Tag Archive | romantic novel

Ebook Romance Stories: Eternity, The Story


Eternity Final 1-21-2014Eternity

~ The Friendship Series ~

Book 1

Aaron Foster thought he had the perfect life until his fiancee walked out of their apartment and then back in again with his new roommate. In desperation Aaron and his best friend, Harmony Jordan, devise The Plan, but when The Plan succeeds beyond their wildest expectation, it could spell heartache for them all.

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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: White Knight, The Story

White Knight

Book 2

~ The Courage Series ~

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

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

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Ebook Romance Stories: Behind the Story “A Work in Progress”

AWIP Cover New 1-10-2014A Story Seven Years in the Making

by:  Staci Stallings

In retrospect, maybe I shouldn’t have named the book “A Work in Progress.”  Maybe that was my first clue of how long this particular book would take to write.

The planting of the seed happened over a message board about 10 years ago.  Remember message boards?  You posted something, then other people responded, and you had a nice little conversation about a certain topic.  Well, I started posting about this show that I really liked on TV at the time. Another young lady was posting as well, and we got into this big (but good-natured) argument about which guy on the show was our favorite.

She liked one of the guys that I would never in a million years have ever thought about dating. In the midst of this conversation, I wrote two different books featuring the guy I liked from the show.  Then she emailed one day (after the message boards had shut down and we had remained friends despite our different tastes in guys) and said she thought I should write one about the guy she liked.

That sparked a long conversation with myself about why anyone would like this guy.  Strangely, the more I asked the question, the more I realized how much he had to offer the right girl.  I realized there were things about him that no one probably knew because although part of him was the comedy guy often claiming the center of attention, there was a lot about the other sides of who he really was that got looked over and even sometimes trampled upon.

So I started this story “A Work in Progress” about Rebecca Avery, a college student who would never be one of the popular kids.  She watches them, envies them, and hates them.  Then one day she literally runs into Eric Barnett in one of the all-time classic scenes I have ever been given the honor of writing.  In fact, one of my problems over the seven years it took to write this one was that each time I pulled it up, I thought I just had to start reading it from the beginning to know where I was again.

I read that first scene countless times and it never got old.  Each time I read through it, I would think, “Wow, this is really, really good.  Why haven’t I finished this yet?”  Then I would get to the last page I had written and start writing more.  Five pages, ten, sometimes even 20 or 30.  But time and again, I got stopped either by life or by being like that dog on “Up” going, “Squirrel!” before chasing off in another direction after another great story idea.

The pieces of this one came VERY slowly, but I’m so glad they did.  Here’s why.  When I started this book, I was one person.  By the time  I finished it, I had literally become someone very different.  I started it wanting to be this successful, bestselling author.  I read every book on marketing and did my level best to become the success I thought God required me to be.  (“Performance Christians, please raise your hands!”  I would’ve had to raise both of mine.)

However, somewhere between 31-years-old and 38-years-old, God–the real God–finally got a hold of my life and showed me that it wasn’t about my performance.  It wasn’t about anything I had ever done or could ever do.  My worth was set by Him.  Period.  As a child of the God of the Universe, I was already a success.  I didn’t have to prove anything to anybody.  I could be me and not apology or rationalize or justify that to anyone.  And, oh, the freedom and relief that flowed from finally understanding that!

Strangely enough, that’s exactly what Rebecca learns in the book.  She finally realizes that life is less about gaining friends to be popular and more about letting people into your soft spots.  Yes, sometimes that hurts.  Sometimes it hurts really, really badly.  But that’s the only way to really live.  It’s the only way to truly be friends.  Otherwise, you’re just acquaintances who just happen to know one another’s phone number, address, and favorite food.

As for Eric, I finally did learn to have almost as much admiration for him as my friend did.  She was right–he is a very cool guy when you give him a chance.

Oh, and you’ll be glad to know that the second and third books in The Faith Series didn’t take nearly so long to write as this one.  In fact, they were finished within nine months of “A Work in Progress” being finished.  It was like seven years of learning all came pouring out of me.  Lessons about how to be a friend and how to let yourself be open enough to let others in.  Lessons about not judging others for their denomination and looking instead at their hearts.  Lessons about being true to yourself and standing in the gap for one another.

Those seven years turned out to be worth every second they took to get here.  The truth is, I’m still “A Work in Progress” as I think we all are.  The more we remember that and stop trying to be perfect–and stop require each other to be perfect–the more wonderful life gets because it’s only then that we actually learn to live rather than breaking our necks trying to impress everyone else who are breaking their own necks trying to impress us!


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Ebook Romance Stories: Chapter 1, “A Little Piece of Heaven”

ALPH Cover New 1-10-2014A Little Piece of Heaven

The Faith Series, Book 2

by:  Staci Stallings

Chapter 1

“Aren’t they the cutest couple ever?” Emily Vasquez swooned as she and Holly Jacobs climbed the stately staircase on the way up to their dorm rooms. The lilt in her voice made her sound even younger than she was, but at the moment she was so happy for her friend, she didn’t care.

“Yeah, Rebecca seems really happy,” Holly agreed although her voice didn’t rise to the level of excitement Emily’s held. “I’m glad for her. She deserves it.”

With her hand on the banister, Emily climbed alongside Holly. “Tell me about it. I hope this semester evens out for her a little. She really had a rough one last semester.” Climbing and not thinking because of the late hour and the fatigue that was pulling her eyelids down, Emily stepped up three steps before she realized Holly hadn’t said anything in reply. When she glanced over at the young woman with the now-shortened but still platinum blonde hair, one look told her why. Head down and not looking up, Holly climbed, her shoulders sagging as if she was carrying something extremely heavy. Emily’s heart fell as why slammed into her. She of all people knew a major cause of Rebecca’s less-than-easy previous semester was in large part due to her roommate.

