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Ebook Romance Stories: For Real, First Chapter

For Real

~ The Courage Series ~

Book 3

Chapter One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The boy cowered into Blaine’s pant leg.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What grade are you in—first?”

“Second,” he answered softly.

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

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

“Oh, yeah?  How?” she challenged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The two little shoulders reached for the ceiling.

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

“We probably ought to.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A.J.

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

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

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

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

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

*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*~*

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

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

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

*~*

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

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

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

For Real

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Ebook Romance Stories: For Real, The Story


For Real

~ The Courage Series ~

Book 3

Blaine Donovan has a secret, but so far his plan to keep the rest of the world in the dark about who he really is and what’s really going on in his life has worked. If he can just finish school before the demons catch up with him, he knows he can make life make sense once again. However, when he runs into Melody Todd, a semi-friend he had thought was long-gone, life takes a turn Blaine wasn’t at all expecting.

Still hurting from watching her best friend marry someone else, Melody Todd has given up on dating, guys, and herself. In fact, when Blaine shows back up in her life, she does what she always does with the eligible guys who look her way—she sets him up with someone else. But Blaine soon proves to be much different than he at first seems. Too many things are not adding up the way they are supposed to, and the more Melody digs, the more she sees that the Blaine she knows is not the real Blaine at all…

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Ebook Romance Stories: White Knight, Review

White Knight

Book 2

~ The Courage Series ~

Review by Cindy

“Staci Stallings wrote another book?” I can still hear my husband mumbling. What this translates to in man language is “Better go get take-out or I’m going to be mighty hungry.”

Be that as it may, there is no way I am going to pass up the sequel of “To Protect and Serve,” a book I just loved. Jeff and Lisa were like real people to me, not just fictional characters. So, imagine my surprise when not only do I get to check up on what’s happening with that fascinating couple, but I find myself smack dab in the middle of a new romance between two people I barely knew before. And what’s more, now they’ve become `real’ to me as well. I’m about to fall in love, have my heart broken and wonder if this mess can ever be repaired right along with A.J. and Eve.

A.J. is fun-loving, happy-go-lucky, always ready to lend a hand wherever it might be needed. But that’s just the surface. Dig a little deeper and we discover insecurities, uncertainties and even fears that must be broken and conquered before A.J. can truly offer his love to another. The barriers are tall and sturdy. But it seems Eve may have started an avalanche leaving A.J.’s walls crumbling around him.

Eve still grieves for her husband, gone two years now. Her life is mostly a façade, a carefully orchestrated scene put on to convince those around her that `everything is fine.’ But everything is not fine and Eve doesn’t seem to understand that letting herself love and be loved is the first and most important step in leaving the past behind. If she allows A.J. beyond the perimeters of her heart will she only be in for more disappointment and loss?

So as their hearts collide on the way to an uncertain future, the story of “White Knight” unfolds, drawing you into the depths of these characters emotions. Come along for the ride as Jeff, Lisa and their circle of friends attempt to help Eve and A.J. unravel misconceptions, misunderstandings and mishaps they encounter on their journey. You’ll laugh out loud, cry real tears and maybe even forget to prepare a meal or two as the pages turn.

Read and love “White Knight.” Staci has indeed, done it again.

WHITE KNIGHT

~ Expect the Unexpected ~

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Ebook Romance Stories: White Knight, The Story

White Knight

Book 2

~ The Courage Series ~

Hoping for some excitement and a little extra money, A.J. Knight signed up to be a Houston EMT. However, when he did, he never thought about the life-and-death situations he’d be put into or the lives that he might be called on to save. Worse, he never so much as considered the lives that might be lost while he was working to save them.

Eve Knox understands what it’s like to have life ripped away in an instant. After the death of her first and only love in an unimaginable tragedy, she is struggling to go on with a life that seems to have been stripped of its former meaning. Hurting and alone, Eve knows her friends are just trying to help her cope, but their attempts to fill the void in her heart are starting to smother the spirit she once had. She sees no point in searching for love a second time, what happens when a second-chance love shows up in a way she never saw coming…

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Ebook Romance Stories: White Knight, Excerpt

White Knight

Book 2

~ The Courage Series ~

“Oh, and if you find popcorn over by the couch,” A.J. said as Eve retrieved her small jacket from the closet and slipped into it, “That was Eve’s fault.”

“Ah,” she said as if she had been wounded. “That wasn’t very nice.” She took a swing and caught his shoulder with her fist. He shrugged away from the punch even as he laughed.

