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Mirror Mirror, Excerpt

Mirror Mirror Large coverMirror Mirror

Excerpt

As much as he hated washing dishes, Luke was having an immense amount of fun watching her walk in and out. He began to notice that each time she came back, she would say something to him. “Don’t quit your day job.” “I feel like Santa.” “I hope you don’t blame me for this.”

Each time he retorted the comment, but each one brushed across his heart like the gentle wing of an angel. By the time she brought the final items from the line, he was sad to see her reason for coming back here go.

“That’s it,” she said after stacking the last two empty bowls that had been full of cheese at the very end.

“You sure? I haven’t seen the water cooler or tea thing.”

She snapped her fingers. “Tea thing. Right. I’ll be back.”

He could hardly hold the laugh as he watched her go through the other door. In seconds she was back, hefting the tea dispenser.

“Ask and it shall be given,” he said, shaking his head. Just then he realized she was going to have the thing all over the floor if she tried to get it up onto that counter by herself. “Oh, here.” And with no more than that, he was next to her, picking the thing up and setting it gently down.

“Whew. Manual labor.” She swiped off her hands and wiped them on the backs of her jeans. “Not my forte.”

“You need help with the water?” When he stepped back, how close she was washed over him.

“I think I can get it, but don’t go too far.” With a wink, she headed back out, and Luke froze solid to the spot.

“Luke, these dishes are not doing themselves,” Ms. P said, bustling about as she stacked more pans on the other side of the counter.

He shook his head to clear it of the intoxication and went back to work. “I’m on it.”

 

Sage couldn’t explain it, but it was very much like remembering what sunshine felt like. Never would she have thought she would feel that way immersed in dirty pots and pans, but every time she went into that kitchen, her spirit said it was filled with warmth and safety. Maybe the first real safety she had felt since landing here three weeks before.

“Finally. That’s the last of it,” she said, setting the water dispenser up on the counter. This one was almost empty so it wasn’t the impossible task the tea one had proven to be. Stepping back, she put her hands on her hips. “Wow.”

“Yeah. Wow,” Luke said from the sink, looking over the pile. “So, you just going to bring them all in here and then leave me with all the hard work?”

“Hey, I brought them. You should be grateful.”

“Oh, I am. I am. Grateful is my middle name.”

“Luke. Grateful.” She came over to his side, leaned her elbows on the sink next to him and looked up at him playfully. “I-don’t-know-your-last-name. Yep. That has a lovely ring to it, don’t you think?”

His gaze fell to hers, and he shook his head. “Hey there, Ms. Sarcastic, you know how to use a dish towel?”

Her eyebrows came up. “Do I look like I know how to use a dish towel?”

“No.” He tried not to smile, but he did anyway. “But maybe it’s time you learned.” Jerking his chin up, he indicated the other side of the counter. “They’re over there in that top drawer.”

Waiting one more second, Sage picked herself up. “I said I don’t know how to use one.”

He shook his head again. “Just get a towel and start drying, Ms. Hollywood.”

From anyone else, she probably would have taken the moniker as an insult. Somehow, from him, it didn’t sound like one. She got one of the towels, trying not to notice all the holes in it. Back at his side, she picked up one small pan from the top of the new stack he was creating in the draining sink. Running it back and forth to dry the pan, she let out a breath. Strange how a month ago she never would have pictured herself doing such a thing.

“At least we didn’t have spaghetti today,” he said, leaning over just enough to bump her shoulder.

“Ugh. Don’t remind me.” She set that pan down to the side and grabbed up another one before leaning toward him. “I’m surprised Ms. P even let me in the kitchen today.”

“You and me both.” He smiled down at her, and Sage had that feeling of knowing she was safe again.

“I’m not exactly a kitchen kind of person,” she said, not looking up at him.

“Nah. You totally could have fooled me.”

“Really,” and her tone dropped into serious. “All of this is just so… surreal to me. The people. This.” She held up a pan and then set it down. “It’s so not…”

“You?” he asked gently. “I’d have never guessed.”