She retrained her gaze up the stairs as she tried to think of something to say that would take back the thoughtless comment, but short of turning back time, she could think of nothing. Finally, seeing no other option, she changed the subject. “I had fun tonight. I’m glad we went.”

Holly’s sad, tired gaze traveled over to her. “Yeah. Me, too.”

Just that look was enough to make Emily remember how desperate Rebecca’s roommate really was. “We’ll have to do it again sometime.” The brightness in her voice was forced, and she hated that. What she wanted to do was to stop and ask, to dig down into Holly to find out why she seemed so utterly devoid of enthusiasm, but she didn’t know Holly well enough to even ask the question.

Holly pulled herself up the last two steps. “Yeah. We’ll have to.”

At the third floor Holly turned for the next set of stairs, but Emily stopped. “I guess this is where I get off.”

“K.” Holly started up the next set of stairs.

Emily leaned over the above banister to be able to see Holly as she climbed to the next level. “Tell Rebecca I’ll see her for breakfast tomorrow.”

“K,” was all Holly said in reply. She didn’t even say good night just turned the corner of the stairs and climbed out of sight.

“That was good, Emily,” Emily berated herself as the suffering in Holly’s eyes transferred to her spirit. She wrapped her arms over themselves. “She really needed that kick in the teeth.”

On lead feet she walked to her room and unlocked it. The other side revealed an expanse of space dotted only with a bed and a nightstand angled from the corner one way and a desk angled in the opposite corner the other way. She kicked her bamboo flip flops off by the sink, glad she had thought to paint her toenails red before getting on the plane to come back to Boston. She would surely have missed that detail tonight with all the non-existent notice Rebecca had given them. Emily smiled at the thought of playing pool with Rebecca’s other friends. One face in particular drifted through her, and warmth spread over her thoughts. However, knowing those thoughts would take her nowhere she should go, she turned her attention to getting ready for bed.

It was nice to have a room to herself this year, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that without Dena, her roommate from the previous three semesters, this room was going to get very lonely very fast.

After removing her make-up and changing into her #7 black and gold sweatpants and T-shirt, she turned the light off, plunging the room into near-blackness. However, after a moment, there was enough silver-blue light from the opposite window to guide her to the bed where she clicked on the little blue reading light. In two days she would have to be using this time to study, but for tonight it was nice to have some time alone with her Bible.

She pulled the brown leather Bible her parents had given her for Confirmation out of its case on the nightstand and flipped it open. Taking a deep breath to push the rest of life away, she leaned back onto the wall and arched her gaze onto the words.

“But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’”

Emily laid her head back on the pale peach wall behind her. God always had a way of skewering her heart in case she hadn’t caught the message the first time. Guilt crashed through her. “I know, God. It was a stupid thing to say. I know Holly’s had a tough time. I just wish there was something Rebecca and I could do to help her. She seems so sad and so lonely. Even tonight with all of us there, it was like she didn’t want to have fun, like she didn’t want to get too close.” Her eyes closed on the hurt she found in her heart when she thought about Holly. “Please, Lord. Please. Help us to find a way to reach her. She needs You. I ask this in Your Name. Amen.”

After a moment her eyes came open, and she glanced down at the words again.

“…for man looks at outward appearances…”

Her heart tripped over the image of Rebecca’s friends. They were a tight-knit group, even Jeremy, the one with no clear partner, seemed woven in with them irreversibly. Protective was a good way to describe the others with him. They made sure to include him in every joke and in every conversation. Emily’s thoughts traveled through the evening, and she squinted unconsciously trying to see what was unseeable. There was something about him, something that didn’t quite add up.

He seemed so together. More than together. Perfect would’ve been a better word. The golden-brown tan, the moused, spiked, blonde-tipped hair fixed just right, even his dark brown sweater hanging to reveal just a hint of his white T-shirt underneath seemed to speak eloquently of his privileged status in life. Then there was the soft cinnamon color of the leather-suede jacket he took with him at the end of the night. It alone probably cost more than her tuition for the year.

Yet for all his perfection, there was a profound melancholy in his deep brown eyes. With a breath that barely reached her lungs, she put her head back again and closed her eyes. “Dear Lord, Jeremy needs You too. He’s hurting. I don’t know why or from what, but I can see it in his eyes, Lord. He’s suffering. Please ease his pain and give him some peace. Amen.”

When she opened her eyes, she glanced over at the clock. No wonder she was tired. It was almost one in the morning. Closing her Bible, she slid under the covers. She rolled to the side and laid it on its place on her nightstand. She clicked the light off, huddled under the covers, and put the rest of the night into God’s hands.

*~*~*

“Hey,” Eric Barnett said when he walked through the apartment door only to find his roommate, Jeremy Stratton, sitting in the dark at the kitchen island in his boxer shorts munching on Cheerios.

“Hey.” Jeremy scooped several round mounds into his mouth. He’d been sitting there so long, he’d almost forgotten Eric would be coming home tonight. “How was Rebecca?”

“Great.” Eric reached over and flipped on the living room light. Jeremy squinted although his gaze never left the cereal bowl. On his trek to the kitchen, Eric threw his light jacket to the couch. Jeremy’s couch to be exact. Courtesy of a round robin of apartment pairings, they now had two of everything. Two chairs, two coffee tables, and two couches.

Even as he tracked his roommate’s progress around the kitchen, Jeremy’s mind whispered softly how nice it was that his stuff was what would eventually stay.  The black leather of his couch and chair stood out in stark contrast to the wobbly, wooden coffee table that belonged to Eric. Once the old stuff was gone, it would make room for Jeremy’s matching coffee table which now sat by the door because there was simply no room for it anywhere else. Besides, in the overcrowded room, it was too likely that someone would kill their leg on one of the wrought iron corners of it.

With his head down over the bowl of cereal, Jeremy crunched a few more Cheerios as Eric went to the cabinet behind him and came back with the bag of Oreos.