“Well, I didn’t want her to blame me!”

Ashley and Gabe laughed.

“Well, come back and we’ll make some more popcorn just for you,” Gabe said as he laid a hand on Ashley’s shoulder.

“Just tell me when,” A.J. said. “I never pass up free food.”

Eve leveled an exasperated gaze at Ashley. “He’s such a guy.”

“You act like that’s a bad thing,” A.J. said, looking at her with a smile in his eyes that rounded down into his apple-curved cheekbones.

One look at Ashley and she and Eve said, “It is!”

Good-byes flew in all directions as the last four partygoers stepped out into the cold night. At last the door closed behind them, and the light of the streetlamps guided their journey down the sidewalk.

“Drive careful, you two,” A.J. said, waving to Jeff and Lisa when they got to the end of the sidewalk and he and Eve started to turn the other direction.

“You too,” Jeff said, and then he stopped. When he looked at Eve, all playfulness was gone. “Do you want us to follow you home?”

Eve’s face scrunched in annoyance. “I’m a big girl, Jeff. I think I can get home by myself.”

“Are you sure? Because it’s really no trouble.”

Eve smiled softly. “It’s an hour out of your way. Just get your wife home and into a bathtub. I’ll be fine.”

“Okay,” Jeff said uncertainly after a long moment. He stared at them, sizing up the situation and her. “Do you want to call us when you get there?”

“I’ll be fine,” Eve said in exasperation. “It’s not like I haven’t driven by myself before.”

“Well, which direction are you headed?” A.J. asked, breaking into the conversation.

“South,” Eve said shortly.

“I’m headed South. I’m going as far as Elgin. I can follow you that far if you want.”

Eve looked at Jeff for his blessing. “Happy now?”

Jeff took a moment to assess A.J. and another to decide. “Yeah, I guess that’ll work.”

“Good,” Eve said, crossing her arms over herself, “because it’s freezing out here. See you, Lis.”

“Call me,” Lisa said as Eve turned and started for the cars, but ten steps down the sidewalk she realized that A.J. wasn’t with her. In annoyance she turned just in time to see him shake Jeff’s hand and nod. On her heel she turned and stomped to her car. She wasn’t a baby. She had managed to make it through 29 whole years without Jeff’s constant protective gaze following her every move. How she had ever managed, she was sure he couldn’t quite tell.

Just then she heard the tennis shoes on the concrete behind her, and in the next heartbeat A.J. jogged up beside her.

“I’ve got ten cents that says you drive better than he does,” A.J. said.

“Ten cents? Boy, you have a lot of confidence in me.”

“Okay, make it 20, but that’s my final offer.”

She glanced at him skeptically.

“Hey,” he said, his tone serious, “I have to eat this week you know.”

Eve shook her head and laughed, and as mad as she was at the whole situation, for some reason she just couldn’t be mad with him at her side. “Okay, twenty cents it is.” Without question he followed her across the street and to her car, and then it was time to say good-bye. Gratefulness poured through her as she glanced at him. “I had fun tonight.”

He shrugged. “It was a party. You were supposed to have fun.”

“Well, it was extra fun.”

That apple rounded across the top of his cheek. “I thought so too.”

For a moment she stood, not really wanting to leave.

“Take care driving home,” he said and backed away from her. At the door to the little brown Honda Civic across the street he stopped. “And don’t lose me either.”

“Try to keep up.”

 White Knight
~ The Courage Series~
Book 2

“Expect the unexpected…”

“Through a series of entertaining twists and turns and a lot of suspense, two very unlikely people find in each other a reason to laugh and love and live.”

–Amazon Reviewer, Myrna Brorman

The hardest part is losing the person someone else loves… 

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Ebook Romance Stories: To Protect & Serve, The Story

great bookTo Protect & Serve

Book 1

~ The Courage Series ~

To save others’ lives, they will risk their own…

Houston firefighter, Jeff Taylor is a fireman’s fireman. He’s not afraid of anything, and no situation is too dangerous to keep him on the sideline if lives are at stake.

Lisa Matheson runs a semi-successful ad agency that’s on the brink of falling apart. Her employees are incompetent and her schedule has become exhausting. When she takes on a client with a brilliant idea for a big conference, she thinks that maybe, finally this is her lucky break. However, the fire station wasn’t what she had in mind for finding conference speakers. When she falls for a handsome but shy firefighter, it’s possible that life might just be going her way for a change. The only problem is she can’t control Jeff and the death wish he seems to have…

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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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