Tag Archive | romance novels

Flight 259, Chapter 1

Flight 259Chapter 1

 Heat. Unmitigated, unimaginable, unquenchable heat seared through the silk blouse Jenna wore and began melting the skin underneath. As she lay, stunned by the scene playing itself out before her, her mind screamed at her to get away—to save herself, to move, to do something, anything. But her body wouldn’t move—couldn’t move. The ground held her fast—clawing, clutching, clinging to her, holding her there even as she fought to get free. But she was paralyzed. Paralyzed by the fear, the pain, and…

“No!”

Tearing herself upward, Jenna jerked upright. Instantly the ground released her, and she came straight up, gasping, shaking, blinking. But there were no flames in front of her now, only darkness and a silence more deafening than any explosion. She fought to breathe, to right her world, but even as she lay back down on the sweat-soaked pillow, she knew nothing in her world would ever be right again.

***

The water slid over her arms as the terror from the night before dissolved from her mind. There had always been something soothing about the water to Jenna Davis. Somehow, in the water, all of her troubles disappeared, and she could pretend, if only for a few moments, that everything was all right again. In recent years the water had become her only refuge from long days—and even longer nights—filled with memories and nightmares. In the water it all washed away as though the nightmares were no more than devil dreams from her childhood. Here, she could relax and believe for one improbably desperate moment that everything was again perfect, like it used to be.

She forced even that thought from her mind as she turned at one end of the pool and pushed off for the other side. One more lap, she told herself firmly, and then she would have to go. Her arms sliced easily through the cool water. This was her domain, her solace, her world, and she was determined to enjoy every last minute of it.

 

Toys lay scattered across the room. There was no way Scott Browning was going to get all of this stuff back into the three suitcases lying open on the beds. Why did his mother have to give Lane six million toys every time they came out here? However, he smiled in spite of himself as he surveyed the mess. He couldn’t be annoyed with her. She and his father had just seen him through one of the worst years of his life. How could he begrudge them a few toys for their only grandchild?

Somehow, he would just have to make them fit. He pulled yet another carry-on bag out of the closet. He hadn’t wanted to take this much luggage. It was always such a pain to get someone to help at the airports, but with a two-year-old, three suitcases, and a carry-on bag in tow, he wasn’t going to have much of a choice once he got to Newark.

Carefully, Scott stowed his laptop into the bottom of the carry-on. The long list of patients he would have to contact when he returned played itself over in his mind. Two weeks was too long to be gone from a private medical practice, but the downtime had done him good. He’d needed it more than even he had realized when they left. However, it was a luxury that wouldn’t come again anytime soon.

And downtime was over now. Reality was back. He knew the pressures of work would descend as soon as they stepped off that plane. Raking his fingers through his off-blond hair, he thought that at least with the laptop along, he might be able to get some work done before he got to Newark—that was if Lane would behave himself. That was always a big if as Scott had learned so well over the past year.

 

When she entered the house, the same wave of expectation flooded over her that always did. It had been almost three years, and still she expected them to greet her every time she returned. With a by-now-familiar shake of her head and her spirit, Jenna pushed her mind to more pressing matters. She had spent far too much time at the pool, and now she was going to have to hurry to make her flight. It was a good thing her bags had been packed for a week, she thought grabbing them up.

She swung one bag to her shoulder, but it slipped back to the floor as she caught sight of the pictures that still lined the dresser. Slowly she walked over to them and fingered the eight-by-ten family picture that dominated the top of the polished wood. Jeff would understand why she had to go, why staying here was going to kill her. He would, even if she didn’t. She forced the emotions that threatened to overflow back into their home in her heart. Now was not the time for tears. Now was the time to move on as everyone she knew had been telling her she needed to do for three years. Yes, it was time for her to do what she had been promising herself she would for two weeks.