“You get the girls home okay?” Jeremy asked, feeling the knot of jealousy in the middle of his spirit at the image of Eric standing on the steps of the Student Union taking not just one but three beautiful coeds back to the dorms while he, Jeremy, was left to go home in a dark, empty car.

“Safe and sound.” Eric sat down with his Oreos. “They invited us for Bible Study tomorrow night at Emily’s if you want to go.”

Jeremy recoiled physically and mentally. “Oh, I don’t think so. I’ve got stuff to get ready for Thursday.”

Eric shrugged. “Suit yourself, but it looked to me like you hit it off pretty well with Emily.”

Jeremy smiled at the memory of the young-looking, shy Hispanic girl who had accompanied Eric and Rebecca to playing pool at the Student U. “We had fun. She’s not much of a pool player though.”

“There are worse things to not be good at.”

He didn’t answer. For a moment the only sound in the room was someone running water somewhere else in the building.

“So have you heard from Gwen lately?” Eric asked although he never really looked at Jeremy.

A long sigh slid from his chest. “No. I probably won’t either. She took that job in New York, remember?”

With a half-shrug Eric tilted his head. “New York’s not that far from Boston.”

It might as well have been Jupiter for all the possibilities he had of hearing from Gwen. “Yeah, well…” He let the sentence trail into oblivion. The center of his heart wrapped around itself at the thought of Gwen and the way that relationship had ended. The last thing he wanted or needed tonight was to talk about her. Seeing no other option and knowing it would give Eric another topic to think about, Jeremy seized on the subject of Emily. “So is Emily going with anybody?”

He felt Eric’s surprise more than he saw it. “I don’t think so. Rebecca’s never said anything about it if she is. Why?”

Jeremy’s shoulders bounced up for the ceiling. “Something to do. I hate being odd-man out.” He stood and took his bowl to the sink where he washed it out and put it in the dishwasher.

“You’d really ask her out?” Eric asked, and Jeremy hated the skepticism in his friend’s voice.

“What? Is that so hard to believe?”

There was no immediate answer. Finally Eric shifted on his stool. “I’m just surprised, that’s all. She doesn’t seem like your type.”

Defensiveness and humiliation crashed together in Jeremy’s skull. “Never mind. Forget I asked.”

“Hey, I’m not saying you shouldn’t…”

Jeremy didn’t wait for the end of the comment. He stalked to the room he now called home, which was actually a closet the landlord had the guts to call a study. With his bed in a storage unit across town, he carefully knelt on the twin air mattress and pulled the single blanket over him. Thankfully they had obtained a two-bedroom apartment which unfortunately didn’t become available until the first of September. So for now, he was stuck in a closet wondering where the great life he had in May went.

He rolled to his back and laid his arm over his forehead. Gwen. She was never far from his thoughts. She probably had a great apartment by now. After all, she had been hired by one of the biggest international banks in the world. New York. It seemed a million miles away. Had things worked out between them, would he be there right now? Would he have transferred as they had talked about? So many plans—made and unmade that were now trampled in the dust of a road he would never travel.

In fact, she had even uninvited him from her graduation after the meltdown of their relationship. His mind skipped expertly over most of that week like a stone lilting across a pond. Touching down hurt too much, so he had learned to sail right over most of it. Every so often when he wasn’t paying close enough attention, his thoughts would settle on some memory, some moment of his time with her. More often than not, those memories sent scathing hot knives through him, so he did his best to keep going, not to think, not to feel. It was the only way to keep the life he was now living from spiraling into complete disaster.

Even in the darkness, he gripped control with both hands, willing the memories away from him. Her kiss. Her creamy skin. The way she looked the night he asked her to be his wife. Anguish laced with tongues of fire ripped through him.

Dragging in a sharp breath, he rolled to his side so his face was only inches from the blank wall. A breath at a time he slammed the door on the hurt until once again the hard clamp of control came over him. He closed his eyes and willed sleep to come. It didn’t. He squeezed his eyes tighter as his chest began to heave with the pent up emotion lodged there. “Stop it,” he hissed to the darkness around him. “Being a baby about it is not going to help. She’s gone. You’re here. Get over it already.”

But the hurt wasn’t going anywhere. Vehemently he flipped over the other way, jamming his shoulder into the hardwood floor beneath the air mattress when he came down. It yanked tears from the middle of him, but he crushed them back before they could fall. Two more semesters, he thought, anchoring his focus on what had to be done. Two more and he could move on, move away. To where or to what he couldn’t really tell.

It didn’t matter. Whatever it was, it would be glorious. High-style parties in his great loft in some far away city. He could picture them now. The men in their casual, yet elegant evening attire. The women in their beaded gowns hung just so to reveal and yet conceal. All drinking martinis on the rocks—not beer from the tap. He let his top shoulder drop backward onto the mattress, and his gaze slid into the darkness above him. Yes, it was going to be glorious. It had to be. It was the life he had been destined to live from the very moment of his birth.

*~*~*

It was to be her first attempt at hosting Bible Study on her own, and Emily was more nervous than she ever thought she would be. “Oh, good grief,” she said to the empty room at quarter to seven on Wednesday, “you’d think I was hosting the Olympics.”

She went over to the swath of gray carpet that seemed smaller in this room than it had in her old one.  There, it had stretched bed to bed.  Here, it barely covered half of the peach tiles at her feet. She put her hands on her hips as she looked at it, trying to figure out how to make it just a little bigger. With a sigh because she could do nothing to make it any better than it already was, she rearranged the pillows on her bed once more as a knock sounded on her door.

Going to the door, she did a quick tug on her gray T-shirt, and raked her fingers through the low, black ponytail slung over her right shoulder. At the door she said one more prayer for guidance. With that, she opened the door with a smile. “Becca!”