With a shrug she pulled up another pan. “The weirdest thing is how nice it is to be here. Today. At least I’m not staring at my walls, wishing I could be somewhere else.”

“You don’t want to be somewhere else?” He sounded actually concerned as if her feelings mattered one way or the other to him.

“Well, this is definitely better than the alternative. Believe me, I have a new appreciation for the torture of solitary confinement.”

“That bad, huh?”

She retrieved another pan as he replenished her stack. “I’m telling you, I thought I was going to lose my mind when I didn’t have my cell phone last week. At least I finally got that back.”

“Yeah. They can be pretty strict.”

“Tell me about it.” She put that pan down and got another, rotating her towel to try to find a not-wet place. “I guess you know all about that though, huh?”

“Me?” He turned surprised eyes down on her.

However, Sage just shrugged. “Yeah, you and Jayc. I mean, with you guys dating and everything.”

 

She said it so matter-of-factly that Luke felt like he’d been hit in the chest with a double-barrel shotgun blast.

“Oh, uh.” He reached up and scratched the back of his head, not realizing he’d managed to transfer suds there. “We’re not dating. We’re just friends.”

“Friends.” Sage laughed. “Yeah. Right.”

Defensively and trying to figure out what that laugh meant, he plunged his hands back in the soapy water. “Really. We’re just friends.” Before she could question it or laugh at him again, Luke plowed forward. “Good friends. The best. But we’re totally not dating.”

“Huh.” She made the sound and nodded with a scowl on her face as she dried a bowl. “But you want to… date her, right?”

If Luke had had any air in his system, he would have yelled Fire to get out of this conversation. “Uh. No. I…”

“Oh, come on. Seriously? Now, no lying over dishes.” Her gaze came up to his face, and he hated that he couldn’t think of a way to get away from her.

Lifting his eyebrows, he let his gaze slide over her face. “No lying over dishes? That’s a new one.”

“No, now, come on. No changing the subject on me. You like Jaycee.”

This was not a conversation he wanted to be in. Suddenly her word from before, surreal pounded through his mind. “As a friend, yes. I like Jaycee.”

Sage shook her head, looking imminently more comfortable than she had 20 minutes before, which did nothing for his nerves. “But you go out?”

“Not like that. Not like you mean. Not like dating.” He shrugged and reached up to push his sleeves up, realizing only after he did so that he had only succeeded in getting them wet. “We go out. We hang out sometimes, but we’re not dating.”

Something approaching sadness brushed her face. “But I see how you look at her.”

That backed Luke up. “Oh, yeah? How do I look at her?” The second the question was out of his mouth, he deeply regretted asking it.

However, instead of getting sarcastic or mischievous, she grew pensive. “Like she’s holding your whole world in her hands, like you would do anything to be with her, like you love her.”

The shotgun blast was beginning to sound merciful. He let his gaze fall to the dish water that was getting greasy instead of soapy.

“I’m right,” Sage said softly. “Aren’t I? You’re in love with Jaycee.”

“I’m going to have to switch out this water,” he said, reaching for the plug. He pulled his sleeve up to his face and rubbed it there, sensing moisture there. No way was he going to ask what was causing it to be there.

Sage continued to dry the pans, and remarkably there were now more on her side than on his. “So why don’t you ask her out?”

His heart was really starting to hurt, and the shake of his head did nothing to stop the pain. “She’s not…” He shrugged and washed the last of the old water down the drain before starting the faucet and filling the sink with new hot water. “It’s not… She’s not into me like that.” This shrug was only mildly easier. “I’ve accepted it.”

Now Sage had grown completely quiet as she continued drying, and Luke wanted to ask what she wasn’t saying. “Well, for what it’s worth, I think she’s missing something… someone pretty cool.”

It was the first chance he’d had to laugh, and Luke took it. “Cool? Me? I’m here washing dishes on a Saturday afternoon.”

She tilted her head and looked up at him. “And that’s a bad thing?”

“Well, it’s not cool, that’s for sure.”

A second and she half-nodded. “Maybe not to everyone.”