This trip was about moving on with her life, about finally going forward rather than backward. Her gaze fell as it always did to the band of diamonds and gold on her finger. How could she move on with Jeff’s ring still planted firmly on her finger? She looked at it as though for the first time, and the tears came again, stinging her eyes. Beautiful had never adequately described that ring in her mind, and the word didn’t come close even now. It wasn’t that the ring was huge exactly, but he had picked it out for her. For that reason alone, it was beautiful.

Still. It had been three years, and they all said… She slipped the ring off her finger and picked up the box on the dresser she had gotten out two nights before when she had planned to do this very thing and then couldn’t. He would understand, she told herself firmly as she placed the ring in the box and then slid it into the top drawer. Yes, Jeff would understand.

With a jerk of her head to get her dark braid off her shoulder, Jenna picked up her bags again and walked resolutely out of the room, her heart aching more and more with every step. She had only taken a few steps from the room when the pain stopped her. No matter how hard she fought against it, she felt like she was leaving a piece of herself in that drawer. Surely, she reasoned, it wouldn’t hurt to just bring it along. She didn’t have to wear it—just put it in her purse. Teri would never know the difference, and Jenna was sure she wouldn’t have to answer the age-old question of why she was still wearing it.

Before she could lose her nerve, she raced back, grabbed the box from its hiding place and shoved it into her purse. Instantly she felt better. With Jeff with her, she was ready to go show Teri that she was ready to move on with her life.

 

The hugs and kisses overflowed as did the tears when Scott and Lane finally broke the bond and boarded the plane for home. It was difficult to explain to a two-year-old who had been spoiled rotten for two weeks why they had to leave. Worse, Scott’s heart didn’t fully understand it either, but the fight to get Lane onto the plane escalated to the point that his heartache over the situation became secondary. Embarrassment swept over him as several of the passengers eyed him when he finally swung his son, kicking and screaming, into his free arm and warned him in no uncertain terms that he’d better start behaving or else.

The kicking stopped, and Lane lapsed, thankfully, into a pouting silence. Scott sighed in relief. It wasn’t Lane’s fault, Scott thought as he looked at his son and gave him a tired hug. As hard as this past year had been on Scott, it had been infinitely worse on Lane. He tried not to let the melancholy sink into his thoughts, but it was never far away. He was not excited about the prospect of leaving any more than Lane was, but it was something that couldn’t be avoided. They had a life on the other side of the country whether they liked it or not.

He settled Lane into the middle seat and opened the overhead compartment. Then he thought better of stowing the bag up there and took his own seat next to the window. He stuffed the bag with the laptop and snacks under the seat ahead of him. If Lane needed something in-flight, Scott certainly didn’t want to have to climb over him and the other passenger to get it. Besides, with the laptop in there, there was always that slim chance that he might get to do a little work before they touched down in New Jersey.

 

The lights of the police cruiser flashed behind her as Jenna heaved a sigh and pulled to the side of the road. Now there was no way she was going to make her flight.

“Is there an emergency?” the officer asked as he approached the car.

“No, Sir,” she said, already digging for her identification. “I’m just late for a flight.”

He checked the usual papers and registration which took another precious five minutes. Jenna sat helplessly in the car willing him to hurry. So many things she hadn’t planned for, and now she was going to miss her flight to Newark and her chance to move on.

The officer returned and issued her a citation. He wished her a nice day and told her to slow it down, and once again she was on her way. Why do they always seem so happy to give you a ticket? she wondered angrily as she pulled into the overflowing parking lot of the Dallas-Forth Worth Airport. There was no way she would make this flight.

 

“No leave. No leave!” Lane cried for the millionth time as Scott tried desperately to distract him from the memory of Grandma and Grandpa standing at the last checkpoint.

“Look, Lane, see the big planes,” Scott said pointing out the window.

“No leave,” Lane wailed as he kicked even harder. “No leave!”

“Lane,” Scott said sharply, his patience running thin. “Listen to me. You need to sit there and be quiet! Here.” He fished for the Tell-a-Bear Grandma had given him as a going away present. He handed the bear to Lane who immediately hugged it to him.