“Hey, girl. I brought reinforcements.” Rebecca glanced over her shoulder to where Eric stood as she accepted the hug from Emily.

“Cool. Cool. Come on in.”  Emily stepped back and let her friends pass by. Rebecca, small and thin, with her blonde hair in a twist that fanned out across the top of her head, looked every bit the part of the manic bookworm.  Eric, Rebecca’s boyfriend of just more than four months, looked big comparatively. Although he was taller than Rebecca by several inches, that didn’t mean he was all that tall compared to most guys.

The door hadn’t even closed when two more figures appeared at the threshold. Emily’s gaze snapped to the mousy brown-headed guy with the Celtics’ sweatshirt. “Sam!”

“I found Bethany wandering around lost,” Sam said, indicating the young blonde woman standing next to him.

“I did not get lost. I was just browsing.”

“Uh-huh, and that’s why you looked like this.” Sam scrunched his face into a scowl and let his gaze trip back and forth upward. “363 has got to be around here somewhere.”

Bethany smacked his arm. “Ha. Ha.”

“Come on in.” Emily laughed happily as she stepped back. “Make yourselves at home.”

They weren’t even in the door when two more showed up.  Emily had the distinct feeling of being Noah loading the ark. “Taylor and Kira.”  She hugged Kira as Taylor stood and watched.  “How are you?”

“Great. Taylor called me and said we were meeting tonight. I hope you don’t mind us just showing up.”

“Have I ever minded before?”

As the members of the Bible study group entered, the noise level increased until it sounded like she was hosting her own party.  Quietly, gently, she closed the door.

“Is Dena coming?” Rebecca asked as nerves flitted through Emily’s stomach. She wound her arms over her abdomen to get them to settle down.

“Not tonight. She started work today, and I think she’s beat.” Emily stepped through the pairs already seated on the floor. Except for Eric and Rebecca they had mixed and matched because in truth the others weren’t really couples. Sitting down next to her bed, Emily leaned up against the hard, steel frame. “Is this everybody?”

“I tried to get Holly to come,” Rebecca said, “but I think that’s going to take a miracle.”

Sitting beside her Eric shrugged. “So, we start praying for miracles.” He smiled. “Hey, you guys prayed me in here, and that certainly took a miracle.”

The others laughed.  Emily pulled herself forward and reached her hands out to Taylor on one side and Rebecca on the other. “Then shall we pray for some miracles?”

*~*~*

Two hours later the little group busted up to go their separate ways. Rebecca and Eric hung back to clean as the others left. When Emily finally closed the door with only the three of them there, she turned to her room and let out a long sigh.

Rebecca looked up at her in concern. “What?”

She took another breath. “I don’t think I’ve breathed for two hours.”

Eric swiped two pieces of paper off the carpet. “Come on, Em. You did great.”

She shivered. “Ugh. I was so nervous. I thought I was going to throw up.”

The gaze Rebecca leveled on her was one of skepticism. “Well, you sure didn’t show it.”

Emily pointed upward. “The Holy Spirit, I assure you. I would never have made it without Him.”

“Well, then you and the Holy Spirit make an awesome team,” Eric said with a smile that drifted through Emily’s nerves, settling them one by one.

Soft gratitude wound around her. “Thanks, Eric. I needed that.”

Rebecca stepped to her friend and put her arms over her shoulders. “You can’t, but He can. Remember?”

Emily smiled as her own words traipsed through her. “Why is that always so easy to remember when it’s somebody else and so hard to remember when it’s you?”

A grin stretched across Rebecca’s face. “Hey, why do you think He gave us each other—as decorations?”

Gratitude gripped Emily. “Well, I’m sure glad He gave me you.”

“Hey, right back at you, babe.”

*~*~*

Jeremy tamped together the last application for second semester scholarships.  Finished. Finally. And unless he decided to advance his education beyond the M.B.A. he was currently pursuing, these would be the last scholarship applications he would ever have to worry about completing.

The door snapped open, and Eric stepped in. With a swing of his arm, his backpack landed on the couch in a heap with his jacket.

“Impressive,” Jeremy said with no small amount of sarcasm. “Home before ten. I figured you and Rebecca would be all hot and heavy until at least midnight.”

Eric went to the refrigerator and pulled out the milk Jeremy had bought that afternoon. “Bible study.  It’s called Bible study.”

“Bible study. Yeah, right. Is that what they’re calling it now?”

“Ha. Ha.” Eric pulled up a seat at the bar. “You should try it some time, you know? You might be surprised.”

“Does the term, ‘when hell freezes over’ tell you anything?” Jeremy stood and swiped the box he’d been using as a file cabinet from the floor and set it on the bar stool.

“I’m telling you, you’re missing out.”

“Missing out?” Jeremy snorted. “Let me tell you something about religion. It’s for weak-minded people who need somebody else to feed them lies about how wonderful life can be if you follow their rules. Well, you know what? I’m not weak, and I don’t need anybody to tell me how to live my life. Thank you very much.”

Taking a drink, Eric shook his head. “Emily was there.”

Although that stopped Jeremy for one second, he didn’t let it show. “So? What difference does that make?”

Eric shrugged. “No difference. Just thought you’d like to know.”

Jeremy swung the box off the barstool. “I couldn’t care less which of Rebecca’s kooky, superstitious friends happened to show up.”  He turned on his heel. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get some sleep. I’ve got a nine-thirty class tomorrow that I don’t want to be late for.”

ALPH Cover New 1-10-2014 

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Ebook Romance Stories: “A Light in the Darkness” Chapter 1


ALID Cover New 1-10-2014A Light in the Darkness
The Faith Series, Book 3

by:  Staci Stallings

~*~*~

Never underestimate the power of the light

You hold. It can light not just your way

But also the way of

Another.