Mirror Mirror Large cover

 

 

“I fell in love with Sage. My heart went out to her, and I could so relate to how she felt. It’s no fun trying to be someone you’re not even when you don’t know that’s what you are doing.”

 

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Ebook Romance Stories: “Reunion” Review


Reunion Cover Final 1-17-2014Reunion

~The Dreams Series ~
Book 2

by: June

If you fell in love with Jaylon and Camille in Dreams by Starlight, you won’t want to miss this one. It’s even better!

Reunion is the sequel to Dreams by Starlight. It’s been 10 years since Jaylon and Camille graduated from high school. They’ve both gone on to accomplish their goals to a point. Now it’s time to return home for the class reunion. Neither really wants to go. High school was not that enjoyable for Camille. And life is busy for Jaylon who is getting ready to get married. But it works out that they both go back and life takes some interesting turns and twists for both of them. We get to see a few of the characters who were also in Dreams by Starlight, mostly those who were in the drama class with Jaylon and Camille. Very enjoyable story.

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Excerpt

Ebook Romance Stories: For Real, Thoughts on For Real

For Real

~The Courage Series~

Book 3

Reality. What a strange word. We all think we know what reality is, but do we?  And does our perspective change reality or just bend it to what we think of as reality?

In “For Real,” Blaine and Melody each have a reality and a facade, and the two couldn’t be further apart. Blaine is literally living a lie.  He is one person.  He is acting and living like another.  Others see what he’s acting like and treat and judge him as if that’s really who he is.  It’s not, but how do you get out of that trap?

Melody is on that same reality-bending, living-a-lie trip.  She can’t figure out how to be impressive enough for guys to like her, and she’s wrapped up in figuring out how to be who they want her to be long enough to get them to notice her.  It’s not working.

Then Blaine and Melody begin to reveal who they really are to each other and come face-to-face with how much their lies are costing them.  They are challenged to become “For Real” with each other, but can they do that and not lose everything they’ve built on the lies?

I love how this book challenges the judgments we put on others.  How it asks us to be who we really are and let others see our real reality.  In essence it asks, “Can you be For Real with your friends and not lose them and yourself in the process?”

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Ebook Romance Stories: For Real, Review

For Real

~ The Courage Series ~

Book 3

“There I was just enjoying the heck out of this story when those dreaded words came up. “Epilogue.” What? NO! It can’t be over yet.

Staci Stalling has done it again. She’s taken a handful of characters that we can easily associate with and shown us some of their flaws and hidden insecurities. She does a masterful job of describing how people tend to lie and/or manipulate the truth so others will be impressed. And then they have to cover the lies with other lies and pretty soon it gets easier and easier to tell more lies. They play a lot of games in life trying to impress, gain attention or make others jealous.

“As he went, person by person through those in his life, he saw their desperate attempts to hide the hurt and fear with… what? Everything. Clothes. Shoes. Money. Cars. Education. Position. Status. And down the other spectrum drugs, alcohol, anger, violence, selfishness. As he thought about it, he realized that it was the same disease just with different symptoms.”

In this story we have Blaine who is a really nice guy, but insecure about who and what he is because his father pulled a fast one on the family 10 years earlier. Yes, for 10 years he’s had these issues. We briefly met Blaine in book 2 of the Courage Series, “White Knight”, when he worked with Eve. Wanting to impress Eve he borrows a top of the line sports car from his buddy to go on a group date with Eve and everyone thinks he’s a spoiled rich guy. What a stretch from the truth. He’s really an incredibly nice guy who is trying to get an education, hold down a job, take care of his little brother and mother, and do it all while keeping everyone from seeing who he really is and what his life really looks like. Blaine met Melody on that group date and when she got sick he drove her home, which involved her losing her lunch all over his borrowed car. Not the ideal situation for starting a relationship.

Now in For Real they meet up a few months later and things progress to the point where they can have a relationship. But he’s already established the lie of being a rich guy and they have to learn how to be REAL with each other, thus, the title of this novel.