“No leave,” Lane said pitifully as a man in a three-piece suit took the seat next to him.

Scott took Lane’s tiny hand in his and willed him to go to sleep. The eight hour flight was going to be a disaster if Lane behaved like this the whole way. The whining stopped for the moment, and he seemed to settle down as Scott made the final preparations for them both. Then they taxied down the runway, bumped once, and were airborne—leaving Grandma and Grandpa waving at the window.

 

Why had she packed so much stuff? The bags crashed into her legs as Jenna raced through the crowded airport. They were draped over every inch of her as she made her way to the ticket counter. Lines and more lines. She let out an exasperated sigh and attached herself to what looked like the shortest one, praying it would move quickly.

However, by the time she reached the front of the line another thirty minutes had slipped by, and now she had only a few left before her precious flight to sanity would leave.

“Flight 734 to Newark,” Jenna said as she reached the front.

“That flight is going to leave soon,” the agent said.

“I know, but I need to catch it.”

The agent looked doubtful even as she punched in the numbers. “That will be Gate 84, follow the Concourse down through the security checkpoints and then take a right.”

“Thanks,” Jenna said and took off for the gate as fast as her legs and the carry-on would let her. The line through security was another maddening delay. Shoes. Jewelry. Belt. When she finally made it to the Concourse, she checked her watch—two minutes to spare. “Please be late. Please be late.”

Her legs were about to give out when she finally spotted Gate 84, but she pushed on with every remaining ounce of strength. She had to make this flight. However, just as she rounded the last corner, she could see the plane backing out and the attendant closing the door to the boarding platform.

“No!” Jenna yelled, rushing to the door. “No. Please. I have to make that flight.”

“I’m sorry, Ma’am,” the attendant said, shaking her head and latching the door behind her.

“No, you don’t understand,” Jenna said as panic gripped her soul. “I have to make that flight. I have to be on it.”

“I’m sorry,” the attendant repeated and walked away.

“But I have a ticket, and I’m here.” Jenna knew she sounded like a spoiled brat but she didn’t care about anything other than getting on that flight.

“I’m sorry,” the attendant said as she resumed her position at the counter and went to work on her computer.

“But you don’t understand. I need to get to Newark. I have to go to Newark.” Jenna stepped up and dropped her bags around her. It was true—Teri didn’t even know she was coming, but Jenna felt like this was her last chance, and she was doubtful that she would ever get herself to take another one.

“I may be able to get you on a plane that doesn’t go directly to Newark,” the attendant said.

Hope surged. “Oh, could you? That would be great.”

“Now, you would have to pay for it again,” the attendant said, her fingers poised over the keys.

“I don’t care.” Jenna shook her head and re-righted the last bag strap on her shoulder. “I have to get to Newark.”

“I’ll see what I can do.” The attendant started punching buttons on the computer as Jenna watched hopefully. “Yes, Flight 971 leaves in about thirty minutes from Gate 92. It will make a stop in Chicago where you can catch Flight 259 to Newark.”

“That’ll be great,” Jenna said, nodding. Anything. Anything at this point was great as long as she could leave.

“Now, you won’t get to Newark until around nine.”

“That’s all right,” Jenna said.

The attendant took the necessary information, punched some more keys on the computer, and Jenna was on her way to Gate 92.

 

“Eat, Da-da,” Lane whined, squirming in his seat. “Eat!”

“Lane, come on, you just ate at Grandma’s,” Scott said, and as soon as he said it, he regretted it.

“G’a’ma.” Little Lane became more pathetic. “No leave.”

The man in the seat next to Lane looked at him with sympathy. Scott smiled what he hoped was a winning smile and continued to work with Lane.

“I’ll tell you what.” Scott fished again in the bag at his feet, while commending himself for his foresight in stowing it where he could get to it. “I have some animal crackers.”