 

~*~*~


 

Chapter 1

Holly Jacobs hit the off button on the little silver cell phone and sat back into the deep, black leather seat of the black stretch limo.  Melancholy settled all through her spirit. Although Boston and her friend Rebecca Avery were just across the country, it felt like the moon would be closer.  Rebecca and Emily Vasquez had gotten an apartment together for the summer.  By the time Holly got back, it was likely she’d have to find a new roommate—if she did go back.   That thought pulled her even lower. Her gaze fell to the expansive floorboards at her feet.

She hated leaving Boston for more reasons than she could name.  Of course Boston had its rough patches too, but it was more home than any home she had ever known.  Certainly more home than the one she was getting inexorably closer to right now.

Her gaze drifted out to the hills of green covering Napa Valley, California.  Tears of unwanted frustration threatened, but she beat them back. She hadn’t been here two hours, and already she hated it.  She didn’t belong here.  The thought that she didn’t belong anywhere cut through her spirit like a sharp dagger.

The little phone beeped to life, dragging her away from the thoughts. She glanced down at it.  With a sigh, she touched the on button and lifted it to her ear. “Hi, Mom.”

“Oh, Holly.  Good.  So you’ve landed then?”

There was no pause to let her answer, and she didn’t bother to try. She knew there wouldn’t be one.

“Listen, Luke will be at the mansion when you get here, so please try to make yourself presentable before you get here.  I hope you’re not wearing jeans.  Jeans are so tacky.”

Holly looked down at her butterfly jeans helplessly.  Like there was anything she could do about that now.

“And do not bring in that tattered thing you call a purse either.  Leave it in the car if you have to.  Give it to Rio, the driver. We’ll get it later.”

The sigh said more than she’d been able to so far. “Fine, Mom.  Anything else?”

“Yeah, be sure to put on some lip gloss.  Not lipstick.  Just gloss.  We don’t want Luke to think you are a tramp or anything.”

No, that would be your department.  Her mind had ways of betraying her at the most inopportune moments. But she said nothing.

“How long before you get here?”

Holly’s gaze slid to the vast expanses of emerald beyond. “I don’t know. I don’t really even know where we are.  Everything is just hills of green.”

“Good. Then you can’t be more than 20 minutes out. Freshen up your makeup, and get yourself together.  When you get here, I’ll be waiting upstairs.  Ring the doorbell, and I’ll let Rosa get the door.  That will give you a good entrance.”

“Whatever, Mom.”

“I’ll see you in a few.  Be sure to freshen up.”

“Okay.”  Ten more words, and Holly signed off.  She didn’t want to, but she pulled the little compact out and checked her makeup.  Her hair was a wreck, but then what did she expect after missing a flight and having three layovers in various venues from Boston to California?  All she wanted was to find a nice, soft bed and sleep for a month.

Nonetheless, dutifully, she dotted the dark circles under her eyes with concealer.  Fortunately she had left her small makeup bag in her purse.  Her gaze chanced to her purse, and hurt filled her heart.  It was a Christmas present from Rebecca the previous year.  True, it wasn’t New York stylish, but it meant that someone cared enough to think about her when they didn’t really have to. Yes, transferring to Boston Central was the best decision of her life.  Her mother still didn’t understand why she’d transferred—nor why she’d changed her major four times, but that was to be expected.

Her mother never understood.  Mostly because she was too busy messing up her own life to get terribly involved in the details of her daughter’s. And now, her mother had hooked up with some rich wine grower from California.

Lovely.  Just lovely.  It was about as great as her life always turned out.  She unclipped her long blonde hair from the back of her head and brushed through it.  Thanks to sleeping on floors and in planes, the shoulder length locks hung ugly and flat. There wasn’t much doing to it. She ran her fingers through it once more. It wasn’t great, but it would have to do.

The car slid through the gates of the estate. The two-story Victorian stood stately at the top of the hill, couched in verdant green so lush it was possible it was painted on the ground rather than growing. Holly clutched her purse as her gaze traveled up, up, up the gray and dull rose façade.  The grandeur of the place was overwhelming. Her mother had certainly done it this time.

Holly sighed wearily as her gaze dropped to her lap.  She hadn’t wanted to come.  By some miracle, she had gotten out of it at Spring Break, hoping that by summer this would all be a distant memory.  But summer had shown up before the inevitable, and  now here she was expected once again to be something she truly hated. More shows to put on to impress everyone so they didn’t get thrown out.  More being someone she didn’t even want to know.  More hearing from her mother how every single thing she did in life was wrong.

Joy. Joy.  This summer should be the best one yet.

*~*~*

“Hey, look.” Timothy Delgado stopped his work to gaze up at the looming gray mansion which looked down on the little garden work shop from the hill above.  “The ice princess has arrived.”

Gabriel Cabrales glanced up from his work on the lawn mower that was doing anything but cooperating.  Mowing the lawn. It had sounded so easy three hours ago. He beat the edge of the mower with the hammer to dislodge the debris from underneath. “You ought to go up there and introduce yourself.  I’m sure she’d love to meet you.”

“Yeah, kinda like her mother, the Wicked Witch of the West.”  Timothy twisted a wrench around his finger—the motor he was supposed to be fixing forgotten.  It was another of the chores Gabriel should have finished last week, and he would have if his father hadn’t fallen out of line three weeks before.  Ever since the heart attack had sidelined his dad, Gabriel had taken over as foreman of the grounds crew.  There were only three of them now, which did nothing to make the job easier. Nonetheless, foreman was a job he didn’t take lightly.

The clanging of the hammer on metal shook right through him. Still he hit it all the harder. The job, normally manageable, had morphed in the last two months into the worst job on the planet.  It started when the Ice Queen showed up, and it had gone down hill from there. In fact, he was sure his father’s heart attack could be directly attributable to her arrival.

“Well, lookie what we have here.” Timothy leaned on the door of the work house which was shrouded by the vast trees towering above them.

