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Ebook Romance Stories: The Easy Way Out, The Story

The Easy Way Out final 1-21-2014The Easy Way Out

Book 2

~ The Friendship Series ~

Landscape designer, Drew Easton thought he had met the perfect girl in Harmony Jordan, but then Harmony married Drew’s best friend and business partner, Aaron Foster. Trying to pick up the pieces of the failed relationship and go on with life, Drew is not prepared for the twists the road to true love is about to take. Will his heart still be in one piece at the end of this ride?

Charity Jordan has one feeling about her older sister. Hate. Never able to measure up, always second-choice, Charity’s life has been driven by one bad mistake after another. When Harmony’s ex begins showing up to landscape her parent’s yard, Charity has no intentions of being his second choice either. But when feelings start to change, will she be able to keep herself from once again taking The Easy Way Out…


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First Chapter

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Ebook Romance Stories: The Easy Way Out, Review

The Easy Way Out final 1-21-2014The Easy Way Out

Book 2

~ The Friendship Series ~

Review

Learn a Better Way than Taking the Easy Way Out, (5-stars) Myrna Brorman

There are always lessons to be learned when reading a Staci Stallings novel. I happened to read this one at a pivotal time for me. I was struggling with some issues regarding conditional love. In the novel, Charity struggles with having always felt that she couldn’t do anything “good enough”. It seemed to her that her sister always “got it right” while she managed to screw things up. As is frequently the case, when one feels “less than”, they do things to make their self “feel better” which may not be wise choices at all. Then, when it is time to pay the consequences for those choices, they tend to take “the easy way out”. This is a story about two such people. Very inspiring to see them grow in their relationship with God and learning to love unconditionally. I always feel better after reading a Staci Stallings novel. And, I ALWAYS learn some valuable lessons.

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Ebook Romance Stories: The Easy Way Out, Excerpt

The Easy Way Out final 1-21-2014Excerpt from The Easy Way Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His forehead knotted. “Harmony?”

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

“The weak link?”

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

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

“They’re throwing the bouquet.”

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

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

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Ebook Romance Stories: The Easy Way Out, Chapter 1

The Easy Way Out final 1-21-2014

The Easy Way Out

Book 2

~ The Friendship Series ~

Chapter 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Harmony.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh?” His forehead furrowed in concern.

Quickly she shook her head. “Never mind.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And out of trouble?” Drew asked.

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

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

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

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

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

*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You did good.”

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

*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His forehead knotted. “Harmony?”

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

“The weak link?”

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

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

“They’re throwing the bouquet.”

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

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

Together they stepped onto the concrete steps of the hall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carefully, the two of them knelt facing each other.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not for me.”

“Why not?”

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

“Permanent enough?”

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

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

“Doesn’t exist.”

“How do you know that?”

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

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

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

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

Aaron shrugged. “The more the merrier.”

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

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

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

“Yeah, I only had a little.”

She squinted at him carefully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ugh. Sorry,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I trust you,” Aaron said.

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

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

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

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

“I will.”

They all stood in a long, uneasy silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*~*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She shrugged. “It’s a free country.”

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

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

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

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Ebook Romance Stories: Eternity, First Chapter

Eternity Final 1-21-2014Eternity

~The Friendship Series ~

Book 1

Chapter 1

It wasn’t the best idea Aaron Foster had ever come up with, but he was desperate. It had been three months since “the break-up,” and although he was still sure his heart would never recover, if he didn’t find a roommate soon, his heart wouldn’t be the only thing out on the street.

“Hello, you,” Harmony Jordan said, throwing an arm around him and digging her chin into his shoulder as he stood next to the company bulletin board, notice in-hand, gathering up the courage to tack it up. “What ya doing?”

“Looking for a roommate.”

Slowly Harmony’s arm slid from his shoulder, and she crossed her arms, her long, sandy-colored hair sliding down almost to them. “Oh, yeah, I forgot, Bubbles moved out.”

“Mandy,” he said petulantly. “Her name is Mandy.”