“C’ackers.” Both little hands shot out, reaching for the food and dropping the bear, which Scott retrieved. Scott gave him a few crackers, hoping they would get the chance to get some more at Chicago. If not, he would be down to a health bar and gum.

 

Finally on the plane, Jenna slipped the headphones over her ears and closed her eyes. She had never been a big fan of flying. That was why she and Jeff had gone to Colorado on their honeymoon. He had tried so hard to talk her into going to the Bahamas, but she wouldn’t budge—no flying, no way. The grudging compromise had been Colorado. However, she recalled with a smile, it wouldn’t have mattered where they were as they hadn’t seen much of anything for the week other than the inside of the cottage where they had stayed and each other.

The opening strains of St. Elmo’s Fire poured over her like rain, and she settled in for the three-hour flight.

 

The gentleman seated next to Lane was quickly becoming annoyed. His glances at Scott had turned from sympathetic to annoyed somewhere over Nebraska, and Scott was now fighting to keep his son occupied and happy—neither of which was working.

“Do you want to look out the window?” Scott asked as cheerfully as possible.

“No.”

“Do you want to read a storybook?”

“No. G’a’ma!”

“Lane.” Scott shook his head. “Grandma had to stay at home, but we can call her when we get home. Okay?”

“G’a’ma,” Lane wailed, a move that ripped Scott’s patience in two. In one motion he snapped off the seatbelt, pulled the little boy up out of the seat and crossed in front of his annoyed fellow passenger. This couldn’t continue. He headed for the lavatory and once inside, locked the door.

“Now you listen here,” Scott said, trying to keep his own anger in check. It wasn’t easy. “Look at me. You cannot keep crying like this. There are other people on this plane, and you have to be a good boy. Do you hear me?”

“No,” Lane wailed, trying to squirm away from his father’s grasp.

“Lane Scott Browning,” Scott said furiously, and without thinking he did something he had rarely ever done—he reached down and swatted Lane—hard. Lane whimpered and cringed away. The sight twisted Scott’s heart right out of him. “Now look. You’ve got to behave. Okay? We’re going out there, and you’re going to sit still, and be quiet. Do you hear me?”

Lane said nothing, just sucked his thumb with big, scared eyes.

The puppy dog look was no match for the anger. “I said do you hear me?”

Lane looked at him, and the tears trickling down his son’s face ripped Scott’s heart out. This was not what he had bargained for when Amber had announced she was pregnant what seemed a lifetime ago. Then again, he hadn’t bargained on much of any of the rest of it either.

“Okay,” Scott finally said more calmly as he picked the child up. He unlatched the door and walked with his son in his arms to his seat. He could feel the eyes of every person he walked by on him, and he was thankful he was only a few seats from the back. Lane continued to whimper even as he settled back down into the seat. Maybe holding him wasn’t such a bad idea, so Scott simply cradled Lane next to him. It seemed the better idea for both of them.

 

Jenna’s mind was working overtime. This was exactly why she had avoided being alone. Alone meant time to think and remember. Her thoughts bounced back and forth until they found a resting place on the events of the previous evening. She willed the thoughts away, but nothing would replace them for very long. Finally she gave in and let them take her.

It wasn’t the first fight she’d ever had with her mother, she reasoned, and surely her mother would eventually understand her decision, but right now the fight was replaying itself over and over in her head.

Had her mother really said those things to her? Had she really said those things to her mother? Jenna shook her head at the thought as the familiar tears threatened. Why did her mother have to be so clingy? Why did Jenna have to be so stubborn? They were questions that would never be answered, but they plagued her just the same.

She could still see her mother standing in the kitchen, the hurt and the anger in her eyes, yelling at Jenna that she was throwing her life away by leaving.