Gabriel was positive Mr. Teracini had no idea the house could be seen so plainly from here.  If he did, he would surely have constructed a concrete barrier to keep them out in the past four years since he had become the owner.

Timothy straightened, his eyes growing wide. “Wow.  She may be an ice princess, but she sure is easy on the eyes.”

Wiping the grease and dirt from his hands, Gabriel joined his friend at the door.  Although they were more than a 150 yards away, the sight whipped his breath from him.  Clothed in a pure white flowing top, fitted and then flared jeans, the ice princess brushed the sun-kissed blonde hair from her angelic face.  Of course she was beautiful.  You had to be to fit in up there.

Disgust drained through him.  “Come on, Delgado.  Since this is as close as you’ll ever get to her, you might as well get some work done while you gawk.”

However, Timothy didn’t move even as Gabriel went back to the mower.

“They say she’s a debutant from Boston.  I bet she has a boyfriend.  You know one of those jerks who will kick dirt in your face just to show you he can.”

“Like it matters.” Gabriel hit the mower with a clang, and a chunk of dirt fell to the ground underneath. “Girls like that won’t give guys like us a second look—if they bother to give us a first look.”  Exasperation over all the work they had to do and that he was the only one actually working overtook him. “Tim!  That motor ain’t going to fix itself you know.”

“Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.”  Timothy shook his head, but his gaze never left the blonde up the hill. “She sure is pretty.”

“Well, you’re going to be pretty broke if you don’t get to work.  I’ll personally tell Mr. Teracini to dock you for looking at his new stepdaughter when you should be working.”

Timothy pushed away from the door.  “Oh, boo-hoo.  Why do you always have to be so work happy?”

“Because being work happy is the only way I’m ever going to graduate from being out here with the lawn mowers and you guys to being up there.”  Gabriel nodded toward the mansion.

Tim’s laugh was sardonic. “You are such a dreamer.  Gabriel and his dreams of owning the place one day.” Timothy bowed low. “It’s such an honor to be working with the future owner of Teracini Winery. Hey, Gabe, when you own the place, can I say I knew you when?”

The taunts crawled through Gabe’s gut.  They didn’t believe him, but someday, he would be up there, on the top of that hill, in that mansion.  He would show them all.

*~*~*

“Ms. Linda, Miss Holly has arrived,” Rose, the middle-aged Hispanic housekeeper, called up the steps.

Holly stood awkwardly in the entryway, fighting not to fidget.  The stairs curled three steps one way, banked another six steps at an angle to the first ones and then disappeared up the opposite direction to the unseen floor above.  The mahogany hardwood floor at her feet shown so brilliantly, the sun made it resemble a mirror.  In the center of the entry a little table stood on a rose and cream circle rug.  Topped with a white vase of flowers, the table shown with the same glow as the rest of the room.

“Holly, Darling.”  Her mother swept down the stairs, floating more than walking.  Dressed in a white silk pantsuit with white gauze trailing from her shoulder, she looked like a 40’s movie star making her grand entrance.  “I’m so happy you made it.”

That should’ve been obvious.  Holly shifted feet, not wanting to break her mother’s grand entrance but embarrassed by it just the same.  “Hi, Mom.”

Her mother slid up to her, kissed first one cheek then the other. However, before she let her go, she whispered, “Call me ‘mother.’ It sounds better.”

“Oh.”  The gasp was involuntary. Holly had to shake out of the shock to get more out.  “How are you Mother?”

“Splendid.  Come, let’s sit in the parlor.”  Her mother linked her arm through Holly’s and turned her. “Rose, would you please tell Luke we’re in the sitting room?”

Rose bowed slightly. “Yes, Ma’am.”

Linda breathed in the statement. “Ma’am.” She ducked her head secretively to Holly. “Isn’t it wonderful?  Oh, darling.  I’ve fixed us for real this time. I mean look at this place. Isn’t it gorgeous? Oh, and look at the ring he gave me.”  She held out her hand upon which sparkled an oval rock.  “Isn’t it fabulous?”

There were so many questions Holly wanted to ask.  She started with the most obvious one.  “What happened with you and Dan?”

Horror coursed through her mother’s features. “Dan?  What does he have to do with this?”

“Hello.  You were married to him.  Remember?”

Her mother waved a French manicured hand at her dismissively. “He was a rung I outgrew.”

The sitting room featured a fireplace, more mahogany furniture, and full rose-colored carpeting.  They hadn’t made it to the wine-sheen couch when there was a noise behind them.  The transformation of her mother’s turning was truly difficult to comprehend. She almost literally became a different person.

“Oh, Luke, darling. I’m so glad you could tear yourself away for a few minutes.”  She spun Holly with her and presented her.  “This is my beautiful daughter Holly Marie.”

Never, not one single time had Holly ever felt so much like a trophy.

“Well, Holly, it’s very nice to meet you.” Luke, a tall, handsome, dark-haired man in his early fifties bowed gallantly, taking her hand with him.  He kissed it, completely grossing her out.  When he straightened and let her go, she had to force herself not to wipe his kiss off her hand.  “Please, please.  Have a seat.”

Holly followed them to the little enclave and sat in the wing-backed chair.  Luke and her mother sat right next to each other on the couch, and she tilted her gaze downward at the thought of Dan. How could her mother shift gears so quickly, seemingly never so much as looking back?

“So, tell me about school,” Luke said, laying his hand on her mother’s.  The gesture made Holly sick, and his thick Italian accent wasn’t helping.  He sounded as pompous and full of himself as he looked.

“Oh, I’m out for the summer.” She nodded for no real reason.  The smile hurt. “Summer break.”  The nodding was getting annoying even to her.  She looked around. “Nice house.”

“Why thank you.  It came with the estate when I moved from Italy.”

The comment gave her the opening to ask the question she’d been thinking since he’d first walked in.  “So you’re not American then?”

