from the breeze. “Well, no.”

“Here, let’s sit.” He folded himself onto the grass.

Her gaze jumped down to him nervously. “What?”

Reaching up, he took her hand, and his brain said that highline wires weren’t the only electricity conductors in the area. “It’s okay.” He pulled her down next to him. However, she sat like a rod, and the inches she put between them felt like miles. “Here. Man, you’re using way too much energy.” Gently he took her shoulders and pulled her back until her head was resting on the top of his thigh. “Now relax.”

“Relax,” she said as though she was having to tell herself how to do that.

“You don’t do this much, do you?”

“What? Fly kites?”

“Not work.” The middle of his chest filled as he looked down at her, the breeze blowing the loose strands of hair across her face. Softly he reached down, caught them, and wound them back around her ear.

“No,” she said, and her eyes turned liquid when her gaze caught his. After a moment, her gaze traveled back up to the kite. “No time.”

“There’s always time for the things that are really important.”

She squirmed. “Work is important.”

“So is this.”

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Ebook Romance Stories: To Protect & Serve, Review

To Protect & Serve

Book 1

~ The Courage Series ~

Reviewed by:  Cindy, Amazon Reviewer

Owner of her own successful company, self sufficient, no emotional ties, Lisa’s life is safe. She’s worked hard to get here and that’s the way she wants it.
Jeff’s life has been all about fulfilling his destiny by becoming a firefighter. He’s met his goal, found good friends and is now settling into his new job. He’s worked hard to get here and this is the way he wants it.

To Protect and Serve is Lisa’s story. Afraid to put her emotions on the line or risk her heart being broken, she pours herself into her fledgling advertising company only to find that her life still lacks meaning and purpose. The more control she gains over her life and work, the more stressful things become for her. Shouldn’t it work the other way around?

To Protect and Serve is also the story of Jeff. Allowing the past to make demands on his future, Jeff searches to fill the void in his heart by becoming a firefighter. Putting his life at risk to save others is an everyday occurrence. He is good at what he does and feels a sense of accomplishment in it. Why then, does the emptiness inside him only seem to grow, gripping his mind in a search to fill it with something as yet unknown?
What happens when these two lives heading entirely different directions collide one night, sending their motivations and ambitions hurtling into places they have never dared to venture before now? Can Lisa allow her heart to run free long enough to see where it takes her? Will Jeff let his job succeed in extinguishing the spark that threatens to catch his emotions on fire? Can they find faith along the way?

As you have come to expect from Staci Stallings, emotions run rampant through her characters, expertly captured into the written word. To Protect and Serve will hold you prisoner to its pages until the final one is turned. Prepare to cry, laugh, wish, love and maybe even cry again as you become enveloped in the hopes and feelings of Lisa and Jeff. You will find yourself encouraging them along the pathways of their lives, nudging them to find the right direction, perhaps daring them to chase the dreams long hidden in their hearts.

Staci Stallings has woven reality into fiction in a powerful way. To Protect and Serve truly honors those who protect and serve us every day. You will definitely enjoy this behind the scenes glimpse of the sacrifices they make to keep us safe.

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Ebook Romance Stories: A Light in the Darkness, Review

ALID Cover New 1-10-2014

A Light in the Darkness

Book 3

~ The Faith Series ~

Review by:  Rhonda Aberdeen

Of the three books in the Faith Series, I have to say, this one is my all time favorite! I love every single one: A Work in Progress, A Little Piece of Heaven but a Light in the Darkness was so phenomenal,I just had to buy it to finish read the rest of the book.

To really understand Holly, you have to read the first two books in the series, to see how far she came from and why she made certain choices within the novel. She seemed lost with no where to go and she did not like the road she was on but she did not know how to get out of it because she did not choose this particular road in the first place; her mom did.

Thank God that she saw a light in the darkness, and that though it felt at one point like she was stuck in a hopeless situation, that hope was not far away. She found love the minute she was not looking and at just the right time because if God did not intervene when he did by sending Gabriel, Holly would have just been a memory, never knowing how amazing love can really be.

This book is amazing, fantastic and wonderful! Staci, God has really given you a talent. Keep on writing!

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Read Chapter 1

Excerpt

Ebook Romance Stories: A Little Piece of Heaven, Review

ALPH Cover New 1-10-2014

A Little Piece of Heaven

Book 2

~ The Faith Series ~

I would like to give a constructive criticism, but how can I when there is nothing to criticize? A Little Piece of Heaven is simply that. In this book, Jeremy came to understand that what he thought made life worth living are not really the element to a wonderful life. When these elements were remove from the equation, in the midst of his frustration and trying to find himself , he found a beautiful gem, which was Emily and at first he could not understand how she saw life the way she did and how she talked about God the way she did.

He thought life was what he knew, but he found real love when he stopped trying to fit into something he never really liked and allow God and Emily to show him what life really was.

This book was simply beautiful.

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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: “Deep in the Heart” Chapter 1

Deep in the Heart Cover Final 1-18-2014

 

#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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