“What life?” Jenna had yelled back furiously. “Playing tennis with my mother during the day and coming back to an empty house filled with memories every night? I’m 29 years old. I can’t live like this forever. It’s not my fault you think you can’t start over. I’ve spent three years trying to make up for what happened, but I’m tired of trying, Mother. I’m tired. Do you understand that? I am sick of it, and I can’t do it anymore. Nothing I can say or do is going to bring them back. Don’t you get that? Nothing! They’re gone! And they’re not coming back!”

“But we still have each other,” her mother said as the tears overflowed her eyes.

“No, we don’t.” The pain tore holes in Jenna, and she cringed from the words. “I don’t have you. You have me, but I’ve never had you. I can’t talk to you. I can’t lean on you. I spend all my time trying to fill the void that is my life and yours, but I can’t do it anymore. I can’t, and I won’t!”

“So, you’re leaving then? Just like that. You’re going to pack up and leave me here by myself—your own mother? This is your solution? To run away? That’s just so typical of you.”

Hurt crawled over the ache. “I can’t stay here. Don’t you see that? I have to find a place to start, and then maybe I can go on with my life.”

Her mother still looked regal even under the haggard scowl she wore. “But you can do that here.”

“No, I can’t.”

Crossing her arms over the satin sheen of her blouse, her mother looked like a petulant two-year-old. “Yes, you can.”

But Jenna knew better, and this time she wasn’t backing down. “No, I can’t, Mother. You won’t let me!”

Hate bled through her mother’s eyes. “And Teri will?”

“Yes, Teri will—at least for a while, for now—and then we’ll see.”

“What does that mean?”

Tired slithered over Jenna’s spirit as she sat down heavily on the little stool overlooking the kitchen counter. “I don’t know what it means. It means I’m leaving, and I don’t know when I’m coming back.”

“But what am I supposed to do?”

It was at that moment something in her snapped. She stood, pulled her purse to her shoulder, and looked her mother square in the eye. “You know what, I really don’t care…”

Those had been the last words she had spoken to her mother before walking out and slamming the door behind her. Now, here she was flying somewhere high over Missouri—headed who knew where, and strangely for the first time in a long time, she felt almost free.

 

The final hour of the flight had been mostly uneventful. At least they hadn’t had to go back to the lavatory again. Scott had regained some of his confidence in his own parenting abilities, which was saying something. Lane was now sleeping peacefully in his arms, and the man across the abyss of the seat next to him had long since ceased the dirty looks.

“Sir,” the attendant said kindly. “You need to put the little boy back in his seat for landing.”

Scott looked at her with unseeing eyes. She couldn’t be serious.

“He needs to be buckled in,” she said, indicating the middle seat. Okay, apparently she was serious.

“Oh, sure,” Scott said, sitting up straight. “Okay.”

He tried to deposit Lane into the seat without waking him up, but one too many jostles brought the child back to life, and he whimpered softly.

“No, Lane,” Scott said softly. “Shh. It’s okay. Just sleep.”

As gently as possible he buckled Lane’s belt, and the transfer was completed successfully. Scott breathed a sigh of relief.

“Ding!” The speaker above him crackled to life. “We are now preparing to make our final decent into Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.”

Scott did not hear another word of the announcement because Lane let out a terrified scream that obliterated all other sounds.

“No, Lane, hey buddy, it’s okay,” Scott said, jumping into frantic action. “It’s all right I promise. No, no don’t cry. Lane, we’re going to land, see…”

 

“Flight 259 to Newark, now boarding at Gate 134.”

Jenna gathered her things, fighting tired with everything in her. One more flight and she would be in New Jersey—far, far away from Texas. If she could just get there, surely everything would be better.

She glanced out the window once again, and apprehension rose in her. The rain outside zigged and zagged down the windows in crazy patterns. This was something she hadn’t counted on. Flying was bad enough, but flying in the rain was worse.

Her courage was harder to gather up than her luggage. It was all she could do to keep her eyes from wandering back to that window—back to the dismal scene outside.