“Mandy, Brandy, Candy, Bubbles. Whatever. You know, you could do better than her.”

He looked at her, set the square of his jaw, and shook his head. “Nope. Not anymore. I’ve given up on doing better.”

Harmony cocked a disbelieving red eyebrow at him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means, I’m taking myself out of the game.” With renewed determination, he reached up and tacked the notice to the board. “I am officially single and proud of it.”

“Yeah, right.”  She narrowed her hazel eyes at him without ever even glancing at the notice. “So, let me guess. Single, white male with medium-great apartment looking for roommate to split the rent. No smokers, druggies, or women need apply. 555-6472.”  She laughed as the annoyed look spread across his face. “Oh, yeah. And no pets either.”

Their gazes locked as he tried to decide how much of her speech was teasing and how much was making fun of him. Her smile was maddening to the core.

“What?” he finally asked in frustration.

“Nothing.”  She shrugged as though the question and him were utterly beyond help. On her heel she turned and started away from him.

For two steps he followed her, and then he turned back to the board, ripped the notice off the wall, and looked at it. “Single, white male… ”  With one crunch he crumpled it into a tiny ball and threw it into the first available trashcan as he raced after her.

“What should I do then?” he asked, catching her just as she turned into her cubicle. “How else could I go about finding a roommate?”

She shrugged as her hands rifled through the papers on her desk. “You put the word out—to your friends, people you know. Ask them if they know someone who’s looking.”

“And that works?” he asked skeptically.

“That’s how I met my last roommate. Best roommate I’ve ever had. She cooked, she cleaned, she even bought the groceries if I gave her the money.”

“Hmm.”  He leaned onto her desk. “Sounds great. How can I… ”

“You can’t have her.” Harmony, shorter in stature than him and much less sophisticated, continued to rifle through the papers strewn on her desk.

“Why not?”

“Because she got married six months ago that’s why.”

“Oh.” He held out the papers in his own hands knowing he should be working. “Well, then, do you think…?”

“Sure,” she said, looking up with a soft smile. “I’ll ask around.”

The papers fell back to his knee as he looked at her gratefully. “Man, I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

*~*

Two days later Harmony poked her head around the corner of Aaron’s cubicle. “Good news.”

He didn’t bother to look up as his pencil continued down the list in front of him. “Oh, yeah? What’s that?”

“I think I found someone.”

“How nice for you.” His focus never shifting from his work.

“Not for me, dufus—for you.”

He looked up in confusion as his attention skipped from the line of numbers he’d been working to reconcile. “Huh?”

“I found you a roommate,” she said before she ducked back out of his cubicle and into her own.

“What?”  He jumped up, sending his chair crashing to the floor although he didn’t notice. In two seconds he was in her cubicle. He pulled the extra chair over to her desk and sat down expectantly. “Talk to me.”

She sorted the papers on her desk for one more second, and then she looked at him as excitement flowed through her eyes. “A friend of mine—Jay Theron—you remember him, he’s the guy we met when we were picking out your couch that time. Remember, the ugly yellow thing you said reminded you of your grandmother’s…”

“Harmony.”

The story stopped, and she looked at him as though they hadn’t been sitting in her cubicle the whole time. “Oh, yeah. Well, anyway, Jay’s got this cousin. He’s from New York or Philadelphia or something. He just moved to town, and he’s staying with Jay until he can find a place.”

Slowly she tilted her head to one side and looked at him expectantly. He sat, looking at her, waiting for the rest of the story, but she said nothing.

“And?” he finally said, lifting his hand in the air.

“And,” she said as annoyance crept into her voice, “he’ll be at your apartment tonight at eight—just for a meeting, nothing permanent.”

“Oh, my gosh.”  His eyes closed in relief. “Harmony, you are a lifesaver, you know that?” With no pretense he stood, walked around her desk, and hugged her to him. “You have to be the best friend in the whole entire world.”

She smiled into his starched shirt as she closed her eyes and breathed in the scent of him being so close. “Glad I could help.”