“It was a long moment before she continued. “For what it’s worth, I think the nice guy fits you much better, but I think you’re scared to be him.”
“Why would I be scared of that?”
“I don’t know. Why would you?”
Pain tore through him so deep it felt like it ripped the middle of him apart. “Because being a jerk is so much easier.””

Ms. Stallings does a fine job of describing life of college coeds and bringing back all the memories of my own college days. Too many nights of staying up late studying, working, trying to balance it all out with a bit of a social life. I enjoyed watching the resolving of conflict between old relationships and bringing them to the point of being able to have meaningful relationships as friends who went on to play a major role in each others lives. As Melody figured out her own life and that things aren’t always as they seem, she is able to see that other people also hide behind their insecurities but when you can get past them, your perceived enemies can actually become your best friends.

The story was full of emotion and conflict and I was cheering them on to figure out that they weren’t the only ones with misconceived notions.There were a LOT of issues brought up in this book but they were handled in such a way that it didn’t overwhelm the senses. They just sort of followed a natural chain of events. This issue leads to the next which leads to the next which… As a reader we can see what the characters can’t, that it’s just in their head, so it’s kind of comical and keeps the story light enough to enjoy.

“What he wouldn’t give to be able to just be as honest with her as she was with him.”

This line from For Real, by Staci Stallings sums it up in a nutshell for me.”

— by:  June, Amazon Reviewer

For Real

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Ebook Romance Stories: For Real, Excerpt

For Real

~ The Courage Series ~

Book 3

Blaine sensed movement toward the door, and he ducked into the bathroom just as the door down the hall swung open. Flattening against the bathroom wall, he left the door open enough to be able to hear. A.J. plowed down the hallway with Eve right behind him. They stopped on the other side of the bathroom threshold.

“A.J., come on.  Tonight was supposed to be special.” She stopped him by grabbing his elbow and swinging him around. “Lisa and Jeff knocked themselves out to make this nice for us.  Please, please, don’t ruin it.”

The pleading in Eve’s voice was so desperate, it wafted over Blaine’s heart as well.

“Please.”  She moved toward A.J., and Blaine let his gaze fall to the darkness.  It was such a private moment between the two of them, how could he not?  “I know you think the world of Melody, and I love you for that.  I know you want to protect her, but please don’t cause a scene tonight.  Tomorrow you can call her and let her know how you feel about Bobby.”

“What? Am I supposed to just let him have a wide open shot at her tonight?”

Eve backed up from the intensity of his voice. “Maybe… Maybe, we could… I don’t know.  Do something so she doesn’t go home with Bobby, but with someone else.”

“Like who?  Except for Dante who’s like 12 years older than her…”

“Maybe Blaine.  He’s here too.”

A huge whoosh of air went into Blaine’s lungs and clung there.

“Blaine?  Spoiled little rich jerk Blaine?  Oh, yeah.  Like that’s an improvement.”

Eve softened.  She really was trying.  “Come on, A.J.  Blaine’s a nice guy. You should give him a chance.”

It was like forever passed before either of them spoke again. There wasn’t a fiber of Blaine that had moved, and his muscles had begun to atrophy.  Yet how could he move?  Not only would they know he had heard everything, A.J.’s already dim view of him would surely be set in concrete from then on.

“Fine,” A.J. spat.  “Fine. I won’t say anything tonight.  I’ll call her tomorrow.”

The breath Eve breathed coupled with the soft kiss she put on A.J.’s cheek about did Blaine in.  A.J. Knight didn’t deserve her.  He wondered at that moment if any man did.  With that they moved on down the hall.  Long after they were gone, quietly, slowly Blaine closed the door and counted to 70 before he turned on the light.

When he did, the first thing he saw was his reflection in the mirror over the double sinks.  He wanted A.J. not to be right.  He would’ve fought it with his fists had he had the chance.  But looking into his own eyes, what did he really see?  A guy who was living a flagrant lie and flaunting a life he could only dream of living.  With a shake of his head, he dropped his gaze and gave up trying to figure it out.  There was no answer.  Not a good one anyway.  So it was better to forget it, and move on.

For Real

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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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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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