 

“Excuse me, Miss.” Scott hailed a passing flight attendant. “Could you tell me if we have enough time to go get some extra snacks?”

“I wouldn’t advise it,” the attendant said, eyeing Lane squirming to get into the aisle. “It’s only going to take us a few minutes, and we should be back in the air again.”

Scott sighed, nodded, and thanked her. With one hand on his son, he pulled the bag out from under the seat and fished through it trying to get an accurate assessment of how many snacks they had left. The sad and terrifying truth was he would have to be very sparing in his snack offerings this flight. He was already dreading the next three hours. This trip was murder on him. Lane, he was sure, couldn’t take much more.

 

Jenna stowed her purse under the middle seat about halfway from the front of the plane. She had no desire to sit by the window and watch it rain so she chose a seat next to a man who was busily reading a magazine next to a closed window.

The plane around her filled quickly. Surely it couldn’t be long before they would take off. She surveyed her fellow passengers. They all looked much like she was sure she did—harried, tired, and frazzled. Traveling like this was one of her least favorite things to do, and she contemplated simply driving home when that time came, if it ever did.

“Stop it, Jenna. Just don’t think about it.” The words under her breath came as she flipped the dark strands that were rapidly coming loose from the braid back.

A nice-looking, young couple passed her on their way to the back. She smiled to herself—probably on their honeymoon. The thought slid through her mind, and it snagged in the deep dark webbing that now surrounded her heart. There was something about honeymooners that set them apart from everyone else. She thought of Jeff again. He was never far from her thoughts. Tall, lean, dark and very handsome. They had made such a great couple.

“But, sweetheart,” Jenna heard the young man say just above her, “there just aren’t two seats together.”

“But I want to sit by you,” his bride said, and fear tinged the words.

“I…” The young man looked around in barely disguised frustration, trying to find a way out of this situation.

“Here.” With no further thought, Jenna jumped to her feet and yanked her purse up from the floor. “You can have my seat.”

“Oh, no, we couldn’t.” The young man shook his head even as his eyes pleaded with her not to rescind the offer.

“No, no, I insist.” She smiled kindly. “You two should sit together.”

“Are you sure you don’t mind?” the young woman asked, her eyes spilling gratefulness everywhere.

“No, of course not.” Jenna moved out into the aisle so they could slip in front of her.

“We really appreciate this,” the young man said. “It’s her first time to fly.”

“Don’t mention it.” Only then did Jenna realize she had to find another seat. Looking around, she realized that wouldn’t be easy. Except for a few unoccupied middle seats, there weren’t many left. Finally she saw an aisle seat toward the back of the plane. She headed for it and smiled to the young man and little boy sitting there. “Is this seat taken?”

The man who sat by the window with his arm around the child looked up, and pools of clear blue gazed out from under the tumble of disheveled blond hair. “What? Oh. Uh. No. No.”

Jenna wasted no time getting into the seat. She pushed her purse under the seat ahead of them. The flight attendant requested that seatbelts and tray tables be readied for take-off. But as Jenna reached for hers, there was an un-Godly scream from right next to her. Instinctively she put her hand out to sooth the child.

“Shhh, it’s okay, sweetheart,” she said without thinking.

Suddenly she stopped and looked up in embarrassment. He was staring at her over the child’s head. Nothing moved. All she could see were the incredible blue eyes gazing right through her soul.

The squirming between them brought them both back to reality.

“Lane,” the man said harshly. “Settle down!”

However, Lane continued to squirm and was now starting to scream.

“Here.” Jenna grabbed up her purse and reached inside. “Look what I have.” She produced a sucker from the depths of the bag and held it out to Lane who reached for it without hesitation. She unwrapped it and handed it to him just as she realized what she had done.

“Oh!” she said more embarrassed than before. “I’m sorry. Do you mind?”

“Are you kidding me?” The man blinked and then smiled. “I think you’re our savior.”