“Holly!” Her mother’s sharp rebuke stabbed into her.

“No, no. It’s okay, Linda,” Luke said.  “I have done business in the States for many years.  In fact I’d been looking for a winery to buy for almost ten years.  When this one came available, I jumped on it.  I’m now a dual-citizen—Italy and the United States.”

How nice for you. Holly fought to restrain the words so they wouldn’t find the air.  Her foot bounced as she searched for something else to say, but nothing was coming.

“Did you have a good trip?” Luke asked.

The look her mother turned on him yanked sarcasm from her.  The only reason Linda was in the room was to show off her daughter to her fiancé and her fiancé to her daughter.  The pretense was stifling.

“Oh, didn’t mom tell you?” Holly caught the look her mother shot her, but she continued just the same. “I missed the connection in Chicago, so I had to go through Dallas and then Albuquerque.  That’s why I’m such a mess.”

Luke’s smile was hardly condemning. “You are anything but a mess, my dear.  But you must be exhausted.  Did Rio bring your bags in?”

“They’re at the front door.”  Holly stood, and the two of them followed.

The nod Luke gave her held hardly any real movement. “I’ll call Yuri. He can take them up.”

Her mother raised her eyes to make sure Holly was suitably impressed.  However, Holly’s head was starting to send nausea signals to her stomach.  She wasn’t at all sure if it was because she was hungry, tired, or just sick of life.

Luke called for the maid who appeared almost immediately. “Rosa, will you call Yuri to take Holly’s bags up to the first guest room?” Luke turned to her as Rosa bowed and departed.  “You will have a full bath, and a full suite to yourself.  Enjoy.  And if you need anything, please feel free to ask.”

How about a bag to throw up in?  However, she simply nodded.  He bowed as it seemed they all were wont to do and strode off down the hallway.  The moment he was out of sight, her mother linked arms with her and squealed in a whisper.

“Isn’t he dreamy?  Ugh.  I knew the first time I saw him this was going to work.”

Holly removed her arm from her mother’s.  “I’m shot, Mom.  Can we talk about this later?”

With her usual flair, her mother looked at once frustrated and hurt.

It was a pattern Holly had learned long before. “No, Mom.  We’ll talk. I promise.” She put her fingers into her hair which felt like a dry weed.  “I’m just a mess right now.”

The shoulders slumped. “Fine.”

*~*~*

“So, how is it?” Rebecca asked over the phone.

Holly collapsed on the yellow daisy bed and sighed.  Even the warm bath in the claw-foot bathtub hadn’t washed away the melancholy. “Wonderful.  Isn’t it supposed to be wonderful?  He’s rich.  Mom’s in love.  What’s not wonderful?”

Rebecca paused, clearly searching for something to say. “Did you talk to her about the job?”

“Huh.  She was too busy showing off.”  Holly rolled to her stomach and twined her feet behind her.  “Man, I wish I was back in Boston with you guys.”

“You and me both.  We’ll be praying for you, okay?  Don’t let her get you down.  This is your life. Remember?  You get to choose now.”

If only it was that easy.

“Miss Holly.”  The knock on her door brought her full up.  “Dinner is being served.”

Holly spun to sitting in one motion. “Oops.  Gotta go.  Tell everyone hi for me.”

“Will do.  And Holly, we’ll be praying.”

“Thanks.” She clicked the off button and let the phone drop to the bed.  She was going to need more than prayers.  Pushing up off the four poster bed, she traipsed to the door and down the stairs.  At the entryway she listened and followed the noises to the formal dining room.  Clearly the mahogany thing was a staple of this house. The mahogany furniture in the dining room was set off by celery green walls and gold decorations.

“Holly!  Oh, my.” Her mother jumped up from the table in horror. In seconds she shoved Holly into the hallway.  “What are you thinking?  This isn’t proper attire for dinner.”

The proprietary tornado hit her so fast, she was taken totally off guard.  She looked down at her clothes which were nothing out of the ordinary.  Her nicest jeans and a fitted, purple top.  It wasn’t like it was Las Vegas showroom material.  “Proper…?”

Her mother leaned in menacingly.  “First of all, you’re late and now you show up looking like trailer trash.  What are you trying to do—ruin everything?”

“Linda?” Luke called from the dining room.

“Just a moment, Darling.”  In hushed but urgent tones she targeted Holly. “Don’t you have anything but jeans and T-shirts?”

“I…”

“You know what I mean.  Now get up there and change, and do not let me see you in those again. You hear me?”

Beaten and defeated, Holly’s head fell. “Yeah.”

Her mother squared her shoulders and shook back her hair-sprayed stiff light brunette hair. “The answer is, ‘Yes, Ma’am.’”

What could she say as her shoulders slumped forward?  “Yes, Ma’am.”

*~*~*

It was after ten when Gabriel pulled out of the front gate.  The mowing was done by no small miracle.  He shifted in the seat of the old, beaten up brown and gold Chevrolet pickup.  His mind slid down the list of things to do until exhaustion took over even that. He let out a breath and ran his hand from his forehead to his chin.

His curly black hair was caked with dirt and grime.  No wonder Timothy thought he was crazy.  But Timothy didn’t know—not all of it anyway.  As headlights went the other direction down the winding road, Gabriel fought to settle his surging spirit.  It was crazy to tell them the things he knew deep inside, about the signs he’d received, about the things he had read.  They wouldn’t understand.  Worse, they would think he was insane.  Sometimes he wondered if he was.  How else could anyone explain the things he saw, the things he now understood almost as an instinct?

The pickup chugged into the driveway of the little house, and Gabe killed the engine.  He slid out and made it all the way to the sink just inside the back door when he heard the shuffling.

“Gabriel, I thought you would be home hours ago.”  His mother, a woman well into her sixties, hunched by the work load she had carried her entire life, appeared in the doorway.  “Your supper is cold.”

Gabe grabbed the towel to dry his hands. “It’s okay, Mom.  I can heat it up.”  In very few steps he was at the microwave.  That was one thing about a small house, there was only a modicum of stress getting from one room to the next.  “Is Dad in bed already?”

He popped open the microwave and shoved the plate into it. Beep went the button.

“He’s supposed to go back next week, you know.”

“Yeah, I know.”

His mother spun her arms over themselves.  “Do you think that’s a good idea?”

The whirring of the microwave gave way to another beep, and he took the food out.  Without bothering to move more than to get a fork, he started eating.  “Do you think it’s a good idea?”

She sighed.  “You’ve seen him.  He can barely get from the chair to the kitchen. How’s he supposed to run a whole operation?”

It was a good question, and in it he heard the unspoken plea.  “Well, if he needs more time, I could talk to Mr. Teracini.  We could probably handle it a while longer.”

This time she shook her head, and Gabriel was starting comprehend what she wasn’t saying.

“He’s just so weak, Gabriel.  Not like he used to be.”  She paused, soft dreaming touched her voice. “No, not like he used to be.”  The dream snapped, and she looked up. “He’ll be 71 next month, you know.  71.”

Gabe tried to push the thoughts of his parents’ age away as much as possible.  He was their surprise child, their one and only, conceived long after they had stopped trying because it was declared hopeless by every doctor they’d gone to.  That’s why they’d named him Gabriel because Gabriel was the angel who had brought the good news of a child not only to Mary but to Elizabeth as well.

It was a story he had memorized.  One that had always made him feel special, hand-picked, hand-sent.  Yet now the lonely years ahead stared him in the face.  At 24, he was hardly more than a teenager.  The thought of losing one or both of his parents frightened him in ways that few things did, and he spent a good deal of energy trying not to think about it.

But there were times, like this one, that denial was not an option.

“Well, what’s the money situation if he does quit?” Somehow that question catapulted him into full-fledged adulthood.

Her faded green eyes, so much like his until age and wear had taken their toll, fell closed.  “It’s not great.  We’ve got some social security we can count on, but it’s not much.  Of course the house is ours, but… well…”  She shrugged. “I guess we’re lucky to have made it this long, but how are we going to live now? What will we do if he cannot work?”  The gray covered head shook slowly. “I don’t know.  I just don’t know.”

Careful not to make noise, Gabe set his plate on the stove, stepped to her, and put his arms around her.  “It’s okay, Mom.  We’ll figure something out.”

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Ebook Romance Stories: Thoughts on the Characters in “Cowboy”

by:  Staci Stallings

Having lived with the characters in Cowboy for about 13 years now, it fascinates me how much they still teach me and others who read the book and want to talk about it with me.

Ashton Raines is the hero, and I think he kind of epitomizes where we all *think* we want to be–on top, successful, adored by many, hated by none.  He’s got the world at his feet.  As the reigning King of Country Music, Ashton appears to have everything he’s ever wanted and most of what everybody else dreams of having.

But the thing is it becomes obvious very quickly that Ashton is anything but happy.  In fact, there’s a large part of him that really hates his life and what he’s become.  Not because he’s become someone bad, but somewhere along the way on the road to super stardom, he lost himself.

Whether we’re a superstar or not, I think many of us can relate to waking up one day, looking in the mirror and having no idea how we got here.  It’s like we pursue life and our dreams, and then one day we’re living this life we don’t even recognize.  Maybe we’ve got kids and a husband or we’re in a job we always thought we wanted, and we look around and it’s weird because we don’t even really recognize who we are anymore.

In the story, Ashton uses his fame to hide from his pain.  At least that was the idea.  His wife has died of cancer, and it nearly ripped him apart.  His plan to escape the pain is to pour himself into a whirlwind tour.  The problem is pain isn’t healed by escaping it, and the faster he runs, the more miserable he gets until one night, he simply can’t take it anymore.  After a concert, his manager comes up with a brilliant idea to help Ashton forget, and it snaps Ashton’s will to keep up the charade of the tour.  He gets in a rented car and drives, not knowing or caring if he’ll ever come back.

Beth McCasland is the sweetest spirit you would ever want to meet.  She’s seen her share of heartache when her husband passed away in a terrible accident.  Now she’s left to raise her young daughter alone, and she shoulders that burden with grace and dignity.

The thing I like most about Beth is she is so simple.  She sees someone hurting, and she’s determined to help.  Maybe she can only offer a meal and an ear to listen, but she is willing to do that.  The thing that breaks my heart about Beth is I think true of a lot of us who care.  When we go all-in to help someone, keeping a “safe distance” for our heart’s sake doesn’t always work.  And it’s so hard to really care and not get emotionally involved, especially if that person is someone we genuinely connect with on a deep level.

How do you care and let go, and care and let go, and care and let go?  It’s like getting your heart smashed over and over again, but what’s the other option?  Not caring?

I think the depth of her love is really a reflection of how God is with us.  He’s always standing there with open arms, willing to take us in and comfort us and be there for us, and somehow, He loves us enough to let us go again with no real guarantee that we’ll come back.  It’s such an incredibly vulnerable place to be.  For me, that was one of the hardest things about watching Beth go through the things that happen in the story, watching her suffer because of her great love.

I’ve had people describe Cowboy as Cinderella in reverse, which is rather interesting to me because in one sense, Ashton is the Prince on the white… okay, tour bus.  But many readers have said they really felt Beth is the one to rescue him from the pit, which is also true.  I don’t know. Maybe sometimes in a relationship we’re equal parts the one saving and the one being saved.  I certainly think that’s true of this story.

The truth is I love these two characters.  They’re like old friends now, and I love this story.  Every time I read it, it makes me want to fall in love all over again!

Read more about the Top-Rated (#9) Amazon Religious Fiction book, Cowboy!