*~*

There wasn’t enough stuff in his apartment to clean three times, but Aaron wanted everything to be perfect for this meeting. He arranged the two pillows Harmony had bought for his couch twice before giving up and running the dust cloth over the stereo system. It was silly to be so obsessed with keeping the apartment, but he’d always been the sentimental type.

Losing Mandy was almost more than his over-sensitive side could take—moving would’ve been the final straw. Carefully he replaced the smooth, ebony marble statue that had mysteriously appeared on his work desk last Christmas. It had stayed on his desk at work until Mandy had come home and announced she was seeing someone else. Then the statue had relocated to this place over his television.

He was sure his receiving it was a mistake, but something about it was so personal, he didn’t have the heart to throw it out.

The knock brought him back into the apartment, and he checked the area once more before taking a deep breath and opening the door.

“Hi.” A slightly bearded man just younger than Aaron stood there in the hallway. His clothes were less-than fashionable, even a little on the worn side.

“Hi,” Aaron said awkwardly, sure this was the guy Harmony had sent but not sure how to ask that of a perfect stranger.

They stood like that for a moment, sizing each other up.

“I’m Drew,” the young man finally said, extending his hand. “Drew Easton.”

Aaron smiled in relief. “Aaron Foster.” They shook hands. “You’re Jay’s cousin?”

“Yep,” Drew said, not moving from the doorway.

“Oh, I’m sorry.”  Aaron stepped back to let Drew cross the threshold into the apartment.

“Nice place.” Drew kept his hands dug securely in his pockets. Weaving his body back and forth, he examined the apartment from each vantage point as his feet carried him across the hardwood floor.

“I just got home,” Aaron said, lying only a tiny bit. “I haven’t really had time to clean it up much.”

“It’s nice,” Drew said again, stopping to examine the kitchen and the little table.

Aaron fought for something to say. “So, you just moved here?”

“Yeah, from Buffalo.”

“Oh? Why’d you move?”

“Too cold,” Drew said. “So, the bedrooms are upstairs then?”

“Yeah.” Aaron held a hand up in invitation of the stairs. “There’s two bedrooms and a bath.”

He let Drew go up ahead of him and then followed him, running his hands together with each step. “The rent’s not outrageous, but it’s a little too much for me to come up with myself.”

“What happened to your last roommate?” Drew asked, ducking into the empty bedroom at the top of the stairs.

“I killed her,” Aaron said a little too seriously, and Drew turned and arched an eyebrow at him. “No.” Aaron laughed, hoping it didn’t sound hollow but knowing it did. “She moved out.”

“She?” Drew nodded in understanding as he walked down the short hallway to the bathroom. “So, how do you plan on splitting the groceries?”

Aaron shrugged. “We could either buy our own or pool the money. Whichever.”

Drew nodded. “And the utilities and stuff?”

“The phone’s really the only thing we have to worry about. All the rest is included.”

“Wow,” Drew said, appraising the situation. “Well, are you… do you have any other prospects?”

“Nope, you’re it,” Aaron said with a shrug.

“Well, I’ll take it then.” Drew extended his hand again. “When can I move in?”

“Whenever you’re ready,” Aaron said, accepting the handshake as gratefulness and relief wrapped across his heart.

*~*

“I hear congratulations are in order,” Harmony said, leaning on Aaron’s doorway with two Dixie cups in-hand the next morning.

He looked up from the computer and leaned back in his chair. “Hey, yeah, I didn’t get a chance to thank you this morning.”

“Yeah, yeah, but you meant to. I know.”  She handed him one cup and sat down.

“Champagne on the job?” he asked skeptically. “Harmony, I didn’t know.”

“Yes, you did,” she said as he took a drink. “It’s ginger ale.”

He nodded knowingly as he pulled the cup down. “Figures.”

“Aren’t we even going to toast?” she asked, having never so much as lifted her own cup.

“To what?”

She set her elbows on his desk and stared at him thoughtfully. “I don’t know. To old friends and new friends.”

He raised his cup to hers. “And all those in between.”

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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, 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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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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