She looked down at Lane already happily munching away on the sucker, and it was clear he was not going to relinquish it anytime soon. It was all she could do not to reach out and touch him. He looked like a tiny angel that had alighted on earth. “He’s precious.”

“Thanks.” The man settled Lane back into his own seat and buckled him in before checking his own. He was young, early thirties she guessed though she didn’t dwell there. He smiled at her again with an impish, weary shrug. “But you might have a different opinion by the time this ride is over.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Jenna said, and she couldn’t stop the smile as she looked down and watched Lane. He was beautiful.

The guy’s smile faded. “Yeah, well. You didn’t see the last guy who got to sit by him. I think he was more than happy to see the airport.”

“Oh, you didn’t just get on then?” Jenna asked as the plane began taxiing to its take-off point.

“No, we’ve been on since Boise.”

“Boise? Oh, wow, no wonder he’s tired of that seat.”

“Tell me about it.” He laughed, seeming to relax.

“We’ve been cleared for take-off,” the attendant announced.

Jenna sat back in her chair and closed her eyes. Take-off and landing—the worst times of the flight. She would fly forever if it weren’t for those two times.

The plane made a final turn and began to pick up speed. The points outside the window became indecipherable blurs until the bulk of the plane lifted off the runway, and without so much as a bump, they were airborne.

Available June 28 in the “Whispers of Love” Collection

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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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The Story: Whisper If You Have To

Whisper cover FINAL 7-28-2014Secrets. Alison Prescott has collected a boatload of them in her short lifetime. Moving to a new school in a new town was supposed to fix everything; however, when she meets a new set of friends, keeping those secrets might just ruin everything.

Chad Dourozette has the world by the tail as his crazy T-shirts proclaim every day, but Chad has deeply held secrets of his own. When Chad meets Alison whose life looks absolutely perfect from the outside, will he have the courage to try to win her heart, or will the secrets they both carry keep them apart forever?

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Ebook Romance Stories: Eternity, Excerpt

Eternity Final 1-21-2014Eternity

~The Friendship Series ~

Book 1

(Excerpt)

Aaron’s heart constricted as he forced himself to close the door, slowly fitting it back into its frame. He stood there, hand on the doorknob fighting for every breath. Crying at this point seemed hopelessly stupid. It was obvious she had moved on. Curling and uncurling his fist, he stood there, knowing there was not one thing he could do to alter the situation he now found himself in.

He was trapped. When he turned and leaned on the door, his gaze fell to the phone. In a flash he had it in his hand, and in less than a second the other end was ringing.

“Hello?” Harmony’s voice drifted over the lines.

“It’s her,” he said in utter desperation.

“Aaron?”

“They’re downstairs.”

“Right now?”

“On my couch. They are making out on my couch!”

“Oh, no.”

“Could you give me something a little more than oh, no?”

“Crud.”

“Yeah, that’s closer. Oh, man. What am I going to do?”

“Are you sure it’s her?”

“Harmony.”

“Okay. Of course you’re sure. Okay. Okay. Let me think. Where are you?”

“In my room.”

“Do they know you’re home?”

“No. I don’t know. I don’t think so.”

Her side went silent for a moment. “The fire escape’s on your window isn’t it?”

He looked at the window in trepidation. “Yeah, but it’s only for emergencies.”
“Hello!”

The plan was looking better and better all the time. “But where am I supposed to go? It’s 12:30 in the morning!”

Without more than a second’s pause, her voice softened. “You could come over here.”

That stopped him. In all the time he had known her, he had never been to her place, not even once. “Your place? Are you sure?”

“You’re in trouble,” she said as if stating the case for a jury. “When a friend’s in trouble, you do whatever you have to to help them out.”

“Even this?”

She didn’t say anything for a long moment. “I think I’ll live.” Quickly she gave him the directions.

He smiled, momentarily forgetting the disaster downstairs as he wrote them down. “I’ll be there in ten minutes.”

Eternity Final 1-21-2014

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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, 